Shiori Porter

Spy Hunt 26-05

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“I’m gonna kill her! I’m going to rip that damn Seosten bitch out of him, tear her apart with my bare hands, and burn whatever’s left until it’s nothing but ashes!”

That was… well, it was rather obviously Shiori. The Asian girl was pretty much snarling the words as our little group stood up on the roof of the building a short time later, as soon as I had been able to get away from Colu– away from Charmeine and join the others up there.

Shiori was being held back by Avalon, who was holding the girl’s arms in a firm grip to stop her from… I wasn’t sure what. There was no telling what Shiori would do if she was released, considering the reaction she was having. She wasn’t outright fighting Avalon’s grip, though she was straining against it at least a bit. Her eyes were wide as she blurted, “Let me go!”  

Deveron was there, moving in front of the two girls as his hand moved up to touch her face gently, just enough to make her look at and focus on him. “Shiori,” he announced quietly, “we’ll get her out of him. But not like this. You can’t just go running in there like that, demanding that she pop out him and making threats. It won’t work, and then they’ll know what we know.”

Sands, who was standing back with Scout, looks of shock on both their faces, gave a quick nod. “He’s right, Shiori. If you let that angel-bitch know that you know she’s got Columbus, she’ll–”  

“What would you do?!” Shiori demanded, head snapping that way. She stopped jerking at Avalon’s grip for a moment, staring beseechingly at them. “If it was one of you that she took, what would you do? Scout, what would you do if it was Sands? Or Sands, what if it was Scout?”

Both of them looked stricken by the suggestion, while I quickly moved over there. Deveron saw me coming and moved, even as Avalon released her. As Shiori moved forward a step, I caught her in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, eyes closing tightly as I felt the other girl immediately cling onto me. “I’m so sorry, Shy. I’m sorry. I was hoping it wasn’t him. I can’t–I–” Stopping myself from saying anything else, I hugged her even tighter instead, feeling her tremble under my grip.

For a minute or two, we just stood there. I didn’t know what the others were doing. My attention was focused solely on the girl I was holding onto. Shiori’s body shook a little before she dropped her head. I felt her shudder then before the sound of her tears falling made the anger that had already been rolling around inside me practically boil over. They made Shiori cry. That bitch took Columbus, had been puppeting him for God only knew how long. Damn it, damn it! What was I supposed to do? How could I fix it? How could I make it any better right now? How?

There was no easy answer. And maybe no answer at all. Finally, I leaned back to stare at the girl. “Deveron’s right. They’re all right, Shiori. We’ll get Columbus back. We will kick that bitch out of him, I swear. I promise, we’ll save him. We’ll get your brother back. But we can’t do it right now. You know we can’t do it right now, not until we know where the other ones are. Or at least,” I amended, “where the one that’s here in the school is. We have to identify the one that Manakel is possessing. As soon as we do that, as soon as we know, we can kick them out. We know the spell to do that, remember? And Gaia will help hold them so we can free Columbus.”

“I–but… but…” Shiori stammered, something obviously catching in her throat as she choked a little while shaking her head. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to… to talk to him? How am I supposed to–I–if I see him, I’ll know. I’ll know, Flick. I’ll know she’s in there. I’ll know it’s really… it’s really her. I can’t–I can’t just… “ She closed her eyes again and shivered.

I didn’t know what to say, what to tell her. It was Deveron who spoke, his voice low. “Shiori.” When she looked that way, he continued. “I know. When I went here before, my first time at this school… when Jos and I were, when we were trying to save all the Alters that we could while pretending to be loyal students…” He swallowed hard, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to Shiori’s. “I had to lie to people I was supposed to be able to trust. I had to… had to pretend that I was a good little soldier. All those people I fought alongside, the other students, the ones who weren’t in on it… they would’ve killed me if they knew. They did try to kill me after they found out. My friends, people I cared about, I couldn’t tell them the truth. So I know. I know what you’re feeling. But it’s gonna be okay. Because Columbus knows, Shiori. And as soon as we find out who Manakel is possessing, we’re going to kick that cunt out of your brother. So you can hold on that long, all right? You can pretend. Because you’re not pretending for you. You’re pretending for Columbus. You have to protect Columbus, and that means pretending. All right?”

“Pretending,” Shiori echoed, her voice shaky, “for Columbus. Lying to… to protect Columbus.”

I nodded. “Yeah. You can do it, Shy. You have all of us. And Columbus is in there. He’s… he’s safe, as long as they think we don’t know anything. Hell, he’s probably one of the safest people in the school right now, because Charmeine won’t let anything happen to him while she’s there.”

“But when I look at him,” she whispered, “what if I can’t stop seeing her? What if I… what if…” Trailing off, Shiori shook her head rapidly. “No. No, if I mess up, she’ll… Columbus will–” She stopped short, taking in a long, deep breath before exhaling. “Y-you’re right. I have to pretend. I have to… to fake the–” Abruptly, she cut herself off, eyes widening in abruptly dawning horror.

“Shiori?” I glanced to Avalon and then back to the other girl again, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Wh–” Shiori choked on her own words, cringing a little bit. “What if it wasn’t him?” She stared at me, utterly horrified. “W-we don’t know how long he’s been possessed. What if… what if Columbus wasn’t the one that–that accepted me? What if he’s been possessed since before I told him the truth about–about what I am? What if he really does hate me? What if he’s never–”

“Shiori, stop.” Reaching up, I put both hands on her cheeks, making her look at me. “Shy, even if that wasn’t your brother… I think it was, but if it wasn’t, his reaction wouldn’t be different. You know him, Shy. You know Columbus. And now, even if he wasn’t in control at that point, he’s seen enough to know that you’re not evil, okay? He knew you before, and he knows you now.”

“You can’t what-if yourself to death, Porter,” Avalon added pointedly. “There’s enough real problems without obsessing over potential ones. If he wasn’t the one in control when he accepted you, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Now, let’s focus on identifying the other Seosten so we can kick them out and free your brother. Everything else can come after that.”

There was no response at first. Shiori seemed to be processing our words for a moment before her head dropped in a nod. “I can do it,” she whispered. “For Columbus, I can keep it together.”

Brushing my thumb gently along the girl’s cheek, I whispered back, “I promise, we’ll help him as soon as possible, okay? We will get that bitch out of him, the second we can do it right.”

“I know.” Shiori’s words were weak, strained, and the sound of the sadness in her voice made me want to strangle someone right then and there. Slowly, she looked up. “But… what now?”

“Now?” I echoed, biting my lip. “… Now we keep clearing everyone we can. Fahsteth said that Manakel was possessing an adult, but we don’t know that it’s stayed that way for sure. So we don’t skip anything. We check everyone we can, and we start using the anti-possession runes and anything else we can do whenever possible. We just have do all of it without Charmeine finding out.

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”

******

“Miss Chambers, you have been a busy little beaver, haven’t you?”

It was later that day, as I walked through the hall on my way to the library. Blinking back at the sound of the voice, I found myself facing three figures. Two of them were the Committee’s errand boys, October and Patrick, while the third was Professor Kohaku. “Uh, I have?” For the twenty-millionth time recently, I thanked my facial-shifting power for keeping my expression flat.

October, who wore another one of his Hawaiian-print shirts (this one was dark green and white), nodded easily. “Sure have. Every time we ask the headmistress if we can talk to you again, she says you’re off doing some project or another. So much work, when do you ever just relax?”

Professor Kohaku lifted her chin. “Miss Chambers understands the value of what we’re doing here,” she announced with a brief glance toward me. “She’s been engaged in extra training.”

Patrick, who looked just as stiff as ever in his pitch-black suit and red shirt (which seemed to be the only thing he ever wore), met my gaze evenly. “I imagine keeping yourself so thoroughly occupied also distracts you from worrying about what may have happened to your father, yes?” His words were flat, and I couldn’t decide if there was any actual accusation behind them.

Staring right back at the man, I paused before shaking my head firmly. “There’s nothing I could do that would stop me from worrying about my dad. Maybe it helps a little bit, but… but mostly it just stops me from going completely insane and doing something stupid. So you tell me,” I added then, letting a little challenge slip into my voice, “have you found out anything yet?”

“No.” Patrick’s answer was simple, as his head shook. “Honestly, we’ve been hoping that he’d contact you so we could go from there. But so far, he doesn’t seem to have done that.”

I stared right back at him, somehow managing to keep my gaze from reflexively flicking toward the ring that I wore on my right hand, the gift from Gaia that made it so that neither of them could detect when I was lying. “You’re right, I haven’t heard from my father since he disappeared.” Again, I didn’t bother keeping the challenge out of my voice as I went on. “But I thought Heretics were supposed to be good at finding people. So why haven’t you found him?”

“Miss Chambers,” Professor Kohaku reprimanded slightly. “I understand that you are worried about your father. No one blames you for that. But please, watch your tone of voice a bit more.”

October spoke up then, raising a hand. “It’s okay. I think we all know why she’s a little testy.” To me, he added, “And you’re right, we really should have found your dad by now. Wherever he is, somehow he’s hidden from anything our people have been able to try to track him with.”

“Which,” Patrick added, “means he’s with another Heretic. Or a Stranger that’s hiding him for some reason.” He paused, scanning me before asking, “Do you still think it’s your mother?”

“I don’t know,” I answered flatly. “But if I did know for sure that she was with him, believe me, I wouldn’t just be sitting around here doing homework and training.” I hardened my voice, focusing on the anger I felt about the whole situation in order to sell my next words. “My mom already broke my dad’s heart and ripped his soul out once. I won’t let her fuck him over again.”

Kohaku looked like she was about to say something about my language, but stopped and let it go. She gave a slight nod. “I’m sure if the gentlemen here find out anything, they’ll let you know.”

“Yes.” That was Patrick, his tone as even as ever. “Just as you will tell us if you hear anything.”

I nodded at that, raising my hand to offer it while replying, “Deal. You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”

Patrick stiffened a little, squinting at me. “It is not a ‘deal’, Miss Chambers. It is your duty to inform us if you have any information related to our investigation. We are not making some–”

October interrupted, taking my offered hand. “I think we can agree with that,” he announced, giving his partner a brief glance. “After all, we’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

I paused, watching the man for a second after he shook my hand. Nothing. He was clear. Raising an eyebrow, I pointedly offered my hand back to Patrick once more. “Yeah, we are.”

He sighed before accepting the hand that time, giving one single, half-hearted shake. Again, I watched carefully. But despite my half-expectation, he was clear too. They might’ve been Committee stooges, but there was no sign that either of the men were actually possessed. Which wasn’t surprising, since Fahsteth had said that Manakel was possessing an adult at the school before these guys had actually shown up. But still, it meant that was two more possibilities down. Which was good, because there were only so many people that Manakel could be.

And speaking of people that could be possessed, I turned to where Professor Kohaku had been. “Professor, I–errr…” She wasn’t there. The Asian woman had disappeared.

Then I saw her come around the corner, pulling the sleeve of a boy, Paul. “You are not some creature of the night, Mr. Calburn,” the woman intoned flatly. “By no respect do you need to resort to lurking in the shadows and around corners. It’s unbecoming. Now do you have anything you’d like to say to Miss Chambers?”

Paul blinked at that, flushing a little as his head shook. “No, ma’am, I mean, I was looking for the–”

“My time is entirely too valuable for whatever excuse you’ve thought up in the past three seconds, Mr. Calburn,” Professor Kohaku interrupted. “Just remember, lurking and spying make you look suspicious. And when I am suspicious of people, I tend to put them in detention where I can keep an eye on them. Do you understand?” When the boy nodded quickly, she gestured. “Then be off, and find better hobbies.”

Turning back to me then as Paul hurried off, she asked, “Does that happen to you often?”

“Um.” I coughed. “More than you might think. But it’s okay.” Waving that off, I hesitated before looking back to her. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Of course.” Kohaku reached out, settling her  hand on my shoulder briefly. It felt warm. “If he bothers you again, let me know. We don’t put up with stalking here.”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, staring at her briefly. No. She wasn’t possessed. There was no overlay of any figure when she touched me. Which was another person cleared. Three in this one corridor. And soon I’d check Paul and the rest of Roxa’s old team, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. Manakel was supposed to have taken over an adult. Some adult… somewhere in the school.

And we were going to find out who that adult was, even if we had to do it one person at a time.

******

“Okay,” Koren started slowly about forty minutes later. “So, I understand why you couldn’t tell me any of this stuff before. But…” She looked over to me, frowning a little. “Why are you immune to being possessed, exactly? Is it a family thing because of your mom? Should I be immune too?”

Yeah, I had already checked her and then explained the truth. I was pretty damn sure by that point that she wasn’t possessed, since we knew that Columbus was and Manakel was supposed to be possessing an adult. But still, I’d made sure before telling her what was going on. For the past half hour, I had been explaining everything that we’d kept from her lately.

Sighing, I glanced around before answering. The two of us were sitting out on the beach, where I’d dragged her after finding the girl in the library once I’d gotten in there. “I don’t know, exactly. No one seems to have any idea why I’d be immune. I’m not a hybrid or part of Avalon’s family, so… I don’t know. Maybe mom found out whatever Liesje did to make her bloodline immune and copied it. Or maybe Fossor did something to me to protect his investment. Or… I don’t know.”

The brown-haired girl fiddled with her braid self-consciously for a moment before offering, “Maybe it’d help if you found out if it was just you, or your family. This um, Enguerrand guy, he can possess people, right? If I went to him, he could test me and find out if I’m immune or not.”

I paused slightly, biting my lip as I looked over to her. “Yeah,” I murmured. “That’s a good idea. Plus,” I added then, “you could meet my dad. He really wants to meet you. I mean, he really wants to meet all of you. Wyatt, you, your mom… He’s um, he’s really looking forward to that.”

As soon as I’d finished saying that, I blanched, “I mean–” Wincing, I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to… your dad…” I was flailing inwardly, lost on what I could possibly say.

“I know,” Koren replied flatly, glancing away from me. “I’m not going to hold your dad being alive against you, Flick. That’d be stupid. I just…” She trailed off, looking away as her voice fell a little bit. “I wish my dad got that lucky. I wish… I wish I knew him. That Tribald guy told me about him, but it’s not the same.” She looked back to me then, meeting my gaze. “I wish I wasn’t jealous of you. I wish I was that good of a person. But I kind of am. I want my dad back. I want my dad to have the same chance yours does. But he doesn’t. And that’s not your fault. Or your dad’s.

“Besides,” Koren added a bit pointedly, “if I blamed you for saying something without thinking about how I might take it, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

Smiling despite myself, I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the role of biggest hypocrite has a lot stronger contenders than you. Besides, you’re working on it. And,” I added with a raised eyebrow, “it sounds like that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. Miranda said you two had an adventure after you texted me about Pace. Sorry I couldn’t tell you much at the time.”

Koren shrugged at that. “Operational security, I get it. And yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “Miranda said it was something I really needed to see. But she said you chased Pace to some hideout she had, and there was a hooded guy–”

“Or girl,” Koren interrupted. “We couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. But yeah, they were definitely Pace’s–I mean, Lies’ boss. And whoever they were, they weren’t happy with her. We managed to get this chest thing out when they started burning down the place she was hiding out in, and–”

Raising a hand, I poked her in the shoulder. “According to Miranda, by ‘we’, you mean you ran right into a fire and nearly choked to death.”

She flushed a little bit at that. “Yeah, well, I’m fireproof, but I forgot about smoke. And in any case, it was worth it. We got a bunch of her money and passports and stuff, but we also got this camera, with a video on it.”

“That must’ve been what Randi wanted me to see…” I murmured thoughtfully.

Koren nodded. “I copied it onto my phone. So um, I guess just look at it.” With that, she passed her phone to me and sat back, looking apprehensive.

So, I took the phone and watched the video through. Once it was over, I slumped back, staring at the blank screen. My mouth worked a couple times. “She… she’s not just innocent, she was… rebelling. She was trying to fix things. She believed in… she believed that Strangers weren’t always the bad guys. She was trying to show people–oh…”

“Yeah,” Koren replied, “that was pretty much our reaction.”

For a minute or two, we just sat there until I found my voice. “If she’s still alive, if there’s a way to get Lies out of her without–we… we have to try.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement from the other girl before she looked at me. “But if there’s not a way to get her out, we have to free her either way. That girl, the one on that tape? She wouldn’t want to be stuck doing what Lies is making her do. If… if killing her is the only way to stop it…”

I didn’t say anything to that. She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t want to respond. How could I respond?

So we sat there in silence, thinking about what we might have to do at some point, before I finally cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Um. Wyatt says you’ve been spending a lot of time with him, learning everything he’ll teach you.”

Koren blushed a little, shrugging self-consciously. “Yeah, well he’s really good at that spy and security stuff. And it turns out, I like learning it.”

It was more than that, I knew. She wanted to learn it so that she could protect people she cared about, so that nothing like what had happened to her dad would happen again. Still, I just nodded. “We get someone else who can do what Wyatt does and I’m pretty sure we’ll…” I paused then, frowning thoughtfully.

“Flick?” Koren blinked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why haven’t they figured out that it’s Wyatt?” I asked slowly, before looking over at her. “I mean, why haven’t the Seosten figured out that Wyatt is the one who put the spell on Avalon? Sure, most of the school thinks he’s just some loony nutjob, but you’d think the Seosten would be able to figure it out. Even that Rucker guy, Kohaku’s second-in-command, said that Wyatt’s a genius with security spells. How have they not put two and two together yet?”

Koren’s head tilted. “You mean he hasn’t told you about it yet?”

“Uh, told me about what?” I stared at the girl.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially then. “The blame-shifting spell.”

“I can honestly say,” I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The other girl smiled broadly. “That’s why they haven’t figured out that he’s the one who put that protection spell on Avalon. Basically, you set the blame-shifting spell on some item, like a rock or a coin or whatever, okay? You set it on an item and set it for some action that you did. From that point on, until the item with the blame-shifting spell on it is destroyed, or they actually see you do it, people won’t be able to connect the action it’s connected to with you. Like, say you want to uh, borrow Chef Escalan’s favorite spatula without getting in trouble for it. You create the blame-shifting spell and attach it to that action. As long as the item you put the spell on stayed intact, Escalan wouldn’t even think about blaming you for it.”

I sat back a bit, processing that. “So, Wyatt’s got some magic doohickey out there that’s shifting ‘blame’ for the protection spell away from himself? So even if they know that he’s good with magic, as long as the blame-shifting spell is intact, they physically can’t even think of him as a candidate.”

“Unless someone who does know about it points it out to them,” she confirmed. “It’s not perfect. It can be broken if they see it themselves or someone like you or me outright tells them.”

I whistled low at that. “I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad Wyatt’s on our side.”

“Right?” Koren snorted, smiling a little bit before looking over at me. “So you think it’s a good idea, getting out to meet that Enguerrand guy so he can test me?”  After I nodded, she opened her mouth before freezing up a little, worry etching its way into her expression. “I… Flick, we have to go to Eden’s Garden too. You said there was a Seosten out there too, right? What if–What if it’s Seller? Flick, my mom, she–”

“I know, trust me, I know.” My head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We will, Koren. As soon as we can, we’ll test Seller and make sure he’s safe, I promise. I just had to make sure you were okay first. First chance we get, we’ll get out there and make sure your mom’s safe with Seller and Miranda.”

She sat back then, clearly trying to relax even though I could tell she was worried. Not that I could blame her. Seller would be a prime target for possession, though I hoped he was good enough to avoid it, like Gaia.

In any case, at least we know who Charmeine was possessing. As I’d promised Shiori, we would get her out of Columbus as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as we knew who Manakel was possessing.

And as soon as we did, we were going to introduce those wannabe angels to the concept of hell. Because at this point, they clearly deserved nothing less. They had taken over Pace, turning the girl I’d seen in that video into the one that I’d seen in action. They’d taken over Columbus, making Shiori cry in the process. They had separated Vanessa and Tristan from their family. They had created this entire society specifically to maintain their superiority. They were responsible for the deaths of… of God knew how many innocent Alters. They were using Heretics as their bogeymen. They were… they had… they…

With each thought, I was getting even angrier. The rage boiling up inside me at the thought of everything the Seosten had done, of everyone they had hurt, it made me want to hurt them… tear them apart, put them down… it made me want to–

“Uh, Fli-Flick?!” Koren’s voice was raised, high-pitched with surprise and what sounded a little like fear.

“What?” I blurted, turning that way. Or at least, I meant to say that. What came out wasn’t words, but a snarl that made me almost wet myself.

Koren was standing up, backing away from me with wide eyes as she raised her hands. “Flick, it’s me. It’s me, Koren. You know that, right?”

Of course I knew that. What was she talking about? What–

I could smell her fear. Hell, I could smell a lot more than that. I could smell the last food she’d eaten on her breath, dirt on her shoes, the soap and shampoo she used. I could smell students down the beach. I could smell all of it and more. And hear them. I could smell them, hear them… and I was hungry. 

I stood up. Except I wasn’t standing. I was… crawling? No, because my head was easily at the same height as Koren’s. But my hands and legs were down, so… Wait, what was–

My head looked down. The first thing I saw was ripped clothes. My ripped clothes. And instead of my hands, I saw two enormous, frying-pan sized tan paws, with equally massive, deadly-looking claws extended out from them. And I wasn’t crawling. I was on all fours. Four legs. Four paws. And instead of skin, I had golden-tan fur… and… and…

Oh.

That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Shiori and Avalon telling Choo a story. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“Wow, those little guys are warming up to you pretty fast, huh?”

It was late in the evening, the same day that I’d had the little… discussion with the twins earlier. Sean and I were in one of the magic-practice rooms with its sturdy walls and cement floor, ostensibly working on one of the spells that Professor Carfried had assigned for homework.

Turning my head, I looked at the object (or rather, objects) of Sean’s attention. Jaq and Gus, my two little mice cyberforms, were perched on my arm as it was stretched out to my side. The pair were eating a couple of metal bolts that I had painted yellow. Did their metal have to be painted to look like cheese? Of course not. Did I do it anyway just because I felt like it? Of course I did.  

“We’re getting there,” I replied easily, feeling a smile tug at my face as I watched the two of them happily munch at the metal. Apparently while they didn’t need as much of it as Vulcan did in order to make all those bullets he used, the mice did transform some of the metal they ate into various materials that were used to maintain their bodies. Especially since they were slightly larger when they transformed into weapons than they were in their regular forms, a fact that always confused me about where the extra mass was coming from. But then again, it’s not like ‘larger on the inside than the outside’ was exactly unusual when it came to Heretic creations.  

“I dunno how much of it is the whole ‘cyberform bonding with the owner’ thing and how much is my natural charm,” I teased with a roll of my eyes, “but they’ve sure been warming up to me.”

Winking, Sean chuckled. “With your charm, I’d say it’s at least half and half there, Flickster.”

Moving my other hand over to scratch under Jaq’s chin, I nodded to the corner of the room where Vulcan sat happily playing with a heavy metal ball in his teeth. “Then you must be pretty charming yourself, considering how well you and your partner there get along.”

“Actually,” the Hispanic boy replied with a straight face, “in that case, it’s mostly his charm.”

Despite myself and the actual seriousness of the situation, I snickered. Then I took a little breath before turning a bit to extend the arm with the mice on it toward him. “You wanna give the little guys a scratch? Actually, did you ever figure out why metal animals could possibly enjoy that?”

Sean shook his head while reaching out to scratch Gus on the back of the little guy’s head. “Nope,” he replied easily. “I’m guessing it’s programming or something. You know, to help bond them and make ‘em seem more real. You know, like how we’re more likely to take care of them and treat the little guys like real animals if they act like real animals instead of like machines.”

Nodding slowly, I bit my lip before straightening a little, forcing my voice to remain as casual as possible. “Hey, at least I finally got to join the ‘animal companion’ club, huh?” Raising my other hand, I gestured for him to high-five it. “Is there a secret handshake or a password or anything?”

Sean grinned, head shaking. “Nope, but there should be. We should get with Aylen and Tristan and see what we can do about that.” As he spoke, the boy slapped his hand against mine.

I waited for a moment, while Sean returned his attention to the mice. He said something else then, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to hear it. I was too busy focusing on whether I could see anyone possessing him after that contact. Nothing. It was just Sean. He was clear. With a long, exhaled breath, I interrupted his words to abruptly announce, “Jelly beans on toast.”

“Uh.” The boy blinked at me. “Flick, you’ve got really weird taste in snacks, if you think tha-”

That was as far as he got before Gus and Jaq jumped off my arm. As they landed on the floor, two figures literally popped out of the mice to appear standing beside me and in front of Sean.

It was Sands and Avalon. Both of them had gained the ability to possess small objects back when we fought the skeleblineists on the cruise ship. It was the same fight where I’d gained my item-sense power, which also happened to be a power that Sean had gotten. Yeah, he had the ability to sense items within a certain distance of himself. That had made it a little more difficult to plan out an ambush in case things had gone wrong when I checked him. But in the end, having Avalon and Sands use their own powers to simply possess Gus and Jaq had worked out.

Sean, for his part, yelped, stumbling back at their sudden appearance, his eyes widening before he managed to get himself under control. “What th–uh, okay, if you guys were trying to throw me a surprise birthday party, you’re off by about a month. Also, I don’t see a cake. Or presents.”

Vulcan gave a ruff of agreement with that, having popped up out of the corner to come sniffing Avalon and Sands curiously. He happily accepted a vigorous scratch under the chin as soon as he’d contented himself that their arrival didn’t herald any kind of immediate threat.

“It’s not a party,” I informed them before looking to the other two. “It’s clear. Scout on her way?”

Before they could answer, I felt the arrival of the girl in question on the other side of the door. She was still holding her gun in one hand. Even as my item-sense picked her up, I saw Sean turn that way. He’d sensed her too. Without another word, I stepped over and opened the door.

Scout stepped in, moving over to hug Sean quickly. She embraced him tightly, and he returned it despite having no idea what was going on. “Uhh,” the boy drawled, “anyone wanna clue me in?”

Raising my shoulder in a little shrug, I answered, “Well, Sands and Avalon were possessing my little friends here, and Scout was using the portal-scope on her gun to watch every move you made. No offense, it was just in case you were possessed and figured out that I was testing you to find out if you were. I mean, if you were possessed and didn’t figure out what I was doing, they wouldn’t have revealed themselves. It was just in case things went totally tits-up wrong.”

Sean’s eyes had widened with each word I spoke, his mouth working noticeably. “… In case I was possessed? Testing me? What–okay, why do I get the sudden feeling that this whole Seosten thing got some kind of violent kick into serious while I wasn’t paying attention?”  

Sands, standing on the other side of the room, folded her arms over her stomach while muttering, “Hopefully your dad is still a good guy by the time this whole thing is over.”

Wincing at the other girl’s words, I took a breath before looking back to Sean. “I’ll explain.

“But by the time I’m done, you’re probably gonna wish we’d brought some chairs in here so you could sit down.”

******

“I’m glad you’re taking your extra training seriously, Felicity,” Professor Dare announced later that evening after stepping into Gaia’s office with me. “But I hope you’re enjoying yourself too. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Sure,” I replied, “But my name isn’t Jack, so we’re cool.”

Gaia, who had been standing over by her assortment of windows that each showed a different view of various parts of the world, turned toward us with a slight smile. “I believe that Felicity sees some of the training that she does with Avalon as recreation.” Pausing then, she added with a raised eyebrow, “Or at least, flirting?”

My face burned a little as I shrugged and muttered something about having plenty of fun with everyone on my team. It didn’t make any sense, but hey, at least I was saying something.

Thankfully, Dare saved me after chuckling a little bit. “She tells me that you’d like a little extra assistance with her lessons tonight.”

“Yes.” Gaia nodded, stepping away from the windows to approach. “I was hoping that you would help me demonstrate the Fascination spell.”

“The Fascination spell?” Dare echoed before nodding. “Yes, I can see her finding that useful.” Seeing my blank look when she glanced to me, she explained, “When the Fascination spell is performed properly, anyone who sees the item enchanted with it will believe that they are seeing an object that they truly, desperately desire. They’ll become obsessed with getting it, foregoing any other action they may have been taking. Its effects only last a short time, particularly with the strong-willed. But even buying a few seconds can be extremely beneficial.”

Gaia nodded once, stopping by us. “Indeed. I believe it would be a useful tool for Felicity to possess. And the more tools she possesses…”

“The better off I am,” I finished.

“And you need me to help Felicity with the spell,” Dare murmured, “Because if the other person knows exactly when it’s coming, it doesn’t work very well.”

“Precisely,” Gaia agreed. “I’m sorry to bring you in simply to be a guinea pig, but–”

Dare interrupted. “It’s alright. Felicity needs all the help she can get.” She raised a hand before settling it on my arm. “I’ll be the guinea pig.”

Slowly, I looked over at her, praying silently. Please, please don’t be…

It wasn’t. Looking at Professor Dare, all I could see was Professor Dare. She wasn’t possessed. She wasn’t possessed.

“It’s okay,” I spoke aloud. No secret codes this time, not with Gaia right there. “She’s clear.”

“Clear?” Professor Dare raised an eyebrow, slowly lifting her hand. “Why do I think this is about more than a spell lesson?”

“You are correct,” Gaia confirmed. “It is about more than a lesson.

“Much more.”

 ******

The next morning, bright and early, I was down on the beach once more, trading blows back and forth with Deveron. I was using my staff while he used an extra one borrowed from one of the school weapons lockers. Back and forth we went, sparring in the early morning light as it came up over the ocean. I was sweating profusely from the effort, and my arms were sore from the repetitive impacts even with my enhanced strength. But hey, at least I wasn’t getting tired.

Deveron, who was obviously still taking it easy on me despite the effort I was putting into it just to keep up with him in ‘easy mode’, casually flicked my staff out of the way before giving me a sharp poke in the shoulder that knocked me back a step. “You sure you’re focusing on this?” he asked while smoothly stepping back to easily avoid my counter-swing. “You seem distracted.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated. This part wasn’t hard to fake. The hesitation, emotion behind it, and all of that was real. “I…” Sighing, I shook my head and looked away. “I’m sorry. I just… my dad, I don’t know what–” Swallowing hard, I lowered the staff. “I don’t know what he’s gonna do.”

For a moment, Deveron stood there. Then he lowered his own staff and stepped that way. “Hey, he’ll be okay. Trust me, Heretic or not, Jos picked tough guys. Your dad’s gonna be just fine, alright?” As he spoke, Deveron reached out to lay a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it firmly.

I turned my head at that, looking straight at him for a moment as he stood there with his hand on my shoulder. For a couple seconds, I looked at him like that, taking in the sight until I was sure.

“Chocolate corn on the cob,” I abruptly announced, giving him a smile. “I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

He blinked at that. “A passcode? But what were yo–” In mid-sentence, Deveron spun, pivoting on one heel to face the figure that had just appeared out of thin air directly behind him.

“Yes,” Professor Dare agreed, sheathing her sword. “I am glad that it wasn’t you as well, Mr. Adams.”

Of course I’d needed slightly stronger back-up while checking Deveron for possession. The rest of my team was great and all, but he was still technically a grown Heretic, with all that training and power. Hence Professor Dare’s presence. We figured that she could counter anything Deveron could do, at least long enough for Gaia to involve herself in the situation.  

To his credit, Deveron looked at Dare, then back to me. He took about two seconds to think about it before his eyebrow raised. “How’d you find a way to test for Seosten possession? Even Prosser can’t do that without drawing that rune thing first. And you didn’t draw anything on me.”

Chuckling despite myself, I admitted, “It’s a long story. I’ve kind of been leaving out some stuff that’s been going on for… awhile. But I can tell you about it now that we um, now that we know.”

“Now that you know I’m not possessed?” Deveron glanced back to Dare briefly before nodding. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I really want to hear this story now. But is it safe to talk right here?”

“It’s safe,” Dare confirmed. “Trust me, we weren’t going to let anyone see what happened here if you’d been possessed and noticed what Felicity was doing. No one’s going to overhear.”

I still wasn’t sure what the woman had actually done to assure that, considering we were standing out on the open beach. But I was willing to take her word for it. So, with a sigh, I plopped myself down and looked out at the ocean before starting to tell the story once again.

I really was glad that Deveron wasn’t possessed, even if at the beginning of the year, I would’ve prayed that it was him. But on the other hand, that cleared Sands, Scout, Sean, and Deveron.

We were quickly running out of possibilities for the Seosten to be possessing…

******

“I should be the one to do this,” Shiori announced later that afternoon. “I should check him.”

Wincing a little, I looked over at the other girl as the two of us sat in the rec room near one of the televisions. Deveron and Avalon were waiting by the door, speaking quietly while some other students played at the pool table on the other side of the room, and a couple more remained intent on their chess match in the corner. There was a low buzz of conversation, most of which coming from the group playing or watching pool. But still, we were using the privacy coins.

Even then, I kept my voice down, murmuring, “Sorry, Shy. You know why you can’t be the one.”

A long, low sigh escaped the other girl while her head gave a short nod. “I know, I know. I’ll react to it too much, you have the face-shifting power, so on and so on. But he’s my brother, Flick.”

“He is,” I agreed, putting a hand on her arm. “That’s why you can’t be the one to check him.” We were running out of options for who Charmeine might be possessing, which meant that Shiori was getting nervous about Columbus. Hopefully, this would clear him so she could calm down.

We really needed to identify the Seosten as soon as possible. Every time we tested someone and they came up clean, it was both a relief and even more stress. Because while it meant that the person we’d tested wasn’t possessed, it also narrowed the possibilities, which somehow made things even worse.

Not to mention the fact that I still had no idea why I was immune to being possessed. All I knew for sure was that I was immune. Enguerrand had confirmed that much. He couldn’t tell me why I was immune, however, just that I was. He’d tried to possess me and couldn’t do it.

“Porter.” That was Avalon, she had moved over behind the couch, her voice low. “He’s on his way. We need to go. It can’t look like any kind of set-up.” As she spoke, the other girl nodded over her shoulder toward the door where Deveron was already watching the corridor.

Sighing once more, Shiori straightened up while looking at me. “You’ve still got the pin, right?”

I nodded, patting my uniform jacket where one of the communication pins was hidden. “Yup. As soon as you hear me say ‘Caramel Camelot’, that means it’s all good. But you’ve gotta go now.”

“We’ll be right up on the roof,” Avalon assured me. “If anything goes wrong… we’ll come in.”

She and Shiori joined Deveron to head up that way, where Sean, Sands, and Scout were already waiting. Which left me sitting in front of the television when Columbus made his way in.

“There you are,” I announced, squinting pointedly at the boy as I stood and turned to face him. “I was starting to think I was gonna have to try to figure this whole thing out without any help.”

In my ear, (which, thanks to the communication pin would be completely silent for Columbus), I heard Avalon’s voice. “We have eyes on you through Scout’s scope-portal, Chambers.”

“Sorry,” Columbus himself was saying. “Had some stuff to finish up. But seriously, you really think a list of what Shiori likes is gonna help you when Valentine’s Day comes around? You already know what she likes. Hell, one of the things she likes is you. You could just put a big bow on your head and–” He stopped, coughing. “Never mind. Just–never mind. I was trying to go somewhere cute with that and it took a weird turn into some… yeah, let’s move on, huh?”

“Yes, please.” I gave a quick, vigorous nod. “We’re moving on. And you’ve been her brother for years. So you know her even better than I do. I just figured if you made up a list of everything Shiori likes that you could possibly think of, I might see something that’d give me a good idea.”

Raising an eyebrow, Columbus shrugged. “Right, well, I dunno how much good it’ll do, but I got the list.” He reached into his pocket then, digging it out. “Put down everything I could think of.”

He extended his hand with the list. Which meant it was time. Turning slightly to glance at the pool table while reaching out as though to grab the list, I started, “You know, at some point we’re gonna have to get some practice in over there. Cyclops is supposed to be really good at pool.”

Using that bit of looking the other way as an excuse, I made sure my hand overshot the offered scrap of paper by just a little bit. Just enough that my fingers brushed the boy’s wrist as I turned back to finish taking it from him.

I had gained several incredibly useful powers over the past few months, most of which had saved my life in one way or another. But I was pretty sure that none of them had done as much to keep me alive as my face-shifting power did in that moment. I was already using it, just as I’d used it every other time we checked people for possession. Which meant that my face gave absolutely no reaction when I touched Columbus. There was no twitch, I didn’t suddenly turn pale, my eyes didn’t widen or betray any kind of fear or surprise. It stayed completely the same.

Which was good, because when I turned back to look at Columbus while taking the paper… I saw her. The dark-skinned woman with the pale hair. She was there, super-imposed over his body as my view flicked back and forth between them a few times.

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

The Seosten was possessing Columbus. It was him. It was her. It was her. Oh god. Oh god, no. No, why? Why did it have to–why did they–how long did–no, no, no…

“Chambers, you touched him,” Avalon’s voice came then. “Are we good?”

Columbus… Charmeine was gesturing with Columbus’s arm. “Yeah, we could get on that sometime. So, you need anything else?”

“Flick.” It was Shiori’s voice. Shiori… Shiori talking through the pin. “Flick, say it. Caramel Camelot. Say it, Flick. Say Caramel Camelot. Flick, say it. Please. Please, Flick. Please, say it. Flick, please. Please. Say Caramel Camelot….”

“Flick?” Columbus-Charmeine prompted. “I said, do you need anything else?”

“Say it, Flick, please,” Shiori’s voice prompted desperately, clearly barely hanging on to her last hope.

“…. No.”

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Mini-Interlude 39 – Avalon, Shiori, and Choo

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“You think it’s going okay out there?” Shiori asked Avalon as the two of them sat by the spot that had been set aside for Choo to live in. The little Jekern (who had grown enough over the past weeks to be about the size of a small puppy) was sniffing eagerly at the bowl that Shiori was holding. The bowl was a treat that the girl had retrieved it from its spot on the beach after she and Avalon left Flick to finish talking to Sands and Scout.

“I think it’s going about as well as it can,” Avalon answered. “Now what did you say you needed me for?”

“Oh, right.” Shiori’s head bobbed. “I need you to voice the big bad wolf.”

“… you need me to what?” Avalon’s voice was flat.

Setting the bowl down in front of the eager warthog-like creature, Shiori explained. “I promised Choo I’d tell him the story of the Three Little Pigs today. I need you to voice the wolf. Please?” She batted her eyelashes rapidly.

“You realize that only works on Chambers,” Avalon informed her. “And I have training to do, I’ve got too much to focus on to worry about–”

She was interrupted by a squeak. Looking down, Avalon found Choo nudging her foot, wide eyes blinking up at her imploringly before he made another pitiful, pleading noise.

“… fine,” she sighed, slumping a little. “One story. I’ll sit here for one story.”

“Yay!” Shiori cheered. “Great, now get comfortable, Choo. It’s time for your story.” She pushed the bowl closer to him, revealing the contents: fluffy popcorn, straight from the bag. Seeing the object of what he had been smelling, the little pig-Alter gave a loud squeak of joy before practically diving into it.

“Now,” Shiori started, “the story of the Three Little Pigs. Ahem. Once upon a time, there was a big bad, nasty, evil, terrible, smelly, violent old wolf.”

Avalon sat back against the side of the tree, remarking, “I feel like you’re adlibbing a little there, Porter.”

Shiori remained focused on Choo, whose snout was shoved fully into the bowl of popcorn while he happily munched, his eyes riveted on her. “The wolf was looking for a book called the Necroinkmikon.”

“Wait, what?” Avalon blinked over that way, taken aback. “Porter,” she demanded, “did you just say Necroinkm–”

Shiori nodded quickly at her. “Uh huh, but hang on, it’s not time for the wolf yet.” To Choo, she continued. “The Necroinkmikon was a book of magic spells that could make the Big Bad Wolf unstoppable!”

At her words, Choo shrank back a bit, ears flattening as he made a slightly fearful noise. But he didn’t stop chewing, leaning forward after a second to sneak another mouthful of kernels.

“Now, the Big Bad Wolf was the biggest, baddest, most dangerous wolf in the whole group of Devils. And he found out that the Necroinkmikon was being protected by three pig brothers: The Pigs Of Destiny. The Big Bad Wolf knew that the pig brothers were living in this forest. So he went in to find them, kill them, and take the book for himself!”

As Choo made a noise of fear and shrank back even more, she reached out to give him a reassuring scratch. “Little did the Big Bad Wolf know, but these were no ordinary pigs. No, these pigs had been training their entire lives to protect the Necroinkmikon. The wolf was about to be very, very surprised.”

The reassurance convinced the little Jekern to go back to enjoying his popcorn, and Shiori smiled a little bit. “The wolf crept through the forest, searching and searching for the pigs. Eventually, he found one of their homes, a house… made of straw. The straw meant that the little house was hidden from surveillance satellites and passing drones. But the wolf found it. So he crept slowly up to the straw house. And when he saw the little pig cooking his breakfast inside, he said…” She nodded toward Avalon.

For a moment, the other girl remained silent and stiff. But as Choo turned an expectant gaze to her and made an eager noise, she relented. “Little pig…” Avalon started reluctantly, “… little pig, little pig, let me in.”

By contrast, when Shiori voiced the pig, her voice was high and a bit squeaky, her best approximation of a small but confident swine. “Hah! Vile wolf! Here to get the Necroinkmikon, huh?! You’ll find nothing but pain and misery here, you contemptible, cowardly canine crook. Come and take it!”

Blinking twice, Avalon paused before realizing that both Choo and Shiori were waiting for her. “Um, okay then. Uh, if you don’t let me in, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

“Filthy wolf, you’ll get nothing from me,” Shiori called in her pig-voice, “but pain and total misery!”

Again, attention returned to Avalon, who finally shrugged. “Okay then, I guess I’ll blow your house in.”

“And he did,” Shiori continued. “The wolf took out his AK-47–”

“He did what?!” Avalon blurted.

“Oh, don’t worry. I know it’s old, but the 47 is totally still one of the best guns in the world,” Shiori informed her. “It’s super reliable. He knows what he’s doing. So the wolf took out his AK-47 and opened fire on the straw house, blowing it to smithereens!”

Choo had flattened himself against the ground by that point, and was watching with rapt attention as Shiori went on. “But when the smoke cleared and the wolf stepped into the remains of the straw house… he found… nothing! The little pig had disappeared, and there was no sign of the book of spells!”

Both sets of eyes turned to Avalon then, who worked her mouth a little bit awkwardly before coughing. “Err, uh, little… pig? Where are you, little pig? Show yourself!”

“And the pig did,” Shiori narrated, “but the wolf wasn’t going to be very happy about it… because the first little pig was a master survivalist. That’s why his house was made of straw, see? And he announced himself by nailing the wolf right in the back with an arrow! Of course, the Big Bad Wolf was too tough to go down to a single arrow, but it sure got his attention. He turned around, howling with pain, only to find the first little pig high up in a nearby tree! The little pig had his commando paint on, and the red bandana that he was given to commemorate his service in the military during the war.”

Military?!” Avalon blurted then. “Since when did the three little pigs serve in the military?”

Choosing to take that as the wolf speaking, Shiori countered in her little pig voice. “If you persist in this search, Mr. Big Bad, you’ll find only trouble, a myriad!” She adjusted her voice to be the narrator again. “And the little pig let loose with another arrow, and another! The wolf was under attack, and the survivalist pig had the high ground! So he had no choice but to flee deeper into the forest.”

“Ahem,” Avalon interrupted, lifting her chin. “A tactical withdrawal. Besides, if the pig had the book, the wolf would’ve seen it by then. Obviously, it wasn’t there. So there was no reason to waste time with Rambo Pig.”

Smiling broadly, Shiori continued. “The wolf looked deeper in the woods. He spent hours searching for any more pigs. Finally, he found a little log cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney. When he peered through the window, he found the second little pig, cooking his lunch on the stove. Seeing the little pig, the wolf took a breath, and called…”

“Little pig, little pig,” Avalon almost immediately started, “Let me in!”

“But when the wolf finished making his demand,” Shiori intoned with a little smile, “he found that the little pig, who had just been standing in plain sight… had disappeared! One blink, and the little pig was gone. The only sign that he had ever been there was the still simmering pot.”

Pawing at the dirt, Choo snorted, sending sparks of electricity in the air as he charged around the bowl in circles, making it clear that if he had been there, he’d give that wolf what it deserved.

“Well,” Avalon shrugged. “If you won’t let me in, I’ll…” She paused then, lifting her gaze to the sky to shake her head slowly before continuing, “… I’ll blow your little wood house away with my AK-47.”

“And he did!” Shiori informed their enraptured audience-of-one. “The wolf put so many bullets into that cute little wooden cabin, that there was almost nothing left. Because not only was the wolf a terrible person in general, he also had no appreciation for classic architecture.”

“The wolf,” Avalon sniffed, “was a little too busy looking for the book of ultimate power to worry about a few logs.”

“But he didn’t find his prize there either,” Shiori announced. “And when he stepped among the rubble, he found no sign of the pig… until a tiny little fist punched him square in the back, hitting the wolf in just the right spot to make his muscles seize up. When the wolf turned, he found himself facing the second little pig… in his black ninja uniform!”

“Ninja?!” Avalon demanded, “I thought the pigs were soldiers… with bows and arrows.”

Again, Shiori interpreted her words as coming from the wolf. “My brother served his country, foul fiend,” she squeaked the words, “but Asia is where my studies convened.”  Switching back to her narrator voice, she continued, “And the wolf soon found that his gun would be of no use here, as the black-clad pig ignited his laser-sword–”

“Oh, now that’s not even–” Avalon started.

“–and cut the rifle into pieces with a single slash of his glowing energy-blade!” Shiori finished.

Coughing, Avalon gestured. “Well, uh, you said the book wasn’t here, so I think the wolf is leaving.”

“Of course, finding that the book wasn’t in the second pig’s house, he fle–err, tactically withdrew even deeper into the woods.” Shiori lowered her voice a bit then. “The wolf searched the forest for the rest of the day, trying to stay one step ahead of the two pig brothers while he searched desperately for the third house, where the book had to be.

“Eventually, he found it. As the moon rose up into the night sky, the wolf finally discovered the solid brick house, built right up against the base of the mountain, where it was protected on all but one side. The wolf had only one approach. And as he crept silently up to the house, he found that all the windows were closed and barred. There was no way to see inside.”

“Well,” Avalon sniffed. “In that case, I’ll just–err…” She paused. “The wolf doesn’t have a gun anymore.”

“That’s okay!” Shiori crowed, “he can just use his grenades!”

“The wolf has gren–” Avalon started before shaking it off. “Never mind, yes, the wolf uses his grenades.”

“And the house was blown to smithereens!” Shiori called, throwing her arms out to demonstrate while Choo made a squeaking noise of alarm. “But once again, as the smoke and debris cleared, the wolf found… nothing. In fact, the house seemed oddly empty. Because of course, it was a diversion, a trap!”

“A trap?” Avalon echoed. “A trap for what? Another ninja or a soldier?”

“Neither!” Shiori’s head shook. “The third little pig wasn’t a ninja or a soldier… he was a super-genius! The same super-genius who built his brother’s laser-sword–” Lowering her voice, she stage-whispered, “See, foreshadowing? Wasn’t that pretty–errr, I mean, he was a super-genius! And as the smoke cleared and the wolf found the empty house, the ground rumbled and shook beneath him.”

“If you say he made an earthquake machine, I swear…” Avalon started slowly.

“As the wolf turned around, grumbling about his terrible luck,” Shiori narrated, “he found himself facing not an earthquake machine, but the third pig’s newest invention: a twenty-foot tall mecha!

“You know,” Avalon intoned thoughtfully, “at this point, I really should’ve seen that coming.”

Shiori excitedly continued then, her voice rising into her pig-squeak. “Mr. Wolf, if you truly wish to find the book, face my steel chariot and take a look!” She narrated, “And as the pig finished speaking, a metal panel slid aside to show the wolf’s target: the Necroinkmikon was held in a bulletproof glass cage right in the mech’s chest, surrounded by a dozen guns, cannons, lasers, and flamethrowers!”

“Yeah, you know what?” Avalon muttered, “I don’t think the wolf needs the book that badly.”

“The wolf turned to flee,” Shiori announced. “Only to realize that he’d forgotten… the house was at the base of a mountain! He was trapped, facing the giant mecha ahead and the mountain behind. But even then, the wolf found that his luck had sunk even lower. To one side of the mech, a camo-suited pig, head adorned with his red bandana, appeared with his bow pulled taut. And to the other side, with a flash of smoke, the black-clad ninja pig appeared, his steadily humming laser sword held aloft!”

Switching back and forth between her squeaky pig-voice and her normal narrator voice, the Asian girl continued. “‘You think you’re still a threat–’ the first little pig called to the wolf, before his ninja brother finished, ‘we’ll put you down, no sweat!’ And as the wolf whimpered and backed up against the mountain, their genius brother announced, ‘Let’s go boys, and after we teach him an intricate lesson…’

“All three pigs finished together, their weapons bearing down on the wolf, ‘We’ll visit our delicatessen!’”  

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Spy Hunt 26-03

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“No… no, no way.” Sands was shaking her head as the five of us floated there in the ocean, each supported by one of my sharks. Which was a good thing, since neither of the twins seemed to be in any kind of position to be keeping themselves above the water.

“You mean one of us–one of us is…” Lowering her voice, Sands whispered hoarsely, “possessed?! And you’ve been–you’ve been lying about all this stuff you’ve been doing?”

“Only the stuff that we couldn’t let the Seosten know,” I reiterated. “The stuff about learning how to expel them, finding Fahsteth when we said we were fighting zombies with Dare, lying about the choker being destroyed. Okay, yeah, it was a lot of lying. But Sands, we’re really sor-”

“Really sorry,” the other girl interrupted while squinting darkly at me. “Seriously, dude? You’re really sorry? I’m pretty sure Scout and me should be insulted right now.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–like I said, we were trying to… there wasn’t any–”

Sands rolled her eyes. “Not insulted for that, dummy. We’re not insulted because you had to lie and keep secrets, we’re insulted that you’d think we’d be mad about it after you explained it. Seriously? You think we’re that selfish? Maybe I’d be a little miffed if it was anything less than this, but it was Seosten, Flick. Of course we’re not mad that you had to make sure it was safe before you told us. That’s just common sense. How freaking self-centered do you think we are?”

My mouth opened and shut a few times at that. “I–I–um. Oh. Well, um. Sorry? I mean, thanks.”

Avalon snorted, head shaking. “Now you know what’s been happening. And why we couldn’t tell you the truth until we knew you weren’t possessed. And why you can’t tell anyone else yet.”

Sands nodded slowly, sinking back a bit against Sherman as the bull shark held her up. “I–you… you really think that it’s someone close to you? One of the team, or Deveron, or…”

“It has to be,” I confirmed. “Everything they know about, everything I overheard, what Fahsteth said, whoever this Charmeine is possessing, it’s someone that’s close to us, someone we trust.”

“So you have to clear us, one at a time,” Sands murmured, her eyes wide as she took all that in. “Holy shit. I mean, I… we knew they could possess people, sure. But I never–I mean I didn’t think they were actually–I didn’t know that–holy shit.” Repeating herself, she looked almost sick.

It was an expression that got even worse as Scout leaned over to whisper something to her. I saw Shiori flinch beside me, her own enhanced hearing obviously allowing her to pick up whatever Scout had said. Sands, for her part, looked pale as she turned to me. “Oh. Scout, um–” She grimaced, working her mouth a little. “Scout wants to know if you’ll check our dad.”

The question made me flinch, for more than one reason. After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Of course. I–maybe…” Pausing, I thought about offering to let them take the choker to check their father themselves. But honestly, I couldn’t be sure that they’d be able to disguise their reaction if he was possessed. And if they did give anything away, it wouldn’t be hard for whatever theoretical Seosten was possessing the man to figure out that they knew too much. And from there, well, he’d probably get the choker back in about two seconds if he knew about it.

“Yes,” I finally settled on. “We’ll test him, as soon as we can. I mean, I don’t wanna just walk right up to everyone who might be possessed and put my hands all over them. Even if the Seosten didn’t start getting suspicious about it, I’m pretty sure I’d end up on some kind of list.”

Sands started to nod then, before blinking. “Hey, that reminds me… how did you guys get back to the island?” She was squinting. “You said you had to talk to the head in the lighthouse to get it to send you away in the first place–which, for the record, I am also completely freaking out about and you are totally going to take us up there to talk to the thing at some point.”

“Um, it’d probably help if you started out not calling him a ‘thing’,” I pointed out mildly.

Her head bobbed up and down. “Right, right, of course. I just–the point is, that’s how you got off the island. But you had to go through all that in the first place because of those bozos from the Committee. So how’d you get back onto the grounds?”

“Oh,” I replied, “that part was simple. I just called Gaia. She got Dare to distract the guard in the lighthouse. Then she went up there and left her phone on speaker so that I could talk to the Reaper and ask him to bring us back over.”

For a couple minutes after that, the five of us just floated there in the water. I didn’t want to do anything to interrupt the twins as they clearly came to terms with everything we’d just told them, and from the look on Avalon and Shiori’s faces, they felt pretty much the same way. So we just sat like that, letting Sands and Scout work through it for as long as they needed. Once in awhile, they’d ask a question about something that had happened, and I’d answer. Other than that, however, there was relative silence (beyond, of course, the sound of the ocean around us).

Eventually, Sands looked to her sister. The two exchanged silent stares for a few seconds, seeming to come to some kind of silent agreement before both of them looked to me. “Okay,” the talkative twin announced, “we get why you had to lie before. But now we’re in, all right? We want to be included. Whatever happens, we get to help. We’re your team, Flick. Let us help.”

I stared at them both. After everything that happened, all the stuff I’d had to lie about… they accepted it and moved on, just because they realized that I had to? Just like… that? There was a thick lump in my throat, which wasn’t entirely because of what they said. It was also because of what I knew I had to say. I couldn’t put it off anymore. Not after what they’d just done.

“Shy, Valley….” I murmured before coughing as I raised my voice. “Could you guys give us a few minutes? I–I need to talk to them alone.” Glancing to the two, I added a soft, “Please.”

They both seemed to realize quickly what was going on. Avalon nodded, shooting a brief glance toward the probably even-more confused twins before she and Shiori started off back to shore.

“Uh, Flick?” Sands offered, her tone puzzled, “are you sure you didn’t get this whole thing backwards? You already told us the bad news, remember? Why are they leaving now?”

Biting my lip, I took a moment. I’d been thinking about this for awhile by this point, ever since I learned the truth from Klassin Roe. That had been… jeez, before Christmas. You’d think that, by this point, I’d already know exactly what to say to them about it. But I didn’t. I had no idea.

So, I just decided to wing it. Thinking about it any more was just giving myself more excuses to avoid actually saying what I had to say, more reasons to delay. “Um. So, I have something to tell you guys about the umm, the war. You know, the one with my mom and the… yeah.”

I wasn’t helping matters like that. Sands was even more confused. “Uh, now you’re going even further back. I swear, if you’re about to confess that your mom was part of a group that was trying to protect Strangers that they thought weren’t evil, I’m gonna have you checked for a concussion. Or possible possession, I’m not sure which. What the hell, dude?”

“No, no, I–” Sighing, I started over. “Okay. Listen, I found this out awhile ago, back before Christmas. But first I didn’t know how to bring it up, and then there was all that stuff about not knowing who to trust or what to–it was hard. But um, the thing is… your dad was… sort of the person who… kinda… got the war started in the first place.”

Seeing the obvious confusion on their faces, I pushed on, rushing by that point to just get it all out. “What I mean is–ugh. Okay, I’m just gonna say it. My mom was working with people to secretly protect Alters. Sort of like what we’ve been doing, but more proactive. You know, a secret group of people she trusted. Like I trust you guys. One of–um, one of those people was your dad. She trusted him with the secret about what they were doing. And he… um, he sort of went to the Committee and turned them in. That’s how they found out what Mom and her people were doing and brought the whole thing out into the open. That’s what started the civil war.”

Silence. Nothing. Absolutely no sound whatsoever came from either of the twins. Sands and Scout both just floated there, staring at me in complete silence for… I had no idea how long. It felt like hours. But then, it could have been only a few seconds. I heard a slight ringing somewhere in the back of my head that I had to convince myself wasn’t real. I was afraid. I was more afraid of their reaction to this news than I had been about everything else. They’d understood why I had lied to them and kept secrets about the Seosten thing. This was their dad. It was their dad, after they’d already lost their mother. How could they possibly react to this?

As it turned out, the answer was: not well. Scout looked stricken, of course. Her mouth had fallen open, and she was staring at me as if I’d… well, as if I’d told her that her own father had been responsible for a war that nearly ripped their society apart, all because he betrayed someone who should have been one of his closest friends, someone who had trusted him.

But it was Sands, Sands who kicked off and started to swim to the beach. She moved so abruptly and so quickly that it took me a second to react. Scout looked just as taken aback, making a noise of confusion before starting after her sister, who was already halfway to shore.

Catching hold of Scout’s arm, I gave a short whistle. Brody and Quint both swam right up, giving us a lift to the shallows that cut off some of the other girl’s lead. We scrambled up out of the water just as Sands started out onto the sand, and I blurted, “Hey, wait! Where are you going?”

“Where?” Sands demanded, pivoting back toward me. “Where am I going? You just told me that my dad–” She lowered her voice slightly, into a hiss that was quieter, though not that much further away from hysterical. “You just told me that my dad was responsible for the entire civil war and everything that happened in it, and you want to know where I’m going?”

I winced, my mouth opening and shutting a couple of times as I fought for the right words. But before I could actually say anything, she went on.

“We lost our mom.” Her eyes were so wet that I didn’t think she could see anything out of them, and it had nothing to do with the ocean. “We lost our mom, and now… now you’re saying that…”

Pivoting, she punched a tree so hard that her fist made a hole in the thing, while letting out a noise that sounded like a mix between a grunt and a somewhat muffled scream.

Scout quickly moved to her sister, while Sands stood there with her fist embedded in the tree. Her voice was lower.

“Do you have any idea how much I wanted things to go back to the way they were supposed to be before all this happened? Do you have the slightest clue how hard I wished for all the monsters to be the monsters they were supposed to be, for all of the Heretics to be the great, upstanding, perfect heroes that I always thought we were? Do you understand?

“My whole life, we were told the stories about the noble Heretics saving humanity. And I wanted it, I wanted all of it. When you told me about the Alters thing, how they’re not all monsters, you have no idea how hard it was not to go straight to Gaia, or one of the other teachers. I was scared, I was scared and I was mad and I wanted… I wanted everything to be the way it was supposed to be…

“I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make things be the way they were supposed to be. I wanted you to be wrong. I wanted all of us to be the heroes we were supposed to be. I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make it better. I wanted you to be wrong. It’s selfish, I know, I know. But I still wanted it. I wanted it so bad.”

Pulling her fist out of the tree, Sands turned to face me, while her sister put a hand on her shoulder. “But I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t do that, because it was wrong. Because you trusted me, and because me wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. A hero doesn’t stick with things exactly as they are just because it’s easier. But it’s hard, because every time I look around and see everything that we are, I have to question all of it now. I have to question everything now, my entire life. All of it.

“Mom, she decided that Strangers weren’t all evil. She did it, and Scout is still alive because she trusted the Stranger that saved her.”

Glancing to the girl beside her before looking back to me, Sands lowered her voice a bit more. It was trembling. “But now you’re telling me that if the positions had been reversed, if Dad had been there instead of Mom for whatever reason, Scout would have died. Scout would’ve died because Dad wouldn’t trust them, he wouldn’t trust a Stranger.

“I wanted things to go back to the way they were, I wanted things to be the way they were supposed to be the whole time I was growing up. But they’re not. They’re not, and no matter how much I want them to be, they won’t. I moved on. I’ve been trying to move on, and the one thing that has helped me with that, the one thing that is helped the most is the fact that I knew I knew that if push came to shove and I had to tell my dad the truth, he would believe me. He would be there for me, for us, because he’s my dad. He’s our dad. And no matter what kind of wrong things he did, my dad always did the right thing if he could. If we told him the truth, if we showed him the truth, he’d listen.

“But now… now you’re telling me that he wouldn’t. Because he already betrayed his friends. He took the easy way out. He turned them in. This whole war that happened, all of it is his fault. He would have turned in my mom, his wife. He would’ve turned us in. He’s our dad, he’s the only parent we have left, and you’re saying that he would have turned us in.”

There was an anger in the other girl’s eyes that I’d never seen there before, a hardness as she continued. “And you know what? Mom would’ve been on the side of the rebellion. She would have been on that side, if they hadn’t erased it. Which Dad obviously helped them do. If they hadn’t done that, if the rebellion wasn’t erased, our parents never would’ve gotten together in the first place. Which means Scout and me, we would never have been born.

“So you want to know where I’m going? I have no idea. But where I want to go is to my dad, so I can…” Sands trailed off for a moment before her head shook, tears for flowing freely as they had been throughout all of this. “So I can punch him. So I can punch him and keep punching until… until…”

Words had completely failed the other girl by that point, and she felt both knees, shoulders shaking heavily as she cried.

And I… I had no idea what to say. Honestly, I’d kind of expected Scout to be the one that was more upset by everything, not Sands. I thought Scout would be upset and Sands would know what to say. If anything, I’d thought that Sands would almost be on her father’s side of the whole thing. This was… this wasn’t going the way I’d thought it would, at all.

While I stood there, clueless for a few seconds, Scout had already knelt by her sister and was embracing her. Neither of them said anything, content for the moment to just hold onto each other while they tried to cope with what I’d just told them.

And what could I say? I’m sorry? It was pathetically inadequate. I remembered how I’d felt as a kid when people told me they were sorry that my mother had abandoned my father and me. Apologies, sympathy, anything I could’ve said felt… wrong.

So I didn’t say anything. Instead, I took a few steps forward and then sank to my knees beside the twins. With a heavy lump in my throat, I embraced Sands and Scout, putting one arm around each of them.

I wasn’t sure how long we stayed there like that. But I did know one thing with crystal clear certainty by the time we moved again.

Liam Mason deserved every single punch his daughters wanted to give him.

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Spy Hunt 26-02

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“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” my father started a short time later as he sat with Avalon, Shiori, and me in one of the cabins around the lake. His eyes focused on Avalon. “Your father was supposed to be dead, but someone turned him into a vampire instead. And now he’s spent the past few years repeatedly trying to kill you. Just this year, that effort was stepped up, getting you kicked out of this other school after they drugged one of your friends into attacking you until you had to kill him in self-defense, and trying to separate you from any protection you have. Now it’s not just your father, but others, these… angels who can possess people. They’re all trying to kill you, and manipulating people like your father into helping, because you’re the closest living relation to that… Hieronymus Bosch guy, whose daughter created some kind of magical vault that will only open for her closest living relative. In this case, you. In that vault, there’s something these angels want badly enough that they’re going to all this trouble to get rid of you so that the woman they’ve been taking control of, this… Professor Tangle, will become the closest living relative and then they can use her to get into the vault. That about sum it up?”

Blinking a couple times, I looked at Shiori to my left, then to Avalon to my right. “Uh, I think so.”

“Yes,” Avalon answered flatly. She was sitting there at the table, one hand on the bottle of flavored water that Gabriel had provided when she’d asked. “That is… essentially the size of it.” Her hand was tight on the bottle, and she was sitting stiffly for some reason. The whole time we’d been talking to my father, she had seemed uncomfortable and on the edge of bolting.

Whistling low, Dad looked down at the table, taking that in for a few seconds before he looked back up at her, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a pretty impressive girl, you know that?”

Judging from the way Avalon blinked at him and took a moment to respond, I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have said anything that would have surprised her more than that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she squinted, her suspicion obviously taking over. “What? You–” She paused, eyes shifting to me for half a second before she looked back to my father. “You’re not going to tell me to keep myself and my problems away from your daughter?”

For a moment, Dad didn’t say anything. Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. “Do you remember what I said that first morning before you left for school? The thing I told you to do?”

I thought about it briefly, head tilting before I remembered. “Stay away from drug dealers?”

He nodded. “That’s the one. And what happened to make me feel the need to tell you that?”

“Um.” I coughed. “Because I took it upon myself to taunt a drug dealer into confessing to his crimes?”

“And was I at all surprised that you would do something like that?” Dad prompted with a raised eyebrow.

My head shook quickly. “Surprised? No, not really. Exasperated maybe, but not surprised.”

Dad nodded once before turning his attention back toward Avalon. “She’s never been shy about getting into trouble, especially if she thought it was the right thing to do. It didn’t take a bunch of monster hunters to turn my daughter into a hero. I always knew she would be. Whether it would be throwing herself into war zones to report on atrocities, or going up against politicians that could throw her in prison and ruin her life, she was always going to do the right thing, no matter what powerful person tried to stop her. This Edge thing didn’t make her into anything she’s not, and you didn’t create this danger, or drag her into it.”

“Dad…” My voice was a tiny little mouse squeak as I felt my ears turn bright red. I wondered if I could actually manage to hit him if I kicked out.

He held up a hand to forestall me. “Believe it or not, I have a point beyond embarrassing you.” He paused then before conceding with a grin, “Embarrassing you is just a delightful bonus.”

I groaned, but Dad was already moving on. Raising his finger he gestured toward first Avalon, and then Shiori. “I may not understand this whole combined relationship thing. It’s not really my cup of tea. But this isn’t about me, it’s about Felicity.”

Yeah, we had sort-of explained the whole… relationship thing. At least as much as any of us actually understood it. Dad–well, he was taking it in stride, as far as that went. I guess when you get to the point of accepting that your daughter was a monster-hunter who gained superpowers by killing things, and that your missing wife had been the leader of a revolutionary faction of those monster hunters, it wasn’t too hard to get from that to ‘your daughter also has two girlfriends.’ Still, I was pretty sure he found it strange, even more strange than he was admitting right now.

Shiori blinked, holding up several fingers and counting them before she brightened. “Tea, me, Felicity, you did that on purpose!”

Dad winked at her before continuing, “The point is, there are three things that are actually important when it comes to anyone who wants to have a relationship with my daughter. First, they have to make her happy. Second, they need to help her rise into the kind of person that I know she is, not hold her down. And third, they have to be able and willing to stand with her, protect her when she needs protecting, challenge her, and defend her when her sense of justice exceeds her means to defend herself. Make her happy, inspire her, and protect her.”

Pausing then, Dad took a breath as he looked at the other two girls for a moment. “As far as I can tell, you girls do all of that. And probably far more than I will ever understand. So now, I’m not going to tell either of you to stay away from her. Just… let her protect you as much as you protect her.”

Focusing solely on Avalon then, Dad’s gaze softened a little bit. “And for the record, if I had your dad in front of me, I’d teach him exactly what I think about pathetic, drunk, child abusing pieces of shit. Vampire or not, a coward is a coward is a coward.”

After letting that sit for a few seconds, he brightened. “And now, I think I’ve been patient long enough. I’ve been the good, concerned dad. Now I want to see them.”

“See them?” I echoed, blinking over at the others blankly.

“The superpowers!” Dad blurted out loud. He sounded as eager as a little kid, and I realized just how hard it had been for him to hold back and remain serious for as long as he had.

“Come on, you’ve gotta show me the superpowers.”

********

“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” Gaia announced about an hour later. It was as long as I had been able to stretch spending time with my dad and the others before we had to get back to the school. After all, the last thing we needed was for Patrick and October, the Committee’s summoned minions, to get too suspicious about where we were. To say nothing of our Seosten ‘friends’. They’d know by now that we had been there, but they had to keep thinking that the choker had been destroyed. Which meant we should have come back here before too long.

There had been a lot more to do back at the camp. Each of the three groups (the Wonderland people, Mateo’s pack and the wolves they had managed to pull together, and Gabriel’s people) had lost people. Luckily, none of Roxa’s actual pack had died, though two of them (Corson and Hasty) had been injured enough that they’d be down for awhile. But still, there was a lot for them to sort out. Everything from deciding who was responsible for the prisoners that they’d taken, to where they were going to go to rest up, to how they would divide up the supplies that had been left behind. And more, a lot more.

Yeah, they’d won a lot. But they’d also lost. They were obviously trying not to show too much of it, but I knew that people had died. People had gone into that fight against that pack of weres at least partially because I asked them to, and now they were dead. Yet, if we hadn’t gone in, a lot more people would be dead. Hell, we’d managed to rescue all those Alter kids, so… that had to be worth it, right? Would I think the same thing if it was Avalon or Shiori who had died? Or even Vanessa or Tristan?

I’m a seventeen-year-old kid. How the fuck was I supposed to cope with those kind of questions, exactly?

But we didn’t even have time to stick around for all of that to really sink in. We’d had to leave far too soon, as far as I was concerned. It was just the safest way to avoid problems with the Committee, or the Seosten. Though these days, I wasn’t sure how much actually separated the two groups.

That wasn’t fair. One of the Committee members had saved my dad, had actually helped him break the Bystander Effect. And I still wasn’t sure what the hell that was all about.  

In any case, now we were in Gaia’s office. ‘We’ meant Avalon, Shiori, the Moon twins, and myself. Roxa had stayed behind, as she’d chosen to. We were going to plan for the best time for her to talk to her old team in person. Obviously, it couldn’t be on the school grounds or anywhere that the Seosten would know about it. And I (or someone else wearing the choker)  was going to have to touch each of them to make sure they weren’t possessed. After all, it’d be pretty stupid to go through all the trouble of hiding that the choker was intact only to have Roxa waltz right onto the island wearing it in a way that every Seosten would know should have been impossible without the choker.

In fact, it was getting to the point that I was thinking it might be better for Roxa not to reveal herself to her team at all until we had identified all the Seosten. Just in case. If her old team stopped being so obsessed about finding her, even if none of them were possessed, it might still tip the wannabe angels off. And nothing said they couldn’t be possessed later.

“Congratulations?” Tristan raised both hands, showing off the retractable claws that he had inherited from the werejaguar that he’d killed. The boy was also considerably stronger, courtesy of the other kill he’d gotten, a wereape.  “We just beat a giant pack of were-whatevers and Flick over there stole the one thing that can identify Seosten that are possessing people. We deserve a freaking parade, and a–” He yelped as Vanessa pecked him on the side of the head. Yeah, pecked. While Tristan had inherited some extra strength and retractable claws, Vanessa had gotten incredibly lucky. Not only did she inherit the ability to turn into a full raven, which she was using right then to perch on her brother’s shoulder, but she had also gained the ability to turn into a full-sized bear. Which was… more than a little intimidating. Especially seeing innocent little bookworm Vanessa transform into a gigantic fuck-off grizzly.

Coughing at his sister’s silent reprimand, Tristan gestured. “Uh, I mean, or congratulations from you, Headmistress. That’s just as good.”

Chuckling softly, Gaia inclined her head. “I am quite certain that there will be more of a reward for your efforts in the future, Mr. Moon.” There was amusement in her gaze as she glanced back toward me. “In the meantime, would you like me to have him come in now, Felicity?”

My eyes turned to the door briefly before I gave a quick nod. “Yes, please.”

So, the headmistress made a gesture with one finger. The door on the other side of the room opened smoothly, and a short, lanky figure stepped through. Wyatt. He smiled broadly (and a bit goofily, showing his buck teeth) at the sight of me and held his arms open. “You’re all right!”

Blinking at that, I shrugged and took a step that way to return the offered hug. Clearly, he’d been even more worried about me going through with that fight than I’d thought he would b–

He punched me in the shoulder, harder than someone of his tiny frame should have been able to. As I took a reflexive step back and yelped, Wyatt put a finger in my face. “No!” he chastised me. “What if I was possessed? What if I came to take the choker away from you? Never, ever, ever put yourself in that kind of compromised position with someone you’re not sure you can trust. I could’ve cut your throat before you knew what was happening. I could’ve taken you hostage and either stolen the choker from you or ordered whoever has it to give it over. Are you crazy? Do you want to be a victim? Never, ever, ever be that naive. Anyone could be your enemy. Until you use the choker on them, you don’t know. So assume the worst, and be ready!”

Somewhere behind me, I heard Avalon actually chuckle, voice soft. “He has a point, Chambers.”

Wincing, I rubbed my shoulder while looking back toward Gaia. The headmistress was just smiling a little bit. When I looked to her, she offered a slight shrug, as if to say that he wasn’t wrong. “Right,” I murmured before looking back to him. “Um, Headmistress, would you mind…”

She nodded once before making another slight gesture with one finger. As she did so, a collection of dark green vines literally rose out of the floor, wrapping around Wyatt’s arms and legs to hold him firmly in place. Her voice was calm. “You may test him safely now, Felicity.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket and took out the choker. Carefully affixing it to my own neck, I extended my hand to press gingerly against Wyatt’s arm. Not because I was worried that he was actually possessed or anything, but because I was half-afraid he might have some kind of electrified trap to zap my fingers or something just to teach me about touching people like that.

Nothing happened. There was no zap or other trap from my (justifiably) paranoid older brother, and obviously no reveal that he was actually possessed. Just as I’d known there wouldn’t be. We never would have gotten as far as we had if Wyatt had been possessed. Hell, Avalon would’ve been dead a dozen times over by now if he was. No, Wyatt being possessed would’ve ended everything a long time ago. I’d known he was safe before ever using the choker on him.

Still, I nodded for everyone else. “Clear,” I announced while stepping back. “You can let him go.”

The vines disappeared, and Wyatt shook himself off a bit. “Still,” he announced almost as though he was disappointed that we’d cleared him so easily, “you can never be too careful. Eyes wide, eyes open. Remember, they can switch bodies, so check everyone as much as you can.”

“We could do that more easily,” Avalon pointed out while stepping beside me, “with your help.”

I nodded quickly, taking the choker off before offering it to him. “Yeah. Right now, the Seosten think it’s been destroyed. But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t just think this was some other fashion accessory if we started walking around wearing it. So we were hoping you could do something to it first. You know, make it invisible or something, so it’s not so obvious that we have it.”

Taking the offered choker, Wyatt frowned thoughtfully down at it for a few seconds. “Invisible…” he murmured under his breath before nodding. “Yes.” Giving another goofy smile, he looked up to me. “Yes, I think I can do exactly what you want. But it’ll take a little while to do it properly.”

“Are you sure?” That was Vanessa. The blonde girl had turned into her human form (using her own discarded shirt as cover while shifting back and dressing) before stepping over to join us, her expression pensive as she worried aloud, “They said that the thing was already damaged from the spell that was used to turn it into a choker instead of a ring. That’s what lowered it to touch-range to begin with. What if putting any more spells on it damages the identification effect even more?”

Wyatt’s head bobbed up-and-down. “Yes yes, of course, changing shape would be harder. Too dangerous to risk losing the spell. But making it invisible, that I can do. Just need a day or two.”

“A day or two?” Echoing his words, I gave a little nod before looking back at the others. “I guess that means we need to get to dinner, and face the music.”

“Lies,” Shiori murmured. “More lying.”

“One more time,” I assured her while putting a handout to touch the other girl’s shoulder. “We just lie one more time. Once we know who we can trust, then we can tell them the truth.”

“Except for whoever is possessed,” Vanessa pointed out quietly. “They’re all connected, they all know what happens to each other. So, until you know who every possessed person is, you’re going to have to keep lying to the one that you know about. It’s the only way to get them all at once.”

Sometimes… I really hated how smart that girl was.

********

“Okay, you guys have got some serious explaining to do,” Sands informed Avalon and me as we sat with the rest of the team at the table in the corner of the cafeteria as far away from any other group as possible. Her voice was low, but intense.

“She’s right,” Sean agreed. The Hispanic boy with drumming his fingers on the table as he watched us. “We looked all over the place for you guys. What happened?”

We had already prepared for this, from the moment that we knew we were going to have to explain where we had gone. We couldn’t lie about where we went, because if whoever Seosten was possessing happen to be within this group, they might get a little suspicious about what we knew if we were lying to people we were supposed to trust.

So, glancing at the privacy coin that was sitting on the table, I winced before starting to explain. “Sorry guys, there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We were with Vanessa and Tristan when Gabriel called. They tracked down that werewolf pack, and they needed us to go right then. There wasn’t time to say anything else or find you. We had to go.”

“Besides,” Avalon added. “Gabriel said that there was only a very brief window where he could open the portal that would get us off the island without alerting the security. If we waited any longer, he might not have been able to do it.”

Even now, when the other girl said the name of the man who had been her idol for so long, her voice faltered a little bit and she looked a bit flushed.

“Oh man,” Sands complained. “You got to fight a bunch of werewolves? Come on you gotta tell us everything that happened. Did you kick their…” She trailed off, looking around at Avalon and me with a slight frown. “What happened, is everyone okay? Everyone made it back right?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “We all made it back, but…” Trailing off, I gave a soft, slow sigh. “The choker that we were trying to get for Roxa, the one that would let her be here without setting off everyone’s Stranger-sense? Yeah, it…” Biting my lip, I looked down. “It was destroyed. Pace–we couldn’t…”

Sitting beside his roommate, Columbus winced before cursing quietly. “They couldn’t fix it? I mean, how destroyed are we talking here?”

“Melted,” Avalon replied flatly. “Pace’s acid spit, it was… bad.”

“Which just means we’ll have to find something else,” I announced. “We promised Roxa we’d find a way to help her. I’m not going back on that. If you guys–”

“Don’t even say it,” Sands warned me. “We said we’d help Roxa, so we’re gonna help Roxa.” She paused, frowning. “… somehow.” Belatedly, she added, “Maybe we can find something in New York.”

I started to nod, then blinked. “Yeah, maybe we–wait, what?”

“New York,” Sands explained. “We’re going there. Like, all of us. The team.”

She continued, telling us about the whole contest thing with the Investigation Track and how she and Jasmine had won, meaning that we’d be going on a trip to New York with Roxa’s old team.

This… could get complicated. But at least we knew a good time for Roxa to show up and tell her team that she was okay. A month should be enough time to use the choker to check each of them and make sure they weren’t possessed.  

Beside her sister, Scout leaned over and whispered into the girl’s ear. Sands listened for a moment before giving a sharp nod. “Right, Scout’s got a point. We still need to know how the fight went. What happened? We won, right?”

“We?” I echoed before snickering despite myself. “Yes, we won. Roxa even killed Lemuel.”

Eyes widening, Sands blurted, “She did? Oh come on, you can’t spoil the ending like that. That’s not fair. Tell us everything.”

So… as much as we could without spoiling things they couldn’t know yet… we did.

******

“How much do you think they eat?”

It was the next afternoon, and four of us (Sands, Scout, Shiori, and me) were out on the ocean, treading water as we watched my shiver of sharks swimming below and around us. They’d been like eager puppies, showing off new tricks that they’d learned for the past ten minutes or so.

“How much?” I echoed, glancing to the Asian girl beside me before shrugging. “I’m pretty sure Princess Cuddles could polish off half of what the entire student body puts away in a day all by herself. Or, you know, half the entire student body, period.” I gestured at the enormous shark in question, who was swimming further away than all the others.

“At least they’re doing a pretty good job of keeping the waters around here clean and safe,” Shiori pointed out, giggling a little bit as Simpson, the yellow-tinted Lemon shark, came up to bump against her, clearly looking for head pats.

“He likes those,” I pointed out. “Here, Scout, check it out.” Reaching out, I waited for the other girl to give a little nod before gently taking her wrist to press against the shark’s snout. “Rub carefully just like that. See? Careful, it’s kind of rough.”

Feeling something bump up against my back, I glanced that way before laughing. “Jealous, Sherman?” The bull shark gave another heavy bump against me, and I snickered. “Okay, okay. Sands, here.” Carefully, I did the same with her, letting the girl give Sherman the attention that he wanted.

After watching the two of them pat the sharks for a moment, I gave a single nod. “Peanut brittle.”

Blinking up at me from Sherman, Sands asked, “Uh, what’d you say?”

“She said peanut brittle.”

That was Avalon, who rose from the water, dismissing the air-bubble spell that she’d been using in order to stay under water and out of sight behind Princess Cuddles until I gave the signal.

If it was possible to literally jump out of the water like a cartoon, Sands would’ve managed it right then. “Fuck!” she blurted, twisting that way. “Where’d you–what did-huh?”

Scout, for her part, was just watching me with a curious – yet understanding – tilt to her head. It was like she’d already worked out most of what was going on, and just needed me to fill in the details.

“We’re clear, then?” Avalon asked.

Looking toward Shiori, I echoed the question. “Clear?”

The other girl paused before nodding. Apparently one of the powers that she had inherited during that whole battle royal back there had been some kind of warning tingle that alerted her any time anyone was observing her that she didn’t know about.

Apparently it was rather less than useful any time we were anywhere near most of our fellow teenage classmates.

But out here, it had helped a lot. Now, she’d be able to tell us if anyone was paying attention or eavesdropping that we didn’t know about.

“Guys?” Sands interrupted my brief musing. “What the hell is going on? What–”

“You’re clear,” I announced. “We had to be sure, before we could tell you.” As I spoke, Brody, one of my two Mako sharks, drifted up under me so that I could hang off of him with one hand. With my other, I reached up to undo the choker around my neck. It came off, turning visible in the process as I showed it to the twins. “But now we know you’re not possessed.

“So we can tell you the truth about what’s really going on. All of it.”

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Spy Hunt 26-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the conclusion to the 3-part Sariel and Larissa interlude series that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, it’s gonna work, right?” Despite myself, I couldn’t keep the tenseness and worry out of my voice. “Please, after everything we went through to get it, tell me that thing is gonna do its job.”

We were back at the Atherby camp by the lake, with some company in the form of Mateo’s pack and a few of the Wonderland people like Seth, Namythiet, and Fennicus, though most of that particular group was back reuniting with the children that had been abducted by Lemuel’s pack.

Of the people who were actually here at the camp, the majority were milling around, talking about the battle or celebrating the fact that Lemuel and most of his people had been dealt with, aside from those who had managed to scatter and flee. The point was, the big threat of the massive combined werepack had been dealt with, for the moment at least.

I’d also been eager to meet up with my father here at the camp after everything that had happened. Apparently, however,  Asenath and a couple other Alters had taken him out for a hike to take his mind off what was going on and so that he wouldn’t obsess over me being in a fight. They were on their way back, but it would take awhile. Long enough for us to deal with this.

Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, Mateo, and I (Vanessa and Tristan were off doing something with Duncan and Misty) were watching as Gabriel and an elderly-looking woman that he had brought in examined the choker. Gabriel had introduced the old woman with the simple name of Kay. Or maybe it was just the letter K. I wasn’t sure on that point. In any case, she was their expert in magical artifacts, their version of Wyatt, basically. For the past ten minutes, the woman had been carefully examining the choker, while I watched anxiously. The only reason I’d agreed to let her take it in the first place was that Gabriel had vouched for her, and was standing right there. If she would have asked to take it out of our sight, I’m not sure even that would’ve been enough. I was seriously thoroughly paranoid about that damn thing disappearing.  

On the other hand, I was also paranoid that, even after we got it, the thing wouldn’t work right. That was why I’d agreed to Gabriel’s offer to have his enchantment-expert look it over a bit.

And yeah, we could have just had Roxa or one of the other Alters put it on and see if it would stop the Heretic sense from going off.  But honestly, taking a magic enchanted necklace that I had just stolen from a completely demented, psychotic, probably possessed girl and putting it on someone else without having it checked over first sounded really, really stupid. But maybe that was just me.

Even then, however, I’d still made Gabriel use the Seosten-detection rune on the woman (as well as Mateo, since he was there too) right in front of me just to prove that they were safe. Maybe that was more evidence of blatant paranoia, but hey, better to be safe than choker-less.

Kay examined the choker for another second, running her fingers along it before finally giving a slight nod. Her voice was brittle, yet strong enough to hear as she announced, “The intended effect of allowing the wearer to be disguised from the Heretical Sense remains fully intact.”

A breath of relief escaped me before I realized what she had said. Blinking up, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “You said the intended effect remains intact. What about the rest of it?” Her voice sounded as suspicious and ready for bad news as I felt.

Beside Shiori, Roxa folded her arms over her stomach, looking a little sick (also like I felt). “They mean the ability to identify Seosten,” she announced quietly. “Please say it still works.”

Raising her gaze from the choker to give all of us a long look, Kay paused before answering. “Being altered into a different form has… somewhat weakened that particular effect.” Even as my heart dropped down into my stomach, she continued. “Calm yourselves. It is still effective, so far as I can tell. When used properly, it will inform the wearer if the subject is possessed or not.”

“When used properly?” I echoed, more confused by her phrasing than elated by the news that the enchantment would identify Seosten-possessed people. “What do you mean by that?”

“As I said,” the woman answered, “the effect has been somewhat weakened. It will no longer allow the wearer to identify any Seosten simply through sight. Now, you must touch the person.”

My mouth opened, then shut, as I absorbed the explanation. “Touch them. You have to touch them and… and that’s it? Just touching them will, uh, reveal if they’re possessed or not?” Sure, it wasn’t the best, but from the way she’d been talking (and probably from my own growing pessimism over the situation), I’d actually been at least half-expecting a lot worse than that.

“Yes,” Kay confirmed. “Physical contact will reveal whether the person being touched has been possessed. It need not be skin-to-skin, simple contact will be sufficient. Presuming,” she added, “that the contact is not hindered by anything thicker than perhaps a couple layers of clothing.”

She offered the choker to me then, her expression softening. “In other situations, I might offer to try to fix it. But I’m afraid that, as little as we understand the enchantment itself, any more work done to it may damage the magic further. Trying to expand its ability could make it worse, or simply remove its power entirely. If you can accept the limitation, it would be safest to leave it.” After a brief pause, she added, “In any case, this enchantment is a work of art. I have honestly never seen anything like it before. And I have been working with magic for a very long time.”

“Yeah…” I murmured, taking the choker from her thoughtfully. Maybe Wyatt could do something else with it. But I wasn’t going to say that to her after everything she’d done. Instead, I turned slightly and offered the choker to Roxa. “We got it for you,” I reminded her. “If you want it.”

Instead of taking the choker, however, the girl hesitated before looking toward Mateo. “I… I’m going to stay with the wolves. If that’s okay with you,” she added quickly, toward the pack leader.

I wasn’t that surprised. After everything that happened back during the fight, when she’d taken off to help her pack, I’d kind of expected her to choose to stay. After all, the werewolves had accepted her even knowing she was a Heretic, while she would have to trick the Heretics to accept her after becoming a werewolf. If it was me, I’d probably choose to stay with them too.

For Mateo’s part, he simply smiled. “If that’s your choice, then yes, of course. You are a part of this pack for as long as you want to be.” As he spoke, the man reached out and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder while repeating, “If it is your choice.”

“It is,” Roxa confirmed. “I want to stay with you guys. I’d rather be able to be myself, all of myself, than hide behind a magical artifact.”

With a sly look in his eyes, Mateo winked. “Well, I would say that the girl who went and killed Lemuel would be welcome in any pack she wanted to join. Are you sure that you want to stick with our little ragtag group? Maybe you’d feel more at home with one of the big fancy packs. With the rep you’re getting, you could probably even start out pretty high up.”

“Yeah right,” she snorted. “Pretty sure they wouldn’t want me after meeting me.” Looking toward me then, she blanched a little bit. “Sorry, after everything you went through to get it…”

Shiori spoke up before I could respond. “Hey, we needed the choker anyway. And besides,” she added easily, “just because you don’t want it right now doesn’t mean you can never use it. Since we have it, and it’s supposed to work, anytime you need to talk to a Heretic, you could just borrow it.”

I nodded at with that. “She’s right, anytime you want it, it’s yours. And,” I added with a quick look toward Avalon, “if you could actually use it really soon, and talk to your old team so that they know you’re okay and stop looking at me like I’m the devil or something. That would be really cool.”

Roxa snickered a little bit, covering her mouth. “They’ve been really coming after you, huh?”

“Actually,” I corrected her while shaking my head, “I would’ve preferred that kind of direct confrontation, honestly. Mostly they’re just staring at me, particularly when they don’t think I can see them. It’s kind of unnerving to keep glancing at a reflection, only to see one of them lurking around watching my every move. It’s kinda creepy. Please, tell them you’re okay and not stuffed into a freezer in my basement or something.”

Blinking at that, she gave a quick, vigorous nod. “Uh, oops. Yeah, I’ll talk to them in person. Maybe that’ll help get them off your case.”

Gabriel spoke up, his voice thoughtful. “If you’re going to be using it, maybe we should test the choker in a live situation, let you see how it actually lets you know that someone’s possessed.”

Shiori started, clearly reflexively. “If we had a Seosten, we could–oh, wait. Ermahgerd could possess people. Does that mean he’s a, uh, you know. A Natural you-know-what?”

Putting a hand over his mouth to cover an obvious smile briefly, Gabriel corrected, “It’s Enguerrand, actually, not, ah, Ermahgerd. And yes, he is what you call a natural-Seosten Heretic.” To me, he added, “If you would like to test the choker, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

I agreed with that, and he called the knight-guy over. A brief explanation followed before Ermagh–damn it, Shiori– before Enguerrand nodded to me. “Of course, m’lady. ‘Twould be my honor to assist in this endeavor.” To Gabriel, he added, “Prithee, allow me entrance briefly?”

“Of course, Guerrand,” the other man agreed before bowing his head a little bit as he waited.

As the rest of us watched closely, Enguerrand reached out to touch Gabriel’s arm. As soon as he made contact, the armored man disappeared, vanishing entirely in an instant. A second later, Gabriel raised his head, giving a brief shudder before moving his eyes to me. “I am prepared.”

Kay gestured to me then. “There is no command phrase or any other method of activation. Simply put the choker on and then touch him. It should signal the truth to you immediately.”

So, I followed her instructions. Lifting the choker to my neck, I slipped it on and tightened it a bit before taking a breath. As soon as it was comfortable, I slowly reached out to touch the possessed-Gabriel’s arm with two fingers, a bit gingerly since I didn’t know what would happen.

As it turned out, what happened was simple: I saw a blurry, almost translucent  overlay of Enguerrand over top of Gabriel’s body that disappeared and reappeared randomly for a few seconds. When Gabriel’s body moved, the image of the other man duplicated the motion.

It lasted about six seconds through that brief touch, enough time to definitely notice without completely taking over or going on for too long. Other than that, there was no alert or anything. Touching him didn’t burn, or give an electric shock, or any of the other things I’d worried about.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, and even Mateo were all watching me anxiously. Roxa was the first one to find her voice. “So?” she pressed curiously. “Does the thing work, or what?”

“It works,” I confirmed with a nod before explaining what I saw. Taking the choker off, I offered it to Avalon first, so she could try. One by one, she, Shiori, and Roxa used the choker before touching Gabriel to see what it was like. Once they were done, Enguerrand released him and stepped out, shaking himself off. “I believe,” he announced “that it has performed as desired?”

“Exactly as desired,” I confirmed, looking at the choker in my hand after Roxa handed it back to me. “I mean, it’d be easier if it worked all the time, constantly. But if it’s a choice between not working at all and needing to touch them, I’ll go with touching them every goddamn time.”

“Sure,” Shiori piped up. “And it’s not like it’ll be hard to touch anyone close enough to you to be a threat. Just gotta make up an excuse to hug them or something. Oh, and not give it away.”

I nodded at that. “Exactly. Finding the one that Charmiene is possessing shouldn’t be that hard, not with this. But we can’t go after her until we find out who the other guy is possessing. That um, Manakel guy. He’s gonna be harder. But we can start ruling people out. Like Deveron.”

That was one of the biggest reliefs of all this. Not only would we be able to find out who was possessed, we would also be able to find out who wasn’t possessed. And as soon as we could start ruling them out, we could start confiding in them again. I was really looking forward to that part. This whole ‘keeping secrets from my friends and people I trusted’ thing was for the birds.  

Gabriel started to say something then, before pausing. Raising his gaze to look past me, he spoke with a slight smile, musing aloud, “Maybe now is a good time to take a short break.”

“A short brea–” I started to question that before glancing back to see what he was looking at. What I saw was my father walking into view from around one of the cabins, accompanied by Asenath, Twister, and Calice, the female Relekun (tree-person) that I’d met before.

I stopped talking. Every other thought left my head. Before I knew what I was doing, my body had already pivoted, and my feet were carrying me that way. I sprinted, trying to call out, but the words caught themselves in a lump in my throat. Finally, I managed a thoroughly choked, “Dad!”

My father’s arms opened as I approached, and just like that, I was a little kid again. I could bench a thousand pounds, but I was a little kid again. I had just been involved in a massive battle against the largest combined pack of werewolves (and other weres) on the continent, but I was a little kid again. My father had his arms around me… and I was a little kid again.

I held tight (but not too tight) to the man who had raised me pretty much on his own for the past decade, who had spent ten years thinking that his wife had abandoned him and their child for no reason, who had broken through the Bystander Effect to learn what really happened. I wrapped my arms around him and held on, clutching my father for the first time since he had discovered the truth. Sure, we’d talked over the phone. But that was different from actually being there with him. Nothing, not even Fossor himself, could have made me let go in that moment.

For awhile, there was nothing else but this: holding onto my dad and feeling him holding onto me. I didn’t care about anything. The whole camp could have spontaneously exploded and it was iffy whether I would have noticed or not. My dad was there. That was all that mattered.

He seemed just as affected. I felt his arms close around me, and remembered all the times that I had run into his arms as a child, or crawled into his bed after a nightmare, or clutched onto him in the middle of the day for no reason other than the terrible thought of losing him like I had my mother. Every time, no matter what he had been busy with, my father had held me for just as long as I needed him to. He was never too busy for me, never too distracted to give me all the support and reassurance that he could. He was my dad.

My dad.

After a minute or so, I felt him run a hand up and down my back, coaxing me a little bit. “Well, hey, you.” There was a smile in his voice as he gently kissed the top of my head. “Fancy meeting you in a place like this.” Even though he was teasing, I could hear the lump in his voice.

Despite myself, I reflexively replied, “You’re right, I did meet Fancy in a place like this.”

With a tiny smirk, Dad raised an eyebrow. “Damn, you met the kobold too, huh? I had a whole thing planned for that.” He used a hand to muss up my hair. “Oh well, glad you’re here.”

“I had to come,” I pointed out, gulping before continuing, “you’d get lost without me around to help.”

“Kid,” my dad announced while leaning back so that he could put a finger under my chin, lifting it up to meet my gaze. “I’d be lost without you, period.”

“Dad…  Daddy.” Choking up again, I dropped my head to his chest and hugged my father once more, unable to help myself.

That took another brief time before I gathered myself, straightening to look at him. “Dad,” I whispered hoarsely. “I don’t… I don’t know where to start.”

“Honestly?” he replied, “neither do I. I–Felicity, you’ve got so much going on. All this–everything you’ve been doing, it–how are you even–” He sighed, embracing me tightly once more for a moment. “Did you… do what you needed to?”

“Pace got away,” I admitted. “But we got what we needed from her, and they think it’s destroyed.” Pausing, I added, “And Roxa killed their pack leader.”

“Killed.” Dad’s voice was flat. “You… say that so easily. You–”

“I killed too,” I admitted quietly, glancing away for a moment. “I killed then, and I killed before. Self-defense, mostly.” I wasn’t sure if it counted when the school put us in the situation where we had to fight to survive. But then again, the things we hunted were killing innocent people, or would have if we didn’t intercede, so… talk about a gray area.

“There’s a lot I don’t understand yet,” Dad murmured, watching me intently. “But I know you. If you say you had to do it…” His head shook. “God, Flick, this is… and your mom is–”

“Alive,” I interrupted. “That’s the important part. She’s alive and she’s out there. We just have to–to find her.”

Dad looked at me again, his gaze serious. “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to it than that,” he pointed out. “But… you’re right. We’ll find her. Right now I’m just trying to wrap my head around all this.”

Smiling a little, I nodded. “Take your time. You… um, seem to be coping with it pretty well, actually.”

His voice was dry. “With my job, I’ve learned how to freak out on the inside.”

From that point, my brain stalled out for a moment. There was so much I wanted to say to my dad, so much I wanted to get his opinion on, now that I could actually talk to him in person instead of just over the phone. “I…” Swallowing, I reflexively looked over my shoulder. And then I knew.

We had the choker. Soon, I would use it to check each and every person on our team, and everyone else that I could. We would figure out who Charmeine and Manakel were possessing. We would find a way to deal with all that. I would tell my dad everything I could. I would do everything I needed to do.

But right now, there was something that I wanted to do. So I took my father my the hand, leading him back that way.

“You, um, you know Shiori,” I started, weirdly nervous. “And this is-um, this is Avalon.

“Avalon, this is my dad.”

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Suspects 24-07

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Note: Please make sure to read my first comment after this chapter for an important announcement regarding donations for the past month and rewards. 

As the two crazed werewolves came for us, Roxa and I did the best thing we could in the moment: we went straight to meet them. With barely a glance exchanged between us, we both moved. Roxa took three steps forward before dropping a bit, bending so that my subsequent hop let me put a foot on her back to push off of into a leap. Spinning in the air, I came down between the two, behind Lemuel and facing his back but ahead of Pace with my back to her.

Bending backwards slightly, I brought my staff up in both hands, held horizontally behind my head at the last second before one of the knives that Pace had produced smacked off of it with a loud clang, narrowly stopping her from cutting straight into my neck. At the same time, I lashed out to kick Lemuel in the back in order to shove him off-balance and toward Roxa.

Unfortunately, the kick missed as the big wolf smoothly pivoted to avoid it. Roxa, who had produced a silver knife of her own, just missed cutting into the big black man’s arm. Just as quickly, he caught her wrist and I heard a snapping sound from the bone there as she yelped.

I couldn’t focus on that though. Roxa’s werewolf and Peridle healing would take care of it. Spinning toward Pace, I snapped the staff around my back and to the front to just in time to catch the knife in her left hand against the bladed end of my own weapon. Her foot lashed out at me, but I snapped my own leg up to catch it, both of our shins rebounding off each other.

Pace dropped into a low, spinning leg-sweep at the same time that I leapt and spun in a kick of my own. My leg passed over her head, while hers passed directly beneath me. At the same time, I caught the end of my staff and gave a hard swing back and down with my arm at full extension in order to reach. The blow caught Lemuel against the shoulder. It barely did any damage to the big guy, though it did slow him for half a step, giving Roxa a chance to launch herself up and forward. Her right foot hit the man in the stomach, her left foot hit his chest, and then she did a backwards flip that smacked her left foot against his chin before landing on Gidget’s back as the cyberform cougar leapt into her hoverboard form right below Roxa.

Meanwhile, as I came back down, I used the recoil from my staff bouncing off of Lemuel’s shoulder to spin the weapon back around and down into a vertical blow at the spot where Pace had dropped in her attempt to sweep my legs. It was too late, the girl was already gone. Her enhanced speed brought her back to her feet and out of the way of the staff, lashing out with a swipe from the knife in her right hand that my werewolf-enhanced reflexes barely let me jerk away from in time to avoid the worst of the damage. The blade still cut across my cheek, stinging a bit. But at least it wasn’t my throat.

Not that I had time to be glad about that fact, since Pace followed up her first swipe with half a dozen more, all of them coming so fast that I didn’t have time to block or dodge them all. I took three more cuts across my arms and shoulder while frantically spinning my staff up to take the worst of the damage. Distantly, I felt the pain, but it barely mattered. There was nothing debilitating about the damage she’d done, nothing to make me stop fighting. Not yet, anyway.

To give myself a little room, I snapped the staff up and triggered a blast of kinetic force that knocked Pace up and back about ten feet. Using the same momentum from the blast, I spun around, pivoting on one foot while swinging at Lemuel’s head with the bladed end of the staff.

His hand snapped backward, catching the staff just under the blade before yanking me off my feet. As he hauled me up, I hit the button that sent sand shooting out of the staff, directing it in a cloud to his eyes and mouth before triggering the last of the charge in my weapon. The force shot out the bottom of the staff, propelling it (with me attached) up and out of the man’s grip, flying into the air. He gave a violent snarl, lashing out at me on the way, but with the sand blinding him, he missed.

Flipping over in the air, I aimed the staff down, giving a sharp whistle toward Roxa, who was still on her board. With her attention, I shot the grapple out of my staff, launching it at Lemuel.

The big, dark-skinned half-wolf easily jerked aside, avoiding the grapple. But that was okay, I’d been expecting him to. And so had Roxa. Even as the grapple had shot downward, she already had Gidget flying forward. At the last second, she leapt off the hoverboard, catching the line from my grapple to spin herself around it, planting both feet into Lemuel’s side with all that force.

The big guy went down on his side, the blow knocking him over.

Unfortunately,  we couldn’t follow up the moment of vulnerability, because Pace had recovered by that point. She was a sudden blur, appearing out of nowhere to kick Roxa in the side, a blow that knocked the blonde girl onto her back. As Roxa hit the ground hard, Pace brought both hands up. A literal ball of flame appeared between them, which she launched at the briefly prone girl while cackling wildly.

Luckily, I had already been reacting. As I fell toward the ground, my finger found the button to make the energy-cord of the grapple retract. I was yanked forward and down, arriving just as Pace let loose with that fireball. Seeing the orb of fire coming as I landed between both other girls, I focused on the energy-absorption power that I had gained from killing Doxer. The spinning ball of heat and flame crashed into me… and disappeared. I felt warm, but not burned. And there was that familiar tingle as my body was charged up with the energy, mostly heat but also a little kinetic, that I had absorbed. For the moment, however, I held it in. Just like during training, it felt a bit like needing to use the restroom. From experience, I knew that feeling would rapidly worsen. I could only hold the energy that I had absorbed for a very brief time.

“Naughty Present!” Pace snapped out with a crazed giggle. “Using Doxer’s power, how rude.”

The good news then was that Roxa was back up. The bad news was that so was Lemuel. The big werewolf lunged at me with a roar, even as Pace’s arm lashed out, covered in that bone armor of hers. A short, sharp, eight-inch shard of the bone was already shooting toward me.

When I had faced Pace back in Wonderland, the bone-dart had been too fast for me to even see coming. But that wasn’t true anymore, not with the super-reflexes that I had absorbed from the wolves in that very same encounter. As the sharpened bone flew at my stomach, I snapped my staff up and around with my left hand to slap it out of the way. At the same time, my right hand pointed, releasing the fire that I had absorbed in a spray of flame that took the incoming Lemuel in the face. His reflexes saved him from charging straight into it, letting him recoil while barely getting singed. But it did at least stall his attack, forcing the evil pack leader onto the defensive.

It also meant that he didn’t see Gidget bounding forward until the mechanical cougar had already latched onto his arm. She yanked him down with a snarl (from both her and the wolf-man himself), just before Roxa jumped on his back. The blonde girl drove that silver knife of hers at his throat, but Lemuel snapped his head back, driving it into Roxa’s face hard enough to knock her off of him before her knife could do more than lightly scrape his shoulder.

Pace had already followed up her first thrown bone-dart by launching several more before rearing back to spit a glob of metal-eating acid right at me. Quickly, I snapped my staff around, slapping the incoming bone-darts out of the way while simultaneously releasing another burst of sand. This one was much larger than the other bit I had summoned before, as I sent most of what I had out into a large ball that collided with the acid. The caustic liquid ate through the sand almost immediately, but it was still able to block it enough that I could side-step the last of the stuff.

It did not, however, save me from Lemuel. The big werewolf had freed himself from Roxa, lunging forward to catch hold of my shoulders. Before I knew what was happening, he hauled me off my feet and slammed me into the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of me. His foot came down toward my face, and I barely had the presence of mind to jerk my head out of the way an instant before that foot slammed into the dirt, putting a foot-deep hole in the ground where I had been a half-second earlier.

Before he could lift the foot to try again, I snapped my fingers twice before opening my hand to catch the silver knife as it popped out of the watch on my wrist. Driving the blade down into the man’s foot, I couldn’t help the snarl of satisfaction at the sound of his cry of both pain and fury.

As he was reacting to that, Gidget dropped out of the sky, shifting from hoverboard to cougar just in time to land hard enough on the wolf-man’s shoulders and back to knock him into a hunched position. The cyberform leapt off him immediately, colliding with the incoming Pace while snarling. The two rolled away, tumbling end over end.

With a grimace, I lashed out at the man’s face as he was doubled over. He jerked backward, easily avoiding the blow… and put himself in the perfect position for Roxa as the other girl leapt to put her fist right in his face with enough force to snap his head to the side.

Doing a quick kip-up to bring myself back to my feet, I spun, the bladed-end of my staff lashing out at the other side of the man’s face.

Again, he caught it, snarling angrily. Before he could do anything though, Roxa was there. She drove a quick kick into his side, drawing a grunt from the man even as I triggered enough of a burst from my staff to yank it from his grasp. Using that momentum, I spun around, driving the shaft of the weapon against his stomach. It was like hitting a brick wall with my own normal human strength. The guy was tough.

And he was fast too. His fist collided with the side of my head, knocking me stumbling as white-pain flashed through me briefly. At the same time, the man back-handed Roxa across the face. As she stumbled a step, his foot kicked up. I saw the silver blade that I had driven into his foot fly up before he caught it, driving the blade backward into the girl’s chest. Making a noise of triumph, he stabbed twice more into the same spot, into her heart before kicking her away from him.

He faced me then, tossing the bloody knife away before snarling, his voice amused. “One down,” he drawled slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to play with his food, “two to–”

A blade appeared… in the man’s throat, driven through it from the back. As blood spurted forth freely, he made a strangled noise of disbelief, choking and gurgling while half turning, already stumbling a little.

Roxa stood there, still bleeding, but standing despite being stabbed in the heart with a silver blade. Her own knife was one in the big man’s throat, where she had leapt to shove it. Meanwhile, her other hand held the one that had stabbed her before he threw it away.

“Redundant organs,” she snarled at the bewildered and drastically injured man. “Extra heart. Jekern power, bitch.”

Her own dagger had nearly killed the man. And with mine, she finished the job, driving the blade up through his throat and into his brain as he choked on his own blood.

Pace, who had extricated herself from Gidget long enough to give the cyberform a kick that sent it tumbling away, spun back around in time to see her pack leader collapse to the ground. As he dropped, Roxa’s glowing bronze aura appeared, and the injured girl dropped as well, giving a moan of pleasure.

The big wolf was down. But we still had the other one to deal with. And from the look of things, Roxa wasn’t going to be able to help.

So I’d do it myself. Taking advantage of Pace’s extremely brief stunned silence, I released the charge in my staff while letting go of the weapon itself. It flew forward, slamming into the crazed (probably possessed) girl’s stomach, the force of the blow doubling her over for a second. Even as the staff started to fall away from her then, I was there, catching the other end of it. Spinning while shifting my grip on the weapon, I did a full three-sixty to put myself behind her. In the same motion, my staff hooked against the girl’s throat, hauling her up and backward while I continued my pivot. She landed hard on her back against the ground even as my staff ended up pointed down at her. An instant later, before she could recover, the silver-coated grapple shot from the end of it, tearing through the wolf-girl’s leg to pin her to the ground as she gave a howl of pain.

I was on her then, diving on top of the girl even as she gave another scream, this one mostly in rage. We fumbled a bit, she produced a wave of fire that I absorbed before she covered herself in bone-armor and launched a dozen darts. About half of them hit me, three in the arms (two in the left and one in the right), one in the leg, and two in the right side of my chest, narrowly missing anything important. Still, it hurt like a bitch. But I kept at it. My hand snapped up and closed around the choker that was on the girl’s neck before I triggered my staff. It had only charged a little bit, but it was enough to launch me up and backward away from her, while the clasp holding the choker in place snapped.

It was a close thing, but I kept hold of my prize. The choker. The thing we needed. Coming down from being launched by my staff, I hit the ground in a roll, ending on my stomach briefly, clutching the precious item against my chest.

For a second, I lay there, breathing out before rolling over. I came to my feet, choker in hand and smile on my face. “Sorry,” I announced to Pace, who was still pinned by the grapple through her leg (the energy-line attached to it had extended as I was launched away from her). “Finders-keepers?” I held the choker while stepping that way, dangling it practically in her face.

Her snarl turned to a smile. “Well,” she half-purred while staring at me intently, “you know what they say. If I can’t have it…” Abruptly, the girl spat a glob of that incredibly potent acid. My hand jerked away, but it was too late. The acid caught the choker, and I had to let it go. Stumbling back as my eyes widened, I stared at the acid-coated choker on the ground as a cry of disbelief and denial burst from my lips. The green liquid had already melted through half of it by the time it landed. A moment later, and most of it was gone. The choker had been destroyed.

Pace took advantage of my horrified distraction, reaching down to yank the grapple out of her leg before heaving herself up. She landed on her good foot, cackling like someone had just told her the most hilarious joke in the world. “I guess, I guess–” she managed between fits of laughter, “you don’t get your prize after all, huh? Uhhh oh, too bad, so sad for the little blonde wolfy-cub. Too bad for everything, all your little things. So sad. Maybe you’ll feel bad for killing my friend, huh? Maybe feel bad for Doxer.” She cackled madly once more, though I saw a brief glimpse of genuine anger and… maybe even sadness there when she mentioned her old teammate.  

Running footsteps approached, and our eyes snapped that way. Roxa had recovered from both her injury (at least enough to move, even if her regeneration wouldn’t work that well against the silver), and from the brief moment of pleasure from killing Lemuel. And she had been joined by the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were all on their way as well, the five converging.

“Oooh,” Pace all-but purred. “Friends. They can make you feel better for failing, Present. We’ll finish later.” She was still favoring her leg, the silver in the grapple stopping the werewolf regeneration from healing her so easily. Still, her amusement was obvious as she waved at me, and I saw the piece of bark from the Eden’s Garden tree in her hand. “Toodles!”

An instant later, just as the others arrived, she slammed the wood down and disappeared.

I stood there, staring at the spot where she had been before my gaze dropped to the ground where the mangled, melted remains of the choker lay. There was almost nothing left of the thing.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was hesitant. “The fight’s mostly over. They’re retreating and scattering.”

Quietly, my voice cracking just a little, I asked, “What about the kids they took?”

Tristan spoke up then. “One of the wolves spilled. They’re being held at a cabin about a quarter mile away. They’ve already got people on the way. So um…” He paused before asking, “Are you okay?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just stared at the ruined choker. Then I looked up, seeing the others gathered around to stare at me. My flat, stunned expression slowly melted away as I reached into the pocket of my uniform jacket… and I smiled while producing the choker. The real choker, which I had switched with the fake one while I’d laid on the ground. The fake one that Namythiet had built at my request and secretly snuck into my jacket earlier when she dove in there back before the fight had begun, while we had been chatting at the top of the ridge.

If I was right about Pace being possessed, the other Seosten were connected to her. Even if she hadn’t escaped, they’d know the instant that we had the choker, and they never would’ve let us get away with it. They would’ve brought hell itself down on us to get the damn thing back. But now, well, I’d given the girl as big of an opening to let her destroy the fake as I could without being too obvious, and she had taken the bait. Then I’d let her escape, because it was more important that they think they’d won than it was for us to catch Pace, or Lies, or whoever she was, right then. That could wait. The important part was, now they thought the choker that could identify them was destroyed. They thought it was gone forever. They thought they were safe. Good. Let them believe that they’d won the battle.

Because with the choker, we had the means to win the war.

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