Stephen Kinder

Patreon Snippets 7 (Heretical Edge)

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The following is the seventh volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Theia and Gwen – Night After The Exodus

Standing in the middle of the forest, several hundred yards away from the Atherby camp, Guinevere watched the stars with her head tilted back. She had been there, motionless, for several minutes, her attention seemingly focused far away. Then, her voice cut through the silence. “You know, I’m told that technology has improved so much lately, you could take a picture and stare at that forever if you’d like. It’s pretty nifty.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation before Theia came forward out of the trees. “Theia-I knew you would notice… me. But w—I did not want to force you to acknowledge it. It… we… I can go.” She seemed nervous, fidgeting from foot to foot while her hand reached out to hold a nearby tree as though for balance and support.

Gwen blinked once at the girl, head tilting slightly. “Go? Why would I want you to go?“

Theia answered promptly. “Because you are thinking about your husband, the one who has been gone for so long.” Pausing, she added with a faint tone of uncertainty, “Aren’t you?”

With a slight smile, Gwen nodded. “Yes, but I don’t need to be alone to do that. Part of me is always thinking about him.” She beckoned with her hand then. “Hey, why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you what I was looking at.” She offered the girl a smile. “It’s okay, really.”

After another brief hesitation, Theia did so. She shuffled her way closer, stopping in front of the woman while staring at her with somewhat widened eyes and a look of almost puppy-like adoration.

Gwen started to raise her hand to point, before stopping to look at the girl curiously. “Are you okay?”

Theia’s head bobbed up and down as she nodded rapidly. “Uh huh, uh huh! Yes, yes. It’s just that… you… you’re good. You’re very good. You’re amazing, I have read about you. I heard about you. I took memory-spheres about your fighting as Lancelot. You–you are…” She stumbled over her own words, face flushed as she stammered.

Giggling despite herself, Gwen shook her head. “Hey, it’s okay. Pace yourself.” The last bit was said with a wink.

“You–” Theia stopped, head tilting. “Pace myself. You did that on purpose.” When her words were met with a silent smile, the girl started to return it, before stopping as her face fell a bit. “Pace is good. You… you are good. You are good, and Theia-I… I… am not good. I have done bad things.”  

Giving a soft sigh, Gwen reached out to carefully take the girl’s hand, using that to turn her to face the same direction before pointing up to the sky. Finally, she spoke. “You say you’ve done bad things? How do you know they were bad?”

Theia was quiet briefly before she answered. “Pace. Pace and Miss Abigail and Miranda. They showed me. They helped me. I don’t want to hurt them. They are my fr-friends.” Her voice cracked at that word, as though just saying it made her terrified that her deceased mother would somehow come back and take those friends away.

“They are more than friends. They are my…” And then she stopped talking. Because if saying friends was difficult for the girl to get out, the word that had sprung to her mind just then was impossible. Because they could not possibly be that word, because that word had always rejected her. That word had sent her away, had tortured her, had destroyed her in so many ways.

If she used it here, if she tried to claim these people as… as… that and it was rejected, she might never recover. A fear of that rejection deep in her heart stopped her from using the word even now, away from them.

Gwen spoke softly. “They helped you see right from wrong, good from bad. They help you see that you’ve done bad things. And now that you know that, you regret those things? You feel bad about them?“

Theia nodded, and Gwen smiled. “Good. Remember that feeling. Use it to be a better person. Because you are better, Theia. Don’t let your mother or your father or your people or even your condition dictate what kind of person you are. Don’t let anyone turn you into something you don’t want to be. You feel bad about the things that you did? Good, make up for them. Do good things. But do them because you want to. Do them because you want to be a better person.”

After the two stood there in silence for a few seconds, Theia murmured a soft, “I thought you would want to kill me, for being one of them. A bad one.”

Head shaking, Gwen replied, “I don’t need to kill the girl who did those things, Theia. It sounds to me like your friends already did that.”

They stood there like that in silence for a few seconds before Gwen lifted her hand. “Now look right up here, I’ll show you the constellation that Arthur made up.

“He named it Chadwick and Chickee.”

******

Bastet, Aylen, and Sonoma – One Year Ago

 

“And of course we have extensive contacts in over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada,” the man who had introduced himself as Tyson Larrington announced to the slender, diminutive Native American woman and her daughter, both of whom sat on the couch opposite the chair he had been invited to use. All three were in a pleasantly and warmly decorated living room, pictures on the nearby television and mantle showing times throughout the young girl’s life from being a baby to her current age of sixteen. Some of the pictures also showed the woman who sat beside her, while others had a different woman, with pale skin and hair that was so light it was almost white.

It was that woman who entered the room then. And from the looks of her, she very well might have come through a time warp. The pale woman wore an old green house dress and an apron, looking as though she was coming straight from the 1950s. She even carried a tray of delicious-smelling cookies.

“Well now,” Bastet replied to the man pleasantly while holding that tray of cookies, “that does sound very interesting, Mr. Larrington. This… ahhh… dear me, I’m just being as forgetful as an old rooster on Easter. What did you say the name of this school that you want to take our Aylen to was?”

“Crossroads Academy,” the Heretic promptly answered. “And I assure you, should you allow your daughter to come to our school, she will be in the best of hands. Our faculty and equipment are top of the line.”

Head bobbing easily, Bastet replied, “Oh, I’m sure everything there is cutting edge. Cookie?” she offered with a bright, winsome smile that could have come from a catalogue during the Eisenhower administration. 

“Thank you, ahhh, Mrs. Tamaya.” Larrington took the offered treat from the tray, turned it over in his hands, and then took a bite. That he managed to swallow the whole thing without betraying a reaction when, contrary to its amazing scent, the thing tasted almost exactly like dirty tree bark was quite a testament to his poker face.

Bastet smiled broadly. “Oh, it’s just Bess, Mr. Larrington. Sonoma here, she’s Mrs. Tamaya. I took her name when we… ah, broke Adam‘s covenant to be together instead of with a man.” She spoke the last bit in a stage-whisper, as though it was positively scandalous.

Sonoma cleared her throat, speaking up for the first time in the past few minutes. “Sorry, Bess has these little sayings and… ahem… whatnot because she grew up in a small, isolated religious…”

“Cult,” Bastet supplied cheerfully. “Yes, it was an extremist doomsday cult. Very dark. So much gloom and ranting. Boy, I could tell you stories about those people. And I don’t mean just the normal Bible thumping. They went all the way, yessir. It was just scary, you know what I mean? They were right off the deep end. Believed everyone who wasn’t exactly like them was evil and had to be killed. That’s right, killed. If you didn’t look and think exactly like them…” She drew a line across her throat with a finger and made a dramatic cutting sound. “You didn’t deserve to live. Crazy racist psychopaths.”

Letting that sit for a brief moment, she plastered another broad smile on her face. “Oh, but do tell us more about this wonderful school of yours. It sounds just delightful.” Her hands lifted the tray toward him. “Another cookie?”

Quickly demurring as politely as possible, Larrington cleared his throat. “Aylen, we like to get an idea of how the prospective student feels before bringing them in. I know this is a lot to ask, to be away from your mothers for so long when you seem so close. Does this sound like something you would be interested in?”

Shifting on the couch next to Sonoma, Aylen nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. From everything you said before, and today, I think Crossroads sounds great. I’d really like to go there.” She and the Heretic exchanged brief knowing looks, the two women clearly entirely clueless as to what their daughter could possibly be referring to.

Bastet spoke up then, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Oh, but your teachers, they’re open minded, yes?” She gestured back and forth between herself and her wife. “As you might have guessed, we are kind of accustomed to a bit of ahhh, unpleasantness from certain sects. And not just my own family either. If she goes to your school, we want to be sure they’re not going to teach her to be hateful and prejudiced. I mean, these are teenagers, with such moldable minds. Can you imagine if the wrong people got a hold of them and started teaching them such awful, violent things?” She gave a visible shudder then, shaking her head. “No, I’m afraid we will definitely need assurances that your school is open minded about all life choices.”

If he made any connection between the truth of what his school was and her words, the man gave no indication. He simply smiled and nodded. “I promise you, Miss— ahh, Bess, Crossroads accepts students from all lifestyles, and does not discriminate based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything of the sort.”

Clearing her throat, Sonoma glanced to her wife. “Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does,” Bastet agreed amicably. “Almost too good to be true. But then, we were talking about finding a good private school…” She appeared to consider it for a moment, before glancing toward Aylen. “You’ll e-mail every day, and call as much as you can. And pick up when we call you?” Her words were firm, brooking no argument.

Giving a quick nod at that, the girl replied, “Yes, Mother. Every day.”

Sonoma smiled, putting a hand on her daughter’s before squeezing it slightly. “You better, we don’t want Bess to have to come up there if you get busy and stop talking to us.”

“Oh, I’d make a huge mess of things there,” Bastet agreed with an easy laugh. “I’d take three steps into that school and before you’d know it, the whole place would be on fire or something.”

Chuckling as well, Larrington offered them a nod. “Well, we’ll just have to be sure that your daughter stays in contact. We wouldn’t want to have to rebuild the school. I’m actually part of the second year faculty, but I can promise you that my colleagues on the year one staff will be right on top of things. I’ll make sure you have the numbers for several of them before I leave here, in case you have any more questions at any point. But ahh, I don’t want to push you too much today. Would you like me to come back later in the week to discuss this further?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Bastet assured him, winking. “We’d be foolish as a lead kite if we let you walk out of here without making sure our girl’s got her seat in that school.”

Looking just a little surprised, the man blinked once before recovering. “Ahh, yes, of course. I can grab the paperwork from my bag if you’re certain you don’t need to talk about it more. We don’t want to rush you into an important decision like this.”

“Oh, we’re not rushing at all, Mr. Larrington,” Bastet informed the man.

“We’ve been talking about doing something like this for a long time.”  

**********

 

Virginia Dare – Day After the Exodus

 

They had prepared for this. Virginia knew that. For years, they had prepared for… well, something like this, at least. Gaia had warned her that things would probably happen to take her out of commission, either for a time or…

For a time. In this case, it was for a time. She would be back. Maybe it would take awhile to recover from the drain that casting that spell had put on her and to get out of whatever deep, dark hole the Committee goons threw her into. But she would be back. In the meantime, Virginia had to help hold things together. She couldn’t think about what would happen if Gaia didn’t wake up, or if…

She couldn’t think about that. Any of it. People were counting on her to hold it together, to hold herself together. Gaia most of all. And Virginia had no intention of letting them, or her, down.

“And this is the inner ward line,” Misty, the young (relatively) Ogre Heretic announced while gesturing to a spot of seemingly empty dirt and weeds. “See that tree over there with the gnarled roots coming up? That’s one of the signs of it if you get lost. Of course, there’s six other ward lines. This is the closest one to the camp, like I said. By the time anything gets through all seven, it’ll basically be an all hands on deck situation. Kaste and Rain redo the spells once every few days just to be sure. They’ve got some kind of system for it that everyone pays energy into. So, you know, if all you guys are staying, either everyone’ll pay a lot less or the wards are gonna be a lot stronger. Probably the second one, since there’s even more to protect.”

Misty went on to explain more about the wards, and Virginia listened with half an ear. She heard everything the girl said. But she didn’t need to. Because while specifics had changed and updated with the times, the general idea of how security for the camp worked had been the same since… since she was a part of it.

The camp had moved several times since those days. But there were only so many safe locations. And it was easier to move to a spot that they knew well enough to ward properly. So, while the camp didn’t always stay in the same place, there were about six or seven possible locations that they cycled through at random, using whichever seemed best at the time of the current move. After the location was freshly vetted, of course.

But Virginia knew this location for more than just that. She knew the location because she was the one who had given it to Joshua, and through him to his father Lyell, all those years ago. Because this… this lake, was where her family had lived, where the missing Roanoke colonists had eventually settled after leaving their original landing spot. And where they had all died when the Great Evil that so desperately wanted Virginia, the first English child born on the continent. This valley, where this lake and forest lay, had been the first home that Virginia ever knew. Until that home was destroyed, her family murdered, and she herself was made an Amarok Heretic.

It was also the place where Joshua had, centuries later, proposed to her. So maybe being here now was for the best. Maybe… it was somehow right that everything that had happened would lead to her being in this place once more. Especially as it had brought most of her surviving family with it.

Her family… her beautiful, brilliant, incredibly brave daughter. Her Joselyn. Her baby girl was still locked up by that monster. But the others… her three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter were here at the camp. Even if only Felicity and Koren knew who she was, they were here. They were in the place where Virginia had grown up. And, after they’d had a bit of time to adjust to the situation and take it in, she could actually tell at least the two of them about that fact. And that knowledge, the realization that she could actually talk to Felicity and Koren about this place, had stunned her beyond understanding.

Of course, thinking about the three grandchildren she had here at the camp reminded Virginia of the one who was not there. The one who would never be there, because she had…

No choice. She’d had no choice. Except that was a lie, because she did have a choice. She could have allowed Ammon to fulfill his plan. She could have sacrificed her oldest granddaughter, as well as Avalon, Vanessa Moon, and the other people in the stadium in order to ensure that no one found out she was related to him. That would have been the coldest thing to do. But it also would have been the thing that best protected the world at large from Fomorian invasion. It was what some would have chosen. Risking that again by allowing Felicity and Koren to learn her identity had been… selfish in some ways. She couldn’t actually say that her actions weren’t at least somewhat motivated by wanting someone in her family to know her. And the idea of letting Abigail and the others die to keep that secret had felt impossible.

It was a choice she stood by, and would have made again. But it had been so dangerous. And now they were here at the camp. At the village of her childhood, her first real home. How dangerous was that, and for how many reasons?

But Virginia had experience in keeping such things to herself. Her eyes, her expression, revealed none of those thoughts. Just as they betrayed none of her familiarity as Misty led her onward through the tour of a place that she had known like the back of her hand a hundred years before the girl’s great-grandparents had likely even been born. She feigned cluelessness as she was led through the camp, passing so many landmarks from her past. Some good. Many bad. All evoking thoughts and emotions that stayed deeply buried.

Much had happened in such a short time. Gaia was imprisoned. The revolution was back on. People were remembering many things they had been forced to forget. The war would soon be in full swing once more. But through it all, something else had also happened.

Virginia Dare was home.

******

Sean – Several Months Ago

 

Standing just outside his room at Crossroads Academy, Sean Gerardo closed his eyes and put a hand on the head of his constant companion. Vulcan made a soft noise in the back of his throat that was half-whine and half-question.

“I know, buddy,” Sean murmured. But he didn’t move. How could he do this? How could he just… just sleep in the same room as Columbus when he knew that that Seosten bitch was puppeting him? The thought of it, the thought that his friend was being toyed with, was being enslaved by that… that…

Calm down. He had to calm down. Luckily, he didn’t have to do that by himself. Reaching into a pocket, the boy retrieved a small silver coin. With a whispered word, he pressed the coin to his own arm to activate the spell that had been inscribed into it.

The effect was instantaneous, and Sean felt himself calming. His emotions settled a bit. According to Nevada, who had enchanted it, the spell would help settle him, dulling his emotions somewhat. And beyond simply dulling them, it would also help to mask the emotions he was giving off for anyone who was sensitive to that kind of thing. That way, there was less chance of the Seosten inside of Columbus noticing that something was wrong.

Even then, the boy had to take a few more deep breaths to prepare himself before setting his shoulders. Cracking his neck, he strode that way with Vulcan at his side and pushed the door open to step into the room he shared with his best friend.

And with the monster who had taken over his body and was enslaving him, apparently.

Columbus was in the room already, sitting at his desk doing some kind of homework. Or rather, the monster that was–

He had to stop thinking about that, it was just going to make him angry again, spell or no spell.

“Hey, dude,” Columbus idly waved with a pencil while focusing on the paper in front of him. “Sup?”

Speaking past the thick lump in his throat, Sean forced out, “Nada.” Jerking a thumb to his own bed, he added, “Gonna crash. You wanna hit the gym first thing?”

“Yeah, sure, wake me up,” Not-Columbus replied with what sounded like vague disinterest, ‘his’ attention already mostly focused on his paper once more.

Good enough. Turning back to his bed, Sean walked that way, patting the side of it until Vulcan hopped up to take his place at the foot. With one last glance toward his enslaved friend, Sean hit the button to plunge his side of the room into darkness as the privacy shield rose around him. Only then did he slump, falling onto the bed before muffling a scream against the pillow. Not that it would have mattered. With the privacy shield up, he could bellow at the top of his lungs and Columbus wouldn’t hear him.

He lay there on his bed, staring at the ceiling, for a few minutes. Sleep. He was supposed to sleep now. Even with his emotions dulled and masked, how could he do that? And for how long? How long was he supposed to sleep in the same room with… with that thing in his best friend in this place?

He had to. He had to keep the ruse going, for as long as it took. If he didn’t, if he changed rooms, if he did anything to let on that he knew, it could ruin everything. And then he might never get Columbus back at all.

Honestly, Sean was really starting to hate the Seosten Empire.

******

Croc – Night of the Exodus

 

As his enormous hand closed around the face of the screaming, cursing man who had come charging into the center of the tree, the Unset known as Croc heaved the man up and backward with barely a thought and less of an effort. The intruder, a Heretic from the Remnant Guardians tribe, continued his violent swearing until the back of his head collided with the wall. Then he slumped, his unconscious body dropping as Croc let it go.

“Whose side was he on?” The question came from another of the Unset. Counting Croc himself, there were eleven of the tribeless ones here, guarding the way up to where the Victors lived. All held their assortment of weapons or readied powers. And most looked as though they didn’t know whether to point those weapons to any potential intruders… or to each other. Glares of suspicion, dislike, and open hostility had replaced the camaraderie and trust that had been there only an hour earlier.

An hour earlier… before the spell that had revealed the truth to everyone.

“It doesn’t matter whose side he was on,” Croc replied flatly, his eyes snapping from one group of five to the second group of five. Was it fate that he had ended up with groups of equal size right here, right now? Five who had been part of the rebellion or at least agreed and sympathized with it in the case of the two who were too young to have been involved, and five who had and did not agree with it. Equal groups, both separated to either side of the stairway they were all supposed to be guarding.

“Doesn’t it?” That was Sabie, one of the loyalist group. The muscular dark-skinned woman squinted at Croc. “You were one of the traitors back in the day.”

Threefold, the short Asian man who appeared to speak for those on the other side, snapped, “You mean he wasn’t a fascist piece of shit who wanted to kill everyone who wasn’t human. And who–oh, by the way, supported a group that wanted to use a blood curse to enslave everyone who didn’t agree with them.”

Stop.” It was a simple word, but Croc put power into it. Literally, in this case. Power that knocked both groups back a step. His eyes moved from one set of five to the other before he spoke again. “All of you listen to me. It’s chaos out there. We can all hear it. We can see it. We can sense it. Everyone is fighting. It’s a war over the whole tree. Tribes are fighting tribes, fighting themselves, fighting… brother against brother. Families, friends, people who have lived together for decades are at each other’s throats. And everyone is caught in this.”

“What’s your point?” Sabie demanded. “It’s just your people causing shit again when they should have left well enough alone.”

One of the other group behind Threefold tried to snap a retort, but Croc spoke first. “The point is that both sides have things to lose. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what side you’re on. Do you want this war to happen right now, right here? Do you want it to happen in the tree, with all the civilians and students around? Agree with them or not, they are your family, your friends, your fellow people. Stop throwing punches and insults and look at each other. You know each other. Whatever decisions were made back then, they weren’t made by us. We have worked with each other for decades. You’ve trusted each other. You’ve trusted me. And I trust you. All of you. But I swear to the roots, if any of you raise a hand to each other until after we deal with this situation, I will throw you off the goddamn tree. Is that understood?”

There was a brief pause before Threefold asked, “… Until we deal with it?”

Croc gave a slight nod. “Yes. Because that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to work together. We are going to get the other Unset, and we are going to calm things down. The Victors can take care of themselves. We are going to protect the tree, and everyone on it, by putting a stop to the fighting. We will make our way from branch to branch. We will separate everyone, and those who choose to leave will be allowed to do so uncontested. Later, both groups can debate, argue, fight, whatever they want. Both groups can kick each other’s asses to their hearts content… later. But they will not do it now, and they will not do it here. We will drag them apart and let the ones who want to leave do just that.

“We do not pick sides. If you want to choose a side after today, you can feel free. But right now, we are Unset. We protect the tree and everyone on it. No matter their side, no matter their choices, no matter what they have done in the past or may do in the future. We protect them. We drag them off each other, stop the fighting, and let them leave if they choose to. Now does anyone have a problem with that?

“No? Good. Then let’s get busy.”

*******

Gavin And Stephen – Night of the Exodus

 

“They’re gone, man,” Stephen muttered while sitting on his bed in the room that he shared with his teammate. The only teammate he had left in fact, the only one who hadn’t left. He and Gavin, along with the rest of the student body, had been ordered to stay in their rooms until told otherwise. He was pretty sure there were extra locks on the door, and spells to keep them there.

Gavin nodded. The tall boy, his height and relative thinness at odds with Stephen’s own short stockiness, ran his hands back through his hair while muttering several curses. “I know, man. They all left. They all left. What the hell?”

Grabbing his nearby pillow before throwing it angrily against the nearest wall, Stephen blurted, “You really think Shiori’s one of them? A… a monster?”

Gavin open his mouth to retort before stopping. He made a noise deep in his throat before shaking his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s all so screwed up. I mean, she’s not, right? I mean she’s not a monster. It’s just Shiori. She can’t be a monster.”

“She’s got a human parent, right?” Stephen offered. “Maybe that makes it so she’s not evil? That could work, could not? Being half human. If having a monster parent could make someone evil, then having a human parent could make them good just as easily. Isn’t that how it should work?”

Once more, Gavin groaned. “I don’t know. What about this whole rebellion thing? It’s like… they’re trying to protect monsters? They’re trying to work with them? I don’t get it. Why would they work with things that eat people?”

Putting his head in his hands, Stephen was quiet for a moment. “It’s not just Shiori. Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca left too. They’re gone. Did they join the bad guys? Are we the bad guys? We’re not the bad guys, right?” His tone was pleading as he walked toward his roommate and friend.

Gavin’s voice was soft. “They wanted to make a blood plague to enslave everyone on the other side. I’m pretty sure whatever side we’re on, it’s not the one with the angels on it. But I mean, the other side can’t be exactly right either, right? Working with things that eat people. How do they know that those things can just stop doing that? How do they know…” He trailed off, shaking his head helplessly. “Fuck, man, I don’t know.”

Stephen sighed before straightening. “Okay, how about this. We know our team, right? We know them. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. And we know Shiori’s not a monster. Whatever else is going on, we know she’s not evil. So we try to talk to them. We get them to understand that this whole rebellion thing isn’t going to work. We can change things here. Maybe there’s people like Shiori who shouldn’t be lumped in with the evil ones. I don’t know. But this rebellion thing, that’s just going to screw everything up. So we talk to them. We get them to understand that.”

“What about the people on this side who wanted to use a blood curse?” Gavin asked. “That sounds pretty unequivocally evil to me.”

Stephen nodded. “Yeah, and that’s why we have to change things here. You have to get into the leadership. You have to work in the structure. Everyone who isn’t hardcore kill everything just pissing off to go join the rebellion only leaves the people who are. And then both sides are just going to fight until they kill each other.”

“So what do we do?” Gavin asked.

Stephen met his gaze. “I dunno. I… fuck, I don’t know.

“But I’m pretty sure, whatever we do, a lot of people are going to get hurt.”

*******

Erin Redcliffe – Night of the Exodus

 

Erin was hurt. Physically and emotionally, in fact. Emotionally because she had woken up from a deep sleep only to be bombarded by a tsunami of information magically shoved into her head that completely turned her entire worldview upside down. And the people who had shoved that information in there, the people who were responsible for changing everything she thought she knew about the world, were already gone.

She had left her room upon taking in all that life-changing information, only to find that anyone she could have talk to about it had left. Vanessa, her roommate, was gone. They left her here asleep.

That was another reason for her emotional pain, being left behind like that. And as for her physical pain, that came from the fact that she had punched the wall hard enough to put a hole in it after being basically shoved back into her room by a passing teacher and told her to stay there. Like a prisoner. They were treating everyone who was left like prisoners.

The fact that she was alone in this room only reminded the girl that she had been left behind. It reminded her that she had been roommates with Vanessa for almost an entire year and had never been talked to about any of this. No one had trusted her, had even thought about her, enough to broach the subject at all.

That wasn’t fair. She knew that. It would’ve been dangerous to do something like that. But knowing things logically didn’t get rid of her feelings. Especially when she had nobody to talk to.

What was she supposed to do now? With everything that had been shoved into her head, did she really believe what she’d been taught her whole life? And even if she didn’t, what could she do about it? She didn’t know where Vanessa, Professor Dare, and all those other people had gone. She wouldn’t have the first clue of how to find them.

Her dad. She needed to talk to her dad. He had been around when that rebellion from Flick’s mother was going on. Had he been a part of it? Had he been opposed to it? And how would she feel either way? Whatever, it hardly mattered now. She had tried to call him, as well as Vanessa. Neither call went anywhere. They were being jammed, communications with the outside world blocked.

If her father was part of the rebellion, was he again now that his memories were back? Wait, what were the Crossroads people going to do about students whose families were suddenly part of the rebellion again? What if her dad was part of the rebellion and now they wouldn’t let him come get her?

She was trapped here, trapped in this room where she had no chance to talk to anyone, or to understand anything. No one would say anything to her. They just shoved her in here, locked the door, and let her pace around punching walls while wondering what she was supposed to believe now.

She would have gone with them. Erin knew that. Whatever she believed, she would have gone with Vanessa and the others if she had been there. But she wasn’t. She was asleep. And now she was trapped here.

Gripping her short blue hair with both hands, Erin groaned while nearly ripping it out in frustration. She had to get out of here. She had to find the others, talk to her dad, and figure out what was going on. But most of all, she couldn’t stay here anymore. Not with what she had learned, with the information that had been shoved into her head. She couldn’t stay here. She didn’t believe in Crossroads anymore.

And what was going to happen when the people here figured that out?

******

Jessica Trent – Night of the Exodus

 

“Excuse me?” An elderly woman, speaking hesitantly as she stepped out of the small, almost cottage-like house set on the corner of a small, unassuming street in a town somewhere in Falls Church, Virginia, stared at the figure who had been standing in front of her house for the past thirty minutes.

If the figure had been a man, she might have called the police. She was still thinking about it. But looking out her window to see this woman in what appeared to be her early twenties staring at her house for so long without moving had made her more curious than frightened.

The woman had deeply tanned skin, as if she spent most of her time outside in the sun. Her hair was black and cut mostly short with one longer part on the left side that formed a braid. Her eyes were dark blue, to the point of almost being black, and a single jagged scar across her left cheek from her jawline up just under her eye and across her nose marred an otherwise stunningly beautiful face.

After hesitating just a moment upon getting a good look at that scar in the streetlight, the older woman approach. She walked carefully down her front sidewalk, her voice gentle. “Sweetie, do you need something? Would you like me to call somebody? Are you okay?” The lost, broken look in the woman’s eyes had raised every maternal instinct that Bethany Sweetwalker had.

Finally meeting her gaze, the scarred woman quickly shook her head. Though she tried to keep her voice light, it was obvious that she was barely holding it together. “No, no, I’m fine. I just… I’m sorry. My name is Jessica Trent. I… I used to live here.”

Blinking at that, Bethany replied, “Well, you must have been quite young at the time. You don’t look a day over twenty-one, and I’ve lived here for twenty years.”

Jessica gave her a soft, genuine smile that the scar did nothing to diminish. “I am older than I look,” she replied simply. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry. I was just hoping that, if it’s not too much of an imposition, I might look around for a minute? I could pay you for the trouble.”

Bethany’s head shook. “Oh nonsense. If you’d like to see your old childhood home, who am I to stand in the way? You come right on inside, and take all the time you need. I warn you, it’s a little bit of a mess. I don’t get visitors very much since the grandchildren moved to Idaho.”

Jessica followed the woman inside, stepping into the small living room. The second she did so, more of the memories that had already been flooding her mind for hours came rushing in.

She saw him, the man with incredibly fine blue and white tiger-striped fur, and large eyes as green as the forest. She saw him, and knew his name.

Xhan. The man she loved. The man she had devoted her life to for over thirty years. The man whose child she had eventually borne.

Moving through the living room and into the nearby kitchen, before glancing through the two small bedrooms and single bathroom, Jessica remembered all the years spent here in this house with her husband and their son, Sergei. Everywhere she looked, in every corner of every room, another memory of their life here together made itself known. They had been happy here, a tiny family living together in this small house. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for them. It was all they needed.

And then it had been taken away, in a way none of them could have protected themselves from. The spell that erased Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion had erased all of Jessica‘s memories of her family. Her husband and son were ripped from her mind entirely. For decades, she had been back at Crossroads, helping to fight and kill people like her husband and child because her mind had been violated.

For the Crossroads Committee, it had not been enough to make her stop fighting them. They had ripped her choices away, had ripped her family away and completely erased them. They had turned her into a murderer against her will. They erased her choices and destroyed everything she had built.

She had no idea where Xhan and Sergei were, or if they were even alive. And they would not remember her any more than she had remembered them until this moment, until the spell came that restored all of it to her. The spell had only restored her own memories, not theirs. They had no reason to come find her, because they had no idea who she was. If they were alive, she had no idea where to find them, or even how to look. They could be anywhere in the world, or on any world. It was a search that could very well be utterly doomed on the face of it. They had decades worth of a head start, and no reason to know she was looking.

They were gone, and she had no idea how to find them.

She stood there, fists clenched as tears fell freely down her face. Eventually, Bethany quietly asked, “Sweetie, are you sure you don’t want me to call somebody?”

“No,” Jessica replied in a flat voice. Her eyes opened and she looked to the kind, elderly woman who was actually probably several decades younger than her. “Thank you, but this was a mistake. There’s nothing here for me. I’ll leave you alone.”

After a brief hesitation, Bethany reached out to touch her arm. “I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“So do I,” Jessica agreed. “But I’m afraid it might be gone forever.”

“Oh dear,” Bethany urged, “You have to keep hope. If you don’t have hope, what’s left?”

Jessica answered without looking at the woman. Her gaze was focused on the corner of the living room where she could see her husband and son comparing their height marks on the wall. Her response was a single, definitive word that filled her body and soul. It was an answer, but also a promise, a solemn vow.

“Revenge.”

******

 

Marina Dupont – Night of the Exodus

 

“Marina, would you go get the Bluejay group and bring them to the main room?”

For a moment, Marina Dupont stared at the woman who was speaking. The older Heretic, a woman named Kelly, was the only adult besides Marina (herself only technically an adult by being nineteen) who was still here in what was called the Nest. That was the word used for the daycare/school/orphanage where all the young children from toddlers all the way up to twelve years old stayed while their parents were busy… or gone permanently.

“The Bluejays?” Marina echoed. That was the nickname of the six year olds. Every age group had bird names, up to the twelve-year-olds, who were called Owls. “You want me to go get the kids? What about everything that just happened? What about everything that just popped into our heads? You know what it means?”

A rebellion. There had been a full-scale rebellion against Crossroads, against the idea of killing all beings who weren’t human. People believed that there were good Strangers. They actually believed that. They believed it to the point of going to war about it, until that rebellion had been erased.

And it was Flick’s group who restored those memories, or instilled them in those who were too young, like Marina herself. Everything that had happened over the year, all the students whom Marina was supposed to mentor that had disappeared or died, this had something to do with that. She knew it. She didn’t know how, but it had to be related in some way. All those secrets they had been keeping, it was about this. They believed that Strangers weren’t all evil, and they were afraid of how she would react to that idea. That was why they were so secretive around her. They didn’t hate her. They were just being careful. For good reason.

Kelly, a woman who would have appeared to be in her late forties as a Bystander, interrupted Marina’s thoughts. “Yes, I know what it means. It means that we are going to have a lot of parents coming to grab their children. We need to get everyone into the meeting room so we can work out which ones are safe to release.”

Blinking in confusion, Marina asked, “What do you mean, safe to release? If their parents come to get them, shouldn’t we just let them go? I mean, they’re their parents.”

Kelly’s head shook. “Only once they’ve been cleared by the Committee as not being traitors. Listen to me, we are not going to send impressionable, innocent children home with parents or other family members who are traitors. Besides, having their children means they’ll come and talk. It might head off a big part of any violence if they can be told to surrender for their kids, okay?” When Marina slowly nodded in understanding, the woman gave her a smile. “Good, now go get the Bluejays, I’m going to make sure—”

In mid-sentence as she turned to look down the hall, the woman was suddenly cut off by the feel of Marina’s hand against her neck, a coin clutched between her fingers. She tried to react, but Marina spoke the incantation first, sending a powerful sleep spell into Kelly that dropped her to the floor.

She wouldn’t be out long, maybe ten minutes. That was the best that Marina could hope for. Quickly, the girl went down to one knee and searched through the woman’s pocket until she found a large blue key. The field trip key, as people here in the Nest called it. It worked on a single door that would transport them to any of several dozen locations across the world.

Clutching the key in one hand, Marina jumped up and ran to the Bluejay hall.  Over the next minute or so, she gathered each of the ten children who fell into that category and ushered them with her to the main room where everyone else was already waiting. There were over sixty kids in there, most of them sitting around chattering about the coolness of being up in the middle of the night, or sleeping on the floor or in chairs. A few looked confused or even scared. All of them looked up as she entered with the other group, some blurting some variation of, “Miss Marina! What’s going on?”

Taking a breath, Marina held up the key. “Everyone get your buddy. We’re going on a trip.”

Danny, a young boy just over nine, raised his hand. “A trip? But we’re supposed to be sleeping. Where’s Miss Kelly? What’s going on?”

Forcing a smile on to her face, Marina put a finger to her lips. “Shh. It’s a surprise. Come on guys, you’ll like it, I promise. We’re going to have an adventure.”

She turned then, leading them to the field trip door. She had no idea where she was going to take them. But she knew one thing, she was not going to let either side of this war use children against each other. Every child’s parent, no matter what side they were on, would be able to come pick them up from wherever she took them. She was not going to be party to that kind of evil. Rebel or loyalist, they could all claim their offspring, siblings, or whatever.

There would be consequences, of course. She knew that. She’d known it from the moment she made the decision to knock Kelly out. She would probably be labeled a traitor herself for doing that. But Marina didn’t care. She didn’t care how anyone saw her, or what they did to her for it. All she cared about was stopping these kids from being turned into pawns for this war.

No one was going to use children as hostages. Not this time.

Not if she had anything to say about it.

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Day After Day 39-02

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So Larees was with me as I walked across that cobblestone path, making my way with the Seosten woman around all the beautiful statues and fountains before reaching the building itself. Up close it was even more intimidating. The entire width of the front of the building was taken up by a wide flight of about twenty stairs to reach the midway point. There was a sort-of landing there with more gardens to look through that seemed to stretch all the way around the building before another twenty steps continued up, narrowing the whole way before reaching the enormous, fifteen-foot high double doors. Those were open already, while a couple Heretics stood on either side of them to let people in.

I didn’t recognize either of the doormen, which wasn’t exactly surprising. They each held enormous weapons. One was a sword that looked bigger than my entire body. Correction, it looked bigger than my dad’s entire body. The guy who held it was almost seven feet tall, and was holding the blade against the ground with his hand resting on the hilt. He gave me a brief nod as we approached, exchanging a brief look with his partner (who was only a few inches shorter than him and held an equally large axe) before turning his attention back to us. “Names, please.”

“Um, Felicity Chambers,” I replied before nodding toward the woman next to me. “This is Lara Rheese.”

“Guest of Gaia Sinclaire,” she clarified after taking a slow, deliberate drink from her flask.

The two men actually seemed to react more to my name than Larees’s. They barely acknowledged her at all. But in my case, they visibly rocked backward somewhat, giving me a much more thorough inspection before the bigger guy cleared his throat. “You can both go in.”

Once we had passed through the doors and made our way into what turned out to be a circular lobby area with twin staircases leading up either side to a landing and about a dozen doors scattered around both levels, Larees glanced to me. She produced something that I had to believe was a privacy spell of some kind before speaking. “Is it me, or were you a bigger deal to those guys than some woman they’ve never heard of that’s only here on their school headmistress’s say-so?”

“Yeah,” I muttered after glancing around at the small pockets of quietly murmuring people spread throughout the room, “I’m starting to wonder just how many people kept their memories of my mother. Or if I just have that much of a reputation already. It could be about my mom, or it could just be my own stuff.” Belatedly, I added, “And I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.”

Taking another swig, Larees offered me the flask. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure those big guys were intimidated by you. So I’d say whatever it is, you’re getting some kind of reputation.”

“Uh.” Pausing, I shook my head while waving the flask off. “No thanks. I’m not exactly a big drinker. And I have no idea what something that could affect a Seosten would do to to a human. Though the whole regeneration thing would probably–no, thanks. If nothing else, now’s just probably not the best time for experimenting.”

As Larees shrugged before taking a sip for herself, the others approached from the other side of the room where they had been waiting. Sean was first, and I had a second to appreciate how handsome he was with his hair slicked back. Like the rest of us, he was wearing his school uniform, while Vulcan, trotting alongside him, had a neat little bowtie.

“Hey, Flick,” Sean started before seeing exactly who was with me. “Who’s your–holy shit!” The last bit came out in a burst even as the boy’s own hand snapped up too late to cover his mouth. He stared, letting the others catch up before hissing, “Uhh, you’re–but you’re a–what–”

“He wants to know what you’re doing here.” That was Columbus, translating flatly while staying well away from Larees. His tone wasn’t exactly openly suspicious or anything, but it was clear that he had… let’s call it mixed feelings about the woman’s presence.

Quickly, I explained, “She’s here to speak to Doug’s grandfather Sulan. Sariel was going to come, but she doesn’t want Vanessa and Tristan’s mother returning to overshadow Rudolph’s funeral. So Larees came as Gaia’s guest.”

“Natural Heretic,” Scout quietly guessed after looking the woman up and down briefly.

“That’s the story,” Larees confirmed. “So don’t blow my cover or anything, okay? If could get pretty awkward if I have to fight my way out of here in the middle of a funeral. Oh, and uhh…” Belatedly, she looked toward Doug. “I heard you were close to him. So, I’m sorry for your loss.” Her tone had changed by that point, turning sincere as she offered her condolences. “And I want you to know that I didn’t come to make light of his death. I’ve seen too fucking much of it as it is. But I did want to look around and see what we’re dealing with, and beyond meeting with this Sulan guy, this was a… a decent way to see a lot of Heretics in one place.”

“It’s okay,” Doug informed her. “Most of these people didn’t really know Rudolph at all anyway, so what’s one more person? You–” He stopped, visibly flinching. “That sounded worse than I meant. I just–”

“Don’t worry about it.” Larees insisted. “You don’t have to explain anything. But I do want you to know that if you want me to leave and just meet Sulan somewhere else, you just say the word. This, this right here? It’s about your friend, about his life. And I don’t plan on being the one who fucks that up.”

There was a brief pause then before Doug shook his head. “Like I said, there’s plenty of people here who didn’t know Rudolph. Besides, if letting you get a look at the people around here, and meeting with Grandpa Sulan helps… well, Rudolph would’ve wanted it that way. He would have wanted his funeral to mean something, he’d want it to be worth something more than… this. Not just a bunch of people standing around making speeches about him when they never–”

He looked away then, choking up a little while reflexively reaching up toward his head. Only there was no hat there, so he just sort of awkwardly rubbed his hair.

I didn’t blame Doug for his reaction to all of this. The Heretics were mostly using Rudolph as a sort of… not quite a prop, but they were essentially saying that he was the last death from the infiltrators. There had been funerals for those who had died in that ‘final’ assault all week long, with Rudolph being the final and apparently grandest one. They were making a big deal out of it not because of who Rudolph was or anything he had done, but as ‘the final victim’ of the infiltrators that they believed they had destroyed. In a way, it was almost as much a celebration as it was a funeral.

So yeah, I really didn’t blame Doug one bit for his reaction. In fact, I was kind of surprised that he hadn’t hit anyone yet.

Professor Dare approached then, crossing the circular lobby to join us. If she was the least bit surprised by Larees’s presence, which I doubted to begin with, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad you all made it through,” she started softly before stepping back to gesture with an arm. “Come, I’ll show you where to sit. Douglas, your grandfather would like you to sit with him, but he said if you’d rather stay with your teammates until after–”

“It’s okay,” Doug replied simply. “I want to see him too. And–” He gave Larees a brief glance. “And I guess we should make introductions anyway.”

Dare nodded before leading us across the room. “We’ll take the others to their seats, then I’ll show you where Sulan’s box is.”

Box? I had a moment to wonder about that just before we went through one of the doors on the lower level. What we came into didn’t look like the meeting room part of a church. It looked more like… like the theater or an opera hall. There was a stage far below, with rows upon rows of comfortable-looking seats rising up toward the back where we were. Above, I could see the privacy booths or box seats or whatever they were that Dare had been referring to. There were a dozen of them, small balcony areas where important people could sit away from the crowd.

Jeez, what was this place being used for when there wasn’t a funeral to do? Was this an actual theater? Were there Heretic… performers? That made sense, but I was still a bit surprised. And it reminded me that there was still an awful lot about Crossroads as a society that I didn’t know.

Showing the rest of us to seats about halfway down, near the right-hand railing, Professor Dare asked, “Do you guys need anything else right now? It should be starting in about ten minutes.”

We shook our heads, and she went with Doug and Larees to show them to the balcony room where Sulan apparently was. I kind of wished that I was there for that conversation, but I supposed I’d just have to wait and hear about it later.

Which left me sitting there with Scout to my left, Columbus to my right, and Sean on the other side of him. Vulcan was sitting at attention on the floor right next to Sean, between his seat and the wall. We were only alone in that area for a minute or two, before Marina joined us, sitting beside Scout. A moment later, Shiori and Koren showed up with their team, escorted by their mentor, Andrew Bruhn. Both my niece and my girlfriend gave me brief looks before I nodded to show that I was alright.

Aylen was there too, her presence reminding me of that weird conversation we’d had before everything happened at the hospital. I still didn’t know what happened between her and Avalon. I was really going to have to ask about that eventually.

Leaning forward to see past Scout, I looked to Marina while whispering, “Do you know where Deveron is?”

Her head shook a little. “He said he was still helping Mr. Rendell. Do you… do you want me to text him and let him know you need him?”

She sounded a little hurt, and I knew why. Marina had to have figured out that we trusted Deveron more than her, that he knew more than she did. And she probably thought that it had something to do with what happened to the team that she was mentoring. There was no way she could understand that it wasn’t her fault, that no one blamed her for what had absolutely not been her fault. Unfortunately, there was no way I could explain that, no way I could make her understand without telling her too much. I didn’t know the girl enough to make that leap. I didn’t know anything about her or how she would react.

Still, seeing that look, I wanted to trust her. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. It was too much. But I didn’t have to add to it, so I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. He’ll get here when he gets here. I was just wondering.”

Sitting back, I reached into my pocket to touch my cell phone. My thumb found the power button, which I pressed quickly three times. As soon as I did that, the phone would send an alert to the phone that Gaia had given Tabbris. In normal cases, that would tell my partner that I suddenly needed her for something. But in this case, she was expecting it.

I felt her presence a moment later. As usual, it made me feel more complete, more of myself, just to have her there. Hey, partner.

We conversed for a minute while, outwardly, I simply sat there watching people file into their seats. I told her about Elizabet and Jophiel approaching me, and she was just as upset as I had been. She thought, just like I did, that the two of them could have saved Rudolph if they had stepped in instead of playing the middle ground.

I talked a little with the others as well, whispering back and forth until the main lights dimmed, and the lights on the stage came up. There were a bunch of people up there. I saw the entire Committee, a bunch of people that were either Parsons family members or their close friends, and other important figures.

And then the memorial began. There were talks from several people, speeches or eulogies or whatever one would call them. Some came from the people who were Rudolph’s family members. Doctor Therasis spoke for awhile, and my feeling of guilt just kept getting worse every time I thought of how confused and lost the man had to be feeling. He didn’t know what happened. He didn’t know the truth, why his grandson had really died. He knew… about as close as we could actually tell him, but that wasn’t enough.

He missed Rudolph. He missed his grandson. And the fact that we couldn’t tell him the whole truth about why the boy was dead just made me want to scream right there in the middle of the funeral. Seeing his sad eyes, seeing his grief, it… it was awful. It was all awful. Just sitting there, thinking about how much Rudolph’s family would miss him, it… it was a kind of pain that I couldn’t describe.

Then there were the people who clearly didn’t know anything about Rudolph. The political-type speeches that were all focused on how we should feel triumphant, because the threat against our society had been defeated, about how the intruders had failed just like every threat against Crossroads would fail. Those talks had nothing to do with Rudolph himself, and I couldn’t decide if that offended me more, or if it was the fact that they were wrong. The threat was still out there, and the more they talked about how it was over, the more I wanted to scream that they were idiots, because the threat was all around us, the threat was built into Crossroads at its core.

But that wouldn’t have gone over very well, so I just sat in silence and watched.

Then it was Gaia’s turn. The headmistress spoke toward the very end of the memorial. She moved to the front of the stage, standing there with her hands clasped behind her back. No microphone because she didn’t need it. Her words would reach everyone, no matter how quietly she spoke.

At first, the woman said nothing. She simply waited, silence slowly settling upon the entire room until you could have heard a pin drop. And then she started.

“Rudolph Parsons.”

Gaia paused, gaze moving slowly over the entire audience. It felt as though she made eye contact with every single person in the room. Then she said it again, loudly and clearly.

“Rudolph Parsons. I have come here to speak not of his death, but of his immortality.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and the woman allowed their reactions to continue for a few seconds before saying his name once more.

“Rudolph Parsons. I would like you all to remember the name. Because time and again, someone will ask you, or you will ask yourselves, why we devote our lives, often quite literally, to fighting monsters. And when that happens, remember the name of Rudolph Parsons. He died. But before he did that, he chose to stand by his classmates, his friends. He chose to stay with them, despite all the risks, because it was the right thing to do.

“He stayed. And he fought. And he died. But in so doing, Rudolph showed the kind of bravery and humanity that many of us should rightly stand in awe of. He faced a threat beyond what any student should ever be put before. But Rudolph Parsons did not run. He did not hide. It’s quite easy to be brave when you hold the kind of power and experience that many of us do. But it’s quite another thing to be brave when the thing that you are facing is exponentially stronger than you could ever truly imagine.

“Think for a moment. Think of being that boy. Be Rudolph Parsons. You are a child before a malevolent mountain. And you choose to stand against that mountain. You choose to climb it. And maybe you fail. Maybe you fall. But in so doing, you help others. You push others up that mountain. They climb it. They reach the top and triumph because you stayed, because you helped. You gave your life because it was the right thing to do. Could you do that? Could you stand against such a threat and surrender your life purely to help others?”

Gaia let the question stand for a moment, allowing the silence to make her point more clearly than any words could, before lifting her chin. “We teach our youth to fight. We turn children into soldiers because if we did not, those who come from the shadows to destroy us would find only children. But it would do us well to remember that they are children. And yet they choose to stand, often against threats far greater than they. They choose to stand, as Rudolph did.

“Rudolph Parsons was a child. And yet, he was brave. He was loyal. He was kind. Our world is worse for having lost him. But perhaps in so losing, it could also gain. If we remember him. If we strive to emulate his bravery and kindness, if we keep him alive in our deeds and our hearts… perhaps a part of him will live on.

“When you see someone suffering, when you see a threat, or a problem, or a danger and you wonder if it is your place to stop it, let Rudolph Parsons live on. When you see someone who needs help, even if they mean nothing to you, let him live on. When you see one who has fallen, friend or stranger, let him live on. Let him live through your actions, through the way you treat those around you. Let him live through your kindness and your bravery. Let him live on, and tell those who would ask why we devote our lives to slaying monsters that it is because Rudolph Parsons stood when he could have run. His immortality will be in your words, in your actions, in your hearts and in your choices. He will live forever if we remember him. Choose to remember him. Choose to remember Rudolph Parsons.

“Thank you all. And thank you, Rudolph. I, for one, will remember you.”

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Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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The Next Step 8-01

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“Miss Chambers!” The loud voice of Professor Carfried filled the auditorium-like Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom a few days later. “Without consulting your book or any of your peers, can you tell me what the three primary categories of the energy used to create Heretical Magic are?”

The energy used to create Heretical Magic. I knew this one. Considering how much extra time I had for studying in the middle of the night while most people were sleeping, it would have been pretty bad if I didn’t. “Yes, sir, it’s uhh, Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” I recited the names without looking away.

The young teacher, who was still filling in for Professor Tangle (seriously, how badly had she been injured in that giant shark attack?), gave me a broad smile. “Indeed! Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” Turning his attention away from me and toward Rudolph across the room, he asked, “Mr. Parsons!”

Jolting in his seat, the pale, slightly chubby boy’s eyes widened. “Uhh, yes, sir?” A slightly guilty look crossed his face, and it was obvious that whatever he’d been doing, paying attention wasn’t part of it.

“Honestly, Mr. Parsons,” Professor Carfried shook his head. “I could walk into any Bystander classroom in the world, ask who wants to learn some real magic, and do you think they’d be bored?”

Flushing visibly, the boy sank a little in his seat before shaking his head. “No, sir. I mean, I’m sorry.”

“The three categories of magic,” Professor Carfried pressed on after nodding his acceptance of the apology. “Shapeless, Directed, and Forged. I want you to tell me which one we’re learning this year.”

“Oh, uh, right.” Rudolph seemed obviously uncomfortable, but slowly answered. “Um, the magic you’re teaching us right now is Forged. The second years learn Directed magic, and the third years learn Shapeless magic. Seniors, umm, they pretty much know it all by then and just sort of use every kind.”

“Yes, because seniors are essentially active Heretics by that point, and are far more involved in field work than classroom study,” Professor Carfried agreed before turning his attention to someone else again. Koren this time. “Miss Fellows. What exactly are the differences between the three categories?”

The brunette was obviously ready for the question. She promptly replied, “Forged magic is the easiest kind. They’re the spells where you say the exact same specific, established word everyone else does, make the same established gesture everyone else does, and end up with the same established effect.”

Carfried gave a short, pleased nod. “Precisely! Forged Magic, in this case, is like a dog. You teach the dog a trick, and from then on, if it hears the command, it does the trick. Speak the command, add the power, the magic performs the enchantment. Very good. Now, what about the other two categories?” When Koren started to answer, he shook his head. “Actually, let’s hear from… Mr. Levin.” His gaze moved to Zeke. “Since we’ve heard about Forged magic, can you tell us what Directed magic is?”

The boy gave a thin, humorless smile. Which wasn’t anything new. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen the guy act amused or even happy about anything all semester. “Yes, Professor. Directed magic is not quite as open as Shapeless magic, yet it is still more free than Forged. Essentially, a Directed Spell is simply a category of effect. For example, the spell you taught us that turns rocks into flash-bang grenades is Forged magic. The exact same effect every time you cast it. But if you were to alter that effect, such as… for example, making the rock recite the Gettysburg Address while throwing around strobe lights, that would be a Directed spell. You are taking a Forged spell and altering it for your own purposes.”

“A good answer, Mr. Levin, thank you.” Professor Carfried looked around the room one more time, clearly choosing carefully before his eyes settled on Shiori. “Miss Porter, what is the final category?”

Poor Shiori, who looked even paler than the last time I’d seen her, wasn’t looking at the man. Her gaze was fixed elsewhere, and I could see her lips moving a little as if she was mouthing words to herself.

When it was obvious that no answer was coming, Professor Carfried raised his voice. “Miss Porter!”

The response was instantaneous. Shiori bolted to her feet. Her hands caught hold of the table that her team was seated behind, and she gave it a hard shove that sent the table crashing onto its side loudly. Her voice was raised into a near shriek. “Shut up! Just shut up and leave me alone, leave me alone!”

Only then did Shiori seem to realize where she was and what was going on. Her eyes flicked around the room, and I saw the dawning comprehension and horror on her face. “I—I–I mean…” Tears sprang up.

Mutters had broken out all over the room, and Columbus was already on his feet, but Professor Carfried held a hand up, his voice commanding. “Silence, or detention.” The muttering stopped, and he stepped over to where Shiori was. His voice softened. “Miss Porter, can you look at me, please?”

Clearly reluctantly, Shiori slowly lifted her gaze to the man. I could see her trembling openly. When she spoke, her voice was hesitant and clearly emotional. “I’m sorry, sir. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Professor Carfried’s voice was calm and soothing. “We’re asking a lot of all of you, and if it wasn’t too much sometimes, you wouldn’t be human. Believe me when I say that I have been exactly where you are. You aren’t the first student to yell at a teacher because you were stressed out and you won’t be the last. So take a couple of breaths. Are you all right now?”

Breathing in and then out, Shiori gave a slight, unconvincing nod. She didn’t speak or move otherwise.

“All right, let’s have a little chat in the hall.” Carfried set a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, you are not in that much trouble. As I said, we understand. But I’d still like to talk to you in the hallway.”

The two of them stepped out of the room, while Shiori’s male teammates Stephen and Gavin moved to pick up the table she had knocked over, replacing it back where it had been. They’d just maneuvered the thing into place when Zeke, seated across the way, twirled his finger by his head. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Hey!” Columbus was back on his feet and halfway around the table in what had to be record time. His hand pointed toward the Heretic-born boy. “You’re gonna want to shut up, right fucking now, Zeke.”

Clearly unimpressed, the other boy shrugged dismissively. “Hey, if she can’t handle the stress, maybe she should just go back home. Maybe get an easier job. I bet she’d fit right in at a laundromat.”

Sean leapt up, hooking an arm around Columbus. “He’s not worth it, man.” He kept his voice low and controlled, easily stopping the other boy from lunging across the room at the jerk. “He’s just an ass.”

“At least I can do the job we were brought here to do,” Zeke retorted derisively. “I don’t freak out like some people.”

Next to me, Sands was already starting to stand up, and I could see Avalon opening her mouth.Before either of them could say anything, however, the boy was interrupted by a sharp, scree-noise as Sovereign, Aylen’s metallic bird, flew across the room to land on the table in front of Zeke. As the boy jerked backward, the bird made a loud, angry noise, puffing itself up to look larger while several metallic ‘feathers’ pointed outward, their sharp ends looking an awful lot like daggers.

“Get this piece of shit away from me, damn it!” Zeke demanded, bolting to his feet.

Aylen was frowning at him. “Then stop pissing him off.”

“Fuck you,” Zeke retorted, his eyes locked on the mechanical bird. “I’m just telling the truth. Some people can’t handle the stuff going on here. Your wuss of a teammate obviously doesn’t belong here.”

That brought the rest of Shiori’s team to their feet, their anger obvious. But the person who actually spoke up was still a surprise.

“Oh my god, would you shut the fuck up?” Koren. It was Koren talking. “They’re teaching us how to hunt and kill monsters. Real monsters, the kind that eat people. If that doesn’t mess you up at least a little bit, if that doesn’t make you wanna freak out, then you’re the one with the problem. Not her.”

The fact that it was Koren of all people saying it seemed to surprise everyone into silence for a few seconds, and I thought about the reaction she’d had when we were examining the murder at that gas station (Ammon’s work, I reminded myself. That much had been clear after I spoke to Asenath about what had actually made her start tracking the little psychopath). She’d been pretty messed up by the sight of what happened there. Even if she tended to talk without thinking about what she was saying, and more times than not came off as a gossiping bitch, apparently even she had her layers and limits.

The door opened again before anyone else could say anything, and Mr. Carfried stepped back inside. His gaze took in everyone in the room before he directed his attention to Columbus. “Mr. Porter, would you mind escorting your sister up to the counselor’s office? I think she could use a chat with Mr. Roe.”

Columbus reached down to grab his bag, then stepped over to take Shiori’s too, as Aylen held it out to him. Then he gave the rest of us a quick look before heading out into the hall where I could see Shiori sitting down against the wall with her face buried in her hands. She still didn’t look very good.

“All right,” Professor Carfried began once the door was closed. “We’ll be moving on now, and if I hear about anyone saying a word against Miss Porter, you’ll have detention every Saturday for a month.” Looking toward Zeke, he added, “Mr. Levin, since I hadn’t actually stated that rule yet before leaving the room, we’ll only make it two weeks, starting tomorrow. You still should have known better.” As Zeke’s mouth fell open to protest, the professor pushed on, ignoring him. “One more time then. Where were we… oh yes, let’s see… Miss Moon, explain the last category of magic, if you would?”

“Yes, sir.” Vanessa answered promptly. “The last category of magic is Shapeless. Those are enchantments that are made up on the spot. The Heretic determines the effect they want, and imbues the item with that effect without using any previously designed spell. Shapeless magic is the most powerful kind, and the most prone to mistakes and backfiring. Only the best spellcasters, usually in the Development track, use Shapeless magic regularly. Most get by using Directed and Forged spells. A Shapeless spell can become Directed and then Forged after being cast the same way often enough.”

“Excellent,” Professor Carfried smiled then. “Now then, with that in mind, let’s chat about the next spell we’re going to be learning. A long time ago it was called the Cloth of Steel spell. But when I was in school… which, to be fair, was about a year ago, we called it the Kevlar spell. You will learn to enchant your clothing with a temporary spell that will allow them to resist most bullet impacts.

“So, let’s get started.”

******

Later that afternoon, after our final class of the day, I was on my way to Mr. Roe’s office. It was time for my own weekly visit to the school therapist, which was supposed to continue for at least for a couple of months. The school staff wanted to make sure that I was getting past what happened back home (or at least, what they knew of it). Sean and Columbus were walking alongside me. Vulcan, of course, was trotting a little bit ahead of us, his mechanical head twisting eagerly this way and that.

“How’s she doing?” I asked the dark-skinned boy, glancing toward him.

Columbus’s response was a long, heavy sigh. “I don’t know. She said she was just tired. I know she’s not sleeping much, but she won’t talk about what’s wrong. I… I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to sit her down and make her talk to me, but I’m afraid that’ll just make her clam up more. But it’s obvious that this isn’t working, so…” Gesturing vaguely, he shook his head. “Damn it, I don’t know.”

Biting my lip, I offered, “Maybe try making it clear that you’re not going to just let it go, but let her tell it on her own time? Be there for her, show her that you’re there and you’re not leaving, but you’re also going to let her talk when she’s ready to. Try just… doing other things with her. Spend time with her. Be around her. Show her that she’s not alone without outright demanding answers. I mean, maybe that’s the wrong advice, I’m not an expert. But you know, it’s the best I can think of.”

Sean agreed, and the three of us continued on for a few minutes before the other boy changed the subject. “So I think it’s safe to say that Deveron’s roommate doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s up with him,” Sean reported, keeping his voice low as we passed by a couple of senior students in the hall.

I glanced sidelong toward him. “I take it you gave him a, ahh, thorough interrogation?” Try as I might, I couldn’t help the little smirk that came along with the words. Which, of course, was followed by a blush as my brain caught up with what I was implying and transferred the mental image back to me.

From the look on Sean’s face, he knew exactly what I was thinking and winked back at me as we continued to walk. “Let’s just say, if he knew something, he would’ve shared. Well, okay, he did know some stuff, but nothing useful. Just that Deveron’s different this year. Lazy. Stuff we already knew. Apparently he’s put in for a roommate transfer, but they keep refusing. So yeah, not a happy guy.”

“You think Deveron knows something about who your brother and sister are?” Columbus asked.

I shrugged at the boy, feeling helpless. “I dunno. Maybe, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell us.”

Sean just blinked at me a bit blankly. “Won’t tell us what—oh god damn it, are you talking about the security room stuff again?” He demanded, looking toward Columbus and then back to me.

Yeah, that had been fun to figure out. Since Sean and Avalon hadn’t been in the security room with us when we read those files, we weren’t able to actually talk about anything that was in them with the two of them. They weren’t protected from the secret-keeping magic, or whatever it was called. So when we talked about it, their brains just… skipped over it or something. We’d managed to be vague enough to explain what was going on, but any specifics were out of the question. We’d tried writing it down, and they just saw the paper or the screen as blank. We tried sign language, charades, none of it worked.

“Okay,” I announced. “I have a new plan. Let’s try this. Every twenty seconds, I’m going to say a word. You remember every word, then put them in order when we’re done. All right? First word, I.”

“Right, got it.” Sean nodded once easily. “First word is I. God, I hope this shit works. Avalon says she’s got some kind of plan for getting around this, but seriously, this magic secret stuff is getting old.”

We kept walking, as I counted down the seconds before speaking again. “Have. Second word.”

“I have, got it. Got that much.” Sean brightened a little more, clearly encouraged. “Closest so far.”

After another twenty seconds, and as we neared the school therapist’s office, I spoke again. “More. Third word.”

“More,” Sean repeated dutifully. “So far you’ve said ‘I have more’. Shit, this might actually work.”

Trying not to get ahead of myself, I counted down once more and glanced toward Columbus before speaking again. “One more word. Here it comes. Siblings. The last word is siblings.”

Sean met my gaze, started to nod automatically, then asked, “Okay, what is it?”

My heart sank. “Siblings. I just told you. The last word is siblings. Did you get it? Tell me you got it.”

“Get what?” Sean was shaking his head. “You’ve gotta tell me the last word before you can—wait, what was the first—okay, it was I… I have… wait, it was you have… wait, was the first word I?”

Columbus groaned out loud. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. As soon as the sentence is complete, not only do they not hear the last word, but they forget the part of the sentence they already knew? Damn it!”

“Something wrong, Columbus?” The question came from the doorway, as Klassin Roe poked his head out.

The therapist for Crossroads Academy looked… well, as far as I knew, he didn’t look like any therapist I’d ever seen or heard of. For one thing, he looked like he belonged to one of those 50’s greaser gangs. His black hair was always slicked back, he had those high cheekbones, and he actually wore a dark leather jacket along with jeans and a gray tee shirt. I’d seen a tattoo of a sword on his arm once, during our first discussion in his office.

Jumping a bit at the interruption, Columbus finally managed a shrug after a moment. “Nah, just talking about something else. Uhh, wait, you know who I am?”

“Sure do,” Klassin drawled in that simple, casual way he had. “I try to make it a point to know who all the new kids are. Makes it easier if they ever wanna come chat.”

“You mean all the new bystander-kin?” Columbus asked. “Shiori, she came to see you today, right?”

“She did,” the man confirmed without saying anything else about it. “But nah, I mean every student. Bystander-kin ain’t the only ones with problems. Anyone wants to chat without it being some formal thing, my office is open from six to eight on Tuesday and three to six on Sunday. I don’t make appointments then, so if you drop by and the door isn’t closed, feel free to come in and talk about anything that’s on your mind.”

To me, he gestured. “You wanna head on in? Oh, and grab that notebook off the chair there. Shiori left it. Figure Columbus here can take it back. You don’t mind, right?”

Columbus shook his head, and I moved into the simple office, stepping over to one of the padded armchairs. Sure enough, there was a small black notebook sitting there with a pen in the spiral binding, and Shiori’s name written in marker across the front in neat cursive.

As I picked up the notebook, a piece of loose paper slipped out and fell to the floor. I bent to grab it, and started to slip the paper back into the notebook while straightening up when the words on it caught my eye. Or rather, the word on it. There was only one word, and it was written several dozen times. Sometimes it was printed, other times it was in cursive. Sometimes the letters were small, other times they were large and bold. A couple of times there were underlines under the word. One of them had several circles drawn around it. Over and over again the word was written, all across the paper from every angle. Every inch of space on the page was taken up by the single word.

Except it wasn’t a word. It was a name. A single name.

Asenath.

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Basic Training 7-05

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“Come on, Chambers, move it, move it!” Professor Katarin bellowed at the top of his lungs (I hoped), his voice echoing over the grounds from the top of the hill near the main building. “Don’t tell me you’re tired, cuz we all know that’s a damn lie! Pick up the pace, let’s go! Moon, you too, keep running!”

It was Thursday morning, and today’s Introduction to Combat class had started out with a brisk jog around the school grounds, just to warm everyone up. From there, Katarin had led us to the bottom of the hill, pointed to the top, and told us that we were going to be running wind sprints. Only in this case, it would be up the hill and back down again, over and over until he thought we’d had enough.

Knowing Katarin as we did by that point, most of us figured that things wouldn’t be nearly that simple, so even as we started out, there were a lot of cautious glances. The man had a reputation for starting what seemed like a relatively mundane exercise, and then transforming it partway through into something that could only be described as completely insane. He called it keeping things interesting.

Still, it was good exercise, and the man was great at his job. Maybe just a little enthusiastic in his creativity. He was definitely making every effort to both get us in shape and teach us how to fight.

Columbus was a little behind me, panting as we made our fifth trip up the hill. I was deliberately slowing myself down so that he could keep up, and apparently Professor Katarin had noticed.

“So… damn…. jealous.” Columbus complained just as we reached the top and leaned over to touch the red tape that Katarin had laid down across the width of our running area. Somehow, the tape registered whose fingers touched it and how many times. That way, Katarin could make absolutely sure he knew exactly how many repetitions each person had done, and call them over when they’d done enough. Plus it stopped anyone from being able to cheat while the man’s attention was on a different part of the hill.

“Hey,” I called back pivoting around. “Just be glad you guys got the upgrade from those chamrosh. Imagine how tired you’d be if you didn’t have that.” While the bird-dog things hadn’t given my teammates quite as much of a stamina gift as I’d gotten from the amarok, they still seemed to help a lot.

“Well then!” Katarin called out from what sounded like an inch from my ear, as loud as he was. “If you people are feeling bored enough to chatter, I guess it’s time to make this a little more interesting!”

His words were met by groans combined with a few scowls in our direction. Whoops. Not that I felt too bad. Katarin would have upped the ante on the exercise any minute any way. It was what he did.

“All right, people,” the man went on, the smirk obvious in his tone. “You showed me you can hustle. Now let’s see you keep that hustle and pay attention to your surroundings. Sinclaire, your left!”

An instant after he spoke, something popped up out of the ground near Avalon. It looked like almost like a tetherball pole, about seven feet tall. One second it wasn’t there, and in the next second, fwoosh, it shot up into place. A second after that, two horizontal wooden sticks about four feet long popped out of opposite the sides of the post. One was around five feet and the other around one foot. As soon as they appeared, the post spun around several times in a row, the wooden sticks making whistling noises.

Avalon reacted by doing this little side flip that brought her over the lower stick, while keeping herself low enough that the higher stick didn’t smack her in the face as it whipped around into position. The flip put her just barely out of its range before she turned to watch the spinning thing with the rest of us.

“My little friends here are stationed all over this hill,” Katarin announced. “You will keep running. When they pop out, they will give you a second to react and then they will spin. When you get hit, and you will get hit, you will keep moving. Do you understand? We are not keeping score, we are not even counting the hits, not this time. What I am counting is how many of you give up because you get a little hurt. Remember, the peridles will heal anything these little sticks can do, so keep running.”

As a group, we all looked at one another just long enough for Katarin to bellow, “Let’s go, move it!”

So we did. The uphill wind sprints continued, this time with the added fun of being randomly attacked by spinning sticks popping up out of the ground without warning. We dodged where we could, some more effective than others, but everyone was hit eventually. The sticks stung, but as Katarin had said, the healing from the peridles made sure it didn’t last that long. It was bad enough to want to avoid being hit by them, but not so bad that it would actually do real, lasting damage.

Just another gym class on an island full of monster hunters-in-training.

******

A few hours later, once classes had ended for the day, the whole team was sitting out on the grass, near to the beach but still within range of the temperature shield. I could see tropical birds flying overhead, and heard vague hints of the heavily muted jungle sounds coming from the nearby trees. Herbie sat on the grass beside me, his little plastic toy sword replaced with the metal one that Columbus had made. The little guy was keeping a wary eye out, and I was sure he’d let us know if anyone approached.

In the distance, we could see Shiori’s team being put through some kind of training drill by Andrew. At the moment, Aylen was dueling Stephen. The Native American girl was fighting hand to hand while Stephen had his spear, though we’d watched Andrew work some kind of spell over the end of it to dull the blade before they’d started. Almost like he was an actually competent mentor. I’m sure it was a real treat.

Sovereign, Aylen’s mechanical hawk, was circling over head, but thus far hadn’t actually contributed other than to make loud screeing noises now and again as if he was giving advice.

As we watched, Stephen whipped his spear around. Aylen stepped in close, ducked the spear, and popped him in the face with a quick jab that barely connected. She tried to follow it up with a more solid hit, but Stephen’s spear suddenly whipped through the same space it had already passed through, knocking the girl down. She hit the grass and rolled back to her feet.

Wait. No, Stephen was still holding his spear outstretched. The one that had swung through the air disappeared a second after it had finished the swing. What?

As if in answer to my silent question, the boy took a step back, swinging his spear in a complicated maneuver while Aylen danced in and out, looking for an opening. The spear spun up and then around, twirling in a brief protective move before he stopped, pulling the spear back to his chest.

A moment later, a different spear appeared out of nowhere, copying that same maneuver. Before it had finished, another one appeared, and so on. Apparently Stephen’s spear was able to duplicate itself performing its own maneuvers. He swung it once, recorded the move, and then his spear could manifest new versions of itself swinging in that same spot over and over again. Which meant that while you were fighting him, you didn’t just have to watch for where his spear was currently swinging. You had to watch everywhere it had already been.

Aylen was still moving, watching for an opening while Sovereign flew overhead, calling down his own guidance. Yet no matter where the girl stepped, Stephen’s spear was there. He added a protective swipe here and there to cut her off, which kept repeating themselves whenever she tried to get close.

Finally, Aylen gave a sharp whistle. Sovereign came swooping down, talons extended. Yet instead of attacking Stephen the way I figured he would, the hawk seemed to practically plow directly into his owner’s back. Aylen was knocked forward a step as the mechanical bird attached himself to her. His wings folded in under her arms to cross in front of her chest, while his body was flat against her back with his beak upright pointed to the sky directly behind her head.

For a second, it looked like the girl was wearing a special backpack or something. Then the hawk reshaped itself. Metal plates slid out of its body and wings, more than I thought could actually fit inside the animal. They continued to slide and rotate, locking themselves into position until most of the actual bird shape was gone, and Aylen herself was completely covered in a metal suit that hugged her figure. Only her face was left exposed. And a second later, the birds head slid up over the top of hers while more metal plates slid down from the beak, forming a protective helmet over every spot except her eyes. Finally, the birds own eyes lowered into place over Aylen’s before they widened to form lenses for the helmet.

Stephen tried to use his spear, but he’d hesitated too long. The blow glanced off the metal armor, and Aylen was able to push right through the duplicated spears that kept trying to knock her back, easily catching Stephen by the arm before taking him to the ground.

“Dude,” I nudged Columbus with my foot. “I think you just found your Colossus.”

“I can totally live with that,” the boy replied, still staring in awe for a few more seconds before forcing himself to look back toward the rest of us. “Anyway, uhh, right. Let’s go through it one thing at a time. What’s everything we already know we need to do? I mean, besides dealing with a psychopathic necromancer with a Flick obsession.”

“We need to find out if Sands’ and Scout’s father has my mother’s weapons stored away,” I pointed out with a glance toward the twins. I still wasn’t sure how they felt about sneaking behind their dad’s back.

“We’ll take care of it,” Sands replied with an unhappy sigh. “If they’re anywhere in our place, we’ll find them. But I still don’t think he’d have them. Why wouldn’t he just turn them over after he got them?”

I nodded. “He might’ve. But we need to be sure. And even if he did, he went out of his way to get them back. So he might have some other record or something. Maybe a picture with my mother, maybe a note, maybe… anything. So you’ll have to be thorough. Can you do it without letting him know?”

This time, Sands snorted. A slight smile played at her mouth in spite of her obvious uncertainty about the general situation. “You clearly don’t know us well enough, Flick. I may not totally agree with all of this, but if there’s one thing Scout and I know how to do, it’s sneaking around without Dad finding out about it. Let’s just say we spent our childhood figuring out how to get even with all the people who thought they were so much better than us because they were students and we weren’t allowed to be yet. You know, glue here, dye in the shower there. Silly stuff. But we did learn how to get around most of the alarm spells and other things that they stick up around here. Especially the ones that Dad makes.”

Sean spoke up then while rolling a metal ball around in his hand as Vulcan watched intently. “You said you wanted to talk to Deveron’s roommate, didn’t you? “ He reared back and threw the ball, sending the mechanical dog bounding after it. “Did you ever get around to that? Anything come out of it?”

It was Avalon’s turn to look just a little bit embarrassed, shifting her weight slightly. “Ah, no. Not really. Turns out you’re gonna have to be the one to talk to him if we want any information.”

Vulcan came running back with the metal ball in his mouth. He dropped it into Sean’s hand, and the boy reared back before throwing it again as he replied with a raised eyebrow. “Me? Why me?”

Avalon gave him a look. “Let’s just say I managed to get him alone, but my method of persuasion was ineffective. Judging from his reaction, I’m pretty sure that you’d have more luck.”

Scout got it first, hiding a giggle behind her hand just before Sean barked out a single laugh. “You think—oh, right.” Without a hint of shame, the boy heaved a put-upon sigh. “Well, if I must, I guess I’ll gussy myself up and see what I can find out. Honestly, you people only keep me around for my body.”

“That’s not true,” I argued. “You’re the one that brings Vulcan. We’ve gotta keep you to have him.” At the sound of his name, Vulcan came over with the metal ball in his mouth, sniffing at me a little eagerly. With a smile, I accepted the ball from him and gave it a toss. The mechanical dog gave a loud bark of excitement, leaned up to lick my face with a cold metallic tongue before bounding off again.

“Uh, should I even ask why his tongue’s actually wet?” I asked while rubbing a palm over my face. “Or what it’s wet with?” I looked at my hand briefly before drying it off on the grass.

“Guess they want him to be realistic,” Sean replied with an easy shrug. “You know, except for that whole folding up into a minigun thing. Pretty sure there’s not a lot of dogs that do that.”

Avalon was shaking her head. “Fine, you’ve got the lazy asshole’s roommate. Let us know what you can get out of him. But there’s also that whole security room thing.” Her eyes moved to me then.

I groaned, nodding as I resisted the urge to fall onto my back. “Like I said, that’s not gonna be easy. I’ve walked past there a few times already and someone’s always in there. Plus, you know, there’s all those alarms on the place. If anyone goes in there that they don’t know about, I don’t think we’d be able to take two steps before half the faculty came down on our heads. For some silly reason they actually take security seriously around here. Which I’m sure is a good thing, but it’s kind of annoying right now.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in Sands’ ear, and the other girl nodded. “If you go out at night, the security guys go on patrol once every two hours. Should give you at least fifteen minutes in the room without company. And uh, we could teach you how to disable the alarm spells so you don’t attract attention, but you’d have to know where they were for that to do any good. See, Scout and I used to spend weeks tracking down the exact spots where the alarm enchantments were cast so we could disable them. You’ll have minutes, not weeks. And I don’t know any way to find them any quicker.”

“Actually, uhh, I might be able to help with that.” It was Columbus’s turn to speak up as he raised a hand. “I was messing with my goggle settings in the lab on Monday night during track class, and I sort of found a setting that highlights magic stuff. It uhh, took me awhile to figure out what it was, but yeah, it makes all these glowing line things where magic is. It’s kind of cool. I should be able to point the alarm lines out to you pretty quick. You know, assuming we actually get there without getting caught.”

“Maybe we should go too,” Sands pointed out. “Instead of just teaching you how to do it. Scout and me, we know how to take the alarm spells down quick, once we know where they are.”

I hesitated, but nodded in the end. “Okay, if you’re sure. You don’t have to. This thing is sort of my big issue. You guys sure you wanna take the risk of getting caught sneaking into the security room?”

Sands shook her head. “Hey, you’re our teammate. And our friend. Plus, Deveron’s a jerk and I wanna know why. Like I said, we’ve been waiting a long time for this. Getting a pathetic, lazy mentor wasn’t part of the plan. I want someone that’ll actually help us, damn it. So figuring out what the hell’s wrong with him and why he keeps acting that way now? That’s definitely something we want to be part of.”

“Did you know him last year?” I suddenly asked, tilting my head. “Back when they said he was this amazing student. Top of his class, all that stuff. Did you guys see him around? Was he… that different?”

The twins exchanged glances before nodding emphatically. Sands scowled. “You have no idea, dude. Seriously. That guy was the top of practically everything. He was amazing. I Thought… you know, when I found out he was gonna be our mentor, I was kind of happy. Hell, that’s why Scout and I went out to the lighthouse that first day, cuz we wanted to see what he was doing.” Her scowl darkened a little further. “Turns out his Hyde stuffed his Jekyll in a closet over the summer and we ended up standing around with you guys while that lazy jerk took off. Would you believe I actually thought he was trying to teach something?”

Wincing, I cleared my throat. “Okay, so, the four of us? I hope we can get in and out before they get back. Especially since we’ve gotta read everything we find in the room. Can’t take anything out of there or that damn spell will just make sure we can’t read what’s on them anymore, so they’ll be useless.”

It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “Sean and I will make sure you have enough time.” When the boy looked at her, she gave him a humorless smile. “Assuming you’re not afraid of being a distraction, of course. If being chased by security scares you too much, I’ll just do it all by myself.”

“Me?” Sean gave an exaggerated gasp of offense. “Afraid? Why, I never.” Lifting his chin, the boy added, “You sure your mom won’t be upset if you end up in detention for being out after hours?”

He was kidding, but I saw the way Avalon flinched a little bit before resuming her stoic expression. “She’ll be okay. I’ll tell her the truth as soon as we can, and well, we’ll talk it out. Right now, what’s important is getting into that room and finding out what’s on those records as soon as we can.”

“Scout and I can show you some places you can hide if you need to,” Sands put in. “We used them to hide from security whenever we wanted to go where we weren’t supposed to. Or, you know, whenever someone we were pranking happened to come back early and get all upset or whatever. They’re these, uhh, hidden room things. I dunno what they’re for, but they’re really useful when you’re being chased.”

“Hidden rooms that even security doesn’t know about?” I asked with a blink. “Is that possible? Wait, how did you guys find them then?”

The twins shrugged, and Sands replied, “All I know is they never found us when we hid in there. As to how we found them, well, when you’re bored and wandering around this place for years, you tend to touch a lot of things. You find stuff you’re not supposed to. Stuff other people don’t know about. Like those hidden rooms.”

“Either way, it’s convenient for us,” Avalon announced, which I was pretty sure was her way of congratulating the twins for being incredibly useful. “The question is, when do we do it?”

Aww, she was totally softening up! It hadn’t been that long since she would have just flat out told us when we should be there and what we were going to do.

“Tomorrow night?” I offered, looking around the team. “It’ll be Friday, so we can stay out late without sleeping through classes.”

“Tomorrow works for me,” Sean agreed. The rest of the group nodded, and I let out a long breath. Tomorrow night. Whatever was in that security room, whatever answers were recorded there, we would find them tomorrow night.

Hold on, Mom, I thought to myself. We’ll find answers.

And then we’ll find you.

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Interlude 4 – Shiori

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“Stephen, get down!” Shiori Porter shouted the warning to her teammate while throwing her right arm forward. One of the two frisbee-like discs that served as her chosen Heretic weapons went flying through the corridor of the condemned motel that they had been fighting in for their first Stranger hunt.

The disc whistled as it sliced through the air, narrowly missing the red-haired boy when he dropped to one knee. The ugly green-furred monkey thing that had been leaping toward him was struck by the disc. As the weapon made contact with the creature (Andrew, their team mentor, had called them daesimalo), a shock of electricity was triggered, knocking the thing backwards with an awful screech.

The disc rebounded off of the monster, the enchantment magic within attracting it to the nearby wall where it stuck itself flat against the surface, like a magnet snapping into place against a refrigerator.

The daesimalo was blind with fury by that point. Picking its small (the thing was only about the size of a toddler) body off the floor, it took a quick bounding run forward before leaping up. No longer interested in the still kneeling boy that had been its first target, the primate-demon flung itself at Shiori.

In response, she held her now-empty right hand up and out. The gloves that she wore had a small blue crystal embedded in the palms, almost unnoticeable unless her hand was opened the way it was now.

The blue gem in her right palm began to glow as she opened her hand and held it out. In the distance, past the incoming monster, the disc that was stuck to the wall began to glow as well. In the next instant and with a crack almost like thunder, a jagged line of electricity shot from the disc to the gem in her raised hand as the current was established between them. It caught the daesimalo in mid-leap, the beam of electric death tearing right through the beast’s chest while its scream of rage became one of agony for a brief second before stopping. The thing was dead, and it would never hurt anyone else again.

Remembering how killing the peridle had felt, Shiori tried to brace herself. It wasn’t enough. The shock of pleasure that filled her in the next second made the girl yelp, back straightening while her skin glowed briefly with the same pale red light that had come the first time she had killed a Stranger.

Stephen, who had rolled out of the way, came up and pointed beyond her. “Sh-sh-shiori!” His voice was stammering so much that he didn’t have time to get anything else out. She had the gist though. Turning her head, the Asian-American girl saw two more of the monkey-demons rushing toward her down the motel hallway. One ran against the right wall, while the other loped along the ceiling. Both had their nasty fangs bared and were making that obnoxiously awful wail that was their battle cry.

Snapping her other discus off its place on her hip with her free hand, Shiori turned slightly and gave it a hard toss toward the monster on the wall. This time, the arc of electricity between the gem in that hand and the weapon itself was there from the start. As she threw the disc, the electricity lengthened into a crackling line of power that linked her glove to the weapon while it spun through the air away from her.

The discuss smacked off of the wall monkey’s face, stunning it briefly. More to the point, it rebounded, the magic within the disc attracting it to the opposite wall. In the process, the line of electricity caught the daesimalo that had been running along the ceiling, cutting straight through the monster.

Shiori stood there, arms pointed in opposite directions down the corridor while the two lines of electricity connected her gloves to the discs that were flat against their respective walls.

Unfortunately, that third demon-monkey was still coming. And just before it leapt, the death of the second Stranger caught up with Shiori. The girl arched her back, giving a sharp gasp of pleasure while her red aura shot back to life. Throughout those precious seconds, she frantically told herself to ignore it. The monster was coming, the monster was still there, it was jumping at her! It was there!

Stephen’s spear snapped across her vision, catching the daesimalo in mid-leap as the thing flung itself at her face. The monkey-demon shrieked in agony, sounding surprised as the blade of the spear cut through its stomach and out the other side. It hung there, suspended on the shaft while it beat its arms and legs, shrieking horribly for a few more seconds before collapsing, the body empty.

The nervous boy sagged in relief for a second before giving a sharp gasp of unmistakable pleasure. His own aura, a dark yellow color, flared up as the now-dead daesimalo’s energy and power jumped to him.

While he was recovering, Shiori took a step back and made a sharp motion with both hands. The lines of electricity shut off, and both of her discs snapped themselves off of the walls they had been stuck to, flying back through the air to her. She caught them easily, sliding each disc back down to clip onto their proper spots on her belt, just under the jacket of her green-trimmed school uniform.

Stephen had recovered by that point, his murmur of pleasure turning into a yelp as the weight of the monkey-demon embedded on his spear dragged him forward and down. The body made a sick little squelching noise as it slid down the shaft, slipping off before hitting the floor with a wet thunk.

“A-are you okay?” Stephen managed to ask, eyes wide as he stared at her. His breath was coming in short little gasps, panting a bit as he obviously focused very hard on not looking at the body.

Bobbing her head quickly, Shiori felt her nerves start to take over again now that the fight was over. She looked away and flushed a little while murmuring, “I’m fine. Are… are you all right?”

“Thanks to you,” the boy gushed, still staring in that uncomfortable way. “I mean jeeze, are you sure you’re bystander-kin, Shiori? I’m Heretic-born, I grew up with this stuff. But you—you’re amazing. You just killed both of those th-things like—like you’d been doing it your whole life! How-I mean, what kind of fighting did you do before this?” The amazement in his voice only grew with each word.

Blushing even more, Shiori shook her head quickly. “Nothing,” she mumbled a little bit. “I just—it was just luck, I guess.” Her blush was deepening, both from self-consciousness and from guilt.

Because she was lying. She had been ever since that moment a month earlier when Professor Dare had activated the Heretical Edge, giving all of them the visions that had turned them into Heretics. With every day, every hour that passed, Shiori felt the guilt at her own deception gradually becoming worse.

There was more to it, more to her aptitude in that fight, her skill throughout these weeks of training. Even the hand-eye coordination and reflexes that had allowed her to become an expert at every video game she had touched since she was six made more sense now the Edge had been used on her.

As far as she could tell, it had worked exactly as advertised for everyone else. The lighthouse was supposed to give them a vision of their nearest ancestor who had encountered a Stranger. That’s what it had done for Columbus, for all of her teammates, and for everyone else she talked to. It worked.

Except for Shiori, things had been a little different. The vision she’d gotten had been… wrong. It hadn’t gone the way that Professor Dare had said that it would, or the way that everyone else said theirs had.

What she had always previously dismissed as just a simple talent had become so much worse. And there was no one she could talk to about it. She was lying to her team, to her teachers, to her brother.

Because she was too terrified of what would happen if they found out the truth. Especially now. She had been working up the nerve to tell one of her teachers about what she’d seen, what her vision had shown her. The man had seemed reasonable and she thought she might be able to trust him.

Then he had been murdered. Professor Pericles had been killed on the same morning that Shiori had been planning to talk to him. That thought had kept her silent these past few weeks, even as her fear of being discovered continued to mount with each passing day. Every bit of praise from a teammate or teacher, every remark on how well she was progressing and how rapidly she had taken to the training made her feel worse. The paranoia was a physical thing, a beast growing within her stomach.

A voice called out to them, interrupting Shiori’s internal contemplation. “Hey! You guys okay?” Andrew Bruhn, their team mentor, came jogging down the hallway. The rest of the team was with him, Gavin’s nearly seven-foot tall, rail-thin figure towering over the others. His height and skinny frame reminded Shiori of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Stephen was nodding rapidly. “We’re good. Shiori killed two of them!” He still sounded both amazed, and incredibly proud of his teammate in a way that just made the girl feel worse for her deception.

“Two?” Koren, twin Hunga Munga held in her slightly shaking hands, sounded doubtful. “How?”

Stephen started to explain, but before he could say anything else, one of the nearby motel room doors opened. The whole team jerked that way reflexively, weapons raised. Rebecca Jameson, Shiori’s diminutive Heretic-born roommate, spoke a single word. At her command, the sides of her backpack opened up with the sound of running gears. Two metal bars with various shapes of metal hanging off of them pushed out from the sides of the bottom half of the backpack, turned around to face forward, and then extended themselves in front of the tiny girl, parts whirring and dinging as the rose into position.

The twin bars extended fully, sticking a good four feet out in front of Rebecca on either side. Then each deployed three smaller bars along their inner side that extended toward each other before locking into place to hold the two larger bars in position, and provide a trio of braces along their length.

At the same time, the top half of the backpack slid up on small mechanical arms, passing over the girl’s pixie-cut black hair before settling down onto the first of the three metal braces between the main poles. The shape of the so-called ‘backpack’ distorted and extended to cover the entire width between the two poles. Once that portion of the pack was locked in place, the front of it opened up, and a massive, unbelievably enormous gun barrel extended out along the length of the bars. Clamps latched onto the bracers as the cannon settled itself into place, nearly large enough to cut off its owner’s vision.

This was Rebecca’s weapon. Her backpack deployed itself into a literal cannon and attached system of bracers that were the only reason the tiny, less-than-five feet tall girl was capable of using it.

As unique and amazing as the weapons that Shiori and the rest of her classmates used were, most were at least hand-held. Rebecca used a literal weapons platform. A single shot from the absolutely cavernous barrel had evaporated all of the targets that Professor Katarin had them practice on. Shiori was pretty sure that it would have done the same to the wall behind it, and most of the rest of the building that it passed through if the training room’s walls weren’t heavily protected by enchantments.

The cannon, as well as every other weapon that the team held, were all pointed at the opening door.

“Stand down.” A voice spoke firmly, before the familiar figure stepped into view. It wasn’t one of monkey-demons that they had been sent to kill emerging from the room, but Professor Kohaku.

“Professor?” Andrew sounded as confused as Shiori felt. “Is something wrong? They haven’t finished off the last of the daesimalo yet, but I thought they were doing pretty–”

“The lesson is canceled,” the woman informed them. “The rest of the targets will be dealt with, but we are pulling everyone else in. There has been a…” She looked toward Shiori. “… situation.”

Feeling her blood run cold, dread settled hard into the girl’s stomach. They knew. They knew what her vision had showed her, the truth. Somehow, something had happened. Of course they had to have a way of figuring it out. She should have told someone. She should have run away. She should have–

“It is your adopted sibling, Miss Porter,” Kohaku continued. “His team has met with difficulties.”

Just like that, Shiori’s panic about her own problems shifted to worry for the boy she had grown up with. They had each been adopted by the Porters in the same year, and had considered each other siblings for most of their lives. Shiori had only vague memories of other foster families that she had temporarily lived with in the years before being taken in by her new family, and none of her parents.

Until the Heretical Edge.

“What happened to Columbus?” She asked quickly, forgetting her fear. “Is he okay? Are they okay?”

“Your brother suffered a slight injury that rendered him unconscious, but he will recover.” Professor Kohaku promised. “He is already being looked after, and we are halting the exercise until we understand exactly what happened. Everyone is being recalled to the school. Come.” Stepping aside, she lifted a hand to gesture back to the doorway she had come through. Beyond, Shiori could see not the broken down, ruined motel room that the door should have led to, but the portal room within the Pathmaker building.

One by one, the rest of her team went through the door. Shiori proceeded last, except for Andrew. Their mentor gave her an encouraging smile. “Hey, if Professor Kohaku says Columbus’ll be fine, he will be.”

“But… but what happened?” Shiori directed the repeated question not to the boy, but to the security track adviser. “What do you mean they met with ‘difficulties?’ I don’t understand. Where is he? Where’s my brother? I thought you guys said this was safe, that this whole thing was just routine!” In spite of the fear that had remained just below the surface ever since her vision, Shiori felt her voice growing louder with each word. She was much more worried about her brother’s safety than her own secrets at the moment.

“This situation was unforeseen, and unique.” Professor Kohaku’s voice was calm in the face of Shiori’s rising tone. “And as I said, he is being looked after. His own peridle-fueled regeneration has already handled most of the injury, but Doctor Krisbee is examining him and the rest of his team just to be certain. I will take you to the medical wing so that you can see for yourself, Miss Porter.”

Swallowing, telling herself to be quiet rather than succumbing to hysterics, Shiori nodded. Average. Normal. Be a normal student. Well, a normal Heretic student, whatever that meant. Don’t stand out. Don’t give them any reason to look closer at her. Blend in, until she figured out what to do, what else she could possibly do.

Biting her lip while hoping that the professor would see her nerves as simple concern for Columbus, Shiori quietly passed through the portal. Whatever had happened to her brother and his team, it couldn’t have been as bad as the secret that she had been hiding, the secret that had made the past month a living nightmare.

With each passing moment over these long weeks, and every idle question from a teammate, a teacher, or even her own adopted brother, the girl had found herself feeling more alone, and more worried that her secret would somehow be exposed. She tried to behave as normally as possible, but her fear of being discovered was getting worse. And if that happened, if the truth about what she had seen in the vision provided by the Heretical Edge came to light, she was terrified of what would happen, of what the staff would do. What her own teammates would do.

From the very start of it, the vision had been different from anyone else’s that she had subsequently heard of. Everyone else saw people several generations removed from them. Shiori had seen herself. Herself as a baby, but still definitely her.

But even that, even the fact that her Heretical-awakening vision had included her much younger self was at least understandable. Different from the rest she had heard of, but still explainable. That wasn’t what terrified her, what left her a complete wreck whenever she thought of anyone, even Columbus, finding out about it.

No, her fear of discovery stemmed from the rest of the vision. Because it hadn’t been focused on the baby Shiori herself, but her mother. Her real mother, the one she had no memory of.

Everyone else that she had talked to spoke of seeing their ancestor’s either fighting or being hurt or killed in some way by Strangers. That connection to the Strangers was what allowed the Edge to do its job and turn their descendants into Heretics. That was the entire point.

But Shiori’s mother hadn’t been the victim.

She was the Stranger.

Shiori had watched through her vision as her mother had forced a human to take the baby Shiori and put her into the foster system, creating a fake identity for the infant.

Stranger. Monster. That was the secret she had been hiding. Her vision, provided by the Heretical Edge, had shown Shiori the truth. She wasn’t a real Heretic. She couldn’t be. Her birth mother was a Stranger. One of the monsters that the Heretics killed. Just like they would kill her if they ever found out the truth.

Still, she couldn’t go on like this. Something was going to break. Her teachers were going to notice that something was different about her. Then they’d look into her past, and they’d figure it out.

Somehow, she had to beat them to it. She had to look into her own past without anyone finding out what she was doing. It would be difficult, considering she only knew one name. One name that her mother had spoken into the cell phone while leaving the building. The name of someone else that she had called her daughter after leaving the baby Shiori behind. One singular name that was all that the girl had to go on for clues to her true family.

Asenath.

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