Summer Banning

Interlude 3A – Erin Redcliffe (Heretical Edge 2)

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She was a hostage. 

Erin Redcliffe understood that now. Actually, it hadn’t taken her that long to figure out. She was a hostage being held against her father. Not her birth father. That jackass had split with her mother when she was three so he could go live with some colony girl. Then her mother had died when Erin was about nine. She’d been taken in and adopted by Nolan Redcliffe. He was her real father, and he was the one she was being held hostage against. Not that anyone would admit that straight up, but it was the truth. 

Her father was a rebel, but he wasn’t actually helping the rebels. The new ones, that was. Erin knew that, because she’d actually talked to him over video chat in Headmaster Mason’s office. Yeah, Sands and Scout’s dad was the new headmaster at Crossroads. And he had made it clear that she wasn’t supposed to mention the ‘traitors’, or the call would be cut off. Oh, he’d been nice about it and all. He’d phrased it as if avoiding touchy subjects was best for everyone. But she could read between the lines. Just like she’d read between the lines of the bullshit nothing comments from her father about how he was going to be busy doing some extra work for awhile and that she should be good for Mason and the teachers at Crossroads. 

He wasn’t doing anything. She knew that much just from looking at him on that video chat, just from hearing the things he said and things he didn’t say. He wasn’t working for Crossroads and he wasn’t working for the new rebellion. Or ‘traitors’ as Headmaster Mason called them. He was sitting out everything to protect her. Obviously, Crossroads had made some kind of deal with him, and probably with the parents or guardians of other students here. They sat out the war, and their kids would be safe. Who knew what would happen if they didn’t sit it out. Erin wasn’t even sure if the threats had been specific or just implied. Either way, they were enough. 

So, she’d spent the past few months basically holed up on the island, desperate to find out what was really going on. But it was impossible to get real information. She and a few of the others that she’d managed to find out were also leaning toward believing the revelations that Flick and Gaia had magically uploaded into everyone’s minds were being kept in the dark about everything rebellion-wise. They were meant to sit around and ‘enjoy themselves’ over the summer. Right.

At least now school had started. Which was… something of a distraction. And now that they’d been going to classes for a couple weeks, they were even allowing Erin to leave the island. Sort of. She was going along with the rest of her new team (everyone had been shuffled up for the start of school) on their first official monster hunt of the year. Which was something she’d expected to at least be delayed for awhile, but nope. Something about keeping to tradition. A part of her wondered if some of it was also because Headmaster Mason wanted to prove to the Committee that he was capable of keeping things under control and running smoothly. 

Well, that and the fact that sticking them out here on hunting missions was clearly also a potential trap for any family members who might come to pick them up. They had extra security guarding every hunting group, and all the participants, including Erin, were outfitted with a magic bracelet that could teleport them straight to Crossroads at any time if something went off script. Which they said was because of all the events that happened last year with the hunts, but as good of an excuse as that was, Erin was pretty sure the real reason was to yank them back if any of their rebel-leaning family members tried to intervene to get them out of there. 

Seriously, at exactly what point in the course of actually holding students hostage with magical leashes intended to stop their own family members and friends from rescuing them did these people look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they might just possibly be the bad guys? 

Whatever, it was just good to get off the island for a while, though she was also pretty sure that this was a test to see how they would react to killing things after that little memory upload. Mason and the rest wanted to see if they would hesitate too much after hearing the rebellion’s theory about Strangers not all being evil. 

So here they were, her whole team on the first hunt. Her team this year consisted of Zeke Leven and Malcolm Harkess, both members of her team from last year, as well as Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Erin’s new roommate, a Middle Eastern-looking girl named Laila. Erin hadn’t interacted with her very much the year before, because Laila always kept to herself and didn’t say much. Either that had changed this year, or she was different with roommates, because Laila had been asking her a lot of questions every night about what happened the year before. Erin told her that she hadn’t been involved with any of it and that Vanessa had kept everything a secret even from her. Which was a fact that still hurt to think about. Not just from Vanessa, but Sands and Scout too. The three of them had grown up together. They were supposed to be friends. Her dad and their mom were like… besties for a long time. And neither they, nor Vanessa, had said anything to her. 

So yeah, that hurt. And she wasn’t even sure Laila believed it. 

But frankly, Erin had more things to worry about than what her new roommate believed. Most importantly in this very moment was the question of what she was going to do about this whole hunting thing. She’d been thinking about the rebellion’s message for months now, and she just… she believed them even more now than she had that first night. It felt right, even if that meant that everything she’d been taught for so long was wrong. 

But even believing the rebellion’s message, what was she supposed to do about it? She couldn’t exactly just refuse to hunt. That wouldn’t  go over well. And there were very clearly actual bad monsters out there. Monsters that did need to be killed. But she couldn’t trust the people she was supposed to be able to trust to point her at the right ones. 

She wanted to talk to her dad, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not without strict supervision making it impossible to really talk. 

So, she had no actual help on that front. And here she was on the first hunt. She and the rest of her team were standing just outside the loading dock of a grocery store. According to their briefing for this hunt, a pack of Crocotta had taken up residence in the place. They were a sort of magical wolf-dog hybrid creature that was as big as a lion and had teeth that could and did eat through anything. They were always hungry, eating whenever possible because of their fast digestion. And that digestion could apparently take anything. They ate meat and such, but also metals, brick, wood, everything. They were like super powered termites shaped like really big wolf dogs. 

And they had already killed several people in the store before it was shut down by a few Adjacents in the local police department, people without the Bystander Effect for various reasons who helped out a bit but were not actual full Heretics. 

Now Erin and her team were being sent in to kill the monsters, with plenty of people watching over their shoulders to see how they did. And how they reacted to it. She was pretty sure it was no accident that the creatures they were being sent after for their first hunt were non-humanoid and had already clearly killed people. It was a test, but also a safe one. They were being eased into things. 

“Yo, Earth to Erin.” Malcolm’s voice cut through her inner musings, and Erin snapped back to the present. Right, the store. They were right there.

“I’m good,” she whispered back before looking to the others. Malcolm, Zeke, Laila, Freya, and Summer. For whatever reason, they had put her in charge. Well, Zeke nominated himself, but the others pushed for Erin. And Namid, their new team mentor for the year, had taken their suggestions. 

“Okay,” she continued, speaking quietly despite the magical charm they were using to keep their conversation private, “three in the back and three in the front. The three in the front go in and start driving them back this way. If they attack straight on, the ones in the back come in and hit them from behind. If they turn and run, the ones back here stop them and the ones in the front are the ones who hit them from behind. Good?”

Zeke looked like he might argue, but seemed to catch himself. Instead, the boy ran a hand through his wild mop of brown hair and adjusted his glasses before giving a short nod. “Who’s going around front?”

“Malcolm, Summer, and me,” Erin replied after thinking about it for a second. That would split the team’s two best fighters, Malcolm and Freya, between both groups. And if the monsters did retreat back this way, Freya and Zeke both had shields to help keep them from escaping. Finally, it put the team’s two big weapons, Freya’s rocket launcher (combined from her shield and warhammer) and Summer’s railgun (converted from her shockprod-and-sawblade armed staff) at opposite ends of the store to hit the monsters from either side. 

Still, after making that decision, Erin turned toward the nearby empty semi-truck to look at the girl who stood there. 

“Hey,” Namid idly replied, “I’m just here in case you all fuck up completely. So don’t fuck up, okay?” After a second, she relented and gestured. “If you were doing something really stupid, I’d say something. Note the lack of me saying something.”

Namid. Erin was pretty sure that being a team mentor was about as far from something the punk Native American girl wanted to do as dying her hair blonde, putting on a bright pink dress, and entering one of those Bystander beauty pageants. Unfortunately, it seemed like Litonya, Namid’s great-something aunt, hadn’t given her that much of a choice. But, as much as she clearly didn’t want to do it, Namid wasn’t a bad mentor. She spoke up when she needed to and actually taught them things. She was good at it. At least, she had been over this past couple of weeks. Whatever anger or annoyance she felt at being forced into this, she wasn’t taking it out on Erin and the others. Which actually just seemed to prove that Litonya hadn’t been wrong to put her in this position. 

Quietly, Erin, Malcolm, and Summer made their way around to the front of the store. The parking lot was almost entirely empty and the doors were locked. The inside of the place looked dark, but they could occasionally see shapes moving around between the aisles. The monsters were definitely still in there. 

Touching the badge on her uniform to communicate with everyone at once, Erin spoke up. “Okay, guys. On the count of five, we’re going in. Rear team, stay put until we tell you what they’re doing. Be ready to come in or receive if they run. We’re going in loud so they know we’re here.”

 After getting a collection of acknowledgments, she started counting down. In the process, she freed her sword from its scabbard, noting Malcolm pulling out his own massive hammer and Summer producing her staff. They were ready. 

Reaching zero, Erin lashed outward with her sword. The weapon’s special ability allowed it to control and manipulate the wind. In this case, she used that to generate a hurricane force gust that slammed into the doors with enough strength that the glass was shattered in all of them and went spraying inward throughout the front of the store. 

With the other two at her side, Erin went running right through the opening she had made. The sound of savage barking and howling throughout the store greeted them. The Crocotta were apparently not interested in trying to flee. 

So, Erin let the others know to attack from the other side, and the fight throughout the dimly lit store was on. 

********

After what felt like far longer than the eight minutes it actually was, Erin was very carefully making her way through the snacks aisle. The rest of the team was either spread out throughout the store as they searched for more of the wild monsters, or watching either exit in the case of Freya and Malcolm. They’d already killed more than half of the Crocotra, and now they had to find the rest.

Everyone could be in communication with the others at any point, and Malcolm had touched his hammer against each of them. Which meant he could teleport in next to any of them at any point if they got in trouble. They could do this. They could finish this hunt. Then Erin could go back to figuring out a way to get hold of her father and get away from Crossroads. 

But for the moment, she had to focus on this. There were still monsters in here, monsters who had definitely killed people. Slowly, her eyes scanned the aisle. Seeing nothing, she instead raised the hand that wasn’t clutching her sword and focused on one of her powers. Gradually, a faint red fog appeared, along with a slight yellow one mixed in. The power allowed her to create a visible representation of various strong emotions felt within a certain timeframe. Anger and violent feelings were red and fear was yellow. Only a short time earlier, something feeling very angry and slightly afraid had come right through here. One of the monsters. Following the trail, Erin made her way to the end of the aisle. Rather than poke her head out, she summoned another power. This one brought a small crystal ball to her hand. She threw the ball out about ten feet, then summoned it back. When the ball was back in her palm, she focused on it, and an image of everything the orb had seen while it was out there came to her mind. She could see everything from all sides, everywhere the sphere had a view on. She saw herself standing there and the area surrounding the end of the aisle. And she saw the huge wolf-dog creature crouched behind one of the refrigeration units in the middle of the open space. It was waiting for her. 

Slowly, Erin started to raise a hand to the badge to let the others know she had one. But her hand froze in mid-motion, as she noticed that the creature wasn’t alone. There were several much smaller versions curled up behind it. Pups. The thing had puppies. 

Well, what the fuck was she supposed to do now? Crossroads would say to kill the things before they could get bigger. But they were just puppies. Puppies being protected by their mother or father. Damn it, this was supposed to be simple! 

“Erin,” Malcolm’s voice came, “you got anything?”

Pausing for a brief moment, she reached up to touch the badge before they could think anything was wrong, whispering, “Not sure yet. I’ll let you know.”

Just as she finished saying that, Erin sensed something behind her. She started to spin with a yelp, but a hand suddenly covered her mouth and she was yanked backward. Jerking free, she shoved the person who had grabbed her away and spun with her sword out.

It was a teenaged girl, a very thin one with hair that was long and black as opposed to Erin’s own short, currently neon green hair. 

She was also clearly not that strong, considering she almost collapsed completely when Erin shoved her. “Oof,” she half-yelped and half-gasped. “Boy, you’re really strong. I mean girl. You’re definitely a girl, even if you’re really strong.” 

Staring at the girl for a moment, Erin blurted, “Who the hell are you?”

The girl, in turn, shook her head while straightening up. “No, the question is, who are you? I mean, I had that question before I touched you. And you didn’t know I was there, so I definitely had the question first. And why did you have a big leash spell all over you?”

“Look,” Erin started, “you need t— Wait, you know what magic is? Who are you? Where did you come from? Wait, are you from Eden’s Garden? Or the rebellion?”

The girl stared at her blankly. “I’m from 3621 Montgomery, about three blocks that way.” She pointed before turning that finger toward Erin. “What’s Eden’s Garden? What’s the Rebellion? Were you the ones who sent the spy eggs? I thought you worked for Galazien the Iron-Souled, but you’re not nearly evil enough for that. And he usually makes his women wear bikini chainmail.”

“The spy—what?” Erin was now even more confused and started to ask for clarification. Then something else the girl had said suddenly struck her. “Wait, you said why did I have a leash spell, past tense. Why did you use past tense?” 

Staring back at her evenly, the thin girl replied, “Oh, it doesn’t function in the circle. None of that magic stuff on you does. It’s a protection circle.”

Looking at the floor where the girl gestured, Erin saw various symbols drawn on the floor.  A second later, voices caught her attention, and she turned to see Malcolm and Zeke come running. Her mouth open to say something, but Malcolm spoke first. “Where the hell is she?”

“They can’t see or hear you until you step out of the circle,” the strange girl informed her while Zeke and Malcolm walked right past them, stepping on the spell runes to no apparent effect. “It only works for people I pull onto it, so we’re cut off from those others.”

“What about th—” As she started to ask about the monster, Erin glanced that way, only to see nothing there. A fact that Malcolm and Zeke confirmed by stepping all the way over there and finding nothing. 

“She’s my friend,” the girl informed her firmly. “Her and her puppies. They were here a long time before the other ones. The other ones showed up and started killing people yesterday, but she’s nice. She’s not like them. So I sent her and the puppies away. I was going to make an illusion spell for you and your friends to chase, but you told them you didn’t find her.” She frowned. “That’s why I pulled you onto my privacy circle. Why did you do that? Why did you lie to your friends and tell them you didn’t find her?”

Erin’s mind was reeling. But there was one thing she had to focus on, even as she saw Malcolm starting to call in the fact that she had disappeared. “Look, wait, I’ve got just as many questions as you do, about who you are, how you know all this, and what the hell is going on. But there’s just one important thing right now. You said that Leash spell doesn’t work in here, right? Can you get rid of it completely?” That had to be the magic they’d put on the wristband that would yank her back to Crossroads. “And can you do it fast? Because we have to get out of here. You get me out of here without that spell and without any of those guys following and I’ll answer anything you want to know.”

With a shrug, the other girl crouched to touch one of the runes. She seemed to pour some power into it with a look of focused concentration before pointing at Erin. A beam of silver light lashed out, hitting the wristband and disintegrating it.

By that point, the rest of the team was there along with Namid. They were all looking around, shouting her name. An instant later, two adult Heretics from the security team came bursting through a portal with their weapons drawn. They started setting up spells, ordering the other students to go through the portal and get back to Crossroads. There was a lot of arguing, and another adult Heretic appeared.

“Boy,” the strange girl remarked, “there sure are a lot of you.”

Erin’s head shook. “You have no idea. And I don’t care how good your privacy spell is, Miss Magicka, they’re going to figure out we’re here any second. They’re too good to be fooled for long. Do you have any way to send us out of the store like you sent the Crocotra and her pups?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, “but for the record, my name’s Dylan, not Miss Magicka. I—”

“There!” one of the adult Heretics blurted, pointing right at them. 

“You’re right,” Dylan remarked, “they are good.” With that, she pulled a pouch from her pocket and threw it at the ground. Even as the rest of the Heretics suddenly moved their way, a cloud of blue smoke enveloped the pair. 

And they were gone. 

Author’s Note: Dylan was both introduced and last seen in second edition of Patreon Snippets, third entry from the top, located here: https://ceruleanscrawling.wordpress.com/2018/08/22/patreon-snips-2/

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Before The Vault 41-04

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“Come along, please. Keep up, let’s get through this with as little dawdling as possible, please.” Professor Ross, our elderly Amazonian professor who focused on teaching Heretical History, led me and about thirty other students along the sidewalk in the middle of Washington DC itself. The woman cast a glance back to us from the front of the group. “I know it’s quite interesting, and I promise you’ll have a chance to spread out and explore later. But right now, we have a very tight schedule to keep.”

Now it was the eighteenth of May, which meant it was time for the end of the year field trip. It had almost been cancelled due to everything that had happened back on Family Day a couple weeks earlier (particularly given the fact that they still had no idea who was responsible or what they planned to do with the noose), but in the end, we were allowed to come after all. Someone had made the argument that it made no sense to have all the students cower at the school since we’d been attacked there to begin with. And also, of course, that if the students had been an actual target, we would’ve been hit a lot harder than we were. It was clear that putting the students in danger had been a distraction so that ‘whoever it was’ could steal the noose.

Actually, I’d been told by Professor Dare (I still didn’t know what else to think of her as) that the fact that students and children were put in danger was one of the main reasons that Mom wasn’t being immediately thrown in as a suspect. Even Ruthers didn’t think she’d intentionally poison children.  

Either way, we were allowed to go on our trip to see the US capital. Other students were being escorted/guided through the city by different teachers, since while tour groups full of kids and teenagers weren’t exactly rare in DC, we still wanted to stick with smaller groups. At least for our arrival. Apparently, we were supposed to be meeting up at some big Heretic place in the city.

“Professor Ross?” the diminutive Rebecca piped up with a raised hand then as we hustled along. “The National Building Museum, that’s near here, isn’t it?”

“National Building Museum?” Shiloh Lexx echoed, looking up from the wrist-mounted computer that served as her weapon. “Is that a real place? I mean, it sounds pretty generic. I mean really? Do we have a ‘National Animal Museum’?

“Those are called ‘zoos’, Miss Lexx,” Ross replied dryly. “Or perhaps the Museum of Natural History. So yes, in either case.” To Rebecca, she added, “And the National Building Museum is about three blocks south of our destination, near what the Bystanders currently call the Capital One Arena. Which, for those of you in the Development track who have been paying much attention, is where…” She waited expectantly then, pausing our hurried hike to watch us.

Columbus raised his hand. “It’s where Harrison Fredericks lives and works, right? I mean, in the sub-sub-sub basement with all his protection to keep everyone away from him.”

“Fredericks,” I echoed curiously. “He’s that guy who went to the alternate reality and killed that super inventor guy to take his power, right? He’s the one who first came up with the cyberforms.” As I spoke, my hand moved into one of my uniform jacket pockets to rub Jaq and Gus where they were nestled. The two of them had wanted to stay out of their private space and stick with me so they could poke their heads out to watch where we were going.

“Correct, Miss Chambers,” Professor Ross confirmed. “Which is why it is a very good idea to stay away from that place as much as possible. While Harrison Fredericks is not one to blatantly attack students, he does very much value his privacy and security. His creations wander the grounds around the arena, and are quite capable of recognizing Heretics. At best, they will report to their master that someone is intruding on his agreed-upon territory without permission, and there will be explanations to give.”

That was right, I remembered. Fredericks sold his designs and creations to people from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. And probably other customers as well. He was decidedly neutral in everything, which the other Heretics let him get away with because his creations were so useful. Others could make them (mostly after he or one of his direct students taught them how), but the best cyberforms came from the man himself. No one was going to risk losing his aid. So I could definitely see why we were being warned to give him space.

We’d reached a small green area by then, something that was probably rather optimistically referred to as a park, despite the fact that it was pretty tiny, only about a block long, and rather narrow to boot. A nearby sign informed me that I was correct, as the place was called Chinatown park.

“Ooh, hey,” Travis Colby started, pointing across the street. “This great Heretic place we’re going to, is it the Hampton over there? Because I could go for that.”

Professor Ross gave him a look for that. “Sorry, Mr. Colby. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do without. Our destination is J street.”

“Err.” Vanessa had her hand up then. She looked a bit uncomfortable while correcting the woman, but did so anyway. “There isn’t a J street in Washington DC. Uh, is there?”

“Hey, that’s right.” Something had tickled the back of my mind, and I spoke up with her. “Wasn’t it a whole thing about how the guy who designed this place hated the letter J or had some kind of beef with someone with the letter J in their name or something?”

“John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanessa informed me. “Some people think L’Enfant, the guy who designed the city, had a grudge against him for negotiating a treaty that favored Britain over France.  But that’s just a myth. L’Enfant was taken off the project before the treaty ever happened. The real reason there’s no J street is because the letters J and I used to look and be treated almost exactly the same, so there was no reason to have both.”

Smiling faintly, Professor Ross nodded. “You may make a fine teacher someday, Miss Moon. Yes, that is the story that Bystanders believe. But in truth, there is a J street in Washington DC. It’s just one that they can’t reach.”

“Oh, my God,” Shiori blurted from beside me, “is it Diagon Alley? Are we going to Diagon Alley?”

Ross just blinked at her in utter bafflement. “Are we going diagonally to what?”

While those of us who understood snickered a little bit, the professor ended up just shaking her head. “In any case, come with me.” She led us through the small park to one tree in particular, gesturing. “Step up one at a time, put your hand against the tree and state your full name as it is known to Crossroads.”

Everyone started doing just that. Tristan went first, putting his hand against the tree. Then he paused, frowning until Vanessa leaned up and whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a brief look, then shrugged and stated his name as Tristan Loxias Moon.

The tree apparently accepted that, since as soon as the boy finished saying it, he disappeared. And it really said something for what had been going on this year that all of us, as one, looked toward Professor Ross for confirmation that that was what was supposed to happen.

Vanessa went next, right behind her brother. Putting her hand against the tree, the girl announced her own name as Vanessa Lares Moon, promptly disappearing as well.

Well those are some funny names, I whispered silently to Tabbris, who was coming along for this.

Loxias is one of Uncle Satan’s names, she informed me. I mean, Apollo. And Lares were household gods or spirits, protectors of the hearth. You know, hearth like Hestia. Plus it sounds kind of like Larissa, so that’s probably part of it too, you know?

Oh. I supposed it made sense then. Sariel had given her children middle names for Apollo and Chayyiel. I wasn’t sure how close she’d been with the latter, but apparently fairly close if she’d at least partly named her daughter after her. Even if it was in a fairly vague way. And as Tabbris had noted, she’d even managed to make Vanessa’s name also sound a bit like Larissa’s at the same time.

I let the others go ahead of me, in no real rush. As we moved our way forward, my eyes found Avalon, and I smiled at the other girl. “Think we can get through an entire field trip without something blowing up?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that we were the ones planning to go off-script for this little trip with our eventual visit to the blood vault.

“I’m not holding my breath, Chambers,” Avalon replied flatly. “But at least we’re used to the explosions by now.”

Summer Banning spoke up then. “I don’t wanna bandwagon on so much of the stuff this year being your fault, you guys, but if you are doing something to attract trouble, could you maybe not for awhile? My sister was really freaked out by Family Day, and she graduated from Crossroads. If she finds out something bad happened to me again this soon…”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll do our best not to drag you guys into any trouble.”

Because they shouldn’t be around when we go visit the vault, Tabbris put in.

Exactly, I confirmed with a mental wink at my partner. But they don’t need to know that. And unless things go very–actually, you know what, I’m not going to finish that thought. At all.

Good call, she agreed.

“Trust us,” Sands put in then from where she and Scout were standing together, “there’s been crazy things happening all year every year Crossroads has existed. And you guys haven’t been here that long. Unless you’re reincarnating every four years just to hau–never mind. That’s probably not off the wall enough to be completely impossible.”

“Yes,” I shot back, “we reincarnate every four years just to haunt Crossroads and make things go wrong. Gotta keep life exciting for all the students out there. Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”  

The twins–err, the Mason twins–gave me a pair of thumbs up. They had both seemed more alive and… happy with life ever since they’d come back from their trip with Larissa. They were also apparently living with her in one of the staff apartments, while Liam had taken a leave of absence for the time being. One of the teachers of the older years, Professor Dancing, had been filling in for him.

Yeah, I’d asked the twins what happened with that. According to Sands and Scout, their mother had basically just told their dad that over the course of the years they’d been separated, she had basically… drifted apart from him. She didn’t tell him all the other stuff she knew about, because duh. She just kind of left it at the idea that they were different people.

Liam, apparently, had not taken that very well. Mostly because he’d seen Haiden right after that and immediately jumped on the idea that he was the person Larissa had been drifting toward. What started out as a fairly innocuous conversation had very quickly become a confrontation that Larissa had to step in on and… yeah, that was why Professor Mason was taking a break.

By that point, my attention was drawn to the tree once more as Rebecca moved up to it. Placing her hand against the bark, the small girl announced, “Rebecca Josie Jameson.”

Josie. Her middle name was Josie. That was very close to Joselyn. Just like Mom had made my middle name Lillian, after her old best friend, Rebecca’s grandmother. Somewhere in there, the original Lillian clearly (at least subconsciously) remembered her roommate and passed that on to her daughter and then to her granddaughter.

I must’ve been staring pretty intently then, because Shiori nudged me with her foot, whispering, “Are you okay?”

Shaking that off, I nodded to the girl, whispering back, “Talk about it later.”

Columbus went then, followed by Sean. Shiori was right behind them, and I followed her to the tree. Laying my hand against it, I spoke my full name clearly as, “Felicity Lillian Chambers.”

Instantly, the world spun, as I was transported elsewhere. It felt like… well, like falling. It felt like I was dropping through a long dive on a roller coaster, my stomach jumping up into my chest briefly.

As it turned out, feeling like I was falling was pretty appropriate. Because when the sensation faded, I found myself in what was clearly an underground tunnel. Of sorts. Actually, it looked like a street similar to the one above. I, and everyone else who had gone through the tree so far, were standing on a road with buildings to either side. But beyond those buildings and above them was the rocky, dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Yeah, we were in an enormous underground cavern of some kind.

“Hiya, guys!” That was Nevada, standing on the sidewalk where she’d already directed some of the others. “Welcome to J Street, home of the Crossroads Capital and a lot of other important things.”

We moved over to join the others, while Nevada happily explained (apparently not for the first time) that J Street had been planned from the beginning of DC’s creation to be the center of Crossroads business in North America. Everything went through here. The Committee’s primary residences and business offices were centered on J Street, as were plenty of other things. Like the Bow Street Runners offices that weren’t in the Pathmaker Building. Basically, what was in the Pathmaker were field offices, while these were the ‘home offices’.

Before long, the rest of our group joined us. Professor Ross came last, making sure everyone had made it before announcing that we should follow Nevada. We did so, and our Stranger Truths teacher led us down the street.

The place looked… eclectic. That was the best word I had for it. The buildings looked like they had each been plucked from a very different time period before being tossed down next to one another. There was a very modern looking tall glass office structure right next to what looked like an old west saloon. Beside that there was a building with a bunch of pillars out front and one of those naked statues that the Romans and Greeks liked so much. I even caught sight of a long log house like there would have been on the American frontier. Every type of building was represented somewhere along this enormous, twisting tunnel.

And the people. Oh God, the people. I had thought that Crossroads personnel looked pretty modern, given how long a lot of them had lived. But this place more than made up for it. I saw people of every possible type of clothing style. There were cowboys, samurai, Victorian-dressed people, a few with clothes out of the 1920’s, 50’s, and even the 80’s, and more. Everywhere I looked, there were people that looked different. It was like… it was like there were a whole bunch of movies being filmed somewhere nearby, and all the extras had wandered off set.

There was a lot to see, to put it mildly. I almost tripped over one of the others more than once from craning my neck to look at everything as we were led down the street, and I wasn’t the only one. Even those who had grown up in the knowledge, like Sands and Scout, were pretty taken by the place. I guessed they hadn’t been here much, if at all.

Eventually, we were led to what looked like a homey little cottage. Seriously, it looked like it had come straight out of a storybook. There was a stone path leading up to the front door, the building itself was all rounded shapes and colorful designs. There was a chimney steadily puffing out smoke that smelled like apple pie. It was freaking adorable.

Following Nevada up to the front door of the cottage before passing through as she opened it, we found ourselves in, of course, a place that was much bigger on the inside. Instead of the tiny room that the exterior made the place look like, we were actually standing in a large foyer. The floor and walls were made of wood, with a rounded desk straight ahead of us, and two hallways leading off to either side. Behind the desk was a wall full of pictures of various people (I saw several Committee members as well as Gaia), and a closed door with a needlework of a cat on it.

The woman who had been sitting behind the desk when we entered quickly hopped right up. And that was a literal hop. She was about as small as Rebecca was, and wide enough to basically be considered round. Her face was lined with wrinkles, which were magnified by her broad smile.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Hurrying around her desk, the small, elderly woman called happily while extending her arms as if she just wanted to hug all of us at once. “Oh, it’s so good to see you all. Freshmen, yes? Yes, I know freshmen when I see them. Mostly cuz I don’t recognize you.”

Laughing, she clapped her hands together. “Now then, my name is Mrs. Brickswell. You’re the first group to arrive, so it looks like you have your pick of the rooms.”

Rooms. Right, this was the motel that we’d be staying in while we were visiting DC. Apparently Crossroads wanted us to stay in a Heretic inn rather than risking putting us up somewhere in the Bystander parts of the city. Which I really, really couldn’t blame them for by that point.

Mrs. Brickswell continued then. “Our rooms are made for four people each, so everybody go ahead and pick three friends, of the same gender, mind, and come on back to get a key. It sounds like we’ve got a lot more on the way, so let’s hustle on through, okay?”

Well, four of us. That was me, Avalon, Sands, and Scout. As the others moved that way, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and glanced to her. “You gonna be okay? I don’t want to abandon the twins.”

She nodded easily. “Sure, I’ll room with Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca. Don’t worry, Flick, we’re gonna have fun here.”

Returning her infectious smile, I gave the girl a thumbs up before leaning in to give her a very quick (and then slightly less quick, but still) kiss. “You’re right. Fun. And informative, if Vanessa has anything to say about it.”

The two of us snickered before moving to our respective groups. We’d get our rooms and go from there. Nevada was already talking about how we were all going to go to dinner somewhere special that night.

So yes, this was going to be a fun few days. We’d go out, see the town and go on the tours. We’d see all the special things we could, of both the Heretic and Bystander variety. Apparently Shiori and Columbus’s parents were supposed to show up at some point, which would be interesting. We’d do all that for those few days. And then, eventually, we’d make our move for the vault.

I just hoped that with all our planning and the help we were bringing, we were actually ready for the… ‘fun’ that was going to bring.

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Interlude 40B – Dosina Banning

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“Oh God, it wasn’t mud in my hair, it wasn’t mud!”

The yelped words came from Dosina Banning. Having graduated from Crossroads almost six years earlier, the dark-skinned girl had very likely not picked up a weapon since that time. Never having been much focused on or interested in her actual training even while a student, Dosina was good with a certain kind of archival magic, spells focused on sorting and categorizing things. Such magic was quite good for administrative work, but not so much on the front lines of a fight. Which was fine, in most cases. There was very much a place for such work in the offices of the Crossroads Heretical administration. An army wouldn’t be worth much if everyone was a frontline soldier, after all. Dosina might not have been much of a fighter, but her work was still needed and appreciated in the proper place.

Unfortunately, this… was not the proper place. In many ways, actually. Only a minute earlier, Dosina had been having dinner at Crossroads Academy with her little sister, Summer and the rest of Summer’s team. She was one of three adults at the table, along with the boy Eiji’s uncle named Banri, and the father of Shiloh, another of Summer’s teammates. The three adults had been eating with their student relatives, and the other three team members: Russell, Freya, and Harper.

The key word was had. They had been having dinner. A feast, actually. But now… now something had happened. The last thing Dosina knew, a few of the kids around them had been complaining about not feeling well. Then there was a twisting sensation, and she had abruptly found herself… elsewhere. A dark elsewhere. A dark, muddy, and wet elsewhere. It was a swamp of some kind, one filled with nasty smells and creepy, crawly things. Dosina had already kicked a couple of entirely-too-large centipedes off her shoes before looking around. It was too dark to see further than ten feet or so. Those ten feet basically showed her muddy water, spots of land like where she was standing that weren’t exactly dry but at least made the water only rise to her ankles, twisted trees, and shapes that could have been logs or… or worse.

She had just taken a step back from one probably-not-a-log in particular when a glop of what she had thought was mud had fallen into her hair. The discovery that it was, in fact, something worse than mud had prompted her outburst. Now, she shook her hand off desperately, raising her voice. “Hello? Is anyone else out there? I said, hel–”

A hand covered her mouth. Dosina instantly focused on one of her powers. She wasn’t a frontline fighter, but nor was she a Bystander. Her teeth instantly turned to metal and became sharp enough to bite through steel, as she went to chomp down on the hand keeping her silent.

The hand released her at the last second, a hand turning her around. Dosina saw scraggly brown hair, mismatched blue and brown eyes, and a lined face. Then she recognized the man there, his face illuminated by a magical or ability-fueled light floating beside him. Garrison Lexx, Shiloh’s father. He gestured for her to be quiet, then nodded back the way he had apparently come.

Dosina followed him quickly, relieved beyond belief that she wasn’t alone out here in this swamp. Within a few steps, they passed around a large tree, and she saw that half of it was hollowed out and open. Her sister, and the rest of the people who had been at the table, were there. Summer, Russell, Freya, and Shiloh were all lying on the ‘floor’ of the tree’s hollowed out interior. None of them looked very good.

Seeing Summer, Dosina immediately moved to drop to her knees by the girl. Technically, they were what the Bystanders would call ‘half-sisters’ given the fact that they had different mothers. Both of whom were still very involved with their father. But those kind of polyamorous relationships were so common among Heretics that most simply stuck with referring to each other as full siblings unless an actual bloodline was important to the conversation.

“Oh, God, are you okay? Are you…” She touched her sister’s face, wincing at the heat and moisture she felt. “She’s burning up.”

‘They all have a fever,” Eiji’s uncle Banri, an Asian man even taller than his already quite large nephew, announced. “Whatever sent us here, it also made them sick. Most likely we were all poisoned. But we’ve stacked enough regeneration and other protections that it wasn’t enough to even notice. They… weren’t so lucky. All of them except Eiji and Harper there.” He nodded to the pair, who stood nearby, the former wearing his cyberform partner in its backpack form. “Our bloodline is very… resistant to magical poison. That’s why my nephew was unaffected. As for Harper–”

“I wasn’t hungry,” the pink-haired girl put in, sounding somewhat down from her usual incredibly chipper self. She was watching her teammates anxiously while standing quite close to Eiji as if instinctively seeking protection. “I uhh, sorta filled up on cupcakes before dinner.”

“So the spell–whatever brought us here, it was attached to the food?” Dosina frowned. “But if they’ve been poisoned–”

Garrison had already moved to kneel next to his daughter, touching Shiloh’s face. “They’ll be okay, with time. Mostly it’s draining their energy, keeping them too weak to do much. But we need to get out of here. Because if someone went through the trouble of poisoning us and sending us out here, it won’t be the end of it. There’ll be something worse coming. And there’s some kind of anchor spell in the area, keeping us here.”

Banri was frowning worriedly. “Stay here with them,” he instructed Dosina. “If anything happens, let us know. We’ll clear a path and see if anything’s on its way. Do not leave them alone.” He gave her a firm look, making the twenty-six year old feel as though she was back in school again until she nodded. Then he and Garrison moved out slowly and cautiously into the swamp.

“Guys, come here,” Dosina quickly ordered, looking toward Harper and Eiji until the two moved closer. As she started to turn her attention back to the swamp nervously, Summer’s hand found hers. The girl was shivering, face flushed as she murmured, “Dossier, you made it too.”

Ignoring the teasing nickname, Dosina jerked her attention to the girl. “Summer, you’re awake! You– wait.” Leaning back, she gave her little sister a very briefly suspicious look. “This isn’t some prank gone wrong, is it?” It would be just like Summer to think that sending her to a gross swamp would be hilarious. The girl was as attracted to disgusting things as Dosina was repulsed by them. And it also wouldn’t be the first time that a prank had backfired on her.

Summer’s head shook quickly. “N-no, definitely not a … a prank. Don’t be dumb.” She was clearly trying to be indignant, but lacked the energy. “I couldn’t pull all these people here. And I wouldn’t interrupt Family Day. I mean, maybe turning your room into a swamp, sure. But this?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dosina muttered. “I was just hoping for a minute, because then we wouldn’t really be in trouble. But I think–huh?!” Her head jerked upward, focusing on a sudden blur of motion above them.

A creature was there. Dosina barely had time to register its entirely-too-rapid arrival as it fell through her line of sight before the thing suddenly landed nearby.

No, it didn’t land. It splatted. The thing crashed into the ground way too fast, basically exploding into a spray of goo that made her jerk backward with a yelp of surprise, and then one of disgust. “Ohhhh gross! It’s a… spider… thing.” Frowning, she hesitantly kicked the thing with a foot.

“It’s dead.” That was Summer. Still clearly barely able to move, her younger sister was staring at the body. “Or it was, before it fell…” Her voice was soft, whatever poison was affecting her and most of her teammates clearly making her too tired to even adequately react to what was happening.

Eiji was there, taking a knee by the gross, splattered body. The thing was an arachnid the size of a small deer. And now it was just sort of… all over. “The bit where the web comes out,” he murmured, “It… looks like it was… cut?”

“Cut?” Dosina echoed. ‘You mean like it was hanging up there to ambush us and then something else cut its spinneret and made it fall and splatter like that?”

“I guess,” the boy quietly confirmed before turning his head to look back up into the dark trees. “But who… or what would do that? If it’s… a person that wants to help, wouldn’t they announce themselves?”

“I bet they’re just shy,” Harper announced then before cupping her hands to her mouth to call out. She had just taken a breath, a sound starting to leave her lips before Eiji stopped her. “Harper, what are you doing?”

She blinked at him. “I was just gonna say hi and let them know that we want to be friends.

“We’re trying to be quiet, Harper,” Dosina reminded the girl. “As in not attract the attention of all the things out there that really do not want to be our friends.” She was trying very hard not to upchuck at the sight of the splattered spider still visible out of the corner of her eye. Dosina had never been very good with creepy crawly things of the normal variety, let alone big ones. And despite having done her share of fighting while at school, it had been six years since then. Six years where she hadn’t so much as thrown a punch. She’d never liked killing or any of that.

Still, she was the oldest person here with the other two adults gone for the moment. Her sister and several of her teammates were sick. If push came to shove, she would protect them. Even if it was gross spider things that liked to splatter disgusting guts all over the–

Don’t ralph. Do not ralph. Not only would Summer never let her live it down if she did, doing so probably wouldn’t make any of the kids feel any safer. She had to pretend to be in control, pretend that she wasn’t totally freaking out. Pretend that–

A rustling in the bushes nearby made her head jerk that way, even as a ball of fire appeared in her palm. Fire. She could do fire. Burn it. Burn whatever was going to try and hurt her sister. Her eyes focused on that rustling, and she thought there were eyes… malevolent ones… staring at her. The thing out there in the swamp, it was getting ready to lunge. And Dosina, terrified though she might have been, was going to meet it with as much fire as she could hurl in its general direction. But not yet. Wait, she told herself. Wait for it to show itself. Wait for it to lunge.

It was about to come. She sensed it, she could feel it. The thing was ready, and so was she. Any instant. Any instant it would show itself, leaping from the bushes with–

A yelp filled the air. It was short, but very distinct. And it clearly came from that same bush. Dosina thought she caught the briefest glimpse of movement, the bushes giving a single shake. Then there was silence. The malevolent presence was gone. Whatever had been staring at them had… left? Fought something else?

Behind her, she heard Eiji blurt, “Harper?”

Tearing her attention away from the now-silent and apparently empty bush, Dosina looked that way quickly, only to find the girl in question poking her head out from behind the large Asian boy. “Right here!” she chirped. “What’s wrong?”

Eiji blinked. “I thought you–err… never mind. This place is creepy.”

Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly, pink pigtails bouncing. “Really creepy! What about the… the thing out there?” Her trembling hand pointed past Dosina, to the bush. “Should I uhh, throw one of my bombs at it? I mean, I know you said don’t attract attention, but if we’re about to be attacked and–uh, shouldn’t someone be watching it?”

“It’s gone,” Dosina informed her. “Maybe… it left, or… got scared? Or maybe something else–never mind. I don’t know, but it’s not there.”

“Ooh, maybe our new friend killed it,” Harper blurted with a broad, eager smile. “You know, the same one that killed the spider.”

“That’s not necessarily a friend,” Eiji quietly pointed out. “It could just be something or someone who wants us for themselves.”

Before Dosina could respond to that, a shape swept by the tree. It was moving fast, but was also very large… and very long. Despite its speed, she could see the shape continue passing by in the shadows for several long, terrible seconds.

“Um. Was that a snake?” The question came from Freya Sullivan, who was sitting up and staring that way. The red-haired girl looked tired, but she was at least awake. Barely. She only stayed that way for a moment before slumping once more. She, and the others, were drifting in and out.

“Guys, back away from the opening,” Dosina quickly ordered Harper and Eiji. “Just… just keep your eyes open. And stay back. If something’s out there, I can burn it.” To demonstrate, she conjured more flame to her hands, sending a burst of fire out through the opening of the hollow tree to light up the swamp beyond. There was no reaction, but she still sent a couple more bursts of fire that way. With any luck, it’d scare off whatever was lurking out there.

Eiji moved beside her, backpack in one hand. With a grunt, the large boy tossed it on the ground ahead of them. “Raphael?”

The bag responded by growing and shifting, legs sprouting from it. Within a few seconds, the ‘backpack’ had grown into a full-sized rhinoceros. The thing grunted and tossed its head back and forth a couple of times as though checking out its surroundings, before looking toward its owner with a worried huffing sound.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Eiji assured the cyberform rhino, rubbing its back. “You ready to protect the others?” When it gave another huffing sound, this time of agreement, the boy looked to Dosina. “Raphael’s immune to fire. And… well, a lot of other things. So, something comes after us…”

He gave a short, low whistle then. As he did so, the rhino stood up on its hind legs, like a person. It shrank a bit, head shifting down even as its back opened up. After a moment, the thing looked like an anthropomorphic rhino suit. Eiji stepped inside, and the suit closed up after him.

The thing had gone from being a backpack, to being a full-sized rhino, to being humanoid rhino-shaped power armor. And Dosina knew it had a fourth function, though she was pretty sure the thing’s motorcycle form wouldn’t be nearly as useful out here in this swamp.

“We’ll hold it,” Eiji finished his earlier statement. “It comes through, we’ll hold it, you burn it.”

“Err, right.” Dosina straightened. “Harper? Can you–”

“On it!” When the older girl looked that way, she saw Harper crouched by the rest of her teammates, giving her a thumbs up. “If anything sneaks past you, I’ll scream loud enough that you’d think we were all screaming.”

“Good, good.” Trying to suppress her own nervousness still, Dosina focused on that opening. If that… that thing came back again, it was going to get a big surprise. “Eiji, if you see anything come through…”

The boy nodded, the rhino-suit making him look even bigger than he already was. With it on, he was almost eight feet tall. “I can hold it,” he assured her. “And I can take any fire you can dish out. Just focus on pouring on the flames.”

They waited. Dosina and Eiji kept their eyes focused on the tree opening, waiting for the snake to show itself again. She was afraid to look away, worried that if she took her eyes off it for one second, the creature would know and use that to launch itself into the tree. Fear of being responsible for anyone’s death very nearly kept her from even blinking. First spiders, then snakes? She hated swamps. Hated, hated, hated them.

So tense was she, in that moment, that when Garrison and Banri appeared abruptly, she nearly fricasseed them both in a wild spray of fire before catching herself. “Don’t do that!” the girl blurted, before belatedly realizing that both men were staggering a little. Eyes widening, she moved that way to check on them.

“It’s okay,” Eiji’s uncle assured both her and the armored boy himself. “We’ll be fine. Just a lot of things out here like using poison. We dealt with most of it, but there’s a tribe of things I’m pretty sure we don’t want to meet heading this way. Best if we just avoid them completely.”

Garrison nodded. “There’s a clear path north. We’ll see if we can get away from the anchor spell that’s stopping us from teleporting out of here with you kids. Just move fast and stay together. We–Harper?”

The girl blinked that way. “Huh?”

“Are you okay?” The man looked worriedly to the girl. “It’s okay if you’re scared. We’ll get you through this. You… looked like you were spacing out there. What were you muttering? It sounded like… something degrees? Latitude and longitude?”

Harper turned a bit pink to match her hair. “O-oh, no, sir. I was just reciting baking recipes. You know, cooking temperatures. It um, it calms me down.”

Smiling just a little, Banri nodded to her reassuringly. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry, we’re not going to let you get hurt. We do need to get going though. And fast, so… Eiji?”

The boy had already stepped out of his armor, letting Raphael shift back to his rhino form. Together, he and his uncle picked up Summer, Shiloh, Freya, and  Russell, draping their barely conscious forms over the large animal’s back so that he could carry them.

Then they set out. Banri and Garrison led the way, with Harper and Eiji walking behind and in front of the lumbering Raphael, respectively. Dosina brought up the rear a bit back from Harper. It scared her more than she would admit, but she did it anyway. A small ball of fire conjured in each hand, she kept her eyes mostly focused behind them, barely paying attention ahead except to keep herself with the group as they moved through the murky, dark, terrifying swamp.

“Would asking where the giant snake went count as jinxing us?” Eidi asked aloud in a hushed tone.

“Giant snake?” Banri echoed. “We saw the body of one about thirty meters or so from the tree. But it was dead.”

“Maybe the same thing that killed the spider killed the snake,” Harper put in cheerfully. “Told you we had a friend.”

“Wait.” Garrison turned back, looking past all of them to Dosina. “I thought that was you.”

Her head shook quickly. “N-no, not me. I didn’t ki–” Her words were interrupted by a loud, sharp yipping sound from off to their right. It sounded like it was coming from far away, but not nearly far enough.

“Company,” Banri muttered. “We’ll talk about that later. Keep moving.”

So, they continued, Dosina trying not to think about what kind of things were probably watching their every movement, just waiting to pick off a straggler. And also trying not to think about the fact that staying at the rear and covering the others made her very much look like one.

A chittering sound to her right made the girl’s head snap that way. She saw what she could have sworn looked like the tip of a spear. Then it was gone. The bushes rustled, and the chittering stopped.

To her left and behind them, right there! It was a snout, appearing from the gloom before a mouth opened in a toothy smile that made Dosina’s heart stop. Her hand snapped up, a cry on her lips, just before the thing’s smile suddenly vanished along with the snout itself. It looked like it was yanked back out of sight, disappearing into the bushes with what she could have sworn was a yelp of surprise.

“Dosina?” The voice came from Garrison, and the girl realized belatedly that they had stopped when she did. Turning back that way, she saw Harper step back from the tree that had briefly hidden her. All of them were looking to Dosina with obvious concern.

“I–it’s okay,” she claimed, though she wasn’t sure it was. “There’s just a lot of… things out here.”

“Yeah,” Banri agreed. “There are. So let’s get away from them.”

She kept watching, kept waiting for another attack. Yet as they kept moving through that swamp, Dosina only saw signs of creatures about to attack and then… changing their mind, or disappearing. Whatever was happening, the things weren’t following through. She had to send a burst of flame here and there to scare a few things off, but for the most part, they seemed to vanish on their own. Maybe something out there had decided that ambushing the would-be ambushers made for a better meal than trying to attack the Heretics.

Whatever it was, Dosina was just going to be glad when they were out of there. She wanted to be in civilization again.

Forty minutes. It took them forty minutes of hiking through that gross swamp, feet constantly slipping in the ankle-to-knee length water, mud (and worse) working its way into their shoes and clothes, bugs flying around their faces, and… bigger things stalking them constantly, before they finally reached somewhat dryer land. Picking their way out of that swamp and up into the heavily forested area beyond, the group gathered together once more.

“Everyone okay?” Garrison asked while helping his daughter down off of Raphael. She and the rest of the team had woken up for good toward the end of their little hike. Now, all of them were looking around.

“Where are we?” Shiloh asked her father.

“I’m not entirely sure,” the man admitted. “But we’re away from the worst of the things in that swamp. And we’re pretty sure we know what’s stopping us from teleporting out. It’s you guys.” Briefly, he explained that whatever they had eaten hadn’t just made them sick and transported them, it was also anchoring them to the spot.

“So uhh, what’re we supposed to do to get rid of it?” Blanching at his own question, Russell guessed, “Throw up?”

“Wouldn’t do much good right now,” Banri thankfully replied with a shake of his head. “It’s settled in. We need a countering agent, which–err… Harper?”

The girl in question blinked up from the little bouquet she was poring over. “Hmm? Oh, uh, it’s just flowers. I like picking up pretty things when I’m, um, nervous. They’re not poisonous or anything, if that’s what you–”

“These.” Banri stepped that way, plucking collection of plants from her with one hand before separating out a few gray and white flowers in particular. “These should do the trick.” Unceremoniously, the man plucked the blossoms. “Everyone chew and swallow a handful.” He began to pass out the petals then, watching as everyone, including Dosina, chewed up the rather nasty tasting flowers and swallowed them.

They may have tasted bad, but the results were immediate. Dosina instantly felt stronger. Not that she had felt that weak to begin with, but the effects were still noticeable. And the others were showing more life too. Russell in particular was holding a hand up in front of his face, peering off into the darkness. “Wow, you guys must’ve been really busy protecting us.”

“Not really,” Garrison replied with a shake of his head. “It was mostly quiet on the way out. Why?”

“Mostly quiet?” Russell echoed. “Uh, you know that power I was telling you about at dinner? The necromancy-vision thing?”

“The one that highlights dead things?” That was Banri, the man nodding. “Yeah, why?”

“Uhh, well…” Shifting from foot to foot, Russell finally just held his hand up. A beam of blue light shone out from it, which he swept back and forth for a few seconds. Every dead thing the light touched, it made glow.

And there were a lot of things glowing. The beam didn’t reach all the way back along their path, only a couple hundred yards through the swamp. Yet even in that distance, several dozen dead bodies could be seen. They glowed brightly after being touched by the blue beam, dozens and dozens of bodies literally covering both sides of their path.

“What… the hell?” Garrison stepped that way, staring at the lit-up bodies. “What killed those things, and why didn’t we see or hear any of it?”

“I think we can address that later,” Banri replied, head shaking as he turned back to the others. “Once these kids are safe. Okay, let’s see if this works this time.” That said, he raised his hand and clearly focused. There was a few flickering sparks in the air, before an actual, genuine portal appeared. Dosina almost fainted in relief.

“Good. Right, let’s go.” Banri waved for the others to go ahead. “This’ll take us back to the school. We can figure out more from there.”

They started through, the kids who had been affected the most going first, while the adults covered them. One by one, they all went through the portal. All, that was, except for…

“Errr, Harper?” Dosina looked at the girl, who was placing a large chocolate muffin on a stump. “What are you doing?”

“Leaving a treat for whoever our nice mister guardian angel was,” Harper replied with a bright smile. “Because if they don’t eat the monsters out there, I bet they’re really hungry after spending all that time protecting us.

“I know I am!”  

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