Travis Colby

Exodus 44-06

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Please note that there is an important opinion question in my first comment after this chapter regarding where the new upcoming second story that will be written side-by-side with the second year of this one will be posted. Anyone who has a chance and a preference, it would be great if you could take a look and let me know what you think. Thank you. 

We started running. Dozens of us, by that point. There was me, Avalon, Aylen, Shiori, Columbus, and a bunch of hybrid students, each of whom had friends or teammates who were coming along.

Well, they started running. I took a few steps before stumbling a little bit. When I did, everyone looked at each other before Columbus of all people held a hand out. “It’s okay,” he said quietly, “I… trust you.” Despite his words, there was tension in his voice that told me, as if I hadn’t already known how big this was.

I met his gaze for a moment, then took his hand and possessed the boy. I made a point of staying out of his thoughts. Still, I could tell even from surface impressions that he was nervous. Not that I personally would do anything, but just… the idea of having anyone who could take control of him. He didn’t like it, and even though he trusted me, he wanted me out as soon as possible.

We were all following Harper. Or… or… Lancelot. Lancelot. We were following Harper, who was actually Lancelot. Yeah, that was taking awhile to sink in. Even with Tabbris having a complete ranting fangirl moment in my head, going on about how awesome that was, complete with her own mental sound effects.

There were others following. Some of the teachers and other students were trailing behind, blurting out confused words or demands about what was going on or about where we were going. But after what had just happened with Ruthers, not even any of the staff were willing to get in the newly-transformed Harper’s way. Which meant they weren’t willing to get in our way. So instead, they just followed along with a bunch of other students who had no idea what was going on.

And it wasn’t like there was time to explain it. Because Harper, or Lancelot, or whoever she happened to be was right. The rest of the Committee would be on its way. We had to leave.

Running beside Columbus, Shiori blurted, “Do you think the shield’ll be down before we get there?”

Before anyone could say answer that, Deveron was suddenly there. “It’s down,” he informed her, and the rest of us. “Where’s–”

“In me,” Columbus put in. “Easier to run.”

Deveron gave a quick nod then, briefly looking around as we ran before his gaze fell on the new Harper at the head of the pack. “We can get… Who–what…” He paused, as though realizing that he’d missed something enormous.  “…. What just happened?”

“Dude…” Shiori managed, “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”

“She’s right,” Columbus put in while Vulcan gave a low bark to the side. “You really wouldn’t.”

“Short version,” Avalon announced. “Harper is Lancelot. Yeah, that one. She just beat Ruthers and made him retreat. But he’ll probably be back with more help. We’re leaving.”

“Wait, wait, back up to the part about beating Ruthers,” Deveron started. “Because I really–”

Shiori shook her head quickly, interrupting. “Sorry, we super don’t have time for you to get popcorn for the play-by-play. You said the shield was down?”

Koren joined us then, nodding quickly. “It’s down, we’re–wait, are we taking the whole school?”

I felt Columbus open his mouth to respond to that, but someone else spoke first. It was Nevada. She appeared in front of us just as we reached the beach, looking briefly taken aback by the size of the group  before nodding over her shoulder. “Go, guys! If you’re leaving, get to the boat out there.”

“Yeah, guys,” Sands piped up. She and Scout were there next to Nevada, along with their mother and Doug. “Let’s get on the boat and get the hell out of here.”

“No, just stop!” That was Reid Rucker, the acting head of security with Kohaku on her recovery vacation, previously her second-in-command. The man came out of nowhere, panting briefly as he straightened up with a shotgun in one hand and a shield in the other. His eyes scanned the group. The hybrids, their friends, and my people were all clustered together, with the rest of the students and older teachers back a bit. Everyone had skidded to a halt when Nevada appeared. Now they looked to Rucker, some anxiously, some angrily, and some with relief.

“I don’t know who you are,” Rucker announced, his eyes on Harp–Lancelot (seriously, what the fuck) as he continued. “But no one is going anywhere. This is all just one big misunderstanding, okay? There’s no evacuation order. There’s no Strangers overrunning the school. It’s all going to be straightened out. Everyone just calm down and back up.”

It was Deveron who spoke then, before anyone else could. “Sorry, man. We’re leaving. So can anyone who wants to come with.”

Some of the students who didn’t know what was going on started to all talk over each other, asking why anyone would want to leave. They were interrupted by one of the older teachers, who spoke up. “Rucker’s right. I don’t know what exactly is happening here, but no one needs to leave. Let’s all take a breath and remember that we’re on the same side.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Or the right thing. Because it prompted Shiori to blurt, “Are we?!”

That brought everyone’s, and I do mean everyone’s attention to her. They were staring, as the Asian girl flushed a little, shrinking back reflexively before stopping herself. She straightened, glancing to the other obvious Hybrids. Then she looked back to the teacher who had spoken, and the rest of the students who had followed us this far. “Are we really on the same side?” she began, her voice cracking briefly. “Because… because…”

Stepping out of Columbus (taking Rucker by surprise, by his reaction), I reached out, putting a hand on Shiori’s shoulder. Columbus himself did the same, his voice soft. “It’s okay.”

It was enough. Shiori spoke more clearly then. “Because I’m not human. Not completely.”

She pushed on while the confused murmuring started, ignoring all of it. “They’re going to tell you lies. They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters, that our parents were monsters. They’re going to tell you anything they can to avoid admitting the truth, that we’re people. We’re just people. My father is human. My mother… isn’t. My sister isn’t. I’m half-human. I’m a Hybrid.”

“So am I.” That was one of the second-year students, a lanky boy with dark, shaggy hair. He was surrounded by what looked like his entire team, all of whom were right at his side and looked like they already knew all of this. “I’m a Hybrid. My father isn’t human either. And he’s not a monster. Neither am I.”

“That’s right,” a red-haired, freckled girl that was clearly part of his team put in. “Miles isn’t a monster, you dickheads.”

There were a few more agreements with that, while the teachers and all the students who hadn’t known what was going on looked at them with a wide assortment of reactions. I saw confusion, betrayal, understanding, relief, anger, pity, and more all spread throughout everyone who was seeing and hearing these words.

Shiori continued. “They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters because we’re not completely human! They’re going to tell you that it’s a lie, that we were always monsters and that Gaia just shoved human DNA in us to let us become Heretics. They’re the ones who are lying!

Another voice spoke up then. Rebecca Jameson blurted at her roommate, “Sh-Shiori? What… what are you talking about? What’s going on? Aylen, Koren? What are you guys doing? What–are… are you really…”

“We’re not monsters,” Aylen said in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet and yet audible to everyone. “We’re just people. Our parents aren’t evil.”

“Speak for yourself,” one of the other Hybrids muttered before flushing with a mumbled apology.

“That’s the point!” Avalon suddenly cut in. “Some are evil, some aren’t! This isn’t rocket science! Good people, bad people, good Strangers, bad Strangers! It’s not advanced ethics, it’s fucking kindergarten!”

“What are you talking about?” That was one of the third-year students who had no clue what was happening. She moved forward out of the crowd, shaking her head. “You guys aren’t related to Strangers. That’s ridiculous. You’re… you’re just…”

“Just people?” Dare finished for her. She was there, coming through the crowd with Hisao right at her side. I felt an immediate rush of relief at the sight of her. She and Hisao had clearly been through… well, a lot. Both of them looked worn and ragged. And wet. Really wet. They were both soaked through for some reason, neither apparently taking the time to dry themselves even with powers or magic. They moved together, Dare continuing to address the student who had spoken. “Yes, they’re just people, Theresa. That’s the point. No one is born a monster. You choose to be one, or you don’t.”

That caused even more murmuring, everyone trying to talk over one another. There were small arguments breaking out throughout the crowd of onlooking students and teachers. I saw some staff members trying to quiet them, and, unfortunately, I even saw a couple small shoving fights break out in the crowd. A few people shouted about how we were lying, others about how their hybrid class and teammates were monsters. That started even more arguments, and the whole thing looked like it was going to turn into an all-out brawl.  

“Stop, stop!” That was Reid Rucker again, his voice shaking just a little as he pointed to us. “No more. I don’t what’s going on here, but this… this joke has gone far enough. You’re done now.”

“Quite right, Mr. Rucker,” a new voice spoke up. “That is enough.”

It was Litonya. She was there, along with a recovered Ruthers, the Asian woman Jue, and the big black guy, Geta. Four Committee members, none of them friendly. They stood facing us down, looking pretty much as though they would like nothing more than an excuse to end this whole thing permanently and without mercy. Worse, they were joined very quickly by more of their people, more loyal Committee lackeys who looked as though they were spoiling for an excuse to fight. Their presence also quieted all the arguments that had started throughout the crowd, as everyone snapped basically to attention, staring that way.

Litonya continued. “There will be no leaving the island. We have indulged far too much nonsense this year, and leading up to it. Everything will be put back to its proper place now.”

“Proper place?” Gordon started then, as he came into view from the beach. Jazz was with him, along with Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, Larees, Misty, her brother Duncan, Enguerrand, and a few others. And Gabriel Prosser, he was there too. That was enough to make a few people start whispering again, their wide eyes locked on the man who had become a legend even amongst Crossroads despite not being part of them.

Gordon continued, while everyone who didn’t know what was going on reacted to his sudden appearance. “You mean in the ground for me and everyone like me? Or cages, like Eden’s Garden has done with my father? That’s what you mean by proper place, right? Are you better because you kill us rather than enslave us?”

More people appeared. More of Prosser’s people from the Atherby camp. They faced down the Committee and their people, the tension high enough that it seemed to make an almost audible buzzing sound. There was a war brewing, one that had been building up for a long time and was now right on the cusp of breaking out.

“Jazz!?” Travis Colby blurted, sounding more shocked by her appearance than by anything else. “You’re okay!? You’re–you’re… what the fuck?”

That last bit was because Jazz had been joined by Jokai. Yeah. He was there, standing beside her as Jazz took his hand. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Hey, guys. Guess what, I have a boyfriend.”

Your degenerate filth is not welcome here!” The shout came from Jue, the handsome Asian woman practically screaming it, spittle flying from her lips as she threw her hand out, sending a bolt of orange fire that way.

It was caught by Prosser, who held a hand up to make a brief energy shield to stop the fire. “Raise a hand to those under my protection again, any of you,” he advised, “and I promise you will regret it.”

Litonya seemed to be analyzing the situation, her eyes snapping back and forth between the crowd of supporters behind them, the confused students and teachers who didn’t know what to do, our group, and Gabriel Prosser and his people. Finally, she snapped, “Enough. This has gone on for far too long. We end it now, beginning with Headmistress Sinclaire admitting what she did, what she has been doing.”

Her fingers snapped, and Gaia herself appeared between Geta and Jue. Her wrists were shackled with what were clearly magical chains, yet she appeared just as regal and in control as ever.

As the rest of the students blurted the headmistress’s name, or started shouting questions, Avalon said something very different. Taking a step that way, her mouth opened and she spoke a single word that cut through everything else.  

“Mom.”

It was quiet, plaintive, and desperate. It was a single word, a word full of yearning, apologies, and need. Avalon said it, and with it, she said a whole lot more.

Everyone else had stopped with that word, and the tone and meaning behind it. For a few long seconds, Gaia and Avalon simply met gazes, before the woman gave a soft smile. “It’s okay, Valley,” she said quietly. “It’s going to be okay.”

Litonya was pointing to her. “No, it really won’t. Not for you, or for any of your conspirators. You never should have been given this position, witch. And you will never hold it again. You will confess your part in all of this. You will tell everyone that you murdered Oliver because of what he discovered about your activities. You will tell everyone just how much you have perverted our institution for your own ends. You will confess all of it.”

Gaia, however, wasn’t looking at her. Her eyes were on the new Harper. On Lancelot. She stared, head tilting a little. “You… you’re… you were…” Then she gave a single, soft little laugh, a chuckle. “Take care of them, please, until I can come back.”

“Yes,” Harper agreed in a voice that made it clear that there was a lot more behind what they were saying to each other than any of us had a chance of following. “I will. I have.”

Litonya opened her mouth to say something else then, but Gaia interrupted. “Miss Chambers,” she started, looking to me of all people. “It’s time for a revelation.”

I heard the others saying something. I heard demands being flung around, words of confusion from other teachers, threats from the Committee, all of it. I heard it, but I didn’t care.

Because I finally remembered.

******

Several months ago, in January

 

“So I really won’t remember anything about this?” I hesitantly asked Gaia while standing in her office beside a table that she had conjured up. My eyes were focused on the two items laying in the middle of that table.

The headmistress gave a slight nod. “That is the easiest, safest way of doing this.” Her eyes softened a bit then as she watched me. “This is very dangerous, Miss… Felicity. What we are doing, what we want to do, it is not something to be undertaken lightly. If anyone learns what we intend before we are ready, it will be… dangerous, for everyone involved. You will do what you need to do, but you will not know why. You will not remember why it is that important.”

I swallowed. “I understand. You have to keep everyone safe. You have to keep the secret safe.”

“You are very good at keeping secrets, Felicity,” Gaia assured me. “But this one… it is better if you don’t have to think about it until it’s time. Until I tell you that it is time for a revelation. That will be the signal for the spell blocking your memory of this to fade, the signal that it is time to use the spell that we have created.”

Stepping over to the table then, I reached out, hesitating slightly before setting my hands almost reverently against the items that rested there. “So I’ll just stop looking for these?”

“You will move on to other things,” Gaia assured me with a slight smile. “I trust you will not run out of items and mysteries to occupy your time.”

Shrugging at that, I nodded. “I guess so. But you really think I can just write in a notebook for months without knowing why I’m doing it? Hell, not just write it in it. You’re talking about me powering it with magic for months without knowing why I’m doing it, about me protecting it and keeping it secret. And in all that time, I won’t know why?”

Gaia chuckled. “Part of you will, I’m sure. It’s just that your conscious mind will not. That’s the safest way. Unless you disagree. If you would prefer not to do this–”

“No,” I interrupted quickly. “No, I want to. I… I want to do it.” Looking to her, I bit my lip before adding, “Whatever it takes. Block my memories, hide it from me, I don’t care. It’s worth it. If… if it does what you say it will, it’s worth anything.”

For a few silent seconds then, our gazes met. Gaia watched me with a soft, almost sad smile. “You’re right, of course,” she murmured under her breath. “This is worth it. We will begin the spell and block it from your memory.”

“And you’re really sure I won’t remember?” I had to ask once more. “I won’t remember our plan, or what I’m really doing, or… or anything about it? It won’t even bother me that I don’t remember?”

Gaia winked at me. “You won’t even remember that I’ve already teased you about your rather important conversation with Avalon and Shiori about your relationships when I do so again, after your memory is blocked.”

I started to nod to that. “Right, I won’t rememb–wait, what?”

*****

“A revelation?” That was Ruthers, gaze snapping back and forth between us. “No. Stop her. Stop them. Something’s wrong. Something is wrong, they’ve planned. She has a weapon of some kind, a–”

It was too late. I had my notebook, the one I’d been writing in ever since that meeting at Gaia’s office, the one that I had taken care of and kept on me every chance I had even though I didn’t really know why I was doing so. The one that Tabbris had clearly known, but kept silent about. I held it, while everyone stared at me.

“That is not a weapon,” Jue observed, her tone dismissive as she gave a quick look at it.

“You’re wrong about that,” I informed her simply. “This is the most dangerous weapon in the world, the one that terrifies you guys beyond everything else. This? This is knowledge. It’s news. And you know what I was before you people brought me here?

“I was a reporter.”  

With those words, I extended my other hand and spoke the word that Gaia had told me about months earlier, the word that summoned one of the items that had been on her table.

Mom’s Hunga Munga. That was what had been there that day. One of them appeared in my hand, and seeing it drove all four Committee members to action. They tried to stop me, tried to stop what was about to happen. But between Gabriel, Harper, and the rest of the Atherby’s, even four Committee members couldn’t get to me in time.

I dropped the notebook I had written in all year, and hurled the throwing axe through the middle of it.

The notebook burst into flames and disintegrated as the spell came to life. The spell connected itself to the Hunga Munga. And through that, to its partner, the other Hunga Munga, which I knew from our conversation months ago would be seated in the middle of the ritual table in a secret, hidden area of Gaia’s private rooms. The second throwing axe, partner to this one, would be tied by a bit of rope from the Crossroads’ Reaper’s hangman rope that Gaia had sent Asenath to retrieve. The rope, a bit of dragon bone, and other pieces of the ritual, secretly prepared over the past few months for this exact moment.

No one could stop it now. The spell came to life. And in an instant, everything that I had written in the notebook was sent through the minds of every single person connected to the Heretical Edge, to the Reaper whose rope had been used for this.

Two things. I’d written two things in that notebook. First, I’d written down everything I’d learned about my mother. Who she was, what she’d done, everything she had accomplished. Everything about the rebellion, about how Ruthers had stopped it, about Wyatt and Abigail being abducted and held hostage. About Mom being taken by Fossor after spending years in Laramie Falls. Everything. All of it. Everything I knew about my mother and her rebellion against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden.

The other thing I had written in that notebook was the spell that Gaia had told me to add to the very end. The spell that would, apparently, undo the memory eraser that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden had done to finally end the rebellion. It was a spell she always could have done, but it would only work on one person at a time. There was no way to hit everyone.

Until now. Until they had something that connected everyone. Like that piece of the Hangman’s rope. Because all of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were connected to that. All of them were connected to him. Everyone was connected to the Heretical Edge.

In that single motion, with the spell that Gaia had spent decades preparing before I even came along, and the past few months finalizing, we erased the spell that had ended the rebellion. But we did more than that. Because it wasn’t just old Heretics, those who had known the rebellion and chosen a side at the time, who remembered. It was everyone. Every single Heretic who had ever come through Crossroads or Eden’s Garden suddenly knew the truth.

They knew my mother. They knew what she had done, what she had stood for. They knew who she was.

The rebellion wasn’t erased anymore.

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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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Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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Mini-Interlude 47 – Tristan and Vanessa

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The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan introducing the latter to her team back when he first showed up. And… well, other stuff too. Remember, it takes place months ago, while Roxa is still at the school and thus Rudolph has not switched teams, etc. 

Several Months Ago

After hours in long discussions with Headmistress Sinclaire (with several different staff members going in and out throughout their talk), Vanessa and Tristan Moon were finally left alone in the school corridor once more. They’d had that short conversation with Gaia, where Vanessa had learned just how much the woman actually already knew about Alters not being evil, and about the woman’s son, and… and everything else that had made the girl need to sit down, dizzy from the revelations. Then Vanessa and Tristan had spent an hour alone in the office, just trying to process the idea that they were actually together once more.

After that, once the two felt like they couldn’t make the adults wait any longer, they had told Gaia that they were ready. She had prepared them, told them what to say, what story to tell to her own staff and anyone else who asked. She prepared them for all the questions, all the tests, all the… everything. Not that it was nearly as much as some of the adults wanted. The other teachers had wanted to run Tristan through more tests, had wanted to ask even more questions. But the headmistress had made them stop. She said that there would be time to talk about everything else later, and then let them go.

So there they were, standing out in the corridor that was devoid of anyone else for that moment. Alone, save for each other, the twins finally left to talk privately.

“I still can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you made it, I mean, I mean… I can’t–” Vanessa realized that she was babbling and cut herself off. Verbally, at least. She couldn’t seem to stop her hands from constantly touching her brother. She squeezed his shoulders, his arms, took his hands, moved back to his face, touched his hair. It was a dream. It was just like a dream, so similar to dreams that she’d had for the past decade. Any second now, she was going to wake up. She would wake up and her entire family would be missing once more. She’d wake up, and the entire world would think that she was crazy once more.

She couldn’t go through that again. She’d stopped telling the story early on, once her seven-year-old self had sat through several psychologists that kept telling her she was wrong, that she hadn’t seen what she thought she saw. They told her that her memory was playing tricks on her. But that was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was never wrong. Never. But between the lectures, the long discussions, and the talk of drugs, she’d pretended that they were right.

But she’d never stopped believing what she knew was right. Squashing it down in public, pretending for so long, had just made the things worse in her own subconscious mind. Accusations from her family, her mother and father, and from Tristan, had filled her dreams. They thought that she had forgotten them, that she had abandoned them. More than once, the girl had woken up in a cold sweat, sobbing into her pillow as she begged them to understand.

And now, now she was petrified that all of this was going to disappear. She was afraid Tristan would be gone, that he would vanish the next time she blinked. There was even a certain terrible fear that, after Tristan disappeared, everyone in the school would forget him as well. She was afraid that he would be gone, and that all of her teachers and classmates would have no idea who she was talking about. That fear made her keep touching him, keep all but clinging to him. If her brother did disappeared, she’d rather be taken with him than be left behind again.

“Nessa,” Tristan spoke quickly, smiling as he grabbed her hands and held them. “It’s okay. I’m here. And I ain’t going away again. I’m anchored to Flick, so I’m staying right here. Okay?”

For a single, brief moment, Vanessa felt a twinge of jealousy toward the other girl. It was dumb. She knew that. But for that handful of seconds, the fact that her brother was magically anchored to Felicity Chambers made her feel somehow left out. Again, dumb. There was absolutely no reason for it. Tristan was anchored to Flick because she had seen him on that other world, and he’d needed someone that he could remember in order for the spell to work. He and Gaia had thoroughly explained all of that over the several hour discussion that they had just come out of.

“I know,” the girl mumbled, squeezing her brother’s hands. “I know that you’re here. I just…” Her mouth opened and shut as she fought to find the right words, words that wouldn’t sound crazy.

She didn’t need to. Tristan just smiled and gave her a little nod. “I get it. I… wow. I spent so long trying to remember you, trying to remember anything about our family at all, and nothing worked. But now it’s like all those memories just came pouring back as soon as I saw you.”

Vanessa felt a slight blush touch her face then, and her smile brightened as she informed the boy, “If there’s anything you still don’t remember, I can tell you about it.”

He chuckled a little before giving her a tight hug. “Nessa and her perfect memory. I remember. I remember all of it. I’m surprised you haven’t already managed to get…” Biting his lip as he hesitated, Tristan asked hesitantly, “You really don’t have any idea where Mom and Dad are?”

She flinched, almost as if she had been physically struck. Cringing, Vanessa pleaded, “I’ve been trying. But they hide everything so much around here. There’s just… holes in all of it. Between that and all the rules, the memory manipulation, the… everything, it’s hard. I didn’t know wh-”

“Shh.” Tristan shook his head. “Hey, it’s okay. Two heads are better than one, right? We work together, Nessa. Remember how it goes? You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. We’ll find them.”

Vanessa nodded at that, her twin able to make her feel better and calm her down as easily now as he had when they were children. He was right, they complemented each other. Being without him for an entire decade had been like losing an arm and learning to work without it. She’d needed her brother. Now that he was back, they would find their parents. She knew they would.

“Come on,” she finally announced, pulling him by the hand. “I’ll show you around. You still have the key so you can get to the room that Headmistress Sinclaire said we could use, right?” Later, Tristan would have to be given his own room. But for the evening, Gaia had said they could spend the night in the same room, one of the guest suites in the upper floor of the main building. After everything that had happened, she wasn’t going to immediately separate the two of them.

“Nessa,” Tristan replied while giving her a brief look. “She handed it to me, I put it in my pocket, and we walked like… fifteen feet.” His hand dug pointedly into the pocket in question as he continued. “I mean, c’mon, how could I possibly have lost it that soo–hey, where’d it go?”

Vanessa raised her hand, showing the boy the key in her palm. “You dropped it on the floor when you were putting it in your pocket.” Even then, she couldn’t stop smiling. This. This was what she had missed. The last time they had been together, they were both still in first grade. Now, so much time had passed, so much had changed. And yet, some things were the same.

“Right, then.” Tristan grinned right back at her while taking the key, as utterly incorrigible as he had always been in her memories. “I’m glad you passed that perception test. Good job.”

“You absolutely did not do that on purpose,” the girl huffed at her brother while folding her arms.

He winked at that. “And yet, as soon as I said the words ‘passed’ and ‘test’, you got all happy.”

“I–” Vanessa opened and shut her mouth, flushing a little before turning to walk. “Come on.”

Together, the two of them walked down the hall to the stairs, and made their way out of the building. But they had barely stepped out onto the grounds before the twins found themselves facing a small group of people who had clearly been waiting for them: Vanessa’s teammates.

“Hey, Vanessa!” That was Cameron Reid, their team mentor. The black girl had been facing away from the doors, clearly saying something to the others as the twins emerged. Now, she turned to them, whipping around so fast that, in any normal situation, the ever-present blue-tongued skink that was draped over the girl’s shoulder would have gone flying off.

Yet, as always, the lizard somehow managed to retain his spot. Vanessa had seen their team mentor actually fight while keeping the little guy with her. It had something to do with a collection of reptile-based powers that Cameron had. Which, among other things, allowed her to not just communicate with reptiles but actually temporarily make them grow. With a single touch and moment of focus, the second-year student was capable of making the eighteen-inch lizard rapidly become as large as a pony and as long as a crocodile, complete with steel-like armored scales. Even more impressively, she could give them the ability to project various types of breath weapon. It had to be chosen at the time that the reptile was affected, but they could gain fire breath, lightning breath, ice breath, a corrosive acid breath, and probably others.

Essentially, with a touch and about fifteen seconds of time, their mentor could turn the eighteen-inch lizard perched on her shoulder into a four-foot tall, twenty-foot long armored dragon that could breathe fire, lightning, or whatever. It was incredibly impressive to see.     

But Vanessa still didn’t understand what kind of reference Cameron was making when she said that the lizard’s name was Tad Cooper. Something about a musical, but the girl just kept giggling when she tried to explain it.

“Um, hi, guys.” Biting her lip, Vanessa nodded to her team. “What’re, uh, you doing out here?”

“Vanessa, c’mon.” Malcolm gave her a look for that one, shaking his head. “Everyone knows you’re a genius, so don’t try to play dumb.  You gonna introduce us, or what?” His gaze turned to the boy beside her before he lifted his chin in greeting, giving a drawled, “Sup, dude?”

“And where have you been hiding him?” Erin added, her eyes wide as she looked Tristan up and down appreciatively before giving Vanessa a hurt look. “Seriously, we’re supposed to be best-roomies and you never mention that you’ve got a–a brother, right? He is your brother? Maybe a cousin, or a nephew, or even an uncle of some kind?” From the look on the girl’s face, Vanessa was quite certain that Erin had an ulterior motive for hoping that they were related.

“Easy, Erin,” Cameron was shaking her head, clearly amused. “They’re Bystander-kin, remember? They don’t tend to have uncles or nephews that are the exact same age. Usually.”

Zeke, standing a bit away from the others, muttered something under his breath that sounded like, ‘Lucky them.’ Then he looked straight to Vanessa. “So, you gonna explain or what?”

“Oh, right.” Coughing, Vanessa lifted her hand to gesture to each in turn. “Trist, these are my, uh, my teammates: Malcolm, Travis, Rudolph, Zeke, and my roommate Erin. And this is our team mentor, Cameron. Guys, this is Tristan, he’s my twin brother.” She supposed that Erin’s subsequent fistpump of victory was fairly understandable, but the little dance was pushing it.

Rudolph was the first to step that way, barely edging out Erin herself. The pale, slightly hefty boy offered his hand with a small smile. “Hey, uh, I guess we should say, welcome to Crossroads.”

“Hey, thanks, dude.” Rather than shaking Rudolph’s hand, Tristan slapped him five instead, then did it the other way with the back of his hand, before grabbing the boy’s hand to pull him into a shoulder bump. “You’re the guys that’ve been helping Nessa, huh? Thanks, man.”

To Cameron, the boy flashed a broad, endearing smile. “Hey, who’s your friend? Can he come say hi too?”

The older girl chuckled, reaching up to take the lizard off her shoulder before holding him out. “Sure, here. This is Tad. Tad, say hi to Tristan. And be nice.”

Tristan carefully took the reptile, rubbing the back of its head with obvious quick fondness. “Awesome. I always wanted a pet snake or something.”

In turn, he went through greeting each of the others. Despite the fact that Vanessa had been with the team since the beginning of the semester and Tristan had only met them a few seconds earlier, he already seemed completely at ease with them. Which was the way it had gone when they were younger too. As far back as preschool, Tristan had been the one who introduced the two of them to other kids, even to teachers. Tristan was the outgoing one, Vanessa was the bookworm, the one who was ‘weird’ because she did things like write out multiplication tables while the rest of their classmates were still learning how to color inside the lines. The teachers had wanted to move her up to higher grades, even that early. If the school staff had had their way, Vanessa would have been in third or fourth grade while Tristan was in first. But their parents had refused to split them up like that.

Someone with a darker sense of humor probably could have made a joke about how that turned out.

“Erin’s right, though,” Cameron pointed out. “You never mentioned you had a brother, let alone a twin. I thought you grew up in like, some kind of group home or something, wasn’t it?”

“Hey, yeah,” Vanessa’s roommate tore her attention away from Tristan to squint at Vanessa. “How come you never mentioned him? And why hasn’t he been here from the beginning? I mean, obviously he was like… missing or something? The way you were in the cafeteria…”

Giving a little nod, Vanessa launched into the explanation that they had given the teachers and other adults, the story that Gaia had told them to tell once she found out exactly what had happened. “Yes, it’s like I said, Tristan is my brother. But our family isn’t exactly Bystanders.”

“Our mom and dad,” Tristan put in then, “they were Heretics. But they, uh, they were kind of Garden of Eden Heretics.”

“Eden’s Garden,” Vanessa corrected with a slight nudge. “They were Eden’s Garden Heretics.”

The boy nodded. “Right, that. Either way, they retired and went off to live on their own. Awhile later, out popped the most beautiful and brilliant twin babies you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Clearing her throat pointedly, Vanessa cut in. “We didn’t know our parents were different, until monsters attacked our house. They were Strangers who had a grudge against Mom and Dad.”

“Our parents fought them,” Tristan continued with a little shrug. “But the Strangers were really… persistent. They had this portal set up and it took the three of us away. Our parents and me. But the portal got destroyed in the process and Nessa was left behind.”

Travis spoke up then. “Holy shit, dude. How–” He hesitated, wincing as he looked over to Vanessa before slowly asking, “How, uh, how old were you?”

She swallowed at the question. “Seven. I didn’t know what happened. I couldn’t remember much of it, until I got here, and had my Edge vision. That’s when I found out all the stuff about them being Heretics and retiring, and what really happened in our house that day.”  

Tristan nodded while letting Tad climb up his arm to his shoulder. “Meanwhile, when the portal got busted, it split us up. I still don’t know where Mom and Dad got sent to, but I ended up on some random world half a universe away. I would’ve been in deep shit, except some other Heretics showed up.”

“Wait,” Malcolm blurted, “other Heretics? What the hell is that supposed to mean? You said you were halfway across the universe. Are there just random Heretics hanging around other planets?”

It was Zeke who answered. “Crossroads maintains outposts on other worlds, yes. I imagine the… other place does as well.” The distaste in the boy’s voice as he obliquely mentioned Eden’s Garden was readily apparent. “What the hell do you think the Explorer track is for? You know, the one that Vanessa over there belongs to.”

Tristan gave the other boy a look. “Pretty sure his confusion was from the implication that the Heretics I met weren’t in contact with Earth, dude.” Shaking his head, he continued, “But yeah. They were from the other place. But they hadn’t been back in a long time. They got lost out there somehow. I guess when the portal showed up and dumped me out, they sensed it, so they came to find the portal to go home. Except all they found was me. But they took me in and helped raise me. Taught me pretty much everything I know while we were all looking for a way to get back here.”

“So, what happened?” Cameron asked as she took her lizard back from Tristan, feeding him a treat of some kind. “How did you end up back here now? And where are those other Heretics, did they go back to Eden’s Garden or something?”

Tristan shook his head, running a hand through his hair with a since. “Nah, uh, actually we only managed to find a thing that would send one of us back. They made me be the one to use it, said that I was still young and had a sister to get back to. I showed up back on Earth, a couple Crossroads Heretics came to investigate and ended up bringing me here since they didn’t know what else to do with me. I didn’t know Nessa was here until, well, until that bit in the cafeteria.”

“Wow.” Erin was looking back and forth between both twins. “That’s like… holy shit. Are you sure you don’t have some kind of luck power, Vanessa?”

Zeke spoke up then, his voice pointed. “She still kept secrets. She didn’t tell us any of this, even after she knew about the Heretic thing. And that’s probably why she’s been spending so much time in the library, trying to find the things that took her family.”

Erin frowned a little at that. “Good point. How come you didn’t tell us about that, Vanessa? Didn’t you trust us?” She sounded hurt.

“Hey, hey.” That was Malcolm. The tall, muscular boy shook his head. “Ease up, you guys. It takes more than a couple months to open up to complete strangers like that. You can say ‘team’ until you’re blue in the face, but that’s her family we’re talking about. She didn’t know how we’d react, or how all the teachers around here might react, for that matter. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t trust us, it means it’s her family and that was the best chance she had to find them after, what, a whole decade? Can you really blame her for playing things close to her vest?”

“Malcolm’s right,” Cameron agreed. “Come on, you guys. I’m supposed to be your mentor. If I can get over the incredible insult–” She winked at Vanessa to show that she was teasing. “–of not being included in any of this, I think everyone can. Let’s give the team brainiac a break, huh? Like he said, it was about her family.”

Blushing deeply, Vanessa mumbled a thank you to both of them. Then she hesitantly added, “Um, I was about to show Tristan around. Do… do you guys want to help?”

******

Present Day

“Don’t think about why you want to visit your father.” The steady, soothing voice came from the old Seosten-Heretic, Enguerrand. He was seated on the opposite side of the boat from where Vanessa and Tristan sat. The boat itself was floating peacefully in the middle of the lake near where Gabriel Prosser’s group had their camp.

It had been Scout’s idea that they come here, so that Vanessa could learn to use the power that she had been developing that connected her to her father deep in Seosten space. The hope was that with enough practice, she might be able to tell the man about Flick and the others.

Don’t think about it?” Vanessa echoed, biting her lip as she stole a glance at her brother before looking back to the man who was the closest thing they knew to an expert on the Seosten powers. “Shouldn’t I be thinking about why I want to visit him as… motivation?”

“Yeah, that sounds weird,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, that’s a lot of emotion right there that you’re telling her not to focus on, you know? Oh, and also, when the hell did you start talking in a modern voice instead of all that verily and prithee crap we heard you using before?”

The elderly knight chuckled a little then. “Yes, I wondered if you would notice that. I…” he breathed a long, low sigh. “I have a great deal of respect for the Seosten whose power I inherited all those years ago, whom I served for quite a long time. When I realized that you were both half-Seosten, I suppose that those old habits and… memories came back a little bit.”

“You–you served a Seosten? And liked it?” Tristan stared at the man. “Who–how–what?”

Smiling faintly, Enguerrand gestured. “Let us focus on this. Perhaps I will tell you the story some other time. Once you’ve earned it.” At the last bit, he winked. Then the man turned his attention back to Vanessa. “As to your relevant question, yes, the emotion of why you want to project yourself to your father is important. But only once you have more control. As it is, you are focusing too much on why. You wish to see your father so much, for very understandable reasons. But as it is, you are… “ He paused, considering his words. “Let’s just say, you are flooring the gas pedal without knowing how to steer. You are flooding the tank before you’ve learned how to take the automobile out of park.”

Vanessa swallowed, looking at the bottom of the boat for a moment. “I… I guess that makes sense. So, how do I steer? How do I take it out of park?”

“I will teach you that,” the man promised. “I will teach both of you, because Tristan’s own gift will come soon enough. There is more to projecting yourself to your last host than simply wishing you were there. Especially over this kind of distance. You must also think about the person you are projecting yourself to, what you know about them, what kind of person they are. Projecting to them is about… imagining that you are controlling them, putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak. You see, you are thinking about how much you want to speak with your father, but in doing so, you are focusing on you as Vanessa speaking with him. To project in the way that you wish to, you should be thinking of yourself as him. Cast yourself as your father, think like him, speak like him, do everything you can in the way that most reminds you of him. That is how you will attune yourself to him.”

For two hours, they worked on that. By the end, even though they hadn’t done anything that should have been physically demanding at all, Vanessa felt exhausted. She slumped in the boat, shaking her head. “I can’t do it. I can’t send myself to him.” The girl felt like she was on the verge of tears.

“That is quite all right, Miss Moon.” Enguerrand insisted with a soft smile as she took her hand. “These things take time. You are progressing better than I believe most would have, I assure you.”

“Yeah, Nessa, don’t sweat it,” Tristan added. “At least you can try to help. I can’t even do that much right now.”

Sighing, Vanessa nodded. “I just really wanted to…” She shook her head then, dismissing it. “I guess we can come back later?”

“Of course,” Enguerrand agreed immediately. “I would like that very much. But for now, we should go back to shore.” He raised his hand to point to a man standing there, clearly waiting for them. “I believe that Gabriel would like to speak with you.”

Prosser waited there until the boat reached the dock, then caught the rope that was tossed up and leaned down to tie it off. He reached down to help them each out of the boat, asking how they were doing as soon as they were each on solid, dry ground.

“Could’ve been better, could’ve been worse,” Tristan informed him easily.

Chuckling a little, Gabriel nodded. “I believe that’s life in a nutshell for most people.” He sobered then, holding out an envelope in one hand. “This came for you.”

Both twins blinked at it, and Vanessa frowned. “Came for us? Us, like, came here for us? How?”

Gabriel was watching them. “A group of refugees that we picked up earlier. They were ambushed by Heretics on the road until a man saved them. Apparently, he gave them this letter, told them to wait for us to show up, and said that they should give this letter to me.”

He turned it over then, showing the twins their names written on the front in elaborate, gold lettering. “It was checked for spells before we came anywhere near here. There’s nothing on it but text, written on computer paper. I don’t know what it says, but I do know that there’s nothing magical about it. Would you like to open it?”

The twins looked at each other once more before shrugging. Tristan took the offered envelope, turning the thing over in his hands briefly before quickly ripping it open. Inside, there was a single, folded piece of white paper, with five lines printed in bold, all-caps lettering right in the middle.

“Uh, why does Pitiniana sound familiar?” Tristan asked his sister.

“It was a city in Sicily, but it’s lost now,” Vanessa answered. “And it’s also the world we’re supposed to visit in a few days with the Explorers. That’s probably how you know it. Why?”

Turning the paper over, Tristan showed the contents to her, letting her read the message that the mysterious man had sent sent to them.

PITINIANA

3 DAYS. 14:30

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT YOUR PARENTS.

I’LL BRING SNACKS.  

— UNCLE SATAN.

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Mini-Interlude 35 – Sands and Scout

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“We were supposed to be superheroes.”

The voice of Sandoval Mason was quiet in the evening air, barely reaching the ears of her twin sister as the two of them stood at the edge of the school grounds opposite the beach, overlooking the vast jungle far below. Darkness had settled over the island, leaving the two figures illuminated only by the abundant moon and starlight. In the distance, other groups of students milled and moved around. But here, at the edge of the grounds, the twins were alone.

At that announcement, Scout said nothing in return, simply glancing at the other girl in silence. Yet it was a silence that Sands could read. After years of near-constant contact and interaction, she knew her sister.

“Yeah, I know,” she replied to the silence. “We’re still helping people, people that really deserve it. And… and if there’s…” Taking a moment to make sure that the privacy spell was still active, she lowered her voice even more anyway. “If there’s really Alters out there that aren’t evil, but are being killed anyway–” She glanced over, seeing Scout subtly lift her chin at the word ‘if’. “Yeah,” Sands muttered, bowing her head. “You’re right. Asenath. She’s totally a good vampire. Plus, those Meregan were nice. And Roxa, and–” She coughed. “I get it, okay? I get it.”

As she spoke, Sands held both hands out about a foot apart. From her palms, a thin strand of incredibly sticky web shot out, meeting in the middle. It was strong enough, she knew from practicing, to hold her weight no matter what she attached it to. A result of one of the spider-like spinnevurrs she had killed back during their team’s third hunt, the one on the other world that had ended with Flick and Avalon fighting Doxer and Trice. Sands didn’t have a lot of practice with the stuff yet, not enough to really rely on it anyway. But she was getting there. It was something that she had been practicing in private, or just with Scout. She wanted to actually be able to use it properly before doing much with it, since her first attempt at using the web had been… embarrassing and had resulted in Nevada having to extract her.

A moment later, that web abruptly caught fire, a result of the other spinnevurr she had killed. Not only did it allow her to instantly ignite any of the webs she had created at any time, but she was also immune to fire and heat. Or at least resistant enough that she didn’t feel anything from normal fire or any created by her own webs igniting. It was only after Nevada had rescued Sands from trapping herself the first time that she had figured out how to ignite the webs to get rid of them. Which was another reason she didn’t do much with it around the others, until she was ready. The last thing Sands wanted was another event like that one, this time in public.

Another sigh escaped her as she created another strand of web, only to burn it away again. “It’s just so complicated now. We were supposed to be these awesome hunters, these badass Heretics, you know? But now…” Trailing off, she shook her head. “Now it’s just… all these people that are supposed to be the good guys are–they’re not. The Committee, they’re supposed to be our great examples, our shining beacons. They’re our legends, Scout. They’re supposed to be the best of us, the best of everything. They always were, and now if they’re not–if they’re not, then… then what are we? If the monsters aren’t monsters, what is our entire–our entire society? What is our entire life? What are we?”

Scout’s response was a single word, spoken in a barely audible whisper. “Police.”

Police. Right. The Bystander police. Sands knew about them, of course. They’d seen movies and TV shows all about them. They took care of people by stopping criminals, by arresting or shooting them. But they didn’t arrest or shoot everyone. They only took down the bad people, the people who actually hurt people. And they didn’t have a super-sense screaming in their head to tell them exactly who the bad guy was just by looking at them. They had to figure it out.

Swallowing hard, Sands bit her lip. “Police. Be like police. Find the bad guys and stop them. Not because the Heretic-sense pointed at them, but because… they did something wrong.” It sounded so simple, put like that. So utterly and completely obvious. Yet the idea of ignoring the Heretic-sense, that staple of their entire society, felt abhorrent. It felt like the idea of closing her eyes and trying to find bad guys that way, that thought of not relying out an entire sense.

A hand touched her shoulder then, and she looked to see Scout watching. Her sister could read her without words as well. The other girl’s head shook, and she whispered, “Not ignore. Add.”

“Add?” Sands echoed, staring for a moment before straightening a little. “You mean use the Heretic-sense, but… don’t let it dictate everything. It can still identify Strangers out of a group of humans, but just because they are Strangers doesn’t mean they’re evil, so… so identify them and then prove they did something wrong?” When Scout nodded, she gave a low whistle. “That’d change everything, Scout. They’re not gonna listen to–I mean, you know–we’re not… we can’t make everyone… We can’t just change our entire society like that.”

Scout simply raised both shoulders to shrug before replying in her soft voice, “From the beginning of time until right now, everything that has ever happened was impossible until someone did it.” She reached out then, taking her sister’s hand before squeezing it firmly.

For a moment, Sands just stared at her, then let out a low breath and chuckled softly. “I was wrong with what I said before about how we were supposed to be superheroes.

“You already are one.”

******

It wasn’t long before the twins had to report to the front of the Pathmaker building, just outside of the protective circle that kept unauthorized people away. It was Monday evening, which meant it was time for another Track meeting with Professor Dare and the other Investigative students.

“Girls!” Jazz Rhodes, the tall black girl with long hair that had been dyed purple on one side and pink on the other, announced while moving up behind the twins to drop an arm around each of their shoulders. “I mean, you are girls, right? Girls besides me still exist? For real? Sometimes it’s like I can’t even tell what other girls are anymore, with my team of total sausage hogs, you know? I feel like I should change my name to Token, like we’re all in a movie and the producers just realized they didn’t have a girl in the script yet, so they just threw me in at the last second.”

“Hey, Jazz,” Sands replied, smiling a little at the girl’s oft-repeated complaints about being ‘abandoned’ in her team with no other girls ever since Roxa disappeared and Rudolph was switched over to fill her slot. “Come on, it’s not that bad. You’re around other girls all the time.”

“It’s not the same,” the tall girl lamented, heaving a sigh before straightening. “You’re lucky. Two boys on your team. Perfect.” Pausing then, she added with an admirable attempt at making it sound spontaneous, “Course, I guess you two are sisters and the other two girls on your team are sort of dating.” Slowly, she glanced toward Sands. “That ever get weird or anything?”

As far as fishing for information attempts went, that one was pretty good. It was relatively subtle, coming from a completely different angle without actually passing any real judgments about their teammates that might have made the twins withdraw. Sands gave it a solid seven out of ten.

It also wasn’t the first time that Jazz had tried something like it. Ever since she had switched into the Investigation track at the beginning of the new semester, the other girl had been working at different ways to get close to Sands and her sister. Obviously, she was fishing for information about Roxa’s disappearance. Flick had already mentioned that the other girl’s old team was obviously suspicious about the whole thing. And for some reason, they had fixated on Flick, and by extension, the rest of her team. Hell, it was probably the main reason that Jazz had switched into the Investigation Track, to get close to Flick. But since she had switched over to the Hunter track, that left Sands and Scout for Jazz to try to surreptitiously get information out of.

Rudolph was part of it too, but he seemed a lot less… intense about the whole thing. He definitely helped, since Sands had seen him involved in their team huddles and whatnot when they whispered to each other in between staring at Flick and Avalon. But whatever theory the other team had worked up about what was going on, Sands could tell Rudolph didn’t really believe it. He was clearly just going along with them, trying to fit in and help where he could.

“Weird?” Sands echoed the girl, raising an eyebrow. “You mean because two of my teammates are dating, and another one is also dating the sister of my other teammate? The worst ‘weird’ thing about that is how many people in this school keep asking if Scout and me can get them pictures.” She made a face then. “And I thought the monsters we have to hunt were creepy.”

Because sure, Jazz was obviously fishing for secrets to use against whatever paranoid thoughts they had about Flick. But to an extent… she wasn’t actually wrong. There was more to Roxa’s disappearance than they were being told. And Flick did know more than she was telling. It was just… complicated. Complicated in a way that Sands could never actually explain. But she still liked the other girl. She wanted to tell her the truth, wanted to–fuck. Fuck. This was hard. Standing there, knowing that she could take thirty seconds, if that, and answer most of the questions that were obviously driving the other girl insane about what had happened to her former roommate. Knowing she could answer them… but equally knowing that if she did, Jazz would never understand. She’d see her old teammate as an enemy… and Sands as one too. She, or someone on her team, would expose everything, would ruin everything. They’d probably go straight to the Committee, or to a teacher that wasn’t one of Gaia’s trusted people.

There had to be a better way to handle this. There had to be. But Sands hadn’t thought of it yet.

“Girls!” Professor Dare’s voice interrupted as the blonde woman approached the group of milling students, the elaborate sword at her hip swinging with each motion. “Is everything okay over there?”

Deciding it would be a bad idea to snicker over how both their teacher and Jazz’s first word that evening had been the same (for very different reasons), Sands made herself nod. “Yup. Just waiting to see what we’re doing next, right, Scout?” As her sister matched her nod, Sands added, “C’mon, Teach, what’re we gonna work on tonight? Why’d you wanna meet here?”

Before Dare could respond, a male voice spoke up from the direction of the nearby building. “Offhand, I’d say it was  because the rest of the buildings around here don’t teleport.” The man who was approaching wore tan khakis and a black longsleeved shirt that was open to reveal the matching tee-shirt underneath. With his somewhat stringy blond hair and clearly repeatedly broken nose, he looked like that Owen Wilson guy who was in some of those Bystander movies.

Once the rest of the group’s attention was on him, he paused, brow furrowing. “At least, I don’t think they do. But it’s been a couple hundred years since I went here, so who knows anymore?”

Clearing her throat, Dare gestured to the man. “Boys and girls, this is Professor Carfried.”

That brought on noises of confusion for a moment, punctuated by Travis Colby speaking up from nearby. “Uh, no offense, Professor, but no it’s not. That is definitely not Professor Carfried.”

Smiling just a little bit at that, Dare nodded once to the boy in acknowledgment. “Not the one you know, no. You know Professor Benji Carfried. This is Professor Josiah Carfried.”

The man himself added, “Benji’s my great-great-grandson, actually.” He paused then, frowning thoughtfully. “Might’ve missed a great in there somewhere…” Another thoughtful pause came then that went on for a moment before he shrugged. “Ah well, the point is, he’s pretty great.”

“Josiah,” Dare explained, “taught classes here at Crossroads about two hundred years ago. Since then, he moved on to his current position, which involves posing as a cultural anthropology professor at a prestigious Bystander university. He uses that position to keep an eye on what the Bystanders are digging up and to help make sure that we don’t have too many innocent people tripping over magically cursed objects or accidentally releasing entombed monsters. In his spare time, he sometimes comes in to advise some of our students. His time is valuable, so I expect you all to pay attention. You can learn a lot from Professor Carfried.”

The man waved that off. “Let’s just stick with Josiah, huh? Seems like it’d be a lot less confusing for everybody in the long run.” He smiled at the group. “Besides, I consider my time here to be a vacation from my normal job, and if everyone keeps calling me Professor, it ruins the effect.”

“As for why I asked you to meet here,” Dare continued then, “it’s because we’re going on a bit of a field trip as part of tonight’s activity. You’ll be assisting Josiah in his most recent… endeavor.”

Sands wasn’t sure what that meant, and a glance toward Scout received a silent shrug in response. By that point, Dare had already asked them to follow, as she and Josiah Carfried led them up to the Pathmaker building and through toward one of the transport rooms.

Stepping near the twins, Jazz whispered quietly, “So where do you think we’re going?”

Glancing that way, Sands shrugged, whispering back, “Something that has to do with anthropology, I guess.” She paused, adding, “Or maybe something to do with cursed objects.”

Eventually, the transport room finished shifting, opening up to let the class and their two adult escorts step out into what turned out to be one of the largest warehouses that Sands had ever seen. They were standing at the entrance in the front right of the room. Stretched out ahead them was what looked like a mile worth of enormous, ten-foot wide shelves laden down with crates and random objects. There were lamps, books, old-style VCR’s, statuettes, typewriters, jewelry, clothes, and more. The shelves themselves were stacked about thirty feet high, with various wheeled ladders spread down the aisle. And even more impressively, there wasn’t just a single row of shelves that stretched back that far. Another row ran alongside it, and then another, and another, all the way down as far as Sands could see. Row after row of shelves, all thirty feet high and laden down with thousands of random objects and crates.

Eyes widen, she blurted, “Wait, is this–”

“We call it Trajan,” Josah announced. “Or Trajan’s Forum. A couple thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Trajan built a massive complex for the time. They had temples, markets, and plenty more in the forum, including two of the most important libraries in history. One for Latin works, the other for Greek. They stood for over three hundred years. This place was named after that one, after one of the people who maintained the old libraries for so long helped gather the first objects that were to be housed in it.”

Trajan’s Forum. Sands had heard of it, of course. The place was where most of the unclaimed magical artifacts that didn’t belong to one of the powerful Heretic families (or the ones that multiple families couldn’t agree on the ownership of) were kept. No one she’d ever talked to knew where the place actually was. Some said it was under the very bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, some said it was on another world, others said it was somewhere in New Jersey. The point was, the place was hidden.

In the background as she considered all of that, Josiah and Professor Dare were explaining most of it to the others. Finally, the man finished with, “And now, there is something within these shelves that is causing… problems.

“A few months ago, a box of cursed objects was… appropriated from a pawn shop in the Bystander world. Each object was catalogued and placed in its appropriate location.. Except, apparently, for one of them. A child’s doll, about this size.” He held his hands up to illustrate something about a foot and a half tall. “Somehow, the doll was misfiled. We know that it’s still somewhere in this warehouse, but other than that…” His head shook.

“Wait,” Rudolph put in. “So we’re just supposed to find one doll in all of this stuff?”

“Help find it,” Dare corrected. “Part of the warehouse has already been searched. You’ll each pair up, take one of the remaining shelves, and carefully look through the contents. Just check for the doll and make sure that everything that’s supposed to be there, according to the list you’ll see at the front and back of each shelf, is actually there. Pay attention to those lists, they’ll tell you what each of the objects does and how to avoid triggering it.”

“On each object,” Josiah added, “you’ll see a red tag attached. These tags have protective spells cast on them that keep the object itself as docile as possible. Do not take the tags off.”

“Mess with anything you shouldn’t, remove a tag, try to sneak one of the objects out of this room, or anything else you shouldn’t do,” Dare informed them, “and you will be expelled from Crossroads, as well as any further measures that should be done. This may seem like a boring job, but it is the necessary work of someone in the Investigation Track. We search, we research, we check everything. Half of your jobs, if you stick with this, will be reading old books, going over hundreds of objects in a house until you find the one responsible for cursing a family, or even checking a dozen years worth of newspaper articles until you find one with a clue about the vampire that you’re looking for. It’s all research, and it’s all important. It’s best you learn about handling these cursed objects in a safe, contained environment like this one.”

Josiah winked then. “Yeah, all that and you guys being here means my guys don’t have to work so much overtime.”

A small smile touched Professor Dare’s face before she nodded. “Now then, let’s divide up into partners and get busy, shall we? Oh, and whatever pair happens to find the doll, you’ll both be rewarded.”

“What kind of reward?” one of the other girls asked.

“What reward?” Professor Dare echoed. “Well, that part is up to Josiah.”

For his part, the man gave them a wide smile. “Oh, trust me, it’s a good one. Whatever pair happen to find our missing doll, you and the rest of your team, or teams if you happen to be on different ones, will be taken on a sort-of… mini-vacation. Over the course of a long weekend sometime next month, we’ll visit New York City. Four days, with all the events, concerts, plays, and shopping you can cram in.”

“You will also be excused from classes for those two extra days,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And I believe that Josiah has already divided you into pairs?”

Josiah nodded. “I don’t know you guys, so I just drew names out of a hat. Well, it was a sock, but hat sounds better. Anyway, first up, we have Mason, Scout and Lewell, Kurt.”

Not so long ago, Sands and Scout would’ve objected to being separated. Even now, they were usually together. But Sands had come to find that letting go of Scout a little bit, letting her go with others, was sometimes for the best. Now, she looked to her sister just long enough for Scout to give her a faint nod of reassurance.

“Then,” the man continued, “we’ve got Mason, Sands–interesting name there, and Rhodes, Jasmine.”

Jazz. She’d be working with Jazz. Sands turned slightly, to find the tall girl giving her a little salute. Right, this was going to be… interesting. It was also the first time in her life, as far as she could remember, that Sands fervently hoped that she would not win a contest. Finding that doll, winning that weekend in New York where it would be her team and Roxa’s old team… yeah, the awkwardness of Jazz and her winning that reward would be visible from orbit.

Which, of course, was probably why an hour and a half later, they did just that.

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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A Learning Experience 17-05

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“Seriously, man, thanks for helping.” Extending a hand to Travis Colby (one of Tristan, Vanessa, and Zeke’s teammates) as the muscular dark-skinned boy came into the room where Zeke and I had been working on our project for Carfried’s class, I offered him a smile. “If it was me and a couple Freshmen Heretics wanted to test their magic trap, I’m pretty sure I’d just run screaming in the other direction.”

Travis gave me an easy smile in return, though he did seem a little (understandably) nervous about the whole situation. “No worries, Flick. Already told Zebra if anything goes wrong, I get the next month worth of those care packages his mom keeps sending every week. And even if it doesn’t, I still get one thing out of the box. So I’m good either way. Just, uh, try not to do anything too permanent, huh?” He gestured toward his own face. “Really don’t need to explain any major damage to my momma.”

Blinking at him, I hesitated before asking slowly with a glance toward where Zeke stood, “Zebra?”

Before Travis could respond to that, my project partner stepped between us while clearing his throat pointedly. “Never mind, it’s stupid and childish. Are we going to get started on this thing now or not?”

Grinning past his teammate, Travis stage-whispered toward me, “Tell you ’bout it later.” Then he shrugged casually. “You’re building some kinda ‘react when the right kind of person walks by’ spell thingie, right? So I uh, I guess you just tell me where to walk and what kinda effect to watch for.”

Zeke shook his head at that while using a finger to adjust the way his glasses perched on his face as he corrected the other boy. “Actually, it’s better if you don’t know what to expect. That way we know the result that we get, if we get one, is real and not a subconscious reaction of you expecting it to happen.”

I couldn’t argue with that. He had a good point. So I nodded. “Yeah, probably best if you don’t know.”

Travis looked back and forth between us before shrugging. “Aight, if you say so. I do have one question though.” His eyebrows went up curiously. “Zeke uh, he said you guys were gonna set your spell to go off based on someone’s physical characteristic. Like that whole thing with his mom’s spell detecting Strangers. He said you’d use something like hair color. But he and I, we’ve both got brown hair. And it ain’t eye color, cuz we’ve both got hazel eyes too. So… what physical trait were you using?”

For once, both Zeke and I looked equally awkward as we glanced to one another and then looked toward Travis and his black skin. My mouth opened before shutting again as I tried to find the best way to diplomatically explain exactly what trait we’d used once we knew he was going to be the test subject.

Travis left us hanging like that for several extremely long seconds before his confused frown turned into a bright, toothy smile as he punched me in the arm. “I’m just fucking with you guys. It’s an obvious physical trait, man, ain’t no need to be all awkward and shit about it. Don’t make it so easy, damn.”

Still laughing at our reactions, Travis straightened and stretched languidly. “Right, where am I going?”

I shook my head, smirking in spite of myself while gesturing toward the other end of the room. About halfway there, a line of tin cans about two feet apart started and ran all the way to the opposite wall. “Just walk slowly past the cans to the other side of the room. We don’t want you to know which one has the actual spell on it. Like Zeke said, better if you have no idea when it’s actually supposed to happen.”

“Walk to the other side of the room?” Travis shrugged then and started that way. “Sure, I can do that.”

As the other boy moved, Zeke and I stepped out of the way and watched carefully. My eyes strayed to the third can in the line of seven. That was the one that we had attached the spell to. Trying not to make my anticipation obvious and risk spoiling the results, I leaned against the wall, continuing to observe.

The boy passed the first can, then the second without any reaction. As he passed the third can, however, he abruptly sneezed loudly, hand flying to his face as his head rocked backward a little bit from the force and suddenness of it. Then he coughed and gave his head a shake before looking over his shoulder at us. “Uh, tell me that was you guys and I ain’t suddenly allergic to being this cool.”

“Yup, that was us.” Wincing, I gestured to Zeke. “We might wanna tone down the reaction just a bit next time. That was less ‘polite sneeze’ and more ‘shotgun explosion recoil.’ You okay there, Travis?”

He waved me off then. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Whoo. Clears out the sinuses pretty damn good though, huh?” Giving his head a violent shake, the boy gave us a thumbs up. “So, that about do it for ya?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re good.” Nodding quickly, I looked to Zeke. “Unless you think we need to go again.”

“No,” my project partner walked away from the wall, leaning down to pick up the cans that we had set up. “We’ll ease up on the spell a little bit and then turn it in on Friday. It’s good enough now.”

“Cool.” Travis straightened then before focusing on me once more. “Cuz I was kinda hoping you could give Aylen and me a little help with our spell reaction thing. It’s not a trap or nothing like you guys got set up here, but we gotta have someone who ain’t us to test it. You know, if you ain’t busy or nothing.”

After blinking at that, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. What did you have in mind, exactly?”

In response, Travis gave me a slow smile. “Columbus said something about how you used to have a job in some movie theater, right?” When I nodded, he went on. “Well, let’s just say you’ll appreciate it.”

Of course, Zeke couldn’t help but put in his own comment. “I’m surprised Carfried put you and Aylen together. I mean, you’re both Bystander-kin. What interesting spells could you possibly come up with?”

Somehow resisting the urge to kick the boy in the knee, I managed through slightly gritted teeth, “All of us just started learning magic this semester. You don’t have some huge advantage on that front.”

He just shrugged. “Yeah, but I’ve been around magic my whole life. I’ve seen a lot more examples than you guys have about what it can do. So, again, what kind of interesting spell could they know about?”

******

As it turned out, the answer to Zeke’s incredibly rude question was ‘one that would’ve been incredibly useful while I was still working at the theater and that I wish I could send back in time to myself.’

Basically, Aylen had looked through the library and found a spell that was meant to be used in older classrooms back during the first days of the school. It made it so that anyone talking above a whisper was made to hear a steady, drowning ‘shhhhh’ noise until they quieted down again. While the trigger for Zeke’s and my spell had been someone passing the object, in their case, the trigger was simple volume.

It ended up working well, and I made them promise to show me how to do it the next chance we got. I wasn’t sure the actual ‘shh’ noise itself would be all that useful, but I might be able to adjust the specific sound into something else. Besides, every new spell that I learned was another arrow in my quiver.

Speaking of arrows in my quiver, it was the next afternoon and I was out on the grass with my newest tutor, who was helping me start to get the hang of the latest update to my slowly growing arsenal.

“Thanks again, Rudolph.” I held up my transformed staff in its bow form and gave it a slightly awkward wave. “Pretty sure I’d manage to poke my own eye out with this if I didn’t have some help.”

The pale-haired boy just shrugged at that, mumbling under his breath, “No big deal.” Straightening, he reached up to his neck and wrapped his hand around the necklace there. As he gave the thing a tug, it pulled off and, in mid-air, extended and transformed into his actual bow. It was pretty similar to the way Tristan’s snake-weapon was disguised, and looked pretty damn cool, to be perfectly honest.

The body of his bow had five buttons along the side. One red, one blue, one white, one green, and one brown. From previous interactions, I knew that each of the buttons determined what kind of arrow would appear when he used the bow. The red button produced arrows that created fire when they hit something, the blue created water arrows, the white one produced arrows that froze things, the green one caused minor shockwaves or earthquakes when they hit, and the brown one created normal arrows for times when he didn’t actually want any kind of special effect. It was the brown one that he hit now.

As the arrow appeared in its place, notched against the string, Rudolph pulled it back and sighted in on the target that he had set up in the distance. After checking to make sure that no one was nearby, he released the arrow and sent it into the target. It didn’t hit the exact center, but it was pretty close.

“Like that,” he announced while lowering the bow. His voice was calm. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but could you just take a shot and show me what you do to start and we’ll go from there?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” Nodding, I put my fingers against the energy-string on my own bow and waited for the arrow construct to appear before pulling it back. Sighting in on the target, I took a few seconds to aim before releasing it. The arrow soared through the air… passed the target completely and hit a tree in the distance, sending a shockwave through it that made a handful of colorful birds erupt from the canopy while loudly calling out their annoyance for everyone to hear.

“Uh.” I coughed quietly at the sight of the fleeing birds, flinching a little bit as my face went pink. “Whoops?” Shrugging awkwardly, I added, “I guess maybe I’ve got more than a little practicing to do.”

Even laid-back Rudolph couldn’t restrain his smirk at that as he waved a hand. “S’okay,” he replied. “We’re just starting. When I used my bow the first time, I almost shot Sovereign. Aylen wasn’t happy.”

“Ouch.” Wincing at the thought of how the metal bird and his owner would’ve reacted to having arrows coming his direction, I nodded “Yeah, that was probably bad. But hey, at least you’re better now.”

“And you will be too,” he promised. “Just let me show you a bit. Take up your position again, and–”

Before he could say anything else, however, we were interrupted by Professor Kohaku. The Asian woman approached with her hand up for our attention. Once she was close enough, she gestured to my bow. “I see Nevada has finished your weapons upgrade, Miss Chambers. How does it feel?”

I coughed again, flushing as I glanced to the bow. “It feels like I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.”

“You will before too long,” she assured me with a slight smile. “Mr. Parsons has already learned quite a lot. And if his tutelage isn’t enough, I’m sure that Ulysses would be glad to offer his own assistance.”

“Thanks, Professor.” Returning the woman’s smile briefly, I asked “Err, sorry, was there something else we could do for you? Were you looking for Sean or Zeke?” Those were the two that I knew were part of her Security track. Rudolph, like me, was in the Investigation track with Professor Dare.

“Actually, you were the one I was looking for,” Kohaku replied evenly while shaking her head. “You’re probably already aware that students are allowed to change their track specializations each semester in order to broaden their training. I’d like you to consider joining the Security track next semester.”

That made me blink a couple times in surprise. “Switch to the Security track, ma’am?”

“Yes.” She nodded once. “I believe that you could stand to benefit a lot from what we teach.” Pausing, she added, “For example, we partner our track students with members of the actual security team.”

Wyatt, I realized after a moment. She was saying (without actually saying it since Rudolph was there) that if I joined the Security track, I’d have the perfect excuse to spend a lot of time around Wyatt.

Plus, I really could stand to learn more about security, given everything that had happened so far. After a momentary hesitation as I considered, I nodded. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll—um, I’ll think about it.”

Belatedly, I realized something. “Wait, I do have a question. Um, there’s different teachers for the older student tracks, right? How come the Chief of Security is the Track Advisor for the Freshmen instead of someone like Rucker doing it while you advise, say, the seniors?”

“First of all, the fourth-year students do not technically attend many actual classes,” she answered easily. “They’re usually paired with a fully-trained Heretic whose job has something to do with their own chosen specialty, and are sent out as junior partners. As for the rest of it, yes, most of the track advisers only teach one year. Development, Investigation, Hunters, and Explorers all have different advisers for second and third year. But I am the adviser for each of the three years, though I pass that responsibility off as needed to my subordinates, like Reid Rucker. As I said, we partner our Track students with actual security guards, so it’s similar to the way seniors are partnered with full Heretics.”

That made sense. Kohaku didn’t actually have to do as much hands-on teaching as someone like Professor Dare did, because she had an entire staff of tutors to help out. Which meant she could actually technically be ‘in charge’ of the full first though third year Security track.

“I get it.” Nodding to that, I smiled faintly. “Thanks for explaining. Like I said, I’ll think about joining.”

“Good.” Professor Kohaku paused before looking at Rudolph. “You are welcome as well, of course.”

“Thanks.” He shrugged. “Probably not gonna do it, but thanks. No offense. Just not a security guy.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how a guy as laid back as Rudolph happened to be was the investigator type, but he still seemed to get all his work done anyway. He’d probably do fine no matter what track he joined. Except maybe Hunters. There weren’t a lot of shortcuts and ‘easy ways’ to the straight up combat track.

But if there was, I was pretty sure Rudolph would find a way.

******

“Normally, you will have to carve the runes into your wooden block yourself,” Gaia informed me that night. “As well as invest enough time and power to make the theriangelos spell work. In this case, I’ve prepared most of the block ahead of time, so that you can see how the spell works. Next time, however, you will have to do it yourself.”

Blinking at the incredibly elaborate and detailed scripts that literally covered the piece of wood she was holding up, I whistled. “Wow. We have to remember each of those runes and draw them perfectly in the exact right spot? That’s gotta take awhile.”

“I believe that Benji is fond of a certain phrase that applies here,” Gaia replied with a smile. “One that he has taken great pains to repeat ad nauseum in your classes with him?”

Groaning, I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Magic is not fast. Professor Carfried says it all the time. Magic is not fast. I guess he’s got a point. Still, damn, this is… how long does it take to draw all that?”

“You’ll get better and faster at it with practice,” the woman assured me. “For now, simply finish the last line by closing the circle there.” She indicated a spot on the wood. “Then I will help you invest enough power to make the spell work.”

“You said it was called the… the whatchamangel spell?”

Gaia chuckled, head shaking. “Theriangelos. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word therion, meaning ‘wild animal’ and the word ‘angelos’ meaning–”

“Angel?” I guessed.

“The word angel is derived from angelos, yes,” she confirmed. “But it actually means messenger. Since the spell was initially often used to carry messages that couldn’t be sent by other means, it was given the name ‘animal messenger’ spell.”

“Animal messenger, got it,” I nodded slowly, looking down at the block before accepting it from the woman’s hand along with the black marker. After a moment of hesitation, I closed the last circle.

As I did so, Gaia put her hand over mine and pressed it flat against the block. “Focus on your own power and speak the words that appear on the wall in front of you,” she instructed. “Don’t worry about running out of strength, I will provide my own for you to draw from.”

So, I did. Keeping my hand against the block, I looked up to the wall and began to recite the words that appeared there in glowing script. As Gaia had said, I would eventually have to remember how to do the spell myself (or just write the specifics down and keep it with me), but for now, she helped.

Even then, it took a solid minute to recite the full spell as the words kept appearing. And through it all, I continually pushed my power into the block of wood. I could feel Gaia helping, guiding my own efforts and providing energy for me to draw from. My own incredible stamina helped a lot, but even then there was a difference between the energy I had to go for a run and the energy I had to perform magic. Without Gaia’s help, I probably couldn’t have finished.

Eventually, however, the spell was done. I felt the wood grow hot in my hands. As I dropped it, the wood floated instead of falling. It spun away from me, flying through the air before starting to glow with a bright, almost blinding red and gold color.

As the light faded, the wood wasn’t there anymore. Instead, settling down onto the floor, there was a beautiful fox. Its main body was ruby red, while the underside that would have been white on a normal fox was gold.

I also had the incredibly strange sensation of seeing myself and Gaia. It was weird. I was sitting there watching this gorgeous fox perch on the floor. But I was also looking up at my own body, seeing through the eyes of the animal itself. Herself. However that was supposed to work.

And not only that, I could also smell a lot more than I’d been able to before. My senses of smell and hearing through the fox was incredible.

It was weird, trying to focus on both at the same time. I ended up almost giving myself a headache, staggering a little.

“Shh,” Gaia put a hand on my back. “Close these eyes and focus on seeing through the fox. Focus on controlling the fox. Don’t worry about this body, worry about that one. See if you can make her move.”

Shivering a little, I leaned back against her reassuring touch while letting my eyes drift shut. Then I focused my attention on the animal, seeing through her eyes instead of my own.

Two things I knew for sure. First, I really liked this spell.

And second, given a fox’s general reputation for trickery and spying, I really didn’t see it going well if Ruthers found out what my animal spirit was.

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