Trice

Interlude 5A – Miles (Heretical Edge 2)

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Author’s Note: Miles Cleary was introduced here:  https://ceruleanscrawling.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/mini-interlude-63-son-of-the-bogeyman/

“I can’t believe we still have no idea where Fossor is, even after months of talking to that Flick girl.” Chas Mena, his brow furrowed in annoyance, muttered. The Latino boy was crouched behind a pile of metal scraps in a junkyard somewhere in northern Virginia. He held one of his falx (essentially a curved sword with a long handle whose sharpest part was the inside of the blade curve rather than the outside, functioning similar to a sickle) loosely in his right hand while looking over his shoulder at the boy crouched behind him. “We’ve seriously got bupkis?” 

Miles Cleary, hybrid son of a Kejjerfiet (or bogeyman), grimaced and shook his head. “Yeah, like I said before, we’ve been talking a bit since that first night. She knows my parents were taken by him, but she’s just as lost on where to find him as we are. And believe me, she really wants to find him. He’s got her mom too, after all.” Even as he said it, the dark-haired, olive-skinned boy was leaning up a bit to peek over the edge of their junk mound. “You think they’ll show? Err, these guys, I mean.”

Behind Miles, red-haired Kaleigh muttered, “They better show up, and soon. I’m gonna be pretty pissed off if I don’t get to beat the hell out of a bunch of pieces of shit slaver cocksuckers before the day is over. I was promised pieces of shit slaver cocksuckers to fight.” 

Miles and his team (the six of them had chosen to insist on fully sticking together after joining the new rebellion once Chambers and Headmistress Sinclaire had blown the lid open about the old one) were basically considered third year students. They had, after all, been at the very end of their second year when all that went down. Thus, they were all well-over eighteen and allowed to fight without an adult escort or supervisor on what should be low-risk missions. Though they did all have an emergency exit spell attached to them just in case things went sideways, as well as the ability to summon much stronger aid if it came down to that. 

The other three members of the team (Slavic-looking Royce Jacoby, Caucasian Jason Trips, and dark-skinned Emily Perry) were hidden on the opposite side of the junkyard clearing behind more garbage. Between the two trios was an arena-shaped space where they had it on good authority that a group of Alter slavers was planning on bringing their latest catch for a bit of what they called ‘training’ before the group would be sold off. Specifically, according to the small pink-skinned creature who had spoken to Miles, a certain necromancer whom he had been looking for any information on was looking to buy a large batch of fighting-capable slaves. 

Miles had brought this mission to the attention of the adult (well, older adult) Heretics in the rebellion and had gotten permission to run it. The six of them would save the slaves here before they could be taken and, in the process, hopefully get some real information about how these guys were planning to take their stock to Fossor. Which would be the very best chance he’d ever had of actually finding the fucking bastard who had taken his parents away. 

Miles wasn’t stupid. He knew the odds of his parents actually being alive by this point after being thrown into the necromancer’s fighting arena for so long were slim to the point of nonexistence. But he still had to find out for sure. He had to know what happened to his mother and father. And if they were dead… then the necromancer would fucking pay for that. 

He’d asked if Felicity Chambers and her own group should be involved in this. After all, it was the best chance they had to get solid info about Fossor. But he’d been informed that she was in the middle of something else very important that couldn’t wait. Something about a civil war in Las Vegas or whatever. Both of their missions were apparently very time-sensitive. 

So, Miles would just use this to find out what he could and then share with the Chambers girl if it (hopefully) turned up anything useful. A pessimistic part of him kept pointing out that this was far from the first time they’d had a promising lead like this, only for it to turn into nothing important. But he pushed that part down as firmly as possible, burying it beneath a weight of optimism. They were going to take these slavers and get what they needed to know to find Fossor. Period. 

The sound of a truck arriving at the front gate of the junkyard snapped Miles out of his musing. A quick glance to the other two showed they were just as alert as him, and the three crouched down tighter against their garbage cover. Not that it mattered. They were using a spell that would make it almost impossible to spot them from a distance, camouflaging their forms for anyone who wasn’t part of the spell. They had to stay relatively still for it to work, within the same foot or so of space. But still, it was pretty good as far as ambushing someone went. 

The sound of the vehicle grew closer, and Miles watched intently as the truck pulled up the narrow road, entering the circular arena-like space. It was one of those military transport trucks with the canvas covering the back where the cargo (or people) would be. A large purple-black ogre was running alongside the truck, adding his own distinct hard thumping footfalls. Meanwhile, a seven-foot-tall gray-skinned figure with three eyes, a very thin nose, and what looked like sharp razor-blades sticking out of every inch of his exposed body was hanging off the driver’s side door, suction-cup-like feet planted against the metal to keep him in place. 

After the truck entered the arena, it did a full circuit, pulling all the way around before ending up half-way out of the entrance with the back of the truck pointed inward. It stopped then, and the razor-blade guy hopped down while the ogre stepped up to yank the rear door open. 

This was it. But they couldn’t move yet. Not until they saw exactly what they were dealing with. Eager as Miles was to actually do this already, jumping the gun would just get them all hurt or killed. They had no idea who or what the rest of these slavers were. No, they had to be patient and watch until it was clear that they wouldn’t be hit with any horrible surprises. 

Even as he thought that, however, the boy slipped a hand into his pocket and produced the bluetooth-like device that served as the control for his personal Heretic weapon. It slipped over his ear, and he whispered, “Queen Bee, rise to court.” With that command phrase uttered, he felt the metal gauntlet on his arm hum to life. When this went down, he would be ready. 

With a bellowed command, the ogre stepped back and gestured. His razor-covered partner joined him, along with a blue-skinned humanoid with short tentacles covering the entire lower-half of his face area who had apparently been driving. The three of them watched with obvious impatience while an assortment of tattered-looking, ragged prisoners dressed in torn, dirty clothing and with obvious bruises (along with the remnants of blood) stumbled out of the truck. All had their various arms or other similar limbs cuffed in front of them, and wore what looked like explosive collars on their necks. One stumbled and was grabbed by the ogre before being contemptuously tossed about fifteen feet to land on his face in the dirt. The slavers all roared with laughter, exchanging what sounded like dark jokes with one another before ordering the rest of the slaves to keep moving, lest they end up being hurled even further. 

The sight made Miles’ blood boil. He felt the anger, the rage at that injustice rise up in him. But he pushed it down. No. Not yet. Not yet. They had to be careful. They had to do this right. It wasn’t like they would get another chance at something like this. If they went stampeding in and got these people killed because they had underestimated the threat, he’d never forgive himself. Especially because he wouldn’t be able to convince himself that he’d done it to try to save them and not just because he was eager to get information about Fossor. 

So, he pushed that down and let out a long breath. On either side of him, he could see his two companions looking just as angry as he felt. They too pushed it down and kept watching. Chas and Kaleigh knew as well as he did what the stakes of all this were, as did their friends on the far side of the arena. 

As if to prove that point, once all the slaves were moving, they were joined by two more figures who emerged from the back of the truck. These were massive armored humanoids who looked a fair bit like anthropomorphic rhinos complete with horns. One carried what looked like an oversized minigun, while the other had a giant hammer. They had clearly been guarding the prisoners back there and would easily have ambushed Miles and the others if they’d jumped to attack right then. 

The soon-to-be-sold slaves were all ordered to line up, and then the slavers themselves started debating amongst themselves and forcing their prisoners to move back and forth in the line. After a minute of that, Miles realized they were being arranged from the ones that looked the most capable of holding their own in a fight down to the ones who looked the least capable. Yeah, this group was definitely being set up for arena duty. They were probably planning on running at least a couple practice rounds here. 

If only this was the place that piece of shit Fossor would come pick up his ‘property.’ But no, Miles’ contact had made it very clear that the necromancer never went to someone else’s site or anywhere he hadn’t thoroughly vetted on his own. They would have information about coming to a site of his choice. And that was the info that Miles and his friends were there to get. 

Well, hopefully. This wasn’t exactly the first lead of this variety or similar that they’d tried to run down. There had been a few others over the summer. But they kept getting closer. And with Chambers’ birthday coming up soon, their time frame was getting a lot more pressing. 

At least they still had a few weeks to go. They could totally pull this off, locate Fossor, and drop a whole fucking army worth of Heretics and Alters in his lap to put him down, or whatever they needed to do. The point was, Miles would either save his parents, or… or get closure. 

But first, they had to rescue these slaves and get answers out of the assholes who were about to sell them. And from the look of things, these were all they were dealing with. One ogre, one guy covered in razor blades, two rhino guys, and the blue guy with small tentacles where his mouth should have been. 

Checking to be sure their privacy spell was holding, Miles touched the communication badge. “Royce, what’re we dealing with?” As he said it, he sent a mental command through the queen bee attached to his ear. Immediately, his gauntlet transformed, briefly appearing as the hundreds of tiny cyberform bees that made up its individual parts before half of them turned into a longsword that fit into his hand and the other half became a shield on his left. 

The response came immediately. “You know the ogre. He’s gonna be big, slow, and clumsy, but strong as shit. Don’t let him hit you, keep moving. Try zigzagging because they have issues tracking rapid movement. The rhino guys are called Hyneders. They’re faster than they look, once they start moving in a straight line basically nothing can stop them, and any non-living material they touch, they can turn into the same metal as their horns and then manipulate it with their thoughts. 

“Razor blade guy is a Pinudeu. Shoots and mentally directs those razors, and he can camouflage himself. Tentacle-mouth dude is a Nautilen. Blows a shit-ton of water out of his mouth like a fire hose and can control it. Only the water he creates, though. There’s something special about it. I think he’s also got a bit of regeneration and he can send an electric pulse over his body, so watch out if you’re touching him. Plus, if he sends the electric pulse while blowing water, it carries through the liquid.”

They spent another few seconds discussing tactics while watching what was going on. It was clear that the slavers were having issues settling on exactly how their product should be arranged. They can’t agree on where their people should be standing, arguing over who was the strongest. Everyone had their own opinions, and they were voicing them loudly. That worked for Miles, because it gave his team time to come to a firm decision on how they were going to play this. 

Unfortunately, in the end it didn’t matter at all. Because literally right as he was about to count down for the team to attack, the ground underneath the slavers and their prisoners, throughout the arena area, suddenly began to glow bright blue. The words died on Miles’ lips, as he stared in confusion. Kaleigh was asking what the fuck was going on, and he could hear the same general confusion coming from the slavers themselves. They were clearly just as lost, turning in circles to look around as the ground kept glowing brighter and brighter. Some time earlier, Miles had gained the ability to sense and vaguely understand magic energy. And right now, there was so much magical energy coming off the ground that it almost hurt to look at. As for what it was doing… it was… wait, this energy was actually draining power from the people standing on it, who were making it stronger. The energy was…

Miles stared for another couple seconds, then pivoted. His hands lashed out to grab Kaleigh and Chas by either arm, as he blurted through the com badge, “Get down!” The three of them flung themselves away from that spot, while the sense of power grew overwhelming. It was a harsh buzzing in Miles’ head. A second after they hit the ground, there was an explosion of power behind them as the spell came to its head. 

When the dust cleared, metaphorically and literally speaking, Miles, Kaleigh, and Chas picked themselves up and stepped into the now-empty arena clearing. Everything was gone. The truck had been sheared in half, leaving only the bit that was outside of the arena. All the people had disappeared, slaver and slave alike. 

Across the way, Jason, Royce, and Emily emerged as well. Miles felt a rush of relief that they were okay, even as Jason demanded, “What the hell just happened?! What was that?! Where the fuck did they go?” 

“Draining spell,” Miles replied quietly, looking around. “They didn’t go anywhere. They were… disintegrated. Everything in this circle was disintegrated and turned into energy.” 

“Energy… for what?” Emily asked quietly, sounding nervous. “Should we be here?” 

“It’s okay,” Miles assured her. “There’s no more magic here. It was all… used up and sent away. It killed them, disintegrated them into energy and sent it all somewhere else to feed into another spell.” 

“The fuck other spell did they need to sacrifice like… forty fucking living people for?” Kaleigh demanded. 

“A fuck-off strong spell.” 

The answer didn’t come from any of them. Instead, it came from a guy in a brown trenchcoat who entered the arena by stepping around the remains of the truck. He was tall, maybe just out of his teens, with short spiky hair that was dyed green. 

Seeing the guy, Miles instantly sent the mental command for his bees to shift into the form of a rifle, which he pointed that way. “Who’re you?!” 

As everyone turned on him with their weapons raised, the new guy raised both hands to show they were empty. Not that that meant much. “Easy, easy. I’m on your side… sort of… mostly. Anyway, the name’s Trice. But that’s not important. What is important is that I can help you.” 

Exchanging brief looks with the others, Miles frowned at the guy, this… Trice. “How exactly are you going to help us? And what do you mean, a strong  spell?” 

The guy gestured to the ground at their feet. “I said a fuck-off strong spell. That’s what I meant. Fossor sacrificed those people to feed a really god damn powerful bit of magic. Not sure why, yet. But that’s what that was. We do know it was pointed at Vegas.” 

Miles opened his mouth, then stopped. A spell that was pointed at Vegas… His eyes widened, and he blurted a curse. “Fuck! Flick!” 

“Pretty sure Hannah would object to that,” that Trice guy replied dryly. “But hey, whatever you wanna try. Point is, like I said, I’m here to offer some help.” 

“Like Miles said,” Royce put in, “how exactly are you going to help us? And how do you know that Flick girl and… who’s Hannah?” 

“Oh, it’s a long story,” Trice drawled. “Let’s just say we go way back. As for how I can help, ahhh, well, I work for a man named Denuvus.” 

“Denuvus?” Emily blurted, “He’s not real!” 

“He’s obviously just some guy using the name,” Royce insisted. “You know, for effect.” 

Trice shrugged at that. “All I can tell you is that he’s what you might call a long-time enemy of Fossor. And he’s willing to help you get close to the guy. So, you interested?”

“I dunno, man,” Jason muttered. “Seriously, we don’t even know this guy, let alone who he works for. Why should we trust him?” 

Before Miles could respond, Trice spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you call your supervisor? You got a guy who knows you’re out here, right? Call him down, explain what’s up. Then you’ll have an adult with you. That’s safer, right?” 

The guy had a point, so Miles called it in. He explained the situation to the Heretic who had known they were out here, who had said that Flick and the others were too busy to help out with this. Once he got all that out, the man promised he’d be right there. And a few seconds later, he was. A portal appeared, and their supervisor emerged. 

“So, this is bullshit, right?” Chas demanded. “No way we should go with this guy.” 

“What about Flick?” Miles quickly put in. “That spell was targeting her, right? Is she okay? What–did he–” 

Dusting himself off, the adult Heretic shook his head. “No, she’s not. She’s gone, Miles. That spell took her straight into Fossor’s hands. Which… yeah, that basically makes this right here our best shot at getting her back, and at dealing with Fossor once and for all. We’ve gotta hear him out, at least. But don’t worry, I’ll go with you. We’ll stick together. It’ll be okay. 

“Whatever this Denuvus guy wants,” Klassin Roe added, “we can handle it.” 

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Summer Epilogue 6 – Trice and Denuvus (Heretical Edge)

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Leaning against one of the posts holding up an exit sign along the freeway, Trice watched cars continue to stream by. The green-haired boy wore his usual long brown trenchcoat. It wasn’t his coat, of course. Not any more than the pike secured to his back was his pike. Who the hell even knew where those were now. But they were, at least, perfect replicas provided by his current patroness.

Speaking of whom, he looked over his shoulder to where the small, dark-haired woman herself sat on a chair she had conjured on the far side of the sign. The chair projected some kind of magical cloaking field that rendered both of them invisible to the cars passing by. “So,” the boy started, “not that taking Heretic prisoners doesn’t sound fun. But what’s the point? And–” He paused, blinking at the woman. “Are you reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?”

“Mmmhmm,” Denuvus murmured, her eyes on the book in her hands. Her voice was absent, attention clearly on the writing in front of her. “I kept meaning to, but time has a habit of getting away from you when you live for centuries. I do hope that Harry finds out who’s been petrifying all the students.” Closing the book then, she used it to point at the boy “And I promise, if you spoil it for me, I will be quite cross.”

Trice squinted at her for that. “I’m kind of surprised you’re rooting for the good guys. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t you kind of a megalomaniacal supervillain?”

Dropping the book onto the chair as she stood, Denuvus replied, “I’m a lot of things. But medically speaking, no. First of all, they don’t use the term megalomania anymore. Now it’s narcissistic personality disorder. And I don’t have that. I can fake it pretty well, but that’s not me. I want you to keep that in mind. Everything I do is not because of a mental disorder. It’s because I choose to do it. Because I chose a very long time ago to put three things above everything else. My life, my comfort, and my revenge. I know exactly who I am, what I’m doing, and why.”

It was the first time she’d said that much about herself, and Trice found himself blinking. “Revenge?”

“That book has me pontificating,” Denuvus muttered, waving a hand to make the book and the chair it was sitting on vanish. “Let’s just say that my sister and I were once more… Dobby than Harry Potter. We had a master, and everything I do is geared toward one day destroying him.”

Biting his lip as he wondered if he should even say anything, Trice found himself asking, “You have a sister?” What the hell, if she didn’t want him to talk about it, she could always make him shut up. She could technically make him do anything she wanted. Actually, the fact that she had yet to use her true power on him aside from demonstrating that she could was a little confusing.

“I had a sister,” Denuvus informed him in a matter-of-fact tone. “And then I killed her.”

“Damn,” Trice managed. “That’s cold. You must’ve really hated her.”

The woman’s voice was soft, mind clearly elsewhere. “I loved her with all my heart. She was all I had. We were all each other had. In my entire life, she was probably the only person I ever truly loved besides myself. In all the centuries that have passed, I’ve never stopped missing her. Not once. Not for a single day. But I had a choice once, to escape with my sister and leave our revenge unfulfilled. Or to sacrifice her to gain the power I needed to one day make him pay for everything he did. I made my choice.”

For a moment, Trice was silent. He shifted from foot to foot, mind racing before finally speaking up once more. “That all sounds pretty personal. Why the hell are you telling me about it?”

“As I said, that book has me speaking too much,” she replied before turning her gaze on him. “And because I want you to understand. I am not a maniac. I will not turn on you for no reason. I know precisely what I’m doing and why. As long as you are either helpful or at least not a hindrance to that, we will have no quarrel. But the moment you think about making me regret taking you out of that cell, remember that I sacrificed my sister to achieve my goals. And I have only become more determined since that time.”

Swallowing, the boy gave a quick nod. “Yeah, point taken. I get it, believe me. Besides, it’s not like I’ve got anywhere to go. That Chambers chick might’ve restarted the whole rebellion thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m still persona non grata with the Heretics. And since that whole magical info download shit she did actually didn’t mention the body-snatching fuckweasels you say were responsible for Torv’s death, I get the feeling that I’ve got a better chance of making them pay by staying with you. Doxer’s dead and… and I don’t know what the hell happened to Pace. There’s nothing for me to go back to. Whatever you’re doing, I’m with you.” He paused then before gesturing to the freeway. “But like I said, I still dunno what the point of taking Heretic prisoners is. It seems kind of… loud and obvious. The kind of loud and obvious that gets attention. And from everything you’ve said, attention is something you usually avoid.”

“Attention can have its uses,” she reminded him. “Having a reputation, even if only by your name, tends to open a lot of doors. If I wanted to disappear entirely without leaving a trace, I could have done so centuries ago, and lived quite comfortably. But comfort is not my only goal. Sometimes to accomplish what one needs to, one must… make a little noise.”

With that, the woman began to walk toward the freeway, stepping over the guardrail. “And we’re not taking Heretic prisoners.” Her hand rose to flag down passing trucks. “We’re saving them.”

Before Trice could ask what that meant, a semi pulled to the side, slowing as it came right up alongside them on the shoulder. When it stopped, the woman opened the door, using it to haul herself up to look at the expectant driver. “Hi,” she started. “My name is Denuvus. I need you to do something for me.” Leaning closer, she whispered something Trice didn’t catch, then hopped down, closed the door, and pounded her fist against it twice. Apparently the driver took that as a signal, because the truck started moving again, pulling back out onto the freeway.

“What’d you tell him t–” Trice started before cutting himself off as he watched the semi. Rather than actually pull back into a lane to drive on, the man was maneuvering the truck and trailer across all four lanes of traffic, blocking all of it before stopping entirely. Immediately, horns began to blare as cars and trucks were forced to come to a quick halt. There were a few fender benders, which only added to the obnoxious horns. Those were quickly accompanied by shouts.

Trice’s mouth opened, but Denuvus was already moving, walking along the shoulder toward the quickly mounting traffic jam. With a sigh, he followed, keeping his eyes open for any kind of threat. Not that he expected one right here, but stranger things had happened. Like little Hannah Owens becoming a certified badass, for one. Who could’ve seen that one coming?

He still didn’t know how he felt about that… hurgh, he was trying not to think of her as a bitch. Especially after having time to think about this whole Seosten… situation. But whatever. It wasn’t like he wanted to sing Kumbaya with the–damn it, with her. He still didn’t like her. And she was still the one who had killed his little brother. But now he had bigger fish to fry. Angel fish.

Heh, angel fish. Yeah, that was a good one.

They approached a red van that was stopped in the middle of the rapidly growing line of cars. Five figures sat in the van, all of them watching. As the two got closer, several of the van’s doors opened, and the figures emerged.

“Whatever you want,” the man who had been driving started, “you need to turn around and walk away.” He stepped around the front of the van then, ignoring a few horn honks that were directed his way. “Ain’t a single person here who’s in any mood for games.”

Trice looked the man up and down briefly. He looked to be in his mid-forties as far as Bystanders would be concerned, not that that was any actual indicator of anything. At least, the boy thought it was forties. Sometimes it was hard to remember what normal human aging was supposed to look like. In any case, he had dark blond hair that fell just past his ears, and a face  that looked oddly off-centered. His nose seemed to be set slightly off from his eyes, and his mouth seemed further off-set than that. It was like his entire face had been set at a very slight, yet noticeable diagonal angle rather than a vertical one. Not enough to be clearly unnatural or anything, but definitely enough for the man to stand out in a crowd.

“Hey, you don’t wanna come with us, that’s up to you,” Denuvus replied then, her voice taking on a more casual bordering on arrogant tone than the one she normally used. It was the voice of a confident and competent person who was not necessarily a leader. The voice of someone who followed orders well. Exactly how the woman managed to portray that much in a single sentence was beyond Trice, but it was the exact impression he got. And judging from the looks the people who had just gotten out of that van gave each other, they felt the same.

“Why would we come with you?” the man with the uneven face demanded with a squint. “I’ve never seen you before. And that one–” He looked toward Trice. “Something tells me he’s got a tattoo on his arm. An apple with a dagger in it? Am I getting close?”

“He used to be part of Eden’s Garden, yeah,” Denuvus confirmed. “But he’s not now. And neither am I. What we are, is your ticket out of here without being picked up by your old friends from Crossroads.” She shrugged. “Of course, if you’d rather take them on… I’m sure they’ve noticed the delay by now. They should be here any second.”

“What?” one of the women in the group spoke up. She had light brown skin and looked like she was in her very early twenties, her eyes pale green. “What do you mean? There’s Crossroads people here?” She looked to the man in charge then, adding a quick, “I told you they’d track us down, Barrus. Now what the hell are we supposed to do?” Her words were echoed by the others, who were all already looking around as though expecting to be jumped any second.

“Stop,” Barrus retorted, his eyes on Denuvus. “We don’t even know who these people are. For all we know, they’re part of a trap.”

“Not a trap,” Denuvus corrected. “An opportunity. We don’t have time to explain, but if you come with us, we will. The men from Crossroads are a few miles up the road. They were waiting for you to come by. Like I said, they’ll have already noticed the delay and the lack of cars. So they’ll be coming. I dunno who they are, but there’s one guy. He like… he looks like a buff Santa? Only change the suit for this red chainmail stuff, and he uses a chaingun with–”

“Kalvers,” Barrus snarled the name with clear hatred. “That’s him. Fuck. If he’s up there…” He trailed off, looking toward the others as if thinking about how much trouble they were in.

“Our employer sent us to offer you a way out,” Denuvus put in, making Trice glance to her. He kept all surprise off his face though. She’d told him enough to understand that she tended to play things this way. “We have an escape portal right over the ridge there. But we need to go.”

“And who is your… employer?” Barrus asked with clear suspicion in his voice. “Why should we believe that you’re–”

“Barrus!” the woman who had spoke a moment earlier blurted, “we don’t have time!”

“Your friend is right,” Denuvus agreed, stepping back. “You can do what you want, but we’ve got no intention of staying here while those Crossroads people come to see what the hold-up is. Follow or don’t, it’s up to you. But I’ll tell you this much, you come with us and we’ll make you an offer. If you don’t like it, you can walk away. No hard feelings. Either way, you get out of this place.”

She was walking then, and Trice quickly pivoted to follow. He resisted the urge to look back, instead using his enhanced hearing and his new ability (thanks to a brief fight with a Stranger that Denuvus had procured) to manipulate and sense cloth to keep track of the people behind them. There was a brief delay, but then all five followed them. Warily, but they did follow, while the sound of blaring horns and screaming people faded into the background.

As promised, there was an active portal just over the ridge by the time the group got there. It glowed with power, a shimmering blue door-shaped light. Reaching it, Denuvus stepped aside. “I know you guys don’t have any reason to trust us,” she announced simply, “but we’re just here to do a job. That job is to get you out of here so our employer can make you an offer. That’s it. Trice?” She nodded to him. “You go first.”

Giving the group of wary Crossroads Heretics a brief glance, Trice shrugged. “Sure, whatever.” He stepped through the portal then, ending up exactly where he expected: an empty restaurant. The place had been cleared out specifically for this. The tables were all immaculate, the view through the nearby floor to ceiling windows extraordinary as they overlooked the bustling city of New York. This restaurant, set in the fifteenth floor of the building, was normally packed from opening to closing. But Denuvus had a way of… making things like that change, whether she used her power or not. Be it natural charisma, favors she was owed, money put into the right hands, or, failing all of that, her power, she generally got anything she wanted.

Turning as he stepped away from the portal, Trice watched as the five Heretics came through, followed finally by Denuvus herself before the portal closed behind them.

“What–” one of the other guys, a small, skinny guy with pale skin and red hair who looked like he wasn’t even twenty-one yet, blurted. “I know this place. My girlfriend and I got in a couple summers ago. Her dad had an in with the Minutemen and they pulled some strings. But it’s never empty. What the hell?”

“Our employer knows how to pull a few strings,” Denuvus demurely replied with a tiny smile. “He thought you might enjoy a nice, private lunch in one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York. Afterward, we can talk a little business. If you don’t like what you hear, any or all of you free to walk away.”  

“Who exactly is this employer?” Barrus asked, his tone a bit lighter than it had been, yet still clearly tinged with unease and suspicion. “And who are you people? We don’t even know your names. Except you called that one Trice.”

“You’re right, sorry,” Denuvus admitted. “Yes, he’s Trice. I’m Glaive. As for who we work for… have you heard the name… Denuvus?”

Apparently they had, because all five people blurted different things at once. Trice heard completely different things from each of them. One said that Denuvus was dead, another that he was a monster, another that he was a hero, the fourth that he had never existed at all, and the fifth that he was a Stranger who pretended to be a Heretic.

“Oh, Denuvus is very much real, and alive,” Denuvus assured them with a faint smile. “And he’s ready and willing to offer each of you  food, shelter, power, money, and everything you need to take this battle to the people who really deserve it, the ones responsible for this whole situation.”

That made the quintet look to each other once more, exchanging silent conversation before they looked back to the woman. “No offense,” the brown-skinned woman started, “but you kind of came out of nowhere. You say you saved us from a Crossroads ambush, which, if so, thanks a lot. But we don’t know anything about you. And you say this Denuvus guy, if he’s even real, is going to help us take the war against Crossroads?”

“No.” Denuvus’s voice was blunt. “That’s not what I said. What I said was that he wants to help you fight the people who are responsible for this situation. That’s not Crossroads. They’re as much victims as anyone else in all this. Some more willing than others, but still.”

“The hell are you talking about?” the red-haired man demanded, his eyes squinting. “You trying to say that Eden’s Garden is behind all of this shit?”

“They’re victims too,” Denuvus informed them. Her eyes scanned over the group, pausing as if she was trying to decide just how much to tell them this early.

“Spit it out,” Barrus snapped, his fists visibly tightening. “Or we walk out of here right now.”

“Okay, okay.” Waving a hand as if in surrender, while Trice knew she’d wanted to be talked into sharing this the entire time, Denuvus took a breath. “You want to know who the real enemies are? You want to know who’s responsible for manipulating all of Crossroads and all of Eden’s Garden? I’ll tell you all about them. I’ll tell you who your real enemies are.

“They’re called the Seosten…”

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Interlude 36A – Trice

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Every day was the same. Wake up, find breakfast waiting on a small tray in the middle of the tiny cell. Then he would spend the first part of the morning exercising as much as the cramped space allowed, including some work with the free weights that the Crossroads Headmistress had spelled to pop into the room at that time before disappearing again exactly sixty minutes later. Not that he could have used them to escape even if they had stayed permanently.

After that, Trice would spend the rest of the morning studying. Sinclaire had set educational books to pop into the cell at that time. Not that he had the faintest fucking clue what the point of that was, unless the bitch just couldn’t get over her compulsive need to educate everyone.

Either way, he would study the college-level textbooks until lunch, when more food would arrive. In the afternoon, there would be a random test focusing on one of the subjects from that morning. He never knew which one it would be, so he had to study all of them. And the reason he studied at all was because of the reward. If he failed the test (which in Sinclaire’s world was apparently anything worse than a C), he was only given more study materials to work on.

However, if he passed the test with a C, he was given a choice of fictional books to read for the rest of the day, including through dinner. A B would earn books and his choice of music, while an A earned the above as well as a single movie that would be projected on the wall of the cell during and after his supper. Then it would be lights out around ten in the evening, before they repeated the exact same thing the next day. This had been going on for so long that Trice had lost track of what day it was. Or even what month. He asked now and then and was told, but he didn’t know if he believed the answer. And lately it hadn’t seemed to matter. One day was the same as any other. Who cared what the actual date was?

That particular day started like any other. The boy opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling of the cell for a few long, quiet seconds before he slowly sat up. Turning on the cot, he put his feet down on the bare cement floor while staring down at them. Another day that would be just like any of the others. Would Sinclaire visit him that day? She hadn’t for awhile. It was like she was distracted by something else. Something more important than him. He knew that someone was at least making sure he was still alive and getting all of his food, study materials, and rewards, but whether it was Sinclaire or someone else, they didn’t deign to interact with him.

Words echoed within his head as he sat there, staring at the floor. Hannah’s words, accusing him of helping the people who had fucked with his brother’s head to make the boy attack her. Her vicious, emotional diatribe about how the two of them could have made the monsters pay for what they did to Torv, but that he had actually been helping them instead. Accusations bounced around wildly inside the boy’s head so much that he had long-since lost track of whether they came from things that Hannah had actually said… or what he himself thought.

Was is it true? Had they been helping the same people who engineered Torv’s death? At the time, he had denied it the same as he denied all of her excuses. The girl had clearly led his brother on all that time, and then attacked him for making a move. That was what he told himself, anyway. She deserved to be put down for killing his brother. Didn’t she?

Or did he feel guilty himself for his part in things? After all, he had been the one to tell Torv to make his move when the boy had come to him confessing all the feelings that he had for the girl. He’d been going on and on about how much he wanted her, to the point of obsession. Trice had told him to go for it, had encouraged him to take the leap and get in on that while he could.

Their entire conversation had played itself out in the boy’s head over and over again, unrelentingly for months. Was what he had seen as simple, possibly incredibly drunk enthusiasm and ranting about love actually Torv being affected by some magical spell? Had he himself contributed to it by encouraging the boy to make his move?

Had he helped to send his own brother to his death by not recognizing that his mind had been affected somehow? Could he have stopped it? Could he have saved his brother’s life right then?

Had he been helping the same monsters who engineered Torv’s death in the first place?

Seosten. That’s what Sinclaire had called them during one of their brief conversations. The Seosten had been his mysterious benefactors, the ones who had hated Hannah so much and seemed to have such unlimited resources. According to Sinclaire, the Seosten were the monsters behind Torv’s death, as well as a bunch of other shit.

With those thoughts weighing even more heavily on his mind than usual, Trice reached down for the breakfast tray. His fingers found nothing, and the boy turned slightly to look for it.

There was no tray. No breakfast at all. It wasn’t there. That never happened, never. For all that he might complain about the time he had spent locked up in here like an animal, there had always been plenty of food and water for him. Slowly, the boy frowned before raising his gaze for the first time to the rest of the cell.

The door was open. That was the first thing that he noticed. It was just sitting open. And beyond, he saw trees and sand, rather than the same dull cement room that had always been there before. Trees and sand? Open cell door? Now how was Sinclaire trying to fuck with his head?

For a few long seconds, the boy didn’t even move. He remained seated there on the cot, half-convinced that the Crossroads Headmistress, or even Hannah herself, were about to reveal themselves. But nothing happened. No one was there. It was just… an open door.

Well shit, what else was he supposed to do? If this was a test of some kind, he had no idea what the point was. With a sigh, the boy stood up, and moved to the open doorway. Hesitantly, he put his hand up with him space, expecting to find a force field.

His hand went straight through instead. There was nothing to stop him from stepping out. So he did just that, finding himself standing barefoot on the soft, warm sand beyond. He was on a beach somewhere. Not the Crossroads beach. There was no school in the distance. And the sand looked different from what he had seen of that place. It was even softer, lighter than the sand from that place. The sand was almost as white as paper. The nearby ocean was deep, deep blue. The whole place looked unnaturally, (probably literally) magically, beautiful.

One of those tropical birds let out a loud cry from overhead, and the boy’s gaze snapped up toward it. He saw a flock of them flying up there, disappearing into a stand of trees in the distance. His eyes followed their flight path briefly, until slight shift in the air nearby made his head snap back around, already shifting himself into a defensive stance reflexively.

A man stood there, a dark-skinned man with pale green eyes and slicked back short black hair. He was wearing black armor of some kind, with a pike that had an electric shock prod at the end. He wasn’t aiming it at Trice, though the boy got the general idea anyway. When he spoke, his voice was calm. Not flat, but almost melodic. “Your presence is required.” With those words, the man lifted his free hand to point down the beach.

“That right?” Trice started, eyes flicking from the man to the direction he was pointing and then back again. “And what if I’m not really in the mood to go that way?” It was a simple question, his tone more curious than actually challenging. He wanted to know where this guy stood.

The man’s response was to touch the trigger on his pike, making that pointed end light up with electricity for just a moment. He didn’t make a move other than that simple demonstration.

“Yeah,” Trice grunted. “That’s about what I thought.” With that, he turned on his heel and began to walk through the warm sand, letting the grains move between his toes. “You know, if you people were gonna take me out of there, you could’ve at least provided shoes.”

There was no response from the man walking behind him. Not that Trice actually expected one. This guy was just a lackey, a grunt doing his job. The boy also had no doubt that he wasn’t the only one escorting him. He was just the only one that they were allowing him to see. No, even if he jumped this guy, there would clearly be others ready to step in.

“You could at least tell me why my powers still aren’t working, you know,” he pointed out after a few more silent seconds had passed. “I’m out of the cell, but I still can’t use them. If you guys were actually freeing me, you’d think you’d fix that too.”

Nothing. No response. Apparently he wasn’t important enough to be escorted by someone who could (or would) actually explain anything to him. Just like Doxer hadn’t been important enough for their supposed ‘allies’ to give the slightest shit about when he fucking died.  

Doxer. Poor Dox was dead. That Chambers girl had killed him. Which, well, they’d been fighting and Dox would’ve killed her given the chance, but still. Every time Trice thought he’d gotten over it, he’d think of something that Doxer would’ve said about this whole situation, and the fucked up reality popped back into his head. Doxer would never make any more crass comments, would never say anything so fucked up that Trice just had to stare at him before laughing despite himself. The two of them, and Pace, would never get drunk and take shots at some of the wild animals out in the forest surrounding the tree again.

Torv would never beg to come along, bothering them like the annoying little shit that he was.

That was still Hannah’s fucking fault, wasn’t it? The fuck did she have to kill Torv for? If he was fucked up by magic, if that was even true, then nothing he’d done was his fault anyway. So why did she have to kill him? That was still… it was still…

Fuck. Fucking fucked fuck. Where was something he could hit? Because he really needed it. This whole situation was fucked beyond belief. Torv… Doxer… and what about Pace? Was she alive? Was she dead? Was she still trying to free him or avenge Doxer? Shit, did she think he was dead too? Did she have the slightest clue what had happened, or did she just think that he and Doxer had both simply disappeared?

Was she still working for the people who had recruited them to do all this, who had set this whole thing up? What the hell was going on out in the real world?

For a few minutes, they just walked like that. Finally, he saw some kind of beach cabin up ahead. It was sitting right up toward the edge of the water, that end of it raised up enough that when the tide came in, the ocean wouldn’t end up in the cabin’s living room. Instead, the water would simply turn the area beneath the beautiful deck into a wading pool.

“Go.” His escort had stopped, and was pointing to the wooden stairs that led up to that deck.

“What?” Trice snapped back at him flippantly, “You’re not coming with?” Getting no response from the man other than that silently raised hand that was still pointing, he sighed. “Right, of course.” He saluted his escort briefly, then turned as ordered to walk to the stairs. Once again, he reached for one of his powers, any of them. Nothing came. He was as helpless now as he had been in that goddamn cell. Probably because these Seosten wanted to find out exactly what he’d told Sinclaire, and where he stood with them, before they actually let him be a threat.

A threat, right. If a quarter of what he had been told (or just inferred) about these fuckers was true, even with every power in his arsenal, Trice was about as much of a threat to them as a fly was to the truck whose windshield it splattered against. Fucking assholes.

There was no one waiting for him on the deck. Because of course, he wasn’t fucking important enough to have someone already sitting there. They would make him wait instead, probably to make that exact point. At least they happened to be gracious enough to have food ready, since they had stopped him from getting actual breakfast. A table had been set up with a veritable feast lining it. Tray after tray of various meats, fruits, cheeses, and desserts adorned every inch of the available space, along with another smaller table with coffee and juice waiting.

Filling a plate as much as he could, and taking a cup of coffee (while trying as best as he could not to cry at the very idea of actually getting coffee rather than simple water for once), Trice set himself down at the nearby empty table, digging into the feast with a ravenous hunger.

The stray thought about poison occurred to him, of course. But he dismissed it just as quickly. If these guys wanted him dead, they could have done so a dozen times before now. No, whatever their deal was, whatever reason they had for freeing him, it wasn’t to turn right around and  poison him. They probably expected him to be blindly grateful for their generosity.

Well, they could expect all they wanted. If these assholes were actually responsible for what happened to Torv, then he didn’t care how much food they offered, or anything else. He was going to find a way to murder the fucking cocksuckers.

Not that he felt any better about Hannah. He’d never liked her, even from the beginning. He’d never seen what his brother liked about her so much, aside from the irrefutable fact that she had eventually grown up to be hot as hell. Hot or not, however, she’d still killed Torv when he wasn’t in his right mind. But if these guys were more responsible, he would make them pay for it.

Okay, maybe the honest truth was that he didn’t know how he felt about the fucking Hannah situation.

Correction, he knew exactly how he felt about fucking Hannah. It was the same way most red-blooded straight men probably felt. But he didn’t know how he felt about the girl specifically, as a person or whatever. It was all so confusing and hard to keep straight. Maybe he’d fucked up by putting all the blame on her so quickly. Maybe he’d allowed his grief about his brother’s death to manipulate him into doing shit he shouldn’t have, into listening to people that he shouldn’t have. And maybe he’d said and done some stupid shit in general.

But what was he supposed to do, just completely forgive that she had killed Torv? His brother wasn’t in his right mind. What he’d done wasn’t his fault. He was a good kid, and Trice had promised to take care of him, had promised that he would do the ugly shit to protect his brother and keep him safe, no matter what.

So maybe he was blaming her instead of himself. He’d been the one who hadn’t noticed that Torv was being affected by some actual spell or whatever. He’d just thought that the kid was finally acting on feelings he’d been suppressing for a long time. Maybe ignoring all that and blaming Hannah had been easier, just because he hadn’t liked her to begin with. Maybe… fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck.

All those thoughts, and more, kept bouncing their way around inside Trice’s head as he finished his meal. Gulping down the last of his coffee, he heard movement behind him as the door of the cabin opened and shut.

Still, he didn’t turn around. “You know,” the boy muttered, “getting me out of Sinclaire’s clutches is really impressive and all. Seriously, I dunno how you managed it, but fucking kudos. Still, the least you could do is give my powers back.”

“A simple spell,” a female voice informed him calmly. “Well, simple for me, anyway. You’ll have your powers back as soon as I’m certain that we are on the same page.”

The boy snorted slightly at that, looking into his empty coffee mug for a moment before retorting, “On the same page? Is that the page where you tell me all about how you Seosten are the ones behind everything that ever fucking happens on this world? Or were you just planning on playing mind games to find out if Sinclaire already told me that part? Seosten, right? That’s how you say it?”

“Seosten?” The voice sounded amused, and Trice finally stood and turned to find an unfamiliar woman with short black hair standing there, watching him with a slight smile.

“Dear child,” the woman drawled, “whoever said that it was the Seosten who freed you?

“My name is Denuvus. Let’s sit down and have a chat about your future.”

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Interlude 30B – Avalon

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Hours after Flick and the others were banished to Seosten space. 

A scream, raw and primal, filled the air as a table was upended, books, papers, and random writing implements scattering in every direction along the floor with a terrifying crash.

“I told you!” the beautiful, dark-haired girl blurted in a rush as she stared at the nearby woman, the only other occupant of this small, out-of-the-way office where she’d managed to escape interrogation by the Committee stooges. “I told you I shouldn’t have a roommate! I told you!”  

Gaia Sinclaire gave a slight nod, her voice quiet and even. “You did indeed tell me that, yes.”  

Avalon turned her head sharply, avoiding her adoptive mother’s patient, caring look. She didn’t want to feel better. She didn’t want to feel safe and protected. She wanted… she wanted… With a frustrated growl, the girl lashed out once more. Her fist hit the nearby wall hard enough to leave a crack in it, an impressive feat for one without any kind of supernaturally enhanced strength. It also hurt, but she welcomed the pain. Physical pain was better than this anguish.

“But you didn’t listen. You didn’t listen.” Her voice cracked, breaking a little as her head shook violently back and forth. “And now look. What happened, just because you wouldn’t listen?”

After waiting a moment to ensure that she was actually expected to answer the question, Gaia inclined her head while replying, “You found someone to open up to, someone you care about.”

“Yeah,” Avalon spoke in a flat, dull voice while her head dropped so that she could stare intently at the floor. “And now look at what that got her. She’s gone. They took her. They… took… her.”

Snapping her head up to glare at the woman with anger that was never truly meant for Gaia herself, the girl demanded, “If you hadn’t made us roommates, they wouldn’t have her now!”

It was ridiculous, absurd. She knew that even as the words left her mouth. Before they left her mouth, even. Both she and Gaia were fully aware of just how wrong what she’d said was. But she still had to say them. Saying something was as close as she could get to doing something.

“My dear Valley.” Gaia’s voice was soft, and came from directly behind Avalon as the woman’s hands settled on her shoulders gently. “I didn’t put the two of you together because I thought that you would never experience any pain or loss because of it. I didn’t introduce you thinking that you would somehow avoid ever knowing the true anguish of the other being in danger.”

“Then why?” Avalon’s voice was plaintive, as she turned to face the older woman directly. “Why would you put us together like that when you knew that it would put Felicity in danger, after she was already in danger? Why would you make things even worse for her, even harder?”

Gaia slowly lowered her hands, resting them on Avalon’s shoulders once more as she spoke clearly. “Avalon, loss and fear of loss is a part of life. Some people say that you have two choices, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with people that you care about, or closing yourself off completely so you never have to risk losing anything. But what they don’t understand is that by closing themselves off, they’ve already lost. In their fear of what they could potentially lose, they’ve actually lost every possible bit of love and friendship they could have had.

“You want to know why I put you two together even though it put you in danger from Felicity’s enemies and her in danger from yours? It’s because the two of you make each other stronger.  You have taught her more this year about protecting herself than she ever would have learned without you. And she has taught you as well. She’s taught you to open up, to trust others. And where Felicity is right now, she is going to survive because of what you taught her. She is strong, and she has that strength, in part, because of you. The two of you make each other better people. You need each other, and she is going to need you when she gets back here.”

Avalon lowered her gaze while shaking her head for a moment. Her shoulders were hunched, and it took time for the girl to find her voice, shaky as it was. “You… really think she’ll be back?” She didn’t sound like herself, even to her own ears. She sounded like a little girl. “They have her. They took her. They’re probably–” She cut herself off, unwilling to continue that thought.

Slowly, Gaia reached out. Her finger found Avalon’s chin, tilting her head up so that the girl had to look into her eyes. “Of all the many powers that I possess, none allow me to see the future with that kind of clarity. But I can tell you this much with the same certainty that I use when saying that the sun will rise in the morning. Felicity Chambers will make those people regret taking her. She will bring them pain and misery, and for many of them, underestimating her will be the last thing that they ever do. Will she make it back here? I believe so. And we will do everything, everything we can to make that happen. You have my word. But never, ever let yourself believe that things would have been easier if you had not opened up to that girl. Life is for living, Avalon. You are meant for much greater things than simply locking yourself away.”

By that point, Avalon’s eyes had closed. Hot, wet tears stung as they escaped to fall freely along her face, leaving her make-up runny and splotched. “But it hurts,” she protested weakly, shaking a little as she clenched her fists tightly. For a moment, she stood like that. “It hurts so much.”

“I know.” Gaia’s voice had softened even more, and she carefully, gently gathered her adopted daughter into her arms, pulling her close as she whispered, “I know it does, my dear, sweet girl.”

The two stood like that for a few minutes before Gaia’s head turned just as there was a simple, quiet knock at the nearby door. She gave Avalon another brief squeeze, then turned and spoke without raising her voice above the gentle whisper she had been using. “Yes, Counselor?”

The door opened then, and Calafia took a single step inside. “Certain members of the Committee have been insisting that we speak to Avalon. But,” she added after giving the girl in question a brief glance, “I believe they would settle for speaking with her mother instead.”

“They will have to settle for that.” Gaia’s voice was firm, brooking no argument. “And they will have to wait until I’ve finished here. Give me another few minutes and then I’ll join you.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment and agreement to that, Calafia paused. Her eyes found Avalon, and she spoke carefully. “For what it’s worth, I hope we find her. And the rest of them.”

Once she had stepped back out of the room, and Gaia indicated it was safe to talk again, Avalon immediately asked, “Have you said anything to her yet? About… about her showing up at Felicity’s house, about helping her father beat the Bystander Effect, about any of it?”

“Not yet,” Gaia answered softly. “That is a conversation that must happen when she is ready to have it. Pushing the issue too soon would be unhelpful.” She looked to the girl then, her voice even more gentle. “Will you be alright for a few minutes while I speak with the Committee?” She raised a hand, snapping her fingers to create a portal nearby. “You may wait in my office.”

“You know I won’t be okay until we get Felicity back,” Avalon replied in a dull voice, already turning to walk that way as she continued. “But yeah, I’ll wait there. Might as well.”

Then she stepped through the portal and into Gaia’s large office with its two-tiered structure, holographic globe in the domed ceiling full of various green, yellow, and red flares marking possible Stranger sightings, and the set of ‘windows’ that the headmistress used to watch over various parts of the world. Specifically, her eyes found the window that had overlooked Felicity’s house while her father had still been living there. It was different now, a view of some random, closed-down video rental store in some random city. Why it was important, Avalon had no idea.  

Sighing, she took a seat at the headmistress’s desk, resting her arms and head on the smooth, polished surface. For a few minutes, the girl did nothing but sit there, eyes closed as she fought against the despair that threatened to overwhelm her despite Gaia’s words. Felicity. Why did they have to take Felicity? Why couldn’t she have stopped them? Why didn’t she… why didn’t…

The girl sighed once more, cursing out loud as she sat up abruptly, trying to knock her own thoughts out of the jumbled mess they had become. She wanted to do something, wanted to accomplish something. But what? Charmiene was dead, and they had no idea who her partner was. What could she possibly do besides sit here at the desk and accomplish absolutely noth–

Standing up so fast that the chair she had been sitting in tipped over and hit the floor, Avalon pivoted and started to move. Crossing the room at something approaching a sprint, she went straight for one of the nearby bookshelves. Whispering a prayer that the thing she was looking for was still there, she started taking books out and flipping through them. The books were spelled so that most people couldn’t even take them without setting off an alarm. Hell, the entire office was spelled that way. But Avalon was one of the very, very few people who were allowed.

It didn’t take long to find it. Halfway through the third book, there was a small metal box inserted in a cutout section. Opening that quickly, the girl took out a small, simple-looking metal key.

“Got you,” she snarled under her breath, not referring to the object itself. Straightening, the girl strode to the nearby door. Grasping the knob, she shoved the key into the lock, taking a breath before quickly shoving it open, stepping through, and letting the door close behind herself.

She wasn’t in the hallway. Or any hallway. Instead, Avalon found herself standing in a dimly lit room, facing a very familiar prison cell with an even more familiar figure standing on the other side of the bars, as if he had somehow been waiting for her to arrive.

“Hannah.” Trice somehow made her birth name sound like the world’s most vile curse. His hands moved to grasp the bars in front of him, making it immediately clear that he wished they were around her throat instead. “What happened? They end up killing that little girlfriend of y-”

Her foot lashed out, kicking the cell door hard enough that it rattled violently, making Trice take a reflexive step back before he caught himself. “Oh,” he announced then, seeing the look on her face. “I guess something bad did happen, huh?” His smile dropped. “Good. I hope it hurts.”

That was all it took. In truth, it would have taken even less. As soon as the boy finished speaking, Avalon was already moving. Her arm snapped up, as her gauntlet created a glowing energy construct in the shape of a blunt pole. It slammed into the boy’s chest, forcing him backwards as she moved forward until he hit the far wall. She held him there, unlocking the cell door with the key while the boy grunted. She tossed the key over her shoulder and to the floor, far enough away from the cell that she would have to use an energy construct to get it back.

Then she was inside the cell, shutting the door behind herself with a definitive clang. With that, she’d locked herself in the same small space as the boy who had been trying to kill her all year.

Trice was staring at her as she kept him pinned against the wall. Meeting his gaze, Avalon announced flatly, “No powers. They don’t work in here. And nobody else. No lackeys, no friends, no bodyguards, no spies. Just the two of us.” Her chin rose. “You’ve been trying to kill me all year.”

With that, she deactivated her gauntlet, freeing the boy as she snarled darkly, “So bring it.”

She didn’t have to tell him twice. The second the energy pole holding him back disappeared, Trice was already moving, and he was still incredibly fast. Despite the time he had spent locked up in the room, the boy’s reflexes and speed hadn’t dulled much, if any. He was suddenly right in front of her, fist swinging for her face while he snarled furiously, “That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch!”

Avalon pivoted, snapping her arm up to deflect the incoming punch. Even that, with her gauntlet blunting most of what was left of the impact, felt like her arm had been hit with a hammer. Pain exploded in her. Good pain. Physical pain. Pain she could understand.

She embraced it.

With a grunt, the girl caught hold of Trice’s outstretched arm, slamming it down into her rising knee as she drove her leg upward. She heard the snap as the bone cracked, and Trice gave a slight inhale of restrained pain. Then his other fist connected with her face, and her head was rocked backward like she’d been hit by a truck.

He hit her again, twice more. Once again in the face, and then in the stomach while letting out a primal bellow of anger. Then he went for a full backhanded blow with the back of his fist. As it came around, Avalon ducked at the last second before pivoting as she popped back up. Catching his arm with one hand and shoulder with the other, she gave the boy a shove against the nearby wall, slamming his face into the concrete there. Then she yanked him back by the hair before slamming his face even harder into the wall.

His flailing elbow caught her in the gut, and Avalon stumbled backward, releasing him. Instantly, the boy spun with a kick that took her in the chest. Pain. More pain. She staggered, while Trice drove the heel of his hand toward her face, hitting her nose hard enough to break it and send blood spraying.

With a violent, crazed scream, the boy grabbed her hair with the hand connected to his cracked arm. Yanking it up so that she had to look at him, he reared back before driving his fist toward her face once more.

Her arms snapped up and together, trapping Trice’s own arm between them just before his fist could reach her. Then her foot lashed out, kicking him in the knee as hard as she could. As he grunted and stumbled, Avalon smacked his other hand away from her hair before ducking and stepping out to put herself on the outside of his outstretched arm. Her hand caught his wrist then, shoving it against the wall to hold his hand there before she brought her other arm down on the exact same spot she had hit before.

That time, the bone didn’t just crack. It broke. And she was rewarded with a cry of pain, even as Trice spun to grab for her with his other hand.

She stepped into it, but before his fingers could do more than grasp for her, she put her own fist into his nose, rocking the boy’s head backward and dazing him for a brief instant.

“Torv was my friend!” Avalon’s voice, shaky and broken filled the air before she even realized that she was going to say anything. And yet, the words came as quickly and easily as if a faucet had been turned. And like a faucet, they came with water as tears sprang to her eyes.

“He was my friend!” Her fist hit the boy in the face, rocking backward before doing so a third time, all before he could recover.

“He was my only friend!

Pivoting once more, the girl brought her foot up as she spun, kicking Trice hard in the gut to double him over as she continued through the tears. “They turned him! They used magic to fuck with his head! They destroyed him! They–they made my only–” She backhanded the boy before he could straighten up. “–only friend try to fucking–” Stepping in, Avalon caught the boy’s other arm as he swung at her taking the pain on her hand without even truly noticing it as she forced it back to snap his wrist. “–rape me!”

Her knee hit the boy’s gut then, and she barely remembered moving that close to him. “You think I wanted to kill him?! You think I wanted to kill my friend?!

“It was them! It was the same fucking people that you’ve been helping, you stupid, pathetic, arrogant son of a bitch!”

Trice slumped a little, and she drove her knee up into his gut again before turning to throw him to the floor. Then she was on top of him. She couldn’t see anymore, the tears fully blinding the girl while she drew her fist back and lashed out, feeling the boy’s face under her blow before she did so again, and again. Then she simply grabbed his shoulders, shaking him.

“We could have helped each other! We could have made them pay for it, for your brother! We could have avenged him, could have made them pay for what happened to Torv! But you are so fucking stupid that you let them manipulate you! You’ve been helping the people who were actually responsible for your brother’s death, you stupid piece of shit!”

Her sobbing had taken over. She couldn’t see, couldn’t think, couldn’t even breathe properly, let alone hit the boy anymore. All she could do was sit there atop him, head down as her tears fell freely. Yet still, the words came, in a voice that was weak and broken. .

“Torv was my friend. They took him away. And you helped them.

“You helped them.”

The sound of the cell door opening should have drawn her attention, but she didn’t move. Arms went around her, gently lifting Avalon from her place on top of the boy she had beaten in more than one way.

“My brave girl.” Gaia whispered, hoisting her up before turning to carry her from the cell, before the door closed behind her to leave Trice where he was.

“You knew.” Avalon whispered, her voice cracked and dry. “You knew I’d go in there.”

They were back in Gaia’s office then, as the woman quietly replied, “I knew what you had to do. I know you.”

“How did you know… that I wouldn’t kill him? Or that he wouldn’t kill me?”

Gaia carefully set her down in a bed that had appeared from nowhere. Her hand gently touched Avalon’s face. “As I said, my daughter.

“I know you.”

******

It had been a long day. A long day of trying to keep herself together, of trying to be the best she could without… without Felicity. Yet, as the sun set, Avalon found herself out on the beach. Instead of looking to the ocean, however, she turned and walked into the jungle.

For over an hour, the girl strode through the darkness, ignoring the sounds and cries of the animals as they moved all around her. She walked away from the beach, away from the school, away from everything, until there was nothing but wild plants and beasts in every direction.

Until she was completely alone.

Except she wasn’t. She would never be alone. They wouldn’t let her. They would always be there, watching and waiting for their chance to take something else from her.

“Well?!” she finally demanded in a shout while turning in a circle with her arms raised into an expectant shrug. “You wanted me so bad, where the hell are you now?! I’m right here!” Continuing her slow pivot, the girl scanned the darkness, openly shaking with uncontained emotion.

“You hunted down my mother!” she called, anger twisting a knot into her stomach. “You killed her! You turned my abusive fucking father into a vampire just so he could keep trying to hurt me over, and over, and over again! You used magic so that my best friend tried to rape me, and made me kill him! You made me kill my best friend, the first kid who was nice to me! You drove me away from the only place I felt safe! You made all these other people try to kill me, you enslaved my teammate, you murdered another classmate, you tried to kill or enslave everyone else on my team, and now you’ve taken away my–” She choked. “Now you’ve taken Felicity!”  

She was still turning in that slow, deliberate circle, eyes scanning the darkness fruitlessly. “So where are you?! I’m right fucking here, you fucking cowards! Do something! If you’re so powerful, if you’re so god damn terrifying, then fucking do something, you fucking cowards!

Silence. Her words, her demand, was met with nothing but total and complete silence, save for the sounds of the surrounding jungle as the rest of the animals went about their business.

Nothing. No one came. As she stood there, waiting for another long minute, Avalon trembled with unconstrained emotion. Fear, anger, remorse, grief for the life she had never been allowed to have, for the mother she would never know, all filled her.

“Yeah,” she finally spoke, her voice slightly quieter. “That’s what I thought. For all your fucking power, for all your fucking armies and your entire gods damned empire, you are nothing but a bunch of fucking cowards.”

Once more, her words were met with silence that dragged on for over a minute before the sound of crunching leaves made Avalon’s gaze snap that way. She had just raised her hands, shifting into a defensive position, when a familiar figure came into view.

“… Hayes?” Avalon stared. Sure enough, Harper Hayes, the weirdly chipper and bubbly girl with more scratch and sniff stickers than anyone in the world actually needed, was stepping into view.

“Hi, Avalon!” Harper chirped, waving a hand, which sent the assortment of bracelets she was wearing spinning and jangling. With her other hand, she held up the camera that was hung around her neck. “I was just getting some really good shots when you shouting. Couldn’t tell what you were saying, but it sounded like you were in trouble. Um. Were you in trouble?”

Was she a threat? Was this a trick? Avalon didn’t let her guard down, watching the girl intently. Sure, from all appearances, Harper Hayes was just an ordinary, innocent little… well, Mini-Nevada. But still…

Finally, the girl shook that off. “I’m fine,” she replied flatly. “Just working out stress.”

“Oh, yeah!” Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Sure, cuz of your… I mean, cuz you know who is still missing and–Uh, do you think they’re okay?”

Somehow, the awkwardness of the response lowered Avalon’s guard a little more. “I don’t know,” she answered with flat truthfulness. “But they better be.”

Coughing, the pink-haired girl gave an awkward nod. “Oh, well, yeah, I bet you’ll kick their asses anyway. You and your mom and all the…” She trailed off then, kicking at the dirt before looking up. “Listen, I know I’m not… like, part of your little group or anything. You don’t know me, and you probably don’t care what I think. But… but I’ve seen Flick fight, and… and wherever she and those other guys are, it’ll… it’ll take a lot to hurt her. I mean–” She stopped herself, taking a breath. “I think they’ll be okay. I hope they are.”

For a moment, Avalon just stared at the girl. A dozen possible responses filled her mind, some of them not very nice. Finally, she just lowered her head and gave a slight nod while muttering, “Thanks.”

“Sure!” Harper grinned. “Us Gauntlet-sisters gotta stick together, right?” She held her own up demonstrably. Unlike Avalon’s, the other girl’s generated various kinds of bombs, like fire, water, deafening, and so on.

“Right.” With that flat, unconvincing response, Avalon turned on her heel to walk back the way she had come. The Seosten wouldn’t try anything with Harper there. If they had even been nearby in the first place.

But she’d moved barely thirty feet before something caught her eye. Blood. There wasn’t much of it, just a small spot on a nearby tree. For a moment, Avalon paused, staring at the little splotch. It could have come from anything. The jungle wasn’t a very nice place. And yet…

“Hey!” Harper popped up behind her, blinking. “What’re we looking at? Oooh, is it one of those kakapo? You know there’s only supposed to be like a hundred of them in New Zealand, but some guy moved a few of them out here, just in case they go extinct in the Bystander world. I think that’s really cool, and–”

“It’s not a bird, Hayes,” Avalon interrupted, nodding to the spot. “Just blood.”

“Blood?” the girl blinked that way before drooping. “Aww, do you think one of the kakapo died?”

The emotional reflex to snap at that popped up before Avalon clamped down on it. “It’s not the– I mean, never mind.” Sighing, she reached out. Conjuring the smallest blade through her gauntlet that she could, the girl cut out that part of the tree, carefully taking the bit of wood with the blood on it before dropping the piece into her pocket.

“Wow!” Harper cluelessly blurted, “you collect weird things too? I’ve got this necklace made out of teeth, and each of them is from a different–”

“Hayes,” Avalon interrupted, already turning to keep walking. “You’ll have more things to take pictures of if you’re quiet.”  

Quickly pantomiming zipping her own lips, the other girl walked alongside her. Or rather, skipped alongside her. How she managed to skip through the jungle without tripping, slipping, or crashing into anything, Avalon had no idea. It had to be some kind of superpower.

The blood was probably nothing. Just an animal or something that had gotten snatched by a predator. But just in case, she would get it tested. If, by some random miracle, it turned out to be important, then… well, at least they would have something.

Leaving Harper once they reached the school grounds, Avalon made her way to the dorms. Some people spoke to her, offered encouragement or what they thought of as advice. But she barely acknowledged it, barely even heard it. She just had to get away. She had to get out of sight, had to get to where she could be left alone.

Finally, she made it to her room. Their room. Stepping inside before closing the door behind herself, Avalon took a breath. Slowly, her eyes moved to the other side of the room, to Felicity’s side.

“Please,” she whispered, her voice a strained, weak little plea that made her flinch inwardly. Still, she stepped over that way, sitting on the edge of the girl’s bed before putting her hand on Felicity’s pillow.

“Please be okay. I didn’t… I don’t tell you this enough. I don’t know how to tell you. I don’t know how to express it. But I–I need you to be okay. I’m just–I’m drowning here. I can’t do this without you. I can’t… I can’t lose you. They can’t take you away too. They can’t have you. They can’t have you. So you have to be okay. You hear me? I need you. I need you. Be okay, or I’ll…”

Trailing off, the girl just sat there. Her mouth worked a couple times, before she slowly laid down there on Felicity’s bed. Curling up, Avalon wrapped both arms around the pillow, holding it close while her eyes closed.

All these things that she had done, having a heart-to-heart with her adopted mother, having it out with Trice and finally saying everything she wanted to say while also beating the stupid son of a bitch, screaming in the jungle for the Seosten to just stop being cowards and do something directly, all of it was supposed to make her feel better. It should have made her feel better. But it didn’t. None of it did. Instead, Avalon just felt… tired. Tired and alone.

“I miss you,” she whispered in a voice that was almost inaudible.

“I really miss you.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on the creation of the Ring of Anuk--Ité. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks! 

It’s a strange sensation, coming out of an extended moment of orgasmic pleasure only to immediately find bile rising up in your throat. The ultimate high followed by the ultimate low, and the only thing that stopped me from succumbing to the urge to vomit then was the soul-shivering scream from across the makeshift arena. It was a scream that made me shudder despite myself, eyes darting that way to find Doxer’s still-living partner staring at me with an untempered rage that easily could have ignited a hundred different suns before being even slightly diminished.

Well, Avalon and I had one thing in common now: Trice obviously wanted to murder the living fuck out of both of us. He made that much abundantly clear as his pike shifted into its rifle form. Without even bothering to lift the thing to his shoulder, he fired off a shot directly at me as I knelt there, prone and entirely too out of it to raise a finger in my own defense.

But I wasn’t alone. Avalon flung a hand out, and I saw a strange ripple appear in the air just in front of my face. It was like a thick bubble about a foot across, a bubble that caught the bullet from Trice’s gun and held it motionless for a brief second before the bullet turned into dirt that matched the ground we were standing on. A moment later, the bubble disappeared.

Just as I was trying to figure out what the hell that was, Trice turned on her. “His power?!” he screamed, his rage turned onto Avalon once more in its entirety. With a bellow, he lunged that way, clearly abandoning any thought of going after me again. His rifle shifted back to a pike, and the older boy went after my roommate with a fury unlike anything he had shown so far.

Which was the point, I realized. Torv. Avalon had used a power from Torv, a power that she had never actually shown any of us before, and had obviously resisted using in combat up to that point. And in the heat of the moment, she had only finally used it because she had known that it would be the one thing that drew Trice’s attention back to her… and away from me. She was protecting me by enraging Trice even further. Now all of his rage was directed solely onto her.

All I could do, with my leg (not to mention the rest of my bruised and battered body) still taking its time to heal was pray that she survived the fury that she had unleashed upon herself.

And somehow… she did. Trice came at her with everything he had, battering away at all of Avalon’s defenses. He was stronger than her, had more practice than she did, and he was angry enough to ignore any damage that she managed to do. Yet, through a combination of her own skill and the variety of weapons that her gauntlets could call up, Avalon barely managed to hang on. Trice was driving her back with each relentless attack, forcing the other girl closer and closer to the shield that trapped all of us inside, to a spot where she would be unable to maneuver.

I had improved a vast amount over the past few months. I knew that much. And yet, those two were barely more than a blur. I couldn’t even really follow what they were doing. Their weapons and bodies were simply impossible to keep track of from where I was. I felt like… I felt like I would have felt before this school year had begun if I had seen myself just a few moments earlier.

God, Avalon was beautiful.

The thought had just struck me (for about the seven billionth time), as the other girl gracefully caught Trice’s pike on the end of a blade that her right gauntlet had created, sliding it out of the way before putting her knee in his stomach. Her elbow found the boy’s face, barely drawing any reaction at all from him before he backhanded her across the face. The blow would have knocked Avalon against the shield, but she twisted instead, planting her back against his front.

Trice brought his pike up, the long handle pressing against the girl’s throat to choke her even as she quickly put her own hands on it. I could see the strain on both of their faces as the boy fought to shove the pike handle harder against her exposed, vulnerable throat while Avalon used all of her strength to keep that from happening. It was a battle that, like the rest of their fight, went one way first, then the other. They were equally skilled, and in this, they were equally determined.

“You murdered my brother, you bitch!” Trice snarled, straining to haul the pike harder against her throat. “You murdered him, and you think you can get away with it? You think I’d just let you go?!”

Avalon, fingers white-knuckled against the shaft of the pike as she barely kept it from crushing her windpipe, grimaced. Her voice came out slow and strained from effort. “You…. know what… Trice…?” Abruptly, she used the pike to swing herself up, planting both feet against the shield. The resulting shock tore a terrible cry from the other girl as the energy tore into her. But it also passed through her and into Trice. And while Avalon had been prepared for it, he wasn’t. With a strangled bellow of surprised pain, the boy stumbled backward, reflexively releasing Avalon.

Spinning, the other girl launched herself after him. As he brought the pike up, her raised foot knocked it aside a bare second before her gauntlet-covered fist struck him in the face, snapping his head back. “I’m done–” she started while simultaneously backhanding him with her other fist. “–apologizing–” Her right foot went up, lashing out with blinding speed to hit the boy in the stomach, then the chest, then the face all in rapid succession. “–for defending–” Whirling, she brought her right gauntlet around, conjuring a solid-energy mace that slammed into the boy’s arm. I saw bits of bone appear as the limb was snapped the completely wrong direction. “–myself!”

Before she could follow that up, and before the boy could retort, there was a shout from The top of the same hill that Avalon and I had descended to get down here. My gaze snapped that way, and I saw the rest of our team, plus Deveron and Professor Dare. They were all there, and then, as quick as I could blink, there was a blur of motion and Dare was standing just outside the shield.  

Snarling at that, Trice pushed himself up. “We’re not done,” he blurted, holding his broken arm even as it healed in front of our eyes. His finger pointed first at Avalon, then at me. “You–you’re both gonna die screaming. I’m gonna make you beg. Beg me to kill you. Beg me to–”

A second later, two things happened. First, the shield itself vanished, fading from existence. Then, I saw a door appear in the middle of nowhere, obviously created by the Pathmaker. Gaia, Hisao, Professor Kohaku, Nevada, and several more teachers emerged, along with a few security guards.

Trice took one look, muttered a curse, and then produced a small bit of bark. Even as a shout went up from everyone else, he dropped while slamming the bark into the ground. An instant later, he was gone.

Dare, moving an instant too slow, got there in time to grab for the spot where he had been. Cursing, she looked at me first. “Flick,” the woman blurted before her gaze snapped to the other girl. “Avalon, you’re–”

There was a rush of activity then. Half the teachers in our grade level descended on us, trying to make sure we were all right, checking on Doxer’s… body, and examining the surrounding area to check for more traps. I was pulled away from the body, wincing as my not-yet-fully-healed leg protested.

Deveron was there too, along with the rest of our team. He and Sands both tried to say something about how they had all realized something was wrong, but all of it was one long noisy blur. A blur I wasn’t paying attention to, because now that the fight was over, my gaze centered on one thing: Doxer. Or what was left of him.

For a few seconds, all I could do was stare. The rush of the fight, the adrenaline, all of it was gone.

With little warning, what seemed like everything I had eaten over the past day came rushing up from my stomach. Turning my head, I gave a soft, muffled cry while throwing up into the dirt.

Dead. I… I hadn’t set out with the intention of killing Doxer. That wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. But in that moment, when he had been standing over my body and it was either him or me, I had made the choice. I chose to live. I chose to kill. Just like I had chosen to kill Hyde, or the werewolf back in Wonderland, or the other werewolf, Valentine, or… many more examples.

Yet, somehow, despite my brain knowing that Doxer had been just as inhumane as any of them (he’d been helping to abduct Alter children to be raised as werewolves, after all), there was a part of me that stubbornly noted this as my first human kill. My first… my first…

Apparently I had been wrong. What had torn itself out of me before wasn’t everything that had been in my stomach. Because it found more to hurl up, forcing my face back toward the dirt again.

Dare was there, her hand on my back as she gently rubbed it. “Felicity,” she spoke quietly. “Are you alright?”

Spitting a bit, I wiped my mouth off before shuddering. “I… he–I had to… I had to–”

“Shh.” Dare pulled me around so that my head was against her shoulder. “It’s all right. It will be okay, Flick. You had to defend yourself. You had every right to protect yourself.”

“His… his mice, his weapons,” I pointed out the spot where the two had turned back into their animal forms. They sat there, looking lost and alone, huddled in the space right beside their master’s lifeless body.

Reaching down, Dare picked up the mice. Turning them over, she nodded before slipping them into a pocket. “We’ll handle them later,” she assured me before looking down once more. “Are you… how do you feel? Did he–”

My head shook, and I slowly extended my injured leg while grimacing. “It was broken,” I murmured. “I think it’s getting better though. I can move it… and… um.” Gesturing for help, I tried to rise.

Dare helped me up, then supported me for a moment until the rest of my team managed to work their way over.

Columbus reached out, hand clasping my shoulder. “Hey, found a way to get in trouble again, huh?” His voice was a little shaken, and he was pointedly avoiding looking at Doxer’s body.

Sands interrupted then. “Flick, did you–was that–” She kept glancing that way.

Scout and Sean were both there too, all of them clearly clamoring to know what the hell had happened. And yet, all I could do was wonder which of them, if any, were pissed off because one of their minions had been killed while yet another attempt to kill Avalon had failed.

My leg wasn’t fully healed yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. It still hurt, but I could almost stand on it. Keeping most of my weight off the leg, I shook my head. “Guys, I really–I really think we should talk about it back at the school. Not–” Turning my head away from Doxer, I restrained the urge to find out if there was still anything left in my stomach. “–not here. Just not here, please.”


“Yes,” Gaia announced while approaching alongside Avalon. “I believe it’s safe to say that this exercise is over. The others can clean up here.” She gestured to where the rest of the staff were already taking care of the surrounding area before looking at Dare and Deveron to ask, “Would you take the rest of the team ahead, please? I’d like to have a word with Miss Chambers and Avalon privately.”

I could tell that they both wanted to argue the point and stay with us. But in the end, they nodded. Dare ushered a still-protesting Sands along with the rest of the team to the summoned doorway, while Deveron gave me a long, searching look before following.

Yeah, he wanted to say something about Doxer. I could tell that much. He’d wanted to comfort me, try to make me feel better about it. But he couldn’t do that in front of everyone.

I’d find him later. Talk to him. Who knew, maybe he could make me feel better about what I’d had to do. Because as much as my brain told myself it wasn’t that different from the other people I’d killed, somehow… my body wasn’t convinced.

Then they were gone, and I looked to Avalon. My hand quickly took hers. “You–you’re all right?” I asked, unable to keep the worry out of my voice.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. Her gaze softened then, as she looked at me. “But you–”

“Yeah,” I muttered, looking away for a moment. “I had to. I couldn’t–I know it wasn’t part of the plan, I know they were both supposed to…” Wincing, I swallowed hard while repeating, “I had to.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the other girl assured me as her hand gently touched my face. “He was going to…” Pausing, she leaned in, her lips gently touching mine in a moment that made my eyes widen. “You had to protect yourself,” she finished softly. “You don’t need to feel guilty about it, okay? I should know.” The last bit was added in an even quieter voice.

Oh. Oh. That was the first time that she had–that we had… in front of Gaia and… and… my brain stopped working for a moment, as I stared at my beautiful roommate. “Uh…. uh huh…”

She would know, after all. She probably knew what I was feeling even better than I did. She’d had to kill Torv to protect herself, and she had been dealing with the fallout from that (both her own feelings and the rage from Trice) ever since.

“You’re both certain that you’re all right?” Gaia carefully asked then. Her eyes moved back and forth over us as she laid a hand on each of our shoulders. “Because we should… return. So if you’re ready for this…” Trailing off, she  glanced pointedly toward the summoned doorway, gesturing at it.

Ready for this. Ready to go back to… My hand found Avalon’s as I nodded. “Yeah, we’re ready. Let’s get out of here. Right, roomie?” My attempt to sound casual wasn’t nearly as convincing as I wanted it to be. But that was okay. Who could blame me for being a little shaken up at this point?

Rather than pull her hand away, the other girl squeezed it. She was obviously still worn from the fight, her bruises and other injuries fading from the healing, yet still visible. “Uh huh,” she muttered while matching my nod. “Ready.”

Turning, Gaia told the rest of the staff there to spread out and make sure that the boys hadn’t left anything behind, and to collect Doxer’s body to be returned to Eden’s Garden along with an explanation of what had happened. Then she nodded to the two of us. “All right, let’s go. I’ll come back after you’re settled.”

Avalon went through the doorway first. As she disappeared, Gaia gave me a gentle nudge and a reassuring smile. Taking a breath before letting it out, I walked that way, glancing back to give the headmistress a thumbs up before stepping through.

I appeared… in a dark room that was obviously nowhere near the Pathmaker building. Behind me, there was a grunt of surprise, followed by a muffled curse. A hand from in front of me grabbed my wrist almost painfully, yanking me forward an instant before I heard the sudden, unmistakeable clang of a prison cell door slamming shut.

The lights came on then, and I found myself facing Avalon. “I–I…” I started, before flushing a little at how close we were. “Um. Did…” Breathing out, I slowly asked. “… did it work?”

“Yes,” Gaia announced from her place a few feet away. “There was enough time during your fight to complete the spell.”

From behind me, a familiar voice blurted, “The fuck is this?!”

Turning slowly, I looked toward the figure trapped in the cage that Avalon had just quickly hauled me out of before the door had been closed. “What’s this?” I echoed. “Well, see, a friend of mine was magically anchored to me awhile ago. It meant that every time I went to a different world, he’d be, uhh, yanked along with me. Gaia here, she took the spell off me. Which is nice, because now he’s not pulled with any time I get teleported around. But–” I smiled slowly. “It also gave Gaia plenty of time to understand the spell, and how to cast it. All she needed was enough time where both of us were in the same general place. And, thanks to you guys being completely predictable assholes, she had plenty of that time. And, well, completely coincidentally, we happened to have that hunt you interrupted on a different world. Funny, that.”

Trice, standing there in the cell, took a step forward with a snarl. But even as he raised his hand, the pike he held was torn away. It flew out of his grip, passed between the bars, and into Gaia’s hand.

“You will find,” she murmured softly, “that none of your abilities will function within the cell. Nor will you be capable of using magic to escape or communicate. It is heavily warded. And, as we took great pains to ensure that almost anyone who could possibly have been your contact here saw your escape, they will not have any idea that you have been captured. As far as they will be concerned, you left and then disappeared.”

“Well,” I put in with a shrug. “I guess that means you’re gonna be here for awhile, huh? Can you think of any way we could help him pass the time, Valley?”

Beside me, the other girl nodded. “Yes.

“I have a few questions for him.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-02

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There was no question about what happened next. Even as Trice abandoned his own partner with a scream of the kind of bottomless rage I would’ve felt if anything happened to any of the people that I loved, Avalon left my side to meet him with a clash of an energy-blade summoned from her gauntlet against his pike.

And as much as I wanted to, I didn’t move to help her. That was part of our deal. Avalon wanted Trice. That much hadn’t been up for debate while we had been planning this. If all three of them had shown up, we’d had a slightly different plan that we would’ve gone with. But in this case, with two of them, the plan was clear. I was supposed to keep Doxer busy while she and Trice… had it out. That was my job. If things went wrong, there were contingencies. But the truth was, our plan really depended on me being able to pull this off. Fight Doxer, keep him busy. Keep him off-balance so he couldn’t work on the shield. And so that he didn’t notice… anything else.

Two things quickly let me know that Doxer wasn’t playing around this time, that he wasn’t going to let the fight go on as long as he had back during our first encounter when he’d mostly been playing with his food. First, there was the look in his eyes. It was a look that said he was going to finish this as soon as possible. Probably because he figured we’d have back-up coming. Plus, he probably remembered the last fight. So he knew he couldn’t outlast my stamina. The longer the fight went on, the better off I’d be, because I wouldn’t be getting tired like he would.

Meanwhile, the second reason I knew he was actually taking it seriously came as he stalked toward me. After the third step, he reached into the pockets of his jacket and withdrew two small, silver-white… mice. They sat in the palms of his hands long enough for me to see that both were made of metal. They were robots, like Sean’s Vulcan, Aylen’s Sovereign, or Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi.  

“What do you say, boys?” Doxer announced with a smirk, “should we show our cute little blonde friend here that she should’ve just made us a sandwich while she had the chance?”

As he spoke, the robot mice transformed, growing into his actual weapons. One became a short-sword with a wicked blade that was jagged on both edges. Meanwhile, the other mouse turned into some kind of gauntlet that covered his left hand. There was a small blade sticking out of the end of the thing with three slightly curved pointed ends, like a grappling hook.

The purpose of that latter weapon became clear an instant later, as the boy extended his left hand. The hook, connected by some kind of energy wire, shot out at me so fast that it would have gone right through me if it hadn’t been for the enhanced reflexes from that second werewolf kill. As it was, I just narrowly managed to jerk myself aside, letting the hook shoot past. Not that it completely saved me. The hook seemed to ‘catch’ on nothing but air, and an instant later, that energy-wire retracted. Doxer was yanked forward off the ground and came hurtling toward me like he’d been shot out of a cannon. He closed the distance between us almost instantly. Even as I realized that he was suddenly there, that jagged shortsword of his was already lashing out at my head with the speed and decisiveness of a snake lunging for the living version of one of those mice.

And yet, I was ready. Not that I’d known about the grapple, but I’d seen the teleportation trick that he’d used in the last fight enough that I’d been prepared for him to abruptly erase the distance. Which meant that even as his sword went for my head, my staff was already snapping up to intercept. Our weapons met with a terrible crash, and the force actually sent me backward.

That was why he hadn’t bothered with the teleportation, because he wanted the additional force that being yanked toward me that fast would create. And it very nearly worked. Between the boy’s own strength and the momentum that he’d built up with the grapple-lunge, I was almost knocked off my feet. As it was, I stumbled a bit, barely stopping myself from falling into the dirt.

Even as I recovered, Doxer pressed his advantage, sweeping my staff down and to the side with a swift motion before driving the hilt of his sword up against my chin in a blow that snapped my head backwards. At the same time, the sense that let me know where every object in my immediate area was gave me a short warning that the grapple was coming back my way from behind. Which probably meant that he was trying to wrap that energy-cord around me.

Before that could happen, I triggered a quick blast from my staff. The end of it was pointed down and to the right from Doxer smacking it out of the way, so the blast knocked me to the left.

Sure enough, I just managed to avoid the energy-cord from the grapple as it tried to snake its way around my blast-propelled body. Doxer had meant to stun me with a quick blow to the chin before wrapping me up in the solid-light cord from his grappling hook. Which would have ended the fight. And probably would’ve ended me as well.

Even as I landed, catching myself on one foot, Doxer’s body was replaced by what looked like a statue made of dirt and rocks. Which could only mean one thing: he teleported. I remembered that shit. Whenever the bastard teleported, he left behind a brief earth, fire, air, or water copy of himself for a second or two. And if he teleported, that meant he was– The thought came to me in time to twist, catching the incoming blade on my staff just before it would have run me through.

Unfortunately, just as I caught the teleporting dick-head’s sword and tried to follow-up, something interrupted by slamming hard into my shoulder with enough force to knock me forward a step.

It was his earth-duplicate, the one that had been left behind when he teleported. Even as I swept my staff back that way, it fell apart. Yet the thing had lasted several seconds longer than the things had when we had fought before. Which either meant he had killed more of whatever gave him that power to begin with, enough to actually hold onto them longer. Or he was just better at using it. Either way, now I had to worry about the son of a bitch making copies that could actually get off an attack or two. Which was just… perfect. Because this whole fight wasn’t hard enough already.

Luckily, it took the earth-duplicate long enough to reach me that the only thing it had been able to do was hit me with a glancing blow before falling apart. And now, at least, I knew about the threat.

And yet, brief as the distraction was, Doxer took advantage of it. He’d already retracted the line on his grapple, and as my staff whiffed through the air where his earth-clone had been, he shoved his gauntlet-covered fist at me. I twisted desperately aside, but grapple blades still drew blood as they sliced along my stomach. An inch closer or a second slower and I would’ve been skewered.

Smiling at my hiss of pain, Doxer taunted, “So, you ready to fall down and beg for a little mercy?”

“Depends,” I retorted. “You ready to fight, or would you like to play some more cheap tricks?”

His response was a swift stab of his short-sword at my already-bleeding stomach. But I managed (barely) to bring my staff vertically into its path, smacking the blade out of the way. Before he could recover, I gave the high end of the staff a quick thrust up toward his chin. His head snapped back out of the way, however, leaving the staff to whiff up an inch from his face. A face which abruptly disappeared.

No, I realized a nanosecond later. He didn’t disappear. He just teleported again, leaving behind an air copy of himself that time. Reacting instantly, I hit the button to trigger the blast from the end of my staff that I had been trying to hit him with, while releasing my hold on the weapon itself. The force of the blast threw the staff backward over my shoulder, and I twisted around even as I was rewarded with the sound of a grunt. The flying staff had smacked into Doxer’s face as he had appeared behind me. It rebounded, and I quickly caught hold of it before hitting the button that would fill the air with sand. I wanted him blind, and preferably choking.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Even as the sand filled the air, the dark-skinned older boy gave a quick wave of his hand. As he did so, all of that sand that I’d propelled at him abruptly flew sideways. I felt my control of it yanked away as the boy exerted his own, apparently stronger power.

“You really think we wouldn’t know what your powers are and be ready for ‘em?” he taunted me before whipping that grapple-line at my face from the side. I narrowly managed to duck as his foot went right up into the spot where I had moved, nailing me in the stomach.

He tried to follow up with a forward stab from that short-sword, but at the last second I yanked my staff into the way. It was a bit awkward, and I felt pain from the strength of his blow reverberate back through my arm while nearly tearing the weapon from my hand. But I managed to hang onto it, and the blade itself was narrowly deflected.

Right. He was clearly stronger than I was, even if it wasn’t by as much of a margin as it had been before. He could control sand as well, taking away from my own control. So I couldn’t use that for an advantage. Which meant I was going to have to try something else.

With that in mind, I gave a quick feint with my right foot toward his side, drawing his attention that way. Then I spun in the opposite direction to build up a little momentum.  Gripping the staff in both hands, I brought it around into a swing at his side while the boy was still catching himself from going for the feint. As it got close, I triggered all the power that it had left, sending a massive blast of kinetic force right into the bastard.

At the last second, he saw it coming. Rather than teleport away, however, he took the blast of energy right into his… wait. The kinetic blast had nearly hit him. It should have hit him. But just before it would’ve, the energy had simply… disappeared, vanishing into nothing.

I’d just had time for the W part of the WTF to appear in my head before the boy made a sharp gesture. Suddenly, I was the one hit by a wave of kinetic force. It smacked into me like a runaway train, driving the air out of me as I was thrown backward and into the air like a ragdoll, coming down hard on the ground. That time I couldn’t quite catch myself, rolling in the dirt with a pained grunt. Oww. Okay, that hurt. That hurt a lot.

On the other side of the domed arena that we had set up, I caught a glimpse of Avalon and Trice. Like their fight before, it was obvious that Avalon had to work hard to keep up. There was a deep cut in her left arm from the boy’s pike, and her face was smeared with blood from another cut along her forehead. It obviously wasn’t that deep, but cuts along the head bled so much that seeing her face smeared that way immediately made my heart reflexively drop into my stomach.

This time, however, Avalon was giving about as good as she took. While she had those two cuts, Trice was bleeding from a blow to the nose that had already darkened the area under his left eye. Plus, I could see more blood dripping down one of the boy’s legs through a cut in his pants.

As I hit the ground, Avalon pulled free of Trice, driving the boy back with a quick kick at his face that made him fall back a pace. She followed up not by attacking, but by backing up two or three quick steps herself before sparing a quick glance toward me. She’d heard me fall and took the time to buy herself a little distance before checking on me. Even as her eyes met mine, I gave her a quick shake of my head. No, I thought. Focus on Trice. I’ve got this. I didn’t want her to try to intercede on my behalf. That would just get her caught between both of them. I could do this. If this was going to work, if she was going to have a chance against Trice, I had to do it.

“Oh,” Doxer’s voice was mocking. “Sorry, did I forget to mention that new trick? C’mon, I did say ‘ready for every power you’ve got’. You’d think even a silly little blonde like you could work that much out.”

His amusement was positively grating. “You wanna see it again? Throw some more of that staff energy at me. I’ll give you a better look.” As he spoke, the boy lazily came toward me, clearly stepping more heavily than he normally would just to taunt me with the sound of his approach. “Or you could just lay there and let me have a–”

Once again, I sent a cloud of sand from my staff up and toward his face. Again I was treated to his mocking laughter as he easily tossed the sand out of the way. But that wasn’t the point, the point was to distract him for a second. While he was distracted, my hand moved. With a grunt, I slapped it down on the ground, where a small, almost invisible circle of wood poked very slightly out of the dirt. As soon as my hand touched the wood, I used the Relukun’s power to throw myself into it.

Because we hadn’t just prepared this place with the spell to keep these guys trapped here. Gaia had also created an intricate network of wooden pipe-like structures underground that were connected via various small bits that stuck out, bits that were almost impossible to see unless you knew what you were looking for. They blended very well into the ground. But as a result, I could touch any of the exposed parts and zip through the underground wooden pipes in order to pop out anywhere else.

I used that right then, sending myself into the wood just as Doxer finished throwing the sand out of his face. His eyes had time to see that I wasn’t where he expected me to be, just as I popped up out of one of the exposed wooden bits a couple steps behind him. Before he could do more than curse, my staff slammed into his back as hard as I could swing it.

Yeah, it was still like hitting a brick wall. But that time, the wall gave a little bit. With a grunt, he stumbled forward, before his body was suddenly replaced by a figure made of water. The figure threw its hands up, spraying me in the face with a torrent like a firehose.

It blinded me momentarily, but I didn’t need to see to know what to do. This was an old trick by that point, and he really needed to learn some new ones. Spinning, I barely managed to knock Doxer’s incoming sword out of the way with one end of the staff before snapping the other end up toward his face. His head jerked out of the way, and I quickly followed up by triggering another kinetic-blast from the end of my weapon. That time, however, I didn’t direct it at the boy himself. Instead, I used the blast to launch myself up and forward, providing momentum and force as my feet lashed out to slam into his chest.

The essentially rocket-propelled kick staggered the bastard, making him stumble back. Before I could press the advantage, however, the energy coil from his grapple shot out to wrap around my legs. A second later, my back screamed out in pain as I was slammed into the ground so hard I swore I could feel bones crack. Far worse than that pain, however, was what I felt as the energy-coil crushed one of my legs. The femur  in my right leg snapped, sending a wave of blinding agony through me.

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move, especially my leg. But move I did. Rolling to the side, I narrowly avoided the sword that Doxer drove into the ground where I had just been. He was mad now, not playing anymore. Standing over me, he retracted the grapple before launching it down. It shot out, straight down at my stomach. But I managed to ignore the pain long enough to jerk my staff up and into the way, catching the grapple against the end of it just before the thing could skewer me.

“Okay, bitch,” Doxer panted a little bit. His foot came down on my stomach hard enough to drive the air out of me, and he raised his sword. “No more tricks. No more games. You’re done.”

“You,” I retorted despite the pain spread throughout… pretty much my entire body, “should really learn…” I coughed, spitting blood. “… to put your toys away.”

He blinked once, sword held high above me even as I brought my staff back up. The end was pointed at his face. And yet… it wasn’t alone. When I had smacked the grapple out of the way, it had gotten tangled up with my staff, until the grapple sat haphazardly on the end of it, almost like a three-pronged blade that had been lazily and poorly fastened to it.

“Wh–” the boy managed to get out before I triggered the last of the charge the staff had. The kinetic blast burst out of the end, shooting the grapple up and forward… straight through the bastard’s throat.

Doxer had time to look surprised, staggering back as his own weapon nearly took his head off. Blood poured from his throat as he clutched at the grapple, trying to tear it free even as he made a  terrible sound that would haunt me forever.

But I was on my feet. Well, on one foot. Ignoring the pain in my other leg, I brought my staff up and around as hard as I could. It slammed into the back of the grapple just as the boy was trying to yank it free of his throat. The force of that blow sent the thing forward, knocking it from his already-limp hands as the blades tore the rest of the way through his already horrifically injured throat.

He fell. Hands dropping to his sides, the boy collapsed, his head barely still attached. He was on the ground, blood pooling all around him as the light left his eyes.

In the background, I heard a scream from Trice. But I was already collapsing. Pain filled my body, and I couldn’t stand any longer. My staff fell from limp fingers to roll away along the ground.

But it was pain that was abruptly replaced by the greatest, most unbelievable pleasure I had ever felt, as the glow of my golden aura flooded the surrounding area, brighter than I had ever seen it. And in the end, the glow and the pleasure only reinforced one thing, one thought that rose above all others. 

Doxer… was… dead.  

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Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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“I’m sorry,” I announced later, “Our new hunt is gonna take place where, exactly?”

Yeah, it was time for the hunt. Which meant that the whole team was here. Not just the team, but Deveron as well, and Professor Dare. Which meant that, since finding out that Seosten couldn’t possess hybrids had cleared Vanessa and Tristan, there was about a ninety percent certainty that whoever that Seosten had possessed was actually in this room right now. Someone I trusted. It had to be someone I trusted, and there weren’t many candidates other than these people.

I just had to keep it together, knowing that one of the people around me was most likely plotting the murder of Avalon and enslavement of me and everyone I cared about. Right, no problem.

“Suarilia,” Professor Dare repeated, standing there with her hands behind her back in the portal room of the Pathmaker building. “It’s a small outpost world that was set–”

Columbus interrupted. “Okay, wait. Outpost world? As in, ‘not Earth’? You’re sending us to a different world for this hunt? I mean…” He gestured slightly. “Yeah, sure, living up to my namesake and all. But still.”

“Please,” I urged him, “don’t live up to your namesake. We’ve got enough evil people to deal with.”

Clearing her throat while giving us both a look, Sands asked, “Suarilia, I know that name. Wasn’t that the place where that outpost got wiped out by the Hangman a couple years ago?”

Professor Dare gave a slight nod. “Yes. The outpost was manned by roughly twenty Heretics and their assorted families, until they were attacked by a single Hangman. There were no survivors.”  

If he had been surprised before, now Columbus’s eyes widened even more. “Wait, what? You mean one Hangman killed… killed twenty Heretics? As in full Heretics, not just students?”

“Correct, Mr. Porter,” Dare confirmed. “It killed twenty full Heretics and their families, who were no slouches of their own. Hangmen,” she added flatly while frowning, “are no laughing matter.”

“But…”  Beside me, Sean swallowed hard, continuing. “You’re not sending us out to find the Hangman, right? I mean, yeah, we’re a pretty badass team, and I know Gaia wants to challenge us and all, but…” He trailed off, looking pale even as Vulcan nudged against him reassuringly.

It was Deveron who spoke up. “The Hangman’s dead already, don’t worry.” His face was serious as he added, “They sent enough Heretics to put the thing in the ground four or five times over. Hunted it right to the edge of the world and finished the damn thing off. Pericles was part of it.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in her sister’s ear then, and Sands spoke up for her after nodding. “Uh, yeah, that’s a good point. Scout wants to know what we’re doing if there’s no more outpost and the thing that wiped it out is already dead. Did they bring the outpost back or something?”

Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, Deveron, and Professor Dare. Any of them could have been possessed by the Seosten. Any of them could actually be a threat. The thought was… well, it was really, really depressing. We had to get that damn choker away from Pace so that we could identify who was possessed and be done with this whole stupid paranoia bullshit.

Yeah, the choker. Unfortunately, Sands had heard the exact same thing I had from Namid. Which meant that there was no way for me to say that we should keep it secret from the others without, at the very least, drastically raising her suspicions if she was the one who was possessed. I’d had no way to suggest keeping quiet about it, so now the whole team knew what the choker could supposedly do. They’d all acted excited about the possibility, of course. And yet, there were good odds that, even if we did get to Pace, one of them was going to try to get rid of the thing before we could actually use it.

Oh well, we were just going to have to deal with that when the time came. I’d keep my eyes open and watch for any of them trying to make a move for it.

It did raise another question though. Why? We knew that Pace, Doxer, and Trice were working with the people who were trying to kill Avalon. And now we knew that at least a couple of those people were actually Seosten. So why would the Seosten allow Pace to walk around with some kind of magical artifact that allowed her to identify when they were possessing someone? How had that come about and why were they letting it continue in the first place?

It was just one of a few dozen questions I wanted to ask the crazy girl when the time came.

Meanwhile, Dare was explaining. “No, the outpost has not been resettled yet. But, we have been looking into it. And in the time the place was…” She paused, wincing a little before settling on, “abandoned, a few smaller threats have settled into the remains. They aren’t anywhere near the level of danger that the Hangman was, but they are still a potential problem. A problem that needs to be dealt with. Originally, the Committee was going to send a couple of regular hoplites in, but, well, they were convinced to allow this to be one of our normal training exercises instead.”

Normal, right. Because any of this ever turned out to be normal. Still, something else made me blink and raise a hand. “Uh, hoplites? You mean like the old Greek soldier guys with the spears?”

It was Deveron who explained. “You know how Runners are basically detectives or investigators? Hoplites are… uh, basically foot soldier-level Heretics. Usually, their recent graduates who haven’t really made a big name for themselves yet. They tend to get deployed onto new worlds that need a heavy Heretic presence to maintain our foothold in, but aren’t quite dangerous enough to warrant one of the more powerful people. Numbers, they’re basically about numbers. Plus,” he added thoughtfully, “It’s a way of letting younger, newer Heretics gain more power faster.”

I didn’t miss the fact that it also put the more easily expendable people out on the front lines. But he wasn’t wrong either. It was a good way of letting them gain power. Plus, he had said that they were used on worlds that didn’t actually need the more experienced Heretics. So I supposed there were both good and bad things about the system. Maybe I should wait on the whole judging thing.  

“Yes,” Dare was saying, “as I said, the Committee was convinced to allow students to investigate and handle the situation. Which means that you’ll have the opportunity to see an Outpost world.”

“Plus,” Sands put in, “going to a whole new world should make it harder for those assholes to come after Avalon again. Or at least make it easier to track them down if they do.”

Yeah, I thought to myself without speaking, but are you happy about that because it means your teammate is safer, or upset because it makes your job of trying to kill her that much harder?

Yup, I was gonna go ahead and make a firm declaration. Paranoia sucked. It really, really sucked.

******

As it turned out, Suarilia, or at least the part that the former Crossroads outpost had been located at, was dull and drab. The sky was gray, with wispy, sickly yellow clouds, and the single sun was a slightly blueish color that cast a tint over everything. Meanwhile, the soil was brownish-green, and the local equivalent of grass (which basically had a thin stalk similar to grass, only with a wider, circular top about a half inch across that made it more like clover) was rather bright orange. Which stood out pretty well against the otherwise gray landscape, but there wasn’t more than a few patches of the stuff here and there. Mostly it was the dull, off-green dirt.

The outpost itself, which Dare had informed us had been called Chantli, after the Aztec word for house, was almost like one of those old forts from the classic American West. Basically, the whole place was surrounded by ten foot tall metal walls that were about a foot thick. The walls were arranged in an octagon formation, with a guard tower at each of the eight corners that rose another ten feet higher. Meanwhile, there were about a dozen more buildings within the enclosure of the walls. One was placed directly in the center of the area and was obviously some kind of command post, while the one next to it looked like an infirmary of some kind. A third building closer to the entrance looked like an armory and supply center. And at the opposite side of the fort, furthest from the entrance, there was a place that had obviously been a combination cafeteria and entertainment lounge for people to relax and try not to go crazy out here.

Finally, the remaining eight buildings were set up with four near the western side of the fort and four near the eastern side. They were taller than the other structures, and were apparently living quarters for the twenty Heretics and their families that had been here. Apartments, basically.

Twenty Heretics, all of them wiped out by a single Hangman. That would have been basically one fifth of my entire class. Almost four entire teams. Basically everyone I even semi-regularly interacted with, all murdered by a single Hangman. That was… that… yeah, maybe that explained why we could have a graduating class of a hundred or so Heretics each year without completely overrunning everything. These outposts were dangerous places, and considering how many worlds were probably out there… yeah, I could see now why, even with a much longer general lifespan, they still needed to recruit and train as many students as they did.

Especially since Crossroads considered everything not-human to be a threat. Exactly how many worlds had we invaded? How many worlds were out there where the Alters who lived on it saw us the same way that we saw those alien monsters in all those sci-fi invasion movies? Or worse, how many worlds saw us as more like demons, who came from another dimension to destroy and kill everyone they loved? How many families, cities, entire civilizations had we destroyed?

“Uh, Flick?” Sean interrupted my musing as the six of us stood in the middle of the outpost grounds. “You alright over there? You look kind of… annoyed, I guess?”

“What’s wrong?” Deveron’s voice came through the communication button from where he and Dare had set up, close enough to intervene if anything happened. “Did you see something, or–”

“Down, boy,” I tried teasing to make him calm down. “I was just thinking about something else. Never mind, it’s okay.” Shaking it off, I focused. “So what are we looking for here?”

Before anyone could answer, Vulcan whined and trotted away from us. He was heading for the cafeteria. With a collective shrug, the rest of us followed after while keeping a wary eye out for the Strangers that had apparently taken up residence around this place. Or any other… interruptions.

In the cafeteria, which basically looked like a small cafe with an attached entertainment room, I immediately caught the scent of what smelled like burnt meat. A closer inspection of the corner revealed a pile of dark blue, circular excrement that had what I swore was tiny sparks dancing through it. The sparks came and went, almost like the poop itself was an almost-dead sparkler.

Sands groaned at the sight of the stuff, putting a hand to her head. “Oh, great, these things.”

“Hey, it could be worse,” Sean pointed out. “At least the assholes can’t fly.”

Avalon’s head shook as she sighed. “No, but they jump pretty well.”

Raising a hand to wave around, I gestured. “Anyone wanna help those of us who are still lost?”

Sands explained. “The uh, crap’s from something called a spinnevurr. Basically, think of a furry spider about as big as a Great Dane that can spin or spit webs that it can spontaneously ignite into flames any time it wants to. Oh, and they’re immune to any kind of fire or heat damage. Plus, they always know when one of their own kind is in trouble, even from far away. And… what else?” She looked curiously toward her sister, Avalon, and Sean to see if they added anything.

“Like Avalon said, they jump really far, really fast,” Sean put in. “Like, from one end of a basketball court to the other in one leap. And they like to throw out a lot of webs when they do. Webs that pretty much immediately catch fire and stick to whatever they’re attacking.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Right, so all the fun in the world, then. Marvelous.” Looking toward Columbus, I added, “Sounds like we’re dealing with Spider-Man and the Human Torch’s mutant love-child. Or children, whatever.”  

He nodded, making a face. “Sounds like a bad fanfic. So let’s find the things and wipe them out.”

We kept looking, finding more signs of the fire-spiders (mostly in the form of literal flaming poop), but none of the actual creatures themselves. However, our search eventually led to a hole in the south-eastern wall, near the tower there. The hole itself had obviously been burned through the metal, and there were several pieces of dark green, sticky webbing that smelled like kerosene.

“Guess this is where they came in and out,” Avalon murmured thoughtfully. She crouched near one of the bits of flammable webbing, careful not to touch it. “And they went that way.” Raising a hand, she pointed off through the drab gray landscape, where we could see a trail of the stuff.  

“Not just that way,” Sands put in, nodding toward Scout, who was pointing off in a different direction. “There’s stuff over there too.”

“And there,” Sean added with a grimace as he gestured yet a third way. “So we’ve got three different groups.”

“Attack one at a time?” Columbus asked, his hand moving to gently pat Vulcan on the head.

Avalon spoke up then. “No. We need to find these things and get rid of them, as efficiently as possible.” Her eyes glanced to me then as she explained, “It’s like Mason said, all spinnevurrs in a given… hive, tribe, group, whatever, are in constant contact with each other. Some kind of telepathic link. Or maybe it’s just empathic. The point is, they know when one of their own kind is in trouble, and they come running. Which means if we hit one group of them, the rest’ll come crawling out of the woodwork. And they’ll know exactly how to ambush us.”

“So we split up,” I murmured. “Two people for each group. Watch them, see what’s going on and make sure it’s safe to attack. Then we all jump them at the same time.”

There was a bit of discussion (and some argument) over the issue of splitting up. But in the end, it was the best way to handle the situation. We had to hit all the fire-spiders at the same time.

To that end, we split into partners. The twins went together, as did the boys. Which left Avalon and me to work our way along the first path that we had found. Together, the two of us followed the signs of the spinnevurrs over the dull brownish-green ground with patches of bright orange clover-grass.  Out here, I could also see what looked like the local equivalent of trees. They were really tall (for Earth standards, still tiny as far as Eden’s Garden was concerned), standing about forty feet high. Instead of a single solid trunk, they had what looked like dozens of thin vines all wrapped around each other tightly, forming a sort-of rope-like trunk. More vine-structures emerged at various heights like branches, with bright purple bits sticking out of them that were shaped like triangles. They looked like the ‘tree’s’ version of leaves, except several times thicker. Maybe a combination of leaves and fruit. I wasn’t sure.

Either way, we followed the path while keeping in contact with the rest of the team as well as Dare and Deveron. Gradually, the two of us worked our way to the top of a slight hill. As soon as we were up there, Avalon yanked me down while ducking herself.

“There,” she announced, pointing to a spot in a small field below. I could see four of the things there. Sure enough, they looked like fuzzy tarantulas that happened to be as big as Vulcan. They were an eclectic assortment of color combinations. One was bright orange with violet stripes along its back. Another one, the largest, was neon blue with red polka dots. Meanwhile, the third and forth were basically mirror images of each other. One was lime green and had black diagonal stripes going down both sides, while the other was black with lime green stripes.

Using the communication badge, I contacted the others. “We’ve got ours,” I murmured. “Four right below us.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the team to report that they’d found their own targets. Together, we waited until everyone had announced that they were ready. Finally, Avalon counted down so that we could all hit them simultaneously.

Then, it was time. Avalon announced, “Go,” and we were moving. She simply leapt off the hill, while I used a burst from my staff to throw myself into the air in order to come down on the spider-things from above.

And yet… in the end, it didn’t matter. As we both landed, ready to deal with the spiders, there was a sudden gunshot. No, four gunshots. Instantly, all four of the spinnevurrs simply… disintegrated

Avalon and I both spun toward the source of the gunshots, and found ourselves staring at two figures.

“Well,” Trice announced, flipping the rifle he was holding around until it transformed back into the pike that I had already seen. “That was a fun appetizer. How about the main course?” His chin lifted. “Of course, I’ll feel worse about putting down the spiders than you, you murdering cunt.”

Doxer, beside him, added, “Oh, and don’t worry about calling in or anything.” He tossed a small silver orb up and down once. “You won’t get through the jamming. But don’t worry, we already set up some pre-recorded messages to go off so they’ll think everything’s fine. As far as everyone else is concerned, you guys are just fighting the spinnevurrs, just like them.”

“Honestly,” he added, clearly far more amused by this whole situation than Trice was. Torv’s brother was just pissed off and lashing out with that hate and anger. Doxer was actually having fun. “You guys made this whole thing too easy. You think it’s hard for us to get to another world with you? With our contact? Pfft.”

“You’re here,” I spoke dully, feeling Avalon tense beside me. “You actually came all the way out here.”     

“Aww, don’t tell us you’re surprised,” the dark-skinned boy mocked us with a smirk. “We RSVP’d and everything.”

“Surprised?” I echoed, slowly turning my gaze to look at the girl beside me. “Were you surprised?”

Without glancing my way, Avalon kept her eyes leveled evenly at Trice. Her words were flat. “No.”

Shrugging, I looked back to the older boys. “See, she wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised. But there was…” Slowly, I tapped my finger against my head while speaking thoughtfully. “… someone, there was someone who was about to be surprised. Now who was–” Abruptly, I stopped. “Oh, right. You. You were the ones who were about to be surprised. Cantaloupe.”

“Cantaloupe?” Doxer started to snort. “What the fuck kind of last word is that supposed to–”   

And yet, as I said the word, a pale-blue, semi-translucent wall of energy rose up all around us, closing into a dome about a hundred feet across, with a ceiling that was twenty feet up. The result of a spell, a spell that had been prepared by Wyatt several hours earlier, long before any of us had come here.

“The hell?” Doxer muttered aloud while reaching out. As his hand touched the shield, there was a zap of energy and he stumbled back with a curse. His gaze snapped to his partner before he cursed again, adding, “Those two didn’t make this shit. It’s gonna take some time to get through.”

Tilting my head thoughtfully, I cut in. “You guys were right about one thing. This is a trap. Just not exactly the kind you thought it was.”

Because the truth was, acting surprised about where we were going earlier had been just that: an act. I knew. Gaia, Wyatt, Avalon, and I had planned it, had planned for all of this. Gaia sent us to this separate world to ensure that there was no easy way for any innocent civilians to get caught in the middle, no hostages for them to take. Nothing to distract from what was about to happen.  Wyatt had set up the shield spell ahead of time to make sure we wouldn’t be interrupted. And we made sure to separate from the rest of the team to draw in our would-be ambushers, as well as making sure that whoever the Seosten spy was, they wouldn’t see what was going on. Not only would the magical shield trap them here so they couldn’t run away, but it would also ensure that any listening devices or other ways of keeping in touch with their contact wouldn’t be able to give any kind of warning. They were cut off entirely from outside assistance.

“No one leaves,” Avalon drew their attention back to her. “No one comes in. It’s just you and us.”

“You and us, huh?” Trice snorted. He cracked his neck by turning his head from one side and then to the other. “Sounds like you’re finally gonna get what’s coming to you, bitch.”

Doxer’s head shook. “Nah, you know what it sounds like to me?” He winked. “Two helpless little girls. Sounds like a party.”  

“You think we’re helpless?” My staff slid down in my grip a bit, and I snapped it out to the side.

“Come find out.”

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