Vanessa Moon

The Third Degree 21-02

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Please note, if you haven’t seen it yet, there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday that started off this arc. You may want to use the Previous Chapter button to check that out if you happened to miss it. 

“Have you ever wondered why they’re all first-year teachers?”

Blinking across the library table at Vanessa as the blonde girl finished speaking, I asked hesitantly, “Wondered why who are all first-year teachers?”

It was Tuesday, January 16th, a couple days after Avalon, Shiori, and I had met with Seth and Calvin (and Buddy, of course). They had promised to get in touch once they actually had a meeting set with Fahsteth. So on that front, all I could do was wait as patiently as possible.

In this particular case, waiting patiently partly involved working on a project for a Heretical Geography that Vanessa and I had been assigned to do together by Professor Vandel. He’d said something about me being one of the few people outside of her own team that he could believe wouldn’t just rely on Vanessa to do all of the work. Which was either flattering for me or really disparaging toward the rest of the class. Probably both.

Looking around briefly, the blonde girl leaned closer while lowering her voice. She had already put a special privacy coin between us (apparently Scout had taught her how to use it). Yet, like Koren, she was still smart enough to be cautious. “Headmistress Sinclaire, all the teachers she said we can trust, the ones in her inner circle, they’re all first year teachers. What about the ones that teach the older grades? Does she… not really trust any of them?”

Lowering my own voice, I shrugged. “I thought about that, and I’ve got a couple options. First, maybe she just plays her cards close to her chest. You know, like she doesn’t tell us everyone she trusts. We are students, after all. She told us people in the first year staff that she trusts because those are the teachers that we actually interact with. Why would she tell us about someone we hardly ever see, let alone talk to? How many of the upper year teachers could you even name?”

The other girl’s mouth opened, but I stopped her with a raised hand. “Sorry, I forgot who I was talking to. All of them, obviously. My point is, how many of the upper year teachers could the average first year student name? Someone without a perfect memory.”

After the other girl conceded that point with a nod, I added, “It’s, um, compartmentalization. If someone like Ruthers finds out something from us that they shouldn’t find out, her entire network isn’t taken apart. It makes sense that she wouldn’t tell us everything. Especially if they believe that those are the only people firmly on Gaia’s side in the whole thing. There’s a better chance they’ll slip up and someone else that’s loyal to her, someone she didn’t tell us about, can warn her.”

“That… yeah, that makes sense.” Vanessa agreed. “What about the other option you mentioned?”

I looked at the table for a moment before answering. “The other option is that the teachers she trusts are all at the first-year level because it’s easier to hire new teachers, people she can personally vet or already knows, for the younger grades. It makes sense, doesn’t it? A new teacher comes in and they go for the younger students while the more experienced faculty move up to teach the older students. So if Gaia wanted to hire more people, they’d be at this level.”  

Vanessa tilted her head, clearly considering that for a second before slowly nodding. Her voice was quiet and thoughtful. “It makes sense for another reason too. Maybe she was preparing.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Preparing for what?”

“For new students like–” The other girl paused before gesturing back and forth. “Like you and me. Like Shiori. Like Tristan. Like Koren. Students who need extra… guidance. Extra help, from people who understand, people who can tell them–us the truth. Maybe that’s why she stacked the deck for the first-years. Because from second year on, we can still talk to the first-year teachers. They can still help. But you said it yourself, most of us don’t even know who the upper-class teachers are, let alone have any idea of how to get advice from them. She puts the people she trusts in the younger years and lets us bond with them earlier instead of spreading them out.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “That does make sense. So… I guess the answer is probably a little bit of all of the above. Gaia has her reasons for not telling us about everyone she might trust, but she also puts most of them in the first year staffing positions because it gives us people to talk to.”

“I guess so.” Vanessa looked thoughtful for a moment before focusing. “But umm, changing the subject, Scout said you guys were trying to find out everything you could about Avalon’s mom.”

Surprised that Scout had said anything at all about that, I hesitated. “Oh, uh, I guess, but it’s–”

“A secret,” she finished for me. “I know. Don’t worry, Scout said she talked to your roommate first and got the okay to ask me.”

Well that was also a little surprising. “Avalon gave the okay to talk to you about her mom?”

She nodded. “I just had to promise not to tell anyone about it. Not even Tristan. Which…” Pausing, Vanessa made a face. “It feels weird, but I get it. My brother’s not… subtle.”

“Yeah, he has a lot of good qualities,” I agreed. “But keeping things quiet isn’t his strongest suit.”

Shrugging, the girl pointed out, “He’s kept the whole hybrid thing quiet so far. And your secrets.”

Quickly nodding in agreement, I pointed out, “Sure, but there’s a difference between not blabbing secrets and being subtle. Tristan stands out. He loves standing out. He’s um, how do I put this?”

“He’s a show-off,” Vanessa finished for me. “I know. Not subtle. But that’s not why I didn’t tell him anything about how you guys are looking into Avalon’s mom. I didn’t tell him about it because Avalon and Scout asked me not to. I owe you guys. I… you helped get my brother back. So you ask me for help, you ask me to keep a secret, ask me for anything and I… I’m there. Promise.”  

Swallowing, I met her brown-eyed gaze. “And I promise that I’ll find a way to help get your mom and dad back, Vanessa. We’re not done with just your brother. We’re gonna find your family.”

There was a look in her eyes for a moment before she glanced away. Her voice was even quieter than it had been the whole time, to the point that I could barely hear her. “I’m not used to having anyone to talk to about this stuff. The whole time  I was growing up, no one believed what I told them about what happened… until I realized that I had to keep quiet about it or they’d keep sending me to…” She paused, biting her lip as she finished a little hoarsely. “Special homes. So having Headmistress Sinclaire, you, Scout, Tristan, I… I don’t know how to deal with it.”

That was why she came off as so shy most of the time, why she didn’t tend to interact much with people. Besides the fact that she had been busy desperately looking up anything she could to find her parents and brother, she’d also conditioned herself to keep quiet about what she knew so that the people who were supposed to take care of her wouldn’t think she was crazy and lock her up.

“Well,” I coughed, shifting in my seat. “I know we’re not like, best friends or anything. But any time you wanna talk about… anything, I wouldn’t mind. Even if Tristan isn’t magically glued to me anymore.” I said the last bit with a tiny smile, since Gaia had finally succeeded in switching the anchor spell from me to Vanessa just the other day. “Doesn’t mean you have to be a stranger.”

Her brow knitted as she looked at me. “Was that last part a joke?”    

“Was what a–” I stopped, flushing a little. “Right, don’t have to be a stranger. Uh, no, just a coincidence. But can I take credit for it anyway?” Giving the other girl a smile, I added, “Sorry, you were saying something about Scout telling you about looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom.”  

Nodding at that, Vanessa reached down into the bag on the chair beside her. “Yeah, so I um, I looked into it too. I wanted to help, especially since Scout was already helping Tristan and me by looking into anything she could find about the… um, my mom’s while they were in Europe.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked curiously, “Did she find anything important?”

“Maybe,” the other girl replied slowly, frowning thoughtfully. “She found some books and journals and stuff that mention beings that can possess others. I’ve gotta read all of them and compare it to the stuff we have in this library. You know, Strangers that were already identified and catalogued.”

Squinting then, Vanessa muttered, “I would’ve been through all of them already, but Tristan and the others keep distracting me. And,” she looked back up while pulling a folder out of her bag. “I wanted to keep looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom. You know, because I sort of have experience with…” She trailed off briefly before amending herself. “I know what it’s like to try to hunt down information about your parents and have everything end up being a dead end. Before I came here, I couldn’t find anything about mine.”

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I nodded. “A lot of us seem to have at least one missing parent. I guess it makes us part of the cool club or something.” The words sounded hollow even to me, and I shook it off before gesturing for her to go on. “I take it you actually found something? Wait, are you sure you shouldn’t tell Avalon about it?”

“You can tell her,” Vanessa quickly replied while blushing slightly. “She um, she kinda scares me.”  

I coughed. “I guess she can have that effect on people. But she wouldn’t hurt you or anything.”

“I know, but um, still. You can talk to her better than I can. I get nervous and um, then I start to babble and she gets impatient and it’s a whole thing.” Laying her hand on the folder, she opened it to show me the first page. “Her name was Ophelia Penn. Before she was married to Avalon’s dad, I mean. And before that, her name was Adelind Jaspers. That lasted about two years, and before that one, she was Francesca Dumont. And–”

Holding up a hand, I frowned. “She kept changing her name? How far back does that go?”

“As far as I can tell?” Vanessa hesitated before flipping through some papers in the folder. “The earliest name for her I can find is Giselle Meyer, when she was sixteen. That’s when it was changed to Kaia Pierce. Before that, I dunno. There’s some school records, but they’re spotty, like someone went through and started getting rid of them, but didn’t finish.”

“She was hiding,” I murmured under my breath. “She and her family, I guess. It doesn’t go any further back than that? What about her mom and dad?”

Flinching, the other girl shook her head. “Sorry. All I’ve got for them is a couple names that popped up on her school records. Kinsley and Brennan. Last name Meyer, just like the name she used when she was sixteen. If it was anything else before that, I dunno. There’s no birth certificate, nothing like that. The earliest thing I could find was a note in her freshman year of high school about being excused from gym for the semester because of a broken leg. Before that, there’s nothing. It’s like she just poofed into existence.”

“Or like whoever went back and erased her identity did a really good job up to that point,” I muttered under my breath. “It sounds like they were working on scrubbing everything about her and just didn’t finish.” Thinking about it for another moment, I added, “Maybe it was her. Maybe she was the one erasing her past and it stopped when she… when she died.”

“There’s something big about her, isn’t there?” Vanessa asked, her eyes squinting at me. “Someone’s trying to kill Avalon. And now you guys are looking into her mom’s history and there’s all this stuff?” Before I could say anything, she held up a hand. “I know, it’s secret. Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me. I just…be careful, okay? It sounds like they were trying really hard to hide from someone. If it’s the same someone that’s after Avalon now, that means it was Heretics the whole time. And if Heretics were after Avalon’s family for that long… it’s something big.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. It took me a second to find my voice. “Trust me, we know. Don’t worry about it. You’ve got enough to focus on. I’ll umm, I’ll look through this stuff you found and see if anything jumps out. Did you notice anything else?”

“There was one big thing,” Vanessa started slowly. Glancing at me, she reached out to shuffle through the papers before coming to a single page. It was blank, but I could tell there was something on the other side, from the colors that bled through. “She visited the high school counselor a few times. Most of the file’s gone, but this was in there. It’s a watercolor she made when he told her to draw what she was dreaming about.”

Watching my expression, she turned the paper over, and I found myself staring at Avalon’s mom’s painting.

It was the lighthouse, the one here on the island. That much was obvious. But surrounding the lighthouse there was a pair of folded, half-visible angel wings. And above it, there was a face topped by a halo. It was like there was a giant, mostly invisible angel guarding the lighthouse. Yet the expression of the angel was… dangerous. It looked menacing.

Seosten. Avalon’s mother had made a painting of the Seosten and the lighthouse when her counselor told her to draw what she dreamed about. But she hadn’t been a Heretic, had she? I had to believe that if she was, Gaia would’ve said something.

Unless that part was erased from her memory too, of course. But that was just… we needed to know more. Maybe one of her parents was here and told her stories about it. If it was… I started to talk out loud to work it out. “Maybe whichever one of her parents wasn’t being… chased originally used to go here. Maybe they were part of the group looking for the other parent, and they found them. But instead of bringing them in, they… fell in love and started running away. Then the parent that went here told Avalon’s mom stories about this place.”

It was little more than a guess, really. But I had to believe that Gaia would know if Avalon’s mom had gone here. But if one of that woman’s parents had gone here before leaving, that might have been enough for Gaia to not make the connection. I’d have to see if she recognized the names Kinsley or Brennan, though I doubted either were their real names by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked up again. “Vanessa, thanks for this. You didn’t have to do all this work. It couldn’t have been easy.”

She shrugged. “It’s like I said, I’m used to digging into people’s pasts. And you–you helped bring my brother back. I owe you.”

My head shook at that. “No, you don’t. We don’t have to get into the ‘who owes who what’ game. But helping each other because we can? That I’m good with.”

The other girl watched me for a moment before nodding. “Okay. But um, we should probably help each other by doing that project so we don’t fail Professor Vandel’s course.

“Because that would be really embarrassing.”

******      

“Revolutions,” Professor Ross began the next morning. “There’s been a lot of them throughout human history. Some the Bystanders know about, others they don’t. But one in particular stands out both within the Bystander world and our own. The American Revolution.”

Standing in front of her desk, the elderly woman watched us for a moment before continuing. “Can anyone tell me why the American Revolution is important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

Vanessa’s hand went up immediately, of course. And in this case, so did most of the other Heretic-born students. On the other hand, my fellow Bystander-kin looked as confused as I felt.

“Mr. Gerardo,” Professor Ross nodded toward Sean. “Why is the American Revolution important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

The boy shifted in his seat and straightened while laying his hand on Vulcan’s head. “Because what the Bystanders call the American Revolution, we call the Splinter-Rebellion.”

Before my brain could finish summoning the image of a giant mutated rat directing his turtle pupils to wage war for independence, Professor Ross continued. “Very good. Yes, and what was formed from the Splinter-Rebellion, Mr. Leven?”

Zeke all-but snarled the answer. “Eden’s Garden.” He was pointedly looking in Avalon’s direction.

That brought my head up and around, as I blurted, “Wait, what?”

“If you have a question, Miss Chambers, raise your hand,” Professor Ross admonished before answering anyway. “But Mr. Leven is correct. What began as a war between Crossroads and those who splintered off to create what eventually became Eden’s Garden bled into the Bystander world. However, where the Bystander war was about the American colonies fighting for independence from Great Britain, the Splinter-Rebellion centered around a… violent disagreement over which Heretic group should control the territory of the new world.

“Small and young as they were, Eden’s Garden possessed a good deal of influence over the British Parliament and leadership. They had begun to use that influence to immediately begin giving themselves advantages in the colonies. Crossroads could not directly combat those kind of connections. So, we went for a different tactic.”

Raising my hand until she nodded to me, I managed a slightly weak, “… Revolution. Crossroads pushed for the American Revolution to separate the colonies from Great Britain so that all that influence Eden’s Garden had wouldn’t mean anything.”

The woman smiled a little at me. “Yes, very good, Miss Chambers. Exactly. It’s slightly amusing if you think about it that way. Eden’s Garden staged their own revolution in order to be independent from Crossroads. Then, in order to combat their new political power that would have given them a great deal of influence over the shape and direction of the new continent, Crossroads helped to stage a revolution in the Bystander world. That revolution resulted in the formation of the United States, and helped cut a good deal of the power away from Great Britain.

“Of course,” she added then, “There were other wars going on at the same time with the same intention. Eden’s Garden had firm control over Great Britain, which meant that Crossroads had to attack them from multiple fronts, using different proxy countries.

“You might say that without Crossroads working to neuter Great Britain’s power, and thus the power of Eden’s Garden, the United States never would have been formed.

“And wouldn’t that have been a very different world to live in?”

Study And Scrutiny 20-06

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“I understand that you had a rather important conversation this earlier today with Avalon and Shiori.”

Jumping a bit at the sound of the voice, I blinked up guiltily to see Gaia standing there. I’d been sitting on the bench beside her office door, waiting for her to get back. And apparently, I had been so absorbed with writing in my notebook that I hadn’t even noticed the woman’s approach. Though, to be fair, if she actually wanted to sneak up on me, it really wouldn’t have mattered how much attention I was paying.

“Errr.” Belatedly getting over my surprise at her appearance to notice what she had actually said, I found myself blushing even more. Coughing, I decided the safe response was to ask, “She told you?”

Smiling faintly, the woman gave a slight nod. “Yes, she was surprisingly open about it. Normally I’d have to coax her into opening up, but this time she came straight to me, and talked about how she felt. I suppose she really needed to talk to someone about it. And as you have no doubt noticed, there aren’t really that many people whom Avalon trusts enough to have that sort of emotional conversation with.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “I guess not. I think she opens up a bit to Scout, but that might be because Scout doesn’t say much.” Hesitating after that, I peeked back at the woman as my own nerves made me ask, “What do you think? A-about what we said and—and all that. Is it weird or… or dumb?”

The look on the red-haired woman’s face softened. “No, Felicity,” she murmured. “It is most certainly not dumb. Being open and honest with the people you care about is a good thing. You didn’t string either of them along, you didn’t make any promises you couldn’t keep. You told them how you felt and you did it before there were any misunderstandings or hurt feelings. That is never dumb, I assure you.”

Her hand reached out to find my shoulder then before she continued. “As for weird… well, you have to look at the lives that we lead. Weird is very much in the eyes of the beholder. What is strange and unsettling for others is what works for you. As you’ve obviously already heard, relationships among Heretics tend to be slightly different from what you are accustomed to among Bystanders. When one’s lifespan varies so significantly and when one is almost always in danger from one direction or another, having multiple romantic liaisons is encouraged more than not. Can you guess why else it would be?”

I paused, thinking about it for a second before straightening. “Because if you’re romantically involved with more than one person, there’s less chance of you completely shutting down forever if you—if you lose one of them. Because there’s others to help prop you up and get you through it. And since there’s so much fighting and killing, losing someone you care about like that is… probably not exactly rare.”

Gaia gave a silent nod, pursing her lips slightly with a thoughtful look before speaking. “No, it is not rare. You…” She paused again, eyes clearly looking at something far in the past. “You learn to live with losing things that you care about and moving on, once you have had an opportunity to grieve. And there are those within the Heretic community who believe that having other companionship helps to move beyond that loss more easily. Others disagree. I don’t believe that Professor Mason has ever been with another person that way since the loss of the twins’ mother.” Pausing, she looked to me. “Of course, there are other reasons beyond potential death for multiple relationships to be encouraged that way.”

Again, I thought about it quietly for a few seconds before making a guess, “I know that Heretics, umm, explore and colonize other worlds. And that probably means there’s a lot more deaths to get a foothold on a new hostile world. So if there’s more than one relationship, there’s… um, more chance of babies?”

“That is one way to look at it, yes,” Gaia confirmed with a slight wince. “Of course, that reasoning is never outright stated. But it is simple enough to see the supposed logic of. More romantic partners, in many ways, equals a higher chance of more children. And beyond that, having multiple romantic partners means that if one dies, the person is more likely to have someone else to continue their line.”

“Wow,” I muttered under my breath while shaking my head, “That’s kinda creepy if you think about it.”

The headmistress started to say something, but stopped abruptly and turned to look down the corridor. A few seconds later, the sound of approaching footsteps finally reached me, just as two figures came into view. Vanessa and Tristan. The two of them were each carrying a glowing blue orb about the size of a baseball. The temporary passes that Gaia had given them so they could come here after curfew.

“Okay, guess I owe you ten bucks,” Tristan remarked casually to his sister. “The office was this way.”

“Uh.” Raising a hand as the two neared us, I asked, “Why would you bet about where something was against someone with a perfect memory that’s been here long enough to already know that much?”

“Particularly,” Gaia added a bit pointedly, “when you have both already been to this office before.”

Grinning cheekily, the blonde boy shrugged. “I had a really good feeling about that other hallway.”

Chuckling, Gaia gestured to her office door then, and like before, it dissolved like a gradually slowing waterfall until the room beyond was revealed. As the wood magically faded away, Tristan leaned closer to me and whispered under his breath, “I swear, that just looks more awesome every time I see it.”

I knew how he felt. Nodding quickly, I followed the twins and Gaia into the office. “So, do you really think you can transfer the anchor spell from me to Vanessa?” I asked tentatively while looking around.

“I have no doubt that such a thing is possible,” Gaia answered simply. “The question that remains is how difficult and time-consuming it will be. Which is what we are here to find out right now.”

She led us into the middle of the enormous room, and I glanced up to see the holographic globe of the world set into the domed ceiling with all the green, yellow, and red flares that popped up randomly. As I watched briefly, a couple of the flares (one red and one green) turned gold and then disappeared.

Inevitably, my attention moved from the holographic ceiling globe to the ‘windows’ at the back of the room. Specifically, to the one window in particular that showed my own neighborhood with our house in plain sight. It was just as late there as it was here, but I could see two figures standing in the backyard. Asenath and her mother. The two of them were watching the sky while apparently chatting.

Right, I’d actually forgotten that Gaia had a view over my house in her office. Maybe I should’ve mentioned that to Asenath at some point, though I wasn’t sure what it would have changed. Maybe if there was a problem, it’d be good if she knew there was a way to get Gaia’s attention? On the other hand, if there was a problem, and Gaia happened to be watching at the time, she’d probably notice.

“What are the lights for?” I found myself asking, mostly to distract myself. When Gaia looked at me, I raised a hand to point up at the colored flares in the globe. “Those. What do the colored flares mean?”

Vanessa nodded quickly, looking relieved that I’d been the one to ask. “I’ve been wondering that too.”

Glancing to the ceiling, Gaia watched the random lights for a moment before answering. “Each of the lights that you see there show a reported or suspected Stranger sighting or event. Green is a non-violent situation, yellow is potentially dangerous, and red is quite threatening. Black would be for someone such as Fossor, a potential world-ending threat. When they fade out on their own, it means that the situation was resolved in some other way, most likely because the threat disappeared. When they turn gold, it means a Heretic killed the Stranger or Strangers involved and resolved the situation that way.”

My mouth opened, but Vanessa beat me to the next question. “There’s lights all over the globe. I thought Crossroads only operated in North and some of South America and most of Western Europe.”

Gaia nodded once. “Yes, for the most part, Crossroads officially claims all of the United States, most countries in Western Europe, and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela in South America. Those are the areas that we consider ‘ours’, though Eden’s Garden also lays claim to several of the same areas, so it can become rather… tricky diplomatically. For the most part, we often try to work around each other.”

Raising my hand before realizing the absurdity of that, I coughed and just spoke. “Professor Vandel said there’s a different Heretic group that covers Mexico. One that isn’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden.”

“The Hunahpu and the Xbalanque,” Vanessa put in then, looking to me. “They’re actually one group, named after their founders. Um, it gets kind of involved, but the short version is that in Mayan mythology, these twins named Hun and Vocub Hunahpu were really good ballplayers. They went to the Underworld and ended up being sacrificed by the Lords there. But Hun’s head was put up in a tree and spoke to a woman that came by. Then he—I mean it—the head spat in her hand, which made her pregnant. Honestly, I think the Mayans were kind of confused on the logistics of what makes a baby.”

She shook that off before continuing. “But the point is, she got pregnant and had a new set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Those two grew up to be the big hero twins. Like the Greek’s Heracles. They defeated the Lords of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld and a lot of other stuff before being turned into the sun and the moon. Their whole story was supposed to show how Mayan people could kill demons themselves, even if only in the afterlife that they didn’t have to be helpless forever. There’s more, but yeah. That’s the myth. The real Hunahpu and Xbalanque were Heretics who fought ancient Strangers and created a group meant to fight them. They’re two sides of the same group. The ones who call themselves Hunahpu focus more on physical fighting and hunting, and the ones that call themselves Xbalanque focus more on magic.”

Chuckling, Gaia nodded. “Very good, Vanessa. Yes, the Hunahpu and Xbalanque claim all of Central America and a sizable portion of Mexico. We do have some relations with them, allowing us to create what are essentially embassies within some of their territory. The same goes for places like Australia, France, and most of the Middle East. We have embassies in those places, even if we don’t claim them.

“In other places, we have no such luxury,” she continued. “Places such as the jungles of Africa are too much of a Stranger stronghold for any Heretic organization to establish more than the slightest foothold in. We lose far too many people simply trying to ensure that the worst threats within those areas stay contained there rather than spreading over the world. Penetrating deep enough to eliminate those threats permanently has proven impossible. They are simply too entrenched and dangerous to risk it.”

Remembering another thing that Vandel had said, I pointed up at the globe. “Like Canada? It’s supposed to be really dangerous to send Heretics in there too. Which is kind of weird, honestly.”

Gaia smiled faintly. “Canada has been claimed by a very powerful Alter. He is not actually malevolent, though you’ll be taught otherwise in your classes. He is proud and reacts to violence in kind. He rules his dominion fairly but decisively, and does not respond well to invasion. He and his people have killed many Heretics who attempt to impose a Crossroads or Eden’s Garden authority in his domain, enough that the Committee and the Victors have elected to leave Canada alone, for the most part.”

Remembering what the entire point of this little sidetrack had been, I asked, “So there’s Crossroads Heretics all over the world, not just in the areas that we say belong to us. Either through embassies, or these little… umm, I guess the best word would be expeditionary forces. That sounds better than invasion, right?”

“Both would be correct,” Gaia confirmed. “Though you should refer to them as expeditions in public.

“I believe, however,” she went on then, “that we have gotten off-track. I’m sure that Vanessa and Tristan would like to sleep at some point tonight. So let’s see what we can do about that anchor spell.”

Tearing my attention away from the hologram, I nodded and let the woman go to work. I still had a lot more questions. Those, at least, were never in short supply. But they could wait. For the moment, the important part was letting Gaia move the anchor spell over to Vanessa instead of me.

Hopefully, that way what had happened to Roxa wouldn’t happen again. Because considering everything that had happened so far, it wasn’t a matter of if I would be unexpectedly teleported to another world again, but when.

******

As it turned out, it was going to take a couple more sessions for Gaia to transfer the anchor spell. Petan and his people had done their best to make sure the spell wouldn’t be erased or negated by the Seosten curse that had left Tristan trapped on the other world. Which meant that, while she could still adjust it, even Gaia was going to have to put more effort into it than she’d expected. Which kinda showed just how powerful Nicholas Petan and his people were, honestly.

Now it was the next day, Sunday. Gaia had asked me to go back in the next night for another round with Tristan and Vanessa, since she didn’t want all of our next couple actual tutoring sessions to be taken up with that. Instead, she wanted to get it all done in a few days and move on. Which I couldn’t blame her for. And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of plans to do during the middle of the night anyway.

At the moment, I was sitting in the library, scribbling in my notebook again while waiting for Doug to show up. The two of us were supposed to work on our little project for Hunter track, so he’d asked me to meet him that afternoon. I just happened to be early enough that I was fully engrossed in my notebook when my item-sense poked me with the realization that someone had just come close enough for it to pick up.

Glancing that way while closing my notebook, I found Doug doing his best to ‘casually’ move close enough to see what was written in it. As I glanced up, he froze before gesturing. “You already start?”

“What?” I blinked, then glanced to the closed notebook before shaking my head. “Oh, no. This isn’t—this is something else.” Shoving the book away in my bag, I turned back to him. “Sorry, I figured I should wait for you. Ready to figure out what this thing is and how to kill it?”

Doug paused then, squinting at me for a second. It looked like he was about to say something else, the suspicion on his face rather obvious. In the end, however, he just gave a faint nod and pulled out a chair across the table from me. “Yeah, let’s get it done before Harper and Virus be—I mean Harper and Russell beat us.”

Taking out the file that Hisao had given us, I set it on the table. “Okay, so here’s what we know. The deaths happened in a small town in Kansas. Barely six thousand people. So far, there’s been four deaths. Three were children, ages nine, seven, and four. The other was an adult woman. But she was pregnant and the… the attack focused on her stomach, killing the fetus. Which means it was still probably focused on the child, not the mother.”

Even as I was speaking, a queasy feeling rose in my stomach that I had to push down. Looking over at Douglas, I added, “The report says it looks like the attacks were done by wild animals. Except for the pregnant mother. They said… they said that one looks like she was stabbed in the stomach by something and then everything inside was…” I blanched, looking away.

“Sucked out,” Doug finished for me, sounding queasy as well. “Like punching a straw into a juice box and—oh fuck.”

It took both of us a few seconds to collect ourselves then. Gross, awful, evil. It was a good reminder that not all Alters were pleasant. There were plenty out there that did need to be stopped. But that would be easier if the Heretics would just work with the Alters who weren’t psychotic evil monsters.

“Hey,” Douglas broke into my drifting thoughts. “You okay with this?”

Shaking a little, I nodded and straightened up. “Yeah, let’s just figure out what this thing is. Okay, so some people reported a noise like a card in bicycle wheels, that uhh, tok tok tok tok sound.”

“Is it a monster masquerading as a little kid with a bike like that?” Doug asked. “Could be how they get close to these kids and the pregnant mother.”

I thought about it, flipping through the file before shaking my head. “I don’t think so. No one reported any strange kid or anything, and the people who said there was the card in the bike wheel sound said they looked and never saw anything.”

Sitting back in his seat, Doug slowly looked out over the rows of books all around us. “I guess we should start looking up things that eat human children, huh?”

Groaning, I picked myself up and tried not to be sick. “Yeah, remind me to tell Hisao just how much I love this assignment.”

So we looked. The two of us hunted through the shelves, taking one book after another with the oh-so pleasant prospect of looking up creatures that ate children. There were a frankly depressing number of options.

“Could it be a Lamia?” Doug asked at one point, looking up from the book he was looking through. “They’re supposed to have a snake body below the waist and they do eat children.”

Biting my lip, I asked, “But what about the sound? What could they do that would make that sound?”

He shrugged and looked through the book some more. “It says they can remove their own eyes and use them to spy on people. That’s… really fucked up.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before looking down at my own book again. “Hey, wait, hold on. Listen to this. It’s called an Aswang. They’re a shapeshifter. During the day, they look and act just like normal people. They’re so normal, in fact, that the Stranger-sense can’t pick them up while the sun is out. So during the day, they’re just normal people. They have friends, they interact with their neighbors, they even have jobs.

“But at night, they turn into monsters. They shapeshift into things like bats, dogs, even wild boars. And they eat children and unborn fetuses. They use a long proboscis like a mosquito to shove into the womb of the expectant mother and… and take what they want.”

“Sounds close to me,” Doug agreed. “But what about the sound?”

Picking up the book, I read from a particular part. “The Aswang often make a noise that has been described as ‘tik-tik-tik’, which is louder the further away the Aswang is, and quieter the closer it is. This is done to confuse the intended victims.”

“Tik-tik could be mistaken for tok-tok, I guess,” Douglas murmured, sitting back in his seat. “So if it is an Aswang, it’s probably still there, pretending to live a normal life during the day.”

Nodding slowly, I added, “But the Stranger-sense can’t identify it while the sun’s up. It’s like they’re literally two different beings. At night, the normal figure is replaced with the monster. So how do we identify the right one? Maybe it’s someone connected to the deaths?”

Doug, who had taken the book by that point, shook his head. “Nope, look.” He turned it around and pointed to another part. “The Aswang never hunt their own friends or neighbors. It also says that sometimes when they kill children, they make a magic facsimile that goes back home, appears to get sick, and dies. So we should look and see if there’s other child deaths that weren’t reported because it looked like they just got sick.”

“Right, right,” I agreed, frowning thoughtfully. “So we’ll look that up, and then… how do we figure out who the Aswang is?” Even as I finished talking, I snapped my fingers. “Wait, I know. The deaths just started happening, so we look up who recently moved to the city. There’s only six thousand people, there can’t be that many who recently moved there before the deaths started.”

Doug closed the book then, straightening up. “Okay, well, how do we look all that stuff up? It’s not gonna be in the library here.”

I was already standing, grabbing my bag. “We’ll have to ask Professor Hisao to let us go to the town and look up that stuff in their records.”

“Go… to the town?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Sure,” I confirmed, already walking out of the library. “You didn’t think we were gonna solve this whole thing by sitting in the library, did you?

“We totally have to go sit in a different library to solve it.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Haiden and Sariel posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. 

“Two months!” Professor Carfried’s excitable voice filled the Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom two days later. Friday. Like most schools, Crossroads came back from break with only a couple days of classes to go before the weekend so that students could ease back into the workload.

“For two months,” the man continued while standing in the center of our circle of tables, “you’ve been able to practice the spell that we started back in November. I gave you that extra time because the spell itself is hard to pull off. But by this point, you all should have been able to manage it. So.” Clapping his hands together, he smiled broadly. “How many of you think you’ve got the hang of the Kevlar spell?”

About half the class raised their hands, including me. I’d had plenty of other things to do, of course. But a spell to turn clothes bulletproof was too useful to ignore. Knowing that Carfried was going to bring it up, I spent some of the day before working on it before class today. The first two times, it pretty much fizzled, but after the third, I managed to pull it off. Repeating the success twice more convinced me.

Sitting there with my hand up, I snuck a look toward Avalon. We still hadn’t talked that much over the past couple days. Not about—well, what had happened before the winter break, anyway. I had the feeling that she wanted to talk about it a couple times, but always brought up something else instead.

Yeah, we needed to talk about it. And I needed to talk to Shiori, to both of them. Preferably together, because that was the only fair way to do it. I wanted all of us to be on the same page. Tonight was the first Hunter track meeting. But tomorrow was Saturday. Tomorrow, I’d get them together and talk then.

“Only half of you?” Carfried shook his head with obvious disappointment, looking around at the class. “Are you sure? You can pull it off, right? Just a little spell, not that hard.” He watched with open eagerness and encouragement, gesturing for more people to raise their hands.

However, once a few people gave in to the encouragement and lifted their hands, the man slammed his hand down hard on the nearest table. The resulting bang made everyone jump, as he bellowed, “No!”

Straightening, he strode around the circle, eyes watching all of us as we jolted in our seats and stared at him. “No,” he repeated, a bit quieter but with just as much force. “Do not do that. Never do that. If you don’t think you’re ready for something, don’t let me or anyone else guilt or pressure you into it. This is magic class, not Crocheting 101. Magic. It is dangerous. If you’re not ready, speak up and say so.”

Stopping with his back to where my table was, the man slowly turned in a circle to take all of us in once more before continuing. “That goes for many other things, not just magic. If you’re not ready, speak up. I don’t care if it’s a classmate, an older student, an adult Heretic, or another teacher. If they ask you to do something dangerous and you’re not ready, say something. Your lives are valuable. You are valuable. And there is no shame in saying you’re not ready. There is shame in endangering your lives and the lives of people around you just because you let yourself be pressured into something.”

After letting that sit for a few moments, Carfried spoke again in a much calmer and more gentle voice. “Now, one more time. Which of you are sure that you are ready to try this spell?” He watched as some of our hands returned to the air, smiling faintly that time. “Good. Okay, let’s start with… Rebecca?”

The tiny, dark-haired girl (who at full height still stood a couple inches less than five feet tall) straightened up in her seat while lowering her hand along with the rest of us. “Yes, sir?”

Carfried stepped back to his own table in the very middle of the circle, gesturing. “Come on down here. Don’t worry, I’ll walk through it with you and we’ll see how it goes. Everyone else pay close attention.”

Rebecca hopped out of her seat and squeezed through one of the openings between tables, joining Carfried as the man began to lay out an old army jacket. From a pocket, he produced a black marker identical to the one that Dare had given me before the winter break. “Do you know what this is?”

Her head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir. It’s a field-engraver. It lets you write on things that are hard to write on, or if you don’t want it to be permanent. Once the spell activates, the writing disappears.”

“Correct!” the young teacher grinned, holding it up. “Or, if you turn the part at the top, it will turn the engraver into erase mode, so that you can take off the spell. Or to fix a mistake.” To demonstrate, he put his fingers at the top of the marker. “Twist to the left and it’s in writing mode. Draw any spell you’d like. Twist just a little to the right and it’s in erase mode. It will erase any mark it’s made on anything.

“Now,” he added while holding the field-engraver out to to the small girl. “Would you be so kind, Rebecca, as to draw the Kevlar spell onto this jacket? Do you remember the exact way it goes?”

Taking the engraver, Rebecca hesitated. For a moment, it looked like she was about to go for it, but then she shook her head. “Can I… get the book from my bag and look at it again, sir? Just to be sure.”

Carfried’s smile broadened, and he gestured for her to go ahead. “Yes. Remember, spells are complicated. If you need to look them up just to be sure, don’t hesitate. Most Heretics who use spells carry around cheat sheets of their most-used spells. There’s no shame in being careful with magic.”

Using her notebook, Rebecca etched the design of the spell onto the back of the jacket that Carfried had provided. It took about ten minutes for her to get the whole thing just right and to put enough energy into it. In the end, she put her hands against the spellform and murmured the trigger for the spell. As she finished speaking, the runes that she had drawn briefly glowed bright red before fading entirely.

Carfried thanked her profusely before plucking the jacket off the table. Walking it across the room, he waved for us to get up from our seats and follow as he led the class to the other end of the room.

Glancing toward Sean as we got up, I whispered, “Speaking of this spell, if we run into too many bulletproof things out there, your little buddy’s gonna need some more tricks up his sleeves. Err, paws.”

“Ehh,” Sean replied with a grin while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “Don’t you worry about that. He’s already got special bullets to get around stuff like that. Plus, we’ve got plans. Don’t we, boy?”

Vulcan gave a little woof of agreement before trotting along beside his master as we joined the others.

“Now,” Carfried announced while hanging the jacket on a mannequin that stood there. “Let’s see how well she did, shall we?” As he spoke, the man reached into his own jacket, producing what looked like a simple nine millimeter pistol. “This is a Bystander weapon. I’m sure you’re all familiar with it.” He held it up, turning so that we could all see, before turning back to face the mannequin while taking up a shooting stance. “The only difference with this weapon from anything a Bystander would use,” Carfried explained, “is that I’ve used a spell on the barrel to make it much quieter. Other than that, it will fire with just as much force and destructive capability as an ordinary gun. But, before we go any further, can anyone tell me how this spell is supposed to work? Will the bullets just ricochet off and go shooting into one of you, or any other innocent bystander? Capital b or lower case.”

He nodded toward Vanessa, who shook her head before reciting, “If performed correctly, the so-called Kevlar spell will drain the kinetic energy from the bullets or any other fast moving object that reaches the enchanted item. Essentially, they’ll lose all their momentum and bounce off as if they were just tossed gently. The previous version of the spell did what you said, make the bullets ricochet like, um–”

“Like Superman!” Tristan cut in. “Or Colossus when he’s got his metal skin, or the Thing, or–”

“Yes, thank you, Tristan,” Carfried interrupted with a chuckle. “And thank you, Vanessa. Correct. The old version of the spell simply made things bulletproof by repelling the incoming objects. Unfortunately, that proved to be too dangerous to civilians and other Heretics. So it was updated.”

He asked a couple more questions about the way the spell worked, focusing not just on Vanessa, but on everyone else as well. As young and new at this as he may have been, Carfried was a decent teacher.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Well, that’s enough talk, don’t you think? Let’s see how this works.”

Taking careful aim, the man fired six shots, one after another. Thanks to the muting spell he’d used, each one sounded more like a handclap than the terrifying bang that would have left us all deafened.

Once he was finished, the man holstered the gun before walking over to the jacket. Once he reached it, Carfried turned to face us while gesturing to the floor. “Would everyone take a close look down here?”

We didn’t have to look that close. All six bullets were lying scattered around the floor at the feet of the mannequin. And as the man tugged the jacket off the dummy, he turned it around to show that there was no damage either to the jacket itself, or to the mannequin. “As you can see, Rebecca performed the spell just right. Anyone shot in the jacket with the spell active would be just fine. Well done, Rebecca. Very well done.” Setting the jacket back in place, he grinned and clapped a couple times encouragingly.

Once that was done, however, the man paused. “Now, of course, this spell won’t last forever. Rebecca here put enough power into it to make it last… oh, probably about ten minutes. Naturally, the longer you work and the more power you put into it, the longer the spell will remain active. But ten minutes should be enough for most normal encounters, so there’s no need to kill yourself by preparing a version that’ll last an entire hour. Just use the trigger spell when when you’re about to get into trouble. Then, of course,” he added, “there are other ways to extend the time of the spell. But we’ll get into those later. For now, let’s split up into groups. If you think you can cast this spell, group up with one or two people who don’t. We’ll have you work together until everyone can pull it off. Then we’ll shoot some more rounds and see just how much metal we can cover the floor with, all right? All right, let’s do it.”

******

Several hours later, as I was walking across the lawn, Shiori caught up with me. “Hey, Flick!” she called happily before lowering her voice conspiratorially. “Did you get to talk to you-know-who yet?”

With a set-up like that, I couldn’t help it. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, Voldemort’s still obsessed with that other magic school. He hasn’t even bothered to return my letters. Can you believe that?”

Rewarding me with a giggle that made me shiver (and reminded me of my promise to myself that I would talk to her and Avalon the next day), Shiori shook her head. “Yeah, he’s a jerk. But the other you-know-who. You know, a certain older student that might know something about a certain ring?”

Chuckling softly, I snapped my fingers. In my pocket, I carefully touched one of the privacy coins. We were alone, but it never hurt to be extra-careful. “Ohhh, you mean Namid. No, I haven’t. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find an excuse to walk up to a third-year and say, ‘oh hey, can I talk to you about an ancient magical artifact that your ancestor might’ve had before your other ancestor, who happens to be on the Committee, betrayed him and got him killed? Oh, but don’t tell her about any of this, kay?’”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Shiori coughed. “How are you gonna talk to her about it?”

Shrugging helplessly, I admitted, “I’m not sure yet. But something’ll come to me. It has to.” Glancing around carefully, I lowered my voice. Yeah, we had the coin, but still. “Roxa needs that necklace, or the ring, or whatever it is now. And Namid’s the only actual lead we have about it besides Pace herself.”

“Yeah…” Shiori murmured, looking down briefly before glancing to me. “If you wanna talk to her together, we can. I mean, at least there’s a slightly better chance of getting her to stand still and listen?”

“I can’t just tell her everything,” I pointed out. “I’ve gotten really lucky so far. I’d rather not push that by expecting a third-year student to suddenly believe everything I say that happens to completely destroy their world-view. Especially when she’s got a great-great-grandmother or whatever on the Committee. I need an excuse to ask her about it. Maybe… an assignment? Hey, maybe we can get Professor Dare to give a project for ancient magic items and I can make up a trail leading to that thing.”

“Do you think Professor Dare would do that?” Shiori asked, head tilting. “And can you make up a believable trail that could lead you to Namid and that ring when there’s nothing in the library about it?”

I thought about it for another moment before nodding. “I’m pretty sure Dare’ll do it if I ask her, as long as I tell her why. She wants to help Roxa too. And it’s not like making an excuse to talk to Namid is that dangerous. You know, compared to other things I could be doing. As for the rest of it… yeah, I’ve got a few ideas. It’ll take time to set up, and I’ll probably need help, but I can make a trail leading to her.”

Shiori’s head bobbed. “If you need help talking to her, I’m there. I could be the muscle to your brains.”

“I think I’ll need your brain too,” I pointed out. “Maybe we can take turns being muscle and brains.”

She gave me a thumbs up, then grinned that familiar Shiori-grin. “Whatever happens, we should take her to the bank when we talk to her. That way, she won’t ignore us and go running off.”

“The bank?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. “How would taking her to a bank make her pay attention?”

“Because it’ll be sure to keep her interest!” Shiori blurted before doubling over on herself, snickering.

It was terrible. And yet somehow, I still giggled. Just hearing the other girl laugh at her own corny joke, as bad as it was, made me want to laugh too.

Finally, I shook my head. “Okay, okay. We’ll see. But now, uhh–” I paused, looking down at my new uniform with its green trim before looking back up to Shiori’s own matching one. “Think you could show me where we’re supposed to meet up for the track class?”

“Oh!” Shiori straightened, glancing to my uniform as if just noticing the color and what it meant. “Right, we’re in the same track now. We–” She paused, glancing to me briefly as if trying to figure out if I’d done that on purpose.

I hadn’t. I’d forgotten that Shiori was in the Hunter track, honestly. But I also wasn’t going to complain.

She shook that off without comment, though her smile did brighten a little. “Yeah, c’mon. I’ll show you.”

As she started to walk, the girl added, “I wonder what Professor Hisao is like.”

“I only met him once,” I admitted, “But from what I saw, he jokes around a lot and doesn’t take much seriously. But, you know, he’s one of their big investigators, so he’s gotta be really good at his job. Oh,” I paused before adding, “And I’m pretty sure he and Professor Dare are… you know.”

Her eyes went wide as she looked at me. “Are you sure?” When I nodded, she smiled broadly. “Oh my god, that is so… so… Dare and Hisao—wow.”

“Yeah, just… don’t say anything,” I coached her. “Dare really doesn’t want it getting out there. You know, because of the whole Crossroads-Garden rivalry thing.”

Shiori mimed locking her lips with a key before tossing it away. Then she giggled. “Still, it is pretty romantic.”

For a few seconds, the two of us stood there and looked at each other. The word ‘romantic’ lay between us, and I felt myself blush before clearing my throat. “We—um, we’re gonna be late for the track if we…”

Visibly shaking herself, Shiori quickly nodded. “Right, yeah. C’mon, we usually meet down on the beach.”

She set off, and after a moment, I followed.

Yeah, I needed to talk to both her and Avalon. We needed to sort this whole thing out before someone ended up getting hurt. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would deal with it head-on. No more excuses. No more delaying. I was going to talk to Shiori and Avalon.

But tonight, well, tonight it was time to see just how this Hunter track was going to work with Hisao in charge. And how some of the more… loyal Crossroads students would take being taught by a substitute from Eden’s Garden.

I had a feeling it was going to be interesting.

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Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Mini-Interlude 20 – Scout

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Please note, the following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout. It takes place about a week or so before the current events, not too long before Scout and Sands leave for their European trip with their father.

The satisfying pop of the fast-moving ball landing smack in the middle of the open leather glove was followed almost instantly by the whiff of the swinging bat cutting through the air just barely too late.

“Whoo,” the boy with the bat, Tristan Moon, tapped the end of it against the ground while shaking his head. “Nessa’s right, you’ve got a great arm over there. What’d you do, kill a Stranger-Nolan Ryan?”

Standing where she was, Scout Mason felt a blush touch her face. Which wasn’t anything new. It seemed like any time anyone addressed her, the uncertainty and embarrassment tried to set in, let alone if they were paying her a compliment. Strangely, criticism wasn’t as bad. She could handle that. It was when people were nice to her that she felt weird and didn’t know how to respond.

After finally settling on shaking her head, she held her glove up and waited. Rude. Wasn’t it rude not to say anything? But she wasn’t trying to be rude. She just didn’t know what to say. She hardly ever knew what to say to anyone, let alone when it was someone as boisterous and… well, confident as Tristan.

“See?” Vanessa herself straightened up from her crouched position behind her brother, shaking her hand out where the wicked fast ball had slammed into her glove before looking to the boy. “I told you she’d be a good match for you.” As she spoke, the blonde girl carefully threw the ball back to Scout. She wasn’t quite as awkward and uncertain as she had been when the pair had first started to play catch on the roof of the dorm, though it was obvious she would never be the kind of natural athlete her brother was.

Scout saw the sly look on the boy’s face at Vanessa’s choice of words. The same look she’d seen on plenty of other faces when someone left them open for a great joke or bit of teasing. His eyes glanced toward her, mouth open to put voice to what was obviously a play off of his sister calling her a ‘good match.’

Except he didn’t. The words were obviously there and ready to come out, but the boy paused when he looked at Scout. Remaining silent like that for a couple seconds, he finally shrugged and set himself back up with the bat up. “All right, let’s go, let’s go. I got your timing now.”

Vanessa resumed her position, and Scout took a moment while asking herself why the boy hadn’t said anything. It was obvious that he caught the unintended insinuation, yet he chose not to capitalize on it. He just let it go after he looked at her.

Rather than dwell, she carefully checked the ball against her mitt. Taking a breath, she wound up and then let it fly.

As promised, the boy was ready. That time, his wooden bat connected with the ball rather solidly. The white sphere rebounded from the bat with a satisfying crack that sent the ball spinning off into the air toward the right side of the grassy field they were in.

Scout didn’t bother chasing it. Instead, she turned to watch while tucking her mitt under her arm. Further out, a different figure went after the ball. A very different figure. Tristan’s giant robotic snake twisted its way through the grass, head craned up to watch as it moved at a pretty impressive clip considering its lack of legs, managing to keep up with the flying ball and stay under it as it began to fall. Mouth opening wide, the snake let the ball fall right inside, swallowing it. In the same second, the snake rotated, to aim its mouth toward Scout and fired the ball back toward her. She quickly caught the ball with her glove and turned back to the boy.

“Aww, whose side are you on, Bobbi?” Tristan called to his snake. “You could’ve let that one go.”

“Her name is Bobbi-Bobbi,” Vanessa reminded him. “Not Bobbi.” She, of course, had been the one to come up with the name for the snake-robot that had become her brother’s weapon and companion.

For his part, the boy just blinked. “There’s a difference between saying it once and saying it twice?”

“I’m gonna make you read the book,” the blonde girl threatened before sighing. “Bobbi-Bobbi was the Australian snake-god, remember? Loved humans, gave them bats so they’d have something to eat. Only the bats flew too high to reach, so he took one of his own ribs and gave it to the humans to use as the first boomerang.”

“Right.” Tristan gave a quick, satisfied nod before teasing, “Don’t worry, sis, I’ll only ask you to explain it fourteen more times before it sticks.” With a wink, he called to his partner. “You must reaaaaally love being helpful, don’t you, Bobbi-Bobbi? Just like your namesake.”

The snake made a hissing noise of agreement, and Tristan shook his head before focusing on where Scout was still standing. “Err, right, speaking of being helpful… you mind if we take a little break and talk about something serious?”

Giving her head a quick nod, Scout started to gesture that she would head off to give the two some privacy so they could talk. To her surprise, however, Vanessa shook her head. “No, um, it’s sort of something we want to talk with you about.”

Blinking at that, the quiet girl hesitated before walking in to join them. Her eyes moved quizzically from one to the other.

It was Tristan who spoke first. “Listen, you can do that whole… coin spell thing, right? We sort of need that, just in case.”

Coin spell. Right, the privacy spell. Clearly the boy just hadn’t wanted to be obvious by outright saying the word. With a quick nod, Scout reached into her pocket and took out one of several already-prepared coins that she had from back when the rest of her team kept asking her to do it. Touching her finger to the coin, she activated the spell before nodding to them.

“Great,” Tristan started immediately, not even bothering to beat around the bush. “We need your help to find our parents.”

Clearly recognizing the surprised look on Scout’s face, Vanessa quickly put in, “You remember who—I mean what they are, right? And what happened to them?”

Scout hesitated before slowly nodding. Her voice was a whisper as she spoke only two words. “Garden. Seosten.”

“Yeah, our dad was from Eden’s Garden and our mom was one of the Seosten,” Tristan confirmed. “But the thing is, Nessa’s been looking everywhere in this place and there’s nothing about the Seosten. Nothing. We even asked Gaia and she said that Heretics don’t learn about them. It’s like everything about those dicks has been erased and removed. Which isn’t surprising considering, you know, they made this place.”

“The point,” Vanessa added before her brother could rant any further. “Is that there’s nothing here, so we were hoping you could help.”

She wanted to, obviously. Except… Scout hesitated before whispering a single word. “Vacation.”

Both twins bobbed their heads up and down quickly. Tristan spoke first. “Right, we know. You’re heading out with your sis and dad pretty soon. Off to Europe and all that?”

That was right. In fact, Sands was busy packing up the last of their stuff as they spoke. And probably cajoling their father for more spending money for she and Scout to spend on souvenirs. They’d be leaving pretty much as soon as that was finished.

When she nodded silently, Vanessa gave her a slight smile. “That’s kind of why we’re asking you for help, actually.” She went on in the face of Scout’s uncertain look. “See, you’re going to Europe. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden still have presences there, but they’re not as strong. There’s even entire countries where different Heretic groups are in charge, like France. Crossroads and the Garden barely have an embassy there, and they don’t really have any power. So we were thinking that–”

Scout’s eyes lit up with realization, and she silently raised both hand to pantomime opening a book.

“Yeah!” Vanessa clearly couldn’t hold back her smile. “If the Seosten don’t have as much power in those other places, there might be books about them. We were hoping you could maybe look around while you’re there. Just see if there’s anything about them, or Strangers that possess people, or angels or… or anything like that.”

“Sorry, we know it’s a lot to ask,” Tristan added with a regretful look while laying a hand on the head of Bobbi-Bobbi. “But we don’t really have an easy way to get over there. So when Nessa found out where you were going, we figured… it couldn’t hurt to ask. But if it’s too much, don’t worry about–”

Scout interrupted by holding a hand up to stop the boy. Her head nodded once, and she gave them a tiny smile. Of course she’d help them find their parents. If there had been a chance of saving her mother, she knew she’d never, ever stop trying. She’d run herself into the ground for a chance to go back and rescue her mother from the… from the–

She forced herself to focus, tuning out the memory of the Stranger simulating her mother’s voice to plead for the young Sarah to come out and help her. Looking straight at the other two, she announced simply, “I’ll help.”

A look of obvious relief crossed over their expressions, and Vanessa actually hugged her. “Thank you, thank you. If you find anything, it’ll help. But especially anything about an orb that can teleport people to other worlds and bind them there. If there’s a way to track them, or to undo it, or to build another one, or to–”

“She gets it, Nessa,” Tristan gently interrupted while putting an arm around his twin. “Really, anything at all. Like we were saying, the Seostains erased everything that could’ve been in here. Or they stop it from being recorded at all. Whichever, there’s nothing, so we’re running on just what Grandpa Nick could tell me. Or would tell me. Plus, you know, maybe the Natural Heretics here on Earth found out something he doesn’t know about.”

Scout was already nodding when she saw two figures approaching from across the field. Quickly dismissing the privacy spell, she murmured an almost silent warning while nodding that way so that they’d stop talking about it.

Still, Vanessa gave her a smile and mouthed, ‘Thank you’ while her brother raised his hand in front of his chest to give her a hidden thumbs up. Even Bobbi-Bobbi leaned in and pushed her nose against her shoulder in a show of affection.

“Hey, guys!” Scout’s father called once he and Sands were close enough. “Sorry to interrupt your game, but we’ve gotta get going if we’re gonna make it in time for dinner. Rome’s about seven hours ahead of us.”

Sands turned to poke the man before stepping over to her sister’s side. “So that’s why you wouldn’t let us eat lunch. I thought you were just making some kind of object lesson about respecting people who don’t have as much food as we do or something.”

Their dad gave her a look. “Now what kind of father do you think I am?”

Sands shrugged. “I dunno, one who wouldn’t let me have the cheeseburger I wanted an hour ago?”

Shaking his head, Scout’s father looked toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You two all right over there? We weren’t interrupting anything important, I hope.”

“Nope,” Tristan lied so easily that Scout was immediately envious. “Just trying to decide who got to bat next. Guess it’s Nessa by default.” When Bobbi-Bobbi bumped against him, he shot her an exaggeratedly exasperated look. “You can’t bat, you don’t even have hands!”

Chuckling, the man reached out to grab both of his daughters by the shoulder. “Right, good luck with that. All right, girls, ready to go? All the stuff’s waiting in the Pathmaker.”

“O’course we’re ready!” Sands blurted. “We’ve been ready forever. I’m starving, old man. Let’s go.”

So they started off, heading for the portal building that would send them clear across the globe. On the way, Scout looked back over her shoulder toward the other pair of twins. Vanessa and Tristan were watching, matching expressions of mixed relief and worry on their faces.

She gave them a quick, surreptitious thumbs up before turning back.

Of course she’d help them find information about the Seosten. After all, she hadn’t forgotten that those were the people who had created the Bystander Effect, and probably everything else that had to do with the hated, vile memory erasing spells.

Which meant that if she was going to fulfill the vow to herself to get rid of all of those horrible, evil spells so that everyone could retain their memories the way they should, she’d have to find out as much as possible about the Seosten themselves anyway. If it meant helping Vanessa and Tristan along the way, that was even better.

But one way or another, she was going to make sure no one’s memory was ever erased against their will again.

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A Learning Experience 17-04

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Just a quick note. There was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button above. 🙂

“You are so lucky, I can’t decide if I wanna hug you and jump up and down or punch you in the arm.”

In response to Sands’ words, I winked at her from the other side of the couch in the lounge where the two of us were watching Columbus and Sean go after each other in an increasingly erratic and intense game of pool. “If you hug tight enough, maybe it’ll be just like being punched. So you get the best of both worlds.” Pausing, I amended, “I mean, no, go for the nice hug. I don’t deserve to be punched.”

It was Wednesday afternoon, the day after my first lesson with Gaia. Which, obviously, was what Sands was talking about. Now she shook her head. “Maybe not, but seriously, dude. Do you have any idea how cool it is? Special tutoring sessions with Baroness Sinclaire. That’s like… like… Columbus, help!”

Without looking away from where he was lining up his next shot, Columbus asked, “Help with what?”

Sands scooted on the couch, leaning up to look that way. “I need a really important Bystander sports star that it would be amazing to learn from. You know, to match Flick’s thing with the headmistress.”

In response, Columbus finally turned his head to peer over his shoulder at the girl. “And exactly what part of my room full of comic books and honestly probably disturbingly complete knowledge of Star Wars trivia makes you think I’d have the slightest idea of a good example of a current sports hero?”

Snorting in spite of myself, I waved a hand for him to go back to his game. “I get the point, believe me.” Pausing then, I resisted the urge to lower my voice. There was still no reason to go shouting about what was going on, but for once, my meetings with Gaia didn’t actually have to be a complete secret. After all, people generally knew that a lot of stuff had happened involving me. They knew that some important Stranger had invaded the school grounds in an attempt to attack me. So we didn’t have to keep the fact that I was meeting with Gaia as completely secret as some of the other things.

So, instead of hushing everyone like my paranoid mind wanted to right then, I cleared my throat and shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal. I haven’t even managed to make the spell thing work yet.”

From the other side of the room, a voice spoke up. “What spell thing?” Erin Redcliffe, Vanessa’s roommate, was walking our way with Rudolph and Tristan on either side of her. Vanessa herself was bringing up the rear, her nose buried in a thick leather-bound book with weird symbols on the front.

Sands hesitated, but I shrugged and answered, “The headmistress is giving me a little um, help. You know, so maybe even if things keep going wrong, they don’t have to call in the cavalry so much.”

“Sweet!” The electric-blue haired girl pumped her fist with a grin. “Extra tutoring from the Baronness?”

“You mean you’re not jealous?” I asked after a momentary hesitation, looking at her curiously.

“Are you kidding?” Erin retorted. “I’m so jealous, I almost wish I could stuff you in a closet and borrow a masker to go out and take your place. But I’m pretty sure the headmistress would figure it out.” Pausing then, she added with a sheepish smile, “Oh, and also because it would be bad. Very bad.”

There was a pause as she seemed to think about it for another moment before shrugging. “But you know, the way I see it, at least someone gets to learn from her. I can be jealous of you without being, like, mad or pissed off about it. I wish I had the chance, but I’m not gonna rip your head off for it.”

“Maybe you should be her teammate then,” Sands teased while nudging me with her foot. “Cuz I’m still seriously considering that whole ‘take a masker after stuffing her in a closet’ thing. That sounds like a good plan.” Brightening, she added, “And hey, I could blame the whole thing on you if it comes out.”

Good, this was good. It helped distract me from the fact that I was temporarily weaponless. Well, okay, I still had the knife from my mother of course. But not my staff. Avalon had taken it early that morning, shortly before our daily workout. She’d said something about upgrades, promising that I’d get it back soon and that it’d be worth it in the end. Then the girl had gone into great detail about how she’d kill me herself if I managed to get myself in any actual trouble while my weapon was out of my hands.

Tristan put a hand on Erin’s back, grinning. “Hey, no making our team look bad. We’re already losing Rudolph.” His grin faltered as he glanced to the boy himself. “You really didn’t have to do that, man.”

“Do what?” I asked, blinking back and forth between hefty boy with white-blonde hair and Tristan.

Rudolph gave an embarrassed shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Since our team had seven people with Tristan and Paul’s team’s down to five with Roxa gone, they said we needed to move someone over there. They were gonna move Tristan since he’s the newest, but I said I’d go instead so he could stay with Vanessa.”

“Aww.” Hopping to my feet, I gave the boy a hug. “That’s amazing, Rudolph.” Even as a pang of guilt about not being able to help Roxa yet so she could come back (not to mention the fact that the whole reason she had to stay away in the first place was because of my inability to think ahead and warn Tristan about what was about to happen) struck me, I forced it aside and tried to focus on the positive. Releasing the uncomfortable looking Rudolph, I gave him an easy smile and teased, “I hope you’re not stepping into Roxa’s position everywhere. I think Jazz might object to having you as a roommate.”

Vanessa giggled a little bit, finally pulling her nose out of her book to look at me. The girl didn’t say anything, though she did step a little bit closer to Tristan while giving me a quick nod of thanks.

I wondered if she had any clue just how much I kept checking out her twin brother in spite of myself.

Rudolph, for his part, blushed deeply before giving one of his trademark languid shrugs. “No big.”

That was Rudolph. Nothing was ‘big.’ He did all the work that he had to do, but he never really showed much excitement or enthusiasm toward anything. He did the bare minimum in the easiest possible way.

Unfortunately, that was the moment that the worst member of Vanessa’s team made his own appearance. Zeke stepped into the room and immediately made a beeline toward us. “Good,” the boy with the wildly tousled brown hair announced as soon as he was close. “You’re not hiding somewhere.”

After looking both ways, I put my hand to my chest and blinked at him. “Me? Why would I be hiding?”

“Yeah, Zeke,” Erin put in. “Why would she be hiding? And try to not to be racist with your answer.”

“We’re both white, it can’t be ra–” the boy started to retort before heaving a sigh that I had a feeling came a lot when he interacted with his team. “Whatever. I just meant I’m glad it was easy to find you.”

Grinning at him, I asked, “Was that so hard to say? You came about the project for Carfried, right?”

Still standing stiffly, Zeke gave a short, quick nod. “You heard what he said today. We’ve got until Friday to make it work. So if you’re not too busy being kidnapped or wandering into danger, it’d be nice if we could go practice.” As he finished talking, the boy reached up to take off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve guessed that he was parodying something incredibly British. But no, that was just Zeke.

He did have a point though, we needed to get that done. So rather than snark, I just gave him a thumbs up. “Sure, let’s get this thing done.” Glancing back to Sands, I added, “Lemme know who wins?”

Even as the other girl was nodding, Sean called out from the pool table. “Spoilers, it’s gonna be me.”

“Well, whoever it is,” Tristan put in, “they’ll only be reigning champion for about five minutes or so.”

Sands raised an eyebrow at that, looking interested. “Why, you gonna challenge them or something?”

“Me?” Tristan smirked, shaking his head. “No.” Reaching back, he caught hold of his sister’s arm and tugged her out in front of him as the girl gave a soft yelp of surprise. “Nessa. She’ll take on the winner.”

Poor Vanessa blinked rapidly, still catching up with what was going on and exactly what her brother was volunteering her for. Then a soft pink blush crossed her face. “I—what? I—I’m not—that’s not…”

“Dude, yeah!” Erin blurted, her own smile widening. “We’ve seen you play around with all that stuff. All that stuff you were going on about with the whole angle and momentum thing. You’ll kick ass!”

While poor Vanessa was clearly trying to figure out how to deal with both her roommate and her brother pushing her to ‘kick the ass’ of whoever won Sean and Columbus’s match, I glanced toward Zeke. I expected to find the boy looking annoyed, as usual. Instead, his gaze was fixed past me with a weird sort of wistful expression, and I turned my head slightly to see what, exactly, he was looking at.

Sands. His gaze was fixed on Sands, who was laughing as she helped try to coax Vanessa into accepting the invitation to play pool. As the petite brunette loudly pointed out that Vanessa needed to ‘remind the boys who was in charge’, Zeke was watching her with a look that screamed twitterpated.

As that realization struck me, my mouth opened. But before I could say anything (not that I knew exactly what I was going to say anyway), a new voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Flickster!”

Blinking, I turned to find Nevada by the door. She gave me a quick wave. “Mind if we talk for a sec?”

Ignoring Zeke’s mumble about how we were never gonna get to work, I nodded. “Oh, sure, Prof—Nevada.” To my project partner, I added, “Sorry, it’ll just take a second. Then we can work, I promise.”

Nevada led me out of the lounge and past the doors that led into the cafeteria, to the exit. Meanwhile, I kept trying to tell myself to stop noticing exactly how much bounce there was whenever the blonde woman moved. Not that it actually helped very much, because my brain was a dirty, dirty traitor.

Once we were out on the grass behind the building, she finally turned and reached down to the silver bracelet on her wrist. Tossing it aside, she waited while the bracelet reshaped itself into its tall metal crate form before clearing her throat as she looked back to me. “So like, Avalon and Columbus were asking about upgrades for your staff,” Nevada explained. “I assume you already knew about all that.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “They’ve been trying to help since… you know, all that stuff.” I flinched at the thought of everything that had happened in such a short period of time. Then I blinked up, my eyes widening a bit. “They didn’t do anything wrong, did they? Because it’s totally all my-”

Nevada laughed, head shaking. “Relax, Flick, no one’s in trouble. You knew Avalon had your staff?”

Again, I nodded. “She was borrowing it to do some work. She said she had an idea about how to make it better in case–” Coughing, I amended that in mid-sentence. “I mean, when something else happens.”

“Yeah, good point,” Nevada agreed before reaching into her storage bin. “Anyway, they had ideas, but they’re still learning and they didn’t wanna make you wait for years before you got that upgrade. Besides, Avalon’s been busy upgrading her own weapons, and Columbus… well, he’s got some super-duper secret project of his own. So–” She tugged out my staff and held it up. “They asked me to help out a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” I stared at her. “You went out of your way to help, and you think I’d mind? You’re crazy.”

Laughing at that, Nevada offered a shrug. “You’d be surprised. Some Heretics get really touchy about who handles their weapons. It’s kind of a personal thing. But Avalon insisted you’d be okay with it.”

“I am, totally,” I confirmed quickly before looking at the staff in her hand. “But you already managed to do something with it? I mean damn, Valley just took the staff this morning. You work fast.”

Nevada gave me a dazzling Barbie smile. “Well, I am totally awesome. But like, that’s not how it works. See, they talked to me like two weeks ago, and I’ve been working on other kinetic-burst staffs. You know, figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. So then, like, once it was all done and I had the plans fixed up, all I needed was your actual staff to put it all together. That’s how we do it.”

“Oh.” I coughed, flushing. “I guess that makes sense, doing all the steps of the upgrade ahead of time and then just putting it together. Heretics probably really don’t like losing access to their weapons.”

She nodded. “Exactly. There’s not a living Heretic out there that would agree to hand over their weapon for days at a time. So we just get used to tinkering with copies until we know exactly what we’re doing, then take the weapon for as short a time as possible. Which, for you, was just a few hours.” She lifted the staff, waving it at me before holding the weapon out. “Take it, see how different it feels. The weight might be a little bit more than it used to be, but it shouldn’t be too bad once you swing it a few times.”

Curiously, I took the staff and hefted it, passing the thing from one hand to the other before giving it an experimental spin. “Yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I guess it does feel a tiny bit heavier, but it’s not too bad.”

The woman’s grin brightened even more, dazzling me. “Awesome! So, two different upgrades for this thing.”

“Two?” I echoed, blinking in surprise before looking down at the weapon in my hand. “It still looks the same.”

Nevada winked at me. “It’s supposed to.” Coughing, she pointed to the case clipped to my belt. “That’s the thing for the sand that Columbus and Avalon finished back in track training, right?” When I nodded, she moved her hand to point to the staff. “See that tiny button right there?”

Curious, I turned the weapon over to find where she was pointing. Sure enough, there was a little spot where my left thumb generally went that could be pushed in with a little bit of pressure. “Got it.”

“Press it,” Nevada instructed with an eager smile, clearly anxious for me to see what she’d done.

So, I did. As I pressed the button, the staff hummed a little in my hands and a small dark red spot of energy appeared at the end of it. And through that glowing spot, I could feel… sand? Blinking, I extended my focus and gave an experimental tug. Sure enough, as I did, a cloud of the stuff burst out of the end of the staff, where the glowing red spot was.

“It’s a short-distance portal,” the Development Track advisor informed me. “It links directly to that thing on your belt. So when that runs out of sand, so does the staff. I just thought it’d be good for you to have quick access to it without letting go of your weapon. Plus, now you can incorporate all that sand flying around into your fighting style.”

Unable to help the gleeful noise that escaped me, I experimented a little by spinning the staff and pulling sand in and out through the tiny portal. It was glorious, and I could already think of ways to use my sand now that I didn’t have to let go of the staff and reach down to my belt to do it.

“Nevada, this is—this is… you didn’t have to—I mean, you’re amazing.”

“Aww, you don’t have to butter me up,” the woman teased. “I’ll show you the other thing.”

I blinked once. “Other—oh! You said there was something else? Wait, there’s more?”

“Of course there’s more.” Nevada scoffed at me. “Hold both ends up near the tips. Yeah, like that. Now push in, then pull out again real quick.”

After following her directions, I felt the staff shift in my grip. Yelping a little, I held it up while the ends bent backward and flared a little bit. Meanwhile, the center slid around while a small indent appeared at about the mid-point. Once the staff was done shifting around into a curved shape, a slender strand of glowing string-like energy extended from the one tip down to the other. it wasn’t a staff anymore. Now it was a–

“Bow!” Nevada announced. She was grinning again, laughter clearly right on the tip of her tongue as she gave me the punchline. “Get it? It’s a Bowstaff. Bowstaff!

Eyes widening, I touched the glowing energy strand that functioned as the bowstring. It hummed under my touch.

“The string’s made out of the same kinetic energy that you use when you make your mines or whatever,” Nevada explained with obvious eagerness. “Now pinch the string right there where an arrow should be.”

Slowly, I followed her instructions. As I pinched the string, another glowing energy construct appeared. An arrow made out of the same glowing kinetic energy. I gasped, slowly pulling back at the arrow along with the string.

It was a bow. It worked just like a bow. Not that I’d had a lot of experience with them, but still.

The older blonde continued quickly. “It uses the same charging system as the staff part, so you can only fire a few at a time before it needs to recharge. Or you can charge up one really powerful shot instead. But your friends said that you really could use some kind of ranged option, so this seemed like the best way to go.”

“It’s… it’s great,” I managed, staring at the energy arrow that I’d pulled back. “Though I don’t really know how to use a bow very much…”

“You’ll just need to get some tutoring help to use it right.” Nevada agreed while helping me ease the string back down until the arrow disappeared. “Hey, Rudolph uses a bow. Maybe he’ll help you out.”

“I’ll um, I’ll ask him,” I agreed quietly, staring at that weapon. At the older woman’s suggestion, I gave it a quick shake up and down, and the bow reshaped itself back into my familiar staff.

“Nevada, I–” Something caught in my throat, and I quickly hugged the woman. “I wish I knew how to repay you.”

For a second, she stiffened under the hug. Then I felt her relax, her voice soft. “It’s no problem, Flick. I don’t want anything to happen to you. But if you really want to pay me back, do me a favor.

“Never use the word ‘wish’ around me again.”

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A Learning Experience 17-01

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“There are Heretics who leave this school and never again cast a single spell for the entirety of their careers.” Professor Carfried (who I swore still looked like he should be attending the school rather than teaching at it) spoke loudly over the sound of the ocean waves and a flock of tropical birds that were screeching while flying overhead as our Introduction to Heretical Magic class stood out on the beach.

It was Monday, the eleventh of December. A few days had passed since Gaia offered to train me. I hadn’t actually had any special sessions with her just yet, since she said that there were things that she needed to prepare. But it was supposed to start the next evening, which obviously had me nervous and a bit distracted. I had to keep telling myself to focus on the classes I was actually in. Which shouldn’t have been hard, because… well, duh. Magic. But if anything had the right to distract me from the things that we were learning at this place, it was the idea of Gaia Sinclaire personally teaching me.

Carfried was slightly in front of the class, standing about shin deep in the water while his gaze moved over the entire class one student at a time before he continued. “Either they find the act of magic too difficult and slow for the benefit it provides, or they simply believe the powers they’ve taken from the things that they’ve killed are enough. Either way, what do we call these kind of people, Miss Fellows?”

A few feet away, Koren looked up and hesitated only for a second before offering a simple, “Idiots?”

“Of course not,” Carfried retorted, prompting a few snickers. “They’re fully-trained Heretics, you lunatic. They’ll take your head off if you call them idiots. Call them sir or ma’am as they require.”

Straightening, he cleared his throat before pressing on pointedly. “You don’t call them anything. It’s their choice. It may be short-sighted and they may be cutting themselves off from a powerful resource, but that is their prerogative. We are here to ensure that as many of you as possible don’t end up with that same opinion. Which means you will come to understand magic rather than fear its complexity.”

“Professor?” Another voice spoke up, and I glanced that way to see one of Roxa’s old teammates, Gordon. As usual, his expression was flat. I was pretty sure I’d never actually seen the dark-skinned boy smile since we’d arrived at this school. Which wasn’t to say he moped around or anything. He seemed to be… well, happy enough. It was just that he was always serious about absolutely everything.

When Carfried nodded to him, he asked in a careful, measured tone, “Why exactly are we out here?”

“A fine question, Mr. Kuhn!” Smiling broadly, the young teacher reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a bag… which was larger than the pocket itself and just kept emerging as he pulled. And the fact that someone managing to haul what was essentially a full garbage bag out of a jacket pocket wasn’t even on the top… hundred list of weird things I’d seen that semester said a lot about this school.

“Last time we met,” the man continued while reaching into the bag to pull out a round metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, “I had each of you make one of these.” Leaning down, he touched his own disc to the water he was standing in, and murmured the words to activate the spell. A second later, the water turned a bright neon green for several feet around him. It was the same thing he’d done in the classroom when he showed us what to do, except then it had been in an aquarium instead of the ocean.

“Now,” Carfried held the bag out to us. “I’ve checked everyone’s work and they should be just fine so far. Which means we can move on to the next part. So, everyone come up and find your disc. Your names should be on them, so just grab the right one and go back to where you were. Let’s try to hurry.”

One by one, we all made our way up there and found the discs that we had enchanted before going back to where we were. Sands nudged me with her disc on the way. “What color did you make yours?”

“Purple,” I replied while looking down at the disc to trace my fingers over the symbol that I had drawn on the disc. It looked like two equals signs side by side with a very thin diamond-like shape in between them, while a parentheses-like half-circle lay on the opposite side of each equals sign, facing outward.

I could understand, in some ways, why there were Heretics that would avoid using magic. Powers were quicker, and you didn’t have to remember (or carry around a book reminding you of)  the different spells that you could use and exactly how to make them. Apparently it wasn’t easy to just use the directed or shapeless magic to get any effect you wanted. Even making up the effect, you still had to know the basics. It was sort of like trying to do trigonometry without understanding addition. If you didn’t know what the established magic phrase, gesture, and symbol was for making fire appear, you couldn’t just use shapeless magic to make a stick give off a fireball. It was a lot to remember and keep track of. Some Heretics carried books with reminders of the different spells, while others simply remembered everything they could. And then there were those like Carfried had mentioned, who didn’t bother at all.

“Now,” Carfried continued once we all had our discs, “You all know how this works. Touch the enchanted disc to any liquid and activate the spell to turn the liquid the color you prepared it for. Simple enough. But we want to move beyond simple. Because sometimes, you don’t have time to consciously activate a spell. It may only take a couple of seconds once everything’s prepared, but with Strangers, those couple of seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Or lots of deaths.”

Looking around at us, the man paused before asking, “So, who can give me an example of a Heretic enchantment whose effect is not consciously triggered? Besides Vanessa,” he added with a smile.

The brilliant girl’s hand went down while her brother and a couple others snickered. Then Koren’s hand went up. Once Carfried nodded to her, she glanced sidelong at Vanessa before answering, “The um, the line around the Pathmaker building. It triggers if you pass it, no manual activation needed.” Even as she was reciting that, the brunette’s face was reddening a little, obviously thinking back to that first day.

“Yes, indeed!” Carfried grinned, head bobbing. “An excellent example. The defensive line surrounding the Pathmaker building is activated by a person without permission crossing it. Very good, Miss Fellows. And today, we are going to learn how to adjust enchantments so that they are triggered by a specific criteria rather than by manual activation. In this case,” he reached into the bag and took out another disc. “The activation will be contact with water.” To demonstrate, the young teacher tossed the disc into the ocean a few feet away. That time, the water turned hot pink the second the disc touched it.

“Yes,” Carfried went on once everyone reacted, “making an enchantment that activates from outside stimuli rather than doing so manually is more complicated than the other way. But it is also incredibly useful. So, let’s get started. Once everyone has a chance to make their disc react to the water, we’ll split up into partners, and each pair will research another spell that can be given an outside trigger.

“And just to shake things up, we’ll use assigned partners from outside your teams. Won’t that be fun?”

******

The answer to Carfried’s question was no. No, it was not fun to be assigned partners from outside the team. Not in this particular case, anyway. Because as it turned out, the person I was assigned as a partner for this little ‘external stimulus magic’ project was none other than Zeke Leven. Yeah, lucky me.

Not that he seemed any happier about it. I’d seen him arguing with the teacher just after class ended, but Carfried wouldn’t budge. He wanted us to work together, and nothing would change his mind.

Now it was later that afternoon, shortly after our last class of the day (trig, in my case), and I had just met up with the boy himself down in one of those shielded magical training rooms where spells could be thrown around without worrying about accidentally hitting anyone or causing any actual damage.

“Great,” the boy announced as I came through the heavily reinforced metal door. “You made it. Now let’s get this over with. I already know what spell we should work on, so we can jump right into it and be done with this crap. So go stand over there and I’ll show you how this thing is supposed to work.”

“Aw, that’s adorable,” I retorted in spite of myself, annoyed at his trying to take charge and give orders. “You think you’ve traveled back in time to when you get to make all the decisions.” Clearing my throat, I asked pointedly, “What spell do you think we should work on? And do you know how to make it?”

Zeke squinted, clearly also annoyed. “You’re a Silverstone.” He said the word the way certain people used derogatory terms for people who weren’t Caucasian. “Just let me get us a good grade, all right?”

“That’s funny,” I pretended to muse with confusion, “I don’t remember hearing about any rule that said students who were born into this automatically get to be in charge.” Straightening, I faced the boy. “Look, I’m not saying that your idea isn’t good. Maybe it is. But I don’t know because you haven’t told me anything about it. Maybe that’s the one we should use. But just tell me what it is so I can give input and we can decide together whether we should use that spell. You know, together, like actual partners?”

Heaving a sigh, Zeke took a moment before waving his hand dismissively. “Fine, whatever. You’re the one that wants to stretch this whole thing out.” From his pocket, the boy withdrew a leather-bound book with a blank cover and waved it at me. “This is my mother’s. So, you know, kind of important.”

“It is?” I asked, a little blankly at that. “I mean, I’m sure it’s great and all, but who’s your mother?”

“You know, my mother?” The boy squinted at me before realizing. “Oh, right, newbie. My mom’s on the Committee.” Taking on a tone that was only slightly patronizing, he started to explain, “That’s the-”

“I know what the Committee is,” I interrupted, trying not to sound annoyed. “Your mom’s a part of it?”

Zeke gave a quick nod, clearly supremely proud. “She’s the one that’s in charge of the tourist-busters.”

Blinking uncertainly, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so what exactly does ‘tourist-buster’ mean?”

He looked like his eagerness to brag was at war with his annoyance about how little I knew. “You know, Heretics assigned to train stations, airports, that kind of thing?” When I gave him nothing but a blank look, he rolled his eyes. “Okay, so Strangers like to lurk around places where a lot of Bystanders are. Plus they have to travel too, and not all of them have magic teleportation powers. So: airports, bus and train stations, places like that are all hotbeds for lots of Strangers. My mom’s in charge of assigning Heretics to protect those places.” He grinned. “She says it’s like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes.”

Translation: Heretics lurk around airports watching for Alters were just trying to travel, then hunt them down and slaughter them. The thought made me sick to my stomach. Sure, there were obviously bad ones that were stalking innocent humans. And stopping them was important. But the Heretics obviously didn’t care if the non-humans they found were actually hurting anyone or not. They just killed them.

Apparently, Zeke took my silence as invitation to continue explaining. “Thing is, Strangers recognize Heretics too. And we don’t always get to see them first. So we can’t just stand around the airport or wherever looking for them, because as soon as one of the little bastards notices a Heretic, they’ll spread the word and all the rats’ll flee back to their holes.” He sounded annoyed about Alters wanting to live.

Coughing, I forced myself to keep my expression flat rather than letting Zeke know exactly what I thought of all that. Instead, I just asked in as mild a tone as I could, “So what do they do about it?”

That cocky smirk of his grew. “That’s the spell we’re gonna work on. It’s the one my mother invented.”

Waving the book at me again, he went on. “It’s a proximity spell, like the one by the Pathmaker building. Basically, it detects any Stranger that comes near it. When it notices them, it does two things. First, it sends an alert to the Heretic that made it. And it makes the Strangers uh, need to evacuate their bowels. So they go to the restroom. And there is where the Heretics wait, just out of sight. When they get the signal that the spell was tripped, they move out and watch the entrance to the restroom until the Stranger shows up. Then they head in and take care of the threat nice and quietly, so no one notices.”

Honestly, it sounded more like horror movie stalker-type tactics than heroic guardians, but I wasn’t going to tell Zeke that. Instead, I swallowed back the bitter vitriol I desperately wanted to spit at him. “Wow.” My voice managed to avoid cracking. “Sounds like your mom’s really figured out how to protect all those travelers.” As long as they’re suitably human, I heroically resisted the urge to add.

“Of course, that’s her job.” The boy lifted his chin with obvious pride before pushing on. “So, I figured maybe ‘make have to go to the bathroom’ is probably a bit… gross. But Mom made a weaker version for testing purposes that just makes the person who triggers it have to sneeze. That good, or do you… have a better idea?”

His tone could not have sounded more doubtful, which instinctively made me want to refuse his plan right out of the gate. Never mind the fact that I thought anything to do with a spell that made Alters walk to their doom like sheep when they were just trying to get through the airport like anyone else was utterly barbaric and sick. But saying anything to that effect to him was a flat out terrible idea. Plus, knowing the spell was obviously going to be important, even if I didn’t like how they happened to use it.

So, I made myself nod. “Sure. Let’s work on your mom’s spell then, if you think we can pull it off.”

His answering smirk was infuriating. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get up to the level to use it.”

Okay, would it really be so wrong of me to use my enhanced strength to see if I could make the spoiled ass fit inside the container for my staff?

******

The next day in Stranger Truths, Nevada was teaching us about goblins. She had drawn a picture of a short, ugly creature with a long, fat nose that covered most of the bottom half of its face, and warts over yellow-green skin.

“This,” she announced, “is a type of goblin that we call a Trow. Most of them are—well, probably about the same size as this picture. Maybe even smaller. They’re little things, and really shy most of the time.”

“Shy?” Jazz echoed. “Don’t you mean sneaky and devious cowards? They don’t fight fair, they hide and kill people that can’t fight back. Just like most Strangers.”

Nevada just gave the dazzling smile, like a cheerleader about to welcome someone onto the team. “What I mean,” she replied, “is that while there are Strangers who stalk and kill humans for anything from food to sport, most Trow don’t outright attack humans. There are exceptions, of course. First of all, the Trow are… well, pranksters is sort of like a… mild term for it. They might not outright kill people usually, but they love to humiliate them. Their pranks are like… you know, kinda mean-spirited. They’ll do anything from screw up a big presentation so the victim looks stupid in front of everyone, to making the victim end up naked in front of a big group. Some people think the Trow live off that kind of shame and embarrassment, but they just enjoy it

“They’re also obsessed with music,” Nevada went on. “So sometimes a group of the Trow will get it into their head to go out and kidnap a singer or a musician and take them back to their burrows to uh, perform for them. They keep them down there for day, a week, or even a year or so. If the performer does good, they usually let them go once they’ve had enough. Not always. Like I said, there’s some nasty ones out there. But usually as long as the ahh, singer or whatever does what they’re told, they’ll be released.”

She went on then, while the rest of us were still trying to comprehend the idea that there were creatures like that out there. Alters that wanted to kill and eat humans I understood, but just humiliating them for the fun of it? Why? What was the point? Could it just be simple amusement?

As I was thinking about that, the feeling of being watched came over me. My eyes blinked up and around, and I barely caught sight of Douglas turning his attention back to the front. He’d obviously been staring again. I’d caught the boy doing that several times already, but he never said what he wanted. He’d just quickly turn away and pretend nothing happened.

At some point, he and I were going to have to have a talk. Too much had happened already to let me think his staring was just a coincidence.

Before long, however, class was over and Nevada was telling us what to read in our books before we came back on Thursday. Which meant I had one more class to go to (Professor Dare’s Bystander History). Shortly after that, I would be attending my very first private tutoring session with Gaia.

I could hardly wait. Not just for my time with Gaia, but for Dare’s class too. In the latter case, I wasn’t alone. Most of our class was actually hurrying to get to the room.

Why were we so eager today? Simple, today was the day that we’d been waiting for a long time, the day that Dare had promised was coming every time someone asked about who she was.

Today was the day that Professor Dare was going to tell us about her history, and what had actually happened to the missing colony.

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