Vanessa Moon

Suspects 24-06

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“We’ll go in first,” Mateo announced a moment later. “My pack and our friends. We can get a lot closer than any of you can.” He gestured not just at us, but toward the other Alters as well. “Weres know each other. We can get right into the camp. There’s so many people down there, they won’t know that we don’t belong there. We’ll get as close as we can, then start trouble.

“Once we’ve got the attention on us, the rest of the Alters can come in. Try to close over them like a net. They’ll be focused on us, which should give you a chance to hit them from behind.”

His eyes moved back over to us then. “Roxa can stay back with the Heretics. Heretics, the second any of them see you, they’ll know what you are. Stay back until the fight’s in full swing. Wait for your chance. Once everyone’s engaged, pick off targets of opportunity. Try not to let the word spread about Heretics being involved until it’s too late for them to regroup. Wait for the moment, then hit fast and hard as soon as they’re involved. The Heretic-Were is the priority.”

Looking to me then, he paused before asking, “You look a little confused. Is everything alright?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Yeah, of course. I just sort of thought there’d be a more specific plan than just ‘go here and fight at this time.’”

The werewolf smiled then. “Specific plans lead to specific failures. It’s a poor leader who tries to micromanage every aspect of a battle. Everyone here knows how to fight, they know how to react to circumstances. So everyone goes where they need to go, and we’ll get through this. You all understand?”

He waited for nods from those of us who were standing there before gesturing. “Alright, then get back to the rest of your groups and tell them what’s going on. Remember, Weres first, then Alters, then Heretics. It’s like the classic one-two punch, but then you kick ‘em in the balls too.”

“I guess in this scenario, we’re the ball-kickers,” I put in then with a raised eyebrow.

Mateo winked at me. “Seems appropriate, all things considered.” Pursing his lips then, he whistled. “Let’s move!” Briefly, he looked back to us. “Be careful, kids. Seriously. I know you already know it’s not a game, but… watch each other’s backs. You may not be a literal pack, but… act like one. Stay together. Take care of each other. You got it?” Waiting until he was given an assortment of nods, the man started off.

I turned to say something to the others, only to pretty much get a faceful of squealing teenage pixie. Which sounded so much like a euphemism even in my head that I blushed just thinking it.

“Flicker!” the pixie in question blurted while hugging tightly onto my face for a moment. “Did you hear?” She fluttered back, hovering there while yanking the tiny sword from her hip to wave it around a little, a tiny, winged swashbuckler. As she finished speaking, the little pixie dove forward to put herself in the pocket of my jacket of my uniform, popping her head back up after a second to grin. “We’re gonna go kick were-whatever ass!”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Hey, Namythiet. Yup, we really are. Be careful though, okay?”

Her head bobbed up and down as she flew back up out of my jacket pocket. “O’course! I’ve gotta back up my mentor, you know.” Her mouth opened to say something else before she hesitated, blinking at me as her head tilted “Heeeeey,” she drawled, “why doncha look like a—how come you’re not a Heretic?” A gasp escaped her then. “Oh no, did you lose your powers?!”

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, I just–it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic, I promise.” We’d already explained the situation to Mateo. There had been some discussion about using the fact that I didn’t trigger an Alter’s warning sense to let me get close to the camp. But that had been dismissed as too dangerous, since it would leave me alone and my face was probably well-known to the werewolves that Pace spent enough time with anyway.

Namythiet fluttered back then, giving a salute with her sword before flying off to join Seth. The vampire himself was looking our way. As Namythiet joined him, he gave us a nod, pointing toward Shiori before tapping a finger against his head and saying something that I didn’t pick up.

“Use my head,” Shiori provided. “He wants me to be careful.”

“I’m gonna take that as advice for all of us,” I replied while absently buttoning the pocket of my jacket once more. Then I looked back to the others as the people around us started moving out. “I guess we wait for this whole thing to get started then, huh? Anyone see Pace down there yet?”

“Blue tent to the left of the white pick-up,” a new voice announced. Turning, I saw Duncan approaching along with his sister, Misty. The two of them were the brother and sister natural Heretics (Duncan taking his power from a metal-manipulating Ullus while Misty gained hers from an Ogre) that I’d met back at the Atherby camp, the ones who had grown up in the clan after Mom had surrendered herself.

“The one called Pace,” Duncan clarified as he and Misty stopped by us. “That’s where she is.”

Roxa nodded. “He’s right. She was hanging around Lemuel for awhile, but then it looked like she got bored and went back into the tent. She’s come out a few times since then, mostly just grabbing food or messing with one of the other Weres. She’s back in the tent right now.”

“Hi Duncan, hey Misty.” Briefly, I introduced them to the others. “I guess you’re staying with us?”

“Yup,” the brown-haired girl with blonde strands scattered through it nodded. “We’re sort-of your bodyguards through this fight. Well, us and the big guy.” She nodded over her shoulder as the other natural Heretic I’d met that night, Enguerrand (the old, chainmail-armored Heretic who looked like he had time-traveled straight from the middle ages), approached. The teleporting Abeonas, Berlin, was with him.

“I’m  your lift,” Berlin announced as the two of them got close enough. “Soon as you’re ready, I’ll jump you right over there. Just say the word.”

Duncan added, “We’re also supposed to tell you that your father says if you get yourself hurt, he’s going to ground you for a month.”

Enguerrand, meanwhile, simply greeted us politely, giving me a slight smile before taking up a place almost directly behind me. At the moment, he was all business. And his business, apparently, was watching our backs, literally. Then… well, then we watched the field below and waited.

Mateo’s pack (aside from Roxa) and the other werewolves that they’d recruited were already making their way across the field. There were other weres from Lemuel’s gathered army meandering in and out, so it didn’t look all that out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, behind us, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters were getting organized with their own teleporters, waiting for the moment to jump in. Everything was tense, all eyes on the camp in the distance.

“I wish I was there,” Roxa muttered beside me. She sounded surprised by her own voice, her own words. Lifting her chin, she stared down at the dots that were Mateo and the others. “… I wish I was there. Not here. I want to be with them. I should be with them.”

“You’d give away their cover,” Tristan reminded the girl. “Every single Were down there would see you as a Heretic. And they know there’s only one were-Heretic on their side. Pace.”

“I know,” she mumbled, arms folded. “But I don’t have to like it.” The girl rested a hand on Gidget’s head, who was busy glowering down at the figures in the distance.

It was Enguerrand who spoke up, his voice quiet, yet measured. “You are devoted to your allies, Miss Pittman. It is an admirable quality, and one that many should learn to emulate.”   

Before anyone else could respond to that, Quing spat a series of words that I didn’t know, but sounded an awful lot like curses. My head snapped that way to ask what was wrong, but then I saw it. In the field below, Mateo and his people had been surrounded by a ring of other weres. At the front of them was a figure I couldn’t make out the details of, but something told me it was…

“Lemuel,” Roxa snarled, binoculars held to her eyes. “It’s him and his pack. Mateo and the others are in trouble.” She dropped the binoculars, taking a step that way.

“Wait,” I caught her arm. “The other Alters are gonna make their move now. The plan can still–”

“Screw the plan,” the other girl snapped. “Screw everything. I’m not gonna stand here and let that psycho hurt Mateo or any of the others. I’m not gonna stand here and watch them die! Gidget!” At the sound of her name, the cyberform abruptly shape-shifted and folded in on herself, going from cougar to armored hoverboard as Roxa stepped up on her back.

My hand stayed on her arm, and I started to say something else to convince her to wait. Before I could, however, the sound of a cry from far below caught our attention.

Fighting. Mateo’s pack and the other weres were fighting. It had devolved into an all-out brawl. Exactly like it was supposed to. Not as far in as they’d planned, but still. Lemuel was there and the focus was on Mateo’s people.

As outnumbered as they were, they couldn’t last long like that, with everyone’s focus on them. Luckily, however, they didn’t need to. The moment the fight was underway, I heard calls from the Alters around us. They had already organized themselves into groups. Seeing the brawl underway, the cry went up to move in.

In groups of mostly three or four, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters vanished, only to reappear at spots on either side of the were-encampment in the desert valley below. Lemuel’s recruits barely had time to tear their attention away from the brawl at the edge of the camp to realize that they were being attacked by more Alters. In seconds, what had begun as a relatively easy curbstomp of Mateo’s people was suddenly an all-out war as dozens of beings from both sides fell in on each other.

Roxa tugged her arm away from my grip then. “I’m going to be with my pack,” she informed me. “I won’t abandon them.” As the blonde girl gave a sharp whistle, Gidget flew off the ground, diving down to join Mateo and the others.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Okay. Pace. We focus on Pace. Get the choker from her while helping everyone else, like Mateo said. Where is she?”

Quing pointed a feathered hand down into the chaotic battlefield. “There. She is… enjoying herself.” He grimaced a little before speaking again. “Tulmin, to your left. Buddy, take three steps forward, the bear behind the tent is trying to ambush our friends. Scolpa, weresnake burrowing under you, move now.”

He was acting as a sort-of overwatch, I realized. The bird-man was keeping an eye on everything that was going on, and communicating with the Wonderland Alters somehow to give them directions and advice.

Swallowing, I looked back to the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan from Crossroads. Duncan, Misty, and Enguerrand from the Atherby camp. And myself. “Right in the middle of things. Great. Okay, guys… um…” I didn’t know what to say. I froze up.

“We’re doing this,” Avalon interrupted. Her gaze was steady as her hand moved to very briefly touch mine before falling back. Straightening, she nodded toward Berlin. “Take us in.”

“I think she means,” Shiori started, “Beam us–”

And just like that, we weren’t watching the battle anymore.

We were in the middle of it.

******

I was standing a few yards away from a canvas tent, staff in one hand. To my right, there was a scream of panic, accompanied by the savage roar of a wolf and the sound of tearing meat and crunching bone. The scream turned to gurgles before stopping entirely. The sound of the wolf’s victorious snarl turned to a squeal as a larger figure slammed into it hard enough to shatter half the bones in the wolf’s body.

I didn’t even know which of them was on my side. I should have, but in the heat of the moment, in the dust and furious sounds around me, my brain froze up for a second. I stood there, surrounded by blood, by violence, by death.

Ahead of me, a dark-blue, twelve-foot-tall giant with no shirt was locked in a pitched battle with a nine-foot tall werebear. Despite the height advantage, they both seemed to be equally matched, neither giving an inch. A little to the right of them, a were in full wolf-form bounded forward and started to leap, only to tumble backward with a yelp as an arrow whistled through the air and straight into the wolf’s eye. Fennicus, the centaur, galloped past while already lining up another shot with his bow that took the still tumbling wolf in the side. To the left and a hundred yards away, Seth was busy dealing with a pair of werewolves in their half-wolf forms, as well as a fully-formed jaguar. Meanwhile, there was a giant vulture swooping around above him that kept trying to dive in, only to be thwarted repeatedly by the tiny, darting figure that was Namythiet.

Hell, right nearby, I could see the natural Heretics from the Atherby camp going to work. Misty had her enormous sword, the thing that was big as she was, spinning over her head like it was made out of foam. A massive, armored werecrocodile was lunging for her, jaws snapping down. Just before it would have bitten her in half, however, she shoved that sword into its mouth, catching the descending jaws. As the crocodile made a noise of surprise, the tiny waif of a girl grinned before triggering something on the handle of her giant sword. An instant later, the croc was literally hurtled away as a deafening boom filled the air. Smoke was coming out of the end of the sword, which had opened up a bit to reveal a gun barrel equally huge. Even as the crocodile flailed its way back to the ground with a hole in its back (injured, but not dead), Misty was shouting something about loving cannons.

“Chambers!” Avalon’s shout penetrated my briefly frozen mind, and my eyes focused on her. She and the others were all standing behind me, spaced out a little bit. “Don’t tunnel vision,” the other girl snapped while pivoting, eyes scanning. “You’re not a spectator! You know better than that!”

“Got it, sorry.” Focusing, I hoisted my staff into position, ordering Jaq and Gus into position to convert the thing into its bladed-form right from the start. The others already had their weapons drawn, and had spaced themselves out enough not to get in each other’s way. Which was good, because it was at that moment that the weres surrounding us realized that they had even more company. Heretic company. And they weren’t too happy about it.

As the shout went up and around them, Avalon spoke flatly. “Clear a hole, get to Pace. That’s what matters. She doesn’t get away.”

And that was all she had time to say before the surrounding weres fell in on us.

The werelion that ran straight at me in his half-human form was clearly young. Maybe even my age. He was eager, too eager to have fought many Heretics and probably still too awed by his own power to consider that someone else might be able to match or beat it. He wore ragged jean shorts that had mostly snapped under the force and pressure of his body growing into the larger battle-form, and no shirt. His chest was crisscrossed with some kind of barbed-wire tattoo with a skull in the top center, just under his throat. In this battle-form, he was much heavier and more muscled than a normal human, with a fine down-like layer of fur over his skin, a face that looked rough and bumpy like a neanderthal, incredibly pronounced teeth, and visible claws protruding from his slightly elongated fingers. Oh, and he had a mane of hair surrounding his head. 

He lunged, one long, muscled arm lashing out to bring those nasty-looking claws swiping at me. In response, I took a quick step forward, pivoting to put my back to the lion-man while bringing my staff up vertically in my right hand. His swinging arm was caught against the staff, blocking him from cutting me. At the same time, I continued my pivot, driving the elbow of my left arm back hard into his face. With the strength of a normal seventeen-year-old girl, he would have shrugged it off. But I had the absorbed strength from Valentine, delivering a blow to his jaw that knocked the werelion stumbling back a step.

Following that up without an instant of hesitation, I continued turning until I was facing the figure, who was just then catching himself. He recovered quickly, launching himself forward once more while lashing out with a series of wild swings. But I was already set, spinning my staff up to catch the first swing from his left arm before snapping the other end up to smack his right arm out of the way, then back again for the left. One, two, three, all in the span of about a second. Before he could attack again, my staff was snapping up, spinning in my hands so that one of the flat sides of of the grapple smacked off the bottom of his chin, snapping his head back to expose his throat. An instant later, the staff continued spinning in my hands so that the other end with its attached blade sliced a hole right through his exposed jugular.

Once more, he stumbled back, grabbing for his throat with widened eyes as it spurted blood. Without waiting for him to even realize just how bad the injury was, I took two quick steps forward and leapt up, kicking out to put my foot into his shoulder. The blow knocked him backwards and down, so that he landed on his back with me standing on top of him, one foot still on his shoulder, while the other rested on his stomach. He stared up at me, gurgling for a second just before I brought the bladed-end of the staff down with a decisive slash that separated his head from his neck.

Doubling over a bit as the pleasure rushed through me, I had the sense of mind to mutter, “Did I forget to mention that Nevada added enough silver to Jaq and Gus to let them hurt a were? Oops.”

Because yeah, knowing how soon I was going to be fighting werewolves again (especially given how they’d basically named me as one of their enemies), I would’ve been an idiot not to ask Nevada to include silver in my weapon upgrades. And as for not telling anyone else about it, well, that let it be my little secret.

The others were just as busy. To my left, I caught a glimpse of the Moon twins working together against a fully-transformed werejaguar. As the supernatural wildcat leapt at them, Vanessa’s whip cracked the air directly in front of it. As it did so, a glowing red circle about the size of a manhole cover appeared. When the jaguar passed through it, the thing burst into flame. With a squeal, the transformed Alter dropped to the ground, its fur on fire as it rolled and flailed to put it out.

Yeah, at the beginning of the year, the whip that Vanessa used had just been capable of exchanging any inanimate material it struck with any other inanimate material. But apparently, I wasn’t the only one who upgraded my weapon as time went on. Now the whip could produce those ‘mines’ of different elemental effects. Not just fire, but lightning, ice, and even a poison gas.

While the burning jaguar was recovering, Tristan took aim. Bobbi-Bobbi, his cyberform snake, was in her weapon-mode. The lower half of the long mechanical serpent was wrapped around his upper body to form a sort-of protective armor, while her upper-half and head had attached itself to Tristan’s arm. It made him look like a bit like MegaMan with his armcannon. You know, if MegaMan’s armcannon looked like the head of a snake at the end.

It looked even more like the video game robot when the blast of powerful red light shot out of his cannon to collide with the fallen jaguar, knocking the thing back down long enough for Vanessa to wrap her whip around its hind legs. A hard yank pulled the figure across the ground close enough for Tristan to jump on it with his silver knife.

Shiori and Avalon were equally busy, also working together. In their case, there was a gigantic fucking wererhino galloping around them. It had shrugged off all their attempts to do damage to its heavily armored hide. Even the silver knives couldn’t actually penetrate, despite all their efforts. They could avoid his charges, but not really do any damage. And if they left him alone, sooner or later, he’d find his target.

Finally, the two of them looked at each other. There was a brief exchange of about three words between them before they nodded. Then the pair ran straight for the rhino, even as he ran at them.

Avalon’s inherited speed allowed her to run at about thirty miles per hour. She used that to her advantage, quickly moving ahead of Shiori. At the last second, she jumped, the leap carrying her up and over the thing. As she flew above it, both of hands lashed out. From her gauntlets, a pair of energy coils extended and flew down to wrap around the rhino’s horn. Avalon landed on its back while heaving on the energy coils as hard as she could.

Shiori, meanwhile, stood her ground as the wererhino ran straight for her. I wanted to cry out, but stopped myself. Distracting the girls right then would be… bad.

They were ready anyway. As Avalon yanked back on the coils that she’d wrapped around the rhino’s horn, it involuntarily opened its mouth. And as it did so, Shiori opened her own mouth. A deafening scream erupted from the girl. It was like she was speaking in literal thunder.

And that thunder was accompanied by lightning. The girl had combined the sonic scream that she had inherited from the Cù-Sith she had fought back when we were dealing with Fahsteth, with the lightning breath she had inherited from the Jekern. As a result, she could literally scream lightning with associated thunder.

The combined sonic and electrical attack tore straight into the charging rhino’s open mouth, avoiding all of its armor entirely in the process. The force of it stopped the thing in its tracks, while the lightning knocked it to the ground, twitching along with the burning smell of flesh.

Before it could recover, Avalon hopped off, spun around, and lashed out with her gauntlet. A blade of energy appeared in mid-swing, cutting through the rhino’s open mouth and up into its brain. Avalon’s pale green aura quickly rose around her.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Shiori shouted a warning, just as a second werecrocodile, different from the one that Misty had been dealing with, appeared almost out of nowhere. This one was in half-human form. He looked like a massive green-scaled figure with a long, bladed tail and an elongated mouth. Actually, he almost looked more like a half-dinosaur than a half-crocodile. He grabbed for Avalon, who managed to slip free just in time to spin around and kick out. Shiori was already there, going up on his opposite side.

Then I saw it. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of one of the pickup trucks that had been parked along the edge of the camp. It was heading out, swerving around the worst of the fighting. And behind the wheel was–

“Pace!” I blurted, raising a hand to point at the truck.

Avalon, still grappling with the half-crocodile, grimaced. “Stop her, Chambers!”

Stop her. Right. I could do that. Taking a breath, I looked at my staff, at the transformed Jaq and Gus. “All right, guys. Let’s do this.”

With that, I started to move. Cutting a diagonal path across the battlefield not toward where the truck was, but the way it was heading, I sprinted..Ten feet in, and a tiger was coming straight at me, gathering itself for a leap. At the last second, however, a sedan came flying in out of nowhere to smack into the tiger. And that was literally flying. That Duncan guy was nearby. With a flick of his hand, he sent the empty car flying up before bringing it down hard on top of the still dazed weretiger.

I kept going, truck in sight as it rounded the corner of the camp. A short burst from my staff carried me on top of the sedan that Duncan was using, and he gave it a hard shove upward, a move that, combined with another burst from my staff, carried me a good half of the distance I needed to cover.

Running, running. Others were faster than I was, but I could go all-out for hours. I sprinted across the camp, even as not just one, but two positively massive bears reared up to block my path. The things were huge, twelve feet tall if they were an inch. Even as the one on the left hauled itself up, however, something much smaller knocked it back down again. Misty came flying in out of nowhere, her tiny figure looking more like a toothpick that the bear would use. But her fist slammed into the bear’s face with enough force to knock the damn thing onto its back, even as Misty gave an excited whoop.  

The bear on the right, meanwhile, had just turned that way when someone else approached. Enguerrand. He jumped at the thing too, but rather than slamming into it, he… well, errr… slammed into it. Literally. The man disappeared. For a second I thought he’d gone through the thing. But he never came out the other side. The bear, meanwhile, staggered for a second, then pivoted and leapt onto one of the nearby barechested half-wolves.

Possessed him. Enguerrand literally possessed the bear, like a–

Truck! Focus on the truck, it was getting away. And these guys had just cleared enough of a path to catch up. Grimacing, I took off again. This time, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that truck, from getting to Pace.

Arms, claws, and tails lashed out at me, most haphazardly as I moved in and then out of their range I ducked, dove, rolled, then popped up and kept running. I hopped over a fallen tent, dropped into a slide to take myself under a swinging sword, and narrowly spun away from a burst of fire. Through it all, I kept my eyes on that truck as it hurtled its way across the desert, heading for a bumpy dirt road that would lead it out of the battlefield. And through it all, I kept charging my staff.

Time it right, had to time it just right. If I didn’t, I was gonna lose the truck entirely. Three seconds, two seconds, one second–now, now, now! Flipping my staff around and down, I pointed it at the ground before triggering a burst that sent me flying up and forward. Again, not to where the truck was, but to where it was going to be. Right at the spot where the actual road started, the road that would take the truck, with Pace inside it, away from the fight.

By the time I reached the apex of my flight, I had already converted my staff into its bow form. Flipping over in the air to point my feet up so that I could look straight down, I took aim, using the last of the staff’s kinetic charge to set a powerful energy arrow just as the truck approached. As it passed directly beneath me, I loosed the shot with a grunt.

The arrow careened down, colliding with the back of the pickup before releasing all of its charged-up kinetic force. The explosion of energy from the impact literally launched the speeding truck up and over, sending it flipping end over end a few times before it came down on its hood and roof.

Landing in a kneeling position a second later, I kept my eyes focused on the truck. There was no way that would even slow Pace down very much, let alone actually hurt her.

Sure enough, the crazy (probably possessed) werewolf-Heretic crawled out of the truck, picking herself up with a squeal that I belatedly realized was a laugh. “Whooo! That was fun! Let’s do it again, do it again, do it again!”

“Later,” another voice grunted. The door of the truck was kicked free, flying a good fifteen feet before a second figure shoved himself out and stood.

Lemuel. It was Pace and Lemuel. Both of them focused on me, almost identical smiles coming to their faces.

“Aww,” Pace announced with a giggle of joy. “Present came back! Let’s play with the present. Huh, huh, can we?”

“Oh,” Lemuel replied, the pack-leader already shifting into his much larger half-wolf form. “I think we can spare enough time to unwrap your treat.”

“Yay!” Pace bounced up and down like an excited little girl, even as she produced two silver knives, one in each hand. “How fun! And she’s all by herself too!”

There was a sudden sound in the air above me, before a figure landed at my side.

“Wanna bet?” Roxa asked Pace, even as Gidget dropped to transform into her cougar shape beside her. To me, she added, “Sorry. I… I had to help them.”

“No problem,” I replied, raising my staff. “You’re here when it counts.”

Lemuel lifted his chin then, his smile growing. “My little pup? How… glorious. This’ll be fun.”

“I’m not helpless this time, you piece of shit,” Roxa snarled at him.

Lemuel’s response was a low chuckle. “Good,” he retorted. “I prefer it when my toys have a little spirit to them. Makes it a lot more fun when they break.”

He and Pace glanced to each other for a half-second.

And with that, they lunged.

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Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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Suspects 24-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Fahsteth and Fossor posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

Somehow, three hours had passed between the time that I’d passed out and when Roxa’s call had awakened me. That was an almost absurdly long amount of sleep for me ever since I’d gained the Amarok’s power. But after the night I’d had, apparently I’d really needed the rest.

And if the first five seconds of the new day that I’d experienced so far was any indication, it wasn’t going to be any slower or less active than the last one. But hey, at least I’d had three hours of sleep. For me, that was practically like crashing for twelve straight. I’d even slept through both the usual morning workout that I had with Avalon and the school-mandated one. Apparently Gaia had let me take a break from that after the night we’d had.

I was also on my feet before consciously realizing what I was doing. “What?” I blurted, glancing toward Avalon’s side of the room. Her bed was empty, unsurprisingly. It was Tuesday, and almost halfway through breakfast. Which meant she’d probably been up for at least an hour.

Roxa repeated, “Werewolves, we’re looking at them. And I don’t just mean ourselves. It’s Lemuel’s pack, and the other packs he’s called in for whatever meeting they’re having. They’re all over the place. It’s basically a furry convention, Flick. Only with psycho-murdering fucksticks.”

“But I–” Taking a breath, I let it out before making sure once again that my privacy-spell was up. “I thought that big meeting wasn’t supposed to happen yet. We had time, didn’t we? You knew where they were going, so you were supposed to be able to get ahead of them and set up.”

Roxa’s voice was dry. “Yeah, well, I guess their plans changed. Something about losing their Heretic tech specialist and their attempt to abduct the father of the person responsible for that going up in flames. So everything just got thrown into warp drive or something, because their whole camp is up and hopping. There’s dozens of them, Flick, and they’re already getting their marching orders. If we don’t do something about this today, we’re gonna lose them again.”

“Shit,” I muttered out loud, staring up at the ceiling of the dorm room for a second to gather my thoughts before asking, “Okay, how long do you think we have before they take off?”

“The one good thing about having so many werewolves around down there is that some of us can get close enough to overhear things without being sniffed out,” the other girl replied. “Not me, because, well, Heretic. But the others. Apparently Lemuel’s main group is heading out at ten after four, once they give everyone their big recruitment speeches and marching orders.”

“Okay, okay, that’s…” I shook my head, groaning. “It’s better than it could be. Twenty-five minutes after the last class ends. That gives us just that long to find a way to get over there.”

“You sure Headmistress Sinclaire wouldn’t just find a way to excuse you from class?” Roxa asked, a bit incredulously. “I mean, this seems like something she’d be pretty okay with.”

Sighing, I explained, “It doesn’t really matter what she’s okay with right now.” Then I went on to tell her that the real problem was that we had two representatives from the Committee sniffing around. “And I’m pretty sure they’d notice if we just up and missed a whole day of classes.”

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Roxa muttered. “Hold on a sec.” She went off the phone for a minute, and I could make out the muffled sound of her talking to someone else before coming back on. “Okay, we’ll scout everything out and get the Wonderland people set up. If you’re not here by four oh five, we’re hitting them and making the best of it. That’s as late as we can push it.”  

Twenty minutes. That meant that, once classes ended, we had twenty minutes to get there before the fight started, one way or another, whether we were there or not. Twenty minutes to get out of class, meet up, and get off the island. Not to mention getting briefed on what was going on before the actual fight, and before Lemuel’s group took off. That was pushing it, a lot.

But we didn’t have any other choice. “We’ll be there,” I promised her. “Somehow, I’m not sure of the specifics yet. But we’ll be there. We won’t leave you guys on your own for this, Roxa.”

There was a pause from the other end for a second before the girl asked, “Your dad, he’s okay?”

I coughed at that. “Yeah, actually. He’s–” Pausing briefly, I finally shook my head absently. “Uh, it’s a long story. Trust me, I’ll tell you about it later. But he’s okay. He’s safe, for the moment.”

After promising again that we’d find a way to be there, I disconnected and sent a quick text to Asenath to make sure they’d made it to the camp okay and to let her know what was going on. Then I sent another text to Avalon, asking where she was before heading for the shower. At the very least, I could soak with the hot water a little bit and let my brain wake up before classes started (not to mention letting it work on the little problem of how to get off the island secretly).

By the time I got out of the shower, there was a response from Avalon letting me know that she was in the cafeteria with the rest of the team, including Deveron. Which made me pause, wincing a little bit. Right, they were gonna want to know what happened the night before. Which… we couldn’t exactly tell them the truth. If one of them was possessed and found out everything we’d learned from Fahsteth, it might push them to do something bad. But if we held back too much and they figured out we were lying, that might also push them over the edge.

Not to mention, we still had the cure for Tangle. Somehow, we needed to get it to her before the Seosten found out and killed her. Maybe that one would be best just to hand to Gaia, as much as I wanted to be in the room when the woman woke up. Then again, what if they had some kind of failsafe for if Gaia showed up there and looked like she might accomplish something? In that case, wouldn’t it be better to go with something more subtle? The Seosten were less likely to think that someone like me could break Tangle out of her coma than someone like Gaia.

Thinking about that, I dressed quickly and started out after paying a quick visit back to the room to grab my books and visit with Jaq and Gus in their box. I gave the two a bag of nuts and bolts for a treat, along with a broken Gameboy that Avalon had scrounged up. The little cyberform mice seemed to like putting things like that back together and making gadgets work again.

I still hadn’t thought of how we were going to get past the Committee guys to leave the island, aside from just asking Gaia if she had any ideas. And somehow, I was pretty sure that they were watching any interaction with the headmistress especially closely. It might come down to that, but I wanted to at least try to come up with another idea first. I knew there was something. A thought, half-formed, kept tickling its way at my brain, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

As I left the dorm building, brow furrowed thoughtfully and the books for my first few classes under one arm, a voice abruptly spoke up from nearby. “Good morning, Miss Chambers.”

It was Patrick. The dark-skinned Heretic was still wearing a stiffly-pressed suit. The only reason I knew it wasn’t the same set of clothes was the slightly different color shirt and tie. He was standing on the grass, a few yards away from the doors to the girl’s dorm. Not creepy at all.

Spinning on one heel, I blinked at the man. “Oh, uh… hey. Can I help you with something?”

His head shook faintly. “No. Just thought I’d make sure you feel up to class today. After all, you had a long night.” Lifting his chin a bit, he added, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from your dad?”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare seemed to materialize behind me. “I’m sure that Miss Chambers will let us know if her father makes contact,” she informed the man before looking at me. “He does have a point though, are you sure you’re ready for class today?”

Oh, how tempting would it be to get out of classes by saying no. But I was pretty sure that if I did that, I’d have Patrick and his partner all over me for the rest of the day. If I was actually going to get out of here at all, I had to make it look like things were as normal as they could possibly be.

So, I just nodded. “I’m good, Professor Dare. My…” I swallowed then, letting my nerves show a little bit, since not being scared would’ve been a pretty big tip-off. “My dad, he’s… if they wanted him dead, whoever they are, they wouldn’t have bothered to save him from the wolves, right?”

Giving me a slight smile of encouragement, Dare nodded. “The investigators will find him, Miss Chambers, I promise you that. We just have to give them time to do their job. The Committee already dispatched a couple of hand-selected Runners to go over your house with a fine-toothed comb, just in case there’s any indication of who took him or what they want.”  

The wink that she added onto the end of that announcement was obviously meant to reassure me. I just hoped it meant that the house had already been sanitized of anything possibly incriminating that Asenath hadn’t had a chance to get rid of before they’d fled the night before.

“Thanks, Professor,” I murmured before gesturing. “I better grab some breakfast before class though. Can’t learn how to be a real monster-slaying badass on an empty stomach, you know.”

With a nod from both Dare and Patrick, I waved and started off. It took effort not to look over my shoulder as I jogged all the way to the other building, but I managed it. A few seconds later, I made my way into the cafeteria and looked around for a second. The first thing I saw was Paul Calburn and Isaac Acosta. The two members of Roxa’s former team were staring at me, neither of them doing much to hide it until I met their gazes. Then they turned away after a couple of seconds. 

That was… going to have to be dealt with sooner or later. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be an issue once we got Roxa that choker.

It wasn’t long after that before my eyes found my team. Sure enough, Sean, the twins (the ones who were part of my team), Columbus, and Deveron were all sitting around Avalon. The girl looked like she was about to stab someone with a fork.

Before I could take another step that way, my hand was abruptly closed around something. Blinking, I looked down to find myself holding a simple-looking ring. Before I could wonder too much about what it was, a familiar voice spoke in my head. Felicity, look up here for a moment.  

It was Gaia’s voice. Turning, I looked to the front of the room. Sure enough, the headmistress was up there. She gave me a slight nod before speaking in my head again. Wear the ring on your right hand. It will block most of the abilities that can be used to detect if you’re lying, and certainly any that our guests from the Committee would have. Anything you say will sound like the truth. If you wish for their abilities to be able to detect your lies for whatever reason, touch the stone on the ring for a few seconds. Until you touch it again, the ring will stop working.

Well, that was pretty helpful. Glancing down, I slipped the ring on my finger before nodding to the headmistress. She gave me a brief smile before turning her attention back to Professor Carfried and one of the third year teachers, who were both talking animatedly about something.

Then I noticed Koren. The brunette was sitting with her team, but her attention was on me. Noticing me looking, she mouthed, ‘Okay?’ Her expression was concerned. Obviously, she’d heard at least some of what happened. I gave her a nod and gestured to try and indicate that I’d talk to her later while adjusting the ring’s placement.

Just then, Sands caught sight of me. “Flick!” she called over the noise of the other students, waving me over. “Come on, you’re gonna miss breakfast.”

Smirking just a little, I stepped over that way and slid into a seat before replying easily, “And miss telling you guys about our zombie adventure, I assume?” The words almost caught in my throat. The last thing I wanted to do was lie to these guys. I wanted to tell them the truth about what had happened. But any of them, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Deveron, or Sean could be the one who was possessed by Charmiene. Any of them could be an unwitting spy for the Seosten.

So, I carried on the charade, gesturing at Avalon. “Hasn’t Valley told you everything interesting?”

“No!” Poor Sands sounded like she was about a hot second away from exploding. “She hasn’t told us anything! She just said, ‘We fought zombies. We won. We didn’t die.’ That’s it!”

Snickering despite myself, I shrugged. “Well, she’s not wrong. We fought zombies, we won, we didn’t die. Oh, and neither did Professor Dare.” Picking up the menu page then, I perused it briefly before selecting what I wanted and setting it back down. It disappeared, and a moment later, the tray appeared with my food on it. Which, for the record, was still pretty damn amazing.

Somehow, Sands didn’t seem as impressed. Giving me a dirty look, the girl cajoled, “Oh come on, why’d Dare take you guys and nobody else for a zombie run. Is that really all it was?”

The worst part of this whole situation was that I couldn’t tell if Sands was just being her usual enthusiastic self as far as the whole hunting monsters thing went, or if it was a Seosten inside her fishing for extra details. Looking at her now, there was absolutely no way to tell. I felt like I should be able to notice the difference, but there was just… I couldn’t. I couldn’t take the risk. And that was killing me, because not trusting most of the people on my team in a situation like this was pretty much one of the worst feelings in the world. We needed to sort this out and identify the Seosten, and quick. Which was why we had to get that choker away from Pace.  

“Well,” I shrugged a little bit even as my stomach turned over. “We were kind of… out anyway.” I coughed, making myself blush a little bit until Sands got what I was implying. As her face registered her realization, I nodded. “Yeah. So Professor Dare was talking to us when she got the call from her friend and… well, I guess she thought it’d be a good learning experience.”

Before I could say anything else about the fake zombie fight, Deveron spoke up while laying one of the privacy coins in the middle of the table. “Your dad,” he started, eyes on me. “Is he okay?”

“Wait,  what?” Sands blinked back and forth, clearly confused. “What happened to Flick’s dad?”

This, at least, I could tell the truth about. The Seosten knowing that Dad was with Gabriel wouldn’t reveal where they were exactly. And we already knew that none of the people in Gabriel’s camp were possessed, because they used that expulsion spell that he had taught us just to make sure. Which meant that they, at least, were off the list of potential suspects. And I couldn’t start holding every bit of sensitive information back. Whoever was possessed was bound to figure it out before long if I tried that, and then they’d know that I knew more than I should. Right now, the best advantage we had was that Charmiene didn’t know that I knew she was possessing one of my friends. And I couldn’t wait to rub that particular mistake in her face.

So, for the moment, I quietly explained what happened. Though I left out the bit about the Committee member stepping in. That I wanted to keep to myself. I just said that they were rescued by ‘some Heretic’ before going on to talk about Gabriel showing up to take them in.

By the end, they were all staring at me. Sean’s mouth was hanging open, his hand resting on Vulcan’s head, whose mouth was also open, like his partner’s. It looked kind of funny, actually. “Dude,” he announced quietly, almost reverently. “Your dad is staying with Gabriel Prosser?”

“I hope you realize,” Sands cut in with a slight hiss, “how much effort it’s taking not to squeal and jump up and down with you right now. I can’t believe your dad’s living with–wait what about the Bystander Effect? Did you ever find out how he got around that? Did it have something to do with that Heretic that showed up? Wait, who was the Heretic that saved them? I thought it was gonna be one of Prosser’s people, or even Prosser himself, but you never explained that part.”

Ignoring the pang in my stomach while inwardly telling myself that as soon as we identified the stupid spy, I was gonna tell the rest of the team everything. For now, I made myself shrug. “Gabriel said it wasn’t one of his people. Other than that, we’re not sure. I mean, really grateful, but still… I dunno.” Slowly shaking my head, I added, “Asenath didn’t recognize her either, so who knows.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t your mom?” Columbus spoke up then, head tilted a little curiously. “What if–I dunno, she convinced Fossor to let her save him in exchange for something. Or maybe he just didn’t want the Seosten getting hold of that kind of leverage over you. But–” Belatedly, he shook his head. “I guess Asenath would probably recognize her. Unless… she disguised herself?” His eyes widened then. “Hey, yeah. What if she disguised herself? I mean, that would make sense, wouldn’t it? She wouldn’t want your dad to recognize her, or any of the people that might’ve shown up. It’s gotta be your mom, right?”

If I hadn’t already known who the woman was, that might’ve convinced me. Slowly, I nodded. “Maybe, I–I don’t know. I’m not sure she could convince Fossor to let her, but… I…” Sighing, I rolled my eyes. “We’ve got too many mysteries going on.”

Taking another bite of food, I waited a moment before adding in a low voice, “Besides, if the guys the Committee sent to sniff around are right, Mom might’ve been busy killing a bunch of other Heretics last night.”

Everyone choked on their own food, blurting muffled questions at me until I explained what had happened. Which… didn’t really help. They had a lot more questions after that, most of which I couldn’t answer.

Before long, however, it was time to head for class. Which I did, even though most of my attention was devoted toward trying to work out the bigger problem of how I was supposed to get myself and the people I could trust off the island to help the others with Lemuel’s pack.

It wasn’t until midway through lunch, while telling Koren as much as I could about what had happened, that I figured it out.

******

“Flick?” Shiori asked while stepping into one of the empty classrooms at the end of the day, a minute after classes had ended. “Is everyone else –oh.” She blinked at the sight of the people with me. Specifically, Avalon, Tristan, and Vanessa. “Heya.”

“Thanks for coming, guys,” I started quickly. “We don’t have much time. But hey, at least Prosser’s spell did most of the explaining?”

Once I’d figured out what I was going to have to do, the next step had been making sure that everyone who could help was in on it. Since the only other students I knew for a fact weren’t possessed besides myself were Shiori, Avalon, and the Moon twins (for virtue of being hybrids and therefore immune to possession), they were who I had. To that end, I had used the spell that Prosser taught me, the one about writing information on a piece of paper and then sending it straight into the mind of the person who touched it, to let the four of them know as much as possible. I’d told them that Roxa’s pack had found Lemuel’s, that they were going to disappear if we didn’t get there as soon as possible, and in the twins’ case, that they were the only ones we knew for a fact weren’t possessed.

Vanessa and Tristan had had a lot more questions, and I’d been trying to answer them in the minute that we’d had before Shiori made it. But now, we had to move on.

“Listen,” I started. “None of you guys have to come with. Especially you two,” I added the last bit with a nod toward Tristan and Vanessa. “This isn’t about y–”

“Yes it is,” the boy interrupted. “Roxa wouldn’t even be a werewolf right now if it wasn’t for me. I’m gonna help.”

“And I’m not letting Tristan go without me,” Vanessa put in.

“Right.” Breathing out, I looked to Avalon. “Did you get the stuff from Gaia?”

She nodded once, pulling a bag from behind her back, which she opened before passing several silver knives to everyone. “If they get knocked out of your hand,” she instructed, “say ‘Retrieve’, and they’ll pop back to you. It’s the best thing to put the weres down for good.”

“And these,” Vanessa piped up. From her own bag, she produced a handful of small metal cylinders, about the size and shape of–

“Grenades?” Tristan blinked. “Nessa, when were you messing with explosives?”

“They’re not that kind of grenade,” the blonde informed her brother with a sniff. “You hit the button there and throw them, and they spray a chemical all over the place. These ones have aconite-laced oil in them.”

“Aconite,” I echoed. “That’s… wolfsbane?”

She nodded quickly. “The books said that it slows their regeneration, and irritates them. They’re allergic. It dulls their senses, makes them feel sick.”

“Right, let’s try to keep the stuff away from our wolves,” I pointed out before smiling. “Still, nice job pulling those together. I thought you weren’t in the Development track.”

She shrugged, nodding to the red trim in her uniform for the Explorers. “I’m not,” the girl replied. “But I like to learn things, and they won’t let me any deeper into the library yet, so…”

“So she’s been looking into other tracks,” Tristan finished for her, his voice clearly as proud as it was teasing. “Because God forbid she get a normal, non-school-related hobby.”

“We’re wasting time,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “You said we had to get there… now, pretty much.”

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “But how are we supposed to get off the island without those guys stopping us or following? They’re definitely watching everything Gaia or any of her people does, and there’s no way we can get anywhere near the Pathmaker without–”

“We’re not using the Pathmaker, or Gaia,” I interrupted. “We already have a way off the island, a way that’s completely undetectable. In fact, it’s so undetectable that they spent most of the twentieth century trying to figure out how it was done.”

“Wait.” Avalon’s voice was flat, as she and Shiori’s eyes both widened. “You mean–”

“Yeah,” I replied while moving to the nearby window. It had come to me while I was talking to Koren earlier, when I remembered what had happened the night that Ammon had shown up. “You wanna know how we’re gonna get off this island without the Committee lapdogs knowing about it?”

Opening the window, I pointed to the lighthouse in the distance and to the imprisoned Hangman’s skull inside.

“We’re gonna ask one of my mom’s friend’s to give us a lift.”

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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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 people 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?”

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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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