Virginia Dare

Interlude 27A – Virginia Dare

Previous Chapter

She should have seen it coming. She should’ve been ready for it. Ready for the monster that was puppeting Columbus Porter to make her move.

But she had gotten complacent. In the weeks since they had discovered the truth about the Seosten that was possessing the boy, Virginia Dare had been almost constantly on edge. The thought of letting that creature continue to control any one of her students, let alone one of…

It was almost impossible. She wanted pretty much nothing more than to imprison ‘Columbus’  and use that spell to force that thing out of him.

Over time, however, she had forced herself to settle down somewhat. The fact was, Charmeine had no reason to make any overt moves that would reveal herself. They needed to keep an eye out for other things, but the Seosten woman should have been relatively docile, particularly with Dare sitting practically right on top of her, and another Heretic directly in front of her. She had been very subtle so far, and since she didn’t know that her cover was blown, there should have been no reason for her to expose herself with an open attack.

Except they were wrong. Something had changed. Either the Seosten knew that she had been exposed, or she didn’t care. Either way, she wasn’t being subtle at all anymore. A fact that was driven home with the brutal, sudden murder of Josiah Carfried and ejection of Dare from the car.

Even though she had not been expecting any overt action like that, a direct attack still should have set off at least one of the danger sense powers that Dare had collected over the years.

Which was clearly why the Seosten hadn’t directly attacked her. She had simply turned the car insubstantial around her so that Dare fell out. And with her powers, that wouldn’t have been enough to really hurt her, even if she had been completely asleep.

That was sometimes the danger of mixing certain danger senses with other powers. They worked off of what would actually hurt the person. So if an action wouldn’t hurt them, it didn’t register to the danger sense.

It all happened too quickly, and took the woman too much by surprise for her to activate the power that allowed her to create the time-stop bubble before the cab had disappeared. Not simply ahead into traffic, but disappeared entirely.

“No!” the blonde woman gasped while staring at the spot where the cab had just been. It was only for a brief second before her mind started working again. But that brief second was enough time for her danger sense to actually go off.

She felt it then, the rush of air, the sudden presence of more mass than had been there before, the sound of a fast heartbeat, and more all exposed the presence and exact location of her attacker. She could also hear the whistle of his blade as it cut through the air, and sensed its metal content nearing her neck.

Spinning, Dare caught the hilt of her sword with one hand and gave it a quick toss straight up out of the sheath without holding onto it. At the same time she raised her other hand into position, so that when the enemy’s blade slammed into hers, as it floated in the air from the toss, her sword was knocked backwards into her waiting hand before starting, her own strength halting the enemy’s sword.

And it was a massive sword indeed, the blade stretching over six feet in length, and as wide as Dare herself was. Her own slight blade and slender form stopping it in mid-swing appeared almost comical, a result only of her enhanced strength and the quality of her weapon.

The figure before her, holding the weapon, was a match for its size. He stood over nine feet tall, with a body that was covered in short, dark, coarse fur. Yet, beneath that fur, she knew that the skin was as hard as solid rock. His face was twisted and leathery, some mixture between a human and a gorilla.

“Kariwase,” Dare announced the figure’s name while their blades remained locked. Her voice was dark. “I don’t have time for you right now.”

Kariwase had been an Iroquois warrior centuries earlier, before his own arrogance had resulted in the death of his entire hunting party, including his young son.

Torn apart by grief, yet still unable to accept his own responsibility and grow from it, the man had sought the help of a witch in order to gain the power to not only kill the man behind the slaughter, but to entirely wipe out their whole tribe, his goal to make it as though they had never existed.

He’d gained the power he needed, becoming a creature known as a Genoskwa, often seen as the larger, much more aggressive cousin of the Sasquatch. And with that power, Kariwase had killed hundreds before a young Dare and her then-mentor, Tiras, had stopped his rampage long enough for a few of the tribe to escape, scattering to the wilds. And from that point on, he had seen the two as his mortal enemies, repeatedly appearing at the most inopportune times.

“Still no papa figure, huh?” he taunted while pulling his sword away from hers. “That’s too bad, I would’ve liked to make the old man swim in your blood and see if he could resist taking a little sip.”

“I dunno,” a new voice spoke as Dare felt, heard, and smelled another arrival. “ I don’t think she’s going to have much blood left when this is over.”

The newcomer stood only slightly taller than Dare herself, and looked fairly normal, all things considered. Except, of course, for his four arms, each of them holding a different weapon. Two held swords, one a hammer, and the fourth held a whip. From experience, Dare knew that the man was scarily proficient with each of them, particularly when using them all together.

“Roscoe,” she almost snarled the name. Another vicious man from her past, this one she had met after arriving in England and being taken by Gaia as an apprentice.

“You two don’t normally work together,” she announced while letting her eyes flickered back-and-forth between them, “which means this isn’t a coincidence.”

She didn’t have time for this. Felicity and Rudolph were in trouble. And Columbus too, if the Seosten was so willing to expose her infiltration of him. And yet, Dare could not simply ignore them. The two were deadly enough separately, let alone together, that the moment she let her guard down to summon a portal or make a call, they would have been all over her.

“Coincidence?” Roscoe echoed, showing her a thin smile beneath his mop of shaggy blonde hair. “No, see… when we heard that you were gonna be out here, all lonely and stuff… well, we had to come keep you company. Just the kind of nice gentleman we are. Ain’t that right, Chewie?”

“Not my name,” the fur covered rock man grunted in his gravelly voice.

Roscoe sighed. “I know it’s not your name. I was… you know, the big furry alien, plus you kind of eat people, so…” he sighed, shaking his head while gesturing toward Dare with one of his weapons. “Never mind, she gets it.”

Using her thumb to flick one of her spell cylinders into place with the switch on the hilt of her sword, Dare spoke flatly. “You need to leave. You have no idea how little time I have for this right now.”

Roscoe mocked her words. “Oh, you don’t have time? Well, I guess we’ll make this quick then, won’t we?”

He suited action to words by jerking his lower right hand up to make the whip lash out. Fortunately, his whip wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as Gaia’s, which Dare had seen extend to the length of a football stadium with a single snap. It was still dangerous, of course, but she had been ready for the move. As the whip lashed out toward her wrist, she triggered the spell that she had readied in her sword’s hilt. A nova cloud of frost expanded out from the sword, catching the incoming whip and freezing it in place.

Spinning simultaneously on one foot, she kicked out with the other, catching Kariwase’s wrist as the big man grabbed for her. She also used it as a boost to push herself into the air, twisting around so that her other foot could kick out and hit the furry rock man in the face. Strong as she was, it was still like kicking a brick wall would have been if she didn’t have any powers. The big guy barely noticed it. Yet it was still enough to knock him back a step and buy her a little space.

Still in the air, she glanced back and pointed one finger at the ground between herself and Roscoe even as he swung that big warhammer of his. A two-foot thick pillar of concrete six feet tall erupted from the ground directly in the weapon’s path.

The concrete itself was no match for the strike. The warhammer pulverized it in that single blow, crashing right through the raised concrete and sending dust and chunks of it flying in every direction.

Good. Dare let the dust and bits fly, as the four-armed man moved through it. Then she used another power to reassemble the pillar, repairing the damage that had been done. Only in doing so, she reassembled it directly around the man himself. Roscoe was effectively trapped in a pillar of concrete that had assembled itself around him.  Which had been the point. She couldn’t trap the man in the pillar like that just by pulling it out of the ground, but she could make him destroy it, and then reassemble it as he moved through the space it was in.

Finally landing on her feet, the blonde woman snapped her small sword up in three quick, successive moves, each catching a powerful swing from Kariwase’s massive blade.

Clang, clang, clang. The sound of the weapons clashing together filled the air, even as Bystander vehicles continue to pull around them. Dare had long since stopped thinking very much about what they might be seeing when things like this happened.

With his free hand, the Genoskwa threw an unbelievably fast punch for someone his size. Dare barely managed to twist her head aside far enough to let the punch sail past her. It struck a nearby parked car, and sent the thing flying sideways a good twenty feet to slam into a building.

Before the man could pull his arm back, she flicked the cylinder in her sword over to a new spell, and triggered it. As she did so, her blade turned red hot. She snapped it up, slicing clean through the rock man’s arm at the elbow.

Kariwase gave a loud, terrible bellow at that, reeling backward as the stump of his arm bled profusely.

Blinded by outrage, the big guy took a wild swing with his sword, cleaving through the air like a small airplane wing. but Dare was ready for that. Giving a little hop, she landed on the flat of the wildly swinging sword, and let the motion carry her up into the air, where she did a quick little flip over the man’s head, turning as she landed behind him to put her still heat-enchanted blade through his back. His terrible scream proved that she had hit something important.

But not quite important enough to put him down. The furry rock man spun around, his quick motion snapping the sword out of Dare’s hand, leaving it embedded in his back. In mid-spin, he lashed out with a backhand from his remaining arm that nearly took her in the face. It did, in fact, go right through her head. Fortunately, she had already used her power to turn her body into an insubstantial smoke-like form, making his massive fist pass right through her harmlessly. A single word activated one of the spells on her glove, summoning the sword from its place in the rock man’s back to her hand once more.

By that point, Roscoe had extricated himself from his concrete prison, and was coming up on her from behind as she reformed. As one of his swords drove for her back, Dare pivoted on one foot, parrying the blade aside with her own with a diagonal upward snap of her wrist. In the same motion, she continued her spin, adding a little hop to plant her foot against the man’s upper right arm as he swung at her with his other sword, knocking it out of the way. A slight lessening of gravity allowed her to stay up just long enough to invert herself, planting her other foot into the man’s face with enough force to break his nose, and send him stumbling backward.

Using the force from her kick to the man’s face, Dare pushed off to propel herself the other way, even as Kariwase came charging right in. He had already regenerated the arm that she had cut off, aptly demonstrating just why it was so hard to fully kill the monster.

Still, Dare didn’t mind giving it the old college try. Or she wouldn’t have, if she wasn’t in such a hurry.  As it was, she didn’t have time to waste. All she could do was make sure that the two were down long enough that they could not follow her easily.

To that end, she allowed her brief flight to take her within a hair’s breadth of the rock man’s furry fist. Catching his extended arm at the elbow before she would have passed by him, Dare used her momentum to flip herself up and around, wrapping one leg around the furry monster’s neck, and twisted to take him all the way to the ground. As he collided with the ground in a mighty, thunder-like crash, she caught the back of his furry head and slammed it even harder down into the concrete with enough force to break through, leaving a hole there.

Before the Genoskwa could recover, Dare inverted her grip on her sword, driving the blade straight down into the cement beside him. It would take far more than a single blade to the head to actually kill the monster, but she could make sure that he was too occupied to follow her.

A flick of her finger activated another one of the spell canisters in her sword. This one created a light blue, semi-translucent bubble around the area that the sword had struck. In this case, it enveloped the fallen man.  As Dare threw herself up and off of him, his head rose up, then slammed it down into the concrete once more, seemingly of its own devotion. This repeated again, and then again. Thanks to the bubble that she had trapped him in, his body would continue to repeat its last action until the spell wore off in about ten minutes, or until someone pushed him out of it.

With Kariwase out of the way, Dare could turn her full attention to Roscoe. The four-armed man was already coming at her, while starting to bring that mighty warhammer of his up for a swing. Even as he started to swing it up into position to however, Dare made a quick gesture toward it, lessening the gravity right where the man was swinging. The strength of Roscoe’s swing, once just enough to haul the heavy hammer up into position, was abruptly far too much. The weapon weighed barely a tenth what it once had, making his swing turn wild, as the weapon actually flew out of his hand and arced away.

The blonde woman took advantage of his brief disorientation, launching herself off the ground while snatching her sword up. Even as he snapped his gaze back to her, her foot collided with his stomach, doubling the man over. Pivoting and ducking under the wild, blind swing of his sword, Dare put herself behind him before spinning up into a roundhouse kick that took him in the center of his back. The blow knocked the man forward and down.

Before he could rise, Dare extended her free hand and made a pulling gesture. As she did so, a nearby parked car was yanked over, sliding into place directly over the man. Another quick, simple gesture collapsed the car against the ground with the screaming noise of protesting metal as it was bent and broken, pinning Roscoe there.

Before the man could push the hunk of collapsed metal off of himself, Dare was already there. She slapped her blade against both the concrete and the remains of the car while expending one more spell canister. As she did so, the modified repair spell fused the metal and the pavement together, trapping Roscoe between them for the time being.

Turning, Dare closed her eyes briefly to focus on her own property. Gaia, she sent, Felicity and Rudolph are in trouble. The Seosten made their move. She paused briefly before adding in a slightly subdued tone, Josiah is dead.

I know, the tense reply came. I did not wish to distract you while you were occupied. But the Seosten have done a lot more than take Felicity and Rudolph.

Dare’s head snapped up at that. What? What happened? What’s going on?

It seems, Gaia answered, that a sizable force has descended upon the city. They’ve attacked half a dozen Minutemen outposts and have killed several Heretics already. She paused then before adding, Deveron and Marina were attacked as well. they are dealing with the situation, but it will take time.

Distraction, Dare knew. It’s all a distraction, they’re trying to keep us away from what’s really going on. What about Wyatt, his security measures?

The answer came shortly, and did not make her feel any better.  The spells that he has placed on Felicity have somehow been blocked. Wyatt believes that he can break through it, but it will take time.

We don’t have time, Dare retorted. What about Avalon’s? Are you with her now?

If possible, Gaia’s response was even more tense. No, I find myself also distracted. A spell has been triggered here at the school. If left unchecked, it will engulf the entire island within a soul blaze.

A soul blaze, Dare knew, was magical ghost-like fire that could not be put out by any conventional means. A single touch from one of the flames could incinerate even the strongest metal to ashes.

Distractions upon distractions. The Seosten were making absolutely certain that they had time to complete their objective.

Where is Avalon? She asked finally. I’ll get to her.

At the hotel, the tense answer came. Virginia, if they have poured this much effort into their attack this time, and are willing to go this far…

I’ll get to her, Dare promised before cutting off their connection.

She had just taken a step when an alert from her danger sense made the woman quickly dodge to the side, just as a bullet went whizzing past the space where her head had been. Snapping her head up, she saw what looked like a grown humanoid lizard in a old-fashioned cowboy outfit. He was holding a glowing revolver. Spedis, another old enemy. And he wasn’t alone, the road ahead of Dare was populated by another half dozen enemies. Enemies that she had made over the centuries, all of whom have been pulled together to stop her, or at least slow her down.

The words escaped Dare in a snarl, even as her form began to grow and shift. “I do not have time for this.”

She grew quickly. Whereas centuries before, the woman’s mastery of her original gift had only permitted her to become a regular sized wolf, things were different now. Within moments, the slender blond woman had been replaced by an enormous, bus-sized wolf, the full power of her Amarok blood.

As the group that had been assembled to stop her took a collective step back, Dare lunged.

*******

She arrived at the base of the hotel just in time to see two figures in the air above the street. Felicity and another. From the girl’s description, Dare knew that it had to be Charmeine.

And Felicity’s staff was currently embedded through the woman’s chest. As Dare watched, shifting back into her normal form, the blonde girl jerked the weapon up through the Seosten’s head.  And a second later, Roxanne appeared on her flying board, catching Felicity while she was caught up in the pleasure from the kill.

Unfortunately, just as relief and joy flooded Dare at the death of the Seosten, a very different glow interrupted the one from Felicity’s aura.

A shout formed itself on the woman’s lips, whether it was a warning, a promise, or anything else, she didn’t know. But it didn’t matter, because before a sound could leave her lips, the light exploded outward, and the girls were gone.

A terrible, soul crushing scream filled the air. For a half second, Dare thought that it was her own. But as she raised her gaze, she saw Avalon standing in the remains of the window on the fourth floor.

Her scream continued.

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?.”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”

******

The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmiene around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmiene.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”

******

“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”

******

The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmiene in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmiene wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmiene. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmiene had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmiene. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmiene had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmiene announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmiene wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmiene made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Shiori and Avalon telling Choo a story. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“Wow, those little guys are warming up to you pretty fast, huh?”

It was late in the evening, the same day that I’d had the little… discussion with the twins earlier. Sean and I were in one of the magic-practice rooms with its sturdy walls and cement floor, ostensibly working on one of the spells that Professor Carfried had assigned for homework.

Turning my head, I looked at the object (or rather, objects) of Sean’s attention. Jaq and Gus, my two little mice cyberforms, were perched on my arm as it was stretched out to my side. The pair were eating a couple of metal bolts that I had painted yellow. Did their metal have to be painted to look like cheese? Of course not. Did I do it anyway just because I felt like it? Of course I did.  

“We’re getting there,” I replied easily, feeling a smile tug at my face as I watched the two of them happily munch at the metal. Apparently while they didn’t need as much of it as Vulcan did in order to make all those bullets he used, the mice did transform some of the metal they ate into various materials that were used to maintain their bodies. Especially since they were slightly larger when they transformed into weapons than they were in their regular forms, a fact that always confused me about where the extra mass was coming from. But then again, it’s not like ‘larger on the inside than the outside’ was exactly unusual when it came to Heretic creations.  

“I dunno how much of it is the whole ‘cyberform bonding with the owner’ thing and how much is my natural charm,” I teased with a roll of my eyes, “but they’ve sure been warming up to me.”

Winking, Sean chuckled. “With your charm, I’d say it’s at least half and half there, Flickster.”

Moving my other hand over to scratch under Jaq’s chin, I nodded to the corner of the room where Vulcan sat happily playing with a heavy metal ball in his teeth. “Then you must be pretty charming yourself, considering how well you and your partner there get along.”

“Actually,” the Hispanic boy replied with a straight face, “in that case, it’s mostly his charm.”

Despite myself and the actual seriousness of the situation, I snickered. Then I took a little breath before turning a bit to extend the arm with the mice on it toward him. “You wanna give the little guys a scratch? Actually, did you ever figure out why metal animals could possibly enjoy that?”

Sean shook his head while reaching out to scratch Gus on the back of the little guy’s head. “Nope,” he replied easily. “I’m guessing it’s programming or something. You know, to help bond them and make ‘em seem more real. You know, like how we’re more likely to take care of them and treat the little guys like real animals if they act like real animals instead of like machines.”

Nodding slowly, I bit my lip before straightening a little, forcing my voice to remain as casual as possible. “Hey, at least I finally got to join the ‘animal companion’ club, huh?” Raising my other hand, I gestured for him to high-five it. “Is there a secret handshake or a password or anything?”

Sean grinned, head shaking. “Nope, but there should be. We should get with Aylen and Tristan and see what we can do about that.” As he spoke, the boy slapped his hand against mine.

I waited for a moment, while Sean returned his attention to the mice. He said something else then, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to hear it. I was too busy focusing on whether I could see anyone possessing him after that contact. Nothing. It was just Sean. He was clear. With a long, exhaled breath, I interrupted his words to abruptly announce, “Jelly beans on toast.”

“Uh.” The boy blinked at me. “Flick, you’ve got really weird taste in snacks, if you think tha-”

That was as far as he got before Gus and Jaq jumped off my arm. As they landed on the floor, two figures literally popped out of the mice to appear standing beside me and in front of Sean.

It was Sands and Avalon. Both of them had gained the ability to possess small objects back when we fought the skeleblineists on the cruise ship. It was the same fight where I’d gained my item-sense power, which also happened to be a power that Sean had gotten. Yeah, he had the ability to sense items within a certain distance of himself. That had made it a little more difficult to plan out an ambush in case things had gone wrong when I checked him. But in the end, having Avalon and Sands use their own powers to simply possess Gus and Jaq had worked out.

Sean, for his part, yelped, stumbling back at their sudden appearance, his eyes widening before he managed to get himself under control. “What th–uh, okay, if you guys were trying to throw me a surprise birthday party, you’re off by about a month. Also, I don’t see a cake. Or presents.”

Vulcan gave a ruff of agreement with that, having popped up out of the corner to come sniffing Avalon and Sands curiously. He happily accepted a vigorous scratch under the chin as soon as he’d contented himself that their arrival didn’t herald any kind of immediate threat.

“It’s not a party,” I informed them before looking to the other two. “It’s clear. Scout on her way?”

Before they could answer, I felt the arrival of the girl in question on the other side of the door. She was still holding her gun in one hand. Even as my item-sense picked her up, I saw Sean turn that way. He’d sensed her too. Without another word, I stepped over and opened the door.

Scout stepped in, moving over to hug Sean quickly. She embraced him tightly, and he returned it despite having no idea what was going on. “Uhh,” the boy drawled, “anyone wanna clue me in?”

Raising my shoulder in a little shrug, I answered, “Well, Sands and Avalon were possessing my little friends here, and Scout was using the portal-scope on her gun to watch every move you made. No offense, it was just in case you were possessed and figured out that I was testing you to find out if you were. I mean, if you were possessed and didn’t figure out what I was doing, they wouldn’t have revealed themselves. It was just in case things went totally tits-up wrong.”

Sean’s eyes had widened with each word I spoke, his mouth working noticeably. “… In case I was possessed? Testing me? What–okay, why do I get the sudden feeling that this whole Seosten thing got some kind of violent kick into serious while I wasn’t paying attention?”  

Sands, standing on the other side of the room, folded her arms over her stomach while muttering, “Hopefully your dad is still a good guy by the time this whole thing is over.”

Wincing at the other girl’s words, I took a breath before looking back to Sean. “I’ll explain.

“But by the time I’m done, you’re probably gonna wish we’d brought some chairs in here so you could sit down.”

******

“I’m glad you’re taking your extra training seriously, Felicity,” Professor Dare announced later that evening after stepping into Gaia’s office with me. “But I hope you’re enjoying yourself too. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Sure,” I replied, “But my name isn’t Jack, so we’re cool.”

Gaia, who had been standing over by her assortment of windows that each showed a different view of various parts of the world, turned toward us with a slight smile. “I believe that Felicity sees some of the training that she does with Avalon as recreation.” Pausing then, she added with a raised eyebrow, “Or at least, flirting?”

My face burned a little as I shrugged and muttered something about having plenty of fun with everyone on my team. It didn’t make any sense, but hey, at least I was saying something.

Thankfully, Dare saved me after chuckling a little bit. “She tells me that you’d like a little extra assistance with her lessons tonight.”

“Yes.” Gaia nodded, stepping away from the windows to approach. “I was hoping that you would help me demonstrate the Fascination spell.”

“The Fascination spell?” Dare echoed before nodding. “Yes, I can see her finding that useful.” Seeing my blank look when she glanced to me, she explained, “When the Fascination spell is performed properly, anyone who sees the item enchanted with it will believe that they are seeing an object that they truly, desperately desire. They’ll become obsessed with getting it, foregoing any other action they may have been taking. Its effects only last a short time, particularly with the strong-willed. But even buying a few seconds can be extremely beneficial.”

Gaia nodded once, stopping by us. “Indeed. I believe it would be a useful tool for Felicity to possess. And the more tools she possesses…”

“The better off I am,” I finished.

“And you need me to help Felicity with the spell,” Dare murmured, “Because if the other person knows exactly when it’s coming, it doesn’t work very well.”

“Precisely,” Gaia agreed. “I’m sorry to bring you in simply to be a guinea pig, but–”

Dare interrupted. “It’s alright. Felicity needs all the help she can get.” She raised a hand before settling it on my arm. “I’ll be the guinea pig.”

Slowly, I looked over at her, praying silently. Please, please don’t be…

It wasn’t. Looking at Professor Dare, all I could see was Professor Dare. She wasn’t possessed. She wasn’t possessed.

“It’s okay,” I spoke aloud. No secret codes this time, not with Gaia right there. “She’s clear.”

“Clear?” Professor Dare raised an eyebrow, slowly lifting her hand. “Why do I think this is about more than a spell lesson?”

“You are correct,” Gaia confirmed. “It is about more than a lesson.

“Much more.”

 ******

The next morning, bright and early, I was down on the beach once more, trading blows back and forth with Deveron. I was using my staff while he used an extra one borrowed from one of the school weapons lockers. Back and forth we went, sparring in the early morning light as it came up over the ocean. I was sweating profusely from the effort, and my arms were sore from the repetitive impacts even with my enhanced strength. But hey, at least I wasn’t getting tired.

Deveron, who was obviously still taking it easy on me despite the effort I was putting into it just to keep up with him in ‘easy mode’, casually flicked my staff out of the way before giving me a sharp poke in the shoulder that knocked me back a step. “You sure you’re focusing on this?” he asked while smoothly stepping back to easily avoid my counter-swing. “You seem distracted.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated. This part wasn’t hard to fake. The hesitation, emotion behind it, and all of that was real. “I…” Sighing, I shook my head and looked away. “I’m sorry. I just… my dad, I don’t know what–” Swallowing hard, I lowered the staff. “I don’t know what he’s gonna do.”

For a moment, Deveron stood there. Then he lowered his own staff and stepped that way. “Hey, he’ll be okay. Trust me, Heretic or not, Jos picked tough guys. Your dad’s gonna be just fine, alright?” As he spoke, Deveron reached out to lay a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it firmly.

I turned my head at that, looking straight at him for a moment as he stood there with his hand on my shoulder. For a couple seconds, I looked at him like that, taking in the sight until I was sure.

“Chocolate corn on the cob,” I abruptly announced, giving him a smile. “I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

He blinked at that. “A passcode? But what were yo–” In mid-sentence, Deveron spun, pivoting on one heel to face the figure that had just appeared out of thin air directly behind him.

“Yes,” Professor Dare agreed, sheathing her sword. “I am glad that it wasn’t you as well, Mr. Adams.”

Of course I’d needed slightly stronger back-up while checking Deveron for possession. The rest of my team was great and all, but he was still technically a grown Heretic, with all that training and power. Hence Professor Dare’s presence. We figured that she could counter anything Deveron could do, at least long enough for Gaia to involve herself in the situation.  

To his credit, Deveron looked at Dare, then back to me. He took about two seconds to think about it before his eyebrow raised. “How’d you find a way to test for Seosten possession? Even Prosser can’t do that without drawing that rune thing first. And you didn’t draw anything on me.”

Chuckling despite myself, I admitted, “It’s a long story. I’ve kind of been leaving out some stuff that’s been going on for… awhile. But I can tell you about it now that we um, now that we know.”

“Now that you know I’m not possessed?” Deveron glanced back to Dare briefly before nodding. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I really want to hear this story now. But is it safe to talk right here?”

“It’s safe,” Dare confirmed. “Trust me, we weren’t going to let anyone see what happened here if you’d been possessed and noticed what Felicity was doing. No one’s going to overhear.”

I still wasn’t sure what the woman had actually done to assure that, considering we were standing out on the open beach. But I was willing to take her word for it. So, with a sigh, I plopped myself down and looked out at the ocean before starting to tell the story once again.

I really was glad that Deveron wasn’t possessed, even if at the beginning of the year, I would’ve prayed that it was him. But on the other hand, that cleared Sands, Scout, Sean, and Deveron.

We were quickly running out of possibilities for the Seosten to be possessing…

******

“I should be the one to do this,” Shiori announced later that afternoon. “I should check him.”

Wincing a little, I looked over at the other girl as the two of us sat in the rec room near one of the televisions. Deveron and Avalon were waiting by the door, speaking quietly while some other students played at the pool table on the other side of the room, and a couple more remained intent on their chess match in the corner. There was a low buzz of conversation, most of which coming from the group playing or watching pool. But still, we were using the privacy coins.

Even then, I kept my voice down, murmuring, “Sorry, Shy. You know why you can’t be the one.”

A long, low sigh escaped the other girl while her head gave a short nod. “I know, I know. I’ll react to it too much, you have the face-shifting power, so on and so on. But he’s my brother, Flick.”

“He is,” I agreed, putting a hand on her arm. “That’s why you can’t be the one to check him.” We were running out of options for who Charmeine might be possessing, which meant that Shiori was getting nervous about Columbus. Hopefully, this would clear him so she could calm down.

We really needed to identify the Seosten as soon as possible. Every time we tested someone and they came up clean, it was both a relief and even more stress. Because while it meant that the person we’d tested wasn’t possessed, it also narrowed the possibilities, which somehow made things even worse.

Not to mention the fact that I still had no idea why I was immune to being possessed. All I knew for sure was that I was immune. Enguerrand had confirmed that much. He couldn’t tell me why I was immune, however, just that I was. He’d tried to possess me and couldn’t do it.

“Porter.” That was Avalon, she had moved over behind the couch, her voice low. “He’s on his way. We need to go. It can’t look like any kind of set-up.” As she spoke, the other girl nodded over her shoulder toward the door where Deveron was already watching the corridor.

Sighing once more, Shiori straightened up while looking at me. “You’ve still got the pin, right?”

I nodded, patting my uniform jacket where one of the communication pins was hidden. “Yup. As soon as you hear me say ‘Caramel Camelot’, that means it’s all good. But you’ve gotta go now.”

“We’ll be right up on the roof,” Avalon assured me. “If anything goes wrong… we’ll come in.”

She and Shiori joined Deveron to head up that way, where Sean, Sands, and Scout were already waiting. Which left me sitting in front of the television when Columbus made his way in.

“There you are,” I announced, squinting pointedly at the boy as I stood and turned to face him. “I was starting to think I was gonna have to try to figure this whole thing out without any help.”

In my ear, (which, thanks to the communication pin would be completely silent for Columbus), I heard Avalon’s voice. “We have eyes on you through Scout’s scope-portal, Chambers.”

“Sorry,” Columbus himself was saying. “Had some stuff to finish up. But seriously, you really think a list of what Shiori likes is gonna help you when Valentine’s Day comes around? You already know what she likes. Hell, one of the things she likes is you. You could just put a big bow on your head and–” He stopped, coughing. “Never mind. Just–never mind. I was trying to go somewhere cute with that and it took a weird turn into some… yeah, let’s move on, huh?”

“Yes, please.” I gave a quick, vigorous nod. “We’re moving on. And you’ve been her brother for years. So you know her even better than I do. I just figured if you made up a list of everything Shiori likes that you could possibly think of, I might see something that’d give me a good idea.”

Raising an eyebrow, Columbus shrugged. “Right, well, I dunno how much good it’ll do, but I got the list.” He reached into his pocket then, digging it out. “Put down everything I could think of.”

He extended his hand with the list. Which meant it was time. Turning slightly to glance at the pool table while reaching out as though to grab the list, I started, “You know, at some point we’re gonna have to get some practice in over there. Cyclops is supposed to be really good at pool.”

Using that bit of looking the other way as an excuse, I made sure my hand overshot the offered scrap of paper by just a little bit. Just enough that my fingers brushed the boy’s wrist as I turned back to finish taking it from him.

I had gained several incredibly useful powers over the past few months, most of which had saved my life in one way or another. But I was pretty sure that none of them had done as much to keep me alive as my face-shifting power did in that moment. I was already using it, just as I’d used it every other time we checked people for possession. Which meant that my face gave absolutely no reaction when I touched Columbus. There was no twitch, I didn’t suddenly turn pale, my eyes didn’t widen or betray any kind of fear or surprise. It stayed completely the same.

Which was good, because when I turned back to look at Columbus while taking the paper… I saw her. The dark-skinned woman with the pale hair. She was there, super-imposed over his body as my view flicked back and forth between them a few times.

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

The Seosten was possessing Columbus. It was him. It was her. It was her. Oh god. Oh god, no. No, why? Why did it have to–why did they–how long did–no, no, no…

“Chambers, you touched him,” Avalon’s voice came then. “Are we good?”

Columbus… Charmeine was gesturing with Columbus’s arm. “Yeah, we could get on that sometime. So, you need anything else?”

“Flick.” It was Shiori’s voice. Shiori… Shiori talking through the pin. “Flick, say it. Caramel Camelot. Say it, Flick. Say Caramel Camelot. Flick, say it. Please. Please, Flick. Please, say it. Flick, please. Please. Say Caramel Camelot….”

“Flick?” Columbus-Charmeine prompted. “I said, do you need anything else?”

“Say it, Flick, please,” Shiori’s voice prompted desperately, clearly barely hanging on to her last hope.

“…. No.”

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Mini-Interlude 35 – Sands and Scout

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“We were supposed to be superheroes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You already are one.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suspects 24-02

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The way things had been explained to me, the ‘time-stop’ ability that people like Professor Dare used didn’t actually freeze time throughout the entire universe. That would be a little absurd. Instead, it created a bubble of stopped time around the user, the size of which varied depending on how powerful they were. Anything that was in or later entered that bubble who wasn’t somehow immune to the effect would be completely frozen and have no idea that any time had passed once the bubble went down. Watches and other methods of keeping time would be wrong, of course. But most people who used that ability also had ways of surreptitiously correcting them if they were actually trying to hide the fact that a time-stop had been used.

Unfortunately, that also meant that anyone outside of the effect could point out the ‘lost time’ afterward if it went on for too long. It wasn’t a perfect system, by any stretch of the imagination.

All of that flashed through my mind as everything around me except for Professor Dare went completely still. The blonde woman herself took a few steps over to where I was. “Felicity,” she spoke quickly. “We can’t take long. Gaia’s making sure that we aren’t detected, but we only have a short window. Listen. You cannot react the way they want you to here, do you understand?”

“I… I…” My mouth opened and shut a few times before I managed a weak, “Mom. If Mom-”  

“We don’t know if it was her or not, we don’t know anything right now.” Professor Dare’s hand moved to my cheek, while her other one squeezed my shoulder. “You’re right, it might be her. If Fossor threatened her, or… or any number of things. We don’t know. But you can’t let them see how scared you are about that, okay? That’s what he’s looking for. He’s watching your reaction.”

I was still breathing hard, my thoughts spinning out of control. Mom would never kill a bunch of Heretics for no reason. Even when she was running the rebellion, she would’ve tried to recruit them. Unless she did try to recruit them and Patrick or whoever had been on the phone (obviously at least one of the Committee members) was lying about it. I… I didn’t know what–

My head shook firmly to clear it, at least as much as I could. Then I focused on Professor Dare, giving a little nod. “I–I understand. I–” Closing my eyes, I took a long, deep breath before letting it out, then I opened them again. “I’m ready. I’m okay. I… I’ve got it under control, I promise.”

Part of me wanted to take more time, maybe even scream a little bit. But I knew that the longer the time-stop went on, the bigger chance of someone outside noticing what was happening. Even if Gaia was powerful enough to stop them from noticing for a brief time, this had to be a strain for her. I had to keep myself under control at least long enough to make it through this without losing it. I could freak out later, after these Committee representatives were gone.

Gently brushing her hand over my face, Professor Dare paused. There was something in her expression, something that made it clear that she had something to say. In the end, however, she just straightened while nodding as her hands fell away from me. “We’ll be right here,” she assured me before moving back to the spot she had been in. “You’re not alone, Felicity.”

That was the last thing the woman said before things went back to normal and time started up once more. My view changed subtly as my body was repositioned, either by Gaia or Professor Dare. Obviously they wanted to put me back exactly as I’d been when the time-stop started so that the two men in front of me (hopefully) wouldn’t notice that anything had happened.    

Even after the brief pause I’d had to collect myself, if it hadn’t been for the facial-shifting power that I had inherited, my reaction might still have been obvious. As it was, I managed to keep it under control, staring at Patrick for a second even as his own partner turned that way.

“What?” October’s voice was surprised. Either he’d had no idea what happened (which made sense, considering from all appearances, Patrick himself had only just heard about it), or he was a phenomenal actor. “What just happened?” he demanded of his partner. “Who was on the–”

Holding up a hand to stop the other man, Patrick kept his gaze on me. “What about it?” he asked flatly, clearly still reading my reaction. “Woman with a golden aura, powerful enough to kill a bunch of Heretics, steps in to stop them from killing a pack of monsters. Sound familiar?”

For a second, I wondered if he knew why he was asking. Was he part of the people who had retained their memory of what happened? It made sense, considering his connection to the Committee. Yeah, I was sure this Patrick guy, whoever he was, remembered my mother.

Shaking my head slowly, I worked my mouth a few times. “Golden aura–I… Gaia? Gaia has a golden aura like mine,” I pointed out. “And she probably could kill eleven Heretics if she really wanted to. But I don’t think you’d be accusing her right in front of her like that, so I’m not–”

Stopping, I made myself frown, trying to show uncertainty. “Wait, don’t family members tend to have the same color aura? Not always, I guess, but… I mean, maybe it’s…” I hesitated, making it look like I didn’t want to bring it up, which wasn’t hard. “My… umm, my mother, maybe?”

Yeah, I was bringing up Mom on my own. Ruthers would never believe it if she never occurred to me, not after the conversation that I’d had with the man. Better to bring it up myself than try to pretend that the thought of her never came to mind. That would obviously be denying too much.

“Your mother?” Patrick echoed simply, eyebrow raised with curiosity as he watched me closely.

My head nodded a little once more. “I–yeah, maybe? I mean, if she’s…” Pausing like I didn’t know if it was worth continuing, I bit my lip. “Um, I sort of had a conversation about her with Counselor Ruthers. I don’t know if he said anything or if it’s stupid or… I dunno. But when I talked to him, I said that I thought maybe my mom’s a Heretic. I mean,” I started talking faster, babbling a little bit purposefully. “She left when I was a kid, so I already knew she was a bitch.”

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia admonished from where she stood. “Please watch your language.”

“Sorry, Headmistress,” I quietly apologized before continuing. “What I mean is, she left me and my dad, abandoned us. So when that… um, when that kid, Ammon showed up and said he was my brother, I told Counselor Ruthers that maybe the kid’s right. Maybe he is my brother, and after Mom abandoned us, she hooked up with some other Heretic group. Or they recruited her. I dunno. The point is, she took off, so screw her. Sorry, Headmistress. She’s gone. But she’s my mother, and if she’s a Heretic now, she might have a golden aura. Plus, if she’d abandon me and my dad, then sure, yeah, maybe she’d kill some other Heretics. Dunno if she’s powerful enough, but…” Trailing off, I shrugged, meeting the dark-skinned man’s unwavering gaze while earnestly asking, “Is that why Counselor Ruthers told you to ask me about what happened?”

I wasn’t sure if they bought what I was selling, but Patrick did pause before giving a little shrug. “Maybe,” he said simply before continuing. “You really think your mom could kill them like that?”

Making myself shrug, I replied, “I dunno. But like I said, she abandoned us, so maybe. If she’d stuck around, maybe I could tell you what kind of person she is, but I can’t.” It wasn’t hard to inject the emotion in my voice at those words. I had a decade of experience at feeling resentment toward my mother. Even if I knew better now, I could still summon those emotions.

The man paused then, watching me for another moment as though he wasn’t sure how to continue after what I’d said. Finally, he exhaled and straightened up a bit. “It’s possible.”

Figuring how I would have acted if I was really clueless about the truth, I jumped on that. “I mean, that’s why you asked me about it, right? You guys think–what, she’s the one who showed up and rescued my dad, her and whoever she disappeared with? Why would she show up after ten years to save him when she’s the one who abandoned us to begin with? And why kill a bunch of Heretics like that? Unless you think she’s, I dunno, sending a message or something? Wait, is she your enemy?” As I spoke, I extended the handkerchief back to Patrick.

The two of them glanced to one another before October spoke up. “We don’t know, exactly.”

Patrick, for his part, waved off my attempt to return the cloth to him. “Keep it,” he muttered before adding, “And if your mother happens to try to contact you–”

“Pretty sure she won’t,” I replied flatly. “If she gave a shit about me, she wouldn’t’ve taken off. But yeah, no problem. If she tries to call or whatever, I’ll let you guys know. Believe me, if she’s the one who took my dad, I want you guys to find her before she convinces him to forgive her or something stupid like that.” As hard as it was for me to actually say something that awful, I forced the words out while silently and fervently apologizing to my mother in my head for all of it.

Pushing right on, the way I thought I would if I’d been serious about not caring about my mother, I asked, “So umm, are you guys planning on talking to Koren Fellows about this stuff too?”   

Well, that got their attention. Both men gave me a look, Patrick being the first to catch himself. Probably because he’d been the one playing bad cop to begin with. “Why would we talk to her?”

I shrugged a little. “I mean, you were talking to me because the woman had a golden aura, and that goes through families. I don’t remember what color Koren’s is, but she and I sort of… figured that we might be related somehow. You know, like… second cousins or whatever.”

Patrick’s voice was flat. “And why would you think that you’re related to Koren Fellows?”

Biting my lip, I made my voice as clueless as possible. “I umm, well, you know. When I was choosing my weapon back at the start of the year, I thought the Hunga Munga were… you know, really close. I almost took them because they felt kinda… familiar? Then Koren took them instead. And that wouldn’t mean anything, except there was that vision thing when we saw the Edge, so I think Heretics like… pass memories on or something? Plus, when we were working on this one project for Professor Dare a couple months ago, Vanessa–I mean Vanessa Moon– found a journal with the name Atherby on it. Lyell Atherby. That’s my mom’s maiden name, and it seemed like Koren had heard the name before. So I talked to her and she said her Edge vision had to do with some guy back in like… medieval times that called himself part of the Atherby clan. So we figured we’re probably related somehow. Like I said, cousins or something.”

Shrugging, I finished with an offhand, “That’s why I went to visit her house for Thanksgiving. We were gonna try to figure out how far back we’re related, but I guess you know how that went.”

Yeah, this was a risk. But the way I figured it, they had to have been wondering why the whole Thanksgiving thing had happened when Koren and I weren’t on the same team and, as far as they knew, we had no other reason to interact enough to be on ‘holiday visits’ terms. This way, I was giving them some information rather than pretending I didn’t know anything at all. And I was giving it in a way that made it look like I didn’t know how important the information actually was.

Basically, instead of acting like I didn’t know anything, I was acting like I knew the wrong things. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, but by that point, I figured that the Committee would be more suspicious if I hadn’t figured out anything than if I’d worked out a couple things such as being related to Koren, but then went the wrong direction with it. Hopefully, it would throw them off.

“It would not be the first time that Bystander students found that they were related somewhere back along their Heretic ancestors,” Gaia pointed out mildly from where she was standing.

Giving her a brief look, Patrick finally shrugged. “Maybe. But right now, we don’t even know if there’s a connection. It was just… you were here so we thought we’d ask. Someone who could do all that to twelve Heretics…” He trailed off, frowning before looking back at me. “If your mother, or anyone else connected to her contacts you, let us know immediately. Understand?”

“Of course,” I replied while bobbing my head. “And–and my dad…” I trailed off, hesitating a bit.

“We won’t stop looking for him,” October promised. “Whether or not your mother, or any old relatives have anything to do with his disappearance. We can’t let people get away with kidnapping the relatives of our students. It makes us look bad.” That was said with a little smile before he added, “The fact that they killed the shaggies before taking him with them is a good sign, Miss Chambers. He’s probably okay. Why they haven’t had him contact you… we don’t know. But we’ll find him, all right? And if he does reach out to you at any point, tell us, okay?”

Again, I nodded. “Uh huh. Believe me, if he’s been taken by some crazy old Heretic or something, I want you guys to find him. He’s gotta be… I mean, he can’t remember anything that they tell him, or he’ll just think they’re crazy or… I dunno how it works exactly. But he’s gotta be–” I stopped, swallowing hard. “Just–just please find my dad.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound terrified about the possibilities of what might be happening to him. “Please find him.”

There was a little more discussion after that, more questions about what I’d heard from my dad before he disappeared, if he’d mentioned any new acquaintances or contacts, if he was working on any kind of story that might’ve been connected to Stranger things, and so on. Finally, they said they’d gotten all they needed from me ‘for the moment’, and promised again to let me know if and when they found out anything about what had happened. With, of course, the repeated and emphasized caveat that I had to keep them informed about anything I found out too.

“So,” I started once they were done, “I guess I should get your number or something, huh? Unless you just want me to go through Headmistress Sinclaire with anything that happens?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Patrick replied. “We’ll be around, any time you want to talk.”

I was confused by that for a second, until Gaia spoke up. “The Committee has elected to assign Misters Dinast and Atrean,” she nodded to Patrick and October respectively, “to the school on a temporarily full-time basis. They’ll be here in case anything else untoward happens, an added layer of security and protection for our students.” To her credit, the headmistress managed to keep any annoyance she felt at that fact completely out of her voice with the announcement.

Oh. They weren’t leaving. Well, that could maybe possibly end up complicating things. It was a good thing I had that facial shifting power, because I was pretty sure I would’ve been scowling by that point if I hadn’t set the power to make my face as impassive as possible. “Oh, well, uh,” I coughed, looking back to the two men. “I guess that’ll make it easier to come to you then, yeah.”

“If you’re finished for the moment,” Professor Dare abruptly put in, “Miss Chambers may have inherited the Amarok’s stamina, but she still requires some sleep. And it’s been a long night.”

Patrick gave a little nod, the well-dressed man giving me a brief look before answering, “Of course. It’s just too bad that the things you killed tonight were zombies and not anything that would’ve given you an upgrade. It would have been nice to see you demonstrate any new ability.”

Yeah, that was exactly why we’d chosen to say that it was zombies we had killed. And I was pretty sure the men at least suspected that much, especially with those words. But at least all they had were suspicions, at that point. “Yeah,” I replied flatly, “Trust me, killing a bunch of gross zombies and not getting anything out of it isn’t my idea of fun either.”

Professor Dare led me out of the room then, with October promising once more that they would let me know the moment they found out anything about my dad. As we left the room and got about halfway down the hall, I held up a hand for Dare to stop. Without speaking, I plucked the fancy handkerchief that Patrick had given me out of my pocket and turned to drop it in the nearby trash can.

Yeah, I didn’t know that it was somehow magically bugged or something, but I wasn’t stupid enough to take the chance either.   

Nodding in satisfaction at the sight of that, Dare led me down the hall a bit more before speaking. “Are you alright, Flick?”

I swallowed a little. “If that… if that was my mom, it means… it means that Fossor’s threatened her somehow. Either with me, or with one of the others. I dunno. But she wouldn’t just kill all those people like that without trying to recruit them, right?”

Dare nodded, leading me down the stairs and out of the building. “Of course. We don’t know anything about it other than what they said. I’m going to look into it, Flick. I’ll see what I can find out about what happened. And if it’s anything connected to your mother, I’ll let you know. I won’t hide it from you, okay?”

I nodded before biting my lip. “If they’re staying here, I guess that means… we can’t…”

“I’m sorry,” she confirmed. “At this point, they’re paying too much attention to what goes on and off the island. There’s no way to take you to your dad right now. We’ll try later, I promise.”

Sighing, I dropped my head for a moment. It made sense. Plus, I was honestly exhausted by that point. After everything that had happened, I needed at least an hour of sleep to recharge.

Seeming to realize that (which made sense, considering she had originally been an Amarok-Heretic and knew just how far I could go), Dare remained silent while leading me to my room. She gestured once we were at the door. “I assume you’re going to call him. But try to rest as well.”

I promised to do so before stepping into the room and closing the door after myself. Avalon was already asleep, laying on her side with the blanket tangled up by her feet.

Watching the other girl for a second, I stepped over and carefully tugged the blanket out so that I could gently drape it over her. She murmured a little bit as the blanket covered her, but settled after I stroked her hair for a moment.

Once she was settled, I moved over and flicked the switch to cover my side of the room with the privacy screen that would stop any sound or light from escaping. Just in case, I also activated one of my privacy coins. Then I flopped onto my bed, took out the secret phone, and dialed Asenath’s number. There was no answer at first, so I left a message for them to call me back and set the phone beside me.

To pass the time while waiting, I took my notebook out and began to scribble in it once more. Reading over what I had already written, I scratched a little bit out and wrote better words above them and in the margins before adding more to the bottom. I wrote for about ten minutes before the phone beside me rang.

Answering quickly, I found myself talking to Dad, and apologized for not being able to get to him yet. Then I took a breath, and told him why they were paying so much attention all of a sudden. And from there, I went into explaining more of it.

Laying there on my bed, phone clasped tightly in one hand, I finally… finally, after all these months… really, truly talked with my father.

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Suspects 24-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a few days ago, focusing on Gabriel Ruthers and Calafia. If you haven’t read that yet, you might wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I would kill for Miranda’s duplication powers right now.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I paused, head tilting a little bit. “Eeesh. You know, I guess when Heretics say something like that, it comes off as a lot more sinister than it should.”

We were back on the island. Well, to be specific, we were on the opposite side of the island from the school. The beach over here was a lot rockier (and smaller) than the one by the school itself. Probably because it hadn’t been specifically maintained or designed for a bunch of students. The jungle was also much closer, not to mention darker. We were so far away from any big cities that the moon and stars were a lot brighter than they would’ve been. But even then, the light seemed to fail at the edge of the jungle, leaving a dark maw right at the treeline.

Beside me, Shiori’s face was half-illuminated by the moon. It was distractingly pretty, even in this situation. “I know what you mean. I overheard a couple sophomores a few days ago. They were talking about how they hoped a Stranger with a fast-metabolism would show up soon so they could kill it and eat as much chocolate as they wanted. They were laughing about it.”

Wincing then, I looked over toward Avalon. The girl was standing on the edge of the small, rocky beach, watching the ocean in the distance. She hadn’t said much since Gabriel had dropped us off here, clearly still lost in obsessing over how she could’ve killed Fahsteth before he got away.

I wanted to say something to her, but I wasn’t sure what. So I just sighed and nodded. “I just wish I could duplicate myself. My dad… I need to talk to my dad, not wait around to be interrogated by a bunch of Committee puppets who are gonna pick over everything I say or do.”

Shiori’s hand found mine, squeezing it. “Gaia’ll get you through it as fast as she can,” she promised. “And until you can get there, Senny and Twist are gonna keep him safe. It’ll be okay.”

Returning the squeeze, I swallowed. “I just don’t get it. He broke the Bystander Effect? That’s not–I mean it’s not supposed to be–I mean… “ I groaned out loud then. “I need to talk to him!”

“You will, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare abruptly spoke from a few feet away, making all of us whip around that way. She was standing there, calmly watching us. Yet behind that calm, there was something else. A certain… tension, a worry that she was doing a good, yet not perfect job at hiding. It was some kind of mixture of hidden fear and relief when she looked at us. Which could have been just her being glad that we had made it back to the island, or… was she actually possessed and afraid that we had found out? At this point, I honestly had no idea.

“Good… morning, would be the appropriate term at this point, I believe,” she started flatly. Her eyes danced over us briefly before the blonde woman continued. “I’ve been told that where you were and what you were doing needs to remain a secret for the time being. Operational security.” She paused, clearly not happy about that before pushing on. “But you do need to know what you were supposed to have been doing. So as far as the Committee’s representatives and anyone else who asks are concerned, you two–” she nodded to Avalon and Shiori, “–were asleep in your beds, where you belong. So we’ll send you right back there.”

As they nodded, I asked, “What about me? We were supposed to be out on a training session?”

Professor Dare nodded. “You were with me. We were investigating a zombie nest in Detroit, where an old friend of mine has been staying. I took you with me because you have experience with killing zombies and for exercise and more training. We killed the zombies, then you watched for more outside while I destroyed the source. Do you have any questions?”

After I shook my head, she held up a water bottle that was full of… uh, really gross stuff. It looked like a mixture of blood and mushed up… bits. “All right, squirt this over yourself. It’ll help sell that you were in a fight with zombies. And if you’re messy, they’re more likely to let you leave quickly, as soon as you tell them that you don’t know what happened to your father.”

Pausing then, she looked at me, her face softening as she held the bottle out. “Is he all right?”

Biting my lip, I gave a hesitant nod. “As far as I know. He’s still with Asenath and all that, they just… had to leave. Those werewolves attacked and–” I cut myself off, swallowing. “He’s okay.”

As I finished talking, my hand took the bottle from Professor Dare. Reluctantly, I popped the top open and started to spill it over the front of my shirt, down one of my arms, over my legs, and then some down my back. The whole time, I had to suppress the urge to gag, or worse. The stuff smelled awful. Which was probably intentional, as part of Dare’s whole ‘make them let me go quickly’ plan. Still, I wished that I’d inherited the ability to turn off my own sense of smell.

Speaking of sense of smell, Shiori wrinkled her nose with distaste while taking a couple steps back. “Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll just wish you luck from over here. So, uh, good luck.”  

Avalon did pretty much the same, and I stuck my tongue out at both of them. “Chickens.”

Dare was smiling faintly, head shaking as she gestured to the other two. “All right, if you’re ready, I’ll send the message to lower the defenses so that you can get back into your dorm.” She waited until they nodded before turning away slightly. Going still, her eyes closed and she was clearly focusing for a moment before opening her eyes. “Okay, I’m sending you in. Make sure you go right to bed. There’s not much of the night left. Get as much sleep as you can.”

With that, Dare gestured, teleporting Avalon and Shiori across the island and into the school. Which left her alone with me. If she was one of the people who was possessed, either Manakel or Charmeine, now probably would’ve been a great time for her to do something about me.

Except maybe not. Since Gaia was probably at least somewhat paying attention to what was going on in between keeping the Committee reps busy, maybe now would be a bad time for a possibly-possessed Dare to try anything. Either way, what it came down to was that this paranoia sucked. I hated looking at Professor Dare and wondering if she was actually being puppeted by some psychopathic alien fuck. We needed to get that choker from Pace, soon.

“Flick?” Dare interrupted my thoughts, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snapping out of it, I made myself nod quickly. “I’m just worried about my dad,” I claimed, since it wasn’t that much of a lie. “I don’t wanna be here right now. I need to get to him, not… do this.”

The woman’s face was sympathetic. “Of course. We’ll get you through this as soon as possible. If there was a way to fake it… I’d take your place, but it’s likely that they have the ability to detect illusions or shapeshifters. So we need you to be there in person. But Gaia and I will both be there with you, and we’ll make sure they can’t detect any lies that you tell. Are you ready?”

Taking a breath, I let it out again before making myself nod. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do this.”

With a wave of Dare’s hand, we were suddenly on the grounds of the school, right in front of the main building. She gestured for me to go ahead, then followed as I walked up to the doors. Together, we walked down the hall and then to a set of stairs that led up to the second floor, where she indicated a door for me to head for. As I moved that way, it opened to reveal Gaia standing there, with a couple men that I’d never seen before a bit further in. They were all waiting.

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia greeted me while gesturing for me to enter the room. “I trust you’re alright and everything went well?” She waited until Dare was in, then shut the door after her.

My head bobbed. “Yup. Just call me Jill Valentine, because those are some dead zombies.”

“As long as you don’t make us call you Alice,” one of the men in the room spoke up, drawing my attention that way as he gave me a slight smile. “Never could stand the movies because of her.”

The guy wasn’t what I expected a representative from the Committee to look like. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dirty blonde hair that reached his shoulders, but tied back in a ponytail. He had a dark blue flower print Hawaiian shirt on, along with a loose pair of white pants, and simple white slip-on shoes without any socks. His eyes were covered by mirrored sunglasses, and I saw a cell phone case clipped to his brown belt that was probably a weapon.  

“Sorry,” he announced, extending a hand. “Name’s October. And you’re Felicity Chambers.”

Accepting the handshake, I gestured at myself. “That’s, uh, that’s me. Sorry about the gross. Professor Dare said that we were supposed to come in immediately, that it was important.”

“It is.” The reply came from the other man, who could not have looked more unlike October if he tried. He was black, and wore a stiff-looking dark suit and tie with a red shirt. While October looked like he would’ve been home sipping a Mai Tai out on the beach, this guy looked as though he had just walked straight off the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Patrick,” he announced when I looked at him. “And we need–” He paused, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before pulling out a fancy embroidered white handkerchief. Holding it up, he murmured the trigger of a spell before handing it to me. “Here, try this.”

I did so, pressing the cloth against the worst of the blood and goop on the front of my shirt. Sure enough, at the slightest touch, the stuff rubbed right off. Even better, it didn’t stick to the handkerchief at all. It was like it just disappeared. Quickly, I wiped the rest of the stuff off me before sniffing. Even the smell was gone. “Wow, okay, why haven’t we learned that spell yet?”

“Soon,” Gaia promised, smiling faintly before sobering. “But I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Miss Chambers. How long has it been since you heard from your father?”

“Hey, whoa, let’s be a little easier, huh?” That was October, his eyes softening as he looked from Gaia back to me. “Listen, kid, there’s-” He paused, clearly taking a moment to figure out how to say it. “It looks like your father was… it looks like your home was attacked by werewolves.”

Thankfully, all this lying I’d been doing over the past several months had given me experience. Making my eyes widen sharply, I took a step back while loudly babbling. “W-wait, what? What do you mean werewolves? I thought–what–where’s my dad? Is he okay? What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Patrick replied simply. “That’s why we’re here right now. Why don’t you answer your headmistress’s question? When exactly was the last time you spoke to your father?”

“I–I don’t…” Biting my lip, I hesitated as though trying to think of it. Some people thought that answering questions quickly when you were lying was a good idea, because it looked like you didn’t have to think up the answer. But in real life, people did have to think about stuff like that. Answering too quick just made it look like the response was rehearsed. So I stammered a little like the question had caught me off-guard. “The other day, I think? Why, what–what does that have to do with werewolves? And why don’t you know where he is? Is he in the hospital? Is he-”

October took over then, holding a hand up. “As far as we can tell, your father is safe. There’s evidence that he left the house, took a car, and drove to… another house elsewhere in the town. After that, we think he took a car that was parked there and left town. From there, we have no idea. But all the evidence we have indicates that all the werewolves who showed up there were killed in the attempt. Then your dad left, probably with whoever was responsible for killing them.”

“Oh my God. Oh–” Fumbling a bit, I grabbed my regular phone, the non-secret one, from my pocket before hurriedly hitting the button to speed dial my father’s phone. It rang several times with no response. Which wasn’t surprising, since I was sure they’d already ditched the phone so that it couldn’t be traced to them. Still, I made a show of looking increasingly agitated. As it went through to voicemail, I left a quick message asking my dad to call me back, then immediately called back again. I did that twice more, getting the voicemail each time before giving a weak sob that was actually pretty damn convincing, even if I did have to say so myself.

“Hey, hey.” October stepped in then. “It’s okay. Look, we’re sorry. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this. But like I said, someone saved him. There were people there and they killed the werewolves. Even if we don’t know who they are, that’s a good sign, right? They saved him.”

“I–I don’t…” My mouth opened and shut a few times as I stared at the men. “Who–that would have to be a Heretic, wouldn’t it? I mean, no one else would… or could. So why—how–who?”

Patrick started to answer that before pausing as a phone in his suit pocket buzzed. Holding up a finger, he asked us to excuse him while he stepped to the other side of the room to answer it. His voice was a quiet murmur for a moment before he did something that cut off the sound entirely, leaving us unable to hear what either he or whoever was on the phone was saying.

After giving his partner a brief look, October continued. “You’re right, whoever killed the werewolves was probably a Heretic. But they weren’t one of ours. That’s really all we know for sure. It’s possible that they were from Eden’s Garden, or from a… an independent faction.”

Making my eyes widen, I shook my head rapidly. “But–what–what do you mean Eden’s Garden or an independent faction? Why would they–what would they… Why would they be watching our house? Why would they just happen to be there when werewolves attacked my house?”

Looking uncomfortable, the man glanced toward Gaia before answering. “You see, there are… some times when we recruit someone from a Bystander family that has a high potential, like you do, when either independents or Eden’s Garden will decide to poach people from the same family. It’s that potential thing. They think that you had potential, so someone else in the family might. It happens a lot when there’s conflict or disagreement about which of our schools gets to make the initial recruitment. They don’t like losing out, so they try to recruit a family member.”

Well that part was news to me, at least. I stared at him for a second. “You mean you think that they were watching my dad to see if he had potential to be a Heretic, and when the werewolves attacked, they jumped in. And… and then what, they just took him with them and left?”

“It would fit the fact that they went to a house on the other side of town before leaving,” October replied. “That was probably their homebase. From what we can tell, it was sold a couple months ago to a buyer that we can’t track down. Looks like a dead end, which also fits the Heretic theory. Though whether it’s one of Eden’s Gardens or independents, we just don’t know yet.”

“What about Hisao?” I asked then. “If Eden’s Garden had anything to do with it, he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

Gaia spoke up. “We’ve asked him. He says he’ll talk to his contacts, but all the tribes don’t always communicate with each other. If it’s one of the more secretive ones, or one that doesn’t get along with his tribe, there’s no way to know for sure if they’d actually tell him.”

“So–so people from Eden’s Garden will just take other family members when they don’t get the student that they want?” I was still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around that.

He shrugged a little. “Yeah, though to be fair, we’ve done it to them before too. It’s a whole thing.” Waving that off, he focused on me. “The point is, we think your dad is… okay. He wasn’t killed by the wolves or anything, and it seems like what took them out were definitely Heretics. Several, from the look of things. He might’ve been hurt, which might be why they took him with them. Or maybe, like I said, they were going for recruitment. We don’t know yet. We’re trying to track them down, but it’s only been a few hours. And you were gone for most of it. Just… give it a little time. If your dad calls you, let us know, okay? It could be Eden’s Garden that saved him, or it could be an independent.”

“Or maybe,” Patrick abruptly announced while hanging up his phone, “it was someone else.”

Gaia raised an eyebrow at that, speaking up for me. “Did you have someone in mind?”

The well-dressed man nodded once before looking straight at me. “Maybe it was the same woman who just killed eleven of our people.”

As I stared at him in confusion, he went on. “A woman who could take on twelve fully-trained Heretics who were in the middle of a mission to clear out a nest of Strangers, killed eleven of them all by herself, and let one go. A female Heretic with a golden kill-aura, like yours. 

“You know anyone who fits that description, Miss Chambers?”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-06

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“Flick,” Professor Dare spoke in a quiet, measured voice. “Are you alright?”

It was a few minutes later, and the two of us were in a side-room away from where the Committee was still talking to Avalon and Gaia. They had asked me to step outside while they continued to speak to the others. I’d felt Avalon stiffen beside me, and knew that the girl had been about two seconds from launching into a rant. She obviously didn’t care who the Committee were or how powerful they happened to be. But I did, so I had quickly interjected to say that I’d wait.

Call me crazy, but as freaking badass as Avalon really was, I didn’t think that even she could come back in one piece from the kinds of things that she had obviously wanted to say to those people. So I agreed to leave, stepping out of the room while accompanied by Professor Dare.

“Alright?” I echoed, giving her a brief stare. “Some of the most powerful people on the planet think I might’ve had something to do with trying to kill Avalon and being part of some big conspiracy.”

Her head shook at that, slight blonde locks slipping out of place to fall over her eye before she brushed them back. “Only a couple actually think that. The majority don’t believe that you had anything to do with it.” She sighed. “They’re looking for someone to blame, Flick. It makes them look weak that someone can walk onto the island and completely bypass all of our security repeatedly. So they want to blame someone. You…” She paused, glancing around before reaching into the inner pocket of her suit jacket. Coming out with a small, intricately decorated music box the size of my hand, she set it on a nearby table before popping it open. A figurine of a ballerina popped up into view before slowly turning in circles, as a low, quiet hum filled the room.

“Anyone beyond the two of us will not hear anything from this room,” Dare informed me before continuing. “As I was saying, you know exactly why they would immediately look to you for that.”

Biting my lip, I gave a short nod. “Mom,” I spoke flatly while folding my arms. “They remember what happened with my mother. I guess if you spend the better part of a century with your entire society in the middle of a civil war because of one woman, you might squint a little at her daughter when she shows up pretty much at the same time as something like this starts happening.”  

“Unfortunately,” Dare confirmed with a strange look for a moment before she shook it off. “Your mother… there are those on the Committee who are still… unhappy with how that was resolved.”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before asking, “Unhappy? You mean, unhappy that she survived?”

“That,” the woman answered slowly before continuing, “and unhappy that there wasn’t some grand final battle. You see, the fact that Joselyn was able to fight the Committee members on their own terms was always something of a… sore spot for some of them. They have always been seen as being as far removed in power from normal Heretics as we are from Bystanders. Their power is supposed to be unmatched by any save for perhaps the Victors from Eden’s Garden. But the fact that Joselyn, that anyone,  was able to fight them toe-to-toe and survive was a blow against that. So there are those on the Committee who wanted to end the war by… well, ending Joselyn. They believe that not having that final battle where they could prove that their power was stronger than hers left a permanent mark against them. They never beat her on a level playing field. In the end, they only won by…” Her face twisted, and I saw an anger in the woman that she obviously kept suppressed most of the time. “They only won because she surrendered to them.”

“So they want an actual fight,” I murmured under my breath, grimacing. “They want to have that grand final battle that didn’t happen before, so that they can prove once and for all that they’re stronger than she is. That’s why they’re so convinced that she’s still out there, that she got her memory back and is behind all this. Because they want her to be. They want her to be the one doing this so they can fight her, so they can beat her the way they wanted to a long time ago.”

Nodding slightly, Dare put a hand on my shoulder. “They look at you, and they see the war that they never actually won. They see the woman they could never beat, until she surrendered herself to them.  And even if Ruthers was never completely open about how he convinced her to surrender, they have their suspicions… suspicions that make them feel even worse about it.”

“Because he held children hostage,” I stated flatly, not wanting to put any kind of spin on it. “He took innocent children, babies, and threatened them unless Mom surrendered. They have their–they suspect something like that, so it makes them feel worse. Good. They should feel like shit. They should feel like the lowest fucking scum on the planet for not ejecting that son of a bitch ri–” I cut myself off, closing my mouth while shaking my head violently. I couldn’t talk about that.

“You’re right.” Dare’s voice was soft, barely audible even as close as she was to me. “It’s plausible deniability. They know what he did, or at least suspect it strongly. But as long as he doesn’t confirm it, as long as he’s quiet about it, they can pretend they don’t know. They can shut it out and focus on what they see as the important thing: that Joselyn was captured. But even then, even then there’s that part of them that knows how far they had to go to even do that much. So if they can beat Joselyn in a fair fight, if she’s out there somehow and has all her memories and power back, they can make up for that dark stain. The stain of never really beating her, and the stain of what Ruthers did to end the war. They prove they can beat her now, and they fix all of it.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. It took me some time to get myself back under control to the point that I could actually think straight. The urge to walk back to that room and scream at the lot of them was almost overwhelming, despite the fact that everything I’d told myself about Avalon losing her temper with them being a being a bad idea went at least triple for me. I still had to take a few deep breaths and force myself to focus, suppressing the anger that tried to boil out of me.

Finally, I made myself say something else. “It still doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “The whole idea that I could be the one behind these attacks. For one thing, why would I stop anyone else from killing her? If I was really working with my mother and we wanted Avalon dead for some… stupid reason, why would I care who actually did the deed as long as she was dead in the end?”

Giving a long, slow sigh, Dare took a moment before answering. “There are… certain benefits, magically-speaking, toward being the one responsible for someone’s death. Or at least having access to the person who was responsible for it. There are rituals, particularly necromantic ones, that require the person casting them be responsible for the death that you’re using in the spell.”

“Fossor,” I almost spat the name. “They think we’re working with Fossor, and he needs the–the whatever, necromantic-death energy from Avalon’s death for some kind of spell or something?”

The woman nodded slightly. “It makes a twisted sort of sense. I mean, it doesn’t, but if you think the way that they do, it does. If you believe that your mother is working with the necromancer, Avalon’s death would be incredibly powerful. After all, her blood relation to Bosch means that there are a lot of potential magical benefits to being able to use her death. There are ritual spells that could do a lot of damage to Crossroads with the blood of our founder mixed in.”

The words made me feel sick, and I folded my arms over my stomach tightly. “So they think there’s two different groups fighting over who gets to kill Avalon… all because of some necromantic spell crap? Which… Yeah, I didn’t even know they knew about Avalon’s history.”

“I would be interested in learning how they found out,” Dare murmured, her voice thoughtful for a moment. “And how long they’ve actually known. Because they obviously didn’t know before she was taken in by Eden’s Garden. They never would have allowed something like that if they knew who she was. It has to have been something they learned fairly recently. But I have no idea how.”

“But what about when Ammon showed up?” I asked quickly while shaking my head. “I mean, why wouldn’t I just let him kill Avalon if we were actually working together? And why wouldn’t I just–” I stopped, catching myself. “Oh. Right, Wyatt’s protection spells. Gaia said that if someone kills Avalon before the spells are removed the right way, they get permanently marked by them?”

“Essentially, yes,” the woman replied with a nod. “Their thought process is likely that Ammon was being rebellious and trying to prove he could do a better job than you could by eliminating Avalon himself. You had to step in to prevent the boy from getting himself marked by the protection spell, which would have led Crossroads straight to Ammon, and subsequently to Fossor himself.”

I started to say something else to that, but Dare held a hand up to stop me. Her other hand closed the music box, and she had just tucked the thing away when there was a knock at the door on the opposite side of the room (away from the door that led into the room where Gaia, Avalon, and the Committee were). The woman gave me a brief nod of reassurance before speaking. “Enter.”

It opened, revealing… Teach. The man stepped in, closing the door after himself. “Well,” he announced with a nod at the door that led into the Committee’s room. “That’s a hell of a meeting.” Giving me another of gold and silver toothed smile, he added, “Hello there, Miss Chambers.”

“I–you–”  My mouth opened and then shut as I glanced over my shoulder at the other door. “Is the meeting over? You weren’t–I mean–” I stopped for a moment, my confusion mounting.

Teach gave a light chuckle at that, head shaking with amusement. “Nah, we’re still rambling on in there. Probably keep going for awhile yet. But ahh, you really think we’d go on for this long without having a way of being in two places at once?” His expression sobered briefly. “That’s some good information there, Chambers. Never think that just because we’re in one place, that we can’t be somewhere else too. Last I heard, your friend over in Eden could testify to that much.”  

“Miranda…” I murmured before shaking that off. “You guys know a lot more than I expected you to.” It was blunt, maybe. But at that point, I really didn’t want to tiptoe around everything. I didn’t know why Teach was standing there, what he wanted, or how much I could trust anything he said.

“And yet,” he replied easily, “I suspect we know less than you do about a great many things.” Before I could say anything to that, he raised a hand. “It’s all right, no need to see how many denials you can spit out. I’m not actually asking. This isn’t an interrogation, Miss Chambers.”

I was trying to find at least a slightly more polite way of asking what this was then, when Professor Dare spoke. “If this isn’t an interrogation, Counselor Teach, then what is it, precisely?” Apparently she cared less about being courteous at that point than I did. “Why are you here right now?”

In response, the man reached into his pocket to pull out a metal flask. Unscrewing the lid, he took a long pull from it before speaking. “There’s things you know about that you can’t say. And things that I know that I can’t say, because if I do, you either have to pretend to be surprised, which is just offensive to all of us, or… give me the kind of trust that I’m pretty sure you don’t wanna give me right now. So I’m gonna save all of us a bit of a headache and not put you in that position.”

He paused a moment, giving us a chance to say something. But I took Dare’s example and just remained silent. So, after a couple seconds of that, the man continued. “But you know, even if we can’t confirm anything because we’re all playing these secret games, I’m still gonna tell you something. You can take it for what it’s worth. Don’t have to say anything else. Just listen.”

His eyes softened then, and the man spoke simply. “What happened to the woman you’re looking for, it’s bullshit. Everything we did, everything we let happen, everything we didn’t stop, it was wrong. Whatever the intentions of it, whatever we thought we were doing, it was wrong. And she, that woman that we can’t talk about, she was the strongest kid I ever met. And I’ve met more people than you’ve seen stars in the sky, so believe that. And if you ever start to think about everything she’s been through, you just remember… she’s gonna be okay. Because she’s strong.” He paused, giving me a brief look up and down. “And she’s got mighty fine motivation to make it.”

My throat had closed up by that point, and I had to swallow a couple times before giving a flat, “I guess I wish I knew what you were talking about.” My voice was hollow, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to convince anyone with it. “Sounds like an important person to know.”

“You will,” Teach replied with the kind of certainty that I wished I could feel. “Give it time.”

The door into the room with the Committee opened then, and Gaia stepped out along with Avalon. If either of them were surprised to see the man standing there, they didn’t show it. Avalon just moved next to me, rather pointedly taking my hand before squeezing it right there in plain view. Which was different for her. She didn’t tend to show much affection in public like that, usually. In this case, however, I supposed that her desire to show the Committee just how little of a shit she gave about what they said drastically outweighed her dislike of public affection.

“Edward,” Gaia greeted the man evenly, giving him a slight nod without saying anything else.

“Evening, Headmistress,” Teach returned the greeting with a sly wave of his hand. “I’ll leave you all alone. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to go over.” Pausing then, he added while looking toward me, “And Chambers, don’t you go letting yourself feel guilty about what happened. That boy made his choices. He had every chance to turn them around. Some people just aren’t worth the tears.”

He disappeared then, seeming to fade from existence while smiling faintly. After he was gone, I looked toward Gaia. “Do, um… do I need to go back in there and talk to them some more?”

“No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Not today. You’ve been through enough. If they wish to speak with you about any more of their conspiracy theories, they can make an appointment.”  

Biting my lip, I looked at Avalon. “You didn’t try to bite their heads off or anything, did you?”

“I should’ve said a lot more than I did,” she half-snarled, clearly gearing herself up as her hand squeezed mine. “How stu–”

Clearing her throat, Gaia spoke up. “Perhaps we should leave here for now. I’m sure you’re tired of standing around and waiting.” She nodded to the door. “We can discuss everything outside.”

On the way, I glanced toward Avalon. She still hadn’t let go of my hand, obviously deciding that she hadn’t actually made her point yet. Not that I minded. “So they knew about…”

“Yeah,” she replied in a dull voice. “They knew. Tried to tell me about it like it was some grand revelation, like I should be so proud and amazed because of what my ancestor did.”

I coughed at that. “Well, at least you didn’t say anything you shouldn’t have.” Seeing her reaction, I gave her a quick look. “… Valley? What exactly did you say to the obnoxiously powerful people who could probably blow up our entire dorm building by sneezing in its general direction?”  

It was Gaia who spoke, her voice carrying the slightest undercurrent of amusement. “She informed them that they should be happy that her ancestor did not set this society up as a monarchy, because she would have demoted them to muck out the stables, since they were…” She paused then. “How did you put it? Oh yes, since they were ‘so obsessed with shoveling bullshit.”

Choking audibly for a moment, I gave my roommate a wide-eyed look. “Valley! You can’t talk to them like that.”

“Pretty sure I just did,” she replied coolly. “What are they gonna do, try to kill me? There’s a line.”

Dare shook her head slightly. “To change the subject slightly,” she murmured before holding a bag up for me. “I’m afraid protocol means that you’ll have to decide what to do with these.”

Frowning, I took the offered bag, glancing inside to find Doxer’s mechanical mice. They were both staring up at me while huddled together in the bottom of it. “Err, wait, what?” I blinked up then. “Shouldn’t these go back to Eden’s Garden? I thought Heretics were usually buried with their weapons. We… I mean, you are shipping his… his…”

“We are sending his body home, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But when one Heretic attempts to kill another, their weapon becomes forfeit to the survivor. And now that it’s been officially determined that you were within your right to defend yourself with lethal force,  Doxer’s weapons belong to you. What you do with them is your choice.”

The mice were still staring up at me as we approached the door to leave the building. My hand groped out, grabbing the handle. I felt a slight resistance before it pulled open, but the question of what I was going to do with these little guys was distracting enough that I barely noticed.

Barely noticed, that was, until I stepped through the door and glanced back to find the other three openly watching me, standing where they were. “Err… uh, were we not going…”

It was Gaia who spoke. “When the Committee is all together in the building like this, it’s locked down by several powerful security measures. One of those is that all the doors are remotely locked. That door should not have opened for you.”

“It shouldn’t have– but I didn’t–” I started and stopped, blinking a few times as I looked at the door, then back to them. My head started to shake, before stopping short. There was someone else who had done things like that, who had somehow taken control of plenty of security measures that he shouldn’t have been able to.

“…. I… think we just found out what else I got from Doxer.”

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