Virginia Dare

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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Most Dangerous Game 22-04

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Please note that there was both a bonus chapter posted Wednesday, and a commissioned mini-interlude posted Tuesday. If you missed either or both of those, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, as nice as it really would have been to stick around and start throwing questions at Trice immediately, we couldn’t. The whole point of setting the trap up the way that we had was to make sure that pretty much anyone who could’ve been his contact here at the school saw him escape (or would at the very least hear about it happening from everyone else who was there). He had left, so when they inevitably found out about his subsequent disappearance, they wouldn’t immediately realize that we had him. Which, hopefully, would give us an actual advantage.   

But if we took too long to get back to the others and word got around that we had disappeared right when Trice did… well, then it wouldn’t take a super-genius to put the pieces together. So Avalon and I had to leave the cell almost immediately, through an extra portal that Gaia had set up that took us to the Pathmaker building so that anyone who was paying attention would see us.

And honestly, thinking about it, the fact that Gaia could hijack the Pathmaker to send us in and out like that without anyone noticing was probably one of the more impressive feats I’d seen from a woman who, at that point, seemed to be completely made out of impressive feats.

Gaia had been the one to think of almost every part of that little counter-ambush, including the extra trap at the end. Originally we’d intended  to grab both of the boys (or Pace as a priority if she had shown up, but we’d had our doubts on that one from the start). One of them would be linked to me while the other one would be linked to Avalon. But when I had… when I had killed Doxer, that left Trice as the only one left, so Avalon being linked to Doxer didn’t really matter.

After that, all Gaia had to do was add in a trigger on the spell that made it not take effect until the moment I changed worlds for the first time. That allowed Trice to use his bark-thing to escape back to Eden’s Garden, thus making it even less likely that his contact would realize we had him. Plus, we figured that they wouldn’t want people at Garden to be able to easily track their coming and going when news of the attack went public. So wherever they teleported back to, it wouldn’t be right out where anyone could easily see. They’d probably teleport somewhere private first.

That was the idea at least. It had been the best one we had. And, in the end, it had resulted in a captured Trice. We’d have to see if that actually led to any useful information. But even if it didn’t, at the very least, it took one of the Seosten spy’s pieces off of the chess board.

No… two pieces.   

Before we left the cell (the actual location of which even I didn’t actually know, since I’d always gone in and out through the portal that Gaia created), Avalon had pointed out that Doxer’s death would likely make Trice disappearing even more believable. Whoever his contact was would probably think that he’d gotten cold feet after seeing what happened to his partner, and took off. Or that he had to bail to avoid dealing with the fallout with the rest of Eden’s Garden, since covering up Doxer’s death and the reason behind it would be pretty damn hard. Either way, it made it easier to believe that he’d just take off. Or at least believable long enough to work for us.

It was a good thing that we made a point of actually leaving through the Pathmaker, since as Avalon and I stepped out through the doors, there was a whole crowd waiting for us on the other side of the security line. And not just our team either. No. I saw a bunch of people milling around, some of them from older grades. Hell, I thought I saw a couple of seniors near the back, and I pretty much never saw senior students unless they happened to be passing by in a hurry. Since fourth-year students were basically full-fledged Heretics in their own right, just apprenticed to actual Heretics, they didn’t really spend that much time around the school.

Now, however, there were definitely a few of them back there, visible through the crowd. Not to mention the dozens of first, second, and third years who were all standing there, murmuring back and forth. All that murmuring stopped, however, as Avalon and I stepped out of the building to come into view. Once they caught sight of us, everyone pretty much collectively stopped talking and stared. There were a few whispers that I couldn’t make out. But mostly it was a lot of staring, which continued as the two of us walked away from the entrance and crossed the security line.

“Hey!” someone called out, using some kind of voice-amplification power or spell to be heard over everyone. “Did you really kill an Eden’s Garden Heretic, Freshman?”

Beside me, Avalon stiffened. I could tell she was about to go off on everyone staring at us, so I quickly touched her arm gently. The last thing we needed right now was to make a bigger scene.

A second-year cut in then. “It was one of their teachers, he came to convince Hisao to go back!”

And just like that, the weird spell of silence that had fallen over everyone was broken, and they all started talking at once again. Some of it was directed to us, though a lot was just yelling at one another. They were arguing about what had happened. I heard the word ‘war’ mentioned a lot.

“No, morons,” another older student made herself heard over the commotion. “She killed a Stranger who shapeshifted into a Heretic and tried to pose as one of us.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” someone scoffed. “Strangers can’t pose as Heretics. Even they’re not that stupid.”   

That set off a whole new round of arguments, while the most I could do was marvel at how quickly the Crossroads rumor mill worked. Yes, they were wrong about most of the specifics, but the fact that they knew anything had happened (let got that close), and had time to make so many different variations of the rumor was… frankly kind of impressive. Honestly, it had only been a few minutes. Clearly, that was one side-effect of living in a place where so many people had what amounted to superpowers: rumors traveled quickly. Particularly rumors that resulted in so many teachers calling off the rest of the hunts so they could run off to deal with the aftermath of ours.

After a moment of trying to figure out how to head this off, my eyes caught sight of a group standing on the outskirts of the crowd. Roxa’s old team. They were all standing there, staring. While everyone else started arguing loudly over all those rumors, Douglas and the rest of the team just stared. Their expressions were… well, not happy would be the most optimistic way of putting it. Whatever rumor had reached their ears, they weren’t exactly giddy with joy over it.

I needed to deal with that, but how? I knew what they wanted. They wanted to know more about what had happened to Roxa, and what I’d had to do with it. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. I had no idea how they’d all react, if they’d even believe me. And if they believed what had happened, there was no guarantee that they’d go as far as believing the whole ‘Strangers aren’t all evil’ thing.

No, there wasn’t any way to actually tell them what had happened without risking everything. I had to just let this play out for now. Once Roxa had that necklace, we could come up with another story and let them see her so they’d know she wasn’t dead or anything. For the moment, however, I was just going to have to let them look at me like they were, uncomfortable as it was.

Sands, Columbus and Sean had already started to engage with the crowd, trying to cut off the worst of the rumors while insisting that what happened was self-defense. But barely anyone was listening. They were too busy shouting questions of their own or holding arguments with one another, mostly about whether or not killing an Eden’s Garden Heretic meant that we were at war again.

In the end, the first person who actually approached us would probably have been seen as the least likely one to willingly put herself under that kind of intense scrutiny. Scout, breaking away from her sister, walked straight up to where we were standing. Without a word, she hugged me tightly, holding on for a few seconds before doing the same to Avalon.

As she was releasing the other girl, a voice spoke up over the sound the crowd. “Excuse me.”

Everyone looked that way, only to see one of the older-year teachers. He was an elderly looking man with expressive, bushy eyebrows and hair that could only be described as ‘Einstein-esque’.

When he had everyone’s attention, the man spoke calmly. “I was told that a reincarnated Sinatra had been spotted here. Obviously, seeing a group this size only raised my hopes as to such a rumor’s authenticity. But now, standing here, I see no sign of the Chairman. Which is disappointing. And when I become disappointed, I tend to reflexively pass extra homework and detentions out to everyone I see. It’s a bit of a problem.”

His point was made, and everyone quickly dispersed, though not without a few glances our way.

“Thanks, Professor Carver,” Sands put in once the crowd was gone. “Those guys wouldn’t listen.”

The man, Professor Carver, nodded. But he didn’t look that way. His gaze was on me. “It’s Miss Chambers, correct?” When I nodded, he continued. “You’re making quite a name for yourself, Miss Chambers. It’s not often that a Freshman student attracts the attention of her older peers. And yet, this is not the first time that I have heard your name work its way through my students.”

Flushing a little in spite of myself, I managed a little shrug. “I’m not doing it on purpose,” I muttered. “It just sort of happens. Believe me, I’d go back to being someone no one ever heard about if I could.”

“Oh no,” the man disagreed while shaking his head. “Don’t ever wish for that, Miss Chambers. It’s the people who stand out the most who make the biggest changes to the world. And something tells me, we could do worse than for you to be one of those who directs such changes.”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare arrived. She took a moment to say something quietly to Carver, and Sands quickly caught my arm while the teachers were busy. “Hey, hey, you killed that son of a bitch! What was it like? Did you get any–”

Scout interrupted, putting her hand up to tug Sands away before looking at me. For once, she actually spoke loud enough to be heard by more than one person. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Sands echoed. “What are you sorry for? She kicked his ass. She put him right–”

It was Sean’s turn to interrupt, clearing his throat. “Pretty sure killing a human, even a sick bastard like Doxer, is a little different. Or at least, it probably feels different.”

“Indeed.” That was Professor Dare, who was focused on us now as Professor Carver walked away. “It’s very… different. Flick, Avalon, are you both… are you alright?”

Biting my lip while glancing to the other girl, I managed a little shrug. “I… I had to kill him,” I murmured. “I didn’t have a choice. He was standing over me, he had his sword, I had to–”

Dare’s hand caught mine before I could go on. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “Don’t feel bad for defending yourself. You did the right thing. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Letting that sit until I nodded, she finally continued. “They are going to have to talk to you though, about what happened. And it won’t just be one Runner this time, not for something like this. But you won’t be alone. Whatever they ask you, whatever they say, just tell them what happened. You were attacked by the boys, not even for the first time. They assaulted you, you defended yourself.”

My head bobbed up and down reflexively. “Yeah, I kind of figured we’d have to answer some questions.” Even as I said it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Dare was really trying to reassure me and give decent advice, or if she was possessed and the Seosten inside her was fishing for information because one of the assassins that she had sent to kill Avalon was dead.

That went for everyone there, really. No matter who I looked at there aside from my roommate, I had to wonder if, behind the sympathetic eyes, there was something far more sinister.

Biting my lip before forcing myself to shake that off, I hesitated before swallowing. “So, uh. How’d the rest of the hunt go? I hope you guys managed to take care of the rest of those spinnevurrs.

“Cuz we didn’t get any of them.”

******

“I guess,” Deveron spoke awhile later, “if anyone else asks if you’re alright, you might scream?”

He was sitting across from Avalon and me, as the three of us waited in one of the side-rooms of the Pathmaker building. We’d been brought back there to wait for whoever was sent to ask what the hell had just happened to lead to the death of an Eden’s Garden student.

Gaia and Professor Dare were already in there, giving their part of the story, while Deveron had been allowed to stay with us as our team mentor. Usually, he probably wouldn’t have, in order to keep up appearances. But I had the feeling he didn’t want to leave my side after what happened.

Or maybe he was possessed, and the Seosten was afraid that they’d miss something. Paranoia sucked ass. Especially since I really would’ve liked to talk to him about how it felt. Something told me that, given his history, Deveron had a lot of experience with the whole ‘killing other Heretics’ thing.

Yeah, we really had to deal with this spy thing. I was really tired of not being able to talk to everyone that I was supposed to be able to trust the way I wanted to.

“I might,” I finally confirmed with a shrug. “Or maybe I’ll just pick up a chair and throw it. Think that’d convince whoever’s waiting to talk to me that I’m completely sane and in control?”

Grimacing, Deveron shook his head. “Probably not. So let’s change the subject a little bit.” He paused, obviously thinking about it for a moment. “Have you checked to see how many of his powers you… inherited?”

Right, check how many I’d inherited. Because unlike the way killing a Stranger only granted a single, random one of their abilities, apparently when a Heretic killed another Heretic, they had a chance of gaining multiple powers. If they got really lucky, they could even gain every power the other guy had. Which seemed to me like it would put a target on the back of every other Heretic whenever someone wanted to gain a lot of power quickly. 

It was a thought that made me flush a little bit, while Avalon spoke up for me. “She can’t teleport.”

I nodded then. “Yeah, his little elemental teleport thing. We tried that one while we were out there with the others. Sands wanted me to check, so I did, more than once. Didn’t work.”

“Okay,” the (much) older boy replied easily. “So what else did he have?”

Thinking about that, I started slowly. “He was stronger than me. Not by a massive amount or anything, but definitely stronger. I’m not sure how to check that while we’re sitting here.”

“Like this.” Deveron reached into his pocket, producing what looked like a little stress ball, which he tossed to me. “Try it. The thing measures strength output. We know how strong you were before this, so let’s see if it changed.” As I stared at him, he added, “What? You didn’t think we’d go all this time without having ways of measuring power increases like that, did you?”

He had a point, so I shrugged and carefully squeezed the ball. Once I was sure it wouldn’t explode on me, I squeezed harder, tightening my grip until I couldn’t tighten it any more. Then I released it at a gesture from Deveron.

He took the ball from me, turning it over so I could see the number that had appeared. “Twelve hundred pounds. Looks like you’re a bit stronger than you were. Which probably means you’re a little tougher too, since those things tend to go together.”

Nodding, I offered, “He had a couple new powers too, just for dealing with me. That sand control, he went out and got his own, stronger version. I guess I can check that out on the beach later, after we’re done with this.”

“And you said he absorbed the power from your staff and threw it back at you,” Deveron prompted. “Have you checked that yet?”

“I’m not sure how we could—” I stopped abruptly, dropping my head before sighing at myself. “Oh, right. Uh, here.” Taking the staff from my belt, I started to pass it to him, before changing my mind and handing it to Avalon instead. “Would you mind?”

Getting me to stand up and move across the room, the other girl took a moment to power up the staff. She charged it just enough to send a blast of energy that would have knocked me to the floor.

Would have. But didn’t, because as I focused on the incoming wave of kinetic force, I felt a tingling sensation. When the wave hit me, it didn’t even knock me back a step. Instead, I felt the energy fill me up, coursing through me. It was hard to describe, except that the feeling was somewhat close to needing to use the bathroom. I felt it in there, needing to get out. So, I pointed my hand at a chair on the other side of the room before urging the energy to leave.

It did. The wave re-emerged from my hand and knocked the chair over onto its side.

“Oh,” I managed after a moment. “That’s… umm…”

“Useful,” Deveron finished for me. “If you can absorb and redirect energy like that, it’ll synergize really well with your fighting style.”

Avalon was already nodding in agreement. “We’ll work it into your training, make you learn to react fast enough to use it in combat without someone telling you ahead of time when it’s coming.”


“Oh, great.” I gave her a thumbs up. “Can’t wait for you to beat me up some more.” And yet, despite the sarcasm of my actual words, I kind of meant it. It was a chance to spend more time with Avalon, even if it did involve getting thrown around the mat like a ragdoll.  

The two of us just smiled at each other for a second before I remembered where we were. Coughing, I glanced at the guy who had been married to my mother. He was just giving me a knowing look that made me flush. “Ah, right. Doxer’s powers. Um. Yeah. Then there was that thing he did to…” I paused, even though Deveron had already used his own privacy coin to assure that we weren’t being spied on. Of course, that assumed that he wasn’t the one doing the spying.

Shaking it off, I finished, “That thing he did to track me to Wonderland, and take control of the security measures so the Septs couldn’t bring them back up once the pack was inside. But was that magic or some kind of ability?”

Before we could come up with an answer to that, the door opened. Dare stuck her head in, pausing before giving a short gesture. “Flick, Avalon, they’re ready to talk to you. Deveron–”

“I’ll wait here,” he agreed, clearly having already dismissed the coin spell. “Doubt a bunch of Runners want to talk to me anyway, since they got everything from you.”

There was a brief hesitation from Dare, like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just gestured for the two of us to follow.

“What was that?” I asked once Avalon and I were in the hallway with her. “You were about to say something, but you didn’t.”

“I was going to correct Mr. Adams,” the woman replied. “But if I had, he probably would have insisted on coming with you. And that would have complicated things even further.”

“Correct him?” I echoed, looking toward Avalon before shaking my head. “Correct him about what? The Runners didn’t get everything they needed out of you, or… wait–”

“It’s not Runners,” Avalon realized aloud. “Is it?”

Dare shook her head. “No, it’s not. This situation has attracted much higher attention than that.”

“A Committee member,” I guessed. “Oh. Ruthers is back? I kinda figured he’d want to be part of this.”

“Ruthers,” Dare confirmed. “And the others.”

“The… others?” I echoed uncertainly.

“The Committee.” She looked to me, expression unreadable. “They’re waiting to talk to you.

“All of them.”  

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Most Dangerous Game 22-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, Avalon was beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside me, the other girl nodded. “Yes.

“I have a few questions for him.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come find out.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-10

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The last major fight that I’d gotten into had been at the Wonderland mall. In that case, there had been a lot more room to maneuver than there was in this little classroom, crowded as it was with so many desks and tables. It might have been a good place to learn in (as far as learning from a genocidal psychopath could be good), but it pretty much sucked as far as gladiatorial arenas went.

But I was learning how to improvise.

Hyde was fast. Wicked fast. Not so long ago, he would have taken me completely by surprise as he lunged clear across the classroom in a single leap. But now… well, now I had the reflexes of a werewolf.

He was still at the start of his leap when I began to react. Pivoting on one foot, I hooked the end of my staff around the leg of the nearest desk and hoisted off the ground while continuing the turn. The werewolf strength meant that I didn’t even notice the weight of the desk as it came off the floor and into the air. As I finished the turn, the desk hung loosely off the end of the staff, which was pointed straight at the incoming monster. With a grimace, I triggered the kinetic charge that I had been building up in the staff ever since I took it out. The blast sent the desk careening off my staff as if it had been shot out of a cannon. It collided with Hyde, slamming into his chest hard enough that the forward momentum from his lunge was entirely negated and he was sent flying backward.

He was still in mid-crash when my follow-up leap planted my foot against the desk. The kick was so hard that my foot went through the desk, shattering it into several pieces before colliding with his chest. A second later, his back hit the wall hard enough to send several cracks through it, while I landed in a crouch.

He recovered quickly, that long, nasty proboscis lashing out towards me like a snake. But I was ready for it, my staff spinning up and around to smack it out of the way. Unfortunately, while I was prepared for that, I hadn’t been prepared for the scorpion-like tail with attached stinger that the Aswang produced. It lashed out and down, cutting through the air while I was still slightly off-balance from knocking the proboscis out of the way.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Doug was there. Even as that scorpion stinger came lashing down towards me, he stepped up and put his shield in place right over my head to intercept it. His sword cut at the thing, but it withdrew just as fast as it had extended.

By that point, a protective, bug-like exoskeleton had extended over the man’s entire body. I could still see some of the hair that he had sprouted sticking out from between the narrow gaps in the plates. At a quick guess, I would’ve said that the hair served the purpose of providing sensory feedback that the plates themselves took away. At the same time, the Aswang grew a second set of arms from the lower part of his torso. They ended in a deadly-looking set of pincers

Doug followed up his defense with a fast offense. He threw himself at the Aswang, sword arcing up in a wide, diagonal swing that Hyde parried with his tail. One of the monster’s lower pincer arms lashed out before being caught by Doug’s shield. Unfortunately, the pincer closed around the shield itself and tore it away from the boy. Hyde cast it aside, but the shield simply vanished a second after it was away from its creator.

Meanwhile, the other pincer-hand came in on Doug’s other side. But I was already there, catching the flat part of the open pincers with my staff before using It to shove the arm aside. In the same motion, I brought my right foot up to kick against his chest before pushing off with that same foot to turn myself into a spin that brought my other foot up and around to smack into his face.

Doug went for the kill while the Aswang was recovering, shoving his sword up to the guy’s chest. But the blade just clanged off of the hard scales of that exoskeleton, and Doug had to quickly pivot to catch the descending tail once again. It recoiled before striking out a couple more times, forcing him to parry each one while backing up a couple steps from the ferocity of the counter-attack.

Between the Aswang’s four limbs, tail, and proboscis, Doug was about to be quickly overwhelmed. But like hell would I let that happen. I was already there, catching one of Hyde’s grasping hands with one end of my staff before smacking the other end up into the bottom of his jaw with every ounce of my newly considerable strength. It was enough to make his mouth clang shut while rocking his head backward.

It wasn’t enough to put him down though. Not even close. If anything, he got even angrier and more ferocious. I think Doug and I had managed to cross the point from simply being a couple of nameless Heretics among so many that he wanted to kill, to being very specific targets for him.

Well, honestly, if he wanted to kill me, he was gonna have to get in line or take a number.

But that was a line that he clearly wasn’t ready to wait for, as he came after both of us with a noise that sounded like a cross between a roar and a scream. One of his normal hands tried to shove my staff out of the way, while a pincer hand grabbed for my throat. I barely managed to duck aside before the pincer shut with a vicious, violent snap right where my neck had been. If I hadn’t moved, it probably would’ve taken my head off. Or at least cut deep into my throat.

At the same time, his other pincer actually did manage to get hold of Doug’s sword. Shoving it aside, he sent that proboscis shooting out again. But I threw my staff up, setting off a quick blast of kinetic force that sent the searching mouth-tongue-thing off course.

That scorpion-tail came down, but Doug had already recovered. The boy released his grip on the sword and let it disappear while he lunged backward to avoid the blade on the descending tail. It slammed into the floor before pulling back up, tearing a long, jagged hole through it in the process.

Do not let up. Don’t let up. It was like Avalon had said. The biggest benefit I had was that I could go harder a lot longer than most people could. They got tired. They had to rest and recover. I didn’t. I could go at full speed a hell of a lot more than others.

With that in mind, I went after him hard. Throwing myself forward, I parried his lashing claw out of the way before driving my foot into his lower stomach, then his upper chest, then back to his lower stomach in a quick three-point kick before snapping my leg back out of the way. Even as the Aswang grabbed for it, I was already spinning around to put myself out of the way while my staff swung up to knock his grasping pincer away.

Meanwhile, Doug wasn’t resting on his laurels. The pen, which hung from a strap around his wrist, flicked up into his hand and he clicked it a few times quickly. On the third click, a glowing energy-chain appeared in the air. Catching the chain, he swung it up and around, catching Hyde’s tail before giving a sharp yank to tug it down into range. At the same time, he clicked the pen once more before letting it fall back down on its strap as another copy of his sword appeared for him to snatch out of the air. A shout escaped the boy as he drove his sword up and around, cutting into that tail a few inches from the tip with enough force to cleave through it completely. The pointed tail-blade fell to the floor, writhing around a little while the Aswang screamed.

It still wasn’t enough to stop him though, or even really slow him down that much. Which Doug found out quickly when he was back-handed across the face by one of those pincers with enough force to send him crashing backwards into one of the desks.

He lunged for me then, all four of his arms moving to grab me while his proboscis went for my throat. At the last second, I threw myself up and backward in a jump that brought me to land on the top of the table that he had been trying to drive me into. Unfortunately for him, my item-sense had warned me about how close it was.

Landing on the table, I brought my staff up and triggered a blast that simultaneously knocked the man a step or two away from me while sending myself sliding backwards along the top of the table before I landed on the floor on the opposite side.

Without wasting a second, I brought my foot up to kick hard against the end of the table, sending it careening forward into the man, who was just recovering from the kinetic blast to the face. The force doubled him over. It also nearly pinned him to the wall, but he brought his pincer arms up and his regular arms down, slamming them into the table with enough strength to shatter it into several pieces to free himself.

Grabbing four of those pieces with his hands and pincers, he hurled them at me, forcing me to bat them aside with a quick flurry of motion from my staff.

Doug had recovered by that point, and was back on his feet. He’d also used that pen of his to conjure a long trident, a fact that Hyde discovered when Doug drove the trident right into his arm with a scream (from both of them, actually), pinning it to the wall. With the Aswang’s arm trapped, Doug put both hands on the handle of his sword and reared back to drive it forward through the man’s face. He was clearly intent on putting an end to this once and for all.

Hyde, however, clearly didn’t agree. An instant before Doug would have driven the point of the sword through his eye, the Aswang transformed. He suddenly went from being a man with some extra bug-like features to being a wolf with some bug-like features. Yeah, he looked like a big wolf that was covered in exoskeleton scales and had face that looked more like a beetle than a canine. Plus, not only did he have those pincer arms still (they came out of the wolf’s shoulders), he’d also fixed his tail during the change to give himself the blade on the end once more. So he actually looked like a cross between a wolf and a scorpion.

The sword was driven most of the way through the wall, penetrating nearly to the hilt. And before Doug could pull it back, the transformed Hyde struck with that reformed tail-blade. It went right through the boy’s arm nearly to the bone, drawing a rushing torrent of blood. Doug grabbed his arm with a cry then, leaving his throat open for the tail-blade to take his head from his shoulders.

Or it would have, if I hadn’t opened the portals on the ends of my staff to send a rush of sand into the Aswang’s eyes. He reared back with a cry, his tail narrowly missing its intended target. Instead, the tail struck Doug upside the head, drawing a line of blood across his temple and knocking him hard against the wall beside his own sword.

With a howl of frustration, Hyde jerked his head from side to side while blinking rapidly to clear the sand out of his eyes. Except this wasn’t normal sand. I was still controlling it, shoving the grains up into anything vulnerable I could see. Mostly that meant gouging his eyes with it as if he was walking through a blistering sandstorm. Or rubbing them with sandpaper.

But it didn’t stop him. Spitting a curse (which itself looked weird coming from the scorpion-dog’s body), he came for me. The four legs that Hyde now had propelled him right up to me in a split-second, his mouth opening wide to reveal a frankly obscene number of teeth, while his newly reformed tail lashed up and out.

A quick lunge backwards took me out of range of his first strike, and put my back right against one of the student’s desks. He kept coming, and I used the desk as a brief cover, slipping around to the other side of it just as his tail struck out at me, cobra-quick before it was caught by the side of the desk. Not that that slowed him down very much, he grabbed the desk with one claw and hurled it aside while lunging forward at me with the other claw, narrowly missing my arm before I brought my staff up to smack it aside. And judging from how it felt when my staff hit that claw, if I didn’t have the werewolf strength backing me up, he easily would have overpowered me and knocked the staff from my hand. He was strong, fast, and incredibly intent on killing me.

But hey, at least this time it wasn’t personal. He just hated me because I was a Heretic, not for anything particularly unique. Although the fact that that was kind of an upgrade was a bit sad.

We continued a winding route through the classroom that way. He kept trying to pen me in with the desks, or at least use them to take me by surprise, lunging whenever he thought I was about to stumble into or trip over one of them. But I always knew where they were, I knew where everything around me was. With that combined with my reflexes, I was able to work my way through the jumble of desks, chairs, and tables even as they continued to get knocked around.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually gain an advantage that way either. He was too fast, and his shape-shifting meant that he could continually choose to go under or over any of the obstacles. Plus, any damage I did seemed to heal pretty quickly. Not that it was easy to do damage to him in the first place with those hard scales.

But I had to do this. Wyatt was busy stopping that spell from killing all those people. And Doug was still recovering. He had been knocked into that wall pretty hard. Which meant that I needed to deal with this bastard myself. No matter what that took.

Fortunately, I already had a plan for that. And I’d been working on it bit by bit the entire time.

Shifting into his humanoid form, Hyde leapt up and over the nearest overturned desk in his path. His lower right arm came up toward me. This time, rather than using pincers, he’d formed his extra hands into long blades that had serrated edges like a couple of saws.

What followed went so quick, I could barely follow it myself, even with my enhanced reflexes. He came at me with his two arm blades, two hands, tail, and proboscis. Meanwhile, I was left to block with my staff or simply evade. One after another, his attacks kept coming.

My staff whipped up and to the left to catch his arm-blade there, while I pivoted away from his lashing tail. In the same spin, my foot kicked over one of the desks and sent it crashing into one of the others.

He was grabbing for my shoulder with one hand while trying to drive the other arm-blade into my stomach. I caught the blade against the staff, turning it aside while stepping in closer. Even as his hand caught my shoulder (sharp talon-like claws digging hard into the muscle there), I put my foot in his leg to knock him back a step. His claws tore my shirt, drawing a line of blood.

It hurt. I didn’t care. It didn’t distract me. Not now. Not anymore. Between Avalon, Professor Katarin (and now Hisao), And all the rest of the training I’ve been going through, pain didn’t distract me nearly as much as it used to.  

More. He kept coming. Blow from the top – block. Blow from the side – quick step backward. Three rapid strikes from alternating arm-blades, one after another. Block, twist aside, step in and parry to knock his arm out of the way so I could put my fist into his face. Repeat. Again. He was so fast. So furious. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t take the time to do anything other than keep moving. He nailed me a couple times, drawing more blood with each blow. Somewhere deep inside my subconscious, I felt the pain and realized he was doing damage to me. But I shut that part away and stayed focused. There would be time to deal with all of that later. Later.

Block, strike, twist, step forward, retreat a step, catch his tail, flick it aside while driving forward with one foot to keep him off-balance. Turn, flip the staff up and over my back to stop him from catching me there. Side-step, turn, flip up and over the same tail as he swept it around, trying to go in low. Land. Kick. Twist. Put a knee in him. Stumble.

Breathe. Most of all, keep breathing.

It felt like hours had passed. Not because I was tired or anything, but because of how much my brain had been working to keep up with everything that was going on. It was furious, frantic, deadly work. And I couldn’t let up for a second, not for an instant.

Sometime through that, Doug had mostly recovered. But rather than jumping in, he stood there staring at what was going on. I could see his eyes widening with each passing second, and it seemed like he had frozen up.

Still, he shook it off fairly quickly. Clicking that pen of his, he created another sword and went up and over one of the desks to go at Hyde. The Aswang turned partway, smacking the sword out of the way with the flat of his tail.

But that gave me a brief opening. Taking advantage of it, I quickly drove the tip of my staff up into throat. He still had that armor plating protecting it, but the force of it at least knocked him back a step. And he was knocked back even more when I followed that up with a leaping kick that put my foot into his chest.

Hyde stumbled, catching himself with a grunt.

“It won’t matter,” he insisted through a voice that was filled with rage and disgust. “Even if you kill me, it means nothing. The cause continues. Heretics are going to pay for everything you’ve done. He’ll make sure of it. He’ll tear your society down, all of it.” 

“Who?” I demanded, not really believing that he’d give that much away. But it was worth a shot. Sometimes people got braggy. “The other guy you’re working with? Karl Ulsun? Who is he, your brother? Your wife’s brother? I don’t think he’s going to get much further than you have.”

The smile that he gave me then was as predatory as it was unhinged. “Oh, you’ll find out exactly who our friend is when the time comes. When he shows himself to burn all Heretics down.”

“Stop talking to it,” Douglas insisted, readying his sword while casting me a brief, annoyed glance. “It’s just trying to get under your skin, and screw with you.”

It. Not him. Some small part of my brain noticed that particular distinction. The Aswang was a monster, that was for sure. He’d killed innocent children. And yet, using the term ‘it’ felt like taking some of the responsibility away from him. If something was an ‘it’, there was less personal responsibility for their own actions. Calling Hyde an ‘it’ made him seem like a robot, something that could only do what it was programmed to do.

No matter his reasoning, Hyde was a monster. There was no doubt about that. But he was also responsible for his actions. He was a he, not an it.

Rather than getting into any of that however, I simply smiled slightly. “Actually, there is a benefit to getting him to talk, Doug.”

Both of them voiced questions of what I meant by that, with relatively similar levels of disbelief. So at least they had that in common.

Shrugging, I took a breath while putting my foot up on one of the fallen desks. “See, talking to him helped make sure he didn’t realize what I noticed awhile back.

“All these desks are made out of wood.”

With that, I dropped straight into the desk that I’d had my foot on. From there, I passed through to the next desk. And then the next one.

Yeah, I’d spent the last few minutes not just evading Hyde’s attacks, but actually setting this whole thing up. One by one, I had knocked over, kicked, nudged, or otherwise moved more than half-a-dozen desks until they formed a sort-of semicircle. All of them were touching at one spot or another, allowing me to keep passing all the way through them.

I popped up and out of the last desk… directly behind Hyde. Before he knew what was going on, or had even had a chance to react to my disappearance, I wrapped my staff around his throat and jerked backward. He made a strangled noise of confusion and horror.

A plea, a threat, a promise? I didn’t know. And at that point, I didn’t care. Not after all the death he’d been responsible for. His wife and daughter deserved justice. But so did all the kids he’d killed trying to lure Heretics out for his revenge.

He’d crossed the line, and there would be no going back.

Jerking backward on the staff, I twisted while simultaneously triggering the enormous kinetic charge that it had built up by that point. There was a screech from the Aswang, followed by a sickening crunch of snapping bone and tearing muscle.

The resistance vanished. With a final crack followed by a sick slurping noise, Hyde’s head was torn free from his neck, along with part of his spinal cord.

His body fell, collapsing to the ground to leave me standing there with his head tucked under one arm.

I had the sense of mind to throw the head away from me before the pleasure took over. Doubling over, I let out a gasp as my aura flared up. That incredible rush swept over me, and I barely resisted the urge to moan. It was the strongest reaction like that I’d felt since the shark-man. Or possibly since the Amarok. Wow.

Also, there was a disturbing amount of blood and other bodily fluids (or head fluids) that had leaked out over my clothes. I was basically soaked in the… stuff.

“Wyatt,” I managed after catching myself on my staff like a walking stick. Looking up that way, I pleaded, “Tell me you disabled that spell.”

He looked about as exhausted as I would have felt if it wasn’t for the Amarok’s stamina. Eying me, Wyatt nodded. “Yes,” he announced. “I had to wait to disable the last part until he was dead. But… you took care of that.”

“No shit she did.” Douglas’s voice was filled with awe and… well, what sounded like a little bit of fear. “You just–what did you just… how did…”

“She finished the fight,” Wyatt informed him, pride in his own voice. “And she did a very good job.”

“Indeed.” The new voice came from the doorway, where Professor Dare stood. She stepped in, looking at the body on the floor, then to the head on the other side of the room. Moving to me, she asked quietly, “Flick, Wyatt, Douglas, are you all right?”

“We’re good.” I looked around at the others before focusing. “Wh… what about…”

“Harper and Russell are fine,” she assured us. “Hisao is with them. And the other Aswang has been killed. I was hunting the other one and tracked him here. I see you were forced to get involved.”

“He was going to kill a lot more people,” I replied softly. “A lot more kids.”  

“With Heretic magic, Professor,” Doug put in quickly. “How is that possible? How could that creature know magic from Heretics?”

Her head dipped in a bow of acknowledgment. “That is a question to be looked into later, Douglas. By qualified experts. For now, your part is over. Relax. You all did well. Very well.

“Now let’s go home before we have to find a way to explain this mess.”  

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Study And Scrutiny 20-09

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Barely a few seconds after I activated the emergency alert stone that Hisao had given us, it crumbled into dust in my hand. Stopping short for just a moment in the middle of the sidewalk just outside of the school, I stared at the dust while a thousand thoughts went through my head. Most of them centered around wondering what the hell had gone wrong this time.

I looked toward Doug, about to tell the boy to try his own alert stone just in case, while I used my phone to call someone. Before I could get the words out, however, the dust in my hand swirled up into the air, forming a cloud that expanded and grew. The dust cloud reshaped itself over the next couple of seconds, turning into the shape of a man. A moment later, the cloud solidified and Hisao was standing there.

Oh. Well, that was a new kind of emergency response that I’ve never seen before. Maybe it was an Eden’s Garden thing? And the people passing by didn’t even glance that way. The Bystander Effect at work. I didn’t know if they didn’t see Hisao at all, thought he’d been standing there the whole time, or if their brains registered him walking up to us.

Either way, Doug and I were still standing there realizing what had just happened while Hisao glanced around as though looking for the threat. Then he focused on me, just as I remembered to shift back to my actual face. “You know, they said that you were really good at finding trouble, but I thought they were exaggerating just a little bit.”

Flushing despite myself, I shook my head. “It’s not me this time, it’s the others, Russell and Harper.”

I started to go on, but my item-sense abruptly poked me with the arrival of two more people. Turning that way, I saw Dare and Wyatt step out of an empty classroom. Or, at least they stepped through a classroom door. Before it shut behind them, I saw the inside of the Pathmaker building.

“You two responded fast,” Hisao remarked. I saw him give some kind of brief hand signal to Dare, though I didn’t know what it could mean. Maybe he was telling her that we didn’t seem to be in immediate danger? Which made sense, because Dare had looked awfully tense coming through that door.

“Wyatt found me,” Dare replied, her eyes scanning me up and down before she added, “He said there was a problem.”

The security measures that Wyatt had placed on me, I realized. Apparently my stress levels or something like that had alerted him, and he’d run to get Dare. Or maybe she’d been waiting. I mean, I did have that kind of reputation by that point.

“How’d he know about it?” Douglas cut into my thoughts while looking at Wyatt. Obviously, to him, the guy was still a goofy, borderline incompetent and paranoid security guard with no sense of boundaries.

“I sent him a message,” I put in while Wyatt was still opening his mouth to respond. “Thought we could use as much help as possible.”

Staring at me, Doug demanded, “When? When did you have a chance to do that?”

“Magic,” I replied before shrugging. “More important things to worry about, Doug.”

Hurriedly, I explained the situation in as few words as possible, with Doug interjecting now and then to add his own two cents. I showed him what we’d found, and explained how we thought the Strangers couldn’t be identified during the daytime, and that the whole thing seemed to be a trap for Heretics because these Aswang were pissed off about their family being killed.

With Doug around I had to sound less sympathetic about that part, which was easier when I thought about the fact that these guys had actually killed innocent children in order to set their trap. I still felt bad for the guy’s wife and child, but those other kids didn’t do anything either. No matter how much right he had to be pissed off and vengeful, there was no justification for that. None. A woman and child being killed just because of what they were was monstrous, no doubt about it. But these guys had crossed the line. My sympathy for them evaporated when they murdered innocent children.

Apparently Dare agreed, because there was anger in her eyes as she straightened up when I finished talking. “Wyatt,” she announced, “stay here with Flick and Douglas. Hisao and I will get the others.” Glancing to the other man, she added, “Their alert stones?”

“Still active,” he confirmed after tilting his head to focus for a moment. “They haven’t gone off, which means the kids haven’t called for help, their stress levels are still normal, and they haven’t taken any kind of damage. Proximity’s still within a few feet of them, so they haven’t lost the stones either. We can jump straight to them.”

“Do it.” Looking to me, Dare added, “Stay with Wyatt. Don’t go anywhere unless you have to. We’ll get the others. Be safe. Be smart. Got it?” When I nodded, she glanced to Douglas. “Same for you.”

Hisao offered his hand to her then. A second after she took it, both of them turned into dust and then disappeared.

Exhaling, I slumped over to put my hands on my knees, muttering, “God, I hope they make it in time. They’re going to make it in time, they’re going to make it.” Muttering those reassurances to myself, I glanced up to see Doug squinting at me thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Wyatt had taken up what was clearly a protective position nearby and was busily scowling at everyone who walked past.

“Pretty smart, for monsters,” Doug remarked thoughtfully while looking away for a moment. “Luring Heretics out here, setting up an ambush like that. Seems like they know what they’re doing.”

Wyatt snorted in disbelief, head-shaking. “Not that smart,” he muttered. “If it was me, I’d pretend to be a different kind of Stranger. I’d kill the victims some other way, make it look like a vampire or something. That way, the Heretics wouldn’t know I could be out in the daylight, so their guard would be down. See, you both figured out that your Stranger-Sense wouldn’t work on them in the daytime, but they could identify you. So you were careful. But if they’d just pretended to be a different kind of Stranger, you wouldn’t have had that warning. They threw away an advantage like that for no reason. Stupid. Never give an enemy more information that he needs to have, especially if you can give him fake information.”

Well, Doug had stopped staring at me, and was now staring at Wyatt instead. His mouth open and shut, and it was obvious that he was trying to come up with the right words to say to the man that up until a couple of seconds ago, he had obviously dismissed as a goofy little nobody, just like the rest of the school.

Finally, he started with a weak, “You’re really not–”

Then it was my turn to interrupt. My roaming gaze had spotted something, and my eyes widened before I blurted in a quick half-whisper, “Hey, hey, over there!” I was pointing clear across the lawn of the school toward the far parking lot where the teacher’s cars were obviously kept.

It was Hyde. The pseudo-teacher was walking away from a jeep. Actually, he was half-running. It was obvious that he was trying to rush, without attracting too much attention or questions. A couple of people who were walking past called out greetings to him, and he gave them a distracted wave before hurrying on through the nearby door into the school.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Doug demanded. “He’s supposed to be off getting himself killed by Professor Dare and the Garden guy. What’s going on?”

My head shook. “I don’t know, but he’s definitely up to something. You saw the look on his face. Something’s wrong. Maybe he escaped, or…” I was already moving, my hands digging my phone out of my pocket so I could send a text to Dare. But somehow, I knew we couldn’t wait for them to catch up. And for all we knew, they were busy with the other guy. No, whatever Hyde was up to, it couldn’t’ wait. We had to see what was going on in there.

As I hit send on the text, Wyatt caught my arm. “It could be dangerous,” he pointed out tensely, his eyes staring through me. Obviously, there were things he wanted to say, that he couldn’t actually get out with Douglas standing right there.

“I know,” I replied. “But whatever is going on in there might be more dangerous than that. We can’t just wait out here. What if he’s got more victims in there? What if he’s trying to go out with some kind of big statement? He could be desperate, we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know anything about what’s happening in there. Or who he’s about to kill.”

Wyatt look like he wanted to argue with that for a minute, but in the end all he could do with sigh. “Fine, but both of you stay with me, and take these.” He handed us each what looked like a couple of arrowheads. Pressing them into our palms, he touched a finger against each and activated the spell on them. As soon as he did, I felt a tingle and my hand turned partially transparent, like I was a ghost. Not just my hand either, I realized belatedly, but my whole body. Looking up, I saw set the same thing had happened to Doug and Wyatt.

“We’re invisible,” my half-brother announced carefully. “Just don’t touch anybody else or get too close, or it’ll break the effect.”

The three of us hurried inside then, and Doug and I led Wyatt to Hyde’s classroom. We got to the closed-door just in time to hear a crash from inside that was followed by a muffled curse. Clearly, the man had figured out that we had been in there. He was probably pissed off that we’d taken his stuff.

After glancing toward Wyatt, I stepped to the door and through it with my wood-walking power, emerging into the classroom on the other side. Coming out of the door, I saw Hyde on the other side of the room, next to his desk. Or rather, where his desk had been. At the moment, it was several feet away and turned askew, as if he had kicked it in anger. One of the drawers that I had set aside earlier was laying on the floor, with it contents spilled all over. Meanwhile, the man himself was muttering something out loud in a language that I didn’t understand while he scribbled something on the whiteboard. But he wasn’t using a marker. Instead, he was dipping a small paintbrush in a bucket of what looked suspiciously like be blood, and using that to scrawl runes on the board.

Magic, I realized immediately. He was doing some kind of magic. Which meant we probably didn’t want him to finish the job. Before I could really think about what I was doing, I was already across the room. My hands grabbed the guy’s arm and shoulder, and I bodily hurled him away from the board before he could scrawl more runes. I would have drawn my weapon, or done anything else to put the guy down, but I had no idea how much time I had before he would’ve finished that spell. All I could think about at the time was to stop him from writing anything else as fast as possible.

At the sound of the guy cursing as he crashed into the far wall, the door came off its hinges. Wyatt and Doug were right inside. All three of our invisibility spells had faded.

Hyde was already back on his feet. He glared, first at the other two in the doorway, and then at me as I stood between him and his spell. “More of you,” he snarled, hate and loathing filling his voice. “I don’t care. I don’t care how many of you ignorant, vile freaks there are. You won’t take this away from me. Not this time. You. Will. Lose.”

Wyatt took a step forward, but Hyde made a tutting sound while holding up a finger. “I wouldn’t do that,” he warned flatly. “The spell might not be complete, but it’s far enough to do some damage.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but Wyatt looked to the spell on the board and grimaced before shaking his head. “Heretic magic. How did you learn–” He stopped then, focusing on the man. “It’s not enough, you don’t have the energy built up for the spell to get anywhere.”

“Don’t I?” Hyde snarled the words. Then he spoke a single other word, and all around the room, The various posters advertising lab safety, or whatnot fell to the floor, revealing more runes scrawled on the walls in long-dried blood.

“Uhh,” Doug started turning in a circle while pulling a pen out of his pocket. “What the hell do those mean? What’s going on?”

Wyatt answered without looking at him. His attention was focused on Hyde. “The spell on the board targets a small object and makes it burn up. It makes a small, really hot fire for about ten seconds. About this big,” he held his hands together in the shape of a ball about half a foot across. “It’ll melt through steel.”

“Small fire,” Doug muttered. “Could be worse, right?”

“That,” Wyatt replied while pointing to the last part of the board that the man had gotten to, “That’s a multiplier. It means the spell will affect more than one object, probably dozens.”

“Six hundred and twenty one, actually,” Hyde interjected. “Give or take a few. Can’t guarantee that all the students ate their special treats.”

My eyes widened at that. “You got every student in this school to swallow something that’s gonna blow up?”

“Not blow up,” the crazed man retorted. “Just make a little fire this big in their stomachs. Just enough to give them a bit of a tummy ache. Or, you know, burn them from the inside out.”

My staff was out of my belt and in my hand as the man went on quickly. “And those,” he indicated the spellforms that had been hidden behind the posters, “are battery spells needed to make sure that each and every one of those kids gets a real nasty surprise.”

“You’re insane,” I blurted. “Those kids didn’t do anything. They didn’t kill your family, Hyde. Or whatever your real name is.”

“Of course he’s insane,” Doug interjected. “He’s a monster. Why are you acting surprised?” Even as he spoke, the boy clicked the pen in his hand. In front of him, a glowing sword made out of energy appeared, hovering in the air. He clicked it again, and a shield appeared beside the weapon. He took both, one for each hand. 

Ignoring his words, I focused on Hyde himself. “What is this going to prove?”

“Prove?” he echoed before giving a harsh laugh. “You wanna know what it’s gonna prove? It’s gonna prove that you cocksuckers can’t just kill us with impunity anymore. You kill one of us, we’ll find a hundred humans and kill them in retaliation. You murder our families, we’ll wipe out twenty of yours. It’s war, you bitch. We win by making it cost too much for you to keep fighting. You fucks have gotta learn your lesson.”

Raising my staff, I shook my head. “You’re not setting that thing off. I’m sorry your wife and kid died–”

“Murdered!” he interrupted, a crazed look in his eyes. “They didn’t just die, they were murdered, by you motherfuckers!”

Ignoring the look from Doug, I pressed on. “But you’re not going to kill any more innocent people. That won’t prove anything. It won’t help anything.”

“Help? I don’t care about helping,” he snapped. “I care about revenge. And you can’t do anything about it.” His hand angrily gestured to the board. “The only thing you managed to stop me from putting in was the amplify effect. Turns the little fires into big ones. Ten feet instead of half a foot. They’d take out a hell of a lot more people that way. Anyone standing by my little walking bombs… poof. Ashes. Think that’ll be enough to teach you assholes to mind your own business?”

There are so many things I wanted to say to that, but I said none of them. It wouldn’t have done any good.

Meanwhile, the man himself sneered a little when there was no response to his question. “The spell’s automatic now. You can’t stop it. Either it goes off and kills all those kids with the little fires, or I get past you and make one last mark so the bigger fires kill a hell of a lot more.”

“Wyatt,” I quickly asked, “can you stop it?”

He spun on his heel, running to the board while calling back, “Stop him from getting to the board.”

“Oh, we’ll stop him,” I replied while glancing to Doug. “You heard the man. Keep him away from the board.”

“My spell,” Hyde snarled angrily. “You think you can undo my spell? You can’t. No one can. Not this spell. Either it kills six hundred, or it kills a lot more than that, but you can’t stop it.”

“You don’t know Wyatt,” I replied flatly. “And you don’t know us.”

From his pocket, the Aswang produced a small black stone. Grimacing as he held the stone up, he glared at us before crushing the thing in his hand.

My Stranger-Sense immediately kicked on and started shouting at me. But… it wasn’t night yet. Well, not late enough for Hyde to change, anyway. He should still be a normal human for a couple hours, unless that… stone… did something to make his body think it was late enough to change.

As those thoughts ran through my mind, the man’s body shifted. He grew half a foot immediately, hair sprouting on his body. His hands formed long, dangerous looking claws. At the same time, his mouth contorted, expanding a bit before opening both horizontally and vertically, almost like one of those movie Predators. Worse, a thin, tube-shaped proboscis with teeth on the end shot out a foot or so from the open mouth.

The thing the Aswang used to suck the unborn fetus out of a pregnant woman, I realized belatedly. The thought sobered me, and I narrowed my eyes. This fucker had killed innocent people. Whether or not he had good reason to hate Heretics, that was going too far. He had to be stopped. He had to be put down.

“Doug,” I muttered, “I hope you’re ready. Because we can’t let him interrupt Wyatt. Which means this just got a lot more–”

The monster lunged at us.

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