Vulcan

New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmiene sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmiene instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmiene gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmiene could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppleganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy constructed emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppleganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just don’t.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I miss her too.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New York Minutemen 27-01

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“You sure keep yourself busy, don’t you, Miss Chambers?”

Turning away from the weight machine that I had been working on (having twelve hundred pounds stacked on it was still enough to make me do a double take whenever I look at the thing), I replied, “I only need an hour of sleep a day, Mr. Atrean. Gotta keep myself entertained through all my extra time. And I told you, it’s just Flick. Especially in the middle of the night.”

Not only was it the middle of the night, about 12:30 in the morning, but it was also Saturday night. Or Sunday morning, depending on how you looked at it. It had been about two weeks since we found out that Columbus was the one who was possessed, and it had been a completely torturous two weeks. I had absolutely no idea how Shiori was lasting this long, though she said having people to talk to about it made it a little easier than when she had been keeping her vampire mother secret. Still, having to act normal while knowing that her brother had been enslaved by that bitch was obviously awful. I had been trying to make it so that she didn’t have to spend that much time with him by monopolizing her time myself. Which, to be fair, I actually enjoyed. Or at least, we enjoyed it whenever we could stop thinking about why I was monopolizing her time. Sometimes we spent as much as an hour forgetting the specifics of our situation.Then one of us would inevitably start thinking about it again and go quiet.

Now, the Committee’s stooge raised an eyebrow at me before clearing his throat. “And I believe I told you, it’s October. Maybe we can make a deal and both try to be a little less formal.”

“Are you sure your partner’ll be okay with that?” I asked idly while picking myself up from the machine. Stretching my arm out, I rubbed my bicep while watching him. I knew he wasn’t possessed now (or hadn’t been, at least), but I still didn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw–you know what, that wasn’t a very good figure of speech anymore. I didn’t trust them.

“Eh,” October gave a shrug, stepping back to take a towel off the nearby rack before tossing it to me so I could wipe off. “If Patrick ever eased up, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.”

“I feel like a broken record,” I admitted with a look at the blonde man, “but do you know anything about my dad yet? I mean, I don’t suppose you were coming in here to tell me that you guys finally found him and there’s a squad of Heretics on their way to rescue him as we speak.”

He had the grace to wince a little before shaking his head. “Would’ve opened with that, I promise.” The man met my gaze. “Just like you’d tell us if you ever hear from your dad?”

“I’d say you’d be the second to know after me,” I replied flatly, “but quite frankly, I’d probably tell my team first, and Gaia, and… maybe someone else. You’re probably in the top ten though.”

October squinted at me briefly before his head tilted as he considered. “Well, at least you’re honest about it. Yeah, I can’t blame you for that. But seriously, if you hear from your father, please don’t try to handle the situation yourself, all right? Whatever or whoever took him, they might have done it so that they could use him to get at you. There are–” He paused, seeming to take a moment to consider his words. “There are people out there who would love to get hold of a promising young Heretic student and twist them. I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Now see, that I could actually believe. I just didn’t think that my idea of ‘twisting a student toward bad things’ and his were in the same ballpark. Because quite frankly, ‘make sure that the person you’re killing has actually done something to deserve it beyond being born’ didn’t exactly sound like evil brainwashing to me. But what did I know? I wasn’t a Committee Representative.

“Believe me,” I replied with total and one hundred percent complete honesty, “I have no intention of running off by myself to go attack whoever has my dad without telling you about it first.”

“Good to hear.” The man watched me for another moment, probably trying to test if I was lying (which, thanks to Gaia’s ring, he wouldn’t be able to) before inclining his head in a nod of satisfaction. “I know you probably don’t like us being here that much. Honestly, I’d probably feel the same if I was you. But we really are trying to help, if you let us. Just… think about it.”

He left, heading heading out of the room. I let him go, waiting a minute to make sure he was actually gone before tapping a finger on the water bottle beside the weight machine. “Okay.”

An instant later, Sands appeared next to me, popping out of the bottle as she stopped possessing it. Shaking herself off, the brunette looked to me. “That was kind of close, huh?”

We’d barely gotten the alert that the man coming in time for Sands to hide and leave it looking like I was the only one in the room when October came in. Luckily, the other girl had actually worked out a pretty neat little alert spell and placed it in the corridor outside. It wasn’t anything big that would attract attention. It just had a very simple effect of changing a little ball that we had set up from red to blue whenever someone passed near it. Apparently she and Scout had had a noisy alarm variant of the spell used to keep them out of the treats when they were little.

I coughed at that, nodding emphatically. “Yeah, which is one reason why you staying out to work with me is a bad idea. Plus, there’s that thing where you need a lot more sleep than I do.”

For the past couple of weeks, Sands had insisted on spending at least part of several nights a week doing extra workouts with me, whenever I wasn’t with Gaia. Not only that, she was also now training with Avalon, Deveron, and me early in the morning and in the afternoon. Before all of this had come out, Sands had mostly slept in until the last possible moment. But now? Now she was like a woman possess–shit. A lot of old phrases had been ruined lately, apparently.

Still, Sands shook her head. “I can’t sleep anyway. I just lay there and look at the ceiling, Flick. I might as well do something useful with it. I… “ She paused, biting her lip before looking at me imploringly. “I have to do something. If we’re right and–you know, then just sitting here feels…” She cringed. “I just have to get out of there. Doing this stuff helps get me tired enough to sleep.”

“Trust me,” I replied after wincing, “I understand. I get it. But right now,” I glanced to the clock on the wall, “it’s almost one o’clock. If you’re gonna get enough sleep to function, it’s time.”

“Yeah…” Sands straightened. “Plus, Scout gets worried if she wakes up and I’m gone. Thanks.”

She jumped back into possessing the water bottle then, which I picked up before making my way out of the room and back across the grounds to the dorms. Passing a couple of the security guards on the way, I gave them a wave. They knew me by then and simply waved back before continuing on their patrol. No one was really going to question why I was carrying water around.

After dropping Sands off at the room she shared with Scout and paying a quick visit to my own, I found myself back outside. But I didn’t go anywhere else. Instead, I stood there in the space between and slightly in front of the two dorm buildings. This, right in the spot I was standing, was where Professor Pericles had been murdered in cold blood, his body eventually found by security more than an hour later.

Opening my special notebook that I’d retrieved from its hiding place, I scribbled in it while looking at the ground where Pericles’ body had been found.

We knew a lot more than we had at the start of this whole thing. We knew why Pericles had been killed: because the murderers thought that killing him would undo the spell that protected Avalon. And they thought that because when they used a spell to determine the identity of the spellcaster, it returned the name ‘Zedekiah’, which they thought referred to Zedekiah Pericles.

We also knew who had done the killing, or at least who was responsible for it: the Seosten and whoever they were possessing. This Manakel guy, he was probably the one who had done the job. He-or she depending on who he was possessing- had walked right up behind Pericles and-

Huh. According to everything I’d heard, Professor Pericles had been killed by being stabbed in the back, literally. But how could someone– I turned slightly, positioning myself the way that Pericles had apparently been before he was stabbed. According to what everyone said, based on the position of the body and the fact that, as far as they could tell, he hadn’t been moved, Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm when he was murdered. He was standing here, facing the boy’s dorm. From that position, the front of the girl’s dorm would still be in his peripheral.

The fact that he had been stabbed in the back… Yes, Manakel was obviously possessing someone, clearly someone that Pericles wouldn’t have reason to suspect. And yet, they had stabbed the man in the back. That kind of said that Manakel wasn’t confident in his ability to take Pericles in a one-on-one fight. Or at least, not quickly enough to avoid attracting attention.

And yet, how would someone, even a Seosten possessing an adult Heretic, sneak up on someone like Pericles and avoid being seen? Would they rely entirely on their own stealth, or…

Again, I looked over toward the boy’s dorm, frowning a little. Pericles had been facing that way when he died. Would Columbus have been possessed back then? God, I really hoped not.

I was speculating too much. It could’ve been nothing. Maybe Pericles was just distracted by something else. Or maybe whoever Manakel was possessing was just that good at avoiding detection. Or maybe… any number of things. I kept half-expecting the same magical intuition that had made me realize that Sands’ and Scout’s mom had been friends with Tristan and Vanessa’s mother to pop up again to give me the answer to this. But nothing happened. I thought there might be something to the fact that Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm, but maybe there wasn’t. I just… didn’t know. With a sigh, I closed my notebook.

What I did know, was that I had missed out on a lot by not getting the chance to have Zedekiah Pericles as a teacher. Manakel and Charmeine had taken away a lot when they killed him. And I was pretty sure they’d also taken away a lot when they put Tangle in that coma. I had the cure for it, but the second I actually used it, they’d know that we knew more than we should. Given that we had no idea who in the hospital might be working with them, it… felt safer to wait. Even if it was yet another reminder of how much the Seosten had taken from us.

I just hoped that, one day, we’d have a chance to take a lot away from them in return.

******

“So let me make sure I’ve got this right,” Columbus’s voice intoned skeptically. “You guys went out in the regular world for almost an entire day, and nothing bad happened? Nothing at all?”

It was about a week after I’d had that conversation with October in the middle of the night, making it late February. We still had no idea who Manakel was possessing, and it was all I could do not to sarcastically retort that ‘Columbus’ would’ve known if anything had happened.

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since we started looking for Manakel and there was still no sign of who he had possessed. I’d even had some of the others test people when it made more sense for them to do it. Hell, even Gaia had done a couple, working her way through her staff. Though she did say that she didn’t want to tell anyone else what was going on. Not even people she trusted. There was too much chance of them being possessed at some point in the future. She wanted to keep this as small as possible until we’d actually identified Manakel.

But again, it wasn’t like we were having any luck at that. Which was why we had to sit here and keep pretending that we didn’t know that Columbus was being puppeted by that Seosten bitch.

Thankfully, it was Avalon who spoke up while I was still swallowing back that comment. “Yes, Porter,” she answered simply, “six whole hours in the Bystander world and nothing went wrong.”

We were standing out on the grass near the Pathmaker building. And by we, that was the entire team, Deveron included. The seven of us were waiting for Dare to show up with Paul, Rudolph, and the rest of Roxa’s former team. Because it was finally time for that trip to New York. Yeah, wouldn’t that be fun? A whole weekend with people who were convinced that I was somehow responsible for Roxa’s disappearance (okay, I kind of was, but not in the way they were thinking) sharing a hotel, transportation, and everything else with us. That wouldn’t be awkward at all.

Thankfully, we already had a plan for that. Once we were up there and were given free time, Roxa was going to join us. I’d meet up her privately, pass her the choker so she’d be safe, and let her come visit with her old team. Then they’d see that the girl was okay, that I wasn’t some psychopath that had her trussed up in my basement or something, and it’d all be hunky dory.

Shut up, I could pretend to be optimistic for a little while.

Deveron was smiling, arms folded over his chest as he watched us. “So you guys actually went on a real date, huh?” he asked, in a way that made me feel like he was just barely suppressing the urge to reach over and ruffle my hair or something equally embarrassing and weird.

‘Columbus’ spoke up then. “So, how did it go? I mean, you two and Shiori out on a date together? Didn’t that get… you know, weird?” If I hadn’t already known that Charmeine was the one pulling his strings, it would’ve sounded like the boy was just being a protective brother. As it was, the question just made me feel nauseous. She was obviously poking for sore points and seeing if there were ways that she could get Columbus to screw with us if need be. Probably so that they could cause a problem and isolate Avalon in the future whenever they needed to.

Somehow, I made myself smile, winking at ‘him’. “Sure, but it was more like two separate dates. Gaia sent us out in the middle of some city in California. She and Professor Dare were the only ones who knew where we were. They picked the city at random. We didn’t even know where we were going until we got there. And we had Wyatt and Dare shadowing us, playing bodyguards, just in case. They were pretty good about staying out of the way though.”

Sean, kneeling next to Vulcan while letting the mechanical dog munch metal nuts out of his hand, raised an eyebrow. “Two separate dates?” he asked curiously. “How’d that work?”

I shrugged. “Shiori and I spent a couple hours together first. We went to play laser tag, visited this cool little train museum, and did some shopping. Avalon did uh, whatever she did, with Professor Dare watching. Then we switched. Professor Dare and Shiori went out to do something while Avalon and I went and did our thing. Mostly we took this boat out on this lake in the park and did some fishing. It was pretty cool. Plus, we actually caught some fish.

“Then we all went to dinner together, and saw a movie.” I smiled, glancing toward Avalon, who was blushing while looking away from all of us. Obviously, she was thinking about other things that had happened during that movie and immediately afterward. “It was pretty great,” I finished.  

“Good,” Deveron announced. “You all deserved a break, and a real date. Or two real dates.”

Sands reached out to poke me in the forehead. “Yeah, we all deserve that kind of break. But some of us aren’t lucky enough to have one person that likes us like that. Let alone two.”

From his kneeling position, Sean teased, “I dunno, I’m sure Zeke would love to take you out.”

The other girl made a face at that, leaning over to kick lightly at him. “Don’t even start with that. Our parents used to make us play together as kids and he was a selfish jerk then too. Now he thinks I should be his girlfriend or something just because we spent some time in the sandbox when we were five. I ate worms back then too, and you don’t see me doing that anymore.”

Snickering despite myself, I reached out to pat the girl on the shoulder. “At least he actually likes you. Even if he’s got a weird way of showing it. I’m pretty sure he still thinks I’m crazy.” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock, letting him perch on my palm. “Doesn’t he, little buddy?” Pausing for a moment to listen, I nodded. “You’re right, you’re right. We shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs. Truly, you are the most noble of us all, Sir Herbie.”

“Believe me, Flick,” Sands informed me then, “I’d rather date your rock than that jerk.”

Before we could say anything else about the (amazing) date that Shiori, Avalon, and I had gone on, Scout nodded past us. I turned, to see Dare heading our way with the other team. Right. It was time, I guessed. Time for our trip to New York.

This was going to be… interesting.

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The better off I am,” I finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Much more.”

 ******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…. No.”

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Suspects 24-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-07

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Please note that there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday. If you missed it, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

Those last words had barely left my mouth before I abruptly found myself standing in a different position without any warning whatsoever. I had been by the door with my hand on it. Now, I was suddenly standing next to Avalon with my hand on her back instead of the door. Professor Dare, meanwhile, was standing where I had just been, with the door open in her hand.  

An instant after that, and the small lobby area was suddenly filled with several more people. I saw a handful of adult Heretics, accompanied by that Spanish woman from the Committee, Elisabet. All of them had their weapons drawn. In the counselor’s case, she held a what looked like a combination of a pistol crossbow and a sawed-off shotgun, with the dual barrels for the gun mounted below the crossbow part. Neither she, nor the other Heretics with her, looked happy.  

“Your response time is admirable.” That was Gaia, her voice cool as she regarded them, not even so much as twitching at the Heretic’s abrupt arrival. “But your locking spells could use some work.”

Dare gave a single, faux-casual nod while drumming her fingers lightly along the door that she was holding. “It didn’t take much effort to break the door security. Barely even knew it was there.”

“You?” Elisabet’s eyebrow raised as she looked at Dare with an expression that I couldn’t read. “You broke the security seal instead of simply using the passcode? Why would you do that?”

My brain caught up with what was going on then. Professor Dare and Gaia were covering for me. If the Committee found out that I had this security-breaking power, they’d be even more suspicious than they already were. Hell, they’d probably haul me back in for a much more intense round of questions, Gaia or no Gaia. And I was pretty sure they wouldn’t listen to ‘but I just got it and didn’t even know about it.’ So Dare had thought quickly enough to swap places with me. Or Gaia swapped us, I wasn’t sure which. Either way, they made sure she was the one at the door.

“Why?” Dare echoed, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “It was a teaching moment. We wanted the girls to see how fast your response time is. As the headmistress said, pretty good. But we were expecting it to be harder to break the seal. Whoever cast it might want to work on that a bit.”

From the look on Elisabet’s face, she wasn’t very happy about their security being questioned. Her voice was tight. “As you well-know, the locking magic used for those inside the building is relatively minor. It’s only meant to keep people from accidentally wandering where they shouldn’t be. And I wouldn’t call breaking a Committee-ordered security enchantment a ‘learning experience.’”

“I don’t know,” Dare replied easily before nodding toward Avalon and me. “Would you say you learned something here, girls?” When we both nodded, she smiled faintly. “There you go.”

Elisabet turned to say something quietly to the men who had teleported in with her. They gave us a searching look for a moment before turning to leave while holstering their weapons once more. Then the woman stepped over and said something to Gaia. I heard the word ‘false alarm’ before she gave the rest of us a look that promised a lot more problems if we set off another security alert before spinning on her heel. She took two steps before vanishing from sight in mid-motion.

I wanted to say something, but after seeing that I waited until we were all the way out of the building and a decent distance away from it (past the security line) before speaking up. “Is it safe?”

Rather than using a coin or even Dare’s music box, Gaia just made a simple hand gesture, and I felt a popping in my ears before she nodded. “We may speak freely now. No one will overhear.”

“I’m sorry,”  I started weakly. “I didn’t know that was gonna happen. If…” I paused, swallowing a bit, “If they figured out that I was the one who broke that seal, it wouldn’t be good, would it?”

It was Gaia who spoke. “No,” she answered calmly. “They would probably not react very well.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dare added while giving me a brief, reassuring look. “Sometimes it takes awhile for powers to show themselves. Especially if they’re not very obvious. And, of course, when you get several that…” she paused, grimacing before finishing with a soft, “… quickly.”  

Flinching despite myself, I nodded slowly before looking back at the bag that held Doxer’s mice. “And sometimes we inherit things other than powers,” I murmured under my breath. Hearing a slight squeak inside, I opened it up once more. The mice were still huddled there, practically clutching each other as they stared at me with what looked like genuine terror on their little faces.

Wincing at the sight, I glanced up. “Oh. Um… I think I need to spend a little time with these guys.”

“It might have to wait,” Avalon muttered. “We have company, and I don’t think they’ll leave again.”

Looking the way she was, I saw the rest of the team coming from across the field.. And from the look of things, I was pretty sure Avalon was right about them not waiting around anymore. They were going to want to talk about what happened, both during the hunt and with the Committee.

“Okay, guys,” I murmured, looking back down at the bag briefly. “We’re gonna go meet some friends, all right? I’ll introduce you to Vulcan, and you can all talk about how I’m not a monster.”

“Just spend time with them,” Gaia encouraged quietly. “It takes some time for cyberforms to bond to their Heretics. Particularly after the old bond is severed so abruptly. But it will happen.”   

By that point, the others had arrived. Sands moved right up to me, looked simultaneously abashed and nervous as she kicked the ground. “Hey, uh, Flick. About earlier, I didn’t–” She flinched noticeably. “I didn’t think about what happened, what you had to do. I was just–I guess I didn’t–”

“It’s okay,” I interrupted, giving the other girl a slight smile. “I get it. Trust me, I get it. You don’t have to apologize. You were just… excited.” My hand went up to grab hers, even as I told myself that I could be touching a Seosten-spy right then. “Besides, at least he won’t hurt anyone else.”

Her head bobbed up and down, sending her brown braid bouncing. “Yeah, sure. No more victims for that asshole.” Shrugging then, she added thoughtfully, “Too bad Trice got away. But hey, Garden can’t ignore what he did anymore, right? Maybe they’ll do something about it.”

It was a far cry from the girl at the beginning of the year who had insisted that Eden’s Garden were all psychopaths. At least she thought it was possible that they’d step in on the Trice issue.  

Gaia, however, shook her head. “Unfortunately, it seems that Trice has fled even his own people. Possibly to escape judgment or other fallout from the results of this attack. Or,” she added while sounding thoughtful, “perhaps he feared retaliation from his accomplices for the failure.”

I was pretty sure that she’d said it that way just to see if there was even the slightest reaction from Sands, Scout, Sean, Columbus, or even Professor Dare. But if there was, I didn’t see any. Which made sense. A probably-millennia-old Seosten infiltrator wasn’t going to be tripped up by showing any reaction to that. Or maybe they weren’t even here. Maybe they were in Deveron, or Koren, or… yeah, whatever happened, we had to get that choker from Pace. This paranoia thing sucked.

“Figures,” Sean muttered with obvious annoyance. “The hijueputa runs away like a coward.”

Columbus shook his head. “He can’t hide forever. Someone’ll find him, right? I mean, even Eden’s Garden’s gotta want to talk to him about all this. And there’s gonna be Crossroads Heretics looking for him.” He glanced toward Gaia then. “Right? They can’t just let him walk away from it.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed simply. “He will be found. And when he is, I’m sure that there will be many questions he will be made to answer. But for now, I suggest you all try to get some rest.”

“Some rest?” Sands sounded absolutely incredulous at that. “Are you kidding me? We’ve still gotta hear about what happened. You guys need to tell us everything, everything.” Pausing then, she added with a gesture toward the bag in my hand. “Starting with, what’s in there?”

“In here?” I echoed, lifting the bag thoughtfully. “… I guess they’re a couple new friends.

“And I’m gonna have to talk to Nevada, because I’m pretty sure I know just what to do with them.”

******

“I hate this, Flick,” Shiori announced a few days later as the two of us walked along the beach on our way back from feeding Choo. He actually spent a decent amount of time in the container that the other girl had had made for him, but we still had to take him off the school grounds to be fed, since opening the container on the grounds would’ve meant setting off the security alerts. And call me crazy, but I really didn’t want to risk doing something like that again after that bit with Elisabet.

Besides, he still spent plenty of time out there in the special area we’d set aside for him. Shiori didn’t want the little guy to be trapped in what was essentially a cage constantly, even if it was a lot bigger on the inside than it should’ve been. Though from what I’d heard her talking with Avalon about, the two had a plan to make the whole thing better that would be interesting if it worked.

The other girl continued, head shaking. “I hate not talking to Columbus about all this stuff. He’s … he’s my brother. But I can’t even–I can’t trust him. What if he’s–” She stopped, making a face while putting an arm against her stomach. “What if he’s one of them? What if he’s possessed?” Even though we were both out on the beach and using a privacy coin (as was pretty much usual by that point), she still kept her voice quiet.

Wincing, I reached out to catch her hand, turning the girl around to face me. “Hey, I know. I know it sucks. Trust me, it…” Trailing off, I gave a soft sigh before interlacing our fingers. “It won’t be long, okay? We already heard from Roxa and the others. They’ve got an idea of where Pace’s pack is gonna be in about a month. Between them, Wonderland, and the rest of us, we’ve gotta be able to get that necklace away from her. After that, we just have to use it to find the Seosten.”

“A month.” Shiori’s voice was weak. “I…” She hesitated before straightening, giving me a nod that was a little more firm. “I know. I know. It’s the only way. I just… I just wish we didn’t have to wait that long. I wish there was some way to find out for sure right now, just to know. I hate looking at Columbus and not… and not knowing if it’s him looking back, Flick. I hate it so much.”   

God. Just standing there like that, I wanted to make it better. I wanted so badly to just wave a magic wand and solve the problem for her. I wanted to tell Shiori that she could trust her brother, that he really was her brother. I wanted to fix everything for her. And I never, ever wanted to see her look at me with that pleading, puppy-dog expression and not be able to do anything about it.

Instead, all I could do was embrace the girl. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I swear, we’ll fix it as soon as we can. We’ll find out who the spy is and get rid of them. Whether it’s Columbus or anyone else, we’ll get them back, okay?” I leaned back, staring at her. “I promise, we’ll find out the truth.”

Shiori watched me for a moment like that as we stood on the edge of the water, with the sun just starting to set across the horizon. The way the light made her face glow a little bit was mesmerizing, and I found myself lost in her gaze, unwilling and unable to break the comfortable silence. Because in that moment, we were communicating plenty without saying a single word.

Eventually, Shiori lifted her hand to gently touch my face. “Flick,” she whispered, her voice barely audible against the sound of the waves lapping against the sand. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times, as if she wanted to say something else, but couldn’t find the right words. In the end, she found another way of expressing what she felt. Leaning over, the other girl gently touched her lips to mine, giving me a soft, exquisite kiss. It felt different than kissing Avalon, yet somehow just as powerful. And just like those times, it took my breath away.

After what was entirely too brief of a time like that, the girl pulled back to blush, shifting on her feet. “Sorry,” she mumbled adorably without looking at me. “I just–I really wanted to–It felt like-”

“Well see,” I interrupted before she could continue, “now I’m really in a predicament.”

Shiori blinked at me a couple times as she brought herself under control. “In a predicament?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, see… now I can’t figure out if I want to kiss you again, or just listen to you babble some more. Gotta tell ya, I’m leaning toward the babbling. It’s really sweet.”

She flushed even more at that, but before she could actually say anything, I leaned in to touch my lips to hers, giving a little smile at the sound of her gasp. “Then again, kissing’s really good too.”

A tiny whimper escaped the other girl before her arms snaked their way around me once more. I felt her nod almost imperceptibly, our lips still close to one another. “Uh huh,” she whispered. “Really good.”

We stayed like that for a minute, leaning against each other while collecting ourselves. It felt good, just standing there with Shiori. Eventually, however, she pulled back and cleared her throat.

“I guess we need that month anyway, since we still have to learn that spell from Prosser.”

My head bobbed quickly. “Right, yeah, he promised to set up some sessions for that. Knowing which of our friends is possessed isn’t helpful unless we know how to kick the bitch out of their body. We learn the anti-possession spell, then find out who she’s possessing, and kick her ass out of them.”

“And then kick her ass in general,” Shiori added firmly.

I nodded, smiling slightly. “And then kick her ass in general.”

Squeezing my hand, the other girl asked, “Um, what about Trice? Has he…”

My head shook. “He hasn’t said much of anything, really. Gaia says we just have to give him time to stew on everything. She keeps talking about having patience. Which I guess at this point means leaving him in the cell and not talking to him for a few days. She’s making sure he gets fed and whatever else, but other than that, he’s pretty much left on his own. Solitary confinement and all that.”

Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before asking, “And Fahsteth? What about that other meeting, the one that the Seosten heard about?”

“They’re rescheduling,” I answered with a grimace. “I’m not sure when, exactly. But sooner than before, hopefully. We’ve gotta get to him before the Seosten do. But when we do, we’ll keep quiet about it. Like the Trice thing. We’ll keep it quiet until the meeting was supposed to happen. Then see if any of our new friends show up. You know, counter-ambush style.”  

Shiori nodded, smiling at me in that familiar way. “I guess, if nothing else, the guy makes good shark-bait.”

Before I could respond to that with more than a snicker, the approach of someone else drew my attention. Seeing Nevada walking down the beach, I quickly disabled the coin and cleared my throat. “Oh, hey, Nevada.” Jeez, it still felt weird to call someone who was supposed to be our teacher by her first name. Then again, having a teacher who looked like a cheerleader was weird to begin with.

“Hey guys!” she chirped, giving us a dazzling smile. “Everything okay?”

I shrugged. “Neither of us have been attacked or teleported away to an alien planet today, so that’s a tick in the plus column.”

Laughing, the other woman reached behind her back to pull out a familiar object. “Well, here you go.” Flipping my staff around, she held it out toward me.

“You finished already?” I took the staff, looking it over. The only visible change was an additional half-hidden button as well as two white teardrop shaped marks about six inches from either end of the staff. “I know, I know, quick turnaround and all that. But I thought you’d need at least a little more time.”

She grinned at me. “It’s like I told you before, we figure out how to do these things quick. Gotta get the Heretics their weapons back. Besides,” she added with a wink, “The staff’s already got the portals at the ends for your sand. It wasn’t hard to add the new ones.”

Shiori blinked at that, squinting at the weapon in my hands. “New portals? For more sand?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Not for more sand. For something else. Are they…” I looked to Nevada.

She indicated the new button. “Give it a shot, they were making themselves at home last time I checked on them.”

My thumb pressed it, and immediately two small portals were generated right where the teardrop marks were. They were just large enough for a pair of tiny mechanical mice to poke their heads out, sniffing curiously before emerging onto the staff. Despite the fact that I was holding it vertically, both seemed completely at home crawling along it.

“Hey guys,” I spoke up, drawing their attention. The two mice quickly scrambled to the middle of the staff to meet each other, staring at me. They weren’t quite as skittish as they had been, but it was obviously going to take awhile for us to get to the level of trust that we needed. I liked them a lot, actually. But I didn’t want to rush things. They were just starting to open up to me and stop looking at me like I was about to feed them into some kind of industrial grinder. Time, it would just take time.

Rotating the staff carefully to hold it horizontally, I reached into my pocket for a handful nuts. Metal nuts that was, as in the kind that went with bolts. Coming out with them, I held the handful of metal up to the little cyber-mice. They hesitated, but quickly took the offered treat.

“Did you ever find out what their names were?” Shiori asked, glancing to me.

My head shook. “No,” I replied. “I don’t know what their names were. I dunno if he even had names for them. But I do.” Lifting my hand slowly, I pointed to the slightly smaller one, then the other. “This is Jaq, and that’s Gus.”

Nevada and Shiori both grinned at that, the latter reaching out a finger to them. “Jaq and Gus. That’s great. Hiya, Jaq. Hey, Gus.” She held her finger there, letting the little guys sniff it for a moment.

“Give the staff a spin,” Nevada encouraged, nodding. “Trust me, they’re fine.”

I hesitated, but she seemed confident. So I stepped back for room and spun my weapon, slowly at first to watch the mice before slowly picking up speed. No matter how fast I spun it, however, they stayed attached to the thing. “How?”

“Trade secret,” she replied with a wink. “But basically magic magnets. They’ll stay attached as long as you want them to.”

As I stopped and let the mice go back to exploring the staff, Shiori asked, “So you had Nevada make… portals in your weapon to summon your mice? That’s kinda cool.”

“Oh, it’s very cool,” I replied. “First, they’ve got a little home in there. I mean, they can come out too. But they’ve got a whole little house in there. Technically the portals link to a box that’s in my room. That’s where they are when they’re in there. But they come out through there.”

Nodding, the other girl hesitated. “Okay, but… what do they do once they’re here? Like, explore and spy on people or whatever? They look like they’d be pretty good at that.”

“Sure, sure,” I confirmed slyly, giving Nevada a quick look. “But they do a lot more than that. Is it…?”

“Go for it,” she replied, looking just as eager as I was. “Just tell the little guys it’s time to fight.”

“Hey, Jaq, Gus,” I spoke quickly. The mice stopped what they were doing and turned their tiny heads to peek up at me. “It’s time to fight.”

Immediately, they both took off in opposite directions. As I held the staff up, the mice ran to either end, clinging onto it before abruptly changing shape. In the process, they seemed to physically bond themselves with the weapon itself, latching on in several spots so that it was impossible to tell that they weren’t part of the thing to begin with.

Barely a handful of seconds after I’d said the words, and the transformation was complete. At one end of the staff, Jaq had turned into a slightly smaller version of the short-sword that he had been under Doxer.  Only the blade though, without the hilt. Meanwhile, at the other end, Gus became a smaller version of the grapple-hook.

Carefully, I spun the staff once more, checking the weight. It would take a bit to get used to, but it wasn’t too bad. And this way, my weapon had a couple more tricks to it. The blade on one end that could cut things, and a grapple-hook with an attached energy line that would both be wickedly dangerous in combat once I learned how to use it properly. Plus, the grapple would drastically improve my maneuverability when used in conjunction with the staff’s kinetic boosts.

“Oh yeah,” I muttered, spinning the now-bladed staff around once more. “This I could get used to.

“I could really… really get used to it.”

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