Vulcan

Study And Scrutiny 20-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had a feeling it was going to be interesting.

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Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Second Hunt 16-02

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For some totally strange and obviously unexplainable reason, the Crossroads staff apparently didn’t think that sending our team off completely on our own for this hunt was a very good idea. Well, technically they didn’t send any of the teams on their own, but when they announced that fact, everyone else pretty much immediately looked straight at us. So their reasoning wasn’t exactly much of a secret.

Instead, each team was being escorted by two members of the security team and a teacher. In our case, that was Wyatt, one of the other security guys, and Professor Dare. They weren’t supposed to interact with us or actually help at all unless there was something went wrong with the hunt. Instead, they would stand nearby and keep an eye on everything that was happening. That way, they’d be there to intervene in case Trice or anyone else ended up  repeating their attack from the first hunt.

It was probably bad, but personally, I was almost hoping that at least Pace made an appearance. It would be a chance for me to grab the bitch and get that damn necklace away from her for Roxa. I couldn’t really think of any other way we were going to be able to get face to face with that girl again.

As for Wyatt, I had tried to make the case that he should stay with Koren instead, after everything that had happened. But he assured me that he had taken ‘measures’ to keep an eye on the other girl even if he wasn’t right there with her. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but he seemed about as confident as Wyatt ever really was. Plus, Professor Katarin was the teacher watching over that team, and one of their security escorts was Reid Rucker. So they were as safe as possible. At least as safe as we were.

My slightly drifting line of thought was interrupted by a elbow in my side before Avalon spoke under her breath in a voice that was so quiet, it barely made it to my ear, “Focus on the mission, Chambers.”

Somehow, I managed to blush twice. First, at the realization that my wandering thoughts had been obvious. And then again at the thought that Avalon had been paying enough attention to me to notice. Of course, if I let myself think about that too much, I’d start thinking about the fact that she’d actually called me Felicity for once. In the days since it had happened, her voice saying my name had never been that far from my mind. Just remembering it then was enough to bring a third blush to my face.

There was no question why my roommate was hyper-focused on this hunt. She’d only gotten off her crutches and been cleared for full action the day before. I was pretty sure she’d spent the rest of the day working out in the training room to catch up, even dragging Shiori along to have a sparring partner.

“Right,” I coughed, forcing myself not to dwell on… any of that. Especially not on how nice it felt for her to whisper to—no, Flick, focus. Shaking it off, I looked around the portal room in the Pathmaker building where the rest of the team and our escorts were waiting to pass through the next door and to our destination. “So what are we going after today? Cyclopses rampaging through Dodger Stadium?”

As soon as the words left my mouth, Wyatt whirled on his heel. The man’s eyes were wide as he demanded, “Why? Did you hear about an attack? Why weren’t we notified? Did you submit the right-”

“Easy, Wyatt,” Professor Dare put a hand gently on his shoulder. “Miss Chambers was simply suggesting a humorous hypothetical. She does not believe that there is any actual attack on the stadium.” To me, she added with a touch of obvious amusement, “It is, however, interesting that you would choose that particular structure at random, out of all that you could have. Interesting indeed.”

“Err, it is?” I blinked, looking around at everyone else. They all looked amused as well. Not just the other security guard, but my teammates as well, even Avalon. At least, as much as Avalon allowed herself to look amused in public with other people around. “Why? What exactly am I missing?”

It was Columbus who answered. “One of the largest Crossroads weapons and technology laboratories in North America is hidden under Dodger Stadium. They make all kinds of awesome things there.”

Nodding, Sean patted Vulcan on the head pointedly. “Yeah, like my buddy here. That’s where he was crea—born,” he amended with a look down at the mechanical dog. “That’s his, you know, birthplace.”

My mouth opened and shut at all that. “Crossroads has a Development lab under a baseball stadium?”

“Why do you think they don’t tear it down or rebuild it?” Sands put in then. “It’s like… the oldest baseball stadium in the western half of the country. Third oldest, period. Crossroads makes sure no one actually does anything to it because of all the ongoing experiments and active weapons that they’re working on.”

“Oh.” Coughing, I looked back to Professor Dare. “What about the other two stadiums that are older?”

“Wrigley Field belongs to Eden’s Garden,” she replied with a thoughtful look. “Though we’re not supposed to know. But as far as I’m aware, Fenway Park, the oldest, is from people being sentimental.”

People, I noticed immediately. She hadn’t called them Bystanders that time, she just called them ‘people.’ Somehow, I found that interesting, and took a moment to study the woman curiously.

The professor noticed me looking and met my gaze evenly. “Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?”

I shook my head quickly at that. “Oh, no. I just—um. So where are we going today, if not a stadium?”

Still, she eyed me for another couple seconds with obvious curiosity before straightening to address everyone. “Your mission this evening will take place on board the Sahara’s Camelot. It’s a cruise ship that went missing two weeks ago. We’ve located it, identified the threats aboard, and believe that they are within your ability to handle. Of course, if anything happens, we will be there to provide any assistance. As will your team mentor,” she nodded toward the corner where Deveron was standing.

“A cruise ship?” I blinked at that, suddenly even more interested than I already had been. “What about the passengers or the crew? I mean, are there, um, any survivors that we should be looking out for?”

The blonde woman shook her head once. “No. If there were innocent civilians still being hunted on that ship, we would not be playing games by waiting like this and sending in first-year trainees, Miss Chambers. The entire reason that we’ve decided to make this ship the location of one of your training hunts is the unique situation it presents. There are no innocents to worry about, and the ship itself is in the middle of the ocean. It’s safely separated from any possible further threat to more living civilians.”

Further threat. More living civilians. I noticed both of those terms, and knew what she was saying. There had been living, innocent people on that ship, but they were all dead by the time it was located. That’s why they didn’t mind sending just us in to deal with the threats, because there was no point to sending fully qualified and trained Heretics at that point. They might as well use it as a training tool.

And despite Professor Dare’s attempt to sound clinical, I could tell that it actually bothered her. There was a certain tightness around her lips and a narrowing of her eyes that proved she was genuinely upset that all of those people on that ship had been killed before the Heretics found it. She obviously hated it.

I’d checked in the history book. Virginia Dare, the first English child born in Americas, had been born in the year 1587. Four hundred and thirty years earlier. And even after all this time, the deaths of random civilians that she didn’t know still bothered her enough that I could notice her reaction.

Something else occurred to me then, and my eyes widened before I looked toward Scout. “Um.” Wincing, I tried to think of the best way to phrase this. “Are you sure this is the right… I mean, is it–”

Professor Dare’s voice was gentle. “Both Sands and Scout were told about this situation earlier and were asked if it would be too much. They declined the offer of an alternative hunting location.” Her gaze flicked that way before she added, “But if either of you have changed your minds on that…?”

The twins whispered briefly before Sands shook her head. “Nope.” She straightened pointedly, hand straying to catch her sister’s. “Scout says that stopping a monster on a boat would help her, not hurt.”

“Even if those civilians have already been killed, and you have no chance of saving them?” Dare asked.

I saw the flinch cross Scout’s face before she gave a single, firm nod. Her chin lifted a little as she set herself. Obviously, she was scared of going back onto a Stranger-filled ship in the middle of the ocean. Considering the memories that it would bring back, even if the ships in question were wildly different, I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d be able to be as brave as she was if our positions had been reversed.

Hell, even without that kind of traumatic memory, I wasn’t exactly doing that well with the idea of walking around a cruise ship full of dead people. It was a bit of a step up from ‘abandoned lake cabins.’

Beside me, Scout raised her hand before turning to whisper into Sands’ ear. The other girl listened and then spoke up. “Scout wants to know where you guys are going to be waiting and watching from.”

“Good question, Miss Mason.” Professor Dare nodded toward Scout before continuing. “The original investigating Heretics left a yacht close to the ship in question. Our transport will take us there. Then we will wait and observe the situation while your team takes the lifeboat over to the cruise ship itself.

“We will also,” she went on immediately before anyone could say anything else about it, “be monitoring your progress through other means as well. Suffice to say, we will have eyes on all of you at all times, and we will be close enough to intervene should the situation grow out of control. For the most part, however, conducting this hunt and handling the threats that present themselves is up to you.”

“What about Deveron?” Columbus asked even as my mouth was opening to do the same thing. He gestured toward the (much) older boy in the corner. “Is he staying back on the Heretic yacht too?”

Before Professor Dare could respond, Deveron shook his head. “No,” he said flatly. “I’ll be on the ship with the rest of you. But I’ll stay out of the way, up near the lifeboat. You’ll get to do the hunt by yourself unless you ask for help.” Smirking just a little bit, he added, “You remember how it works?”

Columbus nodded easily. “Yeah, sure. We get a ten percent bonus for not involving you at all. If we have to ask for help with identifying them or anything else that has to do with knowledge, we lose five percent of the bonus. If we have to ask for you to help physically, then we lose the other five percent.”

“Indeed,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And should you need to ask us what creatures you are facing in the event that Mr. Adams fails to be able to identify them, you will lose ten percent from your final score. But remember, do not let that entirely dissuade you, because if you fail in your hunt specifically because you were unable to identify the threats and refused to request that information, you will lose twenty percent from your final score. In the long run, you will receive a better score if you ask for help and complete your mission, than if you fail to ask for help and thus fail in your mission because of it.”

While we all nodded quickly to that, Wyatt started to hand out the same communication pins that we had used during the first hunt (and also when we had been breaking into the security office at school). “Take them, take them,” he encouraged. “I’ve added my own enchantment to improve the pins.”

Blinking up at that as I took one of them and fixed it to my uniform, I asked, “What enchantment?”

The others looked just as curious as I was, but Wyatt shook his head while lowering his voice. “Shh. It’s a secret improvement. They could be listening. They are listening. So shush.” Raising his voice then, he spoke with the voice of one of the worst actors I had ever heard. “No… I didn’t say… enchantment. I said… encampment. Good luck dispatching this encampment of monsters on that ship. Yes, that’s it.”

Then, as we all stared at him, Wyatt silently gestured toward the pins we had put on. His hand indicated each of us before pointing back to the pin that he wore. He put his fingers close to it and mimed pressing it before quickly stepping over to grab me by the shoulders. The (rightfully) paranoid man tugged me over to him, then did the same to each of the rest of the team. Then he gestured to the pin again and gave us another one of those wide, goofy and incredibly endearing buck-toothed smiles.

It took me a second before I realized what he was saying. Or rather, what he was pantomiming. Then I got it. Apparently, he had included an emergency teleport system into the communicator pins. When he activated it, the spell would transport the other pins (as well as anyone wearing them) straight back to where he was. So if we got in trouble, he could immediately yank us out of it and back to safety.

Well, that was useful. And it made me wonder why that wasn’t just standard practice at this point.

“Come,” Professor Dare instructed, walking past us to put her hand into the black circle next to the door on the other side of the portal room from the entrance. As the door cycled to our destination, she looked back to the rest of us with a somber look. “As I said, you should all be able to handle this situation. But it is dangerous. And I will warn you now that you will see the bodies of the people that we were unable to save. Do not let that discourage you too much. It is not your fault. Instead, let it prompt all of you to learn to fight better, and to eventually graduate so that we have more Heretics available to hunt these monsters before they have time to engage in such vicious and violent attacks.”

Her voice softened. “That said, if any of you need to take a break because of the bodies you find, do not be ashamed of asking for it. There will be no penalty for such a request, and no one will shame you for it. This will, sadly, not be the worst sight you witness as Heretics. But no one can see this kind of thing without being affected. At least,” she amended softly, “No one whom I would wish to associate with.”

By that point, the portal had finished cycling, the air around us growing chillier. She withdrew her hand from the black circle and opened the door, gesturing for us to step through. So, taking a breath, I did so.

Or I started to, anyway. Before I could actually make it through the doorway, Wyatt pretty much pushed his way in front of me and went through first. He was there for a couple seconds before poking his head back through and giving the rest of us the okay sign. “You can come through now!”

On the other side of the doorway, I found myself standing on the deck of the yacht, as if I had just come through the door of the bridge or cockpit or whatever it was called on boats. Again, raised in Wyoming.

For a moment, I took in the sight around me. The sky was dark, and the ocean below the yacht was even darker. It looked sinister the way the ocean around the Crossroads island never really did. Even the chilly wind seemed to be trying to convince us to turn away, to go back.

Slowly, I raised my gaze to take in the sight of our actual destination. A soft gasp escaped me at the sheer size of the ship. To my completely uneducated eyes, the Sahara’s Camelot was freaking enormous. As long as almost three football fields, and with at least eight floors (or decks) above the main deck and who knew how many below. The thing looked positively gigantic. And evil. Maybe in the sunlight on a calm ocean, with laughing and partying guests all over its many decks, the ship would have looked inviting. But right now, I couldn’t think of a more sinister-looking place I’d ever seen.

And we were supposed to search the whole place.

“A ghost ship,” Columbus muttered from beside me after he and the others had come out. “We’re going on a god damn ghost ship.”

“Well,” Avalon spoke up, sounding almost perky for her at the prospect as she headed straight for the side where the lifeboat was waiting. “We better get over there then. Hurry up.”

Sean shook his head woefully. “You see what happens when she gets cooped up for weeks on crutches? Girl gets gung-ho about the first chance she gets to actually kill some bad guys again.”

Instead of responding to him, I glanced back to the twins. “You guys sure you’re all right? Scout?”

They both hesitated, and I saw the tenseness in the silent girl herself. But she gave a slight nod before pointedly stepping over to join Avalon at the boat.

“Professor,” I spoke quietly to Dare, my eyes trying to convey what I couldn’t say.

“We know,” the woman replied softly. “Trust me, we know. But better this happen now, in a controlled environment that we are right here for. If anything goes wrong or it starts to be too much, we will intervene. I promise.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded before starting over to join the rest of my team. “Well guys, I guess we should get our butts over there, huh?

“Those monsters won’t slay themselves.”

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Mini-Interlude 9 – The Team

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Please note that the following commissioned mini-interlude takes place before the events of the current arc, during the week between Thanksgiving and the trip to the hospital.

“Do we have to do this out here?” Sands groaned the question as she and the rest of their team, plus Shiori, walked along the beach far away from the rest of the school. “I already promised not to say anything about the… you-know-what.”

“He has a name,” the Asian girl pointed out a little primly. “It’s Choo. And trust me, Sands, you are gonna love the little guy if you give him a chance. He’s so adorable.

“Yeah,” Sands grunted. “An adorable little murder–” Stopping herself, she breathed out hard. “Sorry.”

Shiori flinched noticeably, but shook her head. “It’s okay. I know you’re trying. And at least you’ll remember to keep him a secret.”

Ouch. Sands didn’t even have to look toward Sean to know that the boy had flinched. Shiori was pretty pissed off at him for spilling some kind of secret to his uncles without permission. But hey, she’d agreed to have him come out with them, so maybe she was starting to get over it a little bit.

After three more steps, Sands made a face. “You know, guys, I really don’t like this. I think I’m just gonna head back. This is… it’s a bad idea.”

She started to step away, but found one of Avalon’s crutches blocking her path. “That’s the privacy generator talking,” the other girl said simply before nodding toward Shiori.

In response, Shiori practically skipped up a bit past the jungle line, digging around in one of the trees before coming back with a device that looked like a walkie-talkie with an antennae on each of the four corners, and a snowglobe attached to the bottom with three little smoke stacks in it.

Under Avalon’s guidance, Shiori went around pressing the globe part of the device against each of their ears in order to spit some of that produced smoke into them. Once Sands had her turn, the urge to leave the area immediately faded. Mostly, anyway.

Then Shiori pivoted on her heel, calling, “Choo! You awake, little buddy?” Immediately, there was a high-pitched, squirrel-like squealing sound before the bushes rustled. In the next second, the animal in question burst into view, running straight for the girl who had called him.

It was a Jekern, and even knowing it was coming, Sands still had to restrain the initial reaction from her Stranger-sense going off. She took a reflexive step back, eyes following the tiny warthog-thing as it raced straight to Shiori and perched there on her foot. Then the thing’s eyes looked around at all the new people, and the soft squeaks of delight it was making turned into growls, while tiny bursts of electricity flickered around its mouth.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” Shiori bent to pick it up, cradling the monst—thing. “These guys are all friends, Choo. Friends. Here, see?” She held it out toward Sands. “You can take him.”

“No,” Sands started to shake her head. “It’s fine, I–”

“It’s all right, Sands.” Flick put a hand on her back and squeezed. On the other side of her, Scout did the same. So, she let out a long, silent sigh before reluctantly accepting the… thing.

Its electricity tickled her hands, almost making her drop the damn thing before she got a better grip on it. “Hey, hey, stop that!” Sands scolded it.

She held the thing up to her face, staring at it. The thing stared right back at her.

Then it sneezed, and electricity shot through the air, making Sands jerk backward with a yelp. She tripped, landing on her backside in the sand.

And something was licking her face. Squinting, Sands realized that as she fell, she had clutched the little… thing to her chest on the way down. Now he was licking her.

“Ugh, stop that, it’s gross.” She scowled at him. “Besides, you made me fall down. I knew you were bad news.”

He just licked her face again, squeaked, and shook his entire back half in a way that looked suspiciously like an attempt to wag his tail.

“You’re supposed to be a vicious monster,” Sands informed him flatly. “A nasty, man-eating beast.”

He proceeded to latch onto the collar of her shirt, tugging at it with a playful growl as he shook his head back and forth like a puppy playing tug-of-war.

Sands’s voice was idle. “See? Now you’re trying to eat me.” She let herself fall fully onto her back, arms spread out above her dramatically. “Woe is me, for the great beast has defeated the mighty huntress. Now he’s going to eat meeeeeeee.”

Choo promptly abandoned her shirt and jumped up to start licking her face enthusiastically, sending tingles of electricity through her in the process that tickled even more than his tongue did.

“Nooo!” Sands squealed, jerking a bit. “I sa–” She laughed, squealing again. “I said eat, damn it, eat! Not l-” Another fit of giggles escaped. “Not lick! Eat, you damn th-aaahhhaaa!”

Finally, she managed to get the little guy off her face, setting him down on the sand before rolling over on her stomach. She held him out at arms reach, panting as she fought to catch her breath. “You… monster…” She panted again in between each word. “You’re… gonna… kill… me…”

The pig looked quite pleased with himself at that, and Sands scoffed. “Oh, you think that’s funny? How about if I get you, huh? What if I get you?”

In response, Choo shook his hindquarters as though getting ready to pounce. Sands deliberately let him slip free, then rolled over as the little pig lunged at her. “Gaaaah, noooo, not the f-aaaahhhh! F-face again!”

It took her another minute or so to extricate herself once more. Straightening with Choo perched on her lap, Sands looked up to find everyone else still standing where they had been, watching with various levels of amusement.

“Aww,” Shiori was smiling. “He likes you.”

Flushing with embarrassment, as well as a few other feelings, Sands cleared her throat. “Right, well… whatever. Like I said, I won’t say anything about him. So are we gonna play cards or what?”

“You guys play,” Shiori gestured. “I’ve gotta feed the little guy, so I’ll just watch.”

She took Choo as well as the bag of food she’d brought and proceeded to do so. Meanwhile, Sean and Columbus produced a card table and folding chairs from the bag they’d brought with them, and Scout brought out three decks of playing cards while everyone was setting themselves up at the table.

“Okay well, you are definitely gonna have to explain how to play this,” Flick remarked while idly shuffling a deck of playing cards. Her gaze was focused on Sands as she raised an eyebrow. “Cuz I’ve never even heard of any game called, uh, what’d you say it was called again? Jahdoozeflug?”

Sands snickered in spite of herself. “Gesundheit. And speaking of German words, so is the name of the game. It’s called Jagdausflug.” She pronounced it slowly and carefully for the others. “It means ‘hunting trip.’ You know, like hunting Strangers. This German Heretic guy made it up about fifty years ago while he and his partners were on some kind of long stake-out, waiting for something called a Nachzehrer to show up.”

Sands and her sister had promised to teach them this new card game, with the added rule that no one was allowed to bring up anything too serious. Everyone had agreed that they needed a break, and since they really couldn’t do anything else until they were able to go to the hospital on Saturday, this was a good time for it.

“Sounds nasty,” Columbus remarked after taking a quick sip from his cola before glancing toward his sister. “You sure you don’t want in on this, Shy?”

“It’s okay,” the other girl assured him as she sat there at the end of the table with Choo perched in front of her, eating enthusiastically from the plate she had produced. “Go ahead, maybe I’ll get in on the next one.”

Shrugging at that, Columbus looked back to Sands. “Okay, so, how do you play?”

Before she replied, Sands found herself half-glancing sidelong toward Avalon. The regally beautiful brunette was seated beside her, eyes ostensibly focused on the table. Except that every once in awhile, the girl would glance up toward the one person in the school that seemed capable of holding her attention: Flick. And whenever Avalon herself looked away, Flick would glance that way. They each seemed to be trying to memorize the other’s features without getting caught looking.

God, they were weird. They were roommates. If they liked each other, why didn’t they just say something already? Avalon obviously didn’t care what anyone at the school thought about her, and Sands was pretty sure that Flick didn’t either. So why were they being so… beat-around-the-bushy about it? She wasn’t into girls, but if she had a chance to be with someone and live in the same room as them, she wouldn’t waste it.

A foot tapped against hers, snapping the girl out of her brief moment of contemplation. Sands’s eyes flicked that way to find Scout watching her pointedly before her eyes moved to indicate the rest of the table. As Sands looked around, she saw that everyone was paying attention to her, waiting expectantly.

Right, maybe that pause hadn’t been quite as brief as she’d thought.

“Sorry.” Clearing her throat, the girl reached out to pluck the cards from Flick before putting her hand on a couple other decks that lay nearby. “So first, you play with one full deck for every two people that are playing, rounded up. There’s six of us, so we need three decks.

After picking up the three decks and indicating them, Sands continued. “Then we take the decks and shuffle them all together. Everyone draws five cards, don’t let anyone else see what they are.”

She waited then while everyone took turns drawing cards until each of them had a hand of five. “All right, red cards are Strangers, black cards are Bystanders, face cards and aces are Heretics. You start by going around the table, beginning in the first round with the person to the dealer’s left. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to in order to have six in their hand.”

She nodded to Avalon, waiting for the girl to take a card from the pile. Then each of the others in turn took one, until it came back to Sands and she picked up her sixth card.

“Right, again starting with the person to the dealer’s left, she points out the person she’s attacking. So, Avalon, who do you wanna target?”

The other girl was silent for a few seconds before nodding across the table. “Gerardo.”

Sean grinning back at her in response. “It’s nice to feel wanted.”

Coughing, Sands gestured. “Okay, each of you lay one card on the table, face down. Wait, not yet. You need to know, it’s basically like a game of Paper, Rock, Scissors. Strangers, the red cards, beat Bystanders, the black cards. Heretics, you know, jack, queen, king, and ace, beat Strangers. Bystanders beat Heretics because, well, something had to.

“So each of you pick a Heretic, a Stranger, or a Bystander and put it on the table face down. Once you’ve both chosen, turn the cards over.”

Sean and Avalon each put down a card, looked at one another, and then turned them over. Avalon had a red six, while Sean had put down a jack.

Sands nodded quickly then. “Okay, Sean wins that round, because he put down a Heretic while Avalon put down a Stranger. So he takes the Stranger card and the Heretic card and puts them in a pile on his side of the table.”

Once the boy had done so, she went on. “Then the next person to the left of the first one targets someone. So, uh, Flick?”

The blonde girl targeted Scout, and each of them put down a card. Once the cards were turned over, Flick’s red four beat Scout’s black nine, and she put both into a pile beside her.

“So we go around like that,” Sands explained. “Until everyone’s had a chance to target someone. Then we start with the person to the left of the person who went first the last time. In this case, Flick. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to get to six in their hand. Then Flick chooses who to target, and we do the whole thing again.

“We keep doing that until there’s no more cards to draw. Then we keep going without drawing until no one has any cards left in their hand. Once that’s all done, everyone takes their piles, the cards they won in the battles. You add up each number. Jacks are worth eleven, queens are worth twelve, kings are thirteen, and aces are fourteen. Add up everything, and the highest total wins the game.”

So they started to play. As the game got underway, Flick nudged Avalon. “See? You can still have fun, even though Katarin won’t let you work out until you’re all healed up.”

In response, the other girl grunted a simple, “Don’t push it, Chambers.”

And yet still, whenever one of them wasn’t looking, the other one would practically stare at them. Not to mention the way Shiori looked at Flick whenever she thought she wasn’t being watched. It was all Sands could do not to tell all three of them to get a room and get it over with, even if they had to take turns.

Her gaze found Choo as the little guy squeaked to get her attention before wagging his tail once more. Sighing, Sands slowly reached across the table, scratching under his chin. “Fine, you big monster. Maybe you aren’t so bad. At least you don’t make things weird like some people.”

“Like who?” Shiori and Flick promptly asked.

Smirking in spite of herself, Sands continued to scratch Choo until the little guy sneezed. “Nobody,” she replied quietly, hiding her smile. “Nobody at all.

“Now are we playing, or do you all surrender to my inevitable win?”

“You mean your inevitable terrible, humiliating loss,” Columbus corrected her. “Cuz it’s my turn, and I’m coming after you.”

“After me, huh?” Sands raised her chin challengingly. “Sure your cards are up to it, little man?”

“Oh, me and my cards are up to it,” Columbus assured her, putting a card face down on the table as he spoke. “So put one down, little girl.

“Let’s see what you’ve got.”

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Medical Leave 15-01

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“I swear to Prosser, Chambers,” Avalon’s grumpy voice insisted as the two of us walked down the hallway, “if you ask me one more time if I’m all right, I’m going to be forced to hurt you very, very badly.”

It was about a week after the events of Thanksgiving. Friday morning, to be specific. Breakfast was over, and we were both on our way to our first class of the day: Introduction to Heretical Magic.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I held up both hands apologetically while walking backwards so I could face the other girl. “It’s just that, well… you know.” Trailing off weakly, I looked up to see her glaring at me.

“Just what?” She leaned on her crutches (yeah, crutches) and squinted at me pointedly. “Even with these things, I could still kick your ass up and down this corridor. You want me to prove it?” In spite of her actual words, I could tell she was just lashing out at the very idea of feeling weak in any way.

Because as it turned out, things back at Crossroads didn’t completely freeze while I wasn’t there to see them. Apparently, someone had tried to kill Avalon again while we were gone. This time, it had happened while she and Scout were on their way along the beach to feed Choo. Someone had knocked out Scout before hitting Avalon with some kind of… of drug or poison. The drug had completely paralyzed the girl’s limbs. She could move her head, but her arms and legs were helpless. Then that person had dragged her to the last few feet to the ocean and shoved her head under the water.

Thinking about how that must have felt, how terrifying it had to have been, made me feel sick to my stomach. No matter how okay Avalon pretended she was, I knew how much taking care of herself, defending herself, meant to her. The fact that someone had managed to paralyze her limbs so she couldn’t, and then tried to drown her… I thought of how I would feel with my head forced under the water and held there while I remained completely incapable of moving my arms or legs in any way.

With that in mind, was it any big surprise that I had really wanted to hug the other girl all week long?

Anyway, whoever had tried to kill Avalon might have finished the job if the protection spell (the one that I now knew Wyatt had put on her) hadn’t done its job. Professor Kohaku and Gaia had both shown up within seconds of each other. But as soon as they had arrived, the shadowy figure had vanished.

They had pulled the nearly drowned Avalon out of the water and took her to medical. She recovered, of course. But apparently whatever magic poison she’d been hit with was going to take time to completely flush out of her system. Which meant that she’d be walking with crutches for a few more days, since her legs weren’t responsive enough to walk normally. Needless to say, she was even more grumpy than usual over the situation, especially since certain people (like me) kept asking if she was okay.

Now, I shook my head. “No, no. That’s okay. You don’t have to prove it. I get it, you’re still a complete badass. If anything, you’re even tougher now because you’re already holding a couple things you can beat me with.” I gestured to the crutches before reaching out to open the door that led to the classroom.

“Damn straight,” she assured me before making her way past and into the room. I heard the murmur of conversation beyond dip a bit as the people noticed her before gradually picking up again. Still, as I followed her, I saw several other students still staring at my roommate as the two of us made our way across the miniature auditorium-like room to the table where our team was set up. And that, of course, was another source of Avalon’s annoyance. People wouldn’t stop staring at her. I mean, people stared at Avalon all the time. Especially when she was running or working out. Because duh, look at her. But this was different. Now they were either looking at her with pity because she’d almost died, or with suspicion because yet again she had (supposedly) been responsible for bringing a threat to the school.

It was annoying. I was annoyed, so I couldn’t even begin to guess how Avalon felt about the situation. But she mostly ignored people unless they actually confronted her. Zeke Levin’s nose had already been broken once (it healed quickly, of course) from one of the nasty comments that he had made. After that, most of the other students had backed off and limited themselves to staring and obviously talking behind her back. Which was still annoying and stupid, but at least they weren’t pushing her further.

On the way to the table, I noticed Koren looking at us as well. When she saw me glance that way, the other girl held her hand close to her chest to make her motions less obvious before extending her pinkie and thumb out in the pantomime of a phone. Then she formed a circle with her thumb and index finger, with her other fingers raised above it. The ‘okay’ sign. She’d called her mom and things were still okay.

The sign made me let out a breath of relief. Of course, Koren was calling several times a day, but she always let me know when she’d checked in. She was using the phone that I’d gotten from Gaia to check in. I’d let her borrow it over the week since, to be completely fair, Abigail was her mother. She deserved to be able to check on her any time she wanted to. Anything to make her feel better about not being able to be there with her constantly. I had a pretty good idea of how that felt, and it sucked.

Obviously, Abigail was too old to be one of the normal Eden’s Garden students (though Seller had said he was going to work with her on at least basic knowledge of how to protect herself). Fortunately, this apparently wasn’t a completely unheard of situation. There had been older people made Heretics before, both accidentally or purposefully. So they had other plans of what to do in those situations. In this particular case, Seller had taken her on as essentially an apprentice. In addition to teaching her to protect herself, he was going to help her find another job within the Garden itself. Abigail had several choices. There was taking care of the various Alter-animals that they kept around, being a teacher of one of the Bystander-type subjects, taking care of the kids that were too young to be students, and a few other possibilities. Apparently Abigail hadn’t actually decided which one of them she was going to do.

Well, to be completely accurate, Abigail did know what she wanted to do. She wanted to change everything about Heretical society. She wanted to free all the Alters that the Garden was basically keeping as slaves, rewrite their laws, and essentially bitch-slap everyone involved in perpetuating the ‘every Alter is an evil abomination that needed to be massacred’ lie. So yeah, she knew what she wanted to do. But it was taking time to figure out what she would do for the moment.

When Avalon and I reached the spot where most of the rest of our team was (Sean hadn’t arrived yet), we found Shiori there as well. She was perched on the end of the table, talking to her brother. As the two of us approached, the cute little Asian girl glanced up before blushing just a little bit. “Oh, uh, hey, Flick. Hi, Avalon.” Her gaze lingered slightly before she flinched and looked away. I knew she felt guilty about the fact that Scout had been hurt and Avalon almost killed on their way to feed her little friend. Both of the girls had told her repeatedly not to worry about it, that they could’ve been out for any reason and the attack could have happened at any time. But it clearly didn’t stop all of her guilt.

In spite of that, she still smiled a little bit after taking a moment to collect herself. Returning her gaze to me, the other girl asked with that entirely too innocent tone that came whenever she was trying to tell one of her jokes, “Hey, Flick. What kind of coffee do incredibly pregnant cows like to drink?”

Despite groans from the others, I willingly took the bait. “I dunno, what kind of coffee do they like?”

Her frankly adorable smile widened even more then, and Shiori promptly answered, “Decalf.”

Our giggles were drowned out by the chorus of groans from Columbus, Avalon, and Sands. Scout just sat there smiling quietly to herself. Then another voice spoke up. “Hey, what’d I miss this time?” Sean was there, with Vulcan in tow. The boy stood at the other side of the table, already pulling out his chair.

Rather than explain the joke, or even say it again like she usually would have, Shiori just looked at Sean for a moment. Her face flushed a little for an entirely different reason before she pushed herself off the table. “I’ll—uh, I’ll see you guys later,” the girl spoke a little awkwardly before walking away.

I sighed inwardly in spite of myself, noticing the way Sean winced. Yeah, Shiori wasn’t exactly happy with him. Actually, she was kind of pissed. Apparently, he’d unthinkingly mentioned her little secret to his uncle and the man’s boyfriend, the one who had come to help Roxa. Both of them were fine with it, of course. But the fact remained that Sean had spilled her secret without actually asking her first. And as scared as the other girl was about the wrong people finding out about her, she hadn’t taken the news well. Ever since the initial scene where she’d pretty much laid into him about telling people things that weren’t his to tell, Shiori hadn’t really spoken more than a couple words directly to the boy all week.

Sighing, Sean took his seat before looking at his roommate. “Sorry, man. I deserve it. I should’ve asked her if it was okay before I went to see my uncle. I just thought it was okay since, well, you know.”

We did. His uncle was dating a werewolf. Obviously he wasn’t going to start blabbing about Shiori’s half-vampire state. But I also knew why Shiori was upset. Trustworthy or not, it was a big secret. And it was hers. It was her life. She should be the one who had control of it, who got to decide who knew. Sean had told two men that Shiori herself had never met. I didn’t blame her for being upset about it.

But I did hope that the two of them worked it out soon. I really didn’t like it when people I cared about were mad at each other. It made me feel sick inside despite myself. Which I guessed stemmed mostly from a childhood of believing that my mother had willingly and maliciously abandoned Dad and me.

Meanwhile, Columbus just shook his head at Sean. “Hey, it’s between you and her. Don’t worry though, I think she’ll be okay. Just apologize whenever she gives you a chance, and leave her alone until then.”

Sean was nodding while the door to the class opened and Professor Carfried entered. The young teacher was carrying a bag over one shoulder, whistling as he headed for the middle of the little pit area. “Good morning, class!” the man announced once he’d reached the center of the room, next to some kind of huge empty fish tank that had already been sitting there. Holding the bag up, he let his gaze pass over the students quickly to make sure we were all present and accounted for. “Everyone here? No one missing in action or still asleep in their breakfast? Perfect, let’s get started then, because we’ve got a lot to go over today.” He grinned at us. “It’s time to learn a brand new spell!”

With that, Carfried opened up the bag and dumped it out on the nearby table. Several dozen silvery metal collars fell into view, scattering over the surface. Necklaces, I realized after a second.

“All right, one person from each team come up and get necklaces for the rest of your group,” Carfried announced. “Don’t be shy, there’s one for everyone. And yes, boys, you’ll be wearing them too.”

Sands went up for us, and I let my gaze flick over toward another of the tables, where there were only five people instead of six. Paul, Jazz, Doug, Gordon, and Isaac. Roxa’s team. As far as the five of them knew, Roxa had had some kind of family emergency that required her to take a leave of absence from the school. Gaia was trying to make it easier for Roxa to rejoin the school if (no, when, I sternly reminded myself) we managed to get that necklace from Pace so that her werewolf-side would be hidden. Her team wasn’t happy about losing her, but at least it would be safe for Roxa to come back.

As I glanced that way, I saw that one of them, Douglas, was staring at me. He was a skinny little guy that I had never seen without his black baseball cap with the New York Rangers logo. As far as I knew, he was Heretic-born, so I was curious about how he’d become a fan of them. Then again, Scout really liked the Minnesota Twins, so I supposed it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary or anything.

At the moment, the boy was kind of staring at me. I met his gaze, and he opened his mouth like he was going to say something. Then it seemed like he thought better of it and looked away, returning his attention to the rest of his table just as Paul, the tall, charismatic boy from Kentucky, came back to their table with a handful of the necklaces and started to hand them out. Doug took one and ignored me.

“What was that all about?” Columbus asked, drawing my attention back to them. He was looking between me and the other table where Douglas was, his eyebrows raised with obvious curiosity.

I shrugged. “Beats me. I don’t think I’ve said more than three words to Doug all year while we weren’t in class. Maybe he wants to ask me what it’s like being the roommate of the most gorgeous girl in school.”

A sharp pain in my ankle then reminded me that while Avalon didn’t have full use of her legs or feet, she did have a pair of crutches that she could use quite well. She was squinting at me, though I could see a slight pink color to her cheeks. “Knock it off, Chambers,” she muttered before shifting in her seat.

“Yeah.” Columbus grinned. “Besides, it doesn’t have to be her he’s interested in. I mean, you’re the one he’s staring at, and you’re not exactly an ugly hag yoursel–” That was as far as the boy got before I saw Avalon make a jerking motion under the table with her crutch, and his words turned into a yelp.

Thankfully for both my embarrassment and Columbus’s shins, Sands returned with the necklaces then and spread them over the table. I picked one up, trying once more to actually focus on class.

“Everyone have their chokers?” Carfried asked, glancing around the room curiously before nodding in satisfaction. “Excellent. Now, we’re going to turn them into not-chokers.” The man smiled at his own joke before clearing his throat. “Ah, what I mean is, we are going to use magic that will allow you to use the choker to breathe, even if you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If you’re wearing one of these after they have the appropriate spells on them and you activate it, you will be able to breathe through poison gas, under water, or in any environment where oxygen is unavailable. With your skill and strength levels as far as magic goes, you should all be able to make a necklace that lasts about one hour after activation.”

Around the room, I saw several students glance toward our table. Specifically, toward Avalon. And I heard Zeke mutter sarcastically, “Gee, I wonder what prompted this lesson.”

“Well,” Professor Carfried spoke up clearly and loudly, addressing the boy. “I was going to ask for a volunteer to demonstrate, but it seems like we already have one. Thank you, Mr. Levin. Come on down here.” He gestured with a hand. “Come on, come on. Don’t be shy all of a sudden. And don’t worry, I’m not going to choke you. We’ll start with something much safer: terrible smells.”

With that, Carfried pointed a hand to the nearby empty fish tank that I’d noticed earlier. From his pocket, he withdrew two stones with writing on them. “Smell of rotting eggs,” he announced before dropping the stone in the tank. “And smell of full baby diapers.” Then he dropped the second stone.

“Come then, Mr. Levin. We’ll start by letting you poke your head in the tank to take a nice big sniff. See how long you can last. Then we’ll see how very helpful the oxygen spell actually is.”

Zeke looked like he wanted to do absolutely anything else, including possibly punching the teacher. But he did what he was told anyway, despite his disgust. I almost felt a little sorry for him.

Class went on that way, and we all learned to make the magic collars. Personally, I was actually really happy about the lesson. Because it meant that I’d be able to spend more time with my sharks and really get down where they liked to swim.

Still, throughout the class and the rest of the day, one thing stayed on my mind. Tomorrow was Saturday, which meant we would be going to the hospital to see Tangle.

Hopefully, we’d find actual answers there about why she or someone was so obsessed with killing Avalon.

One way or another.

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Search And Rescue 14-07

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled BONUS chapter (14-06) posted on Wednesday. If you didn’t happen to read that one yet, this chapter isn’t going to make much sense, so you should click the previous chapter button above before moving on. 

“Hey, Flick.” Tristan spoke up as we made the long walk back toward the Garden tree. He had slowed his own pace until it matched mine, his eyes full of concern. “Are you, uh, are you doing all right?”

I didn’t answer at first. Taking a long, deep breath, I asked myself the same question before looking back to him. “I got to talk to my mom,” I answered quietly, emotion still making my voice shake in spite of myself. “I got to talk to my mother, Tristan. That was the first time since I was… since I was seven that I actually got to talk to her. I’m really happy. I’m so happy I… I keep crying. I’m happy and I’m sad because she’s not here anymore, and she’s still in danger. I’m so… I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel. I’m happy and I’m sad and I’m scared and I… I want her to be okay. I want my mom back.”

Swallowing hard, I flinched at a sudden realization. “But I guess you know what that’s like.” Looking back to him once more, I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Tristan. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean that your–”

But the boy shook his head. “Hey, it’s not a competition. I can be glad that you get a chance to talk to your mom, and still wish that we could find mine. It’s not an either-or thing here, Flick.” He gave me another one of those perfect model-worthy smiles. “My parents are still out there somewhere. We’ll find them. Vanessa’s still in full-on research mode, and when she gets a lead, I’m gonna go get them back.”

Nodding, I poked the boy’s chest (while telling myself I was just doing it as part of a spirit of camaraderie and not because he looked so good without a shirt). “And I’ll be there to help you do it.”

Miranda (or one of her, there were others out scouting ahead to make sure that we didn’t run into any of the other Garden people) joined the two of us. Her hand found mine and squeezed. She didn’t say anything. Nothing really needed to be said out loud. It was enough for then that she was there with me.

For a little bit, we walked in silence. My gaze was focused on Koren. The brown-haired girl was walking up ahead, her head down. I wondered how she was dealing with all this. Her father had been murdered and she couldn’t even remember him enough to grieve. Any actual grief she had was at the idea of her father being dead. She had no real memories of him or what he had been like. That was… a kind of horrific that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Some might have said that not remembering her father after his death spared her. I didn’t believe that for a second. She had no nice memories to fall back on. When most people lost someone they loved, they could at least keep the person alive in their memories. Koren couldn’t do that. Thanks to the Fomorian, she had nothing left of her real father.

On top of that, she had spent hours being forced to pump her own mother’s heart to keep her alive, and now the only reason the woman was still alive was because Koren made the choice to have her turned into a Heretic and brought into this world. And all of it, her mother’s condition and the loss of her father, was because the Fomorian wanted Koren. That… yeah, I had no idea how she was dealing.

Then there was Roxa. My eyes moved back behind us to the other girl, who was walking with Mateo on one side of her and Sean on the other while Vulcan and Gidget brought up the rear. Roxa and the other two were deep in conversation, but even simply looking at her made me feel guilty again. All she had wanted to do was be a part of the school, a part of her team. That was gone now, until and unless we got that necklace away from Pace. Thanks to Mateo, she wouldn’t be on her own. But she also wouldn’t be able to be a part of the school. She couldn’t even let pretty much anyone else from Crossroads see her without letting them realize what she was now. Most of them wouldn’t understand.

Roxa and Koren had both lost a lot today. It felt… well, it felt wrong for me to be happy at all. The joy of actually being able to talk to my mother wasn’t just tainted by the fact that she was still trapped by Fossor. It was also dampened because I felt like any happiness I had was betraying the other two.

So, we walked on, spirits not exactly jumping for joy. Occasionally, I would glance up through the giant trees and catch a glimpse of one of the even more gigantic branches of the Eden’s Garden tree. Yeah, the damn thing was so huge that it took us hours to walk back toward the base of the tree even though we could see the branches above us. It was mindbogglingly huge. Technically, if we could’ve gone straight up high enough, we’d be in the tree just by getting to the branch. But Miranda had explained that the branches were all owned by different tribes, most of whom wouldn’t take kindly to our little invasion, no matter how we explained it.

Which meant we needed to keep walking all the way back to where we’d left from. Or close enough that Seller could get involved again without breaking the orders from the Victors. Most of us were lost in our own thoughts, until one of the other Mirandas eventually came jogging back to join us. Waving for us to stop, she explained, “We’re getting close to the tree. You guys should probably wait here while one of us goes in and gets Seller out here to send you uh, where you need to go.” Her eyes glanced toward Roxa briefly.

Nodding, Mateo stepped closer. “Yeah, I’d really prefer not to get into a fight with any Garden Heretics today, if we can avoid it. Besides,” he put a hand down on Roxa’s shoulder, “before we go anywhere, the kid and I still need to talk a bit more about what’s gonna happen when we meet the pack.”

That version of Miranda went off to find Seller, while I hesitated before moving closer to Mateo and Roxa. “Sorry, I know you’re still talking, but I um… I just wanted to say I’m sorry again.” Swallowing hard, I focused on meeting Roxa’s gaze. “I’m really sorry that I… that I helped bring you here. I wasn’t thinking straight, and I forgot about the connection to Tristan. I know you didn’t ask for any of this, and it’s not what you wanted. And you don’t have to forgive me or anything like that. Especially not right now. It’s too soon and too…” Trailing off, I sighed. This was too awkward. “I’m really sorry, Roxa.”

The other girl didn’t say anything for a moment. She just stood there, biting her lip before giving a short, sort of jerky nod. “I know you didn’t mean to,” she said quietly. “And I know you’re sorry.”

Another moment of silence passed before I spoke up, still feeling awkward in spite of myself. “Good luck. And… and like I said, we’ll get the necklace from Pace. We’re not gonna give up on that. Miranda’s gonna keep an eye on her, and as soon as we get a chance, we’ll take it away from her.”

Looking back at me, Roxa was quiet for a few seconds. Finally, she let out a visible sigh, head bowing briefly before speaking in a voice that was barely audible. “Yeah. And if you need help dealing with any of these other problems you’ve got, especially the son of a bitch that’s actually responsible for this, or any of his people, let me know.” Her eyes were hard. “You don’t deserve to have me be as angry at you as I am. I know that. I know, Flick. I just can’t help it. I’m trying, I swear. But those guys, the freak that hurt Koren’s mom and any of his friends, they do deserve it. So if you get a chance to hurt them…”

“We’ll let you know,” I promised. Knowing that was the best I was going to get (and more than I deserved), I added a simple, “I hope things with the pack go okay.” Glancing to Mateo, I exchanged nods with the man before stepping back out of the way so that the two of them could continue talking.

Sean stepped away with me as well, with Gidget and Vulcan trotting over to join us as well. The mechanical cougar gave me a look and a slight whine of confusion until I hesitantly reached out to give her gentle pet. When I stopped after a moment, she bumped her head against my leg until I did it again.

Of course, that meant that Vulcan needed equal treatment. But that was okay, it let me clear my head. Eventually, I looked up to Sean while rubbing both of the robot animals. “Thanks for coming,” I murmured quietly. “I know it’s gotta be really late for you.” Pausing then, I amended, “Or really early. I’ve sort of lost–” In mid-sentence, I yawned wide, surprising myself. “Sorry, lost track, I mean.”

So much had happened since… god, was the last time I had slept really before I’d had Thanksgiving dinner at the buffet with my dad and the others? How was that even possible? It felt like this day had been going on forever. Even with the Amarok’s power, I was pretty much running on just fumes.

Chuckling, Sean shrugged at me. “No problem. We’re teammates, right? You’d be there if I needed you.” He hesitated, eyes glancing over my shoulder and toward Roxa. “Besides, she needed help too.”

Watching the expression on his face for a moment before glancing back toward the other blonde, I realized that he’d come out of more than just obligation. Sean obviously had feelings for Roxa. The realization made me cringe a little bit even as I tried to push that incessant feeling of guilt aside.

Yawning again, I made myself focus. “Mateo, he’ll take care of her, right? Him and his pack, I mean.”

“I haven’t met his pack,” Sean admitted. “I only just let him and my uncle know that that I knew what he was. But I know Mateo. And yes, he’ll take care of her. You can trust him, Flick. He’s not gonna let anything bad happen. Not as long as she’s with him. And Uncle Sebastian’ll be there with her too.”

Before I could say anything to that, Koren joined us. She approached quickly, her gaze focused on the boy beside me. “You talked to Seller, right? Did he say anything about what happened back at my house?” Biting her lip, she added, “I mean, did he say if Dare and the others killed that piece of shit?”

Wincing, Sean’s head shook. “Sorry, we didn’t really get that far. He just gave us the basic stuff.”

“I’m sure they got him,” I started to assure the other girl. “I mean, they had plenty of power there.”

Rather than being reassured, however, Koren just gave me a brief squint before speaking in a thick voice. “I know you’re trying to help,” she said firmly, “but don’t say you’re sure when you’re not.”

“Fair enough,” I admitted. “What I should say is, even if he did get away, it won’t be for long. Gaia and the others won’t let him get away with what he did, Koren. Whether they killed him at the house, or have to hunt him down later, they’ll put him down. After all, killing monsters is what they do.”

Looking away from me, Koren’s shoulders hunched a little, her voice small and quiet. “Part of me wants him to be alive so I can kill him myself. But another part is…” She hesitated, her voice going even quieter than it already was. “… scared. Part of me is scared of him. After everything he did, I… I’m mad, so mad I want to rip his fucking throat out. But he’s just… I’m scared, Flick. I’m scared of him.”

After hesitating a second, I reached out to take the other girl’s hand. Squeezing it, I spoke quietly, my own voice cracking a little. “I know what you mean. I swore that I was going to save my mother from Fossor. But just thinking about him terrifies me. I hate him. I hate him more than anything. But I’m also… I’m also really scared of him. So trust me, I know exactly how you feel. It seems contradictory, like… like if you’re so afraid of someone, you shouldn’t be able to fantasize about killing them.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Koren nodded. “I guess you would understand.” Her hand squeezed mine in return as she straightened up. “I’m glad you were there. I—if you and Deveron hadn’t shown up…”

“I’m glad we did too.” Smiling a bit in spite of myself, I added, “And at least you were here so Mom could meet you. I know a lot of this sucks, but I’m glad you got to talk to her.” My expression fell. “I just wish there was some way that I could actually tell my dad about…” I trailed off, my eyes widening.

“Flick?” Koren and Sean spoke at the same time. She glanced at him before adding, “Are you okay?”

My head was already shaking as I slapped my head. “Oh damn, oh damn, oh damn. Dad is gonna kill me! I was supposed to go over there for dinner, for dinner. And now it’s—fuck, I don’t even know what time it is there. He’s gotta be losing his mind! He probably called the National Guard by now, and–”

Sean caught me by the shoulders. “Flick, Flick calm down. It’s okay. Seller may not have explained much, but he did mention that Gaia took care of any problem with your dad being worried about you.”

Blinking at that, I stopped my panic, but the worry only switched gears. “Stopped him from being worried? Oh god, please tell me they didn’t fuck with his memory again.” I was really getting to the point of hating memory magic with a passion, even if it was done with good intentions. If they absolutely had to do it, I understood. Better that my dad not remember than get himself into trouble. But even then, I still kind of wanted to tell everyone to leave my family’s memories the hell alone.

Fortunately, Sean shook his head. “No, according to Seller, Gaia figured a simpler option was better than using memory magic to solve everything. So she impersonated your voice, called your dad, and told him that you were going to stay there overnight because of some nasty storm that rolled in.”

Koren looked to me. “Good thing there happened to be a bad enough storm to justify th….” In mid-word, she trailed off, looking at both of our expressions before getting it herself. “There didn’t just happen to be a storm, did there?” When we shook our heads, she swallowed. “And there really was a storm, because she wouldn’t take the chance of your dad checking. Which means Gaia actually made… oh.” Her last word was quieter and softer, mouth working a few times before she added, “Wow.”

“Tell me about it,” Sean muttered before looking off to the bushes. “I wonder how far your…” He looked toward one of the Mirandas that was close enough to hear. “… other self had to go.”

She started to answer, but before she could, I spoke up. Without thinking about what I was saying, I replied, “A little over a quarter mile. One thousand four hundred and ten feet.”

They all looked at me, until I realized what I had said. “I mean… wait.”

“Wow, I didn’t know you knew this place that well already,” Tristan had joined us, whistling. “You almost sounded like Vanessa there.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “I don’t know it at all. But I know that Eden’s Garden, the tree, is exactly one thousand, four hundred and ten feet from where we’re standing.” My mouth opened and shut and then I got it. “Oh. Wait, is this what I got from the… what did you call that ugly thing?”

“A Blemmye,” Randi answered. “And I dunno. All I got was a little enhanced strength. Barely noticeable.”

“Same here,” Tristan confirmed.

Koren just shrugged. “I killed one, but I’m pretty sure I just improved the healing the Peridle gave me before. I got hit by one of their spears and it healed faster than it should’ve.”

“Try it with something else,” Sean suggested. “How far is your house from here, or the island?”

I thought about it before shrugging. “I’ve got nothing. It’s just blank. Probably because we’re on a different world.”

“What about the spot where we talked to your mom?” Koren put in curiously.

That one came up immediately. “Twenty-four thousand, six hundred and thirty-two feet that way.” I pointed back the direction we had come from. “About four and three quarter miles.”

“Well, that’s pretty useful to avoid getting lost,” Tristan pointed out with a chuckle. “Even if you do have to be on the same world as whatever you’re trying to find. I wonder if you have to know where it is.”

“Can you tell me how far away my room is?” Miranda asked curiously. “You’ve never seen it.”

I thought for a second, then shook my head. “Nope. I guess I need to know where it is first.”

We experimented a little more with it, but before long, there were sounds approaching. One of the Mirandas came back to wave that it was okay, just before Seller and another Miranda appeared.

“My mom?” Koren immediately asked the man in the fancy green suit.

“Still sleeping, still as okay as could be expected,” he answered before his eyes took in Roxa. “So this is the new wolf, huh?” he asked while using a finger to push his sunglasses down a bit so he could watch her over the top of them. “Sorry, kid. Sounds like you’ve got a place to go, at least.”

“Seller,” I spoke up after Roxa had a chance to mutter her response. “What happened back at the house, do you know yet?”

He looked to me first, then toward Koren, who was watching him intently. “Good news and bad news on that front. The good news is, the bubbly one that teaches your class on Strangers killed him.”

“Nevada,” I breathed out while letting that sink in. “Nevada killed him, Koren. She killed the bastard.”

“The bad news?” the other girl insisted, still staring at Seller.

The man sighed. “The bad news is he got off some kind of message first. They don’t know what he said or who it went to. Probably to another one of his people.”

Well that sounded horrifying. At least the one that had hurt Koren so much was dead, though. I didn’t know how much that would help the girl, if at all. But I was glad the one that had done… all that to her family was gone for good.

“Anyway,” Seller gestured. “Lemme send the wolves on their way, then I’ve been told to make sure the rest of you get some actual sleep before anything else happens.” Before Koren could say anything, he added, “And if your mom wakes up, I’ll let you know.”

Turning to Sean, who would be going back with Mateo and Roxa, I hugged the boy. “Thanks again, Sean. Thanks for coming. And thank Mateo.”

“Heard that,” Mateo spoke up, flicking a finger against his ear while winking at me.

“Roxa!” I called, meeting the other girl’s gaze.

Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. We just looked at each other until she gave me a slight nod. “Remember what I said. If you need help, ask for it. I may not be happy, but you’re dealing with some pretty heavy shit. That’s more important. So you need me, I’ll be there. Even if I do kind of want to use my teeth to shake you around a little.” She gave me a weak smile. “But that’s probably the wolf talking.”

Seller went to send them off, and I turned to the others, another yawn escaping me. “I guess he’s got a point. It’s… it’s time to crash.”

Because one thing was for sure. I wasn’t leaving this place until Abigail woke up. I wanted to talk to my sister. I wanted to be there for her as she took all this in. I wanted to help explain things, get her adjusted to the truth.

But first, it was time to sleep for about a bazillion years.

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