Vulcan

Sharkhunt 23-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come find out.”

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The Third Degree 21-02

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Please note, if you haven’t seen it yet, there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday that started off this arc. You may want to use the Previous Chapter button to check that out if you happened to miss it. 

“Have you ever wondered why they’re all first-year teachers?”

Blinking across the library table at Vanessa as the blonde girl finished speaking, I asked hesitantly, “Wondered why who are all first-year teachers?”

It was Tuesday, January 16th, a couple days after Avalon, Shiori, and I had met with Seth and Calvin (and Buddy, of course). They had promised to get in touch once they actually had a meeting set with Fahsteth. So on that front, all I could do was wait as patiently as possible.

In this particular case, waiting patiently partly involved working on a project for a Heretical Geography that Vanessa and I had been assigned to do together by Professor Vandel. He’d said something about me being one of the few people outside of her own team that he could believe wouldn’t just rely on Vanessa to do all of the work. Which was either flattering for me or really disparaging toward the rest of the class. Probably both.

Looking around briefly, the blonde girl leaned closer while lowering her voice. She had already put a special privacy coin between us (apparently Scout had taught her how to use it). Yet, like Koren, she was still smart enough to be cautious. “Headmistress Sinclaire, all the teachers she said we can trust, the ones in her inner circle, they’re all first-year teachers. What about the ones that teach the older grades? Does she… not really trust any of them?”

Lowering my own voice, I shrugged. “I thought about that, and I’ve got a couple options. First, maybe she just plays her cards close to her chest. You know, like she doesn’t tell us everyone she trusts. We are students, after all. She told us people in the first-year staff that she trusts because those are the teachers that we actually interact with. Why would she tell us about someone we hardly ever see, let alone talk to? How many of the upper-year teachers could you even name?”

The other girl’s mouth opened, but I stopped her with a raised hand. “Sorry, I forgot who I was talking to. All of them, obviously. My point is, how many of the upper year teachers could the average first-year student name? Someone without a perfect memory.”

After the other girl conceded that point with a nod, I added, “It’s, um, compartmentalization. If someone like Ruthers finds out something from us that they shouldn’t find out, her entire network isn’t taken apart. It makes sense that she wouldn’t tell us everything. Especially if they believe that those are the only people firmly on Gaia’s side in the whole thing. There’s a better chance they’ll slip up and someone else that’s loyal to her, someone she didn’t tell us about, can warn her.”

“That… yeah, that makes sense.” Vanessa agreed. “What about the other option you mentioned?”

I looked at the table for a moment before answering. “The other option is that the teachers she trusts are all at the first-year level because it’s easier to hire new teachers, people she can personally vet or already knows, for the younger grades. It makes sense, doesn’t it? A new teacher comes in and they go for the younger students while the more experienced faculty move up to teach the older students. So if Gaia wanted to hire more people, they’d be at this level.”  

Vanessa tilted her head, clearly considering that for a second before slowly nodding. Her voice was quiet and thoughtful. “It makes sense for another reason too. Maybe she was preparing.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Preparing for what?”

“For new students like–” The other girl paused before gesturing back and forth. “Like you and me. Like Shiori. Like Tristan. Like Koren. Students who need extra… guidance. Extra help, from people who understand, people who can tell them–us the truth. Maybe that’s why she stacked the deck for the first-years. Because from second year on, we can still talk to the first-year teachers. They can still help. But you said it yourself, most of us don’t even know who the upper-class teachers are, let alone have any idea of how to get advice from them. She puts the people she trusts in the younger years and lets us bond with them earlier instead of spreading them out.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “That does make sense. So… I guess the answer is probably a little bit of all of the above. Gaia has her reasons for not telling us about everyone she might trust, but she also puts most of them in the first year staffing positions because it gives us people to talk to.”

“I guess so.” Vanessa looked thoughtful for a moment before focusing. “But umm, changing the subject, Scout said you guys were trying to find out everything you could about Avalon’s mom.”

Surprised that Scout had said anything at all about that, I hesitated. “Oh, uh, I guess, but it’s–”

“A secret,” she finished for me. “I know. Don’t worry, Scout said she talked to your roommate first and got the okay to ask me.”

Well that was also a little surprising. “Avalon gave the okay to talk to you about her mom?”

She nodded. “I just had to promise not to tell anyone about it. Not even Tristan. Which…” Pausing, Vanessa made a face. “It feels weird, but I get it. My brother’s not… subtle.”

“Yeah, he has a lot of good qualities,” I agreed. “But keeping things quiet isn’t his strongest suit.”

Shrugging, the girl pointed out, “He’s kept the whole hybrid thing quiet so far. And your secrets.”

Quickly nodding in agreement, I pointed out, “Sure, but there’s a difference between not blabbing secrets and being subtle. Tristan stands out. He loves standing out. He’s um, how do I put this?”

“He’s a show-off,” Vanessa finished for me. “I know. Not subtle. But that’s not why I didn’t tell him anything about how you guys are looking into Avalon’s mom. I didn’t tell him about it because Avalon and Scout asked me not to. I owe you guys. I… you helped get my brother back. So you ask me for help, you ask me to keep a secret, ask me for anything and I… I’m there. Promise.”  

Swallowing, I met her brown-eyed gaze. “And I promise that I’ll find a way to help get your mom and dad back, Vanessa. We’re not done with just your brother. We’re gonna find your family.”

There was a look in her eyes for a moment before she glanced away. Her voice was even quieter than it had been the whole time, to the point that I could barely hear her. “I’m not used to having anyone to talk to about this stuff. The whole time  I was growing up, no one believed what I told them about what happened… until I realized that I had to keep quiet about it or they’d keep sending me to…” She paused, biting her lip as she finished a little hoarsely. “Special homes. So having Headmistress Sinclaire, you, Scout, Tristan, I… I don’t know how to deal with it.”

That was why she came off as so shy most of the time, why she didn’t tend to interact much with people. Besides the fact that she had been busy desperately looking up anything she could to find her parents and brother, she’d also conditioned herself to keep quiet about what she knew so that the people who were supposed to take care of her wouldn’t think she was crazy and lock her up.

“Well,” I coughed, shifting in my seat. “I know we’re not like, best friends or anything. But any time you wanna talk about… anything, I wouldn’t mind. Even if Tristan isn’t magically glued to me anymore.” I said the last bit with a tiny smile, since Gaia had finally succeeded in switching the anchor spell from me to Vanessa just the other day. “Doesn’t mean you have to be a stranger.”

Her brow knitted as she looked at me. “Was that last part a joke?”    

“Was what a–” I stopped, flushing a little. “Right, don’t have to be a stranger. Uh, no, just a coincidence. But can I take credit for it anyway?” Giving the other girl a smile, I added, “Sorry, you were saying something about Scout telling you about looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom.”  

Nodding at that, Vanessa reached down into the bag on the chair beside her. “Yeah, so I um, I looked into it too. I wanted to help, especially since Scout was already helping Tristan and me by looking into anything she could find about the… um, my mom’s people while they were in Europe.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked curiously, “Did she find anything important?”

“Maybe,” the other girl replied slowly, frowning thoughtfully. “She found some books and journals and stuff that mention beings that can possess others. I’ve gotta read all of them and compare it to the stuff we have in this library. You know, Strangers that were already identified and catalogued.”

Squinting then, Vanessa muttered, “I would’ve been through all of them already, but Tristan and the others keep distracting me. And,” she looked back up while pulling a folder out of her bag. “I wanted to keep looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom. You know, because I sort of have experience with…” She trailed off briefly before amending herself. “I know what it’s like to try to hunt down information about your parents and have everything end up being a dead end. Before I came here, I couldn’t find anything about mine.”

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I nodded. “A lot of us seem to have at least one missing parent. I guess it makes us part of the cool club or something.” The words sounded hollow even to me, and I shook it off before gesturing for her to go on. “I take it you actually found something? Wait, are you sure you shouldn’t tell Avalon about it?”

“You can tell her,” Vanessa quickly replied while blushing slightly. “She um, she kinda scares me.”  

I coughed. “I guess she can have that effect on people. But she wouldn’t hurt you or anything.”

“I know, but um, still. You can talk to her better than I can. I get nervous and um, then I start to babble and she gets impatient and it’s a whole thing.” Laying her hand on the folder, she opened it to show me the first page. “Her name was Ophelia Penn. Before she was married to Avalon’s dad, I mean. And before that, her name was Adelind Jaspers. That lasted about two years, and before that one, she was Francesca Dumont. And–”

Holding up a hand, I frowned. “She kept changing her name? How far back does that go?”

“As far as I can tell?” Vanessa hesitated before flipping through some papers in the folder. “The earliest name for her I can find is Giselle Meyer, when she was sixteen. That’s when it was changed to Kaia Pierce. Before that, I dunno. There’s some school records, but they’re spotty, like someone went through and started getting rid of them, but didn’t finish.”

“She was hiding,” I murmured under my breath. “She and her family, I guess. It doesn’t go any further back than that? What about her mom and dad?”

Flinching, the other girl shook her head. “Sorry. All I’ve got for them is a couple names that popped up on her school records. Kinsley and Brennan. Last name Meyer, just like the name she used when she was sixteen. If it was anything else before that, I dunno. There’s no birth certificate, nothing like that. The earliest thing I could find was a note in her freshman year of high school about being excused from gym for the semester because of a broken leg. Before that, there’s nothing. It’s like she just poofed into existence.”

“Or like whoever went back and erased her identity did a really good job up to that point,” I muttered under my breath. “It sounds like they were working on scrubbing everything about her and just didn’t finish.” Thinking about it for another moment, I added, “Maybe it was her. Maybe she was the one erasing her past and it stopped when she… when she died.”

“There’s something big about her, isn’t there?” Vanessa asked, her eyes squinting at me. “Someone’s trying to kill Avalon. And now you guys are looking into her mom’s history and there’s all this stuff?” Before I could say anything, she held up a hand. “I know, it’s secret. Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me. I just…be careful, okay? It sounds like they were trying really hard to hide from someone. If it’s the same someone that’s after Avalon now, that means it was Heretics the whole time. And if Heretics were after Avalon’s family for that long… it’s something big.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. It took me a second to find my voice. “Trust me, we know. Don’t worry about it. You’ve got enough to focus on. I’ll umm, I’ll look through this stuff you found and see if anything jumps out. Did you notice anything else?”

“There was one big thing,” Vanessa started slowly. Glancing at me, she reached out to shuffle through the papers before coming to a single page. It was blank, but I could tell there was something on the other side, from the colors that bled through. “She visited the high school counselor a few times. Most of the file’s gone, but this was in there. It’s a watercolor she made when he told her to draw what she was dreaming about.”

Watching my expression, she turned the paper over, and I found myself staring at Avalon’s mom’s painting.

It was the lighthouse, the one here on the island. That much was obvious. But surrounding the lighthouse there was a pair of folded, half-visible angel wings. And above it, there was a face topped by a halo. It was like there was a giant, mostly invisible angel guarding the lighthouse. Yet the expression of the angel was… dangerous. It looked menacing.

Seosten. Avalon’s mother had made a painting of the Seosten and the lighthouse when her counselor told her to draw what she dreamed about. But she hadn’t been a Heretic, had she? I had to believe that if she was, Gaia would’ve said something.

Unless that part was erased from her memory too, of course. But that was just… we needed to know more. Maybe one of her parents was here and told her stories about it. If it was… I started to talk out loud to work it out. “Maybe whichever one of her parents wasn’t being… chased originally used to go here. Maybe they were part of the group looking for the other parent, and they found them. But instead of bringing them in, they… fell in love and started running away. Then the parent that went here told Avalon’s mom stories about this place.”

It was little more than a guess, really. But I had to believe that Gaia would know if Avalon’s mom had gone here. But if one of that woman’s parents had gone here before leaving, that might have been enough for Gaia to not make the connection. I’d have to see if she recognized the names Kinsley or Brennan, though I doubted either were their real names by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked up again. “Vanessa, thanks for this. You didn’t have to do all this work. It couldn’t have been easy.”

She shrugged. “It’s like I said, I’m used to digging into people’s pasts. And you–you helped bring my brother back. I owe you.”

My head shook at that. “No, you don’t. We don’t have to get into the ‘who owes who what’ game. But helping each other because we can? That I’m good with.”

The other girl watched me for a moment before nodding. “Okay. But um, we should probably help each other by doing that project so we don’t fail Professor Vandel’s course.

“Because that would be really embarrassing.”

******      

“Revolutions,” Professor Ross began the next morning. “There’s been a lot of them throughout human history. Some the Bystanders know about, others they don’t. But one in particular stands out both within the Bystander world and our own. The American Revolution.”

Standing in front of her desk, the elderly woman watched us for a moment before continuing. “Can anyone tell me why the American Revolution is important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

Vanessa’s hand went up immediately, of course. And in this case, so did most of the other Heretic-born students. On the other hand, my fellow Bystander-kin looked as confused as I felt.

“Mr. Gerardo,” Professor Ross nodded toward Sean. “Why is the American Revolution important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

The boy shifted in his seat and straightened while laying his hand on Vulcan’s head. “Because what the Bystanders call the American Revolution, we call the Splinter-Rebellion.”

Before my brain could finish summoning the image of a giant mutated rat directing his turtle pupils to wage war for independence, Professor Ross continued. “Very good. Yes, and what was formed from the Splinter-Rebellion, Mr. Leven?”

Zeke all-but snarled the answer. “Eden’s Garden.” He was pointedly looking in Avalon’s direction.

That brought my head up and around, as I blurted, “Wait, what?”

“If you have a question, Miss Chambers, raise your hand,” Professor Ross admonished before answering anyway. “But Mr. Leven is correct. What began as a war between Crossroads and those who splintered off to create what eventually became Eden’s Garden bled into the Bystander world. However, where the Bystander war was about the American colonies fighting for independence from Great Britain, the Splinter-Rebellion centered around a… violent disagreement over which Heretic group should control the territory of the new world.

“Small and young as they were, Eden’s Garden possessed a good deal of influence over the British Parliament and leadership. They had begun to use that influence to immediately begin giving themselves advantages in the colonies. Crossroads could not directly combat those kind of connections. So, we went for a different tactic.”

Raising my hand until she nodded to me, I managed a slightly weak, “… Revolution. Crossroads pushed for the American Revolution to separate the colonies from Great Britain so that all that influence Eden’s Garden had wouldn’t mean anything.”

The woman smiled a little at me. “Yes, very good, Miss Chambers. Exactly. It’s slightly amusing if you think about it that way. Eden’s Garden staged their own revolution in order to be independent from Crossroads. Then, in order to combat their new political power that would have given them a great deal of influence over the shape and direction of the new continent, Crossroads helped to stage a revolution in the Bystander world. That revolution resulted in the formation of the United States, and helped cut a good deal of the power away from Great Britain.

“Of course,” she added then, “There were other wars going on at the same time with the same intention. Eden’s Garden had firm control over Great Britain, which meant that Crossroads had to attack them from multiple fronts, using different proxy countries.

“You might say that without Crossroads working to neuter Great Britain’s power, and thus the power of Eden’s Garden, the United States never would have been formed.

“And wouldn’t that have been a very different world to live in?”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-05

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“I wonder if anyone in my life was actually normal.”

It was Saturday afternoon, the day after the first track classes. I was in one of the protective spell practice chambers with Sean and the twins (err, the ones on my team), each of us taking turns practicing a freeze-bomb spell that Carfried had given everyone for homework. Or dormwork. Whatever you called it when you actually lived in the same place as the school. So far, Scout had been the only one of us who actually managed to get the balls from the spell to freeze the target correctly.

As I finished speaking, Sands looked over at me with a frown from where she was carefully inscribing the spellform on her next metal ball, intent on getting it right that time. “What do you mean, normal?”

Shrugging, I worked on my own ball. “I mean Scott and Calvin both turned out to be Alters. Miranda was recruited by Eden’s Garden. My mom was—well, you know. I wonder who else was around while I was growing up that was actually spying on me for Crossroads, or for Prosser, or for anyone else.”

Vulcan made a noise that was half-whine, straightening up to move over so he could bump his nose against my leg. Smiling despite myself, I took a knee and rubbed his snout. “I know, buddy. Some of them were trying to help, or at least trying to make sure things didn’t get worse than they already were.”

Rearing back, Sean activated his ball and threw it to the other end of the small room. As it hit the wall, the ball exploded with a blue mist that seemed to get everything a bit chilly, but didn’t quite freeze.

“Well, shit then,” the boy muttered before reaching into the nearby box to take out another ball so he could start working on the spell again. “Really thought I had it that time.” Looking to me, he added, “I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of people you know that weren’t involved at all, Flick. It’s just that the only reason you have to interact with them anymore are when they get pulled into this stuff, or were connected to it from the start. The ones that aren’t connected at all, you just… won’t hear from.”

“That and I didn’t really get very close to anyone after my mom left,” I admitted. “There was Miranda, and she was my best friend. But I was pretty much focused on her. And when she had to move, it was just… I didn’t go out of my way to make friends. Mostly I just… stayed in the background, I guess.”

Taking my turn, I triggered the spell and threw the ball. It was my third try, and I was pretty confident. Then again, Sean had been pretty confident too and all he’d actually managed was a brief cold mist. So when the ball hit the wall and promptly created a thick sheet of ice about two feet across, I was surprised enough to let out a gleeful squeal. “Hey, I got it that time! High five for the winners, Scout.”

“Hey, hey, no fives until I can five too.” Sands caught her sister’s wrist, sticking her tongue out at me. “Hold your horses, Flick. I’ve got it this time. Then we can all high five together. And laugh at Sean.”

Snickering in spite of myself, I gestured to the nearby wall. “Go for it. The more fives the merrier.”

Sean, for his part, said something obviously pointed in Spanish before addressing Vulcan. “You see what I put up with?” He then watched as the mechanical dog walked to Scout and sat down. “Traitor.”

Sure enough, Sands’ next throw covered more of the wall with ice. Jumping up with her arms raised, she cheered before doing a front handstand. Holding it for a moment, she winked at me from her upside down position before falling back to her feet. “See?” the girl crowed, “Told you I had it that time.”

Giving both girls high fives, I nodded easily. “When you’re right, you’re right. Now it’s Sean’s turn.”

While he was working on the ball (clearly taking extra time because he didn’t want to fail to get it that time), Sands shifted on her feet. “Any luck looking into Avalon’s mother? You know…” She trailed off, obviously trying not to look too giddy or fangirly about the situation. “Heironymus Bosch’s granddaughter or… great granddaughter or… whatever.”

My head shook. “I still think we’re gonna have to go see the place they used to live. I mean, it’s been a long time, but maybe somebody there remembers her mom. Plus there could be records, a paper trail. She was living with Bystanders long enough for Avalon’s dad to meet her and all that, so there should be something to track her. Hopefully it’ll lead somewhere. We just need to find a good time to go.”

After biting my lip thoughtfully for a second, I teased, “You’re still kinda freaking out about that, huh?”

“That my teammate is related to the guy who founded our entire society?” Sands gave me a wide-eyed look before nodding almost frantically. “Uh, yeah, I’m kinda freaking out about that. Just a little bit.”

Scout giggled a little, but she was nodding too. Clearly, both of them thought it was a pretty big deal.

“Maybe you should come too,” I offered. “When we go look into her past, I mean. After all, you guys are the ones who stayed in the Investigation track. You could see something we end up missing.”

Grinning, Sands quickly replied, “You don’t have to ask us twice. Just let us know when you’re going.”

I shrugged at that. “Of course, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be obvious when we head out. Gotta get Gaia’s permission and all that so she can come up with an excuse about why we’re leaving the island.”

Scout leaned up then and whispered something quietly in her sister’s ear. Sands then promptly looked at me before giggling. “Yeah,” she replied with a nod. “If she ever actually talks to them about it.”

Doing a quick double-take, I blurted out loud, “Wait, huh? If who ever talks to who about what?”

Sands just scoffed at me while rolling her eyes. “Oh, I think you know,” she retorted pointedly.

“I think you know exactly what we’re talking about.”

******

“You’ve got another meeting with Gaia tonight, right?” Shiori asked a few hours later as the two of us walked along the beach together. “For your special extra tutoring stuff, I mean.”

“Yeah.” I nodded, looking back out to the water for a moment while feeling myself blush. Which was weird. We weren’t even talking about anything that sensitive, so why was I blushing like that? “But it’s different tonight. Vanessa and Tristan are supposed to be there so Gaia can try to transfer the anchor spell to her. You know, so he can be linked to his actual twin instead of some girl he barely knows.”

“He knows you better than most other students here,” Shiori pointed out before pausing. “He knows me better than most of them too. Which is fair, I guess, since we’re all pretty much in the same boat.”

Somehow, my hand found hers before I knew what it was doing. “It’ll be okay,” I murmured. “For all of you. Trust me. Trust Gaia. She knows how to keep this stuff secret. She’s been doing it for awhile.”

Shiori’s hand squeezed mine before she looked over to the water with a thoughtful murmur. “Speaking of boats, you went out to see your shark buddies, right? Cuz, you know, they probably missed you.”

“Oh, yeah.” I nodded quickly. “Trust me, that’s one of the first things I did when we got back. I used the breathing spell and went as deep as I could with them. They had all kinds of stuff to show me.”

Giggling a little under her breath, Shiori looked up and down the beach, staring back the way we’d come. “Okay,” she announced after a second. “I think we’re far enough away now. You see anybody?”

Looking back that way as well, I shook my head after scanning the whole beach for a minute. “Nope. Looks clear to me. No sign of anyone, including my shadow. Which is a real treat, let me tell you.”

Shiori snickered audibly at that. “You know, you could just ask Doug why he’s so interested in you.”

“I know,” I replied easily. “I could just ask him, but I want to see what he does first. I mean, if he’s…” Pausing, I lowered my voice reflexively despite the fact that we already would’ve been pretty thoroughly screwed if anything we said was overheard. “If he’s possessed or something, I don’t want to tip my hand just like that. And if it’s something like he thinks I’m connected to Roxa’s disappearance-”

“He wouldn’t be wrong about that,” Shiori pointed out with a raised eyebrow. As she spoke, the girl was already taking the container from her hip. Popping the lid off, she set it down and let Choo crawl out. The little lightning-pig sniffed the sand curiously until she dropped a fun-size snickers bar for him.

As the jekern pounced on the candy, I nodded. “Right, he wouldn’t be wrong. But I also can’t answer his questions. It’s not like I can say, ‘hey, your teammate’s okay, but she got turned into a werewolf by a psychopath. Oh, and on a related note, werewolves and every other Stranger aren’t automatically evil.’”

The two of us started walking again, with Choo jogging to keep up. The little pig kept looking both ways, up and down the beach while happily trotting between us with sparks playing around his snout.

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed after a few seconds of walking. “You’re right, you can’t exactly tell him the truth. He probably wouldn’t—umm, you know, take it very well. You think it’s just him, or his whole team?”

Biting my lip, I thought about it for a second. “I dunno. I mean, he’s the really obvious one. But maybe they’re all involved. I can’t see him keeping it a secret if he thinks I know something. I wouldn’t, in his position. But he’s the one that’s always staring at me. And he obviously switched tracks to follow me.”

“He could just think you’re cute and be really weird and shy about actually talking about it,” she pointed out. Immediate after she finished speaking, the girl’s face turned pink and she coughed. “I mean, did he say anything while you guys were working on your—what was that thing again?”

“Identifying a mystery Stranger and working out how to kill it.” I shook my head then. “And no, I mean nothing that wasn’t about that. He said we should work on more of it Sunday–tomorrow. So maybe he’ll bring up Roxa then. Maybe he just wanted to wait until he can get his whole team there.”

“If he asks about Roxa,” Shiori started while looking sidelong at me. “What are you gonna tell him?”

Wincing, I made a confused flailing motion. “I dunno. That’s why I’m waiting to see what he does.”

By that point, we had reached the spot of the beach that led up into Choo’s little hidey-place. As the two of us approached, Avalon straightened up off the log she had been sitting on and turned to face us. She was silent, but Choo went running right up to nuzzle against her foot while making excited noises.

“See?” I announced with a little smile at that sight. “He likes you almost as much as Herbie does.”

Her eyes rolled, but Avalon still reached down to let the jekern clamber into her hands. Picking him up, she failed to totally contain her little smile at his soft cooing. “You asked me to meet you guys out here, Chambers,” the girl reminded me. “So what’s going on? Tell me something bad didn’t happen again.

“Nothing bad happened,” I quickly assured her. “I mean, that I know of. Sure, bad stuff happened somewhere. Bad stuff happens all the time. Especially now that we know about Strangers and all th–”

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted, eyebrow raised at me curiously. “You’re babbling. More than usual.”

Flushing, I closed my mouth for a second and took a breath to collect myself. I’d thought that this was a good idea. I knew it was something that needed to be done before someone ended up getting hurt. And yet, standing there like that with both of them watching me, I suddenly felt nervous and self-conscious.

“Um. Okay, yeah.” My head bobbed up and down, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I wanted to get both of you out here so we could–” In mid-sentence, I stopped talking and looked up at the sky.

Shiori poked my arm lightly after a moment of that, her expression pensive. “Flick? What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly as my blush deepened. “Oh, um, nothing. I guess I just sort of expected something dramatic to drop out of the sky right then and interrupt me before I could finish talking.”

They both looked at each other, and I coughed before pushing on. “Okay. No more interruptions, no more excuses, no more… anything but dealing with this.” Biting my lip, I looked between them. Even then, despite what I’d said, there was the temptation to make an excuse and run away. I was… afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of being abandoned again, of being left alone after putting myself out there.

Well screw that. I wasn’t going to let that fear define me. I knew why my mother was gone, and it had nothing to do with wanting to abandon me, or not caring. She had been taken away because she cared.

“I like you.” The words blurted their way out of my mouth almost of their own volition, but I kept going. “B-both of you, I mean. Shiori, Avalon, I like you. As friends, but… but more. I like you as more than friends. I like both of you. I know it’s stupid and weird and selfish, but I do. And I… I don’t want to hurt either of you. I think you’re both… hot and smart and funny in your own ways. I think you’re—I know you’re brilliant, you’re both… amazing. You’re the best, and I couldn’t get through any of this stuff without you. And I know it’s stupid. I know. You date one person. That’s the way it works. But every time I think about… about how happy I’d be dating one of you, I think about… hurting the other person. And I can’t—I can’t just… I’m selfish. I’m stupid and selfish and I can’t do it. I can’t hurt either of you. Which is even more stupid because I don’t even know for sure that you both even think about me like that. I mean I’m pretty sure since all that stuff happened, but maybe you don’t and I’m just babbling for no reason and making myself look even more stupid than I already did, which is saying something.”

Shivering a little, I cleared my throat. “I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m not even—I couldn’t even swear that the words are coming out in the right order. The-umm, the point is, I just didn’t want—don’t want to hurt you guys. I don’t want—I don’t want to hug Shiori and make Valley sad if she sees it. I don’t want to kiss Valley and make Shiori… think that I don’t care about her like that. Because I do. I do. I care about both of you, and the last thing I want to do… the last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

Shrugging weakly then, I managed to finish with, “But you guys really don’t feel that way. I just—I figured it should be out in the open before one of us—one of you got hurt. Now we can—we can just deal with it. So, you know, am I being stupid or…”

“You’re not being stupid,” Shiori said quietly. She gave a long sigh before looking at Avalon. “See? I told you she’d bring it up on her own.”

Blinking at that, I looked from Shiori to Avalon. “Wait—wait, you guys talked about this already?”

“Believe it or not,” Avalon started dryly, “we are capable of having a conversation without you, Chambers.”

I was still stammering at that, trying to find the right thing to say, when Shiori spoke up instead. “Avalon came to talk to me after… after you guys kissed.”

My head snapped that way, and I felt my cheeks turn pink. “She—she did?”

Nodding, Shiori spoke quietly. “At first I thought she was… umm… bragging. But she made me listen. She wasn’t bragging, she just… she didn’t want me to be hurt either. Like you. She wanted me to know what happened, and that she cared about you.”

Looking to Avalon then, I swallowed hard. “You… didn’t want Shiori to be hurt. You knew…”

“Of course I knew,” the other girl retorted before giving a little shrug with one shoulder. “And I knew how I’d feel. So I told her.”

“We talked about it,” Shiori put in then. “And we figured we’d wait and see what you wanted to do.”

“Up to a point,” Avalon cut in. “If you waited much longer, I was going to force the issue.”

Coughing, I ran my hands all the way back and down through my hair. “Oh. Um. Right. So… what do we do about it?”

The two of them looked at each other again. After a few seconds of silence, Shiori spoke up. “Well, um, maybe we should get it all out in the open.” She looked to me then. “I like you, Flick. I mean—I knew I liked girls for a long time. And I kinda had a crush on Roxa for awhile. But you—I like you. I think you’re—umm, great. I–” Her head bobbed up and down quickly as she blushed. “Really great.”

Clearing her throat, she looked to the other girl. “Um, your turn.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds. Silence, that was, save for the sound of Choo cheerfully snuffling against the girl’s hands.

Finally, Avalon breathed out and straightened up to meet my gaze. “Okay, fine. Chambers—Felicity… I… I like you, okay? There, I said it out loud.”

Unable to help myself, I teased, “Are you about to spontaneously combust?”

“You know what?” she half-snapped. “You can–” Stopping herself, she sighed and slumped down a bit. “I’m sorry. I just—this is supposed to be easy, but it’s not.”

I shook my head at that. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy. Not even in the most normal of circumstances, and… well, let’s be honest, this isn’t.”

The three of us nodded silently to each other for a thoughtful moment before I continued. “So, I like you, and I like you.” I nodded to each of them in turn. “And—well, I guess you like me. And you like me. But you guys don’t…”

Shiori shook her head quickly. “No—I mean sure, she’s hot.” She glanced sidelong to Avalon. “Really hot. But I don’t think about her like that. I don’t mind being friends, and she’s really good with Choo, but… no, I don’t want to like—date her or anything.”

“And I don’t want to date her,” Avalon confirmed. “I’m barely okay with the idea of liking you, Chambers. I’m not adding something else on top of that.”

“Right, right.” I bit my lip. “So… what do we do now? I don’t think it’s—I know it’s not fair that I can’t decide—God, could I be any more selfish? I just—I don’t want to hurt you guys.”

“You’re not asking us to marry you, Chambers,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Look, I—it’s like I told Porter over there. Heretics aren’t exactly known for being strictly monogamous. They live such… varied and different life spans. Someone could live sixty years and their wife could live five hundred. The point is, they—they have more than one romantic relationship at the same time, all right? Not everyone, but enough that it’s nothing new.”

My mouth opened and shut. “I—you mean date both of you at the same time? How… how does that work?”

“That’s what I said,” Shiori put in, blushing just as much as I was pretty sure I was. “And I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it.”

Avalon sighed. “Chambers, I don’t know—I don’t know how good of a… of a date I’d be. I really don’t. I… freak out, I pull away, I… I do stupid things. You deserve to be with someone who can—who can be comfortable with all that stuff. But I’m selfish too. You say you’re selfish? So am I. So I don’t want to just let you go. I want to try. I want to… to try. But I want you to be able to do all that stuff that makes me uncomfortable too. So yeah, sometimes you and I can do stuff. And other times you and Porter can do stuff. Other than that… maybe it won’t work out. But at least we gave it a shot.”

“At least we gave it a shot,” I echoed, smiling just a little bit. “Have there ever been more romantic words?”

Her free hand snapped out, punching me in the shoulder, and I yelped in the midst of snickering. “Oww—sorry not sorry.”

Rubbing my shoulder, I smiled a little while looking back and forth at them. “I… guess we could see what happens. And if anyone gets too uncomfortable with it, we just… reevaluate. That’s all I want, is for everyone to… to talk to each other. So what do we call this whole… dating both of you thing?”

“Call it whatever you want,” Avalon answered. “I just—I just want you to be happy, Cha—Felicity. I want to… try. So if you want to, we can… try.”

“Trying sounds good,” I agreed, biting my lip. “I guess this whole thing makes me really lucky, no matter how it turns out. Just—both of you being interested in me, even if it doesn’t work out, it really… it really could do a number on my ego, you know?”

“Oooh, oooh!” Shiori perked up suddenly. “I–”

“Oh God, don’t say it,” Avalon interrupted, hanging her head. “Please don’t say it.”

She said it. Face bright, Shiori cheerfully announced, “I guess some people have amorous feelings, but you get a-more-us feelings.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had a feeling it was going to be interesting.

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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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