When I’d first met Namid, that time back when she and that one guy, Hue, had found Shiori and me talking (and just talking) in the storage room, I’d thought that she looked like the stereotypical thug. Now? Well, now I had pretty much the exact same impression.
As she opened the door to let us in, I gave the older girl a quick once-over. She wore a white button-up shirt identical to any of the school uniforms, except hers had the sleeves cut off all the way to the shoulders. On her bare arms, I could see what looked like tribal tattoos running all the way down to her wrists. And instead of the normal uniform jacket, Namid wore a sleeveless denim vest with a bunch of patches of various bands that I didn’t recognize all over it.
“Oh,” she announced succinctly upon seeing us, “it’s you guys.” Gesturing as she pivoted to walk back into the room, the girl added, “Come on then, you might as well get in here.”
Sands and I looked at each other briefly before stepping inside. I leaned back to close the door before glancing around the room. It was pretty similar to the first year dorms, except a little big bigger. And in the middle of the room, between the two beds, there was a terrarium (or was it an aquarium? It was sort half-land and half-water) with two turtles in it. One was swimming around in the water portion while the other seemed to be sunning itself on the pebbles under the lamp.
Noticing me looking at the tank, Namid gestured to the turtle in the water, then the one on the rocks. “That’s Laird and that’s Eastman. Say hi, boys.” She made a finger motion, and a plate by the tank flew up and over to me until I caught it out of the air. On the plate there were some green beans and cabbage. “Feed the boys if you want,” the girl added while sitting on her bed. “They’ve been good. Oh, and there’s some worms in the cupboard under the tank. Mix it up.”
Glancing toward Sands again, I shrugged before stepping over to feed the turtles. “Now, don’t get jealous, Herbie,” I instructed the rock while taking him out of my pocket so he could sit on the edge of the tank. “You know you’ll get fed tonight. Can’t have you going off your diet.”
In the background, I heard Namid ask conversationally, “So uh, your teammate, was she always this fucking crazy, or did the constant ambushes and attacks just finally make her snap.”
The casual shrug in Sands’ voice was obvious even without looking. “She brought the rock with her before the first day even started, so I’m gonna go with ‘she was always like this.’”
“Hey,” I retorted after letting Laird eat a green bean out of my hand, “I might’ve already been a crazy person, but now I’m a superpowered crazy person, with special Kung Fu action.” To demonstrate, I made a few chopping and punching motions vaguely in the air with my free hand.
“Eh,” the older girl shrugged. “At least your crazy is directed toward anthropomorphizing rocks and shit. I’ve seen much worse outlets for the kind of shit you’ve been going through this year.”
She didn’t know the half of it. Shaking my head, I reached down to get under the tank and found the bucket she had been talking about. It was full of dirt, and I could see the worms squirming around inside. With Namid’s eyes on me, watching curiously, I reached into the dirt and dug through it to find a long one. Taking it out, I looked at the writhing, wiggling thing for a second before feeding it to one of the turtles. “Lots of people go through shit around here,” I muttered.
Before the other girl could say anything to that, Sands cut in. “That’s kinda why we want to get this extra credit thing done. You know, before anything else happens to fuck up our work again.”
“Sure, sure, right.” Raising an eyebrow pointedly, Namid held her hand out and waited expectantly until Sands put what looked like two twenty dollar bills in her palm. Then the older girl glanced at them, rubbed both with her fingers, and slid them away into a pocket with a smile. “Perfect,” she announced with a grin. “If nothing else, you freshmen are always good to make a little pocket change off of. What was it you needed for Project Kiss-The-Teacher’s-Ass again?”
Remembering what Sands had said our excuse was, I replied, “Our project’s on ancient Native American Heretics. Specifically, Native American Heretics and the magic artifacts they used.”
Gesturing, Namid instructed, “Hey, make sure Laird gets a worm too. Don’t let Eastman hog everything.” Watching for another second to make sure I was feeding both turtles properly, she finally focused on our issue. “Anyway, so you’re going all Indiana Jones, huh? I mean, admit it, Old Indy going after some kind of big Native artifact and getting chased by a Skinwalker or something would’ve been a hell of a lot better than whatever the fuck that alien shit was.”
I couldn’t really argue with that, so I coughed and nodded. “Sure, but does that mean you know a lot about it? We figured talking to someone like you would be better than digging into a book.”
“Or at least a little less boring,” Sands added while rolling her eyes. “Not all of us are Vanessa.”
“Hey, you paid for it,” Namid replied, clearly defensively. “I might like taking cash out of you adorable little freshmens’ hands, but I earn every fucking penny. I don’t cheat. You paid for good stuff, I’ll give you enough shit to make Dare wanna make you a guest lecturer or something. ”
“You really know that much about that stuff?” I asked hesitantly, making myself sound unsure about all of it. “ We were gonna ask Aylen, but she’s a uh, Bystander-kin, so she doesn’t know.”
Sands nodded. “Yeah, Silverstones aren’t exactly that useful to get extra information out-”
“Hey,” the older girl snapped surprisingly, squinting at her. “Don’t use that word. I don’t like it.”
Blinking, Sands glanced to me before hesitantly asking, “What word? Silverstone? It’s just a–”
“I know what it is,” Namid informed her. “And I also don’t care what anyone dresses it up as. It’s a word they use to separate people who grew up with Heretics from those who didn’t. And we’ve already got one of those. Bystander-Kin. Silverstone started as an insult. Clueless. Doesn’t matter if they don’t mean it that way now. It’s still an insult. So, you use the word again, and we’ve got problems. Problems that forty bucks ain’t gonna get your little twin ass out of, got it?”
Still looking a little surprised by the other girl’s hot retort, Sands quickly nodded. “Uh, sure. Okay. I just uhh–” She coughed, looking toward me for help after failing to find more words.
“She didn’t mean it like that,” I hurriedly put in before gesturing. “All she was saying was that Aylen doesn’t know much about the Heretic side of things because she wasn’t born into it.”
“True,” Namid agreed before adding, “so let’s get into it. You wanna know about artifacts, you came to the right person. You might say that my family has a… certain history with them.”
Biting my lip, I hesitated before offering, “You’ve got relatives that collect them?”
The older girl raised an eyebrow at that. “You could say that. My great… great… something great aunt Litonya collects them. Or she used to, before…”
“Litonya?” Sands jumped on the opportunity. “You mean Litonya from the Committee? She’s your relative?”
“And what do you mean, ‘she used to’?” I added.
Snorting at that, Namid shrugged. “Not that she’s very proud of that fact, but sure, yeah. We’re related. Great-Aunt Litty, she fucking hates it when I call her that, by the way. Like I said, she used to collect all those artifacts. I guess she still does, but she lost most of her collection about a year or so ago.”
“Lost it?” I repeated, trying my best to make it sound like this was just an interesting extra bit, rather than the exact thing we’d come to find out. “How’d that happen?”
“Yeah,” Sands put in then, “Didn’t she keep the important things in a blood-vault?”
Namid shrugged again. “Usually, yeah. But a couple times a year, she had them taken out to be cleaned, examined, and processed. You know, in case any of the artifacts she had could be used to handle any outstanding cases. They’d go through the worst problems the adult Heretics have been dealing with, then look through all those old artifacts and see if any of them could help.”
“That’s… useful,” I murmured before looking at the older girl. “But it didn’t go so well that time?”
Her eyes rolled. “You could say that. Should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty bitch about it. Apparently some pack of werewolves jumped the examiners while they were cleaning everything. Got away with about three quarters of her collection before she showed up. Of course, they also killed four Heretics in the process, but what Litty actually cared about was her precious fucking treasure.”
Right, so all those items, probably including the Ring of Anuk-Ité, had been stolen by a pack of werewolves. Obviously, it was the same pack that Pace was part of. Lemuel’s pack. But that didn’t explain why the ring was now a choker. And I couldn’t exactly be that open about it.
Instead, I tried to get there from another angle. “Why couldn’t Litonya track the artifacts down again? I mean, you’d think she’d have some kind of magic tracking spell stuck onto them or something if they were that valuable.”
“Sure, of course they did.” Namid nodded. “But apparently the wolves either knew magic or knew someone else who could use it, because they blocked the tracking spells. Erased them somehow. I dunno, but trust me, if Litty had a way of tracking them down, she would’ve by now. Especially that fucking ring.”
Struggling not to verbally leap on that too much, I coughed, looking at Sands and back again before trying to sound casual. “Ring?”
“Ring of Anuk-Ité,” she replied. “Fuck, you should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty go on and on and on about that thing. It’s why she put the extra protection on it. Not that it helped, which just pissed her off more.”
“What–umm, what extra protection?” Sands asked before I could.
Namid sat up on her bed then while answering, “The ring’s one-of-a-kind. I mean literally one-of-a-kind. Nothing else even remotely like it. So Litty put some kind of… fuck, I dunno what it’s called. Some spell that’s supposed to lock onto that identical thing and bring it back to the case that you enchanted it for, no matter how far away it is.”
“So why didn’t it work, if the spell’s so good?” I put in, trying once more to sound like I was only interested academically and not as if it was life-or-death.
“Best guess?” she replied with another shrug, “they changed the ring. The spell focuses on it being identical, right? Unique. The only one of its kind. So the only way the spell wouldn’t work is if–”
“Is if they changed it,” I finished, realizing then. That was why the ring wasn’t a ring anymore. That’s why it was a necklace, a choker. They had changed it to avoid that spell.
While I was still focused on that, Sands asked, “What’s so special about that one ring? What makes it more important than everything else she lost?”
Standing up, Namid moved over to where I was. She reached down into the tank to rub one of her turtles. “What’s so special about it? Well first of all, it’s supposed to make anyone who wears it immune to the Stranger sense. Heretics don’t show up as Heretics to Strangers, and Strangers who wear it don’t show up as Strangers to Heretics. Makes you look like a normal person.”
Kinda like I did now, as long as I didn’t use my powers. I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you said first of all? You mean there’s more? That–uh, that sounds pretty powerful as it is.”
“I know, right?” She snorted. “Bad enough without adding in the angel myth.”
That caught my attention. My eyes whipped around. “Wh-what? Angel myth?”
Namid laughed. “What’re you, some kind of religious chick? It’s not real. There’s no such thing as angels, okay? Demons, sure, but not angels.”
“What’d the myth say?” Sands cut in while I was still trying to find my voice. “What does some ring that hides Strangers have to do with angels?”
“It’s the legend of Anuk-Ité,” the older girl replied. “Two-Face. So it works both ways. According to the myth, it doesn’t just hide the wearer’s true nature, you know, as a Heretic or a Stranger or whatever. The myth says that it doesn’t just do that. It also,” she paused then before clearly reciting, “‘reveals the true nature of the hidden ones.’”
“True nature of the hidden ones,” I muttered under my breath, my brain spinning.
Namid went on, still sounding dismissive of the whole concept. “Yeah, the legend says the angels would hide among us–I mean, they didn’t call them angels. They called them gods. But I guess someone else decided they meant angels at some point. Whatever. Gods, angels, fucking aliens. Whatever they’re supposed to be, the story says that they hide among us. But if you wear the ring, it’s supposed to reveal them to you.”
“Reveal the… angels… that are hiding among humanity,” I managed in a voice that sounded weak even to me.
She nodded. “Yeah. I dunno, like… it’s supposed to highlight them or make you suddenly know if the person you’re looking at is really a hidden god or an angel or… whatever.
“Like I said, pretty stupid, right?”
“Hey, you worried about the hunt tonight?” Deveron asked a few days later. He was standing there, watching me drink from a bottle of water after another intense training session where he’d been putting me through my paces. Ever since he’d decided to take the whole mentor thing seriously, Deveron had insisted on daily extra training on top of everything else I was doing. Mostly it consisted of him kicking my ass down into the grass over and over again, then carefully going over every last move with me to make sure I understood what I did wrong.
Then he’d just kick my ass again anyway. One thing was for sure, he wasn’t taking it easy.
Slowly lowering the bottle, I looked at the ground for a second before glancing up. “Sure seems like things always go wrong on these hunts, you know?” I replied carefully. “Gaia says they’ve got… plans to deal with any kind of interruption this time, but still…” I trailed off, wincing inwardly. It was so tempting to tell him the whole reason I was nervous about the hunt tonight, the fact that at least one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust was actually a Seosten. But I couldn’t, because, well, he was still on that particular list.
Or was he? If he had been taken over by one of the angels, wouldn’t they have already known about Wyatt being the one who put the protection spells on Avalon? They’d definitely know that Professor Pericles hadn’t been the only Zedekiah at the school, and the person on the recording that Miranda had shown me had seemed pretty damn adamant that Pericles was the only one.
Except things might’ve changed since then. I didn’t know how often Seosten changed bodies or what the protocol was there. Maybe they did know about Wyatt by this point.
That was why I’d told him the truth. Because if he was compromised, Avalon was already in deep trouble. Deeper trouble than she had been before. And given the man’s normal paranoia and security measures, I had to believe that he was about as safe as he could possibly be.
And let’s face it, him acting paranoid toward anyone he thought might have been possessed wouldn’t look at all out of the ordinary from how he acted the rest of the time anyway.
Besides, I still didn’t know why I appeared to be immune to Seosten-possession. I was kind of hoping it was some kind of blood thing, meaning at least Koren and Wyatt would be safe. But again, I didn’t know for sure. There was just no way to know. Not yet, anyway. We were working on it, but for the time being, we had to play everything really close to our vests.
Of course, if we could track down Pace and get our hands on that damn choker, we might be able to be done with this whole thing. It wasn’t just about getting the thing for Roxa anymore, though she still needed it. Now it was about getting the thing so that we could figure out exactly how it identified Seosten. Gaia had said that if she could get a look at it, she could probably duplicate the effect. But she had to examine the thing first. Which meant that finding Pace had just been given a great big shove up the list of priorities.
For his part, Deveron winced before nodding. “Yeah, well, you’re right. These hunts don’t have the best track record as far as you’re concerned. But I talked to Gaia myself, and trust me, she’s definitely taking it seriously. If anyone tries anything this time, and she’s going to be right on top of them.” He paused then, falling silent for a few seconds before adding with a curious look in my direction, “She told me that she asked if you guys wanted to sit this one out.”
“Yeah,” I nodded quickly. “We talked about it, but we decided it was better this way. If we sit out any of these hunts, we’re going to get less safe, not more. Because if we’re gonna survive, we need power. We need training. We need skill. We need to hunt, we need to get… we have to get more powerful. If I’m gonna survive when Fossor decides to come after me, I can’t sit things out now. I can’t. I just…” Sighing long and low, I muttered, “These things aren’t gonna stop trying to kill us just because we sit out something that could actually let us get stronger. They won’t stop at all. Not until we stop them. And the only way to do that is to get stronger, get more powers, get better at… everything. So no, we’re not gonna sit out any hunts. We’ll just… be ready.”
Deveron watched me for a second, clearly considering it before nodding. “Probably smart. And just so you know,” he added with a serious look, “you won’t be alone when it comes to Fossor.”
Oh God, I wished I could trust him right then. I wished that I could know for sure that he wasn’t possessed. He was one of the few people who really understood what I was feeling about my mother, and how much I missed her. I wanted to confide in him everything that was going on. But I couldn’t. There was just no way to be sure that he was really himself. Not yet.
Whoever the Seosten had taken over, whoever they had possessed and enslaved, I was going to make sure they suffered. I’d already promised myself that several times. Pretty much whenever I looked at anyone who might have been the one that was taken, I repeated that promise to myself. They would suffer, and I would make damn sure that their victim was freed.
Instead of saying any of that out loud, I twisted the cap back onto the water bottle and nodded. “Still, under your protection or not, I need training. And that means–”
“Hunting,” the man finished with a grimace. “Right. But be careful, you got it? If you get even the slightest whisper that something’s wrong, you call it in. Even if it’s nothing, you won’t be the girl who cried wolf. You’ll be the girl who thought she saw a wolf because the entire field was surrounded by them.”
Coughing, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I get it. We all get it. We’ll be ready for it. And you’ll be right there anyway. I’m pretty sure Gaia’s gonna send you in with us, wherever we’re going.”
“Good,” Deveron gave a satisfied nod. “But first, it’s dinner time. Think you can eat?”
I snorted at that, gesturing to the trampled grass from our sparring session. “After what you just put me through, Escalan better have made enough to feed a school twice this size.”
He chuckled at that before turning. “Just putting you through your paces. Can’t have you getting lazy, you know.”
My elbow nudged him. “Maybe I’ll just pretend to be lazy for a few months. You know, see where that gets me.”
“Okay, that’s fair.” Smirking, Deveron gave me a little push. “Let’s go get you refueled, little Flick-star.
“And then it’ll be time to hunt.”