Wyatt Rendell

Study And Scrutiny 20-10

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

But I was learning how to improvise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe. Most of all, keep breathing.

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

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

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

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

Hyde stumbled, catching himself with a grunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All these desks are made out of wood.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Study And Scrutiny 20-09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The monster lunged at us.

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Mini-Interlude 22 – Croc

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“Uh, here’s your order, sir. Will there be anything else?” The scraggly-haired teenager who held the tray full of three cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, two large drinks, and an order of chicken nuggets stared at his customer with wide eyes. He had to tilt his head back to look the man in the eyes.

“No thanks,” the man named Croc replied easily while taking the tray. “This’ll be just fine.” He gave the boy a nod before turning to walk across the mall food court. The boy’s stare was obvious, as were those of several of the people he passed.

It was nothing new. Born a member of the now-extinct Calusa Native American tribe that lived around what was now Florida, Croc had always stood out. He was an enormous man to begin with, which would have drawn people’s attention anyway. But adding in his Native ancestry drew their eyes even more. And of course, he had more than one reason for standing out from his peers.

He’d come to expect the stares, towering over everyone as he did. Such things had long since stopped bothering him, and he’d learned to differentiate the dangerous ones from those who were just curious. After all, correctly identifying danger was a fairly important skill for someone in his line of work.

Walking to a table on the far end of the food court, one that overlooked the ice skating rink below, he set the tray down and took a seat. Taking a handful of fries, he tossed them in his mouth while giving a slow, casual glance around (people tended to stop staring when he looked at them).

Ugh. The fries were cold. Frowning slightly, he gave a long look toward the counter where he’d bought his food. He could go back, but… Shrugging, the big man simply poured the fries out onto the tray and laid his hand over them. A moment of thought made his palm heat up. After that, it only took a few seconds before he took his hand away and tried another fry. There, warm again. That was better.

He’d worked his way through half the fries and one of his burgers by the time he sensed the approach of the man that he’d been waiting for. Which probably meant that the guy had been watching him the entire time and only just then chose to make his presence known.

“They’re watching you,” Wyatt Rendell announced while pulling the opposite chair out so that he could sit down.

“Chicken nuggets,” Croc replied, “As requested.” He slid the box over to the other man along with the second drink. “And an iced tea. Who’s watching? I suppose you already made sure it’s safe to talk.”

“Of course I did.” Wyatt pointed to the railing that the table was near. About six feet away, Croc could see a rune scribbled on it. Turning the other way, he saw a second rune about six feet in the other direction.

“There are six privacy spells protecting us right now,” Wyatt explained. “Those are two that I’m willing to show you. The others are mine.”

“That’s why you were so specific about where to sit.” Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “How long did you spend setting this spot up before you felt safe enough to meet here?”

Wyatt’s head shook. “Not long. Three hours. I was in a hurry.”

While Croc shook his head in wonder at that, the smaller man opened the box of nuggets. Instead of eating any of them immediately, however, he set a smaller box of toothpicks next to them. One by one, he pushed a toothpick into each of the nuggets and left it there. Gradually, each tiny sliver of wood turned a light blue color. Wyatt watched until each of them changed, then collected the picks before putting one of the nuggets into his mouth.

Poison, Croc realized with amazement. The man was testing to make sure the nuggets hadn’t been poisoned. He did the same with the drink before taking a sip.

“Eleven people watched you walk from the counter to this seat,” Wyatt finally answered after eating another nugget. “Starting from the nearest,” he added while reaching into his pocket to take out a driver’s license. “Jessica Wallace, age twenty-four. Local. Organ donor. The one that–”

Croc coughed. “Wyatt, did you steal that woman’s ID just to check up on her because she was looking at me?”

Scoffing, Wyatt shook his head. “Of course not. These,” he produced a pack of blank driver’s license cards, “are enchanted. All I have to do is get close enough to touch someone, and any license they have will copy itself onto one of these. I copied one from everyone who was watching you and ran them through my usual search protocols. They haven’t tripped anything yet, but you never know.”

Unable to help himself, Croc whistled low. “That’s pretty impressive. But trust me, I’m used to people staring. Kinda hard to blend in when you look like I do. You, on the other hand, no one sees you as a threat. They dismiss you. But they really shouldn’t. Because you… like I said, you’re pretty damn impressive. Which, I suppose, is why I wanted to talk to you again.”

“You’re still trying to convince me to betray my people,” Wyatt retorted, his tone affronted. “I told you when we were at Eden’s Garden, I will not betra–”

Wincing, Croc shook his head. It was true that he’d made the pitch to the other man more than once while he’d been at the Garden. And in the intervening time, he’d only become more impressed from the details he’d been able to pick out about the scrawny, unimpressive-seeming security guard. If Crossroads didn’t understand what they had with this guy, he was damned sure going to pick up their slack. Especially since he—well, Wyatt’s skill with security spells wasn’t the only thing that Croc was interested in.

“No, man, not betray. It’s just… you’d be good with the Unset. We treat our people right, and… and you’re the best security enchanter I’ve ever seen. I don’t want you to betray anyone, Wyatt. I’m not asking you to hurt anyone you work with. I just think you’d fit really well with us. You’re brilliant at this stuff, man. Absolutely brilliant. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve never seen anyone that can do the stuff you do, as easily as you do it.

“And, you know… it’d let you be near your sister.”

Wyatt paused at that. His mouth opened and shut before he shook his head. “But I’d have to leave my other sister and my niece. They need me. I can’t just abandon them. And I won’t abandon Gaia. She stood up for me. She got me this job, I… I owe her.”

Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “Yeah, from what I hear, Gaia Sinclaire’s pretty good. But what about that Committee? What about Ruthers and his group?”

Meeting his gaze Wyatt announced flatly, “Gabriel Ruthers will pay for his crimes. But I won’t abandon my family to do it.”

“That’s fair.” Croc wanted to push harder. He really thought that Wyatt would be good with the Unset. But the man was right, he had two younger family members at that school. And from what he’d heard, at least one of those family members was really good at finding herself in trouble.

“That’s fair?” Wyatt echoed, frowning with suspicion. “But?”

Croc’s head shook. “But nothing, man. You’re right, the kids need you. The whole reason I want you to join us is because you’re so good at protecting people. If you abandon your niece and sister just like that, what’s the point?” He paused then before adding, “But let me make you this offer.”

“I knew it,” Wyatt retorted, stiffening in his seat. “An offer I can’t refuse, you–”

“Easy,” Croc quietly reassured the man. “I know. I know how easy it is to ruin your trust. I get it. But, that’s not what this is. It’s not a threat. Like I said, an offer.” He pushed on before Wyatt could respond. “If the time comes that you can’t stay there anymore, for whatever reason, you have a place to come. Okay? That’s it. It’s an open offer. We could really use you. Whether it’s after your family graduates and moves on or… anything else. If you can leave or you just… have to. You come to Eden’s Garden and the Unset will take care of you. ”

“An open offer…” Wyatt was clearly chewing that over, searching for the problem with it before he squinted. “I’m not making a promise. I’m not signing anything. I’m not–”

“You don’t have to,” Croc assured him, finishing his last burger. “No promises, no contracts. Just this.” From his pocket, he produced a simple, almost blank card with nothing on it other than the barely visible indent of a robin in flight against a circle with a rose at the bottom.

Taking the card, Wyatt frowned. “What is it? What does it mean? Where is it from? What does it–”

Smiling, Croc shook his head. “It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing. The symbol is completely meaningless. The bird, the circle, the rose, they don’t lead anywhere. But anyone who saw that card would think it did, and they’d waste time trying to work it out. The design is nothing. But if you ever want to reconsider, or you need the Unset, or… anything. You write on that card and I’ll get what you write. And if it’s an emergency, you rip it in half. I’ll come right in.”

“Why?” Wyatt squinted at him, still suspicious. “Why would you give me something like this after I told you I wouldn’t join your side?”

“We’re on the same side,” Croc pointed out lightly. “Protecting people. And—well… Like I said, you’re one of the best security people I’ve ever seen. You’re worth the wait, man. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

It took the man a moment to move again. He was just squinting off into the distance as though trying to work out how to respond to that. In the end, he shoved the card in a pocket and stood up. “I might throw it away.”

Croc nodded then. “That’s your right. You can throw it away, burn it, do whatever you want. Actually, don’t burn it. That’ll probably set off the emergency alert and I’ll come find you. Point is, do whatever you want with it. I’d like you to keep it, just in case. But that’s just me.”

Pausing then, he cleared his throat before nodding to the seat that the man had just stood up from. “You don’t have to leave so fast.”

Wyatt just blinked at him blankly. “Why would I stay any longer? I told you no, you gave me a way to change my mind, and I already ate the nuggets.”

Because I kind of like your company, and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s any chance of you reciprocating that. The thought flashed through the big man’s mind, but he stopped himself from saying it. Skittish as Wyatt was about a simple job offer, expressing any kind of interest in that way would obviously push him too far. “I just thought you might want to sit down for awhile.”

“No.” The other man shook his head, still looking suspicious. “I don’t wait around for them to find me.”

“Them?” Croc echoed, wishing he knew more about this man, and what had happened to make him so suspicious of everyone.

“Anyone who’s looking,” Wyatt explained flatly, his gaze already dubiously studying the people around them. “There’s always someone. I don’t give them that kind of advantage.”

“Fair enough, man.” Croc couldn’t argue with that, as much as he wanted to. He really did enjoy Wyatt’s company, as odd as the man was. And as they’d told the Chambers girl, the Unset weren’t eunuchs. Though in his case, considering the amount of anything even approaching a date he’d been on in the past decade or so meant anything, they might as well be.

“Like I said, you change your mind, you let me know.” He offered his hand for Wyatt to shake. After a brief (for him) pause to skeptically examine the hand, the other man did so. They shook, and the scrawny little Crossroads security guard slipped away.

As Croc watched, the man walked through the crowded food court and moved to the restroom. Rather than going into either of them, however, he stepped into the janitor’s supply closet. The door closed after him. Less than ten seconds later, one of the janitors went to the same door, tugging it open to reveal nothing but mops and cleaning chemicals. Wyatt was gone.

Croc sighed a little, but he hadn’t really expected anything better than that. Hoped, maybe. But honestly, he really would have been incredibly surprised (and probably disappointed) if Wyatt had so easily abandoned his niece and sister. This was just… nice. And the closest thing to a date that he’d had for longer than he cared to admit.

Maybe he’d wait awhile and then see if the other man wanted to get together again. It’d take some doing to make him understand that he didn’t want anything in return, and that it wasn’t a trick or a trap. But… well, if letting Wyatt pick the spot and prepare it for several hours ahead of time just for a fifteen minute meeting was what it took to spend time with the man, then… well, he’d do that.

For a guy like Wyatt Rendell, it was worth the extra effort.

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 16 – Nevada

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff (specifically, Nevada) both before and after dealing with the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving. 

The soothing sound of Dick Haymes’s classic rendition of Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s 1945 song ‘Til The End Of Time’ filled the almost-empty Stranger Truths classroom while Nevada lay on her back underneath a motorcycle that was parked just in front of her desk. An open and clearly thoroughly used toolbox lay beside the buxom blonde, and her grease-covered hands were busily working at the bike’s half-assembled engine before she noticed the arrival of a newcomer.

“I’m surprised that you can stomach listening to this kind of music,” Risa Kohaku announced from her place near the doorway. “Wasn’t this the…” She paused, stepping into the room before closing it behind her. Still, before continuing, the security chief went through half a dozen procedures to ensure their privacy. Finally, she finished her thought. “Wasn’t this the kind of music your old Master used to enjoy while you were still… in his employ?”

Pushing herself back before standing up, Nevada smiled reflexively. It was an old defensive measure she’d learned to deal with uncomfortable or upsetting memories. “You mean when I was a Djinn,” she replied flatly while waving her hand. A minor telekinetic touch shut off the music, leaving the room much quieter.

Wincing just a little at her directness, Risa nodded. “I would have thought that his preference for that music would have turned you away from it. Especially given his… proclivities while listening to it.”

Picking up a nearby wrench just to have something to squeeze, Nevada shook her head. “Not like it’s the music’s fault. Besides, he preferred the Perry Como version of the song. Something about Como being a natural born American while Hayes was from Argentina. Which was pretty funny considering dear old Master wasn’t even born on this planet, let alone America.”

“Sorry,” Risa murmured apologetically. “I know you don’t like to think about those times.”

Nevada shrugged. Her mouth opened to ask what the woman was doing there, but before she could say anything more, the door behind Risa opened abruptly, and Virginia Dare appeared.

“Felicity and Koren,” she announced. “They’re in trouble.”

“What kind of–” Risa started.

“Fomorian trouble,” Virginia interrupted. The tension and fear in her expression and voice were far more plain than Nevada remembered seeing them ever before. “There’s a Fomorian at Koren’s house.”

Those words instantly drained all the amusement and casual atmosphere from the room. Nevada dropped the wrench she had been squeezing so tightly and was already halfway to the doorway by the time Risa caught up with her. The security chief was paler than usual, her expression set in a grim line.

No one joked about the Fomorians. Not after what had happened during the last major altercation with them, including the loss of Desoto.

“Gaia?” Risa spoke tersely as the three of them emerged into the corridor.

“Still busy with the Committee,” Virginia replied, her own voice just as tense. “Ulysses is prepping the portal.”

She explained everything that had been in the message from Flick as they made their way through the hall. Their destination wasn’t the Pathmaker, but the enormous mirrors in the main corridor. As promised, Ulysses Katarin was already there, performing the opening enchantment on the mirror that would connect them to Koren’s house.

“Can’t put it inside,” the big man explained without looking up as the women approached. “Fomorian shit’s already blocking it. The closest I can get is the sidewalk at the front.”

“Do it,” Virginia prompted, her face tight with worry. “Deveron Adams and Wyatt are there too, but..” She paused, shaking her head. “We need to be there, now. Before now. Yesterday, if time traveling back into time you’ve already experienced wasn’t out of the question.”

Ulysses was already nodding, throwing the last bit of magic into the mirror before he stepped back. “Hope we can break that blood shield the Fomorian threw up. Cuz the last time I had to deal with one of those, it took a god damn hour to knock it down, and that was with nine of us.”

“We have a secret weapon,” Virginia reminded him before stepping through the mirror.

“Wyatt,” Ulysses finished for the woman, smiling mirthlessly. “Let’s hope the guy’s as good as Gaia says he is.”

Then they were through the portal, emerging through a simple wooden door that had appeared in the middle of the sidewalk. Across the street, an elderly woman walking her dog gave them a wave, and Nevada briefly wondered what exactly the woman had seen. What had the Bystander Effect turned the four of them stepping through a door that had no business being in the middle of sidewalk into? Maybe she saw them stepping out of a van?

Regardless, they had more important things to focus on. Wyatt was there. His wide-eyed gaze snapped around, focusing on them. “Felicity,” he blurted, “Koren, they–”

“We know,” Virginia interrupted before the man could start rambling. “How long will it take you to bring down the shield, Wyatt?”

Not, ‘can you bring it down’, Nevada noticed. For Virginia, it wasn’t even a question of whether the man could pull it off or not. She simply wanted to know how long it would take him to do it.

Swallowing hard, an act that sent his pronounced Adam’s apple bobbing, Wyatt nodded. “I can. I can do it. I’ve been examining the spell, and–”

“Details later, Wyatt,” Risa reminded him. “Right now, focus on smashing that spell down as soon as–”

“No,” Dare corrected her while shaking her head. “Don’t smash it down. He’ll know we’re coming. Wyatt, we need you to get the spell as close as you can to going down without alerting the Fomorian about what’s happening. Can you do that?”

Again, the nervous man fidgeted and seemed to hesitate before nodding. “Um, maybe. Yeah. I mean, normally I’d have to put my own power into it as I went. But if I leave most of the power out of it and just shape the spell, it might work. But I can’t put enough power in fast enough by myself. After I—umm, shape it, we all have to put power into the spell at the same time if you want it to go down fast.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Risa decided, laying a hand on her subordinate’s shoulder. “Be fast, Wyatt. The Fomorian cannot escape. Not with what it already knows.”

“Funny,” a new voice spoke up from the darkness as the man in the green suit came into view. “I would’ve thought that your first words would’ve been, ‘he can’t be allowed to hurt our students.’”

“It’s implied, Seller,” Risa snapped at the man from Eden’s Garden. “What are you doing here?”

It was Dare who answered. “He’s helping. Flick obviously called for his aid. Which is good. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have all the help we can get to deal with a Fomorian who managed to survive the war and escaped being banished. He’s gone unnoticed this entire time. We can’t just let the ridiculous Garden/Crossroads division matter right now.”

Seller gave a brief bow. “Yes,” he murmured in agreement. “Besides, regardless of where they happen to attend school, I prefer not to leave my more promising descendants in danger. Particularly from a Fomorian.”

Nevada’s head snapped around at that, and she felt her own surprise jump. Her mouth opened to question what he meant,but she stopped herself. She had to focus on what was happening, not get distracted. Even if it was an announcement like that. Because if he was related to Flick, that meant that he was related to… Oh.

Virginia stepped away to use a telepathy power to contact Deveron on the inside to let him know what was going on. She also used the same mental discussion to get a report from the boy about the full situation inside.

Deveron. According to Gaia after a discussion the woman had had with the boy, he was the one who had originally recruited Nevada to join the school. He was the one who convinced her to turn herself into a human, and then a Heretic. After, of course, she had altered the Edge to allow hybrid students.

Before then, Nevada had simply… not really thought about who had recruited her. That was the power of the spell that had been used. Even though she’d clearly thought about the fact that she’d been recruited by a Heretic, she simply hadn’t thought about who it had been. And nothing about the fact that she couldn’t remember who he was, this man who had changed her life so much, had actually struck her as odd.

Magic scared her sometimes. And the fact that it frightened even her, a former Djinn, said… well, it said a lot. And at some point, she was going to have to have a discussion with Deveron about everything that she couldn’t remember.

Soon. She’d talk to him soon.

Meanwhile, Risa and Seller took a moment to put aside their initial hostility and talked about exactly what they were going to do once the spell went down. Then the Eden’s Garden Heretic stepped away to do something of his own that would apparently mask his own presence from the shield.

Of course, since he was apparently related to Flick and Koren, the spell would let him through anyway. But it would also alert the Fomorian to his arrival, so the man was doing something that would hide him from the spell once he passed through it.

Eventually, they were ready. Seller gave a quick salute before moving through the spell to cause a distraction. The man had enchanted a couple of stones, placing one in his pocket while leaving the other with Nevada and the others so that they could all hear what was going on.

“Tell me you’re ready, Wyatt,” Virginia urged, clearly not wanting to wait any longer.

“Ready,” the man confirmed.

Dare sent the message through to Seller, and the rest of them took a moment to gather their energy for the last push to break the blood shield. Meanwhile, they listened as the emerald-suited man announced his arrival to interrupt the Fomorian, who was apparently trying to convince Flick or Koren to choose which of them would go with him. Nevada tightened her fist, snarling under her breath while focusing on her own power.

Then Seller’s voice announced that if Dare was going to do it, she should do it right then. And on cue, Nevada, Ulysses, Risa, and Virginia all helped Wyatt by pouring their power into the spell that the enchantment expert had created. The invisible wall vanished, and they were through. Through and ready to make sure the Fomorian didn’t escape, and never hurt one of their students again.

******

“Where are they?” The booming demand came from the doorway that led into Koren’s house, and Nevada looked up from her slumped over position to find Gabriel Ruthers standing there, flanked by Gaia.

“The Fomorian, Chambers, and Fellows,” the man demanded before Nevada or any of the other exhausted and clearly bloodied figures could respond. “Where are they? If you let them escape–”

“Felicity and Koren are fine,” Virginia snapped. The woman was busy holding her hand tight against a deep wound in her own stomach until it could heal. “Physically, anyway. And the Fomorian’s body is in there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the kitchen. “He’s dead. But he got off a message. We’re not sure what it said, but… probably too much.”

“If they’re fine, then where are they?” Ruthers’s voice was dark.

“Eden’s Garden,” Risa answered without looking toward the man. The woman’s vision would take awhile to return after the fog that the Fomorian had released into her face had eaten away most of her eyes. “Koren’s mother was… critically injured. They took her to Eden’s Garden to have her turned into a Heretic so that–”

What?!” Ruthers’s voice turned into a bellow. His fury was palpable. “You allowed them to—what kind of failur–”

“Gabriel,” Gaia snapped. “Leave. The situation is handled. You and I can discuss it further later.”

At first, Nevada thought the man was going to blow his gasket and start screaming at Gaia right there. His face reddened and he glared at the woman for a few seconds before taking a visible breath. “You, I, and the rest of the Committee. We will all discuss this. And everything else.”

“I can’t possibly contain my excitement at the prospect, Gabriel.” Gaia replied flatly. “Now leave, and let me attend to my staff. There’s clearly no need for your presence here.”

“We’ll see where my presence is required, Gaia,” the man retorted.

“We will most certainly see.”

Then the man was gone, just as abruptly as he had arrived. Gaia let out a visible breath before stepping further into the building. Her attention was on the rest of them, her voice soft. “Are all of you all right?”

“We’ll be okay,” Ulysses replied for them, shifting his half-mangled form with a grunt. “Can’t say that tangling with a Fomorian is any more fun than it used to be, though.”

“No, I can’t imagine it would be,” Gaia murmured before stepping over to lay a hand on Nevada’s arm. “I’m going to discuss things with Seller, and find out how the others are. Tristan was pulled along with Felicity’s travel to Eden’s Garden.” She paused briefly. “And so was Roxanne.”

“Pittman?” Ulysses blurted. “How—oh damn it, she was touching him, wasn’t she?”

“They were surfing,” Gaia confirmed. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach them in time to prevent it. And now… now I fear what might have happened if she wasn’t pulled the entire distance. If she–” The woman stopped, obviously not wanting to put voice to the fear.

“Go,” Virginia urged. “Make sure they’re okay.”

“I have to ask,” Gaia started first, focusing on Nevada. “You… you were the one who killed him, weren’t you?”

Nevada nodded. “Yeah. Well, we all killed him, but that last hit, that was me.”

“And did you… gain anything from it?” the headmistress asked carefully.

Risa interrupted. “Why would you even have to ask that? Heretics don’t get powers from killing Fomorians. That’s one of the things that makes them such a pain in the ass. We all know that.”

“Normally, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But I thought perhaps… Nevada’s uniqueness would be different.”

“You mean the fact that I used to be a Djinn, and that it’s magic that made me human,” Nevada realized before shaking her head. “No. No, I didn’t get anything from it. At least, I don’t think I did. I don’t feel any different.”

Gaia met her gaze intently for a few seconds before nodding. “If that changes… tell me. If our hybrids are going to react to Fomorian kills any differently than a normal Heretic, we need to know about it.

“The last thing we need, at this point, is another surprise.”

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Mini-Interlude 14 – Wyatt

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Wyatt and his efforts to protect his newly discovered family (even if they remain oblivious to those efforts). It takes place earlier in the same day as the most recent regular chapter. 

The sound of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock filled the small kitchenette of the apartment that Crossroads had provided Wyatt Rendell for his security position at the school. In the midst of the lyrics about Spider Murphy and Little Joe, Wyatt himself worked his way across the room to the counter near the fridge. His steps were short and awkward, as his feet were crammed into shoes that were more than a little too small for him. As a result, his movements looked more like a mincing tiptoe than a stride.

Two cat litter boxes lay on the floor next to the counter where Wyatt was moving. A small gray cat (really little more than a kitten at the moment) of the breed known as the British Shorthair sat beside the boxes, his deceptively simple-looking collar hiding a baker’s dozen worth of enchantments that ensured no one could shapeshift into the cat, possess the cat, or mentally control the cat without setting off several alerts that had been set up. Rather than look impressed or proud at the collection of magic he was carrying around on his neck, however, the cat simply looked profoundly irritated. Most likely because, rather than hold their namesake, the litter boxes were filled with a combination of dirt, sand, rocks, twigs, and other assorted debris.

“I know, I know, Corporal Kickwhiskers,” Wyatt assured his recently acquired roommate over the sound of the music while stepping directly into the litter boxes, one shoe in each. “I need to empty yours! And I will! As soon as the watch is ready.”

Suiting action to words, the man bent over the counter while plucking up a pair of jewelers glasses. Fitting them onto his head while shuffling his feet back and forth so that the too-small shoes they were partially stuffed inside of would take up more of the contents of the litter boxes, the man settled the many-lensed devices onto his head. Flicking all five additional lenses down over his right eye, he carefully picked up an expensive-looking silver watch. Holding the watch in one hand, he picked up an electric engraving tool with the other and set it against the metal backing. After a quick glance toward the nine different photographs of a similar ring that were taped to the wall above the counter, Wyatt carefully began to inscribe words into the back of the watch to match those in the photograph.

For Services Above And Beyond – G. Ruthers

Once the inscription was finished, and the music had long-since moved on to Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps performing Race With The Devil, Wyatt straightened and stepped out of the litter boxes. Turning to the nearby wall, he kicked out a couple times to knock the loose material off the shoes. Then he mince-stepped across the room with the watch, slipping it into a pocket of his too-large jacket before bending down to pick up a third litter box, this one actually filled with what it should be (as well as several distinctly smelly things that made it clear just why the perturbed feline had all-but vocally demanded it be cleaned). Turning with the box, Wyatt dumped it into a nearby waist-high trashcan which appeared to be empty, sans even a bag. Then he tapped his hand against it and triggered the enchantment, transporting the contents into the bottom of the ocean.

That done, he deposited the box back where it belonged and took a moment to fill it once more with the kitty litter. Then he beat a hasty (if awkward-looking) retreat from the room while Corporal Kickwhiskers made a mad dash for the newly-filled box.

In the living room of the apartment, Wyatt kicked off the too-small shoes and slipped on his own proper ones. Bending down, he plucked them off the floor, holding open his jacket pocket before dropping them inside. Not yet done, however, he also reached to the nearby counter and picked up a collection of hairbands, a simple button that belonged to one of the uniform jackets, and three different armbands. All were deposited into that single pocket where the shoes had gone, though it appeared to be flat once more as he patted it on his way out of the apartment.

“Keep an eye on things, Corporal!” he called back to the cat. The answering meow was more annoyed grumble than enthusiastic agreement, but they’d work on that. Frankly, he was considering it progress that the cat responded to his words at all.

Turning back, Wyatt shut his door. Then he proceeded to engage all seventeen of the locks that he had attached to it, as well as the half dozen alarm spells. There were more inside the room itself that would react to any presence other than his own and his new feline roommate.

The cat hadn’t been his idea. He had been a gift from his niece, who thought he needed company in his apartment. Koren. Koren Fellows was his niece, and her mother, the woman currently staying at Eden’s Garden, was his sister. He had a sister. A twin sister.

More than that, he had a family. The very concept itself was… confusing. It made him feel things that he hadn’t actually felt since he had been a young child. Discovering that the people who had taken him in and posed as his parents were spying on him for an unknown party (now obviously revealed as Gabriel Ruthers) had pretty much erased the whole idea of family pride and love from his mind.

And yet now, now he had found out that he had a real family out there. And it was just as awkward and strange as Wyatt often felt he himself was. His father appeared to be much younger than he was and (thanks to possessing the appearance of an incubus) didn’t look at all like him. His twin sister had been raised as a Bystander and was now at Eden’s Garden being tutored in Heretic ways as an adult. Meanwhile, his half-sister and his niece were both first year students here at Crossroads. And their fathers were Bystanders.

Had been, in Koren’s case. Her father was… dead. Killed by the Fomorian and then erased from their memory. The tragedy of it, the idea that his niece couldn’t even remember her father, made him feel… anger. And that in and of itself was a strange feeling for Wyatt Rendell. After growing the way that he had, he hadn’t really felt genuine ‘anger’ that way in… well, longer than he could remember.

But when he thought of what had been done to Koren’s now-erased-and-deceased father, he felt it.

At least his half-sister’s father was still alive. And hopefully would stay that way, considering the protection that Flick had arranged for him. Not that she’d told him that much about it, but he’d looked into the situation himself just to be sure that she wasn’t about to lose her own father. Finding the vampire there, he’d thought the worst, but further investigation had revealed the truth.

So that was his family. A niece and half-sister as students, a father as a slightly older-yet-still-younger-than-he-was student, a sister who was a Bystander living at Eden’s Garden, a mother who was the prisoner of an evil necromancer, a Bystander brother-in-law who had been killed, and a Bystander stepfather who was some kind of reporter and who was being babysat by a vampire.

In a way, he liked it. Not the parts where his mother was a prisoner and his brother-in-law was dead, of course. But the chaotic absurdness of the rest of it. Having a completely normal family where everyone fit the exact storybook roles would have confused him, maybe even driven him off. But this? This weird, awkward, totally confusing mish-mash of positions and relations actually helped. The convoluted mess of it made the whole thing feel more real and approachable. It felt comfortable, in some small, strange way.

Or maybe he was just weird.

But comfortable as it may have felt, the last thing he was going to do was slack off when it came to the danger that surrounded them. No sir. Not now, not ever. Not when he actually had something to lose. And he knew for a fact that there were goblins (the metaphorical ones were more dangerous) waiting to snatch all of his family away, and ruin all of this.

The threats surrounding them were almost innumerable. In addition to the standard problems facing any Heretic, there was Gabriel Ruthers himself (who had already abducted Wyatt and Abigail as babies in order to force their mother into prison before erasing her entire identity), Fossor (who currently had their mother imprisoned and clearly wasn’t going to settle for just one), the Fomorians (who obviously weren’t going to stop trying to find a way to use one of his family members to break the spell that prevented them from returning to the planet), the Seosten (who were somehow involved in all of this, he just knew it), Trice and the others from Eden’s Garden (who were trying to kill Avalon Sinclaire and had made enemies of his half-sister and her team in the process), including the werewolf girl (who somehow didn’t show up as a werewolf to Heretic-sight), Fahsteth (the mercenary Stranger who had poisoned Avalon as a child and somehow led to all of this), and whoever was secretly behind both him and Trice’s group (who had arranged the murder of Zedekiah Pericles as well as the current condition of their own ally, Professor Giselle Tangle).

And there were probably more that his frenzied thoughts weren’t thinking about, but before he could sort them out in his head, his feet had already carried him straight to his first target.

“Mr. Adams!” he bellow-squeaked, his voice cracking a bit in mid-word despite his best effort to sound like a proper authority.

Deveron. Father. Dad. Papa. All those words and more worked their way through his mind as the boy-man-person-student-father in question turned away from the conversation that he’d been having with several other students. For a half-second, Wyatt saw an expression of emotion and… longing in the handsome boy’s eyes before it vanished back behind his cool mask.

“Telling you, man, I didn’t do anything,” Deveron-Father all-but drawled. “What’s wrong now?”

“A likely story. I’m onto you.” Shaking his long, awkwardly bony finger at the boy who was his dad, Wyatt stepped forward. “Hands out, knees apart. And don’t make any sudden movements. You all, stay there, or you’ll be tried as accomplices.”

Sometimes, making a point of having a reputation for being… well, the way Wyatt was had its advantages. The boys that Deveron-Father had been talking to barely batted their eyes. They did, however, roll them pretty extensively. But, as awkward and dumb as they thought the interaction was, it was not suspicious.

Stepping close, Wyatt carefully patted his boy-father down, checking all of his pockets in the process. While checking his left jacket pocket, he surreptitiously slipped a folded note there while simultaneously extracting one.

Even with privacy spells, it would still look strange for him to interact too often with a normal student. Yet he really wanted to talk to his father. So, the two of them had set up a system of drops and encounters like this in order to pass a constant stream of notes back and forth to one another. It allowed them to almost-converse regularly.

Wyatt didn’t stop there, however. While continuing his pretense of patting the ‘boy’ down for contraband, he straightened and slipped the previously prepared jacket button from his own pocket. With dexterity belying his awkward appearance, he slipped the button directly over its identical counterpart on the front of Deveron-Dad’s uniform jacket and triggered one of the simple spells he had placed on it. The button immediately switched itself for its twin, attaching itself to the jacket in its place, while the normal button was deposited in Wyatt’s hand and quickly discarded back in his pocket.

The spells on the button would warn Wyatt if anything happened to Deveron to put the man-boy in danger. It was the third uniform jacket he’d altered that way. Pretty soon, he’d manage to tag all of his father’s clothes similarly.

And yet, even then, Wyatt still wasn’t done. Stepping around behind the boy, he clapped him on the biceps, one for each hand. In that same motion, he attached one of the armbands that he had prepared. As soon as the band closed around the arm, its magic triggered and the band became invisible and intangible to everyone except Wyatt himself.

Deveron wouldn’t know about the band, itself covered in even more protection and alarm spells, similar to the one he had prepared for Avalon (the same reason that the people after her were apparently trying to kill him, even if they didn’t know that he was their target… yet) any more than he would know about the button. But Wyatt would know. And it made him feel just a little bit better to have more layers of protection on his father. More redundancies for when things turned sideways and everything went to hell.

Why the button if he was already going to put the armband on his father? Back-ups. Always back-ups. Never rely on one solution. Never.

“Ehhh you’re clean, this time.” He announced while stepping back. “But I’m watching you, Adams. I’m always watching you.”

“That sounds really creepy, dude,” Deveron-Dad retorted while giving him a mock-salute. He turned to head back with the other students, casting a glance over his shoulder before giving Wyatt a surreptitious wink.

Then they were leaving, and Wyatt felt the watch on his wrist vibrate as the silent alarm went off. Not from any of his myriad of defensive spells, but simply the one he had set for the current time. Giving his watch a quick glance to confirm, he about-faced and almost sprinted back across the grounds. He had to be at the right spot at the right time, had to be there, had to be there. Run faster. Don’t see the students staring. Now slow down. Slow down, have to look natural. Slow down.

Easing to the right pace at the last second, Wyatt turned the corner of the cafeteria building just in time to see the doors open as a small figure practically lunged out of them. Koren shoved her way through the doors, laden down with a tray that was piled high with pudding bowls.

At the same time, a male figure was moving up toward the doors. As Koren shoved her way out, the tray slammed into the man, sending bowls of chocolate, tapioca, and vanilla pudding all down the front of his clothes.

Not bad, but he was going to have to teach her how to look more subtle.

“Oh my god!” Koren blurted, managing to avoid sounding rehearsed (appropriate considering the hours they’d actually spent rehearsing). “Professor Neal, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!”

Peterson Neal, the so-called Head of Student Affairs (and less commonly called Head of Being Ruthers’s Stooge and Official Buttsmoocher) recoiled with a curse. “Miss Fellows!” he blurted. “Watch where the hell you’re going. Do you have any idea how–”

“I saw that!” Wyatt interrupted, charging that way. “Attacking a teacher, attempted assassination! It’ll be the gallows for you, missy!”

“The—what?” To her credit, the girl managed to look equally horrified and confused. “It was an accident. I was just–”
“Save it for the Runners.” Wyatt snapped around. “Will you be pressing charges, Professor? I saw the whole thing. Her murder spree was only thwarted by your quick reflexes and cunning.”

“Murder spr—no,” Peterson managed a bit distractedly. “I just—slow down, Fellows.”

Koren’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “S-sure, yes, sir. I’m sorry, I—here I can…” She stepped forward and started to rub the man’s shirt down with napkins from the tray, mostly simply managing to rub the pudding into his shirt in the process.

At the same time, Wyatt moved to the man. “Stop it, assassin,” he snapped in mock-anger. “You won’t succeed in your attempts, I’m onto you!”

While ‘threatening’ the girl, he took hold of Peterson’s wrist, lifting it to press his card into the man’s palm. “If you change your mind about pressing charges, I’ll be glad to put this little miscreant in her place.”

Then, while the man was being assaulted by the sensation of Koren rubbing pudding into his shirt, as well as the feel of his wrist being held and the card being pressed into his hand, Wyatt smoothly undid the latch of his watch and replaced it with the one that he had just finished preparing. It held all the same enchantments that Peterson’s old watch had (that had taken a long time to work out) as well as a few new ones, such as one that would allow Wyatt to hear whatever was said when the names ‘Flick’, ‘Felicity’, ‘Chambers’, ‘Koren’, ‘Fellows’, ‘Deveron’, ‘Adams’, ‘Joselyn’, or ‘Atherby’ were said.

He was going to find out what Peterson talked with Ruthers about, and just how much the former headmaster knew about what was going on. The only trouble had been finding a way to slip the enchantments onto Peterson without the man realizing what was happening. For that, Wyatt had needed a partner. Enter Koren Fellows, his niece. She had come to him asking for tutoring in the kind of things that he did. So, they had come up with this plan.

Shaking both of them off, Peterson snapped for Koren to get to where she belonged. Then he gave his soiled shirt a distraught look before turning to march back to his own apartment to change. He never even gave Wyatt a second glance.

Once the man was out of sight, Koren straightened, glancing toward Wyatt. “Did we get it?”

“Yes,” he replied, giving his niece what he hoped was a proud, encouraging smile. But it was probably far more goofy and awkward than it was endearing, despite his best efforts. “You were decent.”

Then he nodded down at her shoes, where he had made sure to flick some of the pudding from Peterson’s shirt. “You missed some. Here, let me clean them off.”

“Decent?” she echoed. “I kicked ass, and you know it. I should be an actress, not a monster hunter. A monster-hunting actress.” Kneeling down, she untied her shoes and pulled them off, one after the other. “You can really get pudding off them?”

Nodding, Wyatt whipped a paper bag from his pocket. Dropping both shoes into the bag, he triggered a spell on it. Except, in this case, rather than a spell to clean the shoes, it simply switched them with the other set in his pocket, the one he had just finished breaking in and dirtying up to look similar enough to Koren’s real shoes that she wouldn’t notice the difference.

“See?” he announced then while tugging the new shoes (with their own protection and alarm spells) from the bag and handing them back to the girl. “No pudding.”

“Thanks,” Koren bent to tug the shoes on, focusing on tying them. “How’s Corporal Kickwhiskers doing, anyway?”

“He didn’t pee on my bed today,” Wyatt replied while reaching down to help the girl back to her feet. In the same motion, he clapped another of the armbands against her bicep, letting it vanish from sight and become impossible to either feel or detect before he released her arm.

“See? Told you, you guys belong together.” Koren grinned at him. Not up at him, despite the difference in their ages. Hell, she was an inch taller than he was, so she was practically looking down at him. Funny, he’d never really cared too much about his height, and yet now… it was just another reminder that he’d never had a chance to actually get to know either her or Flick while they were young and small. The two were practically adults when he met them.

How many birthdays had he missed? How many conversations would he never have with them? How much had been taken away from him by Ruthers? Not just his own childhood, but the opportunity to experience his family’s.

Koren extended a hand, holding it out with her palm up. “We make a good team.”

For a moment, Wyatt simply stared at her offered hand. Emotions and thoughts, far too numerous to count or even try to understand, ran through him. Finally, however, he brought his own hand down to slap hers.

“We do.”

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Second Hunt 16-06

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Scout made it to the room just as Avalon was starting to come to. My eyes snapped from the quiet girl coming around the corner, to my roommate as she gave a quiet groan and began trying to sit up.

Gaia was already there. She was still kneeling next to her adopted daughter with a hand on her face. The woman’s voice was soft as she said something quietly in a language I didn’t understand, but sounded quite tender. Then she added in English. “It’s all right. Take it slow, the threat is over now.”

“What–” Blinking a couple times, Avalon pushed herself into a slight sitting position. Her eyes went from me to Gaia and then back again before she muttered in an annoyed tone, “They tried again.” It wasn’t the kind of voice of a person terrified that some kind of conspiracy had attempted to kill her for what had to be the fifty-third time. Instead, it was the same sort of tone that I’d expect to come from someone who was annoyed that their roommate had taken the last of the milk. Exasperation. Annoyance. If Avalon was actually afraid of what was going on, she wasn’t really showing any of it.

I had to stop myself from rushing up to her. She’d been pretty much point-blank in front of an explosion that had knocked her unconscious for a decent length of time. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to… But no. Gaia was there. She deserved to be the one to check on the girl that mattered enough to her to adopt her, to do all of this for her. I cared about Avalon, but interrupting that right then would’ve been selfish.

It also reminded me of just how much the girl had to mean to Gaia. As old as the headmistress was and as much as she had seen over those centuries, she had to have lost a lot of people. But I had seen her expression when she came in to find Avalon unconscious after yet another attempt to kill the girl, and I saw her expression as she knelt with a hand on her face. I’d seen the anger and the relief. If Gaia wasn’t Avalon’s mother, it was pure semantics. She clearly cared about the girl just as much as if she was.

Moving up to my side, Scout looked at me questioningly. So, I whispered a quick explanation, “Bad guy fought Deveron for awhile and then got away just before Gaia showed up. She dismantled the bomb and fixed the hole.” Glancing to her and the blood on her uniform, I added, “Are you okay?”

She gave a quick nod at that, making a face before lifting her rifle pointedly. Then she focused on the wound in my arm and the blood there, and her face fell a bit before the girl whispered a weak, “Sorry.”

“Hey, no.” Shaking my head, I lifted my arm and showed her. “Healing already, see?” Restraining a grimace of pain as much as I could, I instead tried to smile. “It wasn’t your fault. I mean, deflecting bullets with a knife, who saw that coming? You were helping. I just… I’m glad Deveron showed up when he did.” My eyes glanced that way, and found the boy (or man) in question already talking to someone on his own communication pin. “He was… really bad ass. If he hadn’t shown up when he did…” Trailing off, I couldn’t help the shudder that passed through me. “It would’ve been really bad.”

Before Scout could respond to that, Gaia was standing up. She took hold of Avalon’s hand and helped her up as well. I could tell that the woman wanted to do more than that, but she stopped herself for the other girl’s sake. Then she was looking toward me. “Thank you, Felicity,” she spoke quietly, obviously more in control of herself by that point than she had been when she first arrived and actually called me Flick. “You have, as usual now, gone above and beyond what we should expect of our… our students.”

“Hey,” I tried to shake that off even as I cradled my broken and still healing wrist. “I didn’t do anything that Avalon wouldn’t have done for me. Except her way probably would’ve been a lot more competent.”

A slight, knowing smile touched the headmistress’s face then as she looked from Avalon to me and back again before speaking in an easy tone. “It’s very important that roommates and… partners be able to trust each other that much. I’m glad that you two are willing to go that far to protect one another.”

“She shouldn’t have had to,” Avalon spoke sharply then. “The bomb shouldn’t have gone off. We’re su-”

“We’ll discuss it away from this place,” Gaia interrupted, her tone gentle but firm. “For now, this exercise is over. We’ll go back to the island and have a… discussion with your entire team, together.”

“Um,” I hesitated before raising a hand. “Headmistress, what about the rest of the skeleblineists?”

The red-haired woman just blinked at me, head tilting a little. “I’m sorry, what about the what, now?”

My face pinked at that as I remembered that wasn’t their real name. “Err, sorry, I mean the… Strangers. I couldn’t remember the name, so I just—you know, skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. Skeleblineists.”

For a long, silent moment, Gaia just looked at me. Then she gave the faintest smile of amusement, almost undetectable before murmuring, “Fair enough. Now, as for what should be done about them…”

The woman trailed off, pausing as she looked away. I saw a momentary frown of concentration cross her face, and felt some kind of invisible yet almost tangible power pass through me. It was a little bit like feeling static electricity, and lasted for five seconds or so. Abruptly, the feeling cut out and there was a loud squealing noise from all around us. About five feet from Avalon, one of the skeleblineists popped out of the wall. On the opposite side of the room, another one appeared from the floor. And a third came out of the engine itself. None of them were attacking, however. They just popped half-way out, screaming in pain. Meanwhile, further off in the ship I could hear the cries of others echoing.

The terrible squeals only lasted for a second or two, until all of them were visible. Then all three of the ones I could see were reduced to literal ashes that fell to the floor. And considering the way the screams cut off everywhere else as well, I was pretty sure the exact same thing happened to the rest of them.

Gaia straightened, the by-then-familiar golden aura (the same color as my own, I noticed) briefly flaring up around the headmistress as she cracked her neck to the side. Then the woman nodded in satisfaction. “There. Now it’s finished.”

Okay, yeah. I’m pretty sure my gulp at that was audible from clear across the room. Or possibly even from the other side of the ship. “Oh, um. Thanks,” I managed weakly, my wide eyes darting to the girl beside me. For her part, Scout looked just as taken aback by the display of power. Which made me feel a little bit better. If she wasn’t used to it, having grown up around all this stuff, then it wasn’t just me.

By that point, Gaia was already gesturing toward the nearby hatch. At her motion, the broken doorway lifted up and set itself back into place before closing. Then the headmistress just stepped that way and opened it once more. Except rather than seeing the corridor of the ship, the open doorway revealed one of the Pathmaker portal rooms. She gestured for us to go. “You’ll find the rest of your team already waiting, I promise. As I said, we will discuss things once everyone is together and accounted for.”

So, Scout, Avalon, and I passed through the portal together. I resisted the urge to try to help Avalon. Not only was I really not feeling up to it considering the pain in my arm, wrist, and… well, pretty much everywhere, but I was pretty sure that if I had even tried to steady Avalon, she would’ve flattened me.

As promised, Columbus, Sands, and Sean were already waiting in the portal room. Wyatt was there too, standing beside the other security guy. When we came into the room, Sands went running up to embrace her sister, while Wyatt took a step my way before stopping himself. The poor guy looked like he wanted to tell the entire concept of secrets to go screw themselves as he stared at me intently for a moment before managing a slightly strained, “Oh—oh good, good, you’re all okay. No one d-died?”

Smiling faintly, I shook my head at him. “Nope, not… not this time. We’re fine, Mr. Rendell. Thanks.”

Vulcan had no such compulsions against showing how much he cared. The robot dog came bounding right up to me, barking until I obediently reached down to pet him. “Hey, boy. Did you take care of your partner? You keep him out of trouble, huh?” Smiling, I rubbed over his metal head vigorously.

My eyes moved up then toward Columbus. The boy was still soaked from his little swim when he’d been knocked out of the ship by the bomb, but otherwise he didn’t really look hurt. “You okay?”

In the back of my mind, that new power that I’d picked up was still cataloging every inanimate object that got close enough to me. I could sense what was in Sands’s pockets, as well as Scout’s and Avalon’s. As far as I could tell, it didn’t actually tell me what was in the extradimensional storage space like our weapon sheathes. It probably had something to do with the items technically being in another world.

“Yeah,” Columbus nodded to the security guy who’d saved him. “Thanks to Bennet. Think I swallowed about half the ocean when I got knocked out there, but I’m good. What about you? You look… bad.”

“Gee thanks,” I mumbled before sighing. “We’re alive. Despite their best efforts. That’s what matters.”

Professor Dare came through into the portal room then, followed by Gaia and Deveron. The blonde teacher looked more worn out than I had ever actually seen her. I could see a few cuts and bruises, her normally immaculate uniform had a couple holes in it here and there, and her hair had come loose so that there were random strands sticking out. There was even a bit of blood under the woman’s nose.

“Bennet,” she addressed the other security guy, who was staring at her with probably as much surprise as I was. “Please go and find Risa. Ask her to join us here, assuming nothing else has gone wrong.”

The man glanced to the headmistress, who nodded. Then his eyes darted toward both me and Avalon for a second before he spun on his heel and hurried out the other way with a quick, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Once he was gone, Wyatt didn’t wait any more. He practically sprinted to cross the distance before he was hugging me. Actually, the poor guy was literally lifting me off the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he babbled. “I didn’t want to turn off the escape-port, I wanted to use it, but she was still in trouble and the escape-port wouldn’t work with her and I was trying to fix it, but if I let you go then she wouldn’t have anyone and I couldn’t do that to you or her and I didn’t want to do any of it, but I had t-”

“Wyatt, Wyatt,” I quickly interrupted while he continued to babble. “I’m okay! We’re okay, listen, I can’t—Wyatt, I can’t understand you. What do you mean, escape-port? What happened? Talk slower.”

Visibly taking a moment to calm himself, the man swallowed hard. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a couple times before he pushed on. “I provided security measures for your mission that would have pulled you out of danger. Somehow, they… they blocked the effect on Avalon’s. Yours was still working, but I deactivated it. I left you in danger so that you could protect her, all because my measure failed.” His voice was getting higher by the end, and he turned abruptly toward Gaia. “Headmistress, I accept any punishment you give me for the unacceptable failure. I’ll… I’ll resign right now if you wish.”

“No, Wyatt.” Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you understand? We owe you our thanks, not condemnation. If it wasn’t for your security efforts, Avalon would already be… The assassins would have succeeded.”

The poor guy looked taken aback, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I—they would have?”

“Yes,” the headmistress nodded. “And Felicity here most likely would have been killed as well.” Her gaze softened. “You are correct, the person who attacked Avalon was able to block the spell that would have brought her out of danger. But even then, they were not able to take her anywhere. I detected several attempts in that room to leave with her. Obviously, their primary intention was to leave with Avalon, most likely so that they could… eliminate her in private without any of us to stop them.”

Gaia had a hand on Avalon’s shoulder, her voice soft as she continued. “Because of your security enchantment, none of those efforts worked. Which meant that they had to attempt to…” she swallowed just a little. “… kill her right there. That also required breaking through enough of your enchantments to even make the attempt. Between those efforts and their ongoing focus on preventing your retrieval spell from simply whisking Avalon away from them, the attacker’s attention was split enough that they were unable to put their full effort on the fight with Felicity. If they had, I believe she would be dead now.”

Well, that made me cringe. I’d thought fighting that masked assassin had been hard enough. But knowing that their attention had been split multiple ways and they hadn’t been fighting at near their full ability? Yeah, that thought made me want to whimper. Clearly whoever these people were, they were far over the level of a few first year students. Looking to Wyatt then, I managed a weak, “Thanks.”

“Does… does that mean they screwed with my bombs too?” Columbus put in. The poor guy looked about as guilty and stressed out as Wyatt had. “Because I swear I checked them before I put them in my pack. They should’ve been fine. The timers worked when I was testing them before the mission.”

I checked them as well, Mr. Porter,” Professor Dare assured him. “I would not have allowed you to go out on a mission like that with active explosives unless I was confident that they had been assembled correctly and were safe. When I looked them over, they were. Someone interfered between the time that I did my inspection, and when you attempted to use them. Which indicates a disturbing level of access, as well as enough knowledge of what your mission was to assume that they would be used.”

Before anyone could say anything to that, the door into the rest of the building opened once more and Professor Kohaku entered. Her gaze took all of us in, clearly inspecting for any lasting injury before she gave a long sigh. “Again?”

“Again.” Gaia sounded just as annoyed before turning her attention to us. “We will talk more of this later. For now, I must ask you to excuse us while we… discuss what has happened and what we are going to do to prevent it in the future. As for your grade for this mission…” She looked to Professor Dare.

The blonde woman smiled just a little. Her injuries had already healed, though there was still the blood on her clothes and the rips through them that showed just how much she had been through. “I would say you all scored quite well, if we discount the… interference. Had things continued the way they were progressing, you would have sunk the ship, as we hoped you would. You displayed admirable teamwork both before and after the interruption. So I would say you’ve earned top marks, given everything that happened.”

The headmistress squeezed Avalon’s shoulder, looking like what she wanted to do was pull her back into a hug right there. “Yes. Very good indeed.” Clearing her throat, she nodded to Wyatt. “Mr. Rendell, if you could ensure that they arrive safely back at their dorms?”

So, we trudged out of the portal room together. Everyone else looked utterly exhausted. In my case, most of the pain had faded, and I wasn’t even tired. Mostly I felt numb. I wanted to hug Avalon and not let go. I wanted to know who the hell had tried to kill her again. We knew why they were trying so hard, but not who. I wanted her to be safe, and happy.

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

So I did. After spending some time with Avalon in our room and making sure the girl was really okay (hopefully without pushing her too far), I eventually left. Thanks to my new pendant, I didn’t have to obey the curfew anymore. Which meant that I could wander the grounds after hours, talking to my dad on the phone. Not that I told him that I was out, and especially not why. As far as he knew, I was in my room, and just needed to talk.

Eventually, he had to go to bed, so I switched to the private phone and talked to Asenath. Finding my way out behind the main building, I took a seat on the grass and watched the jungle in the distance while I told the vampire girl all about what had actually happened that day, and how worried I was. She listened while I vented about how angry I was that our security and safety had been compromised again, and how worried I was about Avalon.

There wasn’t much that the girl could do, obviously. But she was a really good listener, and didn’t try to cut in. She let me say what I needed to without interrupting, which let me get my head on straighter than it had been pretty much since the attack started.

Finally, I sat back and looked at the sky with the phone to my ear. “Thanks, Senny. Sorry for talking your ear off. I just…”

“Needed to talk to someone,” she finished. “I get it. Don’t worry. I just wish there was more I could do.”

“Trust me, you’re doing enough,” I assured her. “Just… don’t let anything happen to my dad, okay? I… I couldn’t take that. Not now.”

Her voice was serious. “You have my word.” Lightening her tone a bit, she added, “And hey, could you ask Shiori what her favorite kind of pie is before Christmas break?”

Chuckling in spite of myself, I nodded absently. “Yeah, I’ll find out. But I thought you didn’t cook.”

“I don’t,” she retorted. “But Twister does.”

We talked a little bit more. Now that I had the ranting out of my system, I was able to laugh a little bit and just enjoy the conversation. Eventually, I let the other girl get back to what she was doing and hung up. Then I just sat there under the moonlight, watching the jungle and the stars.

About ten minutes passed like that before a shadow fell over me. Opening my eyes, I turned slightly to find Gaia standing just above me. “Err, sorry, Headmistress.” I quickly started to get up.

“It’s all right, Felicity.” Gaia extended a hand down to help me. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting?”

My head shook. “No, ma’am. I was just… thinking.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly. “I’ve been doing a lot of that as well. And I believe it’s time that I began taking your training more seriously.”

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

The woman’s voice was somber. “We both know and understand how much… pressure you are under, Felicity. We know what you’re facing, what you have already faced. Between those threats and the ones you have put yourself in to protect my… Avalon, I would be a failure if I did not come to you now and offer… if you would accept it, additional training and schooling, during some of the hours that you now have available after curfew.”

My mouth opened and shut. “You… you mean you want to give me extra lessons, extra training… yourself?”

“Would that be acceptable?” she asked in a quiet voice, watching my reaction.

It took a moment to find my voice, but I finally bobbed my head up and down rapidly. “Y-yes, ma’am. Really, anything you can do, any… any training you can give me, I swear, I’ll do the best I can.

“God knows I need the help.”

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