Wyatt Rendell

Spy Hunt 26-06

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Roxa and the rest of the werewolf pack in Las Vegas. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thank you!

“Flick? Flick, th-that is you, right? You’re… you’re…” Poor Koren was still backing away from me slowly with her hands raised placatingly. “Tell me you’re in control, please?”

By that point, I’d come back to my senses enough to realize that I couldn’t speak. Instead, I gave a quick nod up and down. Right, I was me. I was Flick. The werelion that I’d killed. This was because of that. Somehow, I’d just gotten so angry while thinking about what the Seosten had been doing that I’d triggered this little… change.

Before Koren could say anything else, a figure abruptly appeared directly beside Koren. I barely had a chance to recognize Wyatt before he threw a handful of what looked like tiny ball bearings at me. The little metal balls spread out as they flew, expanding and connecting into one another to create a cage of metal bars that completely enclosed itself around me.

The action startled me, and before I could catch myself, a thunder-like rumbling came that I only belatedly realized was my own snarl. The lion didn’t like being trapped, and I jerked backward against the metal bars, unable to make them budge.

“Wyatt, Wyatt!” Koren blurted while moving to catch onto his arm. “It’s Flick. It’s just Flick!”

Blinking once, Wyatt turned his head to look at her. His voice was, of all things, utterly calm. “Of course it is,” he replied simply.

“Wait.” Koren frowned, looking from him to me and back again. “You knew it was her?”

“I know where all of you are at all times,” he pointed out then, like it was the simplest explanation in the world. “I knew you two were together and that something was wrong. I show up, you’re there, the lion’s over there, Felicity’s clothes are there. It’s hardly rocket science, you know.”

“Then…” Koren started slowly, “then why did you… the cage…?”

Again, Wyatt’s explanation was simple. “It was her first change, and sometimes the animal mind can take over. It’s confusing and disorienting. There was no way to know how in-control of herself she was in that first moment. And with something like that,” he gestured to me, “you only have a second to act.”

This, I realized then, was me experiencing ‘security guard’ Wyatt. He wasn’t playing around, or distracted by all of his phobias and paranoias. He had known that, somehow, Koren and I were experiencing a lot of fear, confusion, anger, and other heightened emotions. He’d known we were in some kind of trouble. So he showed up, took in the entire scene in that split second, and reacted by containing me before I could hurt them or anyone else.

Yeah, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just his affinity for magic that made my brother an amazing security guard despite all his other issues.

While Koren stared, Wyatt moved over and took a knee near the cage. “Felicity,” he intoned softly, his voice gentle, “are you in control?”

The lion was still annoyed, and kept trying to panic at the thought of being caged. But I made my head nod, and Wyatt tapped the cage a few times rhythmically. Once he finished, the bars fell away, returning to the shape of tiny metal balls that lay there on the ground, their spell expended.

I straightened up then, looking down at my paws while stretching out as far as I could. Huge. I was still huge. Maybe not quite as big as I’d thought at first. My head wasn’t even with Koren’s while I was on all fours, but I also didn’t really have to look up much to see her face. At most, I’d say my head was right around the five foot level.

A lion. I could change… change into a freaking lion. Of all the powers that I’d gotten, that had to be one of the most… insane. Turning into an absurdly enormous lioness like that? As shocking as it had been, it was also pretty freaking cool. And one thing was for sure.

I was going to have a very different answer for my dad the next time he asked what kind of powers I could show him.

******

Columbus was possessed. How long had it been that way? How long had it been that evil, psychotic wannabe angel bitch puppeting his body and making him betray his friends and sister? Was Shiori’s fear right? Had it been as far back as Columbus finding out what she was? I didn’t think so. I didn’t want to think so. But there was no way to be completely sure, no way to definitely know for a fact exactly when Columbus had been taken over by Charmiene.

No way until we kicked the bitch out of his body for good and asked him, that was.

It was Friday, February 2nd, the day after we’d found out the truth about Columbus and I’d had my little lion escapade. We were in English Lit at the moment, and I was supposed to be listening. But all I could focus on was the feel of the items that Columbus had on him. The boy was sitting directly behind me, making it impossible for me to stare. So, instead, I was facing the front of the room while focusing almost entirely on using my item-sense to keep track of exactly where he was and whether he ever moved. Not that I actually expected Charmiene to try something right here in the middle of class after keeping herself secret successfully for so long. But paranoia was a hell of a drug. Plus, I couldn’t help but worry that she might find out that we knew something any minute now.

Would she figure it out? What would she do if she did? Where was Manakel? Was Lies still possessing Pace, or had they killed the girl to let the crippled Seosten move on to a host that wasn’t compromised? Wait, could Lies be possessing someone else now? Shit, oh God, what if-

“Ahem. I said, Miss Chambers…” The voice by my desk made me jump, and I blinked up to find Professor Mason standing there, raising an eyebrow at me as he continued. “I assume that you’ve read some of the books from last semester’s reading list beyond what you’ve actually reported on?” He nodded toward the paper that had been taped up next to the white board for the past several months with about a hundred classic books listed on it. We were supposed to have chosen at least five to read and report on at various points throughout the past semester.

“Err,” I nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ve read most of them, but it’s been awhile.” As I spoke, I saw Sands at the front of the class. She was turned in her chair slightly to stare at the back of her father’s head. To her credit, she wasn’t openly glaring. But… well, she didn’t look happy either. It lasted until Scout, sitting beside her, put a hand on the other girl’s arm to make Sands look away.

I had no idea what Sands and Scout were thinking after everything I’d told them. All I did know was that they weren’t exactly leaping to spend time with their dad. Having to keep it secret probably wasn’t helping things that much either. I could tell that Sands wanted to have it out with the man, wanted to blow up and scream at him for awhile about everything, especially the part where they wouldn’t even exist if he hadn’t helped wipe their mother’s memory. Which… yeah. Skeevy beyond belief, depending on exactly when the memory spell happened, how far along in their relationship he and Larissa were, and how much he knew about her opinions… Eesh.

“Good,” Professor Mason replied to my confirmation. “I think we’ll have you and Miss Moon work together for this next project.” Looking toward Vanessa, he asked, “I assume you’ve read all of them?” When she gave a quick nod, he chuckled softly. “Of course. All right, Miss Chambers and Miss Moon together then. I’ll be interested in seeing what the two of you come up with.”  

“Uh… “ I paused for a moment, glancing at the other blonde girl briefly until she gave me a little shrug before looking back to the man. “What project are you talking about, Professor Mason?”

He smiled faintly then before walking to the front of the room. “Simple. Everyone in class is going to divide into pairs. Your partner must be someone who is not a member of your regular team. Once you find your partner, the two of you will choose two books on this list.” He tapped a finger against the paper. “Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher In The Rye, Lord of the Rings, any of them. Choose two books. In the case of series, you can choose as many of the individual books as you want to. The point is, choose two separate works.

“With those books, you will choose the setting and general story or plot from one, and the characters from another. Then, the two of you will write a two thousand word summary of how the new plot would go with the characters from one story dropped into the setting and plot from the other. You’ll have one month to finish this, which should be more than enough time.”

That… actually sounded like a pretty neat assignment, actually. Taking characters from one story and dropping them into another? It was a good way of showing an understanding of both books, and it even allowed us to be creative. Hell, if we’d been in a normal school, I probably would’ve devoted a lot of time to coming up with the best possible story combination. As it was, despite everything else that was going on, I was still at least a little bit intrigued by the idea.

The rest of the class divided into pairs, splitting up to mill around the room while people found each other. Most of them did, anyway. Sands stepped over by me while she mouthed, ‘Well?’ At the same time, she rubbed her neck a little, scratching it while looking at me a bit pointedly.

The choker. She wanted to know if I had checked her father yet. Sands had been asking me to do that since that morning. She and Scout were both intent on knowing whether their father was the one that Manakel was possessing. Not that I could blame them for it. I’d want to know too.

Slowly, after glancing toward Professor Mason to make sure the man wasn’t looking (his attention was on answering a question from Rudolph), I shook my head and mouthed, ‘Not yet.’

She gave me a brief pleading look, and I hesitated before nodding. I couldn’t hold back anymore. Surrounded by students like this, distracted and all was probably one of the best times to test the man. And I couldn’t very well ask the twins to wait any longer when I wouldn’t have.

Turning, I looked over to where Sean was with Columbus. To his infinite credit, the Hispanic boy was doing an incredible job of pretending everything was okay. Which was pretty impressive, considering he had to sleep in the same room as Columbus. I had no idea what I would’ve done in that situation, but I doubt I’d’ve gotten any rest lying just a few feet from the Seosten bitch.

Okay, Sean was keeping Columbus busy. From the sound of things, they were deciding who to work with, since they couldn’t partner with each other. Which I was sure Sean was just so sad about. With Charmiene occupied, I moved past Vanessa, gesturing for her to wait just a second before reaching Professor Mason. “Sir?” I asked, reaching out to gently tap his shoulder.

It was simple, yet efficient. As the man turned to face me with a raised eyebrow, I watched him carefully. Nothing. There was no result, no overlay of another figure. He wasn’t possessed.

“Yes, Miss Chambers?” The man asked. “I’m sorry, if you don’t want to work with Miss Moon, I can let you two go with different people. I just thought it would be nice to see what you two-”

“No, no,” I replied while shaking my head quickly. “That’s fine, sir. I don’t mind working with Vanessa. I was just going to ask if we could be excused to go up to the library so we can pick out the books we need for the project. You know, since we’re already partners and all that.”  

Besides, it would give me an excuse to talk to the other girl about how her were-changes had been going, since she had both the raven and the giant fuck-off bear forms. 

At least I’d found out from Wyatt why the change into the lion form that first time hadn’t hurt the way that Roxa’s wolf change had hurt her. Apparently it had to do with the fact that a full werewolf was changing into an Alter that first time. Their bodies were going through a lot, while in my case, my Heretical Edge-granted powers were simply copying the werelion’s ability to shapeshift.

Long story short, it didn’t hurt me to change into a lion for the same reason that it didn’t hurt Shiori to turn into sand. My Heretic ability was simply copying the shape of lion while using its own power to change my form, a power which included not being hurt by that transformation. I wasn’t a werelion, I was a Heretic borrowing the werelion’s power.

I hadn’t actually told anyone other than the people I trusted about the lion form, since… well, anything that Charmiene and Manakel didn’t know about would be an advantage. So I was keeping that bit secret from the school at large for the moment.

Besides, it would’ve been yet another thing not only for Roxa’s old team to be paranoid about, but I’d also have to explain it to October and Patrick and, well, I just didn’t feel like doing that. So I’d been telling the people I could trust in private, and this would be a good chance to talk with Vanessa about it, and maybe get some tips about how she controlled the animal instincts.  

“Ah, yes.” Raising his voice to be heard over the din of conversation, Professor Mason announced, “Once you have your partner, proceed to the library to pick out the right books. And I mean go straight to the library, nowhere else. I’ll be along as soon as everyone has their partner. If there are any stragglers, I’ll feed you to the dragon that lives under the school.”

That got a lot of the Bystander-kin whispering demands to the other students about just how serious the man was about the existence of a dragon. As I turned away, Sands and Scout were both standing there, watching me intently. I gave them a simple headshake. No code this time, no silly phrase. I just shook my head, confirming that their dad wasn’t possessed after all.

They saw it, and I saw at least some relief on their faces. It was, however, relief that was immediately tempered by the memory that he had still done awful things, all by himself. Sands’ look hardened briefly before she got it under control just in time for Zeke to approach her.

In the background, I saw Aylen and Avalon talking quietly, just before Vanessa stepped up to me. Her voice was lowered to a hushed whisper. “Flick, I really need to tell you something.”

Blinking at the girl, I nodded. “Alright, well, let’s head for the library. You can tell me on the way.”

We headed out, slowing our pace so that a couple other pairs who had already decided to work together could get ahead. Vanessa showed me a privacy coin and dropped it back into her pocket before whispering under her breath, “Something… important happened this morning.”

“Important?” I echoed, frowning a little before asking a bit hesitantly, “Are you okay?” I was already a bit afraid of the answer. The last thing we needed right now was some other problem.

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “I’m fine, I mean—I think I am. I mean… um, maybe I’ll just tell you what happened.” Taking a breath to steady herself, she continued. “I had a dream.”

“You… had a dream?” I shook my head slowly at that. “What do you mean, you had a dream?”

“Not a dream,” she corrected, flushing. “I mean, I don’t think it was a dream.” She sighed. “I was asleep, but I wasn’t dreaming. I was seeing through someone else’s eyes. My dad’s eyes.”

It was a really good thing that the privacy coin was active, being I did an immediate double-take at those words, stumbling to a stop while almost comically blurting, “Your dad’s eyes?”

Still, even with the spell, Vanessa hissed at me to shush, looking around briefly before continuing. “Yes, my dad. I swear, it was him. And it wasn’t a dream. It was like I was seeing through his eyes, like… right now, not in the past. Right at that moment, I mean. I was seeing everything he was doing. He’s in Seosten space, Flick. And he was was with Professor Katarin and um, a woman. I don’t know who she was, they didn’t say her name. But it was definitely my dad. I recognized his voice and he looked in a mirror. It was him. It was my dad. They’re working together to try to find my mom. They said that’s what they were doing, trying to save her.”

“You had a drea-sorry, a not-dream about seeing through your dad’s eyes and–” I stopped. “Is that a Seosten power or something? They can possess people, right? What if part of that is sort of projecting themselves to people? What if you were projecting yourself to your father because you’re like… so close to him? I mean you were close to him.”

“I couldn’t control him or anything,” Vanessa murmured thoughtfully. “I mean, I don’t think I could. It just felt like I was riding along in his head. But, maybe it’s weaker because I’m not a full Seosten? Or because I’m younger and it hasn’t–nothing like this ever happened before.”

I nodded slowly, thinking about it for a moment. “Maybe… you said he was with Katarin and a woman out in Seosten space? What were they doing? Specifically at that moment, I mean.”

We’d known from Fahsteth that Katarin had been sent into Seosten space, but finding out that he was actually with Vanessa’s dad and some other woman was kind of surprising. From everything I knew, Seosten space was supposed to be huge. What were the odds that they would’ve run into each other like that so soon?

“They were eating dinner,” the other girl replied, “on some kind of spaceship. I think they stole it. They were eating and talking about where to go next to look for my mother. There was something about some kind of blockade that they were going to have to get through. Oh, and Katarin said that he’s been trying to contact Gaia, but there’s something blocking him. Then my dad and the woman told him that the Seosten have a barrier up blocking Earth away from their space so that almost nothing can get through. Teleportation, telepathy, magic, none of it can get from where they are to here. That’s why they haven’t been able to get back to Earth.”

I started to say something else, but before I could, Professor Mason came along with the last few members of the class. It looked like Sands had gotten partnered with Zeke somehow (I had no idea how that had happened), while Scout was with the constantly cheerful Harper Hayes. Sean, on the other hand, had partnered with Rebecca. And Columbus… or rather, Charmiene, was with Isaac. Which kind of made me feel sorry for Isaac, but I kept that off my face.

“Girls,” Professor Mason raised an eyebrow as he saw us standing there. “Everything alright?”

I nodded quickly while Vanessa disabled the privacy spell, reminding myself not to stare at Columbus. “Sorry, Professor. We were just talking about what books we wanted to use. I guess we sorta forgot about that whole ‘walking’ thing.”

So we headed for the library with everyone else, and started to look through the books while trying to focus on the actual assignment. It was hard though. I was supposed to be thinking about how to put classic book characters into another story’s setting and plot. Instead, all I could think about was the fact that Professor Katarin and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad were together. And apparently they still tearing their way through Seosten space, trying to find Sariel.

Sitting by ourselves at one of the tables in the back of the room, I looked around briefly before leaning close to whisper, “Have you talked to Tristan about it?” We couldn’t talk openly, but I figured if I kept my voice down and kept it as vague as possible, that much was safe to ask.

She nodded. “Yes, of course. He’s the one who said I should tell you about it. I don’t… I don’t know if it’ll happen again.” Leaning even closer, she added almost silently, “If it does, I’m gonna try to talk. Maybe it’ll work this time. If I can talk through him, talk to them…” Trailing off, the girl looked as excited and eager as I’d ever seen her, aside from when Tristan had first appeared.  

“You should tell Gaia too,” I pointed out quietly. “She’ll definitely want to hear about that stuff.”

Again, Vanessa nodded vigorously. “I will,” she promised, “as soon as I get a chance to talk to her. I just thought that if there’s another… if there’s more of them in the school, they might notice if I run right to Gaia and figure out that something happened, you know? You could probably talk to her without attracting any attention, since you’ve got those extra classes all the time.”

“Oh, right.” I’d forgotten that most students didn’t have private lessons with the headmistress a couple times every week. Yeah, the Seosten were probably keeping an eye on what Vanessa and Tristan were doing. I was sure they knew who the two were by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked back to the stack of possible books that we’d picked up and tried to focus. But my mind kept drifting. There was something it was trying to tell me, something about what Vanessa had said that kept niggling at my brain. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

We were halfway through a discussion about either putting Sherlock Holmes in another setting, or putting other characters in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories when it practically physically struck me right in the face. I reeled backward, eyes widening as I blurted, “Wait a minute.”

Glancing up from the book she had been flipping through, Vanessa started to ask, “What are–”

“Okay, guys,” Professor Mason interrupted. “That’s it for now. Try to meet with your partner and nail down what you’re gonna be doing before the next class, alright? I’ll see you later.”

Everyone started to head for the exit, while I sat where I was, watching until I saw the two I was looking for. Finally spotting Sands and Scout, who had separated from their partners, I stepped that way and quickly pulled the two back over to the table where Vanessa was waiting.

“Err, hey Nessa.” Sands gave a brief wave. “What’s going on?”

While Vanessa hesitantly shrugged, I took a privacy coin of my own from my pocket and activated it. This was one conversation I really didn’t want to be overheard. “Guys,” I spoke quickly. “You keep a picture of your mother with you, right?”

The two of them looked at each other before Scout nodded. “Duh,” Sands replied. “Why?”

“Just… show Vanessa,” I instructed before looking to the blonde girl. “Vanessa, just say yes or no.”

The twins looked confused, but Scout obliged, reaching into her pocket to take out her phone. Thumbing through it briefly, she finally settled on a picture of a pretty brunette woman in her twenties, holding it up for us to see.

“Oh.” Vanessa’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yes.”

I’d known. Some part of me had known from the very beginning, as soon as Vanessa mentioned the woman that was with her father and Professor Katarin, the woman whose name they didn’t say.

Still, having it confirmed made me choke a little bit. The words wouldn’t come.

“Guys?” Sands was looking back and forth at us, frowning in confusion. “What the hell is going on?”

“Your mom,” I finally managed, forcing the words out. “She’s… she’s not dead, guys.

“Your mom is alive, and she’s with Vanessa’s dad in Seosten space.”

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Spy Hunt 26-02

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“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” my father started a short time later as he sat with Avalon, Shiori, and me in one of the cabins around the lake. His eyes focused on Avalon. “Your father was supposed to be dead, but someone turned him into a vampire instead. And now he’s spent the past few years repeatedly trying to kill you. Just this year, that effort was stepped up, getting you kicked out of this other school after they drugged one of your friends into attacking you until you had to kill him in self-defense, and trying to separate you from any protection you have. Now it’s not just your father, but others, these… angels who can possess people. They’re all trying to kill you, and manipulating people like your father into helping, because you’re the closest living relation to that… Hieronymus Bosch guy, whose daughter created some kind of magical vault that will only open for her closest living relative. In this case, you. In that vault, there’s something these angels want badly enough that they’re going to all this trouble to get rid of you so that the woman they’ve been taking control of, this… Professor Tangle, will become the closest living relative and then they can use her to get into the vault. That about sum it up?”

Blinking a couple times, I looked at Shiori to my left, then to Avalon to my right. “Uh, I think so.”

“Yes,” Avalon answered flatly. She was sitting there at the table, one hand on the bottle of flavored water that Gabriel had provided when she’d asked. “That is… essentially the size of it.” Her hand was tight on the bottle, and she was sitting stiffly for some reason. The whole time we’d been talking to my father, she had seemed uncomfortable and on the edge of bolting.

Whistling low, Dad looked down at the table, taking that in for a few seconds before he looked back up at her, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a pretty impressive girl, you know that?”

Judging from the way Avalon blinked at him and took a moment to respond, I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have said anything that would have surprised her more than that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she squinted, her suspicion obviously taking over. “What? You–” She paused, eyes shifting to me for half a second before she looked back to my father. “You’re not going to tell me to keep myself and my problems away from your daughter?”

For a moment, Dad didn’t say anything. Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. “Do you remember what I said that first morning before you left for school? The thing I told you to do?”

I thought about it briefly, head tilting before I remembered. “Stay away from drug dealers?”

He nodded. “That’s the one. And what happened to make me feel the need to tell you that?”

“Um.” I coughed. “Because I took it upon myself to taunt a drug dealer into confessing to his crimes?”

“And was I at all surprised that you would do something like that?” Dad prompted with a raised eyebrow.

My head shook quickly. “Surprised? No, not really. Exasperated maybe, but not surprised.”

Dad nodded once before turning his attention back toward Avalon. “She’s never been shy about getting into trouble, especially if she thought it was the right thing to do. It didn’t take a bunch of monster hunters to turn my daughter into a hero. I always knew she would be. Whether it would be throwing herself into war zones to report on atrocities, or going up against politicians that could throw her in prison and ruin her life, she was always going to do the right thing, no matter what powerful person tried to stop her. This Edge thing didn’t make her into anything she’s not, and you didn’t create this danger, or drag her into it.”

“Dad…” My voice was a tiny little mouse squeak as I felt my ears turn bright red. I wondered if I could actually manage to hit him if I kicked out.

He held up a hand to forestall me. “Believe it or not, I have a point beyond embarrassing you.” He paused then before conceding with a grin, “Embarrassing you is just a delightful bonus.”

I groaned, but Dad was already moving on. Raising his finger he gestured toward first Avalon, and then Shiori. “I may not understand this whole combined relationship thing. It’s not really my cup of tea. But this isn’t about me, it’s about Felicity.”

Yeah, we had sort-of explained the whole… relationship thing. At least as much as any of us actually understood it. Dad–well, he was taking it in stride, as far as that went. I guess when you get to the point of accepting that your daughter was a monster-hunter who gained superpowers by killing things, and that your missing wife had been the leader of a revolutionary faction of those monster hunters, it wasn’t too hard to get from that to ‘your daughter also has two girlfriends.’ Still, I was pretty sure he found it strange, even more strange than he was admitting right now.

Shiori blinked, holding up several fingers and counting them before she brightened. “Tea, me, Felicity, you did that on purpose!”

Dad winked at her before continuing, “The point is, there are three things that are actually important when it comes to anyone who wants to have a relationship with my daughter. First, they have to make her happy. Second, they need to help her rise into the kind of person that I know she is, not hold her down. And third, they have to be able and willing to stand with her, protect her when she needs protecting, challenge her, and defend her when her sense of justice exceeds her means to defend herself. Make her happy, inspire her, and protect her.”

Pausing then, Dad took a breath as he looked at the other two girls for a moment. “As far as I can tell, you girls do all of that. And probably far more than I will ever understand. So now, I’m not going to tell either of you to stay away from her. Just… let her protect you as much as you protect her.”

Focusing solely on Avalon then, Dad’s gaze softened a little bit. “And for the record, if I had your dad in front of me, I’d teach him exactly what I think about pathetic, drunk, child abusing pieces of shit. Vampire or not, a coward is a coward is a coward.”

After letting that sit for a few seconds, he brightened. “And now, I think I’ve been patient long enough. I’ve been the good, concerned dad. Now I want to see them.”

“See them?” I echoed, blinking over at the others blankly.

“The superpowers!” Dad blurted out loud. He sounded as eager as a little kid, and I realized just how hard it had been for him to hold back and remain serious for as long as he had.

“Come on, you’ve gotta show me the superpowers.”

********

“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” Gaia announced about an hour later. It was as long as I had been able to stretch spending time with my dad and the others before we had to get back to the school. After all, the last thing we needed was for Patrick and October, the Committee’s summoned minions, to get too suspicious about where we were. To say nothing of our Seosten ‘friends’. They’d know by now that we had been there, but they had to keep thinking that the choker had been destroyed. Which meant we should have come back here before too long.

There had been a lot more to do back at the camp. Each of the three groups (the Wonderland people, Mateo’s pack and the wolves they had managed to pull together, and Gabriel’s people) had lost people. Luckily, none of Roxa’s actual pack had died, though two of them (Corson and Hasty) had been injured enough that they’d be down for awhile. But still, there was a lot for them to sort out. Everything from deciding who was responsible for the prisoners that they’d taken, to where they were going to go to rest up, to how they would divide up the supplies that had been left behind. And more, a lot more.

Yeah, they’d won a lot. But they’d also lost. They were obviously trying not to show too much of it, but I knew that people had died. People had gone into that fight against that pack of weres at least partially because I asked them to, and now they were dead. Yet, if we hadn’t gone in, a lot more people would be dead. Hell, we’d managed to rescue all those Alter kids, so… that had to be worth it, right? Would I think the same thing if it was Avalon or Shiori who had died? Or even Vanessa or Tristan?

I’m a seventeen-year-old kid. How the fuck was I supposed to cope with those kind of questions, exactly?

But we didn’t even have time to stick around for all of that to really sink in. We’d had to leave far too soon, as far as I was concerned. It was just the safest way to avoid problems with the Committee, or the Seosten. Though these days, I wasn’t sure how much actually separated the two groups.

That wasn’t fair. One of the Committee members had saved my dad, had actually helped him break the Bystander Effect. And I still wasn’t sure what the hell that was all about.  

In any case, now we were in Gaia’s office. ‘We’ meant Avalon, Shiori, the Moon twins, and myself. Roxa had stayed behind, as she’d chosen to. We were going to plan for the best time for her to talk to her old team in person. Obviously, it couldn’t be on the school grounds or anywhere that the Seosten would know about it. And I (or someone else wearing the choker)  was going to have to touch each of them to make sure they weren’t possessed. After all, it’d be pretty stupid to go through all the trouble of hiding that the choker was intact only to have Roxa waltz right onto the island wearing it in a way that every Seosten would know should have been impossible without the choker.

In fact, it was getting to the point that I was thinking it might be better for Roxa not to reveal herself to her team at all until we had identified all the Seosten. Just in case. If her old team stopped being so obsessed about finding her, even if none of them were possessed, it might still tip the wannabe angels off. And nothing said they couldn’t be possessed later.

“Congratulations?” Tristan raised both hands, showing off the retractable claws that he had inherited from the werejaguar that he’d killed. The boy was also considerably stronger, courtesy of the other kill he’d gotten, a wereape.  “We just beat a giant pack of were-whatevers and Flick over there stole the one thing that can identify Seosten that are possessing people. We deserve a freaking parade, and a–” He yelped as Vanessa pecked him on the side of the head. Yeah, pecked. While Tristan had inherited some extra strength and retractable claws, Vanessa had gotten incredibly lucky. Not only did she inherit the ability to turn into a full raven, which she was using right then to perch on her brother’s shoulder, but she had also gained the ability to turn into a full-sized bear. Which was… more than a little intimidating. Especially seeing innocent little bookworm Vanessa transform into a gigantic fuck-off grizzly.

Coughing at his sister’s silent reprimand, Tristan gestured. “Uh, I mean, or congratulations from you, Headmistress. That’s just as good.”

Chuckling softly, Gaia inclined her head. “I am quite certain that there will be more of a reward for your efforts in the future, Mr. Moon.” There was amusement in her gaze as she glanced back toward me. “In the meantime, would you like me to have him come in now, Felicity?”

My eyes turned to the door briefly before I gave a quick nod. “Yes, please.”

So, the headmistress made a gesture with one finger. The door on the other side of the room opened smoothly, and a short, lanky figure stepped through. Wyatt. He smiled broadly (and a bit goofily, showing his buck teeth) at the sight of me and held his arms open. “You’re all right!”

Blinking at that, I shrugged and took a step that way to return the offered hug. Clearly, he’d been even more worried about me going through with that fight than I’d thought he would b–

He punched me in the shoulder, harder than someone of his tiny frame should have been able to. As I took a reflexive step back and yelped, Wyatt put a finger in my face. “No!” he chastised me. “What if I was possessed? What if I came to take the choker away from you? Never, ever, ever put yourself in that kind of compromised position with someone you’re not sure you can trust. I could’ve cut your throat before you knew what was happening. I could’ve taken you hostage and either stolen the choker from you or ordered whoever has it to give it over. Are you crazy? Do you want to be a victim? Never, ever, ever be that naive. Anyone could be your enemy. Until you use the choker on them, you don’t know. So assume the worst, and be ready!”

Somewhere behind me, I heard Avalon actually chuckle, voice soft. “He has a point, Chambers.”

Wincing, I rubbed my shoulder while looking back toward Gaia. The headmistress was just smiling a little bit. When I looked to her, she offered a slight shrug, as if to say that he wasn’t wrong. “Right,” I murmured before looking back to him. “Um, Headmistress, would you mind…”

She nodded once before making another slight gesture with one finger. As she did so, a collection of dark green vines literally rose out of the floor, wrapping around Wyatt’s arms and legs to hold him firmly in place. Her voice was calm. “You may test him safely now, Felicity.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket and took out the choker. Carefully affixing it to my own neck, I extended my hand to press gingerly against Wyatt’s arm. Not because I was worried that he was actually possessed or anything, but because I was half-afraid he might have some kind of electrified trap to zap my fingers or something just to teach me about touching people like that.

Nothing happened. There was no zap or other trap from my (justifiably) paranoid older brother, and obviously no reveal that he was actually possessed. Just as I’d known there wouldn’t be. We never would have gotten as far as we had if Wyatt had been possessed. Hell, Avalon would’ve been dead a dozen times over by now if he was. No, Wyatt being possessed would’ve ended everything a long time ago. I’d known he was safe before ever using the choker on him.

Still, I nodded for everyone else. “Clear,” I announced while stepping back. “You can let him go.”

The vines disappeared, and Wyatt shook himself off a bit. “Still,” he announced almost as though he was disappointed that we’d cleared him so easily, “you can never be too careful. Eyes wide, eyes open. Remember, they can switch bodies, so check everyone as much as you can.”

“We could do that more easily,” Avalon pointed out while stepping beside me, “with your help.”

I nodded quickly, taking the choker off before offering it to him. “Yeah. Right now, the Seosten think it’s been destroyed. But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t just think this was some other fashion accessory if we started walking around wearing it. So we were hoping you could do something to it first. You know, make it invisible or something, so it’s not so obvious that we have it.”

Taking the offered choker, Wyatt frowned thoughtfully down at it for a few seconds. “Invisible…” he murmured under his breath before nodding. “Yes.” Giving another goofy smile, he looked up to me. “Yes, I think I can do exactly what you want. But it’ll take a little while to do it properly.”

“Are you sure?” That was Vanessa. The blonde girl had turned into her human form (using her own discarded shirt as cover while shifting back and dressing) before stepping over to join us, her expression pensive as she worried aloud, “They said that the thing was already damaged from the spell that was used to turn it into a choker instead of a ring. That’s what lowered it to touch-range to begin with. What if putting any more spells on it damages the identification effect even more?”

Wyatt’s head bobbed up-and-down. “Yes yes, of course, changing shape would be harder. Too dangerous to risk losing the spell. But making it invisible, that I can do. Just need a day or two.”

“A day or two?” Echoing his words, I gave a little nod before looking back at the others. “I guess that means we need to get to dinner, and face the music.”

“Lies,” Shiori murmured. “More lying.”

“One more time,” I assured her while putting a handout to touch the other girl’s shoulder. “We just lie one more time. Once we know who we can trust, then we can tell them the truth.”

“Except for whoever is possessed,” Vanessa pointed out quietly. “They’re all connected, they all know what happens to each other. So, until you know who every possessed person is, you’re going to have to keep lying to the one that you know about. It’s the only way to get them all at once.”

Sometimes… I really hated how smart that girl was.

********

“Okay, you guys have got some serious explaining to do,” Sands informed Avalon and me as we sat with the rest of the team at the table in the corner of the cafeteria as far away from any other group as possible. Her voice was low, but intense.

“She’s right,” Sean agreed. The Hispanic boy with drumming his fingers on the table as he watched us. “We looked all over the place for you guys. What happened?”

We had already prepared for this, from the moment that we knew we were going to have to explain where we had gone. We couldn’t lie about where we went, because if whoever Seosten was possessing happen to be within this group, they might get a little suspicious about what we knew if we were lying to people we were supposed to trust.

So, glancing at the privacy coin that was sitting on the table, I winced before starting to explain. “Sorry guys, there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We were with Vanessa and Tristan when Gabriel called. They tracked down that werewolf pack, and they needed us to go right then. There wasn’t time to say anything else or find you. We had to go.”

“Besides,” Avalon added. “Gabriel said that there was only a very brief window where he could open the portal that would get us off the island without alerting the security. If we waited any longer, he might not have been able to do it.”

Even now, when the other girl said the name of the man who had been her idol for so long, her voice faltered a little bit and she looked a bit flushed.

“Oh man,” Sands complained. “You got to fight a bunch of werewolves? Come on you gotta tell us everything that happened. Did you kick their…” She trailed off, looking around at Avalon and me with a slight frown. “What happened, is everyone okay? Everyone made it back right?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “We all made it back, but…” Trailing off, I gave a soft, slow sigh. “The choker that we were trying to get for Roxa, the one that would let her be here without setting off everyone’s Stranger-sense? Yeah, it…” Biting my lip, I looked down. “It was destroyed. Pace–we couldn’t…”

Sitting beside his roommate, Columbus winced before cursing quietly. “They couldn’t fix it? I mean, how destroyed are we talking here?”

“Melted,” Avalon replied flatly. “Pace’s acid spit, it was… bad.”

“Which just means we’ll have to find something else,” I announced. “We promised Roxa we’d find a way to help her. I’m not going back on that. If you guys–”

“Don’t even say it,” Sands warned me. “We said we’d help Roxa, so we’re gonna help Roxa.” She paused, frowning. “… somehow.” Belatedly, she added, “Maybe we can find something in New York.”

I started to nod, then blinked. “Yeah, maybe we–wait, what?”

“New York,” Sands explained. “We’re going there. Like, all of us. The team.”

She continued, telling us about the whole contest thing with the Investigation Track and how she and Jasmine had won, meaning that we’d be going on a trip to New York with Roxa’s old team.

This… could get complicated. But at least we knew a good time for Roxa to show up and tell her team that she was okay. A month should be enough time to use the choker to check each of them and make sure they weren’t possessed.  

Beside her sister, Scout leaned over and whispered into the girl’s ear. Sands listened for a moment before giving a sharp nod. “Right, Scout’s got a point. We still need to know how the fight went. What happened? We won, right?”

“We?” I echoed before snickering despite myself. “Yes, we won. Roxa even killed Lemuel.”

Eyes widening, Sands blurted, “She did? Oh come on, you can’t spoil the ending like that. That’s not fair. Tell us everything.”

So… as much as we could without spoiling things they couldn’t know yet… we did.

******

“How much do you think they eat?”

It was the next afternoon, and four of us (Sands, Scout, Shiori, and me) were out on the ocean, treading water as we watched my shiver of sharks swimming below and around us. They’d been like eager puppies, showing off new tricks that they’d learned for the past ten minutes or so.

“How much?” I echoed, glancing to the Asian girl beside me before shrugging. “I’m pretty sure Princess Cuddles could polish off half of what the entire student body puts away in a day all by herself. Or, you know, half the entire student body, period.” I gestured at the enormous shark in question, who was swimming further away than all the others.

“At least they’re doing a pretty good job of keeping the waters around here clean and safe,” Shiori pointed out, giggling a little bit as Simpson, the yellow-tinted Lemon shark, came up to bump against her, clearly looking for head pats.

“He likes those,” I pointed out. “Here, Scout, check it out.” Reaching out, I waited for the other girl to give a little nod before gently taking her wrist to press against the shark’s snout. “Rub carefully just like that. See? Careful, it’s kind of rough.”

Feeling something bump up against my back, I glanced that way before laughing. “Jealous, Sherman?” The bull shark gave another heavy bump against me, and I snickered. “Okay, okay. Sands, here.” Carefully, I did the same with her, letting the girl give Sherman the attention that he wanted.

After watching the two of them pat the sharks for a moment, I gave a single nod. “Peanut brittle.”

Blinking up at me from Sherman, Sands asked, “Uh, what’d you say?”

“She said peanut brittle.”

That was Avalon, who rose from the water, dismissing the air-bubble spell that she’d been using in order to stay under water and out of sight behind Princess Cuddles until I gave the signal.

If it was possible to literally jump out of the water like a cartoon, Sands would’ve managed it right then. “Fuck!” she blurted, twisting that way. “Where’d you–what did-huh?”

Scout, for her part, was just watching me with a curious – yet understanding – tilt to her head. It was like she’d already worked out most of what was going on, and just needed me to fill in the details.

“We’re clear, then?” Avalon asked.

Looking toward Shiori, I echoed the question. “Clear?”

The other girl paused before nodding. Apparently one of the powers that she had inherited during that whole battle royal back there had been some kind of warning tingle that alerted her any time anyone was observing her that she didn’t know about.

Apparently it was rather less than useful any time we were anywhere near most of our fellow teenage classmates.

But out here, it had helped a lot. Now, she’d be able to tell us if anyone was paying attention or eavesdropping that we didn’t know about.

“Guys?” Sands interrupted my brief musing. “What the hell is going on? What–”

“You’re clear,” I announced. “We had to be sure, before we could tell you.” As I spoke, Brody, one of my two Mako sharks, drifted up under me so that I could hang off of him with one hand. With my other, I reached up to undo the choker around my neck. It came off, turning visible in the process as I showed it to the twins. “But now we know you’re not possessed.

“So we can tell you the truth about what’s really going on. All of it.”

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Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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Mini-Interlude 27 – Abigail and Wyatt

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Abigail and Wyatt discussing things like Flick, their parents, and Fossor. 

The city wasn’t one of the largest in the United States, but it wasn’t that small either. It was one of those cities that fit neatly within the upper end of medium, with several hundred thousand occupants. Large enough that visitors wouldn’t really stand out that much or be that memorable, yet small enough that crowds wouldn’t hide anyone that happened to be trying to spy on them.

At least, that was the way that Wyatt had explained his reasoning for this particular meeting place to Abigail. They had gone back and forth on exactly where to meet, using the coded messages that he had taught her how to make, using Seller and that large man, Croc, as intermediaries.

It was Seller who had brought her to the city. The man had offered to stay, but Abigail declined. She had the emergency beacons that he had given her if anything went wrong. Besides, Wyatt’s instructions about what to do had been specific about being by herself when she did them, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t going to make an exception for anyone. Not even their ancestor.

So, she went through the instructions on her own. First there was the part where she had to go into the nearest McDonalds and order a Kid’s Meal, then deposit the entire thing minus the toy in the trash bin. After that, she had to walk outside and leave the toy on the nearby bus stop, then wait for the next bus and board it before immediately getting off again at the next stop, walk back to the first stop and look for the toy. If it was there, she was supposed to turn right and go into the shoe store that was across the street. If it was gone, she was to turn left and into the paint store instead.

Seeing the toy, she went right and entered the shoe store. Making her way through to the back, she watched the order of the color of shoes in the last aisle. White, black, black, white. That meant she had to go into the restroom and enter the last stall. Scanning the graffiti there, she eventually found the words ‘I love Root Beer’ written in red marker. Root Beer. As in A&W. Abigail and Wyatt.

Touching her fingers to the words, she felt the power in them. Following Wyatt’s instructions, she focused on channeling energy into the spell that he had left there. As she did so, a literal door appeared behind the toilet. With a little effort, she squirmed past the plumbing, opening the door to step through.

She had just enough time to see that she was standing in a small motel room before Wyatt appeared. He held what looked like a flare gun in one hand, and a mirror in the other that he aimed at her before glancing in, as though checking what her reflection looked like. “Password?”

For a second, Abigail said nothing. She just stared at the man who… who was her… brother. She had a brother, a twin brother. At her age, the idea of having a long-lost sibling had been a far distant childhood dream.

And yet, some part of her had never quite shaken the feeling that there was something off about her family, something… missing. It was nothing that she had been able to explain, let alone prove. After all, her parents had done everything for her, had never shown Abigail anything but love. Yet the feeling had remained there, buried just under the surface. She had made up imaginary siblings as a child, the way many children had imaginary friends.

She had long-since grown out of those kind of games, yet the idea of keeping families together was what had primarily led her to become not just a defense attorney, but a civil rights defense attorney. Standing up for people who were being taken advantage of, legally defending those who didn’t have the knowledge or ability to properly defend themselves, it had all grown out of teenage years spent protesting abuses of power.

Now there was Wyatt. Her brother, her actual brother. And seeing him, talking to him, learning everything she could about him had brought Abigail to one very important conclusion: She wanted to take the people who had been responsible for raising Wyatt as well as everyone who had had a hand in putting him into that situation, and have them thrown into the deepest, darkest dungeon on the planet before throwing away the key.

Ruthers. Ruthers and his stooges, who had taken Wyatt in not because they cared about him, but because their arrogant piece of shit boss had ordered them to. Wyatt, who had… who had grown up knowing that the people who should have loved him more than anything else in the world didn’t actually give one shit about the then-innocent little boy.

Wyatt, her brother, had grown up in a household without actual love. He had become paranoid about being spied on because he was actually spied on. He had grown up with the knowledge that his parents, the people he should be able to trust beyond all doubt, would have killed him without a second thought if the man they were reporting to ordered them to do it.

Deepest. Darkest. Dungeon. Abigail wanted Ruthers and all his sycophants thrown there for the rest of their lives. Which, given this whole Heretic business, would probably be a very long time.

Finally shaking those thoughts off, the woman answered Wyatt’s request for a passcode by reciting, “Gabriel Ruthers is the most brilliant, charismatic, charming, and wonderful man in the history of the world.” Pausing briefly, she added, “Why does that have to be our passcode?”

“Because they’d never guess that we’d use it,” the man replied before hesitating. He stood there for a moment, then took a step forward and to the left. His left hand went up like he was gesturing to one of the nearby chairs, while his right hand moved as though to shake hers. At the same time, his arms actually widened a bit, as if a third part of him wanted to hug her. It was awkward and, at the same time, incredibly endearing.

Smiling just a little bit, Abigail saved the man by taking the choice off his hands. She stepped in and embraced him tightly. He made an awkward sound, almost like an ostrich, but eventually returned it.

This was her brother, a man who had a million contingency plans and escape routes for every situation, yet was trapped by a simple hug.

“Oh,” the man blurted, “I was–you were–you don’t have to–”

Abigail shook her head, stepping back after giving him another squeeze. “Of course I don’t have to,” she replied. “But I want to. You’re my brother, Wyatt. They already kept us apart for fifty years, we don’t have to do the rest of the work for them.”

He gave a shaky, awkward little smile at that before clearing his throat as he gestured to the nearby chairs on the other side of the motel room. “Should we, uh, sit down? I–we can order food if you’re hungry, or go get something, or if you’re bored, we can–”

Smiling, Abigail moved to the seat. “How about we just talk for now?” She tried to keep the emotion out of her voice, not wanting to scare the man off. He was her brother. Her twin brother, and this, this was the kind of routine that she had to go through just to talk to him for a few hours.

So they did. At first, it was about nothing too serious. Wyatt asked her a lot of questions about her childhood, about college, about becoming a lawyer and the kind of cases that she’d gotten into. He wisely avoided the subject of her husband, a man that she still didn’t remember despite hearing about him from both her daughter, and the man she had gotten her information from, Tribald Kine. Her husband’s grandfather’s cousin, apparently.

Eventually, the conversation came around to more serious subjects. Abigail went quiet for a few seconds, looking out the nearby window before the words came, words that she had known she had to ask from the moment that they had planned this meeting. “Wyatt…” she started slowly before letting out a sigh. “Wyatt, the… necromancer, the one that has our mother…”

“Fossor,” the man supplied helpfully.

“I know, I just–” She stopped, taking another breath. “Wyatt, he’s not going to be satisfied with just our mother, is he? He has Joselyn, but he’ll want more. If he knows about Koren, if that… if that Ammon boy realized why she was immune to him, or if he just told his father and he realized, then he’ll try to take–”

There was a sudden crash as Wyatt’s fist slammed down onto the table between them with so much force that the thing actually splintered. And in his eyes, she saw something she hadn’t seen before: fire, anger, and violence.

“No,” her gangly, deceptively-goofy looking brother announced. “I won’t let him take Koren. Believe me, Abigail, I… Koren and I… we’ve been…” He squirmed a little, as though ashamed of his little outburst. “Koren and I have been close. I won’t let anyone hurt her.”

Slowly, Abigail reached out and laid her hand on top of his fist. “I’m glad you’re there. I don’t think I could do this, this… staying away from my daughter if I didn’t know that you were there to watch her, Wyatt. I do trust you. I mean, I barely know you and yet…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “I just trust you. I know you’ll put yourself in front of her if anything happens, but I don’t want anything to happen to you either. I just–” She stopped, slumping back in the seat. “I keep getting this urge to… to call the police, or the FBI, or someone with authority. But what am I supposed to tell them? They wouldn’t believe me, or they’d just forget what I said, or… or whatever. It wouldn’t help.”

He reached across to her then, his hand finding hers. “I–Abigail… Koren won’t–I won’t let him take her,” he repeated, his voice firm. “I promise. I have… I have protection spells, more than you know, more than she knows. If anyone tries to take her, I’ll know. I’ll be there.”

For a moment, Abigail didn’t say anything. She returned the squeeze of his hand, trying to shut the terrifying thoughts of her baby girl being taken away out of her mind.

“… but he’s going to come for Felicity, isn’t he?” she asked quietly after a few long seconds of silence. “The deal that he made with… with Joselyn, with our mother, it only protects her until she’s no longer a child. That’s when she’s eighteen.”

There was a noticeable flinch from the man, and he hesitated long enough for her to prompt. “What? What is it?”

“Yes,” he answered finally. “Fossor has… made it clear to Felicity that he intends to come for her when she’s eighteen. She… told me that much. She’s scared, even if she doesn’t act like it.”

“They have to protect her, they… they will, right?” she quickly put in. “That headmistress, you, our… our father.” Even saying the word made her squirm a little inside. Deveron. The man she didn’t know, the man she had barely even seen, he wasn’t her father. She knew her father, she knew the man who had raised her, and thinking of Deveron Adams as her father, particularly when he looked like he was thirty years younger than she was, was just… strange.

That went for the pictures she’d seen of her biological mother as well. Deveron and Joselyn both looked so… so different from her. Growing up, Abigail had always looked gawky and strange. Her classmates had nicknamed her Olive Oyl since before she could actually remember. Which was why she didn’t have trouble thinking of Wyatt as her brother, even her twin. It fit.

But Joselyn and Deveron? They looked like models. They looked… perfect. Part of that on her father’s side, she knew from asking, was the fact that he had inherited the appearance of some Asian Incubus. But even knowing that didn’t make things seem less awkward. It was just… so much to take in.

Wyatt nodded slowly, hesitating before looking up to meet her gaze. “I think… I think part of Felicity-Flick, wants him to come for her. She wants a… a showdown. She wants to fight.”

“She can’t be that naive,” Abigail quickly blurted. “I know she’s getting… Koren’s told me how much stronger Felicity’s been getting, but that necromancer has been around for thousands of years. He’s beaten everyone that came after him. Why would Felicity think she could beat him?”

Again, the man swallowed hard, hesitating before his head shook. “I don’t think she does, not really. I think she feels guilty. She hated her mother–our mother for a long time for… for leaving. Finding out that she left to protect her, that she sacrificed her freedom to let Felicity grow up was… it hurt her more than she’ll tell anyone. Maybe more than she’ll admit to herself. I think part of her thinks that she deserves to be punished for that. She wants to beat him, but if she can’t… I don’t know.” His head shook solemnly. “Every time I think that she’s not taking it seriously, I remember that she’s… she’s training a lot. More than anyone else in her grade. She does the normal training, she does extra training with Avalon, with Headmistress Sinclaire, and with… Deveron.” He trailed off then, swallowing audibly.

After the few seconds of silence that followed that, Abigail quietly asked, “Do you… do you ever feel jealous?”

“Because she spent time with our mother,” he finished for her. “I… yes, sometimes. I look at her, and I look at pictures of Joselyn and they’re… they’re alike. Felicity looks like Joselyn’s daughter. We–I…”

“Don’t,” Abigail in turn finished for him. “We don’t look like either of them. I know. I know it’s stupid to be jealous. She had her mother taken away when she was young, but….” She closed her eyes briefly, squeezing them tightly. “God, I feel like such a bitch. She had a chance with her. She remembers her. She spent a few years with her real mother. And it’s stupid. It’s stupid to feel like this. Because I had a good childhood. I had parents who–” She stopped talking abruptly, eyes widening as she looked at the man across from her. “I’m sorry, Wyatt, I didn’t–”

He shrugged. “Everyone grows up differently. You’re right, Felicity had a few years with Joselyn. Then she was taken away. Which is worse, never knowing your mother, or knowing her enough to love her and then having her taken away?”

“I think the big point here is that Fossor is a sick, stupid son of a bitch,” Abigail announced, her voice darker than she remembered it being. “And so is Gabriel Ruthers. They deserve each other.”

She let that hang for a moment before sighing. “But Felicity doesn’t. She’s–she’s our little half–our little sister, Wyatt. You can’t let her sacrifice herself or do something stupid just because she feels guilty. Our mother–Joselyn, it would destroy her. Believe me, I know. If anything happened to me and Koren sacrificed herself to save me, I… “ She gave a weak, disgusted shudder at the thought.

“We have to save our mother. But we can’t let our sister sacrifice herself to do it, because that would destroy Joselyn more than anything Fossor could do to her in a million years. If it comes down to one or the other, we have to protect Felicity. Even if that means going against her choices.”

“You’re right,” Wyatt agreed. “No matter what… no m-matter what happens, we protect Felicity first.”

They looked at each other, as Abigail felt the guilt of the word settle in her stomach. The idea of not saving her mother, of not throwing away everything in order to save the woman who had given birth to her was… was almost incomprehensible.

And yet, she stood by what she had said. If Joselyn was saved at the expense of Felicity, it would destroy her, just like Abigail being saved at the expense of Koren would destroy her.

“I wish there was a way to meet her father,” she murmured finally. “I’d like to meet the man who married our mother as a civilian–a Bystander. I’d like to talk about what he knew about her, about how she made him feel, about what kind of person she was. Felicity’s memory was… tainted. She was a child. But her father–Lincoln, he knew her as an adult.”

Wyatt nodded slowly at that. “I’d like that too,” he agreed. “I talk to our… I talk to Deveron about her. You should do that. You could,” he added. “He really wants to spend more time with you.”

“I know.” Again, that guilt came back. “It’s just… it’s just awkward. I know he wants to see me more. I know he wants to talk. I just–everything that’s happened, I…” She breathed out. “I’ll try. I’ll try to spend some time with our father–with Deveron.”

Changing the subject, she looked back over to him. “I looked her up, you know. Felicity. I looked up everything I could about her in the Bystander world. She wasn’t exactly lying low or being normal and average even before she was a Heretic.”

The man frowned a little, head tilting. “What?”

Smiling despite herself, Abigail began to talk about the things she had learned. She told him about Felicity apparently repeatedly getting herself into trouble with her ‘investigations’, about how she had helped catch that drug dealing theater owner only a day before Crossroads had taken her in, about exposing that the most popular girl in her junior high had been stealing money from field trip donations in order to buy clothes, and more. Every year it seemed like there was some other secret story that Felicity Chambers blew apart with her little school newspaper. For a person who lived in a town as small as Laramie Falls, the girl seemed to have had a knack for finding an almost absurd amount of trouble.

Finally, Wyatt shook his head slowly. “How did you find all this out?”

“Some of it from newspapers,” she answered. “Other parts from calling people over there and saying that I was a college recruiter. And also from talking to Miranda.”

“Her friend,” Wyatt remembered.

“Her best friend,” she corrected. “Miranda had more stories than anyone else. More stories than she was even actually there for. I… I guess she sort of kept up with what Felicity did even after she was recruited by Eden’s Garden.”

Wyatt took that in for a moment, pausing before he realized aloud, “We’re gonna have a hard time keeping her out of trouble, aren’t we?”

Nodding emphatically at that, Abigail replied, “Yeah, but then again, that might be the most normal part of all this.

“After all, aren’t little sisters supposed to drive their siblings nuts?”

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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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