Zeke Leven

Desperate Times 36-03

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“I’m so tired of people that care about me getting hurt because of me.”

The soft, quiet admission came as I knelt in the sand of the Crossroads beach some time after our thorough investigation of everything in the secret hideaway places that Theia had exposed for us. I didn’t want to say that we’d found nothing, since there was still plenty to go over later with the PAWS, but… yeah, there was no bright neon sign pointing at where Avalon was. Not that we’d found yet, anyway. And none of the other groups had had much better luck.

And to make matters worse, I had no real way of contacting Jophiel and Elisabet. Especially when I didn’t even know if they had gotten back to Earth yet. Hell, I’d even asked for a way to contact them and they had simply said that they would contact us. So that was just great. Which meant no ranting at them about helping Avalon until I could figure out how to initiate that contact. That, of course, had resulted in a lot of internal ranting and cursing that had made me glad that Tabbris wasn’t listening in.

And to make matters even worse than that, Trice was gone. We had no idea how he’d gotten out, only that he was gone. Gaia was apparently looking into it, but I wasn’t sure how much she’d find out.

Avalon was captured and Trice had escaped somehow. That was just… perfect. Just super fucking perfect.

So now I was back at Crossroads. It was late enough (so late that everyone else was in their dorms) that I probably should have been asleep. Especially after the day that I’d had. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t go there, couldn’t… couldn’t go to that room right then.

I wasn’t alone, in several ways. Shiori was with me, having gotten a special pass from Gaia to stay with me. Her head was on my lap, and she was very gently snoring while one of her hands lay limply against mine, the girl having fallen asleep that way. Not that I minded. The fact that she was right here, safe, and so close to me made me feel… well, a little bit better. With one hand, I gently stroked her hair, listening as she breathed in and out peacefully.

My shark buddies were there too. We’d had a pretty big reunion as soon as I made it out there earlier, with the girl who was now sleeping against me. I wasn’t sure how sharks could actually show emotion, but somehow, my shiver had managed it. They were clearly happy to see me, and we’d gone for a long, thoroughly exhausting swim (part of my desperate attempt to focus on something else and wear myself out a bit to hopefully sleep at some point).

So, I had played with them for an hour or so, letting my sharks carry me around through the water. They were deadly killing machines, of course. But they were also like happy, goofy little puppies who were so glad to see me that they kept swimming in circles and bumping up against me. It was weirdly adorable, and despite the terror in the back of my mind the whole time about what Avalon was going through, it did help a little bit. Not as much as Shiori’s presence did. But still. It helped.

And yet, it was neither Shiori nor my sharks (who were still swimming about as close to the beach as they could manage) who were the focus of the words that I had quietly spoken. No, those had been directed toward the person standing silently behind me, who had clearly come just close enough for me to sense him before waiting for me to actually speak.

Deveron, of course. Now that I had spoken, he came closer, hesitating before moving to sit on the other side of me, opposite from Shiori. His voice was as soft as mine had been. “You know better than that, Felicity,” he quietly reminded me. “Avalon being taken wasn’t your fault.”

My head shook at that, voice catching in my throat briefly before I managed to reply, “You didn’t hear Manakel. The only reason he managed to take Valley is because Gaia was distracted by me. If I hadn’t come back right then, if I hadn’t made Gaia come deal with that situation–”

“Then it would have been something else,” Deveron interrupted. He raised a hand like he was going to touch me before stopping himself. But his eyes were intent. I could feel them on me despite the fact that I was still looking out at the ocean. “There would have been some other distraction, Flick. Something else would have pulled Gaia away long enough for him to make his move. Don’t let him get into your head like that. He wants you to feel guilty about it.”

“Well,” I muttered darkly, “it’s working. I do feel guilty. He took her right when I came back. He used me to hurt her. Just like Fossor used me to hurt Mom. He threatened her, threatened to take me, and she traded herself instead. She traded herself to that psycho monster to save me. Everything she’s been through, everything that happened to her since then, it’s–”

“Fossor’s fault,” Deveron interrupted again, his voice hard. “It is Fossor’s fault, not yours. Just like this is Manakel’s fault, his doing, not yours. It’s the fault of the person who does the action. You know that, Felicity. You tell other people that all the time.”

For a moment, I couldn’t respond to that. I looked down and away, my eyes settling on the peacefully slumbering girl beside me. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, I quietly asked, “What about when the person does something terrible because of the society they were raised in, or bad things happen because of something they did even if they didn’t intend it, and they change later? Are they allowed to be a better person, or does that taint them forever?”

That made it Deveron’s turn to not say anything at first. From the corner of my eye, I saw him flinch just a bit, his gaze turning out to the water before he sighed. “I know she’s not the same person she was,” he said quietly. “And I know she didn’t intend what happened. But–” He went quiet again before his head shook. “But it’s not that simple. My head can know something, but my… damn it.”

“Yeah,” I murmured softly. “Exactly.”

For a couple of minutes, we just sat there, quietly watching the waves as they lapped against the shore. Finally, I started, “I… know why you can’t just forgive her or anything, just like that. I know. I understand. Emotions are more complicated than that, and… and even if she didn’t mean what happened, even if she’s changed, even if so on and so on, that doesn’t fix things. You were still hurt, your family was…” Swallowing hard, I finished with, “I understand.”

A moment later, Deveron’s head dipped into a slight nod. His voice was a bit hoarse. “And I know… I know why you do trust her, why you feel close to her… them. I understand what she did for you, what they’ve done for you. I’m glad that–I’m glad that it helped you. But I just can’t–” He stopped for a second, clearly fighting for words before ending with, “I just can’t. Not yet.”

“I get it,” I assured him, biting my lip before hesitantly asking, “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad at you?” He blinked my way before coughing. “Oh, you mean for back at the camp when–” Stopping, Deveron shook his head. “No, Flick. I’m not mad at you. I’m just…” He sighed. “It’s complicated. Joselyn was always better at the talking to and understanding people part. I–”

He stopped himself from actually saying it, so I said it for him. “I miss my mom.” My voice cracked a little bit at the admission, and I lowered my head, shivering just a little despite the warmth of the night air. “I want her to be here. I… I want my mom.”

Eyes closing, Deveron took a moment, clearly unable to speak. Finally, he managed a very slight nod. “Yeah,” he spoke simply, his voice almost breaking. “I miss her too.”

My head shook a little, as I fought to control myself even just a little bit. “I… what… what about the thing for tomorrow?” Because we did have a slight plan, something that would at least help protect Avalon for the time being. Specifically: Tangle. We had been holding off from actually giving her the cure and waking her up to avoid forcing the Seosten to do something drastic before we were ready. But, well, right now we were the ones that were down to doing something drastic. If we woke up Tangle and took her somewhere safe, the Seosten wouldn’t have their alternate candidate for opening up Liesje’s blood vault. They would have to keep Avalon alive, at least for the time being.

But thanks to hospital rules, we couldn’t just go straight there. The whole situation was going to require some… finesse. More finesse than I’d had in mind when I’d first blurted out that we should just go wake her up, so it was a good thing that Gaia and Dare had more sense.

“Gaia’s arranging it,” Deveron replied easily. “You’ll be going with her, then?”

I gave a quick nod at that. “We’re all going. The rest of the team, I mean. I’m not going back to classes yet. Gaia already set it up so I could have more time to recover from the… from being imprisoned and all that, the stuff the rest of the school is supposed to think happened. And the others are supposed to get the day off to help. And to deal with… with Avalon being kidnapped. So we’re using that.” I grimaced then. “I wasn’t going to leave them behind again. They deserve to be there for this too.” Glancing that way, I added, “So do you, you know.”

He hesitated, but in the end, the man shook his head. “I’ve got some other things I can check out, contacts I can work with. They probably don’t know anything, but… you know, can’t hurt. But speaking of which, when you say you’re going with the whole team…”

“Oh.” Flushing a little, I nodded. “Right, I meant Scout, Columbus, and Sean, mostly. And Shiori, but she’s not…” I glanced to the sleeping girl, gently stroking two fingers down her cheek. “I haven’t even seen Doug or Rudolph yet. They… they’re going to want to know about their friends, about…” My face twisted. “… about Isaac. They–oh God, how much am I supposed to tell them? I don’t know what–I mean, Scout and Tristan said that they know some of it, that Avalon was… prepping them for it. They think that it’s okay to let little threats go to get big threats, but even that’s a big step away from the truth. I… I don’t know what to do.”

That time, Deveron really did put his hand on my shoulder, squeezing firmly. “If you’re anything like your mother, you’ll know when they’re ready to hear it. And you’ll be damn convincing.”

The words made me flush deeply. “But no pressure or anything.” Coughing then, I looked away, letting the silence carry on for a few seconds before hesitantly asking, “Could… um. Could you tell me a story about her? Just… anything. I wanna hear about my mom.”

Deveron’s hand on my shoulder squeezed just a little once more, before he nodded. “Sure, kid.

“Let me tell you a story about Jos.”

******

It was breakfast the next morning. Monday, April 23rd. Not that it mattered since, again, we weren’t going to class. Which was probably a good thing, since I was absolutely not in the right state for it. I’d gotten just under an hour of sleep, so I was… well, pretty rested considering my Amarok-stamina, but not exactly perfect after that long and incredibly stressful day.

Shiori had slept with me, in my bed. It was the only way that I could stand to be in that room while thinking about what kind of situation Avalon must have been in.

Now, we were sitting together to eat breakfast, with Sean, Columbus and Scout. Vanessa and Tristan were over regaling (mostly in the latter’s case) their own team with the (adjusted) stories of our exploits. And as for Douglas and Rudolph, they… seemed to be staying back for the time being. The two of them had seen me, but either they didn’t know what to say just yet, or they were deliberately holding back to give the rest of my team time to actually catch up with me.

Either way, I was sitting there, staring at the food on my plate even as a much bigger rock than Herbie seemed to have settled into the pit of my stomach. “… I’m not hungry.”

Columbus was the one who spoke first. His voice was quiet, yet firm as he looked to me. “I know how that feels. But you need to eat. It’s hard, I know. It might taste pretty much like dirt. But you need the food. So, try to choke it down? It’s easier when it’s warm than if you let it get cold.”

I still wasn’t sure where Columbus and I stood. I knew he felt uncertain (at best) about the whole Tabbris thing, and Seosten in general. That was understandable. I also knew that he cared about me, that his hesitation on the Tabbris thing was him being protective. But still, I wasn’t sure how things were going to proceed. We were… awkward.

For a moment, the two of us locked eyes. I hesitated before giving a slight nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “I know, I can’t just not eat. It’s just… I keep thinking about Avalon and whether they’re feeding her or…” Stopping short, my eyes closed and I gave my head a sharp shake.

He was right though, so I shoved my fork into the food and began to eat mechanically. It probably tasted good. Chef Escalan’s food usually did. But I didn’t really notice. I just pushed the food into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. I also tried not to think about Avalon too much, not that it really helped.

Beside me, Shiori gave me a little nudge, clearly trying to distract me. “Do you know what time we’re supposed to leave?”

“Gaia said about nine o’clock,” I replied. “So not for a couple hours.” Taking another bite, I found myself looking across the room. There were people staring at me, people who had just started to hear some of the stories from Vanessa and Tristan. Word of what had (supposedly) happened to us and the others was spreading. Which meant that some of those stories would soon get to Rudolph and Douglas, who were currently among those staring at me as they stood in the cafeteria entrance.

Right. I needed to talk to them. Before they heard about Isaac and… and all of that from anyone else. I didn’t think that Tristan was talking too much about that part of the story just yet, but still. They needed to hear it from me, not third or fourth hand through rumors.

Unfortunately, I had just decided that when someone else approached the table. I sensed them getting near, but wasn’t sure who it was before he spoke up.

“So,” Zeke announced, “Pretty funny how you disappear for two months, and two minutes after you show up again, Avalon vanishes.”

Shiori started to say something then, but I nudged her while shaking my head at Sean, who had also opened his mouth. Instead, I tightly replied to the boy standing behind me, “The only funny part is that you’ve managed to survive for all this time and still think this is a good time to start your juvenile macho bullshit. Besides,” I added, “Didn’t you spend the whole past year thinking that Avalon’s a Garden spy or plant or something?”

The boy’s response was a shrug. “Maybe I just think that the rest of these guys should be careful,” he drawled lazily, adding a gesture to the others. “Getting close to you seems pretty dangerous right n–”

I was on my feet, the squeak of the chair being shoved across the floor from the force of me standing and turning so quickly barely reaching my ears as I put myself face to face with him. “Do you have something to say, Zeke?” Behind and around me, I heard the others stand up as well. And there were even more people watching us.

Zeke met my gaze, looking briefly uncertain before finding his voice. “Yeah, just that maybe since you didn’t bother to bring Sands back with you, maybe someone else should take care of her sister. Which means getting her away from–”

Wham.

It wasn’t me. As Zeke doubled over with a cry from the fist that had been firmly planted in his stomach, I belatedly realized that I wasn’t the one who had hit him. Instead, it was Scout. The other girl was there, having stepped between us to punch the boy.

“Nobody takes care of me,” she informed Zeke, even as he clutched his stomach and took a step back, still doubled over. “I’m quiet, not an invalid.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Reid Rucker, the second-in-command of the security team behind Professor Kohaku, called out as he approached quickly. “Something wrong here?”

By that point, Zeke had mostly recovered. He opened his mouth like he was going to say one thing, but hesitated while thinking better of it. In the end, the boy just muttered, “Isn’t there always?” Then he pivoted and stalked off.

“You guys okay?” Rucker asked, looking to Scout first, then to me, before turning his attention to the others. “We don’t have a problem or anything, right?”

“No,” I answered. “No problems here. No more than usual.”

He took a moment to get the same general answer from the others before nodding. “Right, no problems then. Although, if that problem were to come wandering back over running his mouth again, it may behoove you not to hit said problem in front of so many witnesses. Even if that problem does so richly deserve it.” Leaning a bit closer to Scout, he lowered his voice. “I got enough work to do around here. I don’t need the paperwork, you know?”

Scout nodded, and the security man stepped away, moving to talk to another table. The tension lowered a bit, and Sean spoke up. “You girls really okay? Zeke’s just a carechimba who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. “But he’s not wrong about Sands and the others still being out there. And…” Slowly, I looked over toward where Rudolph and Douglas were while taking a deep breath. “… their teammates deserve to know what’s going on.”

“You want some help?” That was Columbus, standing beside his sister.

“I…” Considering that for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, maybe you guys better come. I’ll talk to them. I’ll tell them the truth, but maybe you should be there.”

“When you say tell them the truth,” Sean started hesitantly, “how much of it do you mean?”

For a few seconds, I didn’t answer. My eyes dropped to the floor, as I considered before lifting my gaze once more. “All of it,” I replied.

“They deserve to know all of it.”

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Mini-Interlude 47 – Tristan and Vanessa

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The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan introducing the latter to her team back when he first showed up. And… well, other stuff too. Remember, it takes place months ago, while Roxa is still at the school and thus Rudolph has not switched teams, etc. 

Several Months Ago

After hours in long discussions with Headmistress Sinclaire (with several different staff members going in and out throughout their talk), Vanessa and Tristan Moon were finally left alone in the school corridor once more. They’d had that short conversation with Gaia, where Vanessa had learned just how much the woman actually already knew about Alters not being evil, and about the woman’s son, and… and everything else that had made the girl need to sit down, dizzy from the revelations. Then Vanessa and Tristan had spent an hour alone in the office, just trying to process the idea that they were actually together once more.

After that, once the two felt like they couldn’t make the adults wait any longer, they had told Gaia that they were ready. She had prepared them, told them what to say, what story to tell to her own staff and anyone else who asked. She prepared them for all the questions, all the tests, all the… everything. Not that it was nearly as much as some of the adults wanted. The other teachers had wanted to run Tristan through more tests, had wanted to ask even more questions. But the headmistress had made them stop. She said that there would be time to talk about everything else later, and then let them go.

So there they were, standing out in the corridor that was devoid of anyone else for that moment. Alone, save for each other, the twins finally left to talk privately.

“I still can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you made it, I mean, I mean… I can’t–” Vanessa realized that she was babbling and cut herself off. Verbally, at least. She couldn’t seem to stop her hands from constantly touching her brother. She squeezed his shoulders, his arms, took his hands, moved back to his face, touched his hair. It was a dream. It was just like a dream, so similar to dreams that she’d had for the past decade. Any second now, she was going to wake up. She would wake up and her entire family would be missing once more. She’d wake up, and the entire world would think that she was crazy once more.

She couldn’t go through that again. She’d stopped telling the story early on, once her seven-year-old self had sat through several psychologists that kept telling her she was wrong, that she hadn’t seen what she thought she saw. They told her that her memory was playing tricks on her. But that was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was never wrong. Never. But between the lectures, the long discussions, and the talk of drugs, she’d pretended that they were right.

But she’d never stopped believing what she knew was right. Squashing it down in public, pretending for so long, had just made the things worse in her own subconscious mind. Accusations from her family, her mother and father, and from Tristan, had filled her dreams. They thought that she had forgotten them, that she had abandoned them. More than once, the girl had woken up in a cold sweat, sobbing into her pillow as she begged them to understand.

And now, now she was petrified that all of this was going to disappear. She was afraid Tristan would be gone, that he would vanish the next time she blinked. There was even a certain terrible fear that, after Tristan disappeared, everyone in the school would forget him as well. She was afraid that he would be gone, and that all of her teachers and classmates would have no idea who she was talking about. That fear made her keep touching him, keep all but clinging to him. If her brother did disappeared, she’d rather be taken with him than be left behind again.

“Nessa,” Tristan spoke quickly, smiling as he grabbed her hands and held them. “It’s okay. I’m here. And I ain’t going away again. I’m anchored to Flick, so I’m staying right here. Okay?”

For a single, brief moment, Vanessa felt a twinge of jealousy toward the other girl. It was dumb. She knew that. But for that handful of seconds, the fact that her brother was magically anchored to Felicity Chambers made her feel somehow left out. Again, dumb. There was absolutely no reason for it. Tristan was anchored to Flick because she had seen him on that other world, and he’d needed someone that he could remember in order for the spell to work. He and Gaia had thoroughly explained all of that over the several hour discussion that they had just come out of.

“I know,” the girl mumbled, squeezing her brother’s hands. “I know that you’re here. I just…” Her mouth opened and shut as she fought to find the right words, words that wouldn’t sound crazy.

She didn’t need to. Tristan just smiled and gave her a little nod. “I get it. I… wow. I spent so long trying to remember you, trying to remember anything about our family at all, and nothing worked. But now it’s like all those memories just came pouring back as soon as I saw you.”

Vanessa felt a slight blush touch her face then, and her smile brightened as she informed the boy, “If there’s anything you still don’t remember, I can tell you about it.”

He chuckled a little before giving her a tight hug. “Nessa and her perfect memory. I remember. I remember all of it. I’m surprised you haven’t already managed to get…” Biting his lip as he hesitated, Tristan asked hesitantly, “You really don’t have any idea where Mom and Dad are?”

She flinched, almost as if she had been physically struck. Cringing, Vanessa pleaded, “I’ve been trying. But they hide everything so much around here. There’s just… holes in all of it. Between that and all the rules, the memory manipulation, the… everything, it’s hard. I didn’t know wh-”

“Shh.” Tristan shook his head. “Hey, it’s okay. Two heads are better than one, right? We work together, Nessa. Remember how it goes? You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. We’ll find them.”

Vanessa nodded at that, her twin able to make her feel better and calm her down as easily now as he had when they were children. He was right, they complemented each other. Being without him for an entire decade had been like losing an arm and learning to work without it. She’d needed her brother. Now that he was back, they would find their parents. She knew they would.

“Come on,” she finally announced, pulling him by the hand. “I’ll show you around. You still have the key so you can get to the room that Headmistress Sinclaire said we could use, right?” Later, Tristan would have to be given his own room. But for the evening, Gaia had said they could spend the night in the same room, one of the guest suites in the upper floor of the main building. After everything that had happened, she wasn’t going to immediately separate the two of them.

“Nessa,” Tristan replied while giving her a brief look. “She handed it to me, I put it in my pocket, and we walked like… fifteen feet.” His hand dug pointedly into the pocket in question as he continued. “I mean, c’mon, how could I possibly have lost it that soo–hey, where’d it go?”

Vanessa raised her hand, showing the boy the key in her palm. “You dropped it on the floor when you were putting it in your pocket.” Even then, she couldn’t stop smiling. This. This was what she had missed. The last time they had been together, they were both still in first grade. Now, so much time had passed, so much had changed. And yet, some things were the same.

“Right, then.” Tristan grinned right back at her while taking the key, as utterly incorrigible as he had always been in her memories. “I’m glad you passed that perception test. Good job.”

“You absolutely did not do that on purpose,” the girl huffed at her brother while folding her arms.

He winked at that. “And yet, as soon as I said the words ‘passed’ and ‘test’, you got all happy.”

“I–” Vanessa opened and shut her mouth, flushing a little before turning to walk. “Come on.”

Together, the two of them walked down the hall to the stairs, and made their way out of the building. But they had barely stepped out onto the grounds before the twins found themselves facing a small group of people who had clearly been waiting for them: Vanessa’s teammates.

“Hey, Vanessa!” That was Cameron Reid, their team mentor. The black girl had been facing away from the doors, clearly saying something to the others as the twins emerged. Now, she turned to them, whipping around so fast that, in any normal situation, the ever-present blue-tongued skink that was draped over the girl’s shoulder would have gone flying off.

Yet, as always, the lizard somehow managed to retain his spot. Vanessa had seen their team mentor actually fight while keeping the little guy with her. It had something to do with a collection of reptile-based powers that Cameron had. Which, among other things, allowed her to not just communicate with reptiles but actually temporarily make them grow. With a single touch and moment of focus, the second-year student was capable of making the eighteen-inch lizard rapidly become as large as a pony and as long as a crocodile, complete with steel-like armored scales. Even more impressively, she could give them the ability to project various types of breath weapon. It had to be chosen at the time that the reptile was affected, but they could gain fire breath, lightning breath, ice breath, a corrosive acid breath, and probably others.

Essentially, with a touch and about fifteen seconds of time, their mentor could turn the eighteen-inch lizard perched on her shoulder into a four-foot tall, twenty-foot long armored dragon that could breathe fire, lightning, or whatever. It was incredibly impressive to see.     

But Vanessa still didn’t understand what kind of reference Cameron was making when she said that the lizard’s name was Tad Cooper. Something about a musical, but the girl just kept giggling when she tried to explain it.

“Um, hi, guys.” Biting her lip, Vanessa nodded to her team. “What’re, uh, you doing out here?”

“Vanessa, c’mon.” Malcolm gave her a look for that one, shaking his head. “Everyone knows you’re a genius, so don’t try to play dumb.  You gonna introduce us, or what?” His gaze turned to the boy beside her before he lifted his chin in greeting, giving a drawled, “Sup, dude?”

“And where have you been hiding him?” Erin added, her eyes wide as she looked Tristan up and down appreciatively before giving Vanessa a hurt look. “Seriously, we’re supposed to be best-roomies and you never mention that you’ve got a–a brother, right? He is your brother? Maybe a cousin, or a nephew, or even an uncle of some kind?” From the look on the girl’s face, Vanessa was quite certain that Erin had an ulterior motive for hoping that they were related.

“Easy, Erin,” Cameron was shaking her head, clearly amused. “They’re Bystander-kin, remember? They don’t tend to have uncles or nephews that are the exact same age. Usually.”

Zeke, standing a bit away from the others, muttered something under his breath that sounded like, ‘Lucky them.’ Then he looked straight to Vanessa. “So, you gonna explain or what?”

“Oh, right.” Coughing, Vanessa lifted her hand to gesture to each in turn. “Trist, these are my, uh, my teammates: Malcolm, Travis, Rudolph, Zeke, and my roommate Erin. And this is our team mentor, Cameron. Guys, this is Tristan, he’s my twin brother.” She supposed that Erin’s subsequent fistpump of victory was fairly understandable, but the little dance was pushing it.

Rudolph was the first to step that way, barely edging out Erin herself. The pale, slightly hefty boy offered his hand with a small smile. “Hey, uh, I guess we should say, welcome to Crossroads.”

“Hey, thanks, dude.” Rather than shaking Rudolph’s hand, Tristan slapped him five instead, then did it the other way with the back of his hand, before grabbing the boy’s hand to pull him into a shoulder bump. “You’re the guys that’ve been helping Nessa, huh? Thanks, man.”

To Cameron, the boy flashed a broad, endearing smile. “Hey, who’s your friend? Can he come say hi too?”

The older girl chuckled, reaching up to take the lizard off her shoulder before holding him out. “Sure, here. This is Tad. Tad, say hi to Tristan. And be nice.”

Tristan carefully took the reptile, rubbing the back of its head with obvious quick fondness. “Awesome. I always wanted a pet snake or something.”

In turn, he went through greeting each of the others. Despite the fact that Vanessa had been with the team since the beginning of the semester and Tristan had only met them a few seconds earlier, he already seemed completely at ease with them. Which was the way it had gone when they were younger too. As far back as preschool, Tristan had been the one who introduced the two of them to other kids, even to teachers. Tristan was the outgoing one, Vanessa was the bookworm, the one who was ‘weird’ because she did things like write out multiplication tables while the rest of their classmates were still learning how to color inside the lines. The teachers had wanted to move her up to higher grades, even that early. If the school staff had had their way, Vanessa would have been in third or fourth grade while Tristan was in first. But their parents had refused to split them up like that.

Someone with a darker sense of humor probably could have made a joke about how that turned out.

“Erin’s right, though,” Cameron pointed out. “You never mentioned you had a brother, let alone a twin. I thought you grew up in like, some kind of group home or something, wasn’t it?”

“Hey, yeah,” Vanessa’s roommate tore her attention away from Tristan to squint at Vanessa. “How come you never mentioned him? And why hasn’t he been here from the beginning? I mean, obviously he was like… missing or something? The way you were in the cafeteria…”

Giving a little nod, Vanessa launched into the explanation that they had given the teachers and other adults, the story that Gaia had told them to tell once she found out exactly what had happened. “Yes, it’s like I said, Tristan is my brother. But our family isn’t exactly Bystanders.”

“Our mom and dad,” Tristan put in then, “they were Heretics. But they, uh, they were kind of Garden of Eden Heretics.”

“Eden’s Garden,” Vanessa corrected with a slight nudge. “They were Eden’s Garden Heretics.”

The boy nodded. “Right, that. Either way, they retired and went off to live on their own. Awhile later, out popped the most beautiful and brilliant twin babies you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Clearing her throat pointedly, Vanessa cut in. “We didn’t know our parents were different, until monsters attacked our house. They were Strangers who had a grudge against Mom and Dad.”

“Our parents fought them,” Tristan continued with a little shrug. “But the Strangers were really… persistent. They had this portal set up and it took the three of us away. Our parents and me. But the portal got destroyed in the process and Nessa was left behind.”

Travis spoke up then. “Holy shit, dude. How–” He hesitated, wincing as he looked over to Vanessa before slowly asking, “How, uh, how old were you?”

She swallowed at the question. “Seven. I didn’t know what happened. I couldn’t remember much of it, until I got here, and had my Edge vision. That’s when I found out all the stuff about them being Heretics and retiring, and what really happened in our house that day.”  

Tristan nodded while letting Tad climb up his arm to his shoulder. “Meanwhile, when the portal got busted, it split us up. I still don’t know where Mom and Dad got sent to, but I ended up on some random world half a universe away. I would’ve been in deep shit, except some other Heretics showed up.”

“Wait,” Malcolm blurted, “other Heretics? What the hell is that supposed to mean? You said you were halfway across the universe. Are there just random Heretics hanging around other planets?”

It was Zeke who answered. “Crossroads maintains outposts on other worlds, yes. I imagine the… other place does as well.” The distaste in the boy’s voice as he obliquely mentioned Eden’s Garden was readily apparent. “What the hell do you think the Explorer track is for? You know, the one that Vanessa over there belongs to.”

Tristan gave the other boy a look. “Pretty sure his confusion was from the implication that the Heretics I met weren’t in contact with Earth, dude.” Shaking his head, he continued, “But yeah. They were from the other place. But they hadn’t been back in a long time. They got lost out there somehow. I guess when the portal showed up and dumped me out, they sensed it, so they came to find the portal to go home. Except all they found was me. But they took me in and helped raise me. Taught me pretty much everything I know while we were all looking for a way to get back here.”

“So, what happened?” Cameron asked as she took her lizard back from Tristan, feeding him a treat of some kind. “How did you end up back here now? And where are those other Heretics, did they go back to Eden’s Garden or something?”

Tristan shook his head, running a hand through his hair with a since. “Nah, uh, actually we only managed to find a thing that would send one of us back. They made me be the one to use it, said that I was still young and had a sister to get back to. I showed up back on Earth, a couple Crossroads Heretics came to investigate and ended up bringing me here since they didn’t know what else to do with me. I didn’t know Nessa was here until, well, until that bit in the cafeteria.”

“Wow.” Erin was looking back and forth between both twins. “That’s like… holy shit. Are you sure you don’t have some kind of luck power, Vanessa?”

Zeke spoke up then, his voice pointed. “She still kept secrets. She didn’t tell us any of this, even after she knew about the Heretic thing. And that’s probably why she’s been spending so much time in the library, trying to find the things that took her family.”

Erin frowned a little at that. “Good point. How come you didn’t tell us about that, Vanessa? Didn’t you trust us?” She sounded hurt.

“Hey, hey.” That was Malcolm. The tall, muscular boy shook his head. “Ease up, you guys. It takes more than a couple months to open up to complete strangers like that. You can say ‘team’ until you’re blue in the face, but that’s her family we’re talking about. She didn’t know how we’d react, or how all the teachers around here might react, for that matter. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t trust us, it means it’s her family and that was the best chance she had to find them after, what, a whole decade? Can you really blame her for playing things close to her vest?”

“Malcolm’s right,” Cameron agreed. “Come on, you guys. I’m supposed to be your mentor. If I can get over the incredible insult–” She winked at Vanessa to show that she was teasing. “–of not being included in any of this, I think everyone can. Let’s give the team brainiac a break, huh? Like he said, it was about her family.”

Blushing deeply, Vanessa mumbled a thank you to both of them. Then she hesitantly added, “Um, I was about to show Tristan around. Do… do you guys want to help?”

******

Present Day

“Don’t think about why you want to visit your father.” The steady, soothing voice came from the old Seosten-Heretic, Enguerrand. He was seated on the opposite side of the boat from where Vanessa and Tristan sat. The boat itself was floating peacefully in the middle of the lake near where Gabriel Prosser’s group had their camp.

It had been Scout’s idea that they come here, so that Vanessa could learn to use the power that she had been developing that connected her to her father deep in Seosten space. The hope was that with enough practice, she might be able to tell the man about Flick and the others.

Don’t think about it?” Vanessa echoed, biting her lip as she stole a glance at her brother before looking back to the man who was the closest thing they knew to an expert on the Seosten powers. “Shouldn’t I be thinking about why I want to visit him as… motivation?”

“Yeah, that sounds weird,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, that’s a lot of emotion right there that you’re telling her not to focus on, you know? Oh, and also, when the hell did you start talking in a modern voice instead of all that verily and prithee crap we heard you using before?”

The elderly knight chuckled a little then. “Yes, I wondered if you would notice that. I…” he breathed a long, low sigh. “I have a great deal of respect for the Seosten whose power I inherited all those years ago, whom I served for quite a long time. When I realized that you were both half-Seosten, I suppose that those old habits and… memories came back a little bit.”

“You–you served a Seosten? And liked it?” Tristan stared at the man. “Who–how–what?”

Smiling faintly, Enguerrand gestured. “Let us focus on this. Perhaps I will tell you the story some other time. Once you’ve earned it.” At the last bit, he winked. Then the man turned his attention back to Vanessa. “As to your relevant question, yes, the emotion of why you want to project yourself to your father is important. But only once you have more control. As it is, you are focusing too much on why. You wish to see your father so much, for very understandable reasons. But as it is, you are… “ He paused, considering his words. “Let’s just say, you are flooring the gas pedal without knowing how to steer. You are flooding the tank before you’ve learned how to take the automobile out of park.”

Vanessa swallowed, looking at the bottom of the boat for a moment. “I… I guess that makes sense. So, how do I steer? How do I take it out of park?”

“I will teach you that,” the man promised. “I will teach both of you, because Tristan’s own gift will come soon enough. There is more to projecting yourself to your last host than simply wishing you were there. Especially over this kind of distance. You must also think about the person you are projecting yourself to, what you know about them, what kind of person they are. Projecting to them is about… imagining that you are controlling them, putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak. You see, you are thinking about how much you want to speak with your father, but in doing so, you are focusing on you as Vanessa speaking with him. To project in the way that you wish to, you should be thinking of yourself as him. Cast yourself as your father, think like him, speak like him, do everything you can in the way that most reminds you of him. That is how you will attune yourself to him.”

For two hours, they worked on that. By the end, even though they hadn’t done anything that should have been physically demanding at all, Vanessa felt exhausted. She slumped in the boat, shaking her head. “I can’t do it. I can’t send myself to him.” The girl felt like she was on the verge of tears.

“That is quite all right, Miss Moon.” Enguerrand insisted with a soft smile as she took her hand. “These things take time. You are progressing better than I believe most would have, I assure you.”

“Yeah, Nessa, don’t sweat it,” Tristan added. “At least you can try to help. I can’t even do that much right now.”

Sighing, Vanessa nodded. “I just really wanted to…” She shook her head then, dismissing it. “I guess we can come back later?”

“Of course,” Enguerrand agreed immediately. “I would like that very much. But for now, we should go back to shore.” He raised his hand to point to a man standing there, clearly waiting for them. “I believe that Gabriel would like to speak with you.”

Prosser waited there until the boat reached the dock, then caught the rope that was tossed up and leaned down to tie it off. He reached down to help them each out of the boat, asking how they were doing as soon as they were each on solid, dry ground.

“Could’ve been better, could’ve been worse,” Tristan informed him easily.

Chuckling a little, Gabriel nodded. “I believe that’s life in a nutshell for most people.” He sobered then, holding out an envelope in one hand. “This came for you.”

Both twins blinked at it, and Vanessa frowned. “Came for us? Us, like, came here for us? How?”

Gabriel was watching them. “A group of refugees that we picked up earlier. They were ambushed by Heretics on the road until a man saved them. Apparently, he gave them this letter, told them to wait for us to show up, and said that they should give this letter to me.”

He turned it over then, showing the twins their names written on the front in elaborate, gold lettering. “It was checked for spells before we came anywhere near here. There’s nothing on it but text, written on computer paper. I don’t know what it says, but I do know that there’s nothing magical about it. Would you like to open it?”

The twins looked at each other once more before shrugging. Tristan took the offered envelope, turning the thing over in his hands briefly before quickly ripping it open. Inside, there was a single, folded piece of white paper, with five lines printed in bold, all-caps lettering right in the middle.

“Uh, why does Pitiniana sound familiar?” Tristan asked his sister.

“It was a city in Sicily, but it’s lost now,” Vanessa answered. “And it’s also the world we’re supposed to visit in a few days with the Explorers. That’s probably how you know it. Why?”

Turning the paper over, Tristan showed the contents to her, letting her read the message that the mysterious man had sent sent to them.

PITINIANA

3 DAYS. 14:30

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT YOUR PARENTS.

I’LL BRING SNACKS.  

— UNCLE SATAN.

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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 were 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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Sharkhunt 23-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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The Third Degree 21-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because that would be really embarrassing.”

******      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Learning Experience 17-05

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“Seriously, man, thanks for helping.” Extending a hand to Travis Colby (one of Tristan, Vanessa, and Zeke’s teammates) as the muscular dark-skinned boy came into the room where Zeke and I had been working on our project for Carfried’s class, I offered him a smile. “If it was me and a couple Freshmen Heretics wanted to test their magic trap, I’m pretty sure I’d just run screaming in the other direction.”

Travis gave me an easy smile in return, though he did seem a little (understandably) nervous about the whole situation. “No worries, Flick. Already told Zebra if anything goes wrong, I get the next month worth of those care packages his mom keeps sending every week. And even if it doesn’t, I still get one thing out of the box. So I’m good either way. Just, uh, try not to do anything too permanent, huh?” He gestured toward his own face. “Really don’t need to explain any major damage to my momma.”

Blinking at him, I hesitated before asking slowly with a glance toward where Zeke stood, “Zebra?”

Before Travis could respond to that, my project partner stepped between us while clearing his throat pointedly. “Never mind, it’s stupid and childish. Are we going to get started on this thing now or not?”

Grinning past his teammate, Travis stage-whispered toward me, “Tell you ’bout it later.” Then he shrugged casually. “You’re building some kinda ‘react when the right kind of person walks by’ spell thingie, right? So I uh, I guess you just tell me where to walk and what kinda effect to watch for.”

Zeke shook his head at that while using a finger to adjust the way his glasses perched on his face as he corrected the other boy. “Actually, it’s better if you don’t know what to expect. That way we know the result that we get, if we get one, is real and not a subconscious reaction of you expecting it to happen.”

I couldn’t argue with that. He had a good point. So I nodded. “Yeah, probably best if you don’t know.”

Travis looked back and forth between us before shrugging. “Aight, if you say so. I do have one question though.” His eyebrows went up curiously. “Zeke uh, he said you guys were gonna set your spell to go off based on someone’s physical characteristic. Like that whole thing with his mom’s spell detecting Strangers. He said you’d use something like hair color. But he and I, we’ve both got brown hair. And it ain’t eye color, cuz we’ve both got hazel eyes too. So… what physical trait were you using?”

For once, both Zeke and I looked equally awkward as we glanced to one another and then looked toward Travis and his black skin. My mouth opened before shutting again as I tried to find the best way to diplomatically explain exactly what trait we’d used once we knew he was going to be the test subject.

Travis left us hanging like that for several extremely long seconds before his confused frown turned into a bright, toothy smile as he punched me in the arm. “I’m just fucking with you guys. It’s an obvious physical trait, man, ain’t no need to be all awkward and shit about it. Don’t make it so easy, damn.”

Still laughing at our reactions, Travis straightened and stretched languidly. “Right, where am I going?”

I shook my head, smirking in spite of myself while gesturing toward the other end of the room. About halfway there, a line of tin cans about two feet apart started and ran all the way to the opposite wall. “Just walk slowly past the cans to the other side of the room. We don’t want you to know which one has the actual spell on it. Like Zeke said, better if you have no idea when it’s actually supposed to happen.”

“Walk to the other side of the room?” Travis shrugged then and started that way. “Sure, I can do that.”

As the other boy moved, Zeke and I stepped out of the way and watched carefully. My eyes strayed to the third can in the line of seven. That was the one that we had attached the spell to. Trying not to make my anticipation obvious and risk spoiling the results, I leaned against the wall, continuing to observe.

The boy passed the first can, then the second without any reaction. As he passed the third can, however, he abruptly sneezed loudly, hand flying to his face as his head rocked backward a little bit from the force and suddenness of it. Then he coughed and gave his head a shake before looking over his shoulder at us. “Uh, tell me that was you guys and I ain’t suddenly allergic to being this cool.”

“Yup, that was us.” Wincing, I gestured to Zeke. “We might wanna tone down the reaction just a bit next time. That was less ‘polite sneeze’ and more ‘shotgun explosion recoil.’ You okay there, Travis?”

He waved me off then. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Whoo. Clears out the sinuses pretty damn good though, huh?” Giving his head a violent shake, the boy gave us a thumbs up. “So, that about do it for ya?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re good.” Nodding quickly, I looked to Zeke. “Unless you think we need to go again.”

“No,” my project partner walked away from the wall, leaning down to pick up the cans that we had set up. “We’ll ease up on the spell a little bit and then turn it in on Friday. It’s good enough now.”

“Cool.” Travis straightened then before focusing on me once more. “Cuz I was kinda hoping you could give Aylen and me a little help with our spell reaction thing. It’s not a trap or nothing like you guys got set up here, but we gotta have someone who ain’t us to test it. You know, if you ain’t busy or nothing.”

After blinking at that, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. What did you have in mind, exactly?”

In response, Travis gave me a slow smile. “Columbus said something about how you used to have a job in some movie theater, right?” When I nodded, he went on. “Well, let’s just say you’ll appreciate it.”

Of course, Zeke couldn’t help but put in his own comment. “I’m surprised Carfried put you and Aylen together. I mean, you’re both Bystander-kin. What interesting spells could you possibly come up with?”

Somehow resisting the urge to kick the boy in the knee, I managed through slightly gritted teeth, “All of us just started learning magic this semester. You don’t have some huge advantage on that front.”

He just shrugged. “Yeah, but I’ve been around magic my whole life. I’ve seen a lot more examples than you guys have about what it can do. So, again, what kind of interesting spell could they know about?”

******

As it turned out, the answer to Zeke’s incredibly rude question was ‘one that would’ve been incredibly useful while I was still working at the theater and that I wish I could send back in time to myself.’

Basically, Aylen had looked through the library and found a spell that was meant to be used in older classrooms back during the first days of the school. It made it so that anyone talking above a whisper was made to hear a steady, drowning ‘shhhhh’ noise until they quieted down again. While the trigger for Zeke’s and my spell had been someone passing the object, in their case, the trigger was simple volume.

It ended up working well, and I made them promise to show me how to do it the next chance we got. I wasn’t sure the actual ‘shh’ noise itself would be all that useful, but I might be able to adjust the specific sound into something else. Besides, every new spell that I learned was another arrow in my quiver.

Speaking of arrows in my quiver, it was the next afternoon and I was out on the grass with my newest tutor, who was helping me start to get the hang of the latest update to my slowly growing arsenal.

“Thanks again, Rudolph.” I held up my transformed staff in its bow form and gave it a slightly awkward wave. “Pretty sure I’d manage to poke my own eye out with this if I didn’t have some help.”

The pale-haired boy just shrugged at that, mumbling under his breath, “No big deal.” Straightening, he reached up to his neck and wrapped his hand around the necklace there. As he gave the thing a tug, it pulled off and, in mid-air, extended and transformed into his actual bow. It was pretty similar to the way Tristan’s snake-weapon was disguised, and looked pretty damn cool, to be perfectly honest.

The body of his bow had five buttons along the side. One red, one blue, one white, one green, and one brown. From previous interactions, I knew that each of the buttons determined what kind of arrow would appear when he used the bow. The red button produced arrows that created fire when they hit something, the blue created water arrows, the white one produced arrows that froze things, the green one caused minor shockwaves or earthquakes when they hit, and the brown one created normal arrows for times when he didn’t actually want any kind of special effect. It was the brown one that he hit now.

As the arrow appeared in its place, notched against the string, Rudolph pulled it back and sighted in on the target that he had set up in the distance. After checking to make sure that no one was nearby, he released the arrow and sent it into the target. It didn’t hit the exact center, but it was pretty close.

“Like that,” he announced while lowering the bow. His voice was calm. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but could you just take a shot and show me what you do to start and we’ll go from there?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” Nodding, I put my fingers against the energy-string on my own bow and waited for the arrow construct to appear before pulling it back. Sighting in on the target, I took a few seconds to aim before releasing it. The arrow soared through the air… passed the target completely and hit a tree in the distance, sending a shockwave through it that made a handful of colorful birds erupt from the canopy while loudly calling out their annoyance for everyone to hear.

“Uh.” I coughed quietly at the sight of the fleeing birds, flinching a little bit as my face went pink. “Whoops?” Shrugging awkwardly, I added, “I guess maybe I’ve got more than a little practicing to do.”

Even laid-back Rudolph couldn’t restrain his smirk at that as he waved a hand. “S’okay,” he replied. “We’re just starting. When I used my bow the first time, I almost shot Sovereign. Aylen wasn’t happy.”

“Ouch.” Wincing at the thought of how the metal bird and his owner would’ve reacted to having arrows coming his direction, I nodded “Yeah, that was probably bad. But hey, at least you’re better now.”

“And you will be too,” he promised. “Just let me show you a bit. Take up your position again, and–”

Before he could say anything else, however, we were interrupted by Professor Kohaku. The Asian woman approached with her hand up for our attention. Once she was close enough, she gestured to my bow. “I see Nevada has finished your weapons upgrade, Miss Chambers. How does it feel?”

I coughed again, flushing as I glanced to the bow. “It feels like I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.”

“You will before too long,” she assured me with a slight smile. “Mr. Parsons has already learned quite a lot. And if his tutelage isn’t enough, I’m sure that Ulysses would be glad to offer his own assistance.”

“Thanks, Professor.” Returning the woman’s smile briefly, I asked “Err, sorry, was there something else we could do for you? Were you looking for Sean or Zeke?” Those were the two that I knew were part of her Security track. Rudolph, like me, was in the Investigation track with Professor Dare.

“Actually, you were the one I was looking for,” Kohaku replied evenly while shaking her head. “You’re probably already aware that students are allowed to change their track specializations each semester in order to broaden their training. I’d like you to consider joining the Security track next semester.”

That made me blink a couple times in surprise. “Switch to the Security track, ma’am?”

“Yes.” She nodded once. “I believe that you could stand to benefit a lot from what we teach.” Pausing, she added, “For example, we partner our track students with members of the actual security team.”

Wyatt, I realized after a moment. She was saying (without actually saying it since Rudolph was there) that if I joined the Security track, I’d have the perfect excuse to spend a lot of time around Wyatt.

Plus, I really could stand to learn more about security, given everything that had happened so far. After a momentary hesitation as I considered, I nodded. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll—um, I’ll think about it.”

Belatedly, I realized something. “Wait, I do have a question. Um, there’s different teachers for the older student tracks, right? How come the Chief of Security is the Track Advisor for the Freshmen instead of someone like Rucker doing it while you advise, say, the seniors?”

“First of all, the fourth-year students do not technically attend many actual classes,” she answered easily. “They’re usually paired with a fully-trained Heretic whose job has something to do with their own chosen specialty, and are sent out as junior partners. As for the rest of it, yes, most of the track advisers only teach one year. Development, Investigation, Hunters, and Explorers all have different advisers for second and third year. But I am the adviser for each of the three years, though I pass that responsibility off as needed to my subordinates, like Reid Rucker. As I said, we partner our Track students with actual security guards, so it’s similar to the way seniors are partnered with full Heretics.”

That made sense. Kohaku didn’t actually have to do as much hands-on teaching as someone like Professor Dare did, because she had an entire staff of tutors to help out. Which meant she could actually technically be ‘in charge’ of the full first though third year Security track.

“I get it.” Nodding to that, I smiled faintly. “Thanks for explaining. Like I said, I’ll think about joining.”

“Good.” Professor Kohaku paused before looking at Rudolph. “You are welcome as well, of course.”

“Thanks.” He shrugged. “Probably not gonna do it, but thanks. No offense. Just not a security guy.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how a guy as laid back as Rudolph happened to be was the investigator type, but he still seemed to get all his work done anyway. He’d probably do fine no matter what track he joined. Except maybe Hunters. There weren’t a lot of shortcuts and ‘easy ways’ to the straight up combat track.

But if there was, I was pretty sure Rudolph would find a way.

******

“Normally, you will have to carve the runes into your wooden block yourself,” Gaia informed me that night. “As well as invest enough time and power to make the theriangelos spell work. In this case, I’ve prepared most of the block ahead of time, so that you can see how the spell works. Next time, however, you will have to do it yourself.”

Blinking at the incredibly elaborate and detailed scripts that literally covered the piece of wood she was holding up, I whistled. “Wow. We have to remember each of those runes and draw them perfectly in the exact right spot? That’s gotta take awhile.”

“I believe that Benji is fond of a certain phrase that applies here,” Gaia replied with a smile. “One that he has taken great pains to repeat ad nauseum in your classes with him?”

Groaning, I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Magic is not fast. Professor Carfried says it all the time. Magic is not fast. I guess he’s got a point. Still, damn, this is… how long does it take to draw all that?”

“You’ll get better and faster at it with practice,” the woman assured me. “For now, simply finish the last line by closing the circle there.” She indicated a spot on the wood. “Then I will help you invest enough power to make the spell work.”

“You said it was called the… the whatchamangel spell?”

Gaia chuckled, head shaking. “Theriangelos. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word therion, meaning ‘wild animal’ and the word ‘angelos’ meaning–”

“Angel?” I guessed.

“The word angel is derived from angelos, yes,” she confirmed. “But it actually means messenger. Since the spell was initially often used to carry messages that couldn’t be sent by other means, it was given the name ‘animal messenger’ spell.”

“Animal messenger, got it,” I nodded slowly, looking down at the block before accepting it from the woman’s hand along with the black marker. After a moment of hesitation, I closed the last circle.

As I did so, Gaia put her hand over mine and pressed it flat against the block. “Focus on your own power and speak the words that appear on the wall in front of you,” she instructed. “Don’t worry about running out of strength, I will provide my own for you to draw from.”

So, I did. Keeping my hand against the block, I looked up to the wall and began to recite the words that appeared there in glowing script. As Gaia had said, I would eventually have to remember how to do the spell myself (or just write the specifics down and keep it with me), but for now, she helped.

Even then, it took a solid minute to recite the full spell as the words kept appearing. And through it all, I continually pushed my power into the block of wood. I could feel Gaia helping, guiding my own efforts and providing energy for me to draw from. My own incredible stamina helped a lot, but even then there was a difference between the energy I had to go for a run and the energy I had to perform magic. Without Gaia’s help, I probably couldn’t have finished.

Eventually, however, the spell was done. I felt the wood grow hot in my hands. As I dropped it, the wood floated instead of falling. It spun away from me, flying through the air before starting to glow with a bright, almost blinding red and gold color.

As the light faded, the wood wasn’t there anymore. Instead, settling down onto the floor, there was a beautiful fox. Its main body was ruby red, while the underside that would have been white on a normal fox was gold.

I also had the incredibly strange sensation of seeing myself and Gaia. It was weird. I was sitting there watching this gorgeous fox perch on the floor. But I was also looking up at my own body, seeing through the eyes of the animal itself. Herself. However that was supposed to work.

And not only that, I could also smell a lot more than I’d been able to before. My senses of smell and hearing through the fox was incredible.

It was weird, trying to focus on both at the same time. I ended up almost giving myself a headache, staggering a little.

“Shh,” Gaia put a hand on my back. “Close these eyes and focus on seeing through the fox. Focus on controlling the fox. Don’t worry about this body, worry about that one. See if you can make her move.”

Shivering a little, I leaned back against her reassuring touch while letting my eyes drift shut. Then I focused my attention on the animal, seeing through her eyes instead of my own.

Two things I knew for sure. First, I really liked this spell.

And second, given a fox’s general reputation for trickery and spying, I really didn’t see it going well if Ruthers found out what my animal spirit was.

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A Learning Experience 17-04

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Just a quick note. There was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button above. 🙂

“You are so lucky, I can’t decide if I wanna hug you and jump up and down or punch you in the arm.”

In response to Sands’ words, I winked at her from the other side of the couch in the lounge where the two of us were watching Columbus and Sean go after each other in an increasingly erratic and intense game of pool. “If you hug tight enough, maybe it’ll be just like being punched. So you get the best of both worlds.” Pausing, I amended, “I mean, no, go for the nice hug. I don’t deserve to be punched.”

It was Wednesday afternoon, the day after my first lesson with Gaia. Which, obviously, was what Sands was talking about. Now she shook her head. “Maybe not, but seriously, dude. Do you have any idea how cool it is? Special tutoring sessions with Baroness Sinclaire. That’s like… like… Columbus, help!”

Without looking away from where he was lining up his next shot, Columbus asked, “Help with what?”

Sands scooted on the couch, leaning up to look that way. “I need a really important Bystander sports star that it would be amazing to learn from. You know, to match Flick’s thing with the headmistress.”

In response, Columbus finally turned his head to peer over his shoulder at the girl. “And exactly what part of my room full of comic books and honestly probably disturbingly complete knowledge of Star Wars trivia makes you think I’d have the slightest idea of a good example of a current sports hero?”

Snorting in spite of myself, I waved a hand for him to go back to his game. “I get the point, believe me.” Pausing then, I resisted the urge to lower my voice. There was still no reason to go shouting about what was going on, but for once, my meetings with Gaia didn’t actually have to be a complete secret. After all, people generally knew that a lot of stuff had happened involving me. They knew that some important Stranger had invaded the school grounds in an attempt to attack me. So we didn’t have to keep the fact that I was meeting with Gaia as completely secret as some of the other things.

So, instead of hushing everyone like my paranoid mind wanted to right then, I cleared my throat and shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal. I haven’t even managed to make the spell thing work yet.”

From the other side of the room, a voice spoke up. “What spell thing?” Erin Redcliffe, Vanessa’s roommate, was walking our way with Rudolph and Tristan on either side of her. Vanessa herself was bringing up the rear, her nose buried in a thick leather-bound book with weird symbols on the front.

Sands hesitated, but I shrugged and answered, “The headmistress is giving me a little um, help. You know, so maybe even if things keep going wrong, they don’t have to call in the cavalry so much.”

“Sweet!” The electric-blue haired girl pumped her fist with a grin. “Extra tutoring from the Baronness?”

“You mean you’re not jealous?” I asked after a momentary hesitation, looking at her curiously.

“Are you kidding?” Erin retorted. “I’m so jealous, I almost wish I could stuff you in a closet and borrow a masker to go out and take your place. But I’m pretty sure the headmistress would figure it out.” Pausing then, she added with a sheepish smile, “Oh, and also because it would be bad. Very bad.”

There was a pause as she seemed to think about it for another moment before shrugging. “But you know, the way I see it, at least someone gets to learn from her. I can be jealous of you without being, like, mad or pissed off about it. I wish I had the chance, but I’m not gonna rip your head off for it.”

“Maybe you should be her teammate then,” Sands teased while nudging me with her foot. “Cuz I’m still seriously considering that whole ‘take a masker after stuffing her in a closet’ thing. That sounds like a good plan.” Brightening, she added, “And hey, I could blame the whole thing on you if it comes out.”

Good, this was good. It helped distract me from the fact that I was temporarily weaponless. Well, okay, I still had the knife from my mother of course. But not my staff. Avalon had taken it early that morning, shortly before our daily workout. She’d said something about upgrades, promising that I’d get it back soon and that it’d be worth it in the end. Then the girl had gone into great detail about how she’d kill me herself if I managed to get myself in any actual trouble while my weapon was out of my hands.

Tristan put a hand on Erin’s back, grinning. “Hey, no making our team look bad. We’re already losing Rudolph.” His grin faltered as he glanced to the boy himself. “You really didn’t have to do that, man.”

“Do what?” I asked, blinking back and forth between hefty boy with white-blonde hair and Tristan.

Rudolph gave an embarrassed shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Since our team had seven people with Tristan and Paul’s team’s down to five with Roxa gone, they said we needed to move someone over there. They were gonna move Tristan since he’s the newest, but I said I’d go instead so he could stay with Vanessa.”

“Aww.” Hopping to my feet, I gave the boy a hug. “That’s amazing, Rudolph.” Even as a pang of guilt about not being able to help Roxa yet so she could come back (not to mention the fact that the whole reason she had to stay away in the first place was because of my inability to think ahead and warn Tristan about what was about to happen) struck me, I forced it aside and tried to focus on the positive. Releasing the uncomfortable looking Rudolph, I gave him an easy smile and teased, “I hope you’re not stepping into Roxa’s position everywhere. I think Jazz might object to having you as a roommate.”

Vanessa giggled a little bit, finally pulling her nose out of her book to look at me. The girl didn’t say anything, though she did step a little bit closer to Tristan while giving me a quick nod of thanks.

I wondered if she had any clue just how much I kept checking out her twin brother in spite of myself.

Rudolph, for his part, blushed deeply before giving one of his trademark languid shrugs. “No big.”

That was Rudolph. Nothing was ‘big.’ He did all the work that he had to do, but he never really showed much excitement or enthusiasm toward anything. He did the bare minimum in the easiest possible way.

Unfortunately, that was the moment that the worst member of Vanessa’s team made his own appearance. Zeke stepped into the room and immediately made a beeline toward us. “Good,” the boy with the wildly tousled brown hair announced as soon as he was close. “You’re not hiding somewhere.”

After looking both ways, I put my hand to my chest and blinked at him. “Me? Why would I be hiding?”

“Yeah, Zeke,” Erin put in. “Why would she be hiding? And try to not to be racist with your answer.”

“We’re both white, it can’t be ra–” the boy started to retort before heaving a sigh that I had a feeling came a lot when he interacted with his team. “Whatever. I just meant I’m glad it was easy to find you.”

Grinning at him, I asked, “Was that so hard to say? You came about the project for Carfried, right?”

Still standing stiffly, Zeke gave a short, quick nod. “You heard what he said today. We’ve got until Friday to make it work. So if you’re not too busy being kidnapped or wandering into danger, it’d be nice if we could go practice.” As he finished talking, the boy reached up to take off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve guessed that he was parodying something incredibly British. But no, that was just Zeke.

He did have a point though, we needed to get that done. So rather than snark, I just gave him a thumbs up. “Sure, let’s get this thing done.” Glancing back to Sands, I added, “Lemme know who wins?”

Even as the other girl was nodding, Sean called out from the pool table. “Spoilers, it’s gonna be me.”

“Well, whoever it is,” Tristan put in, “they’ll only be reigning champion for about five minutes or so.”

Sands raised an eyebrow at that, looking interested. “Why, you gonna challenge them or something?”

“Me?” Tristan smirked, shaking his head. “No.” Reaching back, he caught hold of his sister’s arm and tugged her out in front of him as the girl gave a soft yelp of surprise. “Nessa. She’ll take on the winner.”

Poor Vanessa blinked rapidly, still catching up with what was going on and exactly what her brother was volunteering her for. Then a soft pink blush crossed her face. “I—what? I—I’m not—that’s not…”

“Dude, yeah!” Erin blurted, her own smile widening. “We’ve seen you play around with all that stuff. All that stuff you were going on about with the whole angle and momentum thing. You’ll kick ass!”

While poor Vanessa was clearly trying to figure out how to deal with both her roommate and her brother pushing her to ‘kick the ass’ of whoever won Sean and Columbus’s match, I glanced toward Zeke. I expected to find the boy looking annoyed, as usual. Instead, his gaze was fixed past me with a weird sort of wistful expression, and I turned my head slightly to see what, exactly, he was looking at.

Sands. His gaze was fixed on Sands, who was laughing as she helped try to coax Vanessa into accepting the invitation to play pool. As the petite brunette loudly pointed out that Vanessa needed to ‘remind the boys who was in charge’, Zeke was watching her with a look that screamed twitterpated.

As that realization struck me, my mouth opened. But before I could say anything (not that I knew exactly what I was going to say anyway), a new voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Flickster!”

Blinking, I turned to find Nevada by the door. She gave me a quick wave. “Mind if we talk for a sec?”

Ignoring Zeke’s mumble about how we were never gonna get to work, I nodded. “Oh, sure, Prof—Nevada.” To my project partner, I added, “Sorry, it’ll just take a second. Then we can work, I promise.”

Nevada led me out of the lounge and past the doors that led into the cafeteria, to the exit. Meanwhile, I kept trying to tell myself to stop noticing exactly how much bounce there was whenever the blonde woman moved. Not that it actually helped very much, because my brain was a dirty, dirty traitor.

Once we were out on the grass behind the building, she finally turned and reached down to the silver bracelet on her wrist. Tossing it aside, she waited while the bracelet reshaped itself into its tall metal crate form before clearing her throat as she looked back to me. “So like, Avalon and Columbus were asking about upgrades for your staff,” Nevada explained. “I assume you already knew about all that.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “They’ve been trying to help since… you know, all that stuff.” I flinched at the thought of everything that had happened in such a short period of time. Then I blinked up, my eyes widening a bit. “They didn’t do anything wrong, did they? Because it’s totally all my-”

Nevada laughed, head shaking. “Relax, Flick, no one’s in trouble. You knew Avalon had your staff?”

Again, I nodded. “She was borrowing it to do some work. She said she had an idea about how to make it better in case–” Coughing, I amended that in mid-sentence. “I mean, when something else happens.”

“Yeah, good point,” Nevada agreed before reaching into her storage bin. “Anyway, they had ideas, but they’re still learning and they didn’t wanna make you wait for years before you got that upgrade. Besides, Avalon’s been busy upgrading her own weapons, and Columbus… well, he’s got some super-duper secret project of his own. So–” She tugged out my staff and held it up. “They asked me to help out a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” I stared at her. “You went out of your way to help, and you think I’d mind? You’re crazy.”

Laughing at that, Nevada offered a shrug. “You’d be surprised. Some Heretics get really touchy about who handles their weapons. It’s kind of a personal thing. But Avalon insisted you’d be okay with it.”

“I am, totally,” I confirmed quickly before looking at the staff in her hand. “But you already managed to do something with it? I mean damn, Valley just took the staff this morning. You work fast.”

Nevada gave me a dazzling Barbie smile. “Well, I am totally awesome. But like, that’s not how it works. See, they talked to me like two weeks ago, and I’ve been working on other kinetic-burst staffs. You know, figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. So then, like, once it was all done and I had the plans fixed up, all I needed was your actual staff to put it all together. That’s how we do it.”

“Oh.” I coughed, flushing. “I guess that makes sense, doing all the steps of the upgrade ahead of time and then just putting it together. Heretics probably really don’t like losing access to their weapons.”

She nodded. “Exactly. There’s not a living Heretic out there that would agree to hand over their weapon for days at a time. So we just get used to tinkering with copies until we know exactly what we’re doing, then take the weapon for as short a time as possible. Which, for you, was just a few hours.” She lifted the staff, waving it at me before holding the weapon out. “Take it, see how different it feels. The weight might be a little bit more than it used to be, but it shouldn’t be too bad once you swing it a few times.”

Curiously, I took the staff and hefted it, passing the thing from one hand to the other before giving it an experimental spin. “Yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I guess it does feel a tiny bit heavier, but it’s not too bad.”

The woman’s grin brightened even more, dazzling me. “Awesome! So, two different upgrades for this thing.”

“Two?” I echoed, blinking in surprise before looking down at the weapon in my hand. “It still looks the same.”

Nevada winked at me. “It’s supposed to.” Coughing, she pointed to the case clipped to my belt. “That’s the thing for the sand that Columbus and Avalon finished back in track training, right?” When I nodded, she moved her hand to point to the staff. “See that tiny button right there?”

Curious, I turned the weapon over to find where she was pointing. Sure enough, there was a little spot where my left thumb generally went that could be pushed in with a little bit of pressure. “Got it.”

“Press it,” Nevada instructed with an eager smile, clearly anxious for me to see what she’d done.

So, I did. As I pressed the button, the staff hummed a little in my hands and a small dark red spot of energy appeared at the end of it. And through that glowing spot, I could feel… sand? Blinking, I extended my focus and gave an experimental tug. Sure enough, as I did, a cloud of the stuff burst out of the end of the staff, where the glowing red spot was.

“It’s a short-distance portal,” the Development Track advisor informed me. “It links directly to that thing on your belt. So when that runs out of sand, so does the staff. I just thought it’d be good for you to have quick access to it without letting go of your weapon. Plus, now you can incorporate all that sand flying around into your fighting style.”

Unable to help the gleeful noise that escaped me, I experimented a little by spinning the staff and pulling sand in and out through the tiny portal. It was glorious, and I could already think of ways to use my sand now that I didn’t have to let go of the staff and reach down to my belt to do it.

“Nevada, this is—this is… you didn’t have to—I mean, you’re amazing.”

“Aww, you don’t have to butter me up,” the woman teased. “I’ll show you the other thing.”

I blinked once. “Other—oh! You said there was something else? Wait, there’s more?”

“Of course there’s more.” Nevada scoffed at me. “Hold both ends up near the tips. Yeah, like that. Now push in, then pull out again real quick.”

After following her directions, I felt the staff shift in my grip. Yelping a little, I held it up while the ends bent backward and flared a little bit. Meanwhile, the center slid around while a small indent appeared at about the mid-point. Once the staff was done shifting around into a curved shape, a slender strand of glowing string-like energy extended from the one tip down to the other. it wasn’t a staff anymore. Now it was a–

“Bow!” Nevada announced. She was grinning again, laughter clearly right on the tip of her tongue as she gave me the punchline. “Get it? It’s a Bowstaff. Bowstaff!

Eyes widening, I touched the glowing energy strand that functioned as the bowstring. It hummed under my touch.

“The string’s made out of the same kinetic energy that you use when you make your mines or whatever,” Nevada explained with obvious eagerness. “Now pinch the string right there where an arrow should be.”

Slowly, I followed her instructions. As I pinched the string, another glowing energy construct appeared. An arrow made out of the same glowing kinetic energy. I gasped, slowly pulling back at the arrow along with the string.

It was a bow. It worked just like a bow. Not that I’d had a lot of experience with them, but still.

The older blonde continued quickly. “It uses the same charging system as the staff part, so you can only fire a few at a time before it needs to recharge. Or you can charge up one really powerful shot instead. But your friends said that you really could use some kind of ranged option, so this seemed like the best way to go.”

“It’s… it’s great,” I managed, staring at the energy arrow that I’d pulled back. “Though I don’t really know how to use a bow very much…”

“You’ll just need to get some tutoring help to use it right.” Nevada agreed while helping me ease the string back down until the arrow disappeared. “Hey, Rudolph uses a bow. Maybe he’ll help you out.”

“I’ll um, I’ll ask him,” I agreed quietly, staring at that weapon. At the older woman’s suggestion, I gave it a quick shake up and down, and the bow reshaped itself back into my familiar staff.

“Nevada, I–” Something caught in my throat, and I quickly hugged the woman. “I wish I knew how to repay you.”

For a second, she stiffened under the hug. Then I felt her relax, her voice soft. “It’s no problem, Flick. I don’t want anything to happen to you. But if you really want to pay me back, do me a favor.

“Never use the word ‘wish’ around me again.”

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