EPISODE 31: ODD ONES OUT

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Cyphira Quinn. Merday, Aries 13th, 2348 AA. 12:23 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Central Stadium).

“Hello children,” the long-haired man said with a chilly smile, instantly earning a spot on Cyphira’s shitlist.

She hated being dismissed as a child. Even if they weren’t adults, or official members of the Amagium yet, “aspirants” would have been the polite form of address. She had the feeling he knew it, too. He’s trying to knock us down a peg. Set the terms of this little meeting as it suits him. Well, you can suck a dick and choke on it.

“My name is Edryr Forsythe. I am a senior special agent of the Confidential Interests Chapter. And as I understand it, you five are virtually the only aspirants on campus who escaped this… strange development. According to your masters, you were late to the assembly because you were busy beating the tar out of each other. Is that correct?”

“More or less,” Hace said warily.

“Specificity, please,” Forsythe chided. “Approximately did the fight start? Where did it take place?”

“I’m sorry, Sir,” Lin said, cutting in. “Shouldn’t our masters be present? Or another legal guardian?”

Or a fucking lawyer?

“I’m afraid the Masters are still… mostly out of sorts, but rest assured, they provided us permission to interview you. Consider this part of your amagiate duty as aspirants. Or your education, if you prefer.”

Yeah. This is bullshit. We have no obligation to serve the Amagium until we get our licenses.

“What’s the sigil in the court mean?” Cyphira asked.

The special agent smiled his infuriating, frosty smile.

“Quite the mystery, isn’t it? What would your guess be?”

The group looked amongst themselves instead of answering. Forsythe prodded them:

“Come now. According to the Masters, you are some of your cohort’s best and brightest.”

“The general shape looks Abrahamic,” Hayes said, timid as always.

“Goetic specifically,” Valmont said, obnoxious as always. “Generally used for summoning demons.”

Forsythe spread his hands as if to say, “there you have it.”

“Are you half-fae?” Cyphira asked.

Forsythe blinked at her, affecting amusement.

“Oh, no. I’m afraid I’m just a garden variety human male.”

“Then why are you trying so hard to avoid answering our questions directly?” Cyphira asked. Before Forsythe could respond, Cyphira gestured between herself and Hace. “We’re akrasiacs. Higher risk of running into demons than most people. Our master, Fera Fitzgerald, had us memorize every damn sigil in the Keys of Solomon. Lesser. Greater. Apocryphal. And the thing on the court ain’t one of them. Also: no sulfur, brimstone, obsidian, bodily fluids, or fire.”

Cyphira noticed Valmont’s eyebrows jumped when she said that she and Hace memorized the Goetia. That’s right, Princess. I can study just as well as I can fight.

“Well. Aren’t you an enchanting young lady? You are correct. Old King Solomon had very little to say about this entity. And the less said the better, really.” He smiled again.

Cyphira snickered.

“If you want us to answer your questions intelligently, more context will help.”

“Oh, no, no,” Forsythe said, waving his hand. “I don’t want a curated tour of your memories. I’m the type who likes to wander a gallery at their own pace, you see. Also, you seem to be laboring under delusions of leverage. These adorable little guessing games may work on your teachers and peers, but I have no time and even less patience for them. So. You can either start answering my questions, or I can make arrangements for a forensic mesmer to pry your memories apart.”

“Yeah? Where’s your warrant?” Hace asked, flippant.

Cyphira smiled inwardly. I kind of love it when you follow my lead. But I like it even more when you take the words out of my mouth.

“The CIC plays by different rules when time is of the essence.”

Forsythe tapped one of the stones in his License and stared at Hace. Everyone felt an urdic pulse, but it was unsettlingly alien. Cyphira had no experience with that type of magic. Hell, I haven’t even been exposed to it. Then Cyphira noticed that Hace’s face had gone from fierce to slack jawed.

“Let’s talk about this fight. Judging by the blood and bruises, I take it those two were the combatants?” He asked, gesturing between Valmont and Cyphira.

Hace inclined his head clumsily.

“Who won?” Forsythe asked.

“Valmont,” Hace said, inclining his head lazily towards Lin. His voice was slow and completely uninflected.

“What was the fight about?” Forsythe asked.

“Not sure. They don’t like each other.”

Hace? Are you…? Usually, he was guarded. A half-fae had to weigh their words carefully, because they were bound to tell the truth and the truth could be remarkably misleading.

“And what were you doing there?” Forsythe said.

“Watching,” Hace said, eyes glassy.

“What the fuck are you doing to him?!” Cyphira demanded, standing up.

“Is that domination magic?” Lin asked, aghast.

Pensey and Glem were speechless. Starched with fear.

“It’s a gray area,” Forsythe said mildly. “And if you don’t want things to get considerably darker, I urge you to cooperate of your own accord.” Forsythe made a gesture as if he were tossing away a piece of refuse, ending whatever contract he had cast.

Hace shook his head and blinked his eyes. He was immediately lucid again, but judging by the pink in his cheeks and the outrage on his face, he apparently remembered what Forsythe did to him. Forsythe tapped his right license vambrace with his left finger.

“These will excuse far more than any warrant, children. What happened in this gym is a much graver threat than the dime-bag mad bomber who declared war on this city. So kindly cut the horseshit, and answer my questions. If I make the same inquiry seven times, I expect you to give me seven consistent answers without complaint. Are we clear?”

Cyphira sat down and crossed her arms petulantly. For the second time that day, she had lost. At least I made Valmont work for it. I can’t do a damn thing against this fucker. I hate this. I hate everything about this. That bastard can just rifle through our thoughts whenever he feels like it without any oversight or accountability. Definitely the vindictive, domineering type.

Forsythe reminded her of her first foster family. A sanctimonious, father-knows-best type who didn’t hesitate to use his belt behind closed doors; his meek, milquetoast wife who pretended it never happened, and their sadistic teenage son who liked to watch. That was when I first vowed to become powerful. To make domineering assholes like this guy regret their entire lives.

“You two seem like the sensible ones,” Forsythe said pleasantly to Glem and Pensey. “How about we start with your account of the situation. One of you was present at the assembly, yes?”

“Yes!” Pensey squeaked. “I mean, I was for a little bit. I wasn’t there when people passed out. M-master Carroll sent me to find the others.”

“Ah. Master Carroll. Good man. Where did this brawl take place?”

“They fought on top of the roof of the dining hall. It took me about twenty minutes to find them. The staff heard noises up top and I decided to check them out.”

Huh. How did Hayes get up there? Not like I shared the door code with her, and she’s not the type to get in trouble.

“Do you remember when Carroll sent you to go looking? What time you left the arena?”

“About eight twenty? I don’t remember exactly.”

Cyphira tuned out the conversation as Forsythe continued to play a hundred and twenty questions. She racked her brain for a way to attain some degree of leverage; an iota of autonomy. They suspect us. Not an unreasonable conclusion, given that it would be almost impossible to pull off a summoning ritual amidst a crowd of amagia without anybody noticing. Then she remembered what Forsythe said earlier. ‘This is a graver threat than the bomber.’ Which means they think—or already know—that these events are unrelated.

“Why do you think this is unrelated to the terrorist attacks?” Cyphira asked, interrupting.

Forsythe shot her a sharp glance, then donned his chilly smile again.

“I don’t recall saying that.”

“You let it slip anyway. What does the symbol mean?” Cyphira pressed.

Forsythe opened his mouth to rebuke her, but ended up sighing. He considered each of them in turn, tapped his license again and spoke in a deeper voice than he had a moment ago.

“Does the name Averael mean anything to you?”

Unbidden, without caution or resistance, Cyphira said “no,” and each of the others said the same. Forsythe scrutinized them. His dark eyes seemed to bore into them, and his wyrd gave off the pressure of a rushing current. Finally, he asked:

“Do you know what a purgatorial angel is?”

“Is it an angel that resides in purgatory?” Hace asked, voice golemic once again.

“That would make the most sense, wouldn’t it?” Forsythe chuckled. “But no. You see, according to Abrahamic dogma—Paxigratian beliefs in particular—there are countless categories of angels, but they each fall into one of three fundamental… factions. The Fallen, who were cast into Hell for their rebellion against God Almighty,” Forsythe crossed himself facetiously, “the Faithful, steadfast and loyal, who largely remained in Heaven. And finally, the Faithless, or purgatorials.”

“Rather than throwing in with God or Lucifer, they took a ‘wait and see’ approach to the celestial war. For their disloyalty, they were scorned by both sides, and forced to reside on Earth until Judgment Day, the thought being that, to an angel, walking this plane is akin to being consigned to purgatory. One popular interpretation of this story is that purgatorial angels are the fountainhead of Fae, just as most egregoric demons are the progeny of the Fallen.”

Forsythe smiled and shook his head.

“But I assure you, purgatorials are a different breed altogether. Demons and angels are fairly easy to deal with when they make their presence known on Earth, because they play by reliable sets of rules. Purgatorials have no oversight though. They are utterly inscrutable. And they possess a tremendous deal of power. An oddity, for egregores, considering that most people do not know they exist.”

Forsythe’s compulsion contract had dulled Cyphira’s thoughts but his statement perplexed her despite the haze. Egregores are beings of belief and emotion, shaped by the collective unconscious. The more people who believe in them, the more powerful they become. But without belief, they wither and vanish.

“The sigil on that court signifies Averael, the Angel of Debts and Ledgers. Over fifty years, he has been connected to countless crimes ranging from outright homicide, to serial possession, to human trafficking. Entropathy. Extortion. Even espionage! He meddles in asfalis governments. We have only the vaguest notions of his motivations, but suffice to say, he is a persistent enemy of the Amagium. Enough to claim eighth place on the CIC’s list of most-wanted entities.”

Cyphira blinked, still struggling to process the gravity of the statement. The CIC is a global outfit. Does that mean this angel is the eighth most-wanted non-human being on the entire planet? Cyphira struggled to ask the question aloud, but Forsythe had bound her with his spell somehow. She couldn’t speak unless he willed it.

“Well. I’ve shown you mine, so to speak. Now it’s your turn. I want each of you to walk through your morning, from the moment you woke to the beginning of this conversation. And since you seem to be such a firebrand, I think we’ll start with you.”

He relaxed the compulsion spell again, allowing Cyphira to speak freely.

“Why don’t you two get along?” He asked, gesturing between her and Valmont.

“I dunno. She’s a bitch and I’m a different kind of bitch.”

Lin considered that assessment for a second before concurring with a nod.

“I see. And you just had to have it out right then and there? The brawl couldn’t wait until after the assembly?”

“After the assembly, we’d be going back to the dorms for lockdown. And the assembly would have been pointless. Keepers can’t make specific comments on ongoing investigations or operations. That means they would just be feeding us platitudes and answering easy questions from the Masters to make us feel safe.”

Forsythe smiled and emanated approval, but continued to peck at her with questions. True to his word, he grilled each of them, frequently rephrasing inquiries in an attempt to catch them in a lie. He also regularly looked to Hace and Cyphira for corroboration, since they couldn’t lie. I hate it when people use us as lie detectors. It’s degrading. But I have to hand it to him. This guy is good. If we had any kind of conspiracy or story going on, he would have rooted it out. Too bad we’re just as in the dark as you are, you domineering, foppish, fuck-boy dandy.

After about an hour, Forsythe excused himself to confer with his associates, leaving them alone.

“This is illegal, right?” Hace asked.

“Completely illegal,” Hayes confirmed.

She seemed oddly calm, given that she was usually all chitters and nerves. Guess you don’t know somebody until you see them in a crisis.

“Not much we can do about it,” Valmont said dourly.

“Pretty sure you could get him fired if you asked daddy real nice,” Cyphira said.

Valmont snickered.

“You know my father isn’t an Archon anymore, right?”

“I’m sure he could call in a favor or few,” Glem said.

“Tempting as that is, if there really is a rogue angel running around campus, it’s probably smart to cooperate as best we can,” Valmont said.

Hace groaned.

“They’re probably gonna delay the Chirothecam again. Indefinitely, this time. Hell, they’ll probably shut down campus and send us home until this whole thing blows over.”

Fear pitted Cyphira’s stomach. What would that mean for me? I talk to my foster parents like once a year at most. Just enough to clear up paperwork and assure them I’m not dead. Unlike her prior two families, they were decent enough people. When they took her in, they told her that they were in it for the money more than any desire to shape a young mind, which Cyphira respected. But would they even take me in again if the campus shut down? She was currently studying for her emancipation test, but she wouldn’t be allowed to take it until she turned sixteen. Maybe I can stay with Hace’s family, or Fitz.

Forsythe swept back into the room, twirling his twee staff-thing and then tapping it on the floor in front of them.

“Well. I wish I could say it’s been a pleasure, but I despise children and you’ve all been useless. The feeling is mutual, I’m sure. Fortunately, if the gods are gracious, we will part ways here, now and forever.”

Cyphira knew in her marrow that the slick bastard was going to do something. She was bracing for it. She was ready to throw her wyrd at him the second he attempted a contract. And she still didn’t see it coming. Her wyrd couldn’t tell whether it was a contract, sorcery, or something else altogether, but she passed out dead on the spot as soon as Forsythe finished speaking.

—Jovday, Aries 14th, 2348 AA. 3:15 AM. Girl’s Dormitory (Yew)—

Cyphira woke up feeling like a rock band had rented her head as a hotel room and utterly trashed the place. She had never had a hangover, but based on Fitzgerald’s frequent complaints, this seemed to fit the bill. What the hell did I do yesterday?

The pain in her head sharpened to the point of inducing nausea. Cyphira rolled out of bed, not bothering to put on anything other than her shirt and underwear, and rushed to the bathroom. As she dry-heaved into the toilet bowl, memories came to her in messy fits and starts, as if she was exhuming them from mud.

Yesterday she had studied and practiced her opus after the boring Keepers’ assembly, whiling away the time until dinner, and before that…

Oh right. My fight with Valmont. I entered exus.

She shook her head, embarrassed. I can’t believe I lost control like that. Actually, it tracked perfectly. She just makes me so fucking mad. Cyphira knew part of it was jealousy. She’s been spoiled and powerful from the crib and she’ll stay that way ‘til she hits the grave. But there was more to it than that. She has no right to be as good as she is. She should be enjoying a life of ease and plenty, but instead she shows up, does the work, and shows us all up. What the hell do you even want, Valmont? How do you stay motivated to succeed when you literally already have everything?

Cyphira reviewed the fight in her head. Her little sorcerous puppetry trick was… yeah. I hate to admit it, but it’s brilliant. Gonna have to give it a try myself at some point. She remembered Glem looking her over after, but when she thought back to the assembly her head spiked with pain. Somebody pulled a burning coat hanger through her brain and the sensation knocked her on her ass. She didn’t black out—her head was too busy for that—but she lost time to a familiar voice and a storm of visions.

“Fight this, Cyphira. You cannot be undone by an amagiate parlor trick.”

She saw the central stadium, filled with corpses. No, sleeping bodies. She saw the strange gold sigil that had branded the basketball court. She saw the long-haired dandy dressed in Keeper’s robes, sneering at her. Then the familiar voice again:

“Your mind is your own, daughter. Take it back.”

Then she was back in the bathroom, slumped against the stall door.

“Mother?” Cyphira whispered.

I haven’t thought of you in years. She had a single salient memory of her mother. It was when she had been summoned to the Winter Court for her seventh birthday, as all half-fae were. Her mother was great and terrible. Platinum blonde hair. Skin like porcelain. And eyes that defied description. They were the color of tempests and ice-crusted holly. They held the depths of the dead of night, and looking into them, you would smell the scent of evergreen garlands. Just like my hair. Her mother had spoken to her sparingly, her attendants had done most of the talking. But the voice was unmistakable eight years later. Airy as a breeze and cold as hell frozen over.

Cyphira shook her head and slapped her cheeks. What the hell is going on? Was that some kind of premonition? A vision of the kumite? Visions could happen to anybody, though they usually manifested earlier, around thirteen. Do I warn somebody?

She picked herself up, and walked back to her room. Senice was still asleep, breathing steadily. Cyphira considered waking her and asking for advice. She would have good advice to give. Sen was both down to earth and fiercely intelligent. She knew how to weigh her words and only spoke when she had something valuable to say. After Hace and Fitz, Senice was her third closest friend. Chosen family, as Hace would put it. But eventually Cyphira shook her head and started to climb back into bed. This can wait until morning.

The inside of her head seemed to snag on the movement. Hot wires trawled her mind again. The sensation vanished too quickly for her to shriek, but she sank to the floor, unable to finish climbing into her bunk. Yesterday didn’t happen. The Keepers’ assembly? Opus practice? It was like wallpaper plastered over something else. A patch meant to hide whatever was happening in her head.

She hugged her legs to her chest, eyes blurred with tears. What the hell is happening? Am I cracking? After a long moment of purposeful silence and stillness, she cautiously stood up and got back into her bed, but it was still precarious. Whatever was happening in her mind was still simmering and close to a boil.

She didn’t remember dialing Hace, and she felt embarrassed as soon as she saw his name on her cheap sym phone’s display. He’s asleep, you dumb fucker. Besides, what can he possibly do to help—

“Cy?” His voice was groggy. “Is everything okay?”

Cyphira paused before answering.

“No. I don’t know. It’s like my mind is being pulled apart. I’m having visions.” After a second’s pause, she added haltingly: “I… I’m afraid I’m cracking.”

Hace went dead quiet, and Cyphira regretted calling him all over again. You insensitive idiot. His mother is actually going insane and you know it is his worst fucking nightmare. How dare you…

“What can I do to help?” He asked, warm and gentle. It was the exact same voice he used to talk to Sivia when she started to drift.

“Can you just… talk me through this?” Cyphira whispered.

“Lemme get dressed. I’ll head to the roof so I don’t wake Glem.”

“Good idea. I’ll do the same.” Cyphira said. “Can you stay on the line? I’m kind of… not all here.”

“Sure. I’m here if you need me.”

Cyphira put her phone down as she changed. Fresh underwear, clean white tee-shirt, socks, jeans, and her uniform boots and jacket, which were the warmest things she owned. It felt strange getting dressed with Hace on the phone, self-conscious and comfortable in equal measure. She imagined him doing the same, which offered a decent distraction from the swelling pressure in her head.


She peaked out into the hall to see if anybody was around, then muffled her footsteps with her wyrd as she made her way to the door to the roof. It was cold that night. The usual canopy of stars was clouded over, and the campus was shrouded in a wet fog.

“You there?” She asked, trying to sound less pathetic than when she called.

“I’m here,” he assured her. “Just got to the roof.”

“What do you remember about yesterday?” Cyphira asked.

“Uh… you and Valmont beat the shit out of each other after breakfast and then we went to the Keeper’s assembly. Other than that… I dunno. It was a pretty boring day after your fight.”

Cyphira felt the strings again. Tightening. Twisting. But also fraying. It was hard to focus on the memories. They seemed to slip away and the pain got worse as she pursued them. But she grunted, forcing herself to continue. Ask specific questions. Be smart about this.

“Were we punished?” she asked.

“Punished?”

“We showed up late to the assembly, bloody and bruised. Pretty obvious what happened. And Hayes said… Hayes said that Carroll had asked for us. There’s no way he wouldn’t notice. We should have been punished.”

Hace went quiet.

“I… I don’t remember,” he said at length. “I don’t think so?”

“Did we go to the infirmary?” Cyphira pressed. “Glem said we needed to get our heads checked. I was going to do it after the assembly. But I… I don’t remember going. And I wouldn’t have ignored him.”

There was another long pause.

“Christ, my head kinda hurts,” Hace said at length. “It’s hard to remember.”

Cyphira’s heart skipped a beat. I’m not alone.

The strands in her head continued to burn, but now she sensed something in them. Fear. A desperate sense of self-preservation. This thing is a parasite. And now I have it on the defensive. Cyphira channeled her wyrd inward, imagined herself gripping the thing in her head, and started to pull.

Visions of the stadium came flooding back, interspersed with the vaguer memories of a Keeper droning on about campus safety, the inherent cowardice of terrorism, and various platitudes. Her checking the pulse of an older student. Fitzgerald warning them not to wake people. Waiting in stunned silence with Hace, Glem, Valmont, and Pensey.

The strands began to writhe as if they had become a centipede, a single long thread with countless squirming limbs. Cyphira groaned, forced herself to continue pulling, and then violently twisted the strand, hoping to break the thing’s spine. Several of the little offshoots, the leg-like appendages, snapped away. She saw the man with the ribbon in his hair. Forsythe. His name was Forsythe.

“Cy? Are you alright?” Hace asked.

Cyphira ignored him. She had this thing on the ropes, whatever the hell it was, and she wasn’t going to let it recover. It started thrashing, sending paroxysms through her head that rippled throughout her entire body. She tightened her wyrd around the thing, twisted it and yanked in one brutal gesture. The central thread snapped with a psychic shriek, followed by the tell-tale urdic feedback of a contract breaking. And then everything fell into place.

“Yesterday didn’t happen,” Cyphira said, breathing hard as the pain receded.

“What?”

“Well. It happened, but we remember it wrong. They sealed our memories and replaced them with fakes. Think, Hace. Please. I know I’m not crazy now. Try to remember what happened immediately after the fight. It’s going to hurt. A lot. Search for the strands and yank them out.”

“Strands? What do you…” Hace started to talk several times, occasionally uttering a single syllable or swallowing a breath. Finally, he managed: “What the hell is this? What is in my head?” he asked.

“It’s a contract. The man with the ribbon did it to us. His name is Forsythe. Try to remember.”

A choked off grunt came through the receiver. Help him. Cyphira spoke as calmly as she could:

“I’m here, okay? If I can do it, so can you. Fight that thing. Kill it. Get it out of your head.”

“The bodies,” Hace gasped. “The bodies in the stadium.”

“Yes!” Cyphira said. “Keep at it. You can do this!”

Hace groaned and there was a rough thud like he had dropped his phone. She heard his agony, and wished she was there to lend him her wyrd. Finally, there was a triumphant exhalation, followed by several shuddering breathes.

“What the fuck was that?” He asked. “Did they… They really try to erase those memories?”

“I don’t think so. Not exactly anyway. It’s more like they stitched up what happened in the stadium and tried to cover the gap with vague fakes.”

“Forsythe was talking about purgatorial angels. Something about a wanted list. They must be trying to cover up what happened…. Should we talk to Fitz?” Hace asked.

Cyphira considered it. Fitz might have been the one to call the CIC. She could be a victim, or she might be in on the joke. And if she is, they’ll probably just wipe us again. And who knows if I’ll be able to undo the spell a second time?

“I wish we could. But it’s too risky. If she knows about the spell, and she finds out we’ve remembered what happened, the CIC might just erase our memories again. Or worse.”

“This is insane,” Hace said. “Do you think they did this to the whole school?”

“It would be kind of pointless if they did anything else,” Cyphira observed.

“Yeah, but how? Like, this is extremely complicated magic. It would take days to do this to everyone.”

“Not necessarily. I bet it’s a lot simpler than it seems. They probably templatized the spell to cast it on everyone at once. Think about it. The whole school, or everybody who was affected, at least, was inside the stadium. First you cast a mass sleep contract. Then you use a ritual affecting everybody in the building.”

“I guess. Still, the power required to affect everyone in the school…” Hace said.

“Would be enormous, yes. But somehow, I don’t think that’s a problem for the CIC. Even more plausible if the masters are in on it.”

“Alright. No Masters.”

“Honestly, the fewer people who know, the more likely we’ll be able to fly under their radar.”

“And do what?”

“I don’t know yet. We don’t know enough about what actually happened. Best case scenario, the CIC already found their angel and this was just their way of keeping things quiet. You avoid causing a panic. You avoid the press altogether.”

“We should tell Glem,” Hace said. “He might know something about this. Like, medically.”

Glem was precious to Hace, and somewhere along the lines, he had become precious to Cyphira too. While she jockeyed for the position of top Keeper candidate with Valmont and Hace, Glem was far and away the most gifted aspiring medithurge the school had seen in years. He didn’t know what it meant to be poor. His family was so wealthy, he was barely aware of the concept of money. But he never used that as an excuse to look down on anybody, unlike Valmont. And while he could be lazy, prissy, and whiny, more often than not, he was reliable and efficient.

Most importantly, he was trustworthy enough to keep secrets.

He definitely kept mine.

Solday, Virgo 26th, 2347 AA. 6:48 PM. Santa Monica Pier—

My legs are cold. I feel like I’m fucking naked. It was the first time Cyphira wore a skirt since she was nine years old.

Senice dragged her out shopping with some other girls at the end of the spring term, and their jaws dropped when she walked out of the dressing room wearing red denim shorts with a black waist-cape that hung to her ankles. It came with a matching black halter top and a weird little short-sleeved jacket thing that was also red denim and absolutely ass at keeping you warm. But I do look hot in it. Shows off my arms, legs, waist, and boobs. Senice bought Cyphira the entire outfit despite her protests. Now, at the summer’s end of term celebration, she was wearing it for the first time. And the last, God willing.

Hace was clearly a fan though. She’d actually gotten a lot of looks from the boys in their cohort, but he was the only one with enough courage to compliment her clothes. He blushed as he said it, which was hardly unusual, but still sweet. And I think I rolled my eyes or something. Said something dumb to brush him off. Anything to avoid looking embarrassed.

Their cohort had been at the pier since noon, and Hace, Glem, Sen, and Drav had already exhausted most of the amusement options, so Sen suggested they watch the sunset. The five of them leaned on the railing of the pier, staring at the lingering light on the horizon.

“Well, this has been a beautiful summer memory and all that,” Hace said. “But I am not-so-low-key starving. Anybody else?”

“My God, yes,” Drav droned. “I did not want to interrupt because I assumed this was some nostalgic Erician tradition, but I could eat horses two hours ago.”

Everybody cracked up.

“I’m peckish,” Senice admitted.

Hace raised an eyebrow at Cyphira. She stuck her tongue out.

“My stomach is kind of upset. Probably shouldn’t have eaten that hotdog right before going on the coaster.”

“Yeah. Pass,” Glem said. “Carnival food is gross. I tried to tell y’all, but nobody listens to their doctor.”

Hace shrugged and gestured ‘later.’ Cyphira returned it and then looked back to the horizon. When the others were out of earshot, Glem asked:

“Are you in love with Hace?”

What the fuck. Cyphira nearly torqued her neck turning to face him. She couldn’t decide whether to lash out or try to laugh it off, so she ended up half-assing both. Even to her, it sounded obviously forced and fake.

“Fuck you!”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” Glem said mildly, then looked at Cyphira with a deadpan expression. “Unless you want to deny it?”

His words gutted her. It was the only time Glem had ever used her half-fae heritage against her.

“Fuck you,” she said again, softly this time. He waited for her to continue, gazing out over the sea. Cyphira finally cracked. “I don’t know what love is, Glem.”

“What do you feel when you’re with him?”

How do you answer that? How do you just sum up how a person makes you feel? He’s fun. He’s a dick. He’s too book smart to be so stupid at everything else. He’s too soft for somebody who grew up poor, to say nothing of growing up as half-fae. But he isn’t a saint. He feels every ounce of the same anger I do. He’s just a little less vindictive and flippant with it.

“Why are you asking?” she asked, suddenly acutely aware of the wet maritime air.

“Hace is my best friend. And I’m his second-best friend after you. If you’re putting off breaking his heart, I want to know now so I can come up with a way to put it back together when it happens.”

“Are you in love with Hace?” Cyphira countered. She intended it to sound playful and jokey, but it came out nasty and a touch shrill.

Glem just smiled and shrugged.

“I might have been for a little bit. Definitely see the appeal. I also know he’s not… close-minded. But at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure he’s straight. If nothing else, he’s straight for you.”

Cyphira deflated and leaned on the pier’s railing. Yeah, well, that’s two of us.

She liked to watch him spar. He was an amazing fighter, good enough to beat her on occasion, and that was hot enough by itself. Above all else, Cyphira was attracted to competence and confidence. But when they ditch the jackets in the heat, and I can see his muscles through the sweat on his shirt? Hell, even the scent of him. Spice. Sunflowers. Summer. Those thoughts had cost her a lot of sleep. Hell, they even intruded on her dreams, which was totally uncalled for. Worst of all though, was when she knew he was watching her.

“I want to love him. I do—” she shocked herself into silence. It came out so suddenly and easily. It didn’t feel like a lie. There was no pain or mental resistance. She swallowed, and completed the statement. “I do love him. But I’m also afraid of breaking his heart.”

“Why?”

“I mean, we’re young for one! We haven’t even declared our disciplines yet. All the time you hear about how young couples don’t last, and how getting… ‘attached’ to somebody too early can lead to codependence and stunt your growth as—”

“Nah. That ain’t it,” Glem said chuckling. “You’re just like him. You find the most backwards-ass ways to lie to yourself, starting with a tiny bit of the truth and extrapolating until you contrive some dipshit argument.”

“Yeah, well. Lying the old-fashioned way is luxury I don’t have,” she muttered. “If I could lie, I’d be running the fucking world by now.”

“Why are you really scared, Cyphira?” Glem pressed.

She croaked. I swear to God, this is only coming up because I’m wearing a fucking skirt. He never would have broached the topic if I had just stuck with my damn uniform. But everybody else, even Hace, was in asfalis dress. And for once, she didn’t feel like being the odd girl out.

Glem was still waiting for an answer. He wasn’t emanating. He wasn’t looking at her or gesturing for her to hurry up. But his mere presence weighed on her like a load of cinderblocks. God. How does he just… do that?

“I’ve lost everybody I’ve ever had in my life,” Cyphira said, at last. “And usually, it’s been for the best. My fae mother is… She’s a perfect, storybook-evil bitch. My biological dad died a drunk. My first and second foster families were ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ types. And after enough shit like that, you just find ways to drive people away before they can disappoint you. I’ve done it to him too.”

“Pretty sure you’ve tried to do it to all of us,” Glem corrected.

“Choke on a dick,” Cyphira snapped. “My point is… I’ve told him awful things. Things that nobody should hear from somebody they love, much less somebody who loves them. I’m just such a… I’m a horrible bitch. And he shouldn’t have to deal—”

“What he deals with is his choice. And from where I’m standing, he made it a long time ago.”

Cyphira rested her forehead on the railing, miserable.

“Please don’t tell him.” Cyphira begged. “I want to be the one to tell him how I feel, but I’m just not… I can’t. I’m afraid, Glem. I’m afraid of ruining the best thing in my life. If I break him, it would break me, you know?”

“I promise doctor-patient confidentiality,” he said, putting an arm around Cyphira’s shoulders.

Cyphira snickered. It was the first time he had hugged her.

“Didn’t realize love is a medical condition.”

“Are you kidding me? It literally affects every aspect of your body. Does absolutely crazy stuff to your wyrd too. Did you know that certain people develop urdic talents that they can only use when they are in love? A lot of that storybook shit is true.”

“That’s very fascinating, but seriously, Glem; I would die if he didn’t hear it from me. If we—”

“Cyphira. I am promising you three times. My word is my bond. I want you to be happy together. Because I don’t know if he can be happy without you.”

—Jovday, Aries 14th, 2348 AA. 3:31 AM. Girl’s Dormitory (Yew)—

“Always good to have a doctor on board,” Cyphira said, forcing the memory out of her head. Then, grudgingly, she added: “And honestly, we should probably also tell Valmont and Hayes.”

“What? Why? You hate Valmont,” Hace said.

“Guilty as charged,” Cyphira confirmed. “But she’s capable, and she also heard the bit about the angel from Forsythe. Filling her in will take less time. And if we tell her… Hayes is her security blanket. She’ll tell her no matter what we do.”

“Isn’t that all the more reason to not tell Valmont?” Hace asked.

“You don’t trust Hayes?” Cyphira asked.

“No, Pensey is… fine, I guess, I just… you wanted to keep the group small, right? I don’t get why you want to include Valmont in our little cabal.”

Valmont still annoyed Cyphira. Even her most innocent mannerisms were grating. Her posture. Her word choice. Hell, the way she chews her food. But after throwing hands and trading sorcery, a grudging respect had taken root in Cyphira overnight.

It was the damn handshake. I assumed her dedication to ‘honor’ was just a front to feed her superiority complex. But I broke her fucking tooth. I went berserk and tried to kill her. She would’ve been well within her rights to injure me, or try to get me expelled. Instead, she restrained me and helped me to my feet. That was worth something, though Cyphira wasn’t sure what. If nothing else, she’s an extremely capable combatant.

“Look. This is a big deal, whatever it is. And as much as I like the idea of you and me against the world, I think it would be smarter to face this with a Leximancer, a Medithurge, and a full venture of Keeper aspirants.”

Hace was quiet for a long moment. Cyphira didn’t feel as confident as she sounded, and she was willing to be persuaded against it if he made a good argument. If I’m making a mistake here, please tell me. But eventually, he replied:

“Alright. What’s the play?”

Good question.

“We can’t wait until morning,” Cyphira said. “If I was the CIC, I would have somebody hanging around to make sure this cover-up went off without a hitch. And I would instruct them to keep tabs on us specifically, since we were anomalies.”

“Okay. Guess I’ll wake up Glem,” Hace said. “He’s not gonna be happy.”

“I’ll talk to Valmont and Hayes. After that we should probably do some kind of conference call to make sure everybody is on the same page.”

“Sounds like a plan. And Cy… Thanks.”

Cyphira was genuinely confused.

“For what?”

“I dunno. For trusting me? Letting me know there was some kind of parasitic contract eating my memories?”

“Ha. Literally don’t mention it,” she said.

He hung up chuckling. Cyphira stared at her sym phone’s screen for a few seconds, then sighed and went back inside. Again, she used sorcery to muffle the noise of the door’s creaky metal hinges, and quieted her steps on her way to Valmont and Hayes’ room.

She knocked on their door softly but persistently until she heard feet shuffling on the other side. When Hayes opened the door, she was wearing sleeping clothes—sweats and a large tee-shirt—but Cyphira noticed that her eyes weren’t bloodshot and her hair was remarkably groomed for half-passed three in the morning. Were you already awake?

“Hey. I need to speak with you and Valmont. Like, right now. It’s really important.”

Pensey pursed her lips like she was going to object, but ultimately opened the door and gestured for Cyphira to come in. Valmont was sitting up in her bed, thoroughly grogged with sleep. She was wearing matching, monogrammed silk pajamas and had one of those hilarious eye masks. She literally wears a suit to bed. Being rich is wild.

“Cyphira?” Lin asked.

“Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep, Ali, but we have a major situation, and… Well. You both need my help. And I need yours.”

—Jovday, Aries 14th, 2348 AA. 3:52 AM. Girl’s Dormitory (Yew)—

Valmont’s expression slid from annoyance to bafflement to horror when she discovered that there really was something in her head. Hayes went dead quiet, which surprised Cyphira. Usually, you can’t get her to stop chirping. But this is honestly for the best. It will be easier if we go through this one at a time.  

Cyphira tried to give her the same advice and pep talk she had given Hace, though it felt much more awkward. And when Valmont finally finished clawing the parasite out of her head, she gaped at Cyphira, stunned. They both turned their attention to Pensey, who had stood still throughout the process, wearing a sad, almost resigned expression.

“Alright, Goldilocks. I wish I could say it’s not as bad as it looks, but it totally blows and your number’s up.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Hayes said, sighing.

Lin furrowed her brow.

“What do you mean? Pen, she’s right. There really is a thing—”

“I’m not who you think I am,” Hayes interrupted.

The statement was chilling enough by itself, but something about Hayes’ tone—maddeningly calm, but straining to remain patient—kicked Cyphira’s fight or flight response into overdrive. Her wyrd quivered and her hair stood on end. Valmont was also visibly shaken. Hayes continued:

“My name is Averael. And I am trying to save this girl’s life.”

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