1. Vs The First day of school

Alarm clocks are a strange phenomenon. At least that’s how Landon Hexx saw them. It isn’t the idea that there’s this little contraption that not only correctly keeps time that he finds strange– he’s always lived according to a relatively set schedule and had methods to awaken him from his dreams– but the notion that anyone could push a few buttons on the clock and determine when said alarm would sound. It was also doubly perplexing that he was the person who had the capacity to do said programming. Rather, it was the ambiguity of his choice that Landon found the strangest. He had places to be at certain times of the day on certain days of the week. For instance, today was the first day he would be going to a proper non-home-bound high school. He had to set his alarm to go off at some point before school’s appointed start time to allow for bathing, dressing, and arriving at school on time. He could choose to have that time happen at a later point, in which case he would be late. He could set that time considerably earlier, and lose precious moments dreaming in order to do things in the waking world before school. He could even choose to not set the alarm at all and possibly miss school altogether.

All of these possibilities exist, yet there was only one real choice Landon could make. It was the certainty that he would make that choice despite all of those possibilities, coupled with the fact that it was his choice to begin with and not some prescribed time set and controlled by some Other, that still confounded Landon. This wasn’t the first time he set his alarm clock for 6:00AM, as Mr. Vega suggested it was best for him to get into a new routine before the school year started, but even with a few weeks of establishing this routine, this illusion of control never ceased to feel all too new and all too absurd.

“It isn’t something you get used to.” Linda said as she grabbed a piece of toast out of Landon’s toaster. “At least I don’t think it’s something you’ll get used to, because it’s a question pretty unique to you, right? I’ve had a pretty rigid schedule for a lot of my life, especially when the mom was still around, but I always knew I could, like, rebel. If I wanted to sleep longer and avoid training, I just groaned and pulled the blanket up over my head. The parents almost always won out, but the actual idea that I could say no was always there.”

Landon shrugged as he chugged some orange juice. “I guess rebellion’s something you have to experience directly? As many times as I saw kids say no to their parents in sitcoms and cartoons, it never occurred to me that I could be like that. As much as I liked Family Ties, saw how Alex was the total opposite of his parents and got into all sorts of trouble, and thought about how cool it’d be if I were just like him, the actual thoughts and actions were never there. I was just as much a studio audience in my own life.”

Linda rolled her eyes, not for the observation Landon made about his past experiences, but for his particular way in framing them.

“Maybe cool it with the Nick at Night-isms once we’re at school?” Linda glared at Landon as he was about to interject. “And, no, please don’t tell me Family Ties is too new to be on there. I know. You’re already going to be one of the odd ones out as it is. Don’t paint any more targets on your back that aren’t already there.”

Landon laughed as the two of them tossed their dirty dishes in the sink and grabbed their respective backpacks. Landon checked his digital watch as they walked out the door. School started at 8:30AM. His watch read 7:31AM. Basically an hour to walk the handful of blocks it would take to get to St. Gertrude’s Academy. The practice runs he and Linda made previously all clocked in well under that, so even with the extra traffic that supposedly comes with the first day of school they should make it with time to spare.

The neighborhood in which Landon and Linda both lived sat on the northside of San Antonio, Texas. “The white side of town,” according to Linda, as much of the town’s wealthier population had flocked to this area over the years, and naturally, much of that population consisted of the city’s relative minority whites.

“It could be a lot worse.” Linda said as the pair reached a stop sign at a busy intersection. “I’ve only gotten the evil eye while walking around the neighborhood from one or two older retired types who moved out here decades ago. They cashed in on the white flight early and now resent that a few of us Mexicans seep into their suburban paradise.”

Linda’s dad was a native of Monterrey, Mexico. He moved to the States “for business reasons” long before getting married and having Linda pop into the picture, and Linda had inherited his darker hair and skin tone. Between that and having a couple of inches on almost all the girls her age– she clocked in at 5’9”, putting her a few inches taller than Landon too– she had a way of standing out in a crowd. 

The two made more idle chit-chat as they wound their way across a few blocks of suburban sameness. This part of the neighborhood was built sometime in the early 80s, so it wasn’t quite as blighted with the monotony of the even richer and whiter neighborhoods further to the north, but you can only do so much with brick, wood, and slightly different angles in your roofs. And when almost every road is some variation of Oak– Oak Cliff, Oak Bluff, Timber Oak, Rugged Oak, and-so-forth-Oak– it makes the walk to school feel more labyrinthine than pleasant. 

St. Gertrude’s itself was a bit of an oddity. Well over 100 years old, it was intended to be a Catholic boarding school well outside the city limits– the sort of place well-to-do’s sent their children to become “proper citizens” while only making a monetary contribution to the effort. For decades, being enrolled in the school was considered either a mark of entitlement for those who cared about status and the like, and a mark of shame for those who knew it was all a way of getting them out of the hair of parents who didn’t much care for how childcare impacted their other duties and interests. With time, it’s relatie secluded location allowed its staff some liberties with its curriculum, which led to its students receiving a reputation for excellence in the sciences and several other fields– and to the school being renounced by the local Archdiocese in 1956.

Public record doesn’t say much about that break-up, and it did lead to a drop in attendance immediately after, but that obviously wasn’t the end of the school. With its shift to secular education– while still keeping some vestiges of its religious past– and the way San Antonio’s suburbs expanded to the point where the once rural school was now well within the city limits, St. Gertrude’s found new life as a relatively affordable private alternative to the local school districts. 

“At least that’s the official story,” Linda said back when she first described the school to Landon. “There’s plenty of rumors about the truth.” She added exaggerated air quotes to those last two words. “I’ve never been too interested in all that. I go to the place and it seems normal enough for something with that weird of a history. If I have to study algebra and chemistry there, why do I want to turn around and research the actual school? I don’t want to be that kid who makes school their hobby too. Nerds are cool, but then there are nerds.” 

Landon didn’t say anything at the time, since he already knew he fit the bill for the first type of nerd all too well, but knowing that his first experience with a real, honest-to-goodness school would also be loaded with this sort of wild backstory fascinated him to no end. 

His prior life was already weird enough by most standards. What’s the harm in simply getting to do all of that with his best friend– and hopefully some new ones to boot.

Landon and Linda parted ways when they reached St. Gertrude’s front gate. Their last names placed them in different orientation classrooms, and said classrooms just happened to be on opposite sides of the campus. Linda took a right towards the math hall, while Landon headed left towards the language arts building.

One of the relics of St. Gertrude’s growth in the 50s and 60s is how it expanded. While the current trend in schools was to have one central building for most classrooms, with things like the gymnasium and a few other outliers in separate buildings, most of its expansion took place when it was more fashionable for schools to have a college-like layout, with departments in relatively small and separate buildings, with a good amount of space between each to allow for trees and the like. Walking from class to class was a good deal more pleasant than jostling back and forth between crowded hallways and corridors, but it also meant there was little time to do anything but get to class, especially if your next one was clear across campus. If you were lucky you knew someone who was making the same journey and might have someone to talk to on the way, but other than that there wasn’t much congregating around lockers and the like. Or, rather, there wasn’t much congregating with those who actually intended to get to class on time.

All that’s to say that it was nothing like the high schools Landon was familiar with during his many late night sitcom zone-outs. That was a far stranger concept to him than any of the mysterious history Linda hinted at before.

Landon made his way to his classroom, passing by various groups of kids hanging around, talking and laughing before school started. No one paid him much mind. He was just another kid in the crowd. Everyone else was either with people they already knew or worming their way around campus just like he was. One new face among who knows how many wasn’t going to stand out, at least not out here in the open.

That sort of anonymity was a new feeling for Landon. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it yet.

The language arts building wasn’t too far from the main gate. That department was housed in one of the older buildings on campus– not one from its early days, but from its early post-church expansion. Landon scoped out the building before entering. From what he could see it had two entrances. One faced out into the main pathway that extended from the school’s courtyard, and the other was on the exact opposite end of the longish building, leading to another path that led to other, more recently constructed buildings. Either side of the building was filled with windows, and he could easily see into each classroom as he passed by. For the most part they were pretty similar. The desk layout differed from class to class. Sometimes the teacher’s desk was square in the middle of the room, with all the desks facing forward, while others had the teacher’s desk off to one side or the other, with desks arranged in groups. He could see a few other students already sitting in various classrooms, so he made his way inside.

Landon’s classroom was exactly how he was hoping it would be. There were rows of desks, all facing towards the teacher’s desk in the front of the classroom. The room was rectangular in shape, so the desks only went about five deep before getting to the window-dominated back wall, so Landon made a beeline to the desk caddy corner to the entrance. That put his back to the window, so he could sit back and watch as the other students eventually poured into the room.

He knew that sitting in the front of the class would likely mark him as either someone outgoing, or at least the sort of vocal brainy type who always raised their hand when the class was asked a question. Neither approach was something Landon felt was in his skill set. At the same time, he wanted to be able to see the other students without craning his neck and making his observations obvious.

For once, he was going to be the watcher. Or at least the watcher of something other than the people on television.

Other kids started to trickle in as the first bell approached. Linda let him know that the bell rang twice at the beginning of the day– once two minutes before class started and once at the start of class. It was to let students know that they needed to stop their morning socializing and slacking and get to class, although some teachers were known for taking notice of who was there before the first bell and who waited until the last minute. Most of the kids who came in grabbed seats in the front and middle of the class, and some started talking with each other, clearly knowing each other from previous school years.

Just like when he made his way to class, most of the other students didn’t take notice of Landon. He did see one of the girls towards the front of the class glance back at him and ask another girl next to her something like “You recognize him?” The other girl seemed to say “No” as she shook her head, and they went back to whatever it was they were talking about before.

“Hey. You got the best seat in the house. Lucky you.”

Preoccupied with paying attention to the girls in the front of the class, Landon didn’t notice that someone had taken up residence in the desk next to him. He nearly jumped out of his seat when said person spoke up. Landon was hardly as situationally observant as Linda– one could get the proverbial drop on him about as easily as anyone else– but with how much he was monitoring the door and giving everyone a good look as they entered he was surprised to see that his new neighbor was someone he hadn’t noticed yet. 

He looked to be a couple of inches shorter and a bit more stout than Landon. His shaggy hair was covered by a black boonie cap, and the number of pins adoring his jacket and pendants wrapped around his neck seemed countless. A few were plenty familiar to Landon– at least two ankhs, multiple variations of pentagrams, an assortment of magical sigils he’d glimpsed in dreams– but most of them were wholly unfamiliar.

With a hefty swing, Landon’s neighbor lifted a large leather satchel off of the ground. It slammed down on his desk, causing the desk to squeak as it skid across the laminate floor ever so slightly. Most of the kids in the classroom turned to see what caused such a racket, but as soon as they saw who was responsible, most of them returned to whatever it was they were doing before, clearly aware of and uninterested in who was responsible. At least one person towards the front of the class audibly groaned. The top of the satchel popped open as soon as it struck the desk, and Landon was able to get a glimpse of what exactly was making this bag so massive.

Books, of course, but nothing school-related. Those books wouldn’t be passed out until later in the day. Landon could see their spines, and several of them shared a common phrase:

Dungeons and Dragons

Landon wasn’t making any attempt to shield his nosiness, so his neighbor noticed him noticing. “Ah. You game? That’s the look of someone who games. Or is at least weird enough to be curious.”

It took a second for Landon to respond. He had played out similar scenes in his head leading up to his first day at school. Almost every conversation he had up to this point was the result of him meeting someone carefully selected for specific purposes, and almost all of those encounters were preceded by him receiving information about the person in question. Be it a new playmate, a new babysitter, or a new “friend of the family,” Landon almost always knew something about the person before he met them. This was the first time he was speaking to someone “in the wild,” without any foresight beyond what he could see before him. 

“Are you a Satanist?” Landon asked, his eyes fixated on a book titled Monster Manual.

His neighbor looked a little shocked to be asked such a question right off the bat, but quickly followed that up with a light laugh. “Not at the moment, no. I’m just your friendly neighborhood Game Master. Joshua Z. Stone. Josh to the masses.” Josh stood up from his desk and gave a quick bow. Landon replied in kind, but only with his first name.

 While still standing, Josh pointed a finger at Landon and furrowed his brow. “OK Landon. I’m using my abilities as Game Master to see into your backstory.” He paused for a few seconds before sitting back down. “New kid. First year not homeschooled. Sheltered. Religious family. Extra Christian. Satanic panic. Moved because of a divorce. Not with the religious parent.”

It wasn’t a perfect read, due to its mundane assumptions, but Landon was surprised at how close this guy came to the truth based off of that one question. 

“Something like that, yes.”

“Something like that, indeed. Just the sort of thing someone weird enough to be curious would say. I bet I was right about the Satanic panic stuff, right?”

Landon nodded. “My mom wouldn’t let me watch that cartoon when I was a kid, and anytime she saw that one of my comics had an ad for it she’d cut it out or color over it with a marker. She didn’t get into it too much, but she’d always say something about “Those Satanists.” It was weird because she never had a problem with other things I watched or read. It was just Dungeons and Dragons.”

Josh laughed again. “Parents are like that, huh? Getting mad at you one minute for something you shouldn’t do and then encouraging you to do something just as bad the next. Don’t do this sin, do that sin! That game is evil. Come over here and watch this TV show where someone gets shot every five minutes.”

“Evil?” Landon was genuinely confused. “That never came up. I never really got why she was so against “Those Satanists.” I mean, I know what they are, and I know what you’re getting at, but she never talked about them that way. It was like Mrs. Kravitz complaining about Samantha. Like a nosy neighbor tattling on someone not fitting in.”

Josh’s face got serious for a second before he cracked a smile. “I have a feeling we aren’t talking about the same thing, but that’s cool. Never heard an evangelical take that approach. It’s usually fire and brimstone and talk of damnation, not fretting over propriety.”

Landon was quick to correct Josh. “Oh. She isn’t any sort of evangelical or Christian. It was more of a New Age thing? That’s probably the best way to describe it. New Age.”

Josh looked like was about to really dig deep into Landon’s latest comment, but at that moment the bell rang. Apparently it was the second bell, as their orientation teacher immediately stood up and began to speak. In their conversation neither Josh nor Landon heard the first bell.

The teacher, who introduced himself as Mr. Rodriguez, one of the school’s Spanish teachers and the head of its foreign languages department, gave a brief introductory spiel welcoming back old students and wishing new faces good luck in their new surroundings. His time with the group was short, as this orientation class existed simply to avoid having all students crammed into the cafeteria or theater hall in order to receive their class assignments. He began calling out student’s names so they could come up to his desk and pick up their class schedule. The names were called out in alphabetical order, save for Landon’s. 

“And it looks like we have a late enrollment in our class,” Mr. Rodriguez said after passing out Rebecca Zarzamora’s paperwork. “The stamp on this hasn’t even had a chance to fully dry. Landon Hexx?”

Landon heard a few indistinct mutters as he walked up to the desk and received his packet. As he walked back to his desk, Mr. Ramirez noted that everyone had about five minutes before orientation let out and everyone was to begin their regular schedule. As Landon sat back down at his desk, he saw Josh smirking.

“Hexx, huh? That’s certainly New Agey. Anyway, what’s your schedule look like? Maybe we have something together.

Landon rummaged through his paperwork. His stack was a bit thicker than everyone else’s. Mr. Rodriguez was right about him enrolling late. Landon didn’t even know he’d be attending school, much less St. Gertrude’s, until less than two weeks ago– well after the school’s official enrollment date.

Landon glanced over his schedule before sharing it with Josh. Classes were split up into A-Day and B-Day, with four different classes on each day. One week would have A-Day classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with B-Day Classes on Thursday and Friday. The following week would switch around the order, to make sure every class was attended equally. Landon’s schedule was as such:

A-Day: English II, Home Economics I, Algebra II, World Religions

B-Day: PE, Chemistry I, Study Hall, Computer Science I

“Smart man, taking Study Hall,” Josh said as he compared their schedules. “Only the try-hards load up on eight classes, and even most of them go with a Study Hall. And Home-Ec, eh? You’re taking that for completely legit reasons, right?” Josh did a little waggle with his eyebrows.

Landon got a little flustered. “I swear! I didn’t exactly get a lot of time doing house things back with mom. I can use all the help I can get with me living alone. But it wouldn’t hurt–” Landon stopped himself from going any further and encouraging more teasing from Josh.

“Sure. Sure. I getcha. Looks like we don’t have anything matching up save for Morning Hell.” Josh pointed at Landon’s first period B-Day PE class. “I guess it’s good we get it out of the way first thing, but it means you stink the rest of the day if the coach actually makes you participate. Good thing your Home-Ec class is on A-Day, eh?”

Landon chuckled and nodded as the bell rang letting them out. “I guess I’ll see you around?”

“Totally. There’s no escape from the Game Master once you’ve entered his domain.”

“You know what was my favorite part of the day?” Landon asked Linda as they made their way back home after their first day of school. “It was all the different rooms. I knew you went from one classroom to another for each class, but it was still pretty cool to be able to go from one place to another without anyone guiding you or making sure you followed this exact path to this exact point at an exact time. Not that I would run off and do anything different, but I could! How cool is that? I could walk to a different class, and all that would happen to me is I’d get counted tardy or absent for my next class. No one would be searching for me. No alarms would go off. No footsteps stomping down the hallway, checking every corner and closet. I’ll need some time to get used to having that freedom yet never using it.”

Linda gave Landon a knowing look. “Oh, you’ll use that freedom soon enough. Trust me. I’m sure there’ll be a day when you didn’t study for a test or didn’t finish a big assignment and you need to duck out to avoid bombing a class. Or someone’ll ask you if you want to skip class and hit up the Dairy Queen or whatever. Hell, I’ll probably do just that some day when I’m bored and pissed off at the world.”

Landon stopped in his tracks for a moment, and his eyes noticeably widened.

“Choices.

She said I would make choices.

Choices of utmost importance.

Perhaps the last choices ever made.

But not now.

Not anytime soon.

Life is easy now.

Life is good now.

Life is chosen for me now.

Love this life.

It is not forever,

But it is now,

And I am loved.”

Linda stopped a few steps ahead of Landon and turned to face him. She was less concerned about his sudden trance-like state and more concerned with anyone who might be close enough to see what was happening. Fortunately for both of them it happened far enough from school that the crowds of school kids had thinned considerably, and only a couple of unaware cars passed by. Once Landon was done speaking, Linda gave him a light tap on the cheek with his hand.

“Yeah, you’re loved, buddy. Now are you back with us yet?”

Landon’s eyes returned to normal and he shuddered slightly. “I think so. I felt that one coming on all day, especially when I was walking between classes, but I pushed it down each time. Guess it was going to rear its ugly head eventually.”

“I’m kinda impressed. Not to bag on you, but I half-expected to have to rush into the nurse’s office to help come up with some BS explanation for one of your zone-outs. I was thinking sometime between 3rd and 4th period. I even made it a point to walk by the admin building at that time despite my classes being on the other side of campus.”

“I’m not that helpless!” Landon said, feigning offense. “I even managed to talk to a few people today. Well. One person, and it was at the beginning of the day. And he talked first. But I think we might be friends? Maybe? We’ll see?”

“Would this friend happen to drive a beat-up brown 1983 Chevy Caprice with fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror and listen to King Crimson?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised?”

Linda smirked. “Well, he’s driven past us twice while we’ve been walking home. Once at normal speed and another time, during your zone-out, and a slightly more slow and conspicuous speed. He tried to play it cool, but I know cool. He ain’t.”

“Oh. Wow. I’m already that sort of popular? Or is this just stalking? Those things always seem pretty similar when you see it play out on TV.”

“If it’s who I think it is, and I’m almost positive I do, then we’re talking morbid curiosity more than anything. What’d you two talk about?”

“Class schedules and Satanism?”

“That would be it. Your mom said you’d have a knack for finding friends. Looks like you’re already off to a good start, buddy. Also, duck!”

Linda grabbed Landon’s collar, and as she spun around to face the street she tossed him to the ground as quickly and gently as possible. As Landon landed in the grass, Linda backflipped, landing on the roof of a car parked in a nearby driveway. The sound of shattered glass could be heard in the middle of Linda’s flip, as a large dart fell to the ground, split in two. A clear liquid leaked onto the concrete.

Linda quickly glanced across the street. They were at a three-way stop, and several houses down on the street running perpendicular to theirs was a white van blocking said street. Its side door was open, and a man dressed in all-white was kneeling, a sniper rifle trained on Linda. He fired again. And again. And again.

Linda took a deep breath. Time didn’t slow down for her, even if it looked as if she was seeing all of this at some sort of distorted speed. She wasn’t relying on her senses as much as she was relying on her training. People trained in combat tend to perform in certain ways. Not everyone acts in the same way, but patterns do exist, and patterns can be anticipated and exploited. 

Linda heard three shots. Linda knew these rounds were likely the same sort of tranquilizer she already dispatched. She also knew who was attacking her, which meant she knew who trained them. She knew this person’s tactics, and therefore knew the likely trajectory of this attack. 

The first dart sailed past Linda’s face. She felt its fletching brush against her cheek. A false headshot meant to throw off the target.

The second dart would be aimed at her chest. With the target meant to be thrown off, this was the intended kill shot. With little time between shots, Linda leaned to the right  and timed a downward strike to knock the dart out of the air. The momentum of Linda’s strike forced the dart into the hood of the car on which she stood.

The third dart was a backup meant to hit in case the target anticipated the second shot. It was a 50/50 call as to which shoulder it would target. When she dodged to the right, Linda was banking on the shooter being right handed to mean he aimed for her left arm.

Linda’s guess was right. What she hadn’t anticipated was the dart curving its trajectory shortly before reaching her. 

She hadn’t banked on them learning something so radically new.

The third dart lodged itself into Linda’s right shoulder. She felt it working its way into her system almost instantly. She only had a few moments before she was out of commission. 

“Landon… run! My house… dad should… run!”

Landon skittered in place on all fours, much like a spooked cat trying to run on a slick floor. This was something he and Linda had anticipated and practiced before. The walk back and forth from school wasn’t a long one, and the area was far from unpopulated, but with the numerous forces eyeing to acquire Landon due to his particular “gifts,” it was only a matter of time before someone made a move while he was out in the open.

If Linda were unable to defend Landon on their way home from school, he was to run as fast as he could to Linda’s house. It was closer to the school than Landon’s, and its security measures were a good deal better than those at Landon’s house. 

The biggest hole in said plan was the fact that Landon wasn’t exactly quick and light on his feet. He gave it his best try, and made it about half a block down the street before the white van caught up with him. The van pulled up alongside him, the side door flew open, and several arms reached out in unison to drag Landon inside.

The smile on Landon’s face was more than a little smug. Yes, he was just abducted off the street after the first day of school– the first semi-normal day Landon had experienced in his young life. Yes, he was surrounded by several men in white one-piece suits, bound to a seat at the rear of an unmarked van. Yes, his best friend just got shot with a heavy dose of tranquilizer, and he had no idea what these goons did to her afterwards. Things looked pretty bad for Landon on the surface, but all he could do was smile.

“I know someone who’s going to be really pissed that you’re doing this,” Landon said with a good deal of satisfaction. “We made a deal, and she’s gonna be pissed that some of her underlings aren’t following her wishes.”

The goon holding the sniper rifle spoke up, his face expressionless. “Situations change. Your abscondence caused powers to shift. She no longer holds absolute control of the Project. We are not beholden to her deals.”

Landon’s smile diminished. That wasn’t the answer he was expecting. “What makes you think you can get away with this? Linda isn’t the only one looking after me, you know.”

A different goon responded, in a similar monotone. “Incorrect. Your only protector currently present was neutralized. The senior Vega is abroad. All other known allies are not local. You. Are. Alone.”

Landon’s smile flipped around. It was now dawning on him that his life of relative freedom– where he had rules that could be broken if he chose to do so, and was just as free if he chose not to– may have been short-lived. He had gone from a nigh-impenetrable, secluded fortress on the far side of the world– a life-long prisoner of a cult that wanted him for what he stood for rather than who he was– to the banality of suburbia in a matter of a couple of months. And now it looked as if he would be returning to that previous life, and in far more sinister hands than before.

And then reality hit him. 

Literally. 

Along with the van in which he was sequestered.

Something smashed into the side of the van. The goons on that side of the van went flying, as their seats were dislodged from the van’s interior. The van tumbled several times, the sound of crushing metal and wood accompanied the screams of pain coming from the rattling goons. Fortunately Landon was an important enough resource to warrant extra care in his bindings, and he remained relatively unscathed in the ensuing chaos. 

The van came to a halt upside down, and the three goons who weren’t jostled around frantically attempted to undo their own safety harnesses. Before they could, the van’s side door flew open, crashing to the ground as it fell off its hinges. Two figures stood outside, and one of them stepped inside the upturned van.

“Which one of you bastards shot me?” Linda asked as she hunched over and stepped on the broken body of one of the dislodged kidnappers. She quickly eyed the three who hung upside down, who were still trying to free themselves. She headbutted the one to her left and delivered a palm strike to the gut of the one on the right, knocking them out. That left her with the one directly in front of her– the very “bastard” who shot her a few minutes ago. “Talk.”

Even in his exposed position, the goon showed no real emotion. “No. That is against Project guidance.” His eyes turned pure white, and a white ooze seeped from the side of his mouth. 

“Shit. You aren’t getting out of this that easily. Josh! Can you snap this guy back like you did me?”

The second figure poked his head into the van. Josh’s eyes glowed purple for a brief instance and he shook his head. “Nada. Whatever it was he took, it wasn’t just a suicide pill. That did something to his soul at the same time. I can’t even sense it. There’s nothing to snap back.”

Linda groaned loudly and punched the soulless body in frustration, then looked at Landon, who was still dangling upside down.

“Think you can get me down?” Landon asked with a nervous smile. “And hey Josh! How’s things?”

“Good thing you were stalking Landon there,” Linda said shortly after getting Landon out of the upturned van. “Whatever it was they shot me with was pretty potent. They’d be long gone by the time I woke up.”

Josh gave her a thumbs-up. “Just a quick detox spell. Basic stuff. Not like the big whammy I had to come up with to save my buddy here.”

Landon thought Josh was referring to him when he mentioned his “buddy,” but Josh pointed at his car. “A little bit of speeding up time, a little bit of redirecting energy, and I made my old buddy here into a makeshift battering ram that was pretty invulnerable. At least long enough to ram into that damn van without getting scuffed up.”

“It was so cool!” Linda said, grabbing Landon by the shoulders, “You gotta try it sometime. You know, when you aren’t being kidnapped.”

“Yeah, sure, sounds fun,” Landon said with a bit of a stutter, the shock of everything finally hitting him. “But. Wait. Why’s Josh here? Why was he stalking me after school? Why’s he magic? I thought you said you weren’t a Satanist? What?”

Josh laughed. “I had to scope you out after what you said. No one just blurts out “Are you a Satanist” without having something up with them. And then it turned out you were a super late addition to the school accepted after the deadline? And your darn name is HEXX! Kids aren’t just named stuff like that for no reason. It isn’t like Smith for blacksmith descendants or Baker for baker descendants. Most witches and warlocks didn’t advertise like that. So my curiosity got the better of me. But I wasn’t expecting this. I just figured you’d notice and we’d, I don’t know, go back to your house, eat some snacks, and watch Animaniacs?”

“I mean, we can still do that?” Landon asked, looking at Linda. “I don’t think we’ve missed it yet.”

“Yeah. Whatever,” Linda said, waving off the others. “Watch your cartoons. I need to make a couple of calls when I get home. Mind dropping me off on the way, Josh? I’d rather not be out on the street walking when the authorities finally get here.”

And so went Landon Hexx’s first day of school. Made a friend. Experienced normalcy. Nearly got kidnapped by a rogue faction from his former home. Watched cartoons.

Landon kinda liked it.

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