Interlude 30 – Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, and Twister

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“Now ain’t this just great? The daring duo, back together again for a reunion tour.”

On the tail of his pronouncement, Seth turned on his heels to walk backward down the damp sidewalk, long brown coat flapping a bit in the breeze as he passed in and out of the illumination cast by the flickering streetlights. Smirking, he added, “With a few additions, of course.”

It was, for certain, an eclectic group. Beyond Seth, they consisted of Asenath, the daughter of his sire and the girl he considered a sister, Namythiet, his tiny yet fierce apprentice who happened to be a pixie, her animal guardian Clubber the green sabertooth tiger cub, and Asenath’s frequent partner, the mercenary Pooka named Twister. Senny and Twister walked alongside one another, while Namythiet rode on the back of her emerald-furred companion.

In response to Seth’s words, Asenath simply gave the old vampire a brief eye roll. “First, we were never a duo. Ever. You’d have to actually care about someone besides yourself before we could be an actual duo.”

Maybe it was unfair. But the vampire girl had seen Seth walk away from people who needed help too often for her to forgive him just because he tended to be charismatic about it. If something didn’t directly affect him, he had no problem with just letting bad things happen.

Still walking backwards, Seth put a hand over his heart while adopting a look of mock pain. “Ouch. You wound me, little sister. Come on. We’re here, aren’t we? All fighting the good fight.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “because Gaia Sinclaire paid you an obscene amount of money to be here.”

The man huffed indignantly at that before his head shook as he turned back the other way. “Now, I take offense at that. As if I would’ve spent this much time on this hunk of rock and still needed cash. The lovely headmistress paid me in a couple of unique, rare artifacts, not money.”

Though it had been raining all day long in the city of Baltimore where they were walking, the storm had, for the moment at least, let up somewhat. Still, the street was relatively empty, save for the occasional passerby or two hurrying to get home before the rain started once more.

“I’m the one she paid in cash,” Twister put in, raising a hand as they passed one of those small  groups rushing for cover. “I like cash. It’s fun to roll around in. Especially if you’re naked.”

Sighing as the three random humans they had just passed did a quick double-take and immediately started whispering, Asenath lowered her voice. “Twist, seriously? Please don’t talk about rolling around naked when we’re near humans. You still look like you’re twelve at best.”

“Oh, right, sorry.” Turning that way then, Twister called to the group in the distance. “It’s okay, I’m actually almost a hundred and eight! Or three, depending on which way you count!”

Turning back, she found Senny stopped, arms outstretched in an exasperated shrug. “Why?” the vampire demanded. 

“Oh, chill,” the Pooka replied with an incorrigible grin. “Who are they gonna tell? Besides, we’ll be in and out of here before they even get home. How much further is this place, anyway?”

“We’re here!” Namythiet piped up excitedly then, flying up from her mount to hover in the air between them with a pocket notebook as tall as she was clutched in both hands. “I mean, according to Miss Gaia’s messages, it’s right over there.” She used the notebook to point toward an old, long-since closed down and boarded up video rental store across the street from them.

“Right.” Glad for the distraction, Senny stared at the building appraisingly for a moment. “We get inside, get the thing for Gaia, and get out again. Then we move on to the next one on the list.”  

The list was an extensive one. The Crossroads Headmistress was paying incredibly well for them to acquire a number of incredibly rare materials, some one-of-a-kind. Neither Senny nor any of the others knew exactly why the woman wanted them, only that she was working with someone else they hadn’t actually met on some kind of secret project that required the components. Gaia had sought them out, Twister and Asenath through Gabriel Prosser and the other two through Wonderland (the woman showing up there had caused a bit of a scene, though the fact that she had effortlessly killed the Nocen who were attacking the place at the time had helped).

“So,” Seth started while folding his arms against his chest, “same plan we talked about?”

Asenath nodded. “Go. We’ll wait for you and Namythiet to do your thing. And Seth?” She paused before sighing. “Just be careful. Gaia wouldn’t send all of us if it wasn’t dangerous.”  

“Aww.” The man gave her a sly grin at that. “See, I knew you cared about me after all.”

Opening her mouth to retort, Asenath paused before giving her head a shake. “Just go.”

Regardless of how often they disagreed, Seth had been like a brother or an uncle to her for basically the girl’s entire extensive life. And he was one of the only connections she had left to her father. She didn’t want him to die. She just wanted him to not be such an asshole so often.

“Don’t worry, Miss Senny!” Namythiet put in cheerfully as she buzzed over in front of her face. The pixie had dropped her big notebook in the pouch that Clubber was wearing like a backpack. Now, she held up what looked like an old-school classic Gameboy that had been heavily modified, with several new seemingly random components tacked onto it, including a pair of antennas sticking out of the top left and right corners, and what looked like a string of Christmas lights leading down to something inside of Clubber’s pack that kept blinking on and off.

“We’ll do our part lickity-split, and then we can all go in and kick those monsters’ butts!”

With that declaration, Namythiet and Clubber set off, with Seth following behind after giving Asenath a brief, casual salute. As they left, Twister looked to her friend. “Man, you are upset.”

“Of course, I’m upset,” the vampire girl replied while looking away. “Flick and the others are on the other side of the universe, Shiori’s losing her mind, and I can’t do anything about it. If Felicity dies out there, do you have any idea what it’ll do to Shiori? What it’ll do to…” She swallowed.

“What it’ll do to you,” Twister finished for her. “I know. She’s your friend, Senny. She’s a Heretic who actually listened to you. I mean, before we remembered that there used to be a whole revolution full of ‘em. It’s a big deal. I–shit, I’m sorry we’re still stuck here. But at least we’re doing something, right? I mean, if it’s for Sinclaire, it’s gotta be important. Even if she won’t tell us what it is.” Pausing then, she looked to Asenath pointedly. “She really didn’t tell you, huh?”

“Nope.” Senny shook her head, leaning against the nearby streetlight as she gave a small sigh. “All I know is that the things she wants us to get are important, and she can’t do it herself because of the eyes on her. Plus, if they figured out what she was going after, things might get bad. That’s why she’s got some things on the list she doesn’t actually need. Just to throw off anyone who finds out what we’re collecting and tries to figure out how it all goes together.”

“Wait.” Squinting at her then, Twister quickly demanded, “So some of this shit that we’re going to be busting our asses to get is completely useless? And we don’t even know which ones?”

“Not useless,” Asenath corrected. “Just not used for the same thing. Everything she wants us to get is useful, it’s just that they don’t all go together.” She eyed the Pooka. “Wanna back out?”

Twister elbowed her. “Of course not. I’m with you, fam, you know that. Besides…” She sighed. “I’m kinda antsy too, I guess. Might as well do something useful if we can’t get to Flick.”

With that said, she looked over to Asenath curiously. “How’s Abe doing? You check in on him?”

“Of course,” Senny replied with a cough. “I promised Flick I’d keep an eye on her dad. Just because he’s with Prosser doesn’t change that. And you know Lincoln is just his first name.”

“Sure,” the dusky-skinned girl replied, grinning at her companion. “But I like calling him Abe. It’s like our thing, you know? Especially since I can actually talk to him now, instead of barking or meowing or making whatever other animal noise happened to be appropriate at the time.”

“Or even inappropriate,” Senny pointed out with a wry look then. “He told me about the time you actually barked at him as a cat and he thought he was going crazy or something.”

Snickering a bit at the reminder, Twister gave her a thumbs up. “That was awesome. You should’ve seen his face when this sweet little stray kitty comes up and then barks at him like a Doberman. Totally worth it. Hell, I was kinda thinking about seeing how he felt about a squirrel that could roar like a lion, or a bird that mooed before he went and broke the BS effect.”

Before Asenath could respond to that, the phone in her pocket buzzed. She tugged it out and glanced that way before nodding. “Seth says the spell barrier’s down. Time to do our part.”  

“Great.” With a broad smile, Twister cracked her knuckles, then popped her neck before starting to stride that way. “I’ve been waiting to break some shit. Let’s go have some fun.”

Crossing the street, she was already starting to grow… a lot. By the time the Pooka reached the other side, she didn’t look like a little girl at all. No, she was something much, much less subtle.

Trumpeting triumphantly, the twelve-foot tall, thirteen thousand pound African elephant charged across the parking lot, slamming into and through the front entrance of the boarded up store. With an explosion of debris and the protesting shriek of shattering wood, brick, and metal, the doors (and a good portion of the entire wall) were torn through like they weren’t even there.

“Well,” Asenath muttered to herself, “if that didn’t manage to draw their attention, nothing will.”

With that, she took a breath before launching herself that way. Her figure was an indistinct blur as she fairly flew through the opening that Twister had made and into the ‘store’ proper.  

For a place that had looked as rundown from the outside as it had, the inside of the place was much better kept. And it didn’t look at all like a store, for that matter. There were heavy duty safes all along most of the walls, protected by a mixture of advanced technology and spells.

According to Gaia, this was a place where people of very… unsavory reputations kept some of their more important artifacts or valuables. They were protected by a third party, who specialized in being discreet and in keeping their client’s belongings both private and safe from thieves.

Well, they were about to get a bit of a ding against their reputation. As she sprinted into the room, Senny saw about a dozen men in the midst of jerking up from the table in the middle of the room where they had been playing some kind of card game. The majority were at least mostly humanoid-looking at first glance, though the one at the end looked like an anthropomorphic rhino in a rhinestone-covered sweatsuit and gold chains. Several of the others, meanwhile, had different colored skin, too many or too few eyes, or other small reminders that they weren’t actually human. And all of them were packing weapons of one kind or another.  

Two of the men in particular, both of them with enhanced speed and reflexes that almost rivaled Asenath’s, already had some kind of advanced, deadly-looking rifles raised and pointed at the elephant, their fingers starting to pull the triggers as they sighted in on the obvious threat.    

Shooting across the room in another blur of motion, Senny caught one of the rifles by the barrel, shoving it aside before lashing out with a kick at the table itself. The gun in her hand went off with a blinding flash, sending a red laser through one of the other rising men and the nearby wall. Meanwhile, the table itself was flung up and back to slam into the other gunman, knocking him aside just as he pulled the trigger so that his shot went up through the ceiling.

From the corner of her eye, Senny saw one of the other men disappear into the floor, clearly running to call for help. Another turned into a gaseous cloud, while a third grew a foot and a half in an instant, sprouting four new hairy arms and disgusting mandibles. Great. A were-spider. Those were always fun to deal with.

Twister had grabbed one of the men in her trunk, literally throwing him out of the building and across the street with a panicked scream before he hit the wall of the distant apartment building.

The rhino-man batted the overturned table out of his way before lunging toward the big target that Twister represented. Unfortunately for him, that target abruptly wasn’t so big. Twister instantly shifted from elephant down to a tiny chipmunk, and rhino-man stumbled in confusion.

With a cocky chittering sound, the little chipmunk raced up the man’s leg, over his back, and perched right on top of his head.

Then she turned into an elephant again, her mass filling the room and knocking several aside just as they had started to move through that space, and squished the rhino beneath herself.

Chaos filled the relatively small room. Senny and Twister had the element of surprise, since these guys had been relying heavily on their magical warning system that Seth and Namythiet had taken down (the former with his special knife, while the pixie used her technological prowess to make sure that the people inside hadn’t been sent any kind of alert about it). But they still weren’t exactly helpless. And there would be reinforcements coming any minute. If Asenath and the others were going to get away with what they needed, they had to be quick.

To that end, Asenath yanked the rifle out of the first man’s hands, tucking it against one shoulder and pulled the trigger while taking aim at the next threat. Nothing happened, save for a rebukeful buzz. Which meant that the person in charge of these goons was clearly smart enough to make sure that only they could use their weapons, rather than an outsider. Terrific.

Oh well, it could still be used as a club. Flipping the gun around, she hurled it into the next man’s face instead, before twisting aside as one of the other guards swung a sword at her. As the blade cut through the air an inch from her face, Senny stepped in and pivoted to catch the man’s outstretched arm. She heaved, throwing him over her shoulder while stripping the weapon from his grasp. They might not be able to utilize the guns, but a sword she could use.

Or not, as the sword immediately shocked her as she grasped the hilt, open electricity playing over it. She was forced to drop the thing quickly, grimacing. Yeah, whoever was behind these guys had a real thing about stopping intruders from using their own people’s weapons against them. Smart. Annoying, but smart.

The gas-figure flowed around and in front of her, turning solid just as he grabbed her arms to yank them out of the way. Holding her wrists tightly, the exceedingly pale red-haired man sneered at her. “I know you,” he hissed. “You’re the human-loving vampire. You’ve got no–”

She slammed her forehead into his face. As the man recoiled and reflexively turned to smoke once more, Asenath’s foot found the sword from earlier, kicking it up into her hand. She grabbed it, thrusting the weapon forward and through the smoke-figure, ending all the way up to her wrists in the man-shaped cloud.

He started to laugh, then saw the vampire girl’s face. She was smiling at him, baring her teeth just as the sword’s safety measure kicked in. Electricity shot out over the hilt of the sword. Senny jerked and spasmed a bit as the shock flooded into her hands. But that same electricity also went through the smoke-figure, which was enough to shock him back into his physical form. A physical form that happened to have the sword and Asenath’s still-twitching hands buried right in the middle of it.

Releasing the sword with a cry, she let the dead man collapse to the ground while seeking the next threat. Twister had taken a cue from her earlier opponent, turning into an enormous rhino while dealing with the werespider, who kept trying to poison her, spitting acid while backing up.

But they still had trouble. Only about half of the original guards were down, and Senny could hear a handful of trucks tearing down the street toward them. The reinforcements.

“It’s blown, it’s blown!” she called to the other girl, taking the time to grab the table and throw it at the remaining men before pivoting to book it back out through the same hole that they had come in.

Twister was right on her heels, shifting form into a horse in time for Senny to grab on and haul herself up in one smooth motion. Then they were tearing across the parking lot, shots from the surprised guards coming entirely too close for comfort. Distantly as they crossed the street, Senny heard the trucks screeching around the last corner before the men who were already there shouted instructions.

They kept running. Senny clung to Twister’s neck as the horse raced through alleys and along side-streets before abruptly shapeshifting once more. Now, instead of riding a horse, Senny was clutching onto an enormous gorilla as it leapt at the nearest building, climbing rapidly.

They reached the roof, and Asenath hopped off, brushing her hands off as she exhaled.  

“Well,” Seth announced as he emerged from the nearby access door into the building, “you cut that one pretty close. We barely had time to get into the basement and deal with the punks down there.”

Ignoring his complaint, Senny asked, “You got it, though?”

“We got it!” Namythiet confirmed triumphantly. She was hovering above Clubber, as the green saber-tooth trotted forward happily with a leather bag dangling from his mouth.

Seth winked, gesturing in agreement. “‘Course we got it. Thanks for keeping all the boys upstairs busy. Could’ve been messy if they figured out someone was going after the real good stuff in the cellar.” Nodding with his chin then, he added, “Why do you suppose Sinclaire needs it? And who the hell is she working with on this?”  

Reaching down to take the bag from Clubber before giving him an affectionate rub, Senny straightened with a shake of her head. “I don’t know,” she replied simply while shaking the contents out into her palm. For a moment, she just stared at the small, off-white object in her hand. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” the girl murmured thoughtfully, “if this bit of dragon bone is just the first ingredient for whatever her plan is…

“It’s gonna be a doozy.”

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Rendezvous 30-05

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“Why did he do it? How long was he planning it? Was he in contact with the Seosten? Was he another shapeshifter, like the one who took over Paul? Were any of the others involved?”

Sands’s voice was a droning sound in the background as I gazed through the viewport of the room that I had taken to sleep in. The view was, I was sure, spectacular with the gorgeous starfield stretched out before us. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t focus on it. I just stared through the window, or video screen, whichever it was, without actually seeing any of what I was looking at.

“I don’t know,” I answered quietly, my voice sounding hoarse even to myself. Even now, a full day after what had happened, I couldn’t comprehend it. I couldn’t understand it. It had taken all this time just to get things stabilized, just to get the wounded the care they needed and to… to clean out the… bodies. The bodies of the people we had been trying to protect, the people we had saved, before Isaac… Bile rose up in my throat, and I had to take three quick steps to the thing that we had figured out was a trash incinerator. The foot-wide hatch at about waist height slid open as I leaned over to throw up in it. It wasn’t the first time, and wouldn’t be the last.

Sands was there, hand on my back as she helped me straighten up once more afterward. Her voice was soft. “Sorry. I–I’m sorry. I was just thinking out loud. I just–I’m trying to figure it out.”

“We all are,” I replied quietly, wiping my mouth as my head shook. “I just… we didn’t know. We just–” Taking a breath, I turned to look at the other girl. She looked as lost as I felt. “They didn’t know. Jazz and Gordon, they didn’t know any of it. I know that much. He would’ve killed them if it wasn’t–” My voice caught a little bit and I had to look away. “If it wasn’t for Professor Katarin.”

Sands gave a quick nod. “I know, I know they don’t. I-I saw them. I just…” Trailing off, she shook her head slowly while closing her eyes. I saw a couple tears. “They died. He died. Professor Katarin, all those innocent… we saved them, Flick.” Eyes opening then, Sands looked to me pleadingly. “We saved them, they were free, and now–now so many of them are just… dead.”

Swallowing hard, I stepped over and wrapped my arms around the other girl tightly, hugging her. “I know,” I whispered hoarsely, barely able to speak through my own tears as the memory of the day before grew overwhelming yet again. Anything else that I’d been trying to say was swallowed by my grief, and it was all I could do to simply stand there embracing the other girl.

We were still standing there like that as the door slid open with a smooth whoosh, revealing Larissa. The woman looked tired, standing there with one hand on the doorframe. “Girls,” she whispered. Her mouth opened like she was going to ask us how we were feeling, but no words came out. In the end, all she did was move over to where we were, pulling both of us to her.

I didn’t know how long the three of us stood there like that, and it wasn’t the first time that it had happened since everything went wrong. But we all needed it. I held on as tight as I could, shivering as I fought to avoid thinking about those moments. It had been such a short time, not even a full minute. Yet the screams, the sight of those lasers, the… it would stick with me for my entire life. As would the look on Isaac’s face as he had given me that thumbs up in the middle of it. That look… it was the look of evil, the look of a complete and total, irredeemable psychopath.

Releasing the two of us, Larissa gestured to the door. Whatever she did created a dark green forcefield over it. Then she nodded to me. “Tabbris, sweetie, would you come out? It’s safe.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation from the Seosten girl, and I quickly gave her a silent bit of inward encouragement. It’s okay, Tabs, I thought to her, go ahead. We’re still right here.

So, she did, stepping out of me in a brief display of energy and light before it faded to show the girl herself there. She stood for only a second before Larissa picked her up from the floor, pulling her into an embrace. “Hi there, brave girl,” she whispered while holding Tabbris close to her chest. The other girl wrapped her arms and legs around her, holding tight to Larissa.

If Sands was jealous, she didn’t show it. Instead, she just gave me a brief look before stepping that way to embrace both her mother and Tabbris, just like when she’d first met the Seosten girl.

And this time, I joined in, moving to hug onto the others. My little partner was squished between the three of us. But she didn’t seem to mind. I heard her make a soft noise of surprise, head lifting to glance over her shoulder to me with eyes that were wise beyond her years. Then she closed them before lowering her head to Larissa’s shoulder once more, giving a soft murmur.

It wasn’t the first time that Tabbris had been out since everything happened. The night before, when I had finally tried to sleep (or at least rest some) we’d locked the door and set up an alert spell that would tell us if anyone came near. Then Tabbris had stepped out of me and the two of us had simply cuddled in bed like that, with the younger girl tucked in against me as I held onto her. Maybe it was a little bit of a risk regardless of our precautions, but it had been something we’d both desperately needed. I wasn’t sure that I would’ve been able to sleep at all otherwise. After everything that had happened, everything that the two of us had seen, we just needed it.

Eventually, Tabbris whispered something about being tired. She gave Larissa one more squeeze before reaching out to me. As I took her hand, she disappeared once more. I ‘felt’ her resume her place inside me, her presence by that point as reassuring as a warm blanket.

“Come on, girls,” Larissa finally announced while giving us one more squeeze. Her voice was tender as she stepped back, gesturing to the door.  “I know it’s hard, but you need to eat.”

“Eat?” Sands blanched visibly, head shaking. “How are we supposed to eat anything, when… when…” Squeezing her eyes shut, she shuddered. “How many, Mom? How many died?”  

“Fifty-seven,” the woman answered quietly, “counting Ulysses. Thirty-one males, twenty females, and six that count as ‘other’ or both.” As much as she was clearly trying to keep her voice steady and clinical as she answered, I could still hear the utter horror and sadness in it.   

Fifty-seven people. I wanted to collapse. My knees shook, and I had to reach out to grab the nearby wall so that I wouldn’t fall. The bile in my throat was back. “They trusted us,” I managed, my own voice sounding hollow and brittle. “They trusted us to protect them, to… to help them.”

“Oh, baby.” Larissa reached out, her hand gently brushing through my hair the way I remembered my own mother doing back when I was a little girl. “You did. You did help them.”

“Not enough.” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. Not that I tried that hard. “Not nearly enough.” Shaking my head, I looked over to the woman, trying to push down the worst of those feelings as I shakily announced, “They didn’t have to die. They shouldn’t have died.”

“You’re right,” the woman agreed quietly. “They shouldn’t have. But it’s not your fault. You understand? That goes for both of you, all three of you. Sandy, Flick, Tabbris, it’s not your fault.”

As much as I consciously understood that, and knew that the others did too, it was going to take a lot more time before I emotionally accepted it. Still, I found myself giving a little nod. There was more I wanted to say, more I wanted to ask about what had happened. But it was a conversation that was better had with the others. So I just asked, “How are… the others doing?”

She nodded over her shoulder. “Let’s go find out. Haiden’s bringing them out to get food too. They’ve been… just as broken as you guys are about the whole thing. Probably even worse.”

That wouldn’t surprise me. Isaac had been their teammate, even Roxa’s for a couple months. The idea that he could possibly do… what he’d done, that it had been him doing it, had probably destroyed them in a lot of ways. It had been bad enough realizing what Columbus had done, and he had been possessed at the time. This? This had been Isaac’s choice. Just Isaac.

Together, we left the room and made our way down the corridor to the room that had apparently been the mess hall. It was connected to a small kitchen that had obviously been meant for the ship’s officers to use, and there were several tables set up in there. There had been enough food stored for what had obviously been a relatively small complement of crew to eat well for a couple months. Which meant that it was rapidly dwindling with the number of people we had.

The hatch whooshed open at our approach, revealing Jazz and Gordon sitting at one of the tables. Roxa was standing nearby with her arms folded, head down. Through the open doorway that led into the actual kitchen, I could see Haiden. From the smell, he was cooking some meat.

As we stepped into the room, Jazz glanced up. Her face instantly crumpled, and she looked like all she wanted to do was crawl into a hole. Instead, she pushed herself up, stepping away from the table. When the girl spoke, her voice cracked. “I’m sorry,” she whispered a bit brokenly. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t know.” Desperate tears filled her eyes. “I swear, I swear we didn’t know.”

Without hesitating, I took a few steps that way and embraced the other girl. I had barely known her before all this happened, but after everything… she needed it. “I know,” I announced while hugging her tightly. “We know, Jazz. I promise. We don’t blame you. We don’t blame you at all.”

She resisted at first, clearly surprised before slumping a little against me. I had a feeling she had slept even worse than I had, and she actually needed a lot more rest to begin with. When she spoke again, the girl’s voice sounded even more broken than before. “Maybe you should.”

Larissa took over for me, pulling Jazz into another hug while shaking her head. “Oh, sweetie, no. No, it’s not your fault. We didn’t… none of us understood. None of us knew what he was…” She trailed off, giving a little sigh then before simply hugging her as she repeated, “It is not your fault. It is not your fault.”

“She’s right,” Haiden confirmed while coming out of the kitchen area with a large tray. “Now fuel up. I want to see everyone eating something, okay? It might be hard to keep down, but try. Your bodies need it.”

Numbly, I found a seat while the man put down the tray full of plates of various bits of food. Hesitantly, I reached out to pick up what we had been calling forks ever since we found them. Except these pseudo-forks had six metal tines all arranged in a small circle, and when the ‘fork’ reached your lips, this little tube thing would come up the center to push the food off the tines and into your mouth. With a sigh, I took one of the plates and mechanically started to put food on it. Haiden and Larissa were right, we needed fuel. Even if the thought of eating did make me want to throw up.

“From what we’ve been able to piece together,” the man explained once he was satisfied that everyone was at least trying to eat, “Isaac managed to upgrade the drones for his weapon so that they would fly the ship, and operate the weapons while he was… indisposed by the Heretic kill-reaction. Essentially, they were operating on auto-pilot, targeting anything that moved while following preset instructions about getting the ship away.”

“And now he’s gone,” I muttered under my breath a bit darkly, setting my pseudo-fork down with a heavy sigh. “With that ship in all this space, literally? We’ll never find that son of a bitch.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Larissa intoned quietly, giving Haiden a quick look before the two of them nodded to each other. Then she continued. “We may not be able to teleport to the Liberty Bell, but we do have ways to track it. As long as he keeps the ship, we can find him.”

“And we will,” Haiden added. “As soon as we take you guys and the rest of these Alters to a safe location, we’ll go get him. I promise, he’s not getting away with any of this.”

My mouth opened to say something to that, but Jazz beat me to the punch. “Screw that,” she blurted. “He’s our teammate. Was our teammate. After what he did, after everyone he–” she caught herself then, blanching before giving a violent shake of her head. “You think we’re just gonna sit on our asses somewhere ‘safe’? We owe that son of a bitch. We fucking owe him.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Larissa objected, head shaking quickly then. “Listen to me, guys, I understand. We understand how you feel. None of us know why Isaac did what he did, and I know you want payback. But he’s even more of a threat than he already was. After… after all those kills, with all that power he absorbed, we have no idea what he might be able to do now.”

“He’s unpredictable,” Haiden agreed with a soft voice, “in every single sense of the word. And,” he added a bit pointedly, “we have no idea who else might be with him when we do catch up. We don’t know whether he’s going to the Seosten, or just running. But my gut says he’s going to someone. Like I said, most of those shots from the ship were just automatic. But that first one was purposeful. That was the one that actually mattered to him. He was trying to kill Ulysses.”   

Gordon spoke then. Even his eternal calm voice sounded shaken by everything that had happened. “And the only reason to do that would be if he really didn’t want us to hear what Professor Katarin had to say about who this Manakel guy was possessing back at Crossroads.”

“Because he didn’t want Manakel to be taken,” Roxa put in. “Probably because it would’ve exposed… oh.” Her eyes widened with realization at the same time as I felt my own gut sink.

“He killed Paul.” Jazz’s voice was quiet. There was no shock there. I was pretty sure she’d come to the same conclusion earlier. “Isaac killed Paul. That’s how they replaced him. He killed him.”

Sands straightened, glancing to me quickly before speaking. “Which means he probably knows who Manakel is possessing. At least, he might, right?” A tiny bit of hope had crept into the other girl’s voice. “Which means, if we can get his fucking psycho ass back here and make him talk–”

“We might be able to find out the truth, even… without Ulysses,” Larissa agreed quietly. I could tell that this was a conversation she and Haiden had already had without us. “Which is why we have to do this right. We have to get him, and get out of there without losing anyone else.”

“But that’s why we need to be there,” I pointed out, unable to keep silent anymore. “I mean, yeah, it’s personal. But it’s also smart. I mean, look, you wanna grab Isaac so we can make him talk, right? Well, you said yourself there’s no way to know who else will be there. What if Radueriel is there, or one of the other powerful Seosten? What if there’s a whole army? You guys are a hell of a lot stronger and better than we are, for sure. But there’s a reason even the strongest generals use other people too. If you take us, and let us focus on the smaller threats, the ones that could distract you at the wrong time, you can focus on actually getting to Isaac.”

Larissa’s mouth opened, but Haiden coughed. “They’ve got a point,” he muttered, looking to me briefly before nodding. “If Radueriel’s there, we’re gonna need to focus on him. And if he is there, or any of his… comrades, you know they’ll kill Isaac before they let us take him. Especially if he actually has the info we need. They’ll take his head off the second it looks like we might get away with the little bastard. And if it’s just you, me,  and maybe Dries? I… I don’t know if we could stop them in time. Getting Isaac and getting out of there with him alive is gonna require a little help.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “And besides, I can possess the fucking psychopath. Get me close enough to touch him, and I’ll let you every single secret he’s got.”

“Unless he’s affected by the same spell that stopped you from getting the info out of Professor Katarin the same way,” Gordon pointed out simply.

I shrugged at that. “In that case, we’ll just have to drag him back here and have Dries use the same spell he was going to use before, only on Isaac. Either way, we’ll get what we need, whether he likes it or not.”

“And we want to help,” Jazz put in. She was looking to the two adults pleadingly. “Please. Please. We need to help. After… after what happened, we can’t just sit here. We can’t just sit on our thumbs. I promise, we’ll do what you say, we’ll follow orders. But don’t just make us sit out. Let us help.”

Haiden and Larissa exchanged a long look, and I was pretty sure they were communicating silently somehow. Finally, the woman slumped a little, heaving a sigh. “Okay,” she announced softly. “Okay, you can help. But we’re holding you to that. You do what you’re told. And we’re going to prepare emergency exit spells. The second we’ve got Isaac from wherever he is, you hit those spells and withdraw, got it? We get him, and get the hell out of there.”

They waited until we all audibly agreed, before Haiden nodded. “Okay then. First, we drop our friends off somewhere… as close to safe as we can manage. Then we go after that little psycho.”

Wherever you are, Isaac, I thought to myself, we’re going to find you. You aren’t getting away with it. You’re going to pay for everything you did, pay for everyone you killed. I swear to God.

You’ll fucking pay.

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Rendezvous 30-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focused on Jophiel and Elisabet (with a lot of information about the Seosten in general) posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“You what?” The words accompanied a sudden rush of movement as I was yanked up from the ground. Professor Katarin had me by both arms, holding up to his eye level. Which, considering how tall he was, left my feet dangling in open air. “Would you mind repeating that?” he rumbled, the eagerness in his voice making him sound almost more like a kid in a candy store than the giant drill sergeant-like combat instructor I knew him as.

It was later that same day, and I was taking the chance to talk to Katarin about what had happened, as well as try to get past that damn memory spell.

“Um.” Dangling there, I gave as much of a shrug as I could with my arms held like that. “It was really Columbus blasting her when he did. That was what really made the difference. I just…”

“You followed up,” the man finished for me. “You took the opening and didn’t let her get away. Say it, Chambers. Let me hear those words one more time.”

“I… killed Charmiene?” I managed, blushing a little. “But like I said, I–hhhrrrk.” That last bit was because the man was hugging me. Hugging me so tightly I couldn’t breathe for a second.

“You followed instructions!” he announced after finally relenting a bit. Holding me out in front of him once more, he beamed the same way my own father had the day I’d first managed to ride a bike without training wheels. “You didn’t let up, you saw an opening and you took it! You see? You see? Doesn’t matter how strong they are, you wait for the right opening, don’t hesitate, and…” He just smiled broadly and proudly.

“Like… like I said,” I mumbled self-consciously, “Columbus deserves most of the credit. So, make sure you talk to him as soon as we get back, okay?”

Finally setting me down on the deck of the cargo bay (we were on the far end from where the refugee Alter camp was, for some privacy), Professor Katarin winked. “Oh, believe me, I’ll make sure Porter gets all the accolades he deserves, if it hasn’t happened yet. But you keep that up. You see these openings, you go for them. Got it, Chambers?”

Biting my lip, I nodded before hesitantly asking, “I… I never really got to ask you what you thought of my… my mother.”

His expression softened then. “I… didn’t have a lot of personal experience with Joselyn, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t a teacher when she was a student. So I don’t have a lot of personal anecdotes or anything. What I can tell you is that, from everything I know, your mom’s an incredible woman. And I knew her parents. Or at least… I think I did.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I met her father, Joshua, before the Fomorians were kicked off Earth. And I’m pretty sure I met her mother too, but…”

“The censor spell thing,” I finished for him. “The one that erased my grandmother from everyone’s memory?”

He nodded. “Kind of makes everything fuzzy. I’m almost positive that we met. I think she was one of the people who saved me. But…” His head shook. “Sorry. It’s just not there.”

“It’s okay,” I replied. “But speaking of things being hard to remember…”

“Right.” Straightening up, Professor Katarin cracked his neck twice before nodding to me. “Disabled the possession defense a few minutes ago. Which, let me tell you, makes me feel really uncomfortable out here. So let’s get this done, huh?”

Yeah, we were going to try to bypass that memory-erasure spell that was stopping us from remembering what Katarin knew about Manakel’s host by having me possess him and look for the memory that way. He didn’t know about Tabbris (As much as I trusted him, I was still keeping her existence as secret as humanly possible), but she would be quietly helping too.  

“Yes, sir,” I replied quickly. “And um, I promise to be as quick as possible and… not to go rummaging too much. Thanks for trusting me with this.”

With that, I took the man’s hand and focused on possessing him. A moment later, I felt much taller and a lot stronger. Seeing through Professor Katarin’s eyes, I took a second to collect myself from the disorienting feeling.

“Chambers?” He spoke out loud. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, Professor,” the man’s voice spoke again, and I belatedly realized that I had made him reply out loud. “Err–”

Sorry, sir, I switched to internal conversation. You can think at me if you want. I mean, I can kind of hear your thoughts too, but you can make it a conversation if you just sort of purposefully think in my direction.

I’m going to think the identity of Manakel’s host to you, the big man’s voice came into my head. Ready? And…

I waited. Waited another moment. Then, out of pure desperate hope, I waited a little more. But in the end, all I could do was sigh. Well, that didn’t work. Um. Let me try looking for it myself. What were you doing when you found out?

Walking through the jungle, he replied. I thought that I saw….

You thought that you saw what? I–oh. I sighed inwardly. It won’t let me know who you thought you saw, because that’s the person that’s possessed. Great. This memory spell is seriously annoying, Professor.

We kept going like that for another twenty minutes, trying to come after it from every angle we could think of. We tried getting me to see his memory, and even tried having Professor Katarin think about every person it wasn’t so that I could fill in the blanks. It didn’t work. Even Tabbris couldn’t figure out how to get past it. The moment I had the idea of who it could be, the spell erased everything. Basically, Katarin would think every wrong name at me, and the second it was obvious who he wasn’t thinking about, every name he’d already thought at me would disappear. The spell would not allow us to get the name even indirectly.

It was, as I had already said, seriously annoying.

Finally, I stepped out of the man, shaking my head. “Sorry, Professor,” I mumbled.

“Not your fault,” he assured me, rolling his arms back and forth now that he had control of them once more. “And like we said, don’t count us out yet. Dries has some idea about breaking through it with help.

“Yeah…” I mumbled, glancing down while frowning. “I just hope it works.

“I really, really hope it works.”

******

“You really have no idea what this anti-possession thing that your wife put into her vault was?”

It was the next day, and I couldn’t quite keep the disappointment out of my voice as I stood next to Dries on the Liberty Bell, watching the Alter camp through the open hatch.

In the distance, I could see most of them sitting attentively in a large circle, watching Katarin as the man led them through some basic self-defense instructions. He’d basically jumped right back into teaching just like before. Not only was the man offering to help any of the Alters here learn how to protect themselves, he’d also insisted on having all of us students run through regular exercises and combat training as if we were still at Crossroads. Avalon would approve.

Dries gave a slight shake of his head at my question. The thin man’s voice was still rough and hoarse. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I think Liesje started her work after I was imprisoned.” As he spoke, the fingers of his left hand scratched at his beard while the fingers of his right hand rubbed his left wrist. Occasionally, he would bite his knuckles or look around suddenly.

Biting my lip, I hesitated before starting slowly, “I know this might be a little, um, forward, but–”

“–Why did I kill Hieronymus?” Dries finished for me. He was looking away, watching the Alters with Katarin. Rather than answer, he said, “They told me about you, about your mother and what she did. What she tried to do. They told me about the rebellion and everything that happened.”

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I just watched the man silently, letting him go on at his own pace.

Eventually, he did, lowering his head a little to look at the floor while speaking quietly. “Liesje and… and I, we knew something was wrong with her father. We knew something was wrong with Hieronymus. Eventually, we found out he was–” Swallowing hard, Dries jerked a little, twitching to look over his shoulder as if he had heard something. He stared at the empty ship behind us for a long moment before continuing. “We found out he was possessed, that… that he wasn’t this genius inventor, that it was really a Seosten behind everything.

“Liesje, she confronted him. Tried to force the Seosten out of her father. It–” Again, he hesitated. This was clearly hard for him to remember, let alone talk about. “It didn’t go well. The Seosten would have killed her, would have killed her with her own father’s hand. I couldn’t–I didn’t have a choice. I had to save her. I had to save her, so I just- there was so much blood and–and I…”

Quickly, I shook my head. “It’s–it’s okay, you don’t have to go on. I get the picture. But why did they keep you alive after that? Larissa said that they found you imprisoned in a tower and had to go through all this stuff to break the spell that was holding you there. Why did the Seosten go through all that instead of just killing you, or possessing you for their war with the Fomorians?”

Twitching a little, the man responded, “They need me alive. Something… something they did to Hieronymus. I don’t know, still don’t know. Something they did to him that had to do with the Reaper, the one that gives Bosch Heretics their power. They did something to Hieronymus, and when I killed him, I inherited it. So they need me alive. I don’t… I don’t know more than that. Just that they need me alive, but don’t really care what condition I’m in. It’s been so long since they shut me up in that tower, I just… I don’t know.”

I blinked at that. Why would the Seosten need him alive? What could they have done to Hieronymus that had been passed to Dries when he killed the man? And why wouldn’t they just kill him in order to pass it on to someone else? Clearly, we were missing something important.

Do you know anything about what he’s talking about? I asked Tabbris curiously.

I could sense her confusion and uncertainty as she quickly replied, Nuh uh. Mama never mentioned anything about it. Maybe… maybe she didn’t know about it. Or maybe she just didn’t think that it would, you know, um, come up? She didn’t have time to tell me everything, I mean–

It’s okay, Tabbris, I assured her hurriedly. I know. The fact that she told you as much as she did is still really impressive. It’s okay if she couldn’t give you every answer. We’ll figure it out.

Deciding to change the subject then, I asked, “But you can really break the spell that’s stopping Professor Katarin from telling us who Manakel is possessing?”

His head gave a quick jerk of a nod. “Yes. We couldn’t before, because we didn’t have enough power. But with you… you students and all those people out there supplying power, we can do it. It’s uh, it’s not elegant, but I can break it. Just needed more power.”

“Right.” I nodded then. “Well, they’ve been collecting energy from volunteers ever since you guys arrived. Last I heard, they’ll be ready for it tomorrow.”

The man gave a little crooked smile then, the awkwardness of it making it obvious that it was not an expression he was accustomed to making. “Then tomorrow we will break the spell.”

A motion caught my eye then, and I looked out through the open hatch to see Professor Katarin waving me over. He already had the others with him, though Isaac was wrist deep in one of his drones. The boy had been obsessively working on them pretty much since we’d left the planet, and especially over the past day since Katarin, Dries, and Haiden had shown up. I had tried to get him to tell me what he was doing, but he insisted it was a surprise and that I would be, to quote, ‘so fucking surprised.’ Honestly, I just hoped he didn’t end up blowing himself up. Or us.

“Oh,” I started while straightening. “Looks like I’ve gotta go work with the others. Do you, uh…” I looked over to Dries, who was already shrinking back from the open hatch. No. He wouldn’t be coming out with me. The man did not do well around crowds. He was barely functional enough with just the few of us all together. Situations like this, where we were one-on-one, were better.

“Never mind,” I quickly put in, giving him a smile. “I’ll be back later. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Thank… thank you,” the man hesitantly spoke. “And… next time, maybe you could tell me a little bit more… about the girl.” His eyes raised to look at me, and I saw the shielded hope there.

“Avalon,” I murmured, nodding quickly. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell you anything you wanna know.”

With that, I hopped through the open hatch and headed down the ramp to join the others. On the way, the hatch behind me closed, leaving Dries alone again.

Honestly, I really hoped that we could get the man back with us. Because I kind of had the feeling that he needed Avalon as much as, if not more than, she needed him. It seemed like they really could help each other through a lot of their issues. They both needed family.

All we had to do was get everyone back to Earth in one piece.

******

“Hey guys!” I called while stepping up onto the Liberty Bell the next day. As Isaac, Roxa, Jazz, and Professor Katarin looked up from where the man had been teaching the other two something about the ship, I waved. “They’ve got the stuff all ready to get rid of that spell.”

“Great,” Roxa announced, jumping to her feet before reaching down to pull Isaac up. “Let’s do this.”

“How is Dries doing?” Katarin asked, hitting a button with his closed fist to turn off the console that he had been using. “I haven’t seen that guy leave this ship since we got him onto it.”

Yeah, there hadn’t been enough open space on this ship to set up the spell. It had taken a little prompting and a lot of patience, but Dries had slowly, gradually made his way off the ship. They had to set up a private little temporary corridor for him with Sands’ construction mace and some other powers so that he didn’t have to be right out in the open with all those other people, but he made it.

I had seen the shame on Dries’ face, his agony that he couldn’t stand to be around people. He fought it, had tried for the past couple days (and probably long before then) to get over it. Yet, as powerful and knowledgeable as the man clearly was, the simple act of standing in a room surrounded by others was too much for him. After everything that had happened, after he had spent hundreds of years trapped in a tower, he couldn’t do it. His agoraphobia was too encompassing and powerful.

“He’s… doing a little better,” I confirmed with a nod. “Once they got him in that other room away from the cargo bay, he started opening up a little bit. And he said it’s all ready to go.”

“Well,” Professor Katarin gestured while starting to move. “Let’s go, then.” The man paused on his way past, clapping me on the shoulder. “I heard you spent some time with him yesterday, Chambers, that you talked with him about Avalon. Good. He uh… he’s been through a lot. Keep doing that, okay? He might not always show it, but he really wants to know about her.”

He was right. Even in the short conversation that I’d had with Dries the day before, telling him about how I’d met Avalon, I had been able to tell that he needed it. He had been like a dying man in the desert, desperate for even a drop of information about his descendant, his family.

Avalon’s family. I still couldn’t believe that was a thing. When we got back home, she would meet her ancestor, a male blood relative who actually wanted to know her.

Professor Katarin moved on, heading down the ramp while Gordon, Roxa, and Jazz followed suit. They seemed just as impatient and excited as I was to finally deal with this spell and learn the truth.

“So it’s really that simple?” Isaac asked curiously from behind me then. “We just use the spell and Katarin’ll be able to tell us who the big bad guy’s possessing?”

I nodded, pausing in the hatchway to look back at the boy while the others finished stepping down. “That’s what they sa–oh hey, looks like one of your buddies doesn’t wanna leave.” I gestured past the boy to where one of the orb-shaped drones from the boy’s flail was hovering next to one of the ship consoles. “You think he’s got a hot girlfriend or some–wait.” In the middle of my joke, I saw the screen itself. It looked like a view of the cargo bay behind me, with targeting reticles. “What’s that thing doi–”

That was as far as I got before Tabbris screamed a warning in my head. I felt my body jerking backward as she took control, but it wasn’t fast enough. A sledgehammer blow took my breath away as Isaac’s suddenly metal-covered foot slammed into my chest. I was sent flying off the ramp, crying out in surprise as I hit the deck hard, rolling onto my side. I couldn’t breathe for a moment. I couldn’t even think. The strength behind the kick, it felt like he’d broken a couple ribs, at least.

Even as I hit the floor, a deafening, high-pitched shriek of power filled the air, and a blinding green light shot over my head. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see an emerald laser as wide around as my body literally vaporize three Alters who happened to be standing in its way. One instant they were there, and the next, they were gone. Dead. Atomized.  

But the laser didn’t stop there. Everything seemed to slow down dramatically, as my horrified gaze took in the sight of Katarin surrounded by the others. I saw the man’s eyes as the enormous ship-powered laser shot directly at them. He had half a second to react. And he reacted by throwing both arms out. An invisible force picked up Jazz, Roxa, and Gordon, hurtling them away. In that instant, Katarin’s immediate action saved all of their lives.

But he paid for it with his own. Unable to protect himself, the laser ripped through the big man, burning half his body away just like that. The remains were charred and burned beyond recognition, blown apart by the incredible force and heat of the laser cannon.

I saw Professor Katarin die. I saw his realization that it was going to happen, and that his first and only reaction had been to save his students. He could have thrown himself out of the way or done anything whatsoever to protect himself, or he could focus on saving them. In that brief, tiny window, he chose the latter. He sacrificed himself to save their lives. In my head, I heard Tabbris scream, her own terrified cry of shock and horror matching my own.

Behind me, a moan of pleasure reached my ears. My head jerked back that way in time to see Isaac. Isaac, the traitorous, murderous, fucking evil piece of shit who had just murdered three Alters and Professor Katarin, was all-but collapsed there in the hatchway, his orange kill-aura glowing almost blindingly bright. He gave me a thumbs up then, winking just as the hatch whooshed closed, cutting us off from each other.

Why? Why, why, why?! Why was he doing this?! What the hell?! Was he possessed? Had we missed something? Was Isaac actually possessed and I’d somehow missed it? Had another Seosten managed to get on the ship somehow? No. No, I knew that wasn’t it. It couldn’t be, because I knew Roxa was wearing the choker. She had been wearing the choker when she helped Isaac to his feet just a minute earlier, and she had said nothing about him being possessed. Which meant that he couldn’t be. So what the hell was going on?! What… what…

An instant later, a glowing blue forcefield appeared around the smaller ship. The shield. He’d activated the shield, or one of his drones had, more likely. Which meant that no one could teleport onto the Liberty Bell. No one could stop what was about to happen, what was about to keep happening.

Because the ship wasn’t done firing. Lifting off its landing struts, more of its cannons finished popping up into place. And they all opened up. Blinding emerald lasers flooded the cargo bay. I saw three, four, five more Alters torn through. Alters who should have been safe. Alters who were supposed to be free and protected now were suddenly gone. Dead. Murdered by Isaac, an Isaac who wasn’t possessed. No one was forcing Isaac to do this. He just… was.

Chaos reigned. More blinding shots from the ship’s cannons filled the cargo bay. I saw one heading straight for Karees. Karees! My mouth opened to scream a warning, knowing it was too late.

Except, while it was too late for me, it wasn’t too late for Jazz. The other girl literally slammed into the tree-man, knocking him to the ground. An instant later, that laser tore through the girl… except she had turned into her mist-form. I saw her turn, staring at the ship with a look of complete horror, mouth open as she screamed a name. Isaac. She was screaming Isaac’s name, a look of rage overtaking her face.

I pushed myself up then, ignoring the pain in my ribs, only to be knocked to the floor once more as Sands came out of nowhere, tackling me to the ground an instant before another massive laser tore through the air where I had just been. I felt the heat of it burn part of my skin.

Sweeping her mace up as we landed, Sands created a short wall. It didn’t matter. The next shot from the ship’s cannon tore through it like it wasn’t even there. We had to move!

Getting my staff out, I grabbed Sands, wrapping an arm around the girl while pointing the staff backward. Lying there on my side, I triggered the boost, sending both of us rocketing along the floor. An instant later, three more laser shots utterly destroyed the spot where we had just been.

The Liberty Bell was floating backward toward the open cargo bay doors, firing its lasers the whole time. Screams and death filled the air along with the heat and light of those deadly cannons. In those few seconds while I was picking myself up from the floor, I saw a dozen more die, snuffed out just like that.

Jazz, Gordon, and Roxa were all trying to help, trying to get the Alters behind what little cover there was, or out of the cargo bay entirely. The problem was that there was so much open space. A lot of them were trying to hide behind the metal shipping containers, but there were only so many of those, and there was too much open ground to cover to get to them. 

It felt like hours had passed, but I knew it had actually only been a few seconds. A few seconds, and Isaac had already done so much damage.  

Just as the other ship reached the exit, the cannons all pointed toward the biggest cluster of terrified Alters who were running for cover. I screamed a warning, the force of the words burning my throat, even as those cannons opened up one last time. An armageddon-worth of deadly light tore through the air, straight at all of those innocent people.

At the last second, Haiden Moon appeared out of nowhere. His arm jerked up, and I saw a dark red forcefield appear, surrounding both the man and the clustered group. Seven, eight, nine enormous, pulverizing lasers collided with the shield, which barely held. I could see the strain on it, and on Haiden himself as he kept it up, protecting the people behind him.

Then Larissa was there. She appeared beside Sands and me, both arms outstretched. Her right hand jerked to the side, while the left glowed red. I saw two of the laser cannons on the other ship literally torn free of their housing, ripped off the ship. At the same time, another one literally melted into a heap of molten metal.

That was enough. The ship stopped firing, instead throwing its engines into reverse before shooting out into open space.

And just like that, as suddenly as it had started, the carnage was over. The ship was gone, with Isaac onboard. And in his wake, he left… devastation. Bodies, or pieces of bodies, filled the cargo bay. At least a quarter of the Alters that we had saved and spent the past several days with were dead. Professor Katarin was dead.

“Girls!” Larissa was facing Sands and me, her eyes wide. Alarms blared, the survivors screamed and sobbed, as she blurted in total confusion and horror, “Girls, what happened?!

“What the hell happened?!”

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Mini-Interlude 50 – Jophiel And Elisabet

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Well, that would be one complete and utter waste of time out of the way, Elisabet silently announced while leaving the room where she and the other Crossroads Committee members had just finished yet another discussion. Just in time for the next one.

The ‘discussion’, such as it was, had been three hours of arguing over what they could possibly do about the disappearance of Felicity Chambers and the other students, and everything else that stemmed from that. Mostly it had amounted to little more than talking in circles. As usual.

Jophiel, the Seosten once called Aphrodite in the days of the Olympians, chuckled in equal silence, her amusement audible only to herself and her beloved human, her sianame.

Sianame. Pronounced See-Aw-Naw-May, it wasn’t a Seosten word. Nor was it a human word. In truth, the term originated from a race known as the Beventreist, who had been conquered by the Seosten over five thousand years earlier, back when Jophiel had been barely a new recruit. The Beventreist had believed in reincarnation, and sianame were two souls who were bonded for all eternity. In some lifetimes they would be lovers, in others they would be parent and child, best friends, business partners through world-changing endeavors, or even, in some cases, mortal enemies. Generation after generation, sianame would be brought together in various ways, often the most important part of each other’s lives, for good or for ill.

Jophiel didn’t believe in reincarnation, save for the Pooka or similar variety. But she did appreciate a good romantic story. And, as far as she was concerned, Elisabet was her sianame. Her soulmate, in Earth terms.

Yes, she replied easily, but if nothing else, at least our next appointment is an excuse to visit home.

She felt Elisabet’s agreement. The two of them had been connected for so long that their minds almost ran concurrently in many cases. At times it was almost difficult to separate out which of them was responsible for which thought.

Sí, her human partner replied. We do not have such opportunities nearly enough, lately.

There was no actual discussion between the two of them about when Elisabet would stop controlling her own body and when Jophiel would take over. There was no need for such a discussion. They simply knew each other so well that the moment the two of them were halfway down the hall away from the Committee’s meeting room, Elisabet stopped walking and Jophiel started, all in the course of the same step. No one watching would have been able to pinpoint the moment that it happened, regardless of how closely they were watching.

Taking over in mid-step while allowing her host to slip into that comfortable, familiar position in the back of her own mind, Jophiel cast their shared senses out. The odds of them being followed or observed were miniscule, but it was best to make absolutely certain.

Nothing. She could sense no one, even with more than a two dozen powers meant to ferret out anyone who might be invisible or remotely observing them somehow. They were not being watched.

Satisfied, Jophiel turned to a nearby door. The room on the other side didn’t matter. The door was simply the means to an end. Facing it, she held up one of Elisabet’s hands and focused on it until the hand turned semi-translucent, like that of a ghost. Carefully, she then reached into their own chest, using their ghost-like hand to go right through flesh, muscle, and bone without causing any actual damage.

Carefully, the Seosten woman found a small object secured to the side of one of their ribs. At a touch and thought, the object itself turned insubstantial as well, allowing her to take hold of it. A moment later, she withdrew their hand, revealing the object clutched between two fingers: a key.

Returning their hand and the key to solid form, Jophiel ran two fingers over the small metal object. It looked so simple, like an ordinary brass key that had been used on Earth hundreds of years earlier. Yet, it was so much more. As her fingers ran over it, the key read her DNA signature. Small runes began to glow red on it, and a single word of power made the rusty old brass metal gleam a bright blue.

Without another word, Jophiel pushed the key toward the door. As it approached the much smaller lock, meant for one of the tiny, far more modern versions, the key itself shrank and shifted its end so that it would fit easily.

Slipping the key into the lock, the Seosten woman uttered one more command phrase before turning it. There was a musical chime, and as she withdrew the key and opened the door, an almost blindingly bright white light had replaced whatever had normally been on the other side of it.

She stepped through. Instantly, the two of them felt the effect of the light. Combination magic and technology, it scanned their every single molecule. Every atom of their body and of everything they were bringing with them was given a thorough examination. They were checked for anything that could be a threat, knowing or not. Any magical effect, any bit of Fomorian biological trickery, anything out of the ordinary.

Once it was over, the light faded and they were standing, as expected, in a simple metal room that was only slightly bigger than an ordinary prison cell. All along the ceiling and floor were were dozens of tiny red crystals which, if they had been any kind of threat, would have immediately detonated with force roughly equivalent to the so-called Tsar Bomba, a fifty megaton nuclear weapon that had been detonated by the Soviets on Earth. All of it concentrated within a single room barely sixteen feet wide by twelve feet long.

That wasn’t the only safety measure. After the detonation, this particular room would have been vented into space and immediately shunted through a portal into the middle of a star several months journey away.

Luckily, none of that happened. Unfortunately, it was also far from the only security measure. It took another twenty minutes before the requirements were satisfied. Finally, however, they emerged from the room into a long, tube-shaped corridor. The walls, made of a clear material similar to but much stronger than glass, revealed the open starfield beyond. They had come to a space station, one of many that orbited the world below.

As she stepped into the tube, Jophiel glanced that way, to the planet visible through the clear wall. Her eyes took in the splendor that was her home. Her true home. Elohim. The cradle of the Seosten civilization.

A combination of eleven oceans and innumerable lakes and rivers covered almost seventy-five percent of the planet’s surface. But that was pretty much where the superficial similarities with Earth ended. While humanity’s home held seven major continents, the largest landmass on Elohim was only about as large as Earth’s Australia. The vast majority of the Seosten homeworld’s landmass was taken up by intricate island chains. There were thousands of them, islands which ranged from small enough to throw a rock across, to islands that were almost a thousand miles across. Most of those islands formed a sort of spiral through the ocean, surrounding that single Australia-sized continent.

They had been one single continent at one point, the only one on the planet, surrounded by ocean. Then the cataclysm had happened. Cronus had happened. By the time he was gone, the bulk of the continent had been broken up into these islands, and it had been this way for the past several hundred thousand years.

The majority of the islands were physically connected in various ways, mostly through underwater tubes allowing rapid transit, but also through above-water bridges. Entire cities that would make Earth’s largest metropolises look tiny had been made to take up many islands to the point that it was sometimes hard to tell that they were separate islands, through all the buildings that had been constructed between them.

It was, in the end, home. And Jophiel loved seeing it every time. Coming back roughly once a year wasn’t enough. She wanted the war to be over. She wanted… a lot of things. Mostly she wanted the Fomorian threat to be ended so that the Seosten could move on and become true partners with humanity and the other races. Once the threat of extinction had been eliminated, true growth could happen. But not until then.

The world was also protected by one of the largest fleets in the Seosten armada. First, there were six Letum-class destroyers. Each was just under fifteen kilometers long, and individually held enough firepower to level most worlds, an army of over fifty thousand ground troops of various species, and almost three hundred fighter-sized spacecraft.

Backing them up were ten Cunae-class carriers, each of which held another hundred starfighters, and two dozen more ships of mixed varieties ranging from simple patrol craft that were barely larger than an Earth passenger airliner, up to the three Diruo-class ships. Those were only a few kilometers shorter than their Letum-class older brothers, and packed even more firepower at the expense of not carrying any fighter craft and only a token force of ground troops. At their core, the Diruo were essentially giant metal circles with a bridge and a few other compartments in the center, surrounded by hundreds of cannons and other guns that pointed in every direction. Engines at each primary compass point and in the top and bottom ensured that the Diruo ships could travel in every direction as needed.   

In all, the Elohim fleet would demolish anything that got near to the Seosten home planet. Not that such a thing was at all likely, considering the amount of other defenses surrounding the entire system. But still, where the Fomorians were concerned, it was best to be prepared.

“Jophiel.” The voice came from the end of the tube corridor, drawing her attention toward the two figures there. One, the speaker appeared to be an elderly man of what would be considered Caucasian ethnicity on Earth. His face lined with wrinkles and the majority of his hair had long-since fallen out. He was old, very old, even by Seosten standards.

Beside the old man stood a figure who could have been mistaken as his granddaughter. She appeared to be, at most, nine or ten years old, with short black hair cut into a pixie style and innocent blue eyes. Neither were in host bodies. These were their personal, true forms.

“Metatron,” Jophiel greeted the man first, giving him a bow of respect before turning her attention to his diminutive companion, bowing to her as well. “Chayyiel.”

She bowed to both, because each were her superior, in many ways. They were members of the Seraphim, the Seosten version of what humans would think of as a senate. While Metatron had never actually been to Earth as far as she was aware, he had been the Seraphim in charge of it from this end of the Seosten Empire since they had found the planet in the first place.

Chayyiel, on the other hand… she had been on Earth for quite some time before coming back here to join the Seraphim. Her apparent young age was even more deceptive than most Seosten’s appearances already were, because she was actually even older than Jophiel.

On Earth, Chayyiel had portrayed the Olympian known as Hestia. She was also the single strongest warrior that Jophiel had ever personally seen, and was within the top ten strongest Seosten who had ever lived. Jophiel had only seen one being who was capable of besting Chayyiel in single combat: the so-called once and future king, Arthur Pendragon.

It had been Puriel’s betrayal of Chayyiel’s trust, when he had interfered with her latest duel with the natural dragon-Heretic, that had made her leave Earth. What had been intended as a personal battle, meant for only the two of them, had turned into a full-scale assault. Puriel had dropped a literal army on top of Arthur, and in the end… in the end Arthur was no longer a threat.

Chayyiel, however, had taken the hit against her honor personally, and swore that if Puriel ever tried to give her another order, she would kill him. Leaving Earth, she had returned to Seosten-controlled space, quickly making her way to the ranks of the Seraphim.

Thankfully, she seemed to bear Jophiel herself no ill will. Now, she simply returned the other woman’s bow without speaking.

“Would you care to leave your host and stretch your legs?” Metatron asked, as he always did, even though her answer was always the same.

“I’m fine,” Jophiel replied. There was no way that she would ever abandon her Elisabet here. Despite protocol, there was entirely too high of a chance that her sianame would be possessed by another Seosten, and that… that was something she couldn’t allow to happen.

“Very well,” the elderly Seosten announced with a simple nod before turning on his heel. “Come then, we need to discuss what exactly happened down there that could have led to Charmiene’s death. Many of the Seraph are calling for the Earth experiment to be ended, and for us to take a more… direct role in their lives, as we do with every other race.”

“What led to Charmiene’s death was Charmiene’s stupidity,” Jophiel informed him flatly while starting to follow. “She died because she had to show off, and gave the humans time to get in a lucky shot. She indulged herself, and paid for her arrogance. And those are the same Seraph who try to end our work with the humans every time someone sneezes funny.”

“Still,” Chayyiel finally spoke as she took up the rear, walking behind Jophiel and Metatron, “we must provide answers to them. Answers that will not offend Charmiene’s Choir, or their allies.”

Inwardly, Jophiel sighed. This is going to be incredibly long and boring. I don’t suppose you might want to take over again so I can take another nap?

Elisabet’s only response was a deliberate snoring noise.

******

Literal hours later, Jophiel finally emerged from the shuttle that had brought her down to the planet’s surface. It had to be a shuttle, as no teleportation was allowed to penetrate the shields that surrounded Elohim’s atmosphere.

Quietly, she descended the platform where the shuttle had landed. The city that they were in was called Parestai. It was, in many respects, quite similar to the city of Venice on Earth. Situated over a half dozen small islands, with so many buildings and bridges connecting them that it was difficult to tell at a glance that they were separate islands, Parestai was beautiful. Its architecture, like most Seosten, was decidedly Earth Roman, with lots of pillars, arches, and marble. Gondola-like boats roamed the waterways, and there were more visible animal mounts and carts than there were motorized vehicles. Parestai was a simple, quiet city, a place for personal reflection and meditation.

Walking the short distance to a narrow alleyway between buildings, Jophiel moved about halfway down the alley before reaching what appeared to be a blank adobe wall. Setting her hand against it, she murmured the passcode.

Immediately, a previously-invisible door appeared, swinging open to allow them admittance to Jophiel’s private home.

Some of the former Olympians preferred far more elaborate affairs for their homes. Puriel and Kushiel had an entire island to themselves, an enormous mansion full of servants. Not that the former Hera spent much time there. Kushiel had her experiments and prisoners to focus on. Puriel however… well, he had never been the same after the mishap with that banishment orb. Jophiel would be surprised if the man ever left his home.

In all, most of the Seosten known as the Olympians had massive, grand homes fit for kings, spread throughout the Empire. But Jophiel didn’t care about that. This small, hidden apartment on the island that she loved so much was enough. Because it was a place where she and Elisabet could be themselves, without worrying about pretenses or being seen.

As the door closed behind them, Jophiel finally stepped out of the body she had been inhabiting. Emerging and stretching out there in what humans would call the foyer of her home, she turned toward Elisabet. Smiling at the Spanish woman, Jophiel stepped in to kiss her tenderly.

The two stood together, embracing while sharing that kiss for several long, beautiful seconds. Eventually, they separated, and Jophiel gestured. “That could have been worse. At least we have a couple days here before we have to go back.”

Elisabet chuckled, nodding. “It could have been much worse, yes. Though…” Pausing, she sighed. “You know that some of them aren’t going to stop pushing for the full, violent take-over of Earth. They think that all humans should be treated the way they treat Heretics out here.”

Jophiel winced, reaching out to touch her beloved’s face. “We don’t all treat you that way, even out here.”

Elisabet reached up, tenderly touching the Seosten woman’s hand to hold it there against her own cheek. “Enough do,” she replied. “They don’t see us as partners. They see us as… clothes, suits of armor and weapons to be worn and discarded as needed.”

She wasn’t wrong, Jophiel knew. There weren’t many here at the heart of the Seosten Empire, of course. But out on the actual Fomorian frontlines, Heretic bodies were used the same way humans on Earth used tanks and other weapons of war. Particularly powerful Heretic bodies were given to high ranking Seosten, while even younger, newer Heretics were given to those who had proven themselves in some way. Hell, a lot of Heretic bodies were used interchangeably, passed back and forth between multiple Seosten in a garrison. Still others were essentially sold or at least rented in what amounted to a marketplace, where their Seosten owners would detail what the Heretics were capable of and allow their potential buyers to take them out for a ‘test drive’.

They were a commodity to many, no more important than a car, or, as Elisabet had said, a suit of armor.

“You know what the best way of stopping that is,” Jophiel reminded the other woman.

“Yes,” Elisabet replied simply, “ending the Bystander Effect.”

Ending the Bystander Effect. It was a goal that both of them longed for, but one that seemed almost impossible to achieve safely given the current climate. Sure, there were many who were in favor of its elimination. But those same proponents also wanted to do that simply so that the Seosten could take over completely and openly, which would just lead to all humans being treated the same way that so many of the abducted Heretics were treated out on the war front.

No, they needed to end it, but in a way that convinced enough of the Seraphim that humanity and the Seosten should be partners in this war. If they could just make them understand that the key to beating the Fomorians was a true human-Seosten alliance, where they were equal partners…

Unfortunately, that particular goal seemed to be a long way off. It was, however, part of the reason that Jophiel had made certain that her people did nothing about the Hybrid offspring of Sariel and Haiden Moon. Once she had found out about them, she had worked to keep Vanessa Moon’s existence as quiet as possible, and had convinced her superiors to adopt a hands-off policy, to see what happened. She had been forced to call in favors, make threats, and outright bluff to keep the girl out of Kushiel’s hands. But in the end, her own authority had been respected, and Vanessa had been left alone to grow up.

After that moment of contemplative silence, Elisabet asked, “Do you think Radueriel will find Chambers and the others?”

“Find? Yes,” Jophiel replied. “Capture… that might be more difficult. Especially now that they have joined up with Sariel’s mate and her former host. And quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure who I should be rooting for in that particular confrontation.”

Elisabet gave a soft chuckle at that. “The more power the Chambers girl gains out here, the more likely she will be able to free her mother from the necromancer. And if Joselyn Atherby is freed, she may be returned to power. Which would–”

“–Restart the rebellion,” Jophiel finished. Then she smiled. “Precisely. Which is another opportunity to convince the Seraphim that humanity’s true potential is in being partners with the Seosten, not slaves to them.”

“What we really need,” Elisabet reminded her, “is an example, something we can point to and show that human-Seosten partnerships are possible. We–”

“I can’t tell them about us, Lissy,” Jophiel interrupted, shaking her head. “I won’t risk it. I won’t risk losing you. But… if Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion returns, maybe… maybe we can point the Aelaestiam toward them this time, the way we planned before.”

The Aelaestiam were, essentially, a Seosten version of the Atherby rebellion. They were a small group of Seosten who believed that hosts should be treated fairly, that the Seosten Empire was wrong, that the ends did not justify the means. Jophiel and Elisabet disagreed with them on that last point, but they could still be useful in many ways. They also would have been wiped out long ago, if it wasn’t for their leader. Auriel, the woman who had portrayed Athena on Earth. She had taken up their cause, and it was her tactical prowess that kept the Aelaestiam from being completely erased, and had even led to certain key victories. Not enough to be a true threat to the Empire, of course. But enough to remain a relevant nuisance.

Jophiel and Elisabet had planned on linking Auriel’s Aelaestiam and Atherby’s rebellion while Joselyn was still a major threat, providing the tragically outnumbered Seosten underground with potentially incredibly powerful Heretic host bodies.

Done the right way, with a delicate touch, it could have shown the Seraphim that Seosten-Heretic partnerships would be vastly stronger than an enslaved Heretic. Unfortunately, Joselyn had been captured before that was possible, and there had been too many eyes on what was going on for Jophiel to risk making any kind of move. Now, however, if Felicity could free her mother and restart that rebellion… it was worth considering.

“Come, my love,” Jophiel finally announced, shaking off those thoughts while while taking the other woman’s hand. “Let’s eat, and watch the sunset. There will be time to worry about all this later. Right now, all I want to do is be with you.”

Returning her smile, Elisabet started to nod, only to stop as a beep from the nearby wall terminal interrupted them.

Jophiel seriously considered not answering. But in the end, her sense of duty was too strong. Sighing, she squeezed her partner’s hand lightly before possessing her once more. It wouldn’t do for whoever was on the other side of the call to see them separated.

Hitting the button on the wall terminal to accept the connection, she watched as Chayyiel’s seemingly eternally child-like face appeared.

“You’re needed,” she announced flatly. “Manakel’s human spy has made contact.” Her distaste at the word ‘spy’ was readily apparent. “As you happen to be here rather than on Earth, Radueriel has requested your presence.”

“Made contact?” Jophiel raised one of Elisabet’s eyebrows at that. “You mean the one called Isaac, of course. He left his companions then?”

“No,” Chayyiel replied, “but he says that they have a way of erasing the spell that protects the identity of Manakel’s host. He has been instructed to prevent that from happening, at all costs. Whether he succeeds or not, Radueriel has asked that you speak with him in person. He would like to know everything you know about these humans, as his attempts to capture them have been… unfruitful.”

Once more, Jophiel had to resist the urge to sigh heavily. “Very well,” she replied, with an inward apology to her love. This was too important to brush off.

“Send the shuttle.”

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Rendezvous 30-03

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“So explain again how their warp speed or whatever works?” I asked Larissa a couple days later, as the two of us stood on the bridge of this stolen mining ship. Jokai was sitting at the controls next to Sands, going over them with the girl again. My teammate had really taken to the idea of being able to pilot this thing (not that I could blame her at all), throwing herself at the subject the way that Vanessa threw herself at… well, pretty much every subject back in school.

“Of course,” Larissa (was it weird that I kept thinking of Sands’ mother by her first name rather than as Mrs. Mason or anything?) replied easily while gesturing for me to follow her to the side of the bridge, where a small console sat. Waving her hand in front of it, she made a hologram appear. It showed a bunch of different planets and stars, taking up several feet in front of us.

“You know the way normal travel works,” the woman began. Putting her finger on the hologram at one planet, she slowly dragged it across to another one, creating a red line between them. “Say a ship starts here, powers on their regular, day-to-day engines, and putters along until they reach the next closest planet. With the kind of engines that the ships use when flying around normally, that one trip would take about… say, a hundred and twenty years. Give or take.”

“Uh, yeah.” I coughed, shaking my head. “Seems like that kind of travel time would be pretty hard to run an interstellar empire on. ‘Hi, we have some new orders from the capital planet.’ ‘Oh, when did they send those out?’ ‘I think it was about three hundred and forty years ago, why?’”

The woman gave a slight smile at that. “Exactly. It doesn’t really work. So there’s a few other options. First, there are certain Alters who can create foldjumps, linked points where people can travel instantly from one spot to another no matter how far away it is, even on another planet.”

“Abeonas,” I finished for her. “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. Even met one of them named Berlin.”

“You are definitely not a normal first year student,” Larissa informed me with a little cough before nodding. “But good, you know about them. There’s a few others like that, but Abeonas are the strongest and the most well-known. They’re also pretty rare, and it’s hard to keep their loyalty. I mean, when they could go pretty much anywhere in the universe they’ve already been at the drop of a hat, it’s not easy to keep them contained. Even possessing them isn’t a perfect answer, since they tend to be pretty resistant to it, and using a Seosten to keep them under control means that Seosten can’t be doing anything else. Basically, if the Abeonas is strong enough for interstellar transport, they’d need an equally strong Seosten to maintain control.”

When I nodded to that, the woman went on. “So that’s the first option, Alters with some kind of transport ability. Limited for the reasons we just talked about. After that, there’s regular teleportation spells, like the one I used to get this ship away from Radueriel and his ship.”

“Let me guess,” I put in, “those are rare too. I mean, you said you got that one from Apollo.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Rare and hard to do. We only moved a few solar systems, and that took four strong Heretics to pull off, exhausting three of them for a few days. Like I said, not easy.”

I started to nod once more to that, before stopping myself. “Wait, what do you mean, four?” Pointedly, I counted on my fingers. “You, Haiden Moon, and Professor Katarin. That’s three.”

“We, ah,” the woman paused, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “We met a new friend out here. But that’s a long story that’s best told once we actually get back with the others. Which, I know, sounds needlessly cryptic. But just trust me, this is something that you really need to find out in person.” She smiled then. “Besides, we’re getting off subject. Innate Alter abilities and magic teleportation are two ways to move from world to world. But with ships like this, you want something reliable. Something that isn’t super rare and doesn’t exhaust your most powerful people right when you get to what might be a planet where you need them to fight.”

“So, technology-based?” I asked then. “Rather than magic or ability-based. Something where you can just flip a switch and go faster. I mean, I know it’s not not that simple, but basically.”

“Basically,” she confirmed. “Now, like I said, there’s the normal engines that work fine for tooling around the same solar system. But for interstellar travel to take less than several centuries, you need the big guns. You need a reliable way that doesn’t exhaust your important people and allows you to send entire fleets all over the universe. That’s where the slide-drive comes in.”

Tilting my head a bit, I asked, “Slide-drive? So that’s what they call their hyperdrive or whatever.”

“Yup.” The woman reached out to the hologram of the space map once more. “So, here’s how they work. Remember how I said a normal engine just takes you from one spot to another?” She drew her finger along that red line once more demonstrably. “Well, the way a slide-drive works is by repeatedly opening a small pocket dimension. You already know what those are, right?”

I nodded quickly at that. “Sure, they’re basically the things that our weapons disappear into.”    

“Exactly. The slide-drive on each of these ships basically slips the ship into one of those pocket dimensions for a few seconds, then pops it back out again. Except for two things. First, while the ship is in that pocket dimension, the universe just continues on without it. Everything is always moving at millions of miles per hour. So the ship wouldn’t appear at the same point anyway. It would pop out at wherever that spot was with the universe moving around it. It’s like… say you have a spinning plate with an olive sitting on it. Pick the olive up and drop it again, and it’ll be in a completely different spot from where it was, because the plate itself keeps on spinning.

“And second, before the ship comes out of the pocket dimension, it travels to the limit of that space. See, every kilometer in the pocket dimension translates into a thousand kilometers in real space. The more powerful the slide-drive, the bigger the pocket dimension. Which means-”

“The further they travel with each slide,” I realized. “If their slide-drive can make a pocket dimension that’s a hundred kilometers long, that’s a hundred thousand kilometers in real space.”

She gave a short nod at that. “Yes. And most decent ships are capable of making pocket dimensions that are at least a few hundred kilometers. So that helps.

“Put together, those two things mean that when the ship pops back into the regular universe, it’s not in the same place. It basically jumps from one spot to another very quickly just by slipping out of the universe and then slipping back in. The computer calculates where they are in relation to where they need to go, adjusts, and then slips out of the universe again, only to pop back. That’s why we call it a slide-drive. They slide into a pocket-dimension, then slide back out again. It keeps doing that, sliding in and out of regular space until they get where they need to go.”  

“Huh.” I thought about that for a few seconds before nodding. “Thanks for the explanation. You… you weren’t a teacher back at Crossroads, were you?” It felt a little awkward bringing up her life on Earth after she had been away from it for so long, but I shoved that back down.

“No,” she confirmed with a quick head shake. “You’re right, I wasn’t a teacher. Not exactly, anyway. But I did work with students a lot. I was the Head of Student Affairs for the school.”

I did a quick double-take. “You had Peterson Neal’s job? Damn, we really missed out, then.”

Smiling a little, the woman gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Yes, Ulysses told me that he was the one who took my job. I’m sorry. Peterson is… competent, but not exactly creative or warm. But between Ruthers and his brother, I’m not surprised that he ended up with an important job.”

Blinking at that, I looked back to the woman while asking, “His brother? Who’s his brother?”

“Counselor Davis,” she informed me, looking a little surprised. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew that the two of them were related. I know you’ve had some conversations with the Committee.”

I thought back to what I knew of the Committee member called Davis. All I really remembered was that he looked like a lumberjack. Did he actually do anything important? I asked Tabbris.

Um, she replied a little hesitantly, not really. He didn’t say much at all, actually. Mostly he just brought up that thing about how people have been trying to kill Avalon for awhile.

Right. I squinted thoughtfully for a second. So he didn’t really say much. No way of knowing how he feels about things, or if he’s anywhere near as much of a stooge as his brother.

“So,” Larissa started with a raised eyebrow. “How the conversation with the little one going?” When I gave a quick glance over to where Jokai was, she waved a hand. “It’s okay, he can’t hear us right now. Or, more to the point, he just hears us talking more about Davis.”

“Sorry.” I blushed a little bit despite myself. “I guess it’s probably kind of obvious what’s going on when I trail off and go silent for a few seconds like that if you know what to look for, huh?”  

She nodded. “It is. So you’ll need to be careful with it. Very careful, Felicity. If the Seosten ever suspect that you’re possessed and that that’s the reason they can’t possess you–”

Blanching, I interrupted. “They’ll hurt Tabbris. I know. Trust me, I won’t let anyone hurt her.”

Her hand found my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “Sariel made the right choice when she sent her to you.”

After a moment of that, she continued. “So, let’s talk about the ship a little more. I’m sure you’ve got more questions about how these things work. Though there’s something I really hope you can tell me about.”

“There is?” I blinked. “Uh, I’ve told you pretty much everything I know. The Seosten want to kill Avalon, Fossor has my mother and is coming after me when I turn eighteen, my dad’s living with Gabriel Prosser, my mom’s first husband is my team mentor… what else could I tell you?”  

“Well…” Larissa gave me a brief pleading look. “There’s a really important question I have to ask you that Ulysses couldn’t answer. I’ve kind of been stuck out here for over seven years now, and I’ve been waiting all that time to find out…

“Do you read DC comics? And if so, what the hell happened in Flashpoint?”

******

“Your ship is a lot smaller than this one, Mom.” Sands was standing in front of the bridge’s viewscreen the next day, her eyes centered on the image of the vessel in question. We had met up with them in the middle of what was basically empty space, far from any planet or star.

She was right. The ship that Larissa had brought us to meet up with was much smaller than this one. It was more around the size of a large jetliner, and was shaped a bit like a narrow oval with two angular boomerangs attached to the top and bottom that glowed red in contrast with the middle oval part’s bright white. I was pretty sure that the boomerang parts were where the engines and weapons were, while the oval part held the main compartments and bridge.

“Yeah, we’ll have to bring the Liberty Bell aboard this one for now,” the woman replied easily from her place behind her daughter. “There should be plenty of room, even with the Alter camp.”

Liberty Bell?” I blinked that way after giving the ship another look. “That’s the name of it?”

“Well, yeah, after we renamed it,” Larissa amended with a slight chuckle. “I think its previous name was something like Letum Praedator. Ruin Hunter. We liked Liberty Bell a bit better. And besides, they vetoed my vote for the ship name. Said Starjammer made them think of hair metal bands. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why that’d be a bad thing. But Liberty Bell’s okay.”

A light on the nearby console flashed green, and the woman waved her hand in front of it. A moment later, half of the viewscreen was taken up by the image of a familiar face.

“Professor Katarin!” Sands blurted, waving a hand. The relief in her voice was obvious, and I knew how she felt. We’d already known that the man was alive and well (enough) from Larissa herself and through Vanessa, but knowing it and seeing it were two entirely different things.

The man smiled broadly then, and I could tell in that moment that he was just as relieved to see us. It did kind of look odd, considering his tendency to remain as stoic and… drill sergeant-like as possible while he was training us. But then again, this was a pretty unique situation.

“Sands, Flick, you’re both alright!” Katarin announced before lifting his chin. “And the others…?”

“They’re okay,” Larissa answered for us. “Everyone’s… physically fine. They’re in the cargo bay with the former slaves. So, you wanna dock that thing so we can have this reunion in person?”

He agreed, as did someone offscreen (Haiden, I assumed, though it could have been the mysterious ‘other Heretic’ that Sands’ mother wanted us to meet), and the ship started to dock.

“Guess we should head down to meet them, huh?” Sands looked to her mother, smiling immediately. She’d been doing that pretty much constantly over the past few days. Which was more than just understandable. If it had been my mother, I probably wouldn’t be able to tear myself even a few inches away from her for at least a couple of weeks. I was honestly surprised that Sands was able to focus on anything other than the fact that her mother was standing there.

Leaving Jokai at the helm just in case anything happened, we headed down to the cargo bay once more. On the way, we used the intercom system that Jokai had shown us to warn the others so that nobody would freak out too much. The last thing we wanted was to give any of these poor guys a heart attack when they saw a Seosten ship pop in.

The Alters had taken up about a quarter of the cargo bay with their little camp, which actually looked pretty homey. They had tarps set up for different sleeping areas, a cooking area in the middle, and a spot for everyone to work on the anti-possession spell that we’d taught them. They’d been using that spell a lot, on themselves, on each other, basically whenever possible. Even though they knew they weren’t possessed, they still wanted that little bit of reassurance. And, of course, they wanted to make sure that none of the Seosten had projected into one of them. That was another reason that I was glad they had all decided to stay together in the cargo bay. It would be harder for one of the Seosten to screw things up if they never left each other’s sight and were constantly just sitting in a room with no idea of where the ship actually was.

By the time we made it down there, all of the Alters were already gathered right at the edge of their camp as they nervously watched the Liberty Bell rise up through a forcefield-covered opening on the other side of the room. The thin, invisible shield was enough to keep the atmosphere inside, while allowing the other ship to slip through.

The murmuring stopped as we entered, and they all looked to us expectantly. Gordon, who had been standing near the front of the group, raised a hand as we came over. Isaac was kneeling nearby, tinkering with something on one of his drones.

“They’re still a little nervous,” Gordon announced as I stepped up next to him. He nodded toward the other ship, which was extended three landing struts while slowly easing down onto them.

“I bet they are,” I replied. “I’d be nervous too if I had their lives, even if we did tell them that it’s safe.” Glancing around, I added, “Where’s Roxa?”

“Here.” The girl herself emerged from a clustered group. She looked sweaty (distractingly so), like she had just been working out. Pushing a hand back through her hair, Roxa explained, “Just ran through a little training with some of these guys. They wanna learn how to fight, so I thought I’d help. Seemed like a good idea.”

“It is,” Larissa agreed. “The best thing we can do is help them learn how to take care of themselves.”

That seemed to generally be the sentiment all around, judging from what I’d seen of the rest of our new friends. There were a few who didn’t really want to fight at all, but most of them at least wanted to know how in case the time came that they had to.

By that point, the ship had finished settling in. A hatch opened along the side, and we watched as a ramp extended before two figures appeared at the top. Katarin and a man that was clearly Haiden Moon. I could see the resemblance between him and Tristan, though his hair was dark and worn long. He was ruggedly handsome, like he should have been stepping off a horse in some kind of western movie. They both descended, stepping easily down onto the deck.

“Well,” Vanessa and Tristan’s father started, “I guess we screwed that up. Weren’t we supposed to ask for permission to come aboard?”

“I’m not sure who you’d ask,” Larissa pointed out. “The job of captain seems to have been divided among three or four different people over here.”

Chuckling, the man took a look at us. “Well, I guess I don’t have to guess who you guys are. This must be Sandy. Your mom’s said a lot about you. Though I have to say, you’re not nearly as pretty as she claimed you were.”

“Sir,” a thoroughly unamused Gordon replied, “Sands is over there.”

Doing an exaggerated double-take, Haiden pointed. “Oh, there you are!” He stepped over, extending a hand with a smile. “Miss Mason, it is my great honor and privilege to finally meet you. Though I feel like I know you already.”

Sands shook his hand, blushing a little. While they spoke for a moment, I looked to Professor Katarin and blurted, “Okay, I can’t wait anymore!”

The man blinked at me. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve been trying to keep calm and focus on everything else,” I hurried on, babbling a little bit. “Because there’s so much else to do. But you’re here now, you’re right here, and we really need to find out before anything else goes wrong. Manakel. We know you got sent out here because you saw who his host was. So… so who was it? Who is he possessing? And tell me that it was the first thing you sent back through to Vanessa when she contacted you guys!”

“Ah.” The man lifted his chin. “Yes, well, there is a slight problem with that, when it comes to telling you who the Seosten’s host is.”

I frowned. “What do you mean, there’s a problem with it? Can’t you just tell us?”

He gave a long, low sigh. “I just did, Miss Chambers.”

“No you–” I stopped. Tabbris, did you?

N-no, she answered. I didn’t hear anything. I mean I don’t… remember…

“Oh,” I said simply. And then I cursed, long and loud.

A spell. They were using the same spell to stop Katarin from telling anyone who Manakel was possessing that had been used to stop me from telling people about Wyatt and Abigail, or that the people who had cast the spell that erased Mom’s identity were under to stop them from telling anyone else about her who didn’t already know. Or a similar effect anyway. This one was clearly stronger since it wasn’t limited to Earth. And it was even affecting Tabbris.

“Yup,” Haiden agreed. “That’s pretty much what we said. But hey, it’s not a total loss. Our new friend onboard might be able to do something about it, with a little help. He’s got some ideas about breaking the spell, but needed more juice to get it done.”

“New friend?” Jazz had joined us. She looked like she’d just woken up. “What new friend? You mean the mysterious fourth Heretic that you keep refusing to tell us anything about?”

They all exchanged glances before Larissa gestured. “Ah, it’s better if you meet him in person.”  

Professor Katarin was already moving back to the ramp. “Inside. He doesn’t do well in front of a crowd.”

At the reminder, I glanced the other way. Karees and his people were all there, staring at the new arrivals with obviously barely constrained fear. Yeah, Katarin had a point. If whoever this guy was happened to be that skittish about crowds, I couldn’t see it ending well if he had to come out.

So, with a collective shrug, we followed our professor and the others up into their ship. I had no idea who they wanted us to meet, who could have been out here that was so important, and apparently so traumatized that he had to stay away from large groups.

The answer, as it turned out, was a man that I didn’t recognize at all. He stood a short distance away from the entrance ramp as we climbed aboard, clearly having been close enough to listen to what was going on without exposing himself.

He didn’t look like anything all that impressive. Actually, he looked like any countless number of homeless veterans people passed on the street every day. He stood only about five foot six, a bare couple inches taller than me, his figure ragged and bone-thin. He had long, scraggly hair and beard, both of which were dirty blonde with flecks of brown and gray spread throughout.

Seeing us, the man opened his mouth to say something, only to stop and cough, clearing his throat noisily. When he finally did speak, his voice was rough and hoarse. “You. Hi. Hi. You would be… the… students. The students from Earth.”

“Guys,” Larissa started, stepping closer that way. “I’d like you to meet Dries Aken.”

Aken–wait. As I realized that that was the same last name as Bosch’s daughter, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon all made collective sounds of shock around me.

He’s alive? Tabbris squeaked inside my head, her own shock just as thorough as everyone else’s. They kept him alive all this time?!

“Y-y-you.” Sands’ voice cracked almost as much as the man’s had. “You… you’re alive? You killed… y-you killed Hieronymus Bosch. You killed him.”

Aken. Aken. As in… as in Avalon’s ancestor!? This guy, this guy was… was related to Avalon somehow. He was her… great, great, something something great something!

“Hi, sir,” I started to extend a hand toward the man, only to stop as he stepped back from me. From the look on his face, I might as well have offered him a live snake. His eyes darted to my hand and then back again, visibly forcing himself to relax. 

“It’s–” He started roughly before seeming to lose track of what he was saying. His eyes drifted up to the side, and I saw his mouth move a little like he was actually silently sounding out his next words, practicing. “I’ve been waiting to meet you,” he finally settled on. Then he nodded, as if convincing himself that he’d said the right words in the right order.

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly, lowering my hand. “It’s–” A thought struck me then. “Oh my God. Oh… my God,” I muttered, my eyes widening as I stared at him. “Do you guys know what this means?” As they all looked at me, I motioned wildly. “Look, we’re bringing back Sands’ and Scout’s mom, and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, right? And now, now–” I gestured at Dries like Vanna White. “We’ve even got Avalon’s ancestor! This is like… the family reunion roadtrip.”

“What… is a roadtrip?” the man asked, sounding confused as he looked at us.

“Um.” I paused. “It’s like when you start at home, then go for a really long trip just to visit someplace far away, for like… vacations. Or to visit family. Like you and Avalon, see? This is amazing.”

“Sure, okay.” Sands was nodding slowly. “But Flick, he’s also like… the worst criminal in our entire society. I mean, no offense, Mr. Aken, but the regular Heretics, the people who grew up in the knowledge, they see him as… as…”

“Hitler,” Jazz supplied. “Hitler mixed with Benedict Arnold… if he killed Jesus… by strapping him down in an orphanage and setting it on fire. Arsonist, Orphan-Murdering Benedict Hitler.”

I nodded slowly at that. “So what you’re saying is, to get Avalon have an actual relationship with her long-lost family member, we’d have to change an entire society’s opinion of the worst monster in their entire history.”

“Yeah, it’s totally– wait.” Sands squinted at me. “Are you saying it like that because you’re illustrating how impossible that would be, or because you’re adding it to your to-do list?”

I just smiled.

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Rendezvous 30-02

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“So you really didn’t know she existed until New York?” Sands asked a short while later, as she and I sat on the other side of the bridge. The brunette girl was looking past me, over to where her mother was quietly talking to Tabbris. “That must’ve been pretty… surprising.”

I coughed. “You can say that again. But I wouldn’t have gotten away from Charmiene’s trap without her help. I’d be Radueriel’s prisoner as he took me apart. And you guys would all either be dead, or Seosten slaves. Tabbris… she saved all of us from some pretty bad shit.”

Sands coughed. “Technically, you wouldn’t even have gotten that far without her. If she wasn’t possessing you, there wouldn’t have been anything to stop the Seosten from possessing you back when you were first made Avalon’s roommate. Or earlier. You probably would’ve been Charmiene’s puppet from pretty much the beginning, so she could try to kill Avalon that way.”

I grimaced at that reminder, shuddering a little before nodding. “Right, thanks. Like I said, Tabbris has been helping a lot. Probably more than we’ll ever actually be able to quantify. I…” Glancing toward Sands then, I continued, “From what I’ve been able to get out of Tabbris, Sariel was planning on restoring my mother’s memories back before she was taken back during that whole thing that split up Vanessa’s family and left Tristan banished to the Meregan world. When she found out that Mom disappeared, she knew the Seosten would be after me. So I guess she sent your mom to bring Tabbris to me pretty much right before the… the boat thing happened.”

Sands was quiet for a second, watching her mother and Tabbris with an indecisive look. Then she gave a little nod, sounding thoughtful. “Wow. Our family, your family, and Vanessa’s family are pretty connected, aren’t they? I mean, I’m still not sure exactly why Sariel knows Mom–”

“She was supposed to possess her as a child,” I announced quietly. “They wanted Sariel to infiltrate Gaia’s inner circle by installing her as a child so she could go through Crossroads training. But your mom, she um, she sort of stumbled across some bad guys when they killed someone. Bystander bad guys, I mean. They tried to kill her to shut her up, so Sariel had to show herself. She dealt with them, but Larissa got hurt pretty bad. That’s when Haiden, Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, showed up. Sariel convinced him that she wanted to save your mom, so they took her to the hospital. Then they sorta… bonded and ran away from the whole war.”

Listening to all that, Sands bit her lip hard, her brow knitting into a thoughtful frown. “So the only reason Mom wasn’t a Seosten slave that whole time is because Sariel changed her mind and switched sides. And the only reason you’re not a slave is because she had Mom bring that Tabbris girl to you. It sounds like… “ She swallowed. “It sounds like Scout and me wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Sariel. It sounds like… a lot of things would be worse if it wasn’t for her.”

“It would be.” The confirmation came from Larissa herself, as she and Tabbris moved over to where we were. The woman took a moment to embrace Sands tightly once more, closing her eyes briefly as if to focus entirely on the sensation of actually touching her daughter after all the time that they had been apart. She kept hold of her while nodding. “Pretty much everything would be worse if it wasn’t for Sariel. That’s part of why I’ve been trying to help Haiden find her. Though that might be easier now that he can actually remember her, and both of his children.”

She explained what had happened then, that Vanessa had actually managed to get through to her father by projecting herself into his mind in order to pass the message of where to find us.

“Wait, wait,” I interrupted as a thought popped in my head. “She knew exactly where we were going to be? Like, on this ship? And exactly when? How is that possible? We didn’t even know.”

“Uncle Apollo!” Tabbris chirped. She had been clinging to Larissa’s side until they got close enough to us, at which point she slipped over to stand behind me while the woman had been hugging her daughter. “He, um, he sent the message through Vanessa so they could get here.”

“Uncle Apollo,” Sands echoed flatly, eyes widening as she clutched her mom’s arm. “Does that-”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “That makes Sariel Artemis. I know, I had pretty much the same reaction. Apollo’s the one who had that code, the one that you used to send Radueriel away. He told Sariel about it, and she told Tabbris, just in case we ever got into a situation… uh, like that.”

“That was her?” Sands whistled at that. “Wow, that woman really planned ahead, didn’t she?”

“They both did,” I confirmed. “I guess it ran in the… pseudo-family. But speaking of planning ahead, if Apollo showed up to help Vanessa learn how to project herself and just happened to know exactly where we were going to be, does that mean he’s actually… I mean, he was supposed to be the god of prophecy. Is he… does he have some kind of precognitive ability?”

“Or access to someone else who is,” Larissa pointed out mildly. “But we don’t know. Sariel talked a little bit about him, but all I really know is that he was her partner for a long time. They’re not actually related, but they might as well have been. She… she felt really bad that she turned him down when he asked her to leave the Seosten. It was one of her biggest regrets.”

“So he’s been a rogue Seosten for a long time, and now he popped up out of nowhere to help us?” I gave a low whistle, shaking my head. “He’s got pretty good timing, I’ll give him that much.”

Larissa gave me a tight smile at that. “He did a lot more than just give us the timing and location. Apollo provided the spells that let us transport past the Seosten blockade and take this ship out of their range. There’s no way that we could possibly have gotten to you in time without them.”

“Well,” I announced, “sounds like I owe Sariel and Apollo a lot. I’m not sure how fast the Seosten would’ve come after me without Tabbris around, but–”

“You were fourteen,” the girl herself put in.

Blinking at the girl (it was still kind of strange to see her standing in front of me rather than as a silent voice in my head), I asked, “Err, what?”

“You were fourteen,” she repeated then. “When the first Seosten came to try and possess you, I mean.”

Okay, that derailed my thoughts a fair bit. I stared at her, mouth working. “I–they were–huh?”

The girl cringed a little, looking horribly guilty as she stammered, “I m-mean, um. I’m… I think they were trying to find out if you knew anything about why your mother disappeared. It was a woman. Not Charmiene. She came while you were sleeping and tried to possess you. When it didn’t work, she kept checking for spells around the room and stuff. I could hear her talking to someone about how your mom must’ve found a way to protect you, and that she had no idea why you weren’t with her in that case.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I… did… did they try again?”

Tabbris nodded. “A few times. They tried to use some spying spells and stuff like that, but I got rid of them. I… I’m sorry, I had to use your body to do it sometimes, I’m really, really–”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” I reached out, taking the girl’s arm to pull her into a hug. “You saved me, partner. Why the hell would I be mad about that?”

Tabbris started to stammer something to that, but Larissa held up a hand. “The others are on their way ba-”

In mid-sentence, the hatch slid open and Roxa stepped inside. “She’s right,” the blonde girl confirmed. “They’re coming back. The way they’re moving, I’d say you’ve got thirty seconds.”

“Right.” Nodding, I turned to hold a hand out to Tabbris, who had moved to get another brief embrace from Larissa. “Hop back in, partner.” I was stressing that word a lot, because I wanted the girl to understand how I saw her, and that I wasn’t just saying it. “Sands may be pretty great about this, but I’m pretty sure we should still keep you secret from the others.”

She did so, catching my hand before disappearing from sight. I felt the by-then familiar sensation of the Seosten girl possessing me and settling back into place. A sensation that, honestly, I was pretty sure Tabbris was purposefully making me feel as a physical indication of her presence. Either way, I was far more comfortable with her there. I may had only been consciously aware of Tabbris for a pretty short time, but being without her still felt wrong. As much as she had worked hard to keep her thoughts and feelings from influencing me too much, the fact was that we had been together for years, and her being gone made me feel incomplete. Hell, by that point, I was already accustomed to having silent conversations with her about everything we were seeing. The past two weeks had been made infinitely easier with her.

Sands was watching me closely. “You… you okay?” she asked, clearly feeling uncomfortable.

I smiled at the other girl, trying to be reassuring. “It’s still me, Sands. It’s just me, like I said before. Tabbris is here, but she’s not actually controlling me or anything. She just… helps, a lot.”

She nodded at that, just as the hatch opened once more, letting Gordon and Isaac step in. The two of them glanced around briefly, the former quietly asking, “Is everything okay up here?”

“Okay?” Sands echoed, grabbing her mother’s arm tightly before holding onto it. “My mom’s here, dude! How could things get any better? I mean, besides if we actually had a way to get back to Earth, or knew how everyone back there was doing, or weren’t being chased by an entire universe-spanning evil empire that wanted to dissect us or turn us into their personal meat puppets. Or–yeah, okay, I guess there are ways it could be a lot better. But this is pretty good!”

“Where’s Jazz?” I asked, blinking at the boys as I realized that she wasn’t coming in after them.

Isaac shrugged, nodding over his shoulder absently. “Still down with the killjoys in the hold.”

Gordon shook his head at his teammate before correcting, “She’ll be here soon, with Jokai. They’re getting everyone settled in down there. We found a room full of blankets and tarps, so they’re setting up some kind of camp.” Pausing, he added, “It’s what they’re accustomed to. And since Jazz can see through walls, she’s helping them look for anything else useful for that. Karees is there to translate.”

I wanted to ask the boy about where he’d gotten the incredibly strong cold immunity or whatever it was that had let him simply tank that ice orb back on the planet. But somehow, now didn’t seem like the right time for it. Instead, I just nodded. “I guess they might as well get comfortable. I mean, what exactly are we gonna do once we actually get to Professor Katarin and Mr. Moon?”

“Get you all home,” Larissa replied flatly. “Your orb wasn’t broken, so it should be possible to reprogram it to send you back. Trust me, Haiden and I have done a lot of research on them over the years. I’m pretty sure we know those things as well as the people who made them.”

“You know we don’t actually have those now, right?” Isaac cut in. “I mean sure, we had them before. But they disappeared as soon as we got sent to this complete ass-end of the universe.”

Larissa nodded. “Yes, Isaac. They would have been left back on Earth. And if I know Gaia at all, she has them. We just need to wait for Vanessa to contact Haiden again, and pass instructions back through her about how to reprogram the orbs to summon all of you guys back to Earth.”

“Wait, no.” Sands turned, her eyes widening at that. “Us? What about you? You’re coming back with us. Mom, you have to come back with us. You have to come back with me, and see Scout. I mean, I know Dad is a–I know what Dad did before, but you… you can’t just stay out here!”

“Oh, baby.” Larissa reached out, pulling her daughter up against her in a tight embrace. I could see tears in her eyes. “I’d never… I…” She breathed out, hugging Sands even closer. “I can’t abandon Haiden, or Sariel. I’d be a slave if it wasn’t for her. Sarah would be dead if it wasn’t for her. She saved Sarah from the Fomorian. She saved me from the Fomorian and from being a Seosten puppet. I can’t just walk away from her now. I can’t just abandon her, or her husband. Haiden’s still looking for her. Whatever’s going on with Sariel, wherever she is… I think it’s bad.”

Mama… I heard Tabbris whisper in my head. She sounded sadder than I had ever heard her. No wonder the two of us were so in sync. We both desperately wanted to save our mothers from completely impossible situations, while they were being held prisoner by sadistic monsters.

Don’t worry, I assured the girl. Like I said, we’ll help your mom. You and me, partners.

Larissa continued. “She never told me the whole story about her situation, about where or how she was imprisoned. But from what we’ve found out, from what we know, it’s…” She swallowed hard. “I love you, baby. My Sandy-witch. But they need me too. I can’t walk away from that. But I promise, that doesn’t…”  She cringed visibly then. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to–”

“Mom.” Sands lifted her chin, her voice hoarse from all the emotions she was clearly feeling. “I know. I’m not… I’m not gonna accuse you of abandoning us or anything. I’m not about to… to scream and throw a fit. You’re right. Sariel’s done a lot for you. And… and for Scout…. Sarah. She’s done a lot for everyone, and now she’s in trouble. She’s in really deep trouble and she can’t help herself. So,” she gave a shrug. “Let’s help her. Let’s go get her back. Together.”

Larissa’s mouth opened, but it was Isaac who spoke up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What’re you trying to sign us up for now, exactly? Cuz I think we are about done with our quota of impossible heroics. Have you seen all those now-former slaves in our cargo hold? Big damn heroes time is over. We are clocked out and it’s time for us to get the hell out of this place.”

“Then you can go!” Sands snapped sharply at the boy, her glare making me glad that the girl didn’t actually have laser eyes or anything. “No one said they couldn’t send you back when the time comes. You don’t want to be a part of this, then don’t be a part of it. But shut up about it.”

“Sandy.” Larissa’s voice was gentle as she took her daughter’s hand. “The boy’s right, this shouldn’t be your problem. You already have a lot to deal with, and you’re students. You’re–”

“We’re not just going to walk away,” I put in. “Sands is right, we owe Sariel too much for that. Maybe we won’t be much help compared to you guys, but we can still help, even if it’s just a bit.”

Gordon, who had been quiet through the entire exchange to that point, finally spoke. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to make sure that there is a way back, and then go from that point.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed, giving her mother a look, “and also make sure that you have a way back too. Gaia reverse engineered the Meregan portal thing just by waving her hand before. Even if these are different, she’s gotta have a way to use the banish-whosits to pull you back with us.”

Larissa gave her daughter a little smile, reaching out to stroke her hair. “You have grown up so much,” she murmured. “I…” Her eyes blinked rapidly before the woman shook her head. “I’m sorry I missed so much. I just–” Choking a little, she looked away, pulling Sands close to her. “Yes, we’ll talk about it when the time comes, and decide exactly what to do then. You’re not little children anymore, so I won’t treat you like it. But you are my child. I love you, Sandoval.”

“Mommy.” Sands’ voice was a choked whisper, and she grabbed onto her mother again, losing herself in another hug. I had a feeling that was going to happen a lot. And I couldn’t really blame her at all. Hell, if it was my mother, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t let go for days, if not months.

Kissing the top of her daughter’s head reverently, Larissa paused like that for a few seconds before a slight frown knit her brow. Opening her eyes then, she carefully asked, “What did you mean when you said that you know what your dad did before? What exactly do you know?” As she spoke, the woman glanced briefly in my direction, her expression unreadable.

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Maybe we should go meet up with Jazz and Jokai, huh? This is kind of a private conversation, and we might be able to help down there. The sooner we get everything sorted out, the sooner we can get this show on the road and get out of here.”

Roxa quickly agreed, and we walked out with Isaac and Gordon so that Sands could talk privately with her mother about that situation. I was sure that Larissa would want to talk to me about it too (and meet with Tabbris again). But for the moment, it was best to leave them alone.

“So what’s in these side rooms?” I asked as the four of us walked back down the corridor, glancing at the hatches lining either side. “Did you have a chance to look yet?”

“Mostly crew quarters, the kitchen, some kind of exercise room, that kind of thing,” Gordon explained. “There aren’t enough beds for all of those guys, and apparently if they don’t all get a bed, none of them are willing to take one. When we left, they were trying to convince the elderly to take the beds, but it wasn’t going very well.”

Sighing, I opened my mouth to say something about that. Before I could, however, a voice caught my attention. We came around the corner to find Jazz, Jokai, and Karees. The three of them were sorting through a couple metal crates that they seemed to have pulled out of a nearby room.

“A bird can fly,” Jazz spoke slowly, enunciating carefully.

At first, I thought she was giving some kind of code that I wasn’t familiar with. But then Karees carefully spoke a few words in Latin, which Tabbris translated as meaning the exact same thing. Subsequently, Jazz repeated those words, getting the pronunciation just slightly wrong before Karees corrected her. She said it right the second time, looking toward Jokai as she said the words in Latin, then English, then Latin again.

Jokai, for his part, said it in Latin, then very slowly enunciated, “A… bard… cane… fly.”

Jazz giggled, nodding. “Close, uh, what was… paene? Close. Paene. Bird. Brrrduh. Bird. Can. Caaahhhnuh. Can.”

Jokai was slowly nodding. “A… brrrrduh… canuh… fly. A bird… can… fly.” He put his hands side by side in the shape of wings, flapping his fingers demonstratively.

“You know,” Isaac spoke up then, interrupting them. “You could just learn Latin from a book.”

Jazz gave a guilty start, stepping away from Jokai and Karees before coughing. “I–what’s going on?”

“It’s okay,” I insisted, giving Isaac a dirty look for a moment. “We were just giving Sands and her mom some space and figured we’d see if you needed any more help.”

“Oh, um.” Jazz gestured over her shoulder. “They’re about to send some people up to take the cots and stuff down for the elderly or sick to use. We managed to convince them to do that much, but they still refuse to use the rooms themselves. They just want to stay together in the cargo hold.”

Roxa nodded beside me. “It’s gonna take them a while to stop thinking like slaves.”

Nearby, Isaac grinned at Jazz. “Hey, I bet you and Gordon here can really sympathize with this whole ‘free the slaves’ movement, huh?”

The other girl and Gordon exchanged looks before Jazz replied in a flat, purposefully obtuse voice, “Well, sure, being on a team with you is pretty hard sometimes, but we soldier on.”

Before Isaac could say anything else, I quickly changed the subject. “If we’re ever gonna get to that rendezvous, we should probably let Jokai get the ship going.” I silently asked Tabbris to translate what I’d just said for the chameleon-man himself.

He agreed, and I started walking back to the bridge with him while the others helped get the bedding and other supplies taken down to the cargo hold. We talked a little bit on the way there, mostly about his friends from this ship who had been murdered by the Seosten who blamed them for his own orders. After a bit of back-and-forth, I realized that the piece of shit in question had actually been the Seosten who was killed by Sands back when she saved me from his ambush.

Good. I was glad that we could be certain that he was dead. And from his reaction when I told him, Jokai was pretty happy about it as well.

So happy, in fact, that as we stepped onto the bridge to find Sands and her mother there, he immediately moved to tearfully thank her. A thoroughly embarrassed Sands (once his words were translated) just mumbled about how she had just been trying to help me. Jokai kept insisting that he wanted to do something in return for her, and Sands finally asked him to show her what he did to fly the ship.

Once I had translated that with a little help from Tabbris, Jokai gave an immediate agreement before quickly ushering her over to the main controls so he could get started.

Isaac spoke up then, his eyes on Larissa. “Hey, what’s stopping any of those Seosten creeps from just teleporting onto this ship the same way you did?”

“First,” the woman replied, “I knew exactly where the ship was at the time, precise coordinates. And second, most ships are warded against people teleporting directly onto it. This one’s not because, well, it’s just a mining ship. But the one that Haiden and I… liberated, for example. We put so many wards on that thing that even we can’t get on it with the shields up. We’ll just have to teach you guys how to ward this ship the same way, to be safe.”

“Speaking of spells,” I put in then, “Since our Alter friends down in the cargo bay are all together, and we have a couple days, we can teach them the anti-possession spell. I–” Realizing something, I spun to look at Larissa. “Err, do you use that spell, the one that Gabriel Prosser taught us that drives out a Seosten if they’re possessing the person it’s used on?”

The woman’s response was a little smile. “Well, not exactly. You see, during our last… encounter with the Fomorian back on Earth, Sariel managed to do something that makes me look and feel like I’m possessed, even though I’m not.”

She went on to explain about what she and Haiden had apparently taken to calling the ‘dibs spell’, which essentially did exactly what she had just said, made her register as being possessed whenever anyone tried to possess her. Even better, between the two of them they had managed to find a way to duplicate that effect onto first Haiden, then Professor Katarin. The initial effect was still centered between Larissa and Sariel, but Haiden and Katarin copied the effect to render themselves immune to being possessed as well.

When she finished, I had to stare at her along with everyone else, all of us shocked. “Um. Does that mean…”

“We’ll teach it to you, and to the others,” she confirmed. “Better to have redundancies and teach everyone as many different ‘screw the Seosten’ spells as we can.”

Well, that was going to be… super-fucking useful. Nodding rapidly and eagerly to that, I spoke up. “Good, great. Awesome. Sounds like something to get extra credit on.”

Larissa started to move with her daughter then, only to pause and look back at me. “Felicity,” she started carefully, “I do have one question. These people keep going on about how you can do what the Seosten do to them, how you can possess the Seosten and control them. How is that possible? Even the younger Seosten have a pretty good defense against that. You would’ve had to absorb the powers of… of dozens of them to even have a shot at it.”

“Dozens,” I replied hesitantly, giving the woman an awkward shrug. “Or maybe just one really, really, really old one?” When she continued to stare at me, I coughed. “Yeah…

“Maybe I should start from the beginning.”

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Rendezvous 30-01

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Transporting an entire massive ship to some completely different part of the galaxy was an unbelievably impressive feat, for sure. There was no doubt about that. But honestly, I was pretty sure that in that particular moment, Larissa Mason would have teleported an entire continent out of her way without blinking if it had been standing between her and her daughter.

Staring at the woman now, I could see Sands and Scout in her. She wasn’t very tall, or imposing. She was quietly pretty, the same way they were. Not a bombshell, but more… classically attractive. Her eyes were green, with little flecks of brown in them that matched her hair. She wore what looked like dark gray cargo pants full of pockets, and a brown leather jacket of some kind.

“Sandoval,” she breathed out, more emotion filling that single word than I could have put in an entire book. Her eyes widened, and then she abruptly flung herself that way. Sands had time to make a choked noise before her mother hauled her up, and the two were embracing tightly.

“Mom, Mommy, Mom,” Sands was openly sobbing as she clung to her mother. Her words were pretty much babbling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t–I didn’t go. I didn’t go with you, I’m sorry. I should’ve gone, I should’ve gone with you, I could’ve been, I’m sorry, Mommy, it was dumb and I was trying to sleep but I wanted to go, I’m sorry, I wanted to see the whales, Mommy. Please, please.” At that point, the girl simply dissolved into completely incoherent stammering that itself faded quickly as she just held tight to her mom, burying her face into the woman’s shoulder.

“Oh, baby. My baby. Sandoval. It’s okay.” Holding her little girl close, Larissa kissed the top of her head and rocked her a little. “I’m here, my girl. My little Sandy. I’m here, I’m right here. I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you. I’m here, my sweet little girl.” She kissed her daughter’s head again, nuzzling her tenderly. Both were crying.  

Maybe it should have surprised or confused me, at least a little bit, that the woman knew exactly which one of her twin daughters she was holding so quickly even after being separated from them for about seven years. But somehow… it didn’t. She was their mother. She just knew.

Turning away to give them a little bit of privacy, I tried not to think about my own mother. My mom. What was she doing right then? It had been months since I’d even been able to talk to her, and that had been through her monkey-figure. And before that, it had been… a sharp pang hit my stomach, and I gave a sharp shake of my head. Focus, Flick. Don’t be jealous. I was happy for Sands. Happier than I could possibly explain. Hell, she had spent most of the intervening years thinking that her mother was dead. To be reunited like this, it was… beautiful.

A voice said something beside me, and I looked over quickly to find Jokai there. Not that it was super-easy to see him, considering his skin kept taking on the coloration of his surroundings.

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a moment before asking inwardly, Hey, what did he say?

Oh, um. I could hear the emotion and longing in Tabbris’s voice. She missed her mother too. Hell, she had probably missed Larissa herself. H-he’s asking if he can go and tell the others that we’re safe for now, that we escaped. And that we should leave the mother and girl-child alone.

Smiling faintly, I gave him a little nod before holding up a hand for him to wait. Looking to the others, I announced, “We should probably check all those rooms we bypassed on the way up here. Unless…” Tabbris, translate for me, please? To Jokai, I asked, “Can you use anything up here to check how many living things are on the ship and see if we missed any guards?”

The response came quickly, and Tabbris translated. He says he already did that. It was um, it was one of the first things he did once we got up here, because he wanted to know if his people were about to be ambushed so he could warn them. He wanted to make sure they were okay. Oh, and he also turned off the ship’s security measures. The ones we didn’t destroy anyway.

From the look on the man’s face, he felt guilty about all that, like he was afraid that I would be angry with him for checking on his friends, or for turning off the security without being told to. As if it mattered what I felt. Shaking my head at that, I gave him a little smile that I hoped would manage to be reassuring. “Good,” I replied firmly. “Good job. See, that’s how we work together.” The words came from my brain in English, but by the time they reached my mouth, Tabbris translated them so that the chameleon-man could actually understand what I was saying.  

“Okay,” Isaac put in, arms folded over his chest as his three drones slowly revolved around him. “So for those of us who are out of the loop, that’s Sands’ and Scout’s formerly assumed dead mother, right? What the hell is she doing all the way out here, and… does that mean we have a way to get home now? Also, where the hell are we right now, and how far is it from those assholes? Oh, and while we’re at it, did she really just teleport an entire fucking spaceship and everything on it? Cuz I would really like to sign up for whatever god damn class teaches that.”

“It’s not a class, sorry.” The answer came from Larissa Mason herself, who stood there with her daughter’s back pulled tightly up against her front as she watched us. “Actually, it’s not something I could have done on my own. Not with the time frame that we were working with.”

Sands, clinging tightly to her mother’s arm, managed a confused, “But… but M-Mom, how are you here? How did you know to come, and how did you find us? What–what’s going on?”

“Oh, baby.” Brushing her free hand back through her girl’s hair, Larissa kissed her forehead. “It’s a long story. Let’s start getting everyone on the same page. I promise, I’ll explain everything.”

She looked to Jokai then, speaking briefly in Latin. Tabbris translated. “Sir, my name is Larissa Mason. I promise, I mean you no harm. This girl is my daughter, and these are her friends. I came to save them, but I am very glad to see that they have helped you and your people.”

After a brief hesitation, Jokai introduced himself, then repeated his request to go and talk to the other former prisoners to let them know what was going on. His voice was clearly nervous about talking to the adult Heretic, but he pressed on anyway, referring to her as Decanus Larissa.

Decanus, Tabbris whispered to me, it’s… it’s a rank in the Seosten military. A Decanus is the leader of a group of ten soldiers, a dec. They’re um, they’re basically like sergeants. I could still hear the longing in her voice. After so long away from her mother, seeing the woman who was supposed to have been pretty much another mother-figure to her before her disappearance had to be hitting Tabbris almost as hard as it was hitting Sands herself. It was obvious that she really, really wanted to reveal herself to the woman, really wanted to talk to her so very badly.

Don’t worry, Tabbris, I privately assured the girl. We’ll get a chance to talk to her. You’ll get to see her and let her know how you are, I promise. Let’s just find out what’s going on now, okay?

She hesitantly agreed, sounding embarrassed that I had picked up on just how badly she wanted to talk to the woman. By that point, Larissa had finished speaking with Jokai, telling him that his scans had been correct and that the ship seemed to be safe enough for him to go and talk to the other Alters. She told him to let them know that we would be in transit for a few days.

“A few days?” Isaac suddenly put in once Gordon, standing nearby, had translated the meaning. “Where are we going? Can’t you just… you know, poof us to wherever we need to be? Actually, we already teleported once. How come we’re not already where we need to be?”

Shooting the boy a look, I coughed before pointedly putting in, “I think what Isaac means to say is, we know that Professor Katarin got sent out here with you. Is he… is he close? Is he okay?”

The woman gave me a brief, searching look. Her expression changed for just a brief second as she met my gaze before getting herself under control. “Yes, Ulysses is alright. But he’s not here. We… “ She paused, considering her words. “When we got the message that you needed help, and where you were, there wasn’t time to get here normally, let alone with enough power to set off a spell that could transport an entire ship this size. That world that you were on has some powerful shields around it. It took pretty much all we had just to transport one person through with a strong enough mass transport spell to get this ship out of there. The others put everything they had into it. Even then, we couldn’t bring this ship all the way to where we are. We’ll have to go the rest of the way under the ship’s own power. Which, as I said, will take a few days.”

She gave a little smile then, clearly trying to reassure us as she hugged her daughter even tighter against herself. “Don’t worry. Like I said, Professor Katarin is fine. He exhausted himself with those spells, but he and the others should be recovered by the time we get back there.”

Right, so teleporting right past all the Seosten defenses and then transporting this entire giant ship somewhere else in the galaxy wasn’t something that Sands’ and Scout’s mother had done all by herself. It had taken a group effort from her, Professor Katarin, and Vanessa and Tristan’s father. And now we just had to be patient while the ship flew to meet the others. I could handle that, honestly. Aside from the sharp, painful reminder that Avalon and Shiori were still something like billions of lightyears away and that I was actually not any closer to having a way to get back to them, I really did need the downtime after what we had just gone through. Plus, it would give me a chance to talk to Larissa before things got crazy again. And I really needed to talk to her.

Jokai excused himself once more then, heading for the doorway with a brief promise that he would come right back and get the ship going as soon as he had a chance to talk to the others. Larissa assured him that we were far enough away from any Seosten ships that he could take his time, and that she would work on making sure the ship stayed undetected before we set off.

“I’ll, um,” Jazz started before hesitating. “I’ll go with him.” She gave Jokai a brief glance before straightening. “Not because I don’t trust him or anything,” the girl put in quickly. “Just because, you know, I can’t, um, do much up here anyway.” Looking self-conscious, her mouth opened and shut for another moment before she coughed and looked away, clearly uncomfortable.

“I’ll go with too,” Gordon put in. He nodded to his teammate, adding simply, “I can translate.”

Jokai babbled another long thank you, and the three of them started out. After a moment, Isaac shrugged and followed suit while muttering something about knowing how to read a room.

Which left Larissa, Sands, Roxa, and me. Sands was busy clinging to her mother, apparently trying to fit the million conversations that they had missed out on over the past seven years into a single five-minute time frame. I couldn’t blame her. If it had been my mother standing there in person after all this time, I probably would have been an even bigger wreck than Sands was. Hell, I would’ve been surprised if I managed to get coherent words out for the first couple hours.

Roxa stepped over close to me, dropping her voice to a whisper. “She was the one, wasn’t she?” the girl asked quietly, giving me a significant look while Gidget nosed up against my leg.

I nodded, reaching down to rub the cyberform cougar’s head absently. In turn, Gidget butted my hand before squinting at me pointedly. Realizing what she wanted, I quickly told Jaq and Gus to shift out of their weapon forms, before putting both of the mice on Gidget’s back. Before they could take off, however, I held up a hand. “Hey, don’t forget your brother, you guys. He gets to play too.” With that, I passed Herbie to them, letting the mice take the rock before they all went off to a corner of the bridge to do… whatever robot animals and pet rocks did in their downtime.  

“You are one really, really fucking weird girl,” Roxa pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

I shrugged, smiling despite myself. “I know, it’s goofy. But if we just forget how to be silly, if we’re all grr serious all the time, then… I mean, it kind of seems like what’s the point? I can be completely serious when I need to be. I’m not crazy or anything. I know what’s real and what’s not… usually. But in a situation like this, what does it hurt to goof around a little bit? It helps me remember that we’re different than they are. It helps me feel… well, sane. Maybe that’s dumb.”

“No.” Roxa shook her head. “No, I get it. You’re weird, but sometimes it’s good to be weird.”

Nodding, I glanced the other way before murmuring, “We should let Sands and her mom have some time alone. They deserve it.” God, did they ever deserve it. If I had my way, we would have walked off and left those two alone for a solid month before doing anything else, just so they could have the time they needed. Hell, while I was at it, I would’ve had Scout here too.

“Wait.” Larissa spoke up. She straightened, still holding onto her daughter tightly as she looked me up and down a little searchingly. “You’re… you’re Felicity, right? Felicity Chambers.”

“Wait, you know her, Mom?” Sands blurted before realizing. “Oh, from Professor Katarin.”

“And from something else,” her mother replied quietly. “Something that we need to talk about before this goes any further. Actually, there’s a lot that we need to talk about. But this is more important. I need to know if she…” She winced, looking to Roxa. “I’m sorry, this is going to sound unbelievably rude and wrong. But could you excuse us for just a few minutes, Miss…”

“Roxa,” the girl replied easily. “Roxa Pittman. And uh, it’s okay. I kind of know already. But I’ll step out in the corridor anyway, make sure nobody comes back in here while you’re… busy.”

“You know what–” Cutting herself off, Larissa glanced from the other girl to me and back again, her expression searching before her eyes widened with sudden realization. “Oh, my God. You really do know. And you–” She snapped her gaze back to me, taking a step closer. “You know, and you’re okay. She’s okay? She talked to you, and you’re… and you’re both alright?”

I nodded quickly at that. “I know about her. We’ve been talking for a couple weeks now. It’s kind of a long story, but yeah. She’s okay. She’s really… she’s really helped a lot. She’s amazing.”

“Um.” Sands was squinting back and forth at us, her expression completely (understandably) lost. “Could someone throw me a freaking bone here? What the hell are you guys talking about? Who’s amazing? What–how do you know Flick, Mom? How did you–what’s going on?”

Roxa gave me a nod before stepping outside to watch the corridor out there, while Larissa turned her daughter around to face her. “Okay, sweetie, we need to show you something very important. It’s probably going to make you… it’s probably going to scare you. But I promise, it’s alright, okay? Felicity–Flick is just fine. Everything is fine, alright? I promise, it’s okay.”

“But what’s okay?” Sands demanded, sounding just as confused. “I don’t understand.”

“Sands,” I spoke up then, meeting the girl’s gaze. “Your mom’s right. This is probably going to freak you out. But I swear, there’s nothing wrong. It’s me. It’s always been me, and it’ll still be me afterward, okay? Just hear us out, and… okay,” I shook my head. “Literally everything we’re saying right now is probably just making her feel even more freaked out. So let’s just show her.”

Carefully taking her daughter’s arm so that she wouldn’t do anything crazy, Larissa nodded to me. “Go ahead,” she announced, “it’s long past time that we all met face to face anyway.”

Sands opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean. Meanwhile, I focused inwardly. It’s okay, Tabbris. You can come out now. You wanna see Larissa, right?

Y-yes. There was an intense, incredible longing in the Seosten girl’s response. I do. I-I…Trailing off, I felt her nervousness and longing build for the next few seconds until she finally went for it.

Sands was talking. “Would someone please just stop beating around the bush and tell me what–” She stopped in mid-sentence then, as the glowing figure stepped out of me. Her mouth fell open in total and complete shock while she watched the glowing shape resolve itself into the little blonde girl, who stood there nervously shifting from foot to foot.

“Wh-wha–what–” Stammering incoherently for a few seconds, Sands finally blurted, “Your inner child is fucking tangible?!” Her hands flailed briefly. “I mean–wait, no. You’re a… you’re a Seosten. But–but–”

“Sands,” I cut in. “It’s still me. I’m still me. See? All me. This… this is Tabbris.”

“But you–you were possessed?!” I was pretty sure there was almost nothing that could have shocked Sands more in that moment. Nothing, that was, except for when her mother took a knee and held her arms out.

“Come here, sweetie,” she called to Tabbris. “It’s okay.”

That was all it took. The little girl, who had been shifting nervously and cringing with every word that Sands spoke, quickly darted that way. She leapt the last few feet, throwing herself at Larissa, who caught the girl and brought her close into a hug that was almost as tight as the one that she had given her daughter.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered to the girl as Tabbris clung to her and whimpered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. You’re such a brave girl. Such a brilliant, brilliant brave girl.” To her actual daughter, she explained, “Sandy, this is Tabbris. She’s… Sariel’s daughter. I don’t know how much you–”

“Sariel’s daughter, like Vanessa? I–” Sands stopped. “Never mind. I am so beyond confused and lost right now, but I don’t care. You’re sure she’s okay?” She looked over to me.

I nodded. “She’s definitely okay. She protected us. She helped us. We’d be dead or enslaved if it wasn’t for her. She’s protected us a thousand times over.”

“Then you know what?” Shrugging pointedly, Sands announced, “For now, that’s good enough for me.”

And with that, she stepped over and embraced her mother and Tabbris, hugging onto them both.

There were still a lot of questions that we had to get through, a lot of problems to deal with. I had no doubt that all of this was going to get much worse. We were nowhere near getting home, still lost on the far side of the universe, surrounded by one of the most powerful evil empires that had ever existed. But for this one moment, as I watched Larissa’s reunion with both her daughter and Tabbris, all I could think was one thing.

Everything we have to do, everything we go through. All the pain, effort, and work. Everything, for moments like this.

It’s all worth it.

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