Interlude 36A – Trice

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Every day was the same. Wake up, find breakfast waiting on a small tray in the middle of the tiny cell. Then he would spend the first part of the morning exercising as much as the cramped space allowed, including some work with the free weights that the Crossroads Headmistress had spelled to pop into the room at that time before disappearing again exactly sixty minutes later. Not that he could have used them to escape even if they had stayed permanently.

After that, Trice would spend the rest of the morning studying. Sinclaire had set educational books to pop into the cell at that time. Not that he had the faintest fucking clue what the point of that was, unless the bitch just couldn’t get over her compulsive need to educate everyone.

Either way, he would study the college-level textbooks until lunch, when more food would arrive. In the afternoon, there would be a random test focusing on one of the subjects from that morning. He never knew which one it would be, so he had to study all of them. And the reason he studied at all was because of the reward. If he failed the test (which in Sinclaire’s world was apparently anything worse than a C), he was only given more study materials to work on.

However, if he passed the test with a C, he was given a choice of fictional books to read for the rest of the day, including through dinner. A B would earn books and his choice of music, while an A earned the above as well as a single movie that would be projected on the wall of the cell during and after his supper. Then it would be lights out around ten in the evening, before they repeated the exact same thing the next day. This had been going on for so long that Trice had lost track of what day it was. Or even what month. He asked now and then and was told, but he didn’t know if he believed the answer. And lately it hadn’t seemed to matter. One day was the same as any other. Who cared what the actual date was?

That particular day started like any other. The boy opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling of the cell for a few long, quiet seconds before he slowly sat up. Turning on the cot, he put his feet down on the bare cement floor while staring down at them. Another day that would be just like any of the others. Would Sinclaire visit him that day? She hadn’t for awhile. It was like she was distracted by something else. Something more important than him. He knew that someone was at least making sure he was still alive and getting all of his food, study materials, and rewards, but whether it was Sinclaire or someone else, they didn’t deign to interact with him.

Words echoed within his head as he sat there, staring at the floor. Hannah’s words, accusing him of helping the people who had fucked with his brother’s head to make the boy attack her. Her vicious, emotional diatribe about how the two of them could have made the monsters pay for what they did to Torv, but that he had actually been helping them instead. Accusations bounced around wildly inside the boy’s head so much that he had long-since lost track of whether they came from things that Hannah had actually said… or what he himself thought.

Was is it true? Had they been helping the same people who engineered Torv’s death? At the time, he had denied it the same as he denied all of her excuses. The girl had clearly led his brother on all that time, and then attacked him for making a move. That was what he told himself, anyway. She deserved to be put down for killing his brother. Didn’t she?

Or did he feel guilty himself for his part in things? After all, he had been the one to tell Torv to make his move when the boy had come to him confessing all the feelings that he had for the girl. He’d been going on and on about how much he wanted her, to the point of obsession. Trice had told him to go for it, had encouraged him to take the leap and get in on that while he could.

Their entire conversation had played itself out in the boy’s head over and over again, unrelentingly for months. Was what he had seen as simple, possibly incredibly drunk enthusiasm and ranting about love actually Torv being affected by some magical spell? Had he himself contributed to it by encouraging the boy to make his move?

Had he helped to send his own brother to his death by not recognizing that his mind had been affected somehow? Could he have stopped it? Could he have saved his brother’s life right then?

Had he been helping the same monsters who engineered Torv’s death in the first place?

Seosten. That’s what Sinclaire had called them during one of their brief conversations. The Seosten had been his mysterious benefactors, the ones who had hated Hannah so much and seemed to have such unlimited resources. According to Sinclaire, the Seosten were the monsters behind Torv’s death, as well as a bunch of other shit.

With those thoughts weighing even more heavily on his mind than usual, Trice reached down for the breakfast tray. His fingers found nothing, and the boy turned slightly to look for it.

There was no tray. No breakfast at all. It wasn’t there. That never happened, never. For all that he might complain about the time he had spent locked up in here like an animal, there had always been plenty of food and water for him. Slowly, the boy frowned before raising his gaze for the first time to the rest of the cell.

The door was open. That was the first thing that he noticed. It was just sitting open. And beyond, he saw trees and sand, rather than the same dull cement room that had always been there before. Trees and sand? Open cell door? Now how was Sinclaire trying to fuck with his head?

For a few long seconds, the boy didn’t even move. He remained seated there on the cot, half-convinced that the Crossroads Headmistress, or even Hannah herself, were about to reveal themselves. But nothing happened. No one was there. It was just… an open door.

Well shit, what else was he supposed to do? If this was a test of some kind, he had no idea what the point was. With a sorry, the boy stood up, and moved to the open doorway. Hesitantly, he put his hand up with him space, expecting to find a force field.

His hand went straight through instead. There was nothing to stop him from stepping out. So he did just that, finding himself standing barefoot on the soft, warm sand beyond. He was on a beach somewhere. Not the Crossroads beach. There was no school in the distance. And the sand looked different from what he had seen of that place. It was even softer, lighter than the sand from that place. The sand was almost as white as paper. The nearby ocean was deep, deep blue. The whole place looked unnaturally, (probably literally) magically, beautiful.

One of those tropical birds let out a loud cry from overhead, and the boy’s gaze snapped up toward it. He saw a flock of them flying up there, disappearing into a stand of trees in the distance. His eyes followed their flight path briefly, until slight shift in the air nearby made his head snap back around, already shifting himself into a defensive stance reflexively.

A man stood there, a dark-skinned man with pale green eyes and slicked back short black hair. He was wearing black armor of some kind, with a pike that had an electric shock prod at the end. He wasn’t aiming it at Trice, though the boy got the general idea anyway. When he spoke, his voice was calm. Not flat, but almost melodic. “Your presence is required.” With those words, the man lifted his free hand to point down the beach.

“That right?” Trice started, eyes flicking from the man to the direction he was pointing and then back again. “And what if I’m not really in the mood to go that way?” It was a simple question, his tone more curious than actually challenging. He wanted to know where this guy stood.

The man’s response was to touch the trigger on his pike, making that pointed end light up with electricity for just a moment. He didn’t make a move other than that simple demonstration.

“Yeah,” Trice grunted. “That’s about what I thought.” With that, he turned on his heel and began to walk through the warm sand, letting the grains move between his toes. “You know, if you people were gonna take me out of there, you could’ve at least provided shoes.”

There was no response from the man walking behind him. Not that Trice actually expected one. This guy was just a lackey, a grunt doing his job. The boy also had no doubt that he wasn’t the only one escorting him. He was just the only one that they were allowing him to see. No, even if he jumped this guy, there would clearly be others ready to step in.

“You could at least tell me why my powers still aren’t working, you know,” he pointed out after a few more silent seconds had passed. “I’m out of the cell, but I still can’t use them. If you guys were actually freeing me, you’d think you’d fix that too.”

Nothing. No response. Apparently he wasn’t important enough to be escorted by someone who could (or would) actually explain anything to him. Just like Doxer hadn’t been important enough for their supposed ‘allies’ to give the slightest shit about when he fucking died.  

Doxer. Poor Dox was dead. That Chambers girl had killed him. Which, well, they’d been fighting and Dox would’ve killed her given the chance, but still. Every time Trice thought he’d gotten over it, he’d think of something that Doxer would’ve said about this whole situation, and the fucked up reality popped back into his head. Doxer would never make any more crass comments, would never say anything so fucked up that Trice just had to stare at him before laughing despite himself. The two of them, and Pace, would never get drunk and take shots at some of the wild animals out in the forest surrounding the tree again.

Torv would never beg to come along, bothering them like the annoying little shit that he was.

That was still Hannah’s fucking fault, wasn’t it? The fuck did she have to kill Torv for? If he was fucked up by magic, if that was even true, then nothing he’d done was his fault anyway. So why did she have to kill him? That was still… it was still…

Fuck. Fucking fucked fuck. Where was something he could hit? Because he really needed it. This whole situation was fucked beyond belief. Torv… Doxer… and what about Pace? Was she alive? Was she dead? Was she still trying to free him or avenge Doxer? Shit, did she think he was dead too? Did she have the slightest clue what had happened, or did she just think that he and Doxer had both simply disappeared?

Was she still working for the people who had recruited them to do all this, who had set this whole thing up? What the hell was going on out in the real world?

For a few minutes, they just walked like that. Finally, he saw some kind of beach cabin up ahead. It was sitting right up toward the edge of the water, that end of it raised up enough that when the tide came in, the ocean wouldn’t end up in the cabin’s living room. Instead, the water would simply turn the area beneath the beautiful deck into a wading pool.

“Go.” His escort had stopped, and was pointing to the wooden stairs that led up to that deck.

“What?” Trice snapped back at him flippantly, “You’re not coming with?” Getting no response from the man other than that silently raised hand that was still pointing, he sighed. “Right, of course.” He saluted his escort briefly, then turned as ordered to walk to the stairs. Once again, he reached for one of his powers, any of them. Nothing came. He was as helpless now as he had been in that goddamn cell. Probably because these Seosten wanted to find out exactly what he’d told Sinclaire, and where he stood with them, before they actually let him be a threat.

A threat, right. If a quarter of what he had been told (or just inferred) about these fuckers was true, even with every power in his arsenal, Trice was about as much of a threat to them as a fly was to the truck whose windshield it splattered against. Fucking assholes.

There was no one waiting for him on the deck. Because of course, he wasn’t fucking important enough to have someone already sitting there. They would make him wait instead, probably to make that exact point. At least they happened to be gracious enough to have food ready, since they had stopped him from getting actual breakfast. A table had been set up with a veritable feast lining it. Tray after tray of various meats, fruits, cheeses, and desserts adorned every inch of the available space, along with another smaller table with coffee and juice waiting.

Filling a plate as much as he could, and taking a cup of coffee (while trying as best as he could not to cry at the very idea of actually getting coffee rather than simple water for once), Trice set himself down at the nearby empty table, digging into the feast with a ravenous hunger.

The stray thought about poison occurred to him, of course. But he dismissed it just as quickly. If these guys wanted him dead, they could have done so a dozen times before now. No, whatever their deal was, whatever reason they had for freeing him, it wasn’t to turn right around and  poison him. They probably expected him to be blindly grateful for their generosity.

Well, they could expect all they wanted. If these assholes were actually responsible for what happened to Torv, then he didn’t care how much food they offered, or anything else. He was going to find a way to murder the fucking cocksuckers.

Not that he felt any better about Hannah. He’d never liked her, even from the beginning. He’d never seen what his brother liked about her so much, aside from the irrefutable fact that she had eventually grown up to be hot as hell. Hot or not, however, she’d still killed Torv when he wasn’t in his right mind. But if these guys were more responsible, he would make them pay for it.

Okay, maybe the honest truth was that he didn’t know how he felt about the fucking Hannah situation.

Correction, he knew exactly how he felt about fucking Hannah. It was the same way most red-blooded straight men probably felt. But he didn’t know how he felt about the girl specifically, as a person or whatever. It was all so confusing and hard to keep straight. Maybe he’d fucked up by putting all the blame on her so quickly. Maybe he’d allowed his grief about his brother’s death to manipulate him into doing shit he shouldn’t have, into listening to people that he shouldn’t have. And maybe he’d said and done some stupid shit in general.

But what was he supposed to do, just completely forgive that she had killed Torv? His brother wasn’t in his right mind. What he’d done wasn’t his fault. He was a good kid, and Trice had promised to take care of him, had promised that he would do the ugly shit to protect his brother and keep him safe, no matter what.

So maybe he was blaming her instead of himself. He’d been the one who hadn’t noticed that Torv was being affected by some actual spell or whatever. He’d just thought that the kid was finally acting on feelings he’d been suppressing for a long time. Maybe ignoring all that and blaming Hannah had been easier, just because he hadn’t liked her to begin with. Maybe… fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck.

All those thoughts, and more, kept bouncing their way around inside Trice’s head as he finished his meal. Gulping down the last of his coffee, he heard movement behind him as the door of the cabin opened and shut.

Still, he didn’t turn around. “You know,” the boy muttered, “getting me out of Sinclaire’s clutches is really impressive and all. Seriously, I dunno how you managed it, but fucking kudos. Still, the least you could do is give my powers back.”

“A simple spell,” a female voice informed him calmly. “Well, simple for me, anyway. You’ll have your powers back as soon as I’m certain that we are on the same page.”

The boy snorted slightly at that, looking into his empty coffee mug for a moment before retorting, “On the same page? Is that the page where you tell me all about how you Seosten are the ones behind everything that ever fucking happens on this world? Or were you just planning on playing mind games to find out if Sinclaire already told me that part? Seosten, right? That’s how you say it?”

“Seosten?” The voice sounded amused, and Trice finally stood and turned to find an unfamiliar woman with short black hair standing there, watching him with a slight smile.

“Dear child,” the woman drawled, “whoever said that it was the Seosten who freed you?

“My name is Denuvus. Let’s sit down and have a chat about your future.”

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Desperate Times 36-06

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We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But what was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Mini-Interlude 64 – Haiden And Sariel

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Monday, March 14th, 1988

“Mmm, are you sure you have to go?” Haiden Moon murmured while his hand gently brushed through the blonde locks of the woman who had become his wife almost a year and a half earlier, after a brief, six month courtship that had partially involved them running away from their respective groups (a much bigger deal on her side than his). His fingers found the soft skin of her neck, and he rubbed in gentle circles. “Losing you for a week every year is going to get old fast.”

Laying with her head against the man’s shoulder while her own hand gently ran over his broad chest, Sariel gave a soft, sad little smile. “For both of us, I promise you that. This week away from you will be more painful than I can say. But it is… necessary. I will be back as soon as possible.”

Haiden gave a reluctant sigh at that, though the man was still smiling as he leaned down to gently kiss the top of her head. “If you insist. But I’m going to insist on a date day when you get back. You hear me? A whole day where we do nothing but spend time with each other.”

“Only a day?” Sariel teased, winking up at him. “I’m looking forward to a whole month.”

That made his smile turn a little more genuine, as the man pulled her back against him a little tighter. “That sounds like a good tradition to me. You leave for a week, then we have our month.”

Eventually, the two separated. Sariel promised to call whenever she could, and that she would be careful. Under her husband’s ministrations, she very nearly caved and agreed to stay. But this was too important. The things that she had to do, the things that she had to make up for, were too much for her to simply dismiss them. It had already been a year by that point, and the skeletons in her closet were banging against the door of her mind entirely too loudly to be dismissed.

So, after another (entirely too brief) lovely and energizing delay while the two made it clear just how much they were going to miss each other, Sariel used the spell to transport herself away from their cozy little shared apartment.

The place that she reappeared within was actually closer than Haiden thought. Far closer, in fact. Sariel hadn’t actually left the city at all. She was in the middle of an apartment not even three blocks away from her husband. She’d actually thought about renting out an apartment in the same building, but thought that would be pushing things a little too much. Besides, she didn’t want what she had to do here to somehow taint her wonderful life with the man she loved.

It wasn’t a very large place, being only a studio apartment. But then, the place didn’t need to be very large for her purposes. What mattered were the spellforms that had been inscribed over all of the walls. As Sariel glanced around, she assured herself that they were all there and intact. Good. The spells would perform several functions, including blocking her from any tracking spells. The home she shared with Haiden had much of the same features, of course, as did most of their clothing. But this was even more extensive. As she wouldn’t exactly be in a state to take care of herself before too long, making absolutely certain that she couldn’t be found was essential.

And, of more immediate importance, the spells would also ensure that no sound escaped the room.

After assuring herself the spells were intact, Sariel first stripped herself of all of her clothing, stepping out of everything until she was entirely bare. Then she made her way to one of the only two furnishings within the small studio apartment: a wooden dresser. Pulling open the top drawer, the woman extracted a pair of metal bracelets, with spellwork etched into the sides. Carefully, she attached them to her wrists. Next came a metal choker, which was attached to her throat with equal care. Those were followed by a pair of goggles that barely allowed her to see through the dark lenses. Still, she was able to root through the doors and find shoes that also appear to be made of metal, chainmail gloves, and a cap with spellwork drawn on the inside.

It made an eclectic outfit of sorts when all of those pieces were worn. But then, the point wasn’t to be fashionable, as she wouldn’t be stepping out of the apartment with them. Instead, once Sariel had each piece on, she moved to the room’s other bit of furniture: a small bed. It lay directly in the center of the apartment, surrounded by more intricately drawn spellwork.

Slowly, the Seosten woman lay on the bed, shifting onto her back. She stayed like that for a few long seconds, simply breathing in and out as she stared up at the ceiling through the dark lens of the goggles, in no hurry to get on with what she had to do. Yet despite her reluctance, the woman wouldn’t just walk away. She couldn’t allow herself to. Without this week, she would never be able to enjoy the rest of her time with Haiden. She needed this. They needed this.

They. The names and faces filled her mind then. They were always there, always just under the surface of her memory. They were the people she had hurt, the people whose lives had been harmed or ruined by her actions. Sariel heard them, remembered them, knew them. She knew who she had killed, who she had betrayed, who she had used and abused for the advancement of the Seosten Empire. The things she had done, even if she had thought it was the right thing at the time… she knew. She knew that she had done wrong, that she had ruined lives. And now, for the next week, she would pay a small bit of her debt for that. A small price to at least temporarily quiet the voices clamoring for attention within her vast memory.

One more long, slow breath to steady and prepare herself for what was about to come, and then Sariel activated the extensive spells covering everything she had just put on.

Pain. Agony beyond description flooded the woman’s body. The goggles made her eyes feel as if they were burning. The hat that she wore made her believe that her skull was being crushed while her hair was simultaneously ripped from her scalp. The bones in her wrists, hands, and arms felt as though they were snapping one by one, turning to powder before returning only to be broken once more thanks to the wristbands and gloves. The same was true of her feet and legs through the metal shoes that she wore. The choker around the woman’s neck cut off her air, crushing her windpipe and turning her resulting screams into desperate, choked gasps.

It only lasted for a few seconds before relenting, little more than a warm-up to give Sariel a chance to work her way into what was to come. Eventually, the pain would continue for minutes at a time rather than only a handful of seconds. In the moments of reprieve between those times, she would recover mentally while the spells surrounding the bed healed any physical damage that had been done. The spells there also ensure that she would not throw herself off the bed itself, holding her in place while the pain spells were active. Which also served the function of preventing her from closing her mouth while they were active, ensuring that she would not bite her own tongue off or crack her teeth together. She was, for all intents and purposes, completely frozen in place. Which was another good reason that the apartment had to stay hidden.

She was given a warning before the pain returned, a count of three slow beeps. The warning would come every time, as the amount of rest she was given between ‘sessions’ was randomized. As the beeps came, Sariel breathed out once more, unable to stop herself from tensing up.

Then the pain came, and her screams returned to fill the magically soundproofed room. Those same screams would continue throughout the week, while she would be given brief breaks to catch her breath, and slightly longer breaks for sleep, meals, and to clean herself up. But all in all, the majority of Sariel’s time throughout that week would be spent on the bed, being put through bouts of incredible agony. Agony that she could stop at any time, but never would. After all, the people she had hurt and ruined throughout her career in the Seosten military couldn’t simply undo that, now could they?

No, she would take the pain. She would suffer it for this week, in order to quiet those feelings of guilt that would otherwise overwhelm her throughout the rest of the year. One week of pain in exchange for one year of peace. She could live with that. That was the best way of handling the memories of what she had done, of the people and lives that she had destroyed.

One week of torture for one year of love. That was a fair trade, wasn’t it?

******

One Year Later

 

“A fair trade?” The disbelief, shock, and horror within Haiden Moon’s voice filled the small room as he stood there, staring at his wife. “You… are you…  do you really…” Realizing then just how serious the woman had been as she explained the truth of what she did every time she left for a week, the man felt hot bile rise up in his throat.

He had felt, had sensed her wife’s reluctance every time she went out for these trips, though she insisted they were necessary. Finally, this time, he had convinced her to share with him, to trust him enough to show him what the trips themselves were about. He’d had an idea that it was something bad, but this? Without seeing it himself, he never would have believed that Sariel was the type to torture herself. She was too good at bottling up the incredible guilt that she clearly felt. Apparently at least part of that was because of this. She would almost kill herself with pain for a full week, just so that the guilt over the things she had done in her previous life didn’t completely crush her for the rest of the year.

Seeing his reaction, Sariel cringed, her gaze dropping guiltily. “I’m sorry,” the woman murmured softly. “I know it’s stupid and wrong, but it helps. I just… if I put up with it for that long, if I can just deal with the pain for the week, I can live with the good things for the rest of the year.”

She chanced a tiny smile at him then, offering, “You are a very good thing, Haiden. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. But… but I couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t accept you, or our life, without a tradeoff. I have to pay for the things that I’ve done. The people that I’ve hurt and killed, my love, I can’t… I can’t be happy knowing those things. Some of my people, when they feel this guilt, they erase it from their memories. But I can’t do that–I won’t do that. I can’t erase it, so I have to pay for it. And… and the thought of being happy, of allowing myself to be happy with you while those memories are in my head, it’s… “ Her head shook quickly. “I have to give my penance. One week of pain for one year of freedom and happiness. It’s worth it, to me.”

Haiden listened through all of that. Despite his disgust with the entire situation and urge to simply grab Sariel and shake her until she understood that this was wrong, he stood still, listening to her words. He heard the pain and regret in her voice, the doubts that plagued her. He could feel her turmoil even more than usual. In showing him this, she had opened herself up to him even more than she already had. That wasn’t something he could just dismiss or throw away. He had to try and understand her. She had been alive for much longer than he had, had seen and done very bad things. Things that had convinced her that this was a good idea.

In that moment, Haiden did the only thing that he could do, the only thing that he could think of. Slowly, he stepped forward and embraced the woman that he loved. Now wasn’t the time for recrimations or incredulity. What she needed was understanding, as much as he could give her.

She resisted very slightly at first, her guilt and embarrassment over the situation making the woman stiffen up. But as he pulled her to him, she relented a little. He heard a tiny whimper escape Sariel as his arms wrapped around her, hugging her up against himself firmly.

“My love, my wife, my partner…” the man murmured gently as he kissed the top her head. “I love you. I adore you. But you couldn’t possibly be more wrong about this. But that isn’t your fault. As advanced as the Seosten might be about a lot of other things, they are pants on head stupid when it comes to mental health.”

Coughing once at that, the woman squinted slightly. “We are… pants on head stupid about a great many things, I’m afraid. But… I don’t know what you mean. I… I can’t just forget the things that I’ve done, Haiden. How could I let myself be happy with you when the people I’ve killed, the lives I’ve ruined… everything I’ve done is still there? I can’t ignore that, I won’t.”

Shaking his head at that while holding the woman to him, Haiden replied, “I wouldn’t ask you to. That’s not the point. I–” He stopped, considering his next words before stepping back while keeping his hands on Sariel’s shoulders. Meeting her gaze, he murmured, “Trust me for a minute, okay?”

“I trust you for every minute,” was her immediate response, as her hands moved up to rest on his.

With a brief smile at that, Haiden moved one hand to his pocket, producing a scrap of plastic with a spell on it that, when activated, summoned a pair of comfortable chairs. Once they were in place, he directed his wife to sit down in one while he took the other, directly across from her.

“Now,” the man started, “would you… consider trying something new, something different than… this?” With one hand, he gestured to the bed where the (not to put too fine of a point on it) torture devices had been laid out.

Biting her lip at that, the blonde woman met his gaze a little guiltily. “Something different? I… what is it?”

Several snarky, sarcastic responses sprang to the man’s mind and tongue right then. But he swallowed them back. Now wasn’t the time for it. His wife needed gentleness right now. She had opened herself up to him, had shown him what was probably her greatest secret: her guilt and how she tried to cope with it.

Instead, Haiden carefully answered, “You were handling this wrong. The guilt, I mean. You were dealing with it wrong. By which I mean you weren’t dealing with it at all. I love you, but torturing yourself isn’t how you deal with that kind of guilt.”

His words made Sariel shake her head in obvious confusion. “I told you, I can’t just erase the memories.”

“That’s not how you deal with it either,” the man retorted. “I… look, I don’t know exactly how it works in the Seosten Empire and all that, but clearly the answer is ‘not that well’ if erasing memories or torturing yourself are the top two options that come to mind.”

She still looked lost, as Haiden reached across to take her hands. With a gentle squeeze, he met the woman’s gaze once more. “Tell me,” he started quietly. “Tell me about the first thing that comes to your mind, the first thing that you feel guilty about. It doesn’t have to be the worst thing that you’ve done, or even the first thing that you think was wrong. Just… the first thing that you can think of.”

The suggestion made her flinch a little, glancing down before slowly lifting her eyes once more as he squeezed her hands tighter. “Tell you?” she echoed with obvious reluctance at the very thought.

He nodded then. “Yes, love. Because that’s how you deal with this guilt. You talk about it. You want to deal with the fact that you’ve killed people, that you’ve ruined lives? You don’t pay for that by torturing yourself once a year. You deal with it by keeping them alive, by keeping their memories alive. That’s the problem with those Seosten you mentioned who erase the memories. They’re doing the opposite of what they should be doing. If you want to help things, if you want to pay for what you did, you keep those memories alive. You share them, talk about them. That’s how you process that guilt, you talk about it. Maybe you can’t bring them back to life, but you can share their stories. You can share their lives. And, quite frankly, talking about things is a good way of getting the thoughts out of your head. At least for a little while.

“So please, whatever comes to mind, whoever you’re thinking about right now… just talk to me about them. Share them with me. I’m here for you, Sariel. I’m always here for you.”

Slowly, the woman stood up from the chair. At first, Haiden thought that she might be objecting. Instead, however, she simply stepped over to his chair and perched herself on his lap. Slowly, Sariel lay against him, head against his shoulder. As his arms wrapped around her, the woman let out a soft, relieved sigh.

And then she began to talk. The stories came, stories that continued not only for that one week, but every time throughout their lives that Sariel needed to talk, about her past, about the people she had killed or those that had been left behind. When she needed it, when the memories and guilt became too much, they would take the time to themselves so that she could talk about them. Because part of being married wasn’t just sharing the good times. It was also sharing the bad times, the terrible memories of guilt and remorse. It was him being there for her, to listen when she needed him to. Not to fix her problems, just to be there, to hear them.

That, after all, was what actually loving someone was about. And Haiden loved Sariel. He always would, and whatever came next in their lives, he would always be there for her. And she for him. They were partners, partners who would face things together.

Always and forever, come what may.  

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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Desperate Times 36-04

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Before we had crossed the length of the cafeteria to reach the door where Rudolph and Douglas were, I was approached and interrupted once again. This time, however, it wasn’t Zeke. Instead, Aylen Tamaya, the tall Native American girl who always looked like she belonged on a throne somewhere, stepped into view. Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, was perched on her shoulder, its gaze piercing straight through me. “Um,” she started hesitantly, “Flick. Hi.”  

The girl seemed strangely nervous, or unsure of herself, which I wasn’t accustomed to. Actually, I wasn’t accustomed to talking to her at all. Even though she was on a team with both Koren and Shiori, the two of us hadn’t really interacted that much all year.

“Err.” Blinking once at the other girl, I offered an equally hesitant, “Hi?” I had no idea what she wanted, but I also didn’t want to be rude or anything. We may not have talked much, but Aylen had never given me any indication that she was anything like Zeke. Actually, she had basically told him off back when he insulted Shiori when the girl was upset about finding out she wasn’t fully human. So yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to react to her the same way I had Zeke.

“I, um.” She paused, looking down at the floor for a moment before lifting her gaze to me. “I hope Avalon is okay. I don’t know what’s going on or why there’s all these people who have been trying to hurt her for so long, but whatever happens… I hope she comes back.”

“She will,” I blurted quickly, the words coming out a little more firmly than I intended. Taking a breath then, I amended, “Trust me, Gaia’s gonna make sure she does. But–” Hesitantly, I added, “I didn’t know you guys were… um, I didn’t know you two spoke that much.”

The response was another brief, clearly self-conscious pause before she carefully replied, “Avalon helped me with something while you were… um, while you were gone. She promised not to tell anyone about it, and–” Her eyes flicked toward the others behind me before she finished with, “I guess she really didn’t. The point is, I hope she’s okay. And I owe her, so if you… you know, if you need anything, if she needs anything, I… I can help. Just ask.”

With that, she headed off without looking back. Watching her go briefly, I bit my lip before glancing toward Shiori. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what that was all about?”

As expected, the other girl shook her head. “Uh, nope. I think they were working out a little in the mornings, but I didn’t know there was anything more than that going on.” Pausing then, she added thoughtfully, “Avalon’s really subtle and discreet when she wants to be.”

“Not that subtle is the first word that probably springs to mind when people think about her,” I pointed out with a cough. “But yeah, I take your point. She doesn’t go blabbing about things. I guess if she told Aylen she’d keep a secret, she really kept it. I just wish I knew what it was.”

Sean spoke up then. “If whatever Aylen’s deal is was relevant to our problems or something bad that actually needed to be talked about, she probably would have said something before.”

Columbus was already nodding to that, his voice a bit gruff. “To Gaia, at the very least.”

“You’re right,” I agreed once more. “Avalon’s not dumb. She’d have said something, or at least pushed Aylen to. Yeah, I just… I guess I’m not good with other people having secrets. Which is totally the height of hypocrisy, so I’m gonna let it go now. See, this is me letting it go.” Suiting action to words, I turned on my heel and began to walk to the boys in the doorway once more.

Whatever was actually going on with Aylen, I was sure it would come up soon enough. There was no need to rush it. Right now, it wasn’t like we didn’t have enough issues to deal with. Case in point: the person who actually knew what the other girl was even talking about had been abducted by people who were just waiting for the best chance to kill her. So, focusing.

And speaking of focusing, Rudolph and Douglas seemed awfully focused on me as we approached them. The two were staring, both looking like they were just about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, they just waited for me to speak first.

“Hey, guys,” I started before taking a breath. “I guess maybe we should talk.” When they nodded, I gestured. “Not here. Let’s go for a walk.” I could feel the eyes of so many others on us, could hear the whispers. This may have been a school that was known for crazy things happening, but I was clearly surpassing even those levels by this point. People were curious.

I ignored them, at least as much as possible. With any luck, something else would happen soon enough to draw attention away from me. Though I didn’t really want to think about what would have to happen to make my situation (or as much as the public knew about it) less interesting.

One person whose attention I didn’t ignore, however, was Professor Dare. The woman’s eyes found me from where she was sitting with a few other teachers. As she watched me questioningly, I raised my hand to give her a brief thumbs up before turning back to the others.

Together, the seven of us made our way out of the cafeteria, past the rec room, and out of the building proper. I led them across the grounds and all the way down to the beach, where we could have the best chance at privacy. Especially with a little help from one of those secrecy coins. I’d actually gotten out of the habit of using them while in Seosten space. Really, as dangerous as it had been out there, at least I’d been able to talk fairly openly for the most part.

Eventually we seemed to be far enough away and alone. After glancing around, I used one of my spare coins that had still been waiting in the dorm, before glancing to Shiori. “Are we good?”

She nodded, letting me know that the power she’d picked up awhile back that let her know if anyone she didn’t know about was watching her wasn’t picking anything up. Between that, the privacy of the beach, and the secrecy coin, we were about as assured of privacy as we could be.

With all that done, when I finally turned around to face the two boys, Rudolph was actually the first one who spoke, before I could. His voice even, if slightly curious. “Doesn’t seem like whatever you’re about to say is going to be the same story that everyone else is talking about.”

“It’s a little different, yeah,” I replied dryly. “But before we say anything else, we need to check.”

“Check?” That was Douglas. The skinny little blond boy, who was actually about the same height as me, frowned a bit at that while shaking his head. “Check what, exactly?”

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Check you guys, actually. Trust me, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand soon enough. And if you do know, well…”  

That was all I had to say. Because by that point, Rudolph and Douglas had realized that Scout, Columbus, Shiori, and Sean had carefully surrounded them. In the case of Scout and Shiori, they had their weapons ready. Vulcan was standing by his master, giving a very low growl.

“What–what the hell–” Douglas started, head jerking around as his hand moved to his pocket.

Quickly, I shook my head. “Stop, stop. There’s nothing wrong. Look, just… we have to be careful, guys. We just have to be careful until we make sure you’re you, that’s all.”

“Make sure we’re us?” Rudolph didn’t look any more happy about the sudden situation than his teammate did. He looked from the quietly growling Vulcan over to me. “What do you mean, m–”

Douglas interrupted him. “Wait.” His eyes were locked onto mine, and he reached up to self-consciously rub at the New York Rangers cap on his head. “Make sure we’re us. You mean…” His mouth opened and shut a couple of times then, and the boy looked a bit indecisive before lifting his chin as he came to a decision. “Are you talking about the Whispers?”  

“Whispers?” I echoed blankly, completely thrown by the question. “What do you–wait, what?” Of all the things I might have expected these guys to say at this point, that really wasn’t on the list.

The fact that I didn’t seem to know what he was talking about clearly confused Douglas even more than he had been before, and his head shook. “Then–wait, what are you talking about?”

Well, I’d have to hand it to them. If he really was possessed and this was some obfuscation tactic, it deserved some points for originality. Now, I was completely thrown off, and it took a moment to collect myself so I could focus on what mattered. “Err, right. Like I said, sorry about this whole thing.” My hand gestured toward the others, still ready for any kind of fight. “But you’ll understand in a minute. First thing, and I know exactly how bad this is gonna sound, but I need both of you to put your arms out so I can draw a spell on them.”

Douglas stared at me, his voice as flat as ever. “You must think that we’re complete idiots.”

Wincing, I shook my head. “Trust me, I don’t think you’re idiots. It’s just–just trust me, please. You guys want to know what’s really going on? You want to know what happened to Avalon, and where I’ve been, where the rest of your team is? You wanna know the truth about all that? We need to know that we can trust you. And that means using this spell. And if you already know what I’m talking about because you aren’t really you? Well, then we’re as ready as we can be.”

It was Scout who spoke up bluntly then. “Columbus,” she informed them. “Remember the woman who came out of Columbus? That’s what she’s checking for.”  

Briefly, the two exchanged glances. I saw the brief indecision there for a moment before Rudolph extended his arm. Pulling his sleeve up, the boy gave me a slight nod. “Do it.”

With a long, heavy sigh, Douglas followed suit by pulling his own sleeve up. “If that’s what it takes to finally get a straight answer out of someone around here, yeah, just do it.”

“Right.” Stepping that way, I plucked the field-engraver from my pocket. “I hate to tell you guys this after you already agreed, but this is gonna hurt a little bit. Sorry, we had an easier way to do this checking part, but it’s still with Roxa. So we’ve gotta do it the old-fashioned way.” Pausing, I added, “Actually, there’s a non-hurt way that we could do it, but that one involves me butting a lot further into your privacy than I think any of us are comfortable with. So yeah, this is easier.”

“Hurt?” Douglas was squinting at me again. “How much hurt are we talking here?”  

Shiori piped up then. “Don’t worry,” she announced, “you might think you’re in pain, but Vulcan spends a lot of time in agony.”

“Hah.” Despite the situation, I couldn’t help but smile back at the goofily grinning girl. “A-gun-y.”

“Oh, my God, please just write the spell on me.” Douglas was holding his arm out a bit desperately now. “Any amount of pain you’re about to inflict has to be better than more puns.”

So, I did. The boys hissed and grunted through the pain of the spell. But other than that, there was no sign that either of them were possessed. Which, as I’d mentioned earlier, I could have ascertained just by possessing them myself (I wasn’t quite good enough at it by myself to just start to possess them to check if they could be possessed without going all the way), but that would have involved me getting a much closer look at their inner thoughts, memories, and opinions than I actually wanted.

Either way, the point was that they weren’t possessed. So, slowly, I began to explain everything. I told them about the Seosten, about how Crossroads had been created, about where the others and I had been, about why the assholes wanted Avalon–and why they had actually taken her.

It took awhile. And by the end of it, Douglas and Rudolph were both staring at me. They looked, pretty understandably, utterly flummoxed. It was clearly all they had been able to do to stay quiet long enough for me to finish. And now that I had, neither had any idea how to actually start.

“You’re crazy.”

Oh look, Douglas had actually found his voice after all. He took a reflexive step back, shaking his head. “You’re completely batshit,” he blurted again, a little stronger. “This is insane. Do you have any idea how insane this sounds? A whole alien conspiracy, an evil Empire that created Crossroads and uses us to kill their enemies? What the fuck? You’ve lost it. You’ve all lost it.”

“We have all lost a great many things,” a new voice announced then, as Professor Dare stepped into view. “Unfortunately, their minds are not one of them. Miss Chambers is absolutely correct.”

Rudolph and Douglas both jumped. The rest of us didn’t. Mostly because we knew she was there. That thumbs up that I had given her back in the cafeteria had been a signal. Since we all knew that I would eventually need to tell Douglas and Rudolph the truth, Dare and I had set up that sign. It let her know that we were about to have the talk with the boys, so that she could wait nearby and watch to make sure that things didn’t go completely wrong.

I may have had a pretty good idea that the two of them could be talked around, but I wasn’t a complete idiot.

“Wha–Professor?” Douglas jerked around at that, his eyes widening even more. “What are you–wait, you’re not serious. None of this is serious, right? This is some big, long-running joke. It’s a prank. You’re just–it’s a test, right? Just a test. Some fucked up, crazy test.”

“It’s not a test,” Rudolph informed him before any of us could speak. The boy had been watching me through all of that, before he finally shook his head. “They’re serious about all of it.”

“A little too serious,” Sean muttered under his breath before sighing. “But yeah, it’s true. Every last word. Listen, a werewolf saved my life when I was a kid. Saved my life.”

“A Stranger saved me too.” That was Scout, her voice soft as she informed the boys of that much.

“And me,” I put in. “A vampire definitely saved me when I went home for my birthday. And they’ve kept saving me ever since. So yeah, we are absolutely serious about it.”

“Serious?” Douglas clearly couldn’t decide where to look. His gaze kept snapping back and forth between all of us. “You can’t be, okay? You just can’t be. You’re trying to say that our entire civilization was designed by evil aliens that possess anyone they want to and that all of this, killing Strangers, is all some big training exercise so they can send us out to fight their universe-spanning war against the Fomorians. Does that about sum it up?”

Professor Dare started to speak then, but I interrupted. “What’s a bigger stretch, Doug, that a race of aliens that can take over our bodies are using us as fleshy mech suits and to do that they’ve convinced us to kill anything that could give us power, or that of trillions and trillions of members of dozens if not hundreds of intelligent species that we know of, every last one except humans are completely evil? Seriously. Which one of those sounds more likely?”

That got their attention. I saw Douglas openly flinch. His mouth opened and shut before his gaze moved to the others, all of whom nodded, including Professor Dare. Finally, he dropped his head and muttered a dark, “Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh… fuck. But we–everything we–all the people that we–it’s our whole… oh… oh.”

That went on for a little bit, as more and more of the ramifications of what we were telling him sank in. I saw a hurricane of emotions cross the boy’s face, while he folded his arms against his stomach and looked physically ill.

Rudolph, meanwhile, didn’t look a lot better. He was keeping it together a little more, his reactions not quite as outwardly readable. But still, it was obviously an almost physical blow. His eyes closed, and he seemed to be absorbing all of it, working through his reaction inwardly and privately.

Finally, Doug lifted his gaze, looking toward Professor Dare. “This is a big secret, isn’t it? Worlds-changing secret.”

She nodded. “We don’t know how many have been possessed or were… compromised in other ways. Or how many would listen even if they weren’t. We’re working on solutions, but right now, there’s a more pressing problem.”

“And… and Jazz, Gordon, and Isaac, they’re trapped out there with these… these Seosten?” Doug was looking to me then. “Who are the ones that killed Paul?”

“Oh.” Cringing, I shook my head. “Umm… sort of. Listen, this is gonna be hard to hear, I know. Maybe even harder than the rest of it, in some ways. But umm… Jazz and Gordon are okay. Isaac… Isaac is….”

Taking a breath, I told them. I told them the truth, about what had happened. I told them that it was Isaac who had killed Paul, and that he had also killed Professor Katarin.

If they had been shocked by the overall truth about the Heretic-Seosten thing, that one left them almost… broken. Rudolph had taken a step back as I went on, before Shiori found him to put a hand on his back a bit reassuringly.

Doug, however, sank to one knee, his hand over his mouth. The boy looked physically sick. “No,” he murmured, his horror written across his face. “No, no. I knew he was… I knew he was a jerk, but not… not–oh God.” His hand covered his mouth, and he made a choking sound deep in his throat. “Katarin? He killed Katarin, and… and Paul. That piece of shit–that–” He was clearly trying for anger, but it broke into far harder emotions, as his words devolved into a weak noise.

Professor Dare moved that way. She took a knee next to the boy, letting him lean into her as the grief, confusion, and feelings of obvious guilt worked their way through him.

“I’m sorry,” I offered, feeling weak and inadequate even as I said it. “He’s imprisoned now, and I don’t think Athena is going to let him go anywhere or hurt anyone again.”

“She should kill the son of a bitch.” That was Doug, his voice hard as he looked up from where he was still kneeling with Professor Dare. “If he did what you said, if he–she shouldn’t take a chance. That’s just stupid. If he’s that kind of monster, then just end it and stop tempting fate. I–wait.” Frowning, he asked, “Who’s Athena?”

“Oh.” I blinked once then. “Right, I guess I haven’t told you everything. Um. Yeah, turns out there’s kind of a lot more we need to talk about, as soon as possible. But uh, that story took awhile to tell. So we’re kind of on the clock. If you guys really wanna help save Avalon, we could use you. Uh.” I nodded to Rudolph then. “You, specifically.”

“Me?” the boy blinked at that, hesitating before asking, “How?”

“Well,” I replied slowly, “how do you feel about helping to distract your great-great-grandfather, just in case he’s actually one of those ‘possessed by the evil bodysnatcher aliens’ people, long enough for us to wake up Professor Tangle?”

Douglas abruptly announced, “You know, I should’ve guessed that she was involved in this.

“Because if there was any single person who was absolutely going to play a central role in a plot this tied up in knots, it’s someone named Tangle.”

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Tristan and Vanessa

“See, Nessa, the real question isn’t ‘Can I name every Roman Emperor in order and list their birth and death dates as well as the year that they took power.’ The real question is, ‘Why would anyone in the world ever need to do that?’ And making the answer be ‘for a trivia contest’ is cheating.”

As he finished speaking, Tristan grinned across the long, hollow log that he and his sister were sitting on opposite ends of. The log itself sat a short distance into the jungle from the beach, and was large enough that he almost could have laid across the width of it. Not nearly as big as the trees at Eden’s Garden, of course. But still respectable.

Squinting at him, Vanessa sniffed the words, “For Heretics, that kind of information actually could be useful, Tristan. What if you run into a magical trap that says something like, ‘I was the first Roman Emperor to use the cognomen Germanicus instead of Caesar, move these floor tiles into the correct spelling of my name to turn off that poison gas’? What would you do then?”

“Well,” the boy replied dryly, “first, I’d congratulate Spielberg and Lucas for making their Indiana Jones movies a far more accurate depiction of ancient booby traps than I thought they were.” Pausing then, he stared off into the distance, smiling to himself while his mouth twitched.

Vanessa sighed. “You’re trying not to laugh because you said booby, aren’t you?”

“Technically,” Tristan answered easily, “now I’m trying not to laugh because you said booby.”

A tiny, reluctant smile played at the girl’s mouth even as her face pinked a little bit. “Come on,” she pressed, “we’re supposed to be testing your memory. And I thought you’d like the historical stuff more than the math stuff. Plus, you never know when any kind of information might be useful. It’s not like you’ve got limited storage space in that brain, you know.”

“Hey, if you knew how many baseball stats, X-Men comics, and movie quotes I’ve got locked up in here,” her brother retorted, “you might change your mind about that ‘unlimited storage space’ thing. Ooh, and Guitar Hero songs. Do you have any idea how easy that game is when you can watch a song once and then play it perfectly without even looking at the screen the entire time?”

In response to that, Vanessa stuck her tongue out at her brother before offering, “Make you a deal?”

Tristan was intrigued, raising an eyebrow. “A deal, the devil says?”

“Don’t call me the devil,” she shot back. “I’m the devil’s niece. Get it right. Anyway, yes, a deal. You take my thing seriously and memorize this stuff, and then you can teach me the stuff that you’re interested in. You know, the X-Men and baseball stuff.”

Blinking, the boy quickly asked, “You’re serious? You really wanna know that stuff?”

Vanessa nodded without any hesitation. “Of course I do. I mean, you’re interested in it, and I want to have more things that we can talk about. If it gets you to pay attention to the stuff you’re not really interested in, that’s just a second bird for the stone.”

Tristan grinned then, head shaking. “You know, Nessa, it’s a good thing I’ve got this perfect memory now.

“Maybe it’ll help me stop forgetting how great it is to have a sister like you.”

 

————–

Tabbris

 

A handful of fish scattered in various directions as the water was suddenly and violently disturbed by a small head covered in blonde hair abruptly shoving its way through the lake surface and into the space where they had just been swimming. Bright green eyes popped open then, as Tabbris, from her upside down position, tried to apologize for disturbing the fleeing creatures.

Of course, since her head was currently in the lake and she had not used any kind of spell to compensate, what came out of her mouth was water-muffled gurgling. Which was a mistake that the girl realized quickly, lifting her head out of the lake long enough to fumble at the pockets of her jumpsuit (Seosten technology meant that even skin-tight jumpsuits could have pockets of considerable size) until she found what appeared to be a keychain with a large number of small wooden discs, about the size of quarters, all of varying colors. There were some red ones, some blue ones, white ones, green ones, and so on.

Shifting straight to the blue ones, the young girl quickly flipped through them until she found the one she wanted. A quick tug yanked it from the keychain, and she whispered the activation word for the spell attached to it. Within another second, a faint glowing bubble-like forcefield appeared around the girl’s head. It wouldn’t actually stop anything that hit it with any force. But it would act as… well, an air bubble.

Suitably prepared then, she poked her head back down and looked for the fish she had frightened. “Sorry!” the girl called, hoping that some of them might hear. And even if they didn’t (not that they’d understand if they did), apologizing when you scared or hurt someone was just the right thing to do.

She heard footsteps behind her, slowly approaching along the wooden dock that she was hanging off of. The footsteps stopped, and the girl lifted her head from the water to find the very old-looking, knightly man in literal chainmail. “Miss Tabbris,” the man politely spoke, “are you alright?”

“Oh! Um, yeah. Hi, Mr… uh, Enguerrand,” Tabbris quickly replied while shaking her wet hair out a bit. She was blushing. “I’m okay. I–oh.” Reaching up, she poked the bubble while dismissing the spell, making it pop. “I just wanted to look at the fish for a minute.”

The man smiled a little at that. “Am I to take it that you like fish, Miss Tabbris?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh! I like fish a lot. I wasn’t sure before because I–I didn’t want to accidentally make Flick like something she didn’t, so I was trying not to think about things that I like very much, except when I couldn’t help it. But I think I really like fish.”

That kind smile broadened a little, and the elderly man (who had been around long enough to have diapered and babysat Flick’s mother’s father) slowly sank down to sit on the edge of the dock beside her. “Well, my dear, at the risk of straying from my chivalrous stereotype into one more befitting a far more modern gangster, would you like to, ahh, swim with the fish?”

“Uh huh!” Again, Tabbris nodded as fast as possible, her wet, blonde hair shaking with each motion. Then she stopped. “Oh. But um. I can’t swim.”  

“That’s quite alright,” Enguerrand assured her. “We’ll simply start there, and teach you to swim.”

“You–you’d do that?” the girl asked in an awed voice. “You’re not too busy or… or anything?”

The man shook his head. “Miss Tabbris, I assure you… as someone who has witnessed the birth, growth, and loss of so many people whom I called my friends and family, these are the moments that are remembered. Not the training or the battles. These moments right here. I try to make those memories whenever possible. So please, do believe my sincerity when I say that I would very much love to teach you how to swim.”

Finally smiling back at him, Tabbris chirped, “Okay, Mr. Enguerrand.

“Where do we start?”

 

—————

 

Apollo and Kushiel

 

Deep in the heart of Kushiel’s prison facility, two figures stood facing one another. One was held locked in rigid stasis that was enforced by the yellow light surrounding her. A yellow light which was projected from a ring worn by the other figure, who held his hand up that way. Bodies of those who had tried to interrupt the pair lay scattered along the floor around them.

“You know,” Apollo remarked in a tone of faux-casualness underlied by extreme tension and effort, “if I had it to do over again, I’d probably make the light green instead of yellow. Much rather be Hal than Sinestro, you know?”

Straining to free herself, the Seosten woman snarled an annoyed, “You are prattling nonsense, as you always have. One would think that you would have matured some small amount in the millennia proceeding your banishment. But then, perhaps that is hopeless optimism.”

Despite the fact that this was a struggle that was far more centered around magical strength than physical, sweat still poured from both Apollo and Kushiel from the effort of holding or breaking the paralysis respectively. Each was calling upon vast reserves of energy and stamina, their duel essentially stalemated. Kushiel could not free herself from the power of the ring, but Apollo couldn’t manage anything that would actually end the problem. The slightest slip at that point would have allowed her to move and therefore escape. Or worse.

Grimacing a little before turning that into a small, tight smile, the man retorted, “I see you’re still creatively reinterpreting my telling you all to go fuck yourselves. I’ve got news for you, sweetheart. When the guy packs his stuff, moves to a new country, changes his name, and files a restraining order, you didn’t break up with him.

“Ah,” Kushiel spat with a dark smirk, “but you didn’t choose to go by yourself, now did you? No, no, you wouldn’t have. You were counting on the one that you thought you could trust. You were expecting dear, dear, would-be sister to go with you. How much did it hurt when she refused? How hard did you take that betrayal, hmm? Everything we did to your name, every action we took to destroy that reputation and turn you into humanity’s worst villain, and none of it was as bad as what she did. You asked for her help, for her to join you, and she stabbed you in the back.” Near the end of that, the magically paralyzed woman was chuckling.

Shaking his head a little at that, Apollo quietly replied, “Betrayed? Kushy, does Sevesensiel ring a bell? Little code that those kids used to fuck with Radueriel? I gave it to Sariel when I left, just in case she ever needed it. Did she ever tell any of you about it in the.. Oh… two thousand years she had? Did she ever tell you about any of my plans? Did she even tell you that she knew I was leaving? Not much of a betrayal, then. Hell, she even told her kids about it, and it looks like they were smart enough to tell their friends.”

That wasn’t how Felicity had ended up with the code, of course. But there was no need to give Kushiel any reason to think otherwise.

“Sure, I was disappointed that she didn’t come with me,” he continued then. “But betrayed? Don’t be so dramatic. I know my sister. I knew she’d get there eventually. But she had her own path to take, and it wasn’t my place to force it. I wanted her company, I wanted to spare her some of the guilt that I knew she’d end up feeling. I wanted her to come with me. But even when she didn’t, I knew she would eventually. I just had to give her time. And if there’s one thing people like us have a lot of, it’s time.”

Straining even more against the spell that held her rigid, Kushiel gave a low snarl. “It’s too bad then, that you will have to wait even longer for that reunion that you have wanted for so long. Or did it escape you that the transport holding all of those prisoners, including the other traitor you care for so much, has disappeared? And with her twin children aboard as well. What an added treat that will be.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Apollo informed her, his expression unchanging. “But you know what? I noticed something else too. You were pissed off. When that thing disappeared, you weren’t giddy. You weren’t happy about it. You were mad, which tells me that it’s not gonna be that simple for you to go after them. So we’ve got time. And until we find them, I’ve got a good feeling that those kids can handle themselves. Besides, if you think Sariel is going to be a prisoner for much longer, then you’ve actually gotten dumber than I thought. And let me tell you, ‘torture everyone that hates me into having more babies’ was already pretty dumb.”

The anger and frustration in Kushiel’s voice was audible as she snarled, “I am going to make you cry, Lucifer. I will make you plead and beg for me to just kill you to end your pain. I will take away everything that you care about, make you watch your loved ones suffer and burn in your stead.”

“Even your threats are growing old, Kushiel.”

The retort came not from Apollo, but from Athena. The brunette Olympian had entered the room, moving to stand beside Apollo himself, while holding Excalibur loosely in one hand. “You’ve had over a thousand years to find something more creative,” she informed the other woman flatly, “and you’re still relying on the same old tired cliches.”

“You,” Kushiel growled the word, straining even harder against the paralysis.

“Me,” Athena confirmed. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Radueriel and Abaddon will show up whenever they finish licking their wounds. In the meantime, it may not be very chivalrous or knightly to kill a helpless opponent. But in this case…” That sword rose. “I think we can make an exception.”

Unfortunately, in the next instant, a figure in a dark cloak that obscured their identity, magical darkness of some kind enveloping the face under that hood, appeared between them. A gesture from the cloaked figure dispelled the yellow light around Kushiel, freeing her from that paralysis.

Apollo and Athena both moved, but the other figure was faster. Their hand snapped out, catching hold of Kushiel. Then they were gone, leaving the other two to explain to the just-arriving Haiden where his wife and children were.

 

————-

 

Harper/Guinevere/Lancelot

Boston, on the far side of midnight yet still hours from dawn. A dark alley, barely illuminated by a struggling streetlight on the corner whose flickering glow did little more than cast imposing shadows for half a dozen figures who needed no such help.

Six of them. Each a were of a different kind. Two wolves, one bear, a single coyote, a raven, and a snake. All were in their mostly-human phase, their forms just changed enough to grant them monstrous features as they loomed over their target: a slim, gray-haired man in a business suit whose wire-rim glasses had just been snatched from his face by one of the two wolf-men.

“P-pl-please, please, I have money,” the man stammered. “I have money. You don’t have to hurt me. Please.” His lip quivered.

“Hurt you, old man?” The mangy-haired werewolf gave a chuckle that was more growl. “Oh, the boys and I have been aching for a real hunt. But I suppose you’ll have to do for an… appetizer. Now the cops that show up to investigate once we make you scream…” He crushed the glasses in his hand, mangling them. “… maybe they’ll be more fun.”

“Father.”

The voice came from further down the alley, toward what should have been a dead-end. Yet a girl stood there, a girl whose bubblegum-pink hair and pigtails were at odds with the serious expression on her face.

To those at Crossroads, she was known as Harper Hayes. Yet to others, she had a different name.

“Gwen?” The old man, his once quivering voice turned to curiosity, tilted his head. “What are you doing here?”  

“Father? Oh. Oh this is rich.” The werewolf who was clearly in charge of his ragtag pack laughed, joined by the others (the coyote’s laugh was more of a high pitched yip that carried on far too long). “Never mind that bit about the cops. I think our evening’s entertainment just arrived,” the man noted while smiling broadly at the girl who was seemingly surrounded by the pack of weres. He stopped short of literally licking his lips, but it was a near thing.

“Father,” Guinevere quietly and firmly spoke, ignoring the supposed threats. “Stop playing with the children, please. I need to speak with you.”

“Okay,” the wolf-man cut in, sounding annoyed as he lifted the hand with their first ‘victim’s’ broken glasses still clutched in it. “I’m feeling a touch ignored and belittled here, and I–”

Night turned to day as light flooded the alley as fully as if the sun itself had risen to its noon position in that intervening second. The pack of weres spun as one, expecting to see the floodlights from several trucks centered on them.

Instead, they saw the same man they had just been terrorizing. He stood on the opposite side of them from where he had been an instant earlier. And from his back extended the source of that unnatural light. Wings, beautiful, ethereal, and seemingly consisting of pure, blazing light. They unfurled, expanding to fill the width of the alley while glowing even brighter, to the point of being nearly too much to look at. The collection of weres were left staggering backward, hands raised to block some of the light.

“Very well,” the winged-man announced easily. “I suppose we can cut to the good part.”

The weres ran. Or tried to. Spinning, each scattered, trying to flee toward the dead end, toward the girl, toward anywhere but that spot. One fled in the opposite direction, skidding right past the glowing figure on his way to the street.

It did them no good. Staying where he was, the man lashed out with both of those brightly-glowing wings. The energy-constructs extended, stretching to cut between the fleeing figures before abruptly slamming outward.  Of the five weres who fled further into the alley, three were caught by the left wing, while the other two were caught by the right wing.

They were killed instantly. The wings burned straight through them, cutting through every defense, every bit of strength or power they had. Their bodies were literally disintegrated, as surely as if they had been tissue carelessly tossed into a crematorium.

The remaining were, the snake, had just reached the street as the man turned his way. Rather than give chase, he simply angled his wing. A beam of light, as deadly as any ship-mounted laser, shot from the wing to envelop the fleeing figure. In a moment, all that remained was dark ash floating through the air.

“Now then.” The wings vanished, returning the alley to its previous darkened stated, as the man turned to face Guinevere.

“What can I do for you, Duckling?”

*******

“And now she’s gone.”

Some time later, as Guinevere sat on a bench in a nearby park with the man who had adopted her as a child and raised her as his own, she finished relaying the story of what had happened to Avalon Sinclaire.

“I promised myself that I would protect her. But I couldn’t be on top of her every moment. I thought she would be safe enough. I told myself she would be safe enough while I searched for the pieces for Arthur. But the Seosten took her. I let my guard down and they… they took her.”

She turned slightly, squinting at the man beside her. “Your people are very persistent.”

Not truly his people, of course. The man who had adopted her had left his own race far behind long before he’d ever met her, long before he had taken the scraggly, orphaned child under his (literal) wing and taught her everything she needed to know to one day become both the queen of Camelot and Lancelot, one of its staunchest defenders.

Once, he had been known to his own people and to the humans he first presented himself to as Quirinus. Later, the humans had known him as Romulus, a founder and first king of Rome. Later still, he had taken the name he was most known for in the modern age, a name he still used to the present day, millennia after abandoning his own people.

Michael. Michael the archangel, whose glowing wings were a result of his own genetic enhancements from a different experiment than the one that had created the Olympians. Those same wings, despite being present only within very, very few like Michael himself, had somehow become synonymous with all Seosten. Or angels, as they were known to the humans. Several more Seosten had taken to using magic to create wings that carried on that symbolism, simulating the power that belonged to Michael and that handful of others who were like him. But their magical wings were nothing even close to the real thing, a simple parlor trick.

“My people,” Michael replied then, “have been fighting this war for a very long time, and tend to react poorly to anything that might challenge their supposed superiority.” His head turned a little then. “But tell me more of the others, these children who oppose them. Tell me more of Joselyn Chambers’ daughter, and her friends. I have heard some from Gabriel already. But what do you make of them?”

Guinevere was silent for a few seconds, several thoughts working their way through her mind before she began. “Felicity is very intelligent and talented, particularly for her age. She is insightful, learns quickly, and adapts even faster than that. But she is still young, and very much in over her head. I believe that she could grow to be just influential and important as her mother, if not more so.

“But if she loses Avalon Sinclaire at this early stage, if the girl is ripped away from her like this… it will do more damage. She lost her mother, and spent a good part of her life thus far hating her for that supposed abandonment. To lose Avalon now would be… very bad for her development.”

“That was a very clinical and likely accurate assessment,” Michael announced then, nodding before his eyes met hers. “Now how do you feel about her, Duckling?”

Flushing a little, Guinevere glanced away a bit guiltily. She had been keeping her assessment as detached as possible. Now, she sighed. “I like her. She reminds me of myself at her age, except possibly not as hot-headed and impulsive. She could do a lot of good for this world, Father, and for more beyond it. But not if she loses herself here. That is why I want to help her, why I will help her. So much has been taken from that girl as it is. I’m afraid that a loss like this, if Avalon Sinclaire is truly killed, the grief of it may destroy what fire Felicity has. Or awaken it too early, into a flash-burn that exhausts itself and fades to nothing. A flame like hers must be carefully nurtured.”

“Speaking of those who are nurturing the Chambers girl,” Michael carefully asked then. “The headmistress.. What do you think of her now?”

There was no answer for a moment. No answer until Guinevere slowly lifted her gaze from the ground to look at him. “She seems to have changed. Perhaps she has. I believe she is trying, after all she has done in these past few centuries to make up for those dark times. I would be a fool to discount her efforts in that regard. But I will not extend more trust to her than I must. Not yet.

“It will take more to convince me that Morgan le Fay has truly redeemed herself.”

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Desperate Times 36-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I murmured softly. “Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me tell you a story about Jos.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They deserve to know all of it.”

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