Interlude 38B – Larees

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Larees, of the Tleken Choir, born on the fifth moon of Quoleinis, stared in awe and reverence at the item cradled in both of her hands. “This,” she announced firmly,  “is definitely your species’ greatest achievement, the pinnacle of your entire civilization’s growth out of the mud caves.”

“That,” Lincoln Chambers informed her with a raised eyebrow, “is a taco. With atomic fire sauce. Which you have… drenched said taco with. Are you sure you’re okay like that?”

The two of them were standing out by the lake as they watched Tabbris, Kaste, and a couple of the Seosten former prisoners playing with the toddlers in the water nearby.

In answer to the question, the Seosten woman took an enormous bite from the thick taco. A rumble of intense pleasure started in the back of her throat while she chewed rapidly. “Mmmph. Taco. That’s good. Just a little kick.” She took another bite, making equally pleased noises.

Lincoln shook his head in amusement, glancing from her to the kids splashing around under that close supervision. “Clearly we need to find you some spicier sauce.”

“Yes,” Larees agreed. “It could be hotter. I like it when my food fights back sometimes. Make eating a challenge.” She was  grinning as she said it, finishing the taco with the next bite.

She still seemed hungry, so Lincoln handed her the one he had been holding, along with the bottle of sauce. The woman proceeded to drench that one as well, quickly scarfing it down. Once she was finished with the second taco, Larees took a metal flask from her belt, twisting the top off before downing a long pull. “Ahhhh.” She made a soft sound of contentment while rocking back on her heels slightly. “Now that’s good shit.” She offered him the flask then.

Lincoln started to wave it off, before pausing. After considering briefly, he took the flask and gave it a brief, curious sniff. “The more I talk to you, the less surprised I am by the idea that you took a swing at your commanding officer for trying to make you slaughter a city of innocents.”

“Took a swing at, my ass,” Larees retorted. “I kicked that pompous shit-brain up and down the hallway. They had to pull me off of him. Why the hell would I stop at just taking a swing at him? They’d call it treason either way, so go big or go home. If I was going to be thrown into prison, I was damn well going in for breaking that irrumator’s arm, nose, and whatever the fuck else I could get my hands on. Took a swing at? Yeah, and fucking connected too.”

Lincoln shook his head in wonder. “I guess it’s like they say, might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. And yeah, absolutely not surprised by any of that.” As he spoke, the man took another sniff of the flask before tentatively sipping just a little bit. Instantly, he started coughing, eyes widening a bit as he sputtered at how strong the alcohol was.

Grinning, Larees gave him a couple hard slaps on the back. “There, see? That’s a real drink. Have another, it’ll wake you up and make you see colors that you didn’t even know existed.”

“I think one was enough,” Lincoln demurred while coughing another couple of times, head shaking in wonder. “Tell you one thing though, if I had hay fever that would’ve knocked it right out of me. Wow. I’m surprised you can stand up right now,  you’ve been drinking that all day.”

Smirking, the woman took the flask back from him and took another sip from it, smacking her lips a couple times. “Just gotta get used to it, build up a tolerance over a few hundred years.”

Lincoln started to say that he’d get right on that, when the pair were interrupted by Berlin, the young-looking portal-creating man with red hair and bright orange eyes. His species, the Abeonas, created the so-called ‘foldjump’ spots that allowed rapid travel all over the continent. Berlin had apparently worked for a group of not-particularly-nice smugglers before Joselyn had killed all of them except for him, sparing Berlin because he had been unaware that what they were smuggling had been child slaves. After dealing with all that, Jos had convinced him to turn over a new leaf to help people.

“Okay, okay,” the man started as soon as he was close enough for them to hear, “tell me you know where Gabriel is, or Misty and her brother. Or Enguerrand. Or–”

“What’s going on?” Lincoln immediately asked. “Gabriel had some kind of errand to run. Misty and Duncan are getting supplies. Enguerrand’s not back from wherever he’s been for the past week and a half.”

“Fils de pute,” Berlin muttered. “I’ll have to grab one of the combat teachers, or see if–”

“What?” Larees was frowning, clearly confused. “Is the camp in some kind of danger? Are the-”

“We’re fine,” the Abeonas man assured her, distractedly. “But one of the refugee groups I was supposed to grab and bring back here ran into trouble. I managed to grab most of them. They’re being debriefed and everything back there.” His hand waved vaguely over his shoulder. “But there’s a couple that ran into an old junkyard. They’re hiding, but there’s Heretics in there. Pretty sure I can’t get them out without help. But you know, who the hell around here is going to crazy enough to volunteer to distract a couple full-power Bosch Heretics like that? You’d have to…”

He trailed off at the look on Larees’ face, a slow cheshire smile that was accompanied by a slow, deliberate chuckle, her words equal parts soft and yet dangerous.

“Distract? Oh… I think I can manage a distraction.”

*******

“Spread out!” Three Heretics stood at the entrance into the junkyard. Two males, one female. The first male and female had waited, watching the garbage-filled lot beyond until their commander, the other male, arrived to give that order. “They’re still in here somewhere. Find the monsters, put them down. We do a full sweep today, you understand? Nothing gets out to terrorize any more innocent people.”

“Now that… that’s funny.” Stepping around a large pile of broken appliances, Larees put herself into plain view in front of the three Heretics, turning her head from one side to the other to crack her neck as she regarded them. Her hands were empty save for the metal flask, which she took a sip from. “See, I didn’t expect you to say something I could agree with like that. But here we are. Nothing gets out of here to terrorize any more innocent people?  Yeah, sounds good to me.”

The trio of Heretics looked to one another briefly before spreading out from one another. Each produced a weapon. The female held a tri-barreled shotgun, her male partner a trident, and their commander held a thin rapier in one hand and a chain with a blade on the end in the other.

“Crossroads?” the female asked, watching Larees carefully. “What do you want?”

“She’s not Crossroads,” their leader informed the others tersely. “Never heard of anyone over there with that kind of tattoo. Maybe a Natural, or an Undocs. Either way, she’s hostile.”

Larees, meanwhile, simply stood there in plain sight. She watched them, taking a brief swig from her flask before announcing, “I made a promise to someone before I came here. I said I’d give you one chance to run away like the cowards you are. Tuck your tails and flee and I’ll let you live. Which is a hell of a lot more of a chance than you would have given your victims.”

“Ignore her,” the leader announced. “She’s a distraction. Put her down and move on. Same thing stands. Nothing gets out of here. We kill the threat, no matter what it looks or sounds like.”

“Fuck it.” Shrugging, Larees let the flask fall back into its spot at her belt. “I did my part, gave you a chance. You want to keep going, that’s your funeral.” Cracking her knuckles, the woman asked, “You wanna do this one at a time, or all at–”

Her answer came instantly, as all three of the Heretics came for her. The woman took two quick steps forward before lifting that shotgun. At the same time, both males went to either side before rushing to fill the spots that Larees would have to move to in order to avoid being shot. As the shotgun snapped into place, a deafening roar filled the air, even as an enormous ball of fire in the shape of a dragon’s head emerged from the barrels. The fireball flew at Larees, expanding to a solid eight feet in diameter, the roar of the gun sounding like that of the dragon that the enormous burning orb had taken the shape of.

Meanwhile, the male Heretic on her left flicked a hand up, summoning a wall of earth out of the ground. At the same time, the other male Heretic created a powerful glowing forcefield to take up the space on that side. Together, they trapped Larees so that she had nowhere to go, leaving an opening just large enough for that ball of dragon-fire to incinerate her.

The fire roared and spun within the confines of the shields that had been erected, growing stronger and more violent, a miniature sun that the Heretics had to shield their eyes from. They were leaving nothing to chance. Whatever that woman was, she would be destroyed by the purging flames, with nothing more than ashes left where she had stood.

Or so they expected. So it should have been. But it was not to be. As the flames began to fade, the heat and blinding light dissipating to reveal the interior of that forcefield and rock prison. And there, standing in the middle of the scorched and blackened earth, was the woman, unharmed.

She stood there, one hand touching the strange phoenix tattoo that adorned her face. The tattoo itself was glowing, the blue-green light illuminating her face like a small flame.

“Good,” Larees spoke flatly, “now it’s my turn.”

“Take her down!” the lead Heretic blurted, already sending his bladed chain that way. It extended to much longer than it should have been, a greenish gas cloud seeping out of it. At the same time, the female thrust an arm out, sending a powerful blast of energy from her palm. And on the other side of Larees, the remaining male Heretic broke the rock wall he had summoned from the ground into a dozen balls. Metal spikes grew from those balls as he flung them at her.

The glow of that blue-green tattoo suddenly grew much brighter, as the image on the woman’s face seemed to emerge, forming not only the head, but a complete, fully three-dimensional glowing creature directly in front of her. In an instant, the fiery phoenix grew half as large as the woman herself, giving a powerful shriek as its wings snapping outward to send blue-ish flames in every direction. The force of its powerful wing-thrust knocked the incoming chain to one side, while the flying spike-balls were sent back the way they had come.

The energy blast from the woman, meanwhile, was simply absorbed by the creature. It seemed to suddenly glow brighter, eyes blazing with fury as it sent the same blast it had absorbed back out once more in a beam from its eyes that took the Heretic woman in the chest and sent her flying backward with a cry.

While the woman was knocked backward, Larees spun toward the leader of this little group. Even as the man yanked his chain back, she was already running toward him. Meanwhile, the fiery bird that had been her tattoo (it had disappeared from her face to assume the solid form it had now) focused on the second man, flying at him with a loud, challenging cry.

The Heretic leader reacted instantly, as Larees ran for him. He suddenly grew to twice his normal size, his skin covering itself in metal. At the same time, the thin rapier that he held transformed into a much larger weapon, the blade growing and extending itself as he swung it at her with enough force to cleave through solid steel.

At the last possible instant, Larees spun sideways to let the blade careen past her, missing by only an inch before it slammed into the ground. A foot deep, eight foot long and eight inch wide crevasse stretched out along the dirt where the sword had impacted, even as a cloud of dirt was sent into the air.

Then the woman simply stopped. She skidded to a halt and stood there, eyes glancing toward the blade in the ground so close to her. Raising one eyebrow, she lifted the flask from her belt, taking a sip while asking, “That the best you got?”

In the background, the Heretic leader could see his female companion slowly picking herself off the ground, her clothes and face burned but healing. Meanwhile, his other partner was having problems dealing with that firebird she had somehow created, stumbling back and forth while the creature filled the air with flames that somehow seemed dangerous despite the heat and fire resistance that all of them possessed. Magical flames.

He needed to finish this, now. To that end, the man summoned another of his powers, sending an intensely blue beam straight out of his eyes. The beam would freeze anything it touched. If this… whatever she was wanted to play with fire, he would counter her with cold.

Except she wasn’t there. One instant, the woman had been standing right there. But in the next, even as the freezing blast from his eyes turned the ground where their attacker had been into a solid sheet of ice, she was gone. Superspeed of some kind, obviously.

“You know what?” She was talking again, from where she had stopped barely a couple feet away. “I’m just going to say it.” That flask was at her lips again, as she took a swig before smacking her lips. “I’m not really impressed so far. I mean, are you just not used to someone who fights back? Would you like it better if I was a defenseless little girl so you could feel like a big strong hero when you murder me? Is that the problem?”

With a growl of anger, the man snapped his chain back, intent on making the bladed end cut straight into her back. But again, Larees was too fast. She ducked just before the chain would have struck her, letting it pass over her back before abruptly straightening up with the flask pressed to her mouth once again.

“Whooo!” the woman declared, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of the dark blue shirt that she wore. “Now that is refreshing. But uhh, you know…” She blinked rapidly a few times. “I’ve got a really good tolerance to this stuff, but it’s pretty strong.” Pointing at him with the flask, she blurted, “Hey, I know. How’s about you let me finish this off. If I drink enough of it, maybe I’ll pass out. I bet you could win a fight with me then!”

Belatedly, she seemed to reconsider, making a hmm-ing noise in the back of her throat while indecisively moving her head back and forth. “Ehhhh… fifty-fifty shot. With unconscious me.”

At that exact second, the female Heretic arrived. She had split her shotgun apart and folded the pieces out into two blades, which she drove at the woman’s back… only for Larees to easily twist out of the way once more.

She stood there, turned sideways to see both of her opponents. “Well,” the woman murmured while dropping the flask back to its spot on her belt, “maybe this could be interesting after all.”

Both Heretics came at her then, full-strength. They were in perfect unison, their weapons singing through the air like a symphony. They had practiced working together like this thousands of times, and the evidence was in their cooperation.

More than once, only Larees’ Seosten boost saved her life. Yet, even that wasn’t enough to avoid everything. She dodged and avoided the absolute worst of their attacks, but a few got through. She took a deep cut across one arm, another in her leg. Finally, a lucky blow to her side put her in just the right position for the metal-armored man to backhand her with his solid-steel fist. Larees reacted quickly enough to snap her head back away from most, but not all of it. And even the glancing hit was enough to make her see stars as she was flung sidelong to crash into the dirt. That was quickly followed up by a kick from the female Heretic that spun her up and over, falling once more, even harder that time.

“Okay,” the Seosten grunted while spitting blood, “maybe a seventy percent chance you could beat unconscious me.”

“Enough!” The bellowed word came from the metal-covered man, who strode forward while summoning a forcefield to cover Larees. She was forced down once more, flat on her stomach against the ground with only a small opening right at the small of her back that was just large enough for the man to drive that sword of his straight down through her.

He was right there, weapon raised to do just that as the woman abruptly whistled sharply. The sound filled the air, and both Heretics abruptly remembered their companion… and his own enemy.

Their eyes snapped that way, in time to see their badly burned partner stumble to one knee. His right arm had been entirely severed, and lay in a charred heap nearby. But they didn’t have time to help him, because the blue-green phoenix was right there. Its rage-filled scream briefly deafened the pair, even as the heat and light from its flames forced them to stumble backward, shielding their eyes.

It faded quickly, but by that point, the firebird had destroyed the forcefield that was holding Larees against the ground. As the Heretics focused once more, blinking through the fading blaze of light, they saw the fiery creature hover beside the now-standing woman.

Then it merged with her. Attaching itself to Larees’ back, the bird’s body sank into her, until only its wings remained. They were hers then, enormous flaming wings that stretched out to either side before tucking themselves in against her back.

“Kill her now!” the metal-man bellowed, already suiting action to words as he went at her with all the speed and strength he could muster. His body was a blur of motion, the sword cleaving the air as he sought to finally end this problem.

But Larees was fast too. Even more so now when she was merged with her firebird. Her boost was stronger and lasted longer. She launched herself off the ground like a bolt of lightning, flames trailing around her as she shot at the man.

At the last instant, the Seosten twisted up and over so that she passed just above the lunging man’s head. Her hand snapped down to brush against his shoulder.

And then she was inside him. She felt his confusion as she brought his body to a halt, instantly crushing his resistance, standing right there.

“Verdediger?” the woman, standing there with confusion, asked. She had stopped short upon seeing their opponent disappear, and now looked uncertain.

Slowly, Larees made her new host look up at his companion. At a thought, his memories were hers to read. She saw his bloodlust. She saw the innocents he had killed, all while believing himself to be doing the right thing. These three had the blood of hundreds on their hands between them. She saw no chance of reasoning with them, no chance that they would stop what they had been doing.

She had promised Lincoln Chambers that she would try. And she had. But this was a lost cause. They were too devoted, too taken by their own power. The three could have let those that had fled into this junkyard escape, yet they would not. They enjoyed the hunt, enjoyed their targets,  be they actual threats or… fleeing, frightened civilians.

They did not believe civilians existed. To these three, there could only ever be monsters. And nothing that Larees saw in this mind gave her any idea that it could ever change.

“Okay,” she said with this man, Verdediger’s mouth, “I gave it a shot.”

The second man, still missing his arm, had picked himself up by then. He and the female Heretic stood there, confusion written across their features.

That confusion turned to shock, as Larees summoned her wings once more. They grew from her host’s back, extending to their full, fiery length. The steel-man floated up from the ground with a single flap of those burning wings, hovering with sword in hand.

“Now I guess we’ll just end this.”

******

“God damn.” A short time later, Berlin stood there, right in the entrance to the junkyard. He was surveying the resulting carnage, orange eyes skimming over the trio of bodies. “When you deal with a situation, you don’t play around.”

Larees, back in her own body, shook her head while taking a gulp from her flask. Sighing in satisfaction, she looked toward her phoenix, which had separated from her to hover there nearby. “Okay, Ustrina. Time to sleep.”

Obediently, the bird flew closer. Shrinking down as it approached, the phoenix turned back into its simple head-shape before merging with Larees. A moment later, the tattoo of the firebird’s head was back on her face, as if it had never left.

Blinking twice as that was done, the woman finally focused on Berlin. “The civilians? You get them out?”

“Y-yeah, yeah, they’re good,” he confirmed. “Ready to take you home now. Hey, that… thing, how’d you get that? The fire… tattoo… thing. That’s a weird power.”

“It’s magic,” she informed him. “Rare magic. Hard magic. Only those who are part of a certain… group are allowed to learn it. You learn the spell, and the animal that you tattoo to yourself becomes your partner. It becomes a piece of yourself. You give it life, and it will aid you. Ustrina has been a part of me for… a long time.”

“Gotta be part of the club, huh?” Berlin lamented. “Guess that means you won’t teach me.”

With a little smirk, Larees shrugged. “You never know. I can tell you a little more about it, at least. In exchange for…”

“For?” Perking up a bit, the man raised an eyebrow curiously.

“You can take us to many places, yes?” When Berlin nodded to that, Larees’ smile grew, and she walked to the man to put one arm around his shoulder. “Eximious. I will tell you more of this magic, and you can take us to where they make the best.”

“The best what?” Berlin, blinking a couple times as the woman led him out of the junkyard, asked.

“Tacos, amicus bonus meus,” Larees answered with a broad grin.

“Take me to the tacos.”

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Interlude 38A – Asenath, Bobbi, and Company

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It was a rather eclectic group that sat in the buffet restaurant at the table furthest from both the entrance and the food, away from where anyone else was. Two vampires, one pixie, a human girl in her early teens, and a green-furred sabertooth tiger cub. They were, to put it mildly, a group that would have stood out to anyone who was capable of actually seeing through the Bystander Effect.

Of course, to those who could not, the ordinary humans in this place, they still looked perhaps a bit odd. To those humans, sitting at the table were a white adult male, a half-Asian female in her late teens, a half-black girl in her early teens, and a cat.

Namythiet the pixie, meanwhile, was basically invisible to humans. They would see her at first, or when she deliberately drew attention to herself, and then instantly forget her before they could actually react to it.

Halfway through her second plate, Bobbi Camren pointed to the green-furred animal with her fork. “I still can’t believe they let us get away with bringing Clubber in.”

Smirking a bit at that, Seth reached out to brush the cloth animal-vest that Clubber wore. The vest designated him as a handicap assistant animal. “No one wants to be the one to tell a handicapped person they can’t have their assistance or comfort animal. Long as we keep him away from the serving tables over there, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Clubber, for his part, looked down at the licked-clean plate in front of him before turning a yearning gaze toward the tables in question while making a soft whimpering sound.

“Don’t worry, partner!” Namythiet gave her animal friend a quick thumbs up while launching into the air on fast-beating wings. “I got it!” She flew off quickly to retrieve more food for the hungry feline.

From where she was sitting, Asenath raised her hand as if to say something about that before simply shaking her head and lowering the hand. “Never mind,” she murmured.

Seth chuckled, spearing a piece of very rare, bloody steak with his fork. “Might as well let them fill up as much as they want. This next one’s going to be rough. Probably the hardest one out of the bunch.”

“That’s why we saved it for last,” Asenath pointed out. “We’ve got everything else Gaia asked for. This is the only piece left. Well, that and the fact that we had to wait for a time when it was even reachable at all.”

Bobbi blinked back and forth between them. “You guys said you already got a piece of a dragon, right? Weren’t they supposed to be like the most powerful things ever? You made me write that report on them a few days ago.”

“Yeah,”  Seth confirmed, “and you totally earned that B plus. But while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that math homework when we’re done with this.”

The vampires and pixie had recruited Bobbi to help them with their mission. They had explained everything they were doing, at least as much of it as they understood, and the girl had wanted to help. Not to mention the fact that they could explain a lot more about what the hell was going on in this world than she had managed to put together in her time working as a superhero with her inherited powers. Thanks to them, she knew about the world of Heretics and Alters, and about the Seosten. And she wanted to help, really help.

So they had taken a page from the Crossroads book and convinced her father that she was being recruited by a private school, with a full scholarship and everything.

To Bobbi’s surprise, it had turned out that her new friends actually took the school thing seriously. They made her study of human and Alter/Heretic subjects, quizzing her at times, and even giving her homework to do. If she didn’t get the work done, she didn’t get to help. They taught her history, math, magic, English, even a bit of foreign languages. They took her education very seriously between them. Just like they took her training seriously. They kept teaching her more ways to use her power, as well as how to protect herself with and without it. They put her through an educational and physical boot camp of sorts.

Asenath and Seth seemed to argue a fair bit. Okay, more than a fair bit. But on Bobbi’s education and training, they were pretty much always in complete agreement: she needed more of it.

“Math, got it,” the girl confirmed before asking, “but what about this really hard thing. You really mean it’s worse than the dragon piece? I might’ve gotten a B-plus, but I distinctly remember dragons being basically the most powerful things ever.”

“You’re not wrong,” Seth agreed, leaning back a bit in his seat before adding, “Bits of dragon are probably more rare, but the thing we’re going after is still harder to get to. It’s… complicated. Let’s just say, we got a bit lucky with the dragon piece. This one’s more specific. That could have been any bit of dragon. But the thing we’re after now has to be this one. Well… there’s another, but it’s even more impossible to get to. This is the only one that’s actually vaguely reachable. Which means we don’t get to pick and choose a piece that’s less guarded. This one’s going to be a pain in the ass to get to, but we don’t have a choice. It’s the one we need.”

“Which is why you need to eat up,” Asenath finished for him, using her fork to point at the girl. “And remember the rules. You have the necklace?”

Nodding promptly, Bobbi reached into her pocket to take out the necklace that Namythiet had made for her. It was part of her agreement with them. If, at any point while they were on one of these missions, one of them felt that things were too much for the girl, they would give her the codeword. At that point, Bobbi was to touch the necklace and speak the word that would activate the spell on it. That spell would teleport her to safety.

They had sworn to the girl that if they told her to use it and she didn’t, assuming they all survived they would take her home immediately and leave her there. They only agreed to let her come with them and help on the conditions that she continue her schooling under them, and that she listen to all of their orders. And part of that was to retreat when they told her to.

Besides, Bobbi was pretty sure they had ways of activating the necklace against her wishes anyway, should she try to disobey and stick around. It just felt like something they’d do, given their obsession with keeping her as safe as possible while still letting her help.

By that point, Namythiet was on her way back to the table, carrying a plate laden with various meats. A few people glanced that way before turning back to what they were doing.

“Err,” Bobbi leaned forward a bit, lowering her voice reflexively. “What do people see when they look at that? Do they just, like, completely forget the plate, or think that they saw a normal person carrying it?”

“Eh,” Seth drawled while glancing that way, “you know, I’m not sure, exactly. Probably depends on the person, but I’d say… they mostly forget it. Yeah, they probably forget it.”

Namythiet had reached the table by then, carefully setting the plate down in front of Clubber, who immediately started to happily chow down on the selection of meat.

“See, buddy?” the pixie chimed while patting her furry friend on the head, “I’ve got your back.” She took a small piece for herself then before hovering over to sit in the middle of the table at the dish that she was using. “Hey, are we ready to plan out this job or what?”

Asenath gave a faint nod at that, taking a bite of her salad. “When Twister gets back from making sure there’s no last-minute instructions or advice from Sinclaire.”  

“Wait, when do I get to meet this Gaia person?” Bobbi put in quickly. “She sounds interesting. You said she’s like… the principal of the whole school full of these zealot guys, right? But she’s nice? How many other ‘nice’ zealots are there?”

“It’s complicated,” Asenath informed her. “But yeah, there’s some nice ones. And some really not nice ones. Mostly the latter at the moment, unfortunately. As for Gaia, you’ll meet her… eventually. Hopefully as soon as she can pull herself away from the school once we get this last piece.”

Seth grunted an agreement. “From the way she was talking, she’ll need everything pretty soon. Sounds like this spell she’s cooking up is gonna take some time to work.”

“Maybe she’ll actually tell us what she needs all this stuff for,” Namythiet huffed, clearly annoyed that she hadn’t been able to figure it out from the ingredients that they had been gathering. “Secrets are annoying, you know.”

By that point, Bobbi had been around the group long enough to know what that meant. “You mean they’re annoying if you don’t know what they are.”

“That’s exactly what she means.” The voice came from Twister, the final member of their group, as she approached the table. Like Bobbi, her skin was dark. She also looked younger than the other girl, though that much was… well, complicated, to say the least.

Sliding onto a seat at the table, Twister grabbed roll from Seth’s plate, munching as she continued, “Pixies like knowing secrets. Part of being sneaky little shits.” The last was said with a wink in the tiny, winged-girl’s direction.

Huffing at that, Namythiet folded her arms over her chest. “Hey, we’re so small, we have to take advantages where we can get ‘em. Part of that is not being noticed when people are talking about private things.”

For a moment then, Bobbi just sat in her chair and marveled at everything that had happened in such a short time. For a year, she had done everything she could to protect her small neighborhood from the worst of the monsters she found hunting within it. She’d had no idea about the wider world beyond, no way of understanding just what she was, why she’d gained her powers from the dead mobster, or why the non-humans who realized that the girl could see what they were happened to be so afraid.

She didn’t know anything. Then she’d met Twister and Asenath, and the others by extension. Through them, she had learned so much more. And now she was helping them do… well, she didn’t know what. And neither did they. But it was something important, that much was clear. She was helping them, learning from them. It was cool, but it was also dangerous.

And she wouldn’t have traded it for anything. She liked her new little family. She wanted to protect them, help them, learn from them. She wanted to be a part of them, even when they teased her.

She missed her father, and her imprisoned mother. But Bobbi truly felt as though she belonged here, with these people. Despite not knowing the group for very long, she felt close to them. Their problems were her problems, and she was going to help any way that she could.

“Yooooo.” That was Twister, waving a hand in front of Bobbi’s face. “Earth to space cadet. You okay in there?”

Flushing a little at the realization that she had been zoning out again, Bobbi quickly nodded. “Sure, yeah, I’m here. What’d you find out from the Gaia lady?”

So Twister told them, and the group finished eating as they planned out how they were going to grab what would apparently be the most difficult item on Gaia Sinclaire’s list of magical ingredients.

And once she heard what the thing they were going after actually was, Bobbi didn’t question why it would be so hard to acquire anymore.

In fact, she wondered if they would even be able to pull it off.

******

The horrific, deafening sound of a machine gun filled the air like the roar of a beast clawing its way up out of hell itself. Hundreds of bullets ricocheted off of the glowing, blue-white shield that Bobbi held in front of herself in those few seconds. Then the girl focused on the other aspect of her power: her speed.

Instantly, everything went almost completely still. She could see even more bullets almost completely frozen in the air. And beyond them, she saw the massive, eight-foot tall gray-furred figure holding the machine gun in one hand (he had a giant axe in his other hand). He was frozen in mid-laugh, head thrown back as he tried to mow Bobbi and the others down.

The others. Twister was a bear, one frying-pan sized paw currently busy slamming a green-skinned amphibian figure to the ground while his own broken gun lay uselessly nearby.

Senny had a knife in each hand, arms extended to stick the blades into the throats of two different figures. A short distance from her, Seth stood, surrounded by half a dozen bodies of his own.

They were in the front lobby of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. The place looked like any other glass obelisk, just like the buildings around it. But most office buildings didn’t have quite this level of security.

The floor was littered with the bodies of the men who were trying to stop them from doing what they needed to do. Some of them were unconscious, while others were dead.

The first time Bobbi had seen her new friends actually kill people, even if they had been bad guys, it had sent her into a spiraling nightmare of a flashback. She had been back in that store again, back in the blood of the man whose powers she had gained. It had taken quite awhile for them to talk her around afterward, as they had explained that some people just couldn’t be left alive. There was no prison to send them to, and they would readily kill many more innocent people if left alive.

But Bobbi couldn’t kill them. She wouldn’t go that far. She’d even made the others promise not to kill anyone she incapacitated, unless they absolutely had to. Maybe it was stupid. But… she didn’t want to be responsible for it. She didn’t want to be responsible for people dying. Or at least, not more responsible than she already was for helping.

It just felt uncomfortable. And wrong. She helped, she participated, but she wouldn’t kill. She didn’t force the others to follow her own moral code or anything, aside from not wanting them to kill the people she personally stopped. That felt like… like the best compromise she could manage. She was slowly starting to understand the world beyond her little neighborhood and just how dangerous it really was. And maybe she was just being a stupid little kid about it.

But she wouldn’t kill. She just… wouldn’t.

Her own form was a blinding blur of motion to the outside world then, as she sprinted around the incoming bullets, glowing sword appearing in her hand just in time to cut the massive machine gun in half. In the same motion, Bobbi threw herself up and around into a kick. Someone her size kicking someone as enormous as her opponent would normally, of course, do basically nothing. But as fast as she was moving, the impact knocked the man to the ground with a cry, even as his gun fell into two pieces around him.

Landing in a crouch after that full-bodied hypersonic kick, Bobbi’s brief burst of superspeed ran out just in time for a second big guy with an enormous gun of his own to sight in on her.

And then his weapon fell apart into about a dozen pieces, right as the man was about to pull the trigger. As the machine gun collapsed, Namythiet appeared from where she had been inside the weapon, taking it apart from there. “Avast!” the pixie declared while swiping her sword back and forth in the air, “Not so big without your pea-shooter, are y–eeep!”

The big guy took a swipe at her, which the pixie easily dodged by flying straight up before driving her pin-like sword into his eye. As he roared and jerked back, Bobbi was there. She had conjured a glowing hammer, which she drove hard into his stomach. As he doubled over a bit, her hands grabbed his shoulders, and she sent a burst of electricity into him that put the man on the ground.

The fighting continued like that. For quite some time, longer than Bobbi had ever actually fought at one time, the group worked their way through the main lobby of the office building they had just broken into, moving into the stairwell and continuing up. They had to get to the top floor, and they had to do so before the reinforcements could be called in.

Even without the reinforcements, it was exhausting. She kept having to absorb more and more power from the nearby light fixtures and computers. And even then, by the time they reached the top floor, Bobbi was too tired to keep fighting. Which Asenath noticed and made her stay behind with Namythiet and Clubber to watch the stairwell while she, Twister, and Seth finished up.

So Bobbi sat there, panting and watching the stairs while taking a drink from the water bottle that Clubber had helpfully held up in his little mouth for her. She was panting, feeling utterly wiped from all the fighting. Using her power that much, even with plenty of energy to drain, still took a lot out of her. She needed to just sit and rest.

“No time to nap,” Seth called from the doorway at the end of the hall. “C’mon kid, we need your help to open this thing.”

With a grunt, Bobbi pushed herself up, bracing herself against the wall while Namythiet flew up to land on her shoulder. The poor pixie was exhausted as well. As was Clubber, who trudged alongside Bobbi as the girl tiredly made her way down the hall. She passed more than a dozen other bodies, trying not to think about what had happened to them, before reaching the actual doorway where Seth was waiting.

Looking past him, she saw what looked like a conference room of some kind. There were floor to ceiling windows all along three of the four walls, including the far corner from the doorway. Most of the room itself was taken up by a long table, with a three foot long, two foot high metal safe right in the middle of that table. There were yet another seven bodies laying around that room, their blood and… other things decorating the windows, floor, and table itself.

“You okay, Lite Brite?” Despite his clear impatience, Seth put a hand on the top of the glowing helmet that covered her head, making her look up at him. “Got enough oomph for one more thing?”

“I can do it,” Bobbi insisted, chin up as she stared at the safe. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Asenath confirmed. “Sorry, we’d give you more time but… well, we’re out of it. We need to grab this thing and get the hell out of here yesterday.”

“I’m okay.” Bobbi really wasn’t sure that she was, but she had to try. Getting the safe open was the most important thing. It was apparently warded against all kinds of magic. But not against her.

Nearby, Asenath turned, putting her fist through the wall. Tearing out some of the debris, she caught hold of some wires and yanked them free as well, snapping the wires in the process. Live electrical wires.

“All yours, Bobs,” she offered, “drink up.”

Holding both hands out that way, Bobbi focused on draining all the power she could through those wires. Electricity jumped visibly from the wires to the girl’s hands. She was draining everything she could, not just from the room, but from the entire building. The place was on its own separate power grid, and she was taking everything. She could feel the electricity filling her up, giving her a quick rush of euphoria.

Hard. This was going to be hard. It wouldn’t have been easy at the best of times, but now? Now she was already tired from everything else. It was going to be a nightmare.

And yet, she would do it. She would make this work, because it was important. Because her new friends had asked her to. She would do it.

The others were all waiting, standing guard while Bobbi gathered all the power that she could through those exposed wires. She was focusing almost solely on that safe, tuning out everything else as much as possible. Only two things existed, herself and the safe. And what was inside. More power. She needed more. As much as possible. Had to hold onto it, keep holding it… keep holding it…

When she could hold it no longer, Bobbi’s right hand snapped forward, away from the exposed wires. In the next instant, a powerful, blinding jolt of lightning-like electricity shot out of that hand to crash into the safe. Or rather, near the safe. The electricity actually stopped a few inches out, hitting a glowing red shield that popped up around it.

It was a magical forcefield, along with other protective spells. Namythiet and Twister had taught Bobbi about how she could use a powerful burst of electricity to overwhelm spells like that. Some spells could be overwhelmed by the judicial use of a taser. But in cases like this, that wasn’t normally viable, because it would take an entire building’s worth of power to knock out the spell that was protecting the safe.

So… it was a good thing she had an entire building to draw from, then.

The lights went out almost immediately, leaving the room lit only by what came in through the windows. Everything in the building went dead one by one, as Bobbi channeled the power through herself and straight into the continuous lightning bolt (was it really a bolt when it kept going on for a long time?) into the forcefield surrounding that safe.

Seth had a knife. He’d shown her to her. The blade could cut through spells, actually absorbing the energy from any spell that it touched in order to completely disable it. Unfortunately, the people who ran this building were prepared for that kind of thing. They had layered their protection spells in such a way that disabling one with that knife, or anything that worked in a similar way would result in the safe teleporting away. Simply cutting through the spell would send the safe away.

But this? Hitting the protective forcefield with enough electricity to completely overwhelm it, that was different. Different because the forcefield and the spell that would teleport the safe away both drew from the same well of power. If Seth were to use his knife to disable the forcefield, it would kill the shield immediately, at which point the teleportation spell would send the safe away.

But in this case, the forcefield was being hit by a building-worth of electricity. To keep itself powered, it would keep draining that well of power. Which meant that when it finally collapsed, it would be because there was no more power for it to draw from. Which, in turn, would mean that there was no power for the teleportation spell to do its job.

Of course, there were two back-ups for that. The first was that the teleportation spell was supposed to jump to powering itself with the building’s electricity if its normal energy well wasn’t there. But, well, that would be impossible because Bobbi was already using it.

If it failed to power itself through either of those means, the teleportation spell had a third condition, which was to drain ambient energy from the living beings who were trying to get at the safe and use that to teleport the safe away. But that third option was the last one specifically because it was the slowest. Only by a few seconds, but still. There would be a brief window where the shield was down, yet the teleportation spell had no power. And in that window, Seth would then use the knife to disable it.

Essentially, they had to overwhelm the forcefield in one specific way that made it drain the well of power before it was destroyed, leaving the teleportation spell no way to power itself for at least a few seconds, during which Seth could destroy it and leave the safe vulnerable.

Even this would have been impossible most of the time. The safe’s normal location was far more protected than this meeting room. But it had been temporarily brought here, only for a short window. And the time between when the safe had been placed there and when the main meeting that had been intended to take place in this room would take place was even shorter.

And they had absolutely no intention of being in this room when that meeting was supposed to happen. Being around any of the people involved in it would have been a bad idea. Being around all of them… suicide. They had this very, very brief opening where the safe was in position and before the big players had arrived for the meeting. This one chance. That was it.

It was an opportunity that couldn’t be wasted, and Bobbi didn’t intend to. She channeled electricity through that shield until the thing shattered. At almost the same time, she felt her own exhaustion catch up with her, and collapsed.

The world went dark, while the sound of Seth rushing past her to do his part filled her ears.

Sleep… she wanted to sleep… preferably for a month. But maybe just for a few seconds… or minutes… or…

Bobbi’s eyes opened some time later. She was laying in grass in the middle of a field somewhere. With a gasp, she sat up and looked around wildly.

The others. They were all there. All… eating cheeseburgers, actually. Greasy, yummy cheeseburgers that made her mouth water. After everything she had just done, fuel was needed. Lots of it.

Seth obligingly offered a paper sack to her, raising an eyebrow. “Dinner? You earned it.”

Quickly, Bobbi grabbed the sack and began to devour the first burger she could unwrap. It was only once she was halfway through it that she remembered to ask (through her full mouth) “Did we get it?”

“Did we get it, she asks?” Twister scoffed at that. “As if we’d leave a job unfinished. Pshaw. I am insulted.”

Senny shook her head and nudged the Pooka. “We got it.” She nodded toward a wooden box that sat between them. “Namythiet just finished taking all the tracking spells off it before we came here. We’re safe, for now.”

“Not that anyone’s safe near something like that,” Seth observed flatly, his eyes staring at the box.

“Can I see it?” Bobbi asked, curious about the thing they had worked so hard to get hold of.

Obligingly, Asenath picked up the box. “Don’t touch,” she reminded the girl before opening the lid.

For a moment, the girl just stared at the short, six inch length of rope within. “It looks so small…”

With a chuckle, Seth nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s because the Heretics have most of it. I mean, they think they have the whole thing. But they don’t know about this piece right here. If they knew this bit was out and about, they’d move heaven and Earth to get to it.”

“Of course they would,” Asenath agreed while showing her fangs in a smile.

“If they knew we had a piece of the rope from the Hangman that they’re all connected to, they would lose their fucking minds.”

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Mini-Interlude 70 – Pace, Theia, and Miranda

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The following takes place after Interlude 32B, in which Pace-Lies was found by Seller, Miranda, and Abigail and they agreed to work together to free Pace from Lies in exchange for information on Manakel. It is also after Lies took up the name of Theia.

“Are you girls sure you’re going to be okay here by yourselves?” The clear worry in Abigail’s voice was evident even to Theia, as the woman stood by the door of the hotel room.

Seller, who was standing next to her, laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine, Abigail. Trust me, we lost any pursuers and there’s enough spells up over the room right now, as long as they stay in here, there’s no way anyone could find them. And even if they do, there’s warning spells for that too. We have spells up to let them and us know if anything goes wrong.”

“And we have the phone too,” Miranda pointed out from where she was sitting on one of two king-size beds in the room. “It’ll be fine. Trust us. We’ve got the emergency teleports, the phone to call you, and we can protect ourselves too. Not to mention… well, me.”

Another Miranda poked her head back in the room from where she’d been watching the hall. “Exactly. If all else fails, that me will give a tug so that I-me absorbs her again. Then I’ll know everything that’s going on. See, redundancy upon redundancy upon redundancy. It’s cool.”

“It’s as ‘cool’ as we can make it,” Seller confirmed. “We can’t take Pace back to Garden with us, and we need to check in. The others need to see us around. If nothing else, it’ll throw the scent off about Pace being with us. Trust me. Trust them. They’ll be okay here for a couple days.”

“Right,” Abigail muttered unhappily, “I know. We need to look around Garden and see if there’s anything there that could help separate Pace from Theia. And they can’t come with.”

Not that anyone expected there to be some specific ‘separate Lie from host’ spell, since even the Seosten didn’t have anything like that. But the hope was that there might be something that could be appropriated and adjusted that way, with both Pace and Theia being willing subjects. Maybe there would be a way to make a second body for them, like Miranda’s duplication power, only permanent, and then shift each of their minds into one of them. Or… something. They weren’t sure yet. But looking around the archives couldn’t hurt, considering they didn’t have a lot of other options.

Theia, who had laying on her back, half-hanging off the bottom of the other bed with her head near the floor as she watched the group by the door from her upside-down position, nodded. “Can’t go back to Garden without the hidey-choker. Or Heretics get cutty-stabby-shooty. Not very nice.”

Inside her own head, Pace silently muttered, That or they’ll just enslave us. Remember, Crossroads is the kill on sight one. Eden’s Garden likes to make people like us useful for awhile first if they can. They might kill us, or they might just throw us in a cage to see if we could make decent cannon-fodder later. Depends on the tribe.

“Oh, don’t get me started on them being ‘not very nice’,” Abigail all-but growled before heaving a sigh as she looked to them once more. “Okay, fine. But remember, no leaving the room unless it’s an absolute emergency, right? You stay in here, have food delivered. That’s why we came to a place with room service and a good pizza place nearby. Stay in the room where it’s… safe-ish.”

Theia gave a thumbs up at that, before belatedly realizing that in her current position, it looked like a thumbs down. So she awkwardly turned her hand over a bit to correct it. “Stay in the room. It’ll be like a slumber party-oooh! Can we have a pillow fight? And play truth or dare? Or spin the bottle?”

Before the Miranda on the other bed could respond to that, Abigail quickly put in, “Just don’t do anything to attract attention, okay? Keep things nice and quiet and calm. Watch TV, talk, whatever you need to do. But stay in the room and stay… calm. The last thing we need is for someone to get uppity about why there’s a couple teenage girls alone in a hotel room together.”

“Dear Penthouse,” Theia began to recite with a wicked grin.

Stop that! the horribly embarrassed Pace blurted, even as Miranda’s foot kicked her in the leg from the other bed. Both of their reactions made Theia cackle out loud.

“Again,” Abigail reiterated. “Be nice, be quiet, and don’t get in trouble. And don’t–”

“–attract attention to ourselves,” both Mirandas finished for her in chorus. “We know. We all know.”

The Miranda by the door pulled Abigail by the arm. “Come on, the sooner we look through everything we can find back at Garden, the sooner we can get back here, right? So let’s go.”

Abigail couldn’t argue with that, and so the three of them headed out. As the door closed behind them, the Miranda on the bed and Theia-Pace were left in the room, looking at one another.

“So,” Theia started easily, “was that a no to truth-or-dare?”

******

“So what do you want to have for–Theia, what… what the hell are you doing?”

The question came from Miranda, as the girl stood in the open doorway of the bathroom, staring in confusion.

Theia, meanwhile, was once more laying on her back, this time in the bathtub. The tub itself was void of any water, which was a good thing since she still wore all of her clothes. Her head was under the faucet of the tub, as she stared curiously up into it.

See? Pace pointedly informed her, I told you this was weird.

Aloud, Theia replied, “We wanted to see how the faucet worked, and Pace-I said that taking it apart was a bad idea. So we’re trying to see.”

“She’s right, it would be a bad idea,” Miranda agreed instantly. “But how are you going to–”

While the other girl was in mid-sentence, Theia reached up and turned one of the handles, sending a spray of cold water down into her already open and waiting mouth. She swallowed rapidly, gulping the water while squinting up. After a few seconds of that, she turned the handle off once more.

“It didn’t work,” Theia lamented mournfully, “we still can’t see how the water comes out.”

“You should Google it,” Miranda advised before coming into the room. Carefully putting the lid of the toilet down, she sat there. “That or ask a plumber. They could probably explain it. Actually, you come from a super-advanced spacefaring civilization, and you don’t know how plumbing works?”

“Don’t have to know how it works to use it,” Theia recited, tilting her head a little to look at the other girl. “Never had to learn. Besides, space-plumbing is different.”

“How is space-plumb–you know what, never mind.” Miranda’s head shook. “I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation with you.”

“You still don’t like Theia-me very much,” the girl murmured, hand playing idly over the faucet as if trying to feel out its secrets.

“You tried to kill my best friend,” Miranda snapped. “You’ve been helping the people who have been making her life hell all year and who, oh yeah, are responsible for a hell of a lot more bad things than that. Like, for example, the entire Heretic situation. Your people have been fucking with humans since you got here however long ago you showed up. Yeah, maybe you’ve had problems too, but you still tried to kill Flick. You still hurt her. You still hurt a lot of other people.”

We did, Pace silently confirmed. We did a lot of bad things. It’s… kind of a miracle that they even want to help us at all, you know. Abigail is pretty much a saint.

There was a moment of silence from the girl in the tub, before Theia corrected aloud, “You did not do bad things. Theia-I did.”

“What?” Miranda blinked. “I know–”

“Not you, Pace-me,” Theia informed her before sitting up. “Theia-I know that I did very bad things. Very evil, very nasty, icky, terrible things. That is not what Theia-I was confused about. I was confused about… why are you here now? Because of Pace-me?”

“It’s not that I–” Miranda paused before nodding. “Partly that, yeah. I want to help Pace. But…” She paused then, considering her words. “I don’t know if I like you or not, okay? You’ve done evil stuff, but you had reasons. You’ve suffered too, I get that. You’re kind of… it’s hard to…”

Again, she sighed. “It’s hard to explain. Even to myself, okay? I… want to like you. I think you could be smart, and funny, and all that. But every time I start to relax around you, I remember the other stuff you’ve done. You’re playing nice now, but what if you change your mind again and start hurting people I care about? What if your old bosses say ‘hey, all is forgiven if you kill that Abigail person’, and you–”

“I would never kill Miss Abigail!” The sudden and almost violently forceful interruption made Miranda reflexively jerk back, even as Theia found her way to her feet. She continued, the lack of prefacing her ‘I’ with Theia showing just how out of sorts she was by the suggestion.  “I would never hurt Miss Abigail! I will die before I hurt Miss Abigail. I will gouge my own eyes out and tear apart my spleen before I hurt Miss Abigail!”

Our spleen, our eyes, Pace reminded her. And I agree. Never hurt Abigail. Never hurt Miranda. Never hurt Seller. They’re our friends. We get that. But calm down, Theia. Don’t scare her. Don’t freak her out.

Listening to her host’s words gave Theia pause enough for Miranda herself, who had also stood up by then, to speak up. “Okay, okay. I get it. You care about Abigail. Probably because she was the first person to really…” She paused, grimacing. “I get it. No hurting Abigail.”

“Never,” Theia reiterated firmly and pointedly.

Fists, Theia, Pace silently.

Realizing belatedly that she had balled their hands into fists, Theia relaxed them as best as she could, wincing visibly. “We… we are both sorry. Theia-I and Pace-I. We did not mean to… scare you.”

“It’s umm…” Miranda paused before clearing her throat. “It’s okay. I get it. I shouldn’t have said that you might hurt or kill Abigail if they told you to. But… but do you see why I’m still afraid of–why I still don’t know how much we can trust you? You worked for them for a really long time. They have to mean something to you. They’re your people.”

The other girl’s voice was soft. “Theia-I was never one of them. They would not allow it.”

Miranda was quiet for a second, before she gave a single nod. “You’re right. You’re not one of them. You’re better. You can be better. Just… make sure you remember that, okay? Remember that you’re better than they want you to be. Whatever happens, this whole… cure or… separation thing? However that goes down, it doesn’t matter. You’re still better than them. You’re better than your psycho piece of shit mother. All those people that hate you just because of how you were born? Fuck them. Worry about the people who actually care about you think.”

Like me, Pace reminded the Seosten girl who was sharing her body. Believe it or not, I do care about what happens to you, Theia. I’ve seen your past, remember. Parts of it anyway. And she’s right. Those people, they don’t matter. Fuck them. Abigail, Miranda, and Seller. They matter. Maybe it’ll take awhile to prove ourselves to Miranda and Seller. But we’ll do it. You worked your whole life to convince your own people to give you a chance, and they never cared. They just used you. But these people are giving you a chance.

Theia was quiet once more, listening to what both of the others were saying, before she lifted her chin. “Yes,” she said simply. “Miss Abigail matters. Mr. Seller matters. You matter, Miranda-person. Even if you do not like Theia-me very much because of the bad things that I did.”

“I…” Miranda paused, then simply replied, “I came in here to find out what you want for dinner.”

After a brief consultation with her host, Theia piped up, “Cheeseburgers? One with only ketchup and mayo, and one with everything. And extra onions.”

Miranda shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat. Err, boats. Now come on, let’s order it.”

Obligingly, Theia stepped out of the tub to follow the other girl out of the bathroom. “And maybe we can call a plumber so they can tell us how the water comes out.”

Heading for the phone on the nearby desk, Miranda shook her head. “We’ll just Google it, Theia. Google knows everything.”

Standing there, Theia considered that. She thought about what they were trying to do, the whole reason they were working together. “Hey… do you think…”

Miranda replied without looking back, “–that Google might know how to separate a Seosten with SPS from their host?”

Clearly confused by that, Theia echoed blankly, “SPS?”

“Sticky-Possession Syndrome,” Miranda informed her. “It’s better than calling you or… or people like you Lies. And no, I promise that Google doesn’t know how to fix it.

“…. because I already checked.”

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Mini-Interlude 69 – Pace and Lies

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The following takes place after Interlude 31A, at the end of which Pace first extended the idea of working together to Lies (before she was given the name of Theia), and before Interlude 32B, in which Pace-Lies was found by Seller, Miranda, and Abigail.

It is also the first of TWO interludes coming out today. The second will be out in a few hours.

“So, figured out what you want yet, hon?”

The question came from a gum-chewing woman with dyed blonde hair. The dye was cheap store brand, the gum a generic strawberry flavor whose scent did nothing to cover up the perpetual smoker’s smell that hung over her. She had stepped in stray cat excrement on the way to work before scraping the majority of it off on something, and her hands still smelled of the disinfectant soap she had scrubbed them in upon arrival. Which was precisely why they had chosen to sit at this table rather than one at the other end of the diner, which was covered by a woman who had not been nearly as careful in her washing.

Lies, sitting alone in the booth, slowly lowered the menu she had been perusing and squinted up at the woman. Her first instinct was to snap that she would tell her when she was ready.

Be nice. We can do that. She’s just doing her job. Her manager told her to hurry us along because we’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. I’m in here too, remember?

Head tilting a little as she listened to the silent voice for a moment, Lies then turned her attention back to the woman, who was still loudly chewing gum as she waited for an answer. Pace was right, of course. They were almost alone in this diner, but it was the middle of the night. Or rather, the middle of the very early morning. Not quite dawn, and still too early for any of the work crowd, yet beyond the bedtime of even the latest of night owls.

Night owls. Were there day owls? That was, here on Earth. Of course there was always the–

Um, she’s still waiting, you know.

Of course. The waitress had clearly been getting impatient the longer she stood there without getting any response, to the point of clearing her throat a little with a significant look toward the clock on the nearby wall.

Lies took a breath, lowering the menu the rest of the way until it was flat against the table. “Yes,” she finally answered, trying for a smile. It was meant to be reassuring, but from the way the woman took a reflexive step back, she was guessing that it hadn’t exactly been successful in that.

“Yes,” she repeated, still giving that toothy smile in an attempt to look friendly. “We would like two coffees. One black, one with two sugars and one cream. We would also like a tall stack of pancakes split in two, with blueberry syrup on one half and maple syrup on on the other half. We would like four strips of bacon, two crispy and two regular. Also, two pieces of toast, one with butter and honey and the other with just strawberry jam. Oh, and eggs. We would like two eggs sunny side up and two eggs scrambled.” She thought for a moment before giving a firm nod. “That should be all of it.” Belatedly and at a slight mental prodding from Pace, she added, “Thank you for waiting for us to be ready.”

“Us… we?” A look of confusion crossed the woman’s face as she slowly turned to look at the empty side of the booth. “You expecting someone else to show up, hon?”

“If they do,” Lies informed her sagely, “they will not get any of our bacon.”

For a brief second, the woman’s mouth opened as though to question that. In the end, however, she simply shook her head. “You know what, it’s too early and you’re not the strangest person we’ve ever had in here. Pancakes, bacon, toast, and eggs, coming right up. And I’ll get your coffee out to you in just a second. One black, one with two sugars and one cream.”

“You have a good memory,” Lies complimented. “Are you sure you’re not one of us?”

That weird look came back, as the woman squinted at her before turning on her heel. She walked back to the kitchen, muttering something about needing to change shifts.

“She is very strange,” Lies murmured softly as her head tilted to follow the woman’s departure.

Yeah, she’s the strange one, Pace silently put in before adding, Thanks though. You know, for trying to get things that I like. You didn’t have to do that.

“You wished to negotiate our partnership,” Lies pointed out. “Such things should be done over a meal. That’s what the movies say. That or in a big room with a long table. But you didn’t want to go into that office building where the people in suits were.”

She heard the girl’s thoughts about what she was afraid would happen if they had gone in there, but Pace only purposely replied, I meant I know you don’t have to care what I like to eat. So thanks. It kind of helps.

For a moment, Lies didn’t say anything. She simply sat there with a thoughtful frown before looking up as the waitress came back with two cups of coffee. She set one down in front of the girl, then moved to put the other one on the opposite side of the table before looking at her questioningly. Lies pointed next to the first mug and the woman shrugged before putting it down there. Leaning back, she asked, “Anything else for you, dear?”

“Only the food we ordered, please.” Lies’ replied as sweetly as possible, trying to be nice. Her face almost immediately hardened however, as she added, “Unless you really are one of us. In which case, you should know that we will be able to tell if it’s poisoned.

Oh God, Pace quickly put in silently, laugh. Make her think that was a joke.

She didn’t need to be told twice. Lies are probably burst into a loud, manic cackle for several long seconds before cutting it off. Her face returned to being utterly impassive as she announced in a flat voice, “That was a joke. The poisoned part, not the part about us detecting it. Just in case.”

The woman raised a hand, then paused once more before her head shook. “Nope,” she said before turning on her heel to walk away again while repeating, “Nope, nope, nope, nope.”

Once she was gone, Lies turned her attention back to her host while picking up the first cup. “Why do you want to work together? I am your enslaver. You should want me dead. With extreme prejudice.” Her voice held no real accusation in it, merely curiosity.

I know that it wasn’t your choice to be like this, Pace insisted. I’ve seen your nightmares too, remember. I know what your mother did to you. I know what your society is like, what they expect everyone, especially people like you to do. And I know that you are capable of being better than that. There was a brief pause then before she added, Besides, if you die, I die. I can’t deny that’s part of it. Self-preservation. But we really can work together. What do you have to lose? No one on that side wants you around. All they do is abuse and betray you. They treat you like garbage. They call you a Lie, for fuck’s sake. They abuse you. You don’t owe them anything. You don’t owe anyone anything. And if they find you, they’ll kill you. They’ll kill us. But you and me, we don’t have to be enemies. We can get somewhere. We can do something.

“How would we work together?” Lies asked curiously while switching to the other cup of coffee for Pace’s benefit. “What do you think we should do?”

Find a way to fuck over Manakel and the rest of them, Pace promptly replied. You already kept that Seosten kid that’s possessing the Chambers’ girl secret. Hell, you kept that secret even when you could’ve used it to save yourself from Manakel in the first place. You know how much he would’ve done if you told him that part? He definitely would’ve forgiven the whole choker thing. But you didn’t. You didn’t even consider it.

Switching to the first cup once again, Lies quietly murmured, “She is a child. They would have hurt her.”

And that’s why I want to be your partner, Pace declared firmly. That’s how I know you’re not like them. All the shit they’ve done to you, and you’re still not as bad as them. I mean, sure, maybe you’re a little… off. But you’re not evil. I mean–right, it’s complicated. But you can be better. We can be better. We work together, we can fuck over Manakel and everyone else who hurt you.

“And find a way to separate us,” Lies added, switching once again to the second cup.

What… what do you mean? There was hope in Pace’s mental voice, though it was tempered by hesitation, fear of that very hope being easily torn apart in so many possible ways.

“If we are partners,” Lies pointed out, “we must both get something. You will help me control myself, help me… blend in, help me survive. You will help me with Manakel. And I will help you get your body back.”

A whole lot of emotions and thoughts ran through Pace then, more than Lies could easily keep track of. Once they settled at least a little bit, her host finally replied, If we’re going to work together, that means you need to listen to me sometimes. I know you’re better at a lot of the fighting stuff. But sometimes we need to control your impulses. We have to stop and talk to people sometimes. And not just to scare them.

Lies considered that briefly, pursuing her lips thoughtfully before giving a slight nod. “You are better at the talking. You are better at understanding people. I will listen to you then. And… I will give you a vote for what we do. I cannot give you control of your body, but I can let you vote for things. I can try to listen. That is… that is the best I can do now. You get a vote, and I will try to listen.”

It’s enough, the other girl assured her. I mean, for now. I Just–you know we’re going to have to work with the people who are fighting Manakel, right? Which means working with people that we tried to kill. People that we hurt.

“People that I hurt,” Lies corrected. “People that I tried to kill. That was not you. And if they try to take it out on you, I will–”

She stopped then, as their werewolf senses let them know that their food was being delivered. Turning her head, Lies and Pace both watched as the waitress brought the plates out, setting them down on the table with a smile that was admittedly forced, but was still a smile.

At a bit of prompting from the girl in her head, Lies piped up, “Thank you, we will enjoy this. It does not even smell poisoned.”

“Yeah,” the woman retorted easily, “I told Mario to make sure to hold the poison on this one.”

“We know,” Lies informed her. “We heard you. But it could have been a trick, a signal to add poison.”

“You heard me from–” Abruptly, the woman stopped. “Nah, that’s fine. You enjoy your food, sweetie. You’re polite enough and you haven’t thrown anything yet. Far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the best customers we’ve had at this time of night. Let me know if you need anything else.”

With a nod, Lies replied, “We will. And tell Mario that the answer is enumeration.”

Pausing, the woman blinked back at them. “I’m sorry?”

“For his crossword,” Lies explained. “After you told him to hold the poison, he asked you for thirteen across. Eleven letters, ‘the act of numbering.’ Enumeration. He should feel bad for not knowing that.”

There was pure silence for several seconds, as the woman stared at her. Slowly, she turned to look at the door into the kitchen, which was way over halfway across the diner. There was no way that the girl sitting here at the table should have heard that conversation. Not unless-

Yet, again, she simply shook it off. “I’ll… let him know.” She turned once more to head off.

Yeah, Pace put in, we should probably give her a big tip when we leave.

A really big tip.

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Convalescence 38-08

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Eventually, Shiori (who had very quickly been protected by the dibs spell, of course) and I managed to extricate ourselves and Sahveniah from the room so that Avalon could get some sleep. She put on a brave face and was, of course, incredibly stubborn about it. But I could tell that even just sitting there eating food with us had taken a lot out of her. It was going to take some time for her to recover. Which was made abundantly clear by the fact that she didn’t really argue that much about it.

The three of us stepped outside of the cabin in time to see that the others had apparently already met the remaining kids. The three Seosten toddlers, Tabbris, and Theia were all there with Columbus, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Koren.

Of course, my very first thought was that if one of these guys got possessed, even accidentally, by one of the toddlers, it could be pretty bad. But even as my mouth opened to call out to them, Tabbris saw me and waved to show that everything was okay. She mimed writing a spell, and I realized she had apparently copied the dibs protection onto these guys as well.  

I should’ve known that my little sister wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Hell, I’d done the same thing with Shiori back in the room, just to make sure little Savvy didn’t end up… well, just to make sure very bad things didn’t happen. And now that my reflexive worry was dealt with, I could actually focus on what the others were doing.

Because I apparently had not yet had my fill of weaponized adorableness, Grisiniel, the brown-haired boy, was currently hanging from Sean’s outstretched arm, making squealing sound as the boy raised and lowered it. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the red-haired Penemue was doing pretty much the same thing with Scout and Koren as they kept raising and lowering him by his hands, bouncing him up in the air and then down again.

And to put the cherry on top of the cute sundae, the other girl, Kemetiel, was sitting on Vulcan’s back. She was actually riding him around in a circle as if he was a horse.

I almost would have believed that this entire thing had been some big elaborate plot to kill me, because I seriously almost died just standing there watching that for a couple of seconds.

It was made even worse (read: better) a second later, as Savvy squirmed out of my arms and to the ground. With a happy squeal, the girl ran off to her friends, joining Kemetiel on Vulcan’s back. For his part, the cyberform dog proudly held his head high while trotting around in a circle with both of his riders.

I could see some of the camp inhabitants watching with curiosity. I had wondered if they would be afraid of the Seosten children. But while most did seem to at least be cautiously keeping their distance for the time being, I couldn’t see any outright hostility. Which made sense, considering they hadn’t been outright hostile to me, and the Alters on this world likely had more experience being hunted down and killed by Heretics rather than Seosten.

Besides, I couldn’t see how anyone could look at these kids for longer than three seconds and think that they were some kind of monsters.

As if in agreement with that, Columbus, who had been standing up away from the others, moved next to his sister. Lifting his chin, the boy murmured, “Well, they sure don’t look evil.”

“Right?” Looking over to the boy with that, I asked, “Did you get any sleep at all? We didn’t leave you that long ago.”

The boy’s response was a grunt before he shook his head. “I’ll sleep later. Right now, every time I close my eyes, I just see…”

He trailed off, but I knew. “Rudolph.” Saying the boy’s name, I sighed and lowered my head. “Yeah. I keep thinking about things we could have done differently, other choices that we could have made.”

“I should’ve been there.” Columbus’s voice was a bit hollow, showing me how much he had been dwelling on it. “I should have been the one who stayed behind to hold the zombies off. I could have done it without Sean, and if Manakel had still shown up, there would’ve been just me to put in that tube. He wouldn’t have had an extra to kill. Then all of us would still be alive right now.”

Shiori spoke up before I could say anything. “Or he just would have killed you anyway. We don’t know. Besides, Sean or I would’ve insisted on staying with you. Then one of us would’ve died.“

“I–” Columbus started before stopping. He sighed, lowering his head just look at the ground while murmuring, “I just didn’t want anyone to die.”

Before either Shiori or I could find anything to say to that, as if there was anything we could say that would matter, Theia approached along with Doug. Tabbris waved again and looked uncertain for a moment, but once I returned it and let her know I was fine, she stayed over with Scout, Sean, and Koren to keep entertaining the little ones.

“Good,” Theia started, “you’re here. Pace-I thought we should wait for you to test these Whisper spells.”

“Yeah,” the boy with her drawled, “and Doug-I agreed that waiting was a good idea.”

Briefly, I wondered how much of that was him wanting the rest of us have to see how well it worked, and how much with him being afraid that if it did work, Theia would run off with his favorite hat if he didn’t have someone around to stop her.

Either way, they were here now, and I nodded. “Well, I guess the easiest way to do it is just to put the hat on her head and see what happens?”

Making a face as if he couldn’t believe he was bringing it up, Columbus asked, “You don’t think it’ll just erase her or something, do you? I mean, we don’t know exactly how would the whole Lie thing works. If it shuts her out, but she can’t leave the body…”

Grimacing at that, I hesitated before shaking my head. “It didn’t do that to me when I possessed Scout before. It just let both of us control her body at the same time. Like one of those cars with steering wheel and pedals on both sides.”

“Yeah.” Columbus coughed. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve been a little more scientific and careful about that one to begin with.”

In the end, we left it up to Theia, and she chose to try it. So, Doug handed her his hat, though he looked a bit reluctant to let go of it. “If it works,” he started firmly, “we’re making you a different one. You don’t get to keep it.” He only let go of the hat once the girl nodded.

Still, she didn’t put it on yet. Instead, she stood there staring down at it and her hands before her head shook. “Not yet,” she announced firmly. “We want to wait for Miss Abigail. She should be here.”

Without turning around, I gestured behind myself. “Well, you’re in luck, because here she comes. With…” Turning to make sure, I nodded. “With Scott.”

Yeah, Scott and Abigail were approaching. The two had clearly been deep in conversation, but they stopped once they were close enough.

“I didn’t know there were children in that prison transport,” Abigail announced, nodding past us to where the kids were.

“None of us did,” I assured her. “Trust me, it was a surprise to everyone. Gaia and the others are working out which adults they can let out of the pods so we can try to get some answers about it.”

“They’re children.” I could hear the horror and revulsion in Abigail’s voice. “What could that… creature have meant to do with them at her lab here? What could she possibly–” She stopped herself then, unable or unwilling to continue that thought.

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath, “Kushiel being a monster isn’t exactly front-page news at this point.”

In what was obviously an effort to tear her thoughts away from that dark pit of despair, Abigail looked to Theia. “What’s this?”

So we explained, giving the quickest rundown we could. And once Abigail had some idea of what might be about to happen… Theia put the hat on.

For a second, I thought nothing had happened. The girl’s head simply tilted a little, and then she looked down at her hand. She stared at the hand for a moment before her mouth opened.

“I… I can… talk. My… hand. My my my my hah-hah-handuh. My hand. My mouth. Talk. Talk!”

Suddenly, she sprang over to wrap both arms around Doug, hugging the younger boy tightly while he gave a strangled yelp.

“Well,” I started with a little smile, “I guess that makes you Pace. The real Pace, I mean.”

Apparently my speaking up then meant that it was my turn for a hug, since Pace threw herself at me next. That was followed by a hug for Shiori and Columbus as well. The latter even managed to avoid pushing her away, though he did stiffen a bit.

Then it was Abigail’s turn. She received the longest, tightest hug of all. I saw Pace’s (and this time, it really was Pace) shoulders shake visibly as she clung to the woman who clearly meant so much to both Pace and the Seosten possessing her.

Giving a broad smile as she finally leaned back, the Hispanic girl announced, “It’s me.”

Immediately, her face shifted just a tiny bit. It was almost entirely unnoticeable unless you were really looking for it. “And Theia-me. We are both here. Share and share alike.”

“Oh…” Gasping in clear awe, Abigial put both hands on the side of Pace-Theia’s face. “My God. You can talk. You can… you can… it’s really you. Both of you.”

Shiori was staring. “Wow. Well, it’s good to finally meet you? This is kind of weird.”

“You’re telling me!” Pace blurted. “I haven’t been been able to talk, or raise my hand, or sneeze, or—wait.”

In mid-sentence, the girl turned away from us. She took a breath, then move three quick stops over before her hand snapped up to hold onto the hat. With that, she proceeded to do a quick, perfect one-handed cartwheel, followed by a side-flip. Finally, Pace simply jumped up and down, releasing the hat so that she could pump her arms in the air while squealing. She clearly didn’t care about attracting attention or looking ridiculous. Which… yeah, at that point, I wouldn’t have either. She’d been unable to control herself for so long, who cared if people were staring?

That was apparently the cue for the four Seosten toddlers, who all scrambled over to start jumping up and down together with Pace, even though they had no idea what was going on. That didn’t seem to affect their excitement one bit, as they continued jumping up and down while pumping their arms just like she was. To say it was adorable would have been beating a dead horse by that point, but still. It was.

Reaching down to pick up Kemetiel as she finally stopped jumping, Pace grinned. “You have no idea how good this feels right now. It’s amazing. It’s like being locked up for year and just now being able to stretch my legs. I can move, I can talk, I can turn my head because I want to turn my head! I can blink! See? Blink, blink, blink.”

Nearby, Columbus murmured, “I can imagine.” He paused then as if deciding how to broach the subject before asking, “Does this mean that you and… Theia are actually…”

“Working together now, yeah.” The girl confirmed it with a nod before her face shifted a little.

“We are partners,” Theia put in, before clearly relinquishing control back to Pace again.

Koren approached with the others, her eyebrow raised. “We leave you alone for five minutes, and you show up again with a herd of chibi Seosten?”

Scott spoke up then. “You think that’s bad, you should’ve seen what she got into when she was six and I left her alone in the bathroom for three minutes. There was–”

My hand snapped down, covering his mouth as I growled, “Not another word, you.”

There was confusion written across Koren’s face (and she wasn’t the only one) at that. But before we could explain anything, I blinked around with realization. The rest of the camp, the ones who had been watching carefully, had withdrawn a bit more. There were less faces, like they were even more nervous than they had been a minute earlier. It couldn’t have been the Seosten toddlers. They weren’t doing anything wrong. So what–

And then I realize the truth. The people weren’t keeping their distance from the kids. They were staying back from the portal nearby where Gaia, Sariel, Larees, and Gabriel had all just shown up, flanked by a half dozen adult Seosten. There were four males and two females. All seemed a bit dazed and taken aback by everything. They wore the same clingy jumpsuit thing that the toddlers and Tabbris wore, and were looking around in a vague state of confusion and uncertainty while they were led through the camp, toward where we were.

The tallest of the men, standing about three inches over six feet, looked like a more handsome version of Schwarzenegger as of the first Terminator movie. His body looked like it had been sculpted from steel, with incredibly defined muscles that were visible through that bodysuit. His short, dark-blonde hair and chiseled face were capped by these piercing blue eyes.

Yeah, Seosten were unbelievably gorgeous. That wasn’t exactly news. But still, this guy was something else.

Not that the others with him were exactly slouches. The other three men were less overtly muscular (two were more handsome in that boy band, androgynous sort of way), but still eye-catchingly attractive. As were the two females. One of the pair was my height, with short brown hair shaped into a crew cut, while the other was slightly taller than Avalon with very long blonde hair that was tied into a very tight braid that made me want to call her Rapunzel in my head.

The kids stopped laughing and jumping around when they saw the adults approaching. For a second, all four of them stayed completely still, just staring that way as they clustered together. I saw uncertainty written across their faces in that moment, as if they weren’t sure what was going on.

“It’s okay,” I heard Sariel announce to the other Seosten adults. “You can pick them up. You have my word, the spell will protect you from accidental possession. They’re your children.”

The reassurance was apparently all they needed. The Seosten moved to the toddlers. That big guy reached down, picking up Kemetiel with a look of wonder written across his face while she regarded him curiously. Beside him, the taller woman stepped up, raising a hand that shook nervously before she laid it against the girl’s hair.

Nearby, Penemue, the red-haired boy, was picked up by one of the other males who (of course) also had red hair. Next to him, the smaller woman had picked up Grisiniel, while one of the other males, who had the same sandy-brown hair as that boy, reached out to touch his shoulder and back in obvious disbelief that all of this was real.

Sahveniah, meanwhile, was approached and picked up to be held tightly by the remaining man. He was the shortest of all the males, though he still stood just a tiny bit under six feet. His skin and hair were as dark as hers, and he trembled a little before pulling her to himself.

Sariel had stopped near the rest of us, watching that reunion. Quietly, she nodded to the big guy and the taller woman. “Micah and Disetiel. Kemetiel is their daughter, though they’ve never met. None of them have ever actually met, actually, aside from perhaps passing in the hallway between cells and… well…”

She shook her head, moving on by looking toward the red-haired man with Penemu. “Forsenti. And the woman with Grisiniel is Xenaphiel. She is the mother of both boys there.”

“I take it the guy there with Sahveniah is her father,” I started with a nod that way. “But where’s her mother?”

“His name is Zadriek. And as to her mother…” Sariel paused before continuing. “If the records that we were able to dig up are to be believed, her mother is complicated.”

“Complicated?” Shiori echoed before I could say anything. “What kind of complicated?”

“The kind of complicated,” the woman answered, “where she was technically carried and birthed by an unidentified woman in Kushiel’s lab. But she was a surrogate. The actual mother, from whom the egg came… was Aletheia.”

Well, that made everyone’s eyes snap around. Especially Pace-Theia’s. She… or possibly they, as I could see both agreeing with that particular action, blurted, “What?”

“Not you,” Sariel started, “the original Aletheia. Somehow, Kushiel was able to obtain at least one of her… eggs, fertilized it, and placed it inside of the unidentified woman. Sahveniah, for all intents and purposes, is the original Aletheia’s daughter.”

“Wow…” I murmured the word under my breath, trailing off as I stared that way. “Wow.”

That same sentiment was basically shared by everyone, as we stood there, staring at the Seosten children and adults being reunited. Or, I supposed, just plain ‘united’, since they had never actually met before.

The dibs spell. This was because of the dibs spell. It was thanks to Sariel right here that these parents and kids could even be with each other like this. As far as I knew, most Seosten parents never had this kind of relationship with their children. They were shipped off to be raised by other dedicated schools, orphanages essentially, to avoid any kind of accidental possession problems. But now they could be with their kids. Because of that spell.

Wow. Just… wow. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

My mouth opened to say something else, when I noticed Scout. The girl was staring not at the kids, but at Sariel. She was staring in what looked like open wonder, while Sariel herself looked away with an expression of barely held regret and shame.

And then I remembered. Sariel was the one who had saved Scout from that Fomorian as a child, back on the boat. She had saved Scout. But in so doing, she had also taken Scout’s mother out of there. And, well, just how much the Fomorian being there in the first place was probably up to debate between everyone who felt guilty about it.

Complicated. That whole thing was complicated, and judging from the looks between both Scout and Sariel, they were going to need some privacy to talk it through.

But it wasn’t my business, so I looked to Gaia nearby. “What about the rest of the prisoners?”

The headmistress answered. “It will take time to go through them. But many will be able to be released, hopefully to stay here in the camp. Having so many Seosten to help bolster defenses and knowledge of the Empire itself will be invaluable in countless ways.”

She was right, of course. The kind of help that adding a bunch of loyal Seosten to the Atherby clan and having them actually work together would be incredible. But as Gaia had said, it would have to be done slowly and carefully. Because it was also something that could go wrong very easily.

“I see that you’ve tested it, then?” My attention was pulled away from those thoughts then, toward where Sariel was nodding toward the hat that Theia-Pace was still wearing. “And it…”

“Works,” they confirmed with a quick nod, before giving a broad smile. Pace, because it was clearly her, added, “I can talk. I can move. We have to share, but I can move. I can…” She shivered noticeably, before Theia took over.

“We must give it back. We will have our own as soon as possible. But we promised to give it back.”

“Uhhh…” Doug hesitated, looking torn before his head shook. “I can’t–damn it, you know what? Why don’t you keep it for now. Just for now. You uhh, you need it more than I do. Just until Grandpa Sulan gets here for the–” He stopped, clearly not wanting to finish that sentence. “Just until he gets here. Then he can help make something else, something just for you, okay? I can make them, but they’re temporary, not like… not like the hat. He’ll make you something you can have. And then I’ll want the hat back.”

For their part, Theia-Pace stared at the boy for a moment before giving a smile that was, again, clearly from both of them.

“Thank you, Douglas,” the two said in a voice that was singular, yet also somehow plural.

“I–” The boy flushed, shaking his head as he looked away. “Just don’t lose it.”

Everyone looked back to the rest of the Seosten then. By that point, some of the camp inhabitants had started to emerge, bolstered both by the sight of the parents with their children, and by the fact that Gabriel was there. They came closer, and I heard a few start to ask questions.

“You really don’t hold back, do you?” That was Scott, staring at me with those too-old eyes. “Look at all this. You’re just like your mom. Changing the world.”

My mouth opened, and then I paused. I thought about everything that was happening, everything that would happen.

I had no doubt that the Seosten would continue their efforts to either break into the vault themselves or use Avalon to do it. But this was the Atherby camp. She would be safe here, so that she could recover. The Seosten wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in this place.

She had time to rest. Time in which, with any luck, Larissa and the others would manage to make their way back to Earth. Because Dries would be with them, and if anyone could change the spell that his wife had stored in that vault, it was him. Especially with all the help he would have. With Dries and Avalon, we would get into the vault and find Liesje’s spell.

“Change the world?” I echoed, giving Scott a wink.

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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Convalescence 38-07

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Children.” The single, breathed word came from Sariel, as the woman stood there along with the rest of us as we stared down into that now-open pod. “Kushiel did have children in this group. There is no overt mention of them in the files that I skimmed through. They were… they were kept quiet somehow.” She sounded awed, unable to stop smiling as she looked at them.

In the background, I heard Larees muttering extensive Latin curses under her breath.

“I don’t know why,” I murmured under my breath, “but I never really put a lot of thought into that crazy bitch having access to little kids until this exact moment. And now I’m pretty horrified.”

“Trust me, puella,” Larees muttered somewhere behind me, “you don’t know the half of it. And you don’t want to.”

Gaia seemed just has taken aback as the rest of us. She stared for a moment before quietly announcing, “I do not care to imagine what that creature may have had in mind for these children, but I count myself relieved beyond measure that she will not have that opportunity.”

She would, and had, of course, have access to other children. But at least she didn’t have these ones. I was taking that as a win, and trying very hard not to dwell at all on the other part.

Tabbris turned then, looking around at the other pods. “Are their Mamas and Daddas in here?”

Gabriel was the first to respond, slowly nodding. “If the children were included in the transport as part of some kind of project, it would make sense to have the parents along as well.”

“Well,” I started then, “if they are, we should probably find out who they are, right?”  As I spoke, one of the kids, a boy with sandy brown hair, shifted a little. His mouth opened, and he made a soft sound that was half-yawn and half-squeak before his arm moved over one of the others. Seeing it made my heart flip over and it was all I could do not to instantly start cooing.

“They’ll wake up soon,” Theia observed quietly, clearly having seen the same thing I did. “And when they do, they might be scared. Confused. Lost.” There was something in her voice as she spoke, a sort of… tenderness that seemed alien compared to what I’d seen from her before. Seeing her like that, I kind of understood why Abigail was so protective of her.

Shaking that off, I looked over to the adults. “She’s right, you know. They’re about to wake up and have no idea where they are. We don’t even know what Kushiel told them, or… or how she treated them.” Even saying it, just bringing that up, made me feel sick to my stomach.

With a slightly shaking hand, Sariel reached out. Her fingers brushed through the hair of one of the sleeping kids, and she gave a faint nod. “Yes,” the woman murmured quietly while giving an absent smile. “They might be afraid and confused. But they will also be safe.”

“Safe.” Gaia echoed the word, giving a slight nod. “Yes. Yes, they will absolutely be safe. But we need to speak with the adults without the children first. We need to sort through everyone here, find out who can be let out and who should stay.”

Larees folded her arms against her stomach, looking a little sick as she agreed, “They shouldn’t be in here anyway. This whole place looks… screwed up.” She cast a glance around at the other pods then. “It’ll scare the shit out of them if you make them sit around watching while you open these things.”

Gaia nodded slowly, her eyes moving to me then. “I had intended for you to be a part of that opening process, Felicity. But perhaps, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Kid-wrangling?” I shrugged. “Sure, I can do that. I mean, we can.” I nodded toward Tabbris. “What do you say? You wanna help babysit some Seosten munchkins for awhile?”

She was already nodding even as Theia spoke up. “We will help with the children too,” she announced firmly with a single finger pointed to herself. She paused then, considering that before adding a second finger, still pointing at herself. Or rather, herself and the real Pace. “We.”

I wasn’t exactly sure how I should feel about someone of Theia’s… proclivities being around kids. But then again, she seemed different around kids. And I was reminded about the fact that she hadn’t given away Tabbris, even though she easily could have. She kept Tabbris secret, even though she could have used that bit of knowledge to help herself with Manakel. So yeah, maybe her being around kids wasn’t a bad idea after all. Besides, if I was judged just by the worst things that I did or only by the people I fought, they probably wouldn’t want me around children either. So maybe I should just put away the judgy for a little while.

From the silent looks the adults were exchanging, they seemed to be going through much the same process amongst themselves before coming to the same conclusion. Sariel nodded, still gently stroking the little girl’s pitch-black hair. “Yes, Theia. I think that’s a good idea.”

Larees seemed to want to stay away from the kids. For what reason, I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling it had something to do with her own being taken away. She moved over to the holographic terminal, busying herself reading through it.

The kids were squirming a little more by that point. The girl whose hair Sariel was stroking gave a wide yawn before leaning into the touch as her eyes blinked open sleepily. Beside her, the boy who had yawn-squeaked earlier shifted his backside a bit, bumping up against the other boy, one with curly reddish hair. That made the second boy sit up a bit, blinking around. A moment later, those three were all sitting up, which left only one, the smallest girl (whose skin and hair were both dark), still asleep. I could see the confusion written across all three of their faces as they took in their new surroundings and all the strangers that were around them.

Sariel took a knee, speaking quietly, in a gentle voice. It was a single word. “Salve.” Which, I knew from my lessons with both Tabbris and Athena, wasn’t her offering them some kind of medical treatment or something. Salve meant hello, basically.

The three kids shrank back a bit, before that sandy-haired boy offered a somewhat shaky, “S-salve.” Even as he spoke, the boy (who couldn’t have been older than three), squirmed around to put himself in front of the others. He said something else then, a series of words that came too fast and too shakily for me to follow all of. His vocabulary clearly wasn’t huge, but it was better than mine. I followed about every third or fourth word. From what I could tell, he was asking if they were in ‘the new place.’ And there was something about Mistress Kushiel in there. Which… eeesh. Even just the confirmation that these kids had been around Kushiel enough to know her name was enough to make my skin crawl horribly. I wanted a shower just from that.

Sariel responded, apparently assuring the boy and the others that they were safe. I, again, couldn’t catch all of it. Or even most of it. But it sounded like she was telling them that the mean lady was gone, promising all of them that they wouldn’t see her again.

And that was apparently all it took. The three were clambering out of the pod before any of us realized what they were doing. The boy managed to get himself up on the side, falling forward into Sariel’s arms with a loud laugh of delight. Meanwhile, the red-haired boy and the girl (whose hair was about the same as the first boy’s, that sandy-brown color), slipped over and out, dropping to the floor before giving a pair of loud squeals as they ran straight to where Gabriel was. Together, the two suddenly stopped short, blinking up at the tall man before making identical sounds of awe as they clasped hands together, their tiny figures dwarfed by him.

All three were making so much noise, babbling excitedly, that I couldn’t follow what they were saying at all. And I barely noticed that the fourth kid, the little black girl, had finally woken up. That was, I didn’t notice until I heard both Tabbris and Theia’s voices, and blinked that way to find the two of them crouched in front of the pod, holding a conversation with the girl in question.

Stepping that way, I moved beside my sister with a little smile as my hand found her shoulder. “And how’s this little one doing?” I asked as gently as I could, trying not to startle her. Still, her eyes darted to me, and she shrank back a little bit before blurting what sounded like a question.

Theia was the one who answered her, a short burst of words that sounded like she was reassuring the girl, promising that no one was going to hurt her. There was more to it, but that’s as much as I could keep up with. And Tabbris didn’t seem put off by what she said, so it couldn’t have been anything bad. As she heard it, the little girl seemed to calm down a bit. Her look of fear turned to one of curiosity, and she said something else, part of which sounded like ‘name’.

“This is Sahveniah,” Tabbris informed me before looking back to the girl while saying something else that sounded like an introduction, ending with ‘Flick’. She pointed to me, repeating, “Flick.”

The girl, Sahveniah, apparently, looked at me solemnly for a moment before her mouth widened into a gap-toothed smile that made my heart melt. “Fick!” she blurted, pointing to me. “Fick!”

Tabbris tried to correct her that it was Flick with an L, but the girl just kept giggling while repeating, “Fick, Fick!” She had gotten over her fear by then, squirming over to the edge of the pod to see what the other three were doing. Upon spotting them, she held both hands up. “Fick!”

“Up?” I asked with a tiny smile, making a gesture as though I was picking her off the pod. “Up?”

She blinked at me, then nodded. “Fick! Up! Up Fick! Up? Up?” She was dancing a bit eagerly back and forth, holding onto the edge of the pod for balance while giggling. “Up Fick. Quaeso?”

I knew that word. Please. So, I smiled. But before accepting her, I paused long enough to activate the dibs protection spell once more, just in case. There was no sense in having any accidents, after all. I didn’t know how good these kids were at controlling their powers yet.

Once I was suitably protected from any problems, I reached out and picked the little girl up from the pod. She clung to me as I held her, wrapping her arms around my neck as she gave me another gap-toothed smile. “Salve, Fick! Gratias, Fick.”

“You’re welcome,” I started, before considering. “Umm, it was… Nihil est?” I’d learned that one after a few days with Athena. It basically meant ‘it’s nothing’ and was the closest I knew.

She babbled something else that I didn’t follow, but quickly seemed to actually realize that I didn’t understand. Instead of continuing, the girl tilted her head thoughtfully. Her eyes examined me before she started again, a bit slower. That time, I understood a few words.

“Where are we?” I guessed, giving a quick look toward Theia and Tabbris. Getting a confirming nod from both of them, I looked back to Sahveniah. “Earth,” I started (though I didn’t know for certain that’s where this cave was, it still felt like the right answer). “Err, wait, it was… Rysthael?”

The dark-skinned girl made a noise of surprise, mouth falling open. God, it was adorable. Then again, by that point I was starting to think that this kid could’ve stood there reading the want ads from the paper and it would’ve been the single cutest thing ever.

After staring at me like that for a couple of seconds, Sahveniah repeated, “Rysthael?” When I nodded, she said it louder. “Rysthael!” She was bouncing up and down in my arms, chanting it.

Then the others started up. The boy in Sariel’s arms chanted it along with Sahveniah. And he was quickly followed by the other two. Both of them had clambered up Gabriel. The red-haired boy hung from the man’s arm, while the girl had climbed up onto his opposite shoulder and half-hung from it while tugging lightly at his ear with a look of curiosity. Both took up the chant.

Okay, apparently they knew what Rysthael was. I wondered how, or why. And why they seemed so excited by the prospect of being here. It was like having a bunch of kids in the car and telling them they were going to Disney World.

Gabriel, who seemed to be taking kids climbing all over him very much in stride, gestured with the arm that the boy was hanging off of. A portal appeared, shimmering in the air. “Ah, why don’t you and the others go ahead and take the little ones back to the camp, Felicity? They’ll be safe there, while we sort out the adults and decide what’s going on.”

Shifting Sahveniah in my arms, I nodded to the portal and asked, “Rysthael?”

“Rysthael!” she and the other three blurted.

That was enough for us. Sariel passed the sandy-haired boy to Theia, who took him solemnly. The other two were set down, each taking one of Tabbris’s hands. Then we went through the portal together, after getting a promise from Gaia and the others that they’d let us know what was going on once they had a better idea themselves. Together, we took our four charges back to the Atherby camp. I saw Larees glancing away from the terminal to look at us for a moment right as we passed through the portal. Then she turned back to what she was doing, a slight look of pain disappearing, replaced by anger in the second before we were gone.

******

As it turned out, the red-haired boy was the one named Penemue. The other boy was Grisiniel, and the second girl was Kemetiel. We’d managed to get that much out of them on the way through the camp, while the four kids looked around in absolute wonder. Every little thing they saw, they pointed at and babbled questions for. Questions that Theia and Tabbris answered as best as they could.

It was obvious that these kids hadn’t been outside of that horrible lab basically at all. Before we’d walked very far through the camp, all four of them wanted to get down, squirming and babbling. We let them, and they immediately dropped down to the dirt. As we watched, the kids ran their hands through it, scooping some up. Penemue tasted a bit, then made a face before tasting more.

“Oh, no, no.” Taking a knee there, I gently took the boy’s hands while shaking my head. “Uhh, non. Non.” Making a face as he looked at me, I mimed spitting out the dirt, shuddering. He giggled, so I played it up even more. That got all four of them laughing, and made them forget the dirt.

They didn’t forget everything else, however. As we walked through the camp, they had to pick up every little rock, every stick, every bit of grass. They were fascinated by everything, and carried on a continuous stream of comments that Tabbris and Theia responded to.

And then they saw the first of the camp inhabitants. At that particular moment, there weren’t many out. It was still early in the morning, right around the point where most of the people who were up at night had gone to bed or were on their way there, and before most of those who were awake during the day had gotten up.

But there were a few. And as soon as our little entourage saw them, they stopped short. Grisinel, the sandy-brown-haired boy, pointed toward one of the bird-like Lavinsi standing beside one of those enormous, incredibly corpulent beings that I had seen back on the Meregan world and subsequently learned was called a Guhlben.

As the boy stammered his way through a question about the two, he was just as quickly distracted by the sight of a centaur out for a morning jog. And then by something else. All of them were totally overwhelmed, heads whipping this way and that as they blurted questions excitedly, unable to contain themselves.

They were just so… curious about everything. And that did mean everything. The kids seemed equally interested in and fascinated by the trees, rocks, and nearby lake as they were by the people they saw. Their attention jumped back and forth.

“Hey guys,” I finally interrupted with a little smile, “I think maybe some food would be good? Food, umm…”

“Cibus,” Theia supplied, which Tabbris immediately nodded to.

“Cibus,” I repeated, getting the kids’ attention. “Cibus? Food?”

Well, they were excited about that. Immediately, the four toddlers started jumping up and down, repeating the word before launching into a long series that sounded like pleading about how hungry they were.

“Well,” I murmured, “I guess that answers that. Come on then. Let’s go see what we can find.” I started to step that way, only for Sahveniah to raise her arms in front of me. “Fick!” She blurted with that adorable smile. “Up, Fick?”

“Ohhh, what do you say?” I prompted, realizing that she didn’t understand me, but still playing it up. “Up? Can you say please? Umm, what was the… quaeso? Please? Quaeso?”

“Quaeso!” The girl eagerly repeated, head bobbing. “Up, Fick, Quaeso? Fick… Pease? Pease Quaeso Up? Pease Fick?”

Unable to help the laugh of delight that came then, I reached down to pick the girl up. She cheered, latching onto me tightly. And together, we walked to the large cabin that served as a mess hall.

The second we got inside to where the long, wide tables and benches were, the kids immediately reacted to the food they could smell. I heard Sahveniah’s stomach growl, and the others seemed just as hungry. I’d guessed right, apparently.

We got the four of them settled onto the bench at one of the tables, and I went to get food from the kitchen while the other two entertained them. We didn’t know what they’d like, but I figured the best idea would be to get a wide assortment of things and let them try a bit of everything.

And honestly, I kind of couldn’t wait to see how they reacted to pancakes.

******

The answer, as it turned out, was that they loved them. Pancakes, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast, juice, milk, and so on. Everything we put in front of the kids, they pretty much devoured. And they shared everything. It was adorable, the way they would pass food back and forth, chattering to each other about it. I couldn’t follow much of what they were saying, but it was obvious that the four (along with Theia and Tabbris) were carrying on a very intricate conversation about the food.

Oh, and Tabbris was pretty much the most popular girl ever. The younger kids kept bombarding her with questions throughout the meal, which she did her best to answer. I couldn’t follow everything they were talking about, but it was pretty obvious that they wanted to know all about her.

Eventually, once things had settled down a bit, I fixed up a plate for Avalon. She would probably be waking up soon, if she hadn’t already. Excusing myself for a moment after making sure that Tabbris and Theia would be okay with the kids, I headed for the door.

I didn’t get far, however, before feeling a tug on my leg. Sahveniah was there, gazing up at me with puppy eyes. “Fick?”

“Aww.” Smiling, I put my hand out. “You wanna come?” She took my hand eagerly, and we walked out together. More people were up by that point, and the girl kept chattering away, asking me questions that I barely followed part of. She did seem to know that I couldn’t really understand her, however, and when she really wanted to know something, she took the time to ask in very simple words, or just pointed and gestured until I understood.

Reaching Avalon’s cabin, we stepped inside to find the girl herself, sure enough, sitting up. She blinked at me, then at the girl holding my hand, then back to me.

“Chambers,” she started slowly, “if you tell me that it turns out you had another Seosten kid hanging out inside of you somehow…”

Coughing, I shook my head. “Uh, no, turns out there were a few little ones mixed into the batch of prisoners that we took from the transport. The other three are finishing up breakfast, so we thought we’d bring you some. This,” I nodded to the girl at my side, “is Sahveniah.”

“Savvy!” the girl herself chirped, pointing to herself, then at me. “Fick! Savvy. Fick.”

Avalon started to introduce herself, then paused and settled for, “Valley.” She repeated it, pointing to herself a little shakily. It was obvious that she wasn’t anywhere near full strength. Her face was still pale, and she was moving slowly.

“Vah-vah-lee. Valley,” Sahveniah, or Savvy apparently, repeated before giving a bright smile. “Voh-lee. Vah-Lee. Valley!” She moved closer, letting go of my hand before stopping at the side of Avalon’s bed. For a second, the girl started to go into a long bit neither of us understood, before stopping. Her head tilted as she considered her words very carefully, before pointing to Avalon and saying a word that kind of sounded like ‘ouch’.

“Ouch?” I echoed, moving next to her. “Valley hurt? Ouch?”

“Ouchuh,” she over-enunciated, her face solemn as she carefully asked. “Ouch?”

With a tiny, faint smile, Avalon shifted over on the bed. “I’m okay. Uggnn…”

Trying not to overreact, I carefully handed her the plate, then picked up Savvy and set her next to the older girl. “Well, I think someone wants to help you with your breakfast.”

“Bakefast!” Sahveniah chirped, before starting to point to things on the plate. “Toast. Toast. Egg. Puncake.”

“Pancake. Not puncake, pancake,” I corrected with a little smile. “Though I think you may have accidentally invented Shiori’s new favorite food.”  

Avalon took a bite, then looked to Savvy as the girl opened her mouth like a baby bird until the other girl put a forkful of pancake (or puncake) into it.

Sitting on the other side of the bed, I laughed at the sounds of delight that Sahveniah made while chewing the puncake. She looked up then, pointing at me. “Fick. Fick bakefast.”

“Oh, her too? Okay.” Avalon smirked a little, then took a forkful of food, offering it to me until I took it. For some reason, that made Savvy laugh, and she said something that I took as ‘do it again.’

So we did. I took another bite. We sat there, the three of us, sharing Avalon’s breakfast. We went through a few bites like that before my sense told me about someone approaching the door. From the items they had, I was pretty confident of who it was.

Sure enough, after knocking on the door and opening it when we called out for them to do so, Shiori was the one who stood on the other side. She stepped in, pausing briefly at the sight in front of her.

“Um. Did I miss something?” she asked curiously.

The three of us looked at each other, then I turned back that way while shaking my head. “Nope, you’re actually just in time for puncakes.”

Shiori pulled up a chair beside the bed. She introduced herself to Sahveniah, learning the other girl’s name in return. Together, we ate from Avalon’s plate (it was a good thing I’d had the foresight to put a lot on there), while listening to the little Seosten girl chatter away as she asked questions about… basically everything. She was so incredibly curious, wanting to know the words for every bit of food and everything else she could see.

I didn’t mind. And from what I could tell, neither did Shiori or Avalon. We answered the girl as well as we could, keeping her entertained through all of that. Honestly, as bad as things had been (especially with Rudolph’s death) and as bad as they still were in many ways… this? This wasn’t terrible.

Actually, it was pretty damn good.

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Convalescence 38-06

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“Yes, Theia, I am one hundred percent positive that Doug doesn’t want to be woken up at dawn after the night we all just had.” As I spoke those words, I was staring intently at the girl in question. “Believe me. The last thing he wants right now is for one of us to shake him awake demanding to borrow his hat and asking him questions about the magic spells on it.”

I had just given the girl a brief rundown about the runes on Doug’s hat, and how they had reacted when I possessed Scout while she was wearing it. After giving her the ten second explanation of where they’d come from, she had very nearly turned back the way we’d come to make a beeline straight for the boy in question before I’d quickly stopped her.

“You don’t know what kind of dreams he has for his fun time,” Theia informed me primly while folding her arms across her stomach. “Maybe that would tick off a few of his boxes.”

I started to retort, then caught myself. “I–okay gross. And let me put it this way, we can’t wake him up right now. I know you wanna see how that spell works with you and Pace, and I don’t blame you. Not one bit. But we can’t do it right now. I swear, as soon as it gets a bit later, we will. Okay? Cross my heart, I’m not going to forget our deal. That’s why I told you about it.”

Tabbris, who was still being careful to keep me between herself and Theia, piped up then. “I can show you what the symbols look like. But I dunno what order they’re drawn in or anything else, so we can’t use that to cast them. Only Doug knows how to do that.”

“Only Doug knows how to do what?” The voice came from Sariel, as the woman approached us. In the distance at the very end of the lake, I could see Gaia and Gabriel still standing there, having some kind of private conversation. Probably about those Seosten prisoners.

“Mama!” Tabbris bounded that way, leaping up to her mother’s arms before clinging as Sariel lifted her up into a tight hug. I could see a brief flash of euphoria cross the woman’s face as she held her daughter tight, nuzzling her hair briefly while murmuring something to her quietly.

That look, seeing mother and daughter embracing like that, just made me feel even worse about what had happened inside the hospital. I felt a brief flash of shame run through me again, as a hard lump formed in my throat. I couldn’t find my voice. How could I possibly say anything?

Forcing myself to look away, I ended up glancing toward Theia. She was staring at Sariel and Tabbris, an unreadable expression on her face. I had no idea what she was thinking, exactly, but it was obvious that she had some pretty strong feelings about what she was looking at.

“Felicity?” Sariel was looking at me, her expression curious while she held her daughter up, with Tabbris’s legs wrapped around her waist. “You were saying something about Doug?”

That brought me back around, and I coughed before nodding. “Right, Doug’s hat.” Briefly, I explained everything to her, telling the woman what he’d told us about where those symbols came from, as well as what had happened when we used them. It was basically the same thing I’d just told Theia a minute earlier, but with maybe a couple more details.

When I was done, Sariel continued to stare at me for a few long seconds as she wrapped her mind around it. “Whispers,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Beings trapped between universes that control people by talking to them… And those spells that Douglas Frey and his great-great-grandfather found allow them to be both seen, and stops their whispering.”

“And probably other things too,” I confirmed with a shrug. “Doug can tell you more about it, I just know the bullet points. But like I was telling Theia over there, we can’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Or, you know, I won’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Not after everything that just happened. Not after Rudolph–” Stopping myself then, I winced before finishing with a lame, “Doug’s earned a rest. I’m not disturbing him right now when it’s not an emergency.”

Sariel gave a slight nod at that. “Of course not,” she agreed readily. “We can wait for that. Let the boy sleep. Still, I am… curious about these so-called Whispers. And about these spells.”

“Do you think they could be other Seosten?” I asked, curiously. “I mean, Seosten from another universe. Or some kind of evolutionary split. Or… huh, there’s kind of a lot of options.”

Tabbris’s head bobbed quickly as she slipped down to stand beside her mother. “Uh huh,” she put in. “Um, maybe Cronus made them? Before he did… whatever he did with the Fomorians.”   

Right, we’d learned about the ancient pre-possession ability Seosten who had experimented on making a clone for his dying son and ended up creating Cronus. After that, things just got worse.

“Felicity is correct,” Sariel murmured softly, her voice sounding absent, as if her mind was mostly elsewhere. “These so-called Whispers could be many different things. They could come from Cronus, or something else… Perhaps they were–” She cut herself off abruptly, head giving a firm shake. “But we can think about that later. There are other things to focus on now.”  

The woman started to say something else, before blinking at Theia. She paused, visibly scanning the girl up and down before speaking quietly. “Well, hello, there. You’re… Theia, yes? Things were very busy before. We didn’t have much of a chance to actually meet.”

For Theia’s part, she was busy chewing on her fist so hard I could actually see blood. It was almost like she was trying to cram it into her mouth. The fist itself was clenched tight enough that the knuckles had turned white, and her arm visibly shook before she got it under control. Her voice, when she spoke, cracked just a little bit. “Yes, Theia-I am…” She paused briefly, as if just realizing that her speech-pattern had made answering the question redundant. “… Yes.”

“Theia.” Saying that name, Sariel paused before lifting her chin as she watched the girl’s reaction to her next words closely. “Abigail said that name was actually short for another.”

Theia nodded once. “Yes, Miss Abigail thought that the name Aletheia would be good. We thought it was too long, and would stand out as Seosten. Theia is shorter. And less obvious.”

Sariel raised an eyebrow at that. “Stand out as Seosten… does that mean that you don’t know who the original Aletheia was? When Abigail told me about your reaction to the name, I assumed that you rejected the full version out of some… loyalty to your mother.”

In that moment, Theia looked just as confused and curious as Tabbris and I did. All three of us were just staring at the woman. “Loyalty?” the girl in question echoed. “What would Kushiel have to do with this Aletheia? Theia-I have never heard of her. Miss Abigail said only that Apollo’s stories say she is the daughter of Zeus, devoted to truth. Theia-I was called a Lie. Miss Abigail thought the name of another daughter of Zeus, a name that meant truth, was… better.”

Kushiel, I noticed. She’d called the woman Kushiel, not ‘Mother’ or any derivative. That was interesting. I wondered briefly how long she’d been doing that, even just in her head.

She also wasn’t laughing and carrying on nearly as much as I was accustomed to. It was like being around Sariel had completely sobered her, as if she was in… awe or something. Or maybe it was seeing the way the woman interacted with her daughter. Either way, she was very clearly affected by it. And by the attention that Sariel was devoting to her right then. Although, to be fair, she had also seemed different from the moment that I’d seen her after she’d been taken in by Abigail. But still, this was something even more obvious than that.

For her part, Sariel took that in before slowly shaking her head with a darkly muttered, “Of course she wouldn’t tell you anything about that. She wouldn’t want you to know.”

“Wouldn’t want her to know what, Mama?” Tabbris was just as curious as Theia and I clearly were. Her eyes darted back and forth between the other girl and her mother.

Pausing briefly to collect her thoughts, Sariel began with, “Aletheia was a real person, a crew member on the Olympus.” A beat passed, before, “And she was Puriel’s lover.”

Okay, if I had been drinking anything just then, I would’ve spit it out. “His lover? His–what–but she’s his daughter in the myths. And yeah, I know ancient Greeks and Romans could be pretty screwed up. But–but–what? That doesn’t even–why would they–what?”

In response to that utterly incoherent rambling, Theia pointed to me. “What she said.”

Before responding, Sariel glanced back as if to see if Gaia and Gabriel were ready. Satisfied that we weren’t making them wait, she explained, “First, yes, she was a real person. And in her case, Aletheia was her real name, not one adopted solely for our time on Earth. She was written to be Puriel–or Zeus’s daughter at Kushiel’s rather firm insistence.”

I whistled low. “You know these are the same myths that don’t exactly show Hera or Zeus in a very good light? I mean, the things they show Zeus getting up to… sexually… uhh, if Kushiel didn’t step in then, but did step in to make sure this Aletheia person was depicted as his daughter? That’s just–I mean–wow. She really must’ve hated her. But I thought that–I mean I assumed that–I mean… I didn’t think that Seosten really went all for total monogamy. Which is kind of a weird assumption I guess, since I don’t have any examples otherwise. But plenty of Heretics don’t, and I guess I assumed it came from the Seosten.”

“Some do, some don’t, just like Heretics,” Sariel informed me. “But in any case, that was not the source of Kushiel’s hatred of Aletheia. She did not rightly care who or how many beings Puriel might have had intercourse with. No, in her eyes, Aletheia’s far greater sin was in the fact that Puriel listened to her. He heeded her words, her advice. And that was something that Kushiel could not abide.”

“Kushiel didn’t hate Aletheia because the woman had sex with her husband,” I started slowly. “That part was fine. She hated her because Puriel took her advice and listened to her?” My mouth opened and shut twice, three times, as no sound emerged. Finally, I managed, “Wow.”  

“That,” Sariel confirmed, “is the gist of it. Puriel listened to Aletheia. I believe he may even have loved her. He certainly respected her opinion. Kushiel loathed that fact. It was actually the source of a lot of their arguments. She tried to have… well, let’s just say Aletheia probably would have been in much worse shape if Puriel hadn’t put his foot down. The fights they had about her…” Slowly shaking her head, the woman seemed lost in her memories for a moment before focusing. “In any case, Kushiel insisted that Aletheia be depicted as Zeus’s daughter.”

“And he turned around and made her represent truth,” I murmured, shaking my head in wonder at Apollo’s audacity even back then. “That must’ve pissed Kushiel off pretty bad too.”

“Oh, it did,” Sariel confirmed. “But it also fit. Aletheia was very good at her job. She worked as Puriel’s assistant, and she was one of the most organized and bureaucratically-capable people I have ever met. Even for a Seosten, her memory and quick recall was extraordinary. She was obsessed with working within the system, with following rules and keeping everything clean. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. As Puriel’s assistant, Aletheia worked twenty hours a day for awhile just to run all of the behind-the-scenes things on the ship. She held a lot of influence, both through paperwork and through contacts that she had. Not only with Puriel, but with every department on the ship. And off the ship. She was the one who most of our station resuppliers talked to if they weren’t dealing with Kushiel herself.”

“They talked to Kushiel about supplying the ship?” I couldn’t help but put in. “Those poor guys.”

The woman nodded. “Kushiel’s position on the ship was to track supplies, fuel, ammunition, and so forth. She was our logistics expert. Which means that she should have worked closely with Aletheia. But… well, she found ways around that. And when she couldn’t, things tended to get… bad. Puriel learned not to let them work together, putting them on different projects. He had to stop Aletheia from doing everything she wanted to do to help the ship because Kushiel refused to work with her.”

“I wish I could say her being that petty surprised me,” I muttered, “but it really doesn’t. Actually, the only surprising part about that story is that Puriel stood up for this Aletheia.”

Theia herself, who had been quiet for a bit with a thoughtful look, finally spoke up. “Theia-I was…given a name that Kushiel would hate, wasn’t I?”

“Oh lords yes,” Sariel confirmed emphatically. “If and when she discovers that you have taken up that name, Kushiel will be indescribably furious. She may literally discover the power to spontaneously combust. She will be…” Trailing off, the woman considered her words. “She will be angrier, perhaps, than we have ever seen her.”

For a moment, Theia was quiet. She seemed to be chewing that over in her mind (maybe with Pace’s help), before looking up once more. Her eyes met Sariel’s, and she gave a firm nod.

“Good.”

****

“So do you know where she is now? Or what happened to her?”

It was a few minutes later, and I was walking through the ridiculously photogenic crystal cave that Gaia had apparently sent the Seosten prototype transport to back when the Committee had shown up at the desert. So much had happened between then and now that it felt like weeks had passed since then, rather than only a couple of days. Sariel, Gaia, Theia, Gabriel, and Tabbris were there with me, though it was the first one I had directed that question to.

Sariel paused, looking to me. “The original Aletheia? The last that I knew for certain when I was still… loyal, she had been banished by Kushiel to a remote, backwater colony on the edge of known space. Though I did hear… rumors from other prisoners in the past few years that she was taken from there and recruited by Chayyiel to run her day-to-day dealings.”

“Chayyiel,” I murmured under my breath. “She’s the ‘oh fuck run it’s not really an innocent little kid’ Seosten, right?”

A tiny smile crossed the woman’s face then, before her head dipped in a slight nod. “That… sums things up fairly well, yes. Though running would–never mind. Yes. Aletheia may be working for Chayyiel, if those rumors are true. I never saw it for myself, but then, the people who said it were very insistent that she had made it into the promised Choir.”

That made me blink. “The promised Choir?” From the corner of my eye, I saw Gaia also paying attention, her gaze moving to Sariel as she interrupted her ongoing silent conversation with Gabriel.

“The Libero Choir, it has been called in more recent days,” Sariel replied. “A Choir where all are treated equally, Seosten or not. A Choir where merit is found in actions and work, not in birth. From the rumors that were spread through the prison, the Libero Choir, Chayyiel’s Choir, is one where Seosten must treat their hosts with dignity, where they work together.”

We’d reached the transport itself by then, but I stopped walking, staring at her. “But– but if that was true, why would–”

I had to stop myself there, because I’d almost asked why Jophiel and Elisabet would be working to prove humans and Seosten could be partners if Chayyiel had a whole Choir acting that way. Luckily, I had a way of covering that worked just as well.

“Why would Athena need to have a whole underground rebel group devoted to that kind of thing if there’s already an actual Choir that does it?”

It was actually Gabriel who spoke up then, his voice contemplative. “It seems to me that the Seosten Empire is quite expansive.”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “Think of Chayyiel’s Choir as… a single city here on Earth, compared to every city in the world. Not even a leading one like New York or London or  Shanghai. A smaller city. Something closer to Akron, Ohio. Population of roughly two-hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand people out of a total world population of  seven and a half billion. Two hundred thousand are not going to be able to influence very much, no matter how free they are. Chayyiel’s Choir is much the same. Athena is attempting to change everything, not simply one Choir. And no matter how useful she is, if Chayyiel was seen to be consorting with her group, she would be removed from her position and her Choir would be… put back to the way it was.”

That made sense. And it also helped explain why Jophiel couldn’t work with her, conveniently enough.

The ramp of the tube-shaped transport slid open, and I again saw all those cryogenic pods inside. Sariel led the way up, with the rest of us following along behind. Theia was last, slowly trailing after the rest of us. When I glanced that way, I could see a look of hesitation, like she wasn’t sure she wanted to be here.

I had to imagine that being around a bunch of people that her mother had systematically tortured and repeatedly impregnated on what amounted to a rape farm had to be pretty uncomfortable. Especially given what little I knew about how said mother had treated her.

Still, she came. And she was quiet, still clearly working to behave herself. I wondered how much of that was Theia, and how much was Pace coaching her.

We reached the back of the transport, where Sariel brought up the computer with the listing of all prisoners. “We were looking at this one earlier…” As she spoke, a light came on over one particular stasis pod. “Larees, of the Tleken Choir.”

She explained how this particular Seosten had been arrested fifteen years earlier after she had assaulted a superior officer who ordered her to have an entire city razed after it had fallen into the hands of local rebels. Apparently this Larees had spent seven years in a military brig before being transferred to Kushiel’s custody, where she had been impregnated fifty-seven times in the past eight years, six of which had been carried all the way to delivery.

It was pretty fucked up, but that was just par for the course by that point.

In any case, this Larees was Sariel’s first choice to release and talk to, and I couldn’t blame her for that. The woman had been imprisoned for fifteen years because she refused to wholescale massacre a bunch of innocent people just to stop a rebellion. And more than that, she hadn’t just refused, she had assaulted her superior officers over it. If she didn’t deserve to be pulled out of stasis and hopefully freed, no one in this group did.

So, with a gesture, Gaia made the pod start its unlocking and opening sequence. While that was happening, she observed, “The security for these pods is quite extensive. It’s lucky that you and the Moon children were able to find a way to open Sariel’s so easily.”

Oh boy. I’d been expecting this question. I had no idea when it would come, but I’d known it would eventually. And… well, quite frankly, lying right now made me feel like shit. Worse than shit. But… what else could I do? We were incapable of telling the truth about our deal with Jophiel and Elisabet, and there wasn’t any way of explaining it without mentioning them.

So, I just shrugged and kept my attention on the opening pod. “Yeah,” I replied, “good thing that woman back in the lab had the codes for us to get out of her.”

There. That was… about as close to the truth as we could get. There was no reason for me to get specific about it unless they pressed, at which point I would say that I’d possessed her to find out what the codes were. But at this point, all I had said was that we’d gotten the codes out of a woman in the lab. That was the absolute truth.

It felt like someone might have asked something else about it, but by that point, the pod had finished opening, and I saw a female figure inside. But before I could make out any details, the figure abruptly moved. And by moved, I mean she was suddenly on her feet, out of the pod, and had her fist flying at the nearest figure.

Unfortunately for her, that figure happened to be Sariel. I saw the blonde woman’s head jerk back before she caught the extended arm, turning to guide the other figure around in a quick circle that took her momentum away before stopping short, still holding her arm.

“Larees!” Sariel blurted. “Conquieso.” She immediately released the woman while taking a step back, hands raised as she said more in Latin, clearly trying to calm her down.

I got my first good look at the other Seosten then. She was short. Shorter than me, actually. I estimated her height around Sands and Scout’s, which meant she was a flat five feet. Her hair was cut short and spiky, and was mostly black with dark blue tips, both of which contrasted with her pale skin. But what stood out the most about her was that she had a tattoo of what looked like a blue-green phoenix taking up half her face. Or at least the head and part of the body of one. It was the side profile of the bird’s head, taking up basically all of the left side of her face. The head was positioned and angled just right so that the woman’s left eye appeared to be the bird’s eye. Its beak went down just under her other eye.

It was distracting, to say the least. I had to tear my attention away from it as the woman launched into a long bit of Latin that I didn’t have a prayer of following. She was staring at Sariel, briefly glancing to the rest of us now and then, but mostly focusing on the woman in front of her. I heard ‘Sariel’ a few times in there, along with a tone of disbelief and confusion that I could make out very well despite not understanding her actual words.

“Well,” Theia announced nearby, “someone’s a potty mouth.”

Finally, Sariel managed to get more than a couple words in edgewise. She kept her hands raised, speaking just as quickly as the other woman. Again, I couldn’t follow along. At least until she switched to English. “See? It’s okay. You are okay, Larees of Tleken.”

“You expect me to believe that you are truly the Sariel and that this is not some trick?” Apparently Sariel had either asked her to switch to English as well, or the woman had taken her doing it as a guide. Either way, I could understand her now. And she didn’t seem very happy. Not very happy at all.

“Your tricks are wearing thin, Kushiel bitch. Futue te ipsum, obscenus scortum.”

“Told you she had a potty mouth,” Theia calmly observed.  

“Hey!” That was Tabbris, lunging into view to take her mother’s arm. “Don’t talk to my mama like that!”

I was pretty sure there was nothing in existence that could have derailed this Larees woman’s tirade more effectively than that. She blinked at Tabbris, eyes widening in shock before she stammered a confused, “Child. A… you are… what?” Her eyes returned to Sariel, to find the woman holding a field-engraver out to her.

“Go ahead,” Sariel announced softly. “Test.”

For a moment, Larees didn’t move at all. She just stared, before slowly reaching out to take the field-engraver. As Sariel offered her arm, the woman hesitated, then moved to draw a quick spell there. Gaia and Gabriel both looked interested, but neither moved to stop this.

“What…?” I started, glancing to Theia in confusion.

“Signature spell,” the girl replied without looking at me. “Every person ever has a unique signature aura, part of their magic, see? Three parts. Two parts their parents. One for mother, one for father. Third part them. New, unique, only theirs. Impossible to fake, impossible to change. Proves who their parents are and who they are. Makes things safe from imposters, shapeshifters… Fomorian creations…”

Sure enough, as we watched, three holographic shapes appeared in the air just above Sariel’s arm. The first looked like a backwards C with an equals sign through the middle of it, a diagonal curved line above it, and a sideways number two just underneath. The second symbol was a teepee (or an A without the line in the middle) and then another one on its side just a bit to the right, with an oval in the space between them. And the third symbol looked like a circle broken in half, with each side pulled a bit away from each other. In the space between them was an infinity symbol, and there was a thick line across the top of the whole thing, from one end of the broken circle half to the other end.

It was enough, apparently. Larees stared at the holographic symbols, mouthing a word under her breath before her gaze snapped to the woman herself. “You are… but you…” Her head dropped then, as she stammered, “Ap-apologies, Lady Sariel. I was–” She stopped then, slowly looking up once more. Her eyes looked to the rest of us, then at the pods around her before she focused on Sariel once more. “… I don’t understand.”

So, Sariel explained, with some help from Gaia and Gabriel. She told the woman that we were on Earth, that she had been rescued and we were working on letting out as many of the Seosten prisoners as we could. She explained that we had to start with people who could be trusted, and that that was why she’d gone with Larees first. It was a long explanation, and she barely touched the surface. Through it all, the other woman just stood there and stared.

Finally, Sariel finished (at least that very minor, surface-level explanation), ending with, “Understand that Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser here, human Heretics, are both able to tell if you are untruthful. Do you wish to help us? It will mean hurting our own people, fighting our own people. They–”

Larees held up a hand to stop her. Grunting something under her breath, she turned back to the pod she had been kept in, using the field-engraver to start scrawling something. Sariel leaned over, taking a quick glance before giving the rest of us a shake of her head to show that it was okay. Once the spell was done, the woman reached out to it, and her hand disappeared into thin air.

“Pocket vault spell,” Theia informed me. “Make the spell, put something in it, then take it out later.”  

Well, that sounded useful. And interesting. But what was the woman reaching for, a weapon, something that could protect her, information to use against Kushiel?

Alcohol. She was reaching for alcohol. Her hand came back out with a clear bottle full of bright, neon green liquid, which she popped the top of of with a practiced flick of her finger before downing three-quarters of the bottle in one long pull.

Sighing with relief, Larees cracked her neck and gave a slow smile. “You have no idea how long I’ve needed that.” She finished the bottle with another quick pull before tossing it casually over her shoulder. It disappeared back through the invisible portal and into her pocket vault. “You want to know if I want to fight our own people, our whole civilization?”

Sariel met her gaze. “Not all of them. There are other groups–”

“The Aelaestiam,” Larees finished for her. “Yeah. Heard about them in prison. Auriel’s people. She… we talked about joining up with her for awhile. Made an attempt to get out. That’s what got me transferred to Kushiel’s tender fucking mercies.”

Something flickered behind the woman’s gaze, and she reached back through her portal without looking, taking a fresh bottle. Opening it with the same finger-flick, she took a smaller drink that time, savoring it more. With a sigh, she continued. “Our people locked me in regular prison for seven years, then sent me to be experimented on and repeatedly impregnated like some kind of feusten for another eight. I have six children out there that I will probably never see again. And why?” She took another drink, a longer one that time before answering her own question. “Because I thought slaughtering two hundred and seventeen thousand living beings who made the mistake of not wanting to be enslaved might have been going a little too far.” With each subsequent word, the woman’s voice turned darker, before she took yet another drink.

“So you want to know if I want to change things, if I’m willing to fight our own people? I say fuck yes, I’m ready. Something has to change. If that means working with these… these humans? Whatever. We need as much help as we can get anyway. And I guarantee you, a lot of the people here are going to feel the same way. Not all of them, but a lot.

“I am on Team Fuck The Establishment. Any person, group, or Cronus-damned species who wants to climb aboard that train?” Her fist suddenly lashed out, punching the pod she had been kept in. “The more the fucking merrier.”

That all said, she pointed with the bottle toward Tabbris. “She was born in there, wasn’t she? You got her out. You found a way to get her out.”

“That… yes, it is a long story,” Sariel informed her. “I will tell you about it. But first, introductions. As I said, this is one of my daughters, Tabbris. That is Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser.”

“Heard of you both, actually,” Larees informed them idly. “More the former than the latter, but yeah. Names are familiar. You’re supposed to be bad news. So uhh, good to meet you.”

“This,” Sariel continued with a gesture toward me, “is Felicity Chambers, a… student, a young Heretic. She was part of the group who rescued us, along with my two hybrid children. My–”

“What?” Larees’s gaze had snapped that way, eyes widening. “Did you say… are you saying that you had… that you’ve… procreated with… with…”

“She’s married!” The defiant announcement came from Tabbris, as the girl stared hard up at the woman. “Mama married Mr. Moon.”

“Haiden,” Sariel explained. “And yes, he is human. He’s… trapped in our space right now, with others. We’ve had two children, Tristan and Vanessa. They’re Felicity’s age.”

“And they’re actually–I mean they actually… nothing went…” It looked like Larees couldn’t decide how to finish that sentence, before she finally gave up and took another pull of her drink. Heaving a sigh, she muttered, “That’s supposed to be impossible.”

“I assure you,” Sariel replied, “they are quite real. And Haiden is my husband.”

It looked like both her and Tabbris were ready for the woman to question or insult that. But Larees just stood there, staring down at her half-empty bottle for a few seconds before giving a languid shrug. “You know what, fuck it. If it works, it works. Now what about this one?” She used that bottle to point toward Theia.

“This…” Sariel paused before stepping that way. “This is Pace. She’s being possessed by Aletheia.”

“Aletheia?” Larees immediately blurted, “As in–”

“Not that Aletheia,” Sariel corrected. “She is…” She looked to the girl in question, waiting for her to nod before continuing. “She is Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter.”

That made Larees spit up the bit of her drink she’d just taken. “I’m sorry, what?” she blurted out loud. “Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter? That–what–well fuck I can see why anyone spawned from that bitch would turn against her, but they don’t have a daughter last time I checked.”

“They did, they do.” Sariel glanced to Theia once more. “They’re just ashamed of her.”

“Ashamed–why would–” Larees stopped then, her eyes moving back to Theia as well. “… a Lie. They had a Lie. The great Kushiel and Puriel… gave birth to a Lie. Their own child is a Lie, a–”

“Stop that!” It was Tabbris. The girl had put herself in front of Theia, eyes blazing. “Stop saying it like that! Stop calling her that! She didn’t do anything wrong–I mean, for that. How’d you like it if everyone hated you because of how you were born? What if every other Seosten had brown eyes and they all hated you because your eyes aren’t brown? What if they all called you a freak and a monster because of what color your eyes were?”

“Eyes that aren’t brown wouldn’t be one step closer to Cronus,” Larees informed her in a flat voice before taking another sip of her drink. “But… yeah. Yeah, maybe.” She looked a little troubled by that, frowning to herself before shaking her head as she looked toward Sariel. “Your daughter’s pretty fierce.”

“Yes…” Sariel agreed with a little smile. “She is.”

More introductions went around then. Larees didn’t call Theia a Lie again, but I could tell that she didn’t trust her very much, if at all. She spoke with Gaia and Gabriel together, a brief conversation happening between them before Sariel drew everyone’s focus back to the pods.

“We need to go over some of these names,” she announced, “I’d like to know who you recognize.”

With that, Sariel brought up the list in question once more. “I looked through it before,” she started slowly, “and there is one pod that confuses me.” She sent the holographic display skimming until she found the right one, then brought it up to show us. Floating there in the air were the words, ‘Kemetiel, Sahveniah, Penemue, Grisiniel.’ That was followed by what looked like weird symbols that might have been numbers.

“Roughly fifty-four kilograms,” Sariel translated, “or one hundred and twenty pounds. So it must be a single person. But all these names, I thought they may be aliases. And unlike the other entries, there is no other information.”

“Sounds like a secret prisoner,” Larees put in with a shrug. “Multiple aliases, maybe? Or a code for a project.”

“But why would they go by multiple names?” Tabbris piped up then. “Wouldn’t that make them stand out more?”

“It is not multiple names.” That was Theia. She was already standing over by the pod in question. “It is multiple people.”

“But that’s impossible,” I pointed out while shaking my head. “Four names? That’s four people. Four Seosten who only weigh a hundred and twenty pounds all together and fit in tha-oh.”

“Indeed,” Gaia murmured, clearly having realized before I did. “Oh.” She reached out a hand toward the pod,and it came to life. The door slid open with a hiss and a few quiet beeps. And then we could see what we already knew was there. The reason there were four names, yet  only enough weight for one adult.

It was because there wasn’t one adult in that pod. Instead, strapped in there together were four much smaller, much younger figures. I would have guessed their ages at around two or three, maybe. We didn’t just have a bunch of Seosten prisoners of war or whatever.

We also had Seosten toddlers.

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