Interlude 28 – Scout

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There was a mini-interlude focusing on Joselyn posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks! 

“I knew this would happen. I knew it, but you told me they’d be safe. You told me she’d be safe!”

The voice of Liam Mason was audible even through the closed door that led into the room that Headmistress Sinclaire had pulled the man into as soon as he’d started up when she’d arrived. That was how Scout knew that her father was completely beside himself and had lost all control. He didn’t even bother to put up a privacy screen to keep her from hearing his ranting. Why Gaia hadn’t either, she wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe the woman was distracted by Avalon’s reaction.

It had been hours since… since… that had happened, since Sands and the others had disappeared. Since they had been taken to Seosten space. Scout had sat through several interrogations, some with Gaia present, some with her father present, and some with neither. The whole time, she gave them almost nothing, limiting herself to head motions and one word answers. The others, mainly Shiori, Sean, and Columbus, had told their interrogators the most about what had happened. Or at least, the most about what they were all willing to say.

As far as the officials were concerned, a powerful Stranger had secretly possessed Columbus as a way of infiltrating Crossroads. Scout and the other members of their team had found out about it and moved to confront him themselves. Unfortunately, what they didn’t know was that the other team, Jazz’s team, had been infiltrated as well. During the course of Scout’s teams attempt to get answers out of the false Columbus, the false Paul had intervened. That had prompted a massive brawl. And at the end of it, the fake Paul was dead (killed by Avalon in a blind rage after Flick and the others had disappeared), the thing that had been possessing Columbus was dead (killed by Flick), and half of the people who had been there had disappeared with absolutely no answers whatsoever about what had happened to them.

Or at least, that was the collective story that the Heretic interrogators were being given.

Now, Scout was sitting in this room, half-listening to her father rant at the headmistress. Mostly, she was simply sitting there, watching the opposite wall while barely blinking. The girl might as well have been a statue for all the movement that she made. She simply sat, silent and motionless, staring almost unblinkingly at that wall. Her mind was a million light years away.

That was the position that her father found her in when he finally opened the door and stepped out. Blinking at the sight of his daughter sitting like that, the man cringed before moving to kneel by her. “Scout? Honey, are you alr–” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, her father put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing briefly before using his other hand to gently turn her chin so that she would look at him. “Scout, we’ll get her back, okay? I promise. I promise, we’ll find Sands.”

“I know.” The words were quiet, barely audible. But they came easily. She said them before standing up. She stood in front of her father, waiting for him to rise before she put her arms around him. She hugged him, because he needed it. Because he needed her to be there.

“I’m so sorry, baby.” He lifted her off the floor, clutching the girl to his chest while murmuring, “I’m so, so sorry. You shouldn’t have been there. You should’ve been safe. I’ll fix it. I will fix it.”

Scout let him talk, let him murmur to himself. She let her father make himself feel better with his words, allowing them to wash over her. Words didn’t matter. They never did.  Actions mattered. But in that moment, her dad needed to say the words. He needed to make the promises, the apologies, swear the oaths. And she let him. Because it didn’t affect her. It didn’t really matter.

He took her home then. Not to her dorm, but to their family’s apartment in the faculty building. Scout ate dinner at her own spot at their dining room table. Her father barely touched his food, but she ate everything that was put in front of her. She barely tasted it, but she did eat it. Food. Fuel. Sustenance. Her body needed it so that she could go on. So she could continue.

Once dinner was over, her father picked up the dishes, setting them aside before turning back to her. “Okay, kiddo,” he started in a dull voice, “I’ll get some blankets for your room, and then we-”

Scout stood from the table and interrupted before he could continue. “I’m going to my room.” Belatedly, she amended, “My room in the school. My dorm.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. She usually said more to her father than she said to others. Not as much as she said to Sands, but he at least tended to get more than the one or two-word answers that she gave most people.

“What?” Her father blinked before shaking his head. “Oh, baby, it’s okay. Scout, you can stay here. Trust me, the headmistress will understand. No one’s going to fault you for needing to stay here for now, while your sister… until we get her back. You don’t have to go back there tonight.”

Smiling faintly, Scout left the table. She walked over to where her father was standing and embraced the man tightly, simply hugging him for a few seconds before speaking. Her voice was even softer than usual, so quiet that he had to lean closer to hear her. “You’ll find Sands?”

When her father gave an emphatic nod, she stepped back. “Then I’m going where I belong.”  

As she turned to walk to the door, her father spoke weakly. “I just need to know that you’re safe.”

Scout paused there, turning to look back at him. Her response was simple. “So do I.”

She walked out the door. Closing it behind her, Scout hurried out of the faculty building. As she stepped out onto the grounds, the girl caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. She turned, finding a familiar woman standing near the corner of the building, staring at the sky.

Biting her lip, she stepped closer, her voice even more tentative than usual. “Professor Dare?”

“Hello, Scout,” Dare answered without looking away from the expansive starfield that filled the night sky. She seemed almost entranced by it. “Does your father know that you’re out here?”

Nodding, Scout moved closer to the woman. She watched her for a moment, then turned her head to look at the sky, taking in the same sight. The girl stood like beside her professor for a couple of minutes. Neither spoke. They simply stood there, watching the stars in utter silence.

Eventually, Dare spoke, voice contemplative. “Do you remember the start of the year, when I tried to call you by your given name instead of Scout?” When the girl nodded, she continued. “Did you ever wonder why I would do that, when I’ve known you since the day you were born?”

Scout paused, thinking about that for a moment before giving the woman another slow nod.

“I wasn’t your pseudo-aunt then,” Dare explained. “I was trying to create a boundary between us, a… professional separation. Maybe I was overcompensating. I told myself it was because I didn’t want you two to think that you could walk all over me just because of how close we’ve been. But now… now I think there was more to it. Before, I didn’t mind being close to you that way, because you were just children. You were kids. But at that point, at that point you became students. You were Heretics. And Heretics get into trouble.” Her voice was flat. “Heretics die.”

The silence returned for almost a full minute then before Professor Dare spoke again. “I’ve lost people, Scout. I’ve lost more people in my life than…” She trailed off, swallowing hard. “My parents, my entire colony was wiped out. Everyone I ever knew, it was…” Again, she went silent as her voice cracked on the last few words. Scout saw the shudder run through the woman before she found her voice once more. “I thought that maintaining a separation once you became Heretics, once you were in actual danger… I thought it would help if anything ever…”

Swallowing hard, Dare looked to her. “I’m sorry, Scout. If I had been a little bit faster, just a little bit, I could have stopped it. I could have paused time and taken those transport orbs away from your sister and–and the others. I could have stopped them from disappearing.”

Scout met the woman’s gaze as she whispered the one thing that she had told herself when her mind had been filled with all that speculation. “Live in what can happen, not what could have.”

Repeating that under her breath, Professor Dare chuckled softly, seemingly surprising herself with it. Her head shook, and she reached out to gently brush a hand through Scout’s hair. “You’re so much stronger than your father thinks you are,” she murmured quietly. “You all are.”

Something about what she had said just then made Scout remember something else very important. Blinking up at the woman, she asked tentatively, “Flick’s dad?”

Wincing, Dare nodded with a long sigh. “I spoke to him for a little bit. Gaia was going to, but she had a… situation to attend to with Avalon.” The woman frowned to herself, making it clear to Scout that there was a lot more to that particular story than she was going to tell her.

“So yes, I went to visit Lincoln. It… didn’t go that well. But he knows what’s going on. I promised that we’d let him know as soon as we find out anything else. And Gabriel is working on something. Between him and Gaia, they’ll work something out.” Again, she brushed her hand through Scout’s hair tenderly. “We just have to trust that your sister and… and the others can take care of themselves until we find a way to bring them back. Right?” She smiled down at her.

Scout nodded, returning the woman’s smile despite herself. She remembered growing up on these grounds. She remembered Aunt Ginny being there for her after her mother was… after that day. She remembered being rocked back and forth by the blonde woman when her father had passed out from sheer exhaustion. Without her mother around, Aunt Ginny had been the closest thing she and Sands had to that kind of figure, since the headmistress was so busy.  

Eventually, Professor Dare walked her across the grounds, back to the dorm. On the way, Scout thought for a moment before looking over at her teacher. “Waiting,” she spoke simply, with a significant look back the way they had come, back to where the woman had been standing.

Dare gave a soft smile, nodding her understanding. “Yes,” she replied, “I was waiting for you to come out. I didn’t know whether you’d tell your father or not, but I knew you wouldn’t stay there.”

They reached the dorm, and Dare gave her a brief hug. “She’ll be okay. We’ll bring them back.”   

Scout returned the hug tightly, giving her professor a soft smile before nodding. Then she stepped into her room,  the room she shared with Sands, and closed the door behind herself.

For a moment, the girl just stood there, motionless and silent. Her eyes slid across the room, landing first on her own bed, then on the one that belonged to Sands. A hard lump formed in her throat as she stared for several long seconds before slowly taking a few steps that way.

She ran her hand over the bed, letting a shudder run through herself before sitting down on the edge of it. Closing her eyes, Scout laid down there, in the exact spot where her sister always slept. Her head found the pillow, the same pillow that Sands’ head always rested on. She inhaled slowly and deliberately, taking in the lingering scent of her sister.

The dam broke, shattering apart. And by morning, the pillow was soaked through with her tears.

******

“I know you all want to find your missing teammates and friends,” Gaia announced the next morning. “And we’re working on that, I promise you. For the time being, however, this is the most obvious solution to the fact that both of your teams are at half strength.”

Both of their teams. Scout, Sean, Columbus, and Avalon stood there on one side of the room. On the other side stood Douglas and Rudolph. The two boys were openly staring at Scout and the others for a few seconds before Douglas spoke up. “Half strength? Headmistress, three of our friends completely disappeared, and the other one… the other one was dead for God only knows how long while an imposter waltzed around in his skin. I think you’re understating it.”

Gaia gave a slight nod. “You are correct, Mr. Frey. This situation is…” She paused then, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “This situation is difficult. Mr. Calburn was…” For a moment, Gaia’s eyes closed before opening again. “Mr. Calburn was a wonderful boy. What happened to him was…. At a certain point, you would think that I would have found the perfect words to say in a situation like this. But those words don’t exist. I am very sorry about Paul. The others… we will find them, but Paul…” She took in a long breath, letting it out before continuing. “His family will be holding a memorial service for him tomorrow evening. Any of you, or any student, who would like to attend are welcome. Come to me and I will ensure that you make it there. And you will not be expected to attend regular classes until you are ready to do so.

“But this,” the woman continued, lifting a hand to indicate them all, “this is your team. For as long as it takes to find the others and bring them back here where they belong, this will be your team. What you do with that is up to all of you. Personally, I strongly suggest you talk to one another. The rest of the members of both of your teams are out there. They will be learning to work with one another, learning to trust each other. I believe that you can do the same.”

Scout saw the woman’s gaze move briefly toward Avalon then. Gaia looked like she wanted to say something else, something directly to her adopted daughter. But she visibly stopped herself.

As for Avalon, the girl looked tired. Her usually perfect hair was done in a simple ponytail, and it was obvious that she had barely bothered to shower. She was still beautiful, there was no question about it. Even Scout recognized that fact. But there was no effort there, not today. She just stood near the wall behind the others, shoulders hunched as she stared at the floor in silence while Gaia finished explaining their situation and what they were supposed to be doing.

Finished, the woman looked toward Columbus. “For now, Mr. Porter, I believe you have an appointment with Mr. Roe?”

If anything, Columbus looked even worse than Avalon did. If he’d gotten any sleep at all the night before, Scout would be surprised. The boy said nothing at first. He just stood there, listlessly staring. Then he gave a sudden start, as if he’d briefly forgotten that he was the one in charge of his own body again. “I–” He swallowed visibly, giving a slight nod. “Right. Appointment, I can–” Stopping, Columbus looked toward Avalon. His mouth opened like he was going to say something, but no words came out. He just stood there like that for several long seconds before closing his mouth. Then he turned and started toward the door, head down.

“Wait.” The words came from Avalon. She straightened, and Scout saw the girl mouth something inaudible to herself before moving over to where Columbus was. Slowly, Avalon reached up to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing it. “Porter,” she started slowly, her voice cracking once before she got it under control. “Porter, everyone here besides Gaia is only alive and safe because of you. You can be as hard as you want on yourself if it makes you better. But remember that. As much as that bitch took from you, don’t forget it. You could have surrendered. You could have given up, curled into a ball, and let everything happen. But you didn’t. You fought. She let her guard down because she thought you were broken. She ignored you because she thought she had already beaten you. But she didn’t win. You did. No matter what happens, no matter what that cunt said to you, remember that.

“You won.”

Columbus looked choked up for a second. He met the girl’s gaze, and Scout saw him swallow hard before managing a weak, “Thanks… thanks, Avalon.”

“No.” The girl shook her head pointedly. “Thank you. Thank you for saving our lives.”

******

“Scout?” Vanessa Moon’s voice came in a stage-whisper as the blonde girl pulled herself up onto the roof of the girl’s dorm much later, after the sun had gone down. “Are you–” She visibly stopped herself from asking if Scout was okay. “How are you doing?”

Tristan, pulling himself up behind his sister, nodded. “Yeah, what–what’s going on?” 

Scout had left notes asking both of them to meet her up here once they were done with everything else that they needed to do. Then she had come up to wait, throwing her baseball around while she waited.

Now, she stood up, holding the ball in one hand while turning to face the twins. With her other hand, she activated a privacy coin before speaking. “We have to help the others.”

Both Tristan and Vanessa looked surprised, probably because they weren’t accustomed to her saying more than a couple words at a time. But this wasn’t time for that. Scout needed to communicate. Her sister wasn’t here to translate for her. As hard as it was, as uncomfortable as it made her, she had to talk.

“Um, we want to help them, sure. I mean, stuck on the other side of space because of a banishment orb… Trust me, we’re there.” Vanessa was nodding. “But how do we–”

“They need help,” Scout interrupted. And boy did that feel strange. “We… we can’t help them. But your father can. And my mother. We… we have to tell them.”

“Tell them?” Tristan shook his head. “Scout, how can we–”

It was Vanessa’s turn to interrupt. “She’s talking about the–the visions I’ve been having, right? When I saw through Dad’s eyes. But, Scout, I can’t communicate that way. I can’t even do it on purpose. I don’t know what I’m doing, or how to do it.”

Scout nodded at that. “You need training.”

“Training?” Vanessa echoed, clearly confused. “How am I supposed to get training? It’s not like there’s any Seosten around who can tell me what I’m doing or how to get better at it.”

Smiling slowly, Scout replied, “Next best thing. Seosten-Heretic.”

“Seosten-Heretic?” Vanessa abruptly started a bit. “You mean Enguerrand, the guy at Gabriel Prosser’s camp?”

Once again, Scout nodded. “Gaia said he could teach you. If you want. We can visit the camp.”

Vanessa’s head jerked into an immediate nod. “Wh–yes, yes, of course. I want to help.”

“She’s right,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, I can’t even do what Nessa can yet, but still. Anything we can do. We’re there. After everything Flick–” He coughed. “We’ll help, whatever it takes.”

The answer made Scout smile. “Good.

“Then let’s go.”

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Mini-Interlude 45 – Joselyn

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the specific event during Joselyn’s first year as a student at Crossroads that turned her from loyal Heretic to budding rebellion instigator and leader. I hope you enjoy. 

Sunday, March 2nd, 1919

“We’re clear on the north end. How’s it look where you are, Jos?”

The voice of Joselyn Atherby’s teammate came through the badge that had been pinned to the front of her school uniform. It was loud and clear to her, yet somehow no one else could possibly hear it, no matter how close they were standing.

Not that anyone else was close to the blonde, short-haired teenager at that point. The girl crouched on the roof of the drugstore, hidden in shadows while she watched people and automobiles alike trundling by. After scanning the alley below her for a moment, she spoke up. “We’re jake over here, Tribald. Alley’s clear. No one’s getting out this way. Dev, you still got the bear in sight?”

There was a brief pause before Deveron responded. “Well, she’s not a bear right now. But yeah, she’s inside the left-most apartment. Lillian, you finished with your bit yet?”

Again, silence reigned for a few seconds before the voice of Joselyn’s roommate came back. “All set. Magical boundary should keep anyone from walking by this way or hearing anything.”

“Can we do this already?” Roger Dornan, another teammate, demanded with obvious annoyance. “It’s one werebear and there’s six of us. We can handle her.”

“Take it easy, Rog,” the other boy’s roommate and cousin, Seamus, scolded him. “Remember, we don’t want to screw this up. Unless you want a failing grade for this hunt.”

Roger retorted immediately, “We could get a failing grade for taking too long too. The alley’s clear, no one’s coming to investigate, and Deveron’s got the Stranger in sight. Let’s do it.”

“Jos?” That was Deveron again. “What do you think? Time to move?”

Leaning over the edge of the roof to look down one more time, making absolutely certain everything was clear, Joselyn finally nodded to herself while replying, “Rog is right, we can’t sit around second-guessing ourselves all night. Time to stop that bear before she attacks anyone else. You guys know the plan. Deveron first, make all the noise, draw her attention. Roger and Seamus hit her when she comes out. Tribald and Lillian hit her once she’s engaged with those two. I’ll cover things here if she tries to retreat.”

The acknowledgments came quickly. And almost as quickly came the sounds of the attack. Deveron, being loud and obvious as he broke down the door of the apartment building behind the drugstore that Joselyn was perched atop. A second later, there was a loud roar that made Joselyn shiver, despite the fact that she had been ready for it.

“Be careful, Dev,” she whispered to herself without engaging the badge radio.

Thankfully, Seamus and Roger joined in right away. For once, Joselyn was grateful for the latter’s impulsiveness. It meant that Deveron wasn’t left alone with the monster for that long.

Thirty seconds passed. Thirty horribly long seconds. Joselyn was regretting putting herself on back-up duty. But it had been the best choice, the best use of everyone. She knelt there, listening to the sounds of Tribald and Lillian finally getting involved. Five Heretic students versus one werebear. They could handle it, right?

She wished she was there.

The sound of a door squeaking nearby interrupted her inner lamentations, and Joselyn turned quickly to see the back entrance of the apartment building opening. As she watched with confusion, a woman stepped out, looking both ways. As soon as she saw her, Joselyn’s Heretic-sense began to scream its warnings. Apparently there were more Strangers inside the apartment building than they’d thought.

Just as Joselyn started to gather herself to stop the Stranger from escaping, pulling her Hunga Munga from their spot on her belt, the woman turned and began gesturing frantically for someone else to come out.

And come they did. Eight figures hurried through the doorway and into the small courtyard between the apartment building and the alley. Eight children, some of them tiny little things, ranging from what looked like four years old to around ten. All of them were Strangers, not human. And all had tears in their eyes. A couple were outright sobbing.

“Kaya, Kaya, is it the Moffy guys?” One of the youngest, a tiny, blue-skinned girl with white hair tugged at the older woman’s leg. “Is it the Moffy guys?”

“Mafia, Limny,” one of the older boys corrected her. He was sniffling, clearly trying to be brave. “You mean Mafia. And nuh uh, it’s the Heretics.”

That caused a loud gasp to go up among the children, and the crying intensified. The older woman turned back, obviously fighting back her own fear. “Don’t scare them, Puck. Limnoreia, it’s going to be okay.” She put a hand on the tiny blue-skinned girl’s shoulder, squeezing it briefly before another loud roar from inside made her jump. “Come on, let’s go. Hurry, children.”

“Will Aunt Callisto be okay?” one of the other little ones asked, even as a terrifyingly loud bang came that shook the entire apartment building.

For a moment, the woman, Kaya apparently, looked like she was going to answer. In the end, with a worried look over her shoulder, she just urged them on with her hands. “Come, she’ll meet us later. Hurry, hurry.”

It was time to stop them. Time to drop down and get in their way so this could all be mopped up. So that the… the monsters… could be… so that the monsters could be… so that the monsters…

Joselyn stayed where she was, watching as the woman and eight very different children rushed by below her. None looked up. None noticed her there. They ran, they fled for their lives.

They weren’t putting on a show. They had no idea she was there. They weren’t faking.  They had no reason to, no way of knowing that they should pretend. They weren’t pretending. They were… they had been… terrified. Terrified… of… of Heretics.

She was still there, staring at the spot where the children had been as three more figures came into view. They were moving from the street, through the alley and to the apartment building. As they emerged, Joselyn’s Heretic-sense went off once more, for two of the figures. It was silent for the third.

“Ya morons!” the shorter, fatter man, the only one who didn’t set off Joselyn’s warning sense, smacked one of the others. “I told you we was gonna be late! Now look.” He waved a hand to the open doorway ahead of them. “They’re already gone!”

“Don’t you worry none, boss,” one of the other men announced. “Those kids smell something fierce. Olly and me, we can track ‘em down.”

The boss turned, jabbing a finger into the man’s chest. “You better. I paid good money, good money, to get that ursine bitch’s location into Heretic hands. She wants to stand in my way, in Leo Torrio’s way and stop me from getting my hands on what’s mine? Those kids are worth a fortune, a fucking fortune. Now those Heretics are getting rid of my problem, but the kids ain’t fucking here, cuz you stupid dewdroppers couldn’t get a fucking move-on! Now get those kids! Go!”

The Mafia, Joselyn realized, the ones that the little blue girl… Limnoreia had mentioned. The ones that they had been afraid of… the ones that the werebear had been… had been… protecting… them… from…

Before she knew what she was doing, Joselyn was already moving. Leaping from the roof of the drug store, she threw one of her Hunga Munga. A thought stopped it in the air just above the ground at the entrance into the alley, and she teleported herself straight to it.

There. The Mafia men were just leaving the alley. But she could pull them back in. It wouldn’t be hard. She’d distract them, make them think the children were here after all, and then–

A hand caught her shoulder. As she spun, weapons up, Deveron took a step back, holding his hands out. “Whoa, whoa, hey. You okay?” The boy was panting heavily, but grinning. “Annoyed you didn’t get in on the action?”

“Action?” Even to herself, Joselyn sounded out of it, distracted, confused.

“We’re all good, Jos. It’s over.” Still panting from exertion, Deveron continued to her that broad smile. “Bear’s down. We saved the day. Huge heroes.”

“Bear… the bear… you… you killed the werebear?” The words sounded and felt like they were coming from someone else, some other person far away.

“Uh, yeah? You know, our job? Woohoo?” Deveron squinted at her. “Are you okay? You’re not seriously sore that you didn’t get to fight, are you? She just went down sooner than we expected. Took most of that apartment with her too, you should see it. Lillian got the last hit, lucky girl. Don’t worry though, I’m sure you’ll get the next one. I mean, if that’s what you’re upset about. Jos?”

“I… I have to…” Joselyn took a step back, half-turning to look over her shoulder at the alley, back the way the Mafia had gone on their way to follow those children, the… the Stranger children… the… innocent… Stranger children.

A glowing blue portal appeared directly beside them, and a woman stepped out. Freidra Konstant, one of their professors.

“Excellent work, children,” she announced with clear pride. “The target has been eliminated and none of you were seriously harmed. Good show. Come, let us collect the others and then prepare to receive your score.”

Deveron moved that way, almost stepping through the portal before looking back to where Joselyn was still standing. “Jos? Hey, what’s–”

He said something else, but she didn’t hear him. Her attention was on the alley once more, even as her eyes slid closed. Deveron’s voice faded to background noise, as the memory of the children crying, that innocent little girl asking if the Moffy had come for them, and the Mafia man himself saying that he had deliberately leaked the werebear’s location so that the Heretics would kill her to get her out of the way so that he could take those children all flooded into her mind at once. Their voices in her memory were overpowering, so loud as they competed with one another for prominence. Deafening. Their voices were completely deafening. Almost as loud as the sound of her own heartbeat. Her own heart, pounding, thudding, thundering there in the alley. Couldn’t they hear it? Couldn’t they all hear it?

Miss Atherby!” Professor Konstant bodily turned her around, holding onto her shoulders. “Open your eyes. Look at me. Are you quite all right? What–did something happen to you?”

Slowly, Joselyn Atherby’s eyes opened.

And in a way… they would never close again.

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Field Trip 28-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Davis posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, let me get this straight,” Isaac spoke about an hour later. “You’re seeing us through your eyes and through that thing’s eyes?” With one hand, he was pointing at me. And with the other, he was pointing at my newly-created fox as she perched on a rock in the corner of the cave.

From where she was standing, Jazz shook her head and muttered, “I can’t believe you know how to cast the theriangelos spell. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to use that? I never really wanted to be a Heretic, but one thing I did want was magic. Especially that spell.”

Sands was nodding (which, considering she was a little bit behind me, I could see through the eyes of my fox, but not my own eyes). “Tell me about it. Scout and me, we used to talk about what kind of animal we thought we could get once we learned the spell. She um.” Sands swallowed hard. “When we were little, Scout really wanted to get a penguin.” A slightly choked laugh escaped the girl then, and my fox could see the dampness in her eyes. “I tried to tell her that wouldn’t be a cool animal for spying or fighting, but she didn’t care. She just likes penguins.”

“I’ll teach it to you guys,” I promised. “It’ll just take a few days. But yeah, you should learn it.” Biting my lip then, I turned to look over my shoulder at the other girl. “And you’ll see her again, Sands. We’re going to survive this long enough for Gaia and the others to find a way to pull us back.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Instead, the girl just looked back at me in silence that dragged on almost uncomfortably before glancing away with a muttered, “Yeah. So let’s survive.”

I don’t think she believes you, Tabbris whispered in my head, confirming what I already knew.

Yeah, I thought back to her, so we’ll just have to prove her wrong. Aloud, I cleared my throat while looking to Isaac. “Anyway, yeah, it’s a little weird, seeing through two different sets of eyes at once. It, uh, takes some getting used to. And it can give you a nasty headache if you do it for too long. I made myself throw up once. So, mostly I like to close my eyes and just see through hers when I’m using her.” To demonstrate, I did just that, letting my eyes close and focusing on the fox. At a thought, she hopped down from the rock and moved to sniff a bit at Isaac’s shoes.

The boy looked a little uncomfortable for some reason as he took a step back while clearing his throat. “Uh, so you use that fox to scout out the area around here, huh? What are we supposed to do in the meantime? You know, besides become world champion thumb twiddlers?”

“There’s a lot more we need to know,” Jazz pointed out, looking at the fox. “You want us to believe all the stuff you’re talking about with these Seosten and all that, we need more details.”

I nodded once without opening my eyes. The fox’s head did the same, and I saw the others give a brief double-take between both of us. “You’ll get them. Trust me. But right now, we need to know what’s around us. We’re gonna need water and food. And we need to know if this area’s safe enough, because Radueriel and his people are definitely going to be searching for us.”

“Come on,” Sands gestured for the others to go with her to the other side of the cave. “Roxa and me can tell you about most of it while Flick scouts things out. Then she can fill in the blanks.”

Gordon straightened a little, giving my fox a brief glance. I saw the boy open his mouth before hesitating. It looked like he was about to say something, but stopped himself. It was one of the first times I could ever remember him actually looking hesitant or unsure. Whatever he had been about to say, it seemed like it was something important. In the end, however, he just followed the others to the other side of the cave while giving me a brief glance on his way.

Um. Do you think he’s okay? Tabbris sounded worried, and I wondered how much of my noticing Gordon’s look was myself and how much was the Seosten girl. He, um, he looked like-

Like he wanted to say something, I agreed. I dunno. He’s been taking in a lot. They all have, but the others seem more… shaken by it? Isaac’s just making jokes like he usually does, but I can tell there’s something off about him too. And Jazz is really freaking out. But Gordon… it’s almost like this isn’t that much of a surprise to him. But I can’t tell how much of that is just Gordon being Gordon, and how much of it is him knowing more than we thought he knew. He’s hard to read.

Either way, I was gonna have to worry about it later. For the moment, everything I’d already said was true. We really did need to have food and water, and we did need to find if there were any Seosten search teams anywhere nearby. Everything else was going to have to wait for, for now.

So I focused on my fox. Seeing through her eyes, I sent the little magically conjured animal out of the cave. She easily slipped through the bush covering the opening, back out into the narrow, foliage-covered canyon. There, I made her sit and simply listen for a few long seconds. Animals. I could hear what I thought were animals, and smell them. But other than that, there was silence. If there was a Seosten search team nearby, they weren’t making a lot of noise.

I had to get out of the canyon, to where I could actually see better and get the lay of the land. To that end, I made the fox start looking around, hunting for a quick way to climb up. Meanwhile, I silently asked, I’ve gotta ask you something, Tabbris. You said you’ve been getting rid of any spells that Fossor has been trying to put on me. You did the same thing with the Seosten, right? They weren’t just trying to figure out why I was immune to possession, they also wanted to know why none of their spells were working. That was you. It was all you, the whole time.

I felt her embarrassment, and uncertainty. Um. Uh… uh huh. I was trying to be subtle about it at first, like… make it look like they just messed up the spell or something. But they kept trying, so I thought if I just undid all the spells, they might think someone like Gaia or Mr. Prosser was doing it. Except, uh, I guess Charmiene figured out that there weren’t any Heretics going near you before the spells were broken. So she must’ve decided you were doing it somehow.

Or that it was happening automatically, I agreed, smiling a little to myself. That must’ve confused the hell out of them. But, I added pointedly, how did you do it? You’re… well, you’re awesome. That’s for sure. But how could you possibly just erase the spells that a three thousand year old Seosten and an ancient necromancer put on me like that? It seems really impressive.

Now I really felt her embarrassment. Oh. Um. It’s.. uh, easier to break things than to make them. It’s like how… how it can take a long time and a lot of skill to make a vase, but you can break it really easily? It’s a little tricky to do it to a spell without setting it off, but um, it’s easier to break them than to make them. Mama showed me some tricks, cuz she knew they’d come after you.

Still smiling, I replied, Downplay it all you want, I still get the feeling that you and Wyatt would be an amazing team. You’ve been working with magic and spell-countering since you were tiny. If you two worked together, you could probably figure out a spell to do anything.

There was silence from the other girl for a few long seconds before she tentatively asked, You really think we’ll get back to Earth? The banishment orbs are really powerful. Remember the problems the Meregan had with Tristan? And they’re not even behind the same magic wall that S-Seosten space is. Remember, Uncle Haiden and Aunt Larissa have been out here for years.

We’ll make it back, I promised her. Just like we’re gonna find your mom, and the others. The biggest advantage the Seosten have is people not knowing about them, Tabbris. That’s something else you have in common with your people. Secrecy, that’s their biggest thing. It’s how they’ve gotten away with so much. We’ve got Gaia, Wyatt, Gabriel, and probably a lot more working to get us out of here. Trust them. All we have to do is stay alive and free long enough.

By that point, my fox had found a narrow path against the wall of the canyon to climb up and out. As she clambered onto solid ground, I made her look around slowly, taking everything in.

The forest didn’t look that different than one that we could’ve found back on Earth. The trees were a bit bigger (but not as big as the ones at Eden’s Garden), and the leaves were more of a blueish-purple color while the bark itself was closer to red. And I saw a bunch of roughly waist-high bushes with a mixture of orange, yellow, and red leaves. But overall, it looked like a normal forest. In the distance, I saw an animal standing between two trees, munching on a few of those leaves. It looked kind of like a zebra, except it had a really long neck like a giraffe and it was red and a dull orange instead of black and white, to better blend into the trees and bushes.

There were also a couple birds flying overhead. As I turned the fox’s head to look up, I saw them passing by. They looked like oversized parrots. Seriously, the brightly colored birds were as big as vultures. As I watched, one dove to grab something out of a tree. I couldn’t see what it was, but the thing struggled for a few seconds before going still in the giant parrot’s talons as it was crushed to death. Apparently these things ate a lot more than just nuts, fruit, and insects.

Right, focus, Flick. Pausing then, I thought, Hey, was that me thinking that, or you telling me?

You, Tabbris quickly answered. It was you. Um, and maybe just a little me. I mean, you thought it too. I was mostly thinking about how I hope Marian doesn’t have to fight one of those things.

Marian? I echoed before realizing what she was talking about. Oh, the fox. Why Marian?

Again, I felt her embarrassment. You know, like Maid Marian. In the Disney cartoon Robin Hood.

I barely resisted a chuckle at that. I knew I loved that movie a little too much for just one person. Dad used to say I was almost obsessed with watching it. That was you too, wasn’t it?

That time, her embarrassment turned to what felt more like… almost shame. I’m sorry, she hurriedly apologized. I’m sorry, I was little and I was scared. I was… I w-was still new to everything after I woke up, and when you watched that movie, I felt… a little better. But I–

Tabbris, I interrupted, It’s okay. I get it, trust me. You were a kid, you’re still a kid. But back then, you were barely more than a toddler. You were scared and alone, and the movie made you feel better. You wanted to see it so much that it rubbed off and made me want to see it too.

There was silence for a few seconds then before she replied, Mostly it was after… after Aunt Larissa didn’t show up. Mama’s message said that she’d… she’d visit me once I woke up, that she’d help teach me some things so I wouldn’t… so I wouldn’t be alone all of the time. But…

I winced. But she never showed up. She never showed, and you didn’t know why until we found Scout and Sands. Did you know who they were, who their mother was, when we first met them?

Uh huh, Tabbris answered quickly. Some of the messages Mama left were about Aunt Larissa and her family. I… I didn’t know what happened to her until they told us. Until they told you.

Oh God. So she had been left for years without anyone to talk to, without anyone who even knew that she existed. With Larissa gone and no way to contact, or be contacted by, her mother, Tabbris had had absolutely no one. And she spent years like that, hiding inside me, trying not to control me to the point that she felt guilty because her desire to watch a kid’s movie might’ve influenced me to watch it. Where did we even start with making her feel better about any of it?

Well, first thing’s first. You didn’t do anything wrong, I insisted. It’s okay if you wanted to watch a silly movie. I’m pretty sure little sisters have done a lot more than you did when it comes to forcing people to watch the movie they want to watch, okay? I’m not mad, Tabbris. It’s okay.

I had to keep exploring. We still needed food and water, and everything else. Sending the fox–Marian to the nearest tree, I tilted her head to look up. As far as I knew, foxes didn’t generally climb trees. But this was a special case, and I was particularly motivated.

After judging where the branches were, I turned Marian around and had her run back a few yards before crouching like a runner at a starting gate. Hearing the imaginary pistol, I made her dart forward. I ran straight at the tree, leaping from a few feet out. Crashing against the tree partway up, I dug in with the fox’s hindlegs, scrambling to push off while using the claws in her forepaws to hold on and pull up toward the lowest branch that looked like it could hold her.

It probably looked really awkward for more than one reason, not the least of which was the fact that it was my brain directing the fox. But she made it up, then I had her jump from branch to branch in order to get higher. The whole time, I tried not to think about those big parrot things. If one of them came screeching down out of the sky to grab my fox-self, I might need new pants. And I was pretty sure there wasn’t a mall anywhere nearby to take care of that little problem.

Actually, I realized then, that reminds me of another question. When you popped out of me, you were wearing a blue… what was that, a bodysuit? Where’d that come from? I mean, I kinda doubt you just had it on when you, um, arrived back when you were that little.

To my surprise, Tabbris corrected, Actually, I did. It’s Seosten clothing. It um, it grows with you. It was really little when I was, and when I got bigger… it did too. It’s self-cleaning, and I think it’s supposed to be bulletproof, fireproof, and… some other things. At least, that’s what Mama said.

Oh. I paused then, considering that for a second. That’s really cool. I could use something like that. But I do think we need to get you some other clothes when we get a chance.

I felt the Seosten girl’s curiosity then. She hesitated before slowly asking, Other clothes?

Sure, I confirmed slyly before adding, After all, I’m pretty sure it’d be easy to find a couple of those Robin Hood shirts in the Disney store. And you’d look really snazzy in them.

I felt the girl’s delight at the thought, even as I made myself focus on what Marian was seeing now that the little fox had reached the top of the tree. Peering out, I took in the sight.

The forest stretched on for miles in every direction. I saw a river not too far away, with what looked like fish jumping in it. That solved our water and food problem, for the moment at least.  It was like this whole area, or maybe the planet itself, was some kind of nature preserve. Which might make sense. If it was meant to provide water, even air and other resources for space stations, they might deliberately keep it as undeveloped and natural as possible.

One thing that definitely wasn’t natural, however, was the thing flying over the top of the forest way off in the distance. It was far enough away that I could barely make it out, but it looked like a spaceship of some kind. The thing looked like it was about the size of a C-130 jet, and it was flying very slowly a few hundred feet above the treetops. As I watched through Marian’s eyes, it flew steadily along a straight path for awhile before moving out of sight. A minute or two later, it came back from the other direction and just a little bit closer.

They’re scanning, I realized. That’s why they didn’t send search teams to scour the woods. They’re using that ship to slowly scan the whole area for us. Actually, they’re probably using more than one of the things. They’ll find us that way.

No, they won’t, Tabbris corrected. I know a spell you can put on the cave to hide from their scanners. I can um, I can teach you, and you can just say that Gaia taught it to you?

I found myself nodding a little bit, both my own head and the fox’s. Good idea. Let me bring her in and we’ll get started before that thing gets any closer.

Bringing Marian back into the cave, I opened my eyes to find the others watching. Sands spoke up. “Did you find anything?”

“Food and water,” I replied. “And the ship that’s flying over the forest scanning for us.”

That definitely got everyone’s attention. Eyes widening, Jazz demanded, “A ship that’s scanning for us? What are we supposed to do, keep running? There’s probably more than one.”

I nodded. “That’s what–” I stopped myself from saying we at the last second. “–I thought. But don’t worry, Gaia taught me some other spells, like how to hide from scans like that. I need to put a spell on the cave, so we’ll have to stay inside while they’re going overhead. Once they move on, we’ll deal with the food situation.”

“It’s pretty lucky that Gaia taught you all this,” Gordon observed. “Is she the one who taught you the spell you used to get rid of that cyborg and all his troops?”

“Or was it Gabriel?” Roxa quickly put in with a brief glance toward me. Clearly, she was giving me an out so I didn’t have to reveal Tabbris.  

Her former teammates all looked at her then, Jazz blurted, “Gabriel?”

I nodded. “Gabriel Prosser. And let’s just say that thing we used against Radueriel won’t work a second time. It was a one-shot deal, for emergencies.”

There. I didn’t actually say that Gabriel had been the one to teach me the word. I just confirmed his name and then told the truth about the thing being one-time use. So it wasn’t… technically lying. But I also wasn’t going to tell them about Tabbris. There was way too much that could go wrong if they knew about her.

“Prosser.” Jazz’s voice was awed. “You’ve met Gabriel Prosser? How? Why?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before moving over to the nearby cave wall while reaching for the field-engraver in my pocket. “Let me get this spell started so we’re safe,” I replied. “Then… we’re on another planet.”

“Uh, yeah? What’s your point?” Isaac asked.

“My point,” I replied easily, “is that we’re not within range of the Seosten’s memory spell. Which means I can tell you about my mother. And about the rebellion.”

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Mini-Interlude 44 – Davis

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the character of Davis, the Committee member who is commonly referred to as ‘the lumberjack’ for his habit of wearing flannel shirts and his impressive beard.

July 17th, 1838

“Pa! Hey, Pa!”

Sixteen-year-old Davis Neal, a tall yet scrawny youth with gangly arms and ears that he had yet to grow into hopped the fence at the edge of his family’s property. They lived in the heart of Arkansas, the twenty-sixth and most recent territory to be granted statehood in the United States (Desoto had beaten them by only a few months), several miles outside of the tiny (and just recently incorporated) capital city of Little Rock.

With his fishing rod in one hand, and the day’s catch (three good-sized trout!) in the other, Davis called for his father once more while jogging up the path, past the paddock where Goodheart, the family’s lazy mare, was munching her food. He wanted to show off the fish.

Moving around the corner of the house toward the front porch, the boy stopped at the sight of three strange horses tied to the railing there. They were big, strong beasts, flanks sweaty from a long ride and laden down with a lot of supplies.

Blinking at the animals for a moment, Davis turned to look at the house, listening for a moment. He didn’t hear any voices coming from the window of the nearby parlor, where his father always entertained any company that came by. Maybe they were in the kitchen.

Knowing that he’d be due a whuppin if he went tearing in like a banshee in front of guests, Davis carefully opened the door, mindful of the squeaky hinge as he slipped through the gap. Now he could hear voices. But they weren’t coming from the kitchen as he’d assumed. Instead, they were coming from the room that he and his brother shared.

Davis’s heart sank a bit at that realization. The only times that his parents took guests into the boys’ bedroom was when they would be staying for awhile. Did this mean that he and Peterson were going to have to share a room with strangers?

With a sigh, he set the fish and rods down before carefully creeping that way. He was hoping to overhear something that would tell them how long the guests would be sticking around and praying it would only be for one night. As he reached the short hallway that led to his room, Davis leaned around the corner and listened intently.

The only voice that Davis could hear at that moment was that of his younger brother. Peterson seemed to be in the midst of a prayer. But why was he praying in the middle of the day with their parents and guests in the room? Squinting, the boy put his hand on the edge of the doorframe for balance and leaned in a bit more.

Unfortunately, the bit of wall where he put his hand felt sticky and wet. Blinking back that way to see what he’d put his hand into, the boy saw something horrific. The entire wall, from the doorjamb leading into the hallway, clear past the doorway into his bedroom, was smeared with fresh blood. Blood which led all the way into the dim corner that he hadn’t bothered looking toward when his focus had been solely on hearing what was going on in the other room. And as the boy’s eyes moved that way, he saw the body of his father, lying in a pool of what remained of his blood. His chest had been ripped open, leaving bits of bone and organs strewn about.

Before he could catch himself, Davis’s hand reflexively jerked away from the blood on the wall, and a strangled cry escaped him as he fell to the floor on his side. He landed hard, head just within sight of the open doorway into his room.

His mother’s body was there, lying next to his bed. It was torn open, identical to his father’s. A little further in, twelve-year-old Peterson knelt with three men crowding around him, mocking the boy as he continued to desperately pray for divine intervention.

Men. They didn’t look human. Two seemed part-wolf, with beastial features, extended claws, and visible fur. The third, meanwhile, had rough, scaled green skin like a lizard, and his solid red eyes were twice the size of a normal person’s.

All of their eyes, both Peterson’s and the three murderous monsters, turned toward Davis as he landed on the floor while crying out. At the sight of him, all three ‘men’ started to chuckle. Their predatory smiles grew, and the boy could only lie there, staring in horror as the lizard-man began to walk toward him. In the background, he could distantly hear his younger brother screaming his name, but it seemed to be coming from far away. All of Davis’s attention and focus was centered on the creature stalking his way.

He was going to die. He was going to die like his father and mother, torn open by these… these…

Thunder like none that Davis had ever heard filled the air. The lizard-man was blown backward, a good chunk of his upper body missing. A figure stepped over the prone boy, that of a man holding what looked something like a rifle with two wide barrels and an attached blade in between them that stuck out several inches beyond the barrels.

The two wolf-men were reacting by then. Abandoning their torment of Peterson at the sound of the gun, they spun that way. Seeing their companion’s body, the pair made unearthly howling sounds, lunging toward the attacker. One blurted a single word: Heretic.

A second deafening blast from that gun took one of the beast-men in the stomach. He staggered backward, while the other continued on. The man with the gun pivoted, snapping his rifle down and out. As he did so, the barrels flipped backward while the blade extended, turning the weapon into a sword with two gun barrels pointed back as if to act as handguards.

Continuing his pivot, the man allowed the charging figure to rush past him. It nearly reached the spot where Davis was lying, before that blade suddenly appeared as it was thrust into the creature’s back and all the way through his chest.

By that point, as that wolf-man stumbled to his knees, the other had risen once more despite the shot it had taken to the stomach. Instead of charging, it twisted to run for the window. The man, the Heretic, was ready for that, however. He twisted, yanking his gun-sword from the back of the first wolf before hurling it that way.

The wolf-man leapt out the window, disappearing from sight. But the sword didn’t simply fall to the ground or embed itself in the wall as Davis had expected. Instead, those gun barrels pointed themselves down, and some strange purple flame-like energy shot out of them. Rather than burn the floor, the energy lifted the sword over the edge of the windowsill. Once it was at the correct height, the barrels adjusted themselves to point fully backward, and then propelled the sword through the window. Then they adjusted themselves yet again to turn the sword, sending it out of sight.

A few seconds passed before a terrible squelching sound reached them, cutting off what had sounded like a scream. The Heretic made a noise that sounded a bit like enjoyment. Then the sword returned, covered in more blood. He caught it, pivoting back just as the wolf-man that he had gutted struggled back to his feet. A quick slice of the man’s blade took the creature’s head from its shoulders.

Almost before the body had finished falling, Davis was up and lunging for Peterson. He caught his little brother around the waist, pulling the sobbing boy against himself tightly. Both boys knelt there, practically lying in the blood of their dead mother, while the Heretic pushed the headless body of the wolf-man to the floor contemptuously.

“Evil beasts,” the man snarled, lowering his gun-sword as he turned to face the boys. His expression softened slightly, though he had the kind of face that made it impossible for him to ever actually look inviting or friendly.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured quietly then. “I am so very, very sorry, boys. I should have gotten here sooner. But I promise you, these things will not harm you or anyone else again.”

Peterson was too busy sobbing and clinging to Davis to actually say anything. The older boy stared up at their savior, stammering, “Ma…. Pa… those… those th-th-things. They were… they were…” He trailed off, frowning. The men… the men who had killed his parents. There was something off about them, wasn’t there? Why… ? Were they Mexican or Negroes? What was… what had they looked like? Why was it so hard to…

“Monsters,” the Heretic finished for him with a sigh. “Yes. Yes, they were. Come, let’s get you cleaned up. I won’t leave you alone here, you have my word.

“My name is Gabriel Ruthers. And I swear on my life, I will not let anything hurt you.”

******

December 5th, 1918

“This is impossible,” Davis, now a fully-grown man (yet still appearing to be in the prime of his life despite being nearly a hundred years old) announced. “They’re making a mistake.”

“No, my boy,” Gabriel Ruthers assured him, “it’s no mistake.” He beamed with pride, rubbing a hand over his own chin. “You’ve earned your reputation.”

Davis shook his head. “But I’ve only been a Heretic for about eighty years. How could the Committee possibly want to recruit me? They should want you. You’ve been around since before there was a Crossroads.”

Ruthers smiled, shaking his head. “My place is here, making sure the school runs smoothly and protecting the students. You’re the one who’s been making such a name for yourself, hunting down every target they give you. What was it at last count, an eighty-nine percent success rate? That’s extraordinary. And it’s why they want you. The Committee will put you in charge of tracking Strangers that have been eluding everyone else, and they’ll want you to teach others how to do what you do.”

Davis flushed at that. “I just do what you taught us, that’s all.”

“You do far more than that,” the other man insisted. “Don’t you be selling yourself short.” Tapping Davis against the head, he added, “So you go right back in there and tell them you accept the invitation. Do you understand? You’ve earned it.”

Swallowing hard, Davis lifted his chin. Despite being old enough to be a great-grandfather in human terms, he still saw Ruthers as a father-figure. Though not nearly as much as Peterson, who basically worshipped the ground the man walked on, did. Peterson would do anything for Ruthers after the man had saved their lives and killed the monsters who murdered their parents.

“Do you think I’m ready?” he asked, a little hesitantly.  

Ruthers gave a short nod, grunting, “Yes. You are. Now let’s go, they’ll be wondering what’s going on out here.”

The two turned, only to almost run into a first-year student. She was a pretty blonde with short hair, who came up short with a gasp as the two men nearly ran right into her. “Oh! Sorry, um, Headmaster. I was looking for Professor Pericles.”

Giving the girl a short look, Ruthers replied, “I believe he was down by the beach, the last time I saw him, Miss Atherby.”

“Oh!” the girl perked up, giving a little wave. “Thank you, sir!”

As she pivoted and darted off, Davis kept watching for a moment. “Did you say Atherby? That would make her–”

Ruthers gave a slight nod. “Yes, it would. With her onboard, we may be able to coax more of the clan to join us. Maybe even Prosser himself, given some luck. It would be… encouraging.”

Davis glanced back that way once more, watching the girl disappear in the distance. “I know it’s only been a few months, but do you think she’ll be a good student?”

“Oh yes,” Ruthers confirmed.

“Our most promising one in decades.”

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Field Trip 28-06

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For a few long, agonizingly slow seconds, no one said or did anything. Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon were all utterly motionless. They stood there, staring open-mouthed at Roxa while the other girl held the choker in one hand and stared right back at them. It wasn’t quite a threatening expression, but it was one that basically seemed to say, ‘yeah, this is me, you got a problem?’

Clearly, the months that Roxa had spent with her pack had basically erased any and all guilt she felt about what she had become. The other wolves had really done wonders for her confidence.

“Oh… oh my God.” That was Jazz, the black girl was the first to find her voice, strangled as it sounded. “You–you’re… you’re…” Standing there, she lifted a hand to point, shaky as it was. “How… what… you’re–Does that mean that you’re–you’re really a–” She stopped, cringing.

“Werewolf?” Roxa finished for her. “Yeah, turns out some of them get a kick out of turning Heretics. That’s what really happened over Thanksgiving, when I disappeared.” Spreading her arms out, she gestured before turning in a circle. “This is me. Roxa the Heretic Werewolf.”

I actually saw tears in Jazz’s eyes. She was acting like Roxa had suddenly revealed a terminal disease or something. Which, I supposed actually made sense considering what the other girl had been raised to believe. Her hand rose as if she was trying to reach out toward Roxa before catching herself. “Roxa,” she lamented. “Roxa, but that means, but that means… that you’re–”

“Evil?” Roxa finished for her, folding her arms with a raised eyebrow. “You mean when I ‘evilly’ helped you guys deal with that Seosten bitch who took over Columbus, or when I ‘evilly’ helped get you out of that space station? Or do you mean when I ‘evilly’ revealed that I’m really a werewolf when I had absolutely no reason to do that other than to back up what Flick said?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated, glancing to the others before speaking up. “Roxa, you didn’t have to–”

“Yeah,” she interrupted without looking away from her former teammates, “I did. I’m not gonna spend this entire trip, or the rest of my damn life, hiding what I am from the people who should trust me. So yeah, I’m a werewolf. If that bothers you people, you’re welcome to go find a non-werewolf person to survive on this alien world with. Or,” she added while narrowing her eyes, “you could try to do something about it. But I’m telling you now, that won’t go well for you.”

I saw the way Jazz flinched. She looked torn up inside, with eyes that were still openly wet. “But… but R-Roxa,” she stammered, clearly grasping for anything, “I don’t… don’t understand.”

Finally, Sands had clearly had enough. “You wanna understand?” she blurted abruptly. “Here’s what you need to understand. Our entire civilization is a fucking lie, alright? Everything they teach us about how everything that isn’t human is evil, that’s straight up bullshit. Those Seosten like the bitch in the hotel and cyborg man, yeah, that whole race of evil cocksuckers created Crossroads and now they teach us to kill everything that’s not human so they can use us as their soldiers, or guard dogs, or whatever. That’s what you need to understand.” To finish, Sands spoke slowly and deliberately. “A lot of those Strangers we kill, they’re not the monsters.

“We are.”  

It was the most emotion I’d seen Sands express about finding out that Strangers weren’t all evil since she’d accepted it. Clearly, she wasn’t happy about the ‘Crossroads entire reason for existing was to act as boogeymen for anyone the Seosten didn’t like’ thing. Hell, from the look on the other girl’s face, there was a lot more that she wanted to say about it. But she cut herself off and settled on simply scowling at the floor with her arms folded tightly, trembling with anger.

Gordon was the one who spoke next, his tone almost as calm as ever, though I could detect a little bit of emotion underlying it. “You… the choker.” His eyes had centered on the thing, which had turned visible once Roxa took it off. “That’s the choker that we heard Flick talking about.”

Jazz gave a start then, as if she’d completely forgotten it until that moment. “The choker,” she echoed, looking at the thing, then looking to me. “You knew–you’ve been helping her… but…”

“It’s like they said,” I confirmed, moving my gaze from her to Isaac and then to Gordon, “Strangers aren’t all evil. No more than all humans are evil. And if we’re gonna have a chance at surviving out here, that’s something you’re all going to have to try to accept. Because we need Roxa. I’m sticking with her. I trust her more than I trust any of you. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.”

Sands gave a little nod at that. “She’s right. I’m sticking with Roxa and Flick. You guys have a problem with that…” She shrugged. “Like the girl said, just go find another cave to hide out in.”

Isaac was the next to speak, raising his hands placatingly. “Hey now, let’s not all get drastic or anything. Let’s just talk about this. You’re right, Roxa, you’ve been doing a lot of not-evil stuff, stuff you didn’t have to do. But some of it could’ve been self-preservation. I mean, getting out of the space station would’ve been harder if you were alone. And you could’ve shown up to fight that, uh, Seosten back there at the hotel even if we weren’t there. It could’ve been personal.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed, her voice shaking as she spoke. “He… he’s right, you’ve helped a lot, but… but it still could’ve been just for show. I mean–except… except showing yourself now, unless you were trying to trick us, or…” Her head shook, and the girl closed her eyes tightly like she just wanted the whole thing to go away. “Damn it,” she muttered before repeating it several times, each one a little louder as she tightened her fists. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Turning, Jazz put her fist against the wall of the cave, then repeated the action twice before whirling back to us. “You guys are crazy! You’re talking complete nonsense! Crossroads was made by evil Strangers so that we’d go kill all the people they didn’t like? What the fuck?! You’re just–just-”

“Lying?” Roxa finished for her. “Trying to trick you? Crazy? Are we crazy? Or is killing every intelligent species on the planet just because they’re not completely human the crazy thing? I’m still me, Jazz. Still Roxa. Same girl, just with new abilities. It’s not that different from becoming a Heretic, is it? You start out as completely human, then something happens to change what-”

“Stop!” Jazz blurted then, head shaking violently. “Just stop, stop it! Stop trying to compare it. It’s not the same, okay? It’s not the same! Strangers are evil! We’re not the monsters, we help people, we have to save humanity. If we weren’t there, the Strangers would, they’d kill everyone. We’ve seen them! We’ve seen Strangers killing humans, torturing humans, eating humans!”

“You’re right,” I agreed, nodding as Jazz’s attention whipped over to me. “There are evil Alt–Strangers, just like there are evil humans. But not all of them. Look at all the monsters in human history. You think having a Hitler or a Jeffrey Dahmer means all other humans are irredeemably evil? I, for one, wouldn’t wanna be judged by the worst examples of humanity.”

“But… but…” Jazz looked like she wanted to flail. Her eyes kept darting back and forth as her fists repeatedly tightened and loosened. She looked even more lost and confused at the idea than the fact that we were all stranded on the far end of space on an alien planet surrounded by monsters. The mere suggestion that being a werewolf didn’t automatically make Roxa evil was pretty much making the other girl lose her mind. “But that can’t… I mean, it’s not the same.”

Gordon, raising his chin curiously, announced, “Maybe we should take this one step at a time. We’re all stuck here together, whether we like it or not. None of us wants to be taken by those.. Seosten. If nothing else, Roxa’s proved that much. So for now, we’re on the same side.”

“It’s not that simple,” Jazz insisted. “You know it’s not that simple. You–” She took a breath, glancing toward Sands for a second as if desperate for someone to back her up. “You should understand. Maybe not Flick, but you know what…” Shuddering, she continued, speaking quickly. “Everything they tell us, everything they teach us, it’s that that,” her hand gestured to the girl in question, “isn’t Roxa anymore! It’s a monster that’s wearing her face, a monster that took her over and is… is… wearing her just like those Seosten you keep talking about. When a human being turns into a Stranger, the human part dies and the monster completely takes over.

“So you’re saying, ‘let’s just work with them for now’? What if you’re wrong. What if you’re all wrong, and that isn’t Roxa anymore?” Jazz was staring at the girl, hands tightened into fists once more. “What if Roxa’s dead and gone and we’re just working with the monster that killed her? What if, instead of getting justice for Roxa like we should be doing, we’re working with the thing that slithered into her body and destroyed her? What if it’s laughing at us because we’re falling for its lies?!” Her voice was rising with each word, until she sounded almost hysterical.

Slowly, Jazz took a step toward the other girl with her hands held low and out, apparently so that we wouldn’t think that she was attacking or something. Her voice cracked as she continued. “You… you think I don’t want you to be Roxa? You think I don’t want our entire society to be wrong so that you can still be Roxa? You were my friend, my–we were supposed to be partners. I’ve been trying to find you for months, months! I want you to be Roxa so, so fucking bad. I want these guys to be right. I never wanted this, I never wanted to even be a Heretic! I didn’t want it! I want you to be you. But… but what if you’re not? What if you’re really a monster, squatting in Roxa’s body and laughing at how naive and stupid we are? What if we’re letting this thing get away with killing Roxa, just because we want her to still be herself? What if it’s using us?”

By that point, Jazz was directly in front of Roxa, the two of them mere inches apart. For her part, the werewolf girl simply stood still, meeting Jazz’s gaze evenly as she listened to her words until the girl was finally finished. Then she slowly lifted her chin, considering for a couple long seconds before speaking as plainly as possible. “If you don’t use what someone does to determine if they’re good or evil…” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “Then what do you use?”

While Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, Roxa continued flatly. “I’m not evil. I’m not a monster. I can’t say it any more plainly than that. And I’m not going to apologize for what– who I am. I’m done feeling embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I’m a werewolf, and I’m a Heretic. You can either judge me by what I do, or by what some evil, manipulative bastards tell you to judge me by. That’s your business. Either way, I’m not changing a goddamn thing about myself. You got a problem, deal with it.”

W-wow, Tabbris ‘whispered’ in my head, sounding like she was in awe. She’s really brave.

I think she’s also sick of being afraid of how people will react to her, I pointed out while watching to see what the others would do. I guess after spending a few months with other wolves, she’s done worrying about it. She’s sort of… ripping off the bandaid and then telling it to piss off.

Jazz, meanwhile, had closed her eyes. Her fists were held tightly against her side, and the black girl was openly shuddering. Her mouth moved a little, but I couldn’t tell what she was whispering at first. Then I got it, she was repeatedly muttering, “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” while tears feel freely down her face. Opening her eyes, she stared at Roxa. “I want it,” she blurted. “I want you to be you. I do. I swear I do, but… but… if we’re wrong, if they’re wrong, and you’re really a monster, then I’m letting you get away with killing my friend! Everyone who teaches us, all the adults, they all say you’re evil! How can we just ignore that? They all say you’re a monster.”

Roxa’s mouth opened, but it was Gordon who actually spoke. “Do they?” he asked simply, drawing everyone’s attention that way. The dark-skinned boy gave a little shrug. “I mean, I know what they say, but… what about what you overheard at Flick’s house, with the headmistress?”

Okay, that got my attention. I’d been trying to stay out of the conversation, but that one I had to jump in on. “I’m sorry, what?” I blurted, staring at the boy. “Who overheard what at my house?” Pausing, I added, “Actually, come to think of it, what the hell were you talking about when you said you heard me talking about the choker? I never talked about it without… safety measures.”

Gordon took a step my way, explaining simply, “We knew that you had something to do with Roxa disappearing, that you knew more about it than anyone else was saying. Douglas’s power, it… allows him to ask a question and get an answer, or directions to an answer, once per day. And every time he asked it anything about why Roxa disappeared, it always directed us to you.”

Well, that explained why they had been so obsessed with me. As I nodded slowly in realization, the boy continued. “We went looking for answers in your dorm room awhile back. You came in while we were there, but Jasmine used her power to turn us all invisible. While you were there, you mentioned the choker. You said that all you had to do was ‘get that choker on Roxa’ and then she could come back to the school. You were on the phone with someone named Asenath, and you said–” Pausing then, he looked like something suddenly made sense, nodding thoughtfully. “Oh. You asked her if werewolves and vampires really have some kind of rivalry.”

That… didn’t sound familiar at all. Especially the part about the choker. Why would I have phrased it like that? ‘Get the choker on Roxa?’ What the hell? But still, maybe–oh. Tabbris? I prompted, realizing that I didn’t have to rely on my own memory. Did that ever happen?

The answer came immediately and emphatically. No! No, you never had that conversation, and you never did… any of that. Not like that. I swear, they’re wrong. It never, ever happened.  

I nodded slowly before meeting Gordon’s gaze. “I hate to tell you guys this, but that never happened.” As all three of their mouths opened, I held a hand up. “Okay, let me rephrase. I didn’t say that. I wasn’t there, and I never had that conversation that you overheard. I’m not saying you didn’t overhear it, I’m saying it wasn’t me. Whoever you saw, it was someone else posing as me.”

And wasn’t that a massive punch in the gut? Someone, the Seosten obviously, had been posing as me just to manipulate these guys. It was probably an attempt to get them to report us to the Committee in a way that Gaia couldn’t cover up.

“Posing as you?” Jazz echoed, her eyes wide as she shook her head quickly at my words. “What the hell does that mean? Why would someone pose as you?”

“We do know that they have a way of posing as other people,” Gordon pointed out mildly. “The shapeshifter that took Paul’s place.”

Biting her lip, Jazz looked sick at the reminder before swallowing hard. “Y-yeah, but… but she did have someone named Asenath living at her house. I saw her. I saw her, and she’s a… a Stranger too.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed, seeing no need to try to lie about that much. “Asenath is a vampire. She’s also my friend. She saved my life, she saved my father’s life, and she’s done nothing but help me since I met her. So yes, she was living at my house. She’s been protecting my father. But we never had that conversation, and I never would’ve phrased it like that. We were trying to get the choker so that Roxa could come back. The choker hides Alters from the Heretic-Sense.”

“Alter,” Jazz repeated, squinting. “You said Alter again. What does that even mean?”

Sands answered for me. “It’s their word for what they are. Non-Humans, I mean. We call them Strangers. They call themselves Alters. As in ‘Alternative to human’.”

“But that’s not–” Jazz started to object before stopping herself. Taking a long, visible breath, the girl considered her words for a moment. Her eyes glanced briefly toward Roxa before she started once more. “They call themselves… Alters?”

As I nodded, Gordon spoke up again. “The point is, Jasmine said that all our teachers say that Strangers… Alters are evil. But she heard Headmistress Sinclaire talking to the vampire when we went to spy on your house.”

Spying on my house. They had been spying on my house. I felt indignant, even if part of me understood. Would I really have done anything different in their situation?

Isaac gave a quick nod. “Hey, yeah. So why would the headmistress be all for teaching about how evil Strangers are if she’s into this hippy ‘everyone just love one another’ shit?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied. “If she started changing what the school taught, the Committee would get rid of her.”

Making a noise that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger, Jazz put both hands over her face. “Just–just stop. Everyone just stop for a minute. Stop it.” She stood there like that, hands covering her face for a long moment. “Isaac,” she started finally, “You said your Edge vision was all about this Asenath chick killing your ancestor and all his people.”

“Uh, yeah.” The other boy gave a little shrug, looking self-conscious. “That’s what I saw.”

When Jazz looked back to me, I replied, “He’s probably missing context. That’s not the point. The point is, we’re all here. So you’ve got a choice, just like Roxa said. You can stay here and work with us so that we can keep everyone alive until we find a way home. Or you can go off on your own. But get this straight. If you can’t work with Roxa, then you might as well leave right now.”

“I didn’t say I–” Jazz stopped herself, biting her lip as she looked over to the girl in question. Her voice was timid. “I don’t want you to be evil. But I can’t just–I… you want us to believe that the headmistress of the school is letting them teach us all about evil Strangers, when it’s not true? You want us to believe that our entire society, that it’s all wrong? How do I–how do we–I…” She sighed. “Can you just give us some time? Let me… think about all this. I can’t just–I can’t just….”  She gave up on trying to explain it, lowering her head and heaving a long sigh.

It wasn’t surprising. Even in this situation, it was going to take time for Jazz, for any of them, to accept what we were saying. We were actually pretty lucky that the three of them had stood there and listened to us for as long as they had. Sure, this was kind of a… unique situation. But still. The fact that they were even entertaining the idea said a lot. I couldn’t help but wonder how much spending the past who knew how long wondering why Gaia had been talking to Asenath had actually helped. It had to have chipped away at their beliefs, at least enough for them to listen now.

I nodded. “Sure. We need to figure out where we are, how safe this place is, and everything else.”

“How are we gonna do that?” Isaac asked, gesturing back out of the cave. “I’m pretty sure we can’t just go blundering around out there without half the Seosten within a thousand miles figuring out where we are. We don’t know where anything is, and–oh yeah, we’re stuck on another fucking planet.”

“Can you tell us more about these Seosten?” Gordon asked. “How did we get here? How did they… as you said, ‘create Crossroads’? What do they want? Let’s say you’re right, just for now. What else can you tell us about everything, because we’re lost.”

Jazz abruptly lifted her head, nodding. “And Paul. Tell us what happened to Paul, what that thing was that took him over. What happened? How could he just–”

I held up my hands to hold off more questions. “We’ll get to all that, I promise. Right now, Isaac’s right. We need to figure out where we are, what’s around us, how far civilization is,  and all the rest of that stuff without blundering around. So I need a piece of wood. Shouldn’t be too hard to find one out there.”

“A piece of wood?” Gordon echoed, head tilting. “Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “It’s a spell. I… guess I could teach it to you. If you guys think you can work with me for long enough.”

Isaac spoke up then, his own smile wide and open. “Learning a spell sounds cool. And I guess we might as well try to get along, for now anyway.

“After all, we’re all friends here.”

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Field Trip 28-05

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F-Flick? What should I do? 

For a second, I froze. I didn’t know. Roxa seemed… under control at least. She hadn’t instantly outed Tabbris. Instead, she’d waited until we had some privacy. She’d noticed the help that the littlest angel had given, yet she still wanted answers. And she was making sure that those answers came from me by ordering my stowaway to get out. I had no doubt that, even though the help that Tabbris had been thus far was stopping Roxa from outright exposing her in front of the others, she wouldn’t hesitate to change her mind if the Seosten didn’t show herself and let me explain things.

Eject, I finally answered, while watching Roxa’s expression harden slightly at my hesitation. It’s okay. She’s seen what you’ve done so far. Or some of it anyway. She kept quiet this long. Go ahead. Just stay out of sight of that opening so no one else sees you. 

I could feel the young Seosten’s hesitation and trepidation. Which meant that she was feeling a lot of it. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her for that. As far as I knew, she’d only shown herself to one person in the past seven years: me. She didn’t know how Roxa was going to react. But the fact was, we didn’t have any other choices. If she didn’t see the figure that was possessing me get out within the next couple of seconds, Roxa was going to do something a lot more rash.

Tabbris, I thought to the other girl gently. It’s okay. Trust me. I won’t let her hurt you. I promise. 

After another half second of hesitation, I felt her brief agreement. Then she was pulling herself out of me, a white, translucent figure that quickly solidified into the now-familiar little girl.

Roxa was pulling back from me, her attention flicking up toward the girl reflexively. Gidget did the same, turning to focus that way. As they both started to move, I quickly sat up to put myself between them and Tabbris. Moving to one knee, I held both hands up. “Roxa, Roxa, it’s okay!” I hissed the words reflexively, despite the other girl’s words about her cone of silence. “It’s alright, I promise. I’m fine.” Even as I spoke, I felt Tabbris put herself directly behind me. She was half-cowering, hiding there while peeking out.

“Flick?” Roxa hissed, eyes darting from the Seosten girl to me and back again. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?” After a pause, she added, “And you should probably do it fast.”

Right, if this took too long, the others would wonder what was going on. They didn’t know how long it would take us to change back, but still. They might get curious. And I really didn’t want to have to go through this with Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon. Time to give her the short version.

“Roxa,” I started quickly, “This is Tabbris. We don’t have time to get into it, but I swear she’s on our side. She was–her mom is Vanessa and Tristan’s mom. She sent Tabbris to me so that I’d be immune to other Seosten possessing me, because of who my mother is. I didn’t know she existed until Charmeine captured me. She had to reveal herself to get me out of there. She’s been protecting and helping me this whole time, I just didn’t know about it until a few hours ago.”

A few hours. Had it really only been that long? It felt like a lifetime. How had so much happened in such a short time? Honestly, even I was getting tired at this point, after all the fighting and running that we had been going through. The others must be almost dead on their feet.

“Tabbris?” Roxa echoed the name, squinting briefly. “I know she was helping. That’s why I didn’t say anything until now. I just didn’t know if she was being helpful to get close to us or something. But…” She looked back to me, frowning before reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder. Obviously, she was checking to see if I was still possessed. “And you’re sure you’re okay?”

I nodded quickly. “Like I said, she saved me. She saved all of us. Without her, we’d all be captured. She was the one who came up with that trick to get rid of Radueriel. Right, Tabbris?”

Behind me, pressed close up against my back, the Seosten girl gave a quick nod. Her voice was quiet. “I w-was trying to help. I just… I just wanted to help. Mama said I should be quiet, hide. But I had to help. I promise, I wasn’t trying to hurt anything. I just… I had to help.” She repeated her words softly, and I could feel her trembling a bit. Tabbris was even more afraid of explaining things to Roxa than she had been of explaining them to me. Which made sense. She knew me and how I would react a hell of a lot better than either of us knew about Roxa and her reaction.

For a couple of seconds, Roxa was silent. She bit her lip, clearly feeling indecisive before she finally reached out an open hand. “Hey,” the girl murmured. “Tabbris, was it?” When the other girl hesitantly nodded while staring fearfully at the hand, Roxa managed a slight smile. “Hi, Tabbris. I guess you saved us back there. You saved Flick, and then you saved us… a couple times, I think.” She paused, then extended her hand a little further. “C’mere a sec, would you?”

The younger girl looked to me first, and I gave her an encouraging nod, whispering, “It’s okay.”

Still, she hesitated before very slowly stepping out from behind me. Her small hand hesitantly reached up, stalling in the air as she looked at Roxa for a few seconds. Then she reached the rest of the way to tentatively put her hand against the other girl’s. I could see her trepidation.

Once the little girl’s hand was gently, nervously brushing against her own, Roxa reached out a little bit further. She took Tabbris’s hand and gave her a slight tug before going down on one knee. I heard the Seosten girl give a soft gasp of surprise then, just as Roxa embraced her.

“Thanks, kid,” Roxa murmured as she hugged Tabbris. “I’m sorry I scared you. I had to make sure Flick was really okay. You seemed like you were helping, but I couldn’t take the chance.”

Tabbris seemed completely taken aback by the gesture. She made a noise of confusion, remaining stiff as she was embraced. It was obvious that the girl had absolutely no idea of how to react, either to the hug or what Roxa was actually saying. She just stood there, motionless.

“Hey!” A voice calling from the other cave made all three of us jump. It was Jazz. Thankfully, she wasn’t actually looking in, but was just shouting from where they were. “You guys changed yet?”

Coughing, I called back, “Working on it! We’ll be right out, just… hold on, we’re not decent.”

Right. Not decent. The reminder that neither Roxa or I had any clothes on made me blush deeply. We’d been thoroughly distracted, but still… I averted my eyes, moving to grab my clothes from where Gidget had helpfully dropped them. In the middle of the pile, Jaq and Gus were huddled next to my weapon canister. Yeah, as it turned out, I couldn’t send the two back into my staff. The portals on my staff, the ones that connected to the box back in my room that my little mice lived in, weren’t working. Which made sense, considering everything we knew. Still, it had been a bit of a disappointment when I’d thought of the portal and tried to activate it, only for nothing to happen. So, Jaq and Gus were stuck out here with us. They’d spent the whole time that I’d been a lion riding inside of Gidget with all our clothes and equipment.

“Hey guys,” I murmured, putting my hands down for them to climb in. “You good?” They nuzzled me a little bit, and I smiled before setting them on my shoulder so I could grab my clothes.

I started to pull them on, then paused as I remembered what my tiny, helpful Seosten bodyguard had said. Curious, I touched my underwear and bra and sort of… thought about them being on me. It took a couple seconds of holding my hand in place, but then they were both… wrapped around my arms.

Clearly, I needed to be more specific. Rolling my eyes, I focused once more, picturing myself actually wearing them the right way.

It worked, and a few seconds later, my pants and shirt joined them. Well, this was going to make getting dressed in the mornings a hell of a lot easier, that was for sure.

While checking to make sure my clothes were on the right way, I glanced over to where Tabbris was finally returning Roxa’s hug. The little girl was still clearly hesitant about the whole thing, but had latched onto Roxa as if she was a life preserver in the middle of a dark ocean. It made me think about how lost, scared, and alone she must’ve been through the years. Hell, she’d gone as far as going to my father in the middle of the night while he was delirious from sleep, just to get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t meant for her. This, a hug coming from someone she barely knew, who was fully aware of what she was? It had to be completely overwhelming. And I really, really hated to interrupt it, no matter how necessary it was. Given the choice, I would’ve let them keep hugging for hours. Hell, given the choice, I would’ve made sure everyone else in our little group knew who she was and just how much she had done to make sure that we got out of there with our lives intact. But I didn’t have that luxury. There was already too much to explain, and I still didn’t know how much we could trust the other three. Not to mention how dangerous it would be in general if any of the Seosten found out about her. No, for the time being, we had to keep Tabbris a secret from everyone else.

Stepping that way, I put a hand on the Seosten girl’s shoulder. “Hey,” I whispered. As she turned from Roxa, I took my own chance for a hug, embracing my little stowaway tightly. “Thank you, for everything. Seriously, without you, we’d all be dead, or enslaved. You saved us, partner.”

I knew there wasn’t time to waste. I knew that. But I also knew that Tabbris really needed to hear it. After everything she’d done, after the years she had spent hiding and secretly trying to help… hell, over the past year, she’d spent a good portion of it hearing about how evil and terrible pretty much her entire species was. All the thoughts that I’d had about how much I hated the Seosten and everything else… yeah, the least I could do was give her an actual hug right then.

Roxa quickly got herself dressed while I was embracing Tabbris. Sliding her shirt on, the girl gave me a brief look before murmuring, “We’ve gotta talk more about this later, you know.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Later. But the others need to get the Cliff’s Notes about everything else first.” Turning my attention down to the younger girl, I gave her a little smile. “Ready to jump back in?”

She nodded, putting her hand on mine. A second later, she was back inside me. I felt her presence once more, settling in like a… like a favorite blanket. I couldn’t really describe it better than that. It felt right when she was there. Even though I’d only been consciously aware of her for such a short time, having her out of me was still almost like a part of me was missing. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, I didn’t know. What I did know was that I felt more me with her.

Roxa was watching that happen as she buttoned up her pants. “That still looks freaky,” she pointed out before pausing. “Wait a second…” she murmured with a frown as she stared at me.

Feeling self-conscious (which was probably partly me and partly Tabbris), I shook my head. “What? What’s wrong?” Was she changing her mind about this? Was she about to call for help?

Instead, the other girl just blurted, “Why didn’t Pace say anything? Lies, I mean.” As I stared at her in confusion, she explained, “She touched you. She touched you, right? With this on.” Gesturing to the invisible choker around her neck, Roxa shook her head. “So she should’ve known you were possessed. Why didn’t she say anything about it? Because she obviously hasn’t, since Charmeine apparently had no idea. Why? Why didn’t she tell anyone?”

For a couple seconds after that question landed, all I could do was stare back at Roxa, open-mouthed. “Uhh…” I made a dull, confused sound while my mind raced wildly.

Why didn’t she say anything? I quickly asked Tabbris. She definitely touched me. And her eyes were open. Is it possible that she just didn’t notice you or something? I mean, we were fighting at the time and all that, so… Even as I asked, my head was already shaking. I didn’t believe it.

I don’t think so, the other girl confirmed my own doubts, sounding as confused as I felt. I think she noticed, but I… don’t know why she didn’t say anything. Unless she’s saving it, maybe? 

“Saving it?” I muttered out loud, looking back to Roxa. “Tabbris thinks maybe she’s saving it.”

The blonde girl squinted at me. “Oh, fantastic. You mean she’s saving it to pull out later. So we basically have no idea how long it’ll be before all the Seosten know about your little friend in there. Lies could blurt it out at any time. Hell, come to think of it, she’ll probably use it to try to get something out of you later. And what are you gonna do when she does? What are you going to do when she says, ‘do X for me, or everyone finds out that you’ve got a hitchhiker in there’?”

I shook my head at that, answering honestly, “I dunno. Right now, I’m more worried about how we’re going to explain everything else that’s been going on to your old teammates in there.”

Roxa gave a slow nod, sighing as she looked over her shoulder to the opening into the cave where the others were waiting for us. “Yeah, I guess they’re kind of getting dropped into the deep end, huh? But then again,” she added thoughtfully while shrugging, “So was I, kind of.”

“Good point,” I agreed. “But this is still gonna be a bit much for them to actually take in.” Taking a breath, I looked to her. “Thanks, for keeping quiet about Tabbris until you had a chance to find out exactly what was going on. Seriously, I don’t know if very many people would’ve had that kind of control. Most probably would’ve blurted it out as soon as they saw her. Or pretty soon.”

“Hey,” Roxa replied with a little shrug, “I’ve had to keep secrets. I know what it’s like. And you had kind of just killed Charmeine when I saw her. I figured if nothing else, that much meant I owed the kid the benefit of the doubt for as long as it took to get you alone. But like I said, we-”

“–Still need to have a conversation about it,” I interrupted, nodding. “We will. Soon. But now, we’ve got another audience to deal with.” Clearing my throat, I nodded to the opening while reaching up to take Jaq and Gus, slipping them into one of my pockets. “Ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she replied, putting her hand down to rest on Gidget’s head. “Let’s go.”

Together, the two of us… three counting Gidget and four counting my passenger, moved into the other cave. Sands, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon were all standing on the other side, talking in hushed voices. When we emerged, every eye moved to us, and they abruptly stopped talking.

Jazz was the first to clamber to her feet. “Okay, Sands said we had to wait for you. Now you’re here, you’re changed, and no one is currently, actively trying to kill us. We’ve waited long enough. What the hell is going on?! Who was that woman back there, who was the guy that was impersonating P-Paul–” Her voice caught briefly there before she pressed on, “who are all these people, where are we, how did we get here, why–just… just… all of it. Every question possible. All of them. Every question in the world, pretend I said them, okay? What the fuck?”

I coughed at that, giving a little nod. “Right, you guys deserve a pretty big explanation. And trust me, it’s a doozy. So, just… go with me a little bit.” Glancing toward Sands briefly, I continued. “First of all, like I said before, that woman back there and the guy with the cyborg limbs, they’re both called Seosten. Seosten. That’s where we are, in their space. They’re sort of a… an intergalactic empire of super-advanced aliens who look pretty much exactly like us.” Now really wasn’t the time to get into exactly why humans and Seosten looked alike. These guys already had enough to take in as it was without me talking about the Fomorians and everything else.

“They don’t set off the Heretic-sight,” Gordon observed quietly from where he was standing.

“Right,” I nodded. “There’s kind of a long story behind that. But right now, I…” Biting my lip, I tried to figure out how to explain as much as I needed to get them to understand. “Okay, so, long story short, the Seosten are the bad guys. Their big thing is that they can possess people. You saw what she did with Columbus. And what I could do after I killed her. They possess you, which means they control everything you say and do, all of that. It’s…” I sighed. “It’s slavery. They enslave you and control you. They use it to infiltrate places. And… we’ve been trying to figure out who they are, because they’ve been trying to kill Avalon all year long. Hell, even longer than that. That whole thing back at the hotel was them trying to kill or capture the rest of us so that they could blame Avalon for what happened and isolate her from everyone else. They want to kill her because her ancestor was Hieronymus Bosch. Well, specifically his daughter. And-”

“Wait, wait,” Jazz interrupted. “Hold on a second. What? Are you serious?” Her eyes were wide. “Avalon, that Avalon, is Bosch’s descendant? Really?”

I squinted at her, trying not to be offended on Avalon’s behalf. “Yeah, really. Why?”

She flushed a little. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just… it’s surprising, that’s all. I would’ve said the same thing if you said anyone was Bosch’s descendant. It’s like saying, ‘hey, that guy’s great-uncle is Santa Claus’ or something. I dunno. Just… wait, why do they want to kill her?”

“Because she can open the blood vault that leads to something they really want to get for themselves,” I replied, “the one that belonged to Liesje Aken.”

Isaac spoke up then. “What’s… what’s in there that’s so important?”

Glancing to the boy briefly, I echoed, “What’s so important? Apparently Liesje came up with a way to make people immune to Seosten possession. That’s why Avalon’s immune. Liesje used it on her bloodline. Then it got locked away in that vault. The Seosten want to get in there and get rid of it before it spreads and ruins their whole plot.”

“Ruins what, exactly?” Gordon’s voice was quiet, his tone making me think that he already had some idea.

Right. This was the big one. This was the one that was going to go too far for them. “… Heretics,” I replied, “Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, all of it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jazz demanded, staring openly at me. “What do the Seosten have to do with Crossroads?”

“Everything,” I replied flatly. “They have everything to do with it. They created it.”

The denials came so fast and furious that for a moment I thought Vin Diesel was behind me. Mostly they came from Jazz and Isaac, both of whom demanded to know what the hell I was talking about, just how insane I was, if I’d hit my head too hard, and so on and so forth.

“Guys–guys!” Roxa stepped in. “Just listen to her, okay?”

“Seriously?” Jazz demanded, “you’re totally serious right now? What the fuck? These Seosten created Crossroads? Do you know how fucking insane you sound?”

“I’ve got some idea,” I confirmed dryly. “Just listen. The Seosten created Crossroads and the Bystander Effect to–”

“Oh, now they created the Bystander Effect too?” Isaac retorted sarcastically. “These are some pretty powerful magic boogeymen.”

I sighed. “Listen, I know how it sounds. I do. But like I said, just go with me a little bit, okay? Yes, it sounds fucking insane. Trust me, I get that. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect in order to control humanity, in order to control Heretics. They wanted us to think that all Alters are evil, beca–”

That was as far as I got before Jazz abruptly cut in once more. “What?” Her voice was even more incredulous. “What did you say? They want us to think that all what are evil?”

“Alters,” I replied, sighing. “I mean Strangers, sorry. They want us to think that–”

“They are,” the other girl stated flatly. “What the hell do you mean, they want us to think that Strangers are evil? The hell–”

“Would you just shut the fuck up?” That was Sands, who finally couldn’t contain herself. “You keep interrupting every two seconds. Shut up and let her talk for the love of gods.”

“But she’s talking about Strangers like they’re… like they’re n-not evil,” Jazz pointed out, stammering a little bit. “How can you–”

That time, it was her turn to be interrupted as Roxa spoke up. “Flick’s right. Strangers, Alters, whatever, they’re not all evil. And you wanna know how I know?”

As everyone’s eyes turned that way, mine included, the blonde girl reached up to her neck. She unfastened the invisible choker there, pulling it away.

“Because I am one.”

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Field Trip 28-04

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Please note, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Geta, from the Crossroads Committee, posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you might want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

In all those shows and movies about people breaking out of prison, it almost always showed a quick-cut montage of them running. The scene would keep jumping back and forth between alarms blaring, cops loading their guns and waving flashlights around, and the feet of the prisoners as they pounded across the ground, leaping over fallen trees, splashing into puddles, or crashing through small piles of leaves. And breathing. If the sound wasn’t taken over by the sound of alarms and sirens, it would be the escaping prisoners panting breaths as they fled.

We had none of that. No sound of feet pounding, no panting, nothing. Our escape from that portal was relatively, and kind of disturbingly, quiet compared to those movies.

But then again, the people in them didn’t tend to have the ability to shapeshift into a lion or a wolf that both instinctively knew how to run through the forest at top speed while remaining almost silent. Nor did they have a mechanical cougar that could transform into a hoverboard and fly in some kind of stealth mode just above the ground without the slightest noise.

But I had to say, any prison escape movie that did have something like that would be amazing.

I had no idea how long we ran like that, again with Sands and Jazz on my back while the boys rode Gidget. There was no way to keep track of the time. All I knew was that we had to keep going. Radueriel wasn’t just gonna give up on finding us because we happened to get through the portal. He was gonna send an army out after us. And not just a small one like he’d had back on the station. They were going to be tearing everything apart looking for us. We needed distance. We needed to get as far from that place as we could before going to ground.

Luckily, we had a good way of doing that. And in this case, I was part of the transportation instead of a passenger. Lions were fast, of course, but usually only in short bursts. Like most big cats (as far as I knew), they were ambush predators. Which meant that they were really quick for brief periods. But I wasn’t just a normal lion. I still had my incredible stamina. So I got the speed of the lion (somewhere around fifty miles an hour), with the actual stamina to keep going at that top speed for a lot longer than normal lions could. I could haul ass, for long stretches.

Gidget could also obviously carry her passengers for a long time, and I was pretty sure that Roxa must have some kind of stamina boost too, because she was keeping up just fine. Then again, wolves were a lot better suited for long-distance running than the lion was.

As we ran, I let the lion instincts mostly take over, simply ‘steering’ to keep heading away from where we had been, away from signs of pursuit or civilization. And while the lion kept running, I focused my own thoughts inward, toward a conversation that had been a long time coming. This just happened to be the perfect time for it, since I couldn’t exactly talk to anyone else anyway.

So let me make sure I’ve got this right. Your mother is also Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. She had you after she was banished from Earth. Somehow, she was… friends with Sands’ and Scout’s mother, and she was able to visit her even after being banished. Good so far?

The answer came immediately. Yes. They were–uh, well, um, Mama was sort of… possessing Aunt Larissa when she was a little kid. Bu-but she didn’t control her or anything, except when she had to, I mean. She was sort of, um, just… hiding, kind of like me. She was waiting for Aunt Larissa to be taken to Crossroads so that she could find out what, um, what Gaia was up to and how much she was helping the rebellion. You know, sort of like a, um, like a mole, kind of.

I paused (Well, mentally at least. Physically, I was still racing through this alien forest), thinking about that for a moment. But she stopped doing that, and went to have a family with a Heretic?

Uncle Haiden was part of the Eden’s Garden group, came the response. He found Mama after she and Aunt Larissa had a, um, after they saw these bad guys and they had a fight.

Then she told me what had happened back then, that the young Larissa had accidentally stumbled across those men just as they had executed that guy, and how they had tried to kill Larissa to silence her. Sariel had revealed herself and taken care of the men, but not before one of the men had managed to critically injure Larissa. While Sariel had been trying to get her to a hospital, Haiden had shown up and tried to stop her. Somehow, she had convinced him that she was trying to save the little girl. They dropped Larissa off, warned the Heretics to stop the Seosten from risking possessing her again, and then the two of them had just… left. They abandoned Heretics and Seosten alike and tried to live real, normal lives of their own.

They’d managed it, even having twin children, Vanessa and Tristan. But then Sariel’s old boss, Puriel, had shown up. During the altercation, the banishment orb was broken and all of them except for Vanessa were thrown to various ends of the universe.

Sariel had ended up in some kind of bondage, her only escape being the ability to project herself to her most recent host. And since she had completely stopped possessing people for years, that host was Larissa. So she projected herself to the now-adult Heretic, convinced her that she wasn’t a threat, and the two of them had been trying to find both a way to bring Sariel back for good, and for her lost family. Specifically, Vanessa. Except Sariel couldn’t remember them. Her memory had been wiped of all the specific details, just like Tristan’s had been.

Wait, I asked then as something occurred to me. If Sariel can’t remember who her husband and kids are, why can you remember it? I–oh. Then I had it. You figured it out as we’ve been going through this, didn’t you? Your memory wasn’t specifically erased, so you could piece it together.

Again, I had the impression of a nod or general agreement. Uh huh. I wish I could tell Mama everything. But… I don’t even know where she is, or if she’s okay, or… She trailed off, and I sensed a sudden sharp rise in worry and fear as the girl started contemplating the worst.

Hey, hey, it’s okay. We’ll find your mom, I promise. You, Vanessa, Tristan, you’re all getting your mom back. I needed to change the subject so that she didn’t start dwelling too much. How does your mother and Larissa meeting again and trying to find a way to bring her back end up with you secretly possessing me for… for… years, right? How long have you been with me?

A little over seven years, was the response. I was re-really, really little before. Mama and Aunt Larissa put um, safety things, safety spells on me so that I wouldn’t talk or accidentally pop out of you until I… until I knew what was going on, until I, um, understood. It was kind of like sleeping for awhile. Or, um, virtual reality, sort of? It was like living another life. I was dreaming about Mama and all the stories she told me, until I was old enough to… control myself.

I thought about that, dodging around a large tree abruptly enough that Sands had to grab tight onto my fur to avoid being thrown off. How long has it been since you were… awake, as you put it? How long have you been in full control, paying attention to what’s going on with me?

Again, there a slight hesitation before she answered. Um, about five years? I’ve been t-trying to give you privacy whenever it was, um, you know, something really, really private? Like I said, I can stop paying attention and go to sleep whenever I want to. B-but not all the time. I needed to watch and see wh-what was happening in case the bad Seosten did anything, or, or–

It’s okay, I interrupted. Trust me, I get it. You say you stopped watching when it was something private, and I believe you. I don’t hate you, Tabbris. You’re the only reason I’m not a Seosten slave. How could I possibly hate you after that? Let alone everything you’ve done since you showed yourself. The others are alive because of you. I’m not being dissected by Radueriel right now because of you. The Seosten plan to frame Avalon for all that stuff failed because of you.

Now I sensed embarrassment. And something that felt like fidgeting. I was just trying to help.

You did, I assured her. You still are. Hell, we would’ve been captured again if it wasn’t for you coming up with that word to get rid of Radueriel, even if it was temporary. You’re basically our MVP right now, even if nobody else knows about you. I can’t even start to thank you for everything you’ve done, Tabbris.

If I could see her right then, I had a feeling that the girl’s face would be burning pink. Then she gave a little gasp. Oh! Oh, I can help with something. I can.

You’ve helped with a lot already, I pointed out, but what now?

That time, I actually felt excitement from the girl, as if she was delighted that she didn’t have to hold back for once. Back there in the water plant thingy, when you killed that um, that guy. I can tell you what you got from killing him!

What? My reflexive wince at the thought that this little girl had seen me smash that guy’s head into paste vanished at her words. What do you–wait, you know already? Seosten know what–

Uh huh, she interrupted excitedly. It’s neat too! Okay, her excitement was rubbing off on me. You can take any non-living material that’s touching one part of your body and move it to anywhere else instantly.

Okay, that was gonna take me a second to understand. I… what?

The Seosten girl explained hurriedly, clearly beside herself that she actually could. Like, say you’re holding a hat in your hand. You can make it move to your head. Or you touch a pair of pants and make them appear on you the way they should be. Or instantly move your staff from one hand to the other hand.

Or move a pair of handcuffs from my wrist to… next to my chest or something, I finished. Yup, her excitement was definitely contagious.

Yup! The girl chirped the agreement happily. See? It’s really, really, um… cool?

Cool, I agreed. See? You’re even more helpful than I thought. 

Again, I sensed a sudden realization from the girl as she blurted, Oh! I f-forgot, there’s something else. The Satyr!

Confused, I echoed, Satyr?

Uh huh! Remember when you and Shiori fought Nicholas Petan’s guys with the Meregan? You killed a Satyr, and you never found out what you got from it.

It took me a second, but then I remembered. Oh. Oh, wait, yeah, I remember. There was so much going on, I didn’t even think about it. What was–

Dexterity boost, she explained. That’s why you got better with your staff right after that. You got a dexterity boost.

I smiled to myself, which might have looked odd on the lion’s face. Thanks, partner. You’re pretty amazing. I don’t know what I’d do without you, at this point. But, I paused, then asked, what I really wanna know is, why me? Why would Sariel and Larissa send you to protect me, when I didn’t even know them? Was it all because of who my mother is, and what she’s done?

Uh huh. They knew that the Seosten would come after you because of who your mom was, because she hurt them so much. Because people like Gabriel Prosser and the ones who follow him, they’d come for you. They’d try to help you, because of who your mother was. Mama knew that the Seosten would try to possess you, turn you against what your mother stood for.

I was silent for a minute after that, running through the forest with the other two girls perched atop me. I could hear them murmuring, having some kind of discussion, but I didn’t know about what. I couldn’t actually focus on it. All I could think about was how different things would have been if Sariel hadn’t sent Tabbris to protect me. Hell, for that matter, I had to think about how different things would have been if Sariel hadn’t turned against the other Seosten in the first place. If she had followed through on her mission to infiltrate Gaia’s trust by staying with Larissa throughout her childhood and into adulthood, how different would things be right now?

For one thing, the Seosten probably would’ve had what they needed to get Gaia kicked out of her position. They would’ve installed their own puppet. Hell, everything would have been different. The world itself was different because one Seosten switched sides. Wow. Just… wow.

Finally, I made myself focus, asking, So for the past five years, I mean, since you had control, you’ve just been hiding inside me? You seemed to be okay at walking around and stuff when I saw you at Gabriel’s camp on the lake. I–wait, why didn’t he or any of those kids notice that you didn’t belong there? That place is small, they should’ve noticed that they didn’t recognize you.

They didn’t see me, Tabbris answered simply. Only you saw me. I, um, I wanted to meet you, even if you couldn’t know who I was yet. So I, um, after I gave you the urge to go to the bathroom so I could, y-you know… hide, I projected an image of myself to you. Just to you.

I thought about that for a second. Now that she mentioned it, I didn’t recall her actually interacting with any of those kids. She had been standing there (or at least, I had thought that she was standing there), but nobody else had ever actually acknowledged her presence.

For a couple minutes, I just let the lion run. I was half-paying attention to where we were going, just enough to keep us away from any pursuit. Then I asked, This year, since all this stuff started going on, have you–I mean, what kind of stuff have you done? I… I just assume you’ve helped. I was trying to carefully phrase it in a way that she wouldn’t think was an accusation.

Still, she hesitated a little before responding. Sometimes, I… I tried to help sometimes. But I promise, I didn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to do. I mean, except stuff like that bathroom thing when I had to get out. Every decision you made about um, Alters and all that, you made it yourself, I swear. I just… helped. Like, um, like when that swarm of peridles attacked. You were panicking, and I um, I just sort of calmed you down a little bit, so you could focus. Or when the… the Fomorian was there in Koren’s house, I kind of… talked to you.

I felt my own surprise build at that. You talked to me? I–Pausing, I thought about it. When I told myself to stall him by asking questions. That wasn’t me talking to myself, was it? It was you.

Again, there was a feeling of confirmation. Uh huh. I was scared, and I actually talked to you. I was trying to make it sound like your own thoughts and… uh, I guess I did it?

You definitely did, I confirmed, going silent again as I kept running. So many thoughts were running through my head, so many things that I wanted to ask her about and so little time.

Was that the first time you came out? I had to ask. The time at the lake, I mean. Or did you, um, you know, unpossess me before? Because you seemed pretty okay with the whole moving around by yourself thing.

The impression of a head shake reached me. I h-had to come out a few times t-to undo some of the spells that the Seosten or… or Fossor tried to put on you. I couldn’t do all of it from insi–

Wait, I interrupted, my heart leaping into my throat. What do you mean, spells that Fossor tried to put on me?

Oh. I sensed her embarrassment that she’d forgotten I didn’t know about that. Uh, y-yeah, he tried to put spells on you sometimes. M-mostly just tracking and monitoring spells. I got rid of them though, I promise. I tried to make it, um, you know, look like someone powerful was protecting you. I… I thought if he thought that there was some powerful Heretic or something l-looking after you, he’d… um, back off a little bit.

I was stunned, almost stumbling as I ran through the forest in lion-form. I thought that time on my birthday was the first time he came…

Her hesitation to respond to that dragged on for a few seconds before Tabbris slowly, weakly answered, I… um, I could give you a memory, but it’s probably better if I just… um, tell you about it. You won’t like it. One time, he umm… he ummm… he posed as your dentist.

My dentist? I echoed in confusion.

Her revulsion and fear was palpable. Y-yes. I mean, not your dentist, but as your… replacement. Remember when… when those people at your dentist’s office were… were killed?

My throat was dry. I already felt sick. They died a few days after my last appointment with them.

No… her answer came weakly, and I could feel how badly she didn’t want to tell me about it. No, Fossor killed them so he could pose as your, um, as your replacement dentist. He wanted to see you and… and take… um, pictures for your mom. And–

Oh God. I actually did stumble that time, coming to a stop as I stared at the ground. But I wasn’t seeing the ground. I was seeing that old dentist, the one who had pulled my teeth back on that day. I saw his face… and I saw Fossor’s face.

Oh. When he first showed up, back on my birthday… I thought he looked like a dentist. I had thought that he looked like a dentist! It was my brain. It had been my subconscious telling me that I’d seen him before.

Um. My whirlwind of thoughts was interrupted by Tabbris. That was… me, actually. I couldn’t help it. I was thinking about how he posed as a dentist before and you kind of… um, heard it.

I started to respond, only for Sands to lean over from her place on my back. “Flick?” she prompted with a concerned tone. “Hey, are you okay? Do you need to stop?”

Stop? No. No, we couldn’t stop. Even if I did feel like turning back into my human shape so I could throw up a few dozen times and then curl into a ball and shiver for a couple hours.

Instead, I gave my head a sharp shake before bounding off once more to catch up with the others. Okay, probably shouldn’t talk about that anymore. But I do want to hear more later.

That time, I could feel the shame radiating off of the other girl. I’m sorry, F-Flick, she all but whimpered. I wanted to do s-something. I wanted to stop him, but I was… I was… s-scared. 

No, Tabbris, I insisted. You did the right thing. You did the right thing, okay? You absolutely should not have confronted him. I didn’t even want to think about what Fossor would have done to Tabbris several years ago if he’d found out that she was there. The thought itself made me feel sick.

So I changed the subject. I… did you only come out for stuff like that? Tell me you actually came out for yourself sometimes.

I could sense her embarrassment then. F-for myself? I um, I guess so, sometimes. Just when you were sleeping and I kn-knew you were safe. I didn’t go very far, I just… wanted to walk around. I wanted to… to move by myself. I just wanted to be myself, just a little bit. And a couple times, I–

She stopped, going silent. I sensed her total embarrassment as her nerves spiked. Tabbris? I pressed, curious about what could possibly embarrass her so much. What happened?

Her answer came a little reluctantly. Sometimes, just… just a couple times, I… I went in while you were asleep and laid down with um, with your dad. He was mostly asleep, and he just thought that I was you. But he… he put his arm around me and he held me. I… I’m sorry. I–

She was inside my body, incorporeal or whatever. But still, it felt like she was crying, or near to it. And I could picture it. This tiny girl who had been given such a God damn enormous job to do, feeling so incredibly lonely and lost that she indulged just a little bit by curling up with my half-asleep father. She had let herself feel loved and wanted, protected, for just a little while. And now she felt guilty about that ‘indulgence’. She felt like I was going to be angry that she’d, what, tricked my father into hugging her? She thought that I was gonna be mad at her for that?

No. No, I definitely wasn’t angry about it. Not in the least. Honestly, what I wanted to do most right at that moment was give this poor girl as many hugs as she wanted, for as long as she could stand them. God, how was I even supposed to respond to a tearful confession that she had slipped out of my body for just a few minutes so that she could get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t really directed at her? What could I possibly say to something like that?

Finally, I settled on simply saying, Tabbris, believe me, I don’t blame you for that. And if I know anything about my dad, he won’t either. If he knew you were there and what you were doing, he would’ve treated you like a daughter. He’d– I took a second, collecting my thoughts. He’d protect you, just like you protected me. Just like we protect each other now, right?

Protect each other? Tabbris echoed the words slowly, clearly feeling them out.

Yeah. Now that I know about you, you think I’m gonna let anything happen to you? Fat chance. It’s like I said, we’re partners. You help me, I help you. We’ll get your mom back, we’ll introduce you to your brother and sister, we… we’ll introduce you to my dad. We–hey, that reminds me. You said who your mom is, but… what about your dad? I mean, I’m not positive about exactly how the Seosten reproduce, but I’m fairly sure it’s similar to humans since your mom and Haiden managed to have kids. So the whole plumbing issue and all that has gotta be simil–look, I’m just asking who your dad is. You haven’t mentioned him at all.

For a few seconds, there was nothing but silence. Then her voice came back slowly, and a bit weak. I don’t… really have a father. Not like that anyway.

I was confused. What do you mean, you don’t have a father? I mean, I know I used to say that I didn’t have a mother, because I thought she abandoned me. Is that what you–

No, she interrupted. I don’t–I… Seosten, they… I mean we don’t really have a… it’s hard to, um, have kids.

So she told me about how the Seosten problem, how the vast majority of their pregnancies ended up failing because the still-growing fetus would accidentally ‘possess’ the mother and disappear forever before they were grown enough to have an actual mind or personality. Almost ninety percent of all Seosten pregnancies would eventually fail. That was the whole reason they’d upgraded themselves to live for so long, so that their race wouldn’t completely die out.

Even as much as I hated what the Seosten as a whole had been doing and what they were responsible for, I still recognized the sheer awfulness of that situation. I… but, I don’t understand. What does that have to do with you not having a father?

Again, there was a long moment of silence before Tabbris finally answered. Kushiel. When… when they were on Earth the first time, she was… she was Hera. Now she’s in charge of a new project, about… about solving the child problem.

Why do I get the feeling that I’m not gonna like how she’s going about ‘solving’ it? I asked, already feeling a little queasy.

Tabbris sounded sick herself. Mama, and other prisoners, traitors. Kushiel is um… she’s using the um, um, the stuff from men who have had a successful… who had babies that survived, and she’s uh, putting it, I mean she’s–

Artificially inseminating the mothers? I finished for her, my disgust and horror rapidly rising.

Once more, silence reigned before that soft voice confirmed, Uh huh. But… but it’s more than that. She monitors them, and if the baby is lost, she does it again. And again. And again. Over and over, she keeps doing it until they have a successful pregnancy. Then she takes the baby and does it again.

Okay, everything that I had been expecting fell away then. My revulsion was so complete that I very nearly shifted back into my human shape just so that I could throw up properly. What are you–you–you mean they–she… she breeds them, like animals? She inseminates them, waits for them to have a… a miscarriage, and then does it again? She makes them go through…  a ten percent success rate. That means they go through nine miscarriages for every one successful birth. Average.

Tabbris’s voice was small and alone. Uh huh. That’s what they’re doing to my mama. That’s why I’m here.

Oh Tabby… Tabbris… What could I say to that? What could I say that would make that even the least bit better? Tabbris, you–listen to me, your mother loves you, okay? It doesn’t matter how you came about, she did everything she could to protect you. She sent you here. And we’re going to save her, alright? You, me, your brother, and your sister. We’re gonna get your mom back. We will save her.

There was sadness, but also relief in her voice as she replied, Thank you, Flick.

Like I said, partners. And I was wrong about something before.

She sounded hesitant, confused. You were wrong?

Yeah. I called Vanessa your sister. That was wrong. I should’ve called her your other sister. Before she could question that, I elaborated. You’ve been living with me for seven years, Tabbris. You’ve grown up with me, even if I didn’t know about it. Now I do. So Vanessa isn’t your only sister. You’re my sister too. Partners and sisters. You got it?

You… Flick…you didn’t have to–I mean… The tears in her voice were almost audible despite it all being in my head.

Hey, don’t cry, I tried to sound serious, but I was getting a little choked up too. If you cry, I’m pretty sure I have to tease you. Isn’t that some kind of sibling law?

Before she could respond, Roxa abruptly cut in front of me. We had been running down a narrow canyon with dense foliage overhead. She squeezed through the space between me and the nearby wall and darted right into my path before stopping short. As I skidded to a halt with the girls yelping on my back, Roxa moved to a nearby bush. Sniffing the base of it, she looked back to me, made a noise low in her throat, and then moved through the bush.

A cave. There was a cave on the other side of it. The entrance was just big enough for me to barely squeeze through once Sands and Jazz got off my back. They followed, with Isaac, Gordon, and a transformed Gidget bringing up the rear.

The cave wasn’t huge, but it was just barely tall enough for all of us to stand upright in once we got past the entrance. It was probably about the size of my room back home in Wyoming. Or what had been my home, anyway.

In any case, it was out of sight, the entrance hidden in a very narrow canyon, behind a thick bush. I couldn’t see anyone finding us here very easily. At least not for awhile. We had time to catch our breaths.

“Hey, uh, guys.” Sands was standing over by the back of the cave. “Or, rather, girls. There’s another spot through here. It’s smaller, but you guys can… you know, change. So that you don’t have to change in front of–out here.”

“Aww.” Isaac, of course. “They can change out here if they want to. I won’t complain.”

We chose to change in the other part of the cave. Roxa and I slipped through to the back, with Gidget following so that the cyberform cougar could cough up our clothes and stuff.

Moving to the other side of the much smaller cave (it was basically the size of a walk-in closet rather than a whole room), I focused on shifting back into my much smaller human form. It was kind of a relief, shedding the fur and shrinking back to my regular self. I focused on getting my body back to normal, watching as my paws became hands with nicely wiggling fingers.

Finally, I was changed. Breathing out a sigh of relief, I started to turn to see if I could get my stuff from Gidget. “Ro–”

That was as far as I managed to get, before something hit me hard enough to knock me onto my back. I landed hard, grunting as a figure perched on top of me. Roxa. She was on my stomach, one hand against my throat.

“Don’t move,” the also-naked girl hissed. “Don’t even think about moving. No one can hear us out there, not with the cone of silence I put up. So don’t try to shout and confuse everyone.”

“Roxa, what are you–”

“Gidget,” she interrupted without looking that way.

Hearing her name, the cyberform cougar moved up and squatted next to my head before reaching out to lay her paw against it. She held me down like that.

“Okay.” Roxa focused on me once more. Not that she’d ever really stopped focusing. If anything, her hand on my throat had tightened. “You have one chance. One chance, and that’s it. I’m only giving you that, because I saw how much you helped deal with Charmeine, and how you got us out of all that. I wasn’t going to be stupid and blow everything right in front of everyone. I don’t know what the hell is going on, or why you were helping us. But you need to get the hell out of Flick right now, and let me talk to her without you there.”

“Get out of Fl–” I stopped short. Touching me. She was touching me, and she had the Seosten-detection choker on. I’d completely forgotten about that. Roxa had touched me before, back when she caught me in the air after I killed Charmeine, right before we were transported. She’d touched me. She knew. She knew I was possessed.

She knew about Tabbris.  

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