Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on Avalon and Shiori’s conversation after Avalon and Flick’s first kiss. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.
About Seven Years Ago
“Hey, babies.” Sitting on the edge of the bed that her beautiful little girls were sleeping in, Larissa Mason gently reached out to brush the hair away from Sarah’s face. The ten-year-old shifted and blinked her eyes open, yawning briefly before blurting, “Mom, what–”
“Shh.” Smiling still, Larissa held a finger to her lips. “We don’t wanna wake up Daddy. Let him sleep.”
“What about us?” Sarah’s twin sister had rolled over by that point, burying her face against the pillow. Her words came out as a muffled protest. “Can we sleep?”
Of course, both of the girls had their own beds to sleep in. But more often than not, even if they started in different beds, one of them would migrate to her sister before the end of the night. That or Sarah would succeed at talking Sandoval into exploring and they’d find the girls sleeping somewhere completely random, often not even in the same building as their apartment. Larissa swore, one day Sarah was going to end up getting into trouble that she couldn’t talk her way out of. Though she’d probably exhaust every word in the English language trying.
Moving her hand from Sarah’s hair to touch the back of Sandoval’s head, Larissa whispered, “There’s a nice pod of whales not too far out. I thought we could take out the boat and see them.”
The response from the ten-year-old Sandoval was a groan. “Not now, Mom,” she mumbled, burying her face in the pillow a little harder. “Sleep. Whales later.”
Sarah, meanwhile, sat up. “Whales?” she asked, with obvious interest. “Big ones? I like the really big ones, like the one who ate Pinocchio. Are they like the ones that–”
Groaning, Sandoval took hold of the pillow, lifted her head, and then shoved the pillow down on top of it. “Jeeze, if you guys wanna go see the whales, go see the whales. Like, out on the ocean. Away from the bed.” She made a few vague shooing motions with her hand before settling.
Larissa almost tried to push a little harder. There was more to this trip than whales, after all. She wanted… well, she wanted both of her children to meet the person who had influenced her life so much. But if she pushed Sands too hard now, she might make a fuss and that would wake up their father. And–well, she had a feeling talking to him about the situation would be a lot harder.
And in any case, maybe it would be easier to discuss this with one of them at a time. Yes. She could work with just one of her girls for now.
So, finger to her lips to keep Sarah quiet, she straightened up and beckoned for the girl to follow. Once they were out of the bedroom, she pointed to a couple sets of clothes she had already set out for them. “Hurry and get dressed, okay? I’ll grab some food from the kitchen for breakfast and leave your dad a message.”
Rather than going anywhere while her daughter quickly stripped out of her pajamas and pulled on the clothes, Larissa instead reached up to take hold of one of her own hairs before giving it a swift yank. The short, stinging pain as she yanked the hair out of her scalp vanished quickly, and she tossed the hair toward the ground while summoning a very different power.
Before the hair had finished drifting its way to the floor, the power had taken hold of it. The hair grew incredibly rapidly, shifting and changing shape until it became something much more than a single hair: a lot of hair. A lot of hair, in fact, that happened to be attached to a squirrel.
That particular power allowed Larissa to take bits of her own body (such as her hair, in that case), and use them to create temporary animals. The size of the animal depended on how much of her own body she used. The hair would create tiny things like mice and squirrels, while something as large as her arm would allow her to create an elephant. Not that she tended to employ that level of the power very often, no matter how good Heretic healing happened to be.
But a squirrel was perfectly fine for what she had in mind. Reaching down, Larissa picked up the summoned animal and whispered a short message for Liam in its ear. She explained that she had taken Sarah out on the boat to see the whale pod and that they would be back later.
That done, she put the squirrel back down before quietly opening the bedroom door. The small, furry creature slipped through the crack before disappearing into the darkness. It would follow her instructions, sitting on the nearby end table until Liam woke up before repeating her message for him. Then it would disappear, its purpose completed.
After a quick trip through the kitchen to grab the cooler of food that she’d already prepared, Larissa joined Sarah at the door of the apartment. Together, the two of them slipped out and made their way across the island. On the way, they passed a couple of the school’s security guards, who waved as soon as they realized who it was.
Taking the controls of the boat, Larissa guided it away from the island out out into the open water. The whole time, Sarah continued to talk about whales so much that she actually felt a little bad that they weren’t actually going out to look at them.
But this–well, it was more important.
Eventually, she stepped away from the controls, turning to face her daughter. “Sarah,” she started quietly, “We need to talk about something serious, okay?”
Blinking, the young girl asked, “Who’d you talk to? What’d they say I did?”
Despite herself, Larissa chuckled. “No, no, nothing like that. Though I’m sure you did a lot of things.” Smiling, she touched the girl’s chin. “Mommy just needs you to keep a secret, okay?”
“Keep a secret?” Sarah’s head tilted curiously. “From who?”
As bad as she felt about this part, it was too important to leave to chance. Larissa carefully brushed her fingers up her daughter’s face to her hair. “From everyone, Sarah. Even Sands, at least for now. I need you to keep this part secret between just you and me until we can get your sister out here.”
“You mean lie?” Sarah’s eyes were wide. “You and Da said we’re not supposed to lie.”
Rather than point out that she was well aware that Sarah had lied plenty of times, Larissa nodded. “I know. And most of the time, you shouldn’t. But sometimes… well, there are some things that are really important. You see, Mommy has a… friend, and we don’t want Dad to know about her yet.”
“A friend?” Tilting her head, Sarah looked like she was thinking about that for a moment. “How come Da can’t know about your friend? Is she a bad friend?”
“No.” Moving her hand down to squeeze her daughter’s shoulder, Larissa shook her head. “Mommy would be… in big trouble if it wasn’t for her friend. She helped Mommy when she really needed it, back when I was about your age.”
Clearly uncertain about the entire situation, Sarah tentatively asked, “Why wouldn’t Da like her?”
This was it. Taking a breath, Larissa quietly answered, “Because Mommy’s friend isn’t human.”
It took a moment for Sarah to comprehend what she was saying. Eventually, however, the girl’s eyes went wide. “Y-your friend is a monster?”
“Not a monster, baby,” Larissa corrected quickly. “But she is what everyone would call a Stranger. She’s… it’s a long story. But she won’t hurt you. She’d never hurt you. You trust Mommy, right?” When the girl’s head bobbed up and down quickly, she smiled. “And Mommy trusts her. But we have to keep her a secret until Mommy finds a way to explain things to Sands and Da, all right?”
There was a brief pause before Sarah nodded again. “Okay, Mommy. Our secret.”
As her daughter watched, Larissa closed her eyes and focused and focused inward. Okay, Sariel. It’s safe now.
Once she had the impression that the woman who was so connected to her had heard, Larissa opened her eyes and watched. In the corner of the deck, near the ladder, a soft golden light had already appeared. Beside her, Scout made a sound as if to ask what was going on, but Larissa quieted and reassured her with a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder.
Before long, the light resolved itself into a blonde woman, who straightened up and looked around until her gaze fell on the two of them. “Larissa,” she murmured before stepping that way.
The first time that Larissa had witnessed this was a year earlier. First she had heard the woman’s voice in her head. Being contacted telepathically was obviously nothing new. After all, she had been a fully-trained Heretic for years. Mental communication might be somewhat rare, but it wasn’t unheard of.
But that particular instance had been a lot more than simple telepathy. The voice in her head had explained her story. Obviously and understandably freaked out and distrustful at first, Larissa had found herself jumped by a few monstrous Strangers who had recognized her as a Heretic.
She would have died, except that the voice in her head manifested as a physical figure, much like she was doing now. Sariel projected herself fully, killing the Strangers who had attacked Larissa in short order.
After that–well, Larissa kind of had to listen. Even then, it had taken a good bit of time to come around to the truth. But eventually, she listened. And what Sariel had explained to her, about the Seosten and their secret control of Heretic society, as well as her own history, had changed… well, everything.
As it turned out, Sariel couldn’t manifest herself for very long. Especially at first. She was projecting herself from another world and could only attach herself to the person that she had most recently possessed. In that case, it was Larissa herself, since the Seosten woman had stopped possessing people entirely back when Larissa was a young girl. But the curse that had banished her from Earth was still strong enough even then that Sariel could only manifest for a couple minutes at a time.
Over the past year, that had gotten a bit longer as Sariel grew stronger. Still, she only projected herself when it was safe to do so. Which was when Larissa was away from Crossroads and their security, and not accompanied by any other Heretics.
The two of them had bonded over that year, particularly as Sariel confided that she couldn’t remember her own children and husband. She knew they existed. She could almost see their faces in her memory. And certain specific events around them were almost completely clear in her mind. She loved her family, and she knew that they had been taken away from her.
Some of the general facts, like a husband who was a Heretic, her children being twins, and other things that the Seosten woman was able to pull out out of the fog of her damaged memory, had felt entirely too close to home for Larissa. She had thought about how she would feel in that situation. And seeing a mother who had been torn away from her husband and twin children, well, that was a lot easier to sympathize with than she had expected. Even if the woman was a Stranger. Or Alter, as she called herself.
All of which meant that Larissa had decided that it was her obligation to help the other woman regain her memory and find her children. But to do that, she needed to be able to talk to her more often. And that meant getting her children at least to understand that the woman was not a threat.
That’s what this trip had been about. But it was working well enough. They’d start with Sarah, then bring Sandoval out the next time.
The two women embraced, and then Sariel turned her attention to the younger girl, her voice quiet and gentle. “And you must be Sarah.”
For a moment, Sarah didn’t say anything. She just stood there and looked at the woman a bit apprehensively before eventually lifting her chin. “Y-you’re not human?”
Sariel smiled just a little, head giving a slight shake. “I’m afraid not. Does that scare you?”
Straightening up at that a little defiantly, the ten-year-old girl crossed her arms over her chest and squinted at the woman. “Nuh-uh,” she declared. “I’m not scared of you. I’m not scared of anything.”
Chuckling softly, Sariel nodded. “Well, I’m glad you’re not afraid of me, at least. I’d never want to scare you, Sarah. I promise, if we can–”
She stopped talking abruptly, head tilted as though listening to something. A second later, the woman spun back, eyes wide. “Take Sarah and get off the boat,” she ordered. “Go, go, right n–”
In mid-sentence, a slimy brown-green tentacle shot into view. It wrapped around the woman’s throat, tearing Sariel off her feet before flinging her to crash against the deck hard enough to splinter it.
There was a man there–no, a creature. He looked like the Swamp Thing from the comics that Larissa liked so much. But an instant later, she realized that most of his form was covered in various fungus, moss, and other things from the sea. His true form was hidden underneath all of that.
His voice was grating, like nails on a chalkboard. “I knew I smelled one of you on the Heretic. I knew if I waited, I’d find her. I’d find you. Tasty.”
Larissa’s first priority was to her daughter. Spinning, she caught hold of the girl, who was standing there frozen in terror. Hoisting her up, she threw Sarah across the deck and to the cabin. “Hide!” she ordered before spinning back. Her hand grabbed for her weapon in its case at her hip, but one of the creature’s whip-arms caught hold of her wrist and yanked it up so hard she felt the bone snap in the process.
“Fomorian!” Sariel shouted, catching the creature’s attention. “Leave her alone. You want a Seosten? You’ve got one.”
Grimacing, Larissa jerked her hand free of the creature–the Fomorian’s grasp. “Save Sarah,” she shot back before lashing out with a kick that took the intruder right in the gut. Through the coverings of slimy weeds, moss, and even barnacles, she felt her foot connect with actual flesh and bone. Not that it seemed to do much other than making him grunt.
“Please!” She pleaded not with the Fomorian, but with the Seosten. “Make sure she’s safe! She–”
That was all she could get out before the creature was on top of her again. It was all Larissa could do to block him. She felt his blows raining down on her, his fists and tentacles like sledgehammers. And through it all, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was simply toying with her.
Sariel had vanished through the opening in the cabin, following Sarah. In the distance, Larissa could hear an argument between the two, as Sariel ordered the girl to hide despite her clear intention of trying to save her mother.
Focusing on one of her powers, Larissa was abruptly slammed backward against the wall of the boat cabin. One of the creature’s tentacles had shoved its way against her face. She felt it practically envelop her head as the Fomorian let out a groan of what sounded like pleasure.
Then a dozen needles from the tentacle pierced her face and neck, and Larissa felt her entire body go numb. Her brain did the same, thoughts slowing down. Drugged. He… drugged her, somehow. Whatever the needles in his tentacle had injected her with, it left her unable to stand, let alone fight. She felt like her body was floating, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t hold onto her anger.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, the woman recognized the terror and horror of what was happening. But she couldn’t do anything about it. Even as she heard the Fomorian copying her voice to call out for her daughter, taunting the girl while trying to coax her into coming out, the actual fury that she felt at the threat to her child was muted. All she knew was that she was being dragged along to the cabin, those needles still piercing her as the Fomorian searched for both Sariel and Sarah.
Sarah. Sandoval. Sariel. Sarah. Sariel. Sariel. Sandoval. Sarah. Sandoval. Sariel.
She knew. Somewhere deep in her memory, far buried in her subconscious, she had known the name Sariel. It had almost, almost manifested in the names that she had given her children. Sarah, Sandoval. Sariel.
In the end, Sariel exposed herself. Before the creature could taunt Sarah into revealing herself from wherever she had hidden her, the Seosten stepped into view. “Larissa,” she murmured, face ashen. “I am so sorry.”
“You should be,” the Fomorian snarled. “I’m going to have so much fun playing with all three of you. And it’s all your fault. You left your stink on the Heretic. I knew you’d show up again.”
Slowly, Sariel straightened. “That’s not the only thing I’m sorry about,” she announced quietly. Her eyes locked with Larissa’s. “I can’t think of any other way to stop him. I’m sorry.”
Larissa’s drugged mind was still trying to figure out what she meant by that, even as Sariel launched herself forward. The Seosten leapt at both of them, colliding with Larissa and the Fomorian.
Later, Larissa would come to understand what the woman had done. Sariel grabbed onto them both and then pointedly released the hold that she had that was keeping her on Earth. More to the point, she stopped fighting against the anchor that was trying to yank her away from it.
The force of the magic that was hauling Sariel back to another world also caught Larissa and the Fomorian. All three were torn away from the planet.
The whole thing felt like… like Larissa was falling a very long ways. Stars flashed by in blinding white lines as she was torn through space alongside the other two. Every second that passed, they traveled hundreds of thousands of miles.
In the end, the force pulling Sariel back wasn’t strong enough to take all three of them the entire way. The Fomorian disappeared partway through, landing on some other planet. Sariel and Larissa then had a chance to look at each other for what seemed like a split-second. The other woman’s mouth opened to say something, but before any sound could come out, Larissa felt herself start falling away. There was a scream that filled the air, a scream that could have come from either or both of them.
Then she was hitting the ground somewhere, landing hard enough to break several bones as she rolled to a stop.
Groaning a little, she rolled over and sat up. Before she managed to do anything else, however, a foot caught her in the back and shoved her back down. Her head turned, only to see half a dozen figures in gleaming golden armor that looked a bit like high-tech chainmail, along with sleek helmets complete with pitch-black visors that obscured their faces. All of them held rifles that were pointed at her, and were barking orders in some other language that she didn’t understand.
Slowly, the realization came. The Fomorian was gone. Sariel was gone. And Larissa… Larissa was trapped on some distant planet, far from anything she knew. She was alone, surrounded by enemies.
And she had absolutely no idea how she was going to get home.
The thud of a body being slammed hard into the wall was followed immediately by the sound of a massive sword being driven into that wall barely an inch from the body itself.
“Try again,” Haiden Moon ordered, twisting his sword just a little so that the blade moved slightly closer to the neck of the man that he was still holding in place a foot off the ground. “And this time, tell me something that I want to hear.”
The creature with the pale-green skin and straggly yellow hair shook his head frantically. Or at least as frantically as he could while being held off the ground by the furious Heretic. “I told ya! I don’t know where your damn wife is! I don’t know, okay? I don’t know!”
Larissa watched from her place at the doorway, where she was keeping an eye out for any reinforcements.
She had spent years as a prisoner of the Seosten. As it turned out, they had found the Fomorian, and thought that she had purposefully allied with him to bring the creature into their space. For years, they alternated between forcing her to work in their slave pits, and demanding to know about the extent of the cooperation between her and the Fomorians, as well as what other Heretics were involved.
They also wanted to know why they couldn’t possess her to find out that way. Which must have been something that Sariel had done, but Larissa refused to tell them that much. No matter how much they had… insisted.
It had not been a fun time, to say the least. But eventually, she had been rescued by one of the least likely people she ever would have guessed. Sariel’s husband, Haiden. Even though his exact memories of his wife and children were locked away or erased, he did remember Larissa.
The two of them had bonded over the past couple of years, as they searched Seosten space for the pieces of the orb that had been shattered when it banished the Moons and the Seosten known as Puriel away from the Earth. With each piece, they grew closer to finding Sariel herself. And considering how much Larissa owed the woman, she was going to help find her. And then all of them would find a way to go home again, home to their families.
“Sariel, right?” the creature stammered. His name was Ivak, and he was one of the Seosten’s higher ranked, important allies. At least as far as the Seosten allowed themselves to have allies. Which meant he was still mostly a slave, beholden to his ‘angel’ masters, but otherwise given most of his freedom to do as he wished. Slimy and untrustworthy as he was, Ivak was a whiz at bureaucracy. He was, essentially, a super-accountant.
“Yes.” Haiden’s voice was dangerous. “I know that you handled her case, Ivak. We tracked her all the way to you. So tell me where you sent her, now.”
Ivak’s head shook rapidly. “Nowhere! I didn’t send her–” His voice choked off into a desperate plea as Haiden’s hand went to his throat. “Lemme explain, lemme explain!”
Given a slight reprieve, Ivak quickly stammered that the imprisoned Sariel had been sent to him, but that an actual Seosten had taken over her case.
“I never saw where he sent her, I swear. I swear!”
Clearly trying to restrain his mixture of fury and disappointment after all the effort they had spent to get that far, Haiden managed a terse, “Which Seosten? Who was it? Was it Puriel?”
Ivak’s head shook. “No, no, it was Manakel. Manakel, that’s his name. And you won’t find him here. H-he’s on Earth, on that assignment.”
Eyes widening, Larissa blurted, “What assignment?”
“You heard the lady,” Haiden ordered while giving their prisoner a shove. “What assignment are you talking about?”
Ivak looked eager to explain, desperate with the hope that telling them the truth would spare his life. “Y-you don’t know? The mission to get into that human’s blood vault. Bosch, that’s his name. He’s got something in that vault, something that’ll screw up the Seosten plans, so they sent a couple of the Seosten bigwigs to get it back.”
Working her mouth in confusion, Larissa slowly asked, “Did they… get it yet? What is it?”
“I don’t know, I swear!” Ivak claimed. “All I know is it’s really important, and they’re losing their minds at the idea of anyone from your group finding it. Heretics, I mean. So they’re trying to get it without, you know, letting any of your types know what they’re doing. Which means–”
“They’re possessing people,” Haiden muttered. “Who? Who are they possessing?”
Swallowing hard, Ivak’s head shook. “I don’t–” When Haiden gave him a dangerous look, he hurriedly amended, “I don’t know both of them, okay? I heard one name. Just one name. The one that Manakel’s partner, Charmeine, the one that she’s possessing. That’s all I know, just that. But you gotta promise to lemme go.”
“You’ll help us figure out where Manakel sent Sariel,” Haiden ordered with a flat voice. “Then we’ll let you go. But first, give us the name.”
“Porter, okay?” Ivak blurted.
“She’s possessing some kid named Columbus Porter.”