The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Sariel and Larissa’s continued interaction.
Eight Years Ago
“And what do we do after we add the butter, the sugar, and the eggs, girls?” Larissa asked her daughters with a raised eyebrow, looking back and forth between the two nine-year old girls as they all stood in the kitchen. “What’s the next step in our glorious culinary confection?”
“Confection?” Sarah and Sandoval both echoed together, the confusion and disappointment obvious in their joined voices.
“I thought we were making cookies,” Sarah continued, eyes darting from the bowl to her mother.
Sandoval nodded in agreement, adding, “Yeah, not um, conviction. Wait, isn’t that when you hafeta go to jail? Or when you believe something really hard? Wait, are we believing cookies?”
“This better not be a ‘the cookie is in your mind’ situation, Mommy,” Sarah informed her mother. “Because I want the cookie in my mouth.” To demonstrate, she pointed first at her temple, then into her open mouth a couple of times. “Not here, here. I don’t gotta be extrasentyell yet.”
Covering her mouth, Larissa contained her snicker. “Existential, baby. And no, this isn’t about imagining cookies. I said confection. What do we do when there’s a word we don’t understand?”
Together, the two girls chorused, “Ask you how to spell it and get the dictionary.” They did so while retrieving the heavy book from its place in the living room. Sarah held the book open while Sandoval flipped the pages and ran her finger along them. “Con… con…. Fe… fe… fection. Confection, there it is! Um, lesse, it says… A dish or delicacy made with sweet ingredients. Oh.”
“Like cookies!” Sarah announced then. “Or cake, or brownies, or candy bars, or doughnuts, or–”
Chuckling, Larissa held a hand up. “Or a lot. But cookies are the ones that we’re working on today.” Gesturing to the mixing bowl, she repeated, “So what’s after butter, sugar, and eggs?”
“Vanilla!” both girls chorused, eyes shining as they each grabbed for the bottle in question. After fumbling with it a little bit, they settled. Sarah was the one who held it up for their mother to take.
So they continued to make the cookies that way, one step at a time. Larissa let the girls do as much as possible, entertaining their questions whether they had to do with the baking or anything else. She adored listening to her twins chatter, seeing the way they interacted with each other as well as the world, and how curious they both were about everything. They were amazing, and whenever she heard their voices or even caught a glimpse of the two, Larissa knew how lucky she was. Her children. Her babies. She would do anything for them. Anything.
It was that thought that was on Larissa’s mind, as she watched her girls happily munching away at the cookies that they had helped make, when a soft, now-familiar voice spoke up in her mind.
It had been a little over a month since the first time that voice had spoken to her, when the… Stranger had telepathically contacted Larissa before the woman behind it had saved her from the gargoyles. A month of wondering if she would ever hear from the strange woman again. A month of repeatedly debating whether she should tell anyone, and always deciding against it.
“You okay, Mommy?” Sandoval asked curiously, still holding her mostly-eaten cookie in one hand while watching her mother from her place at the kitchen table next to her sister.
Finding a smile, Larissa nodded. “Yup, Mommy just remembered she has a little work to do over at her office. Think you girls can be good here by yourself for a little bit and stay out of trouble?”
The twins nodded vigorously. After making the two promise to eat only two more cookies each (and making it clear that she knew exactly how many would be left if they followed that rule), Larissa made her way out of the building. Instead of going to her office in the main school building, however, she glanced around the Crossroads grounds before slipping a hand into the pocket of the light sweatshirt that she’d grabbed on the way out. Her fingers found what they were questing for, and she came out with a simple plastic toothbrush. Or, it had been simple, before she had spent the time to etch a series of runes into the handle. The brush, after being finished, had been hidden in a safe spot in their apartment until just a minute earlier.
Now, Larissa triggered the spell that she had enchanted into the brush for just this occasion. As she did so, the view of world spun around her like one of those little merry-go-rounds at some playgrounds. She felt her stomach twist a little bit, nausea heaving itself up before settling once more along with her view of the world. A view that had changed dramatically. Now, instead of seeing the school grounds and island around her, she saw the interior of a dingy apartment somewhere in Philadelphia. An apartment that she had paid for a few days after the incident in New York, realizing that she needed a safe, private, quiet place away from any prying eyes.
After taking a moment to ensure the apartment was still clear and that the privacy enchantments she had set up over the past few weeks were active, Larissa took a breath before letting it out. “Sariel,” she spoke out loud, finding herself whispering for some reason. “Are you still there?”
A minute or two of silence passed then before the other woman’s voice spoke up faintly. “Almost have it… Hold on.” Again, silence reigned for another minute, though there was some faint feeling of almost electrical energy in the air, nearly to the point of making Larissa’s hair stand up.
Then… the woman was there. She appeared a few feet away, facing the opposite direction before turning back. She looked… tired, but gratified. “Larissa,” she murmured under her breath. “You–” Pausing, the woman slowly looked around for a moment, taking in the sight of the dingy, completely furniture-less one-room apartment. “It looks like you need a new interior decorator.”
Mouth opening and shutting a couple times, Larissa flushed slightly. “I just wanted a private place to–I didn’t want anyone around to see–I thought it’d be better if we–who are you?!”
Meeting her gaze, the woman nodded slowly. “You’re right. You deserve the truth. All of it.”
“You–” Larissa started, biting her lip. “You said your name was Sariel. But you also called yourself… you told that gargoyle that you were…” She trailed off, hesitant to actually say it.
Smiling faintly at that, the other woman nodded. “Artemis. That was… a long time ago. But it’s a name that still holds some sway in certain beings. I needed to convince the other gargoyle to leave before I lost the connection to you, and that was the easiest, quickest way to do it.”
“Artemis, the real–I mean.” Larissa stopped, catching her thoughts for a moment before starting again. “I should be telling someone about what happened, about hearing you, about you–about what you said about how… how you possessed me. This is insane. I should be telling them.”
The expression on Sariel’s face was sad as she replied, “You wouldn’t get very far if you tried.”
Taking a reflexive step back, Larissa frowned at the woman. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”
“No.” Sariel’s head shook. “Larissa, I’d never hurt you. I meant that you wouldn’t get very far because one of them would stop you if you tried to expose them. My people wouldn’t let you.”
“Your… people?” Larissa bit her lip. “That gargoyle, he called you a… a, umm, a Seosten?”
The other woman gave a slight nod. “That’s what we are, what I am. Seosten. We’re…” She hesitated, considering her words briefly. “A few hundred thousand years ago, we were like you. Humans, I mean, not Heretics. We lived on a world not that different from this one, now. A little more advanced than what you call Bystanders, but they’ll reach where we were before too much longer. We were advancing quickly, starting to really explore our solar system, the depths of our oceans, we wanted to know everything there was to know. We pushed the boundaries. And then… then we pushed just a little too far. Our scientists, they created… him.”
“Him?” Larissa echoed, confused as her brow furrowed. “Him who?”
Sariel didn’t answer at first. She had to take a few seconds to collect herself before speaking quietly, her voice making it clear that she didn’t really want to say the name at all. “Cronus.”
Staring at the other woman, Larissa shook her head. “Cronus, as in the Titan? Are you serious?”
“Yes,” Sariel confirmed in that soft voice. “The scientists, they… it was their attempt to clone a living being, to create a fully-functional living clone of one of us. The son of the project lead, he was… sick. His father was desperate to find a way of saving him. His solution was two-fold. First he had to create a body for his son, to replace the one that was dying. That was Cronus. His son’s name was Cron, and think of the -us addition as meaning… two or junior, another one.”
Larissa took that in. Aliens. She knew that some Strangers were simply beings from another world, but this was the first time that she’d really thought about them having a civilization like Earth. “What–” She started before giving a soft cough. “What about the other part of it? You said two.”
With a slight, sad little smile, Sariel nodded once more. “I did. The second part came because Caelus, the boy’s father, had have a way of transplanting his son into the new body.”
Thinking about that briefly, Larissa straightened. “Possession. You mentioned possession.”
The other woman raised an eyebrow slightly. “Yes, good. Exactly. We weren’t–back then, we didn’t have the ability to possess people, or anything. Besides the clone Caelus created for Cron, he also engineered a genetic modification. Injecting his son with it created a connection between Cron and his clone. A connection that allowed the two of them to merge. That was the first, very, very early stages of what we use now. The start of our ability to possess people.
“At first,” she continued. “It was just that, a connection between Cron and Cronus, his clone. That’s all it was meant to be. But… but something happened. The genetic alteration that allowed Cron’s body to… to absorb into his clone mutated. It didn’t just take him. When Caelus saw that it was successful, that his dying son had been absorbed by the body of his clone, he hugged the boy. But touching him… when his father touched him, Cronus absorbed him too. He took his father’s body, his mind, his… soul if you want to call it that. He absorbed it just like he had Cron. Cron, Cronus, Caelus, they were all there. They were all the same, stuck in a body.”
Larissa was staring. “You mean, he made the possession thing, it was supposed to link the two of them by their DNA. But his DNA was similar enough that it took him too, when they touched.”
With another nod of confirmation, Sariel continued. “And Cronus’s mind, what there was of it, wasn’t entirely stable to begin with. Mostly because it was never meant to be stable, or even present. Cron was supposed to take over, so Cronus was supposed to be a blank slate. Except it didn’t work that way. There was three minds in there. Three minds all going a little bit nuts.”
Swallowing a little, Larissa offered a weak, “This, um, this doesn’t really sound like a story that’s going to get better before it gets worse.”
“A lot worse,” the other woman agreed. “The doctors that Caelus was working with, they saw what happened. They tried to intervene, but… no one knows which of the three minds inside Cronus was responsible. Maybe all of them, maybe none of them. The point is, they defended themselves. Or they defended himself, or–however you want to put it. The doctors, security, they all tried to step in. He–Cronus killed all of them. Call it self-defense or murder, the result’s the same. Cronus killed them. Then he tried—or they tried–whatever. Cronus tried to absorb the bodies. He wanted more. More minds inside him to work together to figure out how to fix it. That’s how it was at first. He wanted more mental power, more brains working together to separate the three of them. Or at least the two of them. He wanted to undo it. So he tried to take more minds into his body. Except, like I said, the possession thing was only for Cron, until…”
“Until?” Larissa prompted after a moment of silence. She was surprisingly invested in this story.
“Like I said, it was a genetic alteration that allowed Cron to merge his body with his clone in the first place,” Sariel explained. “One alteration to Cron, one to Cronus. With Caelus’s genius mind and Cronus’s… damaged one, they created a virus that would change the host’s DNA, rewriting it so that Cronus could absorb them, just like Cron and Caelus. They were still intent on undoing everything, on fixing it. So they made the virus and exposed another group of scientists to it.
“Of course, it worked. Cronus could absorb the scientists after they were infected. But instead of fixing his brain, it made him even worse. He was smarter, but he was also… crazier. Every mind he absorbed made it harder for him to think straight. So he absorbed more, trying to fix the problem. It was like that song that you liked so much when you were a kid, the one with the fly.”
“The old lady who swallowed the fly,” Larissa realized, head bobbing. “He was–they were like that. Cronus. He kept swallowing–err, absorbing more people trying to solve his problem.”
“Yeah.” Sariel glanced away briefly before going on. “Worse than that, he stopped paying enough attention to his virus. It got out, infected the regular population. Before long, all Seosten could possess other creatures. Which meant that all Seosten could also…” She trailed off.
“Could also be absorbed by this Cronus,” Larissa realized. “Your entire race was vulnerable.”
Again, Sariel agreed. “Yes. There was a war, big one. Since he could absorb anyone of us that he touched, Cronus could also turn into anyone he touched, shifting his body to match theirs whenever he needed to. He absorbed their knowledge, their skills, their power, all of it. But in the end, he had to flee. As powerful as he was, he was only one person. Well, one body anyway. So he took our experimental spacecraft and left the planet. And, for awhile, that was it. Except for the changes… the changes to our DNA. It didn’t just give us the ability to possess other beings. It also–” She paused, swallowing. “It changed how we were able to reproduce.”
Seeing Larissa’s uncertain expression, the Seosten woman took a breath, then continued. “We used to reproduce much like humans do. A slightly longer gestation time of eleven months, but other than that… but after the virus, it… most of our children are… absorbed by the mother before they reach any kind of viable age. They’re absorbed in the womb, accidentally. Eighty, maybe ninety percent of pregnancies don’t result in a birth. Once they’re out, it’s safe. But the fetuses that are in the mother, there’s too much of a connection between them. They’re too similar. So, the mother and child are just… merged. When it happens, the baby’s too young to have much of a mind at all, so it just… disappears. It got to the point where so few of us were being born that we had to find another way to keep our race going. So we genetically engineered ourselves to live for thousands of years. That saved us, somewhat. Even a ten percent birth rate can keep a race going if each individual manages to live long enough.”
While the horror of that thought settled in Larissa’s mind, Sariel went on. “In any case, the virus had successfully rewritten our DNA so that, by that point, we were born with the ability to possess people. But without Cronus around, our civilization expanded, grew out into the stars. We met other civilizations, other peoples like us. And then… a few thousand years later, we heard about the Fomorians.”
The word made Larissa’s heart drop. “You know the Fomorians,” she managed after a moment.
“Know them?” Sariel gave a slight nod. “Yeah, you could say that. The Fomorians weren’t nearly the threat they became at first, not until they were found by Cronus. Yeah, that experimental ship he took? He stumbled into their space. And then he taught them. He molded them. They were his children, his answer to the one weakness that had allowed the earlier Seosten to drive him off our home planet: numbers. After a certain point, no one knows what actually happened to Cronus. He disappeared. But the Fomorians were still there. They were expanding everywhere, using what Cronus taught them and then adding their own sick twists.
“Our ancestors knew that Cronus would return. Between that threat and the one presented by his new friends, they did what they thought was the right thing: sought power. Power that was necessary to defend ourselves. But Cronus could absorb any of them at any point. So we needed other beings to fight that war for us. We needed help, and we needed power. We got both… by enslaving other races. It–they were desperate at the time. I’m not saying it was right. But they were desperate. They thought it was the only way to save our species. And yet… at some point, it went beyond that. I don’t know how many of our people even remember the actual reason behind why we started taking people over, why we started using our possession ability to disrupt their governments, take over their key officials and turn their militaries to our own purpose. For most of us, the specifics don’t matter. It’s just what we’ve always done.”
Biting her lip then, the woman looked down. “It’s what I believed in. Protecting our species no matter what, against the threat of the Fomorians and Cronus, a creature who could turn into any of us, who could instantly kill any of us with a single touch whenever he inevitably appeared again. So, when we heard about the weapons that the Fomorians had created and then lost, the biological weapons whose power allowed them to merge their own genetics with other species in order to take on the best traits of those other species… we had to come. We expected a war with the Fomorians. What we found was… you. Earth.”
“What–what?” Eyes wide, Larissa blurted, “What do you mean, biological weapons? Wait–wait, the Fomorians… they always–apparently they always said they were here on Earth for their property. Are you–are you trying to–”
Quietly, softly, Sariel told her the truth. She told her about where the human race had originated from, why they had the ability to become Natural Heretics. And then she told Larissa the rest of it. She told her about how the traitor Fomorian had stolen the prototype humans from the rest of his people and brought them to Earth, where they had mixed with one of the humanoid species already on the planet to form what were now humans. She told her about the Seosten plan to turn the human race from a weapon that the Fomorians would have used against them into a tool to work for them. She told her about the various attempts to make that work, which had culminated in the creation of the Bystander Effect in order to keep the majority of humanity in line, and the creation of Crossroads Academy to continue building their armies of Heretic boogeymen to keep any other race from becoming a threat. And most of all, the gradual strengthening of the human army to be put against their original creators, the Fomorians.
Once the woman finished, Larissa took a few seconds to find her voice. When she finally did, it was weak, and cracked. “I… I really wish I’d brought some chairs into this place. Because I really need to sit down right now.”
“Believe me, I know what you mean.” Watching her for a moment, Sariel hesitantly added, “Do you want me to give you some time? I can come back later. It’ll be a little easier now that the connection is firm. We can… discuss more of it then.”
For a moment, Larissa almost said yes. She needed a lot of time to cope with all of this. But she knew that if she sent the woman away now, she’d spend the entire time obsessing over how all of it was connected to her.
“What about me?” she asked, the question blurting its way out. “What do I have to do with all this?”
“You?” Sariel smiled a little at that. “Well, for me, you’re the center of it. I believed in our purpose, in everything we were doing. Until you.”
“Until me?” Larissa echoed with a blink.
So Sariel told her all of it, the personal parts of her history. She told her what happened, how she had been set to use Larissa herself to infiltrate Crossroads and get close to Gaia. And how all of that had changed. She told her about meeting her future husband… even if she couldn’t remember his name, and about having twin children… whose names had also been stripped from her memory. She told Larissa about everything she could remember, right up to the point that the orb that Puriel had intended to use had been smashed, sucking Sariel away. Most of the Seosten woman’s memories of that time were jumbled and broken, barely present in some cases. But she was absolutely certain that she had a husband and two beautiful twin children, a boy and a girl. Their names, what they looked like, where they had lived, all of that was missing.
Once she finally finished, the two women stood without speaking or moving for a minute. There was no sound anywhere in the apartment. The entire place was as quiet as a tomb.
“I’ll help you,” Larissa’s voice finally broke the seemingly endless silence.
“I’ll help you find your children.”