Please note that there was a full bonus chapter focusing on Dare posted yesterday. If you missed it (congratulations, you get to read the actual edited version without a million typos), you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above.
The room should have been cozy. Small, with a nice leather couch, plush carpeting, and pleasant pictures on the wall along with a wide screen television on the wall (the remote sat on the arm of the couch, waiting to be used), it should have been a perfect place to sit and wait.
For Shiori Porter, it felt like a prison. The walls felt like they were closing in on her, getting closer with each slowly passing minute. The slightly cool air was somehow stifling, and she could have sworn that there were cameras in the room watching absolutely every move that she made.
She had been sitting there for the past… what felt like forever, but according to her phone, was more like six hours. Not constantly, no. Every once in awhile, those Committee guys, October and Patrick, would pull her into another room to run through the same line of questioning for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time. Did she notice anything off about Columbus, when did she think he’d been possessed by the Stranger who had somehow bypassed all the school’s defenses, did she think there were more of them, and so on and so on and so on. It would end, they would put her back in this room to wait, and then twenty, thirty, or fifty minutes later they’d pull her out again to go through the exact same thing. No matter what she told them, they just wanted to hear more.
Not that she was telling the exact truth. Before they’d pulled her into this interrogation, the headmistress had given her a neat little watch that let her bypass their lie-detecting powers. But Shiori was pretty sure that the Committee goons still didn’t believe what she was telling them.
It was as close to the truth as she could possibly get without ruining… everything. She told them that she didn’t know what the species that had possessed her brother was, only that he had been acting ‘off’ recently and she’d gotten his team to help her investigate. Somehow, the Stranger that was possessing Columbus had found out that they knew, and had launched an ambush that eventually resulted in Columbus being freed of the Stranger’s influence, even as several other students, including a couple of his teammates, were abducted.
That was pretty close. All they really left out was the specific stuff about the Seosten. As far as October and Patrick were concerned, this was some random, unknown Stranger with a possession power. The fact that it had gotten that far, taking over a student and posing as him for months, had obviously sent up a lot of alarm bells.
The trouble was, Shiori wasn’t sure how many of those alarms were because of free Heretics being horrified that one of their own students had been taken over, and how many were Seosten being annoyed that one of them had actually been discovered and exposed. And, well, killed.
Six hours. She had been sitting here, in and out of interrogations, for six hours. No one would tell her anything except that Flick and several of the others had been… had been… taken. Flick.
Sitting forward suddenly, Shiori caught her hands against her mouth as bile rose in her throat. She couldn’t cry anymore. The fear, the terror of what was happening to Flick, Sands, and the others right then had left her a quivering ball in the corner of the room for the first hour of her time there. She hadn’t even been able to move or answer any questions until Professor Dare stopped in to talk to her for a minute. She’d told her that Flick hadn’t been knocked out or anything. She’d just killed that Charmeine bitch when she and Roxa were taken by one of those orbs. So there was a good chance that they and the others had been ready for a fight when they had arrived. Flick especially, considering she had just taken the power from one of the Seosten.
Which kind of helped, but… not really. It staved off the worst of the panic for a little while. But the thought of even a combat-ready Flick being stuck out there in Seosten space, it… it…
No. She wasn’t going to think about that. She wasn’t going to be a baby about it. Flick and the others, they’d… they’d be okay. They had to be okay. It wasn’t the first time that Flick had been off on an alien planet with a bunch of things that wanted to kill her. And this time, she had a lot more help. Sands was there, and so was Roxa. Roxa, the werewolf who had killed Lemuel.
Plus, there were several members of Roxa’s old team there. Shiori wasn’t sure how much they could be trusted, but surely they would all stick by Flick at least until everyone got back home.
And they would be coming home. Banishment be damned, Shiori believed that between Gaia, Wyatt, Professor Dare, and even that Gabriel Prosser guy, they would find a way to bring Flick and the others back. It was just a matter of time, just a matter of trusting them to get it done.
Or so she kept telling herself. It was the only way she could resist the urge to scream about Seosten in October and Patrick’s faces. And that… well, that would’ve made things even worse.
As worried as she was about Flick and the others, Shiori was even more worried about Columbus. All Dare had been able to tell her in the short time they’d had was that he wasn’t possessed anymore. But she didn’t know what condition he was in, if they were going to let him go, or anything. She’d been here the whole time, desperately hoping that her brother was okay.
Finally, the door opened yet again. But this time, instead of seeing either of the Committee’s stooges, or anyone else that would’ve made her want to scream, it was Gaia who stepped inside. The woman looked worn and ragged, dark circles having formed under her eyes. Honestly, it was that sight that terrified Shiori the most, out of everything she’d heard that day.
“H-headmistress?” she blurted while hurriedly jumping off the couch to her feet, eyes widening.
“I’m sorry, Shiori,” the woman spoke quietly. Her voice was a little strained. “I owe you every apology. I was… occupied with trying to help Avalon and handling several other situations, and I allowed you to sit here, being interrogated over and over again. I am truly sorry. But you’ve been through enough now. Come, that’s enough of all this. It’s time to meet with your brother.”
“It’s… it’s okay,” Shiori mumbled, feeling awkward as she took a quick step that way. Her gaze snapped up at the mention of Columbus. “He.. he’s okay then? Columbus is alright?”
The question actually made Gaia give a slight, soft smile. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “The short answer is that Columbus is no longer possessed and seems to be well, at least physically. Mentally… that may take some time. He will need help, and… you. He will need his sister and friends to help him understand and accept that what happened was not his fault. Be patient.”
Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly at that. “Y-yeah, of course. And… and umm…” Biting her lip, she hesitated before asking in a worried, soft voice, “What about the others? What about Flick, and Sands, and… and the rest? What–do you know anything else? Please. Please?”
The woman paused, seeming to take a moment to collect herself before shaking her head slowly. “I will be honest with you, Shiori, we don’t know much more. Wyatt has assured us that some of the spells he cast on Felicity are working, even across the vast distance they must cover. He can’t tell us exactly where they are, or communicate with them in any way. But he does know that she is in relatively healthy condition. That is basically all he knows for certain. She is alive, and she is healthy. Beyond that…” she trailed off for a moment, looking away before finishing with a simple, “we are looking for options right now. But I promise you,” the woman spoke more firmly while returning her gaze to Shiori’s, “we will bring them back here.”
Gaia led her out of the room then, walking with Shiori through the hallway of the main school building. As they walked, the girl hesitated before asking, “Um. Did Flick really… did she kill–”
Now the headmistress really did smile. There was obvious pride there. “Yes,” she answered with a slight nod. “The Seosten who possessed Columbus is dead, Shiori. From everything that I have managed to hear, your brother managed the initial blow, before Felicity… finished her.”
“Good.” Shiori looked at the floor for a moment, digesting that before repeating, “Good. It doesn’t make everything better, but… it’s something. I’m glad she’s dead. She–” Anything else that the girl might have said was choked off by the lump in her throat. Finally, she just shook her head, unable to find the words for how much she hated that creature for what she had done.
And yet, even in death, Charmeine still hadn’t fully lost. She’d managed to send Flick and the others off to Seosten space. Even if they were actually upright and ready for a fight, it was still… bad. Bad enough that the queasy, terrified feeling in the pit of her stomach wouldn’t go away.
“What about the… body?” she asked then, as the thought occurred to her. “The Seosten body, I mean. It would be… you know, proof. Proof of everything we know about them. Proof they exist. Proof of all of it. They–” She winced, realizing. “They took it, didn’t they? They took the body.”
Yet, Gaia simply smiled once more. “Well,” she replied casually, “sadly, it seems that whatever creature happened to possess Columbus had the foresight to include some sort of defensive measure to prevent their bodies from being recovered. It disintegrated shortly after Virginia reached it. There was nothing she could do to stop it in time. More’s the loss.”
For a moment, Shiori just stared, confused by the way Gaia’s smile conflicted with her words. Then she understood, her eyes widening at the realization. The body hadn’t actually disintegrated. Dare had made it disappear specifically so that the Seosten infiltrators couldn’t claim it. Now, they had the body and could examine it at their leisure. It might come in handy. It could be proof of everything they were saying later, at a better, more convenient time. Dare spiriting the body away first meant that the Seosten couldn’t make it disappear themselves. And they couldn’t exactly accuse Dare of lying about that, at least not openly. It would mean exposing themselves. Hell, that might have been another reason that the woman had done it, to try and coax any other Seosten infiltrators into giving themselves away by objecting too much.
In other words, the Seosten who were possessing those Crossroads Heretics knew that Gaia and Dare were lying. But they couldn’t exactly call them out on it without revealing themselves. Hell, the Seosten were probably ready and waiting for Gaia to try to call out their existence specifically so that they could discredit her. But the headmistress was too smart to take the bait.
Before they reached the room where Columbus was, Shiori bit her lip and looked toward the woman, starting hesitantly, “I… I’m sorry about what happened to Mr. Carfried. Is… is Professor Carfried okay? I mean, they were related and I don’t know how how close they were, but…”
Flinching just a little bit (but the fact that it was noticeable at all spoke volumes), Gaia gave a slight head shake before answering. “It will take Benjii some time to cope with all of this. He and his great-great-grandfather were close enough that it was Josiah who recommended Benji to fill the position of first-year magic instructor this year.” She sighed then, lamenting, “I am afraid that the man somehow blames himself for not being there to help when Josiah needed him.”
Shiori’s head shook quickly at that. “What? Why would he–” She frowned. “He couldn’t have stopped them, even if he was there. I mean, if Professor Dare was there and couldn’t stop it, then… then there’s no way that he could have. I mean, they were ready for almost everything. They took everyone by surprise. Professor Carfried couldn’t have stopped them.”
Gaia smiled faintly, giving a slight nod at that. “No,” she agreed, “he could not have.”
Shiori was just starting to get the suspicion that this wasn’t entirely about Professor Carfried when the headmistress stopped in front of a door. She gestured to it. “Take your time, Shiori. When you are both ready to come and face the world again, there will be time to sort everything else out. For now… go and see your brother. We will take care of the rest in time, I promise.”
Shiori didn’t need another invitation. She immediately moved to push the door open, stepping into what turned out to be a small, private library of some kind. There were several rows of bookshelves, a fireplace, and a leather chair next to a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the grounds. It looked like a place for a teacher, maybe Gaia herself, to relax and read in peace.
And standing with his back to her right there in the middle of the room, staring through that window with his goggles held loosely in one hand, was Columbus. He clearly heard the door open, but didn’t move. He was focused solely on that window, his gaze slightly bowed.
“Columbus!” Shiori blurted from where she stood. For a moment, her feet felt like they were caught in cement. She couldn’t move. Seeing the boy there, knowing that it was really him and not some stupid Seosten bitch looking out through his eyes, it was completely overwhelming.
Slowly, the boy turned around. He was looking at the floor before his gaze slowly raised to take her in. She saw him gulp, hand briefly tightening on the strap to his goggles before he dropped them entirely. “Shy-guy,” he breathed out, starting to take a step before stopping himself. He looked awkward, uncertain, even afraid of her response. He looked completely and totally lost.
He was frozen, so she forced her own feet to move. Crossing the short distance between them, Shiori immediately grabbed onto her brother, hugging him tightly. Her arms slipped around the boy and she clung to him with a weak little sob that blurted its way out of the girl. “Columbus.”
She felt the boy stiffen under her embrace before he relaxed just a bit. An unfamiliar noise escaped him, and he breathed out. Making no move to actually return the hug, he spoke in a hoarse, quiet voice. “Shiori, you’re…” He trailed off, clearly unable to say what he wanted to.
Swallowing hard, the girl slowly raised her own gaze while leaning back to see his face. “Columbus, I–” Shiori flinched as the thought came. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I’m so, so sorry.”
The surprise on the boy’s face could not have been any more complete. His mouth literally fell open. “I–what?” he managed to croak out a bit weakly. “What are you–why are you… huh?”
She met his gaze earnestly, staring up at the boy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it wasn’t you until… until Flick told me. I had no idea. I should’ve. I should’ve known. I’m sorry, Columbus. I’m so, so sorry. You must’ve felt like–you must feel like I betrayed you, or… or like I didn’t know you.”
He stared down at her in flat astonishment at that. “Shy–you… you’re not…” His head shook then, and Columbus immediately caught onto her hands. “Shiori, I’m not mad at–you should be mad at me!” he blurted the words loudly. “I’m the one who couldn’t fight her, couldn’t stop her! She could have–she–she threatened to–and I couldn’t… I never… I could never–” His voice cut off, and the boy shook his head even more, snapping it back and forth violently. “I’m sorry.”
“You were possessed, you big idiot!” Shiori blurted, before snapping her hand against her own mouth with a horrified look. Blanching, she stammered muffledly through her own hand. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I–” Lowering her hand, she managed a weak, “you were possessed. It’s not your fault. It’s not even close to your fault. It was… it was her.” The last word came as a growl.
“She’s… she’s dead.” Columbus’s voice made it sound as though he was still trying to convince himself of the truth of that. “Charmeine. She’s dead now. Dead for good. Gone.” He kept repeating it, like he needed to hear the words over and over in order to make them real.
Shiori gave a single, firm nod. “She’s dead, Columbus. She’s gone. You and Flick, you made–” Her voice caught a bit, and she had to swallow hard before forcing out the words, “You made sure of that.”
For a moment, both siblings simply stood there, staring at each other. Both felt awkward, uncertain, and confused about what they were supposed to say, what they could say.
Finally, Shiori shook off her own confusion and uncertainty about the situation. She didn’t matter right then. Columbus mattered. He needed her. He needed reassurance. After everything he’d been through… everything that bitch had made him do…
“Columbus.” That time, her voice was firm. When he looked back to her eyes, Shiori spoke simply. “I love you. You’re my brother. You’re always gonna be my brother. None of what happened, none of it’s your fault, okay? None of it. You… you’re the best brother in the world. You accepted me when you found out the truth about my… about my mom. You accepted me immediately, you big dork. You’re…” She choked up a little then. Flick would’ve known what to say. Flick could’ve made him feel better. All Shiori could do was stammer and babble a little.
But at least she could say the most important thing. And she’d keep saying it for as long as it took.
“I love you, Columbus. I love you. You’re my brother. You’re my family.”
For a moment, the boy said nothing. He just stared down at her, a series of tumultuous emotions playing across his face. Finally, he lowered his head, tears springing to his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to do any of that. I didn’t–I couldn’t–I… they’re dead. She made me kill them, kill him… she made me–she would have… I couldn’t–” Anything else that he might have said was cut off then as his throat closed up.
Shiori took him by the hands, squeezing tightly before guiding the boy over to sit on the oversized stuffed armchair. It was big enough for the two of them to squeeze in next to each other, which reminded her of all the Saturday mornings spent in the recliner at home when they were kids, first watching cartoons and then playing video games. Simpler times.
“We know,” she finally replied in a soft voice, still squeezing the boy’s hands. “We know, Columbus. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t your fault.” She reached up then, tugging him down. And, despite their difference in size, Columbus fairly collapsed against her. His head fell against her shoulder, and Shiori hugged onto him. She held the boy against her, swallowing a little roughly. What did she say? What could she say that would magically make it better after everything that had happened? What words even existed that could help? Maybe… maybe two words.
“I’m here. I’m here, Columbus.”
It was almost ten minutes before either of them spoke again. Sitting there in that chair, thinking about easier times, younger times, it left them both silent until Columbus finally spoke. “… I did try. I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t want to–I didn’t want to do any of it.”
“I know.” Shiori’s voice was soft. She leaned back, watching her brother for a moment. “Columbus, you were–how… how long?”
He flinched at the question, hesitating before giving a soft, weak answer. “Since the airport at Thanksgiving, while I was waiting for you guys.”
Shiori’s eyes widened, and she made a horrified sound in the back of her throat. “Th-that long? You–you–oh. Oh my God. Columbus, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Biting his lip, Columbus rubbed the back of his head. “Can… we just put a moratorium on apologies for now? Otherwise, I’m pretty sure we’ll be in here all week.”
Flushing a little, Shiori gave a tiny nod before pausing. The thought of all that Columbus had ‘missed’, or rather, what Charmeine had been puppeting him through, it was… staggering.
“I… umm… I don’t suppose you know who the other Seosten are?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
His head shook. “No. Trust me, that was the first thing Gaia and Dare asked me. Charmeine always either knocked me out or wiped my memory when she had to meet with anyone else. Her boss, that Manakel guy, he insisted on it, just in case.”
“Stupid competent evil jerk,” Shiori muttered darkly. Then she looked up to him again. “What about… Mr. Carfried? If Gaia and Professor Dare made the Seosten body disappear, are… are the Heretics gonna try to… to come after you for what happened to him?”
Columbus shook his head once more. “The headmistress said that they have eyewitness testimony from Scout, Rudolph, Douglas, Avalon, and Sean that I was possessed and that they saw the Stranger who was possessing me leave my body. They can’t prove ‘giant Seosten conspiracy from the very beginning of Crossroads’, but they can prove that there was one Stranger possessing me to make me… to make me do that….” He swallowed hard. “.. that stuff.”
Putting her hand on top of his, Shiori asked hesitantly, “Do… do you know anything about where they sent Flick and the others? Or… or…”
He finished for her. “How to get them back? I’m sorry, Shee. I don’t know. I wish I did. I…. Charmeine wasn’t much for technical explanations. She didn’t share that kind of stuff. She bragged a lot, threatened even more. But telling me details like that? She didn’t really go for that.”
Inwardly, the girl flinched. But she tried to hide it. Columbus already felt bad enough about everything. And he had been there for her, so damn it, she would be there for him.
“I know you’re probably tired of talking about… about all of that,” she noted quietly, “but would you mind answering one more question for me? Then, I promise, we can just sit here and not talk about it for as long as you want.”
“One question?” The boy blinked at that before nodding. “Sure… what is it?”
Shifting in the seat to be closer to her brother, Shiori straightened and looked straight at him before asking her question.
“How good did it feel to blast that fucking bitch straight out the window?”
The question made Columbus blink again. Then he gave a brief, almost choking laugh. It wasn’t a lot. But it was something. His arms wrapped around her, hugging his sister to him.
“I love you, Shiori.”
“I love you too, Columbus.”