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.