For a second, I froze. I didn’t know. Roxa seemed… under control at least. She hadn’t instantly outed Tabbris. Instead, she’d waited until we had some privacy. She’d noticed the help that the littlest angel had given, yet she still wanted answers. And she was making sure that those answers came from me by ordering my stowaway to get out. I had no doubt that, even though the help that Tabbris had been thus far was stopping Roxa from outright exposing her in front of the others, she wouldn’t hesitate to change her mind if the Seosten didn’t show herself and let me explain things.
Eject, I finally answered, while watching Roxa’s expression harden slightly at my hesitation. It’s okay. She’s seen what you’ve done so far. Or some of it anyway. She kept quiet this long. Go ahead. Just stay out of sight of that opening so no one else sees you.
I could feel the young Seosten’s hesitation and trepidation. Which meant that she was feeling a lot of it. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her for that. As far as I knew, she’d only shown herself to one person in the past seven years: me. She didn’t know how Roxa was going to react. But the fact was, we didn’t have any other choices. If she didn’t see the figure that was possessing me get out within the next couple of seconds, Roxa was going to do something a lot more rash.
Tabbris, I thought to the other girl gently. It’s okay. Trust me. I won’t let her hurt you. I promise.
After another half second of hesitation, I felt her brief agreement. Then she was pulling herself out of me, a white, translucent figure that quickly solidified into the now-familiar little girl.
Roxa was pulling back from me, her attention flicking up toward the girl reflexively. Gidget did the same, turning to focus that way. As they both started to move, I quickly sat up to put myself between them and Tabbris. Moving to one knee, I held both hands up. “Roxa, Roxa, it’s okay!” I hissed the words reflexively, despite the other girl’s words about her cone of silence. “It’s alright, I promise. I’m fine.” Even as I spoke, I felt Tabbris put herself directly behind me. She was half-cowering, hiding there while peeking out.
“Flick?” Roxa hissed, eyes darting from the Seosten girl to me and back again. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?” After a pause, she added, “And you should probably do it fast.”
Right, if this took too long, the others would wonder what was going on. They didn’t know how long it would take us to change back, but still. They might get curious. And I really didn’t want to have to go through this with Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon. Time to give her the short version.
“Roxa,” I started quickly, “This is Tabbris. We don’t have time to get into it, but I swear she’s on our side. She was–her mom is Vanessa and Tristan’s mom. She sent Tabbris to me so that I’d be immune to other Seosten possessing me, because of who my mother is. I didn’t know she existed until Charmeine captured me. She had to reveal herself to get me out of there. She’s been protecting and helping me this whole time, I just didn’t know about it until a few hours ago.”
A few hours. Had it really only been that long? It felt like a lifetime. How had so much happened in such a short time? Honestly, even I was getting tired at this point, after all the fighting and running that we had been going through. The others must be almost dead on their feet.
“Tabbris?” Roxa echoed the name, squinting briefly. “I know she was helping. That’s why I didn’t say anything until now. I just didn’t know if she was being helpful to get close to us or something. But…” She looked back to me, frowning before reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder. Obviously, she was checking to see if I was still possessed. “And you’re sure you’re okay?”
I nodded quickly. “Like I said, she saved me. She saved all of us. Without her, we’d all be captured. She was the one who came up with that trick to get rid of Radueriel. Right, Tabbris?”
Behind me, pressed close up against my back, the Seosten girl gave a quick nod. Her voice was quiet. “I w-was trying to help. I just… I just wanted to help. Mama said I should be quiet, hide. But I had to help. I promise, I wasn’t trying to hurt anything. I just… I had to help.” She repeated her words softly, and I could feel her trembling a bit. Tabbris was even more afraid of explaining things to Roxa than she had been of explaining them to me. Which made sense. She knew me and how I would react a hell of a lot better than either of us knew about Roxa and her reaction.
For a couple of seconds, Roxa was silent. She bit her lip, clearly feeling indecisive before she finally reached out an open hand. “Hey,” the girl murmured. “Tabbris, was it?” When the other girl hesitantly nodded while staring fearfully at the hand, Roxa managed a slight smile. “Hi, Tabbris. I guess you saved us back there. You saved Flick, and then you saved us… a couple times, I think.” She paused, then extended her hand a little further. “C’mere a sec, would you?”
The younger girl looked to me first, and I gave her an encouraging nod, whispering, “It’s okay.”
Still, she hesitated before very slowly stepping out from behind me. Her small hand hesitantly reached up, stalling in the air as she looked at Roxa for a few seconds. Then she reached the rest of the way to tentatively put her hand against the other girl’s. I could see her trepidation.
Once the little girl’s hand was gently, nervously brushing against her own, Roxa reached out a little bit further. She took Tabbris’s hand and gave her a slight tug before going down on one knee. I heard the Seosten girl give a soft gasp of surprise then, just as Roxa embraced her.
“Thanks, kid,” Roxa murmured as she hugged Tabbris. “I’m sorry I scared you. I had to make sure Flick was really okay. You seemed like you were helping, but I couldn’t take the chance.”
Tabbris seemed completely taken aback by the gesture. She made a noise of confusion, remaining stiff as she was embraced. It was obvious that the girl had absolutely no idea of how to react, either to the hug or what Roxa was actually saying. She just stood there, motionless.
“Hey!” A voice calling from the other cave made all three of us jump. It was Jazz. Thankfully, she wasn’t actually looking in, but was just shouting from where they were. “You guys changed yet?”
Coughing, I called back, “Working on it! We’ll be right out, just… hold on, we’re not decent.”
Right. Not decent. The reminder that neither Roxa or I had any clothes on made me blush deeply. We’d been thoroughly distracted, but still… I averted my eyes, moving to grab my clothes from where Gidget had helpfully dropped them. In the middle of the pile, Jaq and Gus were huddled next to my weapon canister. Yeah, as it turned out, I couldn’t send the two back into my staff. The portals on my staff, the ones that connected to the box back in my room that my little mice lived in, weren’t working. Which made sense, considering everything we knew. Still, it had been a bit of a disappointment when I’d thought of the portal and tried to activate it, only for nothing to happen. So, Jaq and Gus were stuck out here with us. They’d spent the whole time that I’d been a lion riding inside of Gidget with all our clothes and equipment.
“Hey guys,” I murmured, putting my hands down for them to climb in. “You good?” They nuzzled me a little bit, and I smiled before setting them on my shoulder so I could grab my clothes.
I started to pull them on, then paused as I remembered what my tiny, helpful Seosten bodyguard had said. Curious, I touched my underwear and bra and sort of… thought about them being on me. It took a couple seconds of holding my hand in place, but then they were both… wrapped around my arms.
Clearly, I needed to be more specific. Rolling my eyes, I focused once more, picturing myself actually wearing them the right way.
It worked, and a few seconds later, my pants and shirt joined them. Well, this was going to make getting dressed in the mornings a hell of a lot easier, that was for sure.
While checking to make sure my clothes were on the right way, I glanced over to where Tabbris was finally returning Roxa’s hug. The little girl was still clearly hesitant about the whole thing, but had latched onto Roxa as if she was a life preserver in the middle of a dark ocean. It made me think about how lost, scared, and alone she must’ve been through the years. Hell, she’d gone as far as going to my father in the middle of the night while he was delirious from sleep, just to get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t meant for her. This, a hug coming from someone she barely knew, who was fully aware of what she was? It had to be completely overwhelming. And I really, really hated to interrupt it, no matter how necessary it was. Given the choice, I would’ve let them keep hugging for hours. Hell, given the choice, I would’ve made sure everyone else in our little group knew who she was and just how much she had done to make sure that we got out of there with our lives intact. But I didn’t have that luxury. There was already too much to explain, and I still didn’t know how much we could trust the other three. Not to mention how dangerous it would be in general if any of the Seosten found out about her. No, for the time being, we had to keep Tabbris a secret from everyone else.
Stepping that way, I put a hand on the Seosten girl’s shoulder. “Hey,” I whispered. As she turned from Roxa, I took my own chance for a hug, embracing my little stowaway tightly. “Thank you, for everything. Seriously, without you, we’d all be dead, or enslaved. You saved us, partner.”
I knew there wasn’t time to waste. I knew that. But I also knew that Tabbris really needed to hear it. After everything she’d done, after the years she had spent hiding and secretly trying to help… hell, over the past year, she’d spent a good portion of it hearing about how evil and terrible pretty much her entire species was. All the thoughts that I’d had about how much I hated the Seosten and everything else… yeah, the least I could do was give her an actual hug right then.
Roxa quickly got herself dressed while I was embracing Tabbris. Sliding her shirt on, the girl gave me a brief look before murmuring, “We’ve gotta talk more about this later, you know.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Later. But the others need to get the Cliff’s Notes about everything else first.” Turning my attention down to the younger girl, I gave her a little smile. “Ready to jump back in?”
She nodded, putting her hand on mine. A second later, she was back inside me. I felt her presence once more, settling in like a… like a favorite blanket. I couldn’t really describe it better than that. It felt right when she was there. Even though I’d only been consciously aware of her for such a short time, having her out of me was still almost like a part of me was missing. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, I didn’t know. What I did know was that I felt more me with her.
Roxa was watching that happen as she buttoned up her pants. “That still looks freaky,” she pointed out before pausing. “Wait a second…” she murmured with a frown as she stared at me.
Feeling self-conscious (which was probably partly me and partly Tabbris), I shook my head. “What? What’s wrong?” Was she changing her mind about this? Was she about to call for help?
Instead, the other girl just blurted, “Why didn’t Pace say anything? Lies, I mean.” As I stared at her in confusion, she explained, “She touched you. She touched you, right? With this on.” Gesturing to the invisible choker around her neck, Roxa shook her head. “So she should’ve known you were possessed. Why didn’t she say anything about it? Because she obviously hasn’t, since Charmeine apparently had no idea. Why? Why didn’t she tell anyone?”
For a couple seconds after that question landed, all I could do was stare back at Roxa, open-mouthed. “Uhh…” I made a dull, confused sound while my mind raced wildly.
Why didn’t she say anything? I quickly asked Tabbris. She definitely touched me. And her eyes were open. Is it possible that she just didn’t notice you or something? I mean, we were fighting at the time and all that, so… Even as I asked, my head was already shaking. I didn’t believe it.
I don’t think so, the other girl confirmed my own doubts, sounding as confused as I felt. I think she noticed, but I… don’t know why she didn’t say anything. Unless she’s saving it, maybe?
“Saving it?” I muttered out loud, looking back to Roxa. “Tabbris thinks maybe she’s saving it.”
The blonde girl squinted at me. “Oh, fantastic. You mean she’s saving it to pull out later. So we basically have no idea how long it’ll be before all the Seosten know about your little friend in there. Lies could blurt it out at any time. Hell, come to think of it, she’ll probably use it to try to get something out of you later. And what are you gonna do when she does? What are you going to do when she says, ‘do X for me, or everyone finds out that you’ve got a hitchhiker in there’?”
I shook my head at that, answering honestly, “I dunno. Right now, I’m more worried about how we’re going to explain everything else that’s been going on to your old teammates in there.”
Roxa gave a slow nod, sighing as she looked over her shoulder to the opening into the cave where the others were waiting for us. “Yeah, I guess they’re kind of getting dropped into the deep end, huh? But then again,” she added thoughtfully while shrugging, “So was I, kind of.”
“Good point,” I agreed. “But this is still gonna be a bit much for them to actually take in.” Taking a breath, I looked to her. “Thanks, for keeping quiet about Tabbris until you had a chance to find out exactly what was going on. Seriously, I don’t know if very many people would’ve had that kind of control. Most probably would’ve blurted it out as soon as they saw her. Or pretty soon.”
“Hey,” Roxa replied with a little shrug, “I’ve had to keep secrets. I know what it’s like. And you had kind of just killed Charmeine when I saw her. I figured if nothing else, that much meant I owed the kid the benefit of the doubt for as long as it took to get you alone. But like I said, we-”
“–Still need to have a conversation about it,” I interrupted, nodding. “We will. Soon. But now, we’ve got another audience to deal with.” Clearing my throat, I nodded to the opening while reaching up to take Jaq and Gus, slipping them into one of my pockets. “Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she replied, putting her hand down to rest on Gidget’s head. “Let’s go.”
Together, the two of us… three counting Gidget and four counting my passenger, moved into the other cave. Sands, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon were all standing on the other side, talking in hushed voices. When we emerged, every eye moved to us, and they abruptly stopped talking.
Jazz was the first to clamber to her feet. “Okay, Sands said we had to wait for you. Now you’re here, you’re changed, and no one is currently, actively trying to kill us. We’ve waited long enough. What the hell is going on?! Who was that woman back there, who was the guy that was impersonating P-Paul–” Her voice caught briefly there before she pressed on, “who are all these people, where are we, how did we get here, why–just… just… all of it. Every question possible. All of them. Every question in the world, pretend I said them, okay? What the fuck?”
I coughed at that, giving a little nod. “Right, you guys deserve a pretty big explanation. And trust me, it’s a doozy. So, just… go with me a little bit.” Glancing toward Sands briefly, I continued. “First of all, like I said before, that woman back there and the guy with the cyborg limbs, they’re both called Seosten. Seosten. That’s where we are, in their space. They’re sort of a… an intergalactic empire of super-advanced aliens who look pretty much exactly like us.” Now really wasn’t the time to get into exactly why humans and Seosten looked alike. These guys already had enough to take in as it was without me talking about the Fomorians and everything else.
“They don’t set off the Heretic-sight,” Gordon observed quietly from where he was standing.
“Right,” I nodded. “There’s kind of a long story behind that. But right now, I…” Biting my lip, I tried to figure out how to explain as much as I needed to get them to understand. “Okay, so, long story short, the Seosten are the bad guys. Their big thing is that they can possess people. You saw what she did with Columbus. And what I could do after I killed her. They possess you, which means they control everything you say and do, all of that. It’s…” I sighed. “It’s slavery. They enslave you and control you. They use it to infiltrate places. And… we’ve been trying to figure out who they are, because they’ve been trying to kill Avalon all year long. Hell, even longer than that. That whole thing back at the hotel was them trying to kill or capture the rest of us so that they could blame Avalon for what happened and isolate her from everyone else. They want to kill her because her ancestor was Hieronymus Bosch. Well, specifically his daughter. And-”
“Wait, wait,” Jazz interrupted. “Hold on a second. What? Are you serious?” Her eyes were wide. “Avalon, that Avalon, is Bosch’s descendant? Really?”
I squinted at her, trying not to be offended on Avalon’s behalf. “Yeah, really. Why?”
She flushed a little. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just… it’s surprising, that’s all. I would’ve said the same thing if you said anyone was Bosch’s descendant. It’s like saying, ‘hey, that guy’s great-uncle is Santa Claus’ or something. I dunno. Just… wait, why do they want to kill her?”
“Because she can open the blood vault that leads to something they really want to get for themselves,” I replied, “the one that belonged to Liesje Aken.”
Isaac spoke up then. “What’s… what’s in there that’s so important?”
Glancing to the boy briefly, I echoed, “What’s so important? Apparently Liesje came up with a way to make people immune to Seosten possession. That’s why Avalon’s immune. Liesje used it on her bloodline. Then it got locked away in that vault. The Seosten want to get in there and get rid of it before it spreads and ruins their whole plot.”
“Ruins what, exactly?” Gordon’s voice was quiet, his tone making me think that he already had some idea.
Right. This was the big one. This was the one that was going to go too far for them. “… Heretics,” I replied, “Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, all of it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jazz demanded, staring openly at me. “What do the Seosten have to do with Crossroads?”
“Everything,” I replied flatly. “They have everything to do with it. They created it.”
The denials came so fast and furious that for a moment I thought Vin Diesel was behind me. Mostly they came from Jazz and Isaac, both of whom demanded to know what the hell I was talking about, just how insane I was, if I’d hit my head too hard, and so on and so forth.
“Guys–guys!” Roxa stepped in. “Just listen to her, okay?”
“Seriously?” Jazz demanded, “you’re totally serious right now? What the fuck? These Seosten created Crossroads? Do you know how fucking insane you sound?”
“I’ve got some idea,” I confirmed dryly. “Just listen. The Seosten created Crossroads and the Bystander Effect to–”
“Oh, now they created the Bystander Effect too?” Isaac retorted sarcastically. “These are some pretty powerful magic boogeymen.”
I sighed. “Listen, I know how it sounds. I do. But like I said, just go with me a little bit, okay? Yes, it sounds fucking insane. Trust me, I get that. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect in order to control humanity, in order to control Heretics. They wanted us to think that all Alters are evil, beca–”
That was as far as I got before Jazz abruptly cut in once more. “What?” Her voice was even more incredulous. “What did you say? They want us to think that all what are evil?”
“Alters,” I replied, sighing. “I mean Strangers, sorry. They want us to think that–”
“They are,” the other girl stated flatly. “What the hell do you mean, they want us to think that Strangers are evil? The hell–”
“Would you just shut the fuck up?” That was Sands, who finally couldn’t contain herself. “You keep interrupting every two seconds. Shut up and let her talk for the love of gods.”
“But she’s talking about Strangers like they’re… like they’re n-not evil,” Jazz pointed out, stammering a little bit. “How can you–”
That time, it was her turn to be interrupted as Roxa spoke up. “Flick’s right. Strangers, Alters, whatever, they’re not all evil. And you wanna know how I know?”
As everyone’s eyes turned that way, mine included, the blonde girl reached up to her neck. She unfastened the invisible choker there, pulling it away.
“Because I am one.”