Month: December 2017

Rendezvous 30-01

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Transporting an entire massive ship to some completely different part of the galaxy was an unbelievably impressive feat, for sure. There was no doubt about that. But honestly, I was pretty sure that in that particular moment, Larissa Mason would have teleported an entire continent out of her way without blinking if it had been standing between her and her daughter.

Staring at the woman now, I could see Sands and Scout in her. She wasn’t very tall, or imposing. She was quietly pretty, the same way they were. Not a bombshell, but more… classically attractive. Her eyes were green, with little flecks of brown in them that matched her hair. She wore what looked like dark gray cargo pants full of pockets, and a brown leather jacket of some kind.

“Sandoval,” she breathed out, more emotion filling that single word than I could have put in an entire book. Her eyes widened, and then she abruptly flung herself that way. Sands had time to make a choked noise before her mother hauled her up, and the two were embracing tightly.

“Mom, Mommy, Mom,” Sands was openly sobbing as she clung to her mother. Her words were pretty much babbling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t–I didn’t go. I didn’t go with you, I’m sorry. I should’ve gone, I should’ve gone with you, I could’ve been, I’m sorry, Mommy, it was dumb and I was trying to sleep but I wanted to go, I’m sorry, I wanted to see the whales, Mommy. Please, please.” At that point, the girl simply dissolved into completely incoherent stammering that itself faded quickly as she just held tight to her mom, burying her face into the woman’s shoulder.

“Oh, baby. My baby. Sandoval. It’s okay.” Holding her little girl close, Larissa kissed the top of her head and rocked her a little. “I’m here, my girl. My little Sandy. I’m here, I’m right here. I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you. I’m here, my sweet little girl.” She kissed her daughter’s head again, nuzzling her tenderly. Both were crying.  

Maybe it should have surprised or confused me, at least a little bit, that the woman knew exactly which one of her twin daughters she was holding so quickly even after being separated from them for about seven years. But somehow… it didn’t. She was their mother. She just knew.

Turning away to give them a little bit of privacy, I tried not to think about my own mother. My mom. What was she doing right then? It had been months since I’d even been able to talk to her, and that had been through her monkey-figure. And before that, it had been… a sharp pang hit my stomach, and I gave a sharp shake of my head. Focus, Flick. Don’t be jealous. I was happy for Sands. Happier than I could possibly explain. Hell, she had spent most of the intervening years thinking that her mother was dead. To be reunited like this, it was… beautiful.

A voice said something beside me, and I looked over quickly to find Jokai there. Not that it was super-easy to see him, considering his skin kept taking on the coloration of his surroundings.

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a moment before asking inwardly, Hey, what did he say?

Oh, um. I could hear the emotion and longing in Tabbris’s voice. She missed her mother too. Hell, she had probably missed Larissa herself. H-he’s asking if he can go and tell the others that we’re safe for now, that we escaped. And that we should leave the mother and girl-child alone.

Smiling faintly, I gave him a little nod before holding up a hand for him to wait. Looking to the others, I announced, “We should probably check all those rooms we bypassed on the way up here. Unless…” Tabbris, translate for me, please? To Jokai, I asked, “Can you use anything up here to check how many living things are on the ship and see if we missed any guards?”

The response came quickly, and Tabbris translated. He says he already did that. It was um, it was one of the first things he did once we got up here, because he wanted to know if his people were about to be ambushed so he could warn them. He wanted to make sure they were okay. Oh, and he also turned off the ship’s security measures. The ones we didn’t destroy anyway.

From the look on the man’s face, he felt guilty about all that, like he was afraid that I would be angry with him for checking on his friends, or for turning off the security without being told to. As if it mattered what I felt. Shaking my head at that, I gave him a little smile that I hoped would manage to be reassuring. “Good,” I replied firmly. “Good job. See, that’s how we work together.” The words came from my brain in English, but by the time they reached my mouth, Tabbris translated them so that the chameleon-man could actually understand what I was saying.  

“Okay,” Isaac put in, arms folded over his chest as his three drones slowly revolved around him. “So for those of us who are out of the loop, that’s Sands’ and Scout’s formerly assumed dead mother, right? What the hell is she doing all the way out here, and… does that mean we have a way to get home now? Also, where the hell are we right now, and how far is it from those assholes? Oh, and while we’re at it, did she really just teleport an entire fucking spaceship and everything on it? Cuz I would really like to sign up for whatever god damn class teaches that.”

“It’s not a class, sorry.” The answer came from Larissa Mason herself, who stood there with her daughter’s back pulled tightly up against her front as she watched us. “Actually, it’s not something I could have done on my own. Not with the time frame that we were working with.”

Sands, clinging tightly to her mother’s arm, managed a confused, “But… but M-Mom, how are you here? How did you know to come, and how did you find us? What–what’s going on?”

“Oh, baby.” Brushing her free hand back through her girl’s hair, Larissa kissed her forehead. “It’s a long story. Let’s start getting everyone on the same page. I promise, I’ll explain everything.”

She looked to Jokai then, speaking briefly in Latin. Tabbris translated. “Sir, my name is Larissa Mason. I promise, I mean you no harm. This girl is my daughter, and these are her friends. I came to save them, but I am very glad to see that they have helped you and your people.”

After a brief hesitation, Jokai introduced himself, then repeated his request to go and talk to the other former prisoners to let them know what was going on. His voice was clearly nervous about talking to the adult Heretic, but he pressed on anyway, referring to her as Decanus Larissa.

Decanus, Tabbris whispered to me, it’s… it’s a rank in the Seosten military. A Decanus is the leader of a group of ten soldiers, a dec. They’re um, they’re basically like sergeants. I could still hear the longing in her voice. After so long away from her mother, seeing the woman who was supposed to have been pretty much another mother-figure to her before her disappearance had to be hitting Tabbris almost as hard as it was hitting Sands herself. It was obvious that she really, really wanted to reveal herself to the woman, really wanted to talk to her so very badly.

Don’t worry, Tabbris, I privately assured the girl. We’ll get a chance to talk to her. You’ll get to see her and let her know how you are, I promise. Let’s just find out what’s going on now, okay?

She hesitantly agreed, sounding embarrassed that I had picked up on just how badly she wanted to talk to the woman. By that point, Larissa had finished speaking with Jokai, telling him that his scans had been correct and that the ship seemed to be safe enough for him to go and talk to the other Alters. She told him to let them know that we would be in transit for a few days.

“A few days?” Isaac suddenly put in once Gordon, standing nearby, had translated the meaning. “Where are we going? Can’t you just… you know, poof us to wherever we need to be? Actually, we already teleported once. How come we’re not already where we need to be?”

Shooting the boy a look, I coughed before pointedly putting in, “I think what Isaac means to say is, we know that Professor Katarin got sent out here with you. Is he… is he close? Is he okay?”

The woman gave me a brief, searching look. Her expression changed for just a brief second as she met my gaze before getting herself under control. “Yes, Ulysses is alright. But he’s not here. We… “ She paused, considering her words. “When we got the message that you needed help, and where you were, there wasn’t time to get here normally, let alone with enough power to set off a spell that could transport an entire ship this size. That world that you were on has some powerful shields around it. It took pretty much all we had just to transport one person through with a strong enough mass transport spell to get this ship out of there. The others put everything they had into it. Even then, we couldn’t bring this ship all the way to where we are. We’ll have to go the rest of the way under the ship’s own power. Which, as I said, will take a few days.”

She gave a little smile then, clearly trying to reassure us as she hugged her daughter even tighter against herself. “Don’t worry. Like I said, Professor Katarin is fine. He exhausted himself with those spells, but he and the others should be recovered by the time we get back there.”

Right, so teleporting right past all the Seosten defenses and then transporting this entire giant ship somewhere else in the galaxy wasn’t something that Sands’ and Scout’s mother had done all by herself. It had taken a group effort from her, Professor Katarin, and Vanessa and Tristan’s father. And now we just had to be patient while the ship flew to meet the others. I could handle that, honestly. Aside from the sharp, painful reminder that Avalon and Shiori were still something like billions of lightyears away and that I was actually not any closer to having a way to get back to them, I really did need the downtime after what we had just gone through. Plus, it would give me a chance to talk to Larissa before things got crazy again. And I really needed to talk to her.

Jokai excused himself once more then, heading for the doorway with a brief promise that he would come right back and get the ship going as soon as he had a chance to talk to the others. Larissa assured him that we were far enough away from any Seosten ships that he could take his time, and that she would work on making sure the ship stayed undetected before we set off.

“I’ll, um,” Jazz started before hesitating. “I’ll go with him.” She gave Jokai a brief glance before straightening. “Not because I don’t trust him or anything,” the girl put in quickly. “Just because, you know, I can’t, um, do much up here anyway.” Looking self-conscious, her mouth opened and shut for another moment before she coughed and looked away, clearly uncomfortable.

“I’ll go with too,” Gordon put in. He nodded to his teammate, adding simply, “I can translate.”

Jokai babbled another long thank you, and the three of them started out. After a moment, Isaac shrugged and followed suit while muttering something about knowing how to read a room.

Which left Larissa, Sands, Roxa, and me. Sands was busy clinging to her mother, apparently trying to fit the million conversations that they had missed out on over the past seven years into a single five-minute time frame. I couldn’t blame her. If it had been my mother standing there in person after all this time, I probably would have been an even bigger wreck than Sands was. Hell, I would’ve been surprised if I managed to get coherent words out for the first couple hours.

Roxa stepped over close to me, dropping her voice to a whisper. “She was the one, wasn’t she?” the girl asked quietly, giving me a significant look while Gidget nosed up against my leg.

I nodded, reaching down to rub the cyberform cougar’s head absently. In turn, Gidget butted my hand before squinting at me pointedly. Realizing what she wanted, I quickly told Jaq and Gus to shift out of their weapon forms, before putting both of the mice on Gidget’s back. Before they could take off, however, I held up a hand. “Hey, don’t forget your brother, you guys. He gets to play too.” With that, I passed Herbie to them, letting the mice take the rock before they all went off to a corner of the bridge to do… whatever robot animals and pet rocks did in their downtime.  

“You are one really, really fucking weird girl,” Roxa pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

I shrugged, smiling despite myself. “I know, it’s goofy. But if we just forget how to be silly, if we’re all grr serious all the time, then… I mean, it kind of seems like what’s the point? I can be completely serious when I need to be. I’m not crazy or anything. I know what’s real and what’s not… usually. But in a situation like this, what does it hurt to goof around a little bit? It helps me remember that we’re different than they are. It helps me feel… well, sane. Maybe that’s dumb.”

“No.” Roxa shook her head. “No, I get it. You’re weird, but sometimes it’s good to be weird.”

Nodding, I glanced the other way before murmuring, “We should let Sands and her mom have some time alone. They deserve it.” God, did they ever deserve it. If I had my way, we would have walked off and left those two alone for a solid month before doing anything else, just so they could have the time they needed. Hell, while I was at it, I would’ve had Scout here too.

“Wait.” Larissa spoke up. She straightened, still holding onto her daughter tightly as she looked me up and down a little searchingly. “You’re… you’re Felicity, right? Felicity Chambers.”

“Wait, you know her, Mom?” Sands blurted before realizing. “Oh, from Professor Katarin.”

“And from something else,” her mother replied quietly. “Something that we need to talk about before this goes any further. Actually, there’s a lot that we need to talk about. But this is more important. I need to know if she…” She winced, looking to Roxa. “I’m sorry, this is going to sound unbelievably rude and wrong. But could you excuse us for just a few minutes, Miss…”

“Roxa,” the girl replied easily. “Roxa Pittman. And uh, it’s okay. I kind of know already. But I’ll step out in the corridor anyway, make sure nobody comes back in here while you’re… busy.”

“You know what–” Cutting herself off, Larissa glanced from the other girl to me and back again, her expression searching before her eyes widened with sudden realization. “Oh, my God. You really do know. And you–” She snapped her gaze back to me, taking a step closer. “You know, and you’re okay. She’s okay? She talked to you, and you’re… and you’re both alright?”

I nodded quickly at that. “I know about her. We’ve been talking for a couple weeks now. It’s kind of a long story, but yeah. She’s okay. She’s really… she’s really helped a lot. She’s amazing.”

“Um.” Sands was squinting back and forth at us, her expression completely (understandably) lost. “Could someone throw me a freaking bone here? What the hell are you guys talking about? Who’s amazing? What–how do you know Flick, Mom? How did you–what’s going on?”

Roxa gave me a nod before stepping outside to watch the corridor out there, while Larissa turned her daughter around to face her. “Okay, sweetie, we need to show you something very important. It’s probably going to make you… it’s probably going to scare you. But I promise, it’s alright, okay? Felicity–Flick is just fine. Everything is fine, alright? I promise, it’s okay.”

“But what’s okay?” Sands demanded, sounding just as confused. “I don’t understand.”

“Sands,” I spoke up then, meeting the girl’s gaze. “Your mom’s right. This is probably going to freak you out. But I swear, there’s nothing wrong. It’s me. It’s always been me, and it’ll still be me afterward, okay? Just hear us out, and… okay,” I shook my head. “Literally everything we’re saying right now is probably just making her feel even more freaked out. So let’s just show her.”

Carefully taking her daughter’s arm so that she wouldn’t do anything crazy, Larissa nodded to me. “Go ahead,” she announced, “it’s long past time that we all met face to face anyway.”

Sands opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean. Meanwhile, I focused inwardly. It’s okay, Tabbris. You can come out now. You wanna see Larissa, right?

Y-yes. There was an intense, incredible longing in the Seosten girl’s response. I do. I-I…Trailing off, I felt her nervousness and longing build for the next few seconds until she finally went for it.

Sands was talking. “Would someone please just stop beating around the bush and tell me what–” She stopped in mid-sentence then, as the glowing figure stepped out of me. Her mouth fell open in total and complete shock while she watched the glowing shape resolve itself into the little blonde girl, who stood there nervously shifting from foot to foot.

“Wh-wha–what–” Stammering incoherently for a few seconds, Sands finally blurted, “Your inner child is fucking tangible?!” Her hands flailed briefly. “I mean–wait, no. You’re a… you’re a Seosten. But–but–”

“Sands,” I cut in. “It’s still me. I’m still me. See? All me. This… this is Tabbris.”

“But you–you were possessed?!” I was pretty sure there was almost nothing that could have shocked Sands more in that moment. Nothing, that was, except for when her mother took a knee and held her arms out.

“Come here, sweetie,” she called to Tabbris. “It’s okay.”

That was all it took. The little girl, who had been shifting nervously and cringing with every word that Sands spoke, quickly darted that way. She leapt the last few feet, throwing herself at Larissa, who caught the girl and brought her close into a hug that was almost as tight as the one that she had given her daughter.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered to the girl as Tabbris clung to her and whimpered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. You’re such a brave girl. Such a brilliant, brilliant brave girl.” To her actual daughter, she explained, “Sandy, this is Tabbris. She’s… Sariel’s daughter. I don’t know how much you–”

“Sariel’s daughter, like Vanessa? I–” Sands stopped. “Never mind. I am so beyond confused and lost right now, but I don’t care. You’re sure she’s okay?” She looked over to me.

I nodded. “She’s definitely okay. She protected us. She helped us. We’d be dead or enslaved if it wasn’t for her. She’s protected us a thousand times over.”

“Then you know what?” Shrugging pointedly, Sands announced, “For now, that’s good enough for me.”

And with that, she stepped over and embraced her mother and Tabbris, hugging onto them both.

There were still a lot of questions that we had to get through, a lot of problems to deal with. I had no doubt that all of this was going to get much worse. We were nowhere near getting home, still lost on the far side of the universe, surrounded by one of the most powerful evil empires that had ever existed. But for this one moment, as I watched Larissa’s reunion with both her daughter and Tabbris, all I could think was one thing.

Everything we have to do, everything we go through. All the pain, effort, and work. Everything, for moments like this.

It’s all worth it.

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Mini-Interlude 49 – Deveron and Flick

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The following is a brief mini-interlude focusing on a conversation between Flick and Deveron. 

Two weeks ago, and two days before the trip to New York

“No, no wait, you gave the article what title?” Deveron demanded incredulously. It was the middle of the night, and he was sitting on one of the tables in the cafeteria, feet resting on the chair below him while he stared at the girl who was essentially his stepdaughter. A half-eaten bowl of yogurt with fruit sliced into it sat in his left hand.

Flick, for her part, sat on the table across from him with her own yogurt bowl. She coughed, taking a spoonful and enjoying it before repeating, “Festival Of Fraud.”

“Festival of–” Deveron gave a sharp laugh, shaking his head. “You were a dramatic little twelve-year-old, weren’t you?”

Her response was a shrug. “Has anything really changed? I’d say the drama in my life has just risen to meet younger me’s expectations. Besides,” she added, “Kendall was stealing from the school. We all worked to put that carnival on so that we could have that field trip, and she was stealing from it. I had to get everyone’s attention with a snappy title. Snappy, to the point, attention-getting. Sure, it was silly. But it worked. It got their attention.”

Chuckling, Deveron shook his head. “You definitely got your mother’s sense of justice.” Even as he spoke, the man thought about how Joselyn herself would have reacted. Maybe some parents would have been exasperated, but Jos… Jos would have loved it. Even the dramatic, silly title.

He could see her in Felicity sometimes. It was painful, but also beautiful. The agony of being separated from his wife for so many years, of knowing how much pain she was in and being able to do nothing about it… but the beauty of meeting her child, of seeing the ways that Felicity was similar to her mother as well as the ways that she was different.

He was jealous of Lincoln Chambers in some ways. Being with Joselyn more recently, having the chance to raise their daughter, see her grow up.

But in other ways… no. Lincoln had had Joselyn torn away from him as well. They had that in common. And he refused to allow his heart to fill with jealousy or any other negative feeling about someone his wife loved. Lincoln was important to Jos. She loved him.

“Trust me,” Felicity was saying, “I got my sense of justice from both of my parents. I think Dad gave me my sense of drama though. I mean, look at how he forced Asenath to reveal herself to him. He acted like he was gonna shoot himself in the head!”

Choking a little on his next spoonful of yogurt, Deveron nodded. “Yeah, that might’ve been a little over the top. But it worked. Still can’t believe your dad beat the Bystander Effect, even with help. I can see why Joselyn… why she would marry him. And how they could have a kid as great as you are.”

Felicity’s smile brightened for a moment then, before fading slowly into a slight frown. Her tone was guilty. “Don’t say that. I’m not a great person.”

Reaching out, Deveron poked her forehead with the cold spoon. “If you’re not a great person, the rest of us are in some deep shit.”

Instead of giggling, the girl cringed, head shaking. “I don’t–” She swallowed hard. “Sometimes… sometimes I almost think it was better when I didn’t know what was going on with my mom. It was easier to hate her. It was–” The bowl dropped from her hands, forgotten as she moved to cover her face. Before it could crash, Deveron gave a flick of his finger, slowing its descent and adjusting it to land on one of the nearby chairs.

He was there then, moving to sit on the table beside the girl as she buried her face in her hands. “Hey, hey.” Putting an arm around her back, he laid his other hand against her arm.

“I’m scared,” Felicity whispered against her hands, her voice barely audible. “I’m scared of what’s happening to Mom, about what’s been happening to her. I’m scared of what’s going to happen in the future, about what’s gonna happen when Fossor… I’m scared. I’m scared, and sometimes… sometimes I think it was easier when I could hate her, when I thought she just abandoned me, before I had to think about how she…”

Her voice turned plaintive then, shoulders shaking from emotion that had been dragged up. “I don’t want to hate her! I don’t, I swear I don’t. I… I’m a bad person. I’m a bad daughter.”

Swallowing the hard, thick lump in his throat, Deveron turned the girl toward him. “Hey,” he started, reaching up to gently, but firmly take her hands down from her face. “Look at me. Look at me, okay?”

As her eyes met his, he spoke carefully, pointedly. “You are not a bad person. And you are definitely not a bad daughter. It’s not evil to want things to be easier. It’s not evil to wish that there was a simple solution to things. Having a thought, having a feeling, having a dream doesn’t make you evil any more than thinking about donating to charity while you murder innocent people would make you a hero.”

The tears filled Felicity’s eyes as her head shook. “But,” she sniffled a little. “But I keep… those thoughts keep… Mom… Mommy. I miss my Mommy.” Her words were not those of the beautiful, strong young woman that she had become, but rather, of the little girl whose mother had disappeared so long ago, the little girl who had shoved herself away for so long.

“I know.” Without hesitation or thought, Deveron pulled the girl up to himself, embracing her tightly. “I miss her too, kid.”

As Felicity’s arms hesitantly snaked around to cling to him, he continued. “But you listen to me. We are going to get your mom back. We are going to get her back, I promise. And you are not a bad person. You think your mom never had doubts about what she was doing, what we were doing? Believe me, she had times when she thought it would be easier to just be the kind of Heretic that everyone expected her to be. Running the rebellion, it was… stressful.”

He could feel the girl’s tears soaking through the shoulder of his shirt as she held tightly to him, shuddering heavily. Her voice was weak. “I guess she and I are both awful Heretics, as f-far as that goes.”

“Now, that’s the truth,” he informed her, reaching up to gently brush the girl’s hair. “As far as Crossroads is concerned, hell, as far as Eden’s Garden is concerned too, you and Jos are pretty terrible. Making friends with Alters, turning fellow students into sympathizers, sparing innocent beings. You’re Joselyn’s daughter alright, and you both might be a couple of the worst Heretics who have ever lived.

“But tell me something, kid,” he added while gently rocking the crying girl back and forth as they sat there on the table. “Would you rather be a good Heretic… or a good person?”

“Person,” Felicity answered quietly, without hesitation.

Deveron nodded at that, still holding the girl. “Yeah,” he murmured. “That’s basically what Joselyn said.”

For a few minutes, the two of them just sat like that in relative silence. He let Felicity cry herself out, holding the girl close to him. Finally, her shaky, soft voice came once more as she admitted, “I’m still scared about what’s gonna happen.”

“Me too, kid,” Deveron replied quietly.

“Me too.”

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Interlude 29B – Haiden and Vanessa

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The so-called ‘Black Friday’ was considered, by most American humans, to be the single busiest shopping day of the year. The crowds shoving each other aside and even trampling those who fell behind, the noise, the casual violence and insults all in search of saving a few dollars off a trinket here or there, it was pretty much their idea of the ultimate capitalistic chaos.

On the world of Kesth, it would have been considered a slightly below-average day.

Kesth was a market world. The market world, to be precise. At one point in a long-distant past, the planet (fourth from its local star, and still close enough to be considered tropical across most of its surface) had been the seat of power for the ‘Unified Worlds Organization’, a rising interplanetary government which spanned several solar systems and comprised of close to a hundred billion beings spread over close to twenty livable planets. A hundred billion and twenty planets, however, was peanuts compared to the Seosten Empire, who showed up and casually absorbed the fledgling planetary alliance with about as much effort as a great white shark expended while swallowing a passing guppy. Their billions were next to nothing compared to the hundreds of trillions who were controlled (in many cases literally) by the Seosten.

Not that they even had need to bring much of that into play. They had simply infiltrated their government, their military, and even their schools and press. One Seosten-controlled school teacher could, over the course of one short decade, do as much to ensure their victory as several thousand soldiers in open combat. Let alone those who changed their laws, turned their various religions against their own best interests, or made their media turn their own people against one another at a time when they should have been united for their own survival.

So, the UWO had fallen, absorbed into the Seosten Empire. However, the forward-thinking Seosten leader who had been assigned to the planet had used her power and influence to create one of the largest, most intricate teleportation networks in the entire Empire. It was a system which allowed people to get from almost anywhere, to almost anywhere within allowed space, while using only Kesth as a single world stepping stone. This, combined with the world’s temperate climate and lack of any connection to previously established Seosten worlds, had helped to create what became the largest, busiest market world in the entire Empire. Trillions of beings from all different planets moved through the crowded shopping districts every year.

It was through one of the thousands of densely packed market squares that three figures walked. Clad in dark robes and hoods that marked them as part of a prolific religious caste that was not shy about sharing their beliefs (a fact that actually encouraged even the casually violent shoppers around them to keep as much distance as possible to avoid encouraging such behavior), Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and Ulysses Katarin walked. Not that they looked anything like themselves even under the robes and hoods. All three possessed enough shapeshifting or disguise powers by that point to keep themselves from being immediately recognized. And as far as their status as Heretics went, that had been hidden as well.

“No wonder they don’t let anyone know about this particular spell back on Earth,” Larissa murmured, glancing at the intricate tattoo-like design adorning her wrist as the trio worked their way through a crowd of shoppers of every shape and size. “If they all knew there was something that could make it so that Alters don’t immediately recognize us as Heretics, it would actually give us a chance to observe them instead of fighting immediately. And if that happened–”

“Everyone might figure out that they’re not all evil,” Haiden finished for her with a wry headshake. “Yeah. Kinda figures that would be something they’d suppress the hell out of. They probably think it’s bad enough when some of us get powers that hide that. If people knew there was a spell that anyone could use that would do the same thing, it’d be pretty bad for them.”

Walking slightly behind the other two, the larger figure of Ulysses spoke up, his voice a deep rumble. “Just another reason for them to keep Dries locked up, I suppose.”

Dries Aken, the newest member of their little band, was back on their stolen ship. As much as the man had improved over the past short while, a bare couple of months was not even close to enough time for the man to have fully recovered from literal centuries of Seosten imprisonment. He wasn’t ready to be out in a crowd. So he had stayed behind while they came for supplies, and to look for rumors about any more of either the broken banishment shards or the prison where Sariel was being held. The latter was a longshot, but stranger things had happened.

But even if Dries couldn’t bring himself to be there in person, he had, at least, provided the spell which allowed the trio to easily walk among the population without being seen as Heretics.

“Okay, remember, we’re here to pick up actual food supplies,” Larissa pointed out. “with flavor and spice and everything. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting pretty sick of simple rations.”

“Agreed,” Ulysses rumbled in his deep voice. “Say what you will about all the problems we have on earth, but I really miss tacos.”

“We find the right supplies around here,” Haiden put in then, “and I’ll make you all the tacos you could ever Daddy.”

Pausing (an act that made the crowd behind them almost crash into the trio to shove them aside before they noticed the robes and decided to go around), the other two looked at the man in bewilderment. Larissa started, “All the tacos you could ever Daddy? I really am behind on Earth slang.”

Haiden was frowning as well. “No,” he murmured, “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m not sure what… Daddy, my dad. Dad. Please.”

Snapping his gaze over to meet Larissa’s, Ulysses quickly pointed off the side, where a restroom stood. “Come on, let’s get out of the way.”

The restroom was enormous, and varied. It was meant to accommodate the needs of dozens of very different species, with very different waste disposal methods. It was also busy, like everything else on the planet. But it didn’t take long for them to convince the occupants to make themselves scarce. Which left the three of them in the empty restroom, while Haiden shook his head. “Sorry, guys, I don’t know what…” The man trailed off, turning to grab the nearby sink. He gazed into the hologram of himself that served the same function a mirror on Earth would have, muttering something inaudible and incomprehensible as he stared into his own eyes.

Somewhere in the background, he heard the other two talking. But Haiden’s attention was focused inward. As he stared at himself in the mirror, he felt emotions that weren’t his own, thoughts that were foreign to his mind. He felt like crying, but couldn’t tell if it was from joy or sadness, or even both. The face he saw, while clearly his own, inspired a feeling of awe that he couldn’t explain. His hand seemed to rise of its own volition to touch the hologram, tenderly brushing his own image while unexplainable tears leaked from his eyes. “Dad…” he murmured.

“Wait a minute.” Ulysses’ eyes widened. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he was actually–”

Whatever the other man had been about to say, Haiden didn’t hear. His attention had been drawn to the side of the sink, where a figure had abruptly appeared seemingly from nowhere.

For a moment, he stared uncomprehendingly at the blonde teenage girl, mouth working as he fought through some vague, clouded memories. There was something about her, something that immediately struck him harder than almost anything ever had. Something that made the tears that had been leaking from his eyes truly his own. Slowly, he raised a hand, pointing. “You…”

The girl gave what was, to Haiden, the most beautiful smile he could ever remember. She looked like an angel. A real angel, not what the Seosten liked to portray themselves as.  Her eyes shone with just as much emotion as he was feeling himself, and she slowly reached her hand out toward him. When she spoke, her voice cracked a little, a single word reaching his ears, a word that changed absolutely everything the moment he heard her say, “Daddy.”  

“You…” Haiden started, memories filling his mind, memories that he had thought long-since erased. “You’re my… you’re… oh my God.” Heedless of the other two Heretics in the room with him, the man reached a hand out to meet the one that the teen girl was extending to him. Their fingers connected… and went right through one another, as if the figure was a ghost.

“Haiden?” Larissa stepped that way, her own eyes widening as she began to get some idea of what was going on. “Haiden, is someone projecting to you? Wait, is it Sariel? Is–no. No, she wouldn’t say Daddy, you–” She gave a choked noise of realization then, trailing off into silence.

Ulysses had been trying for as long as they had been traveling together to tell Haiden the names of his children. Yet the effect of the broken banishment orb meant that their identities immediately vanished from his mind, and nothing they had been able to do could get that much through. All that Ulysses had been able to get across was that both of Haiden and Sariel’s children were alive and living together at Crossroads. The man could retain basic, general information about their activities, but nothing specific about their names or identities.  

In this case, however, the name came to Haiden’s lips as clear and sudden as the ringing of a church bell, and just as beautiful. His mouth opened, and he breathed it out as surely as he breathed the oxygen that gave his body life. “Vanessa.”

The truth was likely that the girl’s literal presence in his mind had overridden the spell that had removed her identity from his memory. But some part of Haiden wanted to believe that it was simply the act of seeing his little girl, his angel. Tears sprang to the man’s eyes, as he stared at her, afraid to blink and risk losing sight of his daughter for even that long. His hand rose once more, moving as close to the girl’s as he could manage without actually going through it.

He remembered her. He remembered his daughter. He could crawl through a thousand miles of desert, he could suffer any pain, weather any punishment that the Gods or Fate sought to inflict upon him. But please. Please let him have this. Let him keep his memory. His child. He would tear the eyes from his own head and spend an eternity blind to the world if he could just retain the image of his daughter. Please. Please.

“Daddy.” Vanessa was crying too, blinking big, wet tears as she stared at him adoringly. “Daddy, I found you. I found you, Daddy.” She choked audibly, closing her eyes for a moment as she visibly shuddered. “My Daddy. Oh God.” Opening her eyes once more, the girl babbled, “I’m sorry, Daddy. I wanna hug you, but I’m not good enough to fake physical sensation yet.”

“It’s okay, baby,” The name suddenly came to him, his memories opening up in ways that he had been trying to make happen for a decade by that point. “Nessabird. My brilliant Nessabird.”

The girl’s tears came anew. “You remember,” she blurted, the joy in her voice warming his heart. “You remember me.” It was clearly all Vanessa could do not to try bodily throwing herself at him.

“Of course, I remember my little baby bird.” Haiden looked her up and down, swallowing hard as the pain of all the time they had lost threatened to intrude on his indescribable delight. “Not so little anymore. But still my bird. My genius girl. You’ve… you’ve grown up.” The Vanessa of his memories was a tiny girl. This, the girl–no, young woman in front of him was… “Beautiful,” he announced aloud, staring at his daughter. He could have stared at her for hours, the same way he had when she was a baby. He remembered now. He remembered standing in the twins’ bedroom, watching them sleep while he simply absorbed the incredible thought that they were his children. “You’re beautiful.”

Vanessa was blushing, ducking her head as she squirmed. “Daddy, I… I tried to find you. I tried to find you for so long. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it took so long, and now you’re just–it’s just like this.”

“Oh, baby bird…” Haiden reached out, almost cupping the girl’s face. So close, and yet they still couldn’t actually touch one another. But she was here. He knew her name, he knew her face. He remembered her. “Ulysses says that you’re a brilliant student, that you’re learning everything faster than they can teach you over there at Crossroads.” As he spoke, the man glanced sidelong toward his two companions. Ulysses and Larissa were standing quietly nearby. It was obvious that they couldn’t see Vanessa, but they also weren’t going to interrupt.

Now the girl’s face was even redder, and she shook her head quickly. “I just had to learn, Daddy. I just… had to learn everything I could to find you. That’s… that’s all that mattered. Finding you and Mom.”

Biting his lip, Haiden slowly started, “How are you… what did you…” He hesitated, ridiculously afraid that questioning his daughter’s presence would drive her out of his head.

“It’s a long story,” she informed him, voice a little shaky. “Tristan, he’s here too.”

Tristan. He remembered. He remembered his son’s name. He remembered his son’s name! That simple fact, what would have been inconsequential to most, made the man’s knees weak. He spoke their names aloud, relishing them, cherishing them. “Tristan. Vanessa. Tristan and Vanessa. Vanessa was the name of my sister. She died a… a long time ago, during training. Tristan… We named him Tristan because he was so loud when he was born. You, you were quiet, but Tristan was just… ” His smile was so wide it almost hurt. Almost. “He was the noisy one. Always needed attention. That’s why we called him that. Tristan, Celtic for outcry. Tristan and Vanessa.”

The simple fact that he could finally remember those names would almost have been enough. After all the time he had spent trying and failing for the past decade, this by itself was a miracle.  But there was more. So many memories of his children filling his mind now that the key had been turned. He knew them. He knew his children. And one of them was in front of him.

Vanessa, who seemed to have been waiting for him to get through that, spoke up then once his attention returned to her. “Uncle Apollo says that me being in your head probably broke through some of the memory locks, especially since it’s been a few years since the orb went off.”

“Uncle Apol–” More of his memory unlocked, sliding easily into place as if they had always been there, and the man physically staggered. “Sar… Sariel. Sariel.” His eyes were wet once more. “Your mother… my wife… my wife is Sariel. She was–” More memories came, flooding into his mind like a tidal wave. One after another, his mind opened doors that had been jammed shut for the past ten years. He knew. He knew his wife. He remembered all of it. He could see her face. He could hear her voice. He could feel her breath. He could…

That time, Haiden really did slump to his knees. “Sariel,” he whispered tenderly, emotion cracking his voice. “Sariel. My wife. My wife’s name is Sariel.” Even saying it aloud, seeing her face in his mind as he reverently spoke the name that had been denied him for so long, was overwhelming.

Vanessa had moved to grab Haiden as he slumped, clearly remembering too late as her hands went right through him. But Larissa was there, her hands catching his arm as she quickly asked, “Are you alright? Is she still–”

“She’s here,” he confirmed, staring at the girl in question. He raised a hand to point to what was clearly empty air for Larissa. “She’s right there. I see her. I remember her. I remember my daughter. I remember my son.”

“She found a way to get into your head, huh?” Ulysses had stepped closer, moving beside Larissa as the woman helped Haiden stand once more.

“She did,” Haiden confirmed, nodding. “She said they had… wait, help from… Apollo. Sariel. Sariel was Artemis. Apollo, you met Apollo?” His eyes snapped that way. He had never met the his wife’s former partner himself, but she had spoken of him fondly fairly often. Fondly and, at times, with deep regrets.

Vanessa gave a quick nod. “Yes, Daddy. Like I said, it’s a long story. But–” She closed her eyes, swaying a little bit as her image flickered slightly, going in and out rapidly a few times before coming back.

“Nessa?!” The sight of his daughter’s image flickering like that made Haiden all-but panic. “Are you alright?”

She gave a quick nod. “I’m okay, I’m f-fine, Daddy.” She had to take a moment to collect herself. “I swear, I’m okay. But this is hard. It’s really hard, and I don’t know how much time we’ve got. So I have to give you the message.”

“The message?” Haiden echoed. “What message?”

Vanessa started with,. “It’s–Is that Mrs. Mason with you?”

Blinking, Haiden glanced that way. “Larissa Mason, yes,” he confirmed. “Yes, it’s her. Why?”

Swallowing, the girl explained, “It’s about her daughter, Sandoval, and some others.”

The man shook his head slowly. “What about Sandoval?” He held up a hand to forestall Larissa’s hurried, blurted questions. “What happened to her? Is she okay?”

“We–” Vanessa clearly stopped herself, shaking her head. “We don’t know. They’re out there with you. I mean, not with you, but in Seosten space.”

“They’re in Seosten space?” Haiden echoed. As his mouth opened to say something else, Larissa was already grabbing him.

“They’re what?!” the woman demanded with wide eyes. “Sandoval, she’s here?! How–why–what? Who are they? She’s here, she’s– Haiden, we have to get to her! We have to get to her right now! Now!” She was panicked at the suggestion that one of her daughters had been taken by the Seosten.

Ulysses pulled the woman back, quieting her before nodding for Haiden to go on. Swallowing, he turned to do just that. “Nessabird, what’s going on? What do you mean, they’re out here in Seosten space? Who is they, and what happened?” From the corner of his eye, he saw Ulysses about to say something before the man stopped himself from interrupting.

“Like I said, it’s a really long story,” his daughter started with a little wince. “We don’t have time to get through all of it. I think–I think I’m starting to lose the connection already, so I’ve gotta tell you the important parts. They were sent out there by a banishment orb. Like the one that took you, only it wasn’t broken. They–” She cringed. “God! There’s so much I want to tell you, I can’t just–” Visibly catching herself, Vanessa took a breath.

“Apollo says to tell you that they’re on the planet called Eulcine Seven. They’re not hurt, but they need your help like… immediately. If you take too long to get there, it’ll… it’ll be too late.”

“Eulcine Seven,” Haiden murmured. He’d been out here long enough to know the name. “It’s too far away,” he muttered. “That’s beyond the space that the Seosten allow trading ships or portals to connect to. Even from this place, we couldn’t get there for… weeks.”

“You don’t have that kind of time,” Vanessa insisted. “Apollo, he said there’s a couple spells he can give you. The first one will let one of you teleport all the way there, past their shields. The other one will let them teleport a mining freighter through a few solar systems.”

“A mining freighter?” Haiden was even more confused. “Why do we need to–”

“He says it’ll make sense when you get there,” his daughter put in. “He’s got all these coordinates and spell details that I need to give you, Daddy. We can’t get cut off, if we get cut off and I can’t get the connection back before it’s too late, I… I…”

“It’s okay, little bird,” he quickly reassured her, barely resisting the urge to reach out to his daughter once again. “Tell me what you need to tell me. I won’t interrupt, I promise.”

So she did. While Haiden produced a small pocket computer and recorded the details, Vanessa relayed the exact specifics of the spells that Apollo was giving them, one bit at a time. The spells were complicated, and would take an unbelievable amount of energy. If it had been just himself, the man was afraid that he wouldn’t have enough. As it was, this was going to take a lot out of all of them even working together.

It was more than just the spells, as well. Vanessa had to relay precise coordinates and timing. She told them exactly when to use the spell and exactly where to point it. There was absolutely no margin for error. None. Apollo had the whole thing planned out, down to the second and inch.

“Don’t worry, Nessa,” Haiden promised his daughter as soon as she had finished relaying the details. “We’ll get Sandoval and the others out of there. Who else… I mean, is Sarah there?”

“No.” Vanessa’s head shook. “It’s Sandoval and a few others. Gordon Kuhn, Roxanne Pittman, Felicity Chambers, Isa-”

“Felicity Chambers?” Haiden interrupted, blinking over at Larissa. “Isn’t that the girl that–”

The woman was already right there. “Felicity? Felicity’s there with Sandoval? They’re both there? That means–” Her eyes widened. “We have to get there now! We have to get there!”

“We will,” he promised her, turning back the other way. “Vanessa, are you–” His daughter’s image was flickering severely, going out for longer stretches before popping back in briefly. “Vanessa!”

“Daddy!” The blonde girl was clearly struggling. “I can’t hold it, Daddy! I’m sorry! I’ll come back, but Uncle Apollo says it’ll take awhile before I recover! Tristan says hi! He says he loves you, we love you! I love you, Daddy!”

“I love you too!” Haiden blurted, forgetting himself as he lunged that way, intent on grabbing his daughter. “I love you both so much, I–” His arms went through empty air. The image was gone. His daughter was gone. But alive. Alive and well. And in his mind. He remembered her. He remembered his children, his wife, his family.

Part of him thought that he should be sad that he had been torn away from his child so soon. But his joy at simply seeing her at all was too complete for that. The very thought of ever being sad again, now that his memories of his family had been returned was… inconceivable. Logically, he knew that there was still a long ways to go, and that their suffering wasn’t nearly over. Yet, it was impossible for him to be sad in that moment. Because for a man who had been starved of his memories for so long, having them returned was the most generous, glorious gift he could ever have imagined. Seeing his daughter, speaking with her, even if it was only for a brief time, it energized him in a way that he couldn’t possibly explain.

“Sandoval… Sandy…” Larissa’s eyes were wide, reminding him that she had her own problems. “She’s out there with those monsters. And if Felicity Chambers is there too, then… then…”

“Chambers makes sense,” Ulysses put in then. “They were trying to figure out why she was immune to them for awhile. Guess they… they finally got lucky and sent her over for their tests. But you…” He frowned at them. “You know why she’s immune already. You freaked out when you found out she was out here, that they had her.”

“Trust me,” Larissa insisted, pulling Haiden and Ulysses by the arms. “We have to go. We have to go now. We need to get those spells done, before it’s too late.”

The baby, Haiden knew. The Seosten baby that his wife had sent to Larissa to be put in the Chambers girl. She had told him about it, told him everything she could. That was why the girl was immune, what the Seosten were trying to figure out. If they discovered that the reason Chambers was immune was simply that she was already possessed by a kid…

He was already heading through the restroom door before making the conscious decision to move. Seeing his daughter, remembering her and the rest of his family, it had revitalized him. He knew what he was working for now. He knew who he was fighting for. “Come on,” he called back. “Let’s get those spells ready.

“We’ve got some kids to rescue.”

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Interlude 29A – Deveron

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Whumph. Whumph. WHUMPH.  

Each successive sound of Deveron Adams’ fists impacting the magically reinforced punching bag grew louder. The bag, meant to withstand the increased (and sometimes outright extreme) strength of the students who used it, still strained under the abuse that the deceptively young-looking boy was inflicting upon it. The material kept taking longer to reset after each punishing blow left it slightly deformed. Yet the man-in-a-boy’s body hardly noticed. Mostly because it wasn’t the bag that he saw in his mind as his fists kept hitting it over and over again.

Gabriel Ruthers. Gabriel fucking Ruthers. He saw the man’s face, his ugly, bulldog looking son of a bitch face with every swing of his fist. Every time he hit the bag, he saw the piece of shit.

Thud. Thud. THUD.

The sound changed. Somehow, without conscious thought, Deveron’s fists had moved from the bag to the nearby wall. It was even more reinforced than the bag was, meant to allow the students to train without bringing the room down on top of themselves. Even then, however, his fists left marks, cracks in the wall that spread a bit every time he hit it. THUD. The crack widened. THUD. The wall was literally starting to break apart under the force of his blows.

“Mr. Adams!” A voice called over the sound of Deveron’s fist hitting the wall that time. Leaving it there, he turned slightly to look over his shoulder while panting a little bit from the exertion.

“I’d ask if you’re alright,” Professor Liam Mason started with a raised eyebrow as he took a step further into the room, “but maybe I should be asking the wall that question instead.”  

Deveron’s eyes narrowed despite himself, and he tightened his fist as it rested against the cracked wall. Of all the people he most didn’t want to see in that moment, this one ranked only a couple below the top. When he spoke, his voice was tight. “I’m a little busy, Professor.

“Hey.” The man kept walking to him, stopping just short of where Deveron was standing. “I’m just gonna let the tone go, cuz… believe me, I know exactly what you’re feeling right now.”

“You know what?” Turning to look at him more fully, Deveron lowered his hand from the wall, keeping his voice as measured and even as he could manage. “I seriously doubt that.”  

Liam squinted at him. “No?” Gesturing toward a nearby weight bench, the man made it slide across the room before taking a seat. “My daughter’s out there, Mr. Adams. I know how bad you feel about her, and about Chambers. And the others. You probably feel responsible. But you shouldn’t. Yes, you are their mentor. But you couldn’t have stopped this. You and Miss Dupont were ambushed. You’re lucky to still be alive right now. Believe me, no one blames you.”

“Look,” Deveron managed after taking a second to collect himself and resist the urge to do something incredibly rash in that moment. “I respect what you’re trying to do. But you are seriously barking up the wrong tree. I don’t need your guidance, or your suggestions, or your empathy. I don’t need anything from you. And you don’t know what I’m feeling right now.”

“Mr. Adams,” Liam retorted, “my daughter is one of the people you’re worried about. My daughter. I respect how much you clearly care for your charges. But don’t try to say that you are more worried about them than I am. You can’t possibly understand what it’s like to have your own child torn away from you, to not know where they are or how to protect them.”

He couldn’t understand? The words reverberated around inside of Deveron’s head. He couldn’t understand what that was like, what it was like to have his child taken away like that? This man, this man had the nerve, the nerve to say that? The man who was responsible for everything that had happened, the man whose betrayal had brought the rebellion out of the shadows before they were ready, and had ultimately led to… to… everything that happened?

Yes, Deveron remembered. He hadn’t at first, not for quite awhile, in fact. But his memory of Liam the traitor had eventually begun to return. It was helped along by Jonathon. Or Klassin, whatever he was calling himself now. The Crossroads therapist had noticed the increasing looks that Deveron was giving Liam as his memory returned, and had interceded in time to confirm the memories that were returning. And, of course, to talk Deveron down from doing anything rash.

Honestly, very few of the people who knew them in their school days would ever have believed that Deveron would be talked out of doing something rash by Jonathon Ruthers. Or that the two of them would have spent many nights of the past month or so having long conversations about the past… and about Joselyn. Mostly because so few knew about Jonathon’s change of heart, or the fact that he’d spent most of the war spying on his father for the rebellion. For Joselyn.

But it had happened. And it was only Jonathon’s presence that had stopped Deveron from doing something rash as the memories of just how much Liam was responsible for had returned.

But Jonathon wasn’t here right now. Liam was. And he was seriously pushing his luck.

“You really think so, Professor?” Deveron started in a quiet voice, barely able to restrain his urge to finish putting a hole in the nearby wall by grabbing the back of the other man’s neck and shoving his head through it. “Because you know what I think? I think you–”

“There you are!” The bright, chipper voice from the doorway interrupted Deveron just in time. Nevada bounced in, grinning brightly, as if she had no idea what she had just walked in on. “Deveron, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Come on, we need to talk about that project.”

“He’s a second year student,” Liam pointed out. “You only teach a first year subject.”

Taking Deveron by the arm, the blonde woman dragged him out of the room, calling back over her shoulder, “Never said it was a project for class! Thanks for keeping him company though!”

The two walked in silence for a couple of minutes then, Deveron almost growling with each step as he fought to get himself under control. Despite the fact that both took the time to use abilities that would ensure they weren’t overheard, Nevada still stayed quiet. She was clearly letting him get his thoughts in order, which he didn’t manage until they were partway across the grounds.

Finally, he spoke in a dark voice. “If he keeps pushing and trying to be my mentor, buddy, or whatever the hell he’s going for, I swear, I…” Stopping himself, he let out a long, low breath.

“It’s been worse since Flick and the others disappeared, hasn’t it?” Nevada asked quietly.

“I just–” Deveron stopped, sighing as he lowered his head and tightened his hands into fists once more. “One thing. She asked me to do one thing: protect Felicity. She trusted me to protect her, Nevada. She trusted me, and I couldn’t–I wasn’t even… I couldn’t…” Unable to continue, he raised his clenched hands to his face and shuddered, making a gutteral sound deep in his throat. “I can’t get to her now. I can’t find her, I don’t even know what’s happening to her. If they-”

Nevada’s head shook, her expression soft. “Deveron, stop. There are plenty of reasons for you to be angry with Liam, but he wasn’t wrong about what he was trying to say. This wasn’t your fault. And I know I didn’t know Joselyn, but… but I’m pretty sure she’d know that too. Flick and the others disappearing is awful, but they’re not dead. Remember, Wyatt would know if anything… too bad happened to Sands or Flick. But you doing anything to blow your cover or get yourself in trouble with the Committee by attacking a teacher, that would be your fault.”

“I know,” Deveron replied flatly, lowering his hands from his face as he fought to find the right words. “He’s just… he’s right there, and he had to bring up losing kids. His words, that I wouldn’t understand what it was like to have a missing kid. After what he did, he has the fucking nerve t-”

Stopping abruptly, in mid-word, he gave a violent shake of his head. “That piece of shit is lucky I didn’t put his teeth out right then and there. I just…” The anger drained out of him, as he slumped a little while lowering his head. His voice was softer. “She asked me to look after Felicity. And I couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t there. Just like I wasn’t there when that… that son of a bitch took our kids. They took our children, Nevada. And then they took my wife away too.”

Wincing, Nevada nodded, watching him sympathetically. “Your kids are alive though,” she offered softly, “Wyatt and Abigail, they’re both alive. They grew up into amazing people.”

“Yeah,” Deveron replied in a barely audible voice as he stared at the ground. “They are more than amazing. But you’ve seen Wyatt. You know how he grew up, what made him so paranoid. The things he went through while growing up, he… I should’ve been there. I should have found him. I just–I couldn’t. I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t find either of them. And now I can’t find Flick. I can’t go to her. I can’t do a goddamn thing!” His voice had risen by the end, as he trembled.

Turning to look at the former djinn then, he added, “All my life, I’ve wanted to be a father. I’ve wanted to… to hold my children, my babies. I know… I know that Abigail and Wyatt are amazing. So is Koren. I have a granddaughter, a granddaughter. But I didn’t… I didn’t get to raise them. I didn’t get to guide them. I didn’t get to help them walk, teach them to ride a bike, see them lose their first teeth, tell them stories, check for monsters under their beds…I…”

His eyes closed, tears leaking through. “I didn’t get to raise my kids. I didn’t get to hold them when they were scared. I didn’t get to… I didn’t get to watch them grow up, and learn. They took that away from me, away from us. Ruthers took that away. And Liam helped make it happen.”

“You’re right,” Nevada agreed. “He took a lot away from you. And even if he didn’t mean for it to happen the way he did, Liam was responsible for dragging the rebellion out of the… the shadows. He… he did a lot of bad things, whether he meant to or not. So yeah, I don’t blame you for wanting to… to hurt him. I don’t blame you for almost losing it, because yeah, Flick and the others are missing. They’re… they’re a long ways off. But you can’t just give up on them. They’re alive, and everyone’s working on ways to bring them back. They will come back.”

Deveron smiled faintly. “Yeah… you’re right, I know. I just feel so goddamn useless right now.”

Her head shook. “You’re not useless, Deveron. You–I might not have remembered your face exactly. But I always remembered what you did. You saved my life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. All these hybrids who can go to this school now, who have become Heretics, they couldn’t if it wasn’t for you. If the rebellion succeeds next time, it’ll be because of the hybrids that you helped turn into Heretics. That’s what you did. Because you didn’t give up. Even after they took your kids, even after Joselyn was taken, you never gave up. And you can’t give up now.”

“Believe me,” he replied, “I am nowhere near giving up. Frustrated, pissed off, really close to beating Liam senseless with one of those barbells in there? Sure, all of the above. But giving up? Not a chance in hell. I just wish I knew a way to contribute right now. Joselyn was always the planner. Even finding you, getting you to fix the Edge, that was her idea. I mean, not you specifically, but the goal itself. She was the one who knew that getting hybrids in as students was the way to win the war in the end. We just managed to find a way to put it into action.”

Glancing sidelong at the woman then, he added slowly, “Which was really thanks to you more than me. I just gave you a chance. And speaking of that whole thing, we should see about fixing your memory. Just in case there’s still some holes that might end up being relevant later.”

“Can you actually do that?” Nevada asked, raising an eyebrow as she looked at him curiously.

“Not by myself I can’t, no,” Deveron replied while shaking his head. “I’m not the one who cast it. We’ll have to visit Gabriel Prosser for that. Which… I really need to do anyway. I want to talk to Flick’s father myself. It’s about time that he and I had an actual conversation about everything that’s happened. And, well, if you come with, I’m sure he’d take the memory spell off you.”

“Sure,” Nevada agreed with a nod. “I’ll keep you company when you visit Flick’s dad. Hell, even if Prosser wasn’t there, I’d still go. After everything I’ve heard about Joselyn, and what I’ve seen from Flick, I want to meet Lincoln. And he deserves to have people telling him the truth about what’s happening, keeping him up to date. We owe him that much. Hell, we owe him more.”

“More than we can ever give him,” Deveron murmured before shaking that off. “But I suppose that’ll wait a little longer. For now, do you want to tell me why you led me out here?” As he spoke, the man gestured vaguely at the beach that the two of them had gradually walked to.

“Oh,” Nevada giggled, clearly despite herself as she glanced around. “I guess you noticed that after all, huh? And here I thought I was being all sneaky and making it look random. Damn.”

“It was pretty good,” Deveron replied, “but yeah, I could tell. So what’re we doing down here?”

We aren’t doing anything,” she informed him. “You, however, are going on a little picnic.”

Blinking at that, Deveron gave her a curious look. “You’re sending me on a picnic by myself?”

The blonde woman shook her head. “Nope. Not by yourself. With them.” She raised a hand then, pointing to two figures who were waiting just around the corner as they approached.

He looked that way, feeling his heart skip abruptly, as it always did when he saw the two in question. “Wyatt,” he breathed out. “Wyatt and Koren.” His son and his granddaughter.

“Yeah.” Nevada smiled faintly, waving for the others to join them. “You miss Felicity. That’s understandable. But you still have family here, Deveron. Gaia and I thought you might want to spend some time with them. So this,” she reached into her pocket, retrieving a pair of rings, which she handed to him. “First one opens a portal to a park somewhere totally safe and anonymous, where you won’t be recognized. The other one brings you back here.”

Closing his hand around the rings, Deveron swallowed hard before looking over at the approaching pair. He focused on his grown son, seeing the tiny, chubby baby that he remembered for a moment before shaking that off. “You sure you’re okay with being pulled away from your duties for that long, Wyatt?”

The man’s mouth opened, but Koren stepped on his foot while pointedly replying, “Uncle Wyatt’s taking a break before I have to hogtie him. There’s nothing else he can do right now, and there’s an entire security force watching over the rest of the school in case anything else happens. And yeah,” she added with a wink, “I did mention hogtying him just to hear him make that indignant squawk.”

For his part, Wyatt squinted at the girl who had become his almost ever-present companion outside of classes recently. “I’ve got my eyes on you,” he informed her. “I see you with a rope, and we’ll see which one of us gets hogtied, Missy. Don’t you forget what happened the last time you tried your little ambush. Next time, maybe I’ll just make you stay a hamster for a little while.”

Lifting her chin, the brunette made a huffing noise at that. “I almost had you that time. I’m learning your tricks, old man. Just a little more time and I’ll have you.”

Clearing his throat, Deveron stepped in then. “Before Koren pushes her luck too far and ends up having to spend the next week as a turtle or something, I was told something about a picnic in a park?”

The girl gave a quick head bob. “Yeah! And Mom’s gonna be there too.”

“Abigail…” Deveron breathed out, gaze snapping over toward Nevada questioningly.

“That’s right,” the woman confirmed. “Gaia worked it out with Seller. She’s probably already at the park waiting for you guys. Like I said, you’ve still got family here, and you should be able to spend time with them. Take as long as you need. We’ll cover for all of you here.”

A picnic… with his children and grandchild. Deveron swallowed a thick lump in his throat, giving a little shudder despite himself as a series of tumultuous emotions worked their way through him. He could talk to Koren as much as he wanted, of course. And he’d been conversing with Abigail over the phone, and with Wyatt through passed notes. But actually spending an entire afternoon and evening together in the same place? It made him simultaneously happy, and unbelievably sad.

Joselyn. He wanted Joselyn to be there. He wanted their entire family to be reunited. He wanted… a lot of things that would never happen, and some that still could.

“Alright, guys,” Deveron announced then, “let’s go meet Abigail and have a picnic in the park.”

It wasn’t perfect, not by any means. Flick was missing, Joselyn was still a prisoner of that monster, his twins were grown and had gone through their own lives and tragedies without him… but it was something. He had his children. He had his grandchild. And as far as the rest of it went, it was just a matter of time.

Now if only he could continue to resist the urge to put Liam in the hospital…

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Mini-Interlude 48 – Vanessa and Tristan

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“Nessa, how many times are you gonna read that message?” Tristan asked his sister. “It’s less than twenty words long, and you’ve been staring at it for days now. I’d say you have the whole thing memorized, but you know, with your memory you did that the second you glanced at it. At this point, you’ve probably got every possible anagram for the message memorized too.”

The two of them were sitting in the grass just outside of the Pathmaker building, waiting for Professor Carfried and the rest of their Explorer track to show up.

”There has to be a secret code or something,” Vanessa murmured as she continued to stare intently at the paper. “He called himself Uncle Satan, whoever this is. Why would he do that unless it was meant to be a special message we need to to decode?”

Tristan shrugged. “Maybe he’s really Satan,” he offered. “I mean, would that really be the strangest thing that’s ever happened us? And remember, you’re talking to the kid who was pretty much raised by a combination of a race of giant aliens and our long lost great great something grandfather in another dimension.”

The blonde girl squinted at her brother for a moment. “We are not related to Satan,” she insisted. “Satan doesn’t exist. Hell, he was—“ she stopped then, sighing as she watched Tristan try to smother his snickering. “And now you’re laughing because I said Hell when talking about Satan, aren’t you?”

The boy waved his hand, coughing. “I’m good, I’m good. Seriously though, you can’t just dismiss this. Remember the whole thing about how the Seosten act like angels? Well, if there’s angels then maybe there was actually someone who they called Satan.”

Vanessa’s mouth open and then shut, as she watched him. Considering that for a moment, she finally offered, “You know, you’re smart enough to be getting better than C’s in all your classes.”

“Eh.” Tristan gave a vague, dismissive gesture with his hand. “You’re the smart one, I’m the athletic one. Let’s just stay in our lanes.”

“You’re smart too,” Vanessa insisted. “You just don’t care about doing the work, or studying, or really paying that much attention in lectures.”

The boy stretched widely. “That’s because everything you just described is boring as hell,” he announced with an exaggerated yawn.

His sister started to say something else, only to stop while nodding past his shoulder. “They’re coming,” she whispered, her hand already reaching out to take the privacy coin they had been using. Dismissing the spell, she tucked it away in a pocket. The two exchanged brief glances, nodding to each other before picking themselves up and brushing the grass off their legs.

“See?” A Heretic-born boy named Dominic announced while gesturing at the two. “I told you guys they’d be out here already. And you wanted to wait inside or check their rooms.” Scoffing, he addressed the twins. “How long’ve you guys been sitting here, anyway? Hours? Don’t you have anything better to do?” His tone was teasing, but there was also an underlying curiosity.

His roommate, another Heretic-born named Tejas, spoke up dismissively then. “Who cares? They’re right here now, so can we get this show on the road? I’m ready to go to another world.”

“Don’t worry, man,” Sean Gerardo announced while patting the other boy on the back as he slipped by, “I’m sure we’ll get there before all the good restaurants are full. But personally, I’m kinda hoping there’s some Hamilton seats available over there.” He grinned. “I mean, it’s not like taking a portal to another world is the furthest people have gone to get tickets to that thing.”

Vulcan left his partner’s side then, moving over to the twins for some petting and affection. Vanessa gave it to him, smiling a little as she rubbed the mechanical dog’s snout and fed him a handful of mixed copper and steel balls that she had been keeping in her pocket for him.

That, of course, led to a haughty screech from nearby as the cyberform hawk known as Sovereign left Aylen’s shoulder. He flapped twice on his way over before landing on Tristan’s quickly raised arm. The metal bird then proceeded to squint pointedly at Vanessa.

“Sovereign,” Aylen chastised her cyberform companion, “don’t be so rude.” The Native American girl stepped over that way, shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she murmured with a slight blush. “He may be a glorious bird of prey. But sometimes, he is also a great spoiled pig.”

Tristan just shook his head with a grin, already producing bits of metal from his own pockets. “Don’t worry, Aylen. We came prepared this time.” He held the gleaming balls up for Sovereign to quickly peck at, seeming completely unconcerned by how close the bird’s razor-sharp beak came to his skin. He knew just how deadly the cyberform could be with it. Yet the boy also knew how accurate Sovereign was. His hand wasn’t in any danger. “There you go, big guy.”

After a moment of looking back and forth between Sovereign and Vulcan as the two ate their treats, Tristan’s eyes widened. “Hey, you know what we should do? He turns into a suit of armor, and he turns into a big gun, right? And Bobbi-Bobbi,” he indicated the chain around his neck that would turn into his own cyberform snake, “makes a big cannon too. We should totally see if we can get some of the Development people to make it so these three can like… combo-transform into one big robot with two giant freaking guns on it. That’d be so badass! Or a tank. They could all combine into a mini-tank. How goddamn awesome would that be?”

“Not a bad plan, Mr. Moon!” The response came from their Track leader, Professor Carfried. The young teacher made his way up through the group, carrying his heavy walking stick in one hand as he moved to the front. “Unfortunately, however, it shall have to wait until after our excursion today! Which, I’m sorry to say, will be to an utterly uninhabited planet. So,” he added with a wink toward Sean, “no Hamilton tickets. Do let me know if you happen to find any though. Of all the perks related to being a trainer of monster-killing heroes, apparently those are not included.”

“So, uh,” Freya Sullivan, a beautiful, red-haired amazon-like girl who almost looked as though she had been carved from marble to be the perfect representative of a warrior goddess spoke up. “Is this one of those Bystander things where we’re all just supposed to smile and nod as we pretend we’ve got the slightest clue what you’re talking about?”

“Pretty much, yes!” Turning on his heel, the man let the walking stick slide down before catching one end of it. He then tapped the other end against the ground. “Everyone, with me. And–” From the point where his stick touched the ground, a narrow glowing red pathway appeared, leading off toward the building. “–stay on the path, please. Let’s not have a repeat of last time. We may be called Explorers, but that does not give us carte blanche to wander off in the Pathmaker building itself and set off half of the alarms in the building, Tejas.

The Indian boy coughed, shrugging a little while he muttered, “I told you, I just got lost.”

Sovereign returned to Aylen’s shoulder then, and the group followed Carfried into the building. They were careful to stay in the path. No one wanted to lose their chance to go to another world by breaking the rules again. And Tejas didn’t really want to deal with everyone (most of whom were already watching him closely) yelling at him if it looked like he was about to wander off.

As they walked, Tristan gave his sister a nod. Whatever happened, they would find their answers about who this ‘Uncle Satan’ really was, and what he actually wanted, very soon.

But whatever happened, he still wasn’t going to give up on that ‘combine the three cyberforms into one awesome tank-robot’ plan. That was a genius idea, and no one was going to convince him otherwise.


“Okay, so now what?” Tristan asked Vanessa a while later as the two of them wandered through what looked like the equivalent of a pebble-covered beach. Only in this case, the pebbles were bright pink and green, and all seemed to have been polished to an almost-glowing sheen. Meanwhile, the lake they were walking past was filled with beautiful turquoise water. Occasionally, fountains sprayed up here and there, reaching a hundred feet in the air and creating brief, gorgeous waterfalls on their way back down. The path they were following actually wound its way out across the lake in a sort-of natural land bridge, allowing the twins to watch the occasional fountains on both sides.

Their track had split up shortly after arriving on the planet. Their job was to explore, catalogue anything interesting they found, and meet back in a couple hours. They had ways of calling in if anything happened, or if they wanted to share something particularly important. Basically, the world had been cleared by actual full Heretics of anything too threatening, so it was supposed to be a relatively safe place for them to split up and look around. Safe enough for them to (hopefully) not stumble across anything too deadly, while still unique and interesting enough to feed the curiosity and sense of wonder for anyone who had signed up for the Explorers track.

“You mean, what do we do now since we managed to get away from everyone else just in time for the meeting that the note mentioned?” Vanessa clarified while leaning down to poke her finger at the water. It shimmered under her touch, the turquoise shifting to a light purple for a moment in an area a few inches around from her finger, while making a soft chiming sound.

“Exactly.” Tristan nodded, reaching down to scratch Bobbi-Bobbi’s head as the mechanical snake arched up toward him. He had released his cyberform partner from her necklace form once they arrived to let the snake stretch her… coils.  “I mean, the note said 2:30 on this planet. But it didn’t say anything else. So how’re we supposed to know where we’re supposed to go to meet this ‘Uncle Satan’?”

“Maybe if you say his name three times real fast while staring into the water, he’ll appear.”

The suggestion came from behind the two, and as they spun, Vanessa and Tristan found themselves looking at a man who stood on top of the water a few feet from the glistening pebble-covered land bridge. He stood around six feet tall, with shaggy light blonde hair and a roguish smile that seemed especially made to melt hearts. With his thin, neatly trimmed mustache and the wink that he gave the two, the man looked like Cary Elwes in his prime.

“Or was that Bloody Mary…?” He trailed off thoughtfully before shaking it off. “I can never keep it straight. But just to be on the safe side, don’t say Biggie Smalls anywhere near a mirror. I have it on good authority that that never turns out well for anyone involved.”

Bobbi-Bobbi had started along with the other two, and now she wound her way around Tristan’s legs, up his waist, and rested her head on his shoulder while staring with beady eyes at the stranger.

“Wh–are you….” Vanessa stared at the man, eyes glancing briefly down to his feet as they continued to treat the surface of the water like it was a solid floor before darting back up once more. “Are you… the one who sent us that note?”  

The man’s head tilted, his smile growing as he gently teased her. “Oh, come on. You can say it. I was really looking forward to hearing you say it.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa glanced to her brother briefly before giving a low sigh as she turned back to the man. “Okay,” she started slowly, reluctantly asking, “Are you Uncle Satan? And… and why don’t you tell us what you want?” Lifting her chin, she added, “We don’t know who you are.”  

The man’s smile immediately changed from teasing, to genuine warmth. “Vanessa,” he spoke the name almost reverently. “I’m sorry for my jokes. There are many times when I fail to know where the line should be, particularly when I am… excited. I’ve been waiting a very long time to meet you. So long that it almost feels as if we’ve known each other for ages. But you are absolutely correct. You don’t know me at all. And you have no particular reason to trust me.”

“You’re…” Looking the man up and down for a moment, Vanessa bit her lip. “You’re a Seosten.”

“Wait, does that mean you’re actually our uncle?” Tristan quickly asked as his eyes widened. He put a hand on his snake’s head, calming her.  “And are you really Satan? Is our uncle the devil? Oh my God, what does that make our mom?”

“Technically yes, technically no,” the man replied brightly. “Lots of technicalities, I know. I’m not technically your uncle. Your mother and I aren’t related. But we were partners for a very long time, and I considered her a sister. Well, so did a lot of people, really. And, well, there’s a lot more. But we should go somewhere a little more private and safe than this if we’re gonna keep talking. Come on, I’ve got a place prepared.” Turning, he started to walk back over the lake.

“Uh.” Tristan looked to Vanessa before tentatively touching the surface of the lake with his foot. It went right through the water, creating a little splash that sent the sound of chimes into the air once more. “That might be a little harder than you think.”

“Oh!” Spinning on his heel, the man snapped his fingers, conjuring a pair of brightly colored bags. “Right, totally forgot. Here, put these on.” He tossed one of the bags to each of them. “Just consider them one of the many, many birthday and Christmas presents that I owe you.”

The twins opened the bags, only to find a pair of shoes in each of their sizes. The shoes looked ordinary by almost any respect, save for the symbols that could be found etched into the bottom. With a shrug, they both took off the shoes they were wearing before pulling on the new ones. Tristan shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her necklace form, whispering encouragement to her.

“They’re magic, right?” Vanessa straightened up, wiggling her feet a little. “What do we say to, uh, activate the spell?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was kind of in a Wizard of Oz mood, so all you need to do is click your heels together three times. Click your toes together three times to turn it off.”

The two of them did just that, tapping their heels against one another several times. Then, with a nod to one another, Tristan and Vanessa each stepped out. Their feet came down on the water, and stayed there. It felt solid, yet a little giving, sort of like a trampoline. After testing their balance, the two started to walk out slowly over the top of the lake.

“Holy crap, dude.” Tristan laughed, bouncing a little on the water’s surface. “This is awesome!”

The man nodded as he walked ahead of them. “You think it’s amazing now? It doesn’t just work on water. Acid, lava, mid-air. You can pretty much walk on top of anything with those things on. And yeah, magic can be pretty amazing. It’s something that school of yours could stand to focus on a little more instead of all the killing.”

He led them to the middle of the lake before giving a brief, sharp gesture with one hand. As he did so, the surface of the water itself rose up ahead of them into the shape of a cave mouth, with water falling freely off both sides. As the group got closer, Vanessa and Tristan could see a tunnel beyond. A tunnel that didn’t seem to actually be there within the water itself. It was like some kind of portal or something, though it was unlike any portal either of them had ever seen.

“It’s an invisible tunnel,” the man informed them. “Trust me, it’s safe. No one can find us in there.”

“And are we safe with you?” Vanessa asked a little pointedly, folding her arms as she stood next to her brother in front of the cave. “Why exactly should we trust a Seosten we’ve never met before who wants us to walk right into a secret, invisible cave on another world with him?”

“Yeah, that’s a fair question.” The man met her gaze. “Vanessa. There are no words that I can give you that will make you trust me. But I can say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry you grew up around people who didn’t believe you when you told them what happened. I’m sorry you had to hide how special you are for so long. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when you really needed me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for both of you, and for your parents. But I swear to you, on my soul, I would never, ever harm you or your brother. As I said, I see your mother as a sister. She is family to me, and so are you. I would die before I hurt you.”

It was enough. Tristan and Vanessa exchanged nods before following the man into the tunnel. After they walked a few feet further as it sloped sharply downward, the man gestured to make the mouth of the tunnel close once more. Then he led them down the (somehow brightly lit) stone corridor to a wider cave, with several chairs and a table already prepared and waiting.

“Okay,” he announced while turning to face them once more. “Here, we won’t be interrupted, and we can talk freely, about everything.”

Vanessa’s hand instantly shot into the air, waving around until the man blinked and nodded to her. “Um, could you tell us what your name really is? Cuz calling you Uncle Satan is kinda weird.”

Grinning at that, the man nodded sagely. “Well, of course. We can’t have you feeling weird. In that case, you could use my real name.” Letting that hang for a few seconds, he finally finished with, “It’s Lucifer.”

“You gotta admit, Nessa,” Tristan informed his sister as she stared open-mouthed, “you kinda walked right into that one.”

“Yes, yes, Lucifer. That Lucifer,” the man acknowledged with a wave of his hand. “But I assure you, the stories they tell about me are… well, they’re not nearly as interesting as the stories I told about them. I mean honestly, can you point to a single coherent tale of my misdeeds that isn’t logically baffling and incompatible with any other story about me? Honestly, it’s as if they just took a bunch of stories about other villainous creatures and copy-pasted my name in their place no matter how little sense they made. How would you like to piss them off and find the name Tristan Moon filled in as the dark bane of Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Twilight Sparkle?”

“They…” Vanessa murmured, blinking up at him. “You mean the other Seosten. They… they made the name Lucifer into humanity’s greatest villain and monster. Why? Because you… because you betrayed them… you pissed them off–you quit. You left, didn’t you? You left a long time ago and it pissed them off so much that they tied your name to the embodiment of evil.”

“Pretty much, yup,” the man nodded. “But I’ve been pretty unfair. Honestly, I just wanted to see your reaction when I told you what my Seosten name was. In truth, I haven’t gone by that in a long time. I prefer the name I took here on Earth a few thousand years ago.” He winked then. “So I’d much rather you call me Apollo.”

“Apollo?” Vanessa echoed, head tilting. “Wait, like, Apollo-Apollo? As in–”

“Sesenev ble’de uvun!” Tristan blurted unthinkingly, eyes widening. “If you’re supposed to be Apollo, does that mean our mom is–am I the son of Artemis?! Oh my God, that is so fucking awesome!”

Apollo dropped his head back to laugh. “Now that’s the reaction I was looking for. Though, I don’t know who exactly taught you Nereid curse words, but you have got a serious potty mouth there.” Shaking his head in wonder, the man finally added, “And yes, that’s right. Your mother was the one they called Artemis. Though, sadly, she stopped using that name when the others did.” There was a moment where the man looked regretful, sighing a little before he shook it off. “Anyway, that’s your mom. We were all part of the initial Seosten infiltration of Earth. Puriel, you saw him when he showed up at your house, he was Zeus.”

“Zeus? Zeus is that piece of shit who showed up at our–Zeus is a bad guy?! Are you seri–” Tristan started to gasp before correcting himself with a nonchalant, “Actually, no, that kinda makes sense. Yeah, I’m on board with that. Carry on.”

‘You…” Vanessa hesitated, swallowing a lump in her throat. “Do you know where our mom is?”

Face softening, Apollo shook his head. “I swear, kid, if I knew where she was, I’d already be beating down their door.”

“So why did you want us to come meet you now?” Tristan asked. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am totally up for having freaking Olympian gods in our family tree. That’s like the coolest thing ever. That’s even cooler than Grandpa Petan on our dad’s side of the family. But seriously, why now? Why here?”

“I have been a very… absent uncle,” Apollo acknowledged with a wince. “So that’s a fair question. Trust me, there are reasons for it. But right now, I needed to meet with you because of you, Vanessa.” He looked that way. “You’ve started to awaken into your Seosten gift. You can’t fully possess people yet, but you–”

The blonde girl straightened with a little gasp. “You know? You know that I’ve been getting… visions of our dad? But… but how could you possibly know that?”

“Hey,” Apollo pointed out, “you don’t get to be three thousand years old without having a few tricks up your sleeve. Especially when your entire interuniversal empire-running race wants you dead. I’ve got my ways. But the point is, you’ve been seeing through your father’s eyes. You’ve been projecting to him. Which means that you can communicate with him.”

“But… but I can’t,” Vanessa pointed out with a slight whimper. “I’ve been trying, and it doesn’t work.”

The man’s expression softened. “You can,” he assured her. “You just need a little help. That’s why I’m here. Because I can teach you everything you need to know about how to use that gift.”

Heart beating hard and fast, Vanessa stared at him. “Y-you can? You can… you can teach me to… to talk to our father in my dreams?”

Apollo smiled at that. “Kid, I’ll teach you to do it when you’re awake, any time you want to. And Tristan too, as soon as he starts developing that part. Which should happen any day now,” he added with a glance that way. “I’ll teach you both how to use it.”

“We… “ Tristan bit his lip, exchanging a look with his sister. “We want to talk to our dad, send a message to him because our friends, they’re–”

“Stuck in Seosten space,” Apollo finished for him. “Yeah. Yeah, I know about that. One of them used a secret spell that I set up a long time ago to deal with a… really nasty piece of shit that works out there. The only way they could have known about it is if I told them, or your mother did. And I never told them. Which only leaves your mom… somehow.”

Both of the twins stared at him, Vanessa blurting, “But how could Mom tell them a secret spell? She never–they never–if they–”

“Yeah, I know,” the man confirmed, “I’m confused too. Trust me, I don’t know everything. Which is kind of annoying sometimes, let me tell you. But the only way that we are going to find out the answer to that is by getting them back here. Which we can do by contacting your dad through your connection to him, so we can point them in the right direction.”

“Too bad we don’t know exactly where to send them,” Tristan lamented. “I mean, we’re probably working with a really short time frame here, and it’s a big universe.”

“Oh,” Apollo smiled then. “Don’t you worry about that. I have a ahh, certain connection to one of those kids out there. Not enough to project myself to them, but let’s just say I can tell where they are. We’ll be able to tell your dad exactly where to go. And,” he added thoughtfully, “a little birdie told me that they might want to pack a pretty powerful teleportation spell.”

“How powerful?” Vanessa asked, curiously.

The man met her gaze. “Powerful enough to move a spaceship.”

“M-magic can do that?” Vanessa blurted, mouth falling open in amazement.

“My girl,” Apollo started with a wink, “magic can do more wondrous things than you can imagine in a thousand lifetimes. I’ll help you learn as much as I can. But first, why don’t we start with contacting your dad so we can pass along that message?”

“You can really teach me just like this?” Vanessa hesitated before adding, “We don’t really have a lot of time before they’ll notice us missing. And believe me, they really aren’t in the mood to have more students go missing.”

“Actually,” the man corrected her, “we’ve pretty much got as much time as we need. Well, not all the time we need. But at least, I’d say, most of a month.”

“A month?” Tristan shook his head. “Dude, we’re supposed to meet up with the rest of our group in like… twenty minutes.”

“Remember how I told you that magic is wondrous?” Apollo asked, before gesturing toward the top of the cave they were in. As his hand moved that way, the lighting rose until they could see some of the most elaborate, intricate runework they had ever laid eyes on. There must have been over a thousand symbols, most of them carefully interconnecting with one another, lining the ceiling of the cave.

“What… what is this?” Vanessa asked in wonderment as she turned in a circle to stare at the beautiful spellforms. “It must’ve taken… years to get this all done.”

“This,” Apollo informed them, “is my planning room. It’s kind of how I come up with all my ideas without taking forever. See, with those spells up there, for every day that passes in here, about a minute passes out there. So you say you have to meet up with your group in twenty minutes? That leaves us almost three weeks to teach you everything I can. Yeah, I call this place my–”

“Hyperbolic Time Chamber!” Both Apollo and Tristan blurted. The latter kept going. “Oh my God, oh fuck! You have a Hyperbolic Time Cham–” Interrupting himself, the boy lunged that way to hug onto the man. “Best uncle ever! You are the best freaking uncle in the universe!”

“What… what…” Vanessa was staring at them, mouth working. “What are you talking about? How do you–what’s a–”

“Don’t you worry, Vanessa,” Apollo informed her while returning Tristan’s embrace. “We’ve got all the time we need to catch you up to speed, and teach you everything you need to know about contacting your dad so you can get that message to them.

“Or,” he added with a gesture. “You can leave. I want… I want to be part of your life. I want to help you. But I’m not going to force anything. If you want to walk out of here, you’re free to do so any time. I don’t… I don’t want you to feel trapped. I don’t ever want you to feel trapped, or forced into this. I want to be a part of your lives, but… but if you don’t want me around you, I understand. Especially after I was gone for so long.”

Shifting from foot to foot, Vanessa hesitated before slowly asking, “While you’re teaching us, could you… could you tell us more about our mother, about what she’s really like?”

The man smiled at that, bowing his head. “Of course, Vanessa. I’ll tell you guys anything you want to know, everything I can. Like I said, I may have been a pretty absent uncle before, but I’m here now. And I’ll teach you everything I know. And what I don’t have time to teach, you can pick up from the collection of manuscripts that I’ve picked up over the past couple millennia.” He gestured toward a corner of the chamber, and a rock wall lifted away to reveal a room about ten times larger than the one they were in, filled to the brim with full bookshelves. “After all, all these belong to you too. You’re family.”

Mouth opening and shutting a couple times, Vanessa slowly walked that way. Making a noise of  shock and wonderment, she stared at the ancient books and scrolls for a few long seconds. The girl was whimpering at the very thought of being able to look through all of them. There had to be thousands of books from the past several thousand years all lining the shelves. It was an even better collection than Crossroads had.

“Damn, Uncle Satan,” Tristan stage-whispered. “I think you broke Nessa.”  

Pivoting, the girl quickly took two steps that way before embracing the man alongside her brother. Hugging him tightly, she announced, “Tristan’s right, you’re the best uncle ever.”

Apollo returned their embraces firmly. “Guys,” he started through an obvious lump in his throat, “you…” He swallowed hard. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to meet you, how long I thought about… all of this. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there before.”

“You’re here now,” Vanessa pointed out, lifting her chin as she met the man’s gaze. “And you’re… you’re really ready to teach us everything?”

The man nodded. “Everything I can. Which means it’s gonna be a long three weeks.

“So let’s get started then, shall we?”

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Uprising 29-09

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A pair of strong hands caught both of my arms from either side as the portal winked out and the blast from my staff faded. Roxa was on one side, holding my right arm with both of hers, while Gordon had caught my left. A bit to the side, the Alter that I had pulled through with me went stumbling until Jazz caught him to stop the man from falling. It had been close, but we’d made it.

Made it, apparently, to an enormous room of some kind. As the others released me, I took a look around. The place was as long as three football fields set end to end, and equally wide. The floor was black grating, with some kind of red fluid running a foot or so below it, and there were tubes filled with a glowing orange fluid that served as a light source running along the floor about every ten feet. The walls were a dark red, almost black color, with more orange tube lights that ran along near the bottom and along the ceiling. Scattered here and there were huge metal crates about the size of shipping containers, with weird alien symbols all over them. One was open, revealing that it was about half full of glittering silver and blue minerals of some kind.

Right, minerals. Mining. We were on a mining ship. I remembered that. This room must have been some kind of cargo bay or something, where they held whatever they dug out.

“Pardons,” Karees spoke hesitantly, interrupting my examination of the enormous room. When my attention turned that way, I saw that all of the Alters that we’d just brought with us were staring at me. Just like they had been down on the planet below. “We are not out of the danger,” he intoned carefully, clearly trying to take the time to pick the right words. “There are the defenses and violent ones on this ship to protect it from what we are doing now. And the masters will come. It is not… intentions to be harmful rude bad, but if we are all to escape-”

I nodded quickly. “Right, um, where’s the–” Looking around, I spotted the doorway on the far side of the room. “There. Okay, Karees, keep your people here. We’ll deal with the defenses.”  

Jokai spoke up, raising his hand as he said something in Latin while looking earnestly to me.

He says he’s going with you, because he can fly the ship, Tabbris translated, sounding a little shaky herself from everything we had just witnessed back on the planet below. Because there won’t be time to come get him and get all the way to the bridge before the Seosten show up.

Biting my lip, I translated that for the others before nodding. “Okay, come on.” With a quick gesture, I pivoted to head for the doors. “Guys, we need to get to that bridge right now.”

We ran. Roxa, Gidget and I took the lead, with Jokai behind us. Sands and Isaac ran along either side of him, with Jazz and Gordon bringing up the rear. Whatever else happened, we had to keep Jokai safe. Because he was right, he was the only one who knew how to fly this thing.

“It’s a fucking escort mission,” Isaac muttered from behind me. “I hate fucking escort missions.”

I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response. Instead, I just kept going. The doorway from the big cargo bay led out into a corridor. Instead of the grated floor, this one was solid, a dark blue material that looked and felt almost like marble under our feet. The walls, meanwhile, were pure white, with blue trim about a third of the way up, and more of those pipes with glowing liquid for lights near the top. These were white rather than orange, leaving the corridor itself pretty bright.

It was a long corridor, that curved at the far end. All along the way, there were little hatches that led who knew where. But Jokai, who was the only one who actually knew where we were going, kept pointing forward. So we didn’t slow. There wasn’t time to check all the hatches. Not now.

“Flick, left!” Sands shouted. My eyes were already snapping that way, as my object sense registered something appearing there, just in time to see a small ball-like turret finish popping out of the ceiling. Its twin-laser cannons were just twisting around to face us as the other girl shot a ball of webbing at it that clogged the barrels. Before the thing could blast them free, I finished switching my staff into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow. It flew straight at the turret, blowing the thing off the ceiling with a screech of tearing metal.

A second turret had appeared along the right-hand side in that time. But that one was dealt with by Isaac’s trio of floating drones, which essentially ganged up on the thing to blow it away.

Finally, a third turret had popped out of the floor. This one was larger than the other two, more like something that would be manned by someone. Its twin cannons were as long as actual rifle barrels, and the thing was powering up to send a couple shots straight through us.

Or rather, it would have, if Gidget hadn’t thrown herself straight at the damn thing. She knocked it bodily off target, so that the twin laser blasts went up into the ceiling rather than hit any of us. With a snarl, the mechanical cougar bit down on the nearest barrel, snapping it off the turret after shaking her head back and forth like a dog worrying a bone. The barrel crumpled under her teeth before she tossed it aside. Then the second barrel was subsequently demolished under a couple hard slams from her front paws as she jumped up and down on it.

“Good girl!” Roxa called, taking a knee to give Gidget a tiny bit of the affection she deserved.

“Can you send those things ahead to scout?” I asked Isaac once the dust had settled and we were sure that none of us had been hit. “Make sure we’re not about to run into a better ambush.”

He made a face at the question. I got the impression that he didn’t like the idea of sending his weapon so far away from himself when he might need it. “Why can’t the big metal cat go?”

My mouth opened to snap at that, but I stopped myself. I understood his reluctance to send his weapon away, even if he wasn’t exactly that diplomatic about it. “Because your drones are faster, smaller targets, and they can fly,” I pointed out as patiently as possible. “And you can send two of them ahead to scout while keeping one back so it can communicate with them.”

For a moment, I thought that he was going to argue with that and waste even more time, as the boy stared at me long and hard. But in the end, his flat expression melted into a wide grin. “Great,” he abruptly replied as if there was nothing wrong, “just as long as there’s a reason.”

Two of the drones flew forward then, and we kept going. There were several more areas with turret defenses that popped out. But we were ready for them each time. As we continued through what turned out to be a literal maze of corridors, Jokai never hesitated. He seemed to know exactly where we were going, immediately pointing each time we came to an intersection.

Jazz spoke up after the fourth such area, grimacing as she gave a violent shake of her head. “You know, in the interest of avoiding certain cliches, I’m just gonna say that this has been the perfect amount of difficult. Yessiree Bob, all these random automated guns are exactly what I expected to find on this ship, and we are barely making it thr-oh son of a bitch.”

That last part came as a group of figures abruptly popped out of seemingly nowhere. They had clearly been invisible or something, because they were suddenly all around us. There were nine of them, six fairly humanoid in appearance and wearing a blue version of the black armor that we had seen previously, with white accents. The other three were larger and wore no armor, one of them looking like an oversized gorilla with massive arms and fists that were several times bigger than my head. Finally, the last two looked like crocodiles, except they had dozens of legs and a pair of long, scaled arms with nasty claws on the end of their hands. They were all pissed.

The nearest two guards snapped their guns up, even as I caught hold of Jokai’s arm and dove to the side. There was a squeal from the weapons, and a pair of orange energy blasts sailed through the air where we had just been. They collided with the wall, leaving a scorch mark.

In the background, I saw the trio of drones attacking one of the other guards, even as Sands webbed one of the gorilla-thing’s massive fists to the floor. Meanwhile, Gidget was leaping on a crocodile-monster, while Roxa lunged at the other one with a pants-wetting snarl.

Right, the others were doing their part. But I had to keep Jokai safe. And I knew how. Straightening up in front of the guards, I kept myself between them and the former prisoner. “Oh, no, lasers!” I blurted rather unconvincingly, holding my arms out to either side. “Please, whatever you do, don’t shoot me with your lase–”

They shot me with their lasers. Both of the guards that I was facing opened up, firing several more orange blasts directly into my chest and stomach. Blasts which did precisely diddly squat, thanks to Doxer’s power and the fact that I was ready for them. The energy absorption gift that I had inherited from that son of a bitch meant that the lasers barely tickled. I felt their power like a heat in the pit of my stomach, and a tingling in my arms that I needed to get rid of.

So I did. Throwing my hands out, I pictured the energy leaving me. The shots flew back the way they had come, sending the thoroughly surprised guards to the floor with a pair of screams. A second later, I felt the familiar wave of pleasure that made me gasp.

Unfortunately, it was a really bad time for something like that to happen. Another of the guards had come at me with some kind of black metal blade. He had clearly timed his attack for the moment when the Heretic killgasm should have left me unable to defend myself.  

Except, I wasn’t the only one piloting this particular body. While I was briefly distracted by the rush of pleasure, my hand jerked up to snap my staff into place to block the man’s descending sword smacking it aside. The guard seemed completely surprised by my quick reaction, stumbling a bit as he tried to recover. Too late, my staff spun around, and crashed into the side of the man’s head to send him crashing to the floor.

Recovered by that point, I blurted, Thanks, Tab! Then I brought my foot down on the guard’s back while spinning my staff up and around into position. With a grunt, I drove the bladed end down through his neck, turning his cry into a gurgle that was quickly cut off as yet another wave of pleasure filled me.  

That was three of the six humanoid guards down. And as I quickly looked up, my searching gaze found Jazz practically laying atop the body of another one, her sword driven through his head as her aura flared up around her and she panted from the effort. Meanwhile, Isaac and his drones had just dealt with the fifth guard, while Gordon was finishing off the sixth and final humanoid figure with his tommy gun.

That left the three non-humanoid guards. First, there were the two crocodiles, one of which was being torn apart by a vicious Gidget. The thing kept trying to bite her, but she barely seemed to notice, basically throwing herself into its mouth and taking it apart from the inside.

The other crocodile, meanwhile, wasn’t faring any better against Roxa. She had half-shifted into her wolf-form, fur covering over her skin while her face had bulged out. The body of the crocodile was torn open around the stomach, its internal… parts spilling out while Roxa herself kept ripping into it mercilessly.

Which left the gorilla. With a roar, the thing tore its oversized hands free of the webbing that had held it down. It beat its chest twice, then lunged for Sands.

The other girl… suddenly wasn’t there. Oh, she was there, but not in the spot where she had been standing. Sands was abruptly moving almost fast enough to be a blur. She twisted away from the outstretched gorilla hands, spinning to the side before slamming her mace into his face. She connected with enough force to snap the big furry monster’s head backward with a cry. Without pausing, she leapt up, smacking him again before dropping to run behind him. Her mace crashed into the back of the gorilla’s left leg, before she was suddenly around to his right.

Sands wasn’t quite a blur. I could follow every motion she made. But she was faster, much faster than she should have been. Which was especially devastating in these close quarters. And, unless I missed my guess, she was stronger than she should have been as well.

Oh! It’s the boost, Tabbris whispered. That um, that S-Seosten she killed, she got his boost power. She can make herself several times faster and stronger than she should have been, for a short time. She, uh, she probably doesn’t even know how she’s doing it.

Whether Sands knew how she was doing it or not, she was definitely using it. As the gorilla reeled backward and stumbled to one knee, she was back in front of it again. Her mace swept upward, conjuring a metal wall up to about chest-height (her chest, not the gorilla’s). Then she leapt up and over it, landing on the gorilla’s back. I just barely had time to see that there were spikes in the wall before Sands’ forceful collision with her opponent’s back drove it crashing down, literally impaling its neck on the spikes in the wall. Even that didn’t kill the thing, though it did slow it down an awful lot.

And Sands wasn’t done yet. Still crouching on the gorilla’s back, she made a sweeping motion with her mace that made the metal wall she had created extend itself up and around the monster, trapping it by the neck and one arm. It was like the thing was locked in some kind of medieval stocks. It heaved and growled, struggling to break its way free. But before the metal could do more than groan a little, Sands was moving. She launched herself up off the monster’s back, turned in mid-air, and came down with her mace outstretched. There was one last, almost pitiful howl from the thing before the blow landed. Then it was over. The force of the blow against the gorilla’s trapped head had… separated it.

Sands was on the floor, mace lying beside her as her aura flared up once again. She was gasping for pleasure. But there wasn’t time to wait. I grabbed the girl, pulling her to her feet while Roxa picked up the mace. Then we were running once more, with Jokai right behind us. The former slave was babbling something that Tabbris quietly translated as awe for what we had just done. I mostly tuned it out, focusing on where we were going. There would be time to deal with what we’d just done later. For the moment, every passing second was another second where Radueriel could show up. And as well as we were doing with the mooks, I had no doubt that we would be completely screwed if we had to fight him directly.

We hadn’t gone much further before reaching a pair of circular doors, which slid apart as we approached, granting entrance to a room that was immediately obvious as the bridge. Straight ahead was a floor to ceiling window or possibly just a viewing screen of some kind that showed the starfield beyond, with the planet taking up the bottom third. The room itself was shaped like a crescent, or a slightly widened letter C. The screen took up the open space between the two points of the C, while the doorway where we were standing was opposite it, right in the middle of the C’s curve.

In the middle of the room there were three rugged-looking seats, with control panels in front of them. Meanwhile, the walls of the bridge were lined with an assortment of computers and screens, with a several more chairs scattered here and there.

“Jokai, can you get us out of here?!” I blurted, looking to him quickly.

In response, the former slave spoke a single word that was clearly an agreement before darting straight for the middle seat. He practically dove into it, hitting a few buttons before he had even finished straightening up. The ship came alive around us. I felt a slight vibration beneath our feet as the engines came online. Jokai himself was babbling something excitedly while gripping what looked like a steering yoke to turn it.

The ship didn’t exactly have a tight turning radius. It seemed to groan in protest while slowly coming around, leaving the sight of the planet to face open space.

Or… what should have been open space. Instead, we found ourselves facing another ship. A much, much larger and frankly terrifying ship. The thing was shaped kind of like a giant hammerhead shark, with a slight bulge just behind the ‘head’ where I thought the bridge was. Where the hammer part of the ‘hammerhead’ was, a dizzying array of guns were lined up. Its ‘mouth’ was permanently open, revealing a much, much larger cannon that looked like it could blow our entire ship apart all by itself. And along both fins were open areas where I could see smaller fighter-type craft arranged.

We were all still staring as the screen abruptly changed. Now, taking up half the view was a face. A familiar one.

“Well,” Radueriel announced from what looked like the bridge of his own ship, “I will give you this much… you came very, very close. But the games are over now. There are no more hidden codes to save you. I will give you to the count of, shall we say, four. If you do not surrender, I will cut my losses and remove that ship and everything on it from existence. One–”

“Flick!” Sands was looking to me. “What do we do?”

My head was shaking, even as the others called out similar questions. “I don’t–”

“Two–” Radueriel continued with exaggerated slowness. He was in no hurry to finish us off.  

My desperately searching eyes settled on one figure then: Jokai. He was still sitting in the pilot’s chair. Meeting my gaze, the normally petrified Alter simply met my gaze. He wasn’t shaking, wasn’t babbling. His fear was gone. Not because he wasn’t in danger, but because whatever happened next, would happen on his terms. He might die, but he would not die as a slave. He would die fighting.

“Three–” Radueriel’s voice droned.

“Do it,” I told Jokai, giving him a nod.

Whether he understood what the actual words meant, or just the intention, I didn’t know. Either way, his hand grabbed the controls, and he started to send the ship forward, toward the massive Seosten battleship (or whatever it was called) ahead of us.

“What the fuck?!” Isaac screamed. “What the hell are you doing?! We can’t fight that thing, just–” He stumbled along with the rest of us as the cannons on the other ship immediately opened up. We were pummeled mercilessly, and I was pretty sure that only the heavy shields and armor that they’d mentioned kept us alive through that first barrage.

It wouldn’t last. That big main cannon was already glowing. One shot and it would completely blow us apart. One shot and we would be dust.

“Four,” Radueriel finished. “As you wi–”

There was a brief flash of blue light, and a figure appeared in the middle of the bridge, right in front of the screen. I barely had time to notice the presence before they dropped to one knee, slamming both hands to the deck with something held tightly in each. A voice blurted a six syllable spell of some kind, and then the entire world went white.

It faded, and the view through the screen was different once more. Radueriel’s face had disappeared, as had the sight of his ship. Not because it was gone, but because we were. There was no planet around us, and the starfield was slightly changed. We had moved. The entire ship had moved.

The spell, the spell that the mysterious, suddenly arrived figure had cast. It had moved the entire ship somewhere completely different.

As I realized that, my eyes snapped toward the person who had just saved us. The figure had risen once more, pushing themselves up from the floor before turning to face us. “Is everyone okay?”

One word met the newcomer’s question, one single, quiet, trembling word that filled the otherwise silent bridge. 

“… M… Mommy?” Sands whispered.

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Uprising 29-08

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Well, if all those Seosten slaves/prisoners that we had just liberated were nervous about their situation before, a massive werelion running right into the middle of their impromptu camp while a Heretic armed with a mace rode on her back probably wasn’t exactly helping matters any.

Sands and I had just run for the past twenty minutes to catch up with these guys. Not that it was hard to find them, I just let the other girl hold my little mouse buddy so he could direct her to where his brother was (She’d been smart enough to hand Jaq over to the others so that we could find them later). Then I just shifted into my lion form, let her climb on, and took off.

The place where Roxa, Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz had stopped with the rest of the slaves turned out to be a large clearing that was sort of half covered from the sky by a rocky outcropping. Most of the former slaves were catching their breath, some lying on the ground and gasping for air while others simply bent to grab their knees. They all looked ragged, worn, tired, and scared.

As we came into view, however, all of those exhausted former prisoners were suddenly back on their feet. They looked ready to scatter and flee into the woods until Roxa came running down from atop the rock, calling, “Wait, wait, it’s okay! They’re with us! Gordon, tell them!”

But before the boy could say anything, as he too came down from the rock outcropping, one of the prisoners spoke up. His words were hesitant and a little slow, but understandable English. “We… have understanding of your speaking. One… number of ourselves made days… with one of yours long behind. They… spoke us your world. We have… very hard trying to learn it language for if we are ever to be away from the masters and hide with your world.”

Lifting my currently furry head while Sands clambered off me, I looked at the man who had spoken. It was a Relukun, like the one I had killed to get my wood-traveling power. This one looked twisted and ancient, like a gnarled old tree that was about to fall over. Nonetheless, he was standing on his own two feet, and there was a smile somewhere in the wrinkled, wooden countenance. “It was a lost hoping,” he murmured, “but we did not stop it. Or stop learning.”

I think I like him, Tabbris whispered. Can we say hi? Um. When we can talk again. Please?

Trust me, I think I like him too, I replied before turning toward Sands as the girl held my clothes up to me. Taking them in my mouth, I looked over at Roxa. She was already gesturing for me to follow her over to a spot where I could safely change. In the background as I trotted after the werewolf-Heretic, I heard Sands telling them what little she knew about what had happened.

As she led me out of the way, Roxa quietly explained, “They’ve been using some magic and powers that they have to hide where we are and erase our trail. It probably won’t stop the Seosten forever, but it’ll slow them down, hopefully long enough for us to get out of here. There’s a few of them making some kind of portal thing now that’s supposed to take us up to one of the ships. We could’ve gone further, but the further we ran down here, the longer it would’ve been before they could start making the portals. I figured this would be far enough.”

I gave the other girl a nod with the lion’s head. She had a point. This wasn’t as far away as most might’ve considered safe. But as big as this forest was, it would still take the Seosten some time to search enough of it. Especially if these guys were using magic to try and keep them away. I had no doubt that the wannabe angels would eventually break through that sort of thing. But in the short-term, maybe it would be enough. It was going to have to be enough.

Changing and dressing quickly (an act that was made infinitely faster and easier since I could just touch an article of clothing, focus on it, and have it appear on my body where I wanted it), I made my way back out to where everyone else was. Sands was there, holding my staff out for me to take. Gus had been reunited with his brother, and the two mice were perched in the middle of the staff. I let them climb up on my shoulders, giving them a little attention before finally looking around the clearing.

Wow. There were a lot of Alters here. More than I could easily count during a quick scan. They were of all shapes and sizes. The majority, of course, were vaguely humanoid. But there were also a few that definitely weren’t. I saw a couple that basically looked like slime-creatures with tentacles, one six-legged bear-man with long rabbit-like ears, and even a few much smaller figures that looked like squirrels mixed with lawn gnomes. Not to mention several centaurs and centaur-like beings that stood near the back of the area, nervously pawing at the ground.

So yeah, there were a lot of people. And all of them were staring at me. Not glancing, not looking back and forth between all of us. They were openly staring directly at me, while not making a sound. Some of them looked scared, but the majority simply looked somehow… awed.

Roxa moved next to me, quietly whispering, “A few of the ones that can fly stayed back long enough to see what happened. They… saw what you did, that you could possess the Seosten.”

Oh. That explained why they were staring. Flushing self-consciously, I cleared my throat before raising my voice to speak up. “Uh, guys, we should really get out of here. The Seosten aren’t gonna give up. We stopped them from contacting Radueriel, but that won’t last forever. Before long, he’s gonna get the message about what happened, and when he does, we’re completely screwed if we’re still here. They’ll send the ships back here to scour the place top to bottom. They’ll probably burn the whole planet at this point to stop us from getting away.”

The elderly, gnarled Relukun who had spoken up before moved forward. He had Jokai with him, and was murmuring something to the chameleon-like being. After a moment, Jokai turned and started talking to the other Alters in Latin, while the old tree-man came to where we were.

“Our peoples,” he started, “they have started the spells which will take all to the starboats. But it will… take more minutes to finish such spells. They are doing the working as fast as they able.”

“They’re up on the overlook,” Gordon informed me, gesturing that way. “Apparently, the spell needs a clear look straight at the sky in order to work properly. I just asked them, and they said it’s going to take at least another twenty minutes to get it set up. If they don’t do it just right, the spell could just fling everyone into the middle of space instead of sending us onto the ships.”  

Isaac blanched noticeably at that little nugget. “Uh, yeah, tell ‘em to take their time and do it right, then. I withdraw any and all complaints I might have made about how long it was taking.”

Nodding slowly, I looked to the Relukun. “Do you think they–” Pausing, I frowned before hesitantly asking, “I’m sorry, could you tell us what we should call you, sir? I’m Flick.”

“Oh, right.” Roxa quickly lifted her hand to gesture that way. “Flick, this is Karees. He’s basically the leader of these guys, since he’s been here the longest. He spent eighty years here on the planet. Before that, he was in a few other slave camps. He’s the one who convinced them to listen to Jokai and the others when they were trying to convince them to leave the camp.”

Smiling a little at that, I nodded. “Thanks. And it’s really good to meet you, Karees. I’m glad you managed to convince the others to take a chance with us. And now I just hope you didn’t misplace that trust and we manage to get out of here without getting everyone captured again.”

The Relukun shook his head at that. “Whether one way or some other,” he announced solemnly, “we will no longer be Seosten prisoners. Our people here will be their slaves for no more again.”

Swallowing, I lifted my chin, deciding to focus on the part about getting everyone out rather than the implication of what the former prisoners would do if it looked like they were about to be captured. “The ships that Jokai was talking about, it sounds like your people are using a spell to send us up to them? Won’t the other Seosten think of that and be up there waiting for us?”

Karees smiled at me. “We have thinking of that,” he answered easily. “Before leaving prison place, some of us did went to wipe away and break spell transports. They will have to be remaking them. It will take them as far time as it is taking us to be making them up again.”

“Right.” I nodded gratefully at that. “Good to know. So we might just beat them up there after a–wait, aren’t there guards on there already? And a crew? I mean, they’re mining ships, right?”

It took the tree-man a moment to process what I’d said before he answered. “They are being not used right now. There is guards and crew, but only very few, just enough to keep ship stable.”

“A skeleton crew then,” Isaac put in. “Possibly made out of actual skeletons, for all we know.”

Ignoring the boy, I murmured, “So we should be able to take one then. Will all your people fit on one of the ships? And can you guys fly the thing, because we haven’t covered that class yet.”

“Jokai,” Karees replied with a nod toward the younger man, who was apparently trying to comfort some of the more frightened people. None of them could really stop staring at us, but a few were doing so with looks that made it clear that they thought we might be just as bad as the people they had just escaped from. They were beaten down, oppressed, and rightfully suspicious of anyone who came claiming to offer some kind of help. Especially when that help came from people they only recognized as Heretics.  I just hoped we could change their minds.

“He and his… shackle-mates,” Karees continued, “were taught to work the ships under guard.”

“Shackle-mates,” Jazz echoed, having approached while we were talking. “Does that mean they were imprisoned in the same cell together or something? Or that they had work detail together?”

Karees nodded his ancient, gnarled head, looking a bit like a tree that was bowing against powerful wind. “It is both,” he replied. “Jokai and his shackle-mates were lived together, trained together, worked together.” His face twisted a bit as he finished quietly. “They were… friends.”

Catching his look, and the phrasing that he used, I hesitantly asked, “Were? You say that like…”

“Jokai’s shackle-mates were killed,” the Relukun confirmed. “During one training mission, when Jokai was taken for other things. The Seosten who trained them to handle ships insisted that they should mine area they should not. Ship was damaged very badly. Seosten blamed prisoners, and Jokai’s shackle-mates were executed.” His face twisted a little in grief once more before the old man quietly added, “That is why Jokai ran away, why he risked escaping. He chose to rather be dead than be slave anymore, and took one chance at escaping there.”

I cringed at that, but it was Jazz who spoke up. “You mean they killed his friends just because they did what the Seosten told them to and it went wrong? But that’s–that’s…” She worked her mouth, standing there staring at Karees for a moment while apparently unable to find words.

“It’s wrong,” I finished for her. “That’s why we have to get the rest of them out of here. Right?”

The other girl didn’t say anything at first. She just kept staring at Karees for a few seconds. Then her eyes moved to look at the other Alters. I watched as her gaze passed over them, almost as if she was seeing them, really seeing them, for the first time. Her eyes seemed to widen as she took in the sight in total silence before finally looking back to me. “Yeah,” she replied softly, voice cracking a little bit even on that single word. Then she dropped her gaze, staring at the ground.

I wasn’t going to push any further than that. I’d seen her reaction. That was enough. Instead, I looked over to the others. “So basically, we just have hope that we get up to those ships before our friends back there either get up there themselves, or manage to contact Radueriel.”

“How much damage did you do to their communications?” Gordon asked then. “The Alters who stayed behind to watch what happened, they were saying that you broke them pretty badly.”

I nodded at that. “Yeah, I shot them up pretty bad. Hopefully they won’t be able to patch them together too soon. Guess we should just be glad they don’t have anyone who can make the jump out to Radueriel’s station instantly. Or that they’re not–” As the next thought came to me, I frowned abruptly. “Wait, why exactly wouldn’t they just go to that building we came out of when we got here, the one with the portal directly onto the station, or any of the other portals?”

Karees answered. “When our peoples destroyed spells that would take Seosten masters to the starboats, they also did the same for spells that would take them to other places on world. They will be having to go on feet or with the volucercarrus. But either will not be immediate as spell.”   

“That’s what they call those hover-bike things,” Roxa put in before I could ask. “Volucercarrus.”

The Relukun nodded once more. “For quicker, some have taken to call them v-carrus at times.”

“V-carrus,” I echoed, sounding it out for myself. “Almost sounds like vicars.” Looking up at that, I smiled despite myself. “I think I like that one. Vicars. Easier to remember than volcanocarass.”

“Okay, one,” Sands put in. “Volcano-car-ass is not hard to remember. But volucercarrus is.”

“So vicar it is,” I replied with a thumbs up. “The vicars, how long will it take them to get there?”

Gordon was the one who answered. “It took us four days hiking. Figure something like five miles an hour, hiking twelve hours a day, that’s sixty miles. Four days would make it two hundred and forty. I was talking to some of the other prisoners, and it sounds like the v-carrus can do about three hundred miles an hour. But that’s over open ground, not through trees and hills. Even if they sent someone immediately, it’ll probably still take them most of an hour to get there.”

“They were focused on me first,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So the earliest they would’ve sent them was when I took off, which was about…” I looked at the watch on my wrist. “Forty minutes ago. You said it’ll take twenty minutes to finish the portal spells, and that’s about how soon any vicars they sent could make it to Radueriel.” Hissing a little, I shook my head. “It’s gonna be really close. Really, really close. We’ve gotta get up there, take over the ship, and book it.”

“Book it?” Karees was staring at me with obvious confusion. “You wish to record these events?”

Forcing myself not to giggle to avoid making the guy feel bad, I shook my head. “Sorry, I mean ‘go’, we need to go very quickly as soon as we get up on that ship, before Radueriel shows up.”

“Our people will ‘book it’ as soon as we can,” he announced in a deeply solemn voice before reaching out to touch my arm with his wooden hand. “We thank you, for everything you have been doing. Some of ours may not know if you are to be trusted. But we know what you have done, what you have risked to free us. That is not something that we will just lose our minds of.”

Swallowing a little, I met the man’s gaze as he squeezed my arm. “I promise,” I started while moving my other hand to rest on his arm, “we’re not done. We’re getting everyone out of here.”

True to his word, it wasn’t that much longer before the Alters up on the outcropping called down. From Tabbris’s translation, they were saying that the spells were ready, but that we had to hurry.

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” I muttered before realizing that none of the Alters down here were moving. Instead, they were all still staring at me. There were a few whispers going around, but for the most part, everyone seemed to be waiting to see what I was going to do.

Karees spoke up from behind me. “They have seen what you do. They have seen your power, seen you do what the Seosten do to the Seosten. They have seen you master the masters.”

“I’m not–” Stopping myself, I breathed out. “I just got lucky and managed to kill one of their really powerful people, that’s all. If Charmeine hadn’t left herself open like th–”

The whispering was louder now, and even Karees couldn’t stop himself from interrupting. “Pardons, Charmeine? What of the Nemesis?”

“Nemesis?” I echoed. “That’s what Radueriel called her. Wait, wasn’t that one of the–oh.”

The Relukun nodded. “Charmeine the Nemesis, you… you are saying that you… that she is… that… that you…” There was emotion in his voice, as he stared at me.

“I… my friends and me, we fought her,” I replied slowly. “One of my other teammates, he hit her hard, stunned her long enough for me to… to kill her.”

Karees slumped hard then. At first I thought that he was falling over, and quickly moved to catch him. But he straightened after that immediate slump. And when he stood that time, it was like a weight had been lifted from the man. “The Nemesis is dead,” he spoke in an awed, hushed voice that cracked. There were what looked like tears in his eyes. Then he raised his voice louder, calling, “The Nemesis is dead!”

Someone else further back repeated the shout. Then another, and more. Soon, they were all saying it, all repeating the same thing. The Nemesis was dead. The Nemesis was dead. They said it over and over. There were tears everywhere.

As I stared around in confusion, they came forward. Karees was first. He stepped over to me, his gnarled, wooden hands taking my shoulders before squeezing. I blinked up at his eyes, seeing the tears there as he announced. “My girl-child, my girl-child resisted. The Nemesis killed her, killed her man-mate, their boy-children and girl-child, my next-children. When my woman-mate cried and begged for her to spare our next-children, our child’s children, she was killed. The Nemesis killed my all. You–you have killed her. You are–”

By that point, he was too choked up to speak, his mouth simply opening and shutting repeatedly for a few more seconds before he released me. Which was when more of the Alters came forward. They were all talking, all trying to thank me. All talking about what Charmeine had taken from them, who she had killed. The old Seosten hadn’t personally hurt everyone there, but she had hurt enough of them. Dozens kept trying to get closer, kept trying to tell me how grateful they were either for themselves or for people that they knew.

“Guys, guys, wait, wait, we need to go,” I kept trying to insist. “Thank you, I–I can’t–I’m glad that–guys, really, we need to–”

“Seosten!” The shout came from atop the outcropping. As everyone jerked that way, we saw a figure leaning over the edge, pointing off into the distance. Every head snapped that way, and I heard the sound of the hoverbike/vicar engines.

“Go!” I blurted, turning to the others. “Get up there, go, get everyone to the spells. Now, go!”

There was a shout from the other side of the group, before Roxa raised her voice to yell for everyone to get up to the portals. Gidget, bouncing from foot to foot beside her, made a loud growling sound of agreement. Then the rush began. It was actually better than I expected. The former slaves didn’t trample each other, didn’t shove one another out of the way. But they were definitely in a hurry.

Making sure the rest of my group was with me, I watched the sky while trailing after the escaped prisoners. We made it up to the top of the outcropping and found four large portals sitting there. They were vaguely violet in color, and I could see some kind of room on the other side of them. Beside each of the portals were several Alters pointing their hands at it. From the strain on their faces, it was obvious that it was taxing to maintain them. Still, they were trying their best, keeping the portals active while their fellow escaped prisoners started streaming through.

“Go!” I blurted, giving Roxa a shove. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, if we send them through and they get wiped out by all the guards there, we won’t–”

I was interrupted by the sound of those engines growing deafening, and whipped around just as a dozen vicars come into view. Each was carrying two riders, and they did not look happy.

The shooting started almost immediately, as some kind of weird, high-velocity metal shot from from both the front of the vicars and from the weapons held by about half of the riders themselves. It wasn’t the same thing as bullets. It was more like a rail gun or something. Tiny bits of metal accelerated so much that they punched straight through anything they hit. The other half weren’t using guns. Instead, they sent things like fireballs, scalding water, and more. The air was filled with incoming death.

Roxa was running, for a few steps anyway before Gidget finished transforming into her hoverboard form to carry the girl up to the portals.

One of the Alters that was passing by me took one of those metal projectiles right in his arm, shearing the limb right off. But he never broke pace. The lure of freedom was too strong, and he kept right on running. As my head snapped that way, taking in the sight of his severed arm, Sands shouted my name from somewhere off in the mob of running figures.

Shots were coming everywhere. I saw Alters going down, bodies piling up even as the rest struggled to make it to the portals. Three shots took down one of the people who were holding the portals open, and the rest failed to maintain it. That portal flickered out of existence, leaving only three left.

Screaming, flying metal, fire, deafening engines, sobbing, smoke, all of it and more filled the air. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t do anything but stand there as chaos and destruction reigned. Wherever Sands was, I couldn’t see her. All around me, there was nothing but running figures, and the death that chased them from the sky. In just those few seconds, over a dozen of the prisoners that we had saved went down, falling to the ground, never to rise again. They were cut down literally inches from freedom. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear Tabbris crying.

Light suddenly filled the side of my vision, and I snapped my head that way in time to see a truly massive ball of ice coming straight for me. The freezing orb had to be at least five feet around. The ground beneath it as well as everything that got within a few feet of the thing ended up completely frozen. I saw a running figure pass too close to the frozen ball, only for half of their body to end up turning to ice. That only lasted for a moment before their frozen half shattered, like an icicle that had been dropped.  For a half-second, an instant, I was caught flat footed.

Abruptly, another figure shoved his way right into my path, knocking me to the ground. I looked up, and saw Gordon. The dark-skinned boy had pushed me down, and now stood over me. He was turning, dropping down into a kneeling position as he wrapped both arms around me. I found myself pulled up against the boy and held there just as the frozen orb collided squarely with him. Things got cold… really cold. But I didn’t freeze.

Then it was gone. Gordon was standing, pushing himself up with a slight grunt. As I stared up at the boy, he looked down at me, extending a hand. His voice was as calm as ever. “We need to go.”

I let him help me up, turning. Most of the Alters were through by then. The ones who were still alive, anyway. But there were also only two portals still active. And as I watched, another went down. One portal left. Beside it, Jazz and Sands were there, waving for us to hurry.

We ran. Gordon and I sprinted that way, even as more rail-shots from the flying bikes kept blowing apart the ground all around our feet. I felt the heat of the shots, as they kept getting closer. We weren’t going to make it.

Except fuck that. My arm snapped out to wrap around Gordon, even as I pointed my staff behind us and toward the ground. Triggering the charge that had built up, I sent us flying far ahead, leaving the shots behind just as they would have converged with where we had been.

The portal was there. We landed, and I saw Sands take a quick step forward. As the vicars that had been flying right on our heels came screaming closer, she held up both hands. A spray of sticky webbing shot from them, and I snapped my head back that way in time to see the drivers of each of the two hovercycles that had been closest take a glob to the face.

An instant later, the webbing burst into flames, and the drivers screamed while veering off. They crashed into one another, leaving a massive explosion there in midair. All four of them, drivers and passengers alike, were killed instantly.

Sands collapsed, a cry of pleasure escaping her as the pink aura flared up. Instead of waiting for her to recover, I grabbed the girl by the arm and yanked her up, giving her a shove toward Jazz. “Go!” I shouted. “Take her through!”

She did, taking Sands around the waist to pull her through the portal. As Gordon followed, it left me and the three Alters who were holding the portal open. One went through, dropping its size by about half. The remaining two struggled to keep it open. Looking to one another, some unspoken communication passed between them, and one hopped backward through the portal.

One left, and the portal was down to about the size of a normal doorway. Ahead of us, the remaining vicars were on their way, coming in for another strafing run. We only had a handful of seconds, if that much.

The last Alter looked to me, shouting something that I didn’t need Tabbris to translate as an order to go through and leave him.

“Yeah,” I replied flatly, “that’s not happening.”

Reaching out, I caught him by the arm, while holding my staff straight ahead in the direction of the incoming Seosten troops. “Get–” I started while triggering the boost. It sent me flying backward through the portal, yanking the last Alter with me. As he was torn off his feet, the portal itself started to wink out.

We passed through at the last instant, leaving the planet and Seosten troops behind with my last word.


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Uprising 29-07

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Please note that there was a mini-interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan (with a bit of a surprise at the end) posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

So, taking stock. I was in the middle of the Seosten slave camp. Something like a hundred troops were scouring the whole place looking for me, including flying overhead. The few Seosten themselves who were there would clearly stop at nothing to have me either killed or captured after I had shown that I could do to them what they did to everyone else. And I had no way of getting out of the camp without revealing myself to the dozens and dozens of beings that would dogpile me the instant I appeared, before I could actually do anything useful like escape.  

But on the bright side, at least I was pretty much acing that whole ‘distract all of the Seosten troops so they let the slaves escape instead of chasing them’ thing. With any luck at all, they would all be long gone by the time this situation resolved itself. I just had to make sure that ‘resolving itself’ part didn’t end up involving me either dead or a Seosten slave. Somehow.

Some of the guards were walking around with strange-looking flashlight devices that gave off a pale red beam. They were shining them everywhere as they scoured the camp, and I could see more of the same crimson lights coming off the hoverbikes gliding slowly by overhead.

Any idea what those red light things are?  I asked my partner after watching them for a moment. Because I’m kind of getting the sneaky suspicion that they detect stealth powers somehow.

I–um, I’m not sure, the response came slowly. Mama didn’t mention them exactly. But she did talk about stuff that could make invisible things not invisible. Maybe that’s what they are?

Maybe, I agreed. Either way, they don’t seem to be affecting us right now. The lights already hit us a few times and none of them reacted or anything. So we’re safe as long as we don’t move.

The other girl’s response was a pointed, But they’ll call for Radueriel as soon as they fix that thing, and he’ll probably have a way to find you. Plus, you can’t just stay here forever, anyway.

You, I noticed. She kept saying ‘you’ instead of ‘we’ or ‘us’. Tabbris was still so accustomed to keeping herself out of the situation and being a completely unseen presence that she kept instinctively not counting herself in things like that. Which was… yeah, we were gonna have to talk about that. We were going to have to talk about a lot of things, whenever there was time.

You’re right, I replied, we can’t just stay here forever. But we’ll have to time and plan it right. We don’t get a do-over. Once we pop out of here, they’ll be right on us. We won’t even be able to hide in another bit of wood, because they’ll see it happen that time and we’ll be sitting ducks.  

Wait, the response came a second later, I think you can do something else besides sit here.

She told me what her idea was, and I felt myself smile a little bit (despite the fact that I didn’t really seem to have a physical body at that particular moment). Yeah, you know what? I’m pretty sure that the Seosten are gonna get really sick of me using their own tactics against them.

Good. The response from Tabbris was unusually firm, even a little vindictive. They deserve it.

Again, we were going to have to talk about a lot of things. But for the time being, I watched as the troops continued to search for us, waiting for the right moment. I needed one of them to come closer at a time that others weren’t actively looking in the same direction. Which was tricky, especially with the ones that were flying overhead. The timing for it had to be just right.  

So we waited, and waited. Nearby, there were several guards working on fixing the machine that I had shot up so that they could call for help. But from the sound of things, it was gonna take them awhile. Which the nearest Seosten wasn’t happy about. Even without Tabbris translating, I could tell from his tone that he was chewing them out pretty thoroughly. If I hadn’t known any better, I might have said that he actually sounded nervous. Funny how that worked.

Still, no one seemed to be in any hurry to come close enough to the fence post that we were occupying. This was taking entirely too long. Even if they couldn’t get the intergalactic telephone working again, I had no doubt that one of the Seosten would know a spell they could use. Once they got over the initial search and effort to fix the machine, they’d go for the magic solution. So for every minute that passed, we kept getting inexorably closer to Radueriel showing up.

Finally, however, we got a little bit of a break. Unfortunately, it was two guards that approached and stopped near the fence that I was occupying, rather than one. Still, I braced myself and watch both of them with bated breath, ready for the first possible opening.

There! The guard who was nearest to the fence was looking at the building where the communications equipment was being restored, while his partner had his head turned around the other way to stare up at one of the nearby guard towers. They were still right next to each other, but they weren’t actually looking at each other. And there were no hover bikes overhead. That was going to have to be good enough. In that moment, I really wished that I had Shiori’s power that told her when she was being observed. Actually, I just really wished that she was here. I missed her. I missed both of them, Shiori and Avalon.

No, had to focus. Without waiting another second, I started to extend myself out of the fence. As I emerged, I quickly grabbed the nearest guard by the wrist while using the possession power, and felt Tabbris helping at the same time.

I was in, seeing through the guards eyes even as his gaze finished snapping down to where my hand had been on his wrist. I felt him in the back of my mind, struggling against my control. But it was even less than the Seosten’s resistance, barely a spray of water from a hose against a brick wall.

Beside us, his companion was turning away from his study of the tower while asking something. Tabbris immediately translated in near-real-time.

“Did you see something?” the other guard asked. From his voice, he sounded a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure how much of that was fear of me, and how much was fear of what his masters would do if they didn’t find me. To be honest, it was probably weighted about ninety to ninety-five percent in the latter direction. I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t want to be in his position.

Trusting Tabbris to translate my words way she had before, I started to respond. I told the man that there was nothing there, and then asked him if he thought ‘they’ were really still in the camp.

In response, the other guard grunted something about how bad it would be for all of them if I had escaped. Lifting his red flashlight device, he gave it a slow pan around the area. Despite myself, I braced a little bit as it passed over me. But nothing happened. Which, I supposed made sense. As much as the Seosten depended on being able to possess their troops, I really doubted they would hand out a bunch of ways to identify them.

Uh huh, Tabbris agreed. Mama said that the Seosten have been unified and working together for so long that most of them can’t even conceive of the idea that they might actually have to defend against their own abilities. She hesitated a bit then, before adding, That’s what the regular Seosten think anyway. Mama said that she thought that the ones who did show any kind of, you know, resistance to the way things were got taken away somewhere so they wouldn’t ‘infect’ anyone else.

There was a lot that I wanted to say to that, but we had to focus. So I looked down at the flashlight thing in my hands and accessed the guards memories briefly to see how to activate it. Turning it on, I swept the beam around before pausing as it hit a corner of the nearest tower down near the base. “Hey,” I spoke while nudging the guard next to me. Again, my partner translated my voice. “Did you see that?”

The man’s head snapped that way, and he stared intently for a moment before shaking his head. His hand was already reaching for something on his belt as he replied, “Better call it in anyway.”

Quickly, I made my host shake his head while hissing, “Are you crazy?” When he stopped to look at me, I continued. “What if there’s nothing there? Do you want to be the one who calls them over with the mood they’re in? You think they’ll just laugh it off if they think we distracted them for nothing?” With that, I started to walk that way, gesturing with the pistol that the man had been carrying in his other hand. “Come on, watch my back. We’ll check it out, then call it in.”

Walking that way, I led the other guard over to the tower. No one was paying attention to us, since they were all so intently focused on searching for… well, me. The tension in the air was obvious, and I was pretty sure that it wasn’t because these guys were afraid of what I might do.

Leading my guy over to the base of the tower, I stepped under it and into the shadows. There was a bush there, and I took a knee while making a big show of peering under the bush. The whole time, the other guard kept asking increasingly nervous questions about whether anything was there. He also mentioned more than once how close we were to the edge of the camp.

“Wait,” I muttered, then leaned in to pantomime grabbing something. Keeping my hand closed into a fist, I turned while staying on one knee to hold the hand up toward the other guy. “Think they dropped this?” Then I opened the guy’s hand only a little bit, deliberately keeping a couple fingers in the way so that he couldn’t see that my hand was actually empty.

With an annoyed grunt, the other guard reached out to push my fingers away, telling me to let him see. As my host’s open and empty palm was revealed, I made him smile (though it was hidden behind the mask). “Oops. Guess it escaped.” Then I abruptly grabbed his wrist while telling Tabbris, Now!

Two things happened simultaneously then. First, the Seosten girl knocked out our current host after wiping out his memory of the past few minutes. At the same time, I shot upward out of the body, my actual hand replacing his on the other guard’s wrist. Then I was inside of him, looking down at the first body as it collapsed right back into the bush that I had positioned him near. Since he was already kneeling, it barely made a sound.

And just like that, I was in one guard’s body while the other had been knocked out and hidden away. Sure, it wouldn’t be long before the body was found (I had the sneaky suspicion that this whole thing had started because someone had found the last body I left in some bushes). But it didn’t need to. The cat was out of the bag now. We just had to get out of here. And honestly, them finding an unconscious body with no idea how it got there might work in my favor.

Right, under the tower so I was hidden from its sight, and no one was looking directly at me. Time to just slip away into the forest and disappear. Unfortunately, turning to step that way, I heard a steady humming. At first, I thought it was just a bit of ringing in my ears. But Tabbris quickly told me to stop.

I think it’s a forcefield, she whispered. They probably put it up to make sure you couldn’t get out.

Slowly, I turned back to look at the camp. Raising my gaze up a bit, I replied, Those hoverbikes are going in and out of it. So the field must not extend all the way up. Maybe I could drop this guy and staff-boost myself over it.

But we don’t know exactly how high it is, the other girl pointed out. And all those guys will be right on you the second you do that. Those um, those hoverbikes’ll run you down really quick.

She had a point. I might be able to boost myself over the forcefield, but even if I did, we’d have a dozen different hoverbikes right on our tails within a couple of seconds. It just wasn’t feasible.

Instead, I kept looking around the camp. Everything still looked the same. There were guards searching everywhere, hoverbikes overhead, Seosten barking orders as they strode back and forth, some technicians trying to fix the communications computers…

I’ve got another plan, I announced with a slow smile. But it might be a little crazy.

A little? Tabbris’s voice came back. I can, um, you know…  read your mind, remember? It’s not a little crazy, it’s a lot crazy. Like, um, the Mount Vesuvius of crazy.

Hey, I replied, remember when we did that report on that in eighth grade and made that working replica with all the little Roman houses? Dad stayed up all night with us like three days in a row to get it done in time.

There was a brief hesitation, and I felt the Seosten girl’s conflicting emotions at my words. Your… your dad really wanted you to do well on that project. He loves you a lot.

He loves his family, Tabbris, I reminded her. And as soon as he knows you exist, you’ll be his family too. You already are. You’re my sister. So you’re family. Got it? We’re in this together.

Again, I felt a rush of tumultuous emotions from the girl before she answered with a soft, Got it. So, um… If she had been physically present, I was pretty sure she would’ve been crying right then. Or at least sniffling. Time for the Vesuvius idea?

Time for the Vesuvius idea, I confirmed. Without wasting another second, I made our current host start walking back the way that we had come before.

We reached the middle of the camp, where two of the Seosten were standing. One was the guy from earlier, the one Tabbris had tricked into not checking out the tower when we had been sneaking our way in. To put it mildly, he seemed to be in a bad mood. Not that his companion was any happier. They were both shouting orders, demands that I be found or the entire camp would pay for it. As the single guard that we were possessing approached, both of their attention turned to us, and one of them asked if we’d found anything.

Wow, I started, you were right, they are not good at defending against their own tactics, are they?

Nuh uh, came the answer. Like Mama said, most of them can’t even consider the idea that they might have someone use their own powers against them.

Well, they were going to learn the error of that kind of assumption pretty damn quick, if I had anything to say about it. With that in mind, I made our host start nodding to the men as they blurted their demands. Raising the hand with the red flashlight, I used it to point back the other way. For just a second, the two Seosten glanced that way, instinctively looking the way I was pointing.

And then I used the guard’s gun to shoot the nearest one five times right in the middle of his chest. It turned out that this thing was a laser gun, firing out tiny orange balls of light that tore into and through him before he even knew anything was wrong.

He fell, collapsing to the ground with a look of shock. At the same time, a rush of pleasure flooded into me and I saw my aura flare up around our host. It wasn’t anything like when I had killed Charmeine. But still, I only kept moving because I had been bracing myself for it. Even then, I still staggered a bit.

His partner, the Seosten we’d seen earlier, was already snatching some kind of weapon from his belt. But it was too late. Tabbris sent us out of our current host, and I threw myself that way while he was still trying to get the thing up.

My staff was in one hand, but I didn’t swing it. Instead, after hitting the button to make it start charging up, I actually released the staff while throwing myself bodily into the Seosten.

Again, just like before, it worked. I was possessing him. This guy was even stronger than the last one. I felt his rage, even heard him making threats. Given enough time and focus, he might’ve been able to wrest control away from me for short bursts. But we weren’t going to give him that kind of time. Nor would we let the other remaining Seosten (whose locations I could sense through that connection they had) get to us.

Instead, I made his hand snap out to catch my abandoned staff before it could finish falling. Then I looked around quickly.

Yeah, we had an audience. Shooting the first Seosten had attracted everyone’s attention. There were more guns pointed at me than I could count. Yet they didn’t fire. They didn’t dare fire. Their entire society was built around constantly serving the Seosten. Entire generations stretching back as far as they could remember had been serving the Seosten. The very thought of actually shooting one of them was probably close to impossible for them to even consider, after how much had been put into making them practically worship their masters.

So they hesitated, and I took advantage of that. Using the man’s fingers, I hit the button on my staff. The charge that had been building up released itself in a burst that sent us flying straight up, right at the nearest hoverbike. Its rider, who had been aiming down at me, was already jerking back. But it was too late. Just as we collided with him, Tabbris activated not my possession, but the Seosten’s.

And then we were there on the bike, possessing the man who had been riding it. Or to be more specific, Tabbris was possessing me, I was possessing the Seosten, and the Seosten was possessing the rider. How many more levels of this could we find a way to add?

Maybe I’d find out someday. For the moment, I simply let Tabbris take over, because she was better and faster at the next part. She instantly scanned the memory of our most recent host (the biggest pig in the Jekern pile, so to speak), checking for the controls. Then she grabbed the hoverbike’s handlebars, hit something with the man’s foot, and we were suddenly gone. The bike took off so fast it made those Formula One racecars look like they were standing still. She punched the gas (or whatever this thing used), and the bike shot straight out into the forest, engines screaming.

The other hoverbikes would be right on our tail. But we had the advantage, since we’d caught them by surprise. And since we were on the same kind of vehicle instead of on foot, they didn’t have that advantage. For the moment, we were out of sight.

In my head, the Seosten we were possessing growled a deep, You will burn for this. You cannot comprehend the force that will be brought down on you. We are the Seosten. Our rule is unchallenged and our vengeance unimaginable.

Yeah? I replied simply, Well as a great smuggler once said, I can imagine quite a lot. And for the record, things are changing. You might wanna buckle up. As Tabbris moved the man’s hand to snap something off the controls, I added, No, seriously, buckle up.

And with that, I threw myself backwards out of both the driver of the hoverbike and the Seosten himself. The speed that we were going at when I jumped off would’ve made me pretty much splatter into a fine paste, but I had timed it so that my body went straight for the nearest tree. A second later, I merged with it, even as the sound of the hoverbike disappeared off in the distance. Barely a handful of seconds later, a dozen more bikes went tearing off after it, having no idea that they were passing us by.

That thing you broke, I asked once the crowd of pursuers was gone, you sure it’ll stop him from turning that thing around any time soon?

Uh huh! Tabbris chirped. D-definitely! I promise, I made sure. And um, it’s bit. The last part came very quietly, like she was embarrassed to say anything.

Bit? I echoed, confused.

Han Solo, she quickly put in. He said he could imagine quite a bit, not quite a lot. I’m sorry, I just–it was… umm, I… really like Han Solo. He’s… he’s my favorite.

Aww, I replied, Now I know what movies we’re gonna watch with Dad as soon as we get back.

The bikes were gone by that point, so it was time to leave. Sending myself to the bottom of the tree that I had thrown us into, I stepped out of it while announcing out loud, “And I think I’ll call that whole possessing someone who possesses someone else the Choo Maneuver.”

“Good name.” The words came from my left, and I jerked that way to find a figure standing there. One of the remaining Seosten. He was too far back for me to grab, and from the expression on his face as he held his gun leveled straight in my direction, I was pretty sure that if I moved, he’d just shoot me and be done with it.

It took me a second to recognize that he had spoken in English, without Tabbris’s translation. And he’d understood my words. His smile was thin. “You have given us quite the scare. I would kill you now, but the rest must see you die. They must see it for themselves and know that your threat is ended as soon as it began. You are–”

And then his head basically exploded. It burst like a melon, as a familiar spiked metal ball appeared where it had been. A second later, an equally familiar pink aura flared up, and I heard a loud gasp of pleasure.

“Really?” Sands demanded once she had recovered. “You thought I’d just abandon you on your say-so? Do you have any idea what Avalon would do to me if I did that? Sorry, Chambers, but she’s scarier than you are.

“Now let’s get the fuck out of here.”

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Mini-Interlude 47 – Tristan and Vanessa

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The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan introducing the latter to her team back when he first showed up. And… well, other stuff too. Remember, it takes place months ago, while Roxa is still at the school and thus Rudolph has not switched teams, etc. 

Several Months Ago

After hours in long discussions with Headmistress Sinclaire (with several different staff members going in and out throughout their talk), Vanessa and Tristan Moon were finally left alone in the school corridor once more. They’d had that short conversation with Gaia, where Vanessa had learned just how much the woman actually already knew about Alters not being evil, and about the woman’s son, and… and everything else that had made the girl need to sit down, dizzy from the revelations. Then Vanessa and Tristan had spent an hour alone in the office, just trying to process the idea that they were actually together once more.

After that, once the two felt like they couldn’t make the adults wait any longer, they had told Gaia that they were ready. She had prepared them, told them what to say, what story to tell to her own staff and anyone else who asked. She prepared them for all the questions, all the tests, all the… everything. Not that it was nearly as much as some of the adults wanted. The other teachers had wanted to run Tristan through more tests, had wanted to ask even more questions. But the headmistress had made them stop. She said that there would be time to talk about everything else later, and then let them go.

So there they were, standing out in the corridor that was devoid of anyone else for that moment. Alone, save for each other, the twins finally left to talk privately.

“I still can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you made it, I mean, I mean… I can’t–” Vanessa realized that she was babbling and cut herself off. Verbally, at least. She couldn’t seem to stop her hands from constantly touching her brother. She squeezed his shoulders, his arms, took his hands, moved back to his face, touched his hair. It was a dream. It was just like a dream, so similar to dreams that she’d had for the past decade. Any second now, she was going to wake up. She would wake up and her entire family would be missing once more. She’d wake up, and the entire world would think that she was crazy once more.

She couldn’t go through that again. She’d stopped telling the story early on, once her seven-year-old self had sat through several psychologists that kept telling her she was wrong, that she hadn’t seen what she thought she saw. They told her that her memory was playing tricks on her. But that was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was never wrong. Never. But between the lectures, the long discussions, and the talk of drugs, she’d pretended that they were right.

But she’d never stopped believing what she knew was right. Squashing it down in public, pretending for so long, had just made the things worse in her own subconscious mind. Accusations from her family, her mother and father, and from Tristan, had filled her dreams. They thought that she had forgotten them, that she had abandoned them. More than once, the girl had woken up in a cold sweat, sobbing into her pillow as she begged them to understand.

And now, now she was petrified that all of this was going to disappear. She was afraid Tristan would be gone, that he would vanish the next time she blinked. There was even a certain terrible fear that, after Tristan disappeared, everyone in the school would forget him as well. She was afraid that he would be gone, and that all of her teachers and classmates would have no idea who she was talking about. That fear made her keep touching him, keep all but clinging to him. If her brother did disappear, she’d rather be taken with him than be left behind again.

“Nessa,” Tristan spoke quickly, smiling as he grabbed her hands and held them. “It’s okay. I’m here. And I ain’t going away again. I’m anchored to Flick, so I’m staying right here. Okay?”

For a single, brief moment, Vanessa felt a twinge of jealousy toward the other girl. It was dumb. She knew that. But for that handful of seconds, the fact that her brother was magically anchored to Felicity Chambers made her feel somehow left out. Again, dumb. There was absolutely no reason for it. Tristan was anchored to Flick because she had seen him on that other world, and he’d needed someone that he could remember in order for the spell to work. He and Gaia had thoroughly explained all of that over the several hour discussion that they had just come out of.

“I know,” the girl mumbled, squeezing her brother’s hands. “I know that you’re here. I just…” Her mouth opened and shut as she fought to find the right words, words that wouldn’t sound crazy.

She didn’t need to. Tristan just smiled and gave her a little nod. “I get it. I… wow. I spent so long trying to remember you, trying to remember anything about our family at all, and nothing worked. But now it’s like all those memories just came pouring back as soon as I saw you.”

Vanessa felt a slight blush touch her face then, and her smile brightened as she informed the boy, “If there’s anything you still don’t remember, I can tell you about it.”

He chuckled a little before giving her a tight hug. “Nessa and her perfect memory. I remember. I remember all of it. I’m surprised you haven’t already managed to get…” Biting his lip as he hesitated, Tristan asked hesitantly, “You really don’t have any idea where Mom and Dad are?”

She flinched, almost as if she had been physically struck. Cringing, Vanessa pleaded, “I’ve been trying. But they hide everything so much around here. There’s just… holes in all of it. Between that and all the rules, the memory manipulation, the… everything, it’s hard. I didn’t know wh-”

“Shh.” Tristan shook his head. “Hey, it’s okay. Two heads are better than one, right? We work together, Nessa. Remember how it goes? You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. We’ll find them.”

Vanessa nodded at that, her twin able to make her feel better and calm her down as easily now as he had when they were children. He was right, they complemented each other. Being without him for an entire decade had been like losing an arm and learning to work without it. She’d needed her brother. Now that he was back, they would find their parents. She knew they would.

“Come on,” she finally announced, pulling him by the hand. “I’ll show you around. You still have the key so you can get to the room that Headmistress Sinclaire said we could use, right?” Later, Tristan would have to be given his own room. But for the evening, Gaia had said they could spend the night in the same room, one of the guest suites in the upper floor of the main building. After everything that had happened, she wasn’t going to immediately separate the two of them.

“Nessa,” Tristan replied while giving her a brief look. “She handed it to me, I put it in my pocket, and we walked like… fifteen feet.” His hand dug pointedly into the pocket in question as he continued. “I mean, c’mon, how could I possibly have lost it that soo–hey, where’d it go?”

Vanessa raised her hand, showing the boy the key in her palm. “You dropped it on the floor when you were putting it in your pocket.” Even then, she couldn’t stop smiling. This. This was what she had missed. The last time they had been together, they were both still in first grade. Now, so much time had passed, so much had changed. And yet, some things were the same.

“Right, then.” Tristan grinned right back at her while taking the key, as utterly incorrigible as he had always been in her memories. “I’m glad you passed that perception test. Good job.”

“You absolutely did not do that on purpose,” the girl huffed at her brother while folding her arms.

He winked at that. “And yet, as soon as I said the words ‘passed’ and ‘test’, you got all happy.”

“I–” Vanessa opened and shut her mouth, flushing a little before turning to walk. “Come on.”

Together, the two of them walked down the hall to the stairs, and made their way out of the building. But they had barely stepped out onto the grounds before the twins found themselves facing a small group of people who had clearly been waiting for them: Vanessa’s teammates.

“Hey, Vanessa!” That was Cameron Reid, their team mentor. The black girl had been facing away from the doors, clearly saying something to the others as the twins emerged. Now, she turned to them, whipping around so fast that, in any normal situation, the ever-present blue-tongued skink that was draped over the girl’s shoulder would have gone flying off.

Yet, as always, the lizard somehow managed to retain his spot. Vanessa had seen their team mentor actually fight while keeping the little guy with her. It had something to do with a collection of reptile-based powers that Cameron had. Which, among other things, allowed her to not just communicate with reptiles but actually temporarily make them grow. With a single touch and moment of focus, the second-year student was capable of making the eighteen-inch lizard rapidly become as large as a pony and as long as a crocodile, complete with steel-like armored scales. Even more impressively, she could give them the ability to project various types of breath weapon. It had to be chosen at the time that the reptile was affected, but they could gain fire breath, lightning breath, ice breath, a corrosive acid breath, and probably others.

Essentially, with a touch and about fifteen seconds of time, their mentor could turn the eighteen-inch lizard perched on her shoulder into a four-foot tall, twenty-foot long armored dragon that could breathe fire, lightning, or whatever. It was incredibly impressive to see.     

But Vanessa still didn’t understand what kind of reference Cameron was making when she said that the lizard’s name was Tad Cooper. Something about a musical, but the girl just kept giggling when she tried to explain it.

“Um, hi, guys.” Biting her lip, Vanessa nodded to her team. “What’re, uh, you doing out here?”

“Vanessa, c’mon.” Malcolm gave her a look for that one, shaking his head. “Everyone knows you’re a genius, so don’t try to play dumb.  You gonna introduce us, or what?” His gaze turned to the boy beside her before he lifted his chin in greeting, giving a drawled, “Sup, dude?”

“And where have you been hiding him?” Erin added, her eyes wide as she looked Tristan up and down appreciatively before giving Vanessa a hurt look. “Seriously, we’re supposed to be best-roomies and you never mention that you’ve got a–a brother, right? He is your brother? Maybe a cousin, or a nephew, or even an uncle of some kind?” From the look on the girl’s face, Vanessa was quite certain that Erin had an ulterior motive for hoping that they were related.

“Easy, Erin,” Cameron was shaking her head, clearly amused. “They’re Bystander-kin, remember? They don’t tend to have uncles or nephews that are the exact same age. Usually.”

Zeke, standing a bit away from the others, muttered something under his breath that sounded like, ‘Lucky them.’ Then he looked straight to Vanessa. “So, you gonna explain or what?”

“Oh, right.” Coughing, Vanessa lifted her hand to gesture to each in turn. “Trist, these are my, uh, my teammates: Malcolm, Travis, Rudolph, Zeke, and my roommate Erin. And this is our team mentor, Cameron. Guys, this is Tristan, he’s my twin brother.” She supposed that Erin’s subsequent fistpump of victory was fairly understandable, but the little dance was pushing it.

Rudolph was the first to step that way, barely edging out Erin herself. The pale, slightly hefty boy offered his hand with a small smile. “Hey, uh, I guess we should say, welcome to Crossroads.”

“Hey, thanks, dude.” Rather than shaking Rudolph’s hand, Tristan slapped him five instead, then did it the other way with the back of his hand, before grabbing the boy’s hand to pull him into a shoulder bump. “You’re the guys that’ve been helping Nessa, huh? Thanks, man.”

To Cameron, the boy flashed a broad, endearing smile. “Hey, who’s your friend? Can he come say hi too?”

The older girl chuckled, reaching up to take the lizard off her shoulder before holding him out. “Sure, here. This is Tad. Tad, say hi to Tristan. And be nice.”

Tristan carefully took the reptile, rubbing the back of its head with obvious quick fondness. “Awesome. I always wanted a pet snake or something.”

In turn, he went through greeting each of the others. Despite the fact that Vanessa had been with the team since the beginning of the semester and Tristan had only met them a few seconds earlier, he already seemed completely at ease with them. Which was the way it had gone when they were younger too. As far back as preschool, Tristan had been the one who introduced the two of them to other kids, even to teachers. Tristan was the outgoing one, Vanessa was the bookworm, the one who was ‘weird’ because she did things like write out multiplication tables while the rest of their classmates were still learning how to color inside the lines. The teachers had wanted to move her up to higher grades, even that early. If the school staff had had their way, Vanessa would have been in third or fourth grade while Tristan was in first. But their parents had refused to split them up like that.

Someone with a darker sense of humor probably could have made a joke about how that turned out.

“Erin’s right, though,” Cameron pointed out. “You never mentioned you had a brother, let alone a twin. I thought you grew up in like, some kind of group home or something, wasn’t it?”

“Hey, yeah,” Vanessa’s roommate tore her attention away from Tristan to squint at Vanessa. “How come you never mentioned him? And why hasn’t he been here from the beginning? I mean, obviously he was like… missing or something? The way you were in the cafeteria…”

Giving a little nod, Vanessa launched into the explanation that they had given the teachers and other adults, the story that Gaia had told them to tell once she found out exactly what had happened. “Yes, it’s like I said, Tristan is my brother. But our family isn’t exactly Bystanders.”

“Our mom and dad,” Tristan put in then, “they were Heretics. But they, uh, they were kind of Garden of Eden Heretics.”

“Eden’s Garden,” Vanessa corrected with a slight nudge. “They were Eden’s Garden Heretics.”

The boy nodded. “Right, that. Either way, they retired and went off to live on their own. Awhile later, out popped the most beautiful and brilliant twin babies you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Clearing her throat pointedly, Vanessa cut in. “We didn’t know our parents were different, until monsters attacked our house. They were Strangers who had a grudge against Mom and Dad.”

“Our parents fought them,” Tristan continued with a little shrug. “But the Strangers were really… persistent. They had this portal set up and it took the three of us away. Our parents and me. But the portal got destroyed in the process and Nessa was left behind.”

Travis spoke up then. “Holy shit, dude. How–” He hesitated, wincing as he looked over to Vanessa before slowly asking, “How, uh, how old were you?”

She swallowed at the question. “Seven. I didn’t know what happened. I couldn’t remember much of it, until I got here, and had my Edge vision. That’s when I found out all the stuff about them being Heretics and retiring, and what really happened in our house that day.”  

Tristan nodded while letting Tad climb up his arm to his shoulder. “Meanwhile, when the portal got busted, it split us up. I still don’t know where Mom and Dad got sent to, but I ended up on some random world half a universe away. I would’ve been in deep shit, except some other Heretics showed up.”

“Wait,” Malcolm blurted, “other Heretics? What the hell is that supposed to mean? You said you were halfway across the universe. Are there just random Heretics hanging around other planets?”

It was Zeke who answered. “Crossroads maintains outposts on other worlds, yes. I imagine the… other place does as well.” The distaste in the boy’s voice as he obliquely mentioned Eden’s Garden was readily apparent. “What the hell do you think the Explorer track is for? You know, the one that Vanessa over there belongs to.”

Tristan gave the other boy a look. “Pretty sure his confusion was from the implication that the Heretics I met weren’t in contact with Earth, dude.” Shaking his head, he continued, “But yeah. They were from the other place. But they hadn’t been back in a long time. They got lost out there somehow. I guess when the portal showed up and dumped me out, they sensed it, so they came to find the portal to go home. Except all they found was me. But they took me in and helped raise me. Taught me pretty much everything I know while we were all looking for a way to get back here.”

“So, what happened?” Cameron asked as she took her lizard back from Tristan, feeding him a treat of some kind. “How did you end up back here now? And where are those other Heretics, did they go back to Eden’s Garden or something?”

Tristan shook his head, running a hand through his hair with a since. “Nah, uh, actually we only managed to find a thing that would send one of us back. They made me be the one to use it, said that I was still young and had a sister to get back to. I showed up back on Earth, a couple Crossroads Heretics came to investigate and ended up bringing me here since they didn’t know what else to do with me. I didn’t know Nessa was here until, well, until that bit in the cafeteria.”

“Wow.” Erin was looking back and forth between both twins. “That’s like… holy shit. Are you sure you don’t have some kind of luck power, Vanessa?”

Zeke spoke up then, his voice pointed. “She still kept secrets. She didn’t tell us any of this, even after she knew about the Heretic thing. And that’s probably why she’s been spending so much time in the library, trying to find the things that took her family.”

Erin frowned a little at that. “Good point. How come you didn’t tell us about that, Vanessa? Didn’t you trust us?” She sounded hurt.

“Hey, hey.” That was Malcolm. The tall, muscular boy shook his head. “Ease up, you guys. It takes more than a couple months to open up to complete strangers like that. You can say ‘team’ until you’re blue in the face, but that’s her family we’re talking about. She didn’t know how we’d react, or how all the teachers around here might react, for that matter. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t trust us, it means it’s her family and that was the best chance she had to find them after, what, a whole decade? Can you really blame her for playing things close to her vest?”

“Malcolm’s right,” Cameron agreed. “Come on, you guys. I’m supposed to be your mentor. If I can get over the incredible insult–” She winked at Vanessa to show that she was teasing. “–of not being included in any of this, I think everyone can. Let’s give the team brainiac a break, huh? Like he said, it was about her family.”

Blushing deeply, Vanessa mumbled a thank you to both of them. Then she hesitantly added, “Um, I was about to show Tristan around. Do… do you guys want to help?”


Present Day

“Don’t think about why you want to visit your father.” The steady, soothing voice came from the old Seosten-Heretic, Enguerrand. He was seated on the opposite side of the boat from where Vanessa and Tristan sat. The boat itself was floating peacefully in the middle of the lake near where Gabriel Prosser’s group had their camp.

It had been Scout’s idea that they come here, so that Vanessa could learn to use the power that she had been developing that connected her to her father deep in Seosten space. The hope was that with enough practice, she might be able to tell the man about Flick and the others.

Don’t think about it?” Vanessa echoed, biting her lip as she stole a glance at her brother before looking back to the man who was the closest thing they knew to an expert on the Seosten powers. “Shouldn’t I be thinking about why I want to visit him as… motivation?”

“Yeah, that sounds weird,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, that’s a lot of emotion right there that you’re telling her not to focus on, you know? Oh, and also, when the hell did you start talking in a modern voice instead of all that verily and prithee crap we heard you using before?”

The elderly knight chuckled a little then. “Yes, I wondered if you would notice that. I…” he breathed a long, low sigh. “I have a great deal of respect for the Seosten whose power I inherited all those years ago, whom I served for quite a long time. When I realized that you were both half-Seosten, I suppose that those old habits and… memories came back a little bit.”

“You–you served a Seosten? And liked it?” Tristan stared at the man. “Who–how–what?”

Smiling faintly, Enguerrand gestured. “Let us focus on this. Perhaps I will tell you the story some other time. Once you’ve earned it.” At the last bit, he winked. Then the man turned his attention back to Vanessa. “As to your relevant question, yes, the emotion of why you want to project yourself to your father is important. But only once you have more control. As it is, you are focusing too much on why. You wish to see your father so much, for very understandable reasons. But as it is, you are… “ He paused, considering his words. “Let’s just say, you are flooring the gas pedal without knowing how to steer. You are flooding the tank before you’ve learned how to take the automobile out of park.”

Vanessa swallowed, looking at the bottom of the boat for a moment. “I… I guess that makes sense. So, how do I steer? How do I take it out of park?”

“I will teach you that,” the man promised. “I will teach both of you, because Tristan’s own gift will come soon enough. There is more to projecting yourself to your last host than simply wishing you were there. Especially over this kind of distance. You must also think about the person you are projecting yourself to, what you know about them, what kind of person they are. Projecting to them is about… imagining that you are controlling them, putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak. You see, you are thinking about how much you want to speak with your father, but in doing so, you are focusing on you as Vanessa speaking with him. To project in the way that you wish to, you should be thinking of yourself as him. Cast yourself as your father, think like him, speak like him, do everything you can in the way that most reminds you of him. That is how you will attune yourself to him.”

For two hours, they worked on that. By the end, even though they hadn’t done anything that should have been physically demanding at all, Vanessa felt exhausted. She slumped in the boat, shaking her head. “I can’t do it. I can’t send myself to him.” The girl felt like she was on the verge of tears.

“That is quite all right, Miss Moon.” Enguerrand insisted with a soft smile as she took her hand. “These things take time. You are progressing better than I believe most would have, I assure you.”

“Yeah, Nessa, don’t sweat it,” Tristan added. “At least you can try to help. I can’t even do that much right now.”

Sighing, Vanessa nodded. “I just really wanted to…” She shook her head then, dismissing it. “I guess we can come back later?”

“Of course,” Enguerrand agreed immediately. “I would like that very much. But for now, we should go back to shore.” He raised his hand to point to a man standing there, clearly waiting for them. “I believe that Gabriel would like to speak with you.”

Prosser waited there until the boat reached the dock, then caught the rope that was tossed up and leaned down to tie it off. He reached down to help them each out of the boat, asking how they were doing as soon as they were each on solid, dry ground.

“Could’ve been better, could’ve been worse,” Tristan informed him easily.

Chuckling a little, Gabriel nodded. “I believe that’s life in a nutshell for most people.” He sobered then, holding out an envelope in one hand. “This came for you.”

Both twins blinked at it, and Vanessa frowned. “Came for us? Us, like, came here for us? How?”

Gabriel was watching them. “A group of refugees that we picked up earlier. They were ambushed by Heretics on the road until a man saved them. Apparently, he gave them this letter, told them to wait for us to show up, and said that they should give this letter to me.”

He turned it over then, showing the twins their names written on the front in elaborate, gold lettering. “It was checked for spells before we came anywhere near here. There’s nothing on it but text, written on computer paper. I don’t know what it says, but I do know that there’s nothing magical about it. Would you like to open it?”

The twins looked at each other once more before shrugging. Tristan took the offered envelope, turning the thing over in his hands briefly before quickly ripping it open. Inside, there was a single, folded piece of white paper, with five lines printed in bold, all-caps lettering right in the middle.

“Uh, why does Pitiniana sound familiar?” Tristan asked his sister.

“It was a city in Sicily, but it’s lost now,” Vanessa answered. “And it’s also the world we’re supposed to visit in a few days with the Explorers. That’s probably how you know it. Why?”

Turning the paper over, Tristan showed the contents to her, letting her read the message that the mysterious man had sent sent to them.


3 DAYS. 14:30




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Uprising 29-06

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Confusion still reigned in the camp, as the guards tried to work out what had just happened and why all the prisoners had disappeared. That wouldn’t last much longer, but for the next few seconds, I could use it. Especially since we already knew that there was no one in the towers to point out where I was. Running down the end of the suddenly brightly lit path toward the nearest slave cabin, I darted behind it an instant before running footsteps announced the approach of troops. I had just barely gotten out of sight before a trio of guards ran past, weapons raised.

One of them abruptly pivoted to look back, apparently having caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. But I’d already thrown myself into the wood of the cabin, so he saw nothing. His eyes scanned the spot where I had been for a moment before he turned to go on.

They would be getting organized any second. The Seosten would all be up and around. And as soon as they were, the escaped prisoners and all my people would have an entire army after them. It wouldn’t take long. A couple minutes headstart at best wasn’t enough. I needed to buy them more time. And I was going to do it by using the Seosten’s own tactics against them.

To that end, I waited there for a few more seconds while other troops ran around trying to figure out what was going on. Inside the cabin whose wood I was occupying, two guards kicked the door in and rushed through. They kicked over several cots, upended all of their personal belongings, and dumped a bookshelf over looking for anyone behind it. Finally satisfied, they started to leave. But one lagged behind the other, taking just one last look around. Perfect.

As the guard scanned the room, I was already sliding down through the wall of the cabin to the wooden floor before rapidly sending myself toward him. His eyes passed over me as I ‘swam’ right to where he was standing without the guard having the slightest idea that I was there.

I had no idea which one of us started it, but Tabbris and I were both humming the Jaws theme.

The man turned to the doorway, and the instant he did, I popped up out of the wooden floor. My hand grabbed his ankle, and I focused on what Tabbris had done every time she made me possess someone. An instant later, I was looking through the man’s eyes to the chaos outside. Feeling the weight of his rifle in his hands, I glanced down at the weapon before stepping out of the cabin. Around us, more guards were coming out of other cabins and starting to converge in a group in front of two other figures. Seosten. One of them was the one that we’d seen earlier.

We had to be really quick about this. Any minute now, the alert would reach Radueriel. I didn’t know if he actually had his cyborg shit installed in any of these troops since they weren’t the ones on his station. But either way, I was sure he could be here pretty much immediately. And once he was, all he had to do was bring one troop with him and the rest of his entire army could come with. If a hundred troops and five rookie Seosten were too much for us to take on, trying to deal with Radueriel and his people would be like using a squirt gun against an aircraft carrier.

On the other hand, if he didn’t find out right away… Tabbris, those Seosten are rookies. I really, really doubt that Radueriel would connect himself to them. A three thousand plus year old legend like that letting a handful of complete newbies on another planet know every move he made? Yeah, no way. And if they’re not connected that way, maybe we can actually– Before I could get any further, the relevant thoughts were already popping into my host’s mind as Tabbris helped pull them up without even being asked. And just like that, I knew exactly where to go.

Pivoting, I sprinted. Luckily, me running around didn’t look out of place since everyone was doing it. As long as I acted like I knew where I was going, nobody questioned it. With the shit that was going on, I was pretty sure that no one wanted to be the person who stopped someone who might be moving on orders from the Seosten. Or worse, might be possessed by them.

I left the slave quarters area, passing by a couple troops who were gesturing up at the towers while talking animatedly at each other. In the tower itself, another one of the soldiers was clearly examining one of the dead bodies that we had left. Yeah, things were definitely hitting the fan.

There was a small shed-like building just next to one of the troop barracks. Glancing both ways to make sure I wasn’t being followed or watched too closely by anyone, I quickly moved that way and shoved my way in through the door. Doing so, I found myself in a simple room with a bunch of floor to ceiling computers along three of the walls, a couple chairs where two people were sitting in front of what looked like control panels, while one figure stood behind them.

That figure turned even as I stepped into the room. Seosten. He was one of the other Seosten. As he caught sight of me, the man snapped something sharply in their language. He’d only gotten through a couple words before I heard Tabbris in my head, translating almost in real time.

“What are you doing?” he was demanding. “Is there any sign of the workers, or the missing humans?” The next bit came with a brief glance over his shoulder toward the console. “The communications array is about to connect to our lord. If you have good news, share it now.”

Well, that was exactly what I’d been waiting to find out. They hadn’t finished calling Radueriel yet. Their communications array was still coming online, which meant that there was time to stop that message from going out. Hey, Tabbris, I started, you thinking what I’m thinking?

Yup! Her voice chirped almost brightly in my head. Give ‘em a t-taste of their own medicine.

Right. I figured there was no sense in being subtle about this considering everything that was going on. Hoisting the gun in both hands, I blurted loudly and in English, “Think fast!” Then I threw the gun at the Seosten’s head, following up by throwing myself (or at least the host that I was currently riding in) at him as well while simultaneously telling Tabbris, Pop us out low!

Rookie or not, the Seosten was no slouch by any stretch of the imagination. His hand snatched the incoming rifle out of the air in mid-flight, flipped it around, and shot the guy I was controlling three times in the chest by the time I’d crossed just over half the distance between us.

Unfortunately for him, that meant that all of his attention was focused solely on the figure who had just rushed him. As he put the third shot into the man’s chest, Tabbris was already propelling us out of him. As requested, she sent us out low, down by his legs and in full dive-forward motion. The Seosten tried to react, but it was too late. I’d already reached his legs.

And just like that, I was staggering backward, holding the rifle while watching the body of the soldier who had just been my host fall to the floor. I felt a rush of emotions, most of them various levels of confusion and denial, coming from the man I had just possessed. No, coming from the Seosten I’d just possessed. Tabbris was right, we were giving him a taste of his own medicine.

Yaqum. That was his name. It floated up in his thoughts immediately, the second I thought about his identity. I felt him trying to get rid of me, trying to fight back and take control of himself. The fact that he could resist at all meant he was a lot stronger than the troops that I’d possessed up to that point.

But when it came down to it, he was still only roughly fifty years old. Meanwhile, Charmeine had been over three thousand. Even if I had only gotten a portion of her possession ability when I killed her, that still meant that this guy didn’t stand much of a chance. So I felt his resistance, but it wasn’t too hard to shut it out. He probably could’ve made the body twitch a little bit here or there, or taken control of a limb briefly if he tried hard enough. Overall, it just wasn’t enough.

I don’t think he’s very happy about this, I noted to Tabbris as I forced the Seosten, Yaqum, to turn around.

The two regular soldiers who had been frantically working the consoles had stopped. Both had stood, half-turning to see what the hell was going on behind them. When they saw the dead soldier that I had been possessing, and the Seosten standing there with his rifle, they froze in obvious paralyzing confusion. That lasted for about a second before they each simultaneously jerked back around to face their controls. If anything, their hands danced across it even faster.

I was pretty sure they didn’t know what had just happened or that I was possessing the Seosten. They were simply completely petrified of him and figured if he’d just executed one of their people like that, they might end up being next if they didn’t finish the job that he’d given them.

Before either of them could do anything else, however, I pointed the rifle at their consoles and started pulling the trigger. As the two jerked back and blurted out obviously confused questions, I kept shooting. Half a dozen more shots went into the consoles before I turned my focus to the rest of the computers all along the walls. Over and over again, I kept shooting every bit of technology that I could see, anything that could’ve been part of letting them call for help.

Through it all, the two grunt soldiers stood there completely frozen. They looked like they wanted to do something to stop me, but they were too afraid. Which, honestly, was kind of what the Seosten deserved for creating an environment where their soldiers were too terrified of what might happen to them if they raised a hand against one of the imperialistic assholes to actually do anything when one of them had clearly gone completely batshit crazy and was doing something patently dangerous and outrageous like destroying their communications system.

But hey, what did I know? Clearly this method of theirs was working out just fine and dandy.

Faster. I had to move faster. The one downside to all this was that the other Seosten obviously knew what was going on. Radueriel may not have been connected to them, but they would definitely be connected to each other. Which meant that they knew I was poss–wait a minute.

Tabbris, I thought at my partner quickly, if this guy is connected to the others, can we find out–

And just like that, I knew where the other Seosten were and what they were doing. Two were coming for the communications room where I was, while the other two were organizing the soldiers to track down the fleeing prisoners. They’d already worked out the direction the slaves had gone, and now some of them were just starting up several of what looked like hovercycles. It looked like the Seosten were organizing them into teams that included both Alters with some kind of tracking ability or power, those who could travel quickly, and those who could hit hard.

Yeah, even though these guards we were running into were mostly all dressed in the same featureless black armor, they were still all Alters, which meant they had their own powers. And the armor meant that it was impossible to know what they were until they actually did something.

Honestly, that bit I could really understand. If their biggest enemies were the Fomorians, who specialized in biology and all that horror freakshow stuff, then not letting them easily see what they were actually fighting could be at least some vague form of advantage. If, for example, they didn’t know that the armored, masked soldiers running at them were the wooden Relukun people, they were less likely to send creatures specifically meant to eat wood. It made sense.

So yeah, I understood the featureless armor thing. Plus it made them all into one organization, stripped away individuality in favor of the group, yadda yadda yadda. The point was, they were organizing to go after the slaves and my people. And two of the Seosten were coming for me.

Alright, I started then, guess it’s time to abandon our ride since those other guys will know exactly where he is all the time. 

Um. Tabbris’s voice was hesitant. You’re not… um, I mean, I know that you wouldn’t just–

We’re not going to just kill him while we’re possessing him, I confirmed. That just felt… wrong. Yes, I’d killed helpless people before. But that was in combat, it was… different. Taking control of this guy and forcing him to commit suicide was a step too far. Just knock him out.

I felt the other girl’s slight relief as she did just that. The view went dark for a second as the man collapsed before I was back out on my own two feet. Behind me, there was a confused gasp from the two figures. As I turned, they both stared at me. Neither made a move for their weapons or to do anything other than just stand there. They had the helmets on, but I was pretty sure both were openly gaping. For a second, we all just stood there, staring at each other.

Flick! Tabbris’s voice prompted hurriedly. We’ve gotta go, there’s more coming, remember?

The words made me snap out of it, and I turned to run. The men were just standing there, not bothering to pursue or anything. As I flung myself out of the small cabin, they stayed in place, silently staring at the unconscious Seosten lying there on the ground.

They’ve never seen a Seosten be possessed before, Tabbris whispered to me. It’s, umm, it’s kinda supposed to be impossible. The ones they call Lies, they can do it, but they can’t get back out again unless the… the host dies. And they don’t exactly advertise that. That’s probably the first time those guys have… have ever seen a real Seosten get possessed and controlled.

She… she was probably right. Obviously right. I’d known all that, but the idea of how the other species seeing something like that happening hadn’t really sunk in until I’d seen it. Regardless, however, I couldn’t focus on that right now. We had to move on. The other two Seosten were on their way, and they wouldn’t be taken by surprise as easily as the first guy had been. And in the meantime, the remaining pair were about to lead that army out after everyone who had just escaped. We’d stopped them from calling for reinforcements (for now), but we weren’t safe yet.

With that in mind, as I leapt through the doorway and back into the brightly lit camp, my eyes immediately looked around. To my right was the way that the Seosten would be coming, from what I had seen in the other man’s mind. So I darted to the left, throwing myself into a roll that took me under the cabin itself even as the sound of running footsteps approached. From the sound, it was far more than two. The Seosten had brought reinforcements along with them.

Right, I had to get away from these guys, and do something that would stop the rest of the soldiers from pursuing the others. And I had to do it pretty much right now. But as I rolled my way out from under the shed on the other side, I was drawing a blank about how to do that second part. How the hell was I going to stop them from chasing the escaped slaves long enough for everyone to get away? They were already suited up and on their way. What could I possibly do that would make them come back this way and leave their former prisoners alone? What–

F-Flick! Tabbris’s voice cut into my thoughts, and I felt her take control of my body for a moment. It was just long enough to throw me up and backward, activating the wood-melding power to send us into a nearby wooden fence post a brief instant before a snarling figure with a massive axe of some kind came rushing around the corner. I’d been so distracted that I hadn’t noticed either the sound or the feeling from my item-sense power. But Tabbris had, and she’d taken over in that moment.

Immediately, I sensed a crushing wave of guilt from the girl. I’m sorry, she hurriedly blurted. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take over. I m-mean, I did, but I didn’t–I wasn’t going to–I’d never–

Tabbris, Tabbris, it’s okay! I interrupted once it was possible to get a word in edgewise. Trust me, I’d rather you take over my body than let us get caught like that. I was distracted. You did good.

Despite my words, I still felt waves of guilt coming from the other girl. She felt awful about controlling me. Hell, she felt awful every time she had, even when I’d specifically told her to an extent. That… that was definitely something we needed to talk about, when there was a chance.

But it didn’t look like that was going to be any time soon. Especially since Mr. Axe-man wasn’t the only guy in that alley between the buildings anymore. No, he had been joined by several others. One of them was one of the Seosten. Except it wasn’t one of the Seosten who had initially come to find me. No, this guy had been back with the others, organizing the slave pursuit.

Wait a minute… come to think of it, there were a lot of guys milling around here, taking orders about where to search. And above, there were those hovercycle things. The were flying around, riders carefully keeping an eye on everything happening below them.

All four Seosten were together by that point, barking orders at their subordinates. Orders about spreading out to find… me.

Oh. I… I guess finding someone who can possess one of them, someone who can use their own tricks against them… that’s kind of higher priority than some escaped slaves, huh?

Tabbris’s voice came back a second later. Uh huh. They’ve got trillions of slaves. Bu-but you personally hurt one of them. You sh-showed that they’re not invincible. They won’t stand for that. They… they won’t accept it. Slaves are just slaves, but you… y-you made it personal for them. And you possessed one of them. You possessed them. You controlled them. That’s what they do to other people. Doing it to them… it’s… it’s… no wonder they’re freaking out. If everyone finds out that you can do to them what they do to other people… it… it… could blow up their whole society.

Weakly, while the army of guards continued to tear apart every hiding spot, scouring every inch of the camp looking for me, I replied, At least they’re not looking for the others anymore? And um… I did say that I was going to piss someone off. Job done?

S-sure, okay, the other girl agreed, but how do we get out of here now?

That, I informed her, is a very good question.

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