Well, that would be one complete and utter waste of time out of the way, Elisabet silently announced while leaving the room where she and the other Crossroads Committee members had just finished yet another discussion. Just in time for the next one.
The ‘discussion’, such as it was, had been three hours of arguing over what they could possibly do about the disappearance of Felicity Chambers and the other students, and everything else that stemmed from that. Mostly it had amounted to little more than talking in circles. As usual.
Jophiel, the Seosten once called Aphrodite in the days of the Olympians, chuckled in equal silence, her amusement audible only to herself and her beloved human, her sianame.
Sianame. Pronounced See-Aw-Naw-May, it wasn’t a Seosten word. Nor was it a human word. In truth, the term originated from a race known as the Beventreist, who had been conquered by the Seosten over five thousand years earlier, back when Jophiel had been barely a new recruit. The Beventreist had believed in reincarnation, and sianame were two souls who were bonded for all eternity. In some lifetimes they would be lovers, in others they would be parent and child, best friends, business partners through world-changing endeavors, or even, in some cases, mortal enemies. Generation after generation, sianame would be brought together in various ways, often the most important part of each other’s lives, for good or for ill.
Jophiel didn’t believe in reincarnation, save for the Pooka or similar variety. But she did appreciate a good romantic story. And, as far as she was concerned, Elisabet was her sianame. Her soulmate, in Earth terms.
Yes, she replied easily, but if nothing else, at least our next appointment is an excuse to visit home.
She felt Elisabet’s agreement. The two of them had been connected for so long that their minds almost ran concurrently in many cases. At times it was almost difficult to separate out which of them was responsible for which thought.
Sí, her human partner replied. We do not have such opportunities nearly enough, lately.
There was no actual discussion between the two of them about when Elisabet would stop controlling her own body and when Jophiel would take over. There was no need for such a discussion. They simply knew each other so well that the moment the two of them were halfway down the hall away from the Committee’s meeting room, Elisabet stopped walking and Jophiel started, all in the course of the same step. No one watching would have been able to pinpoint the moment that it happened, regardless of how closely they were watching.
Taking over in mid-step while allowing her host to slip into that comfortable, familiar position in the back of her own mind, Jophiel cast their shared senses out. The odds of them being followed or observed were miniscule, but it was best to make absolutely certain.
Nothing. She could sense no one, even with more than two dozen powers meant to ferret out anyone who might be invisible or remotely observing them somehow. They were not being watched.
Satisfied, Jophiel turned to a nearby door. The room on the other side didn’t matter. The door was simply the means to an end. Facing it, she held up one of Elisabet’s hands and focused on it until the hand turned semi-translucent, like that of a ghost. Carefully, she then reached into their own chest, using their ghost-like hand to go right through flesh, muscle, and bone without causing any actual damage.
Carefully, the Seosten woman found a small object secured to the side of one of their ribs. At a touch and thought, the object itself turned insubstantial as well, allowing her to take hold of it. A moment later, she withdrew their hand, revealing the object clutched between two fingers: a key.
Returning their hand and the key to solid form, Jophiel ran two fingers over the small metal object. It looked so simple, like an ordinary brass key that had been used on Earth hundreds of years earlier. Yet, it was so much more. As her fingers ran over it, the key read her DNA signature. Small runes began to glow red on it, and a single word of power made the rusty old brass metal gleam a bright blue.
Without another word, Jophiel pushed the key toward the door. As it approached the much smaller lock, meant for one of the tiny, far more modern versions, the key itself shrank and shifted its end so that it would fit easily.
Slipping the key into the lock, the Seosten woman uttered one more command phrase before turning it. There was a musical chime, and as she withdrew the key and opened the door, an almost blindingly bright white light had replaced whatever had normally been on the other side of it.
She stepped through. Instantly, the two of them felt the effect of the light. Combination magic and technology, it scanned their every single molecule. Every atom of their body and of everything they were bringing with them was given a thorough examination. They were checked for anything that could be a threat, knowing or not. Any magical effect, any bit of Fomorian biological trickery, anything out of the ordinary.
Once it was over, the light faded and they were standing, as expected, in a simple metal room that was only slightly bigger than an ordinary prison cell. All along the ceiling and floor were were dozens of tiny red crystals which, if they had been any kind of threat, would have immediately detonated with force roughly equivalent to the so-called Tsar Bomba, a fifty megaton nuclear weapon that had been detonated by the Soviets on Earth. All of it concentrated within a single room barely sixteen feet wide by twelve feet long.
That wasn’t the only safety measure. After the detonation, this particular room would have been vented into space and immediately shunted through a portal into the middle of a star several months journey away.
Luckily, none of that happened. Unfortunately, it was also far from the only security measure. It took another twenty minutes before the requirements were satisfied. Finally, however, they emerged from the room into a long, tube-shaped corridor. The walls, made of a clear material similar to but much stronger than glass, revealed the open starfield beyond. They had come to a space station, one of many that orbited the world below.
As she stepped into the tube, Jophiel glanced that way, to the planet visible through the clear wall. Her eyes took in the splendor that was her home. Her true home. Elohim. The cradle of the Seosten civilization.
A combination of eleven oceans and innumerable lakes and rivers covered almost seventy-five percent of the planet’s surface. But that was pretty much where the superficial similarities with Earth ended. While humanity’s home held seven major continents, the largest landmass on Elohim was only about as large as Earth’s Australia. The vast majority of the Seosten homeworld’s landmass was taken up by intricate island chains. There were thousands of them, islands which ranged from small enough to throw a rock across, to islands that were almost a thousand miles across. Most of those islands formed a sort of spiral through the ocean, surrounding that single Australia-sized continent.
They had been one single continent at one point, the only one on the planet, surrounded by ocean. Then the cataclysm had happened. Cronus had happened. By the time he was gone, the bulk of the continent had been broken up into these islands, and it had been this way for the past several hundred thousand years.
The majority of the islands were physically connected in various ways, mostly through underwater tubes allowing rapid transit, but also through above-water bridges. Entire cities that would make Earth’s largest metropolises look tiny had been made to take up many islands to the point that it was sometimes hard to tell that they were separate islands, through all the buildings that had been constructed between them.
It was, in the end, home. And Jophiel loved seeing it every time. Coming back roughly once a year wasn’t enough. She wanted the war to be over. She wanted… a lot of things. Mostly she wanted the Fomorian threat to be ended so that the Seosten could move on and become true partners with humanity and the other races. Once the threat of extinction had been eliminated, true growth could happen. But not until then.
The world was also protected by one of the largest fleets in the Seosten armada. First, there were six Letum-class destroyers. Each was just under fifteen kilometers long, and individually held enough firepower to level most worlds, an army of over fifty thousand ground troops of various species, and almost three hundred fighter-sized spacecraft.
Backing them up were ten Cunae-class carriers, each of which held another hundred starfighters, and two dozen more ships of mixed varieties ranging from simple patrol craft that were barely larger than an Earth passenger airliner, up to the three Diruo-class ships. Those were only a few kilometers shorter than their Letum-class older brothers, and packed even more firepower at the expense of not carrying any fighter craft and only a token force of ground troops. At their core, the Diruo were essentially giant metal circles with a bridge and a few other compartments in the center, surrounded by hundreds of cannons and other guns that pointed in every direction. Engines at each primary compass point and in the top and bottom ensured that the Diruo ships could travel in every direction as needed.
In all, the Elohim fleet would demolish anything that got near to the Seosten home planet. Not that such a thing was at all likely, considering the amount of other defenses surrounding the entire system. But still, where the Fomorians were concerned, it was best to be prepared.
“Jophiel.” The voice came from the end of the tube corridor, drawing her attention toward the two figures there. One, the speaker appeared to be an elderly man of what would be considered Caucasian ethnicity on Earth. His face lined with wrinkles and the majority of his hair had long-since fallen out. He was old, very old, even by Seosten standards.
Beside the old man stood a figure who could have been mistaken as his granddaughter. She appeared to be, at most, nine or ten years old, with short black hair cut into a pixie style and innocent blue eyes. Neither were in host bodies. These were their personal, true forms.
“Metatron,” Jophiel greeted the man first, giving him a bow of respect before turning her attention to his diminutive companion, bowing to her as well. “Chayyiel.”
She bowed to both, because each were her superior, in many ways. They were members of the Seraphim, the Seosten version of what humans would think of as a senate. While Metatron had never actually been to Earth as far as she was aware, he had been the Seraphim in charge of it from this end of the Seosten Empire since they had found the planet in the first place.
Chayyiel, on the other hand… she had been on Earth for quite some time before coming back here to join the Seraphim. Her apparent young age was even more deceptive than most of the Seosten, as though she was the youngest of the Olympians, she was still multiple thousands of years old.
On Earth, Chayyiel had portrayed the Olympian known as Hestia. She was also the single strongest warrior that Jophiel had ever personally seen, and was within the top ten strongest Seosten who had ever lived. Jophiel had only seen one being who was capable of besting Chayyiel in single combat: the so-called once and future king, Arthur Pendragon.
It had been Puriel’s betrayal of Chayyiel’s trust, when he had interfered with her latest duel with the natural dragon-Heretic, that had made her leave Earth. What had been intended as a personal battle, meant for only the two of them, had turned into a full-scale assault. Puriel had dropped a literal army on top of Arthur, and in the end… in the end Arthur was no longer a threat.
Chayyiel, however, had taken the hit against her honor personally, and swore that if Puriel ever tried to give her another order, she would kill him. Leaving Earth, she had returned to Seosten-controlled space, quickly making her way to the ranks of the Seraphim.
Thankfully, she seemed to bear Jophiel herself no ill will. Now, she simply returned the other woman’s bow without speaking.
“Would you care to leave your host and stretch your legs?” Metatron asked, as he always did, even though her answer was always the same.
“I’m fine,” Jophiel replied. There was no way that she would ever abandon her Elisabet here. Despite protocol, there was entirely too high of a chance that her sianame would be possessed by another Seosten, and that… that was something she couldn’t allow to happen.
“Very well,” the elderly Seosten announced with a simple nod before turning on his heel. “Come then, we need to discuss what exactly happened down there that could have led to Charmeine’s death. Many of the Seraph are calling for the Earth experiment to be ended, and for us to take a more… direct role in their lives, as we do with every other race.”
“What led to Charmeine’s death was Charmeine’s stupidity,” Jophiel informed him flatly while starting to follow. “She died because she had to show off, and gave the humans time to get in a lucky shot. She indulged herself, and paid for her arrogance. And those are the same Seraph who try to end our work with the humans every time someone sneezes funny.”
“Still,” Chayyiel finally spoke as she took up the rear, walking behind Jophiel and Metatron, “we must provide answers to them. Answers that will not offend Charmeine’s Choir, or their allies.”
Inwardly, Jophiel sighed. This is going to be incredibly long and boring. I don’t suppose you might want to take over again so I can take another nap?
Elisabet’s only response was a deliberate snoring noise.
Literal hours later, Jophiel finally emerged from the shuttle that had brought her down to the planet’s surface. It had to be a shuttle, as no teleportation was allowed to penetrate the shields that surrounded Elohim’s atmosphere.
Quietly, she descended the platform where the shuttle had landed. The city that they were in was called Parestai. It was, in many respects, quite similar to the city of Venice on Earth. Situated over a half dozen small islands, with so many buildings and bridges connecting them that it was difficult to tell at a glance that they were separate islands, Parestai was beautiful. Its architecture, like most Seosten, was decidedly Earth Roman, with lots of pillars, arches, and marble. Gondola-like boats roamed the waterways, and there were more visible animal mounts and carts than there were motorized vehicles. Parestai was a simple, quiet city, a place for personal reflection and meditation.
Walking the short distance to a narrow alleyway between buildings, Jophiel moved about halfway down the alley before reaching what appeared to be a blank adobe wall. Setting her hand against it, she murmured the passcode.
Immediately, a previously-invisible door appeared, swinging open to allow them admittance to Jophiel’s private home.
Some of the former Olympians preferred far more elaborate affairs for their homes. Puriel and Kushiel had an entire island to themselves, an enormous mansion full of servants. Not that the former Hera spent much time there. Kushiel had her experiments and prisoners to focus on. Puriel however… well, he had never been the same after the mishap with that banishment orb. Jophiel would be surprised if the man ever left his home.
In all, most of the Seosten known as the Olympians had massive, grand homes fit for kings, spread throughout the Empire. But Jophiel didn’t care about that. This small, hidden apartment on the island that she loved so much was enough. Because it was a place where she and Elisabet could be themselves, without worrying about pretenses or being seen.
As the door closed behind them, Jophiel finally stepped out of the body she had been inhabiting. Emerging and stretching out there in what humans would call the foyer of her home, she turned toward Elisabet. Smiling at the Spanish woman, Jophiel stepped in to kiss her tenderly.
The two stood together, embracing while sharing that kiss for several long, beautiful seconds. Eventually, they separated, and Jophiel gestured. “That could have been worse. At least we have a couple days here before we have to go back.”
Elisabet chuckled, nodding. “It could have been much worse, yes. Though…” Pausing, she sighed. “You know that some of them aren’t going to stop pushing for the full, violent take-over of Earth. They think that all humans should be treated the way they treat Heretics out here.”
Jophiel winced, reaching out to touch her beloved’s face. “We don’t all treat you that way, even out here.”
Elisabet reached up, tenderly touching the Seosten woman’s hand to hold it there against her own cheek. “Enough do,” she replied. “They don’t see us as partners. They see us as… clothes, suits of armor and weapons to be worn and discarded as needed.”
She wasn’t wrong, Jophiel knew. There weren’t many here at the heart of the Seosten Empire, of course. But out on the actual Fomorian frontlines, Heretic bodies were used the same way humans on Earth used tanks and other weapons of war. Particularly powerful Heretic bodies were given to high ranking Seosten, while even younger, newer Heretics were given to those who had proven themselves in some way. Hell, a lot of Heretic bodies were used interchangeably, passed back and forth between multiple Seosten in a garrison. Still others were essentially sold or at least rented in what amounted to a marketplace, where their Seosten owners would detail what the Heretics were capable of and allow their potential buyers to take them out for a ‘test drive’.
They were a commodity to many, no more important than a car, or, as Elisabet had said, a suit of armor.
“You know what the best way of stopping that is,” Jophiel reminded the other woman.
“Yes,” Elisabet replied simply, “ending the Bystander Effect.”
Ending the Bystander Effect. It was a goal that both of them longed for, but one that seemed almost impossible to achieve safely given the current climate. Sure, there were many who were in favor of its elimination. But those same proponents also wanted to do that simply so that the Seosten could take over completely and openly, which would just lead to all humans being treated the same way that so many of the abducted Heretics were treated out on the war front.
No, they needed to end it, but in a way that convinced enough of the Seraphim that humanity and the Seosten should be partners in this war. If they could just make them understand that the key to beating the Fomorians was a true human-Seosten alliance, where they were equal partners…
Unfortunately, that particular goal seemed to be a long way off. It was, however, part of the reason that Jophiel had made certain that her people did nothing about the Hybrid offspring of Sariel and Haiden Moon. Once she had found out about them, she had worked to keep Vanessa Moon’s existence as quiet as possible, and had convinced her superiors to adopt a hands-off policy, to see what happened. She had been forced to call in favors, make threats, and outright bluff to keep the girl out of Kushiel’s hands. But in the end, her own authority had been respected, and Vanessa had been left alone to grow up.
After that moment of contemplative silence, Elisabet asked, “Do you think Radueriel will find Chambers and the others?”
“Find? Yes,” Jophiel replied. “Capture… that might be more difficult. Especially now that they have joined up with Sariel’s mate and her former host. And quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure who I should be rooting for in that particular confrontation.”
Elisabet gave a soft chuckle at that. “The more power the Chambers girl gains out here, the more likely she will be able to free her mother from the necromancer. And if Joselyn Atherby is freed, she may be returned to power. Which would–”
“–Restart the rebellion,” Jophiel finished. Then she smiled. “Precisely. Which is another opportunity to convince the Seraphim that humanity’s true potential is in being partners with the Seosten, not slaves to them.”
“What we really need,” Elisabet reminded her, “is an example, something we can point to and show that human-Seosten partnerships are possible. We–”
“I can’t tell them about us, Lissy,” Jophiel interrupted, shaking her head. “I won’t risk it. I won’t risk losing you. But… if Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion returns, maybe… maybe we can point the Aelaestiam toward them this time, the way we planned before.”
The Aelaestiam were, essentially, a Seosten version of the Atherby rebellion. They were a small group of Seosten who believed that hosts should be treated fairly, that the Seosten Empire was wrong, that the ends did not justify the means. Jophiel and Elisabet disagreed with them on that last point, but they could still be useful in many ways. They also would have been wiped out long ago, if it wasn’t for their leader. Auriel, the woman who had portrayed Athena on Earth. She had taken up their cause, and it was her tactical prowess that kept the Aelaestiam from being completely erased, and had even led to certain key victories. Not enough to be a true threat to the Empire, of course. But enough to remain a relevant nuisance.
Jophiel and Elisabet had planned on linking Auriel’s Aelaestiam and Atherby’s rebellion while Joselyn was still a major threat, providing the tragically outnumbered Seosten underground with potentially incredibly powerful Heretic host bodies.
Done the right way, with a delicate touch, it could have shown the Seraphim that Seosten-Heretic partnerships would be vastly stronger than an enslaved Heretic. Unfortunately, Joselyn had been captured before that was possible, and there had been too many eyes on what was going on for Jophiel to risk making any kind of move. Now, however, if Felicity could free her mother and restart that rebellion… it was worth considering.
“Come, my love,” Jophiel finally announced, shaking off those thoughts while taking the other woman’s hand. “Let’s eat, and watch the sunset. There will be time to worry about all this later. Right now, all I want to do is be with you.”
Returning her smile, Elisabet started to nod, only to stop as a beep from the nearby wall terminal interrupted them.
Jophiel seriously considered not answering. But in the end, her sense of duty was too strong. Sighing, she squeezed her partner’s hand lightly before possessing her once more. It wouldn’t do for whoever was on the other side of the call to see them separated.
Hitting the button on the wall terminal to accept the connection, she watched as Chayyiel’s seemingly eternally child-like face appeared.
“You’re needed,” she announced flatly. “Manakel’s human spy has made contact.” Her distaste at the word ‘spy’ was readily apparent. “As you happen to be here rather than on Earth, Radueriel has requested your presence.”
“Made contact?” Jophiel raised one of Elisabet’s eyebrows at that. “You mean the one called Isaac, of course. He left his companions then?”
“No,” Chayyiel replied, “but he says that they have a way of erasing the spell that protects the identity of Manakel’s host. He has been instructed to prevent that from happening, at all costs. Whether he succeeds or not, Radueriel has asked that you speak with him in person. He would like to know everything you know about these humans, as his attempts to capture them have been… unfruitful.”
Once more, Jophiel had to resist the urge to sigh heavily. “Very well,” she replied, with an inward apology to her love. This was too important to brush off.
“Send the shuttle.”