Month: March 2018

Gathering Force 33-01

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Please note that there was a mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“You realize that there is a very important conversation that we need to have,” Athena carefully spoke on the way through the corridor. “More to the point, there is a decision to be made.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. I knew what she was talking about. “You mean about whether the others should know about Tabbris or not, the ones who don’t know already.” We’d had the conversation about which of them knew and which didn’t. What it really came down to was that we had to decide if we trusted Jazz and Gordon enough to tell them this huge secret.

When Athena nodded, I sighed long and low. “I’ve been thinking about that pretty much ever since we got here, and you made it clear that all these people know about Tabbris.”

The woman gave me a brief, sympathetic look before replying, “And yet, you are no closer to making a decision on that.”

I coughed, shaking my head again. “If anything, I’m even further away from a decision. At first I thought absolutely no way, but how do we let them see all of this, and not let them see Tabbris?”

It’s okay, the girl in question put in from inside me. They don’t have to know me at all. Her voice was soft and somehow even more uncertain that before. I can go back to hiding.

I didn’t want to point out the fact that it would be harder for her to hide when the people who were already here knew about her. All it would take was one person coming up and asking where she was while one of the others was around. I didn’t want to point that out, but I knew that the moment I thought passed through my mind, the other girl would pick it up.

“There is another potential option,” Athena pointed out mildly, while turning to look at me. When I blinked in confusion, she continued. “Your biggest fear is that people will judge her as the person who has been possessing you, before they actually know her. Well,” she amended, “your biggest fear beyond them being forced to reveal that information under duress or possession, that is. Correct?”

I nodded slowly at that. “Well, yeah. I mean, it’s bad enough worrying that they’re going to be tortured or possessed giving her up. I don’t want to put them, or her in that position. But, I guess you’re right, the second main problem is that they’re going to look at her and just see one of the other Seosten, one that’s been possessing me all the time. They’re going to judge her.” Realizing who I was talking to, I added a quick, “No offense.”

The woman gave me a brief look. Her head shook. “Our people deserve to be judged for a great many things that we have done wrong,” she intoned gravely. “But you are correct, she deserves to be known as a person. They should know her enough to understand that she is a person who deserves the kind of trust that you are extending her. They should know who she is before being confronted with that kind of revelation.”

In my head, Tabbris asked, Wait, is she saying-

“You want her to meet them as herself?” I quickly blurted as realization came to me. “You mean she should meet them outside of me, like…” I trailed off for a moment. My eyes widened. “Meet them here as if she’s been here? As if I just met her here?”

Athena gave a single nod. “At least long enough for them to get to know her for who she is, rather than as your possessor. Allow them to come to their own conclusions about her character and you decide based on those reactions whether you want to trust them to know the rest of it.”

I definitely wasn’t sure about that. It felt a little too close to lying by omission. It felt like one of the things that could blow up in my face if it came out wrong, and the others thought I wasn’t trusting them. But, on the other hand, this was about Tabbris and her safety. It wasn’t just about me. It was about both of us. I had to think about that.

“Besides,” Athena added, “if I were them, and you came back this way and asked us to come with you and another Seosten such as myself, I would want proof that you were not possessed.”

“Right…” Trailing off, I directed my thoughts inwardly. What do you think, partner? This is more about you than it is me.

It’s about both of us, she corrected quickly. But, um. I dunno. I’m scared. What if they find out later that I’m possessing you, and then they don’t trust us after that?

I smiled a little at that. We won’t let it get that far. We’ll just let them get to know you a little bit, then decide if it’s a good idea to tell them the truth. We won’t let it stretch on for too long. Just enough so that they understand that you weren’t possessing me when they met you, so you couldn’t have been influencing my reaction.

There was a few seconds of indecision from the other girl, before I felt her agreement. Okay, she replied quietly.

A moment later, she appeared beside me, stepping out in that glowing form before turning to me. Hesitantly, she asked in a tentative voice, “Is it okay if I hold your hand until we get there?”

Barely resisting the urge to pick the girl up and hug her right there, I gave a quick nod. Extending my hand, I took hers and held it tightly. “Partner,” I announced, “you can hold my hand whenever you want.”

She smiled, and together the two of us held hands while following Athena down the corridor. As we walked, she informed us that the rest of the station would be informed to behave as though Tabbris had been there the entire time, adding that if there was one thing that the people here were quite good at, it was keeping secrets. They would keep our secret for as long as we wanted them to.

The Seosten woman led us back to the human habitat. I saw several of our neighbors out and about. The man who lived next-door to us, a Natural Heretic who had been bonded to a Wendigo, waved while he worked on trimming his hedges with the enormous claws that he could grow at will. “Good morning, Lady Athena,” he greeted before adding amicably to Tabbris and me, “Heading out for more training, kids?”

“Not today, Mr. Pentsecol,” I replied. “Time to go get the rest of our friends, I guess. The ones that are out here anyway.” I’d talked with the man a little bit here and there, mostly at night while I was up and he was on his back porch.

“Finally found them, huh?” he replied before giving Athena a brief nod. “Good work, as always.”

“Tell us that when we get them back here safely,” the woman replied simply before gesturing to the two of us. “I thought it would be best to do this in your backyard. For familiarity.“

I agreed, and the three of us went into the backyard. On the way to the house, Athena sent a message to another part of the station. As we stepped into the backyard, a small pink portal opened up, and a being stepped through. He was about three feet tall, with bright purple skin, outrageously red hair that was styled like Einstein, and four long pointy ears. His hands had three fingers on them plus a thumb, and they hung all the way down to the ground. His eyes were extraordinarily large, covering about a quarter of his entire head, and were compound, like a fly’s. Only when I looked a little closer, I could see dozens of different scenes and locations within each of the tiny parts of the eyes. In one tiny part, I could see what looked like a park somewhere. In another I could see a volcanic world. On another I could see an ocean. And in yet another I could see a busy city. It was like he was seeing hundreds of places all at once. And in the very center of his eyes, I could see myself staring at him.

“Ladies Felicity and Tabbris,” Athena intoned, “may I introduce you to Lord Yup.”

Blinking at that, I echoed, “Lord Yup?” Beside me, Tabbris looked just as confused.

The little purple man gave us a broad smile, while confirming brightly, “Yup.” He sounded utterly amused by our reactions.

Athena explained, “Like Miss Handsy, Lord Yup’s true name is impossible for those outside of his species to pronounce. Rather than force others to quite possibly damage their own throats in the attempt, he has chosen to take a much more easily pronounced name.”

Still grinning, the man nodded once again. “Yyyyyeeessss indeed,” he intoned slowly before barking a laugh. “Ha, bet you thought I was gonna say yup again, didn’t you?” He stepped forward, offering his hand to me for shaking it firmly once I accepted. “Hi, good to meet you. I tell you, I’ve been looking all over the place for those friends of yours this whole time. They have been a right pain in the ass to find.”

Athena explained, while the man shook Tabbris’s hand. “Lord Yup is one of the last surviving members of a race known as the Tseuckaviel. They are capable of seeing through the eyes of any being, intelligent or not, that they have ever laid eyes on in their lifetimes. You may see how this can add up very quickly. And they are also capable of simultaneously processing the images from hundreds of different viewpoints at once. Lord Yup is several thousand years old, by Seosten reckoning. Between that and his powerful clairvoyant magic, you may see why he was the most logical choice to search for your allies.”

My mouth open and shop a couple times, before I manage a weak, “Uh yeah. I’m surprised you guys could remain hidden this long, if the bad guys could just possess one of his people.”

“We can’t be possessed,” Lord Yup replied flatly. “Something about our bodies is incompatible with the Seosten. When they try it, both beings… disintegrate. It is, I have been told, an extremely painful experience. Not that it stopped them from trying many times. There is a reason that the lovely Lady Athena introduced me as one of the last of my people. Between the Seosten experiments, and the Fomorian assault on our world to harvest what they could of us, my people did not fare well. Not very well at all.”

Well that was really freaking dark. I flinched, floundering a little before offering a weak, “I’m really sorry.” Belatedly, I added a quick, “Wait, does that mean that you can spy on all the Seosten than that you’ve seen?”

It was Athena who answered, “No, one of the genetic modifications that our people have built into ourselves, along with our extended age and enhanced physical abilities, is an immunity to such things. We cannot be viewed through his eyes, nor can he see through the eyes of any being who is currently looking at one of us directly.”

Yup nodded. “That and there are other ways to block it, yes. But fortunately, your people don’t know any of them. Or they just haven’t been using them. Because it took a while, but I finally found them. They are at a border world, searching for where they believe Radueriel has you imprisoned.”

Looking toward Athena, I asked, “Did you get a message to them?”

“I tried,” Lord Yup answered for her. “But they’re a little skittish. So, we thought that it would be better if the message came in the form of you.”

“Right.” Nodding to that, I looked between the two of them. “So, how do we get them? Can you make a portal to where they are?”

“I can do that,” Lord Yup confirmed. “Or nearby anyway. Don’t want to draw too much attention to them. Spies everywhere, after all. Plus, there’s that whole not startling them thing. You’ll have to approach them yourselves. But they’ll be close. I— oh, they split up.”

“We’ll get to all of them,” I replied. “Let’s just get over there first. Err, please?”

He winked, his four ears twitching. “Your wish…” as he spoke, Lord Yup extended his hand. Another portal appeared in the air there.

Tabbris squeezed my hand, and we stepped through right behind Athena, who led the way. Lord Yup brought up the rear, his portal closing behind him.

We were in what looked like an alley right behind a busy marketplace. Straight ahead, I could hear dozens or possibly hundreds of voices all shouting for attention. It didn’t sound like there was anything bad going on, more like everyone had something to sell and wanted everyone else to know about it. It was crazy. I felt like I was standing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Turning to the others, I raised my voice to shout, “Are you sure we can find them in all this?!”

Lord Yup grinned at that, tapping the side of his head. “Still got eyes on a couple of them,” he replied easily before pointing. “That way.”

Following his directions, we headed out into the crowded market. Wow, if I thought it was busy while standing in the alley, being in the middle of it was absolutely insane. We had to push and shove our way through. No one was paying any attention to who they were bumping into, because all of their attention was on the sales coming from the various booths in the open air market. It was almost like a do just to stay with Athena and Yup, while Tabbris clung tightly to my hand.

Then I saw them, standing just ahead of us, with their heads turned slightly to the side, Sands, Larissa, and Roxa were watching one of the salesmen.

For a moment, I had the absurd urge to walk up behind Sands, cover her eyes, and play the ‘guess who’ game. But I was pretty damn sure that wouldn’t go over very well.

Instead, I approached close enough that they would be able to hear me over the sound of the crowd, and called, “You guys looking for somebody in particular?!”

All three spun around so fast that they very nearly fell over in unison. I saw their eyes widen, and Sands was the first to blurt, “Flick!”

She threw herself at me, and I was suddenly grabbed up in an incredibly tight hug. It felt even tighter than I had thought that she was capable of. Sands had gotten noticeably stronger since I had seen her last.

“You’re alive! You’re safe, you’re not being dissected, you’re not a prisoner, you’re not a-wait.” Her eyes darted over to Tabbris, widening in even greater confusion.

Then the other two were there. The older woman plucked a surprised Tabbris up off the ground and embraced her tightly, tears in her eyes. You’re okay,” she murmured, voice shaking. You’re both okay.” Then she looked back-and-forth between us, seeming to register the fact we were separated for the first time. “Wait…”

“It’s alright,” I informed her. “We just thought it would be best if we approached separate like this, and introduced Tabbris as a new friend, until we could explain things.”

Tabbris, for her part, clung tightly to the woman. “Aunt Larissa! I was worried about you!”

That made the woman cough, her smile brightening as she regard to the girl in her arms. “You were worried about me? I…” She trailed off then, choosing just to hug the girl even tighter.

“Are you okay?” That was Roxa. She was close, and I could tell that she wanted to hug me too. But she hung back, eyes narrowed as she watched us. “I mean, are you really okay?”

“I’m not possessed,” I replied. “And I wasn’t taken prisoner. It’s a long story, but I was rescued by…” Turning, I gestured to the other two, who had stepped interview by that point. “Uh, may I introduce—”

“A friend,” Athena interrupted, before adding, “Perhaps more personal introductions later, once we are away from prying ears and make it somewhere a bit more private.”

“You— I—“ Larissa looked a bit lost while she held Tabbris tightly. “We’ve been looking for you.”

I nodded. “Yeah, we’ve been looking for you too. Like I said, it’s a long story. One that we should really tell somewhere safe. Preferably with the others. The others are all here, right?”

“Wait.” Roxa took a step forward, extending a hand to me. She held it up and waited expectantly. I knew what she wanted. She wanted me to take her hand so that she could use the choker to prove to herself that I really wasn’t possessed.

I did so without hesitation, taking her hand and squeezing it. The blonde girl looked me up and down, let out an audible sigh of relief, and finally embraced me. Her voice was a whisper, “I thought they had you. I thought they were taking you apart.”

“Not this time,” I assured the girl. “But really, story later. Trust me, it’s a doozy. Totally worth the wait.”

“Of course.” Larissa glanced to Athena and Yup. “I don’t know who you are, but thank you for taking care of them. The others are spread out, looking for information about Radueriel’s prison. We—” she swallowed, looking to me seriously. “We thought the worst.”

“Guess I’m a little luckier than that,” I replied, unable to keep my voice from shaking just a little at the thought of what would have happened to me if Athena hadn’t actually shown up. “So let’s go find the others, and I’ll tell you all about it back at our house.”

“Your house?” Sands echoed.

I grinned at her. “Like I said… it’s a long story.”

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Mini-Interlude 57 – Lincoln

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“And then the princess transforminged into a dragon and said, ‘oh, maybe you want me to breathe fire instead of you letting my daddy go, cuz if you don’t–if you don’t–if my daddy isn’t free, if you don’t let my daddy go, I’ll breathe fire.’ And then he wasna let go, so she did, and the witch was all burned up to ashes and ashes like fwoom!”

The tiny, not-quite-six-year-old little girl with curled blue horns that stuck up from her forehead finished her story with a dramatic wave of her arms, and a chirped, “The end!”

Lincoln Chambers put a hand to his chest as he reeled backward, letting out a loud gasp. “Oh! What a story!”

Giggling self-consciously, the little girl shifted back and forth on her feet there on the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby Camp. She lifted her eyes shyly, blushing deeply while tentatively asking, “Did you really like it, Mr. Lincoln?”

With a smile, Lincoln took a knee in front of the girl, ignoring the damp sand and gravel that he had just stuck his leg into. “I’ll tell you what, Ylena,” he started sagely, “that was one of the best, most engaging stories I’ve ever heard. That whole bit about them trying to stop the prophecy about how a dragon would ‘take’ the princess, only for it to actually be the princess shapeshifting into a dragon instead? And then saving everyone with it? That was beautiful.” He gave the girl a mock-stern look. “Are you really sure you just made it up?”

Ylena, who had been blushing with even more self-conscious embarrassment, gave him a quick, wide-eyed look while her head bobbed up and down. “I did!” she insisted, lifting her chin stubbornly. “I made it all up myself! I mean, sorta. The princess and the legend and the witch and all that. But the dragon thingie is sorta like me. Sorta.”

Blinking once, Lincoln regarded the girl. He had been talking to her as part of the project that he had started, to collect the stories from the Alters whose lives had been affected (and in so many cases, broken) by the actions of the overzealous Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics.

In her case, she wasn’t really a resident of the camp, exactly. Instead she was actually from the place known as Wonderland, having been a resident of the place since her parents had been killed by Heretics a year earlier. Making matters worse was the fact that the woman who had taken the girl in, her aunt, was killed over Christmas vacation when the werewolves along with that Pace/Lies girl had attacked the place while Flick was there. Ylena had been left completely on her own… except she wasn’t. The entire community had pretty much banded together to adopt her and anyone like her. And now that Wonderland and the Atherby camp were so connected (thanks in part to Asenath and Seth having more to do with both groups), they were sharing the load. Ylena was here to spend some time at the lake, and to see humans and Heretics who weren’t trying to kill her.

“The dragon thingie is sorta like you, huh?” Lincoln asked, trying not to push the girl too much despite his intense curiosity. If she wanted to say more, she would.

She did. Bobbing her head up and down quickly, Ylena chirped once more, “Uh huh! I mean–” She stopped, face pinking a little. “Not really a whole dragon, those are really, really strong! But um–watch!”

With that, the little girl took a step back. Closing her eyes, she focused, her brow knitting in visible concentration. Slowly, over the course of roughly a minute while Lincoln stared, her skin changed. Beautiful, intricate blue scales that matched her horns appeared in patterns before solidifying as if she was wearing armor. It rose up over the girl’s face, which extended into a clear snout. At the same time, she began to shrink, while a long tail emerged from her backside.

Finally, the small humanoid figure had been replaced by an even smaller dragon-like figure. She was only about two feet long from the tip of her nose to the start of her tail (which itself was as long as her entire body), and lacked any wings. But she was still an incredible sight.

“See, Mr. Lincoln!?” The transformed girl announced while looking up at him eagerly, her tail wagging back and forth, “Not a dragon, Drake! I’m a Drake!” Her voice dropped along with her head then, as she gave a soft, forlorn, “But I’m not a princess… and I couldn’t save my family.”

Swallowing hard at that, Lincoln reached out to put a hand under the Drake-girl’s snout, lifting her head to look at him. “You know, your mommy and your daddy, and your aunt, would all be so very, very proud of you.”

Her vertical-slit eyes filled with tears then, as the girl’s snout quivered. “They w-would?”

The man nodded firmly, cupping both sides of her elongated head. “You are being so brave. You’re learning, and you’re helping everyone, and you’re telling those wonderful stories…” He forced himself to smile, because it was something that she needed to see. “You are a beautiful, brilliant, brave little girl. And you would be an amazing princess.”

It must have been faster and easier for the girl to regain her human-shape, because her Drake-form melted away within a few seconds, leaving her looking much more familiar, as she leaned up into him, her little arms wrapping tightly around Lincoln. Her face was buried against his shoulder as he knelt there.

“I miss Mommy… and Daddy… and Aunt Sarai…” Her voice cracked, breaking a little while her tears soaked into his shirt. “Why did they have to kill my mommy and daddy, Mr. Lincoln? What did my mommy and daddy do? Why did have to die, Mr. Lincoln? Why… why…?” With each passing word, she cried a little bit harder.  

Feeling his heart crack just a little bit more than he had thought possible, Lincoln held the girl to him. He said nothing, because what could he say to that?

What could anyone ever possibly say to it?

******

“Me and Duncan, we’ve been with the clan our whole lives.”

A few hours later, Lincoln was listening as Misty, the waifish young woman with unbelievable strength thanks to being a Natural Ogre Heretic, spoke in between bites of the enormous slice of pepperoni pizza that she was busily devouring.

“Your whole lives?” he asked curiously, taking a sip from a can of coke. The two of them were seated at a picnic table behind one of the cabins. In the distance, as the sun set, they could hear the sound of wood clacking loudly against itself. More of the camp residents training with their practice weapons.

The girl gave a quick, vigorous nod, sending her brown and blonde streaked hair bouncing. “Yup, our parents were part of Eden’s Garden until your wife convinced them to leave back when the rebellion was still going on. So they joined up. Then little baby Duncan came along, and they knew they had to do better than that, so they eventually had me too.

“Funny thing is,” she continued, “I didn’t even really wanna be a Heretic when I was little.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Lincoln took a bite of his own slice of pizza while prompting, “You didn’t?”

Misty shook her head. “Actually, I wanted to be an architect. Only I didn’t want to just make apartment buildings or skyscrapers. I wanted to design castles.”

“Castles?” Lincoln echoed, his curiosity raised even more.

“Sure.” Winking, the girl continued. “You know how little kids wanna be princesses and knights living in a palace? I wanted to design and build the palace. You should’ve seen how many Lego sets I had, how many reams and reams of paper I used up with all my designs. I had all these layers of walls and traps. They were beautiful. Watching things like the Lord of the Rings movies, my favorite parts were the castles.”

That little tidbit made Lincoln smile. “I’d like to see those castles you designed. What made you change your mind?”

“I’ll see what I can dig up,” Misty replied before lifting her chin. “And you mean besides the fact that there isn’t really a very big career field for ‘castle designer’ out there?”

Coughing, the man gestured. “Fair enough, I guess those are pretty rare anymore. Still, what made you decide to go with being a Heretic and fight right on the front lines? I mean, linking yourself to an Ogre. You can’t really get much more into the direct line of fire than that.”

For a moment, Misty didn’t answer. She looked away, biting her lip softly before slowly replying, “I was kidnapped by a bunch of Nocen. Mom and Dad saved me, but they were… they didn’t make it.” The guilt and shame in the young woman’s voice was palpable. “Duncan barely managed to get me out himself, and we couldn’t…” She took a deep, shuddering breath then, unable to finish what she had been saying. Instead, she moved on. “So I decided that what I wanted to do was protect people. Like my parents, like they… like they did for me, and for everyone else. I wanted to be strong, so… Ogre.”

Swallowing, Lincoln shook his head, his voice quiet. “I’m sorry that happened. I would have liked to know your parents.”

Managing a ghost of a smile, Misty gave a little nod at that. “Pretty sure they would’ve liked to know you too.” She rubbed the back of her neck, looking self-conscious. “Um. Sorry. I didn’t mean to get all emotional there. It’s been a long time, it shouldn’t–”

“No,” Lincoln interrupted before the girl could continue. “You don’t have anything to apologize for. Trust me, I… I may not know exactly what it’s like, but… I understand. It’s not something that just goes away.”

“You’re right,” she agreed in a soft, barely audible voice, “it’s not.

“But Duncan and I already killed the fucks that killed our parents. So at least there’s that.”

******

Later that night, as darkness had settled over the entire camp, Lincoln stood at the end of one of the docks, sipping coffee (a wonderful, wonderful brew thanks to Busy’s work on the machine) while speaking with the elderly man who stood beside him.

“So, I guess you don’t really talk much about the particular Alter you were bonded to,” he noted in a soft voice, his eyes on the dark water before them.

Enguerrand gave the faintest hint of a smile, standing with his arms lightly folded. “No,” he replied quietly, “I suppose I do not. It is difficult enough to assure Alters that we do not mean them harm, to say nothing of their reaction to the fact that I am connected to one of their… bogeymen. The Seosten are not well-liked among those who know anything about them. Though even that is fairly rare here on Earth. My companions find it better if I, as they say, play down my connection to the bodysnatchers.”

Lincoln nodded once then. “I can believe that. But uh…” He paused, choosing the right words. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but–”

“You would like to know how I am connected to one of the Seosten,” Enguerrand guessed, glancing that way. “Because there are not any around here.”

When Lincoln confirmed that, the old knight cracked his neck before explaining. “When I was a very young man, still a child, really, I was taken in by one of the Seosten who had been on this planet for a very long time.”

“One of the Olympians?” Lincoln guessed. He had learned enough about that whole situation to make the assumption.

However, Enguerrand chuckled while shaking his head. “No, actually. The man who took me in was the child of a couple of the Seosten who came to this planet while it was still free, while it was the sanctuary that it had been before the rest of his people found it. They were his parents, and they lived in the place we now know as Egypt. When the Seosten empire found the planet, his mother was heavy with child, and they were afraid that any excitement would cause her to… to lose the baby. It is very difficult for Seosten to carry their children to full term.

“So, they helped to give what aid and information they could to certain people there, before fleeing under the cover of night. Any Seosten who would have been found there would be known to have rejected the Empire and would have been punished as traitors and deserters. They left, and in time, had their child. For years, they traveled that way, moving all the time to keep themselves away from their own people and out of sight of not only them but also those who would see all Seosten as enemies no matter their current allegiance.

“Sadly, both eventually passed away. My lord’s father was quite elderly even before they arrived on the planet. And his mother, while much younger, relatively speaking, only lasted another thirty or forty years without her beloved. My lord was a grown man by then, of course. Left on his own, he buried his mother and set out to see the rest of this world, while avoiding his own people.”

Heaving a long, heavy sigh then, the man shook his head. “Unfortunately, when the Seosten created the Bystander Effect, they also cast an attached spell that erased much of the knowledge of the Seosten in general not only from the humans, but from the vast majority of every species.”

Lincoln blinked at that. “They erased the knowledge of–ah. I suppose that makes sense. Explains why every Alter here on Earth doesn’t know all about them.”

The other man gave a faint nod. “My lord was not entirely exempted from that. Why would he be? After all, they had no idea that he existed. His naturally enhanced memory protected him somewhat, but he lost much of what his parents had told him about his own people. Their spacefaring nature, the extent of their manipulations, their power, all of that had faded. It came and went, certain details rising, particularly later in his life. But for the most part, the stories that his parents had told were simply… gone. He remembered being told the stories, but not the details.”

“That must have been horrifying for him,” Lincoln observed, “and tragic, to lose so much of what his parents taught him, so much of what they said.”

Enguerrand grimaced slightly. “Yes. It was. But he moved on, even becoming a knight of rather high regard. Eventually, he took me on as a squire, and gradually trusted me enough to tell me what little he still knew of the Seosten and what he had been able to piece together. I served him for many years, and he connected me to him by blood. Then he… he saw that I had fallen in love with the woman who would become my wife, and released me from my service. I swore to come if he should ever need me, and then I took up with my own new family.

“That, however, was not meant to last. My wife and child were… murdered by a group of Nocen. In a rage, I killed the one responsible for their deaths, but the others, his friends… they would have killed me in return. But I was saved by Lyell Atherby, who became my best friend after that. He dragged me out of the pit of depression that losing my family sent me into. We were very close. I helped him raise his son, Joshua, and then his daughter…”

“Joselyn,” Lincoln finished for the man.

“Just so,” Enguerrand confirmed, giving him a brief look. “I took care of that kid when she wasn’t even big enough to hold onto my finger, before we lost her… her parents.”

“They died stopping the Fomorian invasion, right?”

The old knight shook his head. “Her father did. Her mother’s still alive, or was back then. We just lost all memory of who she was. And it has to stay that way. Anyone finds out who Joshua’s wife actually was, and it weakens the spell keeping the Fomorians away. It’s the ongoing part of the sacrifice.”

Deciding to change the subject a little, Lincoln asked, “What about your old master, the Seosten who practically raised you. Do you think he’s still out there?”

Enguerrand nodded. “I am certain he is. I do not know where, or what he has been doing, but he is out there, somewhere.

“The true question is, when will he show himself again?”    

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Interlude 32B – Miranda, Abigail, and Seller.

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“She was attacked here, and barely survived.”

The announcement came in the middle of a motel room that looked as though an entire world war had taken place inside of it. Both chairs in the room were overturned and broken into splinters, and the bed had been broken in half with bits scattered everywhere. Blood of various colors lined the walls, along with other viscera. The bathroom door had been ripped off its hinges and lay broken in half. And dozens of various sized holes dotted every wall as well as the floor and ceiling. Also, the television was on its side with one body stuck halfway into it, through the broken screen.

Seller, the man who had spoken, looked back to his two female companions, Miranda and Abigail. “Whatever attacked Lies in here, there were a lot more than one of them. My guess is that they teleported in right on top of her.”

“Them,” Miranda corrected faintly while walking forward to look at the body in the television. “Remember, there’s two of them, even if they’re sharing the same body. Lies and Pace.” She looked over to the man. “We have to save Pace.”

Abigail slowly stepped into the room as well, her head shaking. “From what little we know,” the woman announced slowly, “it doesn’t sound like these…” her face twisted with disgust, “… handicapped Seosten have any real chance in their lives.” The woman refused to use the term Lie. She found it barbaric and horrible, and flat out refused to be a part of it. “That video that you showed me of the girl, that is not a healthy individual making their own choices. And from what else we’ve found… she’s damaged. She’s as much a victim in this whole situation as anyone.”

Seller cleared his throat. “The point is,” he began flatly, “we need to find both of them. We can’t save Pace without Lies. And right now, we don’t even know if either of them are still alive.” Pointedly, he gestured around the destroyed room. “Give me a minute to look at this place over and try to put it together.”

Leaving the man to examine the place, Miranda and Abigail stepped out of the room and back into the motel parking lot. It was late at night, almost to the point of technically being morning. The place looked pretty much completely abandoned, without any lights on in any of the other rooms, and the office had the blinds pulled tightly shut. The two women glanced to one another before Miranda asked, “Do you really think that we can get through to Lies?”

“What I think,” the woman replied, “is that every single person in that girl’s life has probably used, abused, and abandoned her. She doesn’t even have a real name. So, I am not going to make any judgments about what she might be capable of if someone did give her a chance. I’m not saying that she’s some perfectly innocent, fluffy little lamb, but she could be more than they’ve made her, if someone gave her a chance.”

“Pace is innocent too,” Miranda pointed out quietly. She went silent for another few seconds before kicking hard at the ground in front of her with a harshly muttered, “Fuck the Seosten.”

“That does seem to sum it up,” the older woman agreed. Her voice softened then, as she reached out to squeeze the younger girl’s shoulder. “They will bring Felicity back, and the others.”

Flinching a bit notably, Miranda let out a long, low side before admitting quietly, “I’m scared. I know that being scared doesn’t help anything, but what if something happens to her out there? She’s my friend. I abandoned her once, because the Heretics said that it was better than getting her involved with the monsters. That was a lie. It was all a lie. They knew that she was already involved. They knew. They just didn’t want me to be a part of her life. And now, she’s all the way out there, and I can’t do anything about it at all. I feel so… so fucking helpless.”

“If it helps at all,” Abigail put in then, “I would bet that the people who actively recruited you didn’t know much about the situation with Felicity and her—I mean our mother.”

Miranda resisted the urge to cough at those words. That had been a bit of a surprise. She had known that Flick cared about what happened to Abigail, but had thought that it was because the woman was Koren’s mother. Seller, however, had taken the two of them far away from Earth, to some other planet in order to tell her the truth back when they had started this whole search. Abigail and he wanted Miranda to understand just how connected the woman was to the situation.

And finding out that Flick technically had a fifty-something-year-old sister (and brother) had taken some getting used to. Let alone the revelation that Koren was actually her niece. That was… something.

“That memory spell…” At first, Miranda thought that Abigail was referring to the same one that she had just been thinking about. Only belatedly did she realize that the woman was actually talking about the one centered on erasing Joselyn. As she spoke the words, the Abigail’s face twisted with anger, “Thanks to that, I doubt the people low enough to be recruiting you as a student knew the whole story. They probably knew that Crossroads had a claim on her, and that’s why they didn’t want you being involved with Felicity. But I doubt they actually knew about the rest of it.”

Miranda’s mouth opened and shut once or twice before she finally replied, “I’m still pissed off about it.”

“So am I,” Abigail confirmed. “So am I.”

Before either of them could say anything else, Seller stepped out of the room to join them. “Okay,” he announced while adjusting his emerald green suit, “as far as I can put it together, our little friend won her fight in there. Most of the blood is from other species. I can put together a rough estimate of how the fight went. She took some pretty bad hits, but with the werewolf regeneration and anything else she’s got, I’d say she was the one who walked out of there.” Looking around as he stood there on the sidewalk, the man raised a hand to point off in the distance. “That way,” he continued. “She went that way.”

“How can you tell?” Abigail asked curiously.

In response, the man winked. “I can smell her,” he replied easily, “and I can see the path she took through the lot.” He indicated various spots on the pavement. “I can see the disturbances where her feet came down. Trust me, with the right kind of powers, it’s not hard to notice. And besides,” he held up a finger with a bit of red on it. “Not all of the blood in there was from other people. I’ve got enough blood tracking power to get a pretty good bead on the girl.  So trust me, she’s that way.”

The three of them thought out that way, while Miranda asked, “Do you really think it’s the other Seosten who’re trying to kill her?”

“It makes the most sense,” Abigail replied. “Think about it. She’s clearly been out on her own for awhile now. We’ve picked that much up just from tracking her. And we know that the Seosten somehow knew that Felicity and the others were onto them. That’s why they sprang that trap. The only real way for them to know that would be if they knew the choker wasn’t destroyed. And if they knew that, they probably blamed Lies for losing it in the first place.”

“So they’re pissed at her and she’s on the run.” Miranda sighed. “And we’re playing rescue party for the crazy–” She stopped at a warning look from Abigail, biting her lip hard. “I mean, she’s probably not gonna be that happy to see us either, you know.”

It was Seller who responded. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes. Right now, we focus on finding and subduing her.” He gave a quick glance to Abigail, adding, “Victim or not, that girl is dangerous. We make sure she’s not going to kill any of us before trying any of this negotiating.”

For a moment, Abigail looked as though she was going to say something to that. In the end, however, the woman simply gave a tight-lipped nod.

The three of them walked on for a bit longer, and they reached what looked like an ordinary, sleepy suburban street with small, one and two story houses lining both sides before Abigail finally did speak up, looking to the man while asking, “Does your blood tracker say how far away she might be?”

“Yeah, she’s–” Seller started before falling silent abruptly. His mirrored sunglasses didn’t hide his frown. “That’s funny, she was about three blocks that way, but it just disappeared. It’s like she–”

A blur of motion filled Abigail’s vision before the woman was suddenly grabbed and yanked around. She found herself facing Miranda and Seller, while an arm was held tightly against her throat and another hand was pressed against her face. She could feel the razor-sharp claws as they lightly, yet pointedly brushed over her skin.

“Like they knew you were tracking them and waited until you were right where they wanted you to be, then blocked it?” The by-then familiar voice tickled Abigail’s ears before the girl giggled. “That was what you were about to say, right? We love winning these games.”

“Lies!” Miranda blurted. The girl already had her shield in one hand as she stood there beside Seller, facing the one who had taken Abigail hostage. “Stop, don’t hurt her! We’re not here to attack you.”

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed. The man made no move to attack, draw any weapon, or make any threatening motion. He simply stood at ease. “We didn’t come to fight.”

The girl’s response was a sharp, lilting laugh before she leaned in close to Abigail’s ear, stage-whispering, “Is that right? Are the little birds telling the truth with their chirp, chirp, chirps? Or are they mean, nasty old beavers in crocodile clothing?” As if anticipating confusion, she added in a thoughtful tone, “Beavers are mean. Territorial. Nasty. Angry. Chomp, chomp, chomp. We weren’t even trying to steal your den, we just wanted to look inside because we were curious, jerk.”

“But why would you say in crocodile clothing?” The question clearly came before Miranda could stop it, even though she felt ridiculous even as the words tumbled from her mouth. “They’re pretty bad too.”

“What?” Lies sounded honestly flabbergasted by that. “No, they’re not. They’re adorable and cuddly. Name one animal with a better smile. If people would stop being so mean to them, maybe they could all get along.”

“Um.” Trying not to shift with the girl’s claws against her face, Abigail quietly spoke up. “I think we might have drifted somewhat off-topic.”

“Let her go, Lies.” Seller’s voice was firm. “Like we already said, we didn’t come here to hurt you.”

“Funny,” the Seosten girl retorted. “We didn’t come to hurt you either. We came to hurt the bad, bad, mean guys chasing us. Set a whole trap for them and everything. Left blood for them to track, had a whole thing set up. It would’ve been spiffy. But it was you, not them. You’re chasing, but not those chasers. You’re not them. You messed it up. We should punish you for that–what? No, I didn’t. We didn’t–we–yes, but if one of them dies, that still leaves two. That’s fair, isn’t it? But they really messed up our trap and it’s not fair. We worked hard on that trap. It’s not fair.”

Miranda’s head shook at that. “No one needs to be punished, Lies. We just want to talk.”

“Oooh, nobody needs to be punished?” Lies echoed the words, her smile appearing quite similar to that of the crocodiles that she had so recently extolled the virtues of. “Maybe you pretty thing could stick around and tell the mean old Manakel that, hmm? Maybe he’d change his mind then.”

“Manakel?” Seller jumped on that. “He’s sending all those guys after you, isn’t he? That’s why we’re here. You come with us and we’ll protect you. We can help each other. All you have to do is tell us what you know. Help us deal with them and Manakel won’t be able to hurt you.”

Again, the girl giggled. “You hear that? They came to protect us. Our knights in shining armor.”

“You’re in danger,” Abigail, standing as still as possible, reminded the girl. “The other Seosten obviously want you dead. We’ve already seen some of the results of that, and they’re obviously not going to stop. You can keep going by yourself, or you can make an alliance with us. None of us have to like each other, but we can help each other. We can all get what we want, what we need.”

“But if you hurt her,” Seller added in a voice that brooked no argument, “I promise that Manakel will be the least of your worries. We can work together. But you need to let her go. Show of trust. Let her go and we’ll work all of this out. Just take it easy.”

Miranda tensed, watching the other girl intently. Yet, she had a feeling that it would be okay. As violent as Lies was, and even though she was holding Abigail hostage, there was something innately different about her than there had been before. She seemed a little more in control of herself, a little less… crazed. Still not exactly reasonable or calm, but Miranda just had a feeling that she wasn’t going to kill Abigail, or even really hurt her, despite the implicit (and explicit) threat. Being hunted by Manakel’s people, it was obvious that she’d had a long few days, or weeks, or whatever it had been. She clearly knew that Miranda and the others were her best chance at survival. The question was whether she could control her psychological problems and violent impulses long enough to let that sink in. But thus far, the fact that she had stopped to talk to them, that she had shown herself at all and was still just standing there, it was actually a good sign.

“Take it easy?” Echoing Seller’s words in a tone that was somehow simultaneously mocking and curious, Lies shook her head. “None of this will be easy. They don’t understand, do they? No. Not easy at all. But helpful?” Leaning closer to Abigail’s ear, she stage-whispered once more. “They might, maybe, possibly prove how helpful they are now.”

Abigail spoke quietly. “Like I said, we want to help you. Tell us what we can do.”

Giving a long, curious sniff, Lies nonchalantly replied, “Maybe they can kill those ones.”

“Kill what o–” Miranda abruptly cut off her own question as a series of shuffling and creaking sounds caught all of their attention.

Spinning, she and the others took in the sight of figures emerging from all around them. They came from the shadows, pushing their way through the gates of fences that encircled nearby yards, pushing up out of a manhole in the middle of the street, kicking open the doors of a few parked cars to fall out before picking themselves up. Dozens of the creatures.

“Zombies,” Seller muttered, his voice flat as he scanned the area around them. They were surrounded, more and more of the things appearing with each passing second.

“Told you,” Lies primly reminded them. “You broke our trap.”

Shaking his head, the old Heretic announced, “We don’t have to deal with this.” He held a hand out, pausing briefly before sighing. “Or maybe we do. Something’s blocking teleportation.”

“Uh huh.” Lies sounded not the least bit surprised. If anything, she clearly thought that it was all very amusing. “Manakel doesn’t like it when you run away from his surprises. Oh, and FYI, not really zombies. Super-zombies. Manakel zombies. Hades. Stronger, faster, and smell worse. And more bad things. Like skills, powers, abilities. They keep them, not like normal boring zombies.”

“We can still fight them,” Miranda insisted. She took aim at one of the creatures as the army gradually surrounded the group, encircling them and moving forward, closer with each step.

“No.” Seller put a hand out, stopping the girl. “I’ll deal with these guys. The rest of you get out of here.

“Uh.” Miranda’s head shook. “In case it escaped your attention, we kinda can’t get out of here. They’re in the way.”

In response, the man extended a hand, making a quick motion. Part of the pavement about eight feet wide beneath the feet of the shuffling zombies abruptly raised upward, knocking them aside while forming into the shape of a tunnel, creating an opening right through the middle of the horde and continuing on for what looked like several blocks, straight down the road. Meanwhile, the man raised his other hand and made a sharp pushing motion. Immediately, the air near the ‘tunnel’ blurred and turned a bit hazy.   

“What did you–” Miranda started, before Seller’s hand caught her shoulder. He gave her a solid shove right into the mouth of the tunnel. As soon as she was there, the girl felt some kind of gravity-wind-force catch hold of her, and she was rapidly hurled down the length of the several-block long raised pavement tunnel. Her body tumbled end over end in mid-air, as though she was falling sideways. A startled yelp had just managed to escape her before she was gradually slowed to a gentle stop at the far end of it. For a second, the girl continued to float there a foot or so off the ground, before even that disappeared and she dropped lightly to her feet.

“Wheeeeeeeeee!” Behind her, Lies came soaring through the tunnel like Supergirl, hands outstretched in front of her as she flew right to the end. Once the ‘ride’ stopped, she pouted. “Aww, we wanted to keep going. Can we do it again?”

“Where–” Miranda’s question was cut off as Abigail came flying through as well, the woman crying out right as she reached the end to be dropped to the ground.

Once the three of them had collected themselves, Miranda stared down the street. She could barely make out the fight that was going on, and a part of her wanted to create a duplicate that could run back to help Seller.

But to be honest, she wouldn’t really be helping. The man could handle some zombies, even the ‘improved versions’ that Manakel apparently created, whatever that meant. At best, she would be a distraction. And if more bad guys came after them while Seller was busy, she would need all her powers to deal with that, rather than splitting them between duplicates.

“We have to get out of here,” she announced. “Seller will find us, and…” She paused, looking to Lies, who had walked around behind her. “What are you doing?”

“Hmm?” Glancing up, Lies gave them an innocent look. “Oh, nothing. Other-Me just thinks you have a cute butt, so we were getting a better look.” She paused briefly while Miranda made a choking, stammering noise before adding, “I wasn’t supposed to say that. So we’d like it if you just pretended we didn’t. We never said that.” As she spoke the last line deliberately, the girl waved a hand as if she was trying to be a Jedi.  

“I–we–what?” Head shaking, Miranda started, “Why do you keep saying we–wait.”

Abigail understood already. “Pace? Is we you and Pace?” the woman carefully asked.

“Well,” the girl retorted with a sniff, “there’s hardly anyone else in here with us.”

“I’m confused.” Miranda frowned, watching her closely. “Are you trying to say that you two are… working together or something? Why do you keep saying we, and talking about what Pace wants or… or likes?”

“Me, other-me, we, Pace, all of us.” Lies gave a languid shrug. “Pacey Pace already said if we don’t work together, we’ll die. So we do. We work together. We compromise. We are together. We are we.” She gave a little giggle then. “Still working out the kinks. And speaking of kinks, could you turn around again? Other-me really does like your butt. If-” She paused, coughing. “Oh. Other-me didn’t want us to say that again. This is very hard to know what we are supposed to say or not supposed to say. Trying to be nice and let her speak, but some things she thinks we’re not supposed to say. So complicated. So many rules.”

Stepping in quickly while Miranda mentally and vocally flailed, Abigail spoke up. “So you’re already working together. You can work with us. We can all help each other.”

Finally catching herself, Miranda nodded. “We get out of here, we meet up with Seller, and you can tell us what we need to know. You can tell us about Manakel, about the rest of the Seosten, and in exchange, we can protect you.”

“Ohhh, not that easy.” Lies shook her head slowly. “Not nearly so easy. We can tell you a lot. We can tell you oh-so-much. But it’s not protection we want. No. Not protection. We need more. We know so much, we can help so much.” Her hand tapped the side of her head. “So very much indeed. But if you want it, you have to earn it. Yes. You have to give us what we really want.”

Abigail gave a slow nod, shooting a warning glance to Miranda. “Okay, what do you want?”

A slow, still-manic smile spread across the face of the Lies-possessed Pace. “Do what Mama could never do. Fix us. Help us separate. I-We-She don’t want Pacey to die. Help me-me get out of other-me. Teach me, help me, fix me. Make me whole. Make me complete. Make me a full Seosten. Fix me so I can do what I’m supposed to do. Help me let Pacey Pace go without killing her.

“Do that. Fix me… and we will tell you everything you want to know.”    

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Interlude 32A – Team Stranded

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on Klassin Roe posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Where is she?!”

“Open the portal! Damn it, Haiden, open it again!”

“She pushed me… She pushed me…”

“What the hell happened back there? What was that?”

“What? She’s not here? What do you mean, she’s not here?! She was right behind us!”

The voices of Sands, Larissa, Jazz, Haiden, and Roxa filled the cargo bay of the ship as they all spoke over one another, their words blending into one large cacophony of noise that was almost impossible to actual pick a single coherent statement out of. It became a salmagundi of words that sounded something like, ‘Where portal hell not here right pushed was open it behind us!’

“Mom!” Sands managed to get out over the din, grabbing her mother’s arm. “Mom, where is she?! Where is Flick? We have to go back for her! We have to go back!” Her voice was hysterical, the realization that her friend had been left behind hitting the girl like a freight train.

“Okay.” With that single word, Haiden snapped his fingers, creating a zone of silence for everyone except himself. “Stop. Everyone stop. We have to-” In mid-sentence, the ship was suddenly rocked heavily, throwing Jazz and Gordon to the floor while the rest fought to keep their balance, Sands stumbling into her mother and Roxa catching hold of Gidget. The lights briefly flickered and dimmed, and the ship gave a second shudder under obviously heavy fire.

Cursing, Haiden turned to the nearby wall, putting a hand against one of the buttons there. “Jokai, Dries, what’s going on up there?!”

It was the old Heretic who answered, appearing in the hatchway to the cargo bay a moment later. “We are under heavy attack,” the thin, scraggly haired man with his thoroughly unkempt beard announced while taking a step into the room. “We must–” He paused then, his eyes widening a little as he looked past the group, to the rest of the cargo bay.

It was almost entirely full of the humanoid ant-people, the Kenkeans. Thousands of the people stood or sat in every available space. There were so many of them that had rather abruptly been thrust into this situation with little to no actual explanation beyond the fact that they had to leave before the Seosten arrived that they should, by all rights, have been making so much noise simply through whispering that the Heretics would have been drowned out.

Instead, each and every one of the Kenkeans were utterly silent. They sat or stood in place, eyes watching the proceedings while barely breathing. They were so utterly petrified of the Seosten in general that seeing what many still believed to be their ‘warsuits’ made them all but incapable of making a sound. They just watched, their collective silence so complete that, had the Heretics not been talking, one could have heard a pin dropping onto a bit of carpet.

For most people, seeing thousands of silent onlookers would have been plenty of reason for a bit of stage fright or uncertainty.  For someone like Dries, who suffered a host of psychological issues (with fears of crowds, open or new places, and of being watched or confronted being right at the top of the extensive list), it derailed his entire thought process and made the man reflexively try to retreat back the way he had come, stumbling a little as his heart rate skyrocketed, his throat closed up, and he felt the shudders start to come on.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. He knew that. He knew that. Half of his issues were simply the result of being trapped alone for such an extended time. And the other half… well, the Seosten hadn’t exactly been reluctant when it came to experimentation. They had wanted to ensure as much as they could that he wouldn’t escape their prison, so they had artificially instilled a plethora of fears and psychological dependencies in him. Over the centuries, he had learned to control a good number of them, but not all. Not the strongest. And every fear that he ignored or controlled took more effort, more willpower. Knowing they were artificial, knowing that the phobias and addictions had been forced upon him didn’t really help. They were still there.

“Dries.” Haiden was there, his hand on the man’s arm. “It’s okay. What–” The ship shuddered once more, as even more firepower was brought against it.

Forcing himself to focus, Dries made his eyes center on the center of Haiden’s shirt. Couldn’t look in his eyes, couldn’t look any of them in the eyes. That was too hard, too much. “We have to leave,” he mumbled, unable to raise his voice. “Jokai is… is trying to evade and outrun, but it is impossible. We are surrounded and blocked. We have to use a teleportation spell. I can do it. I have it. But I don’t have enough power. I need to take power. Your power. To trigger it. To go.” As he spoke, the man’s sentences kept getting shorter. It was too hard to make the words come when he felt so… somehow simultaneously closed off and yet also exposed.

“We can’t go!” That was Sands. She blurted that out with wide eyes. “Flick’s back there! Open the portal back to her! We have to grab her!”

Larissa’s head shook. “We can’t. Whatever Radueriel is doing, it’s blocking our portals. We could try to break through, but the ship won’t last that long.” Her voice cracked, face ashen. “We… we have to go.” From her voice, each word put another crack into her soul.  

“No!” Roxa, looking back and forth at them, shook her head. “We can’t just leave! Flick is there! And–”

“I know.” Larissa interrupted before the girl could give away Tabbris’ existence. “I know. But–”

Haiden abruptly spoke. “No time. Kids, we will go back for Flick, I promise! We will, but we can’t go back for her if we’re killed or captured too. Now come on.” To Dries, he nodded. “Do it. Use our power to trigger the spell.”

“W-wait!” Jazz’s head shook violently, her eyes wild and horrified as she took a step that way quickly. “She–she threw me out of the way! She threw me through the portal! That’s why she—she– you can’t leave her! You can’t leave her there! You-”

Her words were cut off as Gordon, who had remained silent the entire time, caught hold of the girl. He pulled her back while giving the others a silent nod, even as Jazz herself struggled against his grip. Despite his outward calmness, however, there was frustration, fear, and anger in his eyes, emotions that were barely being constrained through sheer force of will and habit. 

Without wasting another second, Dries produced a small wooden figurine that he had carved over the course of his long imprisonment. It was shaped like an elephant, and he had etched symbols into it. As he held the small figure up in his palm, the man spoke a single word.

Instantly, every Heretic in the room other than himself slumped. The teenagers collapsed completely, and would have fallen to the floor if  Larissa and Haiden (clearly woozy and unsteady themselves) hadn’t caught them. All still slowly slumped down, as the two adults couldn’t remain standing.

Meanwhile, Dries took the energy he had captured, pouring it into the teleportration spell that he had already set up. With another single word, he triggered the effect, and the ship was instantly shunted far away from the Kenkean planet.

Far away from Felicity Chambers.

*****

The next day

“We left her there.”

Jazz Rhodes spoke the words flatly, her voice soft as she sat alone in one of the many side-rooms of the ship. Her gaze was directed to the screen on the wall, which was currently filling the facade of a window, overlooking a sea of stars. “We just… we just left her.”

Letting the door whoosh shut behind him, Haiden took another step in while shaking his head. “Not for long. We’re going back for her, I promise. We are going to find her.”

Remaining silent for several long seconds, when Jazz finally spoke, her voice was barely audible. “She saved my life. She threw me through the portal, knocked me through it with her staff. If she hadn’t done that, if she had just jumped through herself, or… or…” She trailed off, her wide gaze continuing to stare at the expanse of space depicted on the screen.

Slowly, the man moved up to stand beside her, his own eyes on the stars as well. “And you feel guilty about that.”

Flushing, the dark-skinned girl looked down as her arms folded themselves tightly against her stomach. “Wouldn’t you?” she demanded in a somewhat cracked voice. “If I’d been a little bit faster, if I’d gotten there just a little sooner, another… another step or two even, maybe… maybe…”

Before she could continue, Haiden put a hand out to rest on her shoulder. “Stop,” he urged quietly. “Blaming yourself for not being perfect, throwing yourself under the bus like that, it doesn’t help anything.”

“A real Torchbearer would’ve been faster,” Jazz informed him flatly, pulling her shoulder away from his hand as she lowered her gaze to the floor. “Any of the others, any of the real candidates would’ve made it without needing help. I should’ve used one of my gravity balls to push us both forward or… or something. I should’ve thought of that. They would have. I shouldn’t be at Crossroads. I shouldn’t–it should’ve been someone who could actually help.”

“Hey.” That time, Haiden took hold of the girl and turned her to face him. His voice was firm. “Look at me.”

As Jazz slowly lifted her gaze a bit reluctantly, he continued. “You need to stop worrying about what other Torchbearers would do. Because the truth is, all this garbage about what the ‘real candidates would have done’ is just that: garbage. You are the real candidate, the real student. You are the real Heretic, Jasmine. So stop worrying about what anyone else would do. Because the only thing that matters is what you do. What you do, not what you could have done and not what anyone else might have done. The only thing, the only fucking thing you can control is what you do in the moment. If it’s not enough and you get thrown into the dirt, then you pick yourself up, you brush yourself off, and you get back on that goddamn horse. That’s what you control, that’s all you control. Sitting around moping about it or trying again, that’s your choice, that’s your decision.”

The girl swallowed hard, flinching a little as her soft, quiet voice replied, “I’m scared that I’m not good enough.”

“Then use that fear,” Haiden urged, squeezing both of her shoulders. “Instead of letting it make you freeze up, use it to make yourself better, to push yourself to keep training, to keep trying. You think you’re not good enough? Good. Make yourself good enough. Keep trying. Keep working. Keep training and keep fighting. The only thing you could do to make yourself not good enough is to stop trying to be better than you are.”

Biting her lip, Jazz peeked up at the man. “Vanessa and Tristan are lucky they get to have you as a dad.”

Haiden blinked rapidly, chasing the moisture away from his eyes as his voice cracked a little bit. “I’m lucky to have them as my kids. Now I’ve just gotta get back to them.”

“And your wife.” Jazz met his gaze. “You’ve been apart from them for so long, but you haven’t stopped trying. You never stopped trying, working, moving that way.”

“Like I said,” he replied, “something knocks you off the horse, you get back on it, and you keep fucking going.”

Straightening a little bit, the young woman took in a heavy breath before letting it out slowly. “We get Flick. We get your wife. And we go home.”

“That’s the spirit.” Smiling, Haiden nudged his fist against the girl’s chin.

“But then, when we make it back,” Jazz continued, “there’s something else you have to do.”

“Oh?” Raising an eyebrow, the man asked, “and what’s that?”

“You have to teach me how to ride a horse.”

********

Later that evening

 

“You know, I’m really sad that I never worked on my Anthony Hopkins impression right now.”

The observation came from Isaac, as the boy stood in the middle of the room that had been specially prepared for him. The room itself was thirty feet wide by twenty feet long, but the boy was confined to a much smaller space than that. The red line painted on the floor created a square about eight feet by ten feet. That was the space that he couldn’t leave, which the spellforms drawn on the other side of the square, filling the rest of the space of the room, ensured. Within the small area, there was a bed as well as a toilet with a privacy screen.

On the other side of that square, facing the imprisoned boy, stood Larissa, Haiden, Dries, Roxa, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon. The students stood slightly to one side of the adults, both small groups watching him intently.

“Don’t fucking flatter yourself.” Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You’re not Hopkins-tier. You’re not even John Travolta’s villain character in Battlefield Earth. You’re bottom-feeding scum.”

“That’s enough.” Larissa’s voice was quiet, yet definitive as she took a step forward. “We’re here for one thing and one thing only. You guys are here because we promised you could be included, but now isn’t the time to make ourselves feel better through insults. Or anything else. It’s time to get information.”

“Oh, you want information?” Brightening, Isaac replied, “I’ve got a few ideas about what we could trade. But the thing is, you’re a little old for me. How about you leave Sandy in here for a little bit instead. I figure, ehhh, twenty minutes alone oughta be worth whatever you want me to tell you?”

Ignoring the brief, outraged sound that came from her daughter while her friends held her back, Larissa simply shook her head at the boy. “Sloppy. You want me to lose control, get angry, do something stupid? You’re going to have to try harder than that.” Calmly, she moved closer, walking straight up to the line. “Because quite frankly, put on even ground, I’m sure that my daughter would hurt you a lot more than you could hurt her.”

“Mom,” Sands managed, “be careful.”  

“It’s okay,” Larissa assured her daughter. “The spells cut off his power, not mine. He’s not a threat.” With that, she stepped over the line and into the containment square.

“What,” Isaac retorted while taking a reflexive step back, “no negotiation? Doesn’t have to be your daughter. I’d settle for the Little Orphan Wolfie. She’s more my type anyway. Seems pretty wi–”

His words were cut off as Larissa’s hand abruptly snapped out to catch him by the throat, though he managed a heavily strained, “Thought you said I wasn’t getting to you.”

“You’re not,” the woman replied, still holding the boy by the throat. “But you’re also an evil son-of-a-bitch, so I don’t feel the need to be gentle. Now, Felicity isn’t here right now, so you’ll just have to deal with me possessing you. So it looks like you don’t have much to–” She stopped.

“Hmm?” Grinning, Isaac tilted his head. “I’m sorry, are you having performance anxiety? Should I close my eyes? Would that make it easier? Maybe there’s a pill that–”

Again, his voice was choked off into silence as Larissa tightened her grip while looking over her shoulder. “He’s protected. I can’t possess him.”

“What?” Haiden started that way quickly, giving Dries a brief look before the other man followed suit. While the teenagers muttered amongst themselves, the adults moved in together, examining the boy.

“It’s the same effect,” Larissa finally announced as they stepped back. “He’s using the dibs spell.”

“Shit, did I forget to mention that?” Isaac’s broad smile was even more utterly incorrigible, his amusement written plainly across his face. “I feel like I probably should’ve mentioned that.”

“What the fuck?!” Sands blurted, moving right up to the edge of the line. She would have gone further, but her mother snapped a hand down to stop her. “How?! How could he possibly know how to cast that? That doesn’t even make sense. That’s bullshit! We learned the spell after he left! After he–” She choked herself off, looking like the thing she really wanted to do the most was put her fist through the boy’s chest a few dozen times.

Brightening, Isaac snapped his fingers. “Oh, right, I did mean to thank you guys for having those lessons in the same room where we were learning everything else. When I put in those spy cameras, I really wasn’t sure how useful they’d be, but I think you have to agree that they paid off.”

“Haiden,” Larissa snapped.

“I’m on it,” the man replied, already pivoting on his heel to go and deal with those and whatever the boy had left behind. They had been so distracted and broken up after that massacre, after the death of Ulysses and all those other people, that they hadn’t searched the ship as thoroughly as they should have. And now they were paying for it.

“It’s your spell,” Gordon observed from where he and the other students were standing. “Can’t you just undo it? Or bypass it?”

Larissa’s head shook quickly. “If we could just undo it, then the Seosten could have just undone it. The entire point was to make it so that it couldn’t just be dispelled. Plus, we don’t know how much messing with it that way we could do without unraveling the entire thing. Remember, we still don’t know what exactly Sariel did to create the initial effect that we’re piggybacking off of. The last thing we want to do is disable that part of it. We’d never get it up again. We mess around with this too much trying to turn his protection off, and we might turn off all our protection.”

“Hey,” Isaac put in then, in his infuriatingly smug way, “I’ve got an idea. You could torture me for it. You know, set me on fire, pull my fingernails, make me listen to Jazz whine for an hour or so. That might–oh, shit.” Snapping his fingers as though he had just remembered something, the boy pretended to lament, “I just had to go and throw a suicide pill into the spell, didn’t I? So, you know, if I’m under too much pain or fear or anything else–” He drew a finger across his throat demonstrably. “Then I suppose you won’t get any of the answers that you want.” .

From where he was standing, Gordon flatly remarked, “I’m not sure that making everyone as angry and upset as possible and then telling them exactly how to easily kill you is going to have quite the effect that you want. But then, I’m not the tactical genius that you are.”

“So, what,” Sands started while giving a heavy shrug as she ignored Isaac to focus on her mother, “we just wait for it to wear off?”

“You wanna tell her?” Isaac asked with a smirk, “or should I?”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Larissa looked to Dries first, then the others. “We made sure that the spell would last for a long time to begin with. There’s no point of having it if it’s just going to wear off a day after one of us was captured. It’s a long spell, and… and as far as we can tell, Isaac boosted it the last time that he cast it. Probably using that same blood ritual that he had connecting him to the Kenkeans. He used their life forces to supercharge the duration, which was already long to begin with.”

“So how long will it take to wear off then?” Jazz demanded.

“Honestly,” the woman replied slowly, “I have no idea. Weeks, at least. Maybe months.” Even saying the words made her want to incinerate the boy almost more than she could control. Flick and Tabbris were out there, they were… She stopped herself from that line of thought. If she didn’t keep herself under control, the kids wouldn’t either. And if they all lost it… then Isaac would get what he clearly wanted. As much as she wanted to express her anger and frustration, the kids needed a better example. 

Meanwhile, rather than devolve into cursing, Sands lifted her chin. “Or we go right to the source. We find Sariel, have her disable it long enough to get all the answers we need out of him. So nothing’s changed. We find Flick, we find Sariel, and we get everything we need out of this psycho piece of shit.” To the boy himself, she added, “And if I was you, I’d wipe that stupid fucking smirk off my face. You’re still a loser who was captured, and we’re going to find out everything you know. It’ll just take a little longer.”

“Indeed,” Larissa murmured, giving her daughter a brief smile despite herself. The girl had grown so much. Keeping herself calm enough to think straight even in this situation, even against Isaac’s taunting, she had definitely matured. It made Larissa… it made her proud. “Which means that we’re back to our number one goal.

“Finding Felicity.”

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Mini-Interlude 56 – Klassin Roe

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“I just… I just want to explain, you know?” The voice of Russell Bailey, formerly monikered as Virus, was quiet even in the small room that amounted to Klassin Roe’s therapy office. The headmistress had offered to make it larger, but Roe had declined. He didn’t need an enormous room to work in. It was best that the students he worked with feel secure, not overwhelmed.

Now, he sat back slowly in his chair while lifting his chin to the boy. “You want to tell your family what really happened to your father.” His voice held no judgment, no condemnation.

The boy flinched a little bit, running a hand up through his newly shortened hair. At one point not long before, it had been long and dyed an obnoxious bright red, but Russell had taken most of it down to a short crew cut, and it had grown out to its natural light brown. He also no longer wore the facial piercings that had been such an extensive part of him at the beginning of the year.

“They think it was just some crazy cult initiation or something,” the boy mumbled, his gaze dropping to the floor. “They’ll never really know. They’ll never understand that it was… it was…” His voice caught a little, mouth working before he gave a little shudder. “That it was my fault.”

“You still think that it was your fault?” Again, Roe did not correct the boy, not in this particular situation. He believed that Russell was wrong, of course. But simply telling him that would accomplish nothing. What the boy really needed right in that moment was someone to talk to, someone to sit and listen to his turmoil without correcting or inserting their own opinion.

Russell gave him an incredulous look for a second anyway, blurting, “Of course it is! I–Just think about it. I hang out with a bunch of psycho gangbangers to look cool. My parents tried to tell me to leave them alone. Everyone tried to tell me to leave them alone. But I thought they were badass, so I made ‘friends’ with them.” His fingers jerked up to form the air quotes while mouth twisted in derision at that word. “I fucked around with those guys cuz they were sooo cool.”

He went silent for a few seconds then, his face contorting a little as his head shook violently. There were tears forming in the boy’s eyes, tears that he angrily blinked away. “Then I become a Heretic. So I go back over Christmas to hang out with my old ‘friends’, and guess what.”

Roe remained quiet. He knew this story, of course. He’d heard it many times. But talking it through, repeating it, helped Russell deal with everything. It seemed to help him cope.

“They’re monsters,” the boy spat, his hard gaze glowering at the desk between them. “They’re a bunch of fucking monsters, most of them. Strangers. And they know what I am as soon as they see me. They know I’m a Heretic, so I get the hell out of there. I’m freaking the hell out, so I run away. I didn’t know what to do. I should’ve called you guys. I should’ve called Crossroads. But I just ran to the arcade and screwed off for awhile. I had to think. I was just… I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. So I just hung out. I fucking–” His face twisted once more, and the tears threatened to come back. It was clearly all he could do to keep it somewhat under control.

When he finally continued a few seconds later, his voice was hollow. “I walked back home. I walked home and… and my dad… those assholes. Those fucking motherfuckers, they… they went to my house looking for me while I was hanging out at the arcade. But they found my dad instead. They found my dad and they… they murdered him. They killed my dad and–and–and tore him apart. The cops thought it was some kind of devil worshipping cult initiation because of all the–the blood and how they–how they just…” Trailing off, Russell lowered his head, no longer fighting the tears as they fell freely down his face.

As far as Klassin was aware, only the staff and the boy’s team were aware of exactly what had happened. And even some of his team might not have known the whole story. Most of the school was entirely unaware of the trauma that had caused the formerly-named Virus to change so much after that first semester. It was his choice to tell them or not, just as it had been his choice to continue attending classes so soon after everything that had happened. The headmistress had, of course, urged him to take some time off. She had almost insisted on it. But in the end, Russell had made the point that he needed to feel useful. He needed to keep himself busy, not dwell, and that the longer he spent just sitting around, the worse he actually felt. The creatures responsible for the murder and dismemberment of his father had completely disappeared, which meant that the most Crossroads could do was get his mother and little brother out of there, move them to a new city with a job transfer, and thus hopefully keep them away from any further reprisals from Russell’s former friends. The attack and murder had happened at the very beginning of the holiday break, and Russell had spent the remainder of it coming to terms (as much as he could) with the loss of his father.

“But I can’t tell them any of that,” the boy spat angrily, pushing himself up out of his chair rather than sit any longer. “My mom, Jake, I can’t tell them why Dad’s dead. I can’t—I can’t explain. I can’t tell them about the monsters, because they won’t remember it anyway. I just–” Turning, he lashed out, punching the nearby wall with both of his fists. The wall was reinforced, yet the twin blows still dented it visibly while the boy slumped, head shaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Russell.” Standing as well, Klassin moved that way, laying his hands on the boy’s shoulders from behind. “You know how easy it is to repair the walls around here.”

For a moment, the boy just stood there, fists partly indented into the wall while he shuddered. “I told you the story before,” he mumbled. “You already knew it anyway. I just–I want to tell them. I want to tell them so bad, but it won’t do any good. And I can’t—I can’t handle letting them know the truth once, just so they can forget it again right after. I can’t handle that. What if they hate me and then completely forget about it? I couldn’t… I couldn’t deal with that. I just–I can’t.”

Silence filled the room for a few long seconds then, before Klassin finally spoke up, his voice soft. “The Runners haven’t stopped looking for the Strangers who murdered your father. And they won’t stop looking. They will find them, especially with all the information you’ve given.”

“For all the good it does,” Russell muttered darkly. He turned from the wall, facing Klassin with a forlorn, empty look. “It doesn’t bring my dad back. It doesn’t–” He stopped then, biting his lip while his head shook as he changed to, “You know why I really wanted to keep coming here instead of taking time off like the headmistress wanted?”

Klassin had his guesses, but he simply inclined his chin curiously and let the boy speak. That was what Russell needed right then. He needed to talk. That was why he had brought up the entire situation again, despite the fact that they had already been through it several times.

“Because I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Russell’s voice was firm, his hands tightening into fists. “I can’t bring my dad back. I can’t go back in time and stop myself from being such a stupid fucking–” Cutting himself off, he gave a violent headshake once more, forcibly pulling himself back from the precipice of that emotional crater. “I can’t undo anything I did. But I can be a good Heretic. I can help other people.”

Smiling just a little bit, Klassin gave a slight nod. “That is an admirable goal, Russell. One that I think your father would approve of. And so would your family, if they understood the situation.”

For his part, the boy simply swallowed hard while looking down, folding his arms against his chest uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, can we talk about something else? I don’t wanna talk about that anymore.”

“Of course.” Nodding once more, Klassin asked, “What would you like to talk about?”

At first, Russell was quiet. He shifted, clearly unsure of whether he should really ask what he wanted to. “The umm, the car you were working on before.”

“The Sixty-Nine Mustang Boss 429?” Raising an eyebrow with a tiny smile despite himself, Klassin nodded. “Of course. It’s been a nice little project car for awhile.” Magic, of course, would have made the work pass much faster than the months that this had actually taken. But Klassin preferred doing this kind of thing the long, slow way. He enjoyed working on the cars with his own two hands, no powers or spells involved.

“Do… do you think I could–I mean I don’t know if you need—or want–or…” It was clearly hard for Russell to find the words, his face flushed.

Saving him from floundering even more, Klassin reached out to squeeze the boy’s arm. “Why don’t we get out of this place before we both develop claustrophobia, huh? Come on down and take a look at the car with me. If you’re up for it, maybe you could help me get some of the rebuild done.”

Gaze lifting at that, Russell managed a tiny smile. “You… you’re sure?”

Grabbing his leather jacket from the nearby hook, Klassin nodded while gesturing to the door. “Absolutely. Figure between the two of us, we should be able to get the old girl purring again in just a couple weeks.”

As the two of them started out of the office, the boy hesitantly volunteered, “My dad had a muscle car before he had to sell it a couple years ago. I helped him fix it up so he could sell it. That’s how he paid for our trip to Hawaii. I— I was pissed at him for selling it. I wanted it. I–I didn’t… I treated him like shit.”

“Hey.” Klassin stopped in the doorway, looking to the boy. “You helped your dad rebuild a car. I guarantee you, that’s what he remembered. Everyone knows that their kids are going to lash out and say stupid things. Especially teenagers. But I promise you, that’s not what he focused on. That’s not what he remembered. The time you guys spent working on it, that’s what your dad thought about. That’s what mattered to him.”

Russell’s voice cracked a little bit. “You… you think so?”

“I know so,” Klassin assured him before teasing, “Now come on, if I’m gonna exploit our time together to get free work out of you, we better be quick and quiet about it.”

“It’s Headmistress Sinclaire, sir,” Russell retorted. “I’m pretty sure she knew how we were going to spend our time today before we did.”

Chuckling despite himself as he stepped out of the office, Klassin bowed his head in acknowledgment. “You know what, you’re probably right. That headmistress is one smart cookie. But you know what I think?”

“What?” Curious, Russell stepped through and watched as the man closed the door to his office.

Klassin winked. “If we do get in trouble… we’ll just bribe her with the car.”

******

“So, how did it go today?”

Later that evening, Klassin was stepping out of his office and flicking the light off on his way when the voice spoke up from nearby. Smiling despite himself, he looked that way.

“Hey, Risa,” he greeted the woman, stepping that way. “You mean with Russell?”

Risa Kohaku nodded, stepping in to embrace him. The two exchanged an initially brief kiss that lingered slightly more than Klassin had intended before they both stopped to catch their breath. “Wow,” the security chief murmured under her breath with a tiny smile. “Looks like someone really needed that.”

“Long day,” Klassin agreed. He stepped back, still holding the woman’s hands. “I got Russell working on the car with me. It was even his idea, pretty much. I just…” He sighed. “I wish we had better news for him. Your contacts in the Runners, they don’t have any more news?”

Risa winced, shaking her head a little. “No, they’re still looking but… honestly, I’m not sure how much more they’ll actually find. The Strangers who murdered his father are… they knew enough to get the hell out of town afterward.”

“At least it means they’ll probably leave the rest of his family alone,” Klassin noted. “They’ll know that we’ll be watching for them.” Heaving a long, heavy sigh, he shook his head before asking, “Anyway, I thought we could go out for dinner tonight. You know that little place in Italy with the great seafood? What was the name of that village?”

“Atrani?” Risa supplied. “Sure, we haven’t been there for awhile. But umm….”

Lifting an eyebrow as the woman trailed off, Klassin poked her forehead. “This isn’t really you, is it?”

“It’s me,” she retorted a bit defensively. “Duplicates are totally me. But uh, yeah, it’s a duplicate projection. Sorry. I couldn’t get away yet, but I still wanted to meet you. I missed you.”

“And your duplicates can’t leave the island without you,” Klassin finished for her. Some types could, he knew. But Risa’s were limited to the same universe (or pocket universe, in this case).

“I promise,” the woman assured him, “it won’t take much longer. I just have to listen to Rucker’s report. Twenty minutes, tops. I’ll meet you by the Pathmaker?”

She offered him another kiss, and Klassin took it, giving her a little smile despite himself. “Sure. But you tell him that he’s gotta give you a couple hours without any interruptions unless it’s the end of the world. I want to have you to myself at least for a little while.”

Her smile, embarrassed as much as it was proud, lit up the little corridor. “I promise,” she agreed. “We’ll have some time to ourselves. Just you and me.”

The duplicate disappeared then, leaving Klassin standing in the hall by himself. The man smiled slowly, anticipating not only the upcoming meal, but everything else that the evening promised to bring.

Whistling softly, and just a little off-key, he shrugged into his jacket and started down the hall. As busy as things were, as much work as they still had to do (especially when it came to finding Chambers and the rest of the missing students), it was still possible to find bits of joy here and there. It was important to have those moments.

His phone rang a moment later, and the man glanced to it. Unknown number. Shrugging, since that didn’t mean much in his work, he answered it. “This is Roe.”

“Klassin Roe?” an unfamiliar voice on the other end replied. “The man who used to be Jonathan Ruthers?”

Pausing, Roe frowned. “I don’t go by that name–who is this?”

“It’s okay,” the voice replied, “I just got your name from… let’s call her an old, old friend of yours. She said that you could help me with something.

“But first, allow me to introduce myself. My name… is Denuvus.”

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Lessons 32-07

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“Today, we’ll mix in a little bit of your newest power,” Athena announced a few days later. At the moment, we were in a long, empty corridor. I wasn’t sure what it was for, but it kind of look like one of those special wind tunnels.

“So,” she continued then, “let’s see you make one.” She stepped back, folding her arms as she waited expectantly.

Right, she wanted to see that power, the one that I had gotten from that soldier who had been trying to make the portal to pull the rest of his companions through and cut us off while we were fighting Radueriel’s troops. Technically, I had killed two with that. There was the portal guy, of course, and the one who had been partially sticking out of the portal when it closed. From that second guy, I had received a significant boost to my balance. I could go across a beam like one of those trained gymnasts, or even make my way over marbles that were spread across the floor. Tabbris and I had practiced with that one a bit, and it was pretty fun finding out just how easy it was for me to maintain my balance even on slippery or narrow floors. And we’d definitely worked it into training. If nothing else, using my item-transfer power to suddenly cover a floor with a bunch of marbles or something to screw with people’s balance while mine remained just fine could end up being really useful.

But clearly, that wasn’t the power that Athena was talking about. Nor was she talking about the couple of other minor strength, stamina, and speed boosts that I have gotten from the few soldiers who had wandered into my planted mines. No, she wanted to see the other major one. So, I nodded and held up my hand while narrowing my eyes in concentration. Looking to the far end of the tunnel as far as I could see, I focused.

A couple of seconds later, a small, light blue portal appeared in the air right in front of my outstretched hand. It was only about a foot wide, or maybe even a little less. At the same time, an identical tiny portal appeared at the far end of the tunnel where my eyes were focused. With a smile, I stretched my hand forward through the portal. It appeared out the other end, and I waved to myself.

This was the power that I had inherited from that guy. I could make these small portals, not large enough to actually fit through or anything, but at least big enough to put my hand through and grab something small enough. They wouldn’t get any larger than this, or at least I hadn’t managed it yet. And I could only make them reach as far as I could see. The other end of the small portal had to be within my line of sight. But still, it was really cool. And there were a ton of ways to synergize it with my other powers and fighting style. I just needed practice. Especially when it came to making the portals appear quickly, without taking a few seconds to focus. If I could make them in the middle of a fight, it would be pretty awesome. Which, of course, was another advantage to having Tabbris around.

“Good,” Athena commended. “Now shut it down. Lady Tabbris, I would like you to take control of the left hand, and focus on creating portals and dismissing them. In the meantime, I will distract Lady Felicity. We will start very simply,” she promised.

With those words, the woman produced a simple baton. “Lady Felicity, I would like you to simply focus on blocking my blows with your staff. They will come slowly enough that you will be able to block them, but they will be sufficiently distracting that you will be unable to focus on creating the portals. You will need Lady Tabbris to do that. Shall we begin?”

We practiced that way for a little while, getting better and faster each time. Finally, I took a break to pick up a bottle of water, taking a long pull from it before remarking, “I wish you could train the others as much as you’re training me. Or at least Vanessa and Tristan. They deserve to learn from you more than I do. I mean, it’s their mother on the line.”

Blinking at that, Athena tilted her head a little while narrowing her eyes at me. “What do you mean?” she asked carefully. “Who exactly are Vanessa and Tristan?”

It was my turn to blink at that, equally confused. “Wait, you don’t know about them? I thought you knew about… uh, basically about all the stuff.” When the woman simply shook her head at me, I took a breath and let it out slowly. “Wow, okay then. Um, Vanessa and Tristan are Sariel’s other kids. You know, the ones that she had with Haiden, her human husband. The twins.”

For a few long seconds, Athena just squinted at me. “I am aware of Haiden Moon, and his work to locate his wife. But, as far as I am aware, they did not have any viable children.”

She doesn’t know? Tabbris sounded just as surprised as I felt. I thought she knew everything.

“Wow.” My mouth open and shut a couple times before I shook my head. “Well, whoever is giving you that information is either completely full of shit or they’re misinformed themselves. I… I just assumed you knew all this stuff, like… everything basically. I mean, what else don’t you know about? You know why Haiden and Larissa have been immune to Seosten possession, right? I mean–wait, no, you wouldn’t. Only Sariel, Larissa, and Haiden knew about it until we came along…”

Her response was to squint at me for a moment. “Their immunity is a topic of discussion, yes. The prevailing theory is that they were able to obtain the power of a rare creature with such an ability. Those do exist, though any who appear anywhere near Earth are quickly eliminated by non-human forces, and their remains utterly destroyed.”

Swallowing, I nodded slowly. “I can see why. But no, it’s a spell. Well, sort of.” Quickly, I explained what we knew about it, that the original effect came from something that Sariel had done, which Haiden and Larissa had figured out how to copy onto other people while obfuscating what it actually was.

Once I was done, the woman looked thoughtful for a moment. “This raises… many interesting questions, indeed. But not nearly so many as your previous statement. Viable children between a human and Seosten pairing. That is what I would like to know more about, Lady Felicity. If you would be so kind as to… enlighten me.”

So, I told her everything I knew about Vanessa and Tristan. I told her about Tristan being trapped on the Meregan world, about Vanessa ending up with the adoption people, and everything else they had told me. I told her about Tristan being linked to me in order to anchor him to Earth, and how we had to eventually transferred that to Vanessa. I even told her about how Vanessa had managed to make contact with her father thanks to Apollo’s help.

By the time I had finished, Athena was staring at me. If she had been the type, I was pretty sure her mouth would’ve been hanging open with surprise. As it was, she put a hand out to the nearby wall as if to steady herself. Her voice, when she finally spoke, cracked a little bit. “Viable children,” she murmured in a soft, utterly awed voice. “Viable children who show no ill signs or problems after blending human and Seosten genetics.”

Tabbris actually popped out of me then, stumbling a little before catching herself in her hurry. Looking up, she blurted, “You mean you really didn’t know about them?”

Athena looked back-and-forth between the two of us for a moment before her head shook. “I can assure you, I was not aware that any of this was the case. As far as I knew, no human and Seosten offspring had managed to survive past infancy. This is… remarkable. It is…” She trailed off, and I thought she looked pretty emotional about the whole thing. It really drove home to me just how much children meant to the Seosten. I remembered what Athena had said about how the Fomorians had murdered her husband and infant son. And now I wondered if she ever had a human lover after that, or anyone she had cared about that much, whom she was now imagining having another child with. Not to replace the one she had lost, but… to have another chance. I wondered what was going through the woman’s mind, as she blinked rapidly at the news that human/Seosten offspring were possible.

This was Athena, and I thought she might have been about to cry. Literally, physically cry, at the news that there were viable, living human-Seosten hybrid children.

Tabbris offered a hesitant, “I guess you really want to talk to them now too, huh?”

Meeting her gaze, Athena replied softly, her voice somewhat choked with emotion in a way that seemed utterly alien coming from her, “My… my lady, that is quite possibly the understatement of the past several millennia.”

********

“Come on, Tab! Come on, Flick!” Richton called a couple of days after our discussion with Athena about Vanessa and Tristan. He and the other three Seosten kids, along with Bandy and Reft, were standing at the far end of the sidewalk that ran in front of the house that Tabbris and I had been living in. The six of them wore obvious workout uniforms. Even Reft was wearing what looked like a bandana over his rocky head.

Approaching with my partner at my side, I asked, “You guys haven’t been waiting that long, have you?”

Kisea shook her head. “Nope, Richton’s just impatient.” Teasing her friend a little, she nudged him before looking back to us. “But are you guys ready?”

“Oh,” Meley put in then, her attention on Tabbris, “Those all fit okay?”

‘Those’, in this case, referred to the clothes that the little blonde girl was wearing. For once, she didn’t just have on that simple bodysuit. Instead, Meley had given her a pair of blue shorts and a white shirt. When Tabbris had objected, saying that all she really needed was the bodysuit, which would keep growing with her, Meley had pointedly replied that that wasn’t the point, and that Tabbris should have other clothes that were purely hers.

I liked Meley.

There had also been some talk about getting her an entire wardrobe of her own, along with other things. That had quieted down a little, but I was pretty sure giving her this single outfit was just the first step along those lines. Which was fantastic, because I wanted my little sister to have everything she deserved, even if she didn’t think that she needed any of it. She deserved that and so much more. These guys were great. It was just amazing to see how well they did with her, and how much they seemed to understand. Even if I hadn’t been getting all the extra training and everything else that I had been getting over these weeks, staying here would have been worth it just to have given Tabbris a chance to interact with kids at least close to her own age. Not to mention the fact that some were her own species, and weren’t horrible examples. My little partner needed that.

“Oh, uh.” Blinking down at herself, Tabbris nodded quickly. “Yeah,” she confirmed, “they all fit really good.” Belatedly, she added a quick, “Thanks!”

Meley just shrugged. “Plenty more where that came from,” she promised before adding, “Next time, you can pick out the colors.”

Before Tabbris could respond to that, Demeas cut in impatiently, “Okay, okay, can we stop talking about clothes and all that for now and focus on actually getting some exercise in? I’d like to work up a sweat for once.”

Richton nodded. “A couple laps around the neighborhood, and then we’ll make our way back for a break.” He looked to Tabbris then, his voice turning a little hopeful, “Then some magic and possession training?”

That was what we were doing with these guys. Tabbris was getting a little actual exercise of her own for once, while we had the chance. It was helping her with her coordination (which she desperately needed). And in exchange, she was teaching the others a bit of the magic that she knew from her mom, and some possession tricks. In the latter case, Bandy and Reft were the guinea pigs. Both had volunteered to let their friends practice their possession powers on them, which showed an incredible amount of trust between the members of the group.

The relatively short run wasn’t much of a workout for me of course, but I did like learning the magic and possession tricks, especially since I could actually do it myself. We all learned together from my little partner, who knew an incredible amount about that kind of stuff. Her mother had taught her well, and she was passing it on.

“Yup,” I confirmed while rubbing Tabbris’s head a little. “We run, then we practice, right?”

Her little head bobbing up and down quickly. “Right,” she chirped. The smile on her face told me everything I need to know about how much Tabbris was enjoying actually being able to contribute. Yes, these weeks that we were spending here were absolutely worth it. Even though I missed my friends, and especially missed Valley and Shiori, it was still worth it.

“Okay then,” I announced, turning to start jogging. “Let’s go, last one back is a rotten egg.”

Kisea piped up while following after me, her voice curious. “We have heard that kind of thing before, but I don’t understand. Why do Earth children call each other rotten eggs if they are slow? What does one thing have to do with another?”

Blinking at the question, I glanced over to the girl while all of us began jogging together. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Maybe that’s another mystery to add onto the pile.

“But hey, at least that’s finally one that shouldn’t be too hard to solve.”

*******

“Are you girls ready?” Athena asked. “They’re going to be a bit faster this time. I think you can move to the next level.”

It had been a little over three weeks since the woman had saved us from Radueriel. If I had my days right, back on Earth it would be about April sixth, a Friday. Over three weeks since I had been brought here and started training with her. The time had pretty much flown by before I even realized it. I missed the others more than I could even try to articulate, but Athena kept me busy. She kept both of us busy. And when she wasn’t, I was kept distracted  by any number of things, from learning more about this place and all the people on it, to playing video games with my new friends, to just sitting in class with Tabbris sometimes. Or just by wandering around and getting to know this place and the people in it. They were all endlessly fascinating, and most were willing to just stand and talk with me as much as I wanted. There were some who were too suspicious, or to private of course, and I tried to give those ones their space. But for the most part, people were almost eager to tell me about themselves. And, I told them about myself in return. It was fun, and infinitely informative. And it definitely meant that I was never bored.

Now, the two of us were back in the training room, standing side-by-side. At Athena‘s question, we looked at one another briefly. “Yep,” Tabbris chirped. She had her hands clenched at her sides as she gave a firm nod. “We’re ready.”

“Good,” Athena replied. “Then let’s see how you do this time.“

With that, Tabbris grabbed my hand, and jumped into me. I felt her presence inside me like a reassuring and comforting blanket. We were together once more.

As soon as my partner was settled, Athena stepped back and hit a button on the remote that she was holding. The training began. From straight ahead of us, what looked like a pitching machine begin shooting small rubber balls at me. With a thought, I transferred my staff from its place at my side, into my hands and smacked the first ball out of the way. More kept coming. They varied in speed and direction, and I had to stay focused on knocking them away, or just dodging them when they came too close together.

Eventually, the balls came not just from in front of me, but from machines that had been placed to either side as well. I had to keep track of all of them, constantly turning one way or the other to bring my staff around as quickly as possible. One after another, I blocked as many balls as I could.

Meanwhile, I could vaguely feel things appearing behind me with my item sense. But I couldn’t focus on them and deal with the incoming balls at the same time. That was Tabbris’s job, and I could sense her intently focusing on those things.

After an intense ten minutes, Athena called a stop to it. She walked forward, stooping to pick up something off the floor. It was one of the things that had been floating behind me, a metal object in the shape of a letter. In this case, it was a W. “Very nicely done, Lady Felicity. Your reflexes and focus are getting better every day. Pretty soon, it will be time to add more speed, variation, and direction to the incoming balls.”

Coughing, I gave the woman a wry smirk. “I think you’re just upset that you’re not hitting me as often as you used to.”

She winked at me then, before asking, “And you, Lady Tabbris?”

My partner popped out of me, already reciting, “The bird flies low and the monkey flies high. Run fast, run slow, eat a banana, and away we go.”

What her part of our little training exercise here amounted to was that a bunch of those letters would float behind me, slowly forming into words. She had to use my item sense to get the idea of where each letter was, and what words they were spelling, then keep track of the actual sentences. She had to do all that while I was distracted with the incoming balls. The point was to show that she could do that kind of support stuff, while I dealt with the immediate threat.

Smiling broadly, Athena congratulated her, “Very, very good. I believe we are ready to move on to your item swapping test next.”

The item swapping test. That was where I would hold a green stick in one hand and a red stick in the other. Various targets would appear in front of me to either side, some red and some green. My job was simply to swing at them with whatever I happen to be holding in that hand. Tabbris’s job was to use the power that could move objects around my body to swap the sticks between different hands so that the right color stick always hit the right color target. Athena had already promised that once we got good enough at that, she was going to start making targets appear all the way around us, and include more than just two colors, while extra color sticks would hang from my belt to be swapped up into my hands. And once we actually got good at that, she would move on to something even harder.

The two of us nodded, and Tabbris started to jump into me again, before Athena held up a hand to stop us. “Hold one moment,” she announced while turning away. It looked like she was listening to something, leaving Tabbris and I to simply shrugged uncertainly at one another.

A moment later, she turned back to us and smiled. “Well,” the woman announced, “it looks as though we are going to need your aid with something else first, before continuing any more of your training.”

“Something else?” I echoed uncertainly while glancing to Tabbris. “You need our help?”

“Yes.” Athena winked. “We have finally located your friends. We can set up a portal to them, but I believe it would be better if you were with us at the time. It would… help avoid any issues.”

My eyes widened dramatically at that, surprise at the news making me gasp out loud. “You found them!?” I exclaimed, before adding quickly, “Yes, yes, yes. Let’s go get them.”

With a soft chuckle at my reaction, Athena turned to lead us out of the room, and I held out a hand to my partner. After Tabbris jumped into me once more, I quickly followed the older woman, unable to hold back the wide smile that had stretched its way way across my face.

The others, I was finally going to be reunited with them. Finally, finally, we could all get caught up on everything that had happened.

And boy were they going to be surprised by how I had been spending my time.

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Lessons 32-06

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“You must remember to use all of your powers. Practice with every instrument that you possess, so that when you fight, your battles are a symphony.”

It was several days later, and I was standing in the backyard behind the house that Tabbris and I had been assigned, listening to Athena’s advice. Tabbris herself was sitting on a wooden swing hung from a tree nearby as she watched us.

Athena continued, “I have spoken to your partner.” She gestured that way. “And she has shown me some of her memories. You do quite well for the short amount of time you’ve been training, quite well indeed. But you do have a tendency to forget about the powers that you have access to. You focus on one or two in a battle, to the exclusion of others that could help you just as much, if not more. You must learn to use them all.”

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “I know, it’s just kind of hard to remember everything I have access to in the middle of a fight. I have to focus.”

“Of course.” The woman’s head bowed in agreement. “It must become second nature, your powers must flow one into another and fit together seamlessly. For that, you require practice. Lots of practice.” Her smile quirked up a little bit. “After all, you can’t expect all of your Seosten opponents to be as arrogant and easily manipulated as Charmiene.”

Blinking at that, I blurted, “Okay, do you know what happened to her? You looked at me funny before when I brought her up, and you knew that I could possess you, but I’m not sure how much you… you know, how much you actually know.”

The woman’s eyebrow arched up slightly. “I was aware that you killed her, yes. The specific circumstances were… not explained. But knowing the former Nemesis as I do, I can make several educated guesses.”

Swallowing hard, I looked away for a second. “She possessed my teammate… my friend. She forced him to do awful things. And when we finally fought her, she was just…”

“Toying with you,” Athena finished quietly. “Allowing the fight to drag on far longer than it needed to. Charmiene would say that she was proving a point, breaking your spirit so that you would be more likely to fall in line.”

“Yeah, well she fucked up,” I muttered. “She dismissed Columbus, the boy she had been possessing. She dismissed him and he… hit her at just the right time. It left her open and I…”

“You took advantage.” Athena reached out, putting her finger under my chin to tilt it up. “Good,” she announced flatly. “Never hesitate to take any advantage you can get, Lady Felicity. Your enemies are far beyond you in straight capability. For you to succeed, or even survive, you will need to seize any and every possible edge. That includes cheating, if need be. All that matters is winning.”

Biting my lip, I met the woman’s gaze. “I’ll remember that, when I’m trying to deal with the rest of the Seosten on my list.”

That made her blink, head tilting curiously as she watched me for a moment. “You have a list of Seosten enemies?”

Despite myself, I flushed a little bit. “Yeah, well, they keep fucking with me and the people I care about. I–” Blinking up then, I quickly blurted, “I don’t suppose you have any idea who Manakel might be possessing at Crossroads?”

Her head shook, deflating that brief hope. “I am afraid I don’t have much contact with Earth at the moment. And what contacts I do have out here are either unaware of his host’s identity, or unwilling to share it. I have… made certain outreaches, anticipating that question. But thus far, they have not paid off.”

“If something does come back?” I asked then.

Athena gave a short nod. “I will inform you as soon as I know. You have my word.” She paused then before looking to me seriously. “When you killed Charmiene, you put a target on yourself, one that is even larger than what you already had. There are many Seosten crewmembers of the Olympus who will seek to end your life. You must be ready for them.”

She stepped back then while continuing. “And to be ready, you must train. So, let us begin with this sand manipulation power. Would you mind?”

Obligingly, I withdrew my staff from its place on my hip and triggered the button to let the sand come through the portal that was connected to the canister on my belt. As the sand poured out, I let it fly up and hover in a cloud between us.

Reaching out, Athena let her hand one through the sand for a second before looking to me. “Any fight in which your opponent has exposed eyes, or other ocular orifices, and you were not besieging them with this sand to blind them, you are wasting this power. If their mouth are exposed, choke them with it.”

“I try to do that,” I confirmed. “But a lot of the guys out here are wearing armor.”

“That special sense of yours,” the woman replied, “the one that allows you to identify and understand the position of objects that are close to you. Use that to identify where any chinks or openings in the armor happen to be. Let your sand flow to those openings and fill areas such as the knees and elbows, any joints. Send the sand into those areas to make it harder and slower for them to move. Making their arms and legs bend or extend even a second slower or less can mean the difference between winning and losing.

“Send it into their shoes or boots, so that they have to step on sand. Rub it over their skin to give them burns. Force it under their fingernails. Find any opening to any sensitive tissue and exploit it. This power is very strong, if you use it properly. Particularly if you use it in conjunction with that item sense power so that you know where those openings are.”

As I nodded quickly to that advice, she continued. “This new power that you have picked up, the one that allows you to transport any object from one part of your body to any other part of your body. You don’t seem to have done very much with that.”

I nodded a little sheepishly at that. “Yeah, I guess I haven’t really given myself much of a chance to practice with that one. Though it does make getting dressed a breeze. So I guess you could say that I’m incorporating it into my lion transformation.”

She gave me a little smile, chuckling. “Yes, of course. But it can be used in other ways as well. You can move your staff from one hand to the next without a second’s pause. But more than that, you can transfer items from your pockets or belt. Items that you have prepared with spells, or other abilities. Your new ability to embed sound into an object, for example. Imagine being in a fight, with a rock embedded with a very distracting sound in your pocket. In the midst of this fight, you transfer the stone from your pocket to your foot and kick it away while activating it. The sound distracts your opponent, drawing their attention that way for the brief instant you need to deal the finishing blow.”

Absorbing that advice, I nodded slowly with a smile. “That’s a pretty good idea,” I admitted. “Plus, there’s those flashbang rocks that I learned how to make. Those could work too.”

From where she was swinging, Tabbris piped up. “What about the Kevlar spell? You know, the one that makes projectiles lose their momentum just before they hit you. They only work against a few hits before the spell wears off, but what if you enchanted a bunch of little things like handkerchiefs with the spell and put them in your pocket. Then, just before something was about to hit you, you move one of the handkerchief to the spot where it’s about to hit.”

I nodded quickly to that. “See, that’s another great idea. I mean, it might be a little hard for me to focus on that, and on fighting at the same time. This is a lot to keep track of.”

“That,” Athena interjected, “is why this partnership is so important.” She looked to the younger girl, gesturing for her to come over. “If you wish this to be a true partnership, it must function as one. Everything that Lady Tabbris said just now could be done by her, while Lady Felicity here focuses on the actual fight. Even small things, such as monitoring the item sense power to keep track of where everything is, and similar abilities can be maintained and monitored by Lady Tabbris.”

From the look on the little Seosten’s face, Athena might as well have suggested that she murder me in my sleep. Her eyes widened, and she gave a mortified squeak before blurting, “You mean use her powers without asking permission first? You mean just do it? But, but, but…”

I interrupted,“Hey, we’re partners. I trust you. You can totally use those kind of powers to keep us both safe. That would be kind of cool actually, you run the powers like that, and I focus on actually fighting. If we practiced enough, get good at communicating when we need to, and you get good at just taking over certain abilities at the right time, we could be pretty damn dangerous together.”

“That,” Athena announced with a smile, “is precisely what I have been trying to teach you.”

*******

Just under a week later, a voice abruptly announced, “Are you sure you’re a Reaper-Bonded?”

Blinking at the question coming from behind me, I turned away from the door of the classroom where I had just dropped Tabbris off for another few hours of learning from Mr. Reinswield.

The boy standing behind me was just a couple inches taller than I was. But other than the height difference between them, he basically looked like a male version of Bandy, the adorable little red and white fox-bunny girl.

“Uh, yeah. I mean,” I amended quickly, “not a natural one or anything, but the Seosten-created pseudo-version, sure.”

“Sorry.” The bunny boy’s ears dropped just a little bit and he looked kind of sheepish as he admitted, “That was probably pretty rude. I was just thinking, you don’t set off the internal alarm that those Reaper-Bonded do. And Reapers themselves, you know. Oh, and uh, I’m Grisson. I was just dropping off Bandy and I, uh, saw you.”

“Hi, Grisson.” I smiled. “I’m Flick. And yeah, I am definitely a Reaper-Bonded. But I also kind of have a power that makes it so that I don’t set off those alerts, unless you see me actually use another power.”

“Pssst.” From down the hall, a green-skinned face poked around the corner. The boy it belong to stage whispered, “Did you ask her about it yet?”

Wearing a long-suffering expression, Grisson slowly put his hand up to the end of his snout and heaved a long, heavy sigh before half-turning his head to look back that way. His voice was a loud hiss. “Funnily enough, I think she can hear you. Because she’s standing right here, you tetrikade.”

Resisting the urge to snicker (mostly anyway), I calmly replied, “Hey, he didn’t know. Maybe one of the powers I inherited was the ability to go completely deaf at inopportune times.”

Grisson smiled at that, letting me see his row of sharp canines. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” he informed me before hesitating. Looking back over the shoulder, he gestured to me. “Do, uh, you wanna come see something? I mean, if you don’t have anything else you have to do right now, or anything.” Shifting nervously on his feet, the boy gave an awkward shrug. “You don’t have to. Not that we could tell you what you had to do or anything. I mean, you know…”

Finally rescuing the boy from his floundering, I nodded. “Sure, Athena is busy right now, so she can’t beat me up again until this afternoon. I’ve got some time to kill. I was going to explore a little more, but I guess I could see what you guys are up to.” Pausing then, I asked, “But don’t you have class right now?”

The answer came from the green boy down the hall, who called out with his head still poking around the corner. “Our classes aren’t until after lunch! We’re totally free until then!”

Rolling his eyes, Grisson nodded nonetheless. “He’s right, we have classes starting in the afternoon.”

“Well,” I replied, “in that case, lead the way. And maybe you can introduce me to your friend.”

Or rather, as it turned out, friends. As we turned the corner, I found three more figures standing there waiting. One was the green-skinned boy who had been sticking his head around the corner. The other two were a boy and a girl who looked like they were twins, or at least very closely related. Each had steel skin, like a metal statue, and their arms were long enough to reach the floor despite them being just over six feet tall. Despite their height, I could tell they were young, probably younger than me. Or at least their bodies hadn’t fully matured. I didn’t know how long their species maturation rate was. For all I knew, they were two-hundred years old and would take another one hundred before they were fully grown. Alien species were weird sometimes. But, then again, they probably thought the exact same thing about us.

“We are fifteen,” the girl piped up quickly, clearly trying to be helpful. “By earth years, that is.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Wait, did you actually just read my mind?”

Looking a little abashed, the metal girl quickly shook her head. “No, no. It’s not exactly mind reading. It’s more that when people have questions around us, we kind of feel the same questions. If there’s a lot of people, or the question is really generic, we can’t tell where it’s coming from. But with this one, well, it was pretty obvious. I–I’m sorry if that was prying. We can’t really turn it off.”

The boy beside her nodded. “When we get older, it’s more than just questions, and they get clearer. We feel what people, you know, what they want. We feel when they’re cold, when they’re hungry, when they want the door to be opened. Stuff like that.”

The green boy cut in then. “You know how lots of rich and powerful people want servants that can anticipate their needs without being told? That’s what an Ullmis can do.”

With a nod, the metal boy (an Ullmis, I supposed) added, “I’m Aerlicht. This is my sister, Ferrdreis.”

“And I’m Layuerk,” the green boy put in. “But most people just call me Lurk.”

“Well,” I replied, “good to meet you guys. Like I said before, I’m Flick. Grisson said that you had something to show me?”

After exchanging brief glances, the four nodded and turn to head down the hall. I followed, letting them lead me out of the school area and through a brief maze of corridors until we reached a door that was set out of the way. It looked sort of like where I would expect to find a janitor’s utility closet or something.

“Behold,” Grisson announced while putting his hand near the pad next to the doorway, “our treasure.”

With that, the boy hit the button to open the door, and gestured for me to go in. I did, stepping through into what turned out to be a large room with tables everywhere. Scattered across all these tables were a dozen different televisions. Earth televisions. They were the really old, big boxy kind that they had before the flat panel versions. And with them were a bunch of different video game systems. I saw an original Nintendo, Super and N64 versions, a Sega Genesis, even an Atari. None of them looked any newer than the early 90s at the latest.

Standing behind me, Ferrdreis explained, “Some of it is scavenged from what the Seosten throw away whenever they pull in humans from earth, or when a colony gets absorbed, and some of it is from what refugees had with them.“

Her brother nodded, “We trade for it, or work for it, or just go digging through the garbage. Some of the stuff inside the machines is different than it was, but it still works.”

They showed me a cabinet at the back of the room where they had dozens and dozens of game cartridges all stacked up. Actually, there were probably a few hundred of them. A lot were duplicates, or too damaged to actually work. The damaged ones were piled up near the bottom, which they said they used for parts, or to try to fix later. But even going by the ones they actually had, there were a ton of games.

Running my hands slowly over the collection of game cartridges, I asked, “Why do you guys have all of these?”

“To play?” Lurk offered with a shrug. “We play the games, and we watch the movies.” He pointed then to another cabinet on the other side of the room, where I could see hundreds of VCR tapes of all different kinds.

“We like Earth things,” Grisson put in. “That’s kind of what this is, the Earth club. We really wanna go there someday.”

Pushing up the switch on one of the game systems, Aerlicht picked up a black controller and offered it to me. “We were hoping you could show us how to get through some of these.”

“Play video games?” I echoed a bit blankly. Looking around then, I shrugged. “All of this stuff is kind of from before my time. But sure, why not? I need a break anyway.

“Let’s play some games.”

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