Month: April 2018

Hoc Est Bellum – 34-01

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“Okay, seriously, now that we have time, you’ve gotta tell me what the deal with Arthur is.”

About three days into our little trip toward what was probably going to be the closest thing to hell that I could possibly imagine, I was standing in the small kitchen area, watching Athena bake a cake. No, seriously, she had an apron and everything. It was incredibly surreal. I’d asked her about the point of the apron and she had said that demonstrating proper safety and etiquette measures was important as a teacher, even if she personally didn’t really need them.

I saw the slight smile cross the woman’s face as she remained quiet for a few seconds, sliding a pan into the oven before straightening up to look back at me curiously. “The ‘deal’ with Arthur?”

“You know what I mean.” Folding my arms across my stomach, I pressed, “Where is he? You said you trained him to help break the Bystander Effect, but he was ambushed and his power was broken. That’s what you said. You didn’t say he was killed, you didn’t say he was dead. You said his power was broken ‘for the time being’. What does that mean? And where is he now?”

I had tried to bring this up before, but it was always the wrong time, or we would get interrupted. Now, we were on the ship and I couldn’t think of a better time to get some actual answers.

For a moment, Athena regarded me in contemplative silence, like she was deciding exactly how much she should tell me. Then the woman gave a faint nod. “I have told you of Chayyiel.”

“The Olympian who was a kid when the experiments happened,” I remembered from the discussion that had happened on the station. “She was Hestia on Earth. The one who still looks like a kid even though it was like a million years ago because it froze your aging processes.”

“Precisely,” Athena confirmed. “As I said before, Chayyiel was the daughter of the program’s director. There is much more to that, but that can come later. For the moment, all you really need to know for this story is that she has a highly developed sense of honor and fair play.”

Blinking, I shook my head. “She’s still on the Seosten’s side and she has a sense of honor?”

“She also has a highly developed sense of loyalty,” the woman informed me. “Chayyiel does not always, or even often, agree with a lot of the measures that are taken. But she believes in the Seosten society in the long run. She believes that any changes must be made from within, and that the Seosten are still the preferable winners over the Fomorians. When she encounters open abuse or anything she deems too dishonorable, she puts a stop to it. Those under her direct employ are some of the most well-treated subjects within the Seosten Empire. But she cannot change everything overnight, and despite her power and the respect she commands, particularly since becoming a member of the Seraphim, there is only so much she can do.”

“A member of the Seraphim,” I echoed, “which is part of the ruling caste, your senate or whatever.”

Athena’s head dipped once in confirmation then. “Just so. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. You wished to know what happened to Arthur. Chayyiel is a large part of that.”

“Her… power, she could have all his skill and see any weaknesses he had,” I murmured quietly.

“Which,” Athena pointed out, “were not many. But they fought several times, always to an essential stand-still. Neither could entirely best the other, and Chayyiel’s sense of honor meant that she refused to have others brought in to assist her. Arthur was one of her strongest challengers, and if she was going to win, she wanted to do so herself. That, and I also believe that she was considering…” She trailed off then, biting her lip in brief silence.

“She was considering what?” I asked, even more curious now.

“She was considering,” a voice that definitely wasn’t Athena’s spoke up from the nearby doorway, “making him her new primary host.”

Spinning a bit at that, since I hadn’t sensed anyone coming (not even my item sense had gone off, despite the fact that the intruder was definitely close enough to have triggered it), I found myself staring at a man standing there who looked like Westley from The Princess Bride.

Aside from that apt comparison, the guy wasn’t familiar at all. Which, considering we were on a spaceship in mid-transit, was clearly a problem. But the much bigger problem? He was holding Tabbris in both arms.

Earlier, my little partner had shown me how she had used the power to move items around my body to affect individual objects within something else that was touching me, like a bag. Or, in this case, the container for my staff. Now, a thought instantly transferred it into my hand at the sight of the intruder holding Tabbris, and I started to blurt a threat.

“Stop.” Athena’s hand found my shoulder, bringing me up short. That was all she said at first, that single word while she held me back from the man. When I glanced that way in confusion, she was staring at him. Her gaze was utterly unreadable, as she remained silent.

“Thanks.” The man gave a roguish smile, winking at us while he set Tabbris on the floor. “Wouldn’t wanna have to fend off your protege, Auriel. She seems fierce.”

“It’s Athena, Lucifer,” she informed him in a flat voice. “I don’t go by Auriel anymore.”

Well, that was something. My head snapped around, whipping back and forth between the two as I sputtered a bit in total incomprehension, even as Tabbris darted over to me. She caught my hand, holding tight even as I returned the squeeze before pulling the girl up against myself protectively.

“Funny,” the man replied, “I don’t go by Lucifer anymore either. The name’s lost something of its appeal.”

More silence then, and more stillness. That stretched on for another handful of seconds before Athena abruptly moved. Her hand left my shoulder, and she was past me before I knew what was happening. In a blur of motion, the Seosten woman was suddenly right in front of the intruder.

And then she embraced him. Her arms went around the man, and the two were hugging incredibly tightly. It wasn’t a romantic hug, as far as I could tell. They weren’t lost lovers or anything. It was the embrace of long, long-lost friends, of family. I could see some kind of tension fade out of both of their postures as they all-but collapsed into one another. Each held the other up, their own strength entirely devoted to keeping each other on their feet. And each clearly trusted the other enough not to let them fall in the process.

It was one of the first times I had ever seen her get emotional, or seem… well, for lack of a better word, human. Seeing this guy, it clearly deeply affected her.

“I am sorry.” That was the first thing that Athena said, the first words that finally came from her mouth after a long few moments like that. “Lucifer, I am so very sorry about what happened to you, about what they have done.”

“They’ve done just as much to you,” the man… Apollo… reminded her. “You’ve lost plenty, Athena. And I told you, it’s not Lucifer.”

Leaning back a bit, the Seosten woman regarded him without letting go. “Apologies. I… refused to stop using that name, because I did not want to allow them to destroy it entirely. Lucifer is not what they have turned your name into. You are my… you are my friend. You have been my friend for so very long, and they… Puriel and his…” Her face twisted in anger, and she shook her head. “You are not that.”

“I dunno,” the man replied with a shrug, “they got a few things right. I do like apples and snakes.”

“Umm.” I couldn’t stop myself from speaking up then. “Hi? What–how did you…”

“Sorry.” The voice came just as several people came within range of my item-sense. Apollo and Athena stepped in opposite directions, allowing Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan, to come in. Haiden was the one talking. “He insisted on surprising you. Something about wanting to see your faces.”

“Her face, mostly,” Apollo corrected, jerking a thumb toward Athena. “It’s been awhile, I really wanted to see what she’d do.”

“That,” Athena replied flatly, “is why he does most things. To see how people react.”

Vanessa spoke up then, as she and Tristan moved beside Tabbris and me. “Uncle Apollo came to help get Mom out of Kushiel’s lab. He came to help us save her.”

Bewildered, I asked, “But how did you get here? You were back on Earth, right? How did you get all the way out here? Not that I should really be surprised by this point, honestly. But still.”

“Eh,” the man replied, “it wasn’t too hard. I have a connection to every member of my organization. It wasn’t enough to project myself through the magical shield that they’ve been using to block Earth. But between that and the spell I put on the twins here so that I could get to them if they were in trouble, it did the trick. Let’s just say I needed all three of them to be in the same general area to make it work.”

Jolting beside me, Vanessa suddenly put in, “That’s right, you said that you had a connection to someone out here, one of the… the other students?”

“Oh my God,” I blurted, “Torchbearers.”

The others all blinked at me, while Apollo himself gave me a broad smile. “The reports were right,” he remarked, “she is a bright one. Wish she was one of mine.”

“Jazz’s people, the Torchbearers,” I repeated, my gaze meeting his. “You’re the one that created them, aren’t you? I mean, Lucifer, lightbringer, Torchbearer.”

Apollo gave a brief bow. “You see? Very bright. Yes, they were a group that I created and had a bit of a hand in through their history. As I said, I have a connection to all of them. It was enough to let me know exactly where she was, but not enough to teleport to her. Not until the twins were out here too.”

Tristan nudged me. “See, now we’ve got two full Seosten on our side. This is gonna be a great rescue.”

I felt like telling him not to jinx it, but pointing that out probably would have made it worse. So, I just shook my head while focusing on Apollo himself. “Where’s Jazz? Does she know you’re here? Does she know anything about you?”

“Nope,” he replied. “Not yet. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a little chat with her myself. There’s a few things that she and I need to talk about.”

I wanted to ask more about that, but that felt like prying. So I quashed my curiosity for the moment.

Athena was the one who spoke next. Her voice was almost as calm as ever, but I did detect a bit of emotion in it. Which gave a slight hint of just how much emotion she was actually feeling. “I’m glad you’re here. You should be here. It’s time to get Sariel away from them.”

There was no joviality in Apollo‘s voice as he replied, “Oh, it is long past time to get her away from them. They’ll pay for everything they did to my sister.

“They wanna cast me as the devil? I’ll show them just how hot my hell burns.”

*******

It was about four days later, and a week since we had set off from the Aelaestiam base. A week of travel to get to Kushiel’s secret lab. During that time, Vanessa and Tristan had spent most of it with their dad, while the rest of us made sure we were as ready as possible (physically and mentally) for what was about to happen. Not that the twins were spared any of Athena’s training in that time. She made sure to put all of us through our paces too. As did Apollo. They both worked us to the bone to make sure we were as ready as we could possibly be.

Also, there were the stories. Apollo had so many stories. And he loved to tell them. Some involved him directly, while a lot actually didn’t. They were just stories he’d picked up over the millennia. He’d been making a point of telling us a few of the funny ones, clearly trying to take our minds off what was about to happen. One of those more recent stories was about some guy named Lars, who had become a Natural Heretic bonded with something called an Eki, which were protective guardian figures who gained power from the sun and had a lot to do with fire and heat powers.

This Lars guy had no idea what was going on in the world. No one ever explained the whole Bystander/Alter/Heretic thing to him, so he had to figure out as much as he could on his own, including the fact that everyone he knew would always forget anything supernatural that he did. But he still wanted to help, so the guy did what came natural. He dressed up as a superhero and went out to fight bad guys. Yeah, that sometimes happened with Natural Heretics, apparently. As far as the Bystanders were concerned, they were just those kooky people who dress up in costumes, call themselves superheroes, and go around stopping petty crime. They never remembered the crazy things he accomplished. But he kept right doing them, even if no one remembered and everyone thought he was silly, at best. Which was pretty admirable, really. So-Lars was a real hero.

Yeah. Lars’ the solar-powered superhero’s name was So-Lars. Whenever I managed to tell Shiori about that, she might end up with a new favorite superhero, all other qualifications be damned.

The point was, everyone liked listening to Apollo’s stories. Well, everyone except Dries, that was. Yeah, with Apollo and Athena, we had two adult Seosten on the ship with us the whole time. Which meant that Dries wasn’t all that happy. He understood, but he wasn’t very happy. I had talked to him a bit, and he told me that he appreciated and accepted that they (and Tabbris) weren’t the same as the Seosten who had imprisoned and tortured him. But knowing something and feeling it were two different things. Their presence made him uncomfortable, even more uncomfortable than he normally was around people. It sucked, but I understood where he was coming from. So, the man spent most of his time locked up in his room, avoiding everyone as much as he could.

Now, the rest of us were on the bridge. In this case, ‘the rest of us’ meant Larissa, Haiden, Athena, Apollo, Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Vanessa, Tristan, Jokai, Tabbris, and me. And our cyberforms, of course. The metal animals were off to the side, seemingly deep in conversation.

“One last jump. Is everyone ready?”

Larissa was the one who had spoken, looking our way as she stood beside the pilot’s seat. “Once Jokai pulls that lever, it’ll only take a few seconds to get there.”

Athena nodded. “Once this ship arrives, we can activate the beacon, and the rest of the Aelaestiam fleet will jump in. We have our own disruption ships that will block any portals into or out of the facility, so they won’t be able to take the prisoners and run. But they will know that we’re there, and they will have their own fleet to act in defense. Not to mention the ships that will come very quickly as soon as they receive the alert. Ships which drastically outnumber ours.”

“Which means we have to be fast,” Haiden put in. “Athena’s fleet can do some damage and stop them from getting away for awhile. But we’ll be on the clock the entire time. We jump in, get their attention on us, and follow the plan. You all know it backwards and forwards by now. If all goes the way it’s supposed to, we should end up down in the facility.”

“Which,” Apollo put in, “is a bit like having step one of your master plan involve finding a way to break into hell to kick the devil in the shin.”

Turning promptly at that, I put my foot out to tap against his leg before giving a shrug. “Eh. Not as thrilling as you might think.”

“Well, you’re a cheeky one, ain’t ya?” the man retorted, grinning back at me the whole time.

Larissa took over then. “From there, we free all the prisoners that we can, while the fleet does its job. Then we get back here with the prisoners, and jump away again. Hopefully before Seosten reinforcements show up. But we have to be quick. In and out as fast as possible.”

From the pilot’s seat, Jokai made a noise of approval. “We have… the teeth now.”

By teeth, he meant weapons. While the Sunstrider had been completely defenseless before, aside from its heavy armor and shields, Athena’s people had taken care of that little problem. Some of those ‘special supplies’ that she and the others had been working on were the parts for weapons. Weapons for the ship itself. And during the week we’d been on our way, some of her people had been hard at work installing them on the ship itself, and wiring the controls up into the bridge.

Which meant that the ship could finally fight back. Or, as Jokai had put it… we had teeth now. And the ship’s already heavy armor and shields combined with having actual weapons meant that it was pretty damn tough for what had amounted to a mining ship so recently. It still wasn’t quite as battle-ready as an actual combat ship, since, among other things, it didn’t have near the crew that one of those had. Whatever damage it took would be a lot harder to deal with than it would have been with a full crew complement, and it just couldn’t pack the kind of punch that those ships could. But still, we had weapons, and Jokai was pretty happy about that.

“Yes,” Larissa agreed with a little smile, putting a hand on the man’s shoulder. “We most certainly have teeth. And Kushiel is going to find out just how hard we can bite.”

Athena nodded. “She will. But she will learn it from Apollo and myself.” Pointedly, she added, “The rest of you will focus on retrieving Sariel and the other prisoners, as many as possible. Leave Kushiel to us.”

“Scary angel lady and scary angel uncle versus scary angel lady?” Tristan’s head bobbed up and down. “Sounds like a good match to me.”

“Everyone got it?” Larissa asked. “No one has any questions?”

Gordon spoke up then, his voice even. “Let you guys do your thing until you open the way down to the station. Once we’re there, free the prisoners, get back to the ship. Avoid Kushiel. Understood.” He gave what I swore was almost a smile. “And when everything goes wrong… improvise.”

“Exactly.” Haiden gave him a thumbs up. “And most importantly, stick together. Everyone stick together. No one goes off on their own. Got that? Right. Let’s do it.”

He nodded to Jokai, who reached out to the nearby lever, his hand grasping it briefly before yanking the thing down. The stars jumped around us, as the ship launched forward.

As promised, that last trip only took a few seconds before we were suddenly there.  The view on the screen at the front of the bridge resolved into the image of an orange gas giant with one rocky moon about a third the size of Earth floating nearby, and a second, ice-covered moon a short distance away from it. From what we had been told, the two moons revolved around one another while also revolving around the planet itself. The gas giant, designated Novem-Tres-Tres-Zeta-Kappa-Duo (the planet had never been important enough to be given more than a alphanumeric designation) had been surveyed and deemed unworthy of being mined. And that had been the end of it. The universe was big enough that one gas giant wasn’t worth paying much attention to.

That, apparently, had been the point. We weren’t sure exactly when Kushiel had set up her lab there. But I had a feeling that she had been behind it being written off in the first place. She had probably started getting her secret torture prison/lab and defenses installed almost immediately.

And she had apparently done a very thorough job, at least on the defenses part. Because the ship came under immediate fire the very second that we arrived. Barely an instant had passed as the view resolved in front of us before a handful of enormous, bright green lasers shot straight at us from what looked like seemingly empty space. The ship rocked under the first couple shots before Jokai snapped us to the side, letting the remaining few pass under the ship.

“Ghost turrets,” Athena announced flatly. “Invisible and intangible automated weapons platforms that become solid just long enough to fire once, then return to their intangible state while teleporting somewhere else within their line of sight to fire again. They are only vulnerable within the split second while they are firing.” To Jokai, she added, “They will attempt to surround the ship to catch it within an inescapable crossfire, as they do not have to worry about hitting one another. Their systems will coordinate their teleportation to never end up in each other’s line of fire.”  

“Etiam,” Jokai muttered, hands dancing over the controls. The Sunstrider spun into a quick barrel roll as two more shots came. One missed, while the other glanced off the shields.

More shots came in rapidly, starting to fill the screen from all sides. Just as Athena had said, the ghost turrets were starting to encircle us, firing repeatedly. But through it all, as the ship rocked, Jokai didn’t move again. He had stopped actively dodging the incoming fire. His eyes watched the screen, mouth moving soundlessly as he seemed to mutter to himself. The ship shook twice, then three times. The shields were holding so far, but it wouldn’t take much longer before they would completely fail. And yet, Jokai still remained motionless save for his eyes and mouth.  

“Jokai,” Haiden started quietly, his voice breaking the silence (aside from the sound of the ship shuddering under being shot by those turrets repeatedly). “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, dude,” Tristan put in, “are we gonna shoot back, or wh–”

“Sileo!” Jokai’s retort was sharp, sharper than I had heard him before. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the screen, which was showing various incoming shots from all sides. “Sileo,” he repeated then, quieter and more thoughtful. His hands stayed where they were, motionless as he watched through two more full barrages, still without any attempt to move or avoid them.

Then it happened. Just as I honestly started to get a little worried at that point, Jokai abruptly snapped into action. His hands jumped back to the controls, and the ship suddenly spun out of the way as more lasers went past. Even as he avoided those shots, Jokai’s hand caught hold of the targeting control for one of the new turrets that Athena’s people had installed near the front of the ship. He gave it a quick adjustment before hitting the trigger to send a pair of our own blue lasers out into what looked like the middle of empty space. Without wasting another second, he adjusted his aim three more times, shooting more of those lasers from a couple other turrets in rapid succession, all seemingly aimed at absolutely nothing.

Then there was a sudden, incredibly bright explosion. Followed by a second one, and a third, and then a fourth that all came one right after the other. Each of Jokai’s supposedly blind shots had struck one of the invisible turrets in the instant that it became tangible right before firing.  

“What–how–wha?” Sands blurted out what we were probably all thinking in that moment.

Apollo was the one who spoke up, smiling a little. “It’s the pattern,” he explained. “A lot of Eulson people have an innate understanding of seemingly random patterns. It’s reflexive. He watched the platforms for a few seconds to understand their size, speed, and other factors in relation to their target, us, and then worked out the next part of their movement pattern to know where they’d go.”  

Unable to hold back her grin, Jazz quickly put in then, “That’s how he escaped from the prison camp in the first place. And why they made him a pilot before. Because he’s really good at recognizing patterns and using them.” I could hear the (understandable) pride in her voice.

Smiling a little, Larissa nodded. “Very good, Jokai. But we’ve still got problems.” She raised her hand to point to the screen, where lights had appeared on both the rocky and ice-covered moons. Lights that quickly resolved into small ships, fighter-sized, launching toward us. At the same time, several much, much larger ships, of the capital variety, emerged from behind the gas giant. Jokai may have destroyed the initial defenses, but the Seosten fleet had woken up.

“Those are not automated,” Athena announced, before adding, “Fortunately, neither are ours.”

With that, the Seosten woman pressed something in her hand. A second later, a new ship appeared on screen, directly to our left. Or port, I supposed. It was joined by two more, then another two our right, one below us, and so on. The Aelaestiam fleet had arrived, summoned by the beacon that Athena had just activated.

“Hoc est bellum,” Apollo murmured as the lasers and missiles began to fly from both sides, the space in front of us lighting up like the Fourth of July.

“This is war.”

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Interlude 33E – Jophiel and Elisabet

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In the middle of a mostly empty warehouse, seven strange figures sat around a large table. The dim lighting from a standing lamp set near the table revealed poker chips and cards scattered across the surface, along with ashtrays, drinks, and the remnants of food. Loud, boisterous taunting and jokes filled the air as the figures continued their intense game.

None of the figures were human, and all but two appeared to be very different species from each other. The largest was an enormous, nine-foot tall Minotaur, who dwarfed even the specially-made large chair that he lounged in at the head of the table.

Continuing around the table clockwise sat a dark-furred Rakshasa; a figure that looked like a Tolkien elf with high pointed ears and and an aristocratic bearing; another who was quite similar to that, save for possessing red skin; a shark-like humanoid who was almost as large as the Minotaur; and a figure who might have been mistaken for a vampire from any who did not know him to be one of their progenitor species, an Akharu.

Finally, on the other side of the Minotaur, opposite the Rakshasa, was a small figure who technically stood only about two feet tall. With its large eyes, enormous ears, and wide mouth that stretched across its entire face, the figure looked quite similar to the Disney character of Stitch. Except, of course, for the long, flowing, cape-like appendage that was attached to his shoulders. The ‘cape’ had razor-sharp talons lining the entirety of the far end. Talons that held a incredibly deadly, paralytic poison. It was three times as long as the creature’s main body, and strong enough to hold it fully upright so that the creature could be eye-to-eye with a six-foot tall man. The cape-appendage could be used to glide long distances, and to protect the creature itself, as it was both bulletproof, and resistant to most kinds of magic.

Though they were often referred to as ‘caped-gremlins’, the creature was actually called a Larikeken. Their use of their cape-like appendages to stand taller than they actually were had led to long confusion about whether they were actually one or two species. And more than one group of Larikeken had ambushed unsuspecting enemies by hiding several of their number under one cape.

In the midst of a particularly raucous series of betting, the heavily reinforced and magically protected door at the entrance of the warehouse abruptly crumpled inward, bending almost entirely in half before it flew off to loudly clatter its way across the floor.

The Spanish woman who walked through the opening then brought the stunned poker players to their feet even faster than the crashing door already would have.

“Heretic!” the Minotaur bellowed loudly while grabbing an enormous axe that had been laid nearby. Around him, the rest of the figures all moved to attack the intruder.

It was an assault that ended exactly as soon as it had begun. With one hand, the woman snapped her fingers. At that command, a trio of three foot thick, concrete tentacles with spikes on the end erupted from the cement floor of the warehouse. Before the figures knew what was happening, the Minotaur, Rakshasa, and shark-man were fully impaled by the cement tentacles, leaving their suddenly lifeless bodies hanging there.

At the same time, the woman waved her other hand, and a wall of intense fire, tall enough to reach the ceiling, rose up before rolling across the opposite half of the room. The remaining four Alters were caught by the flames, and their screams briefly filled the air before going silent.

A dark blue, almost black aura rose around the Spanish woman, though she didn’t even break stride as she followed her own rolling flame. As the fire faded, it left behind scorched and melted concrete, a few ashes and crumbling bones from the bodies it had picked completely clean… and two distinctly glowing shapes. While both elf-like figures had been entirely incinerated, the smaller Larikeken and the Akharu were trapped within glowing blue, semi-translucent crystals. The crystals had protected them from the fire that turned their companions to ashes, yet held them prisoner. Their own screams were rendered mute against their crystal prisons.

Would you like to take the next part? Elisabet silently inquired of her Seosten partner and lover.

Yes I believe I will, the other woman replied. Seamlessly, she took over. To the outside world, there would be no change at all. The two were so perfectly in sync with each other that one could pass control to the other in mid-step and show no delay or hesitation whatsoever.

“Now then,” Jophiel used her partner’s mouth to announce while stopping directly in front of the two trapped figures. “Let’s play a game.” With those words, their fingers snapped once more, and the crystals shattered. The two figures that had been trapped within fell to the floor.

The Akharu was back on his feet in an instant, his incredible speed turning him into a blur of motion that would have been impossible for most beings of the planet to even hope to track.

Most beings, however, did not include a Crossroads Committee-level Seosten-Heretic pairing. Jophiel and Elisabet could have read an entire book in the time it took the man to lunge at them. Even as his feet pushed off and his fist swung wildly for their throat, Jophiel raised a single finger, holding their arm outstretched while remaining perfectly still. The incoming fist slammed into that single finger, and a shockwave of force reverberated throughout the room. The finger remained entirely motionless, as if nothing at all had happened. Meanwhile, the Akharu’s fist crumpled under the impact like a car slamming into a wall during a failed safety test. From the point of collision and spreading out to encompass the entire arm over the span of milliseconds, skin, muscle, and bone all turned to stone, which in turn crumbled to dust.

It would have required a dramatically slowed replay to actually see. Or, of course, the incredible reflexes and speed of the Akharu who experienced it. In the time that it would have taken most to register that their fist had been not just blocked, but broken by a single finger, his entire arm up to the shoulder had turned to stone and completely shattered. The remains lay scattered along the floor at their feet while he stared down incredulously, the pain drawing a belated scream.

“I said,” Jophiel started once more, her voice remaining perfectly even, “let’s play a game.” Lifting both hands, she summoned a handful of much smaller concrete coils from the floor to wrap around the now one-armed Akharu and his gremlin-like companion. The coils yanked both down and held them in place against their struggles while Jophiel stepped between them. The woman stood there, looking first to one, then the other, as though deciding which to start with.

She settled on the smaller figure. Lifting a foot, the woman settled it against his throat. “This is a very simple game. I will ask you a question. Lie to me, and you will suffer. For example…” She made a sharp gesture with one hand. In response, one of the caped-gremlin’s finger bones was torn from its socket. The bone ripped its way free, tearing through muscle and skin as it was ripped out, flying into the woman’s waiting hand.

Crushing the finger bone between two fingers while the figure literally under her boot screamed and howled, Jophiel gave him just a moment of that before pressing her foot down enough to cut off his wails so that she could speak over the sound of the resulting gurgling.

“You have many more bones to go before I would need to get… creative. So I suggest you answer my questions. And do recall that I will know if you are lying.”

With her point firmly established, she began with, “You and your… companions work for a man you know as Hades. You will tell me everything that you have done for him for the past year.”

Her foot lowered a bit more, making her point even clearer as she added, “Be… thorough.”

******

That may have been cathartic, Elisabet noted as they strode out of the warehouse some time later, but it was not all that informative as far as our actual problem goes.

You’re right, Jophiel agreed. But at the very least, we know more about some of Manakel’s side-projects. If need be, we have ammunition that can be used against him should he make a fuss or hold anything back during our upcoming personal discussion.

With that, the woman gestured. A portal appeared in the air, and they stepped through, leaving the warehouse, and the planet itself, behind.

The portal carried the joined pair to a small, tropical island. Ignoring the beauty around them, Jophiel focused instead on the cabin that, aside from the dock built along the shore, was the only bit of construction visible on the island.

Upon their arrival, Jophiel and Elisabet were met by a cough. Manakel, wearing his own currently most-used host, stepped into view. “You know,” the old Seosten announced flatly with his host’s voice, “that group was rather useful to me. They were no Seosten, of course. But they were punctual and dependable. Then you had to go throw your temper tantrum and–”

That was as far as he got before Elisabet crossed the distance between them. Her hand snapped out to lock around the throat of Manakel’s host, hoisting them from the ground before slamming the host’s back against the wall of the cabin hard enough to make it rattle from the force. “You were told,” she began in a voice that shook the air like thunder, “to leave the Moon children out of your schemes.

That was why Jophiel and Elisabet were furious beyond measure. The idea, the thought, that Manakel had disregarded Jophiel’s orders to keep his hands away from the children of Sariel, enraged both of them to the point that it required actual effort not to burn him and his host to the ground right where they stood. The time and work that the two of them had put into maintaining Vanessa Moon’s safety, in preventing her from ending up out in Kushiel’s torture lab, only for the girl and her brother to disappear without a trace? It positively stank of Manakel’s doing.

“And,” Manakel announced in his own voice then, having stepped out of his host after taking the time to leave the figure in question unconscious, “I’ve done precisely that. I had nothing to do with Sariel’s spawn going wherever it is that they went. A fact that I could have told you without your unnecessary… visit to my employees.”

“Why,” Elisabet asked for the two of them, “should we believe a word that comes from your mouth on this subject? You already tried to go behind my back once when I denied your petition to take the boy when he first reappeared.” She released Manakel’s slumbering host, letting the figure drop to the ground. “An insult, I remind you, that I have not forgotten. Nor will it go unanswered in its time, I assure you.”  

Briefly, Jophiel pondered how the proud Seosten would react to the knowledge that it was Elisabet, the human, and not her who was currently threatening him. It was, she had to admit, a rather amusing thought.

“Jophiel,” Manakel started with his trademark faux joviality and camaraderie. “Please. I’ve already admitted that that was a… an overzealous mistake. Please. Listen, I know we have had our… disagreements, of late. But I promise you, I know nothing about the disappearances of Sariel’s hybrid children. Now, I won’t pretend that I don’t still want them. But in this case, I’m as in the dark as you. A fact that you in particular could have ascertained even from my employees without using such violent means. Good help is hard enough to find without my own allies killing them. Especially an ally whose gift makes such permanent measures entirely unnecessary.”

He was referring, of course, to Jophiel’s Olympian gift, the power that she had gained from her own enhancements. In her case, that allowed her to look at anyone she could see and apply any particular emotional feeling they felt for any other person to herself. She could make a person love her as much as they loved their own wife, or their mother. It made acquiring information much easier at times.

But in this case, the disappearance of the twins had left both of them as angry as they had ever been. They had not been in the mood to make things easy.

Allow me, Jophiel gently advised her partner.  Stepping away from the man’s host, she gave the figure a pointed look before returning her gaze to him. “Somehow, I think you may know more than you’re saying. The twins did, after all, disappear from Crossroads grounds.”

“And yet,” Manakel easily replied, “what I said holds true. You know everything that I do about what happened to those children. Unless Sinclaire is holding her cards particularly close to her chest, everyone there is equally clueless. It seems that no one on either side has the faintest idea where Sariel’s spawn have scampered off to. It–” He chuckled a little. “It’s really almost amusing, if you stop and think about it. Here we’ve all been fighting over the two of them almost since their existence was revealed, and now… poof. They’ve disappeared.”

“I’m not laughing,” Jophiel informed the man flatly. “If what you’re saying is true… then who took them? That implies that some other force has the ability to pluck people straight from Crossroads without our being able to either stop them, or find any trace afterward. Speaking plainly, I would prefer that it be you stepping out of line.”

Accepting that with a faint nod, Manakel offered, “Have you tried speaking with Amitiel on the subject? He could know more.”

Despite the situation, Jophiel found herself giving the man a tight-lipped smile. “This wouldn’t be your way of sniffing for clues to Amitiel’s current host or mission, would it?”

Amitiel, known to the ancient Greek humans as Hermes, and to the Romans as Mercury, was one of the most stealth-minded Seosten among all of the Olympians. His ability to remain undetected despite intensive efforts to locate him surpassed even Sariel when she had been loyal, and he often engaged in long-term undercover assignments that could take him out of contact for years, or even decades in certain situations.

Jophiel and Elisabet knew who he was, as part of the Seosten woman’s position as head of Crossroads operations. As did her counterpart who had been embedded in Eden’s Garden, Cahethal/Demeter. Yet, Jophiel was fairly certain that they were the only ones on Earth who were aware of his current host and what he was doing. And that list didn’t get much longer even when the rest of the universe was brought in.

Manakel’s smile was unabashed. “You can hardly blame me for trying, can you? He is, after all, insufferable about his little secrets. It would be nice to put one over on him for once.”

“You’ll have to play your games on your own time,” Jophiel informed him. “Or, you could find out where Sariel’s children are so that I don’t rip your heart from your chest and force you to use it as your next culinary experiment.”

“I assure you,” Manakel replied, “if I come across any information as to their whereabouts, I will be very certain to inform you immediately.”

“See that you do.” Pausing after that, Jophiel looked to the man. “And as far as Kushiel and Puriel’s child goes, have you found her yet?”

Manakel’s head shook once, the annoyance that he had to answer that in the negative as well clear in his expression before he masked it. “No. And you know that they hate it when you call her that.”

“She does,” Jophiel corrected him. “Puriel is the only reason the girl isn’t still in one of her mother’s labs. Or that her existence is known to us at all.”

Manakel chuckled, his voice dark. “You’re not suggesting that the old captain actually cares for a Lie?”

“I am suggesting,” Jophiel retorted, “no more or less than I have outright stated. Without Puriel’s personal intervention, the Lie would not have been made available for this mission. And speaking of this mission, you seem to be presenting more problems than you are solutions since your arrival. Your spy, the Isaac monster, has gone dark. You lost the pixie. You lost the Lie. And now Sariel’s children have vanished. Tell me, Lord of the Underworld, what have you accomplished here, precisely? Do feel free to embellish. I’d like a reason not to spend my afternoon explaining to Metatron why it was necessary to remove you from your position.”

“You want to know everything I’ve been doing,” Manakel guessed, lifting his chin. “That’s why you went to one of my mercenary groups, to double-check what I’m about to tell you.”

Jophiel gave him a humorless smile. “The only thing you’re wrong about is the assumption that I only went to one of your mercenary bands. News of the others simply hasn’t reached you yet. And, it won’t. I’d prefer you not know which lies are safe to keep and which I already know about.”

With a simple wave, she summoned two comfortable chairs, perching herself in one before reaching down. By the time her hand was low enough, there was already a small table there with a glass of iced tea waiting.

“So please, start at the beginning. Perhaps we’ll find out if any of your manipulations could have led to the Moon children disappearing.”

She continued in a tone that was no less dangerous than it had been upon on her arrival, her disdain for the man patently obvious. “And if I might offer you the same advice I gave to one of your people back there…

“Be thorough.”

******

And that was no more helpful than anything else we’ve done today, Jophiel noted later, as the joined pair stood at the edge of a waterfall somewhere deep in the middle of the Crossroads Island jungle. Their fist tightened. If something happened to those children…

It wasn’t just about their long-running, subtle efforts to convince their leadership of the benefits behind a true Seosten-Human partnership. They had also grown to genuinely care for Vanessa Moon in the time that they had been secretly protecting her from being abducted for testing, even if the girl herself remained completely unaware of their existence. They were proud of her accomplishments, despite the fact that she would have seen them as enemies of her and her family. The thought that she and her twin might be under the ‘care’ of that unhinged…

Elisabet interrupted her thoughts. You know what we must check next, my beautiful sianame.

Groaning inwardly, Jophiel lamented, I have no desire to see that place again.

You and I both, Elisabet agreed. But if she has ignored higher orders and taken them anyway…

With a sigh, Jophiel agreed. Turning their hand intangible, she reached into their body to retrieve the key from its place on their rib cage. Was a wave of their hand, she created a simple door there and they’re in front of them. Activating the key, she used it and they stepped through.

*******

Even for someone as powerful and connected as Jophiel was, gaining access to Kushiel’s lab was no simple matter. There were politics involved, and layers of secrets as to its location. Days came and went while she and Elisabet alternated between Earth and Seosten space working their way through everything necessary for them to get there for what she called an inspection. And each day that went by convinced them more and more that Kushiel had somehow bypassed the chain of command to take those children.

Finally, after Jophiel and Elisabet had long-since passed the point of patience, their request was granted. Going through a series of at least seven portals and various security measures, they eventually  found themselves standing in a banquet room with three figures waiting.

“Kushiel,” Jophiel started while focusing on the lone female figure, who sat at the head of the table. “Was there a reunion that I was not invited to?“

Kushiel’s companions both looked to one another. Radueriel, who had been Hephaestus on Earth, stood. His voice was amicable. “Reunion is perhaps a most apt word for it, my lovely fake wife.”

“Yup,” Abbadon/Ares confirmed. Radueriel’s own true lover, despite Lucifer’s stories, rose alongside his husband. The tallest and most physically imposing of the Olympians, Abbadon stood a solid seven feet, two inches tall. His body was solid muscle that would have made the most roided up bodybuilder back on Earth weep from inadequacy. “One great big reunion.”

Watching the three of them carefully, Jophiel asked, “What, precisely, does that mean?”

Even as she asked that, an alarm began to blare from nearby, while a voice from an intercom spoke of arriving unknown spaceships. In response to that, a shark-like smile spread across Kushiel’s face.

“It means, my dear, that you should stick around for awhile.

“Our company has arrived.”

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Interlude 33C – Jazz and Apollo

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In a random storage room somewhere on board the Sunstrider, Jazz Rhodes stood facing the far wall. She held a baseball that Tabbris had found somewhere in her hand. Giving the wall a long, discerning look, she wound up and hurled the ball.

It flew that way, but before the ball would have hit the wall, it passed close to one of the gravity manipulation orbs that she had set up. The ball was sent in a diagonal direction toward the corner. It bounced off one wall of the corner before starting to drop to the floor. Before it could land however, the ball hit another one of the gravity orbs, and was launched upward and back the way it had come,  toward the middle of the room.

A third and final gravity orb, positioned near the ceiling almost directly above Jazz, caught the flying ball and send it downward. By that time, she had picked up a bat that had been leaning against the wall. As the ball dropped, she readied herself before swinging. The bat caught the falling ball, sending it back toward the wall, where it was caught in the same loop of gravity orbs guiding it around the room and back up to drop in front of Jazz once more for another round.

It wasn’t perfect. The ball simply falling from the ceiling wasn’t as good as it would have been to have it shooting at her like a pitching machine. But Jazz had not yet figured out how to set one of her gravity orbs so that it would be strong enough to shoot the ball toward her without making that same orb stop the ball as she hit it in that direction to begin with. And she couldn’t just keep hitting the ball to a gravity orb and have it shot right back at her. She needed the delay that the roundabout route provided so that she could get the bat back on her shoulder and get ready again. This was the best compromise that she had come up with so far.

“Personally, I’m more of a rugby fan.” The voice came from behind Jazz, and she spun to see a handsome blond man with a thin, neatly trimmed mustache standing there, arms folded loosely as he regarded her contemplatively. “On the other hand, baseball does have that lovely bat. You could just give all the rugby players bats, but then I suppose we’ve just reinvented gladiators.”

The flames around Jazz’s falchion roared to life even as she hauled it into position, the bat clattering to the ground at her feet. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded, keeping the sword up while taking a quick step over toward the nearby intercom panel. She’d hit the alarm, hopefully before this chucklefuck tried whatever it was that he was going to do. “How’d you get on this ship? We’re in… hyperspace, or warp, or… whatever the hell we’re in. We’re moving.”

“Jazz, it’s okay.” That voice came from behind the strange man, as Haiden Moon poked his head in the room. He nodded to her reassuringly. “He’s not a threat. He’s… ehhh. He’s an ass for not waiting for me, but he’s definitely not a threat. Not to us, at least.”

The man himself shrugged. “I wanted to see her reaction. I wanted to see how she’d act if I surprised her, if anyone surprised her. Good reaction time. Good instincts. She didn’t try to attack me. She kept her guard up to make me come toward her, and went for the alarm.”

“Um, excuse me?” Jazz stared at the two. “What the hell is going on? Why is there–that’s a Seosten, right? Another Seosten? He’s probably not human, but he didn’t set off the Heretic sense, and he looks like a fucking movie star, so I’m guessing Seosten. So what the hell? Is this one of Athena’s buddies or something?”  

A small smile seemed to play at the strange man’s face as he gave a slight nod. “You could say that we’re old friends, sure. Just reunited after a pretty long time, actually.”

Jazz continued to squint at him for another moment before her eyes widened. At the same instant, the flames on her sword went out as she abruptly lowered it, her arm dropping.

“You’re an Olympian,” she blurted out loud, the words coming almost before she knew them.

A broad smile stretched across the man’s face then, as he remarked, “Now you see, I knew she was a sharp one. Picks things up quick. But what I really–” He paused, glancing over his shoulder toward the other man. “Do you mind giving us a minute here?”

Haiden looked to Jazz, raising an eyebrow. “You think you’ll be okay? Like I said, he’s safe.”

Biting her lip, the girl shrugged hesitantly. “If you say he’s safe, then I guess he’s safe.”

Nodding, Haiden gave the man a brief look before stepping back out. “Let us know if you need anything,” he called while leaving the two alone in the room.

Dismissing her gravity orbs as she sheathed her sword once more, Jazz squinted at the Seosten. “I didn’t know Athena had any Olympian allies she could get to come help. Who, uh, who are you? Or were you, or… whatever.”

“Me?” The man gave a languid shrug. “I’m called Apollo. Among other names, some of them flattering, others really not. Depends on how much I’ve ticked off whoever’s talking about me.”

Starting a bit, Jazz blinked that way. She had been expecting some minor Olympian that Athena had managed to call in. “Apollo? You mean Vanessa and Tristan’s… uncle, basically? But y-you were back on Earth. Athena said you were trapped, that there was no way to get you here.”

That charming smile came back as the man gestured. “Oh, trust me, she was pretty surprised to see me.  Like I said, this was a bit of a reunion. We’ll have some catching up to do later.”

Jazz’s voice came bluntly. “So why aren’t you doing that?” She paused and glanced down for a second, considering her own words briefly before looking up again. “I mean, why’re you talking to me instead of her?”

Shrugging once more, Apollo replied, “We’ll have plenty of time to talk. Right now I thought it’d be interesting to get your story. I do like those, you know. Stories are kind of my thing.”

“My story?” Despite herself, Jazz snorted. “You don’t want my story. You want a good story, you should talk to like, Flick, or Roxa, or… I dunno, somebody important. Even Sands or Gordon.”

Arching an eyebrow at the question, Apollo asked, “Well, what makes you think you’re not important? You’re out here too, same as they are.”

Jazz’s head shook. “It’s not the same. You don’t know me, but just believe me, you’d be better off getting a story from one of them. The only reason I’m out here is because of a total accident. I just happened to be part of the team that was being manipulated against Flick. And the only reason I’m even a Heretic is because my people didn’t have any other choice. I’m here because your people saw me as easily manipulated and expendable, and I’m a Heretic because I was literally the last choice. So, like I said, you want a good story, talk to one of the real Heretics.”

For a moment after she had finished with that, Apollo said nothing. He simply stood there, watching her in silence before slowly letting out a long, low breath. Instead of speaking then, he walked around the girl, stooping casually to pick up the ball that had fallen forgotten to the floor. “Grab that bat,” he instructed while moving out toward the middle of the room.

Jazz blinked, but went ahead and did so anyway.  Plucking the bat from the floor, she turned to ask, “What are you–”

“Bat,” the man interrupted while winding up. “Let’s see your swing, huh?”

Jazz quickly set herself, and a moment later, the ball was thrown her way. It wasn’t a hard pitch, and the bat easily connected with it, sending the ball flying up over Apollo’s head.

Surreal. This was so fucking surreal. She was playing baseball, sort of, with the Apollo. What the hell was his deal? What was this all about?

The ball bounced off the far wall, and Apollo caught it on the rebound. Turning back to her, he asked, “You like baseball?” As he spoke, the man wound up before pitching once more.

Shrugging one shoulder slightly, Jazz waited until the ball came close enough for her to swing once more. With a crack, the ball was sent back out again while she replied, “It’s okay. Mostly it’s… um, Jokai. Sands was telling him about it, and he really likes it. So I was trying to practice and set something up for him to play.”

That time, Apollo jumped, catching the ball as it passed over his head. “Jokai?” he echoed, his tone curious. “That sounds like a Eulsen name.”

Head bobbing quickly, Jazz confirmed, “Yeah, that’s what Jokai said his species is called. He’s um–” She smiled, the words coming far more easily than she had ever thought they would. “He’s my boyfriend. And he liked what Sands was telling him about baseball, so I wanted to set something up for him.” Shrugging, she kicked a bit at the floor. “Maybe it was dumb, but–”

“Hey, no.” Shaking his head, Apollo tossed the ball once more. “Doing something nice for someone you care about isn’t dumb.”

Jazz swung once more. However, at the last second, the ball slipped out of the way and her bat whiffed through the air. “Hey,” she complained, “that was a curveball.”

The man nodded easily. “Yup,” he confirmed. “Life does throw those at us sometimes. You wanna grab it?”

With a snort, she moved to do so. “You trying to teach me some kind of object lesson or something? We don’t even know each other.”

“Oh,” Apollo drawled slowly, “I think I know you a little better than you might think, Jasmine.” With that, the man cleared his throat before dramatically reciting, “I can’t marry you, Elaine. My elephant won’t fit in your bedroom. Also, kissing is gross. But mostly the elephant.”

Dual thuds filled the room then, as Jazz dropped both the bat and the ball one after the other. Her eyes widened, and she stared at the man. “How did you—how could–what–what?! That’s my–my… that’s the–I wrote that when I was eight years old. It was for a stupid little movie I wanted to make. How could you know about that? How–”

“I’m a Seosten,” Apollo replied. “We never forget anything, remember?”

“But when did you read it?!” Jazz’s voice rose as she flailed a bit. “My friends and me, we recorded some of it for that show and tell thing, but… but you–were you… wait, we had a substitute that day, didn’t we…?”

“I believe he was introduced to you as Mr. Watterson,” Apollo confirmed. “Technically, his real name was Albert Pusch, but I didn’t want anything leading back to him later. Thus, the fake identity. He and I made a deal. I got to borrow him for a few days to teach your class, and in exchange, he got enough money to quit his construction job and go back to school for his real passion: architecture. I made sure he won an award that would pay any of his tuition, and take care of his room and board until he graduated.”

Working her mouth a little, Jazz slowly shook her head. “You… you paid a guy with a full scholarship, rent, and food for an entire education just so you could use his body to substitute teach my class?”

Grinning, Apollo offered her a shrug. “I mean, come on, it’s not like I don’t have the money to spare.”

Her voice was a loud squeak of, “That’s not the point!” Flushing, Jazz took a breath before reiterating, “It’s not the point. Why would you do that? Why would you be so interested in some stupid little video project I did when I was eight years old?”

“It wasn’t just that project,” the man informed her. His voice was soft, all traces of teasing and joviality having vanished. “Jasmine, I have seen every video project you’ve ever made. I have read every script you wrote, watched every home movie you made up. I know that you wanted to make movies for basically your entire life. And believe me, you’d be amazing at it. I was really looking forward to seeing your name in Hollywood.”

“You…” Jazz bit her lip, taking a reflexive step back. “Honestly, you’re starting to creep me out a little bit. Are you like… obsessed with me or something?” Her hand wandered back toward the weapon at her hip.

Coughing at that, Apollo admitted dryly, “Yeah, I could probably be explaining this better, couldn’t I?” His voice softened once more, as he met her gaze. “Jasmine, I paid attention to you because I pay attention to all of the descendants of my people. I wanted you to have every chance you could possibly have because I believed you were really that good. I read and watched everything you put out because I wanted to see how you grew, because… I knew that given the chance, you could be one of the best filmmakers out there. And I wanted to know your work before you were famous.”

There was a lot to decipher through that, but the first part of it struck Jazz soldily. “Wait–your people? What do you mean, the descendants of your people?”

His voice was kind as the man replied, “The Torchbearers, Jasmine. They were my people. I… when the six original families left, I helped them. I guided them, though most of them didn’t know it. Only the leaders were aware of what was happening. I helped them understand the Seosten manipulations. We wanted to have a group that would help people, that was outside of the normal political rivalries between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden that the Empire was nurturing.”

Well, that made Jazz’s mouth fall open. “Y-you… you… you created the Torchbearers?!”

He winked. “Well, I was Lucifer the Lightbringer.”

“Lightbringer,” Jazz echoed, the realization dawning on her. “Lightbringer, Torchbearer. I–oh.” She rocked backward, the full weight of that knowledge making her eyes widen. “You… you’re the one who… oh. Oh, my God.”

The man grinned broadly at that. “Only if you’re really into the sun and poetry.”

Jazz barely heard him. She was still stunned, her mouth opening and shutting several times as the girl only managed to weakly repeat several times, “You’re the one who started the Torchbearers. You’re the one who started the Torchbearers. You started them. It was your group. They were–we were–we’re… Oh. Oh Gods. You’re… you’re…” Her voice had fallen, turning softer and softer with each word as she slowly raised her gaze to stare at the man.

And then she lunged that way, fist flying as she swung at the man, voice rising to a shrill shout. “Where were you?!

He let her hit him. Jazz knew that, somewhere in the back of her mind as her fist connected with his chest. She knew that he could have avoided it a thousand times over, if he wanted to. But she didn’t care. Her fist swung again, then the other one. She punched the man’s unyielding body repeatedly while demanded, “Where the hell were you?! Where the fuck were you?! They died! They all fucking died! You could have stopped it! You could have saved them! You could have fucking saved them! Where the hell were you?! God damn you! God damn you! Fuck you! Where were you, God damn it!? Where were you when they were dying?! You let them die, you asshole! You let them fucking die! They’re gone! They were supposed to be here, not me! They were the good ones, and they’re dead because you didn’t do anything! Where were you?!”

She stopped, fists falling limply to her side as her head dropped as well. Tears blinded the girl, falling freely as she repeated one last time, her voice hoarse and broken. The words had been a demand. Now they were a plea.  

“Where were you?”  

For a few long seconds, her words were met with silence. Then, the girl felt his hands find her shoulders. As she lifted her eyes to blink at him through the tears, Apollo spoke gently. “I’m sorry, Jasmine. You’re right. I wasn’t there.”

He let out a breath then. “You always think that… if you live long enough, losing people, failing people, will get easier. Because it happens so often. But it always hurts. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m sorry I couldn’t help them. They died and if I had been there, I could have stopped it. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t.

“If it helps anything at all, I can tell you that the monsters who murdered them are dead now. I know it’s too little, too late. But they’re dead. Every last one of them.”

“You’re right,” Jazz replied in a voice that cracked slightly. “It doesn’t help very much.” With a sharp headshake, she added, “But I guess you’re suffering too. I mean, you had all those great potential choices to be the next Lightwalker, and look at what you end up with. I don’t blame you for being ticked off about it.”

“Hey.” His hands squeezed her shoulders a little more firmly, before the man moved two fingers under her chin. “I mourn their deaths, and grieve for what could have been. But not because they were better than you.”

Stepping back then, Apollo continued. “I mourn them because of who they were, and who they could have been. I grieve for the people they could have saved, if they had lived. That’s not in comparison to you, or to anyone else.” He paused, before adding quietly, “And you are wrong about something else.”

“Wrong?” she echoed, her own hoarse, cracked voice sounding foreign to her ears.

He gave a slight nod. “You keep saying that you’re only a Heretic because there was no other choice. But there was a choice. Yours. They died. They were murdered and you were the only one left. But you didn’t have to accept it, Jasmine. You could have walked away like you were planning to do that whole time. You could have gone to California. You could have gone after your dream. Making movies was what you always wanted, always. Since you were a little girl, that was everything to you. And then they died, and you gave it up. You gave up your dream, and went to be a Heretic. Even though it wasn’t what you wanted. Even though you were scared. Even though you still, still don’t think that you’re good enough. You did it anyway.”

Trembling a little, Jazz crossed her arms over her stomach, rocking back and forth on her heels. Words completely failed her, as she tried to speak repeatedly, only for nothing to emerge save for a few empty sounds.

Apollo’s voice, however, was firm and strong. “Listen to me, Jasmine Rhodes. This will never come easily to you. As hard as you work at it, there will be others who put in a fraction of your effort, and yet, they will surpass you.”

“You know,” Jazz started weakly as her voice cracked, “if this is supposed to be some kind of pep ta–”

She was stopped as the man continued. “That is why I choose you.”

“Wait–what?” Blinking up at that, the girl started a bit. “What do–you didn’t… huh?”

Apollo smiled faintly. “Jasmine, you will never be the most powerful Heretic out there. You will never be the best fighter. And what you do manage, you will have to work twice or three times as hard as others to get to. You will work your ass off every day to get as far as you do, even if it’s never good enough to hit the top. Others will be better than you while putting in half the work. You’ll scrape and claw just to reach what others would look down on as average.

“But you’ll do it. You’ll do it because you know something those other people don’t. You know what’s out there. You know what you’re up against. You know what will happen if you fail. You will work and sweat and bleed because you know that it’s worth it.

“That is why you are my chosen one, Jasmine. Not because you’re the best. Because you will earn it.”

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Interlude 33B – Avalon, Theia, and Company

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Three figures hurried along the sidewalk near a mall in the middle of a mid-sized town somewhere in the western United States. Two female teenagers trailed behind a thin, older man, who bustled along in front of them, urging them onward.

“Come along, Veronica,” he prompted with a gesture toward one of the girls. “Let’s pick up the slack. We’re already running late. Wouldn’t want to be late for your meeting.”

Avalon paused in mid-step, looking toward the man in front of her. She glanced to Koren beside her before coolly pointing out, “We still have four and a half hours before the meeting, you know. And my name isn’t Veronica, it’s—”

That was as far as she got before the man was suddenly facing her, his hand covering her mouth. He made a loud, long shushing noise while putting his other hand to his lips, his eyes darting around wildly. He stared suspiciously at a car that was passing by, waiting in silence, even though there was no possible way that the inhabitants could have heard them. Silence, that was, aside from the uninterrupted, “Shhhhhhhhh…”

“I would’ve done that,” Koren idly remarked from where she was standing, “but I figured I’d probably end up on the ground with a broken arm if I tried it.”

“No real names,” Wyatt urged, his hand still covering Avalon’s mouth. “You don’t know what kind of traps might be set up to trigger if it hears your name. Or who else might be listening. We use codenames and stay subtle. That’s how we survive. You understand? Subtle.”

Avalon could have pointed out that none of the people who had stopped to look at the quirky-looking man with his hand over a teenage girl’s mouth as they stood beside a busy street thought he was being all that subtle. But that probably would have caused more problems than it solved. She wouldn’t put it past the man to try to interrogate every person who had stopped to rubberneck at the sight. And even though they did have plenty of time, she didn’t want to sit through that. What they had come for was much, much more important than that.

So, she just gave a slight nod until the man removed his hand from her mouth. There was no sense in arguing about it. As eccentric as he might have been (and she had a feeling that he played that up to some extent so people would underestimate him), Wyatt was still the very best security guard that Crossroads had. He was the reason she was still alive, that much she was certain of. And, beyond all that, he was a good man. He was a good person. And he was Flick’s brother. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. She just had to listen to him, quirks and all.

“Fine, I’m Veronica,” she replied simply. Waiting until her response made the man relax a little bit, she added, “But we still have four and a half hours before we’re supposed to meet them.”

Them, in this case, was Koren’s mother (Wyatt and Flick’s sister), Abigail,  Flick’s ancestor and Avalon’s first real father figure, Seller, and Flick’s old best friend, Miranda. They had asked Wyatt to come see them, because they needed his help with something that they didn’t want to talk about except in person. It was some big secret that they wouldn’t even tell Gaia.

Koren had come to see her mother, and Avalon had convinced Wyatt and her adopted mother to let her come as well to get away from the school for awhile. And, because if the trio from Eden’s Garden had something that important to talk about, it clearly either had something to do with Flick, or with the people who were trying to kill Avalon herself. Either way, she was involved.

Besides, she wanted to see Seller. It had been awhile.

If any part of Avalon had expected the news of how long they had to calm the man down, she was sorely mistaken. “Only four and a half?!” he blurted, head shaking as he spun around. “No, no, no, it’ll take at least that long to set up even a rudimentary perimeter. Come, hurry, hurry. We have to get this done before they show up. No time to waste.” Then he was moving even faster than before, rushing remarkably quickly along the sidewalk while leaving Koren and Avalon to shrug at each other before jogging after him.  

Together, the three made their way down into the parking lot. But they didn’t go into the mall itself. Instead, the trio moved to one of the buildings in the far corner of the lot. At one point, it had been a seafood restaurant. But that had been closed down for several months, with barely any interest paid to the for sale sign in the window.

By the time they reached the back door, Wyatt had already taken a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked the door, ushering the two girls in before turning to the nearby keypad as the alarm steadily beeped its warning at him. His finger danced over the pad, inputting a seven digit code from memory before the beeping finally stopped. Rather than relax, however, Wyatt immediately input a second seven digit code before there was an audible chime.

As the man finally turned away from the keypad, Avalon stared at him. “There was a second alarm? How did you know that? How did you get the keys? That wasn’t a magic spell or anything, you had the actual keys to get in here.”

“Of course there’s more than one alarm!” Wyatt informed her incredulously. “Do you think I’d only have one alarm on one of my buildings?” Belatedly, he amended, “Technically, there’s six, but I disabled the first four on our way here. Those last two have to be done in the building itself. Even I can’t do it remotely. Remember, your security is only as good as you make it be.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Avalon’s head was shaking. “Your building? I thought you just picked a random place that was closed down so we could meet the others in private.”

From the way that the man was staring at her for that, she might as well have suggested that the three of them abandon the whole Heretic thing, form an interpretive dance troupe, and take their act to Vegas. He sputtered for a moment before managing, “Picked a random place? Picked a random place? As if I would do something like that. As if I would relegate something this important to chance? That’s–that’s just- I would never even–”

As the man continued in that vein, Koren spoke up. “Wyatt owns about thirty or forty different places like this all over the country, under different names. Restaurants, laundromats, motels, pawn shops, little businesses that no one really pays attention to. He’s constantly making sure there’s a few that are closed down. You know, either they’re out of business, or they’re under renovations, pest removal, whatever. The point is, he always has a few to choose from that he knows are safe for private meetings, to fall back to in case Crossroads is attacked, or anything like that.”

Wyatt’s head bobbed quickly at that. “Yes, naturally. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that. It’s common sense. Why would you meet in a random place that you have no control over? That’s preposterous.”

“Okay, sure.” Avalon found herself nodding. “But on the way down here, you were acting like four hours wouldn’t be enough to make this place secure. If it’s your place, then–”

Wyatt interrupted. “Of course! If this was some random place, we’d need days to secure it, not hours. Now come, we’re wasting time. Abigail was very specific. Whatever they need to talk about, it’s important and we need absolute privacy and secrecy. Take this.” Extending his hand, the man offered the two girls a notepad before nodding to Koren. “You know what to do.”

The other girl nodded, taking the notepad before gesturing for Avalon. “Come on. He’s got instructions for spells written in this thing. We’re supposed to use them on the parking lot while he gets things done in here. And,” she added while stepping outside, “we have to follow the instructions exactly. He’ll be double-checking and triple-checking everything we do, trust me.”

Trailing after the other girl, Avalon quietly remarked, “Sounds like you’re learning a lot from your uncle.”

Koren coughed at that. “Oh, trust me, you have no idea. He takes this whole mentor thing really seriously. You should’ve seen the written test he made me take last week. It was like an inch thick. I felt like I was taking the SAT’s or something.”

As the two reached the parking lot and started to look at the pad of instructions that Wyatt had given them to work from, Avalon asked, “What do you think Seller and your mom want to talk about?”

Koren shrugged. “I’m not sure. But from what Mom said, it’s really important. They need Wyatt’s magic expertise for something. Believe me, I tried to get more details, but they wouldn’t talk about it. They’re being really cagey about it.

“But whatever it is, I get the feeling that the Seosten would be pretty pissed if they knew about it.”

*******

Hours later, as Koren and Avalon sat at one of the booths in the restaurant while Wyatt went over his last minute security measures one more time, the man abruptly stopped. “They’re here,” he announced, moving toward the nearby door. He was there before any knock came, opening it to reveal Abigail and Seller standing there.

“Mom!” Koren darted that way as her mother stepped in, embracing the woman tightly.

While those two reunited, Avalon exchanged a brief embrace with Seller. She felt a lump in her throat. After what had happened with her birth father, seeing the man who had been her real father figure for so long affected her more than she had expected it to.

“You okay, kid?” the man asked, clearly noticing her reaction as much as she tried to hide it.

She forced herself to nod. “Yeah, I… I’m fine. Better since that piece of shit is gone.”

Seller grinned at that. “You did real good there. That cockroach had too many chances.” Expression softening then, he added, “But I’m sorry you had to be the one to do it.”

“I’m not,” Avalon replied flatly. “If anyone was going to put that bastard in the ground, it was me. If anyone else did it, I don’t know if I’d believe it was real. I almost still don’t.”

Coughing, Seller nodded to her. “Listen, there’s a lot we need to talk about. That and other things. But right now, there’s something really important to get through.”

“The other one,” Wyatt suddenly announced, “you said the other one would be here. Miranda. Where is she?”

“She’s beyond the security spells,” Seller replied, “waiting with our…” He paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. “…our guest. We told them to wait until you were ready.”

“He means until we warned you,” Abigail quietly put in.

“Warned us?” Koren blinked, she and Avalon exchanging confused looks before the girl added, “Warned us about what? What kind of guest did you bring? It’s not like you’ve got some kind of Seosten informant or anyth–wait a minute.”

That was all she needed to hear. Avalon was already through the door and moving across the lot while Seller tried to say something else. Her eyes darted around wildly until she spotted two figures standing in the shadows near the edge of the lot. Three more steps carried her closer, until she finally recognized the person standing next to Miranda.

Lies. Pace. Whatever she was going by. The Seosten-possessed girl stood there, staring through Avalon. It was obvious that she didn’t even see her. The intricately layered privacy spells that Wyatt had made them lay down ensured that all Miranda and Lies could see or hear was an empty parking lot. They had no idea that anyone was approaching.

“You,” Avalon blurted then, even as her hands moved to the bracelets that she wore on either wrist. One at a time, she slapped the bracelets with her opposite hand. There was a confirmation beep, and the bracelets expanded into her familiar gauntlets, before a solid-light energy blade emerged from the ends of both while she stalked that direction, moving for the unsuspecting crazy Seosten murderer while raising one of those blades..

“Stop.” It was Seller. The man appeared behind Avalon, catching her by the shoulders to bring her up short. “It’s okay. She’s with us.”

“With you? With you?” Avalon stared at the man incredulously, her mouth open. “Are you serious right now? Is she still possessed? Because I’m pretty sure there’s no way she couldn’t be. How is she with you? Do you know what she-”

“I know.” The man shook his head. “Trust me, Ha–Avalon, I know. Yes, she is still possessed, but it’s more complicated than that. Just… let us explain.”

If it had been almost anyone else, Avalon probably wouldn’t have listened. But for Seller, she sighed, retracting the energy blades from her gauntlets without actually dismissing the gauntlets entirely. “Fine,” she muttered. “But you do something for me first.”

Knowing what she wanted, Seller extended his arm, pulling his sleeve up. He waited patiently then, while Avalon used her field-engraver to carefully draw the Seosten-expulsion rune. Not that she expected it to actually do anything, but just to be on the safe side.

Sure enough, though Seller grunted a bit from the pain of the spell being used, he definitely wasn’t possessed.

By that point, Wyatt had joined them. He started to berate Avalon for storming out of the room where the majority of the security spells were concentrated, before stopping when his eyes found Lies standing there.

“That,” he announced flatly, “is one of the bad guys.”

Sighing, Seller nodded. “As I said, it’s complicated. Right now, she’s willing to help us. But she needs something in return. And her people are trying everything they can to kill her before that happens. Which means we need you to let her through the security spell so that she can get under cover before they find her again. Believe me, they’ve been… tenacious on that front.”

It took another few seconds of convincing that they weren’t being manipulated or coerced into this before Wyatt finally took the time to add Lies into the security exceptions. Once it was done and he had lowered the spell enough to let them in, Miranda and the Seosten suddenly jumped as the group clearly appeared right in front of their eyes.

“Oooh,” Lies started with a wide smile, “good trick. But do it again, this time with more flair. There was no showmanship behind it, no panache.”

“Take it easy, Theia,” Seller cautioned. “Things are complicated right now.”

“Theia?” Avalon blinked, looking between the man and the Seosten girl. “Who the hell–what?”

Clearing her throat, Miranda spoke up. “It’s a long story. Can we talk about it inside? My other selves think we’re still clear for the time being, but being out here like this makes me nervous.”

Wyatt was bobbing his head suddenly. “Yes, yes, inside. Everyone inside. There are spells out here, but many more covering the building. Quickly now.” He gestured for them to go, before adding in Lies’ direction, “And don’t think that you’re off the hook just because I’ve let you inside. You try anything, and you won’t live long enough to regret it, Missy.”

“Aww,” Lies’ smile just grew wider as she addressed Seller. “You said this was going to be complicated, but he’s already flirting with Theia-me.”

While everyone else sputtered at that, she started to walk to the building with a low whistle, leaving Avalon and the others to follow behind.

Koren was waiting there with her mother as they stepped into the restaurant, looking incredulous. Avalon had the feeling that Abigail had told her daughter at least some of what was going on while they were alone. But clearly not enough to stop her from still being confused.

“Okay,” Avalon started once they were all back in the building and the door had been closed once more. “What is going on? Why is Lies here?”

“Hey!” Abigail suddenly barked, “don’t call her that. It’s not her name.” She stepped that way, with Koren beside her as she put a hand on the Seosten’s shoulder. “Her name is Theia, and she’s going to help us. She’s going to tell us who Manakel is possessing.”

“Her name is Pace,” Avalon pointed out in a sharp tone. “Lies, Theia whatever you call her, she’s the one enslaving the girl you’ve got your hand on. And why would she help us?”

“Because she wants to stop enslaving her,” Abigail shot back, her own voice just as sharp as Avalon’s. “Theia wants us to help her get out of Pace without killing her. That’s why we need Wyatt.” She looked to her brother then. “We already tried the spell that Felicity brought back from Gabriel’s people. It didn’t work, but some other spell might, and you were the best idea we had about who could try and come up with something.”

“That’s the trade, isn’t it?” Koren put in then. “She wants to get out of Pace, in exchange for telling us about Manakel.”

Miranda nodded. “Yup. We help ‘fix’ her little problem, and she tells us everything she knows. Not just about Manakel, but all of it. Manakel especially. She says… she says that’s something we’ll want to know.”

“Yeah?” Avalon demanded, “And how are we supposed to believe that this is for real? What if she’s just setting all this up? What makes you think that we can trust her?”

“Trust?” Theia interrupted before any of the others could speak. “Theia-I am very trustworthy. We could have done a lot worse than we did. Why, Theia-I never even told Manakel about Present’s little secret.”

That was enough to drive Avalon across the few feet that separated them. Her hands caught the other girl by the shoulders as she shoved her back against the nearby wall. “Flick,” she spat. “Her name is Flick. Call her Present again, and I don’t care what kind of deal you’ve got. I will end it. And you.”

Holding up both hands placatingly, the Seosten nodded. “Right. Force of habit. Flick. Flicky. Yes. But for the record, Pace-I would really like you to do that again, harder next time. And maybe with mud and bikinis invol–oh. Would you pretend we didn’t say that?” She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what Pace-she’s telling Theia-me to say, and what was just a subconscious thought.”

Clearing her throat, Abigail reached out to pull Avalon’s arms back from the other girl. “Theia speaks for both herself and Pace. She uses the names to differentiate. Pace-I or Theia-I.”

Opening and shutting her mouth at that for a few seconds, Avalon finally shook her head. She felt tense, like she desperately wanted to hit something or someone. “What… what did you mean? What secret of Flick’s did you not tell Manakel?”

“The big one,” Theia replied, her tone knowing. “You know, the reason she can’t be possessed? Believe me, they all want to know that. But we didn’t tell them. We kept it nice and secret.”

Blinking blankly at that, Avalon glanced to the others before shaking her head. “Are you saying that you actually know why Flick can’t be possessed?”

“Of course we–” Theia suddenly stopped, head tilting. “Wait, wait.” She laughed suddenly. “You don’t? You really don’t know? Oh. Oh… wow. That’s funny. That’s really funny. We thought it was a trick. We thought you were keeping it secret.”

Avalon grabbed the girl again. This time, instead of pushing her against the wall, she pulled her closer, hands locked around her shirt. “What? What do you know? What the hell is it?”

“Theia.” That was Miranda. The girl looked just as taken aback as Avalon felt. “Please. What happened to Flick? Why can’t she be possessed?”

“Well,” the Seosten replied simply, “that’s easy. She can be. In fact, she already is.”

The words made no sense. They were gibberish. Avalon gave a sharp, confused shake of her head. “Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Possessed,” Theia elaborated. “She’s already possessed. She’s been possessed the whole time. Obviously since before you knew her, since the Seosten tried to possess her a long time ago and couldn’t do it. She’s been possessed for years.”

That time, Avalon did shove the girl, hard against the wall. “Shut up!” she blurted. “No, she’s not! I know Flick! I know her. She’s not really one of your fucking people. She’s not being puppeted by one of you. She’s not one of your slaves!”

Bouncing off the wall, Theia shook her head. “Theia-I didn’t say that. We said she was possessed, not that she’s being puppeted.”

Miranda was there too, cursing as she demanded, “What the hell are you talking about?! Flick isn’t possessed.”

“But she is,” Theia insisted. “Remember the choker all of you stole from us? Our special choker? Theia-I saw the Flicky with it, while we still had it. We touched her. We saw her. We saw the Seosten inside her.”

Avalon felt numb, confused, lost, and empty for a few seconds. In the background, she saw Wyatt slumping down, muttering to himself about how he could have missed it. He looked shellshocked.

Abigail, meanwhile, was already pushing past her. She took hold of Theia, her own voice rising. “You said that the Seosten is in her, but not puppeting her. What does that mean?”

“Wait.” Theia shook her head. “Pace-I will explain. She is better at it. She understands more, doesn’t make the same assumptions. Theia-I will just… say the words that she thinks.”

Taking a long, deep breath, she continued. “We saw a small Seosten child with Flick. She was young, and small. Not an infiltrator. Not a spy. Not enslaving Flick. She was not controlling her. She was just there. Just possessing her. Waiting. We… thought that she was part of Gaia’s plan. Or maybe part of Gabriel Prosser’s plan, a rogue Seosten child that they used to protect Felicity Chambers from being possessed.”

Avalon rocked backward, taking all that in. Around her, she could see the others looking similarly shocked by the explanation. “Gaia… Gaia doesn’t know anything about that,” she muttered. “She would’ve told me, would have told us. And Gabriel… no, it wasn’t him.”

“Flick’s possessed?!” Miranda blurted. “But-but how? How? Why? Who would–some Seosten kid? A kid?! She–I don’t… That– that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand.”

Seller’s voice was dull. “Neither do I. I… knew there had to be some reason she was immune. But I never thought—I didn’t.. Oh God. Gaia’s going to want to know about this.”

Theia spoke carefully again, clearly relaying only what Pace was telling her to say. “As far as we could tell, the Seosten child was not controlling her. She never made her do anything.”

“Flick didn’t know.” That was Miranda, speaking quietly, yet confidently. “Flick didn’t know she was possessed. Trust me, she didn’t know.”

Koren shook her head, speaking up for all of them then. “But if it’s not one of Gaia or Gabriel’s plans, then who’s the Seosten that’s possessing Flick? Where did she come from? And what does she want? If she’s not controlling her, then… then… what the hell is going on?”

The only response that came to that was silence, as everyone in the room exchanged helpless, confused stares. None of them knew the answer. None of them knew anything about the Seosten who was apparently possessing Flick, who had been possessing Flick the entire time she had been at the school, and long before.

“I’m calling Vanessa,” Koren suddenly blurted. She looked to Avalon while yanking the phone from her pocket. “I’m calling her before she jumps to her dad’s head again. I’ll tell them to meet us out on the beach, so we can tell them about this. If we can tell her before she jumps to her dad’s head again, she can pass on the message, it’ll–”

She stopped then, as the phone was clearly answered at the other end. “Hello? Vanessa–wait, Headmistress?”

That made everyone’s heads snap that way, as Koren blurted, “Why do you have Vanessa’s–oh. I… yes, ma’am.” Silently, she handed the phone to Seller, who took it and stepped away for a moment. Wyatt joined the other man immediately, both of them having a conversation with Gaia over the phone. 

“They’re gone,” Koren spoke quietly, her voice dull. “Vanessa and Tristan, they disappeared. They… they think the Seosten took them.”

“Pffffft, no way.” That was Theia, shaking her head. “She’d never allow it. Manakel tried to make her let him take them before. She wouldn’t agree to it, and he wouldn’t dare go behind her back.”

“What?” Avalon’s head snapped around at that. “Who? Wouldn’t let Manakel take them?”

“Uh uh.” Theia wagged a finger at her reproachfully. “First, you have to help us, before we tell you more of those yummy secrets. We already gave you a freebie about the little Seosten possessing the Chambers girl. See, we’ve been downright charitable.”

The others tried fruitlessly to press the Seosten girl to tell them more, while Avalon just took a step away. The reminder made bile rise in her throat, as she turned to face the nearby window. In the background, she could hear Seller talking to Gaia. But she didn’t listen. All she could focus on was her rapidly mounting fear and confusion.

Felicity was possessed. Why or how that had happened, or what the apparent child Seosten wanted, she had no idea. But if they were in Seosten space, would the child remain silent? Was she still leaving her host alone, still content to just possess the girl without making her do anything? Or had things progressed past that point? Was she playing the long game? Now that they were in Seosten space, was it only a matter of time before the girl made her move and took over?

“Flick,” Avalon whispered, her cracked, hoarse voice barely audible as she stared up at the stars dotting the night sky. “Flick, please be okay. I don’t know what’s going on. But please… please be safe. I need you to be safe. I need you to be okay. I need you to… to be here. I need… I need…

“I need you.”

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Interlude 33A – The Moons

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For the first hour that Vanessa and Tristan Moon had been on the ship known as the Sunstrider, they had been with their father, listening as he told them all about the ship, about how space-travel worked, some of the planets he had been to, and more. The man had so much to tell his kids that he repeatedly bounced between subjects seemingly randomly with no rhyme or reason save for whatever popped into his head at the time.

The twins didn’t mind. They could have sat at his feet and listened to their father talk for days on end. He was their dad, their dad, and they had found him. They had found him. Sitting there, listening as he told them stories, was pretty much heaven as far as they were concerned.

Eventually, Haiden had needed to step away for a bit. As much as he wanted to spend every second with his children, he and the other adults did need to talk about other things. So, for the next two hours, Vanessa and Tristan had made their way through every nook and cranny of the ship that they could find. Flick, Sands, and the others had helped to show them around, before letting the two explore on their own for a bit. Through those two hours, the twins had spoken to everyone on the ship, learning a lot about how the whole thing worked, particularly from Jokai.

They’d been through the entire ship, looking into every room, and all of it had led to one important question. A question that Tristan himself voiced, as the pair found their way to one of the Sunstrider’s side-rooms, where their father and Mrs. Mason were deep in conversation.

“Hey,” the boy spoke up as soon as the two adults looked to them. “Where’s Professor Katarin?”

That made both of the adults’ head whip around in unison, their father and Mrs. Mason staring at the two of them open-mouthed for a moment. For a brief second, the two looked almost like deer in headlights, the question making them briefly freeze up.

“Yeah,” Vanessa echoed as she noticed their strange reaction. “Where’s Professor Katarin? And Isaac. Wait, where is Isaac? Where are they? I thought they were just here on the ship before, but we’ve been over the whole thing and they’re not anywhere. Unless we missed them or…” The girl trailed off, frowning as she bit her lip, staring at her father and Mrs. Mason while a heavy worry suddenly began to weigh on her the longer she saw their expressions.

“What?” Tristan pressed, taking a step that way as the same worry settled into him. “Why are you guys looking at us like that?” he demanded. “What’s going on? What aren’t you telling us?”

“Oh.” Mrs. Mason grimaced, quietly muttering something about agreeing with what Sands had told her about Flick’s plan to start keeping a record about who knew what.

“It’ll be okay, Larissa.” Taking a moment to squeeze the woman’s shoulder, Haiden added, “I’ll talk to them. Why don’t you, um, give us a few minutes here?” He nodded toward the door.

Mrs. Mason stepped out, giving the twins a brief, encouraging look before leaving the Moons.

“Dad?” Vanessa stepped up by her brother, head shaking. “You’re scaring us. What happened?”

“They died, didn’t they?” Tristan cut in, arms folded across his chest as he stared that way. “Isaac and Professor Katarin, the Seosten killed them. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”

With a sigh, Haiden shook his head before taking a seat on a nearby bench that faced the viewport, which showed a rapidly moving starfield. “C’mere, guys,” he urged with a gesture.

Somewhat reluctantly out of fear of what they were about to hear, the twins approached. Splitting apart, they each sat on one side of their father while watching apprehensively.

And then he told them. Slowly, quietly, and patiently, Haiden explained to his kids exactly what had happened. He told them what Isaac had done, how Ulysses Katarin had been killed and how they had eventually tracked the psychotic traitor down. He told them about how Isaac had been working with the Seosten through what was probably the entire school year, how he clearly was involved in the murder of Professor Pericles (putting the deaths of two Crossroads teachers at his feet, even if he was only directly responsible for the death of Katarin), and how he was now imprisoned back at the Aelaestiam base, where he would stay for the time being.

Once the man had finished explaining all of that, the twins slumped. No one spoke for a minute or two, remaining silent as they absorbed the information, allowing the horror and pain to wash over them. Haiden stayed there, one arm around each of his kids as he quietly held them.

“He…” Vanessa spoke up finally, the first to move as she turned her head to her father. “He’s a monster. He’s a monster. How could he–why would he… I…” She swallowed, her voice turning plaintive. “I don’t understand. Professor Katarin? Why… why would he k-kill Professor Katarin? I mean, I know why. He had to stop you from finding out what Professor Katarin knew about Manakel. But… but…” Her voice trailed off, and all she could do was shake her head helplessly. Because knowing why someone did something, and really understanding were different things.

“Oh, little bird.” Wincing, Haiden pulled his daughter closer against him, head shaking as he quietly explained, “Isaac is broken. He’s broken in more ways than we’ll probably ever understand. As far as we’ve been able to put together, he was a monster before they ever found him. We managed to get him talking, and he… the things he told us, the things he bragged about now that he had an audience…” The man swallowed hard, taking a moment before adding, “The Seosten went looking for a monster that they could plant in the school, one to do their dirty work. They found Isaac, and as broken as he already was, they made it even worse.”

Leaning into her father, Vanessa shook her head. She couldn’t find her voice at first, unable to do anything except nuzzle up against him. Her arms went around the man and she held tight while giving a soft whimper. Finally, all she managed was a weak, “I liked Professor Katarin.”

“Me too.” Tristan’s voice cracked a bit, and he gave a quick head-shake while speaking quietly. “I liked him too. God damn it.” Eyes flooding a bit, the boy repeated, “God damn it.”

For awhile, the three sat there. Haiden told his kids a few stories about Katarin, both from while they had been out in Seosten space together, and things he had heard about the man before, back on Earth. They talked about the deceased Crossroads professor for over an hour, remembering his life as much as they could. Many would have said that it had been far too long since Ulysses had died for this to be considered a memorial. But that’s what it was. It was their own, private memorial to the man who had affected both Vanessa and Tristan more than they had ever been able to tell him, even in the very short time that they had all known each other.

“Do you think they have more?” The question finally came from Vanessa, as she turned slightly on the bench to look urgently toward her father. “I mean, who says Isaac’s the only one that the Seosten recruited? What if there’s more students like him at Crossroads, just waiting to–” She gave a soft gulp, eyes wide as she finished, “–just waiting to do more damage, like he did?”

“Hey.” Haiden squeezed the girl closer, head shaking. “We’ll worry about that when we get back, okay? One problem at a time. Or one set of problems, anyway. Let’s free your mom first.”

The twins agreed with that, and the three settled back to talking about Professor Katarin some more, and about the other things they had been through. Haiden and Tristan did most of the talking, regaling each other and Vanessa with stories of the space adventures both had had. She’d heard some of her brother’s stories already, of course. But the girl never minded hearing them again, despite her perfect memory. Listening to her brother’s excited voice as he told the same story time and again was always worth it. She sat silently through all of that, rather than talking about her own past. Because the only stories that she could have told them about her time growing up were about being shut into mental institutions and group homes for telling the truth about what she had seen as a child. Her only stories were about being seen as crazy until she finally stopped telling anyone what she had known to be the truth.

Maybe she could have told them about the time that one of her counselors had suggested that she was lying about what had happened because her father had sexually molested her, and she had reacted by slamming a water glass into the man’s hand so hard that it had shattered.

But no, she told none of those stories. The space stories were far better. And they allowed Vanessa to simply sit and watch her brother and father. Her brother and father. No matter what had come before, no matter what names people had called her for what she had said, no matter how crazy everyone had thought she was, none of that mattered. Sitting there, listening to her father and Tristan talk about their own adventures in space… it made everything worth it.

And once they freed Sariel, the four of them could be a real family again, finally. It was the same thought, the same hope, that had driven Vanessa on for so long. It was what had urged her to learn so much, to spend so much time in the Crossroads library after finally having everything that she had known for so long confirmed and explained. Getting her family back. That had been her driving goal all this time. And now they were so close.

Mom, the girl thought silently while watching Tristan and their father excitedly describing a type of ship that they had both been on before, hang on, okay? We’re coming for you, I promise.

Please, Mom… just hang on a little bit longer.

*******

Three days. Vanessa, Tristan, and Haiden had been on the Sunstrider for three days. It would take about a week for them to reach the facility where Athena’s spell had indicated that Sariel was being held prisoner. Part of that time had been spent with the woman herself as Athena alternated between asking the twins everything about themselves that she could think of, or simply testing their mental and physical capabilities. She was incredibly interested in absolutely everything about them, especially in how their Seosten-sides were developing. The idea that they only gradually developed their possession abilities (which still hadn’t actually fully kicked in) in their late teens was particularly interesting to her.

At the moment, however, they weren’t around Athena. Instead, the twins were with their father and their little sister, down in one corner of the main cargo hold. Tristan had set up a table tennis board that one of Tabbris’s friends back on the Aelaestiam station had sent with them, and was busy playing with the younger girl. The sound of the ball bouncing off of their paddles and the table was steady and repetitive in the background.

It was clear to everyone involved that Tristan was, at least to some extent, taking it easy on his younger sister. Though Tabbris was a full Seosten and had access to just as much, if not more, of the perfect physical adeptness that had been codified into the species’ genetics millennia earlier, she had also spent most of her developing life as a disembodied presence inside Flick. Particularly for a Seosten, she was remarkably clumsy and unsure of her own body. It had been getting better over the weeks spent at the Aelaestiam base, but it would take a lot more time than that before the girl would be anywhere near what she should be.

Which was a major reason for their game right then. Table tennis was a relatively easy game to play, but required a lot in the way of hand-eye coordination and reflexes, both of which Tabbris needed to exercise while she had the chance.

Tristan had actually taken it upon himself to make sure that his sister was exercising and performing physical activities inside her own body, always urging the girl to run the cargo bay with him, spot him while he did push or pull-ups (and then urging her to do a few while she ‘happened to be there’), or even getting her to keep him company through kata and yoga. He was her personally designated physical fitness and health coach, and the boy actually took the role seriously. Well, as seriously as he took anything.

“Alright,” Tristan taunted the girl while rolling the ball around in fingers. “Hope you’re ready for this one, cuz the loser of this round has to be Tails next time we play Sonic.” The Earth Club back at the hidden space station had sent, among other things, a couple of video game systems with them.

“Joke’s on you,” Tabbris retorted while lifting her chin to the boy. “I like Tails. He helps Sonic even though he’s not the real hero, and he can fly.”

“Still can’t beat Sonic, Foal,” Tristan informed her before serving the ball. “Just like you won’t beat me.”

Foal. He had started calling her that, because he said that she reminded him of a little baby horse, just figuring out how her legs worked and adorable through her clumsy first steps, yet strong and fast once she got herself going.

Soon, those two were deeply involved in their game. Vanessa and Haiden, meanwhile, stood before a large holographic image that floated in the air in front of them. The holographic object was about fifteen feet long by eight feet high. The main part of it was shaped like a three-dimensional trapezoid made of metal, with various bits and pieces sticking off of it here or there, such as two pipe-like parts that extended up from either of the top back corners, a series of small, bulbous attachments along the side that lit up various colors, or the half dozen long, thin metal rods along the diagonal front that continuously rose and lowered out of and back into the main body. Each time the thin rods rose all the way up, one of the lights along the side of the device turned blue, before turning green as the rod lowered once more. The overall effect was incredibly chaotic, especially as the rods were not in sync with each other or with the handful of spinning fan-like attachments at the back.

Finally, at the very top of the trapezoid, just between the two vertical pipes that extended from either corner, there was a metal cage-like structure, shaped like a ball and about two feet in diameter. A wire mesh filled in the space between the metal bars of the round cage, while a glowing red ball of energy was suspended directly in the center. The orb hummed with power.

“Alright, Nessabird,” Haiden started while looking to his daughter as the sound of the table tennis match continued in the background. “Sure you’re ready for this?”

The blonde girl’s head bobbed up and down quickly, as she chirped, “Ready!”

At a command from Haiden, the holographic image split apart. Every depicted component, including dozens of intricate-looking pieces that had been inside, spread out over the open space around them. They jumbled themselves up, spinning around each other as if shuffling their positions to be even more confusing before finally stopping. The pieces varied in size between a few feet across, all the way down to the size of a pin. They all floated there, waiting.

Slowly, Vanessa started to walk through the floating components. Turning in a circle, she observed them carefully, mind working through her memories before the girl slowly reached up to touch one part. Rather than letting her hand go through it, the hologram proved solid enough for her to touch. Gently, the girl pulled it over to an empty space nearby, before returning for another part. Guiding the two together, she let them touch, and the two pieces were instantly connected.

This was her test. The hologram was a miniaturized depiction of this very ship’s primary engine and reactor. Vanessa had memorized every single component, as well as how they worked and fit together. Now, she was putting the broken-apart engine back into one piece from that memory. It wouldn’t work that way in real life, of course. The actual engine of the ship was entirely too large to move it around the way that she was doing. But the basic concept was the same. If she could take the engine when it was split apart into every separate component like this and put it back together again properly so that it actually worked, she could eventually accomplish the same with the real thing.

That went on for awhile, before Vanessa eventually took a brief break once the engine was half-completed. She and their father stepped over to where the other two were now sitting. Drinks were passed around.

“Dad,” Tristan started. “I don’t understand something. He paused, glancing to the girl beside him before continuing. “How does Tabbris exist? I mean, Mom’s in prison, right? How did she have a kid with someone? That doesn’t–I mean–” He bit his lip hard. “It doesn’t make sense.”  

Before Haiden could say anything to that, Vanessa spoke up. “They made her have Tabbris, didn’t they?” The girl was staring at her father, her eyes knowing. “They want her to have more children. Because it’s not just a prison. When the others were talking about it, they said lab. They said that Mom was at this… this Kushiel’s lab. What–what was that about?”

Haiden heaved a long, heavy sigh. He had thought that the talk about Katarin was bad. This… however… he swallowed, looking back and forth. “Okay, guys, we need to talk about… what we’re going to be walking into when we get to that lab.”

It took some time, but the man gradually explained what kind of lab Kushiel was running, and how it wasn’t just an ordinary prison, but was actually a place where genetic material was harvested from the males, tested and modified, and then used to impregnate the females. The women would go about their days until they either gave birth to a new Seosten, or until the pregnancy failed as happened in the vast majority of Seosten pregnancies. In either case, whether the pregnancy was successful or (far more often) not, the female would immediately be clinically impregnated once again, forced to carry a child over and over. At no time would they spend more than a couple of days at the most where they were not pregnant to some extent. Even the ones who successfully gave birth would have the child taken away to be raised elsewhere before being put right through the same thing all over again. Only in those cases, the genetic samples of both the father and the mother would be marked as highly viable. If anything, successfully giving birth meant that both parents would be put through even more tests and experiments.

It was, without a doubt, one of the most horrifying things that any of them had ever heard of. Even talking about it now, Haiden couldn’t keep the outrage from his voice, which shook with each word. Tabbris, who had started out sitting a little bit away, was cuddled up against Tristan, head against the boy’s shoulder as she shivered.

“That–Mom is… Mom is…” Vanessa’s mouth opened and shut a couple times before she cringed, dropping her gaze as a white-hot fury filled her, anger unlike any she had ever felt.

“They have to die,” she announced flatly. “All of them. All of the ones that could–that would do that… they all have to die. And we have to free the prisoners. Not just Mom. All of them.”

Haiden nodded, kneeling in front of his now-seated children. All three of them. “Yes,” he agreed while laying his hands on Vanessa and Tristan’s shoulders. “That’s the plan. We get your mother and the rest of the prisoners out of there. And then Kushiel and her people pay for what they’ve been doing. But the prisoners are the priority.”

“And the kids,” Tristan put in, squeezing Tabbris closer as he looked to her. “Any of the kids that they’ve got there… any–we have to get them out.”

Biting her lip, Tabbris slowly lifted her eyes before nodding. “I… I d-don’t know how Mama got me out. I was too little. But… but I think there’s other kids there. They–they run experiments on the successes before they send them away, to find out everything they can about what made them… umm… what let them be born so that they can… umm… duplicate it.” Her voice was hollow by the end.

Moving his hand to the young girl’s cheek, Haiden spoke softly. “Hey. We are going to get them out of there, okay? Sariel, all the other prisoners, and all the kids. All of them. We’re going to save them. Because that’s what family does.”

Meeting the man’s gaze, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “That’s what family does?”

“Well,” Haiden amended, “it’s what this family does, anyway. This… extended, convoluted, very strange family tree, with branches just growing in every direction, and made from different kinds of wood too.”

Shifting hesitantly, the girl asked, “Am I… am I a branch?”

Haiden winked, teasing her a little. “I think you’re more of a leaf. Maybe when you get a little bigger, you can be a branch. You start out as a leaf and grow into a branch.”

Solemnly, Tabbris informed him, “I don’t think that’s how leaves work.”

“She’s right,” Vanessa confirmed. “That is absolutely not how leaves work.” The two sisters exchanged brief, silent smiles. 

Grinning at that, Haiden shrugged pointedly. “Well, like I said: screwed up family tree. A tree that’s about to fall on top of Kushiel and crush her whole God damn prison.”

“Well,” a voice announced from nearby, drawing all of their attention that way abruptly. “I sure am glad to hear you say that.”

Apollo smiled. “Because this is one leaf that would hate to have to rescue his sister all on his own.”

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Gathering Force 33-06

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Please note that there was a full bonus chapter posted on Wednesday (33-05), which may leave you slightly confused if you read this one before that one. So if you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I still can’t believe you’re here. You guys actually made it.” Larissa’s voice was completely awed as she stared at Vanessa and Tristan.  

We weren’t in the cafeteria anymore. Rather than continue tying up that place with our emotional reunions and explanations while other people wanted to eat, the rest of us had gone to meet Larissa and the others down in the city area, at the house. We were all in the backyard, where Haiden was cooking burgers on an actual barbecue that had been salvaged from somewhere. Athena had offered to have food brought down, but the man had said something about how he was going to barbecue for his kids, damn it.

That was what we were doing while Athena used the blood that she had collected from Vanessa and Tristan to add into that locator spell to search for Kushiel’s base.

Vanessa was standing over by her dad, helping him cook alongside Tabbris, while Tristan bore the brunt of the questioning from everyone else.

“Hey, I’m still surprised that you’re here,” the boy pointed out in response to Larissa. “I mean, I know we already knew that, but still! You and Sands both coming back together when this is over, her mom and her sister? Scout’s gonna be so stoked.” As he spoke, the boy rubbed the top of Bobbi-Bobbi’s head. He had taken off the necklace that his cyberform snake transformed into so that she could stretch her… well, scales, I supposed.

And I was still curious about how that thing’s size-changing thing worked, how she could go from the size of a simple chain that fit around Tristan’s neck, to a giant snake that could turn into a cannon on his arm. But then again, there was that boy Eiji back at Crossroads whose backpack could turn into both a full-sized rhino and a motorcycle, so I supposed it wasn’t that crazy.

Sands, who had been standing by her mother, quickly blurted, “How is she? How…. how’s Scout doing?” She looked anxious, and I realized yet again just how much she had missed, and was missing, her twin. Being reunited with her mother had done a lot to alleviate that, but still. She and Scout had never been separated like this.

“Oh, she’s, um…” Tristan coughed before giving her a smile. “She’ll be okay. She’s really tough, you know? She’s been stepping up a lot through all this. There was this–” He stopped, considering for a moment. “Eh, should probably let her tell you the story. It’s a good one, and I wouldn’t wanna spoil it for her. But trust me, it was great. She’s great. Just, just great.”

At the end of that, even Bobbi-Bobbi was shaking her head while giving him a pitying look.

“Great?” Sands smiled a little at that before narrowing her eyes a little suspiciously at him. “She’s great, huh?”

“Yes,” Larissa added, having clearly picked up on the same thing. “She’s… great?”

Tristan actually blushed at that, shifting as he cleared his throat. “Err, yeah. You know, everyone thinks so. Just–like, everyone. Cuz she’s great, and everyone notices, like–”

Jazz stepped forward from where she had been standing with Gordon and Roxa then, quickly speaking up to save him. “Speaking of great people, how’re Doug and Rudolph?”

Giving the other girl a quick, grateful look, the boy replied, “Oh, yeah, they’re doing okay. I mean, they don’t know much about what’s going on, but they know a little bit. Especially after what happened with-” In mid-sentence, the boy stopped before looking at me.

“Oh, right,” he started. “Speaking of which, I should probably tell you what happened with Avalon and her dad, huh?”  

Well, that was enough to make me choke as my eyes shot open so wide I thought they might pop out of my skull. “What?!” I blurted, eyes widening as I shot a look to the boy. “Avalon and her dad?” I took a reflexive step that way. “What the hell?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in, “what she said. What the hell?!”

“Sorry, sorry.” Tristan looked abashed. “I probably should’ve started with, ‘she’s fine’. Or, you know, at least included that in the first part before making you panic. She’s okay, I swear.”

Beside the boy, Bobbi-Bobbi rose up to bat the side of her head against his while giving a reprimanding hiss, head shaking like a disapproving parent.

“Yeah, yeah.” Tristan scoffed at her. “Don’t start with me, or you can go right back to being a necklace for awhile.”

Bobbi-Bobbi darted back, clearly playing up her ‘fear’ of that as she wound her way around me, pretending to hide before poking her big head up around my shoulder and hissing.

“Don’t worry,” I assured the metal snake. “We won’t let the mean boy hurt you. Right, guys?” At that, Jaq and Gus both came clambering up my other shoulder, crawled around my back, and then put themselves on Bobbi-Bobbi, pointedly chattering threateningly at Tristan.

“See?” I nodded that way. “Snake and mice working together. You better listen to them. They can get nasty if they want to. Now tell me what happened to Avalon and… and her dad.”

The boy complied, explaining, “He came after her and the rest of the team–oh, uh, they sorta combined both your old teams to make one new one.” He was nodding to Roxa and me at that point. “So they were out in the woods to save this pixie that was supposed to know something about Manakel–”

“Tristan,” I interrupted. “This isn’t Memento. Tell the story in chronological order, for God’s sake.”

The boy actually blushed a little, head shaking. “Okay, okay. So from what they said, Avalon got a call from Asenath about this pixie that was on the run and injured because she knew something about Manakel and all that. She talked the others into helping her find the pixie, but when they got out there, a bunch of vampires with Avalon’s dad showed up. They got some help from Deveron and Wyatt, but Avalon mostly faced her dad by herself. She won. He’s dead.”

“Avalon killed her dad.” Saying the words flatly, I slumped a bit, nearly falling over before Roxa practically materialized beside me to put a hand on my back. My voice was hollow. “I should’ve been there. I should have been there with her, for her. I…” Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “I’m missing so much.”

Sands looked to me, her voice soft as she gave me a smile. “We’ll get back there,” she promised. “And then you guys can compare stories about who did the most insane thing while you were apart. And since she killed her psycho dad, I’m pretty sure you’ve got some catching up to do–oh, look, we’re about to go raid the crazy Seosten lady’s secret torture prison as soon as we get an address.”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Okay, you’re right. I just–yeah, we all miss the guys back there. Got it. No more moping. Acting. I mean action. Whatever. Moving forward.”

“Moving forward can happen after lunch.” That was Haiden. The man was holding up his spatula. “For now, we have burgers. Come and get it!”

So we did. Everyone filled their plate. The food was all as artificial as everything else (no store-bought buns or anything, since Wal-Mart hadn’t progressed quite that far in their domination of the universe yet), and yet I couldn’t detect a difference now any better than I’d been able to at any other meal in this place. The burgers tasted just like any regular backyard barbecue. And we had even had french fries too, thanks to a quick delivery from Chef Gisby’s kitchen. Everything was incredibly authentic.

Vanessa apparently thought so too, since she was inhaling french fries. That girl and potatoes, I swore. I had never seen anyone who liked potatoes of every type as much as she did.

It was great, but I still noticed when Larissa leaned over to whisper something to Sands, and the expressions they both had sometimes, when they thought no one was looking. They really didn’t want to bring the mood down, but it was obvious that they missed Scout.

Tristan noticed too, because he cleared his throat. “Uh, hey, Sands and uh, Mrs. Mason, sorry. I swear, if we’d known that Nessa would be able to jump us out here this easily, or thought about it first, we would’ve tried to see who could come with us. We would’ve asked your sister.” He gave a deep, long sigh then. “It’s my fault. If it was Vanessa by herself, she would’ve been more careful. I just… I thought she’d be able to check and then stop herself or something, I dunno.”

Larissa quickly shook her head at that. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Tristan. Just the fact that you both made it out here is amazing.”

He jerked a thumb toward his sister at that. “Hey, she gets the credit for that.”

Vanessa squirmed under the attention, fidgeting from foot to foot as her face pinked. “It was an accident,” she murmured helplessly. “If I thought it would actually work, I would’ve told Headmistress Sinclaire first. And the others. We could have brought a lot of people if they just touched Tristan.” She flinched, looking to the grass. “I should’ve thought about it first.”

“Like I said, that’s my fault.” Tristan immediately defended his sister against her own self-recrimination. “I said you should try it. I didn’t think about what would happen either.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Athena spoke up from where she had just appeared. “Now that is very familiar.” She smiled a little, coming closer. “The girl who is usually so careful and thoughtful being led into impulsive decisions by the boy. And both standing up for each other. They may not have not truly been related, but you remind me very much of Lucifer and Sariel. It is almost uncanny.”

Right, right. Lucifer was Apollo. I had learned that over the time since we had been here, but it was still a little confusing to hear him called that.

“Uncle Apollo,” Vanessa murmured. “He’s going to be worried about us.”

Her brother nudged her. “Trust me, Nessa, he’ll be okay once we bring back Mom.”

“Indeed,” Athena agreed, her voice drawing everyone’s attention to her. “That,” the Seosten woman announced, “is actually why I’ve interrupted your lunch. It seems that your blood is even more potent than I had hoped for. Your growth for your age is… extraordinary.”

“Wait, more potent?” Larissa started. “Does that mean…?”

“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed, “the spell has succeeded.”

Eyes widening a little, I blurted excitedly, “The spell? It worked? It’s done?”

As Athena nodded at that. “Yes. We now know the exact location of Kushiel’s lab and prison. We know where Sariel is being kept.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I demanded.

“Let’s go get her.”

******

Two hours later, Tristan, Roxa, Sands, and I were hauling enormous, heavy crates through one of the long, winding corridors of the station. Even Gidget and Bobbi-Bobbi were helping, dragging a pair of crates by chains in their mouths. Larissa had put some kind of spell on the crates so that they floated a couple inches off the floor rather than just letting them scrape and slide the whole way as Roxa and Tristan’s cyberforms pulled them.   

And speaking of Tristan, the blond boy had clearly gotten some kind of strength boost himself at some point, because he could carry just as much as I could without any trouble.

The crates were full of supplies for the trip. Plus weapons and a bunch of other stuff that Athena thought could be useful. We were taking them to the portal in one of the cargo bays that Yup had set up. Jokai and Dries were only about a day out from finally arriving at the station itself, but we couldn’t wait that long. So we were going to portal out to it with the supplies and tell them the new destination, the coordinates of Kushiel’s base. I had them written down.

Normally, Yup would just come to us and make his portal. But apparently, hitting a moving ship like that, even with the beacon that he had left on it, was a little tricky. So he preferred doing it from the cargo bay, where he had multiple spells set up to enhance and help direct his own natural ability. In his words, it helped avoid any ‘accidents’.

Plus, we had been told that carrying the crates down there ourselves would be exercise, which was good for us.

Meanwhile, Athena was having Larissa, Haiden, and the others collect a few more things that she thought we’d need, and giving instructions to the rest of her people. Tabbris was with them, since she had wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to the other Seosten kids before we left. She and the rest would meet us on the ship. And once everyone was on board (both literally and figuratively), we would head for the location of the secret lab as fast as possible.

“Are you guys sure we’re not totally lost?” Sands asked as we turned another corner of the near-maze, only to find ourselves facing a three-way fork. “Cuz I’ve gotta tell you, all of this stuff looks the same to me.” She gestured to the trio of corridors before us. “Which way now?”  

“That way,” both Tristan and I announced together, pointing to the left-most fork immediately.

“Okay,” I started, “I’ve been here long enough to know where I’m going. How do you know?”

The boy gave me an incorrigible grin. “Hey, I basically grew up on Granddad Nick’s ship. I know how to read these signs.” He gestured to the words along the wall. “That one says that Cargo Bay A is that way. That’s where we’re going, right? Athena said that Yup guy would be there.”

Shaking my head, I nodded. “Right, right, yeah. Sorry, sometimes I forget how long you spent out there. Or is that out here…?” I paused, frowning a little. “Wait, we’re not about to risk you blowing up or whatever by getting too close to your past self out here, are we? Cuz that’s bad.”

“Nah.” The boy shrugged at that. “We were mostly out on the fringe of Seosten expansion. Different universe, basically. Never came in this deep. We should be fine.”  

“Right,” Sands replied while squinting at him. “Should be. We should be fine. That makes me feel better.” Visibly shaking that off, she hefted the crate in her hands. “Come on, let’s go then.”

We were approaching the cargo bay then, with the doors right ahead of us. They slid aside, revealing one of many massive cargo bays that I’d seen throughout my stay here. This one was almost half empty, aside from the glowing portal that Yup was standing in front of.

“There you are!” the small, purple-skinned figure called. “I thought you got lost.”

“No, you didn’t,” I retorted. “You can see through my eyes. You knew exactly where we were.”

Grinning, the little guy wiggled his quartet of ears at me. “Busted. Yes, I knew you were almost here. Didn’t even set up the portal until you were close.” Stepping our way, he extended a hand toward Tristan. “Name’s Yup. Close enough anyway. And you would be?”

Blinking, Tristan lowered his crate before shaking the bright violet man’s hand. “Uh, Tristan. Tristan Moon. Good to meet you, Yup. You’re…” His eyes widened then, as realization came. “Holy shit, you’re a Tseuckaviel, aren’t you? I mean, a living one. I saw pictures and stuff when I was with Granddad Nick, but never one that was alive. He thought you guys were all… gone.”

“Most of us are,” Yup replied while I cringed inwardly (and probably outwardly). “Between the Seosten and the Fomorians, it doesn’t pay to be a race with something they really want to use.”

“That’s what Granddad Nick said…” Tristan’s voice had sobered, the boy swallowing a little before he met Yup’s enormous, compound eyes. “I’m sorry. I could’ve phrased that better. It was just–he told me stories about your people, about what you could do. We met one of the robots that you guys built, your umm, your servants or whatever they were?”

Brightening at that, Yup chirped, “You mean one of the Mevari? You actually met one? I thought they’d all been destroyed or lost for good by now.”

Tristan’s eyes were wide. “Destroyed? It’s possible to destroy them? We–I mean, the one we met calls herself Quattor. We went to this colony world and she was the only one there. I guess these Fomorians attacked and she was the only survivor. And by that, I mean she killed the Fomorians. Plural. Like, two actual Fomorians and all these pet monsters they had. Quattor killed them all. She said that she was… gone when they massacred the colony, but when she got back she made them pay for it.”

Yup was smiling, clearly proud. “We built the Mevari to serve as friends and bodyguards for our people. They are… quite dangerous when provoked. And since they are all mechanical, they are incapable of being possessed and Fomorian bio-weapons are fairly useless.” His face fell a little bit then. “We thought it would be enough to help us. But it only encouraged our enemies to get… creative. Still,” he added while visibly making himself perk up. “I am glad to hear that at least one is still out there. It gives me hope. And that is sometimes in very short supply.”   

“So, they’re like… robots?” Sands asked tentatively, clearly interested. “Your people built robot companions, like the cyberforms that Heretics use?” She gestured toward Gidget, Bobbi-Bobbi, and the two mice, who were all collectively investigating the portal curiously.

“More advanced,” Yup corrected her. “The Mevari are basically just like any other person, except they’re artificial. They’re made of–okay, it’s too complicated to get into. Yes, they’re like robots. Only robots that can think, feel, and make their own decisions.”

“Cyberforms think and feel too,” I pointed out. “But I get what you mean. They were more like people than animals.” Taking a breath, I added, “Maybe you’ll get a chance to meet this… Quattor someday? It sounds like it’d be good for you guys to spend some time together.”

Nodding, Yup gestured to Tristan. “Yes, someday… and I would like to hear more stories of her, young man.”

“You got it.” Giving him a thumbs up, the boy replied, “Trust me, I’ve got plenty of ‘em. Quattor’s cool. And she would definitely like to know that you’re alive. She was… sad about your people.”

There was another moment of quiet contemplation, before Yup ordered us to stop wasting time and hurry up. He was right, so we quickly made our way through the portal and onto the ship. So, basically we just went from the station’s cargo bay to the ship’s cargo bay.

“Nice place,” Tristan announced while slowly looking around. “What’d you say the ship’s name was?”

My head shook. “I don’t think it actually has a name. I mean, unless the Seosten called it something.”

Clearing her throat, Roxa spoke up while exchanging a brief look with Sands. “Actually, we sort of gave it a name while you were gone. Or, Jokai did, anyway.”

“Really?” I blinked that way. “What did he call it?”

The answer came from Jokai himself, as the chameleon-man came into the room. “Sunstrider. It is… reference? Reference to song from your world, of walking on the sun shine.” Face actually turning a little red then, he admitted, “It is… first song Jazzy and me were… dancing to. It is… good song, and I wanted to… give ship name that gives… happy thoughts.”

Smiling broadly to that, I repeated, “Awww, you named the ship after yours and Jazz’s first song. Sunstrider, walking on sunshine. I like it.”

Still blushing, Jokai asked, “Why… are you here? Why have you… brought boxes? And…” He gestured toward Tristan. “You… are new.”

“This is Tristan,” Sands explained. “Tristan, this is Jokai, our pilot and… well, a lot more than that. And Jokai, I hope you guys weren’t dead set on getting to Athena’s space station anytime soon.

“Cuz we’ve got a new destination.”

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