Over the past half of a year, I had been in a lot of extremely dangerous and seemingly inescapable situations. More than my fair share, I would argue.
But this, standing here with my pseudo-little sister exposed and revealed in front of what I quickly realized it was probably the most powerful Seosten infiltrator on Earth… My mind just stopped. It was Elisabet. It was one of the Committee members. She was standing in front of me, possessed by one of our enemies, our main enemy, probably, and she had seen Tabbris. She knew that Tabbris had been possessing me.
I was not really the type of person who prayed, even before I had found out about all of the supernatural stuff. It just wasn’t the kind of person I was, it wasn’t something I believe in. And I was even less likely to beg.
For Tabbris, I would have done either. For the one in a trillion or so chance that the woman in front of me would listen to a desperate plea, I would beg. For the one in several trillion chance that there was something out there that could hear and care if I prayed for help, I would drop to my knees and do it. For Tabbris.
“Y… you….” Vanessa and I stammered almost together, our voices shaking to the point of almost being incomprehensible.
Tristan, meanwhile, blinked back and forth between us and the woman in question. His voice was utterly clueless. “Who?”
That was enough to make the boy’s twin jerk her gaze to him, blurting, “Elisabet?! One of the Committee members? You were supposed to memorize them for Professor Ross!”
“Well, good news!” Tristan shot back while pointing at the woman. “I’m definitely not gonna forget who she is now!”
“You never pay attention to the homework that you’re supposed to b–” In mid-sentence, Vanessa abandoned her apparently totally put-on argument, spinning around behind her brother while Tristan himself lifted his arm cannon and began loosing a handful of the most powerful shots I had ever seen him fire. Bobbi-Bobbi had apparently been charging up that entire time (probably in preparation for Kushiel), because Tristan fired three or four shots that nearly filled the entire small corridor that we were in.
Vanessa, meanwhile, was already frantically calling for help over the comm badge. Using her brother as cover, she blurted out our situation and that we needed someone there now.
The possessed woman didn’t dodge a single shot. Nor did she block them, or stop them in any way. She simply stood there, allowing the powerful lasers to slam into her repeatedly, and do… nothing. There was absolutely no sign that the woman had even been touched. There was no forcefield, nothing. The room-leveling lasers hit her straight on and didn’t leave so much as a mark.
Her voice, as she spoke, was calm and soft once the shots faded. It almost sounded sympathetic. “I’m afraid that your calls will go unheeded,” she announced. “I have surrounded this facility in a bubble of frozen time. This way, we may have a private conversation without being, shall we say, interrupted.”
That was how little Tristan’s most powerful shots had affected the woman. She didn’t acknowledge it whatsoever. It was like she hadn’t even noticed it at all. She didn’t get mad about being shot, she utterly and completely ignored it. I would have said that he might as well have been chucking pebbles at a tank, but there was a greater chance of damaging the tank. This was a leadership-level Seosten, several thousand years old at least, possessing one of the Crossroads leadership Committee. By themselves, each would have been counted within the top most powerful beings on any planet they were on. Together like this, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how completely and utterly fucked we were.
And speaking of completely and utterly fucked, what the fuck did she mean, she put a time-stop bubble over the entire facility? And was acting like it wasn’t really any strain at all. I hadn’t even been able to tell that she was doing anything like that. Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.
The woman then added, after clearly seeing my hand reaching out toward Tabbris, “And she will not be able to possess you for a short time. When the expulsion effect hits,” she gestured around the room, “it prevents those who were expelled from using their possession ability for a short window. Not too unlike the spell that you were taught by Gabriel Prosser, and that his group, in turn, was taught by Auriel, actually.”
Taking a different tact in that case, I stepped in front of the younger girl, with my staff up. “I know this doesn’t mean anything,” I announced. “I know that I’m a little bug and you’re a truck. But I just want to let you know, that you will have to kill me to take her. J-just so we’re on the same page.” With those last few words, my voice shook audibly. It was a lie, really. She could freeze us and take Tabbris whenever she wanted. If she even cared about not killing us. Still, I said it. Not so much for her, really. I said it for Tabbris. I wanted her to know that, impossible situation or not, I would never choose to abandon her.
“She’s right.” That was Tristan, as the boy stepped beside me. “You’ll have to kill all of us first.”
“Stop it!” Tabbris blurted, her voice panicked and terrified. “Don’t listen to them! Don’t hurt them! I’ll go with you, I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt them, please!” There were tears in her eyes, and she clung to my arm from behind me.
Vanessa shook her head then, stepping up beside her brother. “No,” she said quietly to her little sister, “They’re right. She’s not taking you unless she goes through us first to do it.”
“Take her?” the woman echoed, her voice actually sounding just a little bit surprised. “You believe I wish to…” Trailing off, she gave a slight nod. “Yes, of course. You would think that, wouldn’t you?”
It was Vanessa who spoke up then, her voice shaking as much as mine had. “Y-you’re saying you d-don’t want to take her?”
“And you’re part of the Crossroads Committee?” Tristan put in. “I mean, your host is. You, you’re one of the Seosten leaders. Manakel?”
The woman gave him a sharp look at that. “My boy,” she announced, “you may do a lot of things throughout this conversation. Some may be intelligent, others decidedly not. But the single most unintelligent and dangerous thing you could possibly do is to mistake me for that man again.”
Despite myself, I gave a little shrug at that. “Manakel or not, what’s the difference? You’re possessing one of the Committee members, so you must be pretty important. You’re probably the one in charge on Earth. Just another powerful person justifying enslaving your host.”
“Enslaving?” As she finished echoing that, a glowing figure stepped out of the woman. The glow faded, and I saw what was quite possibly the single most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. Tall, with long, cascading brown hair, she reminded me of Avalon, though my girl’s hair was darker.
It was the real Elisabet who spoke up first, her expression never changing. “I,” she informed us, “am not a slave.” The Spanish woman raised a hand to point to me. “I am no more a slave to her than you are a slave to that one.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris.
“I don’t understand.” Vanessa put words to my own thoughts, her expression just as confused as I felt. “You’re… you’re…”
“Working together?” Tristan finished his sister’s words for her, sounding incredulous. “You….you’re helping her do all this? Why? Why would you sell out humanity to this—“
Before he could continue that sentence, the Seosten woman interrupted. “Perhaps,” she started, “I should introduce myself to start. My name is Jophiel. On your planet, I was once known as—”
It was my turn to interrupt. “Aphrodite. Athena told us about you. She also told us that you could make us feel any emotion for you that we feel for anybody else.”
“Yes,” The woman confirmed simply. “And yet, I am not doing so, and will not do so. Because I wish to have a civil conversation with you. A civil conversation,” she corrected, “with all of you. I have not come here to fight or hurt you. And I have certainly not come to take her.” Her head nodded toward Tabbris. “If you will be silent for a moment, I will explain. Your grand gestures are very inspiring, truly. But they are not accomplishing anything. While it is not so difficult for me to hold this time-stop, I would truly rather not do so forever. Now, you may either continue to waste time, such as it were, or stop and listen.”
For a moment, the four of us exchanged brief, helpless looks. Finally, I lifted my chin to look at the two women. “What do you want?” I asked, trying to keep as much of the tremble out of my voice as I could and failing pretty much miserably.
It was Elisabet who spoke. “As I said, I am not her slave. We are… partners, in every way. It is our belief that the only way that humans or Seosten, or the rest of the civilized universe for that matter, will survive the Fomorian threat, is through working together.”
My arms flailed at that despite myself. “You want humans and Seosten to be partners?! Then why aren’t you working with Athena? Why the hell are you helping to enslave all of humanity under your thumb? That doesn’t sound like partnership to me. And you’re on the Committee. You could help make them back off of all that killing every Alter they see thing. A lot of them are innocent, and you know it!”
Jophiel inclined her head slightly. “You misunderstand. I do believe that humans and Seosten should be together. I believe that the place of both of our species is at the tip of the spear to defeat the Fomorians. But I also believe that our place, together as partners, is in leading this universe. Our place is to control and protect every species. We are the parents, and they are the children. And while I will readily admit that our people have gone too far in some cases, or even many cases, that does not change that fact. We are the strong hand that will put things to right. The only hand that can stay the knife of the Fomorian monsters.”
Elisabet spoke. “The Seosten have done some bad things. But the Fomorians do, and will do, much worse. They will annihilate every species in the universe that is not them, or their monstrous creations. They will kill everything, and the Seosten are the only people with the slightest prayer of stopping them. You may disagree with their methods, but the fact remains that at least species under Seosten control continue to exist.”
Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “But you haven’t beaten them,” I pointed out while looking to Jophiel. “You’ve had hundreds of thousands of years, and you still haven’t beaten them. Actually, I’m kind of getting the impression that you guys are gradually losing.”
If she was offended that, the Seosten woman didn’t show it. She simply inclined her head in a slight nod. “Correct,” she replied softly. “That is precisely why we need to change things. And the key to that change lies in the four of you.”
Before we could ask what she meant, Elisabet took over, her eyes on Vanessa and Tristan. “You are living, breathing proof that our species is fully compatible with the Seosten. This partnership, this joining of our species that we wish to facilitate, is exemplified partly within you.”
“And partly,” Jophiel put in with a gesture to Tabbris and me, “within you. Vanessa and Tristan demonstrate our species’ genetic compatibility. You two are the other side of that equation, the key that we have been looking for for so very long. You are the proof that our peoples’ working together as partners in full cooperation, would be a far more effective weapon against the Fomorians than our current model.”
Elisabet nodded once. “We have been looking for a very, very long time for a way to illustrate our point and convince the Seraphim that the key to moving forward is with the Seosten as partners with the humans. We will be able to save this universe from the Fomorians, but only once our people are truly united.”
Before I could say anything to that, Vanessa spoke up once more. “So, we’re just supposed to believe that you don’t want to hurt us? We’re just supposed to take your word that it isn’t some kind of trick?”
Jophiel’s response to that was to give the other girl what honestly looked like a genuine smile. “My dear, brilliant girl, we have been waiting so very long to speak with you directly.”
“Or at least,” Elisabet corrected, “we’ve been waiting to speak to you like this. As opposed to speaking to you like…” As she trailed off, the Spanish woman’s face and body began to change dramatically. She grew a few inches, her hair shortened into a gray bun, while wrinkles appeared on her face. She took on a matronly grandmother appearance, like Dorothy from the Golden Girls.
Vanessa’s reaction to that was immediate. The blonde girl’s eyes went wide, and she blurted, “Mrs. Reibach?!”
That made Tristan’s head snap around. “The woman who was working with you in the foster system? The one who gave you those tests and took you to get ice cream every week?”
“She came to talk to me in the… the hospital,” Vanessa murmured, not taking her eyes off the woman. “She was nice to me.”
It was Jophiel who spoke, while Elisabet resumed her own appearance. “We have never meant you or your brother any harm. Why do you think you were never taken by the other Seosten? The half-human daughter of none other than Sariel herself? If nothing else, Kushiel would have given quite a lot to get her hands on you. In fact, she made quite the push for it over the years.”
Elisabet nodded. “That is precisely why we came here. When the two of you disappeared, we feared that she had gone behind our backs and acquired you herself. We came to ensure that was not the case. And to rectify it if it was.”
“Finding the other half of our answer,” added Jophiel with a gesture toward Tabbris and me, “was rather surprising. May we possibly have your name, little one?”
I saw no sense in trying to hide it or anything, so when the girl looked to me questioningly, I gave her a very slight nod. She looked back to the women and tentatively answered, “T-Tabbris.”
That brought a smile to Jophiel’s face. “That is a fine name for one such as you. You are a beautiful girl, and you look quite a bit like your mother.”
Of course they had put that much together, I realized. It wasn’t that hard.
Elisabet was nodding. “As she said, learning of your existence and situation here was an accident. But a useful one.”
My head shook a little. “Look, I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’m jumpy about anyone calling me useful, let alone my partner. So I don’t know what kind of torture plan you’ve got cooked up here, but…”
“Torture?” Jophiel echoed. “Dear Felicity, we have no desire to torture you. We do not even wish to hurt you. We wish to train you. Both of you. All four of you, to be quite honest.”
Elisabet nodded. “And when you are fully trained, when you are ready, we will take you to the Seraphim and show them that a humanity partnered with the Seosten is far more effective at defeating the Fomorians than a humanity enslaved by the Seosten.”
Vanessa spoke then. “But you’re not just working with Athena because you still think that the Seosten are better than other species. You just think that humans can be up there too. You’ve extended the pedestal to fit two species instead of one.”
Jophiel’s head shook. “Given time and opportunity, it is quite likely that many other species could reach the level of the Seosten. But, the Fomorians will not be giving them that time nor opportunity. They will kill them all. The only chance in stopping those creatures lies in the power of the Seosten. But to do that, we must become as strong as possible. Amends may be made once the threat has been dealt with.”
Coughing, I muttered, “I feel like people have been using that last line to justify atrocities since the beginning of time. There will always be another threat to beat, and there will always be an excuse to be an asshole. And quite frankly, I don’t think that your kind of training is exactly what I’m looking for. And I really don’t have any desire to go see these Seraphim at any point. Which is kind of a shame, because I’m pretty sure that if I get one more powerful adult mentor, I win a free cookie.”
The two women simply smiled a little bit at that before Jophiel spoke up. “And yet, you have not heard our offer. You see, the bargain that we bring involves…” She turned slightly to point at the door behind her. “… Sariel.”
“Mama?!” Tabbris blurted while taking a step that way, putting herself between Tristan and me. The twins looked just as interested in that announcement.
Jophiel nodded. “Indeed,” she replied. “you see, we would like to strike a bargain with the four of you. First, you will submit to a spell which will render you incapable of knowingly speaking about or otherwise communicating our situation or anything else about us that should be kept private. The spell will also ensure that no one can pull that information from your mind any other way. Our secrets will be safe. As will yours, as long as the deal is honored.”
Elisabet spoke then. “The four of you will also come to regular training sessions with us. You will perform the actions we deem necessary to ensure your readiness for an eventual meeting with the Seraphim. This will require years before you will be fully prepared. And I warn you, you will not always agree with our methods or our requirements. But you will come, and you will be prepared to learn and follow instructions.”
Before any of us could say anything to that, Jophiel took over once more. “In exchange, we will provide an opportunity to save Sariel. You see, as it stands, you will fail. Through that door is not an ordinary ship. It is more akin to the so-called Pathmaker, though a prototype, which at this point, has only one use. Once it is activated, they will be gone. And barring interruptions, it will be activated in five seconds. At his present course of action, Apollo will arrive in six seconds. One second too late.”
Elisabet spoke. “If you agree to this deal, we will ensure that he arrives sooner. Soon enough to interrupt the proceeding and allow you the opportunity to rescue her.”
“It is your choice,” added Jophiel. “Agree to our arrangement, agree to follow our instructions and allow us to prove our point, and we will give you the opportunity to save Sariel. Refuse, and we will leave to find more ways to motivate you once your failure here is complete.”
Again, we exchanged looks. But I knew what we were going to say. It was what we had to say. Because this was their mom. This was Tabbris, Tristan, and Vanessa’s mother. And I knew what I would’ve said if it was about my own.
“Okay,” I announced, echoed by the others.
“You’ve got a deal.”