It was Tristan who spoke first after Sariel’s pronouncement about us being on Earth. “Uh,” the boy started slowly, “I think my spiffy new perfect memory is interfering with my previously pretty decent hearing. Because I could’ve sworn you just said–”
“Earth?!” Vanessa interrupted her brother, her own eyes as wide as I was pretty sure mine were. She grabbed her mother’s arm while hurriedly pressing on. “We’re on Earth?! As in the real, regular Earth? Not an alternate reality or something? Wait, was this transport actually a time machine? Did we go back in time? Is this prehistoric Earth? Are we about to see dinosaurs?”
“Dibs.” Tristan had his hand up. “Dibs on taming the first dinosaur. I called it, you all saw me. Heard me. Whatever. Dibs.”
“Oh, my beautiful boy.” Turning that way, Sariel leaned over to kiss his forehead. The two of them were about the same height, while Vanessa stood a few inches shorter (though still a couple inches taller than me). Which meant that Sariel could easily put both hands on the side of his face while informing the boy, “There are no dinosaurs to tame. Not on this world, in any case. We have not time-traveled. We are on Earth within the correct time period. April 22nd, 2018. That… is the correct time period?” That last bit was added with a slight frown.
Wincing, I nodded slowly. “That means… oh God, I’ve been gone since February 24th. Almost two full months. Oh damn. My dad, Avalon, Shiori, the others, they’re all gonna… wait!” Eyes widening, I looked toward the twins. “If we’re back on Earth, maybe one of your phones’ll actually work.”
“Hey, yeah,” Tristan started before making a face as he held his cell up and shook it a little bit with a frown. “It’s dead, and I know it was charged right before we left. Apollo helped me plug it into the ship.”
For a moment, Sariel was silent. I thought she was thinking at first, before realizing that the woman was just staring at her son in open wonder and amazement. She’d lost herself there for a few seconds, just watching her now-much older little boy while holding both of her girls close.
Finally, the woman gave a sharp shake of her head as though snapping herself out of it before speaking. “In a prison transport like this, the system was probably set to drain the power of, or simply destroy, any communication device that was sent through it without authorization.”
Making a face at that, I muttered, “Well, that’s incredibly inconvenient. But where are we, exactly? More specifically than just ‘somewhere in an Earth desert’, I mean.”
It was Vanessa who replied, gesturing back out of the transport. “There were Carnegiea gigantea out there,” she explained simply, as if that answered the question.
“Vanessa, I love you,” Tristan started, “but there are definitely no giant cars out there.”
Rolling her eyes, the blonde girl reiterated, “Not giant cars. Carnegiea gigantea. You know, saguaro cactus? The big cacti with all the arms that bend out and up like this.” She demonstrated by raising her arms up, bent at the elbow as if she was surrendering.
“Right, right, those ones!” Tristan nodded rapidly as though he had the slightest idea what that meant, before his nod transitioned into a back-and-forth shake. “What’s your point?”
Giving a long, slow exhale that blew some of her loose hair up, Vanessa squinted at her brother before explaining. “The Sonoran desert is the only place in the world where the saguaro cactus grows naturally. If we’re on Earth in the current day, then that’s where we have to be.”
That one I could actually chime in on. “Sonoran desert, that’s the one in the Southwest US, right? Arizona, California, northern Mexico, that area.”
Vanessa nodded. “That’s the one. Though saguaro cacti only really grow in southern Arizona and parts of Mexico. You can kind of find it here or there in California a little bit, but I’m pretty sure that we’re in Mexico or Arizona. And I–Mom?” She blinked over, apparently just noticing the way that Sariel had been staring at her, at both of the twins. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” Sariel echoed, her voice cracking a little as she shook her head. “No, baby.” Her hand rose, tenderly brushing over her daughter’s face. “Nothing’s wrong. Nothing could be wrong. You’re beautiful. You are amazing. You…” There were tears in her eyes, and the woman blinked them away quickly before giving a little shudder. “All three of you are my… my children. It doesn’t seem real. It doesn’t seem…” She hesitated before shaking her head, muttering something in another language under her breath that I couldn’t follow.
For a moment, the three exchanged glances, before Tristan spoke up. “Mom, we’re right here, okay? We’re not going anywhere. We’re real, we’re right here. This isn’t a dream or anything.”
“I know,” Sariel replied simply. “I learned to recognize an implanted vision of being rescued after the first few times that Kushiel used that trick. That’s when she switched to telling me that you were dead. Of course, sometimes she still wanted to try it, so she’d erase my memory of that, and see how long she could keep the ruse going. Or just erase my memory of the capture entirely and give me a few hours with my family before snatching it away all over again.”
Somehow, through the incredible blinding rage that little bit of horrific information inspired (along with a renewed vow to kill that bitch if given the chance), I was able to think of a relevant question. “Wait,” I blurted out, “they actually managed to erase even a Seosten memory?”
“Temporarily,” she replied. “It never lasts very long. But for that brief time…” The woman trailed off for a moment, looking away before shuddering. That haunted look came back to her eyes, and I thought of what that must have been like for her to go through, apparently repeatedly.
Tristan’s voice was dark, all of his general amusement gone. “We’re gonna kill that bitch.”
“No,” Sariel quickly snapped while shaking her head. “What we are going to do right now is get out of here. It’ll take Kushiel and the others time to follow us here. They’ll have to go through all of the proper checks and security to pass through the barrier the normal way since we took the established transport. They probably won’t even bother being in a hurry about it, since they have to know that it will be too late once they get the message from the troops that retreated. But they’ll send someone else to check on this place and to see what they can scavenge soon enough. If your communicators aren’t working, we may have to hike out of here on foot. Normally, I could simply prepare transportation spells, but I’m not strong enough to even start them yet. And even when I am, doing something like that from scratch can take… quite a while. Especially for all of us.”
“If we go on foot,” I pointed out, “anyone that the Seosten send to check on this place might find us. Actually, scratch that, they’d probably find us, sooner than we could get very far.”
Tabbris quickly piped up then. “We might not have to go anywhere at all, you know. If the tracking spells that Wyatt put on you were good enough to last that long and activated again now that we’re within range, he might have a rescue party on the way right now.”
Raising an eyebrow at that, Sariel remarked, “I detected no such spells on you.”
“Yeah,” I replied flatly while looking down at myself, “that’s because he’s really good at hiding them. Believe me, even I don’t know what he’s got stuck on me or where. He enchants something with a tracking spell, sticks it on you, then makes it invisible and intangible so you don’t even know it’s there. For all intents and purposes, it’s not. Except for the part where he can still use it. And don’t ask me how he makes it stay in place despite being intangible. It shouldn’t work. But it does. For him.”
Whistling a bit, the Seosten woman spoke. “This… Wyatt sounds like a powerful sorcerer. He must have practiced his craft for many centuries to accomplish such feats.”
Meeting her gaze, I replied, “He’s my half-brother. And he’s been doing this for about thirty to forty years, I think. Give or take a little bit.”
Boy, it was fun surprising an ancient and powerful Seosten who used to portray a literal god. She stared at me for a moment, mouth opening and shutting briefly, before speaking again. “Zedekiah,” the woman announced. “You say Wyatt. But you mean Zedekiah.”
Blinking at that, I nodded. “Yeah, that was his… that was his original name, when he was a kid. Before Ruthers kidnapped him and Abigail. Koren, back then. Now her daughter’s name is Koren, and she goes to Crossroads with the rest of us. It’s… complicated.”
Letting out a long, low sigh, Sariel nodded. “It usually is.” Her voice was low, with more emotion in those three words than a lot of people could work into an entire diatribe. She looked to me then. “Felicity, I… I should like to meet this… Wyatt and speak with him. And Abigail.”
“Trust me, I think he’ll have a lot of questions for you too,” I assured the woman. “They both will. But first, we have to either get out of here, or hold out until Wyatt gets the reinforcements here. If, you know, the spell is actually still active. That’s the downside of not being able to find the spell at all. There’s no way to know if it’s working.”
Sariel started to nod at that before pausing. She looked around briefly, a frown touching her face before the woman added, “Give me a moment, I’ll find the prisoner manifest so we know who else is locked in these pods. It would be foolish to open all of them without knowing who we’re dealing with. But we may be able to release enough trustworthy allies to help us either make our way to safety, or hold out against whatever forces the Seosten send until your brother arrives.”
Vanessa‘s head bobbed quickly at that. “And while you’re doing that, I can contact Dad and let him and the others know what’s going on. They’re probably really freaking out right now.”
Reaching out to run a hand through her daughter’s hair once more, Sariel smiled. “Tell your father that I love him, and that we will all be together again soon. And tell him to be careful. Kushiel will be looking for ways to retaliate against the loss of her prisoners.” Pausing then, she added, “And, please be careful only to connect your mind to his without fully transporting yourself. I know that you would be safe with your father, and it is… selfish, but I don’t want to lose you again so quickly. It is already difficult enough to accept that it will still be some time before our family is truly reunited. Being without Haiden after all this time…” She swallowed hard before shaking her head. “As I said, it is selfish. But I want to spend time with you.”
It was Vanessa’s turn to reach a hand up, taking her mother’s before squeezing it. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll still be here. I promise. I’m not going anywhere. And when Dad gets back, we’ll be a real family again. All of us. Even Uncle Apollo. And Aunt Larissa.”
Sariel seemed to cringe inwardly a little, though she was still clearly trying to hide her reaction from her children. “Apollo,” she murmured under her breath, the pain in her voice seeming to reach even the others, who exchanged brief glances until the woman shook it off. “Yes. Tell them–tell your father that we are safe, that I will not let anything happen to any of you.”
Nodding firmly, Vanessa gave her mother one more tight hug. The two embraced like that for a few long seconds before reluctantly parting. Then the girl moved to sit on the floor. She closed her eyes, seeming to focus for a moment before abruptly tipping over. Her body fell limply against the floor.
“Wow,” Tristan remarked with a raised eyebrow. “It happened a lot faster that time. Uncle Apollo said that the hybrid thing would let us get stronger a lot faster by killing Seosten, but wow.”
For a moment, I thought that Sariel was going to ask about Apollo. It seemed to be right on the tip of her tongue as her mouth opened. But at the last second, she seemed to change her mind, instead asking, “This… hybrid-Heretic thing… how precisely…”
“It’s a long story,” I informed her. “Mostly it involves a Djinni altering the Edge to allow half-humans to become Heretics. That’s the short version.”
The Seosten woman stared at me for a moment, head tilting a little before she gave a slight nod. “Of course. That was… an eventual goal of your mother’s, I believe. Was she–”
“She didn’t do it,” I replied flatly. “The others fulfilled that goal for her. She’s still… still with Fossor.”
Swallowing hard, Sariel met my gaze, her expression softening. “I’m sorry,” she announced in a quiet voice. “Your mother–” She stopped, hesitating before finishing with a soft, “Your mother deserves to be free. I give you my word, I will help make that happen.”
With that announcement, before I could figure out what to say to it, the woman turned back to the console. Her fingers danced across it rapidly as she went through the menus, trying to work out who was within each pod, and how to release them.
Meanwhile, Tabbris moved over to me, taking my hand with both of hers. “Mama,” she announced with a broad smile. “Mama’s there.” She pointed to her then, as if I hadn’t seen the woman for myself. “Mama’s really there.” That infectious, dazzling smile grew even more just from saying the words, and she dropped my hand to instead give me a tight hug.
Returning the hug, I grinned right back at her, and at Tristan. “Yup. There she is. Told you we’d get her back.” I was so happy for them. Part of me thought that I would have been jealous about their reunion with their mother, but I was just happy. Seeing the way that Sariel was with them, seeing how much they all meant to each other, it made me feel a little sad about my own mom. But mostly I was just overjoyed to see them together. Or at least, mostly together.
Then there was the thought of my dad. We were on Earth. We were actually here. Pretty soon, I’d be able to see my dad again. I’d be able to see Shiori and Avalon again. My girls. I’d see everyone again.
Even Scout. And I’d have to tell her that her sister and mother still weren’t back yet, that we’d come without them. Not that it had been on purpose or anything, but still. That part wouldn’t be quite as good, though just being able to tell her in person that Sands and Larissa were okay would be amazing.
Overall, I really couldn’t wait to get out of this damn desert.
Tristan spoke up then, interrupting my drifting thoughts. “What I wanna know is where exactly this transport was supposed to go, and why it was aimed for Earth in the first place.”
“Perhaps, Mr. Moon,” a new, yet familiar voice spoke up from the entrance of the transport, “that is a question that we should be attempting to work out together.”
Sariel was already spinning around, one of those pistols coming back to her hand before she lined it up… then stopped. “Gaia,” she spoke simply, her voice cracking a little.
Yeah, Gaia was there. And she had company. Deveron stood on one side of the headmistress, with Professor Dare on the other. Behind them, I could see Wyatt fidgeting and bouncing on his toes to see past. His eyes sought me out, but his expression was unreadable. He looked anxious, and maybe even a bit angry. And… guilty, somehow? Actually, come to think of it, they all looked a bit off.
If she cared about the gun that was pointed at her, Gaia didn’t show it. Her voice remained even. “You would be Sariel of the Seosten, then,” she announced. “Tristan and Vanessa’s mother. That would be where they disappeared to then.” Her eyes glanced down toward the girl in question, before her flat, even tone finally cracked. “Vanessa, is she–”
“She’s fine,” I said quickly. “She’s just using her power to tell Haiden–her dad–that we’re safe.”
“And are you, Miss Chambers?” Those assessing, deeply intelligent eyes found mine once more, as Gaia seemed to stare straight through me. “Are you… safe?”
For a moment, I just met her gaze in silence. Then I realized. Her questions, the way she was staying back, Wyatt’s expression, even Deveron and Dare seemed a bit wary. “You know,” I announced as it hit me, “You know that I was possessed.”
“Was?” That came from Professor Dare, her eyes narrowing a bit as well as showing a little bit of another emotion: hope. She had clearly been more distraught and upset than I’d even been able to tell, because there was a noticeable reaction right then, at my implication.
“Uhh, yeah.” Biting my lip, I started, “It’s a really long story. But–actually, the short version is… here.” Reaching back, I took hold of Tabbris, slowly pulling her in front of me. From the corner of my eye, I saw Sariel move forward as well. Gaia, Dare, Deveron, and Wyatt or not, she was not going to let her little girl be in even the slightest hint of danger without being right beside her.
“This,” I informed them while rubbing the girl’s head, “is Tabbris. Sariel’s daughter–her other daughter. Sariel sent her to me when I was younger to secretly possess me. She’s been protecting me from being possessed all this time, and other things, like erasing spells that people were trying to use to track or hurt me, and… more. Probably more than she’s even told me about. I only found out about her right before that whole thing with Charmeine. She’s the one that helped me escape that trap, and helped me get back to that hotel in time to help the others.
“The point is, I’m here and I’m free today because of her. She’s my little sister. She’s my partner. And we’re a team.”
I saw actual visible relief in Gaia’s face, as her eyes darted down toward Tabbris before returning to me. “Good,” she announced. “I am… very glad to hear that. And there is clearly a lot–” She glanced toward Sariel. “–a lot to talk about.”
Deveron took a step forward then. It looked like he was about to say something, but Gaia interrupted. “But I’m afraid that will have to wait. We don’t have time to discuss this any further. Nor do we have time for any of the numerous emotional reunions that are needed right now. They’re coming.”
“What,” Tristan quickly blurted, “Kushiel’s forces?”
“No.” Dare’s head shook. “Worse, the Committee.”
That made me do a quick double-take. “What?”
Gaia corrected, “Several members of the Committee, at least. It seems they were alerted to your presence here as well, somehow. They will be here very shortly.”
Sariel quickly blurted, “They cannot find these pods.” Her hands gestured around the transport. “Even those who are not compromised by my people will kill everyone they find here. They are, after all, not human.”
Gaia paused at that, head tilting a little as she seemed to focus for a second before speaking again. “Come off the transport. It has very little power remaining, but I believe there is enough left to send it to a safe location. Unfortunately, it will be a very… rough ride. Too rough for anyone not in a stasis pod.”
I might have marveled at Gaia’s ability to both intuitively know that, and apparently actually use the transport that easily. But then again, this was the same woman who had waved a hand and taken control of the Meregan transport device all the way from Earth. So… yeah. Totally believable, in that case.
Taking a step forward to leave the transport, I found myself pulled into a tight hug. Or rather, three tight hugs. The first came from Dare, who looked like she really wanted to say something and was annoyed that there wasn’t time for it. Then Deveron took his turn, followed by Wyatt. Both of them seemed reluctant to let go, and I was pretty sure that it was only the impending arrival of several members of the Committee that made them stop.
“Knew you guys would find us out here,” I informed them, giving Wyatt a wink. “Best bodyguard big brother in the world.”
“How did you–” Dare started, then stopped herself, as hard as it clearly was. “Later. They are coming.”
Together, we moved off the transport, with Tristan carrying his sister. Gaia waved a hand, and the thing vanished. Which left us standing there in the middle of the empty desert, aside from the bodies of the soldiers that had been left behind.
“There’s another problem,” Deveron announced, from right beside me. His hand was on my shoulder, like he was planning on physically preventing me from disappearing again. “Them.” He nodded to Tabbris and Sariel.
“Not a problem on our part,” I replied, extending a hand to my partner.
She started to reach for me, but Deveron quickly pulled my hand back. “Wait,” he blurted.
“Dev,” I took his hand in mine, looking at him. “It’s okay. She’s been protecting me all this time. I told you, we’re partners. She’s my sister. She’s family, Deveron. We work together. We’re a team.”
He still looked uncertain, frowning a little before clearly realizing that there wasn’t enough time to debate it. His eyes found Tabbris, and he nodded. “Okay.”
As the man released my hand, Tabbris took it instead. A second later, she was back inside me. I saw Deveron and Professor Dare exchange a look that told me we were still going to have to talk about this later, and that, once again, it was only the fact that the Committee was about to be right on top of us that made them hold off arguing for the time being.
“Unfortunately,” Sariel spoke up then, “I cannot possess either of my children. Normally, I would have spells prepared to avoid detection. But… I am not exactly prepared.”
Wyatt was clearly about to say something then, but Gaia spoke first. “There is one place you may hide where they will not detect you.” With that, she extended a hand to the other woman.
“Gaia, no!” Dare quickly interrupted, taking a step that way.
“Virginia,” Gaia chided her, “It’s okay. If Sariel meant us any harm, we would have been in much worse shape a very long time ago.” Her eyes never left the Seosten woman’s, and she kept her hand extended. “I trust her.”
Her words were greeted with silence. Everyone seemed frozen. I had no idea how that would have gone, except that in that second, a glowing green portal appeared nearby.
The Committee. We were out of time.
Sariel’s hand snapped up, catching hold of Gaia’s. Then she disappeared. And in that second, an Olympian-level Seosten was possessing Gaia Sinclaire, an event that had probably been the wet dream of the general Seosten leadership ever since she had been made headmistress, if not longer. But there was no time to think about that either, because our company had arrived.
“Well,” Gabriel Ruthers started, as he, Litonya, Teach, Geta, Sophronia, and Calafia stepped into view from the portal.
“What do we have here?”