Month: July 2018

Desperate Measures 37-01

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She was there. Avalon. I’d found Avalon. She was unconscious, but I’d found her. I found her! It was thanks in large part to Jophiel and Elisabet puppeting Doctor Therasis to keep me here long enough that I could figure it out. And I was still confused by why they would do that when they couldn’t want us to open the vault any more than any of the other Seosten leaders did. But whatever their reasoning was, whatever they expected from me later, was for later. Right now, only one thing mattered: Avalon.

She was there. She was there. This is where Manakel was hiding her, right here in the hospital. The Mesches she was surrounded by stopped any magical search from finding her while also making her protection spells end sooner. At the same time, the nearby Tabilten, with the help of the wind spell that sent their purification power through the vent, cleansed the poison out of the air so she didn’t die.

That’s what I had been thinking of back when we had gone into Manakel’s cabin and found the Mesches’ cages. When I’d found out about the poison aura, my brain had been trying to remind me about the Tabilten’s purification ability, and the fact that a hospital would be one of the most perfect places to keep someone. Particularly if some of the staff of said hospital were on your side, either through possession or other means.

The point was, Avalon was there. Right there. But now the lights had gone out, which I knew had to mean that someone, probably Manakel, knew we had found her. And I seriously doubted he would be very happy about that. He’d move her, fast. Which meant we had to get into that room even faster.   

Almost as soon as the main lights had gone out, other lights came back on. But these were different, dimmer and clearly running off some emergency power or something. Maybe they’d cut this place off from the outside world and that was a side effect? Whatever, the point was, the lights were very dim, casting a kind of eerie glow over everything, while still leaving a lot in shadows. The whole thing was creepy.

Shiori was still asking where Therasis had come from, even as I blurted, “Avalon’s in there.” I turned back to the grate, drawing back my fist before punching it. The thing didn’t budge. I hit it again, before shifting around to switch to my foot. But before I could kick the thing more than once, Shiori blurted from behind me, “Company!”

Sure enough, when I glanced that way, I found the girl in question in the middle of a fight with two men right in the doorway. They were dressed in orderly uniforms, but from the weapons they carried, these were no ordinary hospital workers. 

Shiori ducked the swing of one man’s sword, then lashed out with a kick into his chest as the blade embedded itself in the doorjamb. As the guy staggered backward, the other one backhanded her in the face, making her stumble back toward me. He followed it up by snapping a pistol into position, taking aim. I had to help. I couldn’t save Avalon, only to lose Shiori. I had to move. I had to move now!

My weapon had already found its way into my hands and transformed into its bow form when I had first seen Shiori fighting. As the second man brought his pistol up, I launched a hasty energy arrow, which exploded right against the man’s hand to knock it backwards and up just as he pulled the trigger. Shiori had recovered by then, and pivoted into a sidekick that sent the man stumbling into his partner.

But there were more coming. Footsteps were approaching at a run from both sides of the corridor. Worse, I could feel people coming into the room behind me, where Avalon was. We were so close. I couldn’t let them just disappear with her again.

“Shy!” I blurted then, pointing to the vent behind me. “Sand!”

Thankfully, that was enough. The other girl got to the point, instantly transforming into her sand form. At that point, the air spell blew her through with the vent and into the other room where Avalon was. I could have done it myself of course, but I let the wind do it for me. My focus was on the guys in the doorway and their arriving reinforcements.

I was trusting Shiori to stop the guys in the other room from disappearing with Avalon. Which made me twitch a little. Not because it was hard to trust her. I did. But because the thought that I would suddenly lose both of them was horrific, and very nearly paralyzed me.

But now I had to focus. I had to deal with these guys. Because getting into the other room to help Avalon and Shiori would do no good if we just had these guys right behind us.

My first action, however, wasn’t to rush into the fight. Instead, I focused on taking half a second to disable the dibs spell that had temporarily been protecting me from being possessed (absent my little partner, that was). Because if I knew Wyatt, even if he couldn’t get to me, he was perfectly aware I was in danger. And if I knew Tabbris, she would react to that news, the instant she got it, by jumping straight back to me. So yeah, disabling the dibs spell before she ended up popping up right outside of me in the line of fire felt like a good idea.

The initial two guys had recovered by that point, the first one back in the doorway. But I was already right there, my weapon shifted back into its staff form as I drove the end of it into his stomach, doubling him over before I spun it up and around to smack him across the face with it.

The momentum from that put me right in the doorway, where I could see the second man already raising his pistol once more, while four more came rushing towards the room, two from each side of the hall. Six guys. Six. If they were planning on keeping me away from Avalon, they should have brought sixty.

Snapping my staff up, I triggered a blast from the end of it, which took the man with the gun in the chest and knocked him back once more. Almost simultaneously, I pivoted to snap my weapon down, smacking it across the back of the first man’s knee while he was still recovering from being hit across the face a moment earlier. The blow knocked the man onto his back with a cry.

“Guys,” I blurted then, while continuing my pivot to face the two men who were coming from the left side of the hall. “Time to fight!”

I wasn’t talking to my opponents. Rather, I was calling for Jaq and Gus. The two mice cyberforms appeared at their spot on the staff even as I shifted it briefly to bow-form to fire a shot that exploded right in the faces of the pair of men who were coming from the left. Quickly, I shifted the weapon back to a staff while my two little buddies assumed their spots, turning the staff into its bladed form.

Turning on my heel to face the guys coming from the right, I extended my staff and triggered the button that launched the grapple. It flew at the nearest guy, tearing through his armor to pierce his chest. While he was reacting with a cry, I triggered the concussive burst on that end of the staff, releasing it. The blast sent the staff sailing down the hall to the left before it impaled one of the guys there, who were both still recovering from the concussive energy arrow I had sent into them.

Meanwhile, the guy who had been grappled through with the chest was brought careening down the hall toward me, dragged by the line attached to the moving staff. Just as he reached me, I leapt and spun into a kick that took him in the face, knocking him off the grapple and sending him flying into his partner, who had been running up behind.

While I was spinning in the air from the kick, my hand slapped down toward the grapple as it went flying past me. My fingers barely brushed the end of it, but that single touch was enough for me to use my item movement power to put the entire staff back into my hands. Which was just in time too, since as I landed in a crouch with the weapon, the man with the pistol fired a shot that narrowly missed. Seriously, the laser sailed past my cheek so close that it burned a little bit. He adjusted his pistol and was about fire again when I smacked the staff across his hand to make him drop his gun. A quick burst from the other end of my staff sent me out of my crouch and up to plant both feet into his chest, once more knocking him into the nearby wall.

That time, before he could recover, I spun and brought my stuff up and around. The bladed end cut straight through the man’s throat, while I continued the motion into a full three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn which sent the blade through his neck yet again, this time completely separating his head from his body.

As the head went bouncing along the floor, I was filled with a rush of pleasure. It wasn’t anywhere near the strongest I’d ever felt, but it was still more than a bit distracting. Which was a bad thing, since the second man who had been coming from the right had disentangled himself from his partner (the one who had taken the grapple through his chest before I kicked him in the face as he was yanked toward me), and launched himself my way while bringing an energy-sword straight for my face.

My head jerked out of the way just in time, while my foot lashed out to kick the man. Neither of which I was responsible for.

I’m here! Tabbris blurted, immediately dampening the pleasure rush so I could focus. It was mostly gone by that point anyway, but still. Every millisecond counted.

I wasn’t going to ask how she’d known to come. That much was pretty obvious. Nor was I going to explain what was going on. She could read my thoughts to work out for herself. Instead, I focused on the fight at hand.

To that end, my gaze focused sharply on the first man, the one who had been knocked onto his back by my staff. He was rolling back into a kneeling position, snapping some kind of futuristic looking rifle off his back to point at me. Right before he could actually pull the trigger, however, I thumbed the other button on my staff, sending a cloud of sand right into his face while I rolled sideways. The shot from his gun took out part of the wall where I had just been, while the man himself staggered and flailed as my sand worked its way through the cracks in his mask to reach his mouth and eyes.

The man who had come from the right with the energy sword had recovered from Tabbris making me kick him by that point, rushing up from behind me. I felt his approach and knew exactly where his blade was. Which meant I knew right when to pivot out of the way, letting his blade slash through the empty air where I had just been right before I spun my own weapon upward, severing his extended wrist.

Weapon and hand alike clattered to the floor. But before he could even understand what had just happened, I was already pivoting to put myself right beside him while my foot lashed out. The kick collided with the back of the man’s knee, and as he fell, I brought my staff up in both hands, driving the bladed end down through his chest. Another rush of pleasure would have filled me then, but Tabbris was already on the job, dampening it.

Two of the six were dead. Which became three a second later as I took advantage of the opening that the first man provided while clawing and flailing at the sand scouring his eyes and choking him. The blade of my staff went straight through the man, reducing the soldiers to half the number they had come with. And I was nowhere near done. All of the anger, the frustration, the rage, the feelings of impotence and fear that had been weighing on me since the moment that Manakel had taunted me about abducting Avalon had all come bursting out. Now I had a chance to do something about it. Now I could actually help my girl.

No one was going to stop me from doing that. No one.

Three guys left. One of whom hardly counted since he was already on the ground from being grappled through the chest, yanked down the hall, and then kicked in the face. Which left the two who had been running in from the left, the ones I had blasted in the face with the energy arrow before one of them had also been impaled with my staff.

Yeah, that one wasn’t doing so hot either. Better than the guy on the floor, but not by much. He had recovered enough to bring his pistol up, firing off a couple shots. But I trusted Tabbris, flinging myself that way just as my partner activated my energy-absorption power. The shots hit, and I snapped my staff up, empowering it with the same energy in time to intercept the laser sword that the second man had just been swinging at me.

A quick flurry of blows followed then, before I managed to slam the blade of my staff down through the man’s foot, impaling it all the way through and embedding the weapon into the floor. Letting go so my staff stayed in that vertical position, I spun on one foot to put myself behind the now-pinned man. My foot kicked the back of his other leg, collapsing it just as I brought my hands down on the back of his head. The combined effort knocked him forward and down, shoving his face onto the bladed grapple.

Four down, while the fifth and sixth guys were clutching the wounds in their chests. The nearest one, the only one still standing, took aim again and fired off several more shots.

I absorbed them all. Then my hand snapped up and I released the gathered energy right into the man’s face. He dropped, collapsing to the floor without much of a face left.

Without pausing, I snapped my gaze to the last man. He was groaning, rolling over while clutching the wound in his chest. I was pretty sure he was crying behind that helmet.

“Can you teleport out?” I demanded while already moving, my voice flat.

There was a pause before the injured man nodded.

“Then do it,” I ordered, not even breaking stride. “And think about this next time you’re supposed to come after me or the people I care about.”

Again, there was a brief pause. Then the man’s hand moved to his waist, and he was gone. I let him go. Maybe he’d get medical attention and survive. Maybe he would end up dying. Maybe he would change and decide not to come after me anymore. Maybe he would come after me even harder. Either way, whatever happened, I’d deal with it later. He wasn’t a threat right now. That was what mattered.

Threats neutralized, I started to run. Tab, Wyatt, right?

Uh huh! she blurted then. He felt all the danger you were in through the spells. He’s been telling everyone, but there’s some kind of shield around the hospital. They’re working on taking it down, but it’s gonna take time. I… I couldn’t just leave you alone like that.

Smiling a little despite myself, I nodded inwardly. Thanks, partner.

I was focused on finding the room where Avalon and Shiori were. Sprinting around the corner, I let the Blemmye power to find any location that I knew about keep me going the right way. Before long, I could feel Shiori and Avalon both, so they were definitely close. There were also a handful of bodies lying motionless, as well as one very close to Shiori. The two kept merging and falling back in my senses, clearly indicating that they were fighting. I had to get in there.

But how?  Where?

There! Wait! Tabbris blurted in my head, bringing me to a stop. Before I could say or ask anything, she brought my hand up with the field-engraver, scrawling some kind of quick counter-spell before triggering it.

There. There was a door right there. A spell of some sort had been hiding it, but thanks to Tabbris, I could now see it. The door was open, and I caught a glimpse of Shiori as the girl impaled her opponent through the chest with what was apparently his own sword before letting him fall.

“Shy!’ I threw myself that way, giving a quick glance around at the four bodies that littered the floor. “Are you okay?”

She was panting, but nodded. “Y-yeah. But Avalon…” She looked that way, toward the unconscious girl.

“We’ll get her out of here,” I promised. “Fast, before more of those guys come.” Still out loud, I added, “Tabbris.” Shiori gave me a brief look at that, but quickly understood as I continued with, “Any defensive spells?”

Uh huh. The answer came, and then I was on my knees, hurriedly scrawling counter spells to disable the magic that was keeping Avalon unconscious and imprisoned. Thank God I had Tabbris here, because there was no way I would have known enough about how to disable all those spells.

She moved quickly, and soon the last of the spells were disabled, freeing Avalon (though she was still unconscious). In that moment, I wanted almost nothing more than to grab the girl, pull her up, and hold onto her as tightly as I could.

Instead, I focused on taking an already-prepared bit of wood from my pocket, speaking aloud for Shiori’s benefit. “Tabs, use Marian. Get to the others and warn them. Tell them to get up, because the Seosten will be after them by now too. Go, go!”

My hands moved out of my own control, activating the theriangelos spell and turning the magicked bit of wood into my fox. For a second, I had the familiar moment of disorientation as I could see and hear through the fox as well. Then Tabbris shut down that part of my perception, taking it over for herself.

The fox went running out of the room, off to warn the others. Which left Shiori and me to get to Avalon. The two of us moved that way quickly, and again, it was all I could do not to get too distracted. Avalon. Valley. She was right there. Really her this time. I wanted to hold her even more than before.

I did hold her. In that case, however, it meant picking her limp form up and off the floor. “We need to go,” I told Shiori in a somewhat shaky voice. Focus, Flick. Focus on keeping Valley alive, and on getting the hell out of this hospital.

I held the unconscious Avalon tight against my chest, and together, we sprinted back into hallway. Unfortunately, we got there just in time to find out more guards had arrived. A hell of a lot of more guards. There were well over a dozen coming down the whole corridor at us from one direction. Immediately, we spun the other way and started running. I could hear them shouting, and a few shots went sailing past or around us.

We ran. With guards hot on our heels, the two (or three… or four, all depending on how you counted) of us booked it, running fast and hard for the end of the hall, where a pair of elevators stood. Shiori extended a hand as we moved, using her metal-manipulation power to force the doors open. There was no elevator there. But we didn’t have time to wait for it. Not with these guys right behind us.

Instead, with a brief glance toward one another, Shiori and I both went right for the open elevator shaft. Together, with Avalon held tight to my chest, we leapt through the open doors.

Shots flooded the area around us, ricocheting off every surface above while we plummeted down through the dark shaft.

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Interlude 36C – Percival and Gaia

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1670

“Gaia, is it? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days?”

As the red-haired woman entered the house and heard the voice, she paused. Without turning around, she replied, “It is better than some alternatives.”

Percival, of those legendary knights trained and empowered by her half-brother, spoke up once more while stepping out of the shadows of the alcove he had been waiting in. “You are very right. There are a lot of things those who knew you back then could call you which would be worse than Gaia Sinclaire. Or even Scáthach. I heard you took that name for a while.”

Finally, the woman turned to face him. Her voice was soft. “You may believe this or not, but it is good to see you.” She paused then before adding, “It is good to see anyone from then. It has been quite some time.”

“I wish I could say it was good to see you in return,” the man informed her in an even voice. “Because that would mean, well, a lot of things that happened didn’t happen. And if they hadn’t happened… maybe things would be very different now.”

Gaia met his gaze without flinching. “You mean to say that had I not betrayed my brother, he might still be… with us. Arthur could still be king and the world itself would be much better off than it is now in our current circumstances.”

Percival’s voice was flat. “That is what I mean to say, yes. You weren’t the cause of all of our problems. Not even close. But if you had stayed on our side, if you had been a true ally and friend, things could have turned out very differently than they did.”

There was silence for a few, long seconds before Gaia slowly nodded. “You are correct. I had so much rage toward what I saw as injustice and oppression that I inflicted it myself in my zeal to eradicate it. I hurt people who did not deserve to be hurt. I killed those who did not deserve to die. I betrayed my brother because I did not feel he went far enough for my own sense of justice.”

She swallowed hard then before continuing in a softer voice. “I think about that day a lot, you know. The day when Arthur and I finally broke. When he refused to execute the men for burning the village… for everything they did before setting the flames… I could not let it stand. I could not walk away from it. They had to die.”

“They had already surrendered,” Percival put in then. “They had thrown down their arms and were on their knees. Arthur accepted their surrender because he was a man of honor. It wasn’t about whether they deserved eventual execution or not. They would have faced judgment. But not in that second. Not after they surrendered. Especially not when there were those in their number who may not have been involved.”

Swallowing once more, Gaia gave a very slight nod. It was a point she had argued against for a long time. But not right now. “Perhaps. But I couldn’t wait. I wouldn’t wait. You were there, Percival. You saw the village, what they did. You saw the people they burned, the women they raped. You saw the carnage. You heard the children crying. I could not let it go.”

Percival’s voice was as soft as hers. “So you killed them yourself, while they sat in cages waiting for judgment. You judged them yourself. You told Arthur you would back off. Then you doused all of the men in oil and set them ablaze while they were helpless. You broke Arthur’s word for him. He promised those men a fair trial and judgment, The chance to speak in their own defense. They had families too, and he promised those people their fathers would be given a fair trial. Some of them may not have been directly involved. We didn’t know the whole story. The ones who claimed innocence, who claimed their comrades had gone off without them, they may have been truthful. It could have come out with a proper investigation and trial. But you killed all of them, even after promising Arthur you would leave it alone. You gave him your word. He asked you to swear you would leave it alone, and you agreed. Then you killed them anyway.

“And that was the problem. Because if Arthur could not trust his own sister, if his own sister could betray him and pursue her own justice against his orders, what were the odds of others respecting his word? The things you did that day and afterward hurt Arthur’s ability to lead. Because they knew. The people knew you were out there, knew you were playing your own games. You created your own army, pursued your own sense of justice. Arthur needed loyalty. He needed the people to trust him. He needed his sister to trust him.”

He sighed then, slowly shaking his head. “To be quite honest, we moved on to bigger threats after you were gone. We were so… young back then, so incredibly new to things. You were only a threat for a few years, maybe twenty at the most. A blink of an eye, really. You were with us for a little while, then you were against us for a little while. Then you were gone. Arthur mourned for you. He even looked for you, for a long time. It distracted him, searching for you.”

Gaia flinched a little, her hands tightening and loosening once. “He truly should not have bothered.”

“It’s who he was,” Percival replied, “who he is. Even after everything that happened, he still wanted to forgive you. He still wanted to bring you back, wanted to bring his sister back. And that’s kind of the point. Arthur trusted you. He needed you. More than almost any of us aside from Gwen, he needed you. If none of it had happened, if you had still been there, had still been loyal and everything hadn’t gone wrong…”

Again there was silence before the woman quietly replied, “I am well aware of my own sins. And all of those which came after that moment. It was the breaking point. But it was hardly my worst action once the flint had been struck. I did a great many terrible things in the name and pursuit of what I saw as justice. Some of them I would stand by today. Many I would not. Especially…” She stopped then, emotion flickering into her eyes as her arms reflexively closed around her stomach.

For the first time, the man’s gaze softened noticeably as he spoke for her. “Mordred, your son.”

Even after all the time which had passed since that terrible day, the name brought tears to her eyes. The woman shuddered and then spoke in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible, and cracked with emotion. “He died because of me. Because of my actions. I lost my son. My little boy. Not so little at the time, but still. Always my little boy. Always and forever. He’s gone forever because of me. I can never undo the things I did, the mistakes I made. Just as I can never see my son again. I would have done anything to save him, anything to change what happened. I would have sacrificed myself a thousand times over if it would have saved him. But I could not. Just as I cannot change my other mistakes. All I can do is be a better person now than I was then. Maybe it will never be enough for any kind of redemption. I truly doubt it will. But it is all I have, all I can do. Be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I am today. I have nothing else.”

Slowly stepping forward, Percival extended a hand to rest on the woman’s shoulder. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you this then, but I am very sorry about your son. I know you loved him. And he truly loved you. What happened to him was a tragedy.” He paused then before adding, “Some of us thought you might have ended yourself after that. You disappeared for a long time. Then you just showed up again after hundreds of years, and it turns out you time traveled. The rest of us, we took the long way around. But you found a shortcut.”

There was the tiniest hint of a smile on Gaia’s face. “I wondered how long it would take you to ask about that. It is a very long story. And I did not come alone.”

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The Green Knight, I am well aware. He was with you when you were turned the first time, wasn’t he? He took the being’s nature-based gifts, while you gained the control over machines and inventions that made the people of our time call you a sorceress.”

The woman nodded once more. “He was with me then, yes. We have been acquainted for quite some time, off and on. I would not call us friends, but we do seem to be bound to one another in some way. I could not say why. Perhaps the future will reveal why we are so connected.”

Her head a shake then. “But he is not the only companion I had in that trip. Though perhaps the only one closest to an ally.”

Percival nodded. “Yes, I know about the creatures you brought through with you. Believe me, if I hadn’t convinced myself it was not your intention, we would have had this conversation much earlier. And it would not have been nearly as pleasant.”

“Yes,” Gaia murmured, “it was most certainly not intentional. I did my best to contain them, and stopped them from killing a boy in the village where I arrived, though not before he had already been bonded to it.” She glanced to the man then. “I am told that boy became one of yours. One of theirs, rather. Ruthers, I believe, was his name.”

Percival winced a little. “Gabriel Ruthers, yes. He used to be a lot different than he is now, a lot more optimistic. He was the one who pushed to make a deal with the necromancer. And we saw how that turned out.”

She looked to him then. “They don’t understand, you realize. This hatred of everything not human. They are pushing it too far. Arthur would not agree with it.”

There was a slight flinch from the man at that, before he gave a faint nod. “He would not. There’s something else to it, something…” He paused before settling on, “I have a purpose for being here. But it may take quite some time to come to fruition.”

The two of them stood there together in silence for some time, both contemplating all of that before Gaia looked to him. “As we have quite firmly established, my trip through time was long ago. I have been in this time, so to speak, for quite some time now. Far longer than I spent an our original time. It must have been over five hundred years by this point. Five hundred years. If what you wanted was answers, or even justice for my past, you could have sought me out then, at any point. You have had quite a long time to do so. I am sure it did not take you long to understand who I was. You could have come while I was with the Sinclairs. I would hardly have been in any shape to stop you. Yet you wait until now. After all this time, I would say you were openly avoiding me.”

“You’re right,” Percival agreed. “I could have come to find you before. I almost did. But I wanted to give you time to show what your intentions were. Arthur would have wanted me to give you time. He would have given you a chance to prove yourself again.”

“Is that why you’re here now?” she asked him then. “Because you’ve come to a decision?”

“I am here now,” the man replied easily, “because they recruited you. They brought you into this, made you part of their new group. So I had to come see if I could actually trust you.”

Rather than follow on that immediately, Gaia asked, “Are you here with these people because of your own choices, or because of something Arthur asked you to do? Is your presence a coincidence, or a mission?”

He met her eyes. “That is something I could only explain to someone I trust.”

“And do you trust me?”

In response, the man was silent for a few seconds. Then he looked back up and squared his shoulders. “Truthfully, I haven’t decided yet. Mostly because I don’t know what’s going to happen the next time you get angry. You may have the best of intentions now, and then lose your mind and all sense of proportion later. But, you know what? The fact that I haven’t decided I don’t trust you is a significant step up.”

The woman gave a slight nod of agreement. “Given our past, yes, it is. But where do we go from here? How do we move forward?”

Rather than immediately answering, Percival asked, “What about your apprentice, the girl who travels with you. Where is she today?”

Smiling just a little at the question, Gaia replied, “Virginia is pursuing one of her own interests. I don’t expect to see her again until quite late.”

“In that case,” the man put in, “perhaps we could take a walk somewhere private, and you could tell me more about how you and the Green Knight traveled in time. You could tell me a bit more about all of that. And by tell me more, of course, I mean tell me anything at all.”

Gaia chuckled very softly. “A walk in the woods then, and a bit of conversation to sate your curiosity?”

Percival moved to open the door. “We shall see how much of my curiosity is sated by how much you deign to tell me. I warn you however, my curiosity has a voracious appetite. Particularly when it comes to this issue.”

With a slight smile, the woman moved after him. “Then I do hope it is a long walk.

“Because it is a very long story.”

*******

Present Day

As the red-haired woman strode across the seemingly barren Wyoming field, a small army of men rushed to stop her. More than a two dozen strong, the men might as well have been wheat to the thresher. With a single wave of her hand, Gaia Sinclaire encased all of the men in cocoons made of dirt drawn from the ground. The cocoons turned to metal, before being flooded with heat as intense as any drawn from the furnace of a crematorium. All of the men were instantly incinerated, and Gaia kept walking without even breaking stride as her own aura briefly flared.

She was slowed, however, as Percival appeared in front of her. “Gaia,” the man announced with one raised hand, “stop.”

“Stop?” The woman echoed incredulously. “You know what’s going on down there, what they’re probably doing. They have Joselyn’s daughter. They have my daughter. We know that’s where she is. They’ve got my daughter, Percival.” She pointed to the ground where, two hundred feet below, the roof of the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies lay. “If they think that the shield they have erected around it will keep me out, they are sorely mistaken. I will rip up this entire field and tear the building apart.”

“I know who is down there,” the man confirmed. “And I know what they’ve done. Probably better than you do. But you can’t rip up the field, Gaia. You have to stop.” As the woman opened her mouth to argue, he continued. “They’ve tied that shield into the life forces of every innocent person inside. Hostages, Gaia. They have hostages. If you go slamming your way through to save the people you care about, everyone else in there whom other people care about will die in the process. You don’t want that. I know you don’t want that.”

His words made the woman pause, taking in a long breath before letting it out again as her face tightened. “They could be killing her in there,” she snapped. “We don’t know how soon the protective spells will wear off. They could be killing her right now. They could kill Felicity, or any of the other students. They could be killing them now, while we stand here.”

Swallowing slightly, the man gave a faint nod. “I know,” he replied softly. “We will get inside, I promise. But we have to do it carefully. We have to find a safe way to break through, not just by force. If you break through by force, you are condemning all of those other people to death.”

There was silence for a few seconds then, before Gaia met his gaze. “The Seosten. You know about them.”

“For a long time,” the man confirmed. “Let’s just say Arthur and the rest of us have a unique and extensive history with them. He was about to bring you in on that when, well, when you proved untrustworthy.”

Again, Gaia was silent for a moment before straightening up. “Is our privacy ensured here?”

“Yes.” The voice came not from Percival, but from Calafia, as the beautiful, dark-skinned woman appeared nearby. “Our colleagues are involved elsewhere. We have privacy now.”

For a moment, Gaia exchanged a look with the man nearby. As Percival gave her a slight nod of confirmation, she turned back to Calafia. “We obviously have much to talk about soon. But for now, our enemies are clear.”

“The Seosten,” Calafia confirmed. “We handle this situation and then we can talk about everything that needs to be discussed.”

“We can provide a lot of raw power,” Percival put in then. “But safely breaking through the shield is going to require more than that. Their magic is intricate, hard to understand. We don’t have time to learn enough about it.”

After another brief pause, Gaia replied, “We don’t have to. We already have someone.”

With those words, a glowing figure stepped out of the other woman before turning solid. As she turned to the two Committee members, both tensed before easing slightly.

“Artemis,” Percival announced flatly.

“Sariel now,” she corrected him quietly. “And you were trained by Auriel.”

“Nimue to me,” the man returned. “And now I have a great deal more questions.”

“To be answered later.” Once again, the voice came from someone new, as Gabriel Prosser stepped up to the group. “For now, we have the raw power to handle the Seosten magic. And,” he added with a glance toward Sariel, “the expertise to deal with it safely.

“So let’s rescue those kids.”

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Interlude 36B – Bobbi Camren (Contest Winners’ Interlude)

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One Year Ago

“Hey, kid. Yeah, you.” The gruff, bordering on angry voice filled the small convenience store as the grizzled man behind the counter pointed a finger at the small, thirteen-year-old girl standing near the drink cooler. “I’ve got the cops on speed dial. I see one goddamn thing go in your pockets and we’ll see how fast they can get here. You hear me, not one goddamn thing. I don’t care if it’s a stick of gum. You keep that shit out where I can see it.”

Bobbi Camren didn’t argue with the man. It wasn’t anything new. Being dark-skinned meant that the first thing people like this guy thought when they saw her was thief.

“Yessir,” she murmured instead, drawling the two words together while making a point of keeping her hands out where they could be seen. She’d only come in here to use the bathroom, but it felt bad to just do that, so she’d at least buy a drink or something.

Biting her lip, Bobbi moved to the cooler, standing by the door to look inside. In the reflection of the glass, she saw the man watching her, a slight scowl crossing his face. He didn’t want her in his store. He was convinced that she was going to steal something, and he just wanted her to leave so he could relax again. It was an expression that she had seen a lot recently. Her age didn’t matter, the fact that she had done nothing wrong didn’t matter. One thing mattered: her skin was dark.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t even as simple as that. Because while the girl’s father was very black, her mother, in turn, was incredibly white. Like, living in the Hamptons white. Bobbi’s mother had been a rich white girl who had gone down to party with some guys from the bad side of town. Which, in a place like New York City, was saying something. She had ended up pregnant, and kept the baby against her parents’ wishes. Sometime later, Bobbi had come along.

Through the first twelve years of her life, Bobbi hadn’t known anything about her father at all, only that he had run out on them. She had gone to private school and had been incredibly spoiled by her mother. Her grandparents had also done their share of spoiling her before they in turn had passed away when the girl was ten, each going within a few months of each other.

For a couple of years, it had been just Bobbi and her mother. But even that had come to an end, as Megan Camren was eventually arrested for some kind of financial fraud thing that Bobbi didn’t even understand. All she knew was that her mother was going to prison for several years.

For a while, it had looked as if she would need to be put into the foster care system. But, in the end, they had actually located her birth father. So, the girl had been sent to live with him, where she had discovered that Dennis Orsen had not actually run out on them. Rather, he had never been told of her existence. To him, his date with Bobbi’s mother was nothing more than a one night stand. He had spent over a decade with no idea that the quick fling had resulted in a child.

For just under a year now, Bobbi had lived with her father in a rundown apartment that the man could barely afford despite the fact that he worked almost twelve hours a day, six days a week. He did everything he could to provide for her, but it meant that she was left alone most of the time. Alone in a world where she was too dark to be seen as white, and too white to be seen as black. Plus, there was the fact that someone had spread the news that she had come from a rich household, so now most of the kids at school hated her for being spoiled, never mind that she’d had no choice in how she had been raised, and that she was living just as poorly as the rest of them did at the moment.

She was disliked and distrusted by both sides. White and black, rich and poor. She was wrong for everyone. Anyone who lived the kind of life that she used to live saw her as a criminal or thug, while those who were living the life that she lived now thought she was a selfish, spoiled brat. Or worse, a race traitor, whatever that meant.

The point was, no one wanted her around, something she had grown accustomed to over the past year.

“Look, kid,” the man finally spoke up while she had been lost in thought, “if you’re not going to buy anything, you need to—”

Ding.

The sound of the door into the shop chiming as it was opened distracted the man, and both he and Bobbi glanced toward what turned out to be four men stepping inside. Three of the men wore suits, while the fourth was dressed in baggy cargo pants and a Hawaiian shirt that barely covered his expansive stomach. The latter was a good twenty years older than his companions, who all looked attentive and dangerous, like the cops that never took their eyes off of Bobbi when they saw her, or the secret service people that protected the presidents on TV. That was what they look like, the Secret Service. Or FBI. Or the private security that some of her mother’s old friends had had.

Seeing the fourth man enter, the guy behind the counter instantly forgot all about Bobbi. “Hey,” he started, his voice suddenly much more subdued than it had been a moment ago. “I told you, you can’t just come in here anytime you want and-”

“Is that right?” When the man in the Hawaiian shirt spoke, it was with a distinct Italian accent. “Are you telling me that I can’t enter a store that I own? Is that what you’re saying to me right now, that I am somehow barred from the premises of my own establishment?”

Since none of the men who had just come in seemed to have noticed her, Bobbi quickly sank down into a kneeling position behind the nearest set of shelves, peering around it to watch what was happening while staying as much out of sight as she could.

The man behind the counter gave a low growl while his head shook. “It’s not yours, Ricky. I own the shop just like my father did, and it’s not for sale. Not to you, not to anyone.”

Ricky wagged his finger twice, his tone curious. “Now you see, that’s curious. Because I own this street. I own this block. I own this neighborhood. So, if there is a shop inside of this neighborhood, which I own, then it would stand to reason that I own that shop.” He turned to one of his men and then gestured. “Does it makes sense that I would own every last thing in this neighborhood except for this very spot right here?”

When all three of his men silently shook their heads, Ricky looked back to the shop owner while giving an exaggerated helpless shrug. “You see, everyone agrees, it doesn’t make sense.”

The shop owner’s hand shifted a bit, and he pulled a sawed-off shotgun out from under the counter there, making Bobbi’s eyes widen as she barely stifled a gasp. “You don’t scare me,” he insisted while glowering at the man. “Now get the hell out of my store.”

Ricky chuckled low in his throat, a dangerous sound. “I don’t scare you?” he asked, clearly curious. And then Bobbi must have blinked or something, because the man was suddenly standing directly in front of the counter, having crossed the distance from the door in an instant.

“If I don’t scare you like this,” the man announced then, “maybe we should do something about that.”

Things happened really fast then, as the man behind the counter started to bring that gun up a little more directly. Before he could get it in line, however, Ricky lashed out with his hand. And then… then… then lightning erupted from his fingers, wrapping around the guy before picking him up and throwing him backwards. The gun fell to the floor, and the man started screaming and writhing while the electricity danced over him.

Wait, wait, what?! How was he…? Eyes widening with shock at that, Bobbi covered her mouth with one hand to contain her cry of fear and confusion. The squeak that emerged from her was thankfully lost against the sound of the man’s screaming.

“How about now?!” Ricky demanded while casually electrocuting the man with his fingers. “Are you scared now, you stupid piece of shit?! Or maybe–” A weird glowing dagger thing just appeared in his other hand. “Maybe you’d like a different taste of–”

“Stop it!” Bobbi was on her feet, suddenly standing where the men could see her. “Leave him alone! You’re hurting him!” Even as she spoke, the girl found herself shaking violently. Now she really had to use the bathroom.

Four pairs of eyes snapped to her, the men in suits reflexively grabbing for the guns that they had left holstered. Even Ricky’s gaze snapped her way as he let up with the electricity for a moment.

It was just enough. As the electricity let up, the man behind the counter grabbed his fallen shotgun. With a shout, he brought it up, just as Ricky spun back that way, his hand raised once more. But it was too late, the deafening roar of the gun firing filled the shop and convincing Bobbi that the entire store had exploded. She fell to the ground with a scream, while Ricky himself was taken full in the chest and crashed to the floor.

More gunfire filled the shop then, as the three bodyguards emptied their pistols into the store owner, who collapsed in a puddle of his own blood. Bobbi was still screaming, covering her ears while her face was pressed to the floor. She felt and tasted something sticky, coppery, and gross, but didn’t dare open her eyes. She just whimpered like that.

Footsteps came closer to her, and the girl wind a little more, covering her head as if that would help. Then, distantly came the sound of rapidly approaching sirens. One of the man cursed, and another said, “Ricky’s dead, let’s get out of here. We’ve got to tell his dad.”

“What about her?” another one of the men asked.

There was a pause, and then the first man replied, “I ain’t killing a kid, man. I’m just not. To hell with that. Leave her.”

The footsteps moved away from her, and then there was the sound of the door training again. Still, Bobbi didn’t move. She stayed like that, hands over her head with that sticky taste in our mouth before slowly opening her eyes to find that it was Ricky‘s blood. It had pooled out across the floor from that horrific gunshot wound, reaching as far as where she was laying. That was what she had been tasting, what had gotten into her mouth.

The girl retched a little, spitting up just as the sirens grew even louder as they reached the parking lot.

No, no, no. She couldn’t be here. She had to leave. Policeman didn’t like her. They didn’t trust her. Her mom was already in jail. They wouldn’t believe anything she said. They never did. She had to go. She had to run. Terror gripped the girl’s heart, as visions of being arrested filled her mind. They’d blame her, they’d think she had something to do with it

Every light in the store suddenly went out. The hum of the coolers was cut off entirely, as was the steady sound of a fan that had been on the counter. Even the small radio that had been quietly playing in the background was completely silent.

It was all dark, except for Bobbi herself. The girl was glowing. No, it was more than that. There were actual lines of power, of electricity, dancing over her skin. In the darkness, her form was illuminated by the lightning crackling all along her skin.

Power. She felt power, felt strength. And she felt something else, a kind of energy that she couldn’t describe. It was begging to be let out. It needed release. And Bobbi released it by lunging to her feet. Before she really knew what she was doing, the girl was running for the front door.

Running, but more than running. Her entire body was filled with so much energy that she was moving faster than she had ever moved before. Faster than anyone could move. The policemen in the parking lot, stepping out of their cars, were completely frozen as the girl raced right past them. In the time that it took them to notice the motion of her passing and turn their eyes that way, the girl was already two blocks away.

She stopped then, in an alley far away from the store. Seconds. She had been running for barely a few seconds, and she was already blocks away.

“Wh-“ Bobbi started with confusion while stumbling a little as the rush of energy completely left her. Her clothing was in tatters, the speed of her running having almost totally destroyed them. “What’s happening to me…?”

“Hey you, kid.” A voice nearby made the girl gasp and quickly turn, only to see a figure laying near the dumpster, covered in blankets and ragged coats. “You okay?” the gruff, yet kind voice asked. The clearly homeless man added, “You look pretty rough. Do you need the cops or… or something?”

Quickly, Bobbi shook her head. “No,” the girl blurted. “No, I’m o-okay. I just— I just need to go home. I need to go home.”

“You ain’t going to get home anytime soon with clothes looking like that, kid.” There was a brief pause before the bundled up figure grunted and pushed one of those coats that were piled up on him out toward her. “Take this one. It’ll do ’til you get home.”

Blinking at that, Bobbi started to refuse. “Oh, I couldn’t take one of your—”

“I got a dozen of them, kid,” the figure snapped. “Just take the coat and get home. You go straight home now, hear me? You don’t need to be out here on the streets like this. It’s dangerous.” There was a brief pause before the figure muttered, “More dangerous than you know.”

Hesitantly Bobbi reached out to take the coat. As she did so, the girl caught a glimpse of the man’s extended arm. Only, it didn’t look like an arm. Not exactly. There were feathers on it. The man’s arm was covered in feathers. She gasped, blinking up to see his eyes. And his nose. A nose that looked too large. Way too large. It looked more like a… a beak?

The nose—no, beak— parted, opening like a mouth as if the man was going to say something else. Seeing that, Bobbi let out a yelp and spun to run away, only belatedly realizing that she still had the coat in her arms. She ran out of the alley, pulling the coat on as she went while trying to ignore the man’s voice calling after asking what was wrong with her.

For a few seconds, the girl stood there with the coat pulled around her, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as she fought to understand what she had just seen, what she had seen in the alley and back in the store. What happened? How had she gotten out of the store so fast? What happened to her clothes? What—

The sound of a wolf whistle caught her attention then, and the girl’s eyes snapped up to see a trio of men down the street who were waving at a prostitute on the corner. Except the man who had been wolf-whistling was an actual wolf. Or at least his head was. His face was covered in fur, with the snout and everything. He looked like a humanoid wolf. His two buddies, meanwhile, looked more like green porcupine things with too many eyes.

For a moment, Bobbi just stared, shock completely taking over her every sense and muscle. She simply stood there open-mouthed while gaping that way.

“Hey, you got a problem kid?” The voice came from behind Bobbi, and she spun once more to find herself being approached by four men. Three of them looked completely normal, human. But the one who had spoken, he didn’t look normal at all. Instead, the man’s head was oversized, and looked more like that of a whale or shark. When he smiled, his mouth was way too large, with several intricate rows of deadly teeth. And the way he was looking at her, it was with hunger.

“Come on,” the man started while extending his hand. “We’ll get you home.” But from the look in his eyes, home was the last place the man intended to take her. Unless it was his own.

When the girl took a step backward reflexively, the shark-man sighed and gestured for his companions. “Just grab the kid and let’s get out of here.”

The other men stepped toward her, and Bobbi panicked once more. Her heart jumped, and she turned to run. In mid-step, the nearby stoplight, along with a bright neon sign attached to a liquor store, and a car that had been sitting at that stoplight all went dead. And Bobbi felt that sudden power again. She felt that rush.

She ran. Once again, the energy coursed through her, and Bobbi found herself standing in front of her own apartment building only a minute or two later. She barely remembered running the entire way. Everything was a blur, just as she herself had been. She’d crossed the whole distance, several miles, in only a minute or so. How?! How was any of this happening? What was happening?!

“Bobbi, sweetie? Are you okay?”

The sound of the familiar voice made the girl settle a little bit, some of the panic fading out of her. It was Mrs. Gimple, the nice old lady next-door who always gave her cookies. Turning that way on the front step of the apartment building, she opened her mouth, only to stop short.

Mrs. Gimple wasn’t Mrs. Gimple. She looked more like a cross between a lizard and a peacock, a bright red-skinned lizard with multicolored peacock feathers along the back of her neck and coming out of her four-fingered hands. The woman looked at her quizzically. “Bobbi?” she asked in the familiar woman’s voice. “Sweetie, do you want me to call your dad?”

Bobbi didn’t answer. She couldn’t answer. There was a lump in her throat that she thought she might choke on. Shaking her head while terror gripped her heart, the girl spun and ran into the building. She ran all the way to the apartment, unlocked it, and threw herself inside before slamming the door after herself. Then she ran all the way to her room, dove under the bed, and pulled her favorite stuffed animal in after her. Laying there in the relative darkness, the girl hugged her bear to herself while whimpering.

“What’s going on? What’s going on?

“What’s going on?!”

********

Present Day

“M-man, j-j-just take my money, okay?” The terrified voice filled the small, dark alley as the stuttering man pressed himself back against the cold brick wall, his eyes centered on the man in front of him. Nearby, a small, dark squirrel cowered close to a dumpster.

The imposing man, if he could actually be called man, took a step closer. His skin was rough and leathery, his face extended into something more akin to a crocodile snout filled with teeth than a normal person’s. He chuckled low and dark, shaking his head. “Money? I don’t need your money. I need your flesh. I need your bones. I need to taste them. I haven’t eaten in days, and it’s time to feast.”

“Have you considered Sizzler?”

The gator man spun at the new voice, hissing with anger before abruptly stopping. He blinked then, staring in clear confusion. “The hell are you?”

Bobbi was there. But it was a Bobbi who was a good deal different than she had been one year earlier. The now fourteen-year-old wore what looked like actual body armor, though it was unlike any armor that a normal person would have worn. It looked almost like it was made of glass, a bright blue/white glass with actual electricity dancing inside of it. The suit fit her almost like a second skin, or an exoskeleton, with a helmet that covered the girl’s head entirely. There was no visor, no open parts to the helmet at all. It was all one solid piece, with one line of electricity along where her mouth would be that bounced up and down like the line on one of those monitors in the hospital when she spoke.

“You know,” she started again with a gesture that made the electricity in the arm of her suit dance almost hypnotically. “Because you said you were hungry. You could try Sizzler. I think they’re having a sale right now.”

“Oooh.” The crocodile man licked his lips. “I’m not one to spoil my supper, but you look positively delicious.”

His mouth opened again, and this time, an enormous, long barbed tongue shot out toward her. It was as thick as a grown man’s arm, and probably strong enough to fling that grown man clear across the street. It was also wicked fast, able to snatch unsuspecting targets from a good fifteen feet away before they even knew what was happening. Just like now.

But Bobbi was ready, and she was faster. With a blur of motion, the girl snapped her arm up. A glowing glass-like shield appeared on that arm, expanding and snapping into place just as the tongue bounced off of it.

The croc-man started to yank his tongue back again. It was a motion just as quick as extending it had been. In an instant, his tongue, extended out that full fifteen feet, would be back in his mouth.

But again, Bobbi was faster. Everything slowed down, as the girl threw herself into a brief, blurred run. She crossed the fifteen feet more quickly than a gunshot could have. For that brief moment, a bullet would have appeared to have stopped in midair.

Reaching the spot right in front of the man, Bobbi’s free hand snapped up. In mid-motion, a long, glass-like sword appeared there, also crackling with energy. It cut straight through the extended tongue, cutting it off at nearly full extension. Nearby, the squirrel made a startled squeaking noise.

Even as the crocodile man started to give a startled scream, Bobbi pivoted on her foot. Her left arm snapped up, the shield on it disappearing as she pressed her fingers to the figure’s chest. A second later, he was blown backward by a blast of electricity, crashing to the ground before lying completely still save for a bit of shallow breathing.

“Oh thank God!” The man who had been about to be eaten was suddenly clutching her shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the suit that she wore. “You had a taser,” the man gushed. “Thank God you had a taser. Police, we need the—”

As the man spoke, Bobbi raised one hand behind herself. The glow of a nearby street light went out completely, leaving the alley much darker than it had been a moment earlier. Her other hand extended toward the man she just saved, and he was suddenly encased in a glowing, glass like box. As the man gave a shout out surprise and confusion, Bobbi gestured, sending the box up into the air and down the street. It would land on a roof several buildings away before disappearing to release the man. He would be safe there. Safer than he was here, where he clearly had no idea what was going on.

They never did. The humans that she helped, they never remembered what actually happened. They never really understood. Bobbi didn’t know why, but everything supernatural or strange was always somehow edited out of their memories. They saw it, and then instantly forgot it. Or their brains just filled in something more ordinary, like her having a taser. That was a super common excuse for the impossible things that she did. Things that she had been capable of ever since she had swallowed the blood from Ricky, back in the store. Ever since that night, where she started seeing the people who weren’t human.

It had taken the girl quite some time to really understand just what she was capable of. It centered around electricity. She generated some by herself, but for any of the big things, she had to drain it from other sources. Anything powered by electricity, she could absorb from and hold onto the power that she got indefinitely.

That power could then be put to multiple things. The most simple was the jolt of electricity from her fingertips. Or from any other part of her body, really. But she could also transform that electricity into bursts of intense super speed.

Or, she could turn the electricity that she absorbed into these solid energy constructs. That’s where her shield and sword had come from. It was where her armor came from (armor that meant her clothes didn’t burn up when using that super speed). It had taken quite a lot of time and energy for her to construct them. But now that they were there, she didn’t have to make them again. She simply dismissed them when they weren’t needed, and the power went back into her body. At a thought, she could summon them up again. The same went for any other construct that she made, like the box that she had just used to move the man to safety. It took hours, or even days to absorb and shape enough power for each construct. But once it was done, she could bring it out at will. Electricity shaped into solid energy and then stored away.

Weeks. It had taken her weeks to actually understand what she could do, to make any sense of it. And as far as the rest of the world was concerned… she still didn’t know. She’d tried looking up ‘hidden monsters’ and ‘humans forget’ on the internet, but it was impossible to sort through everything.

That and ‘monsters hidden in the modern world’ was a surprisingly common subject for stories, which made actual truth even harder to find. She’d spent three days off and on scrolling through one forum in particular before figuring out that they were all just roleplaying.

So what was she supposed to do? Everyone she tried to talk to about… any of this just forgot about it. Most of the seemingly nice not-humans she’d tried to talk to ran away when they realized that she knew what they were, that she could see them. More than one had said the word ‘Heretic’. Which was weird, because she didn’t even know what their religion was and wasn’t that a religious thing?

She’d gone to Mrs. Gimple’s once she’d worked up the nerve, but the woman had disappeared. Later, Bobbi had been told that she’d moved out with no warning.

She was afraid that it was because of her reaction, because the woman realized that Bobbi had seen what she really was and had run away from her.

She hoped she’d see Mrs. Gimple again. So she could apologize.

A groan then drew Bobbi’s attention to the crocodile man, who was lifting himself up on his elbows. “What the hell hit—” When he saw her, the man’s eyes grew wide. “You! You little bi—”

He was cut off as Bobbi’s sword returned to her hand, the blade snapping down close to his throat. “You need to leave,” she informed him. “Go away and never come back.”

Despite the position he was in (and speaking quite well for someone who had had most of his tongue cut out), the man demanded, “Why should I leave?”

Bobbi remembered what Ricky had said back on that day. “Because this is my street. This is my block. It’s my neighborhood. And if you don’t leave, I’m going to cut more than your tongue.”

She didn’t attack everyone who didn’t look human. That would’ve been stupid. Mrs. Gimple was nice, and the bird-man who had given her the coat that night, he had been nice too. No, Bobbi didn’t know why others couldn’t see that they weren’t human, but she also knew that they weren’t all evil. She attacked the ones who attacked others. She protected people, as much as she could, and drove out the non-humans who caused trouble, who hurt people… or worse. She did everything she could to keep them out of her neighborhood. It wasn’t easy, especially at first, but… but she tried.

The man opened his mouth to say something else, but before any sound could come out, Bobbi abruptly extended her hand. A glowing ball of energy appeared there, which she dropped into his open mouth. Reflexively, he swallowed it. Then he choked. “What the fuck!?”

“That’s my energy,” the girl informed him flatly. “I can track it everywhere in my territory. If you come anywhere within my area, I’ll know. I’ll be able to find you. And I won’t be very happy.”

With a growl, the man demanded, “How the hell am I supposed to know what your territory is?”

Bobbi’s reply was simple. “I dunno. Guess you’ll just have to leave town just to be safe.”

The man grumbled and argued, but finally left. She tracked the energy ball she had deposited in him until it left her range a couple blocks later. He was gone.

It was all she could do. She wasn’t going to kill someone like that. There had been some obvious mindless animal monsters that had roamed the streets, and those she had killed. But a living, thinking person? This guy may have been a monster, but she couldn’t just kill him. It was… it was wrong. Wasn’t it? But now she was letting him go, and he might hurt someone else. Yet she couldn’t just kill them. She kept them away from her neighborhood, away from as big of an area that she could patrol, that she could protect.

The police would have been useless. The monster would just kill them because they wouldn’t realize what kind of threat he was. They couldn’t handle it, and they couldn’t actually remember anything strange about him.

Why? Why could nobody else ever remember what they saw? Why was she the only one who knew the truth, who saw the truth? Was she the crazy one? It was a question she’d asked herself a lot over the past year. Was she crazy?

Her father didn’t remember. She told him the truth, had shown him what she could do, and he instantly forgotten. Everyone she talked to, everyone she tried to get help from, had forgotten almost instantly. There was no one out there who could help her, no one who could tell her what was going on. She was alone.

Not that that was anything new. She wasn’t black enough, and wasn’t white enough. She wasn’t rich enough, and wasn’t poor enough. She was a mongrel, a mutt. No matter where the young girl went, she never truly fit in.

But that didn’t matter. None of that mattered. Because she had these gifts. And she would use them to protect the people in her neighborhood, the people who had no idea that there was anything to be protected from. She would stop the monsters that showed themselves on these streets. She would protect everyone that she could, even if she had no idea what the hell was going on.66

“You know he’s just going to go somewhere else and hurt someone, right?”

The voice startled Bobbi, and she spun to find that squirrel from earlier. Only it wasn’t a squirrel for long. A second later, the tiny rodent suddenly grew into a girl slightly younger than she was, with equally dark skin. “That guy,” the shape shifting girl continued, “he’ll just go kill someone else.”

Sword springing back to her hand, Bobbi demanded, “Wh-who are you? How did you do that? Are you like me? What—”

“It’s okay.” Again, the voice came from behind Bobbi, and she pivoted once more to find an older girl standing at the mouth of the alley. She could barely be seen through the shadows, but the girl looked vaguely Asian.

“My name is Asenath. That’s Twister. We’re not going to hurt you. We came because we need your help with a project that we’ve been working on. Ricky Gileo, you’re a Natural Heretic of him. Which means you can get into his vault.”

“Ricky?” Bobbi blinked back and forth between the two, keeping her sword up and ready despite their apparent friendliness. “What do you mean, Heretic? Why do people keep calling me that? What’s a Heretic? What’s going on? What happened to me? Why do people keep forgetting everything that happens?”

“Oh man,” the girl called Twister groaned.

“This is gonna take awhile.”

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Interlude 36A – Trice

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Every day was the same. Wake up, find breakfast waiting on a small tray in the middle of the tiny cell. Then he would spend the first part of the morning exercising as much as the cramped space allowed, including some work with the free weights that the Crossroads Headmistress had spelled to pop into the room at that time before disappearing again exactly sixty minutes later. Not that he could have used them to escape even if they had stayed permanently.

After that, Trice would spend the rest of the morning studying. Sinclaire had set educational books to pop into the cell at that time. Not that he had the faintest fucking clue what the point of that was, unless the bitch just couldn’t get over her compulsive need to educate everyone.

Either way, he would study the college-level textbooks until lunch, when more food would arrive. In the afternoon, there would be a random test focusing on one of the subjects from that morning. He never knew which one it would be, so he had to study all of them. And the reason he studied at all was because of the reward. If he failed the test (which in Sinclaire’s world was apparently anything worse than a C), he was only given more study materials to work on.

However, if he passed the test with a C, he was given a choice of fictional books to read for the rest of the day, including through dinner. A B would earn books and his choice of music, while an A earned the above as well as a single movie that would be projected on the wall of the cell during and after his supper. Then it would be lights out around ten in the evening, before they repeated the exact same thing the next day. This had been going on for so long that Trice had lost track of what day it was. Or even what month. He asked now and then and was told, but he didn’t know if he believed the answer. And lately it hadn’t seemed to matter. One day was the same as any other. Who cared what the actual date was?

That particular day started like any other. The boy opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling of the cell for a few long, quiet seconds before he slowly sat up. Turning on the cot, he put his feet down on the bare cement floor while staring down at them. Another day that would be just like any of the others. Would Sinclaire visit him that day? She hadn’t for awhile. It was like she was distracted by something else. Something more important than him. He knew that someone was at least making sure he was still alive and getting all of his food, study materials, and rewards, but whether it was Sinclaire or someone else, they didn’t deign to interact with him.

Words echoed within his head as he sat there, staring at the floor. Hannah’s words, accusing him of helping the people who had fucked with his brother’s head to make the boy attack her. Her vicious, emotional diatribe about how the two of them could have made the monsters pay for what they did to Torv, but that he had actually been helping them instead. Accusations bounced around wildly inside the boy’s head so much that he had long-since lost track of whether they came from things that Hannah had actually said… or what he himself thought.

Was is it true? Had they been helping the same people who engineered Torv’s death? At the time, he had denied it the same as he denied all of her excuses. The girl had clearly led his brother on all that time, and then attacked him for making a move. That was what he told himself, anyway. She deserved to be put down for killing his brother. Didn’t she?

Or did he feel guilty himself for his part in things? After all, he had been the one to tell Torv to make his move when the boy had come to him confessing all the feelings that he had for the girl. He’d been going on and on about how much he wanted her, to the point of obsession. Trice had told him to go for it, had encouraged him to take the leap and get in on that while he could.

Their entire conversation had played itself out in the boy’s head over and over again, unrelentingly for months. Was what he had seen as simple, possibly incredibly drunk enthusiasm and ranting about love actually Torv being affected by some magical spell? Had he himself contributed to it by encouraging the boy to make his move?

Had he helped to send his own brother to his death by not recognizing that his mind had been affected somehow? Could he have stopped it? Could he have saved his brother’s life right then?

Had he been helping the same monsters who engineered Torv’s death in the first place?

Seosten. That’s what Sinclaire had called them during one of their brief conversations. The Seosten had been his mysterious benefactors, the ones who had hated Hannah so much and seemed to have such unlimited resources. According to Sinclaire, the Seosten were the monsters behind Torv’s death, as well as a bunch of other shit.

With those thoughts weighing even more heavily on his mind than usual, Trice reached down for the breakfast tray. His fingers found nothing, and the boy turned slightly to look for it.

There was no tray. No breakfast at all. It wasn’t there. That never happened, never. For all that he might complain about the time he had spent locked up in here like an animal, there had always been plenty of food and water for him. Slowly, the boy frowned before raising his gaze for the first time to the rest of the cell.

The door was open. That was the first thing that he noticed. It was just sitting open. And beyond, he saw trees and sand, rather than the same dull cement room that had always been there before. Trees and sand? Open cell door? Now how was Sinclaire trying to fuck with his head?

For a few long seconds, the boy didn’t even move. He remained seated there on the cot, half-convinced that the Crossroads Headmistress, or even Hannah herself, were about to reveal themselves. But nothing happened. No one was there. It was just… an open door.

Well shit, what else was he supposed to do? If this was a test of some kind, he had no idea what the point was. With a sigh, the boy stood up, and moved to the open doorway. Hesitantly, he put his hand up with him space, expecting to find a force field.

His hand went straight through instead. There was nothing to stop him from stepping out. So he did just that, finding himself standing barefoot on the soft, warm sand beyond. He was on a beach somewhere. Not the Crossroads beach. There was no school in the distance. And the sand looked different from what he had seen of that place. It was even softer, lighter than the sand from that place. The sand was almost as white as paper. The nearby ocean was deep, deep blue. The whole place looked unnaturally, (probably literally) magically, beautiful.

One of those tropical birds let out a loud cry from overhead, and the boy’s gaze snapped up toward it. He saw a flock of them flying up there, disappearing into a stand of trees in the distance. His eyes followed their flight path briefly, until slight shift in the air nearby made his head snap back around, already shifting himself into a defensive stance reflexively.

A man stood there, a dark-skinned man with pale green eyes and slicked back short black hair. He was wearing black armor of some kind, with a pike that had an electric shock prod at the end. He wasn’t aiming it at Trice, though the boy got the general idea anyway. When he spoke, his voice was calm. Not flat, but almost melodic. “Your presence is required.” With those words, the man lifted his free hand to point down the beach.

“That right?” Trice started, eyes flicking from the man to the direction he was pointing and then back again. “And what if I’m not really in the mood to go that way?” It was a simple question, his tone more curious than actually challenging. He wanted to know where this guy stood.

The man’s response was to touch the trigger on his pike, making that pointed end light up with electricity for just a moment. He didn’t make a move other than that simple demonstration.

“Yeah,” Trice grunted. “That’s about what I thought.” With that, he turned on his heel and began to walk through the warm sand, letting the grains move between his toes. “You know, if you people were gonna take me out of there, you could’ve at least provided shoes.”

There was no response from the man walking behind him. Not that Trice actually expected one. This guy was just a lackey, a grunt doing his job. The boy also had no doubt that he wasn’t the only one escorting him. He was just the only one that they were allowing him to see. No, even if he jumped this guy, there would clearly be others ready to step in.

“You could at least tell me why my powers still aren’t working, you know,” he pointed out after a few more silent seconds had passed. “I’m out of the cell, but I still can’t use them. If you guys were actually freeing me, you’d think you’d fix that too.”

Nothing. No response. Apparently he wasn’t important enough to be escorted by someone who could (or would) actually explain anything to him. Just like Doxer hadn’t been important enough for their supposed ‘allies’ to give the slightest shit about when he fucking died.  

Doxer. Poor Dox was dead. That Chambers girl had killed him. Which, well, they’d been fighting and Dox would’ve killed her given the chance, but still. Every time Trice thought he’d gotten over it, he’d think of something that Doxer would’ve said about this whole situation, and the fucked up reality popped back into his head. Doxer would never make any more crass comments, would never say anything so fucked up that Trice just had to stare at him before laughing despite himself. The two of them, and Pace, would never get drunk and take shots at some of the wild animals out in the forest surrounding the tree again.

Torv would never beg to come along, bothering them like the annoying little shit that he was.

That was still Hannah’s fucking fault, wasn’t it? The fuck did she have to kill Torv for? If he was fucked up by magic, if that was even true, then nothing he’d done was his fault anyway. So why did she have to kill him? That was still… it was still…

Fuck. Fucking fucked fuck. Where was something he could hit? Because he really needed it. This whole situation was fucked beyond belief. Torv… Doxer… and what about Pace? Was she alive? Was she dead? Was she still trying to free him or avenge Doxer? Shit, did she think he was dead too? Did she have the slightest clue what had happened, or did she just think that he and Doxer had both simply disappeared?

Was she still working for the people who had recruited them to do all this, who had set this whole thing up? What the hell was going on out in the real world?

For a few minutes, they just walked like that. Finally, he saw some kind of beach cabin up ahead. It was sitting right up toward the edge of the water, that end of it raised up enough that when the tide came in, the ocean wouldn’t end up in the cabin’s living room. Instead, the water would simply turn the area beneath the beautiful deck into a wading pool.

“Go.” His escort had stopped, and was pointing to the wooden stairs that led up to that deck.

“What?” Trice snapped back at him flippantly, “You’re not coming with?” Getting no response from the man other than that silently raised hand that was still pointing, he sighed. “Right, of course.” He saluted his escort briefly, then turned as ordered to walk to the stairs. Once again, he reached for one of his powers, any of them. Nothing came. He was as helpless now as he had been in that goddamn cell. Probably because these Seosten wanted to find out exactly what he’d told Sinclaire, and where he stood with them, before they actually let him be a threat.

A threat, right. If a quarter of what he had been told (or just inferred) about these fuckers was true, even with every power in his arsenal, Trice was about as much of a threat to them as a fly was to the truck whose windshield it splattered against. Fucking assholes.

There was no one waiting for him on the deck. Because of course, he wasn’t fucking important enough to have someone already sitting there. They would make him wait instead, probably to make that exact point. At least they happened to be gracious enough to have food ready, since they had stopped him from getting actual breakfast. A table had been set up with a veritable feast lining it. Tray after tray of various meats, fruits, cheeses, and desserts adorned every inch of the available space, along with another smaller table with coffee and juice waiting.

Filling a plate as much as he could, and taking a cup of coffee (while trying as best as he could not to cry at the very idea of actually getting coffee rather than simple water for once), Trice set himself down at the nearby empty table, digging into the feast with a ravenous hunger.

The stray thought about poison occurred to him, of course. But he dismissed it just as quickly. If these guys wanted him dead, they could have done so a dozen times before now. No, whatever their deal was, whatever reason they had for freeing him, it wasn’t to turn right around and  poison him. They probably expected him to be blindly grateful for their generosity.

Well, they could expect all they wanted. If these assholes were actually responsible for what happened to Torv, then he didn’t care how much food they offered, or anything else. He was going to find a way to murder the fucking cocksuckers.

Not that he felt any better about Hannah. He’d never liked her, even from the beginning. He’d never seen what his brother liked about her so much, aside from the irrefutable fact that she had eventually grown up to be hot as hell. Hot or not, however, she’d still killed Torv when he wasn’t in his right mind. But if these guys were more responsible, he would make them pay for it.

Okay, maybe the honest truth was that he didn’t know how he felt about the fucking Hannah situation.

Correction, he knew exactly how he felt about fucking Hannah. It was the same way most red-blooded straight men probably felt. But he didn’t know how he felt about the girl specifically, as a person or whatever. It was all so confusing and hard to keep straight. Maybe he’d fucked up by putting all the blame on her so quickly. Maybe he’d allowed his grief about his brother’s death to manipulate him into doing shit he shouldn’t have, into listening to people that he shouldn’t have. And maybe he’d said and done some stupid shit in general.

But what was he supposed to do, just completely forgive that she had killed Torv? His brother wasn’t in his right mind. What he’d done wasn’t his fault. He was a good kid, and Trice had promised to take care of him, had promised that he would do the ugly shit to protect his brother and keep him safe, no matter what.

So maybe he was blaming her instead of himself. He’d been the one who hadn’t noticed that Torv was being affected by some actual spell or whatever. He’d just thought that the kid was finally acting on feelings he’d been suppressing for a long time. Maybe ignoring all that and blaming Hannah had been easier, just because he hadn’t liked her to begin with. Maybe… fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck.

All those thoughts, and more, kept bouncing their way around inside Trice’s head as he finished his meal. Gulping down the last of his coffee, he heard movement behind him as the door of the cabin opened and shut.

Still, he didn’t turn around. “You know,” the boy muttered, “getting me out of Sinclaire’s clutches is really impressive and all. Seriously, I dunno how you managed it, but fucking kudos. Still, the least you could do is give my powers back.”

“A simple spell,” a female voice informed him calmly. “Well, simple for me, anyway. You’ll have your powers back as soon as I’m certain that we are on the same page.”

The boy snorted slightly at that, looking into his empty coffee mug for a moment before retorting, “On the same page? Is that the page where you tell me all about how you Seosten are the ones behind everything that ever fucking happens on this world? Or were you just planning on playing mind games to find out if Sinclaire already told me that part? Seosten, right? That’s how you say it?”

“Seosten?” The voice sounded amused, and Trice finally stood and turned to find an unfamiliar woman with short black hair standing there, watching him with a slight smile.

“Dear child,” the woman drawled, “whoever said that it was the Seosten who freed you?

“My name is Denuvus. Let’s sit down and have a chat about your future.”

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Desperate Times 36-06

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We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But what was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Mini-Interlude 64 – Haiden And Sariel

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Monday, March 14th, 1988

“Mmm, are you sure you have to go?” Haiden Moon murmured while his hand gently brushed through the blonde locks of the woman who had become his wife almost a year and a half earlier, after a brief, six month courtship that had partially involved them running away from their respective groups (a much bigger deal on her side than his). His fingers found the soft skin of her neck, and he rubbed in gentle circles. “Losing you for a week every year is going to get old fast.”

Laying with her head against the man’s shoulder while her own hand gently ran over his broad chest, Sariel gave a soft, sad little smile. “For both of us, I promise you that. This week away from you will be more painful than I can say. But it is… necessary. I will be back as soon as possible.”

Haiden gave a reluctant sigh at that, though the man was still smiling as he leaned down to gently kiss the top of her head. “If you insist. But I’m going to insist on a date day when you get back. You hear me? A whole day where we do nothing but spend time with each other.”

“Only a day?” Sariel teased, winking up at him. “I’m looking forward to a whole month.”

That made his smile turn a little more genuine, as the man pulled her back against him a little tighter. “That sounds like a good tradition to me. You leave for a week, then we have our month.”

Eventually, the two separated. Sariel promised to call whenever she could, and that she would be careful. Under her husband’s ministrations, she very nearly caved and agreed to stay. But this was too important. The things that she had to do, the things that she had to make up for, were too much for her to simply dismiss them. It had already been a year by that point, and the skeletons in her closet were banging against the door of her mind entirely too loudly to be dismissed.

So, after another (entirely too brief) lovely and energizing delay while the two made it clear just how much they were going to miss each other, Sariel used the spell to transport herself away from their cozy little shared apartment.

The place that she reappeared within was actually closer than Haiden thought. Far closer, in fact. Sariel hadn’t actually left the city at all. She was in the middle of an apartment not even three blocks away from her husband. She’d actually thought about renting out an apartment in the same building, but thought that would be pushing things a little too much. Besides, she didn’t want what she had to do here to somehow taint her wonderful life with the man she loved.

It wasn’t a very large place, being only a studio apartment. But then, the place didn’t need to be very large for her purposes. What mattered were the spellforms that had been inscribed over all of the walls. As Sariel glanced around, she assured herself that they were all there and intact. Good. The spells would perform several functions, including blocking her from any tracking spells. The home she shared with Haiden had much of the same features, of course, as did most of their clothing. But this was even more extensive. As she wouldn’t exactly be in a state to take care of herself before too long, making absolutely certain that she couldn’t be found was essential.

And, of more immediate importance, the spells would also ensure that no sound escaped the room.

After assuring herself the spells were intact, Sariel first stripped herself of all of her clothing, stepping out of everything until she was entirely bare. Then she made her way to one of the only two furnishings within the small studio apartment: a wooden dresser. Pulling open the top drawer, the woman extracted a pair of metal bracelets, with spellwork etched into the sides. Carefully, she attached them to her wrists. Next came a metal choker, which was attached to her throat with equal care. Those were followed by a pair of goggles that barely allowed her to see through the dark lenses. Still, she was able to root through the doors and find shoes that also appear to be made of metal, chainmail gloves, and a cap with spellwork drawn on the inside.

It made an eclectic outfit of sorts when all of those pieces were worn. But then, the point wasn’t to be fashionable, as she wouldn’t be stepping out of the apartment with them. Instead, once Sariel had each piece on, she moved to the room’s other bit of furniture: a small bed. It lay directly in the center of the apartment, surrounded by more intricately drawn spellwork.

Slowly, the Seosten woman lay on the bed, shifting onto her back. She stayed like that for a few long seconds, simply breathing in and out as she stared up at the ceiling through the dark lens of the goggles, in no hurry to get on with what she had to do. Yet despite her reluctance, the woman wouldn’t just walk away. She couldn’t allow herself to. Without this week, she would never be able to enjoy the rest of her time with Haiden. She needed this. They needed this.

They. The names and faces filled her mind then. They were always there, always just under the surface of her memory. They were the people she had hurt, the people whose lives had been harmed or ruined by her actions. Sariel heard them, remembered them, knew them. She knew who she had killed, who she had betrayed, who she had used and abused for the advancement of the Seosten Empire. The things she had done, even if she had thought it was the right thing at the time… she knew. She knew that she had done wrong, that she had ruined lives. And now, for the next week, she would pay a small bit of her debt for that. A small price to at least temporarily quiet the voices clamoring for attention within her vast memory.

One more long, slow breath to steady and prepare herself for what was about to come, and then Sariel activated the extensive spells covering everything she had just put on.

Pain. Agony beyond description flooded the woman’s body. The goggles made her eyes feel as if they were burning. The hat that she wore made her believe that her skull was being crushed while her hair was simultaneously ripped from her scalp. The bones in her wrists, hands, and arms felt as though they were snapping one by one, turning to powder before returning only to be broken once more thanks to the wristbands and gloves. The same was true of her feet and legs through the metal shoes that she wore. The choker around the woman’s neck cut off her air, crushing her windpipe and turning her resulting screams into desperate, choked gasps.

It only lasted for a few seconds before relenting, little more than a warm-up to give Sariel a chance to work her way into what was to come. Eventually, the pain would continue for minutes at a time rather than only a handful of seconds. In the moments of reprieve between those times, she would recover mentally while the spells surrounding the bed healed any physical damage that had been done. The spells there also ensure that she would not throw herself off the bed itself, holding her in place while the pain spells were active. Which also served the function of preventing her from closing her mouth while they were active, ensuring that she would not bite her own tongue off or crack her teeth together. She was, for all intents and purposes, completely frozen in place. Which was another good reason that the apartment had to stay hidden.

She was given a warning before the pain returned, a count of three slow beeps. The warning would come every time, as the amount of rest she was given between ‘sessions’ was randomized. As the beeps came, Sariel breathed out once more, unable to stop herself from tensing up.

Then the pain came, and her screams returned to fill the magically soundproofed room. Those same screams would continue throughout the week, while she would be given brief breaks to catch her breath, and slightly longer breaks for sleep, meals, and to clean herself up. But all in all, the majority of Sariel’s time throughout that week would be spent on the bed, being put through bouts of incredible agony. Agony that she could stop at any time, but never would. After all, the people she had hurt and ruined throughout her career in the Seosten military couldn’t simply undo that, now could they?

No, she would take the pain. She would suffer it for this week, in order to quiet those feelings of guilt that would otherwise overwhelm her throughout the rest of the year. One week of pain in exchange for one year of peace. She could live with that. That was the best way of handling the memories of what she had done, of the people and lives that she had destroyed.

One week of torture for one year of love. That was a fair trade, wasn’t it?

******

One Year Later

 

“A fair trade?” The disbelief, shock, and horror within Haiden Moon’s voice filled the small room as he stood there, staring at his wife. “You… are you…  do you really…” Realizing then just how serious the woman had been as she explained the truth of what she did every time she left for a week, the man felt hot bile rise up in his throat.

He had felt, had sensed her wife’s reluctance every time she went out for these trips, though she insisted they were necessary. Finally, this time, he had convinced her to share with him, to trust him enough to show him what the trips themselves were about. He’d had an idea that it was something bad, but this? Without seeing it himself, he never would have believed that Sariel was the type to torture herself. She was too good at bottling up the incredible guilt that she clearly felt. Apparently at least part of that was because of this. She would almost kill herself with pain for a full week, just so that the guilt over the things she had done in her previous life didn’t completely crush her for the rest of the year.

Seeing his reaction, Sariel cringed, her gaze dropping guiltily. “I’m sorry,” the woman murmured softly. “I know it’s stupid and wrong, but it helps. I just… if I put up with it for that long, if I can just deal with the pain for the week, I can live with the good things for the rest of the year.”

She chanced a tiny smile at him then, offering, “You are a very good thing, Haiden. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. But… but I couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t accept you, or our life, without a tradeoff. I have to pay for the things that I’ve done. The people that I’ve hurt and killed, my love, I can’t… I can’t be happy knowing those things. Some of my people, when they feel this guilt, they erase it from their memories. But I can’t do that–I won’t do that. I can’t erase it, so I have to pay for it. And… and the thought of being happy, of allowing myself to be happy with you while those memories are in my head, it’s… “ Her head shook quickly. “I have to give my penance. One week of pain for one year of freedom and happiness. It’s worth it, to me.”

Haiden listened through all of that. Despite his disgust with the entire situation and urge to simply grab Sariel and shake her until she understood that this was wrong, he stood still, listening to her words. He heard the pain and regret in her voice, the doubts that plagued her. He could feel her turmoil even more than usual. In showing him this, she had opened herself up to him even more than she already had. That wasn’t something he could just dismiss or throw away. He had to try and understand her. She had been alive for much longer than he had, had seen and done very bad things. Things that had convinced her that this was a good idea.

In that moment, Haiden did the only thing that he could do, the only thing that he could think of. Slowly, he stepped forward and embraced the woman that he loved. Now wasn’t the time for recrimations or incredulity. What she needed was understanding, as much as he could give her.

She resisted very slightly at first, her guilt and embarrassment over the situation making the woman stiffen up. But as he pulled her to him, she relented a little. He heard a tiny whimper escape Sariel as his arms wrapped around her, hugging her up against himself firmly.

“My love, my wife, my partner…” the man murmured gently as he kissed the top her head. “I love you. I adore you. But you couldn’t possibly be more wrong about this. But that isn’t your fault. As advanced as the Seosten might be about a lot of other things, they are pants on head stupid when it comes to mental health.”

Coughing once at that, the woman squinted slightly. “We are… pants on head stupid about a great many things, I’m afraid. But… I don’t know what you mean. I… I can’t just forget the things that I’ve done, Haiden. How could I let myself be happy with you when the people I’ve killed, the lives I’ve ruined… everything I’ve done is still there? I can’t ignore that, I won’t.”

Shaking his head at that while holding the woman to him, Haiden replied, “I wouldn’t ask you to. That’s not the point. I–” He stopped, considering his next words before stepping back while keeping his hands on Sariel’s shoulders. Meeting her gaze, he murmured, “Trust me for a minute, okay?”

“I trust you for every minute,” was her immediate response, as her hands moved up to rest on his.

With a brief smile at that, Haiden moved one hand to his pocket, producing a scrap of plastic with a spell on it that, when activated, summoned a pair of comfortable chairs. Once they were in place, he directed his wife to sit down in one while he took the other, directly across from her.

“Now,” the man started, “would you… consider trying something new, something different than… this?” With one hand, he gestured to the bed where the (not to put too fine of a point on it) torture devices had been laid out.

Biting her lip at that, the blonde woman met his gaze a little guiltily. “Something different? I… what is it?”

Several snarky, sarcastic responses sprang to the man’s mind and tongue right then. But he swallowed them back. Now wasn’t the time for it. His wife needed gentleness right now. She had opened herself up to him, had shown him what was probably her greatest secret: her guilt and how she tried to cope with it.

Instead, Haiden carefully answered, “You were handling this wrong. The guilt, I mean. You were dealing with it wrong. By which I mean you weren’t dealing with it at all. I love you, but torturing yourself isn’t how you deal with that kind of guilt.”

His words made Sariel shake her head in obvious confusion. “I told you, I can’t just erase the memories.”

“That’s not how you deal with it either,” the man retorted. “I… look, I don’t know exactly how it works in the Seosten Empire and all that, but clearly the answer is ‘not that well’ if erasing memories or torturing yourself are the top two options that come to mind.”

She still looked lost, as Haiden reached across to take her hands. With a gentle squeeze, he met the woman’s gaze once more. “Tell me,” he started quietly. “Tell me about the first thing that comes to your mind, the first thing that you feel guilty about. It doesn’t have to be the worst thing that you’ve done, or even the first thing that you think was wrong. Just… the first thing that you can think of.”

The suggestion made her flinch a little, glancing down before slowly lifting her eyes once more as he squeezed her hands tighter. “Tell you?” she echoed with obvious reluctance at the very thought.

He nodded then. “Yes, love. Because that’s how you deal with this guilt. You talk about it. You want to deal with the fact that you’ve killed people, that you’ve ruined lives? You don’t pay for that by torturing yourself once a year. You deal with it by keeping them alive, by keeping their memories alive. That’s the problem with those Seosten you mentioned who erase the memories. They’re doing the opposite of what they should be doing. If you want to help things, if you want to pay for what you did, you keep those memories alive. You share them, talk about them. That’s how you process that guilt, you talk about it. Maybe you can’t bring them back to life, but you can share their stories. You can share their lives. And, quite frankly, talking about things is a good way of getting the thoughts out of your head. At least for a little while.

“So please, whatever comes to mind, whoever you’re thinking about right now… just talk to me about them. Share them with me. I’m here for you, Sariel. I’m always here for you.”

Slowly, the woman stood up from the chair. At first, Haiden thought that she might be objecting. Instead, however, she simply stepped over to his chair and perched herself on his lap. Slowly, Sariel lay against him, head against his shoulder. As his arms wrapped around her, the woman let out a soft, relieved sigh.

And then she began to talk. The stories came, stories that continued not only for that one week, but every time throughout their lives that Sariel needed to talk, about her past, about the people she had killed or those that had been left behind. When she needed it, when the memories and guilt became too much, they would take the time to themselves so that she could talk about them. Because part of being married wasn’t just sharing the good times. It was also sharing the bad times, the terrible memories of guilt and remorse. It was him being there for her, to listen when she needed him to. Not to fix her problems, just to be there, to hear them.

That, after all, was what actually loving someone was about. And Haiden loved Sariel. He always would, and whatever came next in their lives, he would always be there for her. And she for him. They were partners, partners who would face things together.

Always and forever, come what may.  

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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