“This place is incredible.”
The voice of Lincoln Chambers, subdued through awe and reverence, echoed a little bit throughout the cavern that he now stood within alongside Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire and the Seosten known as Sariel Moon and her daughter, Tabbris. The cave-like chamber itself seemed to be made of a combination of polished white marble and silver-gold crystal, with a few veins of violet ore of some kind mixed throughout. The few stalactites and stalagmites strewn here and there were mostly the same purple color, though there were a few white and gold ones mixed in.
The chamber was about twice the size of the Seosten transport that sat directly in the middle of it, right where Gaia had sent the thing so that it wouldn’t be found by the Crossroads Committee.
Sariel was nodding. “It is very beautiful,” she announced quietly, while holding her daughter.
For her part, Tabbris gazed around in obvious awe. “What is this place?” she asked in a somewhat trembling voice, as if she was afraid of speaking too loudly and disturbing the atmosphere.
Gaia offered a small smile, that clearly had some pain hidden behind it. Pain and regret. “It was created to be a sanctuary. A place to rest, reflect… and plan. It will work well for this. It is safe.”
Lincoln watched her for a moment, before clearing his throat. “So,” he began, “how do we do this? How do we figure out who to let out and how?” Pausing, he added, “And for that matter, why am I even here? I’m pretty sure you could all do this yourselves without my help.”
Chuckling, Gaia bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Perhaps, but you should not sell yourself short. You are a very intelligent and perceptive man. And you are quite good at analyzing information. Better than many that I have worked with. There is no mystery as to why Joselyn would be attracted to you, Mr. Chambers. So we will be quite grateful for your assistance.”
Tabbris nodded her head quickly up and down. “Yeah, Mis— umm mist… I mean, umm… D-Dad.” Saying the word made the girl blush subconsciously, squirming on her feet before she found her resolve and met his gaze with another firm nod. “You’re really good at this.”
The sheer joy that Sariel clearly felt at her daughter actually finding someone to call her father, someone who accepted the title, was written across her face as she gave the little girl a nudge forward.
Tabbris quickly stepped that way, embracing the man tightly. It was a hug that Lincoln easily returned, his own smile broad as he stooped to pick her up. “Alright then,” he announced, “I guess the rest of the question remains, though. What are we supposed to do now? I mean, I assume we can’t just release all of them at once? They might be war prisoners, but we should still have an idea of which ones should be sent somewhere else and which ones might make for good allies.” It never entered his mind that any of them would be kept on ice indefinitely.
Sariel started toward the transport then, before Lincoln raised a hand to stop her. “Actually,” the man started while setting Tabbris down for a moment, “could I… talk to you for a minute?” He gestured over toward the corner of the chamber where they might have a little privacy. Not that it mattered in Gaia’s case, as they could have been miles away and she could have heard them if she was of a mind to. But still. Habits were hard to break.
Biting her lip, the woman gave a slight nod, brushing her daughter’s hair before whispering for her to stay with Gaia. Then she walked over to the corner with the man.
Once they were far enough away, Lincoln turned to her. “First, I just want to thank you, again. If you hadn’t sent Tabbris to us, to my daughter, Flick would be a Seosten slave right now. You…” he swallowed hard. “You saved her from that. So thank you, so much. I can’t… I can’t tell you what it means to me that you made sure that I had my little girl, and that she was really my little girl.” His voice cracked just a little bit, and the man blinked away stubborn tears. “Thank you.”
Cringing a little at his gratitude, Sariel shook her head slightly. “I could not…” She choked, catching herself. “I could not let another of Joselyn’s children be taken. Not after–” Her eyes closed and she gave a brief shudder. “Not after what I was already responsible for.”
“Yeah…” Lincoln replied quietly, “that’s sort of the other thing I wanted to talk about, before we got too involved with all this other stuff. You need to do something for me.”
“Do something?” Sariel slowly looked up once more, frowning slightly. “There’s nothing I could do to make up for what happened, for what I helped bring to pass.”
“Make up for it?” Lincoln paused before shaking his head. “That’s not really something I can say, one way or another. It’s not up to me. But that’s not what I mean, anyway. I’m not talking about making up for it. I’m talking about moving on. I’m talking about being a better person now than you were before. And being a better person means being a healthier person.
“You,” he announced then, meeting her gaze, “need to talk to someone. I don’t know how the Seosten feel about therapy and all that, but believe me, as someone who thought his wife abandoned him and their daughter for a decade, it helps. It really helps.”
Sariel was staring at the man. “Therapy? I… I’m not–I don’t–”
“Yes, you are,” Lincoln interrupted. “And yes, you do. I know it might not feel like it. You might not feel like you’re worth the time and effort. But you are. And even if you don’t think so, you have a husband and three children who need you. This–everything you’ve been through, all that guilt you’ve been dragging around with you… you need to talk to someone about it.
“So promise me that you’ll go with me to talk to Gabriel, and let us find someone you can talk to, someone who actually has some idea of how to deal with this. If I know that man at all, I am absolutely positive that he’ll have someone in mind. Former Crossroads Heretics might not have all the same guilt that you do, but they’ll definitely have regrets about things they did in the past. Regrets that they’ll have needed to talk to someone about. That’s what I need from you. Before we go on with this, you promise that you’ll let him find you someone to at least try to help with everything you’re feeling.”
“I…” Sariel thought of her children, her beautiful, wonderful children. And she thought of Haiden. Slowly, the woman bowed her head in a nod. “Yes,” she agreed faintly. “I will… speak with someone.”
With that agreement made, the two of them returned to where Gaia was. Lincoln picked up Tabbris once more, before exchanging a brief look with the headmistress. For her part, Gaia simply smiled and gave him a slight nod of agreement with his actions.
By that point, Sariel was already walking up to the transport, ascending the ramp as it opened for her at a silent command from Gaia. “There is a prisoner manifest in the computer,” she announced. “It will tell us everything we need to know about the people inside and how safe it will be to release them.” Though her words were clinical, there was emotion in her voice at the thought of being able to free and interact with other people of her own species. People who, if they had been imprisoned by Kushiel, might actually feel the same way about Seosten methods as she did.
Gaia and Lincoln followed the woman up onto the transport. By that point, she had already moved back to the console at the rear. Her fingers danced over the controls, until a glowing holographic record sprang up in front of them. “Okay,” she announced then, “here it is.”
Shifting Tabbris a bit in his arms, Lincoln asked, “Actually, here’s a thought. How do we know we can trust what the computer says about them? I mean, if I was Kushiel, and thank God I’m not, I’d put fake information into that thing. Or just mix their data around. It’d make it harder to keep track of them, and much harder for someone to do… exactly what we’re doing right now.”
“If it was just Kushiel, yes,” Sariel quietly confirmed. “But she had superiors to report to. Superiors who would have wanted to know where very specific prisoners were at any given time. She was sent war criminals and dissenters from all over the multiverse, and the people in charge of those prisoners could have, at any point, demanded an update on their progress.”
She glanced back to him then, her voice even quieter. “Plus, she needed to keep track of which treatments worked for which prisoners. She wanted to solve our pregnancy problems. Hard to do that if you keep mixing up who each prisoner is and what treatments they’re getting.”
Grimacing a little at that, Lincoln nodded. “Fair point. But it brings up another question.” His mouth opened again, before stopping as the man hesitated. His eyes glanced toward the girl in his arms as he tried to decide how to delicately ask what he needed to know.
“Are you pregnant, Mama?” Tabbris immediately asked for him. “That’s what Mi–D… Dad wants to know. Right?” She added the last bit with a curious glance toward the man.
Coughing, Lincoln nodded. “Err, yeah. Basically. If they were keeping you all pregnant, are you right now? Should we be making you sit down and take it easy? Actually, how many of the other prisoners here are currently, ah, expecting? Are we about to have a few Seosten babies too?”
For a moment, Sariel didn’t answer. She glanced away, her gaze on the floor as she took a deep breath before looking back to them. “No,” the woman replied quietly, her voice barely audible. “Very few of us are pregnant now. In preparation for the trip, Kushiel did not… our pregnancies were not restored after each of our most recent losses. Any that still are were simply those who happened to be actively pregnant earlier than the past couple of months and still maintained them.”
Lincoln was staring at her. “You mean… you mean you could all have been pregnant two months ago, and the ones who managed to keep the pregnancy longer than that is just a handful?” The horror in his voice was audible, and he clutched Tabbris to himself a little tighter.
Sariel’s voice was flat. “There is a reason that the Seosten are in the middle of population crisis, despite all of our technology and magic. No matter what we do, our developing children have a good chance of recalling to their closest genetic match and disappearing. Even cloning has been a failure, for the same reason. Birthing our children in artificial wombs does not stop them from recalling to their genetic parent. And as you have seen, it is very difficult to prevent that recall from happening in the best of cases. To stop a child from recalling to their parent is impossible. Hence all of our problems, and Kushiel’s decision to combat the population crisis through sheer numbers, impregnating other Seosten over and over again, constantly, for years.”
Horrified by that announcement, Lincoln opened and shut his mouth a couple times as he fought for something, anything to say to that. Then he stepped over, extending Tabbris, who opened her arms as Sariel accepted her. For a moment, mother and daughter simply stood there, together. Sariel’s eyes closed and she made a contented sound while her child clung to her.
Finally letting out a long breath as she opened her eyes, the Seosten woman gave a slight nod. “In any case, we need to know who is here, who we can trust enough to release now and work with. I’m afraid that… after everything that most of them have been through, it will be some time before they are able to help as much as you might hope for.”
Gaia interrupted then before the woman could continue with that thought. “Gabriel has already said that is people are prepared to take care of as many Seosten as can be safely released,” she promised. “He understands, as do his people, that all of you will need time to adjust.” She stressed the point of including Sariel in that, making it clear that she knew quite well that the woman wasn’t nearly as well as she had been trying to make herself seem through all of this.
Clearly flushing a little at that, Sariel turned back to the holographic display, setting Tabbris down in front of herself. “Here,” she announced softly, while touching one of the controls. As she did so, a light appeared over one of the nearby stasis pods, and the hologram in front of her switched to a long display of text. Clearly the record of the person within that particular pod.
“Her name,” Sariel began then while reading from the display, “is Larees of the Tleken Choir. She was arrested fifteen years ago for assaulting a superior officer on the planet of Divinstre, in defiance of orders to raze a city that had fallen into the control of local rebels. She spent seven years in a military brig, before being transferred to Kushiel’s care, where she’s been ever since. Fifty-seven attempted pregnancies in that time, six successes.”
Lincoln did a quick doubletake at that, mouth dropping open. His voice was choked. “Fif-fifty-seven… they impregnated her fifty-seven times in eight years and only six were carried all the way to birth?” If the man had been horrified before, this particular news almost destroyed him.
Sariel’s own voice cracked a little bit, despite her obvious attempt to keep herself calm and measured. “I… I’m afraid to say that is fairly average, though maybe slightly on the low end of successes. My own… stay with Kushiel was interrupted. After I rendered Larissa immune to possession in the wake of the Fomorian attack on her boat, I was transferred to Manakel’s custody and… care as he attempted to determine precisely how I had… done so.” The recollection of her time there made the blonde woman flinch a little bit, before she swallowed hard, clearly repressing it. “I… I spent several years there before being sent back to Kushiel to resume my previous imprisonment when Manakel was transferred to Earth to engage with his new mission.”
“Actually,” Lincoln began slowly then, “that’s a good question. How did you do that? I mean, if it’s something the rest of the Seosten can’t figure out, what the hell did you actually do? You said that it doesn’t depend on you not using your possession power on anyone else, right?”
Biting her lip then, the woman carefully replied, “It was mostly an accident, when it happened. The Fomorian would have killed Larissa, and I could not let that happen. So I yanked her back with me, through Seosten space. But it was a very long trip, and I… I could not hold onto her throughout it. I tried. I tried very hard to keep hold of her, but it was impossible. Yet… as I… well, mentally clung to her, something happened. My… my mental doppleganger, the one that I had created within my little girl, to teach and take care of her while she was too young to care for herself… there was a sort-of… echo or copy of it within my own head. Seosten memories are perfect, so everything that I put into my baby’s mind was still there in my own. And as I struggled to keep myself as attached as possible to Larissa, that echo was… deposited in my place. Essentially, I did the same thing to Larissa as I had done to Tabbris: I put a virtual, memory-based duplicate of myself in her mind.
“It was meant for Tabbris, of course. So the echo never… never fully awakened. It was never called on to teach or raise her, because it was in Larissa’s mind instead. As I realized what was happening, that I was pushing the virtual copy of myself into her mind, I gave it one instruction: to use a small portion of Larissa’s own magic whenever a Seosten attempts to possess her, to push itself into their mind just long enough to stop the possession. It happens over the course of nanoseconds. When a possession is attempted, my mental duplicate empowers itself with Larissa’s own magic, pushes itself into the attempted possessor’s mind, and commands them to stop trying to possess her. Mental magic.”
For a moment after that explanation, Lincoln just stared at her. “The weird part is,” he slowly announced, “I think I mostly understood that. I mean, it sounds like you got really lucky.”
“I did,” Sariel confirmed. “We all did. I did not expect that to happen, and as I said before, it required a lot to fall into place. I would have to create another new echo of my mind every time I wanted to do something like that, and I would have to have spent enough time possessing the person in question to actually know their body and their magic well enough to allow my echo to use it in that manner.”
“Indeed,” Gaia started then, “it was very lucky for everyone involved, particularly Mrs. Mason, that you were able to do that, even by accident. But for now, since that particular curiosity has been sated, I believe that we should return to our–”
In mid-sentence, the red-haired woman abruptly stopped short. Her gaze snapped up and to the side, mouth falling open as she blurted, “Oh no. No, no. Something is wrong.”
“Wrong?” Lincoln blinked at that, staring in confusion at the woman. “What happened? What do you mean? Is Felicity alright? What–”
At those words, Tabbris scrunched up her nose, clearly focusing on her own connection with the girl. As she did so, a horrified sound escaped her before she blurted, “Avalon! Manakel has Avalon!”
With that, the girl vanished. Whether it was a conscious or subconscious act on her part, she had instantly recalled to Flick, leaving the adults alone in that chamber to stare at each other.
Lincoln caught the Crossroads headmistress by the arm then. “What does that mean?” he asked quickly. “What happened?” he demanded.
Gaia, far from the powerful and untouched woman she normally appeared to be, looked as though she had been struck. Her voice cracked with emotion and fear that seemed foreign to the way she typically held herself. The very thought of losing the girl that she had adopted as her own tore through every last bit of emotional armor the woman had developed over her long life. “It means,” she began almost brokenly, “that we have to find her. We have to find her before the protection spell runs out.
“Because if we can’t… if we don’t… there will be nothing left to save her from Manakel.
“And she will die.”