Month: August 2018

Convalescence 38-02

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My knees hit the floor before I knew what was happening. My head went down, and I threw up right there on the floor. My stomach was rolling violently, even as indescribable shame overtook me.

Deveron was there first, dropping beside me to offer a cup of water that he had summoned before doing something that took the… mess from the floor. Neither of us spoke. I was too ashamed to for that moment, and he clearly wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

Actually, of all people, it was Percival who found his voice first. “Well,” the man announced into the silence that had taken over the room, “this is an interesting development, I’ve gotta say.”

“Interesting?!” Doug’s voice came out in a high-pitched squeal before he got it under control. “You think it’s interesting that my dead teammate is standing right here because Flick accidentally summoned him? Are you fucking cra–” He stopped there, seeming to realize only at that point who he was actually talking to, and I saw the boy’s eyes suddenly widen.

“Fucking crazy?” Percival finished for him. He didn’t look offended. Actually, he didn’t look much like a super-powerful member of the Committee either. He was wearing dark jeans with random holes over them, and a black shirt advertising Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.” He also had a metal-studded wristband, and I caught sight of a tattoo of a bloody sword on his opposite arm. That last one could have been decorative or a spell, I wasn’t sure.

“Lots of people ask me that,” the man continued before Doug could stammer any explanation or excuse. “You’re not even the first one today. Or the first one from your family.”

Dare moved to me then, her eyes flicking toward the still motionless Rudolph. I saw a lot of emotions pass through her face as she looked to the boy before focusing on me once more. “Felicity,” she started softly, “it’s okay. You can… you can let him down now.”

“Let him down?!” I gave her a brief look before my head shook rapidly, still on my knees. “I don’t even know how I’m keeping him up. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear. I didn’t call him down here on purpose, or, or… or do any of this on purpose. It just happened. I mean, I think I maybe felt something back when I first did it, and maybe I feel something now like… at the back of my head, but I don’t know how to actually control it, or–or–I don’t know anything about it, anything!”

Okay, it was just maybe a tiny bit possible that after everything that had happened that night, I was kind of losing it just a little bit. But really, was that hard to understand?

It was Deveron who spoke up then, his hand resting on my shoulder while his other one touched my wrist. “I’ve seen a lot of necromancy, and if his is anything like that, he’ll follow your subconscious commands and the conscious ones. Verbal or silent, he’s connected to you. That’s probably why it was so easy this time. You know Rudolph pretty well and you really wanted him–” He hesitated, grimacing a little while coughing out the next couple words. “You really wanted him back. So the first thing you do is let him down. Think about him laying down.”

Trying to ignore the fact that I could feel and see everyone else staring at me, I swallowed hard before focusing on Rudolph–no, Rudolph’s body. Rudolph was dead. Rudolph was already dead. I wasn’t killing him again, because this wasn’t really him. It was some… some magic animating his body. That’s it. I had to remember that.

Keeping that thought in my mind, I willed Rudolph to lay down. Aloud, I quietly said, “It’s okay. You–” My voice cracked, and I tightened my hands into fists. “You can go back to sleep.”

It took a minute, probably because a good part of me didn’t want Rudolph to go away. As much as I told myself that it wasn’t really him, there was still a little bit that clung to the fact that he was standing right in front of me, and this did kind of feel like killing him again. It hurt. It really hurt.

But eventually, I managed it. Rudolph’s body slowly laid down there on the floor and went still. As it did, Deveron quietly talked me through pulling my power out of him. His voice was gentle. “Picture a line of power running from yourself to Rudolph, just a single tendril. Imagine he’s completely deaf, and that line is how you communicate with him. Like a cord between a computer and a keyboard. Focus on that line. It’s your power. It’s how you reach him, how you control him. Everything between you and Rudolph is in that line, okay? Now I want you to carefully pull that line out. Take the line out of him. Pull your power back and let him go.”

I did. Slowly and haltingly, I managed to extract the power from Rudolph’s body. Picturing it the way that Deveron described, I could feel the way the dead boy was connected to me, the way that the power I had taken from Manakel had extended itself into him.

Him. It. I kept flipping back and forth about what to refer to Rudolph as in my head. Both felt wrong. I was trying to remind myself that the dead body wasn’t really Rudolph anymore. But calling him ‘it’ even in my head also felt wrong. I just… I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Once it was done, and I felt like the power was completely out of the body, I straightened up, moving back away from the body as quickly as I could. I couldn’t look at it, at him. I didn’t want to see Rudolph like… like that. Even more bile rose in my throat at the thought of it, at the thought of what I had done with my power, puppeting him around like that. I almost threw up again.

It wasn’t right.

Everyone seemed to know exactly how I felt. Hisao moved closer, taking a knee beside the body. “I’ll take him back,” the man announced in a soft, respectful voice. I thought he had a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder, or maybe his stomach. I was really trying not to look.

A moment later, Hisao was gone, teleporting away with the body and leaving that spot of floor empty. And that was when I found myself staring at it, at the bit of floor where the body had been, where I had commanded Rudolph to move. My voice shook a little bit. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I–”

“We know you didn’t.” That was Dare. “We know you didn’t mean to.”

“It is, however,” Percival announced, “something else to explain. And unfortunately, keeping it secret isn’t in the cards. Rudolph wasn’t that subtle coming down here, and plenty of people saw him. Which means the rest of the Committee already knows. And, well, there’s some that tend to frown on necromancy. It has something of a negative reputation.”

Yeah, I could believe that. Not only for the obvious reasons, but also because of what Fossor had done. “Let me guess,” I started, “Ruthers is one of the ones who ‘tends to frown on it.’”

The man gave me a wry smile then. “You could say that. The man does have something of a shit history with necromancers.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “given the necromancer in question has my mom, we should be on the same side.”

“Ah,” Percival replied with a quick grin, “so you do know more about the Fossor situation than you’ve told the Committee.”

That made me do a double take, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before my hand found my forehead. “Shit. I knew that was going to trip me up eventually.” It had been an incredibly long night, after an incredibly long couple of days, after an incredibly long couple of months. I knew from Gaia that Percival could be trusted with that, but still, I should be more careful.

The man shrugged at me. “Don’t worry, most of us already know that you know more than you’re sharing. But it’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell situation. Believe me, we’ve had plenty of arguments about it. As long as you don’t let something like that slip in front of the others, they shouldn’t push you too hard about it. They’re afraid that if you don’t know much, asking you directly could create problems. Memory spells are tricky that way.”

“Wait,” Columbus started then, stepping closer. “How much do you know about what’s going on? No tricks or doubletalk. How much do you know?”

For a moment, I didn’t know if the man would answer. He looked at Columbus in silence briefly before turning back to glance toward Professor Dare and Hisao. Then he let out a breath and nodded as if coming to a decision. “Cards on the table, I know more than most on the Committee. Not all of it, but a lot. I also know that one of my fellow Counselors is definitely possessed. I don’t know who exactly, but it’s one of them. I’ve been trying to work that out. I know that Calafia, Teach, and Sophronia can be trusted so far as the Seosten situation is concerned, and I’m moderately confident that none of them are possessed. Particularly Calafia.”

“You know that they’ve been behind this whole organization,” I put in quietly. “You know that they were behind creating Crossroads, and the Bystander Effect.”

“Not originally,” the man replied. “I mean, I didn’t know they were the ones behind it. I knew who the Seosten were, just not that they were behind Crossroads. Not until more recently. But yeah, it fits with what I already knew before.  

“And I know that Joselyn disappeared because Fossor took her. I’m guessing the kid who showed up with mind-control powers was their son, and that he was visiting his big sister on her first trip back home after becoming a Heretic. Fossor objected and came to collect him, then let you know that he had your mother and that he’d be coming for you on some future date. Probably your eighteenth birthday.”

Well, I was definitely staring by that point. Around me, everyone else was doing pretty much the same. My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “You are good.”

He winked at me. “We can talk about it some more later. I’m sure you’ve got questions. But right now, the rest of the Committee is gonna want to talk to you–to all of you, but especially Flick here. And they’re gonna want to talk about this necromancy thing.”

Making a face, I sighed while slumping back a bit. “What am I supposed to tell them… you… them? You’ll be there, but something tells me you’re gonna play dumb about most of this.”

Dare was the one who answered. “Just tell them the truth, Felicity. Well, part of it. The man who did all of this was a necromancer. You killed him and inherited his power, and you’re not sure how to control it yet. Be honest about that part. Ruthers may have a problem with it, but not everyone does. Especially when it’s an inherited power rather than magic that you’ve deliberately worked at.”

Percival was nodding. “She’s right. There’s no need to hold back on that point. It explains how the zombies got into Crossroads a few months back. Just…” He paused then, clearly thinking about what he was about to say before continuing with, “… answer the questions as well as you can. I know you’ve got a way to lie to us, probably thanks to Gaia. Keep your answers as honest as you can without giving too much away. It’s easier to keep track of what you’ve said then.”

“Right,” I replied, “so just like we said before. There’s a race of body snatchers that took us. The necromancer was one of them. They’re the ones who have been trying to kill Avalon, and they took advantage of us escaping… or possibly let us escape, as a distraction to grab her. They brought her here to the hospital that they took over and we accidentally found her, so they unleashed everything to stop us from escaping. During the fighting, the necromancer in charge k-killed Rudolph and then ran away from Gaia. I possessed him and made him kill himself.”

“And now you have his power,” Percival finished for me, nodding. “Exactly. They’ll probably push you on how much you know about these people and if you’ve been keeping things back. Which you are, but like I said, they probably won’t openly ask you directly about things like your mother because they’re afraid of weakening the memory spell, or leading you toward things that could weaken it. Even with something like this, they’ll beat around the bush a bit. Unless, of course, you give them reason to be more direct.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before asking, “Is there anything else you can tell us about what’s going on in there? Anything we should know?”

Percival paused. I could tell there was indeed something he wanted to tell me. Instead, however, he shook his head. “Let’s just say there’s some pretty unbelievable shit going on. But trust me, it’s better for everyone involved if you’re surprised by it. Your first reaction needs to be genuine. Otherwise the hardcore guys will… well, they don’t need any more ammunition.”

And now I was really curious. But I couldn’t very well argue with him. Instead, I managed a weak, “Let me guess, they’re ready for us?”

Dare nodded. “Ready for you. They’ll talk to the others afterward. We thought you might want to get done first so that you could see Avalon and…” She paused, looking toward Percival.

“And my dad,” I finished for her. “Since they’re both at the Atherby camp.”

If he was surprised at all by that, Percival didn’t show it. He just gave me a tiny smile, nodding once. “That’s a good place for them. Calafia told me that she helped your father.”

“Right,” I muttered, “people communicate with each other even when they’re not talking to me. I have got to remember that.”

Chuckling, Percival gestured. “I’ve gotta get back. Oh, but first, before I forget…” He paused, then looked up toward Shiori, who had ushered Choo back into his bag the moment company had arrived. “Here,” he continued, tossing something that way. “A present for your little friend. Gaia thought you could use it.”

Shiori, looking surprised, caught the thing and looked at it. As did the rest of us. It was a collar. A really pretty purple collar, with intricate golden designs that were clearly spells. “Err… um. What–um… what frie–”

“Please don’t,” Percival looked slightly pained. “We have enough to deal with without playing the ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ game. Use the collar. It’ll help keep him secret and safe, I promise. Virginia can show you how it works. Calafia and I put it together in our spare time. Consider it a little gift to make up for all the shit you’ve been through this year, and the shit you’ll no doubt go through in the future.”

There was clearly a lot that Shiori wanted to say to that, but the man had already moved on, as if handing her a way (handmade by no less than two Crossroads Committee members) to protect her pet from being horrifically murdered was no big deal.

Percival, in turn, had already turned his attention to Dare, adding, “You bring her up for our little Q&A. The others and I will do our best to make it as short as possible.”

He turned then, before pausing. When the man looked back, his eyes moved not to me, but to the silent, somewhat listless Doug. “I’ll let your great-great-grandfather know you’re okay.”

As Doug (and, to be honest, the rest of us) blinked at that, Percival continued. “Sulan’s gonna be glad you made it through all that. And he’ll want to talk to you about it, soon as possible.”

“You… you know my Grandpa Sulan?” Doug stared at him for a second. “How? I mean, I know that’s a stupid question because he came through Crossroads too, but he wasn’t–I mean you were never–”

“It’s a long story,” Percival carefully replied. “Come see me another time, when everything isn’t so crazy, and maybe I can tell you. But make sure you ask Sulan how many eggs he has. He’ll get it.” He reached out, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder then. “He’ll want to come for the funeral too. If you’d be okay with him showing up.”

“I–” Doug looked choked up, his face contorting with emotion before he nodded quickly. “I-if he can come. He was… he was banished.”

“Banished from your colony world,” Percival corrected, “not from Earth. Though he tends to keep his distance to avoid making any of the people around here who don’t like him very much look too hard at you. But he’ll be here for this, if you want him.”

Sounding like there was a thick lump in his throat, Doug slowly nodded. “Ye-yes. I–I’d like him to come.”

“Then he’ll be here.” Percival sounded absolutely certain, which made me wonder just how well he knew this Sulan guy. “I’ll be sure he makes it. You have my word, Douglas. And… and I’m sorry about your friend.”

With that, he was gone, leaving the rest of us there with just Deveron and Dare. The latter of which looked to me apologetically. “You have no idea how much I would like to tell the Committee to shove it and take you out of here. All of you. You’ve been through too much. An interrogation right now is asinine.”  

“You’re not the only one,” Deveron assured her. “Believe me, there’s more than one guy on that Committee I’m real close to popping in the face.”

Of all people, it was Sean who replied to that. “Something tells me that’ll just make things worse.” The boy’s voice was hoarse, and I did a brief double-take upon the realization that he had clearly been silently crying.

Guilt, I realized. Sean felt guilty. Of course he did. He and Rudolph had both been down there, and he had been the one that was spared. How must that make him feel?  Did he have any idea why Manakel had chosen him instead of Rudolph to live?

Because I was pretty sure he’d done it because Manakel assumed I’d be less likely to risk killing Sean than Rudolph, since we knew each other better. And the guilt about that was already killing me. I couldn’t even imagine how Sean was doing.

Yeah, Manakel being dead right now was a good thing. A very fucking good thing.

After taking a moment to embrace Shiori tightly (and slightly longer than strictly necessary given how much I would have preferred to stay with her than go be interrogated by the Committee some more), I nodded to the others. “Okay guys, see you in a few minutes, I guess.”

“Good luck,” Koren spoke up, echoed by everyone else.

“Thanks,” I replied, “and thanks for the message. That’s pretty much what tied it all together.”

Wincing, the other girl shook her head. “I just wish I didn’t fuck up that one word. I was trying to fix it, but–”

“Yeah.” Swallowing, I nodded to her. “It’s okay. I got the point in time. Trust me, I’m just glad you’re okay, and that he didn’t–” Stopping myself, I blanched.

I didn’t have to continue that thought. Koren just met my gaze. “Yeah,” she agreed softly, “me too.”

There was so much else that I wanted to say, so much more I needed and wanted to do with the people I actually cared about. After everything that we had been through, the last fucking thing I wanted to do was sit through another ‘discussion’ with the Committee, even if a few of them were on my side.

But I had to. They were the authorities and they were too powerful to ignore (in every sense of the word). I had to go through this.

So, with a sigh, I turned back and nodded toward Professor Dare. “Okay. Let’s go, I guess. Now I’ve got literal necromancer powers and Ruthers, who is already suspicious about me and hates my mom to the point of blinding rage, also happens to utterly loathe necromancers, probably even more than he hates her. Oh, and to top it all off, he probably knows I’m lying to him about some things.

“So, you know… this oughta be fun.”

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Convalescence 38-01

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To say that things moved quickly after Manakel’s death would have been a drastic understatement. Everything was a total whirlwind that I barely had time to comprehend.

What I did know was that a bunch more Heretic reinforcements had shown up, just in time for what was left of the living Seosten forces to disappear, while the zombies that Manakel had brought back to life dropped dead once more. Or whatever it was when undead things stopped moving around. The point was, there were suddenly a lot of very amped up Heretics with nothing to fight.

Sariel took the cure for the poison from the necromancer’s body, before she and Gaia gave it to Avalon. I didn’t see an immediate effect, but Sariel assured us that the girl would be okay. She just needed time to recover. Time that she would definitely get, as Gaia had Gabriel Prosser take Avalon back to his camp to make sure that there was no chance of any last-second, unknown assassins taking one last shot at her while she was still weak.

Sariel had gone as well to make sure Avalon got all the help she needed, taking Tabbris with her for the time being. Which I couldn’t really object to given everything that was going on, no matter how much more comfortable I felt with my partner. I’d just given her a brief hug and promised to see her as soon as possible. She would tell Dad what happened, and that I was okay, since my leaving right then absolutely wasn’t in the cards.

Meanwhile, Gaia, Dare, and Nevada were dealing with the Committee and their representatives, who had finally all showing up to find out what the hell was going on. They were in the hospital director’s office where everything had gone down. Kohaku was still in there with them, along with Rudolph’s body.

Which left me sitting in another room in the hospital along with Doug, Shiori, Columbus, Scout, Sean, Vulcan, Choo, Koren, and Deveron. Those last two had woken up around the time that Manakel and I had had our final… conversation, while Sean had been a bit later. We were waiting for our turn to talk to the Committee, after they were done with Gaia and the other adults. That and I was pretty sure there were some pretty intense discussions going on as far as I was concerned, which had to be ironed out before Gaia would let them anywhere near me.

That was okay. I really appreciated the chance to breathe for a few seconds before having to deal with… well, all of that. Time to breathe, in this case, translating to time to explain everything that had happened to the others and finally put everyone (mostly) on the same page.

“So… so he’s dead.” That was Koren, staring at me. “Y-you… you killed Manakel.”

My head shook at that. “Not me. Well, technically. But it was Sariel. She killed him. It’s just that she used my body to do it. I’m more like the knife than the stabber, in this situation.”

The room we were in was some kind of conference place, with a long wooden table taking up most of it, and several of those screen-windows that showed views of various exotic locations, like a waterfall in a rainforest, and a long expanse of empty desert with sand blowing heavily.

Deveron was standing by the desert window, staring through it for a moment before he turned back to where I was sitting at the table with most of the others aside from him and Douglas (who was sitting on the floor against the far wall) around me. “I can’t believe he was possessing Risa and I didn’t know about it. I–” A pained look crossed his face then before he let out a long, low sigh and moved to sit across from me. “I’m sorry. To all of you. I should have been… I should have done more. Everything you’ve been through this year and it was all because we didn’t figure out that the head of security was possessed.”

My head shook at that. “It’s not your fault. It’s… we all missed it. I dismissed her because of the choker. I never really thought it could be anyone that close to Gaia. I didn’t–” Flinching then, I dropped my gaze to the table. “God, how bad must Gaia feel about it? She was–” Cutting myself off then, I just bit my lip hard. If we felt this guilty about Kohaku, if I felt this guilty, Gaia must feel even worse. To say nothing of the idea that the woman she obviously cared about had been enslaved for… for… God only knew how long.

How long had Kohaku been possessed? Clearly at least since the beginning of the year. She had been the one who killed Pericles. Well, Manakel had, while possessing her. That’s how he managed to get so close to the man, and why Security had never been able to figure it out: because their leader was the one whose body had done it. Through Kohaku, Manakel had been able to control most of the investigation. And even the parts he couldn’t control directly, like Tribald Kine, were still confided in her. Because she was the head of Security. So Manakel had always known exactly how to push the investigation any way he wanted.

Doug spoke up. “There’s no point to playing the shoulda, coulda, woulda game. The point is, that fucking… fucking piece of shit is dead. He’s dead. That’s what matters. Whoever did it, congratulations. I just wish you’d pulled it off before he–” In mid-sentence, the boy suddenly stopped, clearly choking on his own words.

Before he’d killed Rudolph. That was what he’d been about to say, I knew. I felt the same way. If we’d figured it out sooner, if–well, there were a lot of if’s. But it was like Doug said, they didn’t matter. There may have been a lot of powers floating around, but we couldn’t just change the past like that.

Picking myself up from the table, I moved over to kneel next to the boy. My own voice was soft, cracking a little. “I’m sorry about Rudolph,” I whispered. “He didn’t–he shouldn’t have been involved in any of this. He was just–” Cutting myself off as tears filled my eyes, I looked away. “He wasn’t a threat to Manakel. He wasn’t… anything to Manakel. That asshole just–” I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what I’d been trying to say in the first place. It just felt better if I was talking, like I was actually accomplishing something. But that was just stupid.

Doug’s voice was hollow. “Rudolph was my friend. Paul died. Jazz and Gordon are still gone. Isaac’s an evil piece of shit. Roxa disappeared and then ended up out in space. Rudolph… Rudolph was there. Maybe he joined our team late, but he was there. He did his best, he tried to help anyone he could. He listened when I needed to talk. He was there, and now he’s–he’s–”

His head fell then, arms wrapping around himself as he cried. It made me want to touch him, even hug him, but I didn’t know how he’d take it. I didn’t want to make things worse.

In the end, it was Sean who moved first. The other boy moved past me, sitting next to Doug before putting one arm around his shoulders. Vulcan sat on the other side of him, the metal dog leaning in to rub against Doug’s arm until the boy listlessly lifted it to pat him.

“He’s dead.” The flat announcement came from Scout, who seemed to be trying the words out for size, trying to understand them. “Manakel’s dead.” She sounded just as stunned as I felt. I knew why she was saying it, because saying it made it feel a little more real. And this… well, this didn’t feel all that real yet.

Shiori, shifting a bit in her seat to look over to me, asked, “Avalon’s going to be okay, right?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Between Gabriel and Sariel, yeah, she’ll be okay. Gaia wouldn’t have left her side if she had any doubt, no matter what the Committee said. So yeah, she just needs time.”

“It’s still not over though, is it?” Koren was the one speaking again. She had picked herself up from the table and now stood with her arms folded tight across her chest. “I mean, the Seosten aren’t just going to give up because Manakel’s dead. They’re not going to be like, ‘Oh well, fair shot, chaps. Jolly good, catch you all next time, what what.’”

My mouth opened, but before I could speak, Columbus interrupted. “Did you just give your hypothetical Seosten a really terrible British accent for some reason?”

Flushing noticeably, the girl shrugged while mumbling, “Maybe. Lots of evil space empires sound British in the movies.” Clearing her throat then pointedly, she looked back to me. “But the point is, they won’t just give up.”

“Nope,” I agreed. “They won’t. They lost their leader on-planet, so it’ll take them some time to figure out how to deal with that and bring in a replacement. But until they do that, we have a break. And we can use it.”

“To get to the vault,” Columbus finished for me. He held his goggles in one hand, his eyes meeting mine. “You want to get to the vault with Avalon and open it before the Seosten recover from losing Manakel.”

“I wasn’t going to bring it up just yet since everything just happened,” I replied, “but pretty much. Avalon needs time to recover from everything. And so do we. I mean, I doubt whatever Seosten are left will just let us walk in there. So we’ll need time to plan, time to rest, and time to… well, deal with everything. But eventually, that’s what we have to do. Look at how open they were about this whole hospital thing. They’ve gone completely insane. They’re not even trying to be subtle anymore. Not really. So yeah, our best next move is to get to the vault, open it, and figure out how to safely use whatever’s in it. If it’s over and done with, the Seosten might be pissed, but going after Avalon will be pointless from a… you know, objective standpoint.”

Deveron gave me a small smile. “You mean you hope that whatever Liesje’s spell does will make the Seosten too busy dealing with that to worry about going after Avalon anymore.”

“Make them too busy chasing the horses to worry about the barn they ran out of, yeah.” I nodded with a helpless shrug. “It’s the best I can think of. It’s a whole Empire we’re talking about here. Losing Manakel was big for them. Really big. But it’s not the end of it.”

“Avalon won’t be ready to do that for awhile,” Shiori put in.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “None of us are ready for that. And even when we are, like I said, we can’t just use the spell immediately. They’ll have to work out what it does, exactly. And try to fix it so that… so that Seosten and humans who agree to possession can still do it.”

Columbus squinted at me, holding his goggles tightly in one hand by his side. “You mean like you and…  and the girl.”

“And Tabbris,” I confirmed, staring right back at him. “She saved all of us, more than once. And her mother, Sariel, she did too. Manakel would’ve gotten away if it wasn’t for her. He would have gotten away if Sariel hadn’t been able to possess me. After everything that happened, he still would’ve gotten away. So yeah, I think we should fix the spell so that possession can be voluntary. Maybe when the others get back here, Dries can… can fix it, with Wyatt and Sariel’s help. And anyone else. But first, we just need to get into the vault. When we’re ready. When Avalon’s ready.”

It was Doug who spoke next, first mumbling into his arms as his face was buried in them, before raising his head to speak more clearly. “I’m surprised you can think at all. Rudolph’s dead. How can you even… how can you even think about anything else?” His tone sounded more… sad and lost than accusatory, though there was a tiny bit of that too, which I couldn’t blame him for.

My voice was soft as I hesitantly reached out to touch the boy’s arm. “Doug, believe me, I wish Rudolph was alive. I do. I’d do anything to have him standing right here in the room with us now. If it would help, if there was anything we could do, I just…” Taking a deep, slightly shuddering breath, I forced myself to continue. “I just can’t do anything. That stupid, psycho piece of shit k-killed him. And we can’t fix that. I want to fix it, but we can’t. So… so I’m trying to focus on other things. It doesn’t really help, because I keep seeing Rudolph. And Paul. And Professor Katarin. Even Professor Pericles and I only knew him for like a day.”

“They’re responsible for killing a lot of people,” Columbus put in, his own voice hard.

“Too many,” Sean agreed, still sitting there beside Douglas with one arm around him. “But now, at least Manakel is dead. He paid for it.”

Doug shook his head emphatically, his voice dark while he tightened both of his hands into fists. “He didn’t pay enough.” He spat the words “All the people he killed, all that… all the shit he was responsible for? He didn’t pay nearly enough.”

Before I could respond to that, Deveron spoke. He’d moved over to stand in front of us. “Sometimes you can’t focus on that. You can’t dwell on how much punishment you can give to the people who deserve it. You don’t focus on how much pain they’ve already inflicted on people in the past. You have to focus on how much pain you’re saving future people from.”

He took a knee then, meeting Doug’s gaze. “If you fall into the hole of obsessing over how much pain these people, and people like them, have inflicted on innocents before they were stopped, nothing will ever be enough. Nothing. That is a bottomless pit from which there is no escape.”

It took Doug a few seconds to respond to that. And when he did, his voice cracked a little. “S-so focus on the fact that they won’t be able to hurt anyone else like that? Focus on the fact that Manakel can’t torture or kill any other people like–like Rudolph?”

Deveron nodded once. “Exactly. That’s all you can do. Anything else is just… it’s just too much.”

Rather than respond to that immediately, Doug lowered his gaze to stare at his feet for a few seconds as he sat there. “I… I don’t know if I can do that. Rudolph was my friend. He… he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t–” Stopping himself, he just shook his head.

I knew how he felt. He wanted his friend back. Manakel dying was good and all, but Rudolph still deserved to be alive. He deserved to be here with us. Instead, he was dead. Dead because we hadn’t been able to protect him, because we had failed to-

Before I could continue that thought, there was a sudden commotion at the door. My eyes snapped that way, hand grabbing reflexively for my staff. After everything that had happened, it would just figure that another problem would present itself. But when the door opened, all thoughts of defense or attack left my head. Actually, all thoughts left my head, completely.

Because it was Rudolph who walked through the door. There were others with him. Professor Dare, that Percival guy from the Committee, and Hisao. They were right on his heels, as the boy entered the room.

“Rudolph!” Doug was the first to react, scrambling to his feet. He took two steps that way before suddenly stopping, his movement turning into a brief stumble. “Wh-what–no. No, no, what?”

Because while Rudolph was upright and moving… he was still dead. His eyes were empty, his movements listless. He was very, very clearly not alive.

There was a whole lot of cursing and scrambling then, while the dead Rudolph simply entered the room and stood there.

“He just got up and started moving,” Dare announced in a low voice, her sword drawn as she squinted at Rudolph, having put herself between the body and us. “We wanted to see where he was going.”

Percival and Hisao stood near the door, the former speaking up. “He came straight here. No detours, no hesitation.”

“H-he’s fucking with us.” That was Columbus, standing by his sister and partway in front of her. “Manakel, he found a way to… to give the body orders ahead of time or something.”

“No,” Deveron replied, his own voice soft as he shook his head. “Manakel isn’t the one controlling him, posthumously or otherwise.”

“Then wha–” I started to look that way, only to stop as I found Deveron staring at me. Confusion filled me for another second, before just as quickly fading. “Why a–oh.”

“Oh?” Shiori looked back and forth between us. “What do you mean, oh? What–oh.”

Yeah. Oh. A minute earlier, when talking to Doug, I had said that I would do anything for Rudolph to be right there with us.

And now… he was right there with us. Or his body was, at least. It was here because I asked it to be, because I wished for it.

Because I made it.

Sariel may have killed Manakel. But she used my body to do it. And my body had absorbed his power. Specifically, his unique Olympian power to raise and control the dead. The power that was now… now mine.

I was a necromancer.

Just like Fossor.  

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Interlude 37B – Chayyiel

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“Miss Chayyiel? I mean, um, Seraph, are you okay?”

Chayyiel heard the man’s voice, but for a moment, the girl who had been ten years old for millennia gave no response. She stood there in the rounded, tube-like corridor of the spaceship with her head down, her pixie-cut black hair too short to fall into her eyes the way she wished it would. That might allow her to hide the pain in her expression.

Manakel was dead. He was gone forever, wiped away, never to live again. Dead. Forever.

The news had only just come through, right when they had been in the middle of a very important operation. In mid-battle, even. She’d taken the information, walked three more steps along the same way she had already been going on what amounted to autopilot, then stopped. Right there in the middle of that corridor, Chayyiel had stopped, lowered her head, and let the actual truth of the news wash over her.

Her escorts all looked at one another. There were six of them, each powerful Seosten in their own right, they exchanged glances briefly before the one who had spoken before did so again. “Ma’am, do you need to call this off? If–um, if you need time…”

There were many people, both in and out of the Seosten species, who would have questioned why Chayyiel felt even a moment of remorse and mourning for a being like Manakel. And she even understood that. The things he had been responsible for, the people he had hurt and killed, she knew exactly why the general instinct for most was to add spit, rather than flowers, to his grave. But the truth was that the grief that she felt then was less for the man he had died as, and more for the man he had been before. Or rather, the man that she had seen him as when she was a child, growing up in the corridors and decks of the Olympus.

Manakel back then had given the young Chayyiel, a child with far too much power thrust upon her at such a tender age, comfort. He had taught her to enjoy tea and gardening, and had allowed her to enter his quarters at any point to play with his Dymenian rastfels. He’d even taught her to care for her own pets whenever she insisted on having them, drawn from the various worlds they visited. He had read her stories from his books to help her sleep, and had tutored her in several subjects. He was one of her guardians, one of her tutors, one of her friends. That was the man she grieved for in those few seconds. Those were the memories that played through her mind.

A Seosten’s memory was perfect. Which made it harder for someone’s current atrocities to entirely eclipse the thoughts of what he had once been. It was too easy to focus on the good parts.

Finally lifting her head, Chayyiel pushed those thoughts away. That was the other thing about having a perfect memory. It was easy to stop the thought process you were having and get right back to it later without missing a beat. “No,” she said quietly while already starting to walk again, “this is too important. We’re not abandoning the mission now.”

Her escort fell into formation around her, allowing Chayyiel to lead the way through the ship corridor. The ship was called the Alisper’s Craet, and it was a fast, heavily armored vessel without much in the way of weaponry. What it did have, however, were special clamps that allowed it to hook onto other vessels or stations, cut through the hatches or even the walls there, and attach their own boarding tubes. The Craet was a boarding and raiding ship.

The corridors of this ship were so different than that of the Olympus. There, the halls had been more square than rounded, and larger. There had been a less utilitarian look to them as well, as the ship was intended to be lived in comfortably away from regular civilization for many years. The Olympus had been meant for long excursions far away from regular Seosten space. And over time, the walls of the ship had been decorated by the people serving aboard it. Here and there had been pictures drawn or taken, or paintings, or any other bit of art and personality. The ship had been lived in. It had been a home, and for awhile, the people on it had been a family.

A few more steps, and the sound of laser-fire reached the group. Chayyiel and her escort picked up their pace, jogging down the corridor before reaching one of those boarding tubes. It had been extended to their target, and a group had already taken up position on either side of the opening. Like the group with her, there were six of them. In their case, however, none were Seosten. About half were very obviously different, two being rather massive ogres (their ten-foot tall bodies would barely fit into the boarding tube if they hunched over) while the third was a tiny pixie. The remaining three were roughly humanoid and wore the standard issue black armor and helmets.

All six carried guns of various sizes, and were already using them to send a continuous hail of laserfire down the boarding tube even as Chayyiel and the others approached. They spared  glances to the new arrivals, but didn’t do anything stupid like waste time greeting them or saluting. Chayyiel had broken them of that habit as soon as possible.

Instead, they kept shooting, even as the Seosten with the girl spread out, each moving to one of the non-Seosten. One by one, in perfect coordination both amongst themselves and between each of the two groups, a non-Seosten would briefly stop firing, and then their Seosten partner would possess them, stepping into the body before resuming their attack.

Partner. That was the operative term, and it was the only way Chayyiel, as Seraph, allowed anyone under her command to work. If you were a Seosten, you were matched with a non-Seosten partner that would be drawn from a pool of volunteers. A team of both psychologists and combat trainers alike would match Seosten to the volunteer they saw as the most likely fit. The Seosten and their non-Seosten host would then both work and train together, learning how to function as partners. Once a week, both would be interviewed separately to ensure that the partnership was proceeding properly and that the Seosten was not abusing their host as was so common in most other parts of the Empire. The non-Seosten beings were treated as being just as important as the actual Seosten were, and were provided wages, rights, and benefits to suit that. Within the ships, stations, and planets that were under Chayyiel’s command as part of the Seraphim, abusive Seosten did not last very long. Chayyiel couldn’t keep track of everyone under her command. But she could keep track of those most loyal to her, and they in turn kept track of those under them, and so on down through the ranks.

And so the Seosten and Non-Seosten partners linked up there without any hesitation or awkwardness. Their shooting continued, while Chayyiel herself moved to the open docking tube, looking that way. Several bodies, random assortments of biological monstrosities that were the Fomorian footsoldiers (not actual Fomorians, but the creations they sent to do their dirty work) lay scattered along the tube, while a few more continued to try rushing forward. One ran on four legs and looked a bit like the animal known as a moose on Earth, save for its much sharper horns rather than the antlers of that creature, while the other two loped along like oversized apes with more reptilian features and scorpion-like tails. None seemed affected by the laser-fire.

They were, however, vulnerable to other things. And as Chayyiel looked at them, her power took over.

Left-most reptilian-primate very slightly limps on his right side. Right primate brash and easily manipulated through temper. Does not limp like the other. Both are invulnerable to most forms of energy, meant to combat Seosten lasers specifically. Blunt and blades similarly ineffective. Fire negated. Cold a possibility. Not particularly weak, but not specifically protected against it. Poisons, many ineffective, few esoteric possibilities. Eyes only one-quarter as resistant to lasers as the rest of the body–protection comes mainly from scales. Scales vulnerable to sufficient pressure at one specific angle. Tails segmented, protected similar to body but vulnerable at the joining point between sections.–

Taking in the moose-like creature at the same time, her power continued. —Quick runner, fast-acting paralytic toxin on horns. Vulnerable at knees. Blindspot directly to either side of the shoulders when within two feet and lower than shoulder-height. Hearts located exactly six inches below the throat, five inches beyond the right-front leg, and directly above the tailbone.–

Everything her power told her, Chayyiel took in within an instant. In the time it took most people to recognize that the person they were looking at had blonde hair, she had already catalogued each of those facts that her ability had reported.

It was a power that would have been dangerous enough, if it had been all that she received after accidentally being left in the other-universe that her father had opened a portal to through his experiments. But it wasn’t. Her physical attributes, her strength, speed, and more had all been enhanced far beyond what a Seosten her size and age should have been capable of. Similarly, her ability to boost herself was greatly increased.

And then there was the fact that, any time she spent in what amounted to the same room as any person, she automatically learned every physical and mental skill they possessed. Combat, academic, magical, whatever they knew, she would know. She knew their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and she gained every bit of combat skill, magic knowledge, and everything else that could give them an edge.

Just like now, when she looked at these three creatures and instinctively, immediately, knew their every weakness. She knew how they would fight because she knew how they had been trained/programmed to fight. Through knowing all of their skills and all of their weaknesses, Chayyiel knew everything that they could do, everything they would do. Knowing everyone’s skills, strengths, and weaknesses was a blueprint to understanding what they would do in any situation, against any stimuli.

After that brief instant of taking in exactly what these creatures were and what they were capable of, she launched herself into a sprint while crisply ordering, “Eyes!”

Her people reacted just as quickly. As well trained and disciplined as they were, they instantly knew that her single word meant to shoot at the eyes of the two creatures in front. Their lasers filled the air around her, Chayyiel trusting them to miss her. Which was one thing that her being so small actually helped. They could fire over her head and still miss her by a solid foot.

The two reptilian primates staggered a bit under the combined laserfire. They had to close their eyes to protect from being shot, which blinded and slowed them further. Instinctively, their scorpion-tails snapped up and around, probing the ground in front of them with a few violent stabs.

Exactly as Chayyiel had expected them to. In that instant, she hit her boost, her speed suddenly multiplying exponentially to turn her entire body into a barely visible blur. As those bladed tails rebounded from the floor, the girl moved right between them. Her hands snapped out, catching hold of the tails before she smoothly drove each up under one of the scales of the opposite creature. It was the exact spot and exact angle that her power had drawn her attention to.

Instinctively, as they felt the unknown pressure, each of the blinded primates heaved up and back with their tails. In doing so, they managed to free themselves. But in the process, they also snapped that single scale off of each other’s bodies, leaving a tiny patch of unprotected skin.

Without missing a step, she continued on past the two even while they were still yanking their tails back. The quadruped was right behind them, and coming in fast with its head lowered, those horns ready to paralyze and skewer her.

But Chayyiel was ready too. A quick, last-second step to her left and a drop to her knees put her in the creature’s blindspot. She slid that way, hand yanking what looked like an empty knife handle from her belt. She thumbed the button on it, making the eight inch laser blade hum to life.

Sliding past the animal’s blindspot there, Chayyiel used the laser-knife to cut through its front right knee. Just as quickly, as the creature stumbled on past her, she stabbed up through each of the hearts she had noted earlier, saving the one in the tailbone for last as she swung herself up onto its already stumbling body. Her weight back there drove the creature toward the ground back-end first. As it fell, a second laser-knife appeared in her other hand, and she threw each end over end to sever either side of the animal’s horns, cutting them from its head.

She sprang forward then, up over the collapsing creature’s head while her hands moved to catch its falling horns. By that point, the primate creatures had only just started to realize that she was behind them, and began to turn, still under a hail of laserfire.

They didn’t get far, however, before Chayyiel hurled the horns she had severed from their partner, straight into the tiny exposed spots of skin that their tails had exposed by snapping off that single scale on each. The horns flew perfectly, driving into that small spot before pumping their paralytic poison directly into their bloodstream.

It worked incredibly quickly, dropping each of the creatures to the ground in full paralysis a second later. Which left Chayyiel standing there surrounded by the bodies of all three Fomorian creatures. One of them dead, the other two paralyzed.

“Finish them off,” she ordered her people, already pivoting to head onward through the boarding tube and into the Fomorian vessel. “The Beta will be close.”

Beta. In the Fomorian ranks, there were generally six types of creature (with some exceptions): alphas, betas, gammas, deltas, epsilons, and zetas. Only the first three were actual Fomorians. Zetas were mindless, easily killed creatures that functioned only as massive packs. Epsilons were stronger and capable of acting alone, similar to the creatures that she had just killed. Deltas were very strong and independent, as well as being intelligent enough to create their own plans. Basically, the Fomorians’ best creations, but not really actual Fomorians.

Gamma Fomorians were young, unproven. Betas had been around long enough to make a name for themselves and made up the bulk of the actual Fomorian population. And Alphas were their leadership, rare even for Fomorians, who already had an actual population much lower than the Seosten with their own shortage.

Sure enough, right on the other end of the tube stood a tall, gray-skinned Fomorian. Its angular face, too-large eyes, and bulbous head was instantly recognizable, though individuals tended to differ widely as far as their bodies went through their own genetic enhancements.

Her power kicked in the instant she saw him. —Immune to heat up to roughly half the temperature of the core of a yellow sun. Immune to cold. Absorbs most types of radiation and energy. Absorbs most magic. Armored against blunt force. Poisons are useless. Can see through every conceivable spectrum including magic. Eyes are only one of several ways he can see. All critical organs packed into an armored shell in the center of the body, impregnable to most attacks even if they do get through the outer body.

This was a strong Beta, probably close to being promoted to one of the Alphas. And from the look in those eyes, he knew that dealing with Chayyiel would be just the boost he needed for that promotion. He started forward, each of his six arms coming up to produce a variety of bladed weapons meant for cutting her open.

She kept walking, not breaking stride as she moved straight for the Fomorian. She saw his toothy smile as the creature watched her approach. His blades went up, one of his hands opening to reveal a paralytic powder that he filled the air with. One single molecule of that powder entering her system would leave Chayyiel as helpless and frozen as the creatures she had just left.

She kept walking. Her thumb brushed over a spell inscribed into one of her gloves, and a light forcefield popped up around the girl. It wasn’t enough to hold back much, but it did force the paralyzing dust away from her, clearing the air.

The Fomorian reached for her, each of those six hands trying to grab onto the girl. But Chayyiel was too quick, too small, too aware of his every move. She barely seemed to react, ducking once, sidestepping a few inches, and turning her body. Yet all six of his grasping limbs utterly missed, putting Chayyiel directly in front of him with his arms extended past her.

He started to pull back, grinning even wider as his limbs moved to envelop the girl. But again, Chayyiel was too quick. In one, single motion, her hand snapped up, balled into a fist. She struck the Fomorian precisely seven inches below his throat and four inches to the right at the exact angle and with the exact force her power had already informed her of.

That single blow made him freeze. His arms went limp, falling to his sides, and the Fomorian made a sound like a gasping fish, trying in vain to suck in air.

His legs gave out a second later, and he collapsed to the ground, twitching and spasming as his brain went through the horrific stroke that had been brought on by that single, incredibly precise blow. A quarter inch in any direction, a fist angled even slightly differently, a blow with any more or less force, and nothing would have happened. But the blow wasn’t any different. It was exactly what her power told her to make it. And a handful of seconds later, his body was still and silent. He was dead.

Her escort arrived momentarily, and Chayyiel ordered them to follow the path that had already been planned out. The rest of the Seosten attack force was keeping other parts of the Fomorian ship busy, and her people had their own job to do. Again, her people asked if she was okay, if she needed to pull back. But again, Chayyiel refused. Destroying the brain of the Fomorian Dierev (essentially a three-hundred-plus foot tall monstrosity capable of untold devastation) before it could be delivered to the rest of the assembled body was too important to withdraw now.

Her power was too useful to sit on the sidelines. It had always been that way. For the past three thousand years, Chayyiel had been too important to sit things out. Ever since she had been lost on the other side of that portal. The portal into a strange other-universe full of indecipherable energy storms which, upon proximity with a living being, fundamentally altered that being, granting them incredible powers and halting their aging completely.

That had been her father’s project, all those years ago: to use the vast amount of resources it took to open portals into this world of power-bestowing energy storms, and expose his test subjects to them. How much power each subject received was impossible to predict, since it had to do with how much direct exposure to the energy storms they had, and the location and strength of those were impossible to predict.

When he had secretly been working on his own daughter, however, Chayyiel’s father had been interrupted. She had fallen in and been cut off for much longer than the others. Longer than she should have been able to survive.

And she’d still be there, or her body would, had two lab technicians not noticed what was happening while her father was detained, and set out to rescue Chayyiel themselves. The two had ended up exposed to the energy storms as well, for as long as it took to open the portal once more and pull the girl out. Unfortunately, doing so the way that they did, without as much time and care spent before opening the portal (as they refused to wait longer to pull her out) resulted in the energy storm somehow shorting out the hole in space that was their only access point to that universe.

The project had been over, simply because there was no way to access that universe. Not until another similar ‘hole’ in the fabric of their reality was found. And in the past several thousand years, Chayyiel had yet to hear of one. It may have been the only one of its kind, ever.

In any case, the three of them had never been intended to be enhanced the way the ‘real’ test subjects were, those who had been specifically chosen by their Choirs and had resources devoted to the program so that they could be upgraded. But it had happened, and the Empire couldn’t afford to throw any resources away, particularly super-soldiers. So, despite all of their young ages (she was still a child, but they weren’t that much older either as far as Seosten went) Chayyiel and her saviors, Sariel and Lucifer, were added to the roster of the newly formed Olympus.

The Olympus. The family. They had been a family once. Or at least, Chayyiel had seen them that way. Yes, there were problems, disputes, grudges, even all-out fights. But Chayyiel had been a child growing up on that ship. She had been taught by them, raised by them. Manakel had his problems, but he had cared for her. He had helped her, comforted her.

So yes, she mourned for him. Even as she understood the man he had become, and that he had very much dug his own grave, she was still saddened by his death. It still left a hole in her that would not be filled.

“Seraph?”

After they had completed their mission, one of her men stood near her on board their own ship once more. The Fomorian vessel had been blown apart, its deadly cargo going with it. Her man watched her, concern written across his face. “Seraph, I’m sure the leadership would agree to a sabbatical, if you wish to make a brief trip to Earth to avenge Manakel’s death.”

“Avenge?” Echoing that word, Chayyiel glanced toward the man, giving a slight shake of her head. “Kalifiel, there’s something you need to understand. Sometimes we aren’t the good guys. And when people kill us, it’s not always because they’re monsters. It’s also because we are. Because we hurt them. Because we drove them to it.

“So no, I don’t want to kill the people who killed Manakel. His death makes me sad, not angry. I know why it happened. I know that he deserved it. I didn’t want it to happen. I would have stopped it if I could. But avenge? No. What I want is to end the situation that made that necessary. I want to fix the problem, not make it worse.”

“End the situation?” Kalifiel stared at her uncomprehendingly. “I know you’ve changed a lot under your command, that we’re… um, that we’re different from most of the Empire. And that’s really impressive. But fixing the entire problem? Is that even possible?”

For a moment, Chayyiel said nothing. She thought of what Jophiel and her lover were doing with the same girl who was apparently responsible for Manakel’s death. She thought of Sariel, and the way the woman had been pushed into the arms of the human that she had subsequently fallen in love with. She thought of every little nudge she had given to get things to this point. She thought of the way she had directed that shard of the broken banishment orb into Dries Akens’ prison in order to draw the Heretics there so that they would free him. She thought of all the small actions with much larger results. Some that had already happened, others that were yet to come.

“Oh, it’s possible,” she murmured softly then, barely loud enough for Kalifiel to hear the words. “It may take a lot of work, a lot of time, and… well, more than a few setbacks.

“But then, being patient is just another skill. And for now, I have something else to do.”

******

“Hah, I knew they’d someone someone to pick me up.”

The human boy, Isaac, grinned as he watched Chayyiel calmly approach him. The unconscious bodies of the two men who had been his guards lay limp on the ground behind her.

“Ohh, it’s a perfectly secure prison in a base built and hidden by the mighty Athena, you’re never getting out of here.” Isaac’s words were mocking as he shook his head. “It’s like they’ve never read a comic book before. So you gonna hop out of the midget and find a more useful body for us to get out of here, or what?”

“Manakel chose to recruit you,” she informed him flatly, stopping just in front of the boy after deactivating the forcefield that contained him. “He decided that you had some use.”

“Oh yeah, and I’m even more useful now,” the boy replied with a grin, tapping the side of his head. “You wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve heard while sitting around in here. Plus I’ve got all those yummy powers.”

Chayyiel’s head shook once. “Manakel is dead.”

“Oh shit, really?” Isaac whistled then. “Right, no fucking wonder you finally came to get me. You’re shit out of options. So let’s go.”

“No.” Chayyiel’s denial was simple. “I didn’t come here to take you out of this prison.”

“What?” Annoyed now, Isaac spread his arms. “Then why the fuck are you here?”

“Because,” she replied easily, her eyes rising to meet his. “I have read comic books.”

There was a blur of motion then, accompanied by a hum of energy, And as it faded, Isaac stood there in complete disbelief, staring at the blood that had already drenched his open hands. Blood from the deep cut in his throat. His mouth opened and shut a couple times, as a weak, wheezing noise escaped him.

“And quite frankly,” Chayyiel continued while holding the laser-knife in one hand, “I’m sick and tired of villains who keep coming back.”

She turned away then, walking to the exit while the boy’s body collapsed behind her. As she moved, Chayyiel casually tossed a single, small silver object roughly the size of a pen behind herself. An instant later, it exploded and Isaac was utterly incinerated, his body reduced to little more than a dark smear on the ground.

Just in case.

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Interlude 37A – Mennin Tombs

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A pair of stunningly polished, gleaming black shoes stopped smartly directly at the edge of a puddle that was half-water and half-mud. The shoes were attached an equally well-dressed man in neatly pressed dark slacks, a red silk shirt, and black tie. A black suit-jacket completed the perfectly coordinated, yet utterly safe (and in many ways, boring) ensemble. The man within the clothes stood just under six feet in height, and could have been anywhere between forty and sixty in normal human age, his hair dark and well-groomed, his face vaguely lined.

“Mr. Tombs.” The gravelly voice that emerged from the man himself sounded in equal parts exasperated and sympathetic. It was the voice of a man who very much cared about the subject of his ire, yet was also at a loss of what to do with them. “What is the first rule of the Auberge?”

The subject of his attention, who lay face-down in that muddy puddle, groaned a little in response before slowly lifting his head. Turning, he spit out a rather extensive amount of dirty liquid in one thin line, like a drinking fountain. The water narrowly missed his admonisher’s perfect shoes, before the prone man ran a hand up through long, dirty-blond hair that fell to his shoulders.

In many ways, Mennin Tombs would have been considered a quite handsome figure. He stood just an inch or so taller than the man who stood before him, and looked quite a bit younger, appearing to be barely into his twenties. His skin was fair, his shape on the thin side, yet not drastically so. His nose was perhaps a bit small for his face while his mouth was just barely too large, leaving his face looking very slightly oddly proportioned. He looked like a stunningly handsome preset within a video game whose player had tinkered somewhat with the face, throwing it off in ways that were sometimes too subtle to truly describe, yet were subconsciously noticeable.  

“Uh, sorry, Deacon,” Mennin mumbled before slapping a hand against the side of his head. “Water in my ears. What’d you–hold on.”

Grabbing his earlobe, the young man yanked down. The ear stretched to three times its normal size, before a truly impressive amount of water fell from it as he tilted his head, filling the puddle up to about twice what it had been. Releasing the lobe made the ear pop back to what it had been.

“Hah! Told you I had water in my ear. Now I can hear you.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Deacon repeated himself. “The first rule of the Auberge, Mr. Tombs.”

“Don’t talk about the Aube–no wait, that’s something else.” Squinting, Mennin snapped his fingers. “Don’t let anyone find the Auberge who isn’t a registered guest.”

“And the second rule?” Deacon prompted.

That one, Mennin answered instantly. “Don’t get any of the guests killed.”

“Mmmhmm.” Deacon paused then, before taking one step back, safely away from the puddle before nodding past them. “And do you see how your actions tonight may have… strained both of those rules?”

Turning that way for the first time, Mennin looked to where six figures were at the opposite end of the alley that they were all hidden within. Three of those bodies lay on the ground in various states of decapitation and dismemberment. The fourth and fifth sat on summoned wooden chairs, while the sixth, a man in a spotless white coat with a truly impressive looking sword in his hand, quietly calmed the sitting pair down and assured them that they were safe.

“They wanted to see the Red Sox game,” Mennin explained with a helpless shrug. “Isn’t one of the rules, ‘keep the guests happy?’ I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.”

“Yes,” Deacon confirmed. “And there is a reason that it comes after not getting them killed, or leading threats back to the current entrance. Mr. Tombs, the Auberge has existed under various names since before the times of the biblical New Testament, and yet we have never suffered an invasion, nor have we lost one single guest while they are under our protection, so long as they followed our rules. Residence within the Auberge is expensive precisely because our reputation precedes us. We can afford to be selective in our clientele. We provide protection and security beyond what any other Earth-based location is capable of. If you find that any of our guests wish outside entertainment, your job is to take it through the proper channels. Our people, your coworkers, will ensure that the path is safe from both Nocen and the more zealous Heretics.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sighing, Mennin offered a weak shrug. “I just thought if I impressed Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin with a fun night out, they’d put in a good word for me and Mom wouldn’t think I was such a screw-up. But now I guess she’s gonna know I’m an even bigger screw-up than she thought.”

There was a brief pause then, before Deacon shook his head. “I see no purpose in bothering your mother with every minute detail of her establishment, Mr. Tombs. The Ulfins are safe, and Francis enjoyed the work-out. He may even have acquired interesting gifts from the Heretics who followed you back here.”

Blinking up at that, Mennin found a smile. “So I didn’t fuck everything up?”

“Let’s consider it a learning experience,” Deacon offered, before clearing his throat as he stepped around and past both the man and the puddle he had fallen into during the fighting, when Francis had swooped in to kill the other three Heretics. “Mr. Ulfin, Mrs. Ulfin,” he started in a perfectly polished voice. “Come, I’m afraid that while our security is top of the line, as you see in the form of Mr. Gale here, even we must put discretion over valor when Heretics are involved. With three of their number dead, there will be more sent along to investigate.”

The two guests let themselves be escorted by Deacon and Francis past where Mennin had finally made his way to his feet, Mr. Ulfin offering a sympathetic nod to him (though the man’s wife turned up her nose and sniffed with annoyance at his appearance).

Mennin followed, and the group made their way to an innocuous-looking red door in the middle of the alley. Deacon raised a hand, knocking twice, then once, then three times in rapid succession. At the end of it, a small window-slit appeared in the middle of the previously blank door, and a pair of dark, scowling eyes peeked out. Mennin and the others stood perfectly still as the eyes scanned them (in more than one way, several of which tickled) before there was the sound of half a dozen locks being undone.

Finally, the door was pushed open, revealing a truly lavish looking hotel lobby. It would have put any of those in the human world to shame, with its lavish fountains, gold marbled floor, and hanging chandeliers.

Once they were through the door, it closed behind them. And from the point of view of any on the Earth-side, the door simply vanished, leaving behind a blank brick wall attached to an unremarkable office supply store.

“Mennin!” As Francis led the two shaken guests to the bar for a drink to calm their nerves, a pointy-eared, green-skinned female goblin in a maid’s uniform bounded across the lobby holding a stack of towels. “Nine-thirteen asked for more towels. Can you take them up? They always yell at me for being too slow. Plus, that’s right next to nine-twelve.”

“Oh, uh, sure, Elky.” Mennin started to reach out for the towels, only for Deacon to stop him with a cleared throat.

“Mr. Tombs,” Deacon spoke simply when the man looked to him, “a towel is generally used for drying oneself. Which becomes exponentially more difficult when that towel is already wet.” He nodded to the floor, where Mennin was still dripping from the puddle.

“Oh, shit!” Blurting that out, Mennin whipped a handkerchief from his pocket. “Hold on, I can do this. It was… uhh… bluebeo.”

Nothing happened, as he waved the cloth at the puddle impotently.

“Ablee?” He tried again. “Abledable? Ablingle? Blue Beetle? Blue One? Beetle Bailey? Bluckblahbleen? Ableeze?  Ablaze?”

Gently, Deacon plucked the cloth from his hand, tossing it to the floor with a firm, “Abluo.”

Instantly, as the magicked cloth touched the water, it sucked all of it up, including what was soaked into Mennin’s clothes, leaving him clean and dry before the cloth itself disintegrated and vanished.

“I would’ve gotten that one eventually,” Mennin claimed, before taking the towels from Elky.

He hurried to the elevator, riding it up to the ninth floor. Whistling under his breath, the man stode toward the door with nine-thirteen engraved in the side of it. On the way, he did his level best not to look at room nine-twelve. Though without even glancing that way, he knew what he would see if he did: a door very different from the others. One made of metal rather than wood, with no numbers engraved on it. The metal looked like steel, but was actually much stronger. Strong enough, in fact, that should the entire hotel be destroyed as the rest of the Auberge was burned to the ground, room nine-twelve would still be intact, untouched, floating in the air in whatever tiny pocket dimension the Auberge called home.

No one living seemed to know why this particular room out of all others had been so thoroughly upgraded. Aside from, perhaps, the interesting fact that its position put it in the exact center of the building, with eight floors below it and eight floors above it. It was quite literally in the center of one of the most private and protected buildings on the planet.

The spells that were on it which ensured no one could ever enter, or use any magic or power to see inside, were the most powerful of their kind that anyone Mennin knew had ever seen. The most anyone else seemed to know was that it had been that way for at least five hundred years. Whoever had been the last to rent that room had paid for permanent residence, and had spent Gods only knew how much time and energy ensuring that it would never be accessed.

Beyond that, all Mennin knew, all anyone knew, was that no one ever opened that door. No one entered that room, and no one left that room. Ever.  

Reaching the next room over, the man raised a hand to knock twice before stepping back. He did his best to pull his clothes into something resembling presentable with one hand before clearing his throat as the door opened. “Your, uh, towels, sir.”

Grunting, the big (human-looking) man took them from his hands and stepped back while jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Err, she?” Blinking uncertainly, Mennin waited until it was clear that the big guy wasn’t going to offer any further insight. With a shrug, he slowly stepped over the threshold of the room and moved inside.

The place, like all suites in the Auberge, wasn’t like some cheap, normal Bystander motel room. Each was practically the size of a palace inside, with a dozen rooms of fairly enormous size. This particular door opened into the foyer, where a second man much smaller than the first, with an obviously mechanical arm and leg stood beside a dark-haired woman whose cold expression sent a shiver down Mennin’s spine.

“Um,” he started once more, “sorry it took awhile to bring your–”

“Quiet,” the woman interrupted. After speaking that single word, she slowly moved closer. A frown touched her face. “You are the child of this facility’s current owner, are you not?”

That was a strange question, and it took Mennin a moment to answer. “Uh, yeah? I mean, technically. But Mom doesn’t really… you know, involve me in the nitty gritty of the family business very much. I’m not much more than busboy. And a handyman sometimes, so if you have problems with your pipes or–”

“Quiet,” the woman repeated that single word that made his mouth snap shut almost against his will. She watched him for another moment before speaking again. “He may be a fool, but he has access to everything we need, and won’t be suspected. He will do.”

“Oookay, yeah, I think this is where I say that you won’t–”

In mid-sentence, Mennin felt a hand on his arm. The shorter man, the one with the mechanical limbs, had moved surprisingly quickly to grab him. He opened his mouth to object while starting to pull his arm back… and then stopped.

The other man was gone, and Mennin froze. Not because the man had disappeared, but because he quite literally could not move. Until he did. His arm lowered, and he straightened up, entirely against his will.

Wha–what?! Hey! Hey! With mounting panic and confusion, the man worked to stop himself, to make himself move and take back control of his own body. What the hell just–did you just Bodysnatchers me, you son of a bitch?!

“I’m in,” his voice announced aloud. “I should get back down there before someone wonders where he is.”

“Yes,” the woman replied, and that time her voice cracked just a little as she stood up. “And while you are at it, do try not to get yourself killed by an ignorant monkey-child, thereby forcing the rest of us to abandon our actual missions to solve your problems while the rest of the Empire scrambles to correct a mistake that endangers not only our place on this world, but our entire civilization.” By the end of her brief diatribe, the woman was shaking a bit, her fist pressed against the table as she glowered at no one in particular.

Mennin didn’t have the slightest clue what they were talking about, but the big guy grimaced. “Told you, just let me have one straight go at the little bitch. I’ll make her pay for it.”

“No.” The woman’s voice was brittle, like slowly cracking glass. “You know Metatron’s orders. Until we know how she did what she did, hands off. Whether it is her mother’s doing or some other force, we are not losing anyone else to this barbaric child. Stay away from her. It’s too much of a risk, given what we have lost already.”

Boy, Mennin inwardly wondered. Whoever had pissed these guys off so much must have been pretty damn powerful.

Too bad she wasn’t here right now.

The woman said something else, but Mennin was too busy struggling in vain against the being that was puppeting his body to listen. Hey! Hey, don’t ignore me, I’m talking to you! Pay attention to–hey! Hey, I know you can hear me. Don’t make break out the Lambchop song. I went a full twenty minutes once and I’m willing to break my own record.

His body was turning by that point, heading back to the door. The big guy who had let him in was holding something in his hand. It took Mennin a second to recognize it as a flyer for the demolition derby that was happening in the same town he’d just taken Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin through. He’d seen a few ads for it while they had been out.

Waving that flyer, the big guy grunted, “You promised.”

“I did,” his own voice replied, as he gave a bow that the real him never would have been able to pull off without looking ridiculous. “You’re quite right, my love. Allow me some time to ensure my cover with the coworkers and family, and then we will have our date. I know you’ve been quite looking forward to seeing Earth entertainment again. And, while it is hardly what I would consider stimulating, I would say that your enjoyment more than makes up for such deficiencies.”

“Yeah,” the big guy replied, “love you too.”

While Mennin was trying to comprehend that, his body moved out into the hall.

Now then, the voice of his puppeter spoke, a few ground rules. First, I will tolerate your attempts at escape. It’s only natural, and I would wonder about your sanity if you did not at least try. But I will tell you now, it is futile. You are not nearly strong enough to even present a challenge. That is not meant as an insult, only simple fact.

Second, should you attempt to distract or annoy me purposefully, particularly at important points or around others, you will regret it. You will be punished, and if you manage to actually convince anyone that something is wrong, one of three things will happen. They will be possessed as well, their memories will be erased, or they will be killed. Do you understand that?

Part of Mennin thought that he should object, or threaten to hold out to the bitter end, promising the man that he would fight him forever. But… well, honestly, he was afraid. Afraid of these clearly powerful people and what they could do to him or the people he cared about.

So, after a brief pause where all those thoughts ran through his mind, he quietly (or at least he felt it was quiet, given there was no sound involved at all) responded, I understand.

There was a sense of satisfaction that he was sure the man who was his slaver allowed him to feel. Good. Now, for the good news. You could have ended up with a much worse person than me taking you, I promise you that. If you behave, do not annoy or distract me, and generally sit quietly, I will allow you moments of entertainment. You will be allowed to retain control of your own body while alone in your room, whenever I do not need you. And, so long as circumstances do not change, our business here should not end in the death of those you care for. Do you understand that?

Yes, Mennin started before blurting, but why are you here? I mean, are you thieves or assassins or…

There was a brief pause before his eyes turned to look at the door into room nine-twelve. There. The woman who purchased that room hid something inside of it. Something which we are here to recover. That is our mission. Cooperate, and we will leave when that mission is over, you will not remember any of this, and you may continue your life.

After another brief hesitation, Mennin asked, I don’t understand. If you want what’s in the room so bad, why don’t you just break the door down and get it?

He felt some minor amusement from his captor then, before the response came. I am afraid that it is much more complicated than that. His body turned then, heading back for the elevator. To enter a blood vault requires a good bit more effort and planning than simply breaking down the door.

Whoa, whoa, what? That’s a blood vault? Mennin was still reeling from everything, but that threw him for yet another loop.

Well, the other man replied, to be specific, it is a backdoor into a blood vault. Same protections as the front door, but less… shall we say, public. But yes.

That doesn’t– Mennin started to say that it didn’t make sense, before stopping himself. You need the oldest blood relative to get through that, the heir.

Yes, well… for reasons that are too involved to get into right now, we are forced to seek alternative measures, came the response.

Alternative measures? Mennin hesitated. Like… like what? How the hell are you going to get through a blood vault without the, you know, blood part?  

His body stepped onto the elevator then, his hand reaching out to press the button for the lobby as his captor replied simply, Quite carefully.

Quite carefully, indeed.

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Scout and Tristan

“Hey, I’m sorry.“

Scout started a little bit at the unexpected voice. Not only was she not actively using her enhanced hearing, she had also been lost in thought while sitting out on the grass of the school grounds. It was the same night that Flick and the others had gotten back, and they would be visiting the hospital the next day.

It was Tristan. As Scout blinked up at the boy, he settled down onto his knees nearby, wincing a little bit. “And now I’m sorry again, for surprising you that time.”

Hesitating slightly, Scout offered him a small shrug, “What for? The first time,” she asked quietly.

“I’m sorry we didn’t bring Sands back with us,” the boy clarified. “That’s what you were thinking about, right?”

Now she blushed, looking down a bit guiltily before murmuring, “I’m glad you’re all safe.”

Immediately giving her one of his charming smiles, Tristan winked. “Well of course you are, we are pretty useful to have around.” His expression sobered then, as he added, “But we’re not your sister. Trust me, I get that. I get it more than a lot of people. Plus, your mom’s out there. Your mom and your sister. So yeah, I’m sorry we didn’t bring them back with us. But hey, they’re out there. And they’re coming.”

He was right, of course. Scout had been obsessively thinking about how much she wished her mother and sister had made it back. It seemed selfish, but she wanted them to be there. She didn’t want to wait for them anymore, especially with everything that was going on with her dad. She needed Sands and their mom. Needed them more than she could explain, even to herself.

Giving a tiny nod then, she whispered, “You would have brought them if you could.”

“Damn straight we would have,” Tristan assured her. Meeting her gaze, he added, “And believe me, they want to see you as much as you want to see them. Especially your mom.”

When Scout smiled that time, it wasn’t forced at all. “I’m glad you got to save your mom.”

Okay, that time when he smiled it was less about being deliberately charming and more genuine happiness when he thought about his mother. His smile always had an effect on Scout, just like it affected most girls. But seeing that particular smile right then made her stomach do funny things.

Maybe it was the fact that she missed her mother and her sister so much. Maybe it was the fact that Avalon had been taken. Maybe it was a lot of different things. But seeing that genuine smile right then made the girl realize how much she liked seeing it. And how much she wanted to see more of it. Not his cocky grin that he used all the time, but the real smile, the private smile.

“You have a really nice smile, you know that?“

That wasn’t her. It was Tristan, saying it to her. Taken aback, the girl blinked up at him before blushing even more. Shifting her weight a little, she offered a weak, “Thank you.”

After a brief pause, Scout reached to the box tucked in her lap before offering the open end of it to him. “Cookie?”

“Oooh.” Taking one, the boy grinned. “You sure know how to treat a guy.“

You have a nice smile too.

She didn’t say that. She thought about it, and almost did. But in the end, she couldn’t bring herself to actually say it out loud. She was too confused and uncertain about things. And nervous, definitely nervous.

But maybe someday she would.

Maybe.

 

******

 

Miles Cleary (Son of the Bogeyman)

 

“You’re sure it was them?”

As he murmured the question, Miles glanced to the Hispanic boy next to him. The two of them were sitting in the cafeteria, poking a bit at the food on their plates while listening to a slight commotion from the other side of the room.

Chas Mena, Miles’ teammate, gave a short nod without looking up from his own plate of french toast. “It was them, dude. Trust me, I talked to Jiorge, who talked to Connor, who talked to Dana. She saw it with her own eyes. They were the ones with that book.”

Frowning a little, Miles looked down at the piece of paper with names scribbled on it.

Vanessa Moon, Koren Fellows, Rudolph Parsons, and Felicity Chambers.

Still frowning, the boy glanced toward the source of the commotion that had only somewhat quieted with the arrival of one of the security guys. Even before that glance, he knew what had happened. That Scout girl had punched one of the first year boys for harassing her or her friends. Zeke, he was pretty sure the guy’s name was.

Lowering his voice despite the privacy spells that he and Chas both had running, Miles murmured, “Hang on a second, let me think…”  

He had spent most of the year scouring every inch of the library for books that mention the guy who had his parents. Every inch of it. And somehow, somehow, it turned out that months earlier, there had been a few first year students looking at a book that mentioned Fossor. A book that, from the description given, he’d never seen before. Never seen. Ever. And those first year students had just picked it up in the exactly same library that he’d searched a dozen times.

Oh, and to make matters even more confusing, the first year students who were using it happened to be that Felicity Chambers girl, who kept disappearing and getting in weird trouble; Rudolph Parsons, who was part of the new team that formed when half of hers and half of his up and vanished; Vanessa Moon, who also disappeared for awhile and whose twin brother miraculously appeared earlier that year; and Koren Fellows, who had some weird thing going on with Chambers too that no one seemed to have a straight answer about.

With all of that in mind, Miles looked over to Chas. “There’s something really fucked up going on around here. I mean, there’s always fucked up things going on, but that Chambers girl seems to have more than her fair share, you know?” After another pause, he asked, “What did Dana hear them say, again?”

“Chambers got really interested as soon as that Koren chick mentioned the name Fossor,” the other boy replied. “Grabbed the book right out of her hand. The book was talking about how the old Heretics back in the day made an alliance with Fossor and he betrayed them to make the Black Death. And, uhh, there’s something else. The guy who made the alliance was Gabriel Ruthers.”

Doing a quick doubletake at that, Miles blurted, “The old headmaster? What—” Opening and shutting his mouth, he finally sighed. “And now that Chambers girl and the Moon twins just showed up again, without the others.”

“She knows about Fossor, that’s for sure,” Chas pointed out quietly. “Maybe he’s involved with whatever’s going on with that group? Doesn’t someone keep attacking Headmistress Sinclaire’s hot new Eden’s Garden daughter? You think they went outside Crossroads for help with that and ended up getting in bed with Fossor just like Ruthers and the old Heretics did? Err, and by in bed, I mean metaphorically because eeeuuugghhh.”

Shaking his head, Miles sighed. “I dunno. We need to find out more.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Chas asked.

Looking back to the boy, Miles replied, “We need to talk to Royce. He’s the investigator.

“And we need to investigate Felicity Chambers, Vanessa Moon, Koren Fellows, and Rudolph Parsons.”

 

******

Dylan Averty

 

“It’s the eggs.”

Blinking at the statement, a tall, heavy-set, dark-skinned man with graying hair glanced to the figure beside him. Both were as different as night and day. Where he was dark, tall, overweight, and old, she was young, pale, thin to the point of near anorexia, and had hair that was incredibly dark. The only similarity between the two were the dark blue uniform shirts they wore with the name of the store they both worked at and were currently standing in stenciled across the front.

“What’s the eggs?” Hubert Longs carefully asked, knowing he would likely regret doing so.

“They’re spies,” came the answer that proved his suspicion correct, as the young brunette narrowed her gaze across the back end of the store, glaring at the cartons in question as though she could intimidate them into confession.

Slowly, Hubert looked from the girl, to the egg cartons in the distance, then back again. “They’re eggs,” he spoke in a voice that made it clear he felt ridiculous even needing to point that out. “Dylan, eggs can’t be spies.”

The girl, Dylan Averty, snapped her gaze to him. “Can’t they? Who would suspect them?”

Letting out a long breath, Hubert shook his head. “Look, kid, I was with you for most of this, right? I helped you put those weird symbols on all the grocery carts and in the baskets. I even went on the roof and the petals from those weird flowers you brought in, and I still have a rash from that. I helped you make those creepy dolls of all our coworkers because I thought you had some weird prank or something in mind. Then I remembered it’s almost May. You missed April Fools completely and it’s months before Halloween.”

“I told you,” Dylan insisted, “If one of our coworkers turns evil or gets possessed, you’re going to be glad that we have voodoo dolls to handle it. It’s called being prepared. And I don’t see your point.”  

“My point,” Hubert informed her, “is that I’ve gone along with all that. And more. But eggs? They can’t be spying on us. They don’t even have eyes. You’re thinking of potatoes.” He tried to joke at the last bit, smiling at her.

She wasn’t smiling. “Not anymore, they don’t,” the girl informed him while holding up a paring knife in one hand with a chunk of potato still stuck to it. “You think I’d leave that kind of security risk like some kind of amateur?”

Doing a quick doubletake at that, Hubert caught himself. “Err, you–okay, look, the point is that I’ve gone along with most of this because I know it makes you feel better after… after what you went through. All this weird stuff, I know it’s your way of coping. But eggs? What do you want us to do with all the eggs?”

“Throw them out,” Dylan announced immediately. “They’re spying on us. Or me. Or you. Or someone. I don’t know, but they are. Someone put a spell on them. Or maybe on the cartons. Or…” She sighed then, squirming as she admitted, “I don’t know, not exactly. But I feel funny when I walk past them. Funny in my stomach. There’s a spell on them. I can feel it.”

“A spell… on the eggs, turning them into spies, so you want to throw all of them away?” Hubert concluded, staring at the girl. “You want to throw out hundreds of dollars worth of eggs, because you get a funny feeling when you walk past them.”

“Oh good,” Dylan announced then. “So we’re on the same page. You start on that end, I’ll start on this one.” She started for the eggs.

“Leeeeeeeeeet’s not,” Hubert corrected, reaching out to catch the girl’s shoulder in mid-step. “Look, is there another… uhh, ‘spell’ we can use to stop the eggs from spying on anyone?”

Frowning, Dylan shrugged. “Uhh, maybe? I dunno. It’d be easier just to break them.”

“That depends on your definition of easy,” Hubert retorted. “If it’d make you feel better, we can volunteer for clean-up duty tonight and I’ll help you use whatever magic spell you want to, okay? Whatever makes you feel better.  But we’re not breaking all those cartons-worth of eggs.”

“Not even if I say that it’s the best way to keep Galazien the Iron-Souled off of our plane of existence?” Dylan asked, while batting her eyelashes at him with a forlorn puppy look.

Hubert’s head shook at that. “Sorry, the Iron-Soul scares me less than getting fired. Or you getting fired, kid.”

Huffing, Dylan folded her arms, muttering, “That’s just because you haven’t seen his fire-breathing skeleton horses. But fine, I guess we can use a spell instead.”

“Great,” Hubert replied with relief. “But in the meantime, let’s go see about stocking the soda in aisle four before Perry has a conniption fit.”

As the two walked that way, they distantly heard a voice crying out from the direction of the produce and vegetable aisles.

“Who the hell stabbed all the potatoes!?”  

 

******

Sariel and Gaia

 

Do you know how many planets the leaders of my people would sacrifice to have someone loyal to them where I am right now?

In response to Sariel’s mental voice, Gaia paused briefly before responding simply, Somehow, I do not think that ‘reunited with your children’ is what you mean by that.

There was silence for a moment then, before Sariel replied, Hold on a second. I think I can…

Abruptly, the Seosten woman appeared, standing in the middle of a vast white emptiness. A second later, Gaia appeared in front of her.

It wasn’t really them, of course. Or at least, it wasn’t their physical bodies. Gaia was still standing in that desert, talking to the Committee. And Sariel was still possessing her. These were simply manifestations of the two created within a mental landscape.

“There,” Sariel’s mental construct spoke. “This might be an easier way for us to talk. Unless you find it too distracting.”

Focusing on her after glancing around briefly, Gaia’s mental projection shook her head. “Trust me, I have learned to multitask quite well over the centuries. But you…” She paused, looking the other woman up and down. “Even in a construct created entirely by your own mind, you look exhausted, Mrs. Moon. And please, do not say that you will be fine. That may work on your children, but it has been quite some time since I was a child.”

Opening her mouth and then shutting it at the repudiation, Sariel finally nodded. “You’re right, I’m barely holding it together. I have been tortured, broken, raped, treated as breeding stock, and had children taken away from me to be put through Cronus knows what. For the past decade, my life has been–” Cutting herself off, the woman shook a bit with emotion before swallowing hard. “And it’s my fault. Puriel found us because I went looking for Joselyn. I was trying to help her and all I ended up doing was leading them right back to our home so that they could rip my own family apart.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied quietly, “sometimes even our best intentions may end poorly. Though some would say that you have had more than your fair share of bad luck in that regard. There are those who might guess that you were cursed somehow.”

“Cursed…” Muttering the word under her breath, Sariel snorted before looking up again. “I know what you’re planning to do. Those things that you sent the two vampires, the Pooka, and the pixie to collect. I know what you’re going to do with them. I can hear the thoughts, the plans, right there on the surface of your thoughts. But then, you knew that I’d know. You knew that I’d hear those thoughts, that you couldn’t keep them from me. And you still let me in your head.”

“I need an expert,” Gaia informed her. “Someone who can tell me what I’ve missed, and how to do it properly. Because there will be no second chances.”

Sariel hesitated, squinting at her. “And you believe that I can help you with it? More to the point, you said yourself that I seem to be cursed. So what makes you believe that I would be a safe partner to have with something as important as that? Like you said, there will only be one chance. My people won’t see it coming, but if you try and fail… that’s it.”

Nodding once, Gaia pointedly replied, “Precisely why I need your help, Mrs. Moon. You are perhaps one of the only people on this planet who could help with something like this. And I do not believe you are cursed. You have enemies, and a tragic lack of self-confidence or sense of self-worth. But I do not believe that you are magically cursed.”

The Seosten woman was silent for a few seconds, looking away before she turned her attention back to Gaia. “Every time I try to help, something goes wrong. How can you say that I’m not cursed? How can you say that you want to risk that, given what you’re trying to do? You know that the enormity of that task will not allow for mistakes.”

“It must be perfect,” Gaia agreed. “And you can help with that. This is a very complicated bit of magic. There are a million tiny ways it could go wrong. One incorrect syllable, one component placed one millimeter out of line, one thing done anything less than perfect, and it will all be for naught. You have a perfect memory. You understand what I am doing, and why.”

“Not to mention,” Sariel put in then, “that focusing on that will take a couple weeks. And between that and spending time with my children, I won’t have time to get into any other trouble.”

“It will keep your mind occupied,” the other woman confirmed. “And it will take more than a couple of weeks. I believe it will take at least a month, if not more. Because I expect you to spend most of your time with your people, with the other Seosten once we awaken them, and with your children. And, in time, with your husband. That has priority. But when you have a free moment, yes, your skills as a… proofreader, if you will, of this spell would be most welcome.”

Sariel smiled just a little at that. “You really do want to keep me busy. Caring for my people and spending time with my family… you want me to use the time that I would otherwise spend brooding or obsessing over my captivity on this spell.”

“I find keeping oneself occupied is quite useful at those times,” Gaia informed her with a small smile in return. “And I believe that you are the very best possible person for this job. Everything that has happened to you, good and bad, has led you to have the children that you do. And it has led you here. Your skills, your expertise, they are what is needed to finish this project. Will you help?”

For the briefest of moments, Sariel was quiet. Then she straightened a bit, giving the other woman a slight nod. “Of course.

“If nothing else, I can’t wait to see the look on my people’s faces when you pull it off.”

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Desperate Measures 37-08

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Manakel would have killed us, all three of us (plus the others who were already unconscious) within the next second if he’d had the chance. I was certain of that much. When he had clearly been winning, he had been just arrogant enough to let it keep going. But now, once Tabbris spoke that single word to activate the spell that would take his protective shield down for one brief instant, he didn’t have the time to spare. He would end this immediately, and we were in no shape to stop him. Hell, we wouldn’t have been in the shape to stop him at the best of times, let alone now.

And he started with Tabbris. His arms jerked up and out, sending Avalon and me flying in opposite directions. I crashed down with a yelp, in time to see the man lunging that way. His sword was out of Avalon, blood dripping from it as he drove the weapon for the young girl’s back, even as I shouted. Warning, threat, plea? Probably all of the above.

In that instant, however, as the sword was driven down, there was a sudden crack in the air. And the blade was caught by a whip that stretched across the room.

Gaia. She was there. Her whip caught the blade a nanosecond before it would have gone into Tabbris’s back, before she gave a sharp yank that sent the weapon flying away from the man to clatter against the far wall. An instant later, the whip was cracking through the air once more, toward his face.

But it was more than that, I realized in that moment. As the whip snapped that way, I caught the slightest glimpse of something else. Around the edges of the whip was a view of somewhere else. It was hard to describe, but it was like… like there was some kind of very narrow portal or something extended just a couple inches out from the whip itself. That… tear of sorts in space would stay for a moment or two after the whip passed before shifting back to normal.

Then I understood. Gaia’s whip created a very minor portal around itself so that it would cut through basically anything. Any defense or shield that was put up to block it, that one or two inch portal would cut it out of the way so that the whip itself could reach its target. Gaia must have been able to control exactly what the portal affected, or when it was actually active. Or something. The point was, the portal-edge of it let the weapon pass through anything. And, I was sure, pretty much kill almost anything. Whipping a portal into someone had to be pretty damn hazardous for their health, after all. Between that and the fact that the whip could extend to fairly ludicrous lengths, yeah, I could see why Gaia’s weapon was so dangerous.

Manakel reacted just as quickly.. He vanished, disappearing from that spot just before the whip would have hit him. Then Kohaku, who had been on the ground after her forcefield collapsed, was on her feet. Recall, he’d recalled into her.

“Gaia!” I blurted while shoving myself up a bit, “It’s Kohaku! It–”

But the headmistress was already reacting. As the Manakel-possessed Kohaku made it to her feet, the other woman held her free hand out, starting to conjure some kind of golden forcefield orb around her. There were strange, green glowing runes on the sides of the forcefield. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I had the feeling it would contain the woman. And maybe even Manakel himself.

Before it could fully manifest, however, the dead Rudolph was up on his feet. His body threw itself at Gaia, who had to turn her attention ever so briefly toward him with a gesture that sent the boy flying out of the way. I could tell she was trying to be gentle with it, even as vines sprouted from the wood of the wall and held Rudolph’s body close.

Just as quickly, Gaia’s attention snapped back to Manakel, who had used that moment to move for the teleportation jammer. As Kohaku’s hand reached toward it, however, a smaller glowing forcefield appeared around the thing to stop him from disabling it.

“Leaving so soon?” Gaia’s voice was hard then, as she added, “I think I would prefer if you stayed.” With those words, she gestured, and the stasis fields that were trapping Koren, Dare, and the others all switched off. The now-former hostages all collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

“She thought you would save her, you know.” There was twisted venom behind Manakel’s words as he spoke through Kohaku. “She thought you’d realize the truth. For awhile, at least. I’m not sure when she gave up. Honestly, I’d stopped listening to her by that point.”

If his attempt to guilt Gaia worked, the woman didn’t show it. Her face remained impassive, as she met the possessed woman’s eyes. “I will give you one chance to release her.”

Giving a tiny, almost imperceptible smile, Manakel-through-Kohaku replied simply, “I understand your confidence. After all, you brought two Committee members in with you. And the mighty Prosser himself. Quite impressive. But I’m afraid that they’re running into problems of their own. You see, a lot of quite powerful beings, Heretic and Stranger alike, have died in this hospital, or had their bodies brought here. It makes for quite an emergency army, should one have nothing else to lose and no need to even play at subtlety. You are on your own, Headmistress.”

Gaia’s expression never faltered, never changed at all. “I am as alone as you, Manakel.”

Something happened then between the two of them. It was like they had an entire battle without ever moving an inch. I saw their eyes flicker, judging the distance between them, the powers that they could bring to bear, the people that could get in the way. They each saw what the other could have done, and how they themselves would react. They both saw all of it, the openings and the retaliations. There were dozens of battles taking place in those few seconds, all fought purely in their minds and through their eyes as they watched and judged one another.

Through it all, I didn’t dare move. Every part of me screamed to go for Avalon, who had become entirely too quiet. But I couldn’t. Moving from where I was would have made me a potential obstacle, or a hostage to use against Gaia. I had to stay put, and completely still. It was, I was sure, the same reason that Tabbris hadn’t moved. We didn’t dare interrupt. Not this. Not now.

But in the end, one of them had to move first. And given the condition Avalon was in, it had to be Gaia. With absolutely no warning or gesture, the woman made her move. And that move was to make the unconscious Columbus’s goggles shoot at Manakel-Kohaku from the side. At the exact same time, Vulcan (still in his gun form) fired as well. As did Scout’s gun. Even my own fallen staff fired off a concussive blast from one end. In an instant, the Seosten bastard was being attacked from all sides.

Manakel solved the problem the same way I figured most necromancers solved most of their problems: with dead bodies. In that same instant, a handful of them simply appeared around him. Two wore hospital gowns while the third was a doctor. But all of them were very clearly dead even before they were struck by the attacks meant for their master.

The first, one of the patients, suddenly disappeared into a blur of motion that went straight for Gaia. At the same time, the doctor zombie extended a hand and fired a bright blue laser at her, while the other dead patient somehow summoned what looked like dozens of tiny knives in midair before sending them flying that way.

Distractions, all of them. Gaia dealt with them in short order, her whip lashing out to create a portal that the knives went into, while she simply absorbed the energy from the laser. As for the guy who was using superspeed to rush straight for her, the woman’s hand snapped out. She caught him by the throat, stopping him in mid-blur. Then Gaia spoke a single word, and all three bodies instantly turned to ash.

Manakel-Kohaku, by that point, had summoned a massive spear of ice. The thing was a good nine feet long and two feet thick along the shaft. With a grunt, he sent it flying at the headmistress.

Gaia didn’t move. I saw a weird hazy effect appear in front of her, like a very intense, very concentrated spot of heat shaped in a wedge around the woman. As the ice-spear reached that spot, it instantly melted, before just as instantly evaporating. The water from the ice didn’t even have a chance to touch anything else before it was gone.

Without giving Manakel another chance to attack, Gaia summoned some sort of chains made of bright light, which flew at the possessed woman across from her.

Whatever those chains were, apparently Manakel didn’t want them touching his host, because her hand snapped up to create a metal wall between them. The chains bounced off, creating a brief, blinding flash of light that made me flinch. And in that same instant, as I flinched, I felt a strong hand yank me off the floor.

Manakel had me. Using Kohaku’s body, he hauled me up, putting my body between him (or her) and Gaia. His other hand produced a knife from his belt. “Now, really,” he addressed the woman while holding his arm around my neck in an iron grip, “you’re already about to lose one girl you practically see as a child.” His head nodded toward the bleeding, horribly pale Avalon. “Do you really want to make it two in one night, Headmistress?”

Before Gaia could speak, I found myself snarling, “Hey, Manakel…” As I spoke, my hand snapped up to his arm.

I couldn’t possess him. Even I wasn’t that stupid. It would have been suicide in that moment. The man was several thousand years old, and I was just a teenager. Even with Charmiene’s power, he’d utterly erase me the second I tried it.

But there was something else that I could do, a power that I had just picked up. Tabbris had told me that I could instantly draw symbols, pictures, letters, whatever onto solid surfaces by touching them. I’d thought about how well that would work for spells. It would have to be spells that I knew perfectly, however. Even the slightest wrongly curved line here or there would ruin the spell. And without a perfect memory like the Seosten had, the spells that I could create instantly just like that without looking them up or taking my time to let muscle memory help with the brush strokes were limited. But there was one spell that I knew incredibly well, one spell that I had memorized perfectly. One spell that I could have drawn blindfolded, on any surface.

It was, of course, the spell that I had learned from Gabriel Prosser, the spell that would drive any Seosten out of the host it was drawn onto. And as my hand closed around Kohaku’s exposed wrist, I used my new power to instantly draw that spell into her skin, shoving all the power that I could into it while blurting, “Get out of my teacher!”

It was an instantaneous thing. I heard a cry of pain escape both Kohaku, and Manakel himself as the man stumbled out of his host. Kohaku’s grip around my throat relaxed, as the woman herself collapsed to the floor in a heap.

I spun, just as Gaia reached me. But both of us were too late. Manakel, now hostless but recovering almost instantly from the pain of that spell, touched some kind of spell on his cufflink. In a brief flash of blue light, he vanished.

“He’s running.” Gaia’s voice was flat as she stood beside me. “Still in the building, but he’s running.” While she spoke, the woman briefly touched my shoulder, concern written in her eyes before she glanced toward Avalon. Pain wrote itself across her face, as she announced, “His blade is poisoned. It’s blocking her power.”

That was why Avalon was so pale. The wound itself didn’t help, of course. But her regeneration wasn’t working. She wasn’t getting any better, because of that poison. Of course. Of course that fucking piece of shit would have a poisoned blade, just in case.  

“He’ll have the cure on him.” The words came from the glowing figure who appeared next to Gaia, before resolving into Sariel. She’d been possessing the headmistress. “And if I know Manakel, it’ll be the only cure you can get to in time.”

“Mama!” Tabbris had picked herself off the floor, flinging herself at her mother to cling onto her. And in that moment, I caught my first glimpse of the girl’s face, the first time that I had seen her since this terrible night had begun.

Facepaint. Her face was painted to look like a fox. It was… simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking. The things that she’d had to do, the things that she’d had to help with… and she looked like that? It reinforced that she was just a little kid, who should have been able to do little kid things. I wanted to hug her, but I also felt ashamed, and sick to my stomach.

Still, the idea that Manakel had essentially been beaten here by a tiny girl in fox-face paint was… kind of appropriate. Horrified as I was by the whole situation, some part of me also appreciated that.

For her part, Avalon was shaking her head, mumbling deliriously about how she was fine and to do something about the others. I wasn’t sure she even knew what was going on or where she was, to be honest. Seeing her like that, after turning my gaze away from Tabbris, didn’t help. Manakel had done all this. Manakel was, in no uncertain terms, a fucking monster.

My eyes glanced briefly around the room at that thought. Rudolph… Rudolph was dead. Scout, Columbus, Shiori, Choo, and Doug were unconscious. So were Sean, Vulcan (if he could be unconscious), Deveron, Koren, Nevada, and Professor Dare. And, of course, Professor Kohaku was still down, right there in the middle of the room.

“Gaia.” I spoke without thinking, pain and desperation in my voice as I fell to my knees on the other side of Avalon. “Please. You have to stop him. He’ll have another way out. I know you think he’s trapped in here, but he’ll find a way. He’ll get away and we’ll lose Valley. Please, stop him.”

“Yes,” the woman agreed, already starting to the door. She paused, glancing back to where Sariel and Tabbris were. “Can…”

“I have magic that will stabilize her,” Sariel confirmed. “Go. I’ll keep her alive until you bring back the cure from Manakel. But you should hurry. He will avoid the Committee members and Gabriel, which will slow him down. But he will have another way out.”

Without another word, Gaia left, chasing after Manakel before the man found his way to whatever secret escape hole he’d set up. All I could do was pray that she made it to him in time. Please, please let her make it to him in time.

I couldn’t lose Avalon. I just… I just couldn’t. Kneeling there, staring at the girl that I had grown to adore over all these months, I fought the tears that flooded my eyes.

She looked broken, in so many ways. Bones poking through limbs, blood literally covering her shirt, face pale and eyes unseeing as she mumbled incoherently. We were losing her. We were losing her so fast.

Sariel moved then, one hand producing a field-engraver, which she used to quickly draw several spells around the floor beside Avalon, as well as on the girl herself. Nearby, I saw Tabbris doing the same, helping her mother with her own quick spellwork. The two of them drew so quickly I could barely follow what they were doing, as the runes around and on Avalon grew more and more complicated.

“We can keep her alive,” Sariel announced quietly as she glanced to me, “but we can’t fix her. We can stop the poison from making things even worse.”  

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I admitted, blinking tears of frustration and helpless terror out of my eyes. “Gaia, Gaia and the others have to find him. They have to get the cure. They–”

“Stop… stop… him.” The voice was weak, and I glanced quickly back to see Kohaku. The woman’s eyes were barely open, as she stared at me. She was clearly fighting to stay conscious, and losing that fight. “Escape…” she continued even more softly. “He’ll escape… Hatch. Hatch in… in nursery. Hatch in nursery.”

She collapsed once more then, eyes falling shut as her body slumped. It had been all she could do to pass that message along. The nursery, that son of a bitch was going to escape through some kind of hatch in the nursery.

My gaze snapped back around, just in time to see Sariel with her own eyes closed. She opened them after a second, head shaking. “Gaia knows,” she informed us, “but she won’t make it in time. She and the others are… occupied. Manakel wasn’t lying about the threats he could produce. They must have been hiding dead bodies here for decades, at least. Between that and the forces he already had, it’s… taking time.”

“We don’t have time!” I blurted then. “Valley doesn’t have time! We–” I was on my feet then, starting to move. “We have to slow him down.”

“I have to keep the spell going,” Sariel informed me. “Or Avalon won’t make it long enough for that cure to matter. And you can’t face him alone.”

“She won’t be alone, Mama,” Tabbris corrected her, moving to stand next to me. “We can’t beat him, but maybe we can slow him down, just enough?”

My mouth opened, then shut, as a light clicked on in my mind.

“Actually… maybe we can beat him.”

******

He better still be there, I directed inwardly while sprinting down the hall a few minutes later. I had made my way through the hospital as quickly as I could. There had been basically nothing in my way, since every possible threat was busy throwing itself at Gaia and the other much more powerful people. We can’t be too late, we can’t be!

He’ll be there, my Seosten partner assured me. We’ll make it.

She was right. I skidded my way into the nursery, just in time to see the man himself. He was there, on the opposite side of the room as he strode toward some door, already raising his hand.

The hatch. It had to be the hatch, his escape portal. He was going for it.

My voice filled the room then, and I heard the loathing within it. “Manakel.

Two steps from his exit, the man spun to me. I saw the toll that his trip through the hospital had taken on him. The strain of all the zombies he had raised and was using to keep the others busy was visible right there on his face. He was sweating, fighting to keep himself moving.

And yet, even then, I had absolutely no doubt that he could easily kill me if we were to fight one on one. He could have been half-dead and he’d still put me down before I could blink.

“Miss Chambers,” the man grunted, “I must say, you are very… persistent. And resilient. How is Miss Sinclaire, hmm?”

Narrowing my eyes at him, I replied simply, “I just figured you might not want to leave without finishing what you started. After all, I’m right here. And I did pretty much just kick your ass up there.”

The man chuckled low and dangerously at that. “Child, I know where the headmistress and the other members of your cavalry are. I know where everything in this hospital is. And let me assure you, if your plan was to delay me long enough to ensure their arrival, you have made a grave tactical error.”

There was a blur of motion then, before the man slammed into me so hard the wind was knocked from my lungs, before my back hit the wall, Manakel was there, shoving me up against that wall with a growled, “A very… grave… error.”

Using one hand to hold me against the wall, the Seosten man moved his other hand to my throat. I felt it close, instantly cutting off my air. All the man had to do was squeeze for another second, and I would be dead. Gone. Erased.

But I moved first. My hand caught his wrist, and our eyes met.

“Oh, Miss Chambers,” Manakel murmured with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. “I have been alive for millennia. If you believe that you stand the slightest prayer of surviving a possession attempt, you are far more deluded than I believed. Even with whatever Seosten child you have dragged along on this endeavor, you will both fail.”

“Oh, I dunno,” I replied in a flat voice, “I’m a scrappy one.”

With those words, I used my power. I possessed Manakel.

Instantly, I felt the weight of his willpower, his power, period. I felt how much he dwarfed me. Can you feel it, Miss Chambers? I heard him speak into my mind while pressing just a tiny bit of his power down on me, like a boy barely touching his thumb to a bug to pin it down. Can you feel just how lost you are? You chose this. Remember that, in whatever tiny part of your shattered consciousness exists after this. Remember that you chose to pursue your own destruction when you could easily have left this confrontation to your betters. What comes next can be blamed only on yourself.

Yes. I had brought this on myself. I had come here. I had tracked him down. I had possessed him, already knowing everything that he said was true. He was right about all of it. I couldn’t beat him. Even with the power I had taken from Charmiene, I was nothing. I was a speck of dust under the kind of mental strength that the man who had been Hades could bring to bear. He would easily, pathetically easily swat my entire mind aside like an annoying fly. My personality, my mind, everything I was, would vanish in the blink of an eye. I would be nothing to him. Tabbris couldn’t help. She was eight. He, meanwhile, was approaching the double digits of millennia. As wonderful and amazing as my little sister, my partner, was, she wouldn’t be able to help me here. Not this time. Not against someone as powerful as Manakel was.

So… it was a good thing that she wasn’t the one possessing me.

Manakel.

Once more, that single word was spoken. Just as it had been a minute earlier when it had first gained the man’s attention. And now, as then, it wasn’t actually me speaking.

There was a brief pause, and I felt the man’s confusion. I felt his sudden uncertainty, which slowly turned to disbelief, then denial, and finally… it was there.

Fear.

Sariel.

Yes. Sariel. That was my plan. That was the last thing I’d said before leaving that office, that Sariel and Tabbris should switch places, that Tabbris should use her own magic to keep Avalon alive while Sariel came with me. Because Manakel had been right, Tabbris stood no chance at beating him in a possession contest. She and I both would have been completely crushed. But Sariel was different. Sariel was far, far stronger. Especially when her power was combined with Charmiene’s. Strong enough that, despite the fact that I could feel the man straining to turn back to his escape hatch, his feet remained firmly planted to the floor.
He was trapped.

Hello, Manakel, the woman’s voice spoke silently within his own head. Do you remember what you said to me all those years ago, on the ship whenever one of us was sent on a mission?

There was a brief pause, before the man’s response came. I told you only to say goodbye when you know that you’ll never see the person again.

Again, silence reigned for a moment, before…

Goodbye, Manakel.

I heard his voice start to speak. I heard his sudden panic, his denial, his rage. I felt him struggle to take back control. All of it in vain, as his hand snapped down to draw a dagger from his own belt, gripping it tightly despite his desperate attempts to throw it away, to release it, to let go. His hand held that dagger in a grip that was so tight, it was almost painful.

Then his own hand, gripping that dagger, stabbed it deep, all the way to the hilt… through his own eye and into his brain.

And the indescribable, blinding rush of pleasure that I felt in that moment? Well, let’s just say that only part of it came from being a Heretic.

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