Month: September 2018

Day After Day 39-02

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So Larees was with me as I walked across that cobblestone path, making my way with the Seosten woman around all the beautiful statues and fountains before reaching the building itself. Up close it was even more intimidating. The entire width of the front of the building was taken up by a wide flight of about twenty stairs to reach the midway point. There was a sort-of landing there with more gardens to look through that seemed to stretch all the way around the building before another twenty steps continued up, narrowing the whole way before reaching the enormous, fifteen-foot high double doors. Those were open already, while a couple Heretics stood on either side of them to let people in.

I didn’t recognize either of the doormen, which wasn’t exactly surprising. They each held enormous weapons. One was a sword that looked bigger than my entire body. Correction, it looked bigger than my dad’s entire body. The guy who held it was almost seven feet tall, and was holding the blade against the ground with his hand resting on the hilt. He gave me a brief nod as we approached, exchanging a brief look with his partner (who was only a few inches shorter than him and held an equally large axe) before turning his attention back to us. “Names, please.”

“Um, Felicity Chambers,” I replied before nodding toward the woman next to me. “This is Lara Rheese.”

“Guest of Gaia Sinclaire,” she clarified after taking a slow, deliberate drink from her flask.

The two men actually seemed to react more to my name than Larees’s. They barely acknowledged her at all. But in my case, they visibly rocked backward somewhat, giving me a much more thorough inspection before the bigger guy cleared his throat. “You can both go in.”

Once we had passed through the doors and made our way into what turned out to be a circular lobby area with twin staircases leading up either side to a landing and about a dozen doors scattered around both levels, Larees glanced to me. She produced something that I had to believe was a privacy spell of some kind before speaking. “Is it me, or were you a bigger deal to those guys than some woman they’ve never heard of that’s only here on their school headmistress’s say-so?”

“Yeah,” I muttered after glancing around at the small pockets of quietly murmuring people spread throughout the room, “I’m starting to wonder just how many people kept their memories of my mother. Or if I just have that much of a reputation already. It could be about my mom, or it could just be my own stuff.” Belatedly, I added, “And I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.”

Taking another swig, Larees offered me the flask. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure those big guys were intimidated by you. So I’d say whatever it is, you’re getting some kind of reputation.”

“Uh.” Pausing, I shook my head while waving the flask off. “No thanks. I’m not exactly a big drinker. And I have no idea what something that could affect a Seosten would do to to a human. Though the whole regeneration thing would probably–no, thanks. If nothing else, now’s just probably not the best time for experimenting.”

As Larees shrugged before taking a sip for herself, the others approached from the other side of the room where they had been waiting. Sean was first, and I had a second to appreciate how handsome he was with his hair slicked back. Like the rest of us, he was wearing his school uniform, while Vulcan, trotting alongside him, had a neat little bowtie.

“Hey, Flick,” Sean started before seeing exactly who was with me. “Who’s your–holy shit!” The last bit came out in a burst even as the boy’s own hand snapped up too late to cover his mouth. He stared, letting the others catch up before hissing, “Uhh, you’re–but you’re a–what–”

“He wants to know what you’re doing here.” That was Columbus, translating flatly while staying well away from Larees. His tone wasn’t exactly openly suspicious or anything, but it was clear that he had… let’s call it mixed feelings about the woman’s presence.

Quickly, I explained, “She’s here to speak to Doug’s grandfather Sulan. Sariel was going to come, but she doesn’t want Vanessa and Tristan’s mother returning to overshadow Rudolph’s funeral. So Larees came as Gaia’s guest.”

“Natural Heretic,” Scout quietly guessed after looking the woman up and down briefly.

“That’s the story,” Larees confirmed. “So don’t blow my cover or anything, okay? If could get pretty awkward if I have to fight my way out of here in the middle of a funeral. Oh, and uhh…” Belatedly, she looked toward Doug. “I heard you were close to him. So, I’m sorry for your loss.” Her tone had changed by that point, turning sincere as she offered her condolences. “And I want you to know that I didn’t come to make light of his death. I’ve seen too fucking much of it as it is. But I did want to look around and see what we’re dealing with, and beyond meeting with this Sulan guy, this was a… a decent way to see a lot of Heretics in one place.”

“It’s okay,” Doug informed her. “Most of these people didn’t really know Rudolph at all anyway, so what’s one more person? You–” He stopped, visibly flinching. “That sounded worse than I meant. I just–”

“Don’t worry about it.” Larees insisted. “You don’t have to explain anything. But I do want you to know that if you want me to leave and just meet Sulan somewhere else, you just say the word. This, this right here? It’s about your friend, about his life. And I don’t plan on being the one who fucks that up.”

There was a brief pause then before Doug shook his head. “Like I said, there’s plenty of people here who didn’t know Rudolph. Besides, if letting you get a look at the people around here, and meeting with Grandpa Sulan helps… well, Rudolph would’ve wanted it that way. He would have wanted his funeral to mean something, he’d want it to be worth something more than… this. Not just a bunch of people standing around making speeches about him when they never–”

He looked away then, choking up a little while reflexively reaching up toward his head. Only there was no hat there, so he just sort of awkwardly rubbed his hair.

I didn’t blame Doug for his reaction to all of this. The Heretics were mostly using Rudolph as a sort of… not quite a prop, but they were essentially saying that he was the last death from the infiltrators. There had been funerals for those who had died in that ‘final’ assault all week long, with Rudolph being the final and apparently grandest one. They were making a big deal out of it not because of who Rudolph was or anything he had done, but as ‘the final victim’ of the infiltrators that they believed they had destroyed. In a way, it was almost as much a celebration as it was a funeral.

So yeah, I really didn’t blame Doug one bit for his reaction. In fact, I was kind of surprised that he hadn’t hit anyone yet.

Professor Dare approached then, crossing the circular lobby to join us. If she was the least bit surprised by Larees’s presence, which I doubted to begin with, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad you all made it through,” she started softly before stepping back to gesture with an arm. “Come, I’ll show you where to sit. Douglas, your grandfather would like you to sit with him, but he said if you’d rather stay with your teammates until after–”

“It’s okay,” Doug replied simply. “I want to see him too. And–” He gave Larees a brief glance. “And I guess we should make introductions anyway.”

Dare nodded before leading us across the room. “We’ll take the others to their seats, then I’ll show you where Sulan’s box is.”

Box? I had a moment to wonder about that just before we went through one of the doors on the lower level. What we came into didn’t look like the meeting room part of a church. It looked more like… like the theater or an opera hall. There was a stage far below, with rows upon rows of comfortable-looking seats rising up toward the back where we were. Above, I could see the privacy booths or box seats or whatever they were that Dare had been referring to. There were a dozen of them, small balcony areas where important people could sit away from the crowd.

Jeez, what was this place being used for when there wasn’t a funeral to do? Was this an actual theater? Were there Heretic… performers? That made sense, but I was still a bit surprised. And it reminded me that there was still an awful lot about Crossroads as a society that I didn’t know.

Showing the rest of us to seats about halfway down, near the right-hand railing, Professor Dare asked, “Do you guys need anything else right now? It should be starting in about ten minutes.”

We shook our heads, and she went with Doug and Larees to show them to the balcony room where Sulan apparently was. I kind of wished that I was there for that conversation, but I supposed I’d just have to wait and hear about it later.

Which left me sitting there with Scout to my left, Columbus to my right, and Sean on the other side of him. Vulcan was sitting at attention on the floor right next to Sean, between his seat and the wall. We were only alone in that area for a minute or two, before Marina joined us, sitting beside Scout. A moment later, Shiori and Koren showed up with their team, escorted by their mentor, Andrew Bruhn. Both my niece and my girlfriend gave me brief looks before I nodded to show that I was alright.

Aylen was there too, her presence reminding me of that weird conversation we’d had before everything happened at the hospital. I still didn’t know what happened between her and Avalon. I was really going to have to ask about that eventually.

Leaning forward to see past Scout, I looked to Marina while whispering, “Do you know where Deveron is?”

Her head shook a little. “He said he was still helping Mr. Rendell. Do you… do you want me to text him and let him know you need him?”

She sounded a little hurt, and I knew why. Marina had to have figured out that we trusted Deveron more than her, that he knew more than she did. And she probably thought that it had something to do with what happened to the team that she was mentoring. There was no way she could understand that it wasn’t her fault, that no one blamed her for what had absolutely not been her fault. Unfortunately, there was no way I could explain that, no way I could make her understand without telling her too much. I didn’t know the girl enough to make that leap. I didn’t know anything about her or how she would react.

Still, seeing that look, I wanted to trust her. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. It was too much. But I didn’t have to add to it, so I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. He’ll get here when he gets here. I was just wondering.”

Sitting back, I reached into my pocket to touch my cell phone. My thumb found the power button, which I pressed quickly three times. As soon as I did that, the phone would send an alert to the phone that Gaia had given Tabbris. In normal cases, that would tell my partner that I suddenly needed her for something. But in this case, she was expecting it.

I felt her presence a moment later. As usual, it made me feel more complete, more of myself, just to have her there. Hey, partner.

We conversed for a minute while, outwardly, I simply sat there watching people file into their seats. I told her about Elizabet and Jophiel approaching me, and she was just as upset as I had been. She thought, just like I did, that the two of them could have saved Rudolph if they had stepped in instead of playing the middle ground.

I talked a little with the others as well, whispering back and forth until the main lights dimmed, and the lights on the stage came up. There were a bunch of people up there. I saw the entire Committee, a bunch of people that were either Parsons family members or their close friends, and other important figures.

And then the memorial began. There were talks from several people, speeches or eulogies or whatever one would call them. Some came from the people who were Rudolph’s family members. Doctor Therasis spoke for awhile, and my feeling of guilt just kept getting worse every time I thought of how confused and lost the man had to be feeling. He didn’t know what happened. He didn’t know the truth, why his grandson had really died. He knew… about as close as we could actually tell him, but that wasn’t enough.

He missed Rudolph. He missed his grandson. And the fact that we couldn’t tell him the whole truth about why the boy was dead just made me want to scream right there in the middle of the funeral. Seeing his sad eyes, seeing his grief, it… it was awful. It was all awful. Just sitting there, thinking about how much Rudolph’s family would miss him, it… it was a kind of pain that I couldn’t describe.

Then there were the people who clearly didn’t know anything about Rudolph. The political-type speeches that were all focused on how we should feel triumphant, because the threat against our society had been defeated, about how the intruders had failed just like every threat against Crossroads would fail. Those talks had nothing to do with Rudolph himself, and I couldn’t decide if that offended me more, or if it was the fact that they were wrong. The threat was still out there, and the more they talked about how it was over, the more I wanted to scream that they were idiots, because the threat was all around us, the threat was built into Crossroads at its core.

But that wouldn’t have gone over very well, so I just sat in silence and watched.

Then it was Gaia’s turn. The headmistress spoke toward the very end of the memorial. She moved to the front of the stage, standing there with her hands clasped behind her back. No microphone because she didn’t need it. Her words would reach everyone, no matter how quietly she spoke.

At first, the woman said nothing. She simply waited, silence slowly settling upon the entire room until you could have heard a pin drop. And then she started.

“Rudolph Parsons.”

Gaia paused, gaze moving slowly over the entire audience. It felt as though she made eye contact with every single person in the room. Then she said it again, loudly and clearly.

“Rudolph Parsons. I have come here to speak not of his death, but of his immortality.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and the woman allowed their reactions to continue for a few seconds before saying his name once more.

“Rudolph Parsons. I would like you all to remember the name. Because time and again, someone will ask you, or you will ask yourselves, why we devote our lives, often quite literally, to fighting monsters. And when that happens, remember the name of Rudolph Parsons. He died. But before he did that, he chose to stand by his classmates, his friends. He chose to stay with them, despite all the risks, because it was the right thing to do.

“He stayed. And he fought. And he died. But in so doing, Rudolph showed the kind of bravery and humanity that many of us should rightly stand in awe of. He faced a threat beyond what any student should ever be put before. But Rudolph Parsons did not run. He did not hide. It’s quite easy to be brave when you hold the kind of power and experience that many of us do. But it’s quite another thing to be brave when the thing that you are facing is exponentially stronger than you could ever truly imagine.

“Think for a moment. Think of being that boy. Be Rudolph Parsons. You are a child before a malevolent mountain. And you choose to stand against that mountain. You choose to climb it. And maybe you fail. Maybe you fall. But in so doing, you help others. You push others up that mountain. They climb it. They reach the top and triumph because you stayed, because you helped. You gave your life because it was the right thing to do. Could you do that? Could you stand against such a threat and surrender your life purely to help others?”

Gaia let the question stand for a moment, allowing the silence to make her point more clearly than any words could, before lifting her chin. “We teach our youth to fight. We turn children into soldiers because if we did not, those who come from the shadows to destroy us would find only children. But it would do us well to remember that they are children. And yet they choose to stand, often against threats far greater than they. They choose to stand, as Rudolph did.

“Rudolph Parsons was a child. And yet, he was brave. He was loyal. He was kind. Our world is worse for having lost him. But perhaps in so losing, it could also gain. If we remember him. If we strive to emulate his bravery and kindness, if we keep him alive in our deeds and our hearts… perhaps a part of him will live on.

“When you see someone suffering, when you see a threat, or a problem, or a danger and you wonder if it is your place to stop it, let Rudolph Parsons live on. When you see someone who needs help, even if they mean nothing to you, let him live on. When you see one who has fallen, friend or stranger, let him live on. Let him live through your actions, through the way you treat those around you. Let him live through your kindness and your bravery. Let him live on, and tell those who would ask why we devote our lives to slaying monsters that it is because Rudolph Parsons stood when he could have run. His immortality will be in your words, in your actions, in your hearts and in your choices. He will live forever if we remember him. Choose to remember him. Choose to remember Rudolph Parsons.

“Thank you all. And thank you, Rudolph. I, for one, will remember you.”

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Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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Interlude 38B – Larees

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Larees, of the Tleken Choir, born on the fifth moon of Quoleinis, stared in awe and reverence at the item cradled in both of her hands. “This,” she announced firmly,  “is definitely your species’ greatest achievement, the pinnacle of your entire civilization’s growth out of the mud caves.”

“That,” Lincoln Chambers informed her with a raised eyebrow, “is a taco. With atomic fire sauce. Which you have… drenched said taco with. Are you sure you’re okay like that?”

The two of them were standing out by the lake as they watched Tabbris, Kaste, and a couple of the Seosten former prisoners playing with the toddlers in the water nearby.

In answer to the question, the Seosten woman took an enormous bite from the thick taco. A rumble of intense pleasure started in the back of her throat while she chewed rapidly. “Mmmph. Taco. That’s good. Just a little kick.” She took another bite, making equally pleased noises.

Lincoln shook his head in amusement, glancing from her to the kids splashing around under that close supervision. “Clearly we need to find you some spicier sauce.”

“Yes,” Larees agreed. “It could be hotter. I like it when my food fights back sometimes. Make eating a challenge.” She was  grinning as she said it, finishing the taco with the next bite.

She still seemed hungry, so Lincoln handed her the one he had been holding, along with the bottle of sauce. The woman proceeded to drench that one as well, quickly scarfing it down. Once she was finished with the second taco, Larees took a metal flask from her belt, twisting the top off before downing a long pull. “Ahhhh.” She made a soft sound of contentment while rocking back on her heels slightly. “Now that’s good shit.” She offered him the flask then.

Lincoln started to wave it off, before pausing. After considering briefly, he took the flask and gave it a brief, curious sniff. “The more I talk to you, the less surprised I am by the idea that you took a swing at your commanding officer for trying to make you slaughter a city of innocents.”

“Took a swing at, my ass,” Larees retorted. “I kicked that pompous shit-brain up and down the hallway. They had to pull me off of him. Why the hell would I stop at just taking a swing at him? They’d call it treason either way, so go big or go home. If I was going to be thrown into prison, I was damn well going in for breaking that irrumator’s arm, nose, and whatever the fuck else I could get my hands on. Took a swing at? Yeah, and fucking connected too.”

Lincoln shook his head in wonder. “I guess it’s like they say, might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. And yeah, absolutely not surprised by any of that.” As he spoke, the man took another sniff of the flask before tentatively sipping just a little bit. Instantly, he started coughing, eyes widening a bit as he sputtered at how strong the alcohol was.

Grinning, Larees gave him a couple hard slaps on the back. “There, see? That’s a real drink. Have another, it’ll wake you up and make you see colors that you didn’t even know existed.”

“I think one was enough,” Lincoln demurred while coughing another couple of times, head shaking in wonder. “Tell you one thing though, if I had hay fever that would’ve knocked it right out of me. Wow. I’m surprised you can stand up right now,  you’ve been drinking that all day.”

Smirking, the woman took the flask back from him and took another sip from it, smacking her lips a couple times. “Just gotta get used to it, build up a tolerance over a few hundred years.”

Lincoln started to say that he’d get right on that, when the pair were interrupted by Berlin, the young-looking portal-creating man with red hair and bright orange eyes. His species, the Abeonas, created the so-called ‘foldjump’ spots that allowed rapid travel all over the continent. Berlin had apparently worked for a group of not-particularly-nice smugglers before Joselyn had killed all of them except for him, sparing Berlin because he had been unaware that what they were smuggling had been child slaves. After dealing with all that, Jos had convinced him to turn over a new leaf to help people.

“Okay, okay,” the man started as soon as he was close enough for them to hear, “tell me you know where Gabriel is, or Misty and her brother. Or Enguerrand. Or–”

“What’s going on?” Lincoln immediately asked. “Gabriel had some kind of errand to run. Misty and Duncan are getting supplies. Enguerrand’s not back from wherever he’s been for the past week and a half.”

“Fils de pute,” Berlin muttered. “I’ll have to grab one of the combat teachers, or see if–”

“What?” Larees was frowning, clearly confused. “Is the camp in some kind of danger? Are the-”

“We’re fine,” the Abeonas man assured her, distractedly. “But one of the refugee groups I was supposed to grab and bring back here ran into trouble. I managed to grab most of them. They’re being debriefed and everything back there.” His hand waved vaguely over his shoulder. “But there’s a couple that ran into an old junkyard. They’re hiding, but there’s Heretics in there. Pretty sure I can’t get them out without help. But you know, who the hell around here is going to be crazy enough to volunteer to distract a couple full-power Bosch Heretics like that? You’d have to…”

He trailed off at the look on Larees’ face, a slow cheshire smile that was accompanied by a slow, deliberate chuckle, her words equal parts soft and yet dangerous.

“Distract? Oh… I think I can manage a distraction.”

*******

“Spread out!” Three Heretics stood at the entrance into the junkyard. Two males, one female. The first male and female had waited, watching the garbage-filled lot beyond until their commander, the other male, arrived to give that order. “They’re still in here somewhere. Find the monsters, put them down. We do a full sweep today, you understand? Nothing gets out to terrorize any more innocent people.”

“Now that… that’s funny.” Stepping around a large pile of broken appliances, Larees put herself into plain view in front of the three Heretics, turning her head from one side to the other to crack her neck as she regarded them. Her hands were empty save for the metal flask, which she took a sip from. “See, I didn’t expect you to say something I could agree with like that. But here we are. Nothing gets out of here to terrorize any more innocent people?  Yeah, sounds good to me.”

The trio of Heretics looked to one another briefly before spreading out from one another. Each produced a weapon. The female held a tri-barreled shotgun, her male partner a trident, and their commander held a thin rapier in one hand and a chain with a blade on the end in the other.

“Crossroads?” the female asked, watching Larees carefully. “What do you want?”

“She’s not Crossroads,” their leader informed the others tersely. “Never heard of anyone over there with that kind of tattoo. Maybe a Natural, or an Undocs. Either way, she’s hostile.”

Larees, meanwhile, simply stood there in plain sight. She watched them, taking a brief swig from her flask before announcing, “I made a promise to someone before I came here. I said I’d give you one chance to run away like the cowards you are. Tuck your tails and flee and I’ll let you live. Which is a hell of a lot more of a chance than you would have given your victims.”

“Ignore her,” the leader announced. “She’s a distraction. Put her down and move on. Same thing stands. Nothing gets out of here. We kill the threat, no matter what it looks or sounds like.”

“Fuck it.” Shrugging, Larees let the flask fall back into its spot at her belt. “I did my part, gave you a chance. You want to keep going, that’s your funeral.” Cracking her knuckles, the woman asked, “You wanna do this one at a time, or all at–”

Her answer came instantly, as all three of the Heretics came for her. The woman took two quick steps forward before lifting that shotgun. At the same time, both males went to either side before rushing to fill the spots that Larees would have to move to in order to avoid being shot. As the shotgun snapped into place, a deafening roar filled the air, even as an enormous ball of fire in the shape of a dragon’s head emerged from the barrels. The fireball flew at Larees, expanding to a solid eight feet in diameter, the roar of the gun sounding like that of the dragon that the enormous burning orb had taken the shape of.

Meanwhile, the male Heretic on her left flicked a hand up, summoning a wall of earth out of the ground. At the same time, the other male Heretic created a powerful glowing forcefield to take up the space on that side. Together, they trapped Larees so that she had nowhere to go, leaving an opening just large enough for that ball of dragon-fire to incinerate her.

The fire roared and spun within the confines of the shields that had been erected, growing stronger and more violent, a miniature sun that the Heretics had to shield their eyes from. They were leaving nothing to chance. Whatever that woman was, she would be destroyed by the purging flames, with nothing more than ashes left where she had stood.

Or so they expected. So it should have been. But it was not to be. As the flames began to fade, the heat and blinding light dissipating to reveal the interior of that forcefield and rock prison. And there, standing in the middle of the scorched and blackened earth, was the woman, unharmed.

She stood there, one hand touching the strange phoenix tattoo that adorned her face. The tattoo itself was glowing, the blue-green light illuminating her face like a small flame.

“Good,” Larees spoke flatly, “now it’s my turn.”

“Take her down!” the lead Heretic blurted, already sending his bladed chain that way. It extended to much longer than it should have been, a greenish gas cloud seeping out of it. At the same time, the female thrust an arm out, sending a powerful blast of energy from her palm. And on the other side of Larees, the remaining male Heretic broke the rock wall he had summoned from the ground into a dozen balls. Metal spikes grew from those balls as he flung them at her.

The glow of that blue-green tattoo suddenly grew much brighter, as the image on the woman’s face seemed to emerge, forming not only the head, but a complete, fully three-dimensional glowing creature directly in front of her. In an instant, the fiery phoenix grew half as large as the woman herself, giving a powerful shriek as its wings snapping outward to send blue-ish flames in every direction. The force of its powerful wing-thrust knocked the incoming chain to one side, while the flying spike-balls were sent back the way they had come.

The energy blast from the woman, meanwhile, was simply absorbed by the creature. It seemed to suddenly glow brighter, eyes blazing with fury as it sent the same blast it had absorbed back out once more in a beam from its eyes that took the Heretic woman in the chest and sent her flying backward with a cry.

While the woman was knocked backward, Larees spun toward the leader of this little group. Even as the man yanked his chain back, she was already running toward him. Meanwhile, the fiery bird that had been her tattoo (it had disappeared from her face to assume the solid form it had now) focused on the second man, flying at him with a loud, challenging cry.

The Heretic leader reacted instantly, as Larees ran for him. He suddenly grew to twice his normal size, his skin covering itself in metal. At the same time, the thin rapier that he held transformed into a much larger weapon, the blade growing and extending itself as he swung it at her with enough force to cleave through solid steel.

At the last possible instant, Larees spun sideways to let the blade careen past her, missing by only an inch before it slammed into the ground. A foot deep, eight foot long and eight inch wide crevasse stretched out along the dirt where the sword had impacted, even as a cloud of dirt was sent into the air.

Then the woman simply stopped. She skidded to a halt and stood there, eyes glancing toward the blade in the ground so close to her. Raising one eyebrow, she lifted the flask from her belt, taking a sip while asking, “That the best you got?”

In the background, the Heretic leader could see his female companion slowly picking herself off the ground, her clothes and face burned but healing. Meanwhile, his other partner was having problems dealing with that firebird she had somehow created, stumbling back and forth while the creature filled the air with flames that somehow seemed dangerous despite the heat and fire resistance that all of them possessed. Magical flames.

He needed to finish this, now. To that end, the man summoned another of his powers, sending an intensely blue beam straight out of his eyes. The beam would freeze anything it touched. If this… whatever she was wanted to play with fire, he would counter her with cold.

Except she wasn’t there. One instant, the woman had been standing right there. But in the next, even as the freezing blast from his eyes turned the ground where their attacker had been into a solid sheet of ice, she was gone. Superspeed of some kind, obviously.

“You know what?” She was talking again, from where she had stopped barely a couple feet away. “I’m just going to say it.” That flask was at her lips again, as she took a swig before smacking her lips. “I’m not really impressed so far. I mean, are you just not used to someone who fights back? Would you like it better if I was a defenseless little girl so you could feel like a big strong hero when you murder me? Is that the problem?”

With a growl of anger, the man snapped his chain back, intent on making the bladed end cut straight into her back. But again, Larees was too fast. She ducked just before the chain would have struck her, letting it pass over her back before abruptly straightening up with the flask pressed to her mouth once again.

“Whooo!” the woman declared, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of the dark blue shirt that she wore. “Now that is refreshing. But uhh, you know…” She blinked rapidly a few times. “I’ve got a really good tolerance to this stuff, but it’s pretty strong.” Pointing at him with the flask, she blurted, “Hey, I know. How’s about you let me finish this off. If I drink enough of it, maybe I’ll pass out. I bet you could win a fight with me then!”

Belatedly, she seemed to reconsider, making a hmm-ing noise in the back of her throat while indecisively moving her head back and forth. “Ehhhh… fifty-fifty shot. With unconscious me.”

At that exact second, the female Heretic arrived. She had split her shotgun apart and folded the pieces out into two blades, which she drove at the woman’s back… only for Larees to easily twist out of the way once more.

She stood there, turned sideways to see both of her opponents. “Well,” the woman murmured while dropping the flask back to its spot on her belt, “maybe this could be interesting after all.”

Both Heretics came at her then, full-strength. They were in perfect unison, their weapons singing through the air like a symphony. They had practiced working together like this thousands of times, and the evidence was in their cooperation.

More than once, only Larees’ Seosten boost saved her life. Yet, even that wasn’t enough to avoid everything. She dodged and avoided the absolute worst of their attacks, but a few got through. She took a deep cut across one arm, another in her leg. Finally, a lucky blow to her side put her in just the right position for the metal-armored man to backhand her with his solid-steel fist. Larees reacted quickly enough to snap her head back away from most, but not all of it. And even the glancing hit was enough to make her see stars as she was flung sidelong to crash into the dirt. That was quickly followed up by a kick from the female Heretic that spun her up and over, falling once more, even harder that time.

“Okay,” the Seosten grunted while spitting blood, “maybe a seventy percent chance you could beat unconscious me.”

“Enough!” The bellowed word came from the metal-covered man, who strode forward while summoning a forcefield to cover Larees. She was forced down once more, flat on her stomach against the ground with only a small opening right at the small of her back that was just large enough for the man to drive that sword of his straight down through her.

He was right there, weapon raised to do just that as the woman abruptly whistled sharply. The sound filled the air, and both Heretics abruptly remembered their companion… and his own enemy.

Their eyes snapped that way, in time to see their badly burned partner stumble to one knee. His right arm had been entirely severed, and lay in a charred heap nearby. But they didn’t have time to help him, because the blue-green phoenix was right there. Its rage-filled scream briefly deafened the pair, even as the heat and light from its flames forced them to stumble backward, shielding their eyes.

It faded quickly, but by that point, the firebird had destroyed the forcefield that was holding Larees against the ground. As the Heretics focused once more, blinking through the fading blaze of light, they saw the fiery creature hover beside the now-standing woman.

Then it merged with her. Attaching itself to Larees’ back, the bird’s body sank into her, until only its wings remained. They were hers then, enormous flaming wings that stretched out to either side before tucking themselves in against her back.

“Kill her now!” the metal-man bellowed, already suiting action to words as he went at her with all the speed and strength he could muster. His body was a blur of motion, the sword cleaving the air as he sought to finally end this problem.

But Larees was fast too. Even more so now when she was merged with her firebird. Her boost was stronger and lasted longer. She launched herself off the ground like a bolt of lightning, flames trailing around her as she shot at the man.

At the last instant, the Seosten twisted up and over so that she passed just above the lunging man’s head. Her hand snapped down to brush against his shoulder.

And then she was inside him. She felt his confusion as she brought his body to a halt, instantly crushing his resistance, standing right there.

“Verdediger?” the woman, standing there with confusion, asked. She had stopped short upon seeing their opponent disappear, and now looked uncertain.

Slowly, Larees made her new host look up at his companion. At a thought, his memories were hers to read. She saw his bloodlust. She saw the innocents he had killed, all while believing himself to be doing the right thing. These three had the blood of hundreds on their hands between them. She saw no chance of reasoning with them, no chance that they would stop what they had been doing.

She had promised Lincoln Chambers that she would try. And she had. But this was a lost cause. They were too devoted, too taken by their own power. The three could have let those that had fled into this junkyard escape, yet they would not. They enjoyed the hunt, enjoyed their targets,  be they actual threats or… fleeing, frightened civilians.

They did not believe civilians existed. To these three, there could only ever be monsters. And nothing that Larees saw in this mind gave her any idea that it could ever change.

“Okay,” she said with this man, Verdediger’s mouth, “I gave it a shot.”

The second man, still missing his arm, had picked himself up by then. He and the female Heretic stood there, confusion written across their features.

That confusion turned to shock, as Larees summoned her wings once more. They grew from her host’s back, extending to their full, fiery length. The steel-man floated up from the ground with a single flap of those burning wings, hovering with sword in hand.

“Now I guess we’ll just end this.”

******

“God damn.” A short time later, Berlin stood there, right in the entrance to the junkyard. He was surveying the resulting carnage, orange eyes skimming over the trio of bodies. “When you deal with a situation, you don’t play around.”

Larees, back in her own body, shook her head while taking a gulp from her flask. Sighing in satisfaction, she looked toward her phoenix, which had separated from her to hover there nearby. “Okay, Ustrina. Time to sleep.”

Obediently, the bird flew closer. Shrinking down as it approached, the phoenix turned back into its simple head-shape before merging with Larees. A moment later, the tattoo of the firebird’s head was back on her face, as if it had never left.

Blinking twice as that was done, the woman finally focused on Berlin. “The civilians? You get them out?”

“Y-yeah, yeah, they’re good,” he confirmed. “Ready to take you home now. Hey, that… thing, how’d you get that? The fire… tattoo… thing. That’s a weird power.”

“It’s magic,” she informed him. “Rare magic. Hard magic. Only those who are part of a certain… group are allowed to learn it. You learn the spell, and the animal that you tattoo to yourself becomes your partner. It becomes a piece of yourself. You give it life, and it will aid you. Ustrina has been a part of me for… a long time.”

“Gotta be part of the club, huh?” Berlin lamented. “Guess that means you won’t teach me.”

With a little smirk, Larees shrugged. “You never know. I can tell you a little more about it, at least. In exchange for…”

“For?” Perking up a bit, the man raised an eyebrow curiously.

“You can take us to many places, yes?” When Berlin nodded to that, Larees’ smile grew, and she walked to the man to put one arm around his shoulder. “Eximious. I will tell you more of this magic, and you can take us to where they make the best.”

“The best what?” Berlin, blinking a couple times as the woman led him out of the junkyard, asked.

“Tacos, amicus bonus meus,” Larees answered with a broad grin.

“Take me to the tacos.”

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Interlude 38A – Asenath, Bobbi, and Company

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It was a rather eclectic group that sat in the buffet restaurant at the table furthest from both the entrance and the food, away from where anyone else was. Two vampires, one pixie, a human girl in her early teens, and a green-furred sabertooth tiger cub. They were, to put it mildly, a group that would have stood out to anyone who was capable of actually seeing through the Bystander Effect.

Of course, to those who could not, the ordinary humans in this place, they still looked perhaps a bit odd. To those humans, sitting at the table were a white adult male, a half-Asian female in her late teens, a half-black girl in her early teens, and a cat.

Namythiet the pixie, meanwhile, was basically invisible to humans. They would see her at first, or when she deliberately drew attention to herself, and then instantly forget her before they could actually react to it.

Halfway through her second plate, Bobbi Camren pointed to the green-furred animal with her fork. “I still can’t believe they let us get away with bringing Clubber in.”

Smirking a bit at that, Seth reached out to brush the cloth animal-vest that Clubber wore. The vest designated him as a handicap assistant animal. “No one wants to be the one to tell a handicapped person they can’t have their assistance or comfort animal. Long as we keep him away from the serving tables over there, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Clubber, for his part, looked down at the licked-clean plate in front of him before turning a yearning gaze toward the tables in question while making a soft whimpering sound.

“Don’t worry, partner!” Namythiet gave her animal friend a quick thumbs up while launching into the air on fast-beating wings. “I got it!” She flew off quickly to retrieve more food for the hungry feline.

From where she was sitting, Asenath raised her hand as if to say something about that before simply shaking her head and lowering the hand. “Never mind,” she murmured.

Seth chuckled, spearing a piece of very rare, bloody steak with his fork. “Might as well let them fill up as much as they want. This next one’s going to be rough. Probably the hardest one out of the bunch.”

“That’s why we saved it for last,” Asenath pointed out. “We’ve got everything else Gaia asked for. This is the only piece left. Well, that and the fact that we had to wait for a time when it was even reachable at all.”

Bobbi blinked back and forth between them. “You guys said you already got a piece of a dragon, right? Weren’t they supposed to be like the most powerful things ever? You made me write that report on them a few days ago.”

“Yeah,”  Seth confirmed, “and you totally earned that B plus. But while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that math homework when we’re done with this.”

The vampires and pixie had recruited Bobbi to help them with their mission. They had explained everything they were doing, at least as much of it as they understood, and the girl had wanted to help. Not to mention the fact that they could explain a lot more about what the hell was going on in this world than she had managed to put together in her time working as a superhero with her inherited powers. Thanks to them, she knew about the world of Heretics and Alters, and about the Seosten. And she wanted to help, really help.

So they had taken a page from the Crossroads book and convinced her father that she was being recruited by a private school, with a full scholarship and everything.

To Bobbi’s surprise, it had turned out that her new friends actually took the school thing seriously. They made her study of human and Alter/Heretic subjects, quizzing her at times, and even giving her homework to do. If she didn’t get the work done, she didn’t get to help. They taught her history, math, magic, English, even a bit of foreign languages. They took her education very seriously between them. Just like they took her training seriously. They kept teaching her more ways to use her power, as well as how to protect herself with and without it. They put her through an educational and physical boot camp of sorts.

Asenath and Seth seemed to argue a fair bit. Okay, more than a fair bit. But on Bobbi’s education and training, they were pretty much always in complete agreement: she needed more of it.

“Math, got it,” the girl confirmed before asking, “but what about this really hard thing. You really mean it’s worse than the dragon piece? I might’ve gotten a B-plus, but I distinctly remember dragons being basically the most powerful things ever.”

“You’re not wrong,” Seth agreed, leaning back a bit in his seat before adding, “Bits of dragon are probably more rare, but the thing we’re going after is still harder to get to. It’s… complicated. Let’s just say, we got a bit lucky with the dragon piece. This one’s more specific. That could have been any bit of dragon. But the thing we’re after now has to be this one. Well… there’s another, but it’s even more impossible to get to. This is the only one that’s actually vaguely reachable. Which means we don’t get to pick and choose a piece that’s less guarded. This one’s going to be a pain in the ass to get to, but we don’t have a choice. It’s the one we need.”

“Which is why you need to eat up,” Asenath finished for him, using her fork to point at the girl. “And remember the rules. You have the necklace?”

Nodding promptly, Bobbi reached into her pocket to take out the necklace that Namythiet had made for her. It was part of her agreement with them. If, at any point while they were on one of these missions, one of them felt that things were too much for the girl, they would give her the codeword. At that point, Bobbi was to touch the necklace and speak the word that would activate the spell on it. That spell would teleport her to safety.

They had sworn to the girl that if they told her to use it and she didn’t, assuming they all survived they would take her home immediately and leave her there. They only agreed to let her come with them and help on the conditions that she continue her schooling under them, and that she listen to all of their orders. And part of that was to retreat when they told her to.

Besides, Bobbi was pretty sure they had ways of activating the necklace against her wishes anyway, should she try to disobey and stick around. It just felt like something they’d do, given their obsession with keeping her as safe as possible while still letting her help.

By that point, Namythiet was on her way back to the table, carrying a plate laden with various meats. A few people glanced that way before turning back to what they were doing.

“Err,” Bobbi leaned forward a bit, lowering her voice reflexively. “What do people see when they look at that? Do they just, like, completely forget the plate, or think that they saw a normal person carrying it?”

“Eh,” Seth drawled while glancing that way, “you know, I’m not sure, exactly. Probably depends on the person, but I’d say… they mostly forget it. Yeah, they probably forget it.”

Namythiet had reached the table by then, carefully setting the plate down in front of Clubber, who immediately started to happily chow down on the selection of meat.

“See, buddy?” the pixie chimed while patting her furry friend on the head, “I’ve got your back.” She took a small piece for herself then before hovering over to sit in the middle of the table at the dish that she was using. “Hey, are we ready to plan out this job or what?”

Asenath gave a faint nod at that, taking a bite of her salad. “When Twister gets back from making sure there’s no last-minute instructions or advice from Sinclaire.”  

“Wait, when do I get to meet this Gaia person?” Bobbi put in quickly. “She sounds interesting. You said she’s like… the principal of the whole school full of these zealot guys, right? But she’s nice? How many other ‘nice’ zealots are there?”

“It’s complicated,” Asenath informed her. “But yeah, there’s some nice ones. And some really not nice ones. Mostly the latter at the moment, unfortunately. As for Gaia, you’ll meet her… eventually. Hopefully as soon as she can pull herself away from the school once we get this last piece.”

Seth grunted an agreement. “From the way she was talking, she’ll need everything pretty soon. Sounds like this spell she’s cooking up is gonna take some time to work.”

“Maybe she’ll actually tell us what she needs all this stuff for,” Namythiet huffed, clearly annoyed that she hadn’t been able to figure it out from the ingredients that they had been gathering. “Secrets are annoying, you know.”

By that point, Bobbi had been around the group long enough to know what that meant. “You mean they’re annoying if you don’t know what they are.”

“That’s exactly what she means.” The voice came from Twister, the final member of their group, as she approached the table. Like Bobbi, her skin was dark. She also looked younger than the other girl, though that much was… well, complicated, to say the least.

Sliding onto a seat at the table, Twister grabbed roll from Seth’s plate, munching as she continued, “Pixies like knowing secrets. Part of being sneaky little shits.” The last was said with a wink in the tiny, winged-girl’s direction.

Huffing at that, Namythiet folded her arms over her chest. “Hey, we’re so small, we have to take advantages where we can get ‘em. Part of that is not being noticed when people are talking about private things.”

For a moment then, Bobbi just sat in her chair and marveled at everything that had happened in such a short time. For a year, she had done everything she could to protect her small neighborhood from the worst of the monsters she found hunting within it. She’d had no idea about the wider world beyond, no way of understanding just what she was, why she’d gained her powers from the dead mobster, or why the non-humans who realized that the girl could see what they were happened to be so afraid.

She didn’t know anything. Then she’d met Twister and Asenath, and the others by extension. Through them, she had learned so much more. And now she was helping them do… well, she didn’t know what. And neither did they. But it was something important, that much was clear. She was helping them, learning from them. It was cool, but it was also dangerous.

And she wouldn’t have traded it for anything. She liked her new little family. She wanted to protect them, help them, learn from them. She wanted to be a part of them, even when they teased her.

She missed her father, and her imprisoned mother. But Bobbi truly felt as though she belonged here, with these people. Despite not knowing the group for very long, she felt close to them. Their problems were her problems, and she was going to help any way that she could.

“Yooooo.” That was Twister, waving a hand in front of Bobbi’s face. “Earth to space cadet. You okay in there?”

Flushing a little at the realization that she had been zoning out again, Bobbi quickly nodded. “Sure, yeah, I’m here. What’d you find out from the Gaia lady?”

So Twister told them, and the group finished eating as they planned out how they were going to grab what would apparently be the most difficult item on Gaia Sinclaire’s list of magical ingredients.

And once she heard what the thing they were going after actually was, Bobbi didn’t question why it would be so hard to acquire anymore.

In fact, she wondered if they would even be able to pull it off.

******

The horrific, deafening sound of a machine gun filled the air like the roar of a beast clawing its way up out of hell itself. Hundreds of bullets ricocheted off of the glowing, blue-white shield that Bobbi held in front of herself in those few seconds. Then the girl focused on the other aspect of her power: her speed.

Instantly, everything went almost completely still. She could see even more bullets almost completely frozen in the air. And beyond them, she saw the massive, eight-foot tall gray-furred figure holding the machine gun in one hand (he had a giant axe in his other hand). He was frozen in mid-laugh, head thrown back as he tried to mow Bobbi and the others down.

The others. Twister was a bear, one frying-pan sized paw currently busy slamming a green-skinned amphibian figure to the ground while his own broken gun lay uselessly nearby.

Senny had a knife in each hand, arms extended to stick the blades into the throats of two different figures. A short distance from her, Seth stood, surrounded by half a dozen bodies of his own.

They were in the front lobby of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. The place looked like any other glass obelisk, just like the buildings around it. But most office buildings didn’t have quite this level of security.

The floor was littered with the bodies of the men who were trying to stop them from doing what they needed to do. Some of them were unconscious, while others were dead.

The first time Bobbi had seen her new friends actually kill people, even if they had been bad guys, it had sent her into a spiraling nightmare of a flashback. She had been back in that store again, back in the blood of the man whose powers she had gained. It had taken quite awhile for them to talk her around afterward, as they had explained that some people just couldn’t be left alive. There was no prison to send them to, and they would readily kill many more innocent people if left alive.

But Bobbi couldn’t kill them. She wouldn’t go that far. She’d even made the others promise not to kill anyone she incapacitated, unless they absolutely had to. Maybe it was stupid. But… she didn’t want to be responsible for it. She didn’t want to be responsible for people dying. Or at least, not more responsible than she already was for helping.

It just felt uncomfortable. And wrong. She helped, she participated, but she wouldn’t kill. She didn’t force the others to follow her own moral code or anything, aside from not wanting them to kill the people she personally stopped. That felt like… like the best compromise she could manage. She was slowly starting to understand the world beyond her little neighborhood and just how dangerous it really was. And maybe she was just being a stupid little kid about it.

But she wouldn’t kill. She just… wouldn’t.

Her own form was a blinding blur of motion to the outside world then, as she sprinted around the incoming bullets, glowing sword appearing in her hand just in time to cut the massive machine gun in half. In the same motion, Bobbi threw herself up and around into a kick. Someone her size kicking someone as enormous as her opponent would normally, of course, do basically nothing. But as fast as she was moving, the impact knocked the man to the ground with a cry, even as his gun fell into two pieces around him.

Landing in a crouch after that full-bodied hypersonic kick, Bobbi’s brief burst of superspeed ran out just in time for a second big guy with an enormous gun of his own to sight in on her.

And then his weapon fell apart into about a dozen pieces, right as the man was about to pull the trigger. As the machine gun collapsed, Namythiet appeared from where she had been inside the weapon, taking it apart from there. “Avast!” the pixie declared while swiping her sword back and forth in the air, “Not so big without your pea-shooter, are y–eeep!”

The big guy took a swipe at her, which the pixie easily dodged by flying straight up before driving her pin-like sword into his eye. As he roared and jerked back, Bobbi was there. She had conjured a glowing hammer, which she drove hard into his stomach. As he doubled over a bit, her hands grabbed his shoulders, and she sent a burst of electricity into him that put the man on the ground.

The fighting continued like that. For quite some time, longer than Bobbi had ever actually fought at one time, the group worked their way through the main lobby of the office building they had just broken into, moving into the stairwell and continuing up. They had to get to the top floor, and they had to do so before the reinforcements could be called in.

Even without the reinforcements, it was exhausting. She kept having to absorb more and more power from the nearby light fixtures and computers. And even then, by the time they reached the top floor, Bobbi was too tired to keep fighting. Which Asenath noticed and made her stay behind with Namythiet and Clubber to watch the stairwell while she, Twister, and Seth finished up.

So Bobbi sat there, panting and watching the stairs while taking a drink from the water bottle that Clubber had helpfully held up in his little mouth for her. She was panting, feeling utterly wiped from all the fighting. Using her power that much, even with plenty of energy to drain, still took a lot out of her. She needed to just sit and rest.

“No time to nap,” Seth called from the doorway at the end of the hall. “C’mon kid, we need your help to open this thing.”

With a grunt, Bobbi pushed herself up, bracing herself against the wall while Namythiet flew up to land on her shoulder. The poor pixie was exhausted as well. As was Clubber, who trudged alongside Bobbi as the girl tiredly made her way down the hall. She passed more than a dozen other bodies, trying not to think about what had happened to them, before reaching the actual doorway where Seth was waiting.

Looking past him, she saw what looked like a conference room of some kind. There were floor to ceiling windows all along three of the four walls, including the far corner from the doorway. Most of the room itself was taken up by a long table, with a three foot long, two foot high metal safe right in the middle of that table. There were yet another seven bodies laying around that room, their blood and… other things decorating the windows, floor, and table itself.

“You okay, Lite Brite?” Despite his clear impatience, Seth put a hand on the top of the glowing helmet that covered her head, making her look up at him. “Got enough oomph for one more thing?”

“I can do it,” Bobbi insisted, chin up as she stared at the safe. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Asenath confirmed. “Sorry, we’d give you more time but… well, we’re out of it. We need to grab this thing and get the hell out of here yesterday.”

“I’m okay.” Bobbi really wasn’t sure that she was, but she had to try. Getting the safe open was the most important thing. It was apparently warded against all kinds of magic. But not against her.

Nearby, Asenath turned, putting her fist through the wall. Tearing out some of the debris, she caught hold of some wires and yanked them free as well, snapping the wires in the process. Live electrical wires.

“All yours, Bobs,” she offered, “drink up.”

Holding both hands out that way, Bobbi focused on draining all the power she could through those wires. Electricity jumped visibly from the wires to the girl’s hands. She was draining everything she could, not just from the room, but from the entire building. The place was on its own separate power grid, and she was taking everything. She could feel the electricity filling her up, giving her a quick rush of euphoria.

Hard. This was going to be hard. It wouldn’t have been easy at the best of times, but now? Now she was already tired from everything else. It was going to be a nightmare.

And yet, she would do it. She would make this work, because it was important. Because her new friends had asked her to. She would do it.

The others were all waiting, standing guard while Bobbi gathered all the power that she could through those exposed wires. She was focusing almost solely on that safe, tuning out everything else as much as possible. Only two things existed, herself and the safe. And what was inside. More power. She needed more. As much as possible. Had to hold onto it, keep holding it… keep holding it…

When she could hold it no longer, Bobbi’s right hand snapped forward, away from the exposed wires. In the next instant, a powerful, blinding jolt of lightning-like electricity shot out of that hand to crash into the safe. Or rather, near the safe. The electricity actually stopped a few inches out, hitting a glowing red shield that popped up around it.

It was a magical forcefield, along with other protective spells. Namythiet and Twister had taught Bobbi about how she could use a powerful burst of electricity to overwhelm spells like that. Some spells could be overwhelmed by the judicial use of a taser. But in cases like this, that wasn’t normally viable, because it would take an entire building’s worth of power to knock out the spell that was protecting the safe.

So… it was a good thing she had an entire building to draw from, then.

The lights went out almost immediately, leaving the room lit only by what came in through the windows. Everything in the building went dead one by one, as Bobbi channeled the power through herself and straight into the continuous lightning bolt (was it really a bolt when it kept going on for a long time?) into the forcefield surrounding that safe.

Seth had a knife. He’d shown her to her. The blade could cut through spells, actually absorbing the energy from any spell that it touched in order to completely disable it. Unfortunately, the people who ran this building were prepared for that kind of thing. They had layered their protection spells in such a way that disabling one with that knife, or anything that worked in a similar way would result in the safe teleporting away. Simply cutting through the spell would send the safe away.

But this? Hitting the protective forcefield with enough electricity to completely overwhelm it, that was different. Different because the forcefield and the spell that would teleport the safe away both drew from the same well of power. If Seth were to use his knife to disable the forcefield, it would kill the shield immediately, at which point the teleportation spell would send the safe away.

But in this case, the forcefield was being hit by a building-worth of electricity. To keep itself powered, it would keep draining that well of power. Which meant that when it finally collapsed, it would be because there was no more power for it to draw from. Which, in turn, would mean that there was no power for the teleportation spell to do its job.

Of course, there were two back-ups for that. The first was that the teleportation spell was supposed to jump to powering itself with the building’s electricity if its normal energy well wasn’t there. But, well, that would be impossible because Bobbi was already using it.

If it failed to power itself through either of those means, the teleportation spell had a third condition, which was to drain ambient energy from the living beings who were trying to get at the safe and use that to teleport the safe away. But that third option was the last one specifically because it was the slowest. Only by a few seconds, but still. There would be a brief window where the shield was down, yet the teleportation spell had no power. And in that window, Seth would then use the knife to disable it.

Essentially, they had to overwhelm the forcefield in one specific way that made it drain the well of power before it was destroyed, leaving the teleportation spell no way to power itself for at least a few seconds, during which Seth could destroy it and leave the safe vulnerable.

Even this would have been impossible most of the time. The safe’s normal location was far more protected than this meeting room. But it had been temporarily brought here, only for a short window. And the time between when the safe had been placed there and when the main meeting that had been intended to take place in this room would take place was even shorter.

And they had absolutely no intention of being in this room when that meeting was supposed to happen. Being around any of the people involved in it would have been a bad idea. Being around all of them… suicide. They had this very, very brief opening where the safe was in position and before the big players had arrived for the meeting. This one chance. That was it.

It was an opportunity that couldn’t be wasted, and Bobbi didn’t intend to. She channeled electricity through that shield until the thing shattered. At almost the same time, she felt her own exhaustion catch up with her, and collapsed.

The world went dark, while the sound of Seth rushing past her to do his part filled her ears.

Sleep… she wanted to sleep… preferably for a month. But maybe just for a few seconds… or minutes… or…

Bobbi’s eyes opened some time later. She was laying in grass in the middle of a field somewhere. With a gasp, she sat up and looked around wildly.

The others. They were all there. All… eating cheeseburgers, actually. Greasy, yummy cheeseburgers that made her mouth water. After everything she had just done, fuel was needed. Lots of it.

Seth obligingly offered a paper sack to her, raising an eyebrow. “Dinner? You earned it.”

Quickly, Bobbi grabbed the sack and began to devour the first burger she could unwrap. It was only once she was halfway through it that she remembered to ask (through her full mouth) “Did we get it?”

“Did we get it, she asks?” Twister scoffed at that. “As if we’d leave a job unfinished. Pshaw. I am insulted.”

Senny shook her head and nudged the Pooka. “We got it.” She nodded toward a wooden box that sat between them. “Namythiet just finished taking all the tracking spells off it before we came here. We’re safe, for now.”

“Not that anyone’s safe near something like that,” Seth observed flatly, his eyes staring at the box.

“Can I see it?” Bobbi asked, curious about the thing they had worked so hard to get hold of.

Obligingly, Asenath picked up the box. “Don’t touch,” she reminded the girl before opening the lid.

For a moment, the girl just stared at the short, six inch length of rope within. “It looks so small…”

With a chuckle, Seth nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s because the Heretics have most of it. I mean, they think they have the whole thing. But they don’t know about this piece right here. If they knew this bit was out and about, they’d move heaven and Earth to get to it.”

“Of course they would,” Asenath agreed while showing her fangs in a smile.

“If they knew we had a piece of the rope from the Hangman that they’re all connected to, they would lose their fucking minds.”

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Mini-Interlude 70 – Pace, Theia, and Miranda

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The following takes place after Interlude 32B, in which Pace-Lies was found by Seller, Miranda, and Abigail and they agreed to work together to free Pace from Lies in exchange for information on Manakel. It is also after Lies took up the name of Theia.

“Are you girls sure you’re going to be okay here by yourselves?” The clear worry in Abigail’s voice was evident even to Theia, as the woman stood by the door of the hotel room.

Seller, who was standing next to her, laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine, Abigail. Trust me, we lost any pursuers and there’s enough spells up over the room right now, as long as they stay in here, there’s no way anyone could find them. And even if they do, there’s warning spells for that too. We have spells up to let them and us know if anything goes wrong.”

“And we have the phone too,” Miranda pointed out from where she was sitting on one of two king-size beds in the room. “It’ll be fine. Trust us. We’ve got the emergency teleports, the phone to call you, and we can protect ourselves too. Not to mention… well, me.”

Another Miranda poked her head back in the room from where she’d been watching the hall. “Exactly. If all else fails, that me will give a tug so that I-me absorbs her again. Then I’ll know everything that’s going on. See, redundancy upon redundancy upon redundancy. It’s cool.”

“It’s as ‘cool’ as we can make it,” Seller confirmed. “We can’t take Pace back to Garden with us, and we need to check in. The others need to see us around. If nothing else, it’ll throw the scent off about Pace being with us. Trust me. Trust them. They’ll be okay here for a couple days.”

“Right,” Abigail muttered unhappily, “I know. We need to look around Garden and see if there’s anything there that could help separate Pace from Theia. And they can’t come with.”

Not that anyone expected there to be some specific ‘separate Lie from host’ spell, since even the Seosten didn’t have anything like that. But the hope was that there might be something that could be appropriated and adjusted that way, with both Pace and Theia being willing subjects. Maybe there would be a way to make a second body for them, like Miranda’s duplication power, only permanent, and then shift each of their minds into one of them. Or… something. They weren’t sure yet. But looking around the archives couldn’t hurt, considering they didn’t have a lot of other options.

Theia, who had laying on her back, half-hanging off the bottom of the other bed with her head near the floor as she watched the group by the door from her upside-down position, nodded. “Can’t go back to Garden without the hidey-choker. Or Heretics get cutty-stabby-shooty. Not very nice.”

Inside her own head, Pace silently muttered, That or they’ll just enslave us. Remember, Crossroads is the kill on sight one. Eden’s Garden likes to make people like us useful for awhile first if they can. They might kill us, or they might just throw us in a cage to see if we could make decent cannon-fodder later. Depends on the tribe.

“Oh, don’t get me started on them being ‘not very nice’,” Abigail all-but growled before heaving a sigh as she looked to them once more. “Okay, fine. But remember, no leaving the room unless it’s an absolute emergency, right? You stay in here, have food delivered. That’s why we came to a place with room service and a good pizza place nearby. Stay in the room where it’s… safe-ish.”

Theia gave a thumbs up at that, before belatedly realizing that in her current position, it looked like a thumbs down. So she awkwardly turned her hand over a bit to correct it. “Stay in the room. It’ll be like a slumber party-oooh! Can we have a pillow fight? And play truth or dare? Or spin the bottle?”

Before the Miranda on the other bed could respond to that, Abigail quickly put in, “Just don’t do anything to attract attention, okay? Keep things nice and quiet and calm. Watch TV, talk, whatever you need to do. But stay in the room and stay… calm. The last thing we need is for someone to get uppity about why there’s a couple teenage girls alone in a hotel room together.”

“Dear Penthouse,” Theia began to recite with a wicked grin.

Stop that! the horribly embarrassed Pace blurted, even as Miranda’s foot kicked her in the leg from the other bed. Both of their reactions made Theia cackle out loud.

“Again,” Abigail reiterated. “Be nice, be quiet, and don’t get in trouble. And don’t–”

“–attract attention to ourselves,” both Mirandas finished for her in chorus. “We know. We all know.”

The Miranda by the door pulled Abigail by the arm. “Come on, the sooner we look through everything we can find back at Garden, the sooner we can get back here, right? So let’s go.”

Abigail couldn’t argue with that, and so the three of them headed out. As the door closed behind them, the Miranda on the bed and Theia-Pace were left in the room, looking at one another.

“So,” Theia started easily, “was that a no to truth-or-dare?”

******

“So what do you want to have for–Theia, what… what the hell are you doing?”

The question came from Miranda, as the girl stood in the open doorway of the bathroom, staring in confusion.

Theia, meanwhile, was once more laying on her back, this time in the bathtub. The tub itself was void of any water, which was a good thing since she still wore all of her clothes. Her head was under the faucet of the tub, as she stared curiously up into it.

See? Pace pointedly informed her, I told you this was weird.

Aloud, Theia replied, “We wanted to see how the faucet worked, and Pace-I said that taking it apart was a bad idea. So we’re trying to see.”

“She’s right, it would be a bad idea,” Miranda agreed instantly. “But how are you going to–”

While the other girl was in mid-sentence, Theia reached up and turned one of the handles, sending a spray of cold water down into her already open and waiting mouth. She swallowed rapidly, gulping the water while squinting up. After a few seconds of that, she turned the handle off once more.

“It didn’t work,” Theia lamented mournfully, “we still can’t see how the water comes out.”

“You should Google it,” Miranda advised before coming into the room. Carefully putting the lid of the toilet down, she sat there. “That or ask a plumber. They could probably explain it. Actually, you come from a super-advanced spacefaring civilization, and you don’t know how plumbing works?”

“Don’t have to know how it works to use it,” Theia recited, tilting her head a little to look at the other girl. “Never had to learn. Besides, space-plumbing is different.”

“How is space-plumb–you know what, never mind.” Miranda’s head shook. “I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation with you.”

“You still don’t like Theia-me very much,” the girl murmured, hand playing idly over the faucet as if trying to feel out its secrets.

“You tried to kill my best friend,” Miranda snapped. “You’ve been helping the people who have been making her life hell all year and who, oh yeah, are responsible for a hell of a lot more bad things than that. Like, for example, the entire Heretic situation. Your people have been fucking with humans since you got here however long ago you showed up. Yeah, maybe you’ve had problems too, but you still tried to kill Flick. You still hurt her. You still hurt a lot of other people.”

We did, Pace silently confirmed. We did a lot of bad things. It’s… kind of a miracle that they even want to help us at all, you know. Abigail is pretty much a saint.

There was a moment of silence from the girl in the tub, before Theia corrected aloud, “You did not do bad things. Theia-I did.”

“What?” Miranda blinked. “I know–”

“Not you, Pace-me,” Theia informed her before sitting up. “Theia-I know that I did very bad things. Very evil, very nasty, icky, terrible things. That is not what Theia-I was confused about. I was confused about… why are you here now? Because of Pace-me?”

“It’s not that I–” Miranda paused before nodding. “Partly that, yeah. I want to help Pace. But…” She paused then, considering her words. “I don’t know if I like you or not, okay? You’ve done evil stuff, but you had reasons. You’ve suffered too, I get that. You’re kind of… it’s hard to…”

Again, she sighed. “It’s hard to explain. Even to myself, okay? I… want to like you. I think you could be smart, and funny, and all that. But every time I start to relax around you, I remember the other stuff you’ve done. You’re playing nice now, but what if you change your mind again and start hurting people I care about? What if your old bosses say ‘hey, all is forgiven if you kill that Abigail person’, and you–”

“I would never kill Miss Abigail!” The sudden and almost violently forceful interruption made Miranda reflexively jerk back, even as Theia found her way to her feet. She continued, the lack of prefacing her ‘I’ with Theia showing just how out of sorts she was by the suggestion.  “I would never hurt Miss Abigail! I will die before I hurt Miss Abigail. I will gouge my own eyes out and tear apart my spleen before I hurt Miss Abigail!”

Our spleen, our eyes, Pace reminded her. And I agree. Never hurt Abigail. Never hurt Miranda. Never hurt Seller. They’re our friends. We get that. But calm down, Theia. Don’t scare her. Don’t freak her out.

Listening to her host’s words gave Theia pause enough for Miranda herself, who had also stood up by then, to speak up. “Okay, okay. I get it. You care about Abigail. Probably because she was the first person to really…” She paused, grimacing. “I get it. No hurting Abigail.”

“Never,” Theia reiterated firmly and pointedly.

Fists, Theia, Pace silently.

Realizing belatedly that she had balled their hands into fists, Theia relaxed them as best as she could, wincing visibly. “We… we are both sorry. Theia-I and Pace-I. We did not mean to… scare you.”

“It’s umm…” Miranda paused before clearing her throat. “It’s okay. I get it. I shouldn’t have said that you might hurt or kill Abigail if they told you to. But… but do you see why I’m still afraid of–why I still don’t know how much we can trust you? You worked for them for a really long time. They have to mean something to you. They’re your people.”

The other girl’s voice was soft. “Theia-I was never one of them. They would not allow it.”

Miranda was quiet for a second, before she gave a single nod. “You’re right. You’re not one of them. You’re better. You can be better. Just… make sure you remember that, okay? Remember that you’re better than they want you to be. Whatever happens, this whole… cure or… separation thing? However that goes down, it doesn’t matter. You’re still better than them. You’re better than your psycho piece of shit mother. All those people that hate you just because of how you were born? Fuck them. Worry about the people who actually care about you think.”

Like me, Pace reminded the Seosten girl who was sharing her body. Believe it or not, I do care about what happens to you, Theia. I’ve seen your past, remember. Parts of it anyway. And she’s right. Those people, they don’t matter. Fuck them. Abigail, Miranda, and Seller. They matter. Maybe it’ll take awhile to prove ourselves to Miranda and Seller. But we’ll do it. You worked your whole life to convince your own people to give you a chance, and they never cared. They just used you. But these people are giving you a chance.

Theia was quiet once more, listening to what both of the others were saying, before she lifted her chin. “Yes,” she said simply. “Miss Abigail matters. Mr. Seller matters. You matter, Miranda-person. Even if you do not like Theia-me very much because of the bad things that I did.”

“I…” Miranda paused, then simply replied, “I came in here to find out what you want for dinner.”

After a brief consultation with her host, Theia piped up, “Cheeseburgers? One with only ketchup and mayo, and one with everything. And extra onions.”

Miranda shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat. Err, boats. Now come on, let’s order it.”

Obligingly, Theia stepped out of the tub to follow the other girl out of the bathroom. “And maybe we can call a plumber so they can tell us how the water comes out.”

Heading for the phone on the nearby desk, Miranda shook her head. “We’ll just Google it, Theia. Google knows everything.”

Standing there, Theia considered that. She thought about what they were trying to do, the whole reason they were working together. “Hey… do you think…”

Miranda replied without looking back, “–that Google might know how to separate a Seosten with SPS from their host?”

Clearly confused by that, Theia echoed blankly, “SPS?”

“Sticky-Possession Syndrome,” Miranda informed her. “It’s better than calling you or… or people like you Lies. And no, I promise that Google doesn’t know how to fix it.

“…. because I already checked.”

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Mini-Interlude 69 – Pace and Lies

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The following takes place after Interlude 31A, at the end of which Pace first extended the idea of working together to Lies (before she was given the name of Theia), and before Interlude 32B, in which Pace-Lies was found by Seller, Miranda, and Abigail.

It is also the first of TWO interludes coming out today. The second will be out in a few hours.

“So, figured out what you want yet, hon?”

The question came from a gum-chewing woman with dyed blonde hair. The dye was cheap store brand, the gum a generic strawberry flavor whose scent did nothing to cover up the perpetual smoker’s smell that hung over her. She had stepped in stray cat excrement on the way to work before scraping the majority of it off on something, and her hands still smelled of the disinfectant soap she had scrubbed them in upon arrival. Which was precisely why they had chosen to sit at this table rather than one at the other end of the diner, which was covered by a woman who had not been nearly as careful in her washing.

Lies, sitting alone in the booth, slowly lowered the menu she had been perusing and squinted up at the woman. Her first instinct was to snap that she would tell her when she was ready.

Be nice. We can do that. She’s just doing her job. Her manager told her to hurry us along because we’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. I’m in here too, remember?

Head tilting a little as she listened to the silent voice for a moment, Lies then turned her attention back to the woman, who was still loudly chewing gum as she waited for an answer. Pace was right, of course. They were almost alone in this diner, but it was the middle of the night. Or rather, the middle of the very early morning. Not quite dawn, and still too early for any of the work crowd, yet beyond the bedtime of even the latest of night owls.

Night owls. Were there day owls? That was, here on Earth. Of course there was always the–

Um, she’s still waiting, you know.

Of course. The waitress had clearly been getting impatient the longer she stood there without getting any response, to the point of clearing her throat a little with a significant look toward the clock on the nearby wall.

Lies took a breath, lowering the menu the rest of the way until it was flat against the table. “Yes,” she finally answered, trying for a smile. It was meant to be reassuring, but from the way the woman took a reflexive step back, she was guessing that it hadn’t exactly been successful in that.

“Yes,” she repeated, still giving that toothy smile in an attempt to look friendly. “We would like two coffees. One black, one with two sugars and one cream. We would also like a tall stack of pancakes split in two, with blueberry syrup on one half and maple syrup on on the other half. We would like four strips of bacon, two crispy and two regular. Also, two pieces of toast, one with butter and honey and the other with just strawberry jam. Oh, and eggs. We would like two eggs sunny side up and two eggs scrambled.” She thought for a moment before giving a firm nod. “That should be all of it.” Belatedly and at a slight mental prodding from Pace, she added, “Thank you for waiting for us to be ready.”

“Us… we?” A look of confusion crossed the woman’s face as she slowly turned to look at the empty side of the booth. “You expecting someone else to show up, hon?”

“If they do,” Lies informed her sagely, “they will not get any of our bacon.”

For a brief second, the woman’s mouth opened as though to question that. In the end, however, she simply shook her head. “You know what, it’s too early and you’re not the strangest person we’ve ever had in here. Pancakes, bacon, toast, and eggs, coming right up. And I’ll get your coffee out to you in just a second. One black, one with two sugars and one cream.”

“You have a good memory,” Lies complimented. “Are you sure you’re not one of us?”

That weird look came back, as the woman squinted at her before turning on her heel. She walked back to the kitchen, muttering something about needing to change shifts.

“She is very strange,” Lies murmured softly as her head tilted to follow the woman’s departure.

Yeah, she’s the strange one, Pace silently put in before adding, Thanks though. You know, for trying to get things that I like. You didn’t have to do that.

“You wished to negotiate our partnership,” Lies pointed out. “Such things should be done over a meal. That’s what the movies say. That or in a big room with a long table. But you didn’t want to go into that office building where the people in suits were.”

She heard the girl’s thoughts about what she was afraid would happen if they had gone in there, but Pace only purposely replied, I meant I know you don’t have to care what I like to eat. So thanks. It kind of helps.

For a moment, Lies didn’t say anything. She simply sat there with a thoughtful frown before looking up as the waitress came back with two cups of coffee. She set one down in front of the girl, then moved to put the other one on the opposite side of the table before looking at her questioningly. Lies pointed next to the first mug and the woman shrugged before putting it down there. Leaning back, she asked, “Anything else for you, dear?”

“Only the food we ordered, please.” Lies’ replied as sweetly as possible, trying to be nice. Her face almost immediately hardened however, as she added, “Unless you really are one of us. In which case, you should know that we will be able to tell if it’s poisoned.

Oh God, Pace quickly put in silently, laugh. Make her think that was a joke.

She didn’t need to be told twice. Lies are probably burst into a loud, manic cackle for several long seconds before cutting it off. Her face returned to being utterly impassive as she announced in a flat voice, “That was a joke. The poisoned part, not the part about us detecting it. Just in case.”

The woman raised a hand, then paused once more before her head shook. “Nope,” she said before turning on her heel to walk away again while repeating, “Nope, nope, nope, nope.”

Once she was gone, Lies turned her attention back to her host while picking up the first cup. “Why do you want to work together? I am your enslaver. You should want me dead. With extreme prejudice.” Her voice held no real accusation in it, merely curiosity.

I know that it wasn’t your choice to be like this, Pace insisted. I’ve seen your nightmares too, remember. I know what your mother did to you. I know what your society is like, what they expect everyone, especially people like you to do. And I know that you are capable of being better than that. There was a brief pause then before she added, Besides, if you die, I die. I can’t deny that’s part of it. Self-preservation. But we really can work together. What do you have to lose? No one on that side wants you around. All they do is abuse and betray you. They treat you like garbage. They call you a Lie, for fuck’s sake. They abuse you. You don’t owe them anything. You don’t owe anyone anything. And if they find you, they’ll kill you. They’ll kill us. But you and me, we don’t have to be enemies. We can get somewhere. We can do something.

“How would we work together?” Lies asked curiously while switching to the other cup of coffee for Pace’s benefit. “What do you think we should do?”

Find a way to fuck over Manakel and the rest of them, Pace promptly replied. You already kept that Seosten kid that’s possessing the Chambers’ girl secret. Hell, you kept that secret even when you could’ve used it to save yourself from Manakel in the first place. You know how much he would’ve done if you told him that part? He definitely would’ve forgiven the whole choker thing. But you didn’t. You didn’t even consider it.

Switching to the first cup once again, Lies quietly murmured, “She is a child. They would have hurt her.”

And that’s why I want to be your partner, Pace declared firmly. That’s how I know you’re not like them. All the shit they’ve done to you, and you’re still not as bad as them. I mean, sure, maybe you’re a little… off. But you’re not evil. I mean–right, it’s complicated. But you can be better. We can be better. We work together, we can fuck over Manakel and everyone else who hurt you.

“And find a way to separate us,” Lies added, switching once again to the second cup.

What… what do you mean? There was hope in Pace’s mental voice, though it was tempered by hesitation, fear of that very hope being easily torn apart in so many possible ways.

“If we are partners,” Lies pointed out, “we must both get something. You will help me control myself, help me… blend in, help me survive. You will help me with Manakel. And I will help you get your body back.”

A whole lot of emotions and thoughts ran through Pace then, more than Lies could easily keep track of. Once they settled at least a little bit, her host finally replied, If we’re going to work together, that means you need to listen to me sometimes. I know you’re better at a lot of the fighting stuff. But sometimes we need to control your impulses. We have to stop and talk to people sometimes. And not just to scare them.

Lies considered that briefly, pursuing her lips thoughtfully before giving a slight nod. “You are better at the talking. You are better at understanding people. I will listen to you then. And… I will give you a vote for what we do. I cannot give you control of your body, but I can let you vote for things. I can try to listen. That is… that is the best I can do now. You get a vote, and I will try to listen.”

It’s enough, the other girl assured her. I mean, for now. I Just–you know we’re going to have to work with the people who are fighting Manakel, right? Which means working with people that we tried to kill. People that we hurt.

“People that I hurt,” Lies corrected. “People that I tried to kill. That was not you. And if they try to take it out on you, I will–”

She stopped then, as their werewolf senses let them know that their food was being delivered. Turning her head, Lies and Pace both watched as the waitress brought the plates out, setting them down on the table with a smile that was admittedly forced, but was still a smile.

At a bit of prompting from the girl in her head, Lies piped up, “Thank you, we will enjoy this. It does not even smell poisoned.”

“Yeah,” the woman retorted easily, “I told Mario to make sure to hold the poison on this one.”

“We know,” Lies informed her. “We heard you. But it could have been a trick, a signal to add poison.”

“You heard me from–” Abruptly, the woman stopped. “Nah, that’s fine. You enjoy your food, sweetie. You’re polite enough and you haven’t thrown anything yet. Far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the best customers we’ve had at this time of night. Let me know if you need anything else.”

With a nod, Lies replied, “We will. And tell Mario that the answer is enumeration.”

Pausing, the woman blinked back at them. “I’m sorry?”

“For his crossword,” Lies explained. “After you told him to hold the poison, he asked you for thirteen across. Eleven letters, ‘the act of numbering.’ Enumeration. He should feel bad for not knowing that.”

There was pure silence for several seconds, as the woman stared at her. Slowly, she turned to look at the door into the kitchen, which was way over halfway across the diner. There was no way that the girl sitting here at the table should have heard that conversation. Not unless-

Yet, again, she simply shook it off. “I’ll… let him know.” She turned once more to head off.

Yeah, Pace put in, we should probably give her a big tip when we leave.

A really big tip.

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Convalescence 38-08

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Eventually, Shiori (who had very quickly been protected by the dibs spell, of course) and I managed to extricate ourselves and Sahveniah from the room so that Avalon could get some sleep. She put on a brave face and was, of course, incredibly stubborn about it. But I could tell that even just sitting there eating food with us had taken a lot out of her. It was going to take some time for her to recover. Which was made abundantly clear by the fact that she didn’t really argue that much about it.

The three of us stepped outside of the cabin in time to see that the others had apparently already met the remaining kids. The three Seosten toddlers, Tabbris, and Theia were all there with Columbus, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Koren.

Of course, my very first thought was that if one of these guys got possessed, even accidentally, by one of the toddlers, it could be pretty bad. But even as my mouth opened to call out to them, Tabbris saw me and waved to show that everything was okay. She mimed writing a spell, and I realized she had apparently copied the dibs protection onto these guys as well.  

I should’ve known that my little sister wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Hell, I’d done the same thing with Shiori back in the room, just to make sure little Savvy didn’t end up… well, just to make sure very bad things didn’t happen. And now that my reflexive worry was dealt with, I could actually focus on what the others were doing.

Because I apparently had not yet had my fill of weaponized adorableness, Grisiniel, the brown-haired boy, was currently hanging from Sean’s outstretched arm, making squealing sound as the boy raised and lowered it. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the red-haired Penemue was doing pretty much the same thing with Scout and Koren as they kept raising and lowering him by his hands, bouncing him up in the air and then down again.

And to put the cherry on top of the cute sundae, the other girl, Kemetiel, was sitting on Vulcan’s back. She was actually riding him around in a circle as if he was a horse.

I almost would have believed that this entire thing had been some big elaborate plot to kill me, because I seriously almost died just standing there watching that for a couple of seconds.

It was made even worse (read: better) a second later, as Savvy squirmed out of my arms and to the ground. With a happy squeal, the girl ran off to her friends, joining Kemetiel on Vulcan’s back. For his part, the cyberform dog proudly held his head high while trotting around in a circle with both of his riders.

I could see some of the camp inhabitants watching with curiosity. I had wondered if they would be afraid of the Seosten children. But while most did seem to at least be cautiously keeping their distance for the time being, I couldn’t see any outright hostility. Which made sense, considering they hadn’t been outright hostile to me, and the Alters on this world likely had more experience being hunted down and killed by Heretics rather than Seosten.

Besides, I couldn’t see how anyone could look at these kids for longer than three seconds and think that they were some kind of monsters.

As if in agreement with that, Columbus, who had been standing up away from the others, moved next to his sister. Lifting his chin, the boy murmured, “Well, they sure don’t look evil.”

“Right?” Looking over to the boy with that, I asked, “Did you get any sleep at all? We didn’t leave you that long ago.”

The boy’s response was a grunt before he shook his head. “I’ll sleep later. Right now, every time I close my eyes, I just see…”

He trailed off, but I knew. “Rudolph.” Saying the boy’s name, I sighed and lowered my head. “Yeah. I keep thinking about things we could have done differently, other choices that we could have made.”

“I should’ve been there.” Columbus’s voice was a bit hollow, showing me how much he had been dwelling on it. “I should have been the one who stayed behind to hold the zombies off. I could have done it without Sean, and if Manakel had still shown up, there would’ve been just me to put in that tube. He wouldn’t have had an extra to kill. Then all of us would still be alive right now.”

Shiori spoke up before I could say anything. “Or he just would have killed you anyway. We don’t know. Besides, Sean or I would’ve insisted on staying with you. Then one of us would’ve died.“

“I–” Columbus started before stopping. He sighed, lowering his head just look at the ground while murmuring, “I just didn’t want anyone to die.”

Before either Shiori or I could find anything to say to that, as if there was anything we could say that would matter, Theia approached along with Doug. Tabbris waved again and looked uncertain for a moment, but once I returned it and let her know I was fine, she stayed over with Scout, Sean, and Koren to keep entertaining the little ones.

“Good,” Theia started, “you’re here. Pace-I thought we should wait for you to test these Whisper spells.”

“Yeah,” the boy with her drawled, “and Doug-I agreed that waiting was a good idea.”

Briefly, I wondered how much of that was him wanting the rest of us have to see how well it worked, and how much with him being afraid that if it did work, Theia would run off with his favorite hat if he didn’t have someone around to stop her.

Either way, they were here now, and I nodded. “Well, I guess the easiest way to do it is just to put the hat on her head and see what happens?”

Making a face as if he couldn’t believe he was bringing it up, Columbus asked, “You don’t think it’ll just erase her or something, do you? I mean, we don’t know exactly how would the whole Lie thing works. If it shuts her out, but she can’t leave the body…”

Grimacing at that, I hesitated before shaking my head. “It didn’t do that to me when I possessed Scout before. It just let both of us control her body at the same time. Like one of those cars with steering wheel and pedals on both sides.”

“Yeah.” Columbus coughed. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve been a little more scientific and careful about that one to begin with.”

In the end, we left it up to Theia, and she chose to try it. So, Doug handed her his hat, though he looked a bit reluctant to let go of it. “If it works,” he started firmly, “we’re making you a different one. You don’t get to keep it.” He only let go of the hat once the girl nodded.

Still, she didn’t put it on yet. Instead, she stood there staring down at it and her hands before her head shook. “Not yet,” she announced firmly. “We want to wait for Miss Abigail. She should be here.”

Without turning around, I gestured behind myself. “Well, you’re in luck, because here she comes. With…” Turning to make sure, I nodded. “With Scott.”

Yeah, Scott and Abigail were approaching. The two had clearly been deep in conversation, but they stopped once they were close enough.

“I didn’t know there were children in that prison transport,” Abigail announced, nodding past us to where the kids were.

“None of us did,” I assured her. “Trust me, it was a surprise to everyone. Gaia and the others are working out which adults they can let out of the pods so we can try to get some answers about it.”

“They’re children.” I could hear the horror and revulsion in Abigail’s voice. “What could that… creature have meant to do with them at her lab here? What could she possibly–” She stopped herself then, unable or unwilling to continue that thought.

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath, “Kushiel being a monster isn’t exactly front-page news at this point.”

In what was obviously an effort to tear her thoughts away from that dark pit of despair, Abigail looked to Theia. “What’s this?”

So we explained, giving the quickest rundown we could. And once Abigail had some idea of what might be about to happen… Theia put the hat on.

For a second, I thought nothing had happened. The girl’s head simply tilted a little, and then she looked down at her hand. She stared at the hand for a moment before her mouth opened.

“I… I can… talk. My… hand. My my my my hah-hah-handuh. My hand. My mouth. Talk. Talk!”

Suddenly, she sprang over to wrap both arms around Doug, hugging the younger boy tightly while he gave a strangled yelp.

“Well,” I started with a little smile, “I guess that makes you Pace. The real Pace, I mean.”

Apparently my speaking up then meant that it was my turn for a hug, since Pace threw herself at me next. That was followed by a hug for Shiori and Columbus as well. The latter even managed to avoid pushing her away, though he did stiffen a bit.

Then it was Abigail’s turn. She received the longest, tightest hug of all. I saw Pace’s (and this time, it really was Pace) shoulders shake visibly as she clung to the woman who clearly meant so much to both Pace and the Seosten possessing her.

Giving a broad smile as she finally leaned back, the Hispanic girl announced, “It’s me.”

Immediately, her face shifted just a tiny bit. It was almost entirely unnoticeable unless you were really looking for it. “And Theia-me. We are both here. Share and share alike.”

“Oh…” Gasping in clear awe, Abigial put both hands on the side of Pace-Theia’s face. “My God. You can talk. You can… you can… it’s really you. Both of you.”

Shiori was staring. “Wow. Well, it’s good to finally meet you? This is kind of weird.”

“You’re telling me!” Pace blurted. “I haven’t been been able to talk, or raise my hand, or sneeze, or—wait.”

In mid-sentence, the girl turned away from us. She took a breath, then move three quick stops over before her hand snapped up to hold onto the hat. With that, she proceeded to do a quick, perfect one-handed cartwheel, followed by a side-flip. Finally, Pace simply jumped up and down, releasing the hat so that she could pump her arms in the air while squealing. She clearly didn’t care about attracting attention or looking ridiculous. Which… yeah, at that point, I wouldn’t have either. She’d been unable to control herself for so long, who cared if people were staring?

That was apparently the cue for the four Seosten toddlers, who all scrambled over to start jumping up and down together with Pace, even though they had no idea what was going on. That didn’t seem to affect their excitement one bit, as they continued jumping up and down while pumping their arms just like she was. To say it was adorable would have been beating a dead horse by that point, but still. It was.

Reaching down to pick up Kemetiel as she finally stopped jumping, Pace grinned. “You have no idea how good this feels right now. It’s amazing. It’s like being locked up for year and just now being able to stretch my legs. I can move, I can talk, I can turn my head because I want to turn my head! I can blink! See? Blink, blink, blink.”

Nearby, Columbus murmured, “I can imagine.” He paused then as if deciding how to broach the subject before asking, “Does this mean that you and… Theia are actually…”

“Working together now, yeah.” The girl confirmed it with a nod before her face shifted a little.

“We are partners,” Theia put in, before clearly relinquishing control back to Pace again.

Koren approached with the others, her eyebrow raised. “We leave you alone for five minutes, and you show up again with a herd of chibi Seosten?”

Scott spoke up then. “You think that’s bad, you should’ve seen what she got into when she was six and I left her alone in the bathroom for three minutes. There was–”

My hand snapped down, covering his mouth as I growled, “Not another word, you.”

There was confusion written across Koren’s face (and she wasn’t the only one) at that. But before we could explain anything, I blinked around with realization. The rest of the camp, the ones who had been watching carefully, had withdrawn a bit more. There were less faces, like they were even more nervous than they had been a minute earlier. It couldn’t have been the Seosten toddlers. They weren’t doing anything wrong. So what–

And then I realize the truth. The people weren’t keeping their distance from the kids. They were staying back from the portal nearby where Gaia, Sariel, Larees, and Gabriel had all just shown up, flanked by a half dozen adult Seosten. There were four males and two females. All seemed a bit dazed and taken aback by everything. They wore the same clingy jumpsuit thing that the toddlers and Tabbris wore, and were looking around in a vague state of confusion and uncertainty while they were led through the camp, toward where we were.

The tallest of the men, standing about three inches over six feet, looked like a more handsome version of Schwarzenegger as of the first Terminator movie. His body looked like it had been sculpted from steel, with incredibly defined muscles that were visible through that bodysuit. His short, dark-blonde hair and chiseled face were capped by these piercing blue eyes.

Yeah, Seosten were unbelievably gorgeous. That wasn’t exactly news. But still, this guy was something else.

Not that the others with him were exactly slouches. The other three men were less overtly muscular (two were more handsome in that boy band, androgynous sort of way), but still eye-catchingly attractive. As were the two females. One of the pair was my height, with short brown hair shaped into a crew cut, while the other was slightly taller than Avalon with very long blonde hair that was tied into a very tight braid that made me want to call her Rapunzel in my head.

The kids stopped laughing and jumping around when they saw the adults approaching. For a second, all four of them stayed completely still, just staring that way as they clustered together. I saw uncertainty written across their faces in that moment, as if they weren’t sure what was going on.

“It’s okay,” I heard Sariel announce to the other Seosten adults. “You can pick them up. You have my word, the spell will protect you from accidental possession. They’re your children.”

The reassurance was apparently all they needed. The Seosten moved to the toddlers. That big guy reached down, picking up Kemetiel with a look of wonder written across his face while she regarded him curiously. Beside him, the taller woman stepped up, raising a hand that shook nervously before she laid it against the girl’s hair.

Nearby, Penemue, the red-haired boy, was picked up by one of the other males who (of course) also had red hair. Next to him, the smaller woman had picked up Grisiniel, while one of the other males, who had the same sandy-brown hair as that boy, reached out to touch his shoulder and back in obvious disbelief that all of this was real.

Sahveniah, meanwhile, was approached and picked up to be held tightly by the remaining man. He was the shortest of all the males, though he still stood just a tiny bit under six feet. His skin and hair were as dark as hers, and he trembled a little before pulling her to himself.

Sariel had stopped near the rest of us, watching that reunion. Quietly, she nodded to the big guy and the taller woman. “Micah and Disetiel. Kemetiel is their daughter, though they’ve never met. None of them have ever actually met, actually, aside from perhaps passing in the hallway between cells and… well…”

She shook her head, moving on by looking toward the red-haired man with Penemu. “Forsenti. And the woman with Grisiniel is Xenaphiel. She is the mother of both boys there.”

“I take it the guy there with Sahveniah is her father,” I started with a nod that way. “But where’s her mother?”

“His name is Zadriek. And as to her mother…” Sariel paused before continuing. “If the records that we were able to dig up are to be believed, her mother is complicated.”

“Complicated?” Shiori echoed before I could say anything. “What kind of complicated?”

“The kind of complicated,” the woman answered, “where she was technically carried and birthed by an unidentified woman in Kushiel’s lab. But she was a surrogate. The actual mother, from whom the egg came… was Aletheia.”

Well, that made everyone’s eyes snap around. Especially Pace-Theia’s. She… or possibly they, as I could see both agreeing with that particular action, blurted, “What?”

“Not you,” Sariel started, “the original Aletheia. Somehow, Kushiel was able to obtain at least one of her… eggs, fertilized it, and placed it inside of the unidentified woman. Sahveniah, for all intents and purposes, is the original Aletheia’s daughter.”

“Wow…” I murmured the word under my breath, trailing off as I stared that way. “Wow.”

That same sentiment was basically shared by everyone, as we stood there, staring at the Seosten children and adults being reunited. Or, I supposed, just plain ‘united’, since they had never actually met before.

The dibs spell. This was because of the dibs spell. It was thanks to Sariel right here that these parents and kids could even be with each other like this. As far as I knew, most Seosten parents never had this kind of relationship with their children. They were shipped off to be raised by other dedicated schools, orphanages essentially, to avoid any kind of accidental possession problems. But now they could be with their kids. Because of that spell.

Wow. Just… wow. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

My mouth opened to say something else, when I noticed Scout. The girl was staring not at the kids, but at Sariel. She was staring in what looked like open wonder, while Sariel herself looked away with an expression of barely held regret and shame.

And then I remembered. Sariel was the one who had saved Scout from that Fomorian as a child, back on the boat. She had saved Scout. But in so doing, she had also taken Scout’s mother out of there. And, well, just how much the Fomorian being there in the first place was probably up to debate between everyone who felt guilty about it.

Complicated. That whole thing was complicated, and judging from the looks between both Scout and Sariel, they were going to need some privacy to talk it through.

But it wasn’t my business, so I looked to Gaia nearby. “What about the rest of the prisoners?”

The headmistress answered. “It will take time to go through them. But many will be able to be released, hopefully to stay here in the camp. Having so many Seosten to help bolster defenses and knowledge of the Empire itself will be invaluable in countless ways.”

She was right, of course. The kind of help that adding a bunch of loyal Seosten to the Atherby clan and having them actually work together would be incredible. But as Gaia had said, it would have to be done slowly and carefully. Because it was also something that could go wrong very easily.

“I see that you’ve tested it, then?” My attention was pulled away from those thoughts then, toward where Sariel was nodding toward the hat that Theia-Pace was still wearing. “And it…”

“Works,” they confirmed with a quick nod, before giving a broad smile. Pace, because it was clearly her, added, “I can talk. I can move. We have to share, but I can move. I can…” She shivered noticeably, before Theia took over.

“We must give it back. We will have our own as soon as possible. But we promised to give it back.”

“Uhhh…” Doug hesitated, looking torn before his head shook. “I can’t–damn it, you know what? Why don’t you keep it for now. Just for now. You uhh, you need it more than I do. Just until Grandpa Sulan gets here for the–” He stopped, clearly not wanting to finish that sentence. “Just until he gets here. Then he can help make something else, something just for you, okay? I can make them, but they’re temporary, not like… not like the hat. He’ll make you something you can have. And then I’ll want the hat back.”

For their part, Theia-Pace stared at the boy for a moment before giving a smile that was, again, clearly from both of them.

“Thank you, Douglas,” the two said in a voice that was singular, yet also somehow plural.

“I–” The boy flushed, shaking his head as he looked away. “Just don’t lose it.”

Everyone looked back to the rest of the Seosten then. By that point, some of the camp inhabitants had started to emerge, bolstered both by the sight of the parents with their children, and by the fact that Gabriel was there. They came closer, and I heard a few start to ask questions.

“You really don’t hold back, do you?” That was Scott, staring at me with those too-old eyes. “Look at all this. You’re just like your mom. Changing the world.”

My mouth opened, and then I paused. I thought about everything that was happening, everything that would happen.

I had no doubt that the Seosten would continue their efforts to either break into the vault themselves or use Avalon to do it. But this was the Atherby camp. She would be safe here, so that she could recover. The Seosten wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in this place.

She had time to rest. Time in which, with any luck, Larissa and the others would manage to make their way back to Earth. Because Dries would be with them, and if anyone could change the spell that his wife had stored in that vault, it was him. Especially with all the help he would have. With Dries and Avalon, we would get into the vault and find Liesje’s spell.

“Change the world?” I echoed, giving Scott a wink.

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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