For a brief moment as he came to on the floor, Columbus was too groggy to remember what had happened. It took his brain a couple of seconds to catch up. Once it did, however, the boy immediately forced himself upright with a gasp. His eyes quickly snapped around as he took in his surroundings. The office. They were still in the medical director’s office. He could see the hopefully just unconscious bodies all around him, including his sister, whose breath was steady enough to stop his sudden moment of panic.
Then his gaze fell on one of the bodies that wasn’t just unconscious and Columbus felt his stomach fall. Rudolph. Rudolph really was dead. It hadn’t been a terrible nightmare or hallucination. His body was there on the floor, throat cut open.
The sound of that simple, soft little voice behind him made Columbus spin around with his hand up to his goggles. Then he saw her. Sitting near a clearly heavily injured Avalon was a young girl. A young Seosten girl. That much he could tell almost instantly. She was young, sitting there by Avalon, who was surrounded by spellwork.
Only belatedly did he notice the other thing about that girl. She was wearing face paint. Fox face paint, to be specific. It covered her face and somehow made her look even more innocent. And that was already difficult, given her wide eyes, blonde hair, and nervous expression as she watched him. Her voice, when she spoke, was hesitant. “I… I need help. For Avalon.”
Despite all appearances, Columbus’s first instinct was to snap for the girl to get away from Avalon. After everything he’d been through with Charmeine, he didn’t want the Seosten to be near any of the people he cared about.
Still, he took a moment to brace himself before managing, “You’re Flick’s— you’re the one with Flick. Where is she? What happened?” Parts of his suspicious mind went wild with conspiracy thoughts and awful assumptions, which he tried to push down as much as possible. But he could tell that some of it was written across his expression.
It took the girl a second to respond, which Columbus first thought was a sign of making something up, but quickly realized was simply a product of her apparent exhaustion.
“I— I can tell you what’s happening, but you have to help me, please. Avalon is going to die if you don’t help me keep this spell going. I don’t have the power for it. Please.”
And there it was. Avalon was in bad shape, that much was obvious. But on the face of it, Columbus had no idea if the spells that the girl had used were helpful or harmful. Outside of Flick’s word about this girl, he had no way of knowing if she was good or bad. Hell, he didn’t even know absolutely for certain if this was the same girl, considering they’d never actually met before. It could be a trick.
And yet, if he did nothing and she really was helping Avalon, he would be responsible for letting his friend die. To save Avalon, he had to trust this Seosten girl.
It felt as though minutes had passed through his indecision, even though it had only been a couple of torturous seconds. What was he supposed to do? What was the right answer? If he was wrong…
And then Columbus made his decision. Pushing off the floor, he winced very briefly as a wave of pain shot through his head before managing to steady himself. Then he moved that way. His voice was a grunt. “What do I do?”
He saw the girl’s shoulders drop a little bit as she let out the breath that she had clearly been holding before raising a hand to point. “Sit on, um, on that side of her. Put your hands on that symbol that looks like an upside down Capital A with a little tail, and your other hand on the sideways Z with the equals sign under it.”
Following her instructions despite his initial instinct to distrust the girl, Columbus put his hands in place before glancing down. From up close, Avalon looked even worse than before. She had been stabbed through, most of her limbs looked broken, and she was clearly sick. Her skin was a pallid gray. If all of this spellwork was keeping her alive, he would’ve hated to see what shape she would have been in without it.
Tearing his gaze away from Avalon herself, he looked up to the Seosten girl, waiting for the next instruction.
Clearly incredibly nervous, but also just as competent, the girl carefully explained to him how to inject more power into the spells and how to pace himself. She pointed him to each spell that had to be reinforced, making sure to tell him when to stop before he exhausted himself.
It was hard work, very tiring and intensive. But it kept his mind off the situation and off of exactly who he was taking instruction from. For a brief time, he fell into the routine of simply doing what she said.
Avalon wasn’t looking a whole lot better, but she wasn’t looking worse either. Columbus wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
“It… it’s poison.” The girl, practically having read his mind, spoke up. “Flick and Mama are getting the cure from M-Manakel. But someone had to stay and make sure she didn’t die before then.”
“Your… your mom,” Columbus echoed. “You mean she’s here? With Flick?” That time, he knew he didn’t keep all the suspicion out of his voice, despite himself.
Somehow, the girl sounded far more defensive about her mother than about herself. “Mama’s helping. She came in with Miss Gaia, and they…” She hesitated, before slowly explaining what had happened while Columbus was unconscious.
While she was speaking, Columbus watched her face. He watched her expressions, the way her eyes moved. She was so different from Charmeine. It was like night and day. Which, logically he knew made sense. Thinking that one person was just as evil as another was like comparing his own mother to Pol Pot, just because they were technically the same species.
He knew that logically. And yet, it still felt strange. After all the ways Charmeine had taunted him, after everything she had said and showed him about her people and all that he had personally learned about, seeing this seemingly completely innocent Seosten child was… strange. Even after everything that Flick had said about her, it was still strange. And flew in the face of the picture of the Seosten that he had in his head.
Finally, he couldn’t help himself, and blurted, “Why is that on your face?”
Blinking in surprise, the girl reached a hand up to touch the face paint before blushing. Her voice was quiet. “I was with Fli— I mean, with our… our dad.” Looking suddenly guilty, the girl’s eyes snapped up and she stammered, “He told me to call him that, I know he’s not really—”
It was that, that reaction more than anything else, that finally broke through to Columbus and shattered most of his suspicion. He remembered that face. He remembered those words. He remembered them when they have been his own. Back when he had been adopted by his new mother and father after his own parents had died in that plane crash. He remembered the first time that he called Mr. Porter dad. He remembered the guilt, the feeling that he was forgetting his real father, and the fear that the man himself would reject it.
Seeing this girl like that, with the same obvious fear about being corrected that the man she cared so much about wasn’t really her father made her innocence strike home at Columbus more than even the face paint did. It gave a single similar point of reference that his mind could latch onto. And the thought that he was the one who could make her feel that way, that he could totally crush her spirit with a few well-placed words right then made him feel a brief wave of revulsion. Not revulsion at her, but at the very thought that he could do that, that he could make this girl cry.
Nothing that Flick had tried to explain, nothing that anyone else had tried to explain, no stories about how great the girl was, or even the look of that innocent face paint struck home nearly as much as that moment did. In that moment, Columbus saw himself in that girl. He saw Shiori, So scared of her new environment when they were kids. He saw all of that. And he knew one thing for certain.
He could never make this girl cry.
“You were with your dad,” he started firmly, meeting her gaze without flinching. “He painted your face?”
He still felt apprehension there, fear as the girl watched him for a quiet moment before giving a brief nod. She was clearly just waiting for him to correct her.
Instead, Columbus met her gaze for a couple of silent seconds before returning her nod.
“Cool. Now tell me what to do next.”
Flick was a necromancer.
Okay, correction. Flick had necromancer powers, after Sariel had helped her kill Manakel. And boy was Ruthers not happy about that in the itty bitty slightest. The man had spent minutes at a time during the Committee’s subsequent interviews with Columbus and each of the others trying to get them to say something bad about Flick suddenly having necromancy, up until his fellow Counselors had to tell him to move on. And move on they had, to the Committee’s newest idea about what was going on, which… Columbus had had to resist the urge to literally facepalm right in front of them. Or just scream at them about how stupid it was.
But now all those ‘interviews’ about what had happened were over, and the rest of the group had been brought to the same place Avalon had been sent so that she could heal: the Atherby camp.
They could have been taken back to Crossroads, of course. But Columbus and the others had all insisted on coming along with Flick to make sure Avalon was okay. And, well, given everything that had just happened, none of them were all that eager to sleep in a place so thoroughly compromised by the Seosten just yet. Especially given the revelation about Manakel possessing Kohaku. Getting some rest somewhere that was far more likely to actually be safe felt a lot better.
That and there was also the fact that Flick had refused to leave Avalon any longer, meaning Shiori had refused to leave her, and he in turn had refused to leave his sister. So, it had just been easier to bring them all here.
And here was… a lake surrounded by cabins. Which almost seemed like a cool summer camp or something. But the people around them definitely weren’t like any campers Columbus had ever seen. Standing there for a moment after arriving, he had seen a giant troll off in the lake nearby playing with several humanoid coyote or wolf children in the lake by repeatedly picking them up and throwing them. Despite how late it was (or early), they didn’t seem to care. Clearly the camp played home to plenty of nocturnal people too.
They had been greeted by both Flick’s dad and Gabriel Prosser himself, before the men took Flick to see Avalon, leaving the rest of the group to be shown to a free cabin by a well-dressed Kobold named Fancy, and an orc named Oscar. At the cabin, they were able to rest for awhile (with Gaia adding strict instructions for them to try and actually rest), along with the promise that they could look around more in the morning and actually meet people before going back to the school.
Columbus had no idea how Gaia was clearing or explaining their absence or where they were actually staying the night. But at that point, he also didn’t care. After everything that had happened, after… after losing Rudolph, nearly losing Flick and Avalon, all the fighting, all the–everything, he just didn’t care what the Committee or anyone else thought.
On the other hand, he also couldn’t sleep.
Oh, he tried. He tossed and turned on the provided bed in that cabin for almost twenty minutes before finally giving up. Deciding that stepping out into the night air might help, the boy slipped past the other beds in the open room where everyone else was gently snoring away, and found his way out onto the porch before closing the door quietly behind him.
Flick was still off wherever she had been taken, likely not leaving Avalon’s side. So Columbus simply stood on the porch and looked out over the lake. The ogre (that’s what it was, he had realized, not a troll) was no longer out there, though he could see some Alter kids still playing near the shore, along with some kind of training that was going on off in the distance. It was too dark to make out details, but it looked like there were about twenty people running through drills.
God, it had been a long night. All Columbus wanted to do was sleep. Every part of his body was sore, tired, and just plain done with everything. Except his mind. His mind wouldn’t shut up. His mind wouldn’t stop thinking about everything he could have done differently that would have saved Rudolph. Everything about that night, that moment, played itself over and over again in his head.
He should have stayed behind. He should have stayed with Sean. Sean was his partner, after all. He should’ve stayed with him and let Rudolph go on. Maybe if he’d been there, the powers that Charmeine had made him get would have made a difference.
Like they made so much of a difference when they fought Manakel in the office?
Fuck. Shut up, brain. Shut up.
He heard quiet, hesitant footsteps near the edge of the cabin, glancing that way in time to see a blonde head peeking around to watch him. The Seosten girl. Seeing his eyes on her, she raised one hand in a tentative wave, clearly debating with herself for a moment before she slowly walked up onto the porch.
“I-I saw you were up,” she started tentatively. “I… I just wanted to say that Avalon’s going to be okay. I don’t know how much they told you, but she’ll be okay. They got the cure to her in time.”
Bowing his head to look at his feet for a moment, Columbus looked up again to reply, “Thanks to you. She’d be dead if you didn’t keep her alive with that spell.”
The girl blushed, head shaking quickly. “That was Mama. I just kept it going. Until I couldn’t. Then it was… it was you. You kept Avalon alive.”
He said nothing to that for a few seconds, as a vaguely uncomfortable silence grew between them. The girl still looked nervous, which he couldn’t really blame her for. And yet, everything he wanted to say, or felt like he should say, died in his throat. He was still uncomfortable, still… afraid. He was afraid to be alone here with someone who could probably still take over his body completely if she wanted to.
She was so innocent looking, so… young and clearly desperate to be accepted. But it… he… his brain couldn’t just forget how easily she could control and enslave him if she wanted…
“I don’t hate you.” After all the time he had spent trying to think of the right thing to say, those words just came out before he actually knew he was going to say them.
He saw the girl blink up at that, her mouth opening and shutting twice before she managed a hesitant, “Wh-what?”
“I don’t hate you.” It was easier to say it that time, and he gave a slight nod afterward. “You make me nervous. But I don’t hate you. I… it’s not you, it’s–” Grimacing then, he muttered, “that sounds stupid.”
“It’s what we can do, what Charmeine did.” She finished the words for him, squirming there on her feet.
“Which is stupid,” he replied, “because look at all the horrible things we can do. I know, having power doesn’t mean you have to abuse it. And I know you’re supposed to be differ–you are different. Just because so many of your people are like Charmeine doesn’t mean you all are, and it doesn’t–fu–I mean crap. I know all the right words, okay? I know the right words, but when I look at you, when you’re close to me, I still… flinch. I don’t mean to, but I do. It’s not personal.”
“I’m sorry,” she quietly started while taking a deliberate step back. “I don’t want to… um, make you uncomfortable. I’ll try to stay away from you, I promise.”
But Columbus shook his head. “Maybe you shouldn’t.” He looked over, seeing the confusion written across her face. “Yes, you make me nervous. I tense up when I see you or anyone like you–your people. But I don’t think the answer is you just backing off. Maybe we should spend… spend more time together. My experience with your people is kind of bad. The answer isn’t to have the, uh, the good ones leave me alone. That can’t be right.”
“You… you want me to spend more time with you?” She sounded taken aback by that.
“I’m not sure how much I want that right now,” Columbus corrected her. “But I want to want it. I know that’s weird, it’s just… exposure therapy or something, I dunno.” He glanced sidelong to her then, offering a tentative smile. “It’s weird, I know. But yeah, we should… you should stick around. Don’t take it personally if I’m uncomfortable. And don’t apologize, because you didn’t do anything wrong. Just… uh, give me time, okay?”
The gir–Tabbris. Her name was Tabbris, and he was going to stop thinking of her as ‘the Seosten.’ Tabbris returned his smile, just as tentatively. “Okay.”
It wasn’t a friendship. He didn’t know what it was, considering she still freaked him out, and his reaction to that clearly upset her (though she did better than he at hiding that fact). But it was something.
And maybe something was enough for now.