Month: October 2018

Bonus Interlude – Team Stranded

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“All the planets in the universe,” Sands Mason announced, “and it turns out that the last piece of the banishment orb thing that we need to fix what was done to Mr. Moon happens to be on the first real alien world that my team went to?”

It was true. She, along with Jazz, Roxa, Gordon, Haiden, and Larissa, were standing on one of the many sandy dunes across the Meregan homeworld.

“It’s not too surprising,” Haiden pointed out. “Tristan was brought here, after all. So of course one of the bits of the broken orb is here too.”

Larissa nodded. “And we’ve got all the others. This is the last one. Once we get it… we can go home.”

Their search had been immeasurably hastened with the aid of Athena. With the woman and her people, they had very quickly tracked down all the other remaining pieces, a process which, without that aid, very likely could have taken at least another year. With Athena and the Aelaestiam, it had taken only a couple of weeks.

Most of that time, honestly, had been spent getting back to the Aelaestiam base. And once they were there, they had gotten the somewhat disturbing news that there had been a visit from Chayyiel, who had simply walked into the top secret base with what was apparently the sole purpose of killing Isaac.

Isaac was dead. Just like that. It was still a strange thought for the students to get used to. As big of a piece of shit as he had turned out to be, it was still… still hard to think that he was just dead like that. Not hard from grief, really. More hard from… disbelief was one word for it. It didn’t seem real.

Beyond just freaking out about Chayyiel (though mostly before that had happened), Athena’s people had been working to find the rest of the shards, to the point that they’d either had direct portals set up to the area the shards were in, or actually had the shards themselves. All except for a couple, of which this was the last one.

Athena herself was busy with a certain other matter at that moment, along with Apollo. But they had both promised to meet them as soon as possible. And Dries had chosen to stay on the ship with Jokai. Which left the rest of the small group to find this final piece.

Roxa spoke up then. “So, we’re in a giant sandbox, and we’ve got to find a little shard about the size of my pinky finger. Not to mention the magic radiation crap Fossor left all over the place we need to search. Good thing we’ve got ways of cheating or this might be kind of hard.”

Haiden started walking then. “We’ll go to the… affected area, as close as we can get to where the scans narrowed it down to. Then we’ll send our little friends out from there.”

No one was surprised by the man’s eagerness to get started. After all, his entire family was back on Earth waiting for him to finally get there. He’d been waiting long enough.

As they all moved that way, Gordon looked to Sands, quietly asking, “So the Meregan, they all left with Nicholas Petan after you guys woke them up and settled the misunderstanding?”

“The ones who were left from the scouting ship after Fossor got done with the rest of their population,” the girl confirmed. “Most of them did anyway. I asked Tristan about it before, and he said there was a group who stayed here to try and rebuild something. But I’m not sure where they are right now. The odds that we’d happen to run into them with this entire planet to work with are… not huge.”

Roxa shook her head. “That’s still confusing. Tristan was frozen for a few years so he was still a little kid when you guys first met him. Then he went off and spent years with his great-whatever grandpa Nick to get up to the age we all are before being sent back in time to meet Flick and the others.” She paused, then shook her head. “Time travel always overcomplicates things. It’s annoying.”

Larissa smiled faintly. “Just be glad that there aren’t clones involved yet.”

They walked for another few minutes. Now they weren’t simply moving through featureless rolling sand dunes. There were ruins around them, the skeletal remains of structures that had been long-since destroyed. They could see single walls here or there, or even large, partly-intact pieces of buildings. It was an entire city that had been utterly destroyed many, many years earlier.

Haiden held up his hand. He held a sheet of paper in the other, his brow furrowed as he watched it. “That‘s it,” the man announced. “Dries’ spell says that we’re right at the edge. The shard is somewhere ahead of us, in that area about one square mile across.”

Jazz spoke up then. “So all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack the length of seventeen football fields. No big deal.”

Reaching out, Roxa patted the other girl on the back. “That’s why we’ve got our little helpers, remember?” Pausing, she amended, “Not so little in some of our cases.”

“Yeah,” Sands muttered, “and the fact that whatever Fossor did to this place before means it’s still poisoned even now.”

That, more than anything, was why they were not going to be able to go inside of that area with their human bodies. The magical radiation-like poison covering the land would have killed them entirely too quickly, powers be damned. Still, they had other options.

“Everyone get comfortable,” Larissa instructed. She had already produced a couple of blankets and laid them out for the group to sit on. “It shouldn’t take too long to find the shard, but still. We’ve got water and food. Keep your strength up and don’t try to act tough about it. If you need a break, take it.”

They all sat, arranging themselves before each took out a bit of wood that had already been prepared with the theriangelos spell.

It was the same spell that Flick used to summon her fox. Athena, Larissa, and Haiden had taught it to the kids over the past couple of weeks. Taught it to them, that was, with a bit of an upgrade. With the addition to the spell, the animals that were summoned would be able to track the first object they touched, or things related to it. In this case, they had brought along a piece of the broken orb with them. When the animals touched that piece, they would be able to sense the other piece if they were close enough.

Larissa finished first, a testament to how experienced she was in using this particular spell. At that moment, as she tossed it in the air, the enchanted bit of wood transformed into a small hummingbird. Its belly, bits around its eyes, and its beak were pink, the same aura color as her daughters. Meanwhile, the rest of its body was the standard red that existed on all of these summoned animals.

Haiden was the next to finish. His own stick grew much larger and shifted before becoming a red and bronze jaguar.

Almost directly after that, Gordon finished his own casting. His stick, like Larissa‘s, grew into a bird. His, however, was a great horned owl with a green body, while the underside of its wings, as well as its talons and beak, were red.  

Sands was next. Where the others had only grown a bit, with Haiden’s jaguar being the largest, hers exploded in size. It suddenly become an enormous rhinoceros, with a red main body and pink horn, face, and underside.

Jazz’s own animal grew large as well. Not as much as the rhino, but still big. Hers was a horse, its main body the white of her aura, while its hooves, mane, and tail were red.

Finally, there was Roxa. Her animal was… unique. At first glance, it appeared to be a wild cat, similar to Haiden’s jaguar though much smaller at only about twenty pounds. It was larger than a housecat, yet much smaller than a leopard or a cheetah. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be an odd combination between a cat and a weasel of some kind, along with a long tail similar to a monkey. The tail itself was about as long as the rest of the animal.

Despite its apparent similarity to a cat, the animal was not a feline. It was more closely related to a mongoose. The thing was quick and agile, able to rush through the trees and keep its balance with its semi retractable claws and that long tail.

Then there was its name, the name which had convinced all of the kids that Haiden and Larissa were messing with them somehow and had made Roxa spit out the water she had been drinking when they’d said it.

Fossa. The animal was called a fossa. Which was a name that was so close to a certain other name that everyone had misheard them the first time and thought they were saying that Roxa’s animal was somehow related to a psychotic necromancer. It was, however, apparently an animal native only to Madagascar. How that ended up being her animal Roxa would probably never understand.

The fossa was a rich mixture of bronze and red, her aura matching both Haiden and Tristan. When she and Tristan had first discovered their auras were identical, Tristan had joked that maybe he had another long lost relative. Roxa had snickered at the time, but now she was seriously leaning toward demanding a DNA test, given everything else that seemed to be happening.

That was their rather eclectic collection of animals, the menagerie they would use to search this area of desert. They had a jaguar, a hummingbird, an owl, a horse, a rhino, and a fossa.

It was still extremely disconcerting to experience the world through two different sets of senses in two different locations, so they all shut their human eyes and tried to ignore that side of themselves as much as possible. Instead, they focused their attention through their animals and began to spread out from there. They would work in pairs, in case one of them missed something. Haiden’s jaguar would search with Larissa’s hummingbird, Sands’ rhino with Jazz’s horse, and Roxa’s fossa with Gordon’s owl.

The other upgrade that they had received to the spell and worked into it, thanks to Athena in that case, was the ability to communicate through their animals. Each of the summoned and controlled creatures was capable of silent, essentially telepathic communication. Not that it was specifically needed when their human selves were sitting right next to one another, but it was still a nice thing to have. And having the communication be at the site of the animals instead of their human bodies would make it easier to avoid confusion about who was talking to who.

Did you talk to Jokai? As Sands’ rhino lumbered along through the sand, she addressed the horse beside her. About the um, the plan.

There was a moment of silence from the other girl briefly before she confirmed, He’s coming back to Earth with us. We’re going to help with whatever we can and all that. She paused once more before finishing with, And then when Athena leaves to come back out here, we’re coming with her. There was a firm note of finality to her words. I am not staying on Earth and I’m not going back to Crossroads.

Feeling a pang deep in her stomach (which was an odd sensation for it happening so far away from where they were having the actual discussion), Sands replied, I understand. I think we’ll all understand. But we’ll still miss you, you know.

Having her horse bump up against the other animal affectionately, Jazz injected a bit of brightness into her silent voice. Don’t worry so much. If Athena‘s plan about fixing up that prototype ship works, we’ll be able to go back and forth and visit whenever we want. So it’s not like it’ll be the last time we see each other or anything.

Sighing then, she added, I just can’t stay there, you know? I can’t go back to Crossroads and deal with all their lies. I can’t be a part of hunting Strangers when I’m in love with one of them. I love Jokai. I’m not going to pretend or hide that part of myself anymore than I absolutely have to. I’m just not going to.

It was Sands’ turn to make her rhino bump up against the horse. Like I said, we understand. Believe me, we get it. No one blames you, and I’m pretty sure everyone basically saw it coming.

Still, we’re going to have to throw a huge party before you leave again.

Meanwhile, Roxa and Gordon’s animals were moving through the ruined desert city faster than their heavier, larger counterparts. Leaping from the sand up to a half broken wall, Roxa’s fossa turned its head to look up as the boy’s owl glided by overhead. You should talk to Flick’s friend Miranda, you know. Or even to that Seller guy. If anyone can help you find out where your dad is or what’s going on with him, it’s people who live at Eden’s Garden.

Alighting on top of the jagged remains of a pillar, Gordon replied, You know, I was about to deny having any idea what you were talking about? I suppose I might have been keeping it secret for a bit too long. It’s reflex. He paused briefly then before agreeing, And yeah, I guess there are people I can ask for help.

Believe me, Roxa assured him, it’s a pretty new sensation for me too. But hey, when we get back, I’ll find out if any of the wolves my pack is friends with know anything about Garden’s prisoners. Sure, it’s a longshot. But every little bit could help. And before you say anything, I’ll keep your name out of it.

Gordon flew ahead a bit while she trailed along beneath him, nimbly jumping from wall to wall. After a minute of that, he asked, So you’re not going back to Crossroads either, huh? Like Jazz. I mean, technically you have the choker. It’s your choice.

Roxa’s answer was firm. My pack was loyal to me and accepted me even when they knew I was a Heretic. I like Gaia and my friends at the school, but I’m not going to live in a place that would kill me if they knew the truth. I’m not abandoning my pack. Not for people like that.

So yes, I guess Jazz and I are both leaving Crossroads for good.

In the third search area, the bronze and red jaguar trotted through a ruined building while the hummingbird flitted back and forth seemingly wildly in the air above.

We are getting pretty close to going home, you know, Haiden noted. I am pretty sure the others are already talking about what they’re going to do. But what about you?

There was a brief moment of silence before Larissa let him hear her sigh a little bit. I’ve been working for so long, trying to get back to my girls… I’ve put off thinking about what to do about Liam. There was pain and regret in her voice. Part of me still loves him, still wants him. But it’s been so long and everything he did is still in my head. It would be one thing if he seemed guilty about it, but I don’t think he does. I think he still believes he did the right thing. Which means I can’t trust him. What would he do to me or our girls in the name of toeing the Crossroads line, if he turn on his friends like that? Maybe nothing. I want to say nothing. But what if? And that what if is going to destroy our marriage.

Haiden started to respond that he and his family would be there for her and her girls no matter what happened. Before he could say more than a couple words, however, a voice back at their bodies spoke up.

“Hey,” Sands announced, “Jazz and me, we’ve got something. It’s either the shard or this tracking spell is screwing up. We think it’s in this building here.”

The other animals converged on the building that the horse and rhino were waiting outside of. Sure enough, as they got closer, each of the summoned creatures felt a tug toward the building. The shard they were looking for was definitely inside.

So, they searched. Jazz had her horse trot around the outside of the building to narrow down where the sense was the strongest. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino knocked down walls and cleared rubble inside as the rest did the actual searching.

Roxa found it, in the end, though she had Larissa’s hummingbird pick it up in her tiny beak and fly it to their bodies. Eventually, they were all back to themselves, their creatures dismissed as they stood and stretched.

“This is it,” Larissa announced while staring down at the tiny sliver in her hand. “That’s the last one. We can undo the banishment now.”

“Good to know.” The reply came from Apollo, as he and Athena appeared and approached. The man grinned. “And pretty good timing too, since we’ve got a way to send everyone back to Earth.”

Eyes widening, Jazz blurted, “You do? Even without waiting for enough communication from Vanessa to talk Gaia through fixing the prototype thing?”

Athena gave a slight nod. “The Meregan still on this planet, we…” She paused, looking to her fellow Seosten. “We offered them aid in their rebuilding efforts. In exchange, they are going to allow us to use their transport device.”

She looked toward Sands then. “It is an earlier, less refined and advanced version of what you experienced before. As such, it will only allow a few transports at a time before it must recharge for several days. So we will not all be able to go through at once.“

“Hey, that’s okay,” Sands replied. “It’s still sooner than we thought it would be.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed quietly.

“And I’m pretty sure we all know who should go first.”

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Family Day 40-04

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All the people and powers that we had protecting us. People who could face down literal armies. And once again, we were on our own. Fossor had managed to occupy the entire Crossroads Heretic force, and cut off our communications. Given time, we could have restored them. We could have found someone to help us. Somehow. But that was time we didn’t have, and he knew it. He knew that I had to choose to either find my mother, or save Abigail and Koren, and that I wouldn’t be able to wait for help, no matter how fast they dealt with that situation. I had to do something right then.

He hadn’t known that I would have Avalon and Vanessa with me, but even with them, it didn’t change what had to happen. Ammon had to be stopped. Koren and Abigail had to be saved. We couldn’t wait for help. Not now. Not with something like this. I knew what Ammon was capable of. This… we had to deal with it. Now.

Emerging through the portal, the three of us immediately found ourselves standing in an enormous, utterly empty parking lot. There were no cars anywhere. Straight ahead of us was some kind of baseball stadium. Minor league, I was guessing from the size of this place. The area looked abandoned. The sign where the team name was supposed to be was cracked and broken, with graffiti on it. In the distance, I could make out the scoreboard at the far end of the actual field and it was clearly broken as well. This place obviously hadn’t hosted an actual game in quite awhile.

There was someone behind us, and I spun that way, only to find a man I didn’t recognize. He looked homeless, beard grizzled and gray and clothes just this side of falling apart. He was holding something in one hand, and there were lights blinking on his vest.

Vest. Bomb. My eyes and my item sense both agreed with that instantly. The man was wearing a bomb vest, and the thing in his hand was one of those deadman switches that would trigger if he let go of it.

Well, this just managed to get even worse than it already had been. Which was kind of impressive.

“S-stop!” The man blurted the word, looking and sounding completely terrified. “D-d-don’t come any closer. Don’t try to stop me. He said I have to let it go if you try to stop me! Please! I have to do what he says. I can’t stop it!”

Quickly holding up my hands to stop the other two, I shook my head at the man. “It’s okay. We’re not coming toward you. The boy, little boy about this high, blonde hair, he’s the one that told you?”

The man’s head bobbed up and down, his eyes wide with fear. “He made me put it on. He said to wait here and escort you to him. If you do anything else, I have to… to…”

“It’s all right,” I promised, “we’re not going to…” Trailing off, I glanced to the others before looking back at the man. “What exactly did he say to you? Be specific.”

The guy was almost hyperventilating as he whimpered, “He said to stand here, right here, and that a blonde girl would appear. And that when she did, I had to take her to him and if she tried to stop me or take the bomb away or anything I had to let go of the detonator.”

“Right.” Clearing my throat, I held my hands out to show they were empty while carefully enunciating, “I’m not coming near you. I am not going to take the detonator away. I am not going to stop you. I’m going to do everything you tell me to. I am going to do everything he wants.”

The others understood immediately. Vanessa took a few cautious steps that way, moving slowly up to the man while his gaze snapped back and forth between us. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “What’s she doing?!”

I raised my voice to keep his attention. “Hey, see, I’m not coming near you. He said that I couldn’t come near you. He said that I couldn’t take the detonator way. So I’m not. I’m going to do everything you tell me to and I am not trying to stop you.”

Sure enough, Ammon’s orders had been so specific that Vanessa was able to go right up to him and very carefully take the detonator from his grasp. She got her own finger over the button and pulled it out of his shaking hand. Then Avalon moved up to him and began to work on the vest itself. It took her about ten seconds to find the right wires to cut with a small energy blade from her gauntlet, then she simply cut the vest free of him and pulled it away. “It’s safe.”

The man let out a sigh of relief, collapsing to his knees while hugging himself as he rocked back-and-forth a bit. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

Crouching in front of him, I gently put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Where were you supposed to take me?”

He shuddered, looking like he wanted to throw up before answering shakily. “The stadium, the field. He wanted me to take you out to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Okay,” I murmured, “then you should—”

“Down!” That was Avalon. The girl was suddenly right in front of us, snapping her arm up as a shield was projected from her gauntlet. Just as the shield shimmered into view, there was a loud crack of a gunshot, and a bullet ricocheted off of it.

My eyes snapped that way in time to see the sniper laying on the roof of the distant ticket booth. He racked another round and fired at the shield again.

Shifting my staff into its bow form, I notched an energy arrow, took a breath, and then aimed high over the shield before letting loose. The arrow arced up and over before landing close enough to the man that the burst of kinetic energy it released made him roll out of the way with a cry.

“Vanessa!” I blurted while loosing another arrow that way. The poor civilian guy was covering his head and openly sobbing. Which, honestly, was pretty understandable given the situation. Apparently Ammon had thought to have a back-up plan after all. How annoying was that?

“On it!” the other girl replied. She was already shrinking down out of her clothes and into the jumpsuit before that in turn faded into the feathers of her raven form. As a bird, she looked at me and waited for cover.

I provided it. While Avalon focused on keeping her shield up as two more shots ricocheted off of it, I launched a couple quick arrows in rapid succession. They forced the sniper to pull back a bit and gave Vanessa an opening to fly straight up into the air. She shot up quickly, gaining as much height as possible before the man could recover.

From high above and ahead of the man, the Vanessa raven dove toward him, picking up speed as she went. He barely had time to notice her approach before she was passing by directly above him. In that instant, the girl shifted back into her human form, already lashing out with her whip. It wrapped around him, and her momentum carried her past the man while he was yanked off his feet and onto his back.

I couldn’t see what exactly happened next, but a second later Vanessa was standing on the edge of the roof holding the man’s gun, which she tossed aside before waving to us.

Avalon and I both looked around cautiously for a second. Finding no threats, the other girl lowered her shield and looked to the cowering man. “Go,” she ordered with a firm gesture off into the distance towards the road. “Get the hell out of here and keep running.”

Avalon might not have had Ammon’s power to control people, but she might as well have in that moment, because the man instantly shot to his feet and sprinted away like his pants were on fire. Which, I guessed I really couldn’t blame him for.

Vanessa joined us, and I grimaced. “Well, Ammon knows we’re here now. And he knows his plan A didn’t go right. And he probably also knows his sniper didn’t finish the job either.”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “I possessed him to knock him out,” she informed us. “And I read his mind. He doesn’t know anything except what Ammon told him to do. He’s just a SWAT sniper that Ammon grabbed and put there.”

Gesturing to herself, Avalon muttered, “Observe my super-surprised face that Ammon doesn’t have a bunch of loyal friends to recruit for this shit.” Looking to me, she asked, “Did you check your phone?”

“Check my– Oh, right.” Digging it out of my pocket, I replied, “I would die of shock if Fossor didn’t cover his–yeah, it’s not working. What about you?” I looked to Vanessa. “Whoever you were possessing before, with that whole practice thing, could they help?” Belatedly I added, “Though I guess it’s a moot point since you possessed the sniper.” 

“It was Doug anyway,” she informed me, wincing. “We were testing out that whole anti-Whisper spell thing to see if it affected hybrid Seosten. And I’m pretty sure they have their own problems right now, even if I could have still used it.”

“Point,” I agreed, biting my lip. The last person I’d possessed who was still alive was Scout. But she was in the same position as Doug. Not useful in this case. And I didn’t trust myself to project just enough to talk to them without teleporting there, which would totally screw this whole thing up.  “So that’s out, and so are the phones. We could try getting out of range of whatever jammer he’s using, but…

“We don’t know how far that is, or how long they have,” Avalon finished for me. She sighed before starting to move to the stadium. “Right, then we need to get inside and on the offensive before that little puke starts up plan C.”

As three of us jogged for the entrance, I noted, “He’s had all the time he wanted to turn this place into one giant trap. We’re on his turf.”

“On that note,” Vanessa put in while holding a hand out to stop us from passing through the open ticket gate. She knelt, looking at the turnstile before gesturing. “Spells. Lots of them. I think I see one to knock people unconscious if they aren’t a specific person, and this other one over here inflicts pain until a password is said. There’s more, probably on all of these.”

Charging my staff in one hand, I noted, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to make sure those spells can’t work anymore.” With that, I shoved my staff up against the nearest turnstile and triggered a blast that blew the metal off and sent the whole thing careening away from us. “There.”

At the same time, Avalon used the energy blades from her gauntlets to cut another turnstyle open before turning one of the blades into a grapple claw thing that picked up the metal and tossed it away.

Our way sufficiently opened then, the three of us cautiously passed through while keeping our eyes open. Straight ahead of us was the main walkway entrance that led to the field and bleachers. To either side was the gift shop and a couple of food places advertising horrifically overpriced snacks.

“He wants me out on the field,” I murmured. “That’s where our friend back there was supposed to escort me, right to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Which probably means that’s where he has a bunch of traps,” Vanessa pointed out. “He might even have some spell to take you somewhere completely different, or knock you out, or anything.”

Avalon nodded. “We’re not going near that field. Playing into his grubby little hands would just be stupid.”

“Doesn’t that mean that it’s perfect for you?”

The familiar voice came from a nearby PA speaker, one of the things that let people hear the game announcements while they weren’t actually watching the field. It made me jump a bit, before I glared at it. “Ammon,” I spat.

His voice carried on then, addressing the other two as if I hadn’t said anything. “You’re not supposed to be here. This is a family thing. Didn’t you pay attention to the calendar? It’s family day. Family day. You’re not family. You’re cheating. Go away!”

“They’re a lot more family than you are,” I snapped. “Ammon, let Koren and Abigail go. This isn’t going to end well for you. Just let them go and walk away. Fossor is just using you as a distraction. You have to know that. You’re a spoiled kid, but you’re not that stupid. He doesn’t care what happens to you here as long as he gets what he wants.”

There was the ever so brief moment of silence where I was silly enough to think that he might have listened. Then the boy’s voice came back.

“My name is Ammon. Pound your heads against the wall until you pass out.”

This was the moment, the real test. I tried not to visibly react too much, wanting to look confident for however Ammon was watching us, be it cameras, a spell, a power, or whatever. I wanted him to think that I had no reason to think his words might work. Biting the inside of my cheek, I counted to three, then looked to the others. “So, how about it? You guys have any desire to beat your heads against the wall?”

There, now they knew what Ammon had ordered them to do, since the plugs in their ears would have cut off their hearing. I didn’t want him to figure out that they couldn’t hear his words, since that might give him some idea of how to get past it. Giving Ammon as little information as possible while getting him to give up his own info, that was the way to get through this.

Also, beating him into a coma with my stick. That was a good way to get through it too.

“Hey!” Ammon sounded taken aback. “I said, my name is Ammon, beat your heads against the wall until you fall unconscious!”

Okay we couldn’t sit here all day and let him keep trying. But I also didn’t want him to know that there was a limit, so I forced myself to shrug languidly up at the speaker. “You know, we could just wander over and check out that gift shop over there if you’re busy.”

The rage in the boy’s voice was almost worth it. “You’re cheating!” He blurted through that loudspeaker. “You’re not supposed to cheat! It’s a game and we’re playing by the rules! It was supposed to be you and me and my things, not these stupid girls. You’re cheating and that’s not fair. How would you like if I cheated too?”

“Pretty sure I’d die of shock the day that you don’t cheat,” I muttered under my breath before offering a smile. “You sound upset. Maybe you need a hug. Let me come find you and give you one.”

“Announcer’s box,” Avalon said flatly. “That’s where he’s got to be. It gives a full view of the field where he wanted you to go, and control of that PA system.”

I had a feeling that she was right, and the three of us quickly started running further into the stadium to reach it. But before we went too far, Vanessa suddenly struck a hand out to stop us. Her gaze was past the stands, all the way down into the field. “Look!”

I looked, and my day went from bad to worse. The field wasn’t empty, not by a long shot. There were dozens, if not hundreds of figures all around the baseline and back toward the stands. In the middle of the field, right by the pitcher’s mound, there was what looked like an actual guillotine. Yeah, a guillotine. And strapped into it was Abigail.

There was some kind of contraption beside the guillotine that had ten lights on it. Seven of the lights were red and three were green. There was a big red button at the bottom.

Koren was there too, and she seemed to be fighting off two of the crowd that had run out there. But they didn’t seem that interested in fighting her. Instead, they were dead set on reaching that button, and she was equally determined to stop them.

“See,” Ammon’s voice snidely announced from another speaker, “she knows the rules. Every time they hit the button, a light turns green. When all 10 lights are green, fwooshsniiict! Off goes Mommy’s head!”

His voice turned a bit conversational then. “I didn’t really want to throw away a sister like that, but Father says she’s useless anyway. And I guess having a niece to play with is just as fun.”

Then his anger audibly returned. “But you had to start cheating. So maybe I’ll cheat too. We were all playing by the rules until you showed up and ruined it. Now how about we don’t have just two or three at a time? How about…”

His voice suddenly filled the whole stadium and the field below, pouring from every loudspeaker as he vindictively announced, “Stupid sister is a big, fat cheater! So now… my name is Ammon, everybody go push that button!”

The crowd immediately started to surge that way, and I knew there was absolutely nothing that Koren would be able to do to stop them for more than a couple of seconds. Not against that many. I let out a cry of alarm, taking a step that way before a hand caught my shoulder.

“Felicity,” Avalon quickly spoke while pulling me back. “Go. Get to Ammon. We’ll stop them.” She was already moving, sprinting down the steps of the stands to reach the field. Her figure was a blur of motion as she sped to reach the spot in time, slamming right into one of the group who had been trying to get past Koren.

Vanessa gave me a quick nod while following after. “We’ll keep them away from the button, just get to Ammon!” She glanced back for a brief second, meeting my gaze. “I promise,” the other girl informed me solemnly. “We’ll stop them.”

Then she was gone, she and Avalon throwing themselves into the middle of that crazed and mind controlled crowd to help Koren keep them away from the button.

Which left me. I had to trust them in that moment. I had to let Avalon and Vanessa save Koren and Abigail. I had to let them fight out there while I dealt with the actual source of the problem.

Turning, I looked at the sign on the nearby wall that indicated the way to the announcers box. Gritting my teeth, I held tight to my staff and muttered under my breath, ”Okay, you little psycho asshole. Let’s finish this.”

Then I started to run.

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Family Day 40-03

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Fossor. He had been here all this time, right under our noses. I had no doubt in that second that he’d been here for months, at least. Maybe even from the beginning of the school year. Or even earlier. Sands and Scout said the food tasted better when they were kids? How long had he been here? And how much had he stepped it up since I arrived? After all, he probably wanted to keep an eye on me once I was brought to the school, and who better to do it through then the school chef? No one ever paid attention to the cook. He just stayed in his kitchen and did his job.

And listened. And watched.

Casually, Escalan touched two fingers against the door behind him, and I saw a couple of red spell sigils appear briefly. Only then did he step away from the door and speak, “It’s good to see you in the flesh again, dear.” He paused, then looked down at the body he was currently puppeting. “So to speak, at least. Unfortunately, I believe my physical presence there would cause more problems than I’m currently prepared to deal with. But then, this wouldn’t be your first dealings with an absent parental figure.”

“Shut up!” I suddenly blurted despite myself. I couldn’t think. My heart was beating a million miles an hour and I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had to believe that he’d been telling the truth about me being cut off from contact. If my cell phone wasn’t working, maybe Wyatt’s protective spells would let them know what was going on.

Something in my face must have given that thought away, because Fossor, through Escalan, chuckled. “Oh, dear Felicity, your spells are still broadcasting just as they should, and will betray no surprises or trouble. For the moment, at least. Besides, as you well know, I mean you no harm right now.” He winked, the words somehow mocking. “I am utterly incapable of harming you, after all.”

We both knew what he meant by that, and how much he could get around it. My eyes snapped around quickly, looking for anything that could give me an idea what to do. But there was nothing. I couldn’t even get a message to Tabbris back with Dad. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Why didn’t I possess someone at the camp? Then I could’ve recalled to them.

Finally, all I could do was snap my gaze back to the nearby man and blurt, “What are you doing here?! What do you want?! What are you— wait. Wait, the food. The food, what did you do to the food?!”

The horror of the possibilities had me already moving. Forgetting myself, I ran for the man, or rather, for the door behind him. I had to warn them.

To my surprise, Fossor didn’t try to stop me. In fact, he had Escalan’s body step out of the way. I knew that should have been a hint, but all I can think about was warning my friends. I got to the door… and suddenly the world swam and I was back on the other side of the room.

It was some kind of teleport spell, short range. When I got near the door, it simply reset me back over here.

My staff was in my hands then, as I went for the man, swinging it hard while demanding, “What did you do?!”

The blow struck home, not that it actually did anything, of course. Escalan’s head simply snapped a bit to the side, before Fossor made him sigh softly, like he was disappointed.

“You are entirely too old for temper tantrums, young lady. But because I understand this is an emotional time, I will indulge you.”

Using two fingers, he gestured, and I felt all of my strength suddenly leave me. It was all I could do to stand up, staggering a bit against the nearby counter before using it to brace myself.

He continued then. “To answer your question, I have been using this time as your chef productively, carefully preparing a very specific poison.”

My eyes widened at that, and I gathered what strength I had to throw myself at him once more with another swing. It meant nothing, as he just sighed and stepped backwards, letting me fall on my face.

“As I was saying, this very special poison required months of very careful testing and work. After all, if it was going to do what I needed to do, there could be no mistakes, no second chances. Fortunately, that meant that I had a ready excuse to stay here and see how you were doing. I must admit, though I don’t know the whole story, I am very impressed by your work this year. You are quite the overachiever. Your mother is proud. I promised her I’d tell you that.”

Using the end of my staff to push myself up a bit, I glared at him. “You’re a monster,” I spat. “What poison? What are you trying to do? You can’t possibly think that you can just poison all these Heretics to death. There’s no fucking way.”

“Well, no,” he agreed. “Unfortunately, Heretics are entirely too resilient for that. Particularly the stronger ones. Fortunately, killing them was not my goal at this particular moment. Merely… distraction. And that is something that this particular poison is a very good at creating. You see, it’s not just a poison to make them sick. It’s also an… anchor to a specific spot. When it kicks in, the person who eats it is yanked to that specific spot and, until the poison is purged, they can’t leave. But yes, it also it makes them sick. Or rather, weak. It makes them quite tired. Similar to what you’re feeling now, actually. Which isn’t direct harm, helpfully enough. It’s an ingenious hunting method devised by the Kakaseun people. They would leave food out as bait, and when the bait was taken, their prey would be teleported to the spot they designated, and, conveniently enough, would also be quite tired. Dinner delivered directly to where the Kakaseun wanted them, and left too weak to fight back.

“And even better, every single body that is affected will give off a… let’s call it an aura, which infects those around them. That way, even those who weren’t directly planned for will be, well, dealt with.”

I stared at him. “Nothing that affects all those students without killing them is going to do a thing to Gaia, or the Committee members, or–”

“Of course not,” the man interrupted. “But as I said, a distraction. You see, each of the Heretics who are affected will be sent to one of a dozen different possible traps. Each of those traps is full of… let’s say very dangerous things. Your teachers and such may not be sick, but they will be quite thoroughly occupied with keeping their students alive for the time being.”

He winked then. “All in all, let’s just say no one will be in any shape to interrupt your mother anytime soon.”

“Mom?!” I blurted, eyes widening once more, “What are you talking about? Where’s my mom?! What are you making her do?!”

His response was a slow smile. “What I’ve been planning for this whole year, of course. Actually, for quite a bit longer. But I wanted it to be this year because you were here and, well, call me sentimental. I kind of wanted you to be here for it.

“Your mother is retrieving something very important for me. The rope of the creature who provides all of these people their power.”

“Wh- the rope?” Now I was really lost. “You mean the rope that hanging near Bosch’s place? What does that even… I mean… what?”

That smile, the one that I recognized as Fossor even on another man’s face, came back. “That’s right, you did get a chance to see it, didn’t you? Yes, the Heretics keep it under a very close watch, despite how it may have seemed at the time. It is very… protected, let’s say. And there are always plenty of lapdogs ready to come and defend it. But in this case, well, they will be rather distracted.”

The poisoned food, I realized. He was going to distract all of Crossroads by infecting everyone here with that… teleportation plus sickness food, and then have Mom attack that place and steal the rope while they were busy. My mouth opened and shut a few times before I blurted, “What do you even want the rope for?! This is a lot of work to go through just for a souvenir.” I knew it was for far more than that, of course. But I was hoping that dismissing it like that would make the man explain more than he intended to about his overall plan.

Unfortunately, given the look of that the man gave me, he knew exactly what I was trying to do. And he didn’t even indulge me. Instead, he wagged one finger at me a couple times. “Now now, I may be inclined to indulge your curiosity to a certain extent, given our close relationship, but there are limits even to that. After all, we can’t have all the surprises spoiled, can we?” He winked at me.

Damn it, what was I supposed to do?! What could I do? Delaying things clearly only worked in his favor. He was speaking to me through this zombie proxy, so whatever he was really doing, my talking wasn’t stopping it. Besides, he had Mom to do the dirty work. But I couldn’t get past him. I couldn’t get out of the room, and I couldn’t contact anybody. I couldn’t do anything!

Or maybe… maybe I could do something. Refocusing on Escalan, I thought about what I had been learning from Brom. Zombie. Zombie. Escalan was a zombie. So maybe I could control him to let me out of here. Biting my lip, I pushed as hard as I could at making his arm move.

His arm rose, and I felt a brief moment of elation. Which lasted just long enough for me to realize that it was the wrong arm. I’d been focusing on the right one, and the left had risen.

Seeing my expression, Fossor made Escalan laugh. “Oh, I’m sorry, it was this one, wasn’t it?” Raising his right hand, the man chuckled low. “A fine effort. Really, I’m rather impressed. Yes, dear girl, you are developing very nicely. When we’re all a nice, happy family, I’ll teach you.”

“We’re not a family!” I shouted then, unable to help myself. “I’m never going to be some stupid devoted daughter for you, you sick fuck!”

“Daughter?” Fossor had the nerve to make Escalan look sickened and offended by that. “I should hope not. That would make our future engagements quite… creepy indeed.”

The blood drained from my face, and I forced myself back to my feet. It was so hard. I felt more tired than I had pretty much all year, or at least since I’d gotten the Amarok boost. Whatever Fossor had done to me, it took all I had just to stand up, even leaning on my staff. “You… you sick piece of shit. I don’t know why you want that rope, or what the hell you think you’re doing. But you’re going to fail. We’re going to find my mother, and we’re going to kill you.”

Of course, in that moment it was an impotent promise. And Fossor treated it as such, simply inclining Escalan’s head before offering a casual, “I eagerly anticipate your attempts. But in the meantime, perhaps you should be focusing on rescuing a different family member.”

That threw me more than almost anything else he could have said right then. “I don’t–what?”

His expression turned wistful. “I have to admit, I’m rather impressed that Ammon managed to keep her a secret for so long. Months, really. But in the end, the truth always emerges. Whether it’s heard from your lips or has to be read off of your extracted intestines, that part is up to you.”

Before I could say anything to that, he elaborated. “Her name is Karen, isn’t it? No, Koren. That was it. Just like her mother should have been. Very…” He breathed in, then out, smiling. “Very touching.”

My blood had run cold as soon as he said the name, and the man continued while I was still trying to find my voice. “Yes, I must admit, of all the things I expected his little secret to be about, that was not one of them. But it was a pleasant surprise. Our family is even bigger than expected. It must have been quite nice for you, hmm? A living niece and a half-sister. For the time being, at least.”

“What–what do you mean, for the time being?” I demanded, finding enough strength to straighten a bit more. I felt almost numb, my emotions incapable of keeping up the level of horror and disgust that this entire conversation was forcing onto me. The helplessness was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to avoid throwing up.

“Well,” he replied, “you see, that’s the thing. I have no need for a woman who reached menopause before ever becoming a Heretic. What on Earth would I ever need such a useless creature for? Fortunately, she had the foresight to bear a child ahead of time. Quite convenient, that. And now, she will provide sufficient entertainment for your little brother, while her death will motivate your niece to wonderful heights of emotion that will be very useful.”

Oh. Apparently my horror could reach new levels. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Ammon’s with–no! No, they’re with the other–” I stopped. “That–that teleportation sickness thing. You… you made it send them somewhere else. Not with the others.”

Adopting a tone as though he was talking to a small child, Fossor-through-Escalan nodded slowly. “Yes, very good. Very good. Koren and Abigail are spending a little quality time with Ammon, so they can all have some fun.” He smiled then. “He really is a rambunctious boy.”

That was enough. More than enough. The rage and helplessness that I had felt building within me every second since realizing just who I was talking to had reached a crescendo. Whatever it took, whatever I had to do, it was time to get past him and stop this. Somehow.

And then Fossor made Escalan simply step aside, gesturing to the door to make the glowing runes disappear. “Well, that should be long enough to get things going.”

Unable to believe it, I stared at him for just a second. “What–now you’re just letting me go?”

That smile returned, as the zombified man replied, “Of course. You have an issue with Ammon, and I prefer to allow my family to work out their own issues amongst themselves. And I do mean amongst themselves. You’ll find it quite impossible to contact anyone else for the time being. After all, this spat is between you and your little brother, not the old king’s remnants. Yes, this will be up to you. It will be interesting, however, to see what you choose.”

“What I choose?” I felt my strength returning. Whatever he had done to me was wearing off. Or maybe he was dismissing it. Either way, it was getting easier to stand up straight.

“Of course.” Fossor’s amusement was plain to both see and hear. “After all, you know precisely where your mother is and what she is doing. You could go to her. How long has it been since you spoke to her in person, since you touched her? Perhaps you could bring her back to you, even save her. Or, you could go and see about Ammon and that entire… situation.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I suppose it depends on what matters more to you right now, hmm?”

“You’re a piece of shit,” I snapped at him, my voice cracking. “And a coward.”

My insults might as well have been water sliding off a duck’s back, for all the attention he paid to them. “You’ll find two portals on the beach. The one on the left will lead you to the same area that your mother is going to. The one on the right will lead you to Ammon’s little game.” He chuckled to himself, his voice turning introspective. “Yes, it will be quite interesting to see what you choose to do. Quite interesting indeed.”

With that, the man stopped talking. Escalan’s body abruptly fell to the floor and lay completely still like the… the corpse that it was. I felt a brief moment of sorrow and loss for the man I’d probably never actually known, before springing into motion. I raced for the door, bracing myself just in case.

There was no teleportation spell. I hit the door and burst through, still moving at a sprint through the empty cafeteria. Portals. Portals on the beach. Could I even trust that? It was stupid. But then again, Fossor’s binding magical agreement with my mother made it so that he couldn’t directly hurt me. So I knew the portals couldn’t actually be that dangerous. But still… still…

This was wrong. It was all wrong. Fossor controlling a body at Crossroads. Why didn’t they detect him? Was he that powerful that he could hide the fact that Escalan was dead and a zombie from… from… all of them, from everyone? I wanted to cry and scream at the same time.

And now, now apparently all the Heretics that should have been able to help me were busy being teleported to some other place and wouldn’t be able to get back here until they actually fixed the poison and dealt with all the ambushes that Fossor had arranged. Which was just great.

I didn’t know how much power it took Fossor to make the magical poison… things that he’d used to send that many Heretics away and keep them occupied. It felt like it should have been impossible. But that was kind of the point of magic. Given enough time and effort, it could do a lot. And time was something Fossor had had plenty of in this case.

Magic wasn’t fast, as Professor Carfried was so fond of saying. But it was thorough. The psycho necromancer had had all year to plan for this. All year–hell, more than that, according to him. Years, maybe even decades, he’d spent preparing for this exact moment. He’d just chosen this particular year to do it because I happened to be here.

Boy, didn’t I just feel special.

Sure enough, as I hit the exit and emerged onto the grounds, I found the place empty. Where there had been hundreds of people just minutes earlier, there was now just… no one. Fossor had successfully teleported every last Heretic away from Crossroads. It was perfect timing on his part. Everyone was attending this thing. Everyone at the school, anyway. And a lot of others besides.

Fumbling my phone out of my pocket, I tried using it again. Nothing. Fossor had been telling the truth. I couldn’t contact anyone. Maybe once I went through the portal, but even then I was pretty damn sure that communications would be blocked on that side too. Which was just great.

I had to focus. They were okay. Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, the other teachers, they were all a lot more powerful and capable than I was and they were with my team, with my friends, with… with my girls. They’d be able to deal with wherever Fossor had sent everyone. Dare wasn’t there, of course. She was still with Kohaku and Tangle at wherever they were staying, keeping the pair company through this. Even without her, however, there were plenty of powerful Heretics that could deal with whatever was out there. Not to mention the Committee members who were there and–yeah, they’d be fine.

But there were others who wouldn’t be. And I had to–

“Felicity!”

Whirling at the sound of the voice, I was just in time to be swept into a tight hug by Avalon. With a gasp, I grabbed on tight. “What–Valley?! How–what?”

She was there. And Vanessa was with her. Avalon and Vanessa were both standing there.

“Mom,” Avalon started shortly, after letting go. “When everything started happening and everyone was disappearing, she said a strange word and then she put this symbol on my arm.”

She showed me her bicep then, where a magical rune glowed. “It burned, but when everyone disappeared, I stayed.”

“Same,” Vanessa confirmed. “Only it was my dad. Err, maybe my mom. I’m not sure who was driving the body right then. It’s some kind of counterspell to whatever… whatever pulled them away.” She looked to me then, frowning. “What pulled them away?”

Oh thank God. Thank whoever. Thank whatever. Avalon was safe. She was here, she hadn’t been sucked away. Well, consciously I knew she would’ve been just as safe with Gaia, if not more so, but still. She was here. She was right here with me. It felt as though a little bit of the weight had lifted from my shoulders. And if Gaia and Haiden or Sariel had the counterspell that readily, maybe they’d be back here sooner than that evil jackass expected.

But still not soon enough.

“Come on,” I blurted, already heading for the beach. “It’s Fossor, I’ll explain on the way.”

So, I did. Running across the table and chair-strewn grounds to reach the beach, I blurted an explanation for everything that Fossor had said about what he was doing and what had happened to the others. “And now Mom’s stealing that rope for Fossor while Ammon has Abigail and Koren. He’s going to kill Abigail just to torture Koren, just to–to break her.”

“We can’t let that happen.” That was Vanessa, as we all skidded to a stop in front of both portals. “But… but your mother.”

“She’ll still be there later,” I announced without hesitation. I’d thought about it the entire time we’d been running. Ever since Fossor had brought it up, really. I’d thought about it, and while there was a bit of… of guilt and disappointment, I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t even a choice, really. Which showed just how little Fossor actually understood about families and loved ones if he thought it would be. I loved my mother. I missed her. But she would survive this. I wouldn’t throw away Abigail’s life and Koren’s… soul just to get a few minutes face to face with my mother. Fossor… he had no idea how actual people worked.

“But you guys can’t come,” I realized then, my gaze snapping to them. “Ammon’s there. You’re–you’re not immune to his power. If he gets near you–” I stopped myself then, not trusting my voice.

“Chambers,” Avalon announced, “we’re not idiots. Show her, Vanessa.”

Blinking that way, I saw the other girl produce something from her pockets. They were… earplugs? They looked sort of like earplugs. Really tiny ones that would be almost entirely invisible inside of the ear.

“We’ve been working on them ever since you explained what Ammon could do,” Avalon informed me. “She did the research for the spells, I worked on them in the lab. Less so after I switched to Security, but I still tinkered with them. We’ve been finishing them up at the camp while I was recovering.”

“They’ve got six charges,” Vanessa informed me. “Every time they hear ‘My name is’ after they’re activated, it triggers one of the charges. The first five make you deaf for a few seconds. So you don’t hear the rest of it, or the order. The last charge knocks you out for a few minutes. We’ve been working on adding more charges to them, but that’s all we managed so far.”

“So, you can hear Ammon try to use his power six times,” I murmured, “and then it just knocks you out.”

The two of them were already putting the little earbud things in place, both of them nodding to me. Avalon lifted her chin. “So no, you’re not doing this by yourself, Chambers.”

“Your mom?” I asked her before looking to Vanessa. “Your… your entire family. You have a thing with people being teleported away.”

“They’ll be okay,” the blonde girl replied. “They’re together. And they’ve got plenty of others with them. They’re not the ones that need help right now. You are. Koren is. Tristan would say we should stay and help you, if he was here. If we hadn’t already erased his anchor spell thing. And I could go straight to Dad if I hadn’t been practicing with my possession power today.”

She sighed then. “I didn’t think I’d need to hold onto that connection with him because they were home. Great timing, huh? But hey, work with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is a chance to save Koren and her mom.”  

I looked back and forth between the two of them briefly, as Avalon nodded in agreement. “Okay then,” I murmured, looking back to the portal in question. “I think we should all go through together, since it’ll probably disappear as soon as one of us goes.”

The three of us held hands then. I took a breath, murmured a quiet prayer, then took three quick steps forward with the others. This was what Fossor wanted me to do, run off to find Ammon so we could get into a fight. But I had to believe that he didn’t expect me to have help. So maybe that would screw up whatever plans he had. Either way, I didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t time to debate anything, and there wasn’t time to wait for the others to get back. There wasn’t time… period. We had to do this, and do it right now.

Together, Avalon, Vanessa, and I passed through the portal, to find Koren and Abigail…

And to deal with Ammon.

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Family Day 40-02

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The sound that emerged from Scout in that moment was as loud as I had ever heard the other girl be. She instantly threw herself that way. There was no hesitation at all before she was embracing her sister tightly. The twins clung to each other, making me realize once more just how much they had missed one another. That went on for a couple of seconds before I saw Scout’s head turn a little. Her eyes settled on Larissa, and she froze. Still clinging to her sister, her mouth open and shut a couple of times before she managed a weak, barely audible, “Mommy…”

The trembling hand that she was pressing against her own mouth did nothing to hide the broad, glorious smile on Larissa’s face. In a shaky voice, she replied, “Hello, Sarah.”

Then Scout was there. With a noise of joy and relief that was almost a sob, she lunged at her mother and grabbed on tight. Scout hugged her tightly, clinging for dear life while openly crying.

Feeling like I was intruding, I moved my wet eyes to look around the rest of the office. Gaia was there, along with Roxa. But I didn’t see the others. Biting my lip, I stepped that way and embraced the other girl. “You made it back.”

Roxa nodded, returning my hug. “Yep. Some of us anyway. Haiden’s at that Atherby camp having a reunion with his wife and kids as we speak.”

“And the others?” I asked quickly.

“They’re okay,” she assured me. “We used the Meregan transport thing, and apparently it was an earlier version of the one that you guys used before. A prototype. So it has to recharge after every few transports. Jazz and Gordon stayed with Dries, Jokai, Athena, and Apollo so we could come back. They’ll probably show up tomorrow. I was going to stay too, but they insisted I should come with. Especially after we found out… you know, about Rudolph.”

Her voice had gone quiet by the end, and she glanced past me. That was the reminder I needed that the rest of the team was here too, including Doug.

Turning that way, I saw the boy himself standing there staring with his mouth open. His voice was a whisper. “You’re alive. I mean, I knew you were alive. But still… you’re alive.”

Roxa’s face softened a bit and she stepped that way to embrace him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. So are Jazz and Gordon. We… we should’ve been here to help. We wanted to help with all of it.”

Doug’s head shook. “You guys had your own problems, your own… things to deal with.”

Sean took his turn for a hug with the girl then, while Gidget and Vulcan greeted each other by rubbing their heads together affectionately. And once more, I felt like I was intruding on something. When I glanced toward the twins and their mother, I saw that they were deep in conversation about something. Yeah, I definitely didn’t want to interrupt any of that. Instead, I looked toward Columbus, Avalon, and Doug. “Boy, when they advertised this as a day for family reunions, they weren’t exaggerating, were they?”

Honestly, and maybe a little strangely, I couldn’t even feel bad about the fact that I wouldn’t see my own mother that day. It felt too good to see Scout and Sands with theirs and to think about Vanessa and Tristan being reunited with both of their parents. Even seeing Sean and Doug with Roxa felt really good. As far as I was concerned, this was already a pretty great day.

We’ll get your mom back too, Tabbris assured me quickly. This just means we’ve got more help to do it.

Smiling inwardly, I agreed, Right, and we’ll definitely need the help. I guess all of this works pretty well as a recruitment drive, huh?

Avalon moved next to her adopted mother then, speaking a bit suspiciously. “Are you sure you didn’t find a way to deliberately time it like this? Because them showing up today of all days is pretty coincidental.”

Gaia chuckled low, shaking her head a little. “I assure you, I had nothing to do with the timing. And I sincerely doubt they would have waited just for this. Sometimes a coincidence is simply a coincidence. You will see a lot more of them as you get older.”

Roxa stepped back over to me then, her expression curious. “Do you still have, um, you know, your little friend?”

My hair turned pink then as Tabbris made my head nod, piping up, “I’m here. I’m glad you made it back!”

“Just a little signal we worked out,” I informed Roxa then while gesturing to my hair. “White or pink and it’s her talking. Same for my eyes. Better than trying to find a private place for her to pop out every time she wants to speak for herself.”

Rubbing my head then, I added out loud but to my partner, “That said, I know we planned on you staying here for the day, but if Haiden’s back and they’re all having some big reunion at the camp…”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, also speaking out loud by using my own mouth. “I’ll let them have some time, you know? I’ll go back later to see Mama and Papa Haiden.”

Papa Haiden, I noticed immediately. I had wondered what the other girl would refer to him as once they got back, given that she saw our father as, well, father.

That made another thought pop into my head, and I abruptly pointed to the nearby woman, blurting, “Larissa.”

Blinking once, she nodded. “Yes, that is my name.” She stepped over then to embrace me briefly. “I’m glad you made it back, Flick. Thank you for helping Sariel.”

I shrugged at that. “Trust me, she’s helped us just as much.” Then I added, “But you’re here. I mean you’re here, so does that mean you’re going to actually be here?” Realizing how confusing that might sound, I clarified, “I mean, are you going to officially be back?”

The woman grimaced a little before confirming, “Yes, I will officially be back from the dead. Which actually happens more than you might think around here. But still, Sands and I are going to have to go talk to the Committee. Gaia and Vanessa have already told us the story that’s going around, so we will make ours match that. I suppose I’ll be the Heretic who was stolen years ago so they could find a way to make their infiltration work. The guinea pig, if you will.”

She paused then, letting out a slow breath. “And then I will have to speak with Liam.” Her eyes got distant for a second as she gazed out at nothing before shaking herself. “Let’s just say it’s going to be a very eventful Family Day. But we will most certainly be back in time for the feast later.”

I wondered what was going to happen with her husband, and whether she would stay with him, or what. It was obvious that there were a lot of complicated feelings there, most of which were none of my business, despite my curiosity.

She was definitely right about one thing, however. This was absolutely going to be a long and interesting day.

*******

Most of that, of course, happened far away from me. I spent the day with Avalon, Columbus, Sean, and Doug as we went through what turned out to be a pretty fun event. There were parents and siblings everywhere, all over the school no matter where you looked. My fellow students were showing off things they made or had learned, taking their family members to various classrooms or to meet different teachers. Or, in many cases, to reunite with those teachers, given that some of them had taught not only their parents, but their parents’ parents and so on.

I ended up getting more than my share of long looks from those family members too, though I didn’t know how much of that was because they knew my actual history and how much was just from things they had heard this year. To be honest, there was plenty of ammunition for them to be curious about me just from the latter.

Either way, it was still a very fun day. We presented some projects, and even did a little bit of exhibition fighting to prepare for the main tournament that night.

I felt a little bad that my father couldn’t be there, of course. But Abigail showed up and found time to talk with me. She was, obviously, a subject of a lot of interest herself. I could see Ruthers’ stooge, Peterson Neal, lurking in the background to watch her now and then. I wondered just how much he knew about the situation, or if he was just blindly reporting back to Ruthers.

A little bit after lunch, I was taking a break with the others, sitting against a tree on the grounds while watching the crowds all over the place. “Well,” I remarked, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I kind of like Family Day. It’s fun.” While speaking, I reached out to rub Vulcan’s head. “I wonder how Roxa’s doing.”

The other girl had been spending the time reuniting with her own ‘family’, her pack. They had apparently missed Roxa a lot, since I had heard that they were having some huge party to celebrate her return. It was going to be going on all day and night, and we had been invited to drop by later after things were done here.

Sean chuckled at that, holding up his phone. “Well, if her texts are anything to go by, they’re basically throwing the party of the century. They’ve got a whole bunch of other weres and they’re throwing the bash in some old airplane hanger in the middle of nowhere. Makes it so they don’t have to worry about offending any neighbors and can really cut loose.”

With a very slight smile, Columbus remarked, “You sure we should go over there later? All those weres might object to a few Heretics showing up to ruin their fun. I’d hate to turn a party into a fight just out of some misunderstandings.”

“Mateo and Roxa said they’ve got things under control on that front,” Sean assured us.

“Hey,” I started, “speaking of which, what about your family?” As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I regretted it.

Sean shrugged. “Uncle Sebastian should be back soon. He just wanted to go help Mateo get their thing started. As for Mom and Dad, or Ian, ahhh, let’s just say if they showed up here I would suggest we put them through all the possession tests we’ve got.”

I winced inwardly, but couldn’t think of what to say to that. Sean rarely, if ever talked about his parents or brother. I didn’t know what their deal was, or why they tended to completely ignore him to the point of not even showing up to this thing. But I did kind of want to go find them and shake all three as hard as I could. Sean deserved better than that.

Avalon nudged me with her foot, a thoughtful frown knitting her brow. “How do you think things are going with the Masons?”

Biting my lip, I shrugged. “I wish I knew,” I admitted. “Do you think Larissa will stay with Liam, or not?”

“Boy,” Sean muttered, “class is gonna be really awkward if she doesn’t.” Belatedly, he added a quick, “Not that she should, or anything. I’m just saying. It’s… you know what, never mind. I’m just going to sit over here and enjoy the taste of sneaker.”

Snickering, I use two fingers to poke the boy in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re all really familiar with the taste. And we get what you mean.”

Deveron strolled up then, grunting as he took a seat on the grass. “Well,” he started, “this whole thing hasn’t changed much since I was here the first time.”

“Really?” I teased, “In that case, it must’ve been really confusing to see so many cell phones back in 1918.”

He made a face at me before chuckling. “Okay, okay, maybe some things have changed.” His expression sobered then. “But not enough of the right things.”

“Gaia’s working on it,” I reminded him. “Actually, we’re all kind of working on it. Just a little at a time.”

Deveron looked like he was going to say something else to that, but thought better of it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod. “Yeah, we’re working it.

“But just for the record, conservative estimate, there’s about twenty people here that I really want to punch in the face.”

******

Later that evening, we were all sitting outside at one of the tables that had been set up. With all the families here, it would’ve been entirely too crowded in the cafeteria. So everybody was out here, with tables that were stretched across the whole grounds.

I could see so many people. Zeke was there with his mom, of course. I saw Erin with a man who was apparently her father, Doug over at a table with Sulan, Sean with his uncle, or even some students who had both parents and siblings there. Nearby, I saw Shiori’s roommate Rebecca with both of her parents and a small, brown-haired woman named Lillian Patters, who was apparently her grandmother.

She was also someone that I desperately wanted to talk to. Because as soon as she had shown up, Deveron took me aside and told me that Lillian Patters had been on the same team back in school as him and Mom. More, she had been Mom’s best friend in school and her roommate. Which explained why Lillian was my middle name. Felicity Lillian Chambers. Somehow, in the same way that Abigail had retained enough of her birth name of Koren to give it to her own daughter, Mom had remembered the name of her best friend and gave it to me.

But Lillian didn’t remember. I saw it in her eyes when she glanced our way, lingering only for a brief moment before moving on. She was curious about me, but clearly only from what she’d heard. They’d wiped her memory just like so many others. Another thing that they had erased and thrown away in their zeal to end the rebellion against their genocidal campaign.

That was a problem for later though. Right now, it was all about families. Even Sands and Scout were at a table with their mom, which… boy howdy had that ever brought a lot of questions from basically everybody. Their table was almost completely surrounded by people who wanted to know what was going on, and where Larissa had been.

Liam wasn’t there. I actually hadn’t seen him all day. Which made me all kinds of curious, but I didn’t have a prayer of getting near them to ask what was going on. I was just going to have to wait until later for answers.

And speaking of those who were attracting attention, the other twins, Vanessa and Tristan, were there with their dad. Haiden had apparently given an explanation similar to Larissa’s about how he was taken years back. He was still considered an Eden’s Garden Heretic, but was there as Gaia’s guest for his kids. And Sariel was there too, possessing her husband. That was an idea that had been given to them by Tabbris before the girl had gone back to the Atherby camp.

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t here at the moment. I’d told her that she should stay with our dad that night. I’d have her with me all day, and I knew he felt bad about not being able to come to this. So I asked her to stick around at the camp and keep him company. It has felt like the least I could do.

In all, it had been a very busy and complicated day. But still fun. And it was pretty appropriate that all these reunions were happening on this particular day. Even if a lot of it was happening away from me, which was murder on my curiosity. I really wanted to know what was going on with the Masons.

But, eh, I was just going to have to wait. Maybe I’d get a chance to talk with them and catch up while the big tournament was going on.

Professor Dare also wasn’t there. She’d decided to spend the evening with Tangle and Kohaku somewhere else. Tangle wasn’t ready to face people yet, and Kohaku didn’t want to be around the school either. So Dare was keeping them company.

People who had family members were eating in one area while those of us who didn’t sat together with our teams. Which basically left me sitting with Columbus and Avalon, though Shiori had joined us and was sitting between Columbus and me. We were all enjoying dinner. Or rather… everyone else was.

Making a face, I announced, “I think Chef Escalan might be a little overwhelmed right now.”

Avalon looked to me, raising an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?” She asked the question while pointedly ignoring all the people who were staring at her, both other students and adults. If anything, having all these people around who had never met the girl had only increased the number of stares she was getting. I had thought that people might be too busy and distracted once the day got underway, but well, apparently not.

“Well,” I started before turning my plate around to show her, “mostly because my chicken looks raw. I don’t think it even made it to the stove.”

Shiori made a face, poking the raw chicken with her napkin. “Remind me not to share with you tonight. It looks like that chicken forgot it was fry-day.”

“Oh lord,” Avalon groaned. “You gave her an excuse to make chicken puns.”

Grinning, the other girl solemnly replied, “You should tell one of the teachers about it. After all, I’m sure you’re feeling pretty peckish.”

Throwing a napkin at her for that one, I picked myself up. “That was bad. It’s okay. I’ll just go trade it in. I’m sure it was a mistake. I mean look at all these people, he’s got to be overworked right now.”

Columbus shrugged then. “Maybe his age is just catching up with him, you know? From what Scout was saying before, his food was even better when they were little.”

“If his food used to be even better than it is now,” I pointed out, “I almost wish I came here years ago.”

Giving first Shiori, then Avalon each a quick kiss, I promised to be right back and headed in with my plate.

As loud and busy as the outside was, the actual cafeteria was pretty quiet. The tables still had some supplies on them from reports and exhibitions that been going on earlier, but for the most part, the place was emptier than I usually saw it during the day.

Holding my plate in one hand, I hesitantly stepped through the open doorway into the kitchen, giving a short knock against the door jam. “Hey,” I spoke up. “Um, Chef, sir? I know you’re really busy, and I don’t want to complain, but my food is kind of… not cooked?”

I had been in the kitchen a couple of times that year, but only very rarely, as it really felt like an off-limits place. Even more so than some of the places that really should have been off-limits, really. Chef Escalan guarded his domain like a king protecting his treasury.

The place was pretty big, like a restaurant kitchen. I knew that Escalan had assistants, though I’d rarely seen them. And none of them were there now. Which was weird, considering how much work this dinner was supposed to be. A few steps in, and I stopped to blink around the empty, mostly stainless steel interior. Everything was super clean, with cooking implements laid out over the counters, and ingredients ready to go. But nobody was there. The place was quiet.

“Ah, there you are.”

The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find the chef himself standing there by the door that I had just come through. He had his apron tucked under his arm. “I was almost afraid that you might have been silly enough to try to eat that raw chicken anyway. And wouldn’t that be egg on my face?” His words were light, but there was something about the way he said it, and the way he was looking at me, that made me take a reflexive step back as a strange chill ran through me. Wait… I might not have spoken to the chef directly that much, but I knew he had an accent. A heavy accent.

“You mean you didn’t cook it on purpose?” Even as I spoke, my hand was dipping into my pocket to hit the emergency alert on my phone that would call Tabbris, as well as let everyone know that something was wrong.

Escalan gave me a brief look as if I had insulted him. “Please. Your communications were blocked the moment you came in here. And yes, I did what I could to ensure that you did not eat any of the food.”

He gave me a slight smile then, a smile that renewed the chill that had run down my spine. “Because we can’t have you eating any of that very special feast. After all, I did promise that I would cause no harm to come to you.”

And then I knew the truth. I knew that there was nothing I could do for Chef Escalan. There with nothing I could do for him, because he was already dead, and likely had been for quite a while. He was dead, and someone else was controlling him, speaking through him. The dread and horror that I felt then was audible in my voice as I spoke a single word.

“Fossor.”

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Family Day 40-01

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“Fick! Fick!” The incredible delight in Sahveniah’s voice as the little girl came rushing up to me at the Atherby camp with her arms outstretched made my heart melt. I immediately crouched, opening my arms to let her jump into them before rising up while holding on to her. “Heya kiddo.”

Simultaneously giggling and babbling, the kid immediately started to tell me all about this pretty bird she had seen earlier. She was gesturing wildly, squirming in my hands while both of us laughed. Me with delight at just how cute she was, and her partly because she was always giggling, and partly from reaction to me.

It was Friday, May 4th. Otherwise known as Family Day. That was the day where students whose families were in the know about the whole Heretic thing could come and visit the school all day long. There were no classes that day, just special presentations. The teachers would talk to the parents or other family members, and some students gave special projects or whatever to show off. And speaking of showing off, there was even an exhibition tournament of sorts. You could enter one that was just for your grade level, or one that involved the whole school. And if you didn’t want to actually fight each other, there was a demonstration arena where you could simply show off what you had learned that year. The tournament was sort of a practice or first round version of the one that happened in the last week of school. There were areas where you could show off magic, or even a place for inventions from the Development track. The whole day was devoted to celebrating everything that had been learned that year in front of your family members.

The point was, it was a pretty big deal all around. Basically everyone had been talking about it ever since I made it back to the school. The kids whose family was able to attend had been nervously preparing for quite a while. Meanwhile, the Bystander-kin mostly had to be either jealous or relieved, depending on the person. Though Gaia had promised that there would be something for them soon as well. The Bystander parents couldn’t come to the island, of course. But the headmistress had arranged a sort of field trip in a couple weeks. We would be going to Washington DC, and anyone whose Bystander parents wanted to visit would be provided airfare and accommodations. Apparently there were a lot of Heretic things to see around there too, so I was looking forward to going.

Oh yeah, and that was also where the entrance to a particular blood vault happened to be, apparently. So that was bound to be… interesting.

For obvious reasons, my family couldn’t attend either today or that field trip. Or at least, my father couldn’t. Not only was he not supposed to know the truth about everything and so wouldn’t have been able to come anyway, he was also supposedly still missing. So yeah, him showing up to this would have raised a hell of a lot of red flags.

But this was also a special day for another reason, the reason I was here at the camp early in the morning, right as the sun was coming up back at Crossroads. This was the day when Avalon was finally ready to come back to the school. Correction, she had thought she was ready for days by this point. This was the day when she had finally been cleared to come back by Gaia and the others. Which I was almost convinced they had decided because they were afraid she would outright mutiny on them if they kept her shut in any longer. The girl had basically been going crazy all week long. If she had been forced to stay in bed rest for much longer, I couldn’t begin to guess what she might’ve done.

So yeah, to say that I was a little excited about the day would have been a severe understatement. I couldn’t wait to go back to Crossroads with her. There had definitely been something missing the whole time that she was stuck here. To say nothing of how long I have been out in Seosten space without either her or Shiori. At least I’d had the latter this past week. Without Shiori, I probably would have gone crazy with worry.

I loved them both so much. It was hard to think of the time before I’d known them and grown so close to both. They were a part of me now in ways I had not thought possible at the start of the year. I needed them, both of them. And it gave me a new appreciation for just what both Deveron and my father had been going through with my mother being missing for so long.

Fuck Fossor, that slimy, evil piece of shit. And fuck Ruthers, along with everyone else who had created this whole situation.

With Sahveniah in my arms, I moved over to where my dad and Tabbris were. “Hey, I take it you guys are playing babysitter this morning?”

Dad nodded. “Zadriek and the others are off on some kind of training exercise. Some of them were imprisoned for a lot longer than Sariel or Larees were, so they need all the training they can get to get back in shape.”

Tabbris spoke up then. “They let them exercise back in the lab, but not train.” She paused briefly before adding, “And I’m pretty sure they’re training like this because they really want to fight.”

“Fight!” That was Sahveniah, who giggled at the word. “Fight. Fick fight. Fick fight Fick fittle? Fit fit fat fattle? Fick fack fu-”

“Ooookay,” I quickly interrupted, reaching into my pocket with one hand to take out a bit of candy. I offered it to her, and she squealed with delight before popping it into her mouth.“Tank oooh, Fick!” She blurted muffledly around the candy.

“You’re welcome.” I nodded a little at that, shifting the little girl in my arms while returning my attention to the other two. “I’m not surprised they want to fight. Believe me, if I was anywhere near their shoes, I’d want a piece of Kushiel too.”

I saw the brief look of intense horror cross my father‘s face then before he pushed it away and shook his head. “Let’s just be glad they’re out of there now. Besides, as I recall, this isn’t supposed to be a downer day, right?”

Wincing, I let the girl in my arms down so she could run over to Tabbris to start babbling at her about the bird she’d mentioned before. Then I focused on my dad. “I am really sorry you can’t come to this,” I murmured while stepping over to embrace him. “I’m gonna miss you all day.“

Returning my hug, Dad promised, “Don’t you worry. Later, all of us will have our own little family day.”

Unable to restrain myself, I grinned up at him while asking, “With blackjack and hookers?”

Well that, quite obviously, what is the cue for Sahveniah to spin on her heel back toward me while blurting, “Backjack hooker! Hookie hookah hooker!” Seeing our reactions, the girl laughed even louder and repeated herself.

“See?” Dad informed me. “This is why the Roscoes didn’t want to let you babysit in seventh grade.”

Huffing at that, I stuck my tongue out at him before changing the subject. “I better go get Valley. Professor Dare should be back soon to pick us up. Looking toward Tabbris, I asked, “Ready, partner?”

Because of course, I wanted her to be there for Family Day. If I couldn’t have my dad, I sure as hell was going to have my sister.

She agreed, and the two of us promised to come back out and say goodbye to Dad and Savvy before we left. Then we headed into the cabin nearby.

As expected, Avalon was waiting inside. And by waiting, she was pacing back and forth like a lioness. She was also already wearing her uniform, and wow. I had almost forgotten how good the other girl looked in it. For a moment, all I could do was stand there and stare.

Her head snapped up when we came in, and the girl blurted, “There you are! What’d you do, walk here from Crossroads?”

Snickering, I moved that way to embrace the girl tightly. “I figured we should get back to the school fashionably late so that you can make an entrance,” I teased.

Her eyes rolled at that even as she hugged me back. “Trust me, Chambers, they’ll notice.”

Given all the questions I had been asked, and the comments I had overheard, she was definitely right. Still, I winked at her. “You might say they remember who you are.”

Shaking her head, Avalon muttered, “I just bet they do.” She straightened then, shrugging. “But you know what? I’m pretty sure I can deal with anyone today, as long as it means I can get out of here.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “Everybody knows you were going a bit stir-crazy. But hey, that’s done now. As soon as Professor Dare—”

In mid-sentence, and almost right on cue, there was a brief knock at the door. As Avalon acknowledged it, the door opened and Dare herself stepped inside.

“Okay, girls, everybody ready to head back for a busy, busy day?”

The three of us looked to one another before I turned back to Dare and shrugged. “Sure, though it’s not like any of us have family going to this thing. I mean, besides Abigail. But she’s there for Koren. They are still going to let her come, right?” There had been a little bit of back-and-forth about whether someone who was technically a new Eden’s Garden Heretic would be allowed to come to this thing.

“Yes,” Dare assured me. “And with her, Koren, and Wyatt there, you will have plenty of family. To say nothing of Deveron and your friends.” She paused then, her voice softening. “But I am sorry that your father cannot be there. And, of course, your mother.”

Forcing myself to shrug, I replied, “Trust me, it’s not the first school event that Fossor has made her miss.”

Then I physically shook myself. “But hey, we’re here for happy things, remember? Avalon’s finally coming back to school. Let’s stick with the good parts of today.”

The others agreed, and Tabbris hopped into my body before we went out to say one last goodbye to the others, for the time being at least. I hugged Dad and Savvy once more, while Avalon thanked Gabriel for helping her get better and for giving her a safe place to recover.

Then it was time to head back. Dare made a portal, and we headed through, back to Crossroads once more.

After passing through the portal, we appeared on the beach, a good distance from the actual school grounds. The rest of the team was already waiting, and as we went through, Avalon was immediately embraced by Scout. She had seen her back at the camp throughout all this, of course. But still, there was something good about having Avalon back with us at Crossroads. We had lost Rudolph. But Avalon was back, and that made things feel just a little bit more right.

Everyone else wanted a hug too, and the proof of how much Avalon had missed being here was evident in how well she endured that. Still, by the end of it, she stepped back and grimaced. “Okay, yeah, I’m back. Let’s not be stupid about it. Move on.”

She looked to Doug then, reaching into the inside of her blazer before taking out a familiar item. It was Doug’s hat, and she flipped it to the boy. “Theia has her own thing that works now. She said to tell you thanks. Actually she said a lot more than that, but that’s about the sum of it. And no, I am not going to pass her kiss to you.”

Catching his hat, Doug blinked up at that. “Wait, does that mean that she actually—” In mid-sentence, his survival instinct kicked in and he thought better of that, judging from the look that the other girl gave him. “Never mind.” He settled for simply jamming the hat down on his head once more, letting out a breath of relief that told me just how much he had missed it.

“Hey,” I pointed out, “at least you managed to come back on a special day. Everybody oughta be pretty distracted as it is.”

Columbus immediately spoke up. “Yeah, I didn’t even know these people took Star Wars Day that seriously. This is pretty impressive.” Seeing the blank looks that he got, the boy gestured. “You know, Star Wars Day? May The Fourth? May The—” he sighed then, waving it off. “Never mind, Philistines.”

With a tiny smirk that told me she probably understood more of that than she was letting on, Dare gestured. “If we are done here, there is  something that Gaia would like you to see before today’s festivities again. Shall we?”

Looking toward Avalon then, I asked, “You sure you’re ready for this?”

Clearly thinking about all the people who were going to react to her reappearance, the girl made a face before giving me a slight nod. “Let’s get it over with.”

So we went with Dare. And sure enough, the moment we stepped foot on the school grounds, there were people staring. It was still early enough that it wasn’t a whole huge crowd of people yet, but they were definitely there, and they definitely noticed Avalon. I could see them whispering or muttering to one another while pointing our way, and figured that the other girl could actually hear them. I just hoped they weren’t being too stupid about what they were saying.

And speaking of being stupid about what they were saying, we were only halfway across the school grounds when another familiar figure approached. Zeke. Great. This ought to go swimmingly.

The boy stopped a few feet away, and seemed to hesitate for a second before clearing his throat. “Uh. Hey.”

He waited then, as if to let one of us responded. Getting nothing but blank, silent looks, he plowed on. “Look, I uhhh…” he trailed off then, working strangely unsure of himself. Actually, this whole thing was strange. What was he doing? What’s this about the fact that Dare was standing there? If so, why had he approached in the first place?

“If you need some time to collect yourself for whatever comment you’re going to make,” Avalon dryly remarked, “I can come back later.”

Quickly, Zeke shook his head. “No, I just—” he stopped, sighing. “Look, I know this is gonna sound like some stupid thing that my mother is making me say like a dumb little kid. But it’s not. It’s… I just wanted to say that I’m glad you didn’t die, okay? Whatever the fuck is going on, you’re, uhh, you’re a good fighter. I still think you’re a b—” he stopped himself with a brief look toward Dare before amending it to, “I still don’t like you. Like, at all. Your whole group is still weird and… whatever. The point is, I didn’t want you to die. I didn’t want to Rudolph to die either, but…” He went quiet, actually looking emotional for a couple of seconds before getting it under control.

“Whatever, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m glad you’re not dead. You’re good at fighting, and you’ll be a good Heretic. I don’t have to like you to acknowledge that. And, uh, the world would have lost a lot if you had died like that.”

He paused there for another brief second, looking supremely uncomfortable before turning on his heel to stride away without another word. The rest of us all watched him go in silence.

Finally, I raised a hand. “Um. So, acknowledging and including literally everything else that’s happened this year, is it me, or was that the weirdest fucking thing ever?”

The response actually came from Professor Dare. “It is definitely up there.”

Scout looked to her. “Are we sure his mom didn’t make him say that?”

Dare nodded once. “He was telling the truth when he said that Sophronia was not behind it. And that is not something I can see her doing anyway. She would know that such a forced gesture would be meaningless. No, I believe that was all Mr. Leven’s initiative.”

“Like I said,” I put in, “weirdest fucking thing ever.”

Columbus spoke up, clearly only partially kidding. “Are we sure he hasn’t been possessed?”

“I’m pretty sure the Seosten are usually better at staying under cover and in character than that,” I pointed out. “And besides, no Seosten would be stupid enough to be that obvious like that with us in particular. They’d know that we’d find a way to check.”

The others all muttered agreement, and there wasn’t much else to be said about it. It was weird, but hey, I wasn’t going to complain about Zeke acting like an actual human being. After all, there were enough problems to deal with as it was.

So, we followed Dare to the main building and up to Gaia’s office. Just as we reached the entrance, I blinked and looked to the woman. “Actually, why did we just have to walk all the way across the grounds in the first place? Why didn’t we come straight to this place when we went through the portal?”

In response, Dare smiled while opening the door. “Well, because they wanted to let you all have a little reunion of your own for Avalon’s return before distracting from that.”

I started to nod before blinking blankly. “Err, they?”

“Yeah, what can we say?”

The instantly familiar voice came not from Dare, but from inside the headmistress’s office.

Sands, standing by her mother, by her and Scout’s mother, finished with, “We thought we might be a little distracting.”

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Interlude 39C – Gwen

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Felicity Chambers was working with the Seosten. That was the first thing that had popped into Gwen’s mind as she sat there at the library table, pretending that she was frozen in time along with everyone else.

Well, technically it was the second thing. The first thing that had popped into her mind on the subject was that the girl had somehow been possessed the whole time (which seemed impossible), or had ended up being possessed before they came back. But listening to the conversation further made that obviously wrong.

She was possessed, but not all the time. There was no other way to parse what happened with the phone and the way the girl subsequently announced that they were all there. She had sent a message and her Seosten ‘partner’ had recalled back to her. Which meant that she wasn’t possessed at that time and had willingly chosen to be possessed again.

She was working with her possessor, apparently. And also working with Elisabet… who was possessed by the Seosten named Jophiel.

At least Gwen now knew who the Seosten-possessed Committee member was. That was something she could use.  

As to why Felicity was working with her, it very soon became clear that the alliance wasn’t exactly the girl’s first choice. She was about as close to openly hostile to them over the death of Rudolph Parsons as she could possibly be, without being incinerated.

From what little Gwen was able to piece together on this situation, it seemed that Felicity being possessed was something separate from her deal with this Jophiel. She was possessed and the two were willingly working together to the point that the one possessing her could leave for extended periods and keep Felicity‘s memories intact. Somehow, Jophiel had learned about that partnership, and had a similar relationship with her own host. They were now using that to convince Felicity to work with them so they could show the Seosten leaders the virtues of an alliance with humanity rather than subjugation.

Boy, would Michael ever be interested in hearing about this.

And speaking of things he would be interested in knowing, Sariel had children. Tristan and Vanessa Moon were half-Seosten, which… answered almost as many questions as it created.

In any case, the Moon twins were Sariel’s, and Felicity was willingly possessed by a Seosten whom she was at least friendly with, from the sound of things. The four of them had apparently been co-opted by Jophiel and Elisabet to try and convince the Seosten leadership to change their strategy for dealing with humanity.

Yes, Michael was going to want to know about all of this. And there were a lot more questions that needed to be answered. How long had Felicity been possessed? What made her work willingly with her possessor? How close were they? Another romantic connection of some kind? His name was Tabbris, which given the history that Michael had told her about the historical Tabbris who had ‘betrayed’ the Seosten and stolen a planet out from under them, said a lot about whoever had named him. Unless he’d adopted the name for himself at some point…

And what made Felicity not tell her friends about the situation with this Jophiel? Because it was pretty clear that all this was very secret even from her own team.

On and on the questions went. Gwen had learned an astounding amount in a very short time simply from pretending to be frozen. But she hadn’t learned enough. She had to find out more. And that meant doing some work.

The instant the time stop was dropped, after the group passed through the portal that had been created, Gwen was on her feet and heading for the door. She could still smell the very faint odor of the memory clouding smoke, but that was the extent of its effects on her. She had been learning to protect herself from such effects almost since the time that she learned to walk. The Seosten loved their memory powers and spells, depending on them almost to the point of it becoming a crutch. Even beyond, some would say.

“Hey, Harper!” Shiloh Lexx met her in the doorway of the library. “You done with that thing already? Because they’ve got a soccer game starting up and everyone wanted to know if you were in.”

For a decent portion of her life, Gwen had pretended to be more than one person. Throughout her life in Camelot with her beloved Arthur, she had been both Queen Guinevere and her husband’s closest knight, the swordsman known as Lancelot. For quite some time, all save for their closest friends had believed them to be separate people, thinking that Lancelot was a man.

That was an arrangement which had ended up backfiring rather hilariously when she had been observed secretly leaving or entering her own room through the window multiple times as Lancelot, leading to the speculation that the two of them were having an affair. That had been an interesting situation to deal with.

Lancelot wasn’t the only other fake identity, both male and female, that she had taken up over the intervening years either. All of which meant that Gwen was very experienced in compartmentalizing her thoughts and personality, adopting new ones and shifting through them very quickly and easily.

So, despite the fact that she had about a thousand very serious thoughts and questions running through her head right then, there was almost no hesitation before a quick, broad smile broke across her face at the other girl’s words.

“Oh man,” she chirped brightly. “I hope so! But we’re not done yet. Flick just had to use the bathroom. We’ve still got work to do, so you tell them that I’ll be there if I can, okay? And play hard, because I’ll bring cookies for the winner.” She held that for just a second before giggling. “Okay, okay, I’ll bring cookies for everybody. But still!”

Shiloh still wanted to chat, and it took Gwen about a minute to extricate herself without being rude or making the other girl suspicious. Which meant that she had between six and nine minutes before Felicity would be returning. Much longer from that girl’s point of view, apparently. But still, between six and nine minutes for Gwen. It was time that she would put to good use.

To that end, she went for the female dormitory. The good part about the personality that she had established for Harper was that skipping and such didn’t look at all out of place for her, and it was actually a fairly fast way to move around. Hell, as energetic and enthused as she generally was, no one really batted an eye to see her even jogging through the halls. Or dancing, though that wasn’t exactly fast.

Reaching the room that Felicity shared with Avalon, Gwen took two minutes to temporarily clear all the security measures on the room. It would have taken a lot longer if she hadn’t done it before, and actually had that first time. She’d been at it for literally hours, carefully undoing security measure upon security measure while avoiding tripping any of the myriad of alerts. It had been pretty absurd, the level of protection put on that one room. She expected to get in within the hour at the time, and it had ended up taking almost three hours of off and on work to make sure she made it without throwing up a dozen alarms, either obvious or secret.

But the work had been worth it, since it meant that she now had a much quicker back way through all the spells, which only took her two minutes to manage. Two minutes still in a room that she was prepared for and had been in already, when she could easily get through basically any other room in this dormitory in about three seconds. Whether it was Gaia or someone else putting these spells on Avalon and Felicity‘s room, they clearly knew what they were doing. Gwen was impressed, even if it was almost annoying for her own purposes.

She made it in, however, with about two to five minutes to spare. She was going to assume that they would use as much time as possible, but still. Better safe than sorry. She didn’t have to be sitting right there when Felicity got back. But if she wasn’t, the girl will probably go look for her at the bathroom, thinking that Harper had gone to find her or something. She’d meet her partway in that case. For now, all that meant was that she had a couple of minutes to do this.

Closing the door behind her, Gwen immediately turned to face it. She stood for a moment, focusing before a single tear fell from her eye. As it did so, she reached up, using one finger to take the tear from her cheek and brushed it against the door knob.

For about three seconds, the knob glowed bright green before the glow faded.

The tear was not really one of sadness. Nor was it a normal tear at all. It was actually a power she had sought out, that of a Yletseit, wolf-like creatures who cried over their offspring and packmates to mark them. They did the same with prey, to the point that early beings who had encountered them thought that the creatures were crying about killing their food. There were some poems about that. But in truth, it was a hunting method. A Yletsiet could track and find any creature marked by their tears for about twenty-four hours.

The tear would sit on the doorknob until Felicity touched it. But just to be safe, Gwen took a moment to put a quick spell on the knob itself, which would put a very light shield around it, basically an invisible and undetectable sleeve. The spell would stop anyone else from touching the tear if they happened to come in, and was set to dissipate the moment Felicity was reaching for it.

That would hopefully do the trick. When Felicity went to exit the room, her hand would touch the knob and the tear would be absorbed by her skin. Then Gwen would be able to track her perfectly for the next twenty-four hours.

She possibly could have just put the tear on her hand and then shook Felicity’s, or patted her back or something, of course. But with something like this and all the attention that was on the other girl, it felt best to do it as far out of sight as possible. Let Felicity be somewhere she felt safe, here in her dorm room where she might be less likely to notice anything and where there weren’t a lot of other eyes paying attention. Besides, if the girl did find out about the tear, Gwen didn’t want her to remember Harper deliberately touching her wherever it was found. Safety and subtlety, that was far and away more important than convenience. It might’ve been overly paranoid, but she hadn’t gotten to where she was by being careless or rushing things.

She wanted to do a lot more than that, including putting spells on the girl that would let her hear what was going on. But that felt too dangerous, with all the extra magic she’d found all over this room and the girl herself. Plus, from what she had heard and put together, Jophiel obviously had ways of blocking those tracking spells anyway. This was the best way that Gwen could at least follow when Felicity and the others were eventually sent on the mission that had been mentioned. This, at least, wasn’t a spell. It was the best she could do under the circumstances.

And whatever it took, Gwen was going to follow them that evening. She had had no way of tracking the group to wherever they’d gone a few minutes earlier, but this she could do. Above all else, she needed more information. She needed to know what Jophiel was having them do, exactly, and work from there.

Besides, it was very possible that Felicity and the Moon twins could get in over their heads with this, and they deserve to have someone watching their backs, even if they didn’t know about it.

That very simple, yet incredibly important bit of business done, Gwen made sure the hallway was clear, then used an intangibility power to quickly step through the door so that she didn’t have to touch the knob, before setting the alarm spells back to normal. Out of time, she turned, heading to the exit and for the library to meet up with Felicity once more.

Whatever happened later that evening, Gwen was going to be there. And she was going to get some more answers.

******

Tristan Moon was very perceptive. Gwen had to give him that much. He had noticed her shadow on the ground as she knelt above the group in the top of one of the apple trees, listening to their conversation. Her teleportation power was entirely too fast for him (fast enough that she had been able to use it to escape from the dormitory back when that mind controlling boy had tried to tell everyone to attack Felicity, sending herself far away out of earshot before he could finish his sentence), but still. The fact that he’d noticed at all in the instant her shadow had been visible was testament to his ability.

Not that she would have been recognized if he had seen her. She had not only slipped on a different enchanted bracelet that changed her appearance to be different from both that of Harper and of her true self, but also wore what amounted to a white and gold ninja outfit, complete with a mask that covered all of her face save for her eyes. Layer upon layer of security. Even if she somehow lost the mask and was seen, the face she was wearing in that moment would tie back neither to her true self nor to her identity at Crossroads.

Gwen had been able to stay close enough to listen to a good bit of the conversation, though she had missed some of it, words here and there. She learned a lot more than she already knew while the group waited for their target to arrive. They talked a lot, which was helped along by the spell that Gwen herself introduced which subtly pushed them to bring up certain subjects. It was all very illuminating.

She found a bit more about the being possessing Felicity, the one called Tabbris. From the sound of things, he had been possessing the girl for awhile, even before the girl had known of him. Which made Gwen assume that he must have been sent by the Empire to possess the girl, and then… grown fond of her. Fond enough to eventually become romantic? That was the impression she was getting.

Either way, he was a full Seosten who was staying at the Atherby camp along with Sariel herself, who had been rescued from some prison lab pregnancy factory run by none other than Kushiel. And apparently those two were not the only Seosten there either. From the sound of things, the Atherbys had more former prisoners who had been rescued from the same prison.

The Atherbys. Arthur-By, as it had originally been. Gwen had disagreed with that group from the beginning, though it was not an entirely unfriendly disagreement. She knew why they set up to do things the way that they had. Their goal had been to openly oppose and delay the Seosten wherever possible.

Gwen, meanwhile, had believed that the best way to do things was to go completely underground. They needed to act in complete secrecy for many years, preparing for when Arthur would return. He would need a support network and as much information as possible. And he needed people to focus on bringing him back in the first place. That’s what she and the people who had been with her had been doing over the centuries. They and their descendants, that was. They had gone completely dark, putting themselves out of sight and out of mind for so many years simply to convince the Seosten that they were completely gone. It was the only way that they would be able to work to bring Arthur back when the time came.

But Gwen bore no ill will toward the Atherbys. She knew why they had chosen differently, and knew that Arthur would have respected that decision as well. In truth, both of their groups were likely needed. The Seosten would never believe that the remnants of Camelot had simply completely disappeared. Having the Atherbys around helped with that. Especially after she faked Lancelot’s death, as he would have been high on their priority list.

Still, even if she held no grudge against the other group, Gwen wasn’t going to go spilling everything she had found out to them already. For one thing, she didn’t know how good their operational security was at this point, so there was no way of knowing if it would get back to the Seosten. Besides, there was still a lot more she was going to need to look into before she would feel that talking to the other group was advisable. Especially as it sounded like there were actually other Seosten there, which was… very curious.

And just maybe she was a little hesitant to even anonymously leave Gaia any information. Anything that might even vaguely possibly make her look at Harper anymore than she did was a bad idea. Gwen wasn’t ready to have an actual discussion with the woman who had been Morgan Le Fay just yet. So she would keep the secret, for now at least. She would keep the secret, and look into it for herself.

Crouching unseen in the field, she watched as the group of students attacked the bus that was obviously a Seosten transport. She hadn’t been able to find out what they were after aside from the fact that it was ingredients for some kind of spell. What spell exactly, she had no idea. Probably because they didn’t either.

Speaking of spells, she had noticed something else while observing the children. They clearly weren’t aware of it, but Jophiel and Elisabet seemed to have put some other kind of spell on them. The magic made it so that anyone observing them would quickly forget specific details about them. Hair color, height, eye color, things they said, how they acted. All of that would be reduced to to very general knowledge almost immediately after it happened. It was obvious that the Committee member and the Seosten woman were protecting the group’s identities even more than the students were aware.

Gwen watched while they attacked that bus, noting their strategy and skill. They were already far and away beyond what a normal first year student should have been capable of. It was impressive. But then again, if they were being instructed by all the different tutors they seemed to be, that made sense.

When they finished, the group took a crate of some kind from the bus, using an enchanted something or other that Jophiel had provided which created a brief portal for them to disappear through. They also left several of the guards alive to escape, which was somewhat questionable. The humane part of Gwen applauded their mercy, even as the practical part of her worried about their leaving witnesses who might have identified them if it were not for the identity-concealing spells that Felicity and the others clearly didn’t know about.

It was a hard question, compounded by the whole Seosten slavery issue. Some of their troops worked with them willingly or because that was all they had ever known, while others were more firmly oppressed and held under the boot of authority. It was always difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the person you were fighting deserved to die or not. Far too often, the answer was the latter.

So she absolutely understood why Felicity and the twins had left as many alive as possible. Though she did wonder if it was any point of contention with that Tabbris. If the Seosten had been assigned to possess Felicity Chambers, he was probably quite experienced at doing the hard thing. Still, maybe he respected that they were trying to retain their humanity even while being put in these impossible situations. Gwen certainly respected it.

But she also needed information. And she didn’t want her presence to get back to Jophiel, even if her identity was concealed. She didn’t want to risk that.

So, she would interrogate the survivors. She would determine what they knew about the ingredients that had been taken from the bus, and see if she could figure out what spell was being prepared. Then she would get to know the people themselves. She would determine which were too dangerous to really trust to release and which could be freed. Those the latter would be taken to Michael, who would ensure that they didn’t remember any specifics before sending them somewhere at least somewhat safe to start new lives. As far as the Seosten in general would be concerned, the group would have simply disappeared. With luck they would attribute it to them either been killed or running away while they had the chance.

Jophiel would be more confused, of course. But she would hopefully also believe that the survivors had taken the opportunity to disappear rather than face judgment and punishment for their failure.

It was the best plan that she could come up with in that time, the best that didn’t involve simply killing all of them, which she was loathe to do.

The group of surviving guards had run almost two hundred yards from the sight of their broken bus when Gwen made her presence known. Appearing in front of them in her costumed, masked form, she looked up to meet their startled gazes.

“I know you’ve had a very bad day,” she announced quietly. “It can either get better now, or worse. You each have to decide which.

“But for the record, you won’t get to change your mind.”

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Interlude 39B – Haiden

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Please note that the scenes between Haiden and Sariel depicted later in this chapter are the same scenes as depicted from Sariel’s point of view in Interlude 13A

March 18th, 1986

As Haiden Holt stood at the glass door that was the back entrance into the apartment building that he had been calling home for the past couple of months, he heard a noise behind him. Instantly, the man’s hand found its way into his long coat to touch the handle of his sword. At the same time, he looked into the vague reflection in the door, summoning the power which allowed him to perfectly see and magnify anything that was seen by the glass itself. The power worked for up to thirty feet worth of glass, generally allowing him to view anything that could have been reflected within it.

The form coming up behind him, however, was not any kind of threat after all. Relaxing slightly, Haiden released his grip on the weapon before turning a bit with a smile. “Good evening, Mrs. Wen, you’re out late tonight.”

The tiny, yet ancient looking Asian woman returned his smile, tightly gripping her cane while leaning on it. “Oh yes,” she agreed, “I had to visit my granddaughter for her birthday. Do you know what film we had to go and see? Something called the, umm, High something. Lander, that was it. The Highlander. I couldn’t follow that nonsense at all. Can you believe it? A little girl wanting to go see something like that. Men with swords cutting each other, being immortal or some such.”

Restraining the urge to smile too much, Haiden gave a slight bow of his head. “Yes,” he managed, “it does seem like something of a stretch.”

“And a proper young girl wanting to see it?” The woman huffed a bit, head shaking. “It just seems wrong.” She blinked then, before waving it off with her free hand. ”Oh, but I just rant. I am glad she had a good time. Even if I don’t understand it.”

Agreeing that that was what was important, Haiden used his key to unlock the apartment building door and pushed it open before gesturing for the woman to go ahead. Together, they walked to the elevator and rode it up to the floor that they shared. As they reached her apartment, the woman wished him a pleasant good night and stepped inside, leaving Haiden to head for his own door.

Though he was part of Eden’s Garden, Haiden had been operating on his own in the city for the past few months. He preferred it that way, simply checking in whenever he needed to while chasing his own leads to find monsters before they could do any more harm.

Flipping the light switch on as he entered, the man headed straight for the kitchen. He took down a glass before starting to fill it with water from the sink.

As the water poured, it abruptly stopped filling the glass. Instead, the stream shot over beside him, forming into what looked like a water statue of a human being.

As soon as it started, Haiden jerked backward, pulling his sword from his coat before realizing what was happening. “Dammit, Lucy, what did I say about taking me by surprise?”

Lucy was the only name he had for the strange Heretic who had repeatedly contacted him for the past several years to point Haiden in the right direction. He had no idea why the man called himself Lucy, but he always seemed amused by it. Neither did he know why this ‘Lucy’ almost never appeared in person but almost always through some form of elemental communication spell, such as appearing in a bonfire or, as now, as a figure made of water.

Either way, from what Lucy had said, he wasn’t much of a fighter himself, and didn’t want to get involved in things. But when he knew something, he would appear and point Haiden the right way to stop something bad from happening. Apparently, he had his own contacts that fed him information in turn.

“Sorry, Haiden,” the man apologized through his water-messenger spell before speaking again. “But this one is important. It couldn’t wait. Comes straight from old Nicholas himself.”

Nicholas. Haiden didn’t know a lot about him, except that he was Lucy’s most reliable and yet seldom used contact. Every bit of information that Nicholas had provided before had led to stop incredibly dangerous monsters from an enacting horrific plans. Whoever this Nicholas was, he had provided enough information in the past to stop multiple wholesale slaughters from happening. He didn’t send along information often, but when he did, it was a big deal.

The news that whatever this information was came from him was enough to make Haiden relax slightly. “Okay, what’s happening?”

Running a hand through the water that comprised his hair, Lucy replied, “There’s this girl. Little kid apparently. She’s about to run into these gangsters or something, and there’s going to be a Stranger there. You need to save her.”

Haiden blinked at that. “A little girl needs to be saved from gangsters and some Stranger? If it means saving a kid, I’m on it, no doubt. But are you sure that was the whole message?”

Lucy shrugged. “He just said that she needs you more than anyone has ever needed you, and that when the gun is fired, if you don’t save her, a good person will die.”

Haiden frowned a little. “That’s oddly… specific. But I guess he’s been right too many times before to question it now.” Pausing, he looked to the man. “Don’t suppose you can tell me anymore about him yet?”

“Hey, man,” Lucy objected, “you know my rules for passing info.”

“Anonymous, always anonymous and with all the privacy you want.” Haiden waved a hand. “Right, right. Okay, so give me the location and time.

“I guess I’m saving a little kid from a monster.”

******

 

March 20th, 1986

 

In his hawk form, Haiden glided on the air currents above the forested area that his contact had pointed him toward. Scanning the trees below with a mixture of his hawk vision and other powers, Haiden searched for the right spot.

The sound of gunshots in the distance suddenly caught his attention, and Haiden abruptly wheeled around in the air, heading that way as fast as possible. He continued to scan for his target, asking himself if he was already too late.

There. The gunshots had stopped, and Haiden saw the figure of a young girl who had obviously been shot, stumbling to her knees. A feeling of despair and failure rose up in him just before he saw something else. A fully grown woman, appearing from inside the girl. The woman picked the girl up and started to carry her.

Stranger. It was the Stranger. She was taking the girl. Haiden might’ve been too late to stop her from being shot, but he was still going to save her. He wasn’t going to let some horrific ritual or whatever this stranger had in mind happen.

Something didn’t make sense. Nicholas‘s information had always been very specific and useful. He’d always given Haiden enough time to find his target before. What was different this time? Why had he sent Haiden somewhere without enough time to actually find the girl before she was shot? What happened?

And why wasn’t this woman setting off his Stranger sense? She had to be the Stranger that had been referred to, since he just seen her stop possessing the kid. Yet she didn’t set off his sense. That in and of itself wasn’t completely unheard of, of course. But it just added to all of his confusion.

Either way, Haiden wasn’t about to give up on saving the child. He dove for the woman, cutting her off before reforming into his human shape.

Drawing his sword while feeling a pang of remorse at the sight of the injured girl that was a reminder of his failure, he snapped at the woman, “I don’t know what you are or where you think you’re going with that girl. But I’m not gonna let you take her.”

Why he even said that much to her, he had no idea. The woman said something in response, but all Haiden could think about was saving that kid and rectifying his failure. He threw himself into an attack, wanting to end this as quickly as possible. He had to be careful to avoid hitting the kid, which slowed him slightly and stopped him from using any of his more dramatic area of effect powers.

Suddenly, the woman stopped dodging and knelt to put the girl on the ground. Why? Was she freeing her hands for something? Trying to make him focus on the kid while she escaped? He’d take that if that was what she was—

“Kill me then. But take the girl to the hospital after you do. Save her.”

At those words, Haiden flipped his sword around while his mind reeled. What the hell was going on? What kind of game was she trying to play with this?

Slowly, he replied, “I don’t know what kind of trick you–”

The Stranger interrupted. “It’s not a trick! Look, just–” Suddenly, a pistol appeared in her hand. Even as Haiden moved to react that, she blurted, “Save the girl.”

Then she pointed the gun not at him, and not at the kid. Instead, she pointed at her own head and began to pull the trigger.

Nicholas’s passed-along message was suddenly in Haiden’s mind. When the gun was fired, if he didn’t save her, a good person would die.

He had been sent here too late. He’d never had a chance to get to the girl before she’d been shot. That made no sense. Nicholas‘s information always gave them enough time. There was no way that he could have gotten to that spot before the gun fired. No way that he could have saved her like that. No way to stop it.

Unless that wasn’t the shot that Nicholas had been talking about. Unless the girl wasn’t the person he had been referring to. He’d said that when the gun was fired, if Haiden didn’t stop it, a good person would die. A good person.

The words that he hadn’t really been listening to before filled Haiden‘s mind even as the woman’s finger tightened on the trigger. Save her. She had said that she was trying to save the girl, and he hadn’t listened. Why would he listen to a Stranger rambling excuses?

Save her. Save her. Save the good person.

He moved. Lunging forward at the last possible instant, Haiden lashed out with his sword, interposing it between the gun and the woman’s head so that the bullet ricocheted off of it.

She looked just as surprised as he felt in that moment, staring at him in shock.

“Why would you do that?” As he voiced the question, Haiden had no idea he was talking to the woman… or to himself. Why would he make that choice right then? Why would he stop a Stranger from killing herself? Why had she been trying to kill herself? What was going on? Had Nicholas really sent him to save her instead of the girl?

The woman interrupted his thoughts. “The girl. Please. She’s dying.”

That was enough to stop Haiden‘s other thoughts. He quickly grabbed the woman by the arm, not willing to let her out of his sight until he figured out what was going on. Sheathing his sword, he pulled her over next to the injured girl and knelt to put a hand on her. Focusing on another power, he transported all three of them to the nearest hospital that he knew about.

They appeared in the middle of the entrance of the emergency room, and he quickly passed the girl to the nurses there while letting the Bystander Effect take care of any confusion about their sudden appearance.

As the girl was taken away by the medical professionals, Haiden saw the woman start to take a step after them. Before she could, he put a hand on her shoulder. Something made him speak reassuringly. “She’ll be okay. They’ve got it.”

Why? Why had she tried to save the girl to begin with? What happened back there? How on Earth was he supposed to explain this even to himself?

The woman looked to him with what looked like peaceful resignation, speaking hesitantly. “I… Thank you for letting me see that she was being saved. You… you can kill me now if you want to, if that’s your price.”

Now Haiden was even more confused than before. He had half expected her to use helping to save the girl as a trade for letting her go. Or maybe she would have used the innocents nearby as cover to escape. But she wasn’t. She was just standing there, waiting.

“If that’s my…” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, Haiden grimaced and took a second before coming to a decision. Looking back to the woman, he gestured to summon his teleportation power once more, sending the two of them back into the woods where they had just been. It was as good a place as any for this. He needed answers, and he needed them now.

Taking a few quick steps back from the woman to put space between them, he stared at her while demanding, “You’re not evil. You were really trying to save that girl. Why?”

Because that was the most important question of all. Why would a Stranger, a Stranger try to save a human child? It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. Not her actions, not his own decisions, and not the original message from Nicholas. What the hell was happening?

The woman was beautiful. He recognized that now that he was allowing himself to see it, now that there was time to process. She was blonde and gorgeous, an ethereal, almost angelic beauty that somehow made his knees feel weak when he looked at her. Where was the revulsion? She was supposed to be a monster, so… where was the monster? Looking into her eyes, he saw no evil. Instead, what he saw… was loneliness. He saw so much loneliness and emptiness that he wanted to embrace her.

It was insane. It went against everything he had ever been taught or known. But he wanted more than anything to put his arms around her and tell her that everything would be okay.

The woman spoke softly then. “It’s a long story. But I never wanted to hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it. She didn’t.”

His mind was still reeling from all of this. She didn’t want to hurt the girl? She didn’t want to hurt anyone? But… But she was supposed to be a monster. Even as he looked at her, even as he saw no monster in her, Haiden was still confused, still lost. Why had he been sent to her? What did Nicholas want him to do? Save her. He’d said that saving her would save a good person. Did he really mean her and not the little girl? Did he mean both of them? Everything was so… so confusing.

But right then, he did know one thing. Whatever the full truth, whatever the whole story behind all of this was, this woman was not evil. He couldn’t kill her. He couldn’t hurt her. She was lost, and what she needed right then was someone to be there for her. He didn’t know why he’d been sent, or what would come about this. But he did know that he could be that person right then. Whatever else happened, he could help the loneliness that he saw in her eyes.

“I think we have a lot to talk about,” he announced slowly while extending a hand to her. “What’s your name?”

As confused as he felt by all of this, that was a good place to start, at least. A name. He never really cared about the names of the Strangers he killed before, unless they were terrible enough for him to need to track them down by their identity. But this one? This one was different. No one, Stranger or human had ever made him feel the way he felt when he looked at her.

The woman answered while accepting his extended hand. “Sariel. What… what’s yours?”

If anything felt more weird than asking a Stranger what her name was, it was giving his own to her. Haiden took a moment, collecting himself as a million thoughts ran through his head.

This felt like his last chance to change his mind. If this was a trick, if it was some kind of strange trap, he would be walking right into it. He could have been damning himself right then to whatever terrible fate awaited those who mistakenly trusted monsters.

And yet, it didn’t feel like a trap. It didn’t feel like anything bad. Looking to the woman, Haiden felt more alive in that moment then he could ever remember feeling. This wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t bad. There was something happening here, something he couldn’t explain. Yet it felt like… it felt like this was quite possibly the single most important moment of his life. More important than becoming a Heretic, more important even than losing his sister during training had been, as terrible as that was. Something was here that would forever change his life. And he felt not fear in that moment, but excitement.

He came to a decision. He would be honest. Looking back up to her, he quietly replied, “Haiden.”

The woman repeated his name, and he repeated hers. Haiden and Sariel. Heretic and Stranger.

Then they started to talk, really talk. For quite awhile, actually. The woman had been right when she had said that it was a long story. It was a very long story, One that went on for quite a while and left him reeling even more than before as it shook the foundations of what he had ever understood about Strangers and about humanity.

And Haiden had been right as well. That moment changed his life forever. And in the future, he would come to realize that when he gave the woman who became his wife a chance, he had not simply been saving her.

He had been saving his own soul as well.

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Interlude 39A -Doug, Larees, and Sulan

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As Professor Dare escorted him with the Seosten named Larees up toward the private booth where his Great-Great Grandfather Sulan was, Douglas Frey stole a glance at the woman beside him. He still didn’t know what to make of her, or the… good Seosten in general.

Actually, he was still honestly coming to terms with the fact that there could be good Strangers at all. Growing up the way that he had, it seemed pretty unthinkable. Especially after he’d seen the things that the Whispers made his family and friends do. He knew it wasn’t fair, since there were plenty of examples of evil humans, but still. He’d had very little experience with good Strangers, and his entire life had been built around them being evil.

It was a lot to take in and adapt to, basically.

Noticing him looking at her, Larees gave him a sidelong glance. “You okay, kid?” There was the faintest note of a challenge in her voice, but it seemed more like habit than anything else. Doug had to figure that growing up in the kind of society she apparently had, and then spending a bunch of years in a prison torture lab pretty much guaranteed that she’d be a little touchy about being stared at.

He nodded quickly, rubbing his hand over his hair with the now familiar naked sensation of missing his hat. “Yeah, yeah. I was just wondering if you and Sulan’ll be able to figure out anything about those Whisper things.”

They were on the stairs leading up to the private booths, and the woman stopped briefly. “I hope so. Because I’ve got to tell you, from what you’ve said, there’s something really fucking weird going on there.”

Professor Dare, who had stopped just a bit about them, smiled faintly. “Very weird indeed. But I’m sure that Sulan would like to be part of this conversation.”

So, they continued, heading up to an unmarked door before their escort knocked twice. There was the sound of a lock being disengaged, and then it was opened.

The man standing on the other side was instantly familiar to Doug. He was decidedly not a tall or muscular man, standing only at five foot eight with a rather thin body type. The hair on his head and the neatly trimmed full beard on his face were both silver-gray, while his eyes were a pale blue that still sparkled with kindness.

Those same eyes lit up when he saw his great-great grandson, and the man immediately embraced him tightly, his thin form belying his true strength.

Immediately returning the hug, Doug held on tight, resisting the urge to whimper at the familiar feeling of love and protection. “Hey, Grandpa Sulan.”

“Hey yourself, Commando,” Sulan teased Doug with the nickname he had given him as a very small child who liked to run around with toy guns. “Heard you’ve been pretty busy this year.”

His voice lowered then, as his face sobered. “Sorry about your friend. That… that shouldn’t have happened.”

Flinching, Doug nodded. His voice was quiet. “Yeah, it shouldn’t have. But hey, at least it gave them a great excuse for this party.” His hand gestured forward, past his grandfather and to the main room where this whole circus was taking place.

Everyone winced, and Professor Dare was the first to respond. “It may seem incredibly gauche and wrong, but for the most part, they at least believe they’re doing something good here. They want to remember Rudolph as—”

“They didn’t even know him,” Douglas snapped despite himself. His hand was clenched. “Most of them never met him and now they’re going to stand up there and talk about how his death is a tragedy but hey, at least we beat the bad guys? We didn’t beat the bad guys. Not really. The bad guys are still there. The bad guys are everywhere. The bad guys are probably some of the people up there talking about how great it was that we beat them when we didn’t!

“The problem isn’t just that they didn’t know Rudolph. The problem isn’t just that they’re celebrating when there’s nothing to celebrate. The problem is that there are people up there who are pretending to be on our side when they’re not. The problem is that Rudolph was murdered and some of the people responsible for him dying are probably up on that stage pretending they give a shit!”

Wow, that had kind of come out of nowhere. Realizing that he had actually said all that out loud, Doug finally snapped his mouth shut and flushed a little while holding his arms across his stomach. He was very glad in that moment that the booths were privacy protected. And, of course, beyond that, he knew that Dare at least had privacy spells running.

Sulan spoke quietly then. “You’re right. It’s a really shitty situation. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t. Sometimes you just have to accept that there’s shit and keep going. And trust me, with the Seosten involved, you end up dealing with a lot of shit.” He paused then, eyes moving up to Larees. “No offense to you in particular. But, you know… a lot of your people can be pretty bad.”

Doug thought he saw a tiny smirk on the woman’s face briefly before she inclined her head. “You’ll get no argument from me on that.” Her flask came out again, and she took a gulp before offering it to the man.

Sulan took it, and just as Doug started to warn him, took a drink from it. The boy started to wince, but his grandfather showed no ill effects. He paused, looking down at the flask in his hand before swallowing fully. Tilting his head curiously, Sulan took another brief swig before handing it back. “Good stuff,” was his only comment.

Grinning, Larees replied, “I knew I was gonna like you.”

They exchanged greetings and introductions finally, before moving into the booth to sit down. Dare excused herself for the time being, leaving the three of them to talk.

Doug only looked toward the stage for a few seconds before turning away. “I don’t need to see this,” he muttered before adding, “Can we do something productive instead?”

Nodding once, Larees addressed Sulan. “Your descendent already told us some of what happened back then, all of what he can remember anyway. But he was young and it was traumatic. Maybe you could… ehh, start at the beginning and explain things from your point of view?”

So Sulan did so. He explained how the two of them had been exploring the tombs on their colony world when they had accidentally released the invisible, mostly intangible entities that they came to call the Whispers, and how those beings had taken to literally whispering in the ears of their victims to drive them crazy and somehow control their actions so that they would do horrific things.

Larees shook her head, frowning a little. “They weren’t actually possessing people. So what were they doing? Mind control? Maybe something about their whispering lowers the target’s mental defenses to create an opening that the creature can then exploit.”

Sulan agreed. “That’s about the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with. Make sense given what we’ve seen of them. Not that we’ve seen them outside that world. Believe me, it’s under pretty heavy quarantine to make sure those things, whatever they are, don’t get out.”

“Not to mention,” Doug pointed out, “certain people probably don’t want the spells that block out the Whispers and also happen to block possession getting out there. I can see sorta see the Seosten having a bit of a vested interest in keeping that quiet, you know?”

Larees idly noted, “Which raises the question of why you were able to come here knowing everything you do. Something like that, our people would have definitely known at least something about it. And they would’ve tested it. I’m surprised they didn’t just annihilate the entire world to keep those spells from getting out, or at least…” Realizing what she was saying, the woman coughed. “Sorry.”

“Or at least killed everyone who was there,” Sulan finished for her. “Yeah, you can thank Counselor Percival for that, actually. He was something of an old friend even then. I called him when it happened, and he showed up with the cavalry. He also made damn sure that they couldn’t hush it up. He already knew about the Seosten. Not how ingrained they were, or that they were behind Crossroads from the start. But enough that he knew there were people he couldn’t trust. And enough to know that they’d be trying to silence and erase something like that. So he made sure they couldn’t, involved too many people, made it too much of a big deal. And he got me banished.”

Starting a bit, Doug blinked at that. “Got you banished?”

Sulan shrugged. “Yeah, well, I would’ve been a pretty big target for possession at that point. I am the one, the actual Heretic, who released those things and who knew the most about them. They would’ve come right after me. And if I was in one place with what was left of my family, they would’ve gone after you guys.”

Larees understood. “So this Percival had you disgraced and banished from your world in order to protect you and your family. They had no one they could use to get close to you, and you had reason to always keep moving. You had no world tying you down. And since you were disgraced and a laughing stock, they didn’t have to worry about you exposing them if you knew anything. No one would believe you.”

Doug’s mouth open and shut a couple of times as he looked back and forth between them. “He ruined your name and got you banished from us to protect you?”

Sulan nodded. “And to protect you, and your brother, and your mother. The three of you were all I had left after all that. And those bastards would have used you to get to me. Dragging my name in the trash and getting me exiled, that was the best way to keep everyone safe, and it was something the Seosten wouldn’t object to. Actually, I kinda wonder if they thought it was their idea, to be honest.”

Larees snorted at that, taking another drink from her flask before passing it to the man. “I guarantee you that one of us somewhere took credit for it.”

Doug was slowly shaking his head. “But that means that you knew a lot more about this for a long time. You knew that there were good Strangers, didn’t you? You knew that this whole place is full of shit. That Percival guy, you’ve been working with him. You knew all this already. But you still let me come here.”

Sulan nodded once more, putting the flask to his lips to take a brief pull before handing it back to Larees. “Yeah, I didn’t exactly want to thrust all this on you in your first year here. I kinda wanted you to just be a student and learn how to fight for a while before you had to know all of this. Maybe that was stupid. But I didn’t want you to have this shoved down on you this quick. After everything that happened when you were a kid… maybe I just wanted to let you be about as normal of a student as this place allows. Besides, Percy knew that Sinclair would be there for you.”

The man sighed softly. “And, like I said, we didn’t know that Crossroads was this infiltrated until somewhat recently. We didn’t know it was dirty from the very beginning. We knew there were some Seosten in there, they wouldn’t be able to resist. But the whole thing being started by them? That was news, let me tell you.”

Doug was quiet for minute. He looked to the front, his eyes facing one of the boring, worthless congratulatory speeches, but he wasn’t listening. His mind wandered, thinking through everything that had happened.

Finally, he sighed and looked back that way. “I know you were trying to protect me. And what happened this year wasn’t your fault. Mom and Jerek still don’t know?”

“No,” Sulan confirmed. “I didn’t want to involve them in this. Your mom is fine with just being a vet, and Jerek doesn’t really have the temperament for it either. Let them just keep being who they are. There’s no need to put a target on their backs.”

Doug couldn’t exactly disagree with that, so he bit his lip before nodding. “Yeah. They’re okay where they are. It’s not like the Seosten are going to be taking over a lot of people on some backwater world, I guess. Just enough to make sure the spells stay quiet. And that would just be the leadership, probably.”

Smiling, Sulan reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “You’re a smart kid, you know that?”

Looking over to him, Doug replied, “Smart enough to notice that you didn’t really answer the question about how I got chosen to come to the school and all that.”

With a tiny, guilty smile, Sulan nodded. “I might’ve had something to do with getting Percy to pull a couple strings for that,” he admitted. Sobering then, the man looked to his great-great grandson seriously. “I am sorry about your friend. I can’t tell you how much I wish I was there. How much I wish anyone was there who could’ve stopped it.”

Doug took his hand and squeezed it, unable to trust his voice. He missed Rudolph. He was glad Sulan was there and that he’d gotten a few answers. But he still messed his friend and teammate. He just wanted Rudolph to be alive. Or failing that, he wanted to get away from all this bullshit from people who didn’t know the first thing about the boy they were supposed to be memorializing.

Finally, he spoke up again, unable to stand listening to any more of the speeches. “You’re going to teach them how to use the spells, right? Larees and Sariel and… um, Theia.”

The man nodded. “I’m going to do a lot more than that, actually. I haven’t just been sitting on my hands or running errands for Percival these past few years. I’ve been researching those ruins we found, looking for others like them, worlds that might have some connections to them. It’s hard to really look that deep into it, since I don’t know how close attention the Seosten are paying attention to me. But I’ve learned a bit and found a couple promising leads. With their help, maybe we can turn that into something.”

Larees spoke up then. “Believe me, if there’s any information we can share that will end up fucking over the Empire, you’ve got it. I don’t know how much we’ll be able to figure out, but we’ll give it a shot. And we’ll stick a knife in those bastards while we’re at it. But just so you know, it’s probably going to be Sariel who does most of the research stuff with you. That’s not really my thing. When you have somebody that I can go and hit or, you know, immolate, that’s my thing.”

“I’ll go back to the camp with you when all this is over,” Sulan promised. “I’d like to meet this Sariel.” He paused then before adding, “I’d like to meet her kids too, actually. They sound pretty interesting.”

The words made Doug pause, a realization coming to him as he looked over to Larees. “Hey, from everything that they’ve said, or what I’ve heard anyway, Vanessa and Tristan were kind of a big surprise. Like your people didn’t know that they could have hybrid kids with humans.”

The woman nodded. “That’s very much news to me, and I guarantee it’s news to most others. That’s not something they could keep secret or quiet if it got out to too many people.” Realizing the obviousness of what she had just said, she coughed with a gesture. “You know what I mean. If any of them know about it, it’s not very many.”

“But isn’t that weird?” Doug persisted. “I mean, you guys have been here for a few thousand years now, and Sariel is the first and only one who’s had a kid with a human?” He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling awkward. It was a sensitive subject, he knew. Especially given everything that Larees had been through in that lab. Still, he had to say it.

“I mean, it just seems implausible that it hasn’t come up before now. And if it came up before now, like you said, it would’ve gotten out. It kind of seems like the only way your people would keep thinking that humans couldn’t breed with you is if…”

Larees’ voice was flat and cold. “Is if someone made sure those pregnancies failed and the only reason Sariel’s didn’t is because she wasn’t with the Empire at the time.”

All three of them were silent then, none of them really knowing what to say to that. It was a silence of mounting horror at the implications. And Doug felt sick to his stomach, almost wishing then that he hadn’t said anything at all. Yet he knew that given the choice again, he would still bring it up. Because truths, no matter how uncomfortable, were how things got fixed. Ignoring things just because they made you feel bad was stupid, and it was how terrible things stayed terrible.

Sulan was the first to find his voice. “Maybe we should watch the next speaker here.”

“What?” Doug blinked. “But they’re all just saying stupid bullshit.” Yet when he looked to the stage, he saw not some random person who didn’t know or care one bit about the real Rudolph, but Gaia herself. The woman paused there on the stage and seemed to look directly toward Doug for a moment.

“Trust me, Commando,” Sulan murmured.

“This one you’re going to want to hear.”

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Day After Day 39-06

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The portal, as it turned out, led to the front porch of a cabin in the middle of the woods. The place looked cozy, almost storybook-like. The porch wrapped all the way around the small building, and there were a couple rocking chairs sitting next to the door. Those chairs were occupied when we arrived, by Vanessa and Tristan.

Both of them jumped up at our appearance, the latter giving a rueful smile. “Hey Flick,” he started, “and Tabs, I assume. Fancy meeting you guys here.”

“Nah,” I replied with a straight face, “he’s still back at the camp.”

Giggling clearly despite herself, Vanessa moved her eyes to look at Elisabet. “So we’re all here, what did you want from us? I mean besides to turn us into your perfect little examples of human-Seosten cooperation.”

“That is the end goal of all of this,” the woman replied simply with a nod. “But at this precise moment, we have brought you here to plan and train for a very important mission later today.”

“Mission,” Tristan echoed, “does that make us your angels?” He snickered at his own words before tilting his head at them. “Which one of you is Charlie and which one is Bosley?”

“Elisabet’s Bosley,” I pointed out then. “Because you never see Charlie, remember?”

Tabbris turned my hair pink before speaking up through me. “You guys are weird.”

Elisabet or Jophiel immediately jumped on that. Coming forward, they looked at me curiously while murmuring, “Very interesting. We assume this is a signal you have worked out already?”

Vanessa answered for us. “When she changes her hair or eyes white or pink, that’s Tabbris talking.”

When I nodded, my hair shifting back to normal, Elisabet smiled. “Very good. That is an excellent plan. We shall do much the same. When I am speaking, my hair shall remain dark. When Jophiel is speaking, it shall turn blonde.”

Sure enough, her hair immediately lightened so that Jophiel could say, “We are very glad to see you working together already.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “we’re just great at the teamwork thing. So why are we here, exactly? You said something about a mission?”

I was tempted to say something more, thoughts of Rudolph’s funeral moving through my head, but managed to hold my tongue. There was no need to get overly antagonistic right now. Besides, part of me did acknowledge that without the two of them helping in the first place, I never would’ve saved Avalon the way I did. In some ways I was being irrational. But at least I was cognizant enough to know that and catch myself somewhat.

In answer, Jophiel (their hair was still light) gestured to make the door of the cabin open before heading that way. “Come,” she instructed, “we shall discuss it inside.”

So, we all followed her into what turned out to be a nice, cozy-looking interior. Basically all I could see was a small living room with a couch and a couple chairs in front of the fireplace, a small television, and an attached kitchenette. There was also a set of stairs leading up to what looked like a bedroom. I had been expecting something huge and elaborate, same old bigger on the inside thing. Instead, the cabin looked much the same inside as it did outside. Which, to be honest, was pretty surprising.

After letting us look around for a few seconds, Elisabet started, “Now, as we said, there is a mission to prepare for. But first, we would like to know if you have any specific questions for us.”

“Actually yeah,” I realized then while turning quickly to them. “Did you two know that Kushiel had little kids in that transport that Sariel was in?”

From the look on the woman’s face, I might as well have just announced that my father was marrying Jon Bon Jovi. Either they were both incredibly good actresses, which wouldn’t have been surprising, or they knew absolutely nothing about what I just said.

“What,” Jophiel demanded, “are you talking about?“

Vanessa answered for me. “Little kids. Toddlers. Seosten toddlers.  There were four of them in one transport pod.” She explained about how we had found them, what their names were, and what else we knew.

“Alatheia’s child, even by proxy,” Jophiel murmured under her breath. “That is a new low, even for Kushiel.”  She shook her head then, focusing on me. “No, we did not know about it. You may choose to believe that or not, as you wish. But as far as we were aware, all viable offspring were immediately shipped elsewhere. None should have stayed with Kushiel for longer than a week, let alone a couple of years. There are very few who are not aware that leaving that woman in charge of young, impressionable children would be a terrible idea. Think what you will of us, but we care for our children.“

Without missing a beat, I stared right back at her. “Unless their possession power is broken. Then you call them a lie and treat them worse than garbage. But yeah, you’re great family role models.”

That must have gotten through, because the woman flinched and walked away for a moment. I thought she might say something in defense of it, but when she straightened once more, the woman’s hair darkened to show that Elisabet was speaking. “We will look into this incident with the children remaining with Kushiel. And we will find out if it is an isolated incident or not. But for the time being, there is still a mission to perform.”

Tristan shrugged. “Okay then, Bosley. What are we doing?”

Elisabet explained. “There is a bus traveling along a back road in the middle of what you call Iowa. It is carrying a crate of special supplies. We would like you to take that crate and bring it here.”

Raising her hand, I shook my head quickly. “Wait, wait, wait. If you think we’re just going to do some dirty work for you and attack some innocent—”

Elisabet gave me a sharp look. “It is a Seosten supply transport, operating under the radar to avoid attention. The crate contains very rare magical supplies that are being delivered to our counterpart in Eden’s Garden.”

“Which means you can’t just grab them yourself,” I noted. “But why do you need the supplies in particular?”

It was Jophiel who answered. “As we said, they are very rare. And, as it happens, some of them are useful for a spell that we wish to help the two of you perform.” She nodded toward me and, I supposed, Tabbris. “It is a spell that you will find very useful, we assure you. But, it is one that requires very specific ingredients. Ingredients which are heavily monitored. We need you to steal them from that bus.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “Are you sure we can deal with the guards on that bus?”

Jophiel looked to her seriously. “If you can’t, we will have chosen our students rather poorly indeed.”

Her hair changed then to show that Elisabet was talking. “If we believed that the defending forces would be too much for you, we would not send you. We have no desire to have you killed in your first mission, I promise you that. And should things go wrong, we will find a way to influence it, even if that is simply to extract you. We will be monitoring the situation. But do not expect us to solve the problem for you. This is very much much a test. One that, should you succeed as we expect, will, as we said, provide the materials for a very useful spell.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by a spell that we would find useful. But it was pretty clear that they weren’t going to tell us anything more about it at the moment. So, I just sighed and looked to the twins. “In that case,” I announced, “I guess we should start planning out how we’re gonna do this.”

******

A few hours later, after going back to school to work with Harper and finish up that project, Tabbris and I were in position with Tristan and Vanessa.

The road was paved, but that was about all you could say about it. It led through what basically looked like an empty field that stretched on in every direction. There were a few houses here and there, but most seemed like they hadn’t been lived in for a long time, and were incredibly far apart. The road itself was cracked and potholed to death, looking as though it hadn’t been maintained in years, if not a decade.

Which probably wasn’t that big of a deal, since I doubted more than a few cars a day passed down this particular road. We were probably lucky that it wasn’t dirt.

The three of us, four with Tabbris counted, were crouched in a small grove of apple trees set just a bit back from the road. From this position, we would be able to see our quarry coming from as far away as possible. We would have plenty of time to prepare ourselves from the moment it appeared on the horizon. And with Vanessa’s telescopic vision, there would be no way to mistake what vehicle it was. Not that I expected to see any others before the bus, but still.

“You guys sure you’re ready for this?” I asked that before looking to the twins, biting my lip. “This is kind of a big deal. We don’t have any back-up or anything. I mean, we do, since I really think they’re telling the truth about not letting us get killed. But still. You know.”

Tristan nodded, glancing to his sister before replying, “We’re ready.” He looked to me then. “Actually, I was just thinking about how many times your mom probably did something like this while she was running the rebellion. You know, a quiet mission to ambush some transport or something along a back road, it seems like something she would’ve done a lot.”

Despite myself, I smiled just a little bit. “Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. I mean, I doubt she was doing it for the same reasons, but there’s… there’s definitely something there.”

Tabbris spoke up through me then. “We’ll get her back. That’s part of why we’re learning all this. We get better and better, and then save your mama.”

Vanessa nodded firmly at me. “She’s right, you helped us get our mom. We’ll help you get yours. Whatever it takes.”

“Damn straight,” Tristan agreed, “We’ve got your back. I’m pretty sure we–what the?” Interrupting himself, the boy abruptly jerked around, looking up into the trees.

“What?” I blurted, looking the same way. There was nothing there. The trees were empty.

“I…” Tristan frowned, looking over the branches. “I swear I thought I saw a… a shadow.”

“A shadow?” Vanessa echoed.

He nodded. “I mean the shadow of a person. I thought I saw a person’s shadow, from right above us. Right there.” He pointed into the tree, at a particularly large branch.

“Right there?” I blinked at that. “Someone that close, who didn’t set off any of our senses and who disappeared that quick? Who would that be? I mean, it wouldn’t be Elisabet and Jophiel. They wouldn’t be hiding.”

“I don’t–” Tristan started, before pointing. “Wait, there’s the bus.”

Sure enough, a shape had appeared at the far end of the road, off in the distance. Vanessa turned that way along with me, clearly focusing her vision for a moment before giving a quick nod. “That’s them, unless there’s some other red bus that fits the exact same description coming along the same road at this exact time.” Looking to rest of us she shrugged. “Hey, it could happen.”

Smiling just a little, I replied, “Let’s operate under the assumption that it’s the right one. You guys ready for your part?”

In answer, Tristan immediately shrank down dramatically. Suddenly, he was only about a foot tall. That was one of the powers he had picked up while we had been fighting to save Sariel back at Kushiel’s lab. He could shrink down to about one foot in height, or grow to a whole ten feet.

Doing so made him shrink out of his clothes, but revealed a previously invisible blue Seosten jumpsuit. Vanessa had one too, gifts from their mother to protect her children’s privacy when they shapeshifted. If anyone back at the school asked, they had been made by Nevada.

At the same time, Vanessa’s form changed as well, shrinking out of her own clothes while her jumpsuit appeared. But she wasn’t simply shrinking, the girl was turning into her raven form.

When she was totally transformed a few seconds later, the girl flapped a few times and flew over to pick up her shrunken brother by the arms. With a soft caw, she took off up into the air, flying low at first to stay away from the side of the road before climbing rapidly. As Tabbris and I watched, the two went high into the air, banking around to head back for the road.

“Okay,” I murmured, “almost our turn.”

As we watched, the bus got closer and closer. I could see a man of some kind crouched on top of the bus holding what looked like a rifle or something. He apparently hadn’t noticed Vanessa and Tristan high above, his attention focused on the road ahead or at the fields around them. It was a mistake that would cost him, and the rest of his group.

The bus was just about to pass the grove where I was crouched. It was close enough by then that I could see through the windshield to the driver. It looked like an Orc of some kind, complete with tasks. His big green hand was on the steering wheel as he bellowed something I couldn’t hear. Maybe he was singing.

Either way, he was about to have a very bad day. First I focused on creating a portal. One end appeared just in front of me, while the other appeared right in front of the man’s face. With that, I reared back. My hand immediately secreted a thick, gooey liquid that would make whoever it touched nauseous. Like Tristan‘s size changing, it was a power I’d gained back at the lab. Tabbris told me about it in the hospital, and I had practiced a little bit since that night.

Then I used another power I had gained to turn the liquid into a soft orb, before pitching it forward through that portal. The Orc barely had time to see the portal appear, before he was suddenly splashed in the face by a semi-solid ball that exploded into liquid which immediately made him violently nauseous.

The reaction was instantaneous, the bus careening off the road and into the field while the Orc hurled his lunch and dropped the wheel.

At the same time, the Vanessa raven dove toward the bus. She shot through an open window at the back, before shooting out the other side. I could no longer see Tristan in her talons. She’d dropped him off inside the bus.

Lunging  to my feet, I bought my staff to my hands and used it to launch myself forward and up. That made me a perfect target for the guy on the roof, who snapped his rifle my way. But before he could actually pull the trigger, Vanessa was there. She had flown up and around, to put herself back on top of the bus. Her talons raked the guys face, and he jerked backward before shooting his rifle off into the distance.

Landing on the hood of the bus in a crouch, I saw inside to where a now back-to-normal-size Tristan was busy ruining the day of the guys at the back. They were just starting to turn on him, reacting to the threat. Well, except for the driver, who was still on his knees puking his guts out. That nausea inducing stuff was apparently pretty strong.

I couldn’t leave Tristan alone in there, so I lashed out with my staff, triggering a short explosive burst that shattered the windshield. I was through immediately, hopping over the poor driver to put myself right at the front of the bus, and behind the guys who had been moving for Tristan.

Above, on top of the bus, I could hear a roar just before the roof caved in part way. Vanessa had turned into her bear and was dealing with the guy there. I almost felt sorry for him.

The guards on the bus froze at the sound as the roof crumpled slightly. Their eyes snapped from that, back to Tristan, and then to me.

“Sorry, guys,” I apologized while lifting my staff. “We kind of need this cargo more than you do.”

Apparently they disagreed, because the guards suddenly threw themselves into a desperate attack.

Well, no one said this little trip was supposed to be easy. Grimacing, I brought my staff up and met their charge.

******

“You allowed some to escape,” Jophiel noted a short while later. We were back at that cabin once more, with the crate that they had wanted.

“Everyone who tried to,” I confirmed. “If we could knock them out, we did. If they tried to escape, we let them go. Believe it or not, we don’t exactly want to kill everybody that you point out. Is that going to be a problem?”

There was a brief pause then as the two obviously conferred before shaking their head. Elisabet answered, “Unless it prevents you from completing the mission that we assign you, no. We were simply making an observation.”

Jophiel spoke then. “You actually did quite well. We were impressed by the plan you devised and your execution of it. You are all already quite beyond the normal skill of your age group.”

Tristan shrugged. “Just call us overachievers,” he murmured before using his foot to lightly nudge the crate. “So what’s in this thing that’s so important. What was that spell you were talking about?”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s got some kind of magical super lock on it. Are you sure you can get into it?”

With a slight smile, Jophiel replied, ”Yes, we are quite certain we will be able to open it. As for what is inside, they are very rare ingredients, as we said. A few of them are quite necessary for a spell that we will teach you.” She looked to me at the end of that.

“Yeah,” I replied, “you said it would be a very useful spell for us to learn. How useful?”

Elisabet smiled even more then. “It is a spell that we performed many centuries ago for ourselves. It will allow Tabbris to access any of your powers even while she is not possessing you.”

My eyes widened at that, both from my own reaction and my partner’s. “Use the powers even apart from me?” I blurted in surprise.

“Yes,” Jophiel confirmed. “So long as you are not actively using them yourself, she will be able to use them as well. This will allow you to act even more as partners. But as we said, it is a complicated spell with very rare ingredients. We will need to have you practice it for quite a while before you were ready to use the actual components. We wouldn’t want you to… ahh, mess up, after all.”

“Holy shit, Flick,” Tristan muttered, “that sounds amazing.”

All I could do was nod silently, taking in the implications of just such an ability. They were right, if Tabbris could actually use my powers separate from me, that would make us even more effective. Not to mention how much it would allow the other girl to protect herself. I had no idea how or if we’d be able to explain such a thing later if we needed to, but still…

In some ways, maybe learning from these two wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially if they managed to get me more prepared to deal with Fossor when the time came.

******

“Hey, Flick!” the cheerful, peppy voice called a short time later, as I was walking across the school grounds.

“Oh, hey, Harper.” Waving to her as she approached, I asked, “What’s up?”

Grinning at me, the pink-haired hyperactive girl replied, “I just thought I’d let you know that I showed what we did to Professor Vandel, and he says it’s an A project.” She gave me a thumbs up. “So we did good.”

Her smile was infectious, and I couldn’t help but return it, even if my school grades were kind of the least of my concerns right then. “Oh, right, cool. Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Sure you could!” Harper insisted. “I think you can do a lot of things if you put your mind to them.  But we do deserve a reward, so…” She produced something in one hand, tossing it to me. “Reward apple!”

Catching it, I blinked. Sure enough, it was an apple. “This looks fresh.”

Her head bobbed. “It is! My mom sends me a care package from our backyard orchard sometimes. I use most of the fruit for baking, but uhh, something told me you might like that one by itself. I’ve got other fruit too if you want that instead.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Thanks.” Shrugging, I took a bite of the apple. She was right, it was good. And definitely fresh.

It was funny. Not so long ago, I had been hiding in a grove of apple trees while waiting for that bus to appear. And now, I was eating an apple.

“Sure you’re not a serpent?” I asked then, while taking another bite.

She blinked at that. “A serpent?”

“Sure,” I replied while gesturing. “You know. Apple. Serpent?”

Getting it, she giggled. “Wouldn’t we need to be at Eden’s Garden then?”

“Good point,” I agreed. “I guess you’re not a serpent then.”

“Nope,” she chirped easily, “definitely not a serpent.

“Just plain old Harper.”

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Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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