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 above 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. But he still didn’t look anywhere near his actual age of nearly three hundred. The hair on his head and the neatly trimmed full beard on his face were both still naturally full and dark enough to allow the man to pass as being in his thirties, 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 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 Sinclaire 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 of attention the Seosten are paying 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.”