“So,” I started once the silence in the small chamber had dragged on for over a minute, “you guys come here often?”
Well, at least I had united them in one thing. Neither of them thought that was funny. Both simply stared in a way that made me see the similarity in them despite their clear differences. It was in their eyes, mostly. And the way they set their mouths. Which was almost funny, since they basically couldn’t have been more dissimilar in almost every other way.
But they were at least looking at me, even if it was in disbelief at my bad joke. I seized on that, starting with, “Avalon doesn’t really know anything about her family, except that her mom moved a lot and kept changing her name. I mean, aside from the well documented fact that her dad is–I mean was– a complete and total piece of shit. I feel like that should be written into the universal record somewhere. Can his death be an intergalactic holiday? Who do we talk to for that?”
Actually, given the deaths of Ammon and Manakel both somewhat recently, we might’ve needed to set aside a whole week for this.
Dries was shifting back-and-forth awkwardly on his feet, kicking at the ground a bit. His left arm was held tight against his stomach, while his right hand scratched at his beard self-consciously. When he spoke, it was without looking at either of us. “Liesje would have gone on the run after what happened. She would have hidden. She probably taught her descendants.” After a brief moment, he amended that to, “Our descendants.”
Avalon spoke up for the first time, sounding more hesitant than usual. “Maybe… maybe you could figure out where she went the first time and we could track her path. She might’ve left something somewhere along the way for you in case you ever made it back. Like a history or…” She trailed off, shaking her head as though she was halfway to just giving up on that thought right out of the gate. “I don’t know.”
I seized on that quickly. “No, no, that’s a good idea. It’d give you guys something to do over the summer. You know, in case the world actually doesn’t explode or anything in the meantime. Which, given the past few months, I am definitely not leaving that off the table.”
Avalon was quiet for a moment before simply reminding me, “We have another project to focus on before that.”
Dries nodded, scratching his beard even harder, to the point that I thought he might draw blood from his chin. “You want me to change Liesje’s spell.” He was looking at me. “You want me to make it different.”
It was Avalon who replied. “There are good Seosten, and they shouldn’t be banished from human hosts forever. We were hoping that the spell could be changed so that it only affects Seosten who don’t have permission from the host.”
I nodded. “It’s complicated, but if anyone could pull it off, I’m pretty sure it’s you. And you’ll have help. Like my brother. He’s pretty much a genius with magic. And from Sariel. She’s—”
“Artemis,” he interrupted while shifting his hand from scratching his beard to rubbing the top of his head. “Yes, I know. She’s um, she’s…” He trailed off, tapping his index finger repeatedly and fairly roughly against the side of his head. “I know who she is.”
Swallowing hard, I hesitated, glancing toward Avalon before starting. “I know the Seosten… as a whole have done terrible things to you and your family. I mean… I have enough problems with necromancy just because of Fossor that I kind of… I can’t possibly understand, but I have some vague idea of what you’re feeling. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry we’re asking you to push past that to help people that you have no reason to help.”
“Hundreds of years,” he replied, his voice hollow as he covered half his face with one hand, using the other to pull at his own hair in a way that seemed painful. “They locked me up for hundreds of years. Took me from my family. Put my wife on the run. Ruined… ruined… everything. The world. Ruined the world. Destroyed our lives. Tried to kill them. Tried to kill my–my–” He gestured to Avalon. “My descendants. Our… our legacy, our everything. And no one stopped them. None of them. None of the Seosten stopped them, stopped it.”
Before I could say anything to that, Avalon spoke up. “Athena, Apollo, Sariel, they’ve all been rebelling against their people. But you can’t change an entire society just like that. Look at Athena’s people, her rebellion. They’re not like the other Seosten. If you’re going to judge an entire society like that, you have to judge Heretics the same way. We kill innocent people because our leaders say they’re bad. Seosten and Heretics aren’t that different, that way.”
It was a good point, but Dries had a good one of his own. “Heretics are that way because of Seosten. More Seosten problems. More Seosten tricks. That’s a–a–” He stopped, head shaking as a slight groan escaped him as though he couldn’t think of the word. “–a fault with them. Them again. Always them. They hurt, they kill, they enslave. Always enslave. Always. And now you want to make deals with them, want to play nice with them.”
“You’re right,” I put in quickly. “But that’s kind of the point. You wouldn’t blame all Heretics because of what the Seosten leadership has made them believe, so it’s not fair to blame all Seosten for the same thing. That and… and they’ve been fighting the Fomorians for so long, a lot of them have basically lost all perspective. They only care about winning, about surviving.”
Beside me, Avalon nodded. “We don’t want you to make it so that they can possess everyone still. Just… allowing permission for those that aren’t mind-bogglingly evil.”
It looked like it physically hurt Dries to argue, but the man still hesitantly demanded, “And… and if they’re tricked? Humans can be–be manipulated. They can be tricked to allow possession. Believe me, I’ve seen it, seen all of it. Seosten don’t have to possess people to control them.”
I winced. “Right, you’re… you’re right, there are humans who could be tricked into allowing themselves to be possessed. It’s not a perfect solution. But neither is preventing all possession forever. My–Tabbris, my little sister. She’s my little sister, and she’s a Seosten. She possesses me to protect me, to fight alongside me. If I didn’t have her, I would’ve been dead a thousand times over by now. If Sariel hadn’t been possessing her husband back at the Family Day dinner, she wouldn’t have been able to give the counterspell for Fossor’s poison to her husband and Gaia. Which would’ve meant that Vanessa and Avalon wouldn’t have been with me when I faced Ammon. So Abigail would probably be dead. Not to mention… not to mention everything else that could’ve gone horrifically wrong there. Maybe Koren would be with Fossor right now.”
Dries looked even more torn by that, shrinking back physically as he used both hands to cover his face that time. He was like a tiny kid who was trying to hide and thought he could do so just by covering his eyes. He stayed that way for a few long seconds, muttering indecipherable words under his breath before finally straightening. He looked to us, taking a clear breath to steady himself before speaking again. “You have clearer heads. I hate them. But I know I–I…” He tapped his chest roughly, almost smacking himself. “I know I don’t think straight. I can’t trust them, any of them. I don’t. I won’t. But I–I can trust you. If you say it’s right, if you ask for it, I will–I will–” He rolled his head around almost like he was trying to crack his neck. “I will do it. If you ask. For you. Not for them. I’ll help for you.” He was staring at Avalon. “I’ll make the spell if you want.”
After exchanging a brief glance with me, Avalon looked back to the man and gave a short nod. Her hand moved up to touch his shoulder, which was honestly a pretty huge gesture from the girl. “I really think it’s the best plan,” she confirmed softly, sounding like she wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure how or what exactly to say. “I… I know they hurt you. They hurt me too. They killed my mother. But Felicity is right, there are good ones. We need to encourage the good ones. We need to give them the advantage, which this… this will do. I know you’re not wrong, there could be–will be Seosten who manipulate humans into allowing themselves to be possessed. But for the… for the most part, it’ll be an improvement.”
For my part, I tried not to think about how this would play into what Jophiel and Elisabet wanted. They’d visited me again, a couple times in the past few days. First it was to check on me after that whole incident and to get the full story for themselves. They were apparently running interference to keep the Committee from noticing that there was anything different about my situation during the Family Day attack. Which was made easier by just how chaotic everything had been. So they were helping with that, as subtly as possible.
But they’d also wanted to talk about this situation right here, had wanted to talk about how this was going to go. They knew that Dries was coming back, and that we were going to ask him to alter the spell. That was why they weren’t going nuts in trying to stop us from getting that spell working in the first place. They’d said they wouldn’t help us get into the vault, but nor would they force us to sabotage it ourselves. So long as the plan was to allow Seosten to possess humans with permission, it fit in just fine with their plans. Which made me feel a little bit queasy inside, for reasons I couldn’t adequately explain even to myself. Maybe it was just that getting them what they wanted felt wrong even if there were plenty of reasons besides that for this to be the right choice.
I still didn’t trust them entirely, even though they’d been helpful. Regardless, they were still making us lie to others, to people we cared about. And yes, they had reasons to protect themselves, but… still. The people we trusted were keeping secrets just as important and potentially life-destroying. There was a part of me who resented that they were making me lie.
But hey, at least I didn’t have to tell them everything. What they had really wanted to know was whether I knew exactly what had caused the… visions in the sky and all those not-so-natural disasters around the world. But thanks to the specifics of the spell, I could tell them that I had no idea, and they didn’t know I was lying. Well, maybe they suspected that I knew more than I was saying, but it wasn’t enough for them to call me on it. Which was good, because I honestly had no idea what I would’ve been able to do if they had pressed. Would telling them that it would endanger the world have been enough to make them back off? Or would that in itself give them enough information to damage the–damn it, this was so complicated.
Realizing the other two were looking at me, I shook off those thoughts and focused. “Right, well, that’s probably enough of that talk for now. I mean, there’ll be plenty of time to talk about it later, before the… the trip. But come on, you guys just met. Let’s focus on something else for awhile. I mean, the Seosten have dominated every part of your lives for long enough on their own. They don’t need more help with that when you two have plenty of other things to talk about.”
Avalon gave me a brief look. “You really don’t want me to call your bluff on that, do you?”
“No, please don’t,” I quickly agreed, flushing a little. “I’m still trying to think of a good starting subject.”
In the end, however, it was Dries who spoke up. “I know that–that I’m not…” He hesitated, cracking his knuckles loudly before clearly forcing himself to continue against his own discomfort and fear. “I know I’m not the kind of ancestor or–or relative that you’d choose if you could. I know I’m… I have… um, the issues. I have many issues, many problems. I’d fix them if I could. They’re stupid and–and I know it’s the Seosten–they did it. They made me feel a lot of these things. I know they’re not real. The feelings, they’re not… they’re artificial, and I’ve gotten rid of a lot of them. But-but I can’t stop it. Can’t stop all of them. I can’t be the kind of ancestor that you want. I can’t be a–a umm, a big strong… a powerful–I can’t be a hero or anything. I–”
“Stop.” Avalon’s head was shaking quickly, as she almost glared at him before visibly correcting herself. “Just–don’t assume you know what I want, or the kind of person that I–” She hesitated, seeing the man flinch and shrink back. “I just–” She sighed, looking to me for help.
“What she’s trying to say is that she doesn’t need you to be something you’re not,” I quickly put in. “She doesn’t need some macho strong guy to come in and solve all her problems. She just needs you to be you. You’re her ancestor. You’re her family. Maybe you guys won’t always get along. Maybe it’ll take a long time for you to be comfortable with each other. But you’re you. That’s what she needs you to be. Yourself. Besides, if she was going to blame you for being awkward with people, she’d–”
“Okay, that’s enough, Chambers.” Avalon was flushing just a little bit, her foot kicking mine before she focused on Dries. “But she’s right… mostly. Just be yourself. Don’t assume you know what I want, or what I need. You want to get to know me, I… I’d like that too. Sort of. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want for sure, but… getting to know you might be nice.”
She shrugged. “And if it doesn’t work out with me, there’s always Tangle. I haven’t exchanged more than two words with her so far, but hey, maybe you two could get along.”
“Hey, she’s right,” I put in then, trying not to let things get even more awkward than they already were. “It’s not a real, full family reunion until Tangle gets involved. Which–which is kind of funny, you know, cuz it’s a tangled family reunion and her name is–” Seeing them both look at me, I flushed and stepped back. “Right, you guys are definitely related. See? I’m already bringing you closer together.”
Avalon actually smirked just a little bit. “She has a point. More than one, actually. We are related. And so is Tangle. You should visit her too, when… when you’re ready to. When she’s ready to talk to you. I don’t know how she’s feeling, or even what she thinks of any of this. Like I said, haven’t really talked to her.”
“Maybe we can–can-um, can visit her together.” Dries made the awkward suggestion while staring at his feet and mumbling. All of this, the whole introduction, being back here, seeing all these people, it was clearly overwhelming him. He was withdrawing just when he really didn’t want to. It was clear through the pain in his voice and in his eyes that he wanted to express himself, that he wanted to… to be there for Avalon and really make a connection. It was just hard for him. His hands shook, and he kept doing those little things like pinching himself, tugging his hair, scratching hard enough to draw blood, things like that.
It was just as clear that Avalon actually understood just how hard he was trying, and how difficult all this was for him. She hesitated a little before managing a slight nod. “Yeah, I… maybe going together would be good. I don’t know her, you don’t know her, we can be awkward together. Maybe it’ll be better that way.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but stopped herself.
“Right, together.” Dries was bobbing his head up and down quickly, almost violently. It was like he’d been desperate to agree with her. “Then if things don’t work out–if they uhh, if they go wrong and we don’t get along, then maybe… maybe we can talk. You and uh, me, we. We can talk.”
“I think we might need help if we’re going to give this thing with Tangle a shot,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Neither of us are very good at the family reunion thing. We need someone with experience. Someone who…” She trailed off, and both of them looked at each other before slowly turning their gazes my way.
Mouth opening and shutting, I flushed. “Okay, okay, I’ll go with you to meet Tangle. But seriously, you guys are doing just fine. I mean, given the circumstances, obviously. And I don’t know her any more than you do, so… maybe she’ll like you and hate me. I could make things worse.”
But it would give me a chance to talk to Kohaku some more, which I kind of wanted to do anyway.
Avalon rolled her eyes. “You should definitely be there, Chambers. You’re the only one with a family tree weirder than mine right now. I have one living direct relative I just met two minutes ago, one living indirect relative I’ve basically never spoken to, an adopted mother that I only really let myself actually get close to this year, a sort-of father figure who raised me, and a real father who, by the way, I killed. Mostly because he blamed me for the death of my real mother when I was born.”
Dryly, I replied, “Well, when you put it like that, your life sounds pretty fucked up.”
“It… it does.” That was Dries, his voice sounding pained. “And I… I did not… I didn’t follow a lot of it. Basics. I know the basics. But I would like to–to know more. Please. I’d like to hear your life. Your story. I want to know you.”
For a moment, Avalon just stared at him. I couldn’t begin to guess what was going through her mind. But in the end, she gave a tiny nod, her voice quiet. “Right… I… I can do that. I can tell you about myself, if you really want.”
When the man hurriedly (and awkwardly) agreed, she actually took my hand. From the way she was squeezing it so tightly, I knew this wasn’t going to be that fun for her to relive. At least the first part. I squeezed back, letting her know I was there for her.
“Okay. Well. I guess the best place to start is the night that my piece of shit father thought I stole one of his beers…”