Through the maze of corridors in the Crossroads blood vault bank, Avalon Sinclaire sprinted with Sands Mason, Shiori Porter, and her own great-something grandfather. The sound of their racing footsteps echoed up and down the halls as the quartet followed their memorized directions toward the goal that so many had been working toward for literally generations.
“How small do you think the odds are that we’ve actually got a clear path to the vault now?” Shiori asked as they went straight through the second-to-last intersection. They’d already followed Doug’s pen marks to get back to the actual path without encountering any problems.
Without looking at the other girl, Avalon snapped, “About as small as me being able to throw a stick and hit the sun. Keep your eyes open, watch for spells or traps.”
Sure enough, barely a few seconds later, Dries called a sharp halt. The man, who had been content to stay behind them up to that point, moved past the girls. He stepped a couple feet forward before raising a hand and extending it slowly, with a look of intense concentration. “There,” he murmured, while tiny sparks of what looked like electricity danced over his fingers.
Biting her lip, Avalon glanced to the others before hesitantly asking, “What is it?” She still felt awkward, talking to a man who was actually related to her without wanting to stab him repeatedly. It was a really new experience that she just… really didn’t know how to react to.
It also didn’t help that Flick wasn’t here. Of all the times throughout this year that Avalon had imagined what would happen at this point, how all of this would go down, Flick had always been there. Her presence in those imagined scenarios, no matter how bad they went, was always a comfort. But now… now she wasn’t. She was off helping with another part of the mission which… while important, wasn’t here.
God, that felt selfish to think. Avalon knew that. Consciously, she knew it was wrong, and tried to shove the feeling away. But it just wouldn’t completely disappear. She wanted Flick to be with her. Especially now. They were so close to reaching the spell that Liesje had left, so close to finally ending this whole thing after all this time. Flick should be here with her. With them. With Avalon and Shiori. The two of them having to do this part without her was wrong.
Dries was answering. “En–en–trapment spell.” He hesitated, shifting on his feet before explaining, “If you trigger-ahh-ahh trigger it, your brain is trapped in a simulation. You’d think you were going t-t-to the vault but you’d really just be standing there.”
It took a moment, but he disabled the spell. Avalon made sure to watch what he was doing, paying close attention. Not that she had any expectation of being able to do it herself any time soon, but she wanted to learn. If the situation hadn’t been so urgent, she would have insisted that he talk the whole process through. But in this case, that felt like something that could wait.
It certainly wasn’t her last chance to observe him. Over the next few minutes, it seemed like they hit another protection spell every other step. And they started getting much nastier very quick. Dries muttered about just how dangerous the spells were as he disabled them, carefully untangling various effects with an expert touch. But even he couldn’t do it alone through simple lack of enough hands. In those cases, he would call Avalon or even the other two girls forward and tell them exactly what to do, placing a hand in one spot, pushing power here or there, saying a word, anything that he couldn’t do by himself because he was focused on another point. It was slow-going, but still a hell of a lot faster than it would have been if they’d just walked right into the spells.
And yet, even knowing that, the time it took still made Avalon squirm and twitch a little despite herself. Which, combined with the way Dries constantly squirmed and twitched, made the two of them look more alike than they ever had.
Finally, it was there. The vault in question was right in front of them, only a few steps away. As Dries disabled the last spell, however, the floor around them suddenly shook.
“Wha-what was…” Shiori started, stumbling a little as her gaze whipped around.
“Not here,” Dries assured her. “Definitely not here. That is… that is something else.”
“What do we do?” Sands asked, looking to Avalon. “That could be something bad.”
Slowly nodding, Avalon agreed, “It could. But we can’t do anything about it. We have to trust the others to deal with… whatever it is. We’re here. Come on.”
With those words, she stepped up to the vault. The doors looked like any of the others they had passed, two simple metal structures that had apparently been enough to stop the entire Seosten Empire from getting into the room beyond.
Well, that and the fact that the vault itself was actually located in a pocket dimension unreachable by any other means. But still.
As she neared them, the doors actually changed color. Instead of being that simple white-silver, they shifted to a faint red with two much darker spots in the shape of handprints, one on either door.
Following Dries’ instructions, Avalon reached up to place one hand against either of the prints. She held them there, even as a slight tingling sensation ran through her. The spot where her hands were grew warm almost to the point of being uncomfortable, but she left them there anyway. It took almost five full seconds before there was a very soft, almost inaudible chime. The handprints disappeared as the doors turned blue then, sliding out of the way to reveal the room beyond.
It was open. After all this time, after everything that had happened throughout her life, the oh-so-important vault was open. Swallowing, Avalon glanced to the others. They were waiting for her.
She stepped inside. With the others right behind her, Avalon stepped into the vault. It was circular, with a single podium in the middle where a book sat. The spell. Liesje’s spell. It was right there.
Unfortunately, the four of them had barely taken a few steps inside before they were interrupted.
“Did you really think it would be that easy?”
The voice came from behind them, at the doorway into the vault. As Avalon and the others turned, they found themselves looking at a man. He looked… well, he looked like an elf. Or at least the Tolkien version. He was tall, with long blond hair and an eternally youthful, innocent face. His eyes were a bright, bright green that reminded Avalon of the forest, his figure almost feminine in its androgynous shape. A long, thin sword hung from his hip, while he held a bow made of solid energy. Arrayed around the man there just inside the vault were more than a dozen other figures of various Alter species, all of them heavily armed. Worse, more were quickly filing in by the second, until over twenty troops were there.
The elfen man spoke once more, as they all stared at him. “I’m afraid we cannot allow you to leave with that book. Though perhaps, if we reach a deal, you can leave with your lives. Would that be enough for you, now that you and I have finally come face to face after all this time?”
“Honestly?” Avalon snapped at the man, “I have no idea who the fuck you are. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t care even if I did. You’re just–”
“Paschar.” That was Dries, the man trembling with only barely constrained rage as he took a step in front of Avalon, literally blocking her from the other man. “He is Paschar.”
“Dries?” The man, Paschar apparently, sounded taken aback, his eyes widening as Avalon’s ancestor stepped into view from behind the others. “Is… is… that you? It… I… my… friend.”
Somewhere behind Avalon, she heard Shiori quietly whisper a confused, “Friend?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Dries took two steps that way, apparently heedless of the weapons being pointed at him. “We are not friends!” he snapped angrily, fury burning through his voice. “You betrayed us. You betrayed Liesje.”
“I… I betrayed my own people first,” Paschar quietly, yet firmly replied after his voice caught briefly. That bow continued to aim steadily at Dries, though he didn’t release the arrow. “I made a mistake. I betrayed them for Liesje, for you. I told you what they were–what we were doing. I told you the truth, and you almost destroyed us. You murdered Liesje’s own father.”
Avalon’s eyes snapped back to Dries as the man retorted, “Radueriel would have killed Liesje! I did what I had to do to protect her. I killed her father because I had no choice, because Radueriel gave me no choice! And I would do it again, all day, every day, to protect her.”
“I loved you!” Paschar shot back, all of the forced calm in his voice vanishing. “You and Liesje both! I loved you both. I told you the truth, I gave you the–” He stopped, taking a moment to collect himself emotionally before blurting, “You were supposed to leave! You were both supposed to run away! We were–we were supposed to…”
For a moment, the man stopped again, dropping his gaze to the floor before taking a long, deep breath. His voice shook. “We were supposed to escape… together. We were supposed to build something new, the three of us. You weren’t supposed to confront them. You weren’t supposed to kill him. You weren’t supposed to be taken away, or become the new holder of–” He sighed, closing his eyes. “I loved you. I gave you a chance. That was a mistake. One that I have spent generations rectifying.”
“Um.” Sands slowly held up a hand. “Am I the only one who is just totally lost right now?”
“Liesje and I were in love with him,” Dries quietly spoke, his eyes never leaving Paschar. “We thought he was human. We… we spent a lot of time together. Then he told us the truth. That’s how we found out that her father was possessed, that he hadn’t really made the Heretical Edge at all.”
“And you were supposed to run away,” Paschar snapped. “I told you everything to show you how far it went, to convince you that staying was idiotic and pointless. You let her go to her father. You might as well have doomed everyone yourself. I trusted you to get her out of sight, to run away. I would have run away with you. I wanted to run away with you.” With those words, the man’s voice actually shook a bit, as the admission, or maybe the memory itself, tore something from him emotionally.
“Liesje wanted to save her father,” Dries retorted, his voice cracking as well as he kept tightening and loosening his fists. “If you’d actually known anything about her, you would have understood that. You would have known. But you didn’t. Y-you just wanted to–”
“I wanted her to live!” the Seosten man all-but shouted. “I wanted Liesje to live. I wanted you to live. I wanted all of us to live! I wanted us to escape! I gave you both a chance! Do you know what that cost me? Do you have any idea what my–what I had to–what…” He trailed off, the obvious rush of emotions twisting his expression to something far uglier for a moment before he reigned them in.
In love? Liesje and Dries had been… had been in love with this… this Paschar? Some part of the back of Avalon’s mind found a twisted bit of humor in that, given that he had played Eros/Cupid while the Seosten were pretending to be gods here on Earth. But still, it left her reeling. Her mother… her family… they had been… this man right here had been the one… he…
She finally found her voice then, as her confusion and anger mounted. “Wh–you’re the one who helped chase our whole family down! You’re the one who killed my mother, who helped make my father hate me, who used a love potion on Tangle! You turned Torv against me, you destroyed my best friend! You made me kill him!”
The Seosten man’s expression softened then, as he glanced away with a visible wince. “Yes,” he murmured. “Yes, I did. I’m not proud of it, any of it. I never wanted to hurt Liesje’s family. That’s why I… why I took such a hands off, slow, careful approach. I didn’t want to do it myself. I never wanted any of this to happen.” By that point, his voice had dropped to barely a whisper.
“Never wanted it to happen?!” Avalon grabbed Dries by the arm, using it to yank herself in front of him while her eyes glowered to the point of nearly reducing the man to cinders if she’d had that particular power. “Never wanted to spend hundreds of years systematically hunting down the woman you claim you cared about and her every descendent?! You destroyed our lives! You! You chose to do that! You are a piece of shit!” Even as she spoke, Avalon instinctively triggered her gauntlets to produce a pair of humming energy blades.
She started to take another step that way, but Shiori was there on her right side, putting a hand on her arm to stop her from going any closer.
Paschar raised his eyes to stare at her, not looking away. “I didn’t want to. Liesje wasn’t thinking straight. The thing she wanted to do, the spell she wanted to make, it–” He cut himself off, grimacing as he fought for the right words before forcing them out. “It would have destroyed the universe. She wanted to block Seosten from possessing any Heretics, ever. Without Heretics, do you have any idea what would happen on the front lines of the war with the Fomorians? The front lines would become Elohim. They would overrun everything. You’ve heard about what happened the last time the Fomorians were here on Earth. Without us, without my people, you would have been overrun. Earth would be a Fomorian world and your people would be their slaves, forever.”
Avalon’s head shook once. “It wasn’t the Seosten who kicked the Fomorians offworld and put up a spell that blocks them from ever coming back.” Even as she spat the words, the girl was trying to think of a way to get over to the podium where the spellbook was seated without making what had turned into two dozen troops arrayed around Paschar reduce her to cinders. She was kind of surprised they hadn’t already opened fire. An opening. She just needed an opening, and if Paschar wanted to talk until she saw one, all the more power to him.
Besides, right now she really wanted to know what the hell had happened between him and her ancestors.
The elfen-looking man nodded. “Yes, but it was my people who helped yours last long enough for that to even be an option. Earth lasted for years before getting to that point. Do you think they could have done that without Seosten help? The Fomorians would have destroyed your civilization and turned you all into their tools to annihilate the rest of the universe.”
Dries spat from behind her, his voice full of fury that left him barely capable of coherent words. “None of that matters! What matters is you! You! You chose to hunt down our family! You chose to destroy their lives, for hundreds of years! You—you’re the reason Liesje is dead! You’re the reason any of this is–that any of that–that–We loved you!” The last three words tore their way from him in a violent outburst, a scream which seemed to make the entire room shake.
He shoved Avalon back then, suddenly crossing the room in a blur of motion to throw himself at the other man. Before he was halfway there, the surrounding troops threw up their weapons and fired.
But their shots hit a forcefield… created by Paschar. The Seosten held his fist up, a glowing stone held tight in it that was clearly producing the shield.
Whether he’d created the shield to stop his men from shooting Dries, or to stop Dries himself from reaching him, Avalon had no idea. And to be honest, she kind of doubted anyone in the room, including Paschar in that moment, knew either.
“I loved you too,” the Seosten quietly murmured, staring at the other man through the glowing shield. “I loved both of you.” His voice cracked a little bit. “I still do. Whether you believe it or not, I do love you, Dries. But I cannot endanger the universe because of my feelings for you, just as I could not endanger it because of my feelings for Liesje. I never wanted to hurt either of you, but I will not allow the Fomorians to destroy all life because of it.”
Dries looked like he was going to say something else, but Sands interrupted. “You don’t have to!” The girl took a quick step over by Avalon’s left side, opposite Shiori. She edged in front of the other two a little bit while everyone looked at her. “We can work together. We don’t have to fight right now. We’re not… we’re not trying to use the spell to ban Seosten from ever possessing humans. We’re going to change it, we’re going to make it so that Seosten can only possess Heretics with permission. If your people work with us, if they talk to us and explain the whole situation with the Fomorians, we can be allies! We won’t be slaves, but we can be your allies. We can work together.”
The surrounding Alter soldiers looked at each other, while Paschar just stared past Dries at Sands. Slowly, his head shook. “That is a fine, noble sentiment, girl. But it is… naive. Do you think that the Fomorians will quietly wait for us to sort out that kind of thing? Do you think they’ll hold back their attacks until we have reorganized our entire society? Your people have often had a thing called a draft, in times of desperate military action and war. This is your draft. It may seem unfair, and… and it is. It truly is. But the alternative is complete universal devastation. The Fomorians will not negotiate. They will not stop. They will not spare man, woman, or child. They will destroy this universe and all life within it. And we cannot afford to give them one more centimeter. I’m sorry. I truly am. But it won’t happen.”
He paused then before adding, “But I have come to offer a deal. Walk away. Leave this vault now without the spell, and neither I nor any of my people here will stop or harm you or any of yours. You can leave. You can walk away. Then we take this spell, and your family will be safe. With the spell gone, we’ll have no reason to come after you. You can leave.” His expression actually turned pleading then. “Please. Just walk away. I don’t want to hurt any more of you.”
“You know what, dude?” Sands spoke up for all of them. “Fuck you.”
With those words, the girl swung up hard with her mace, bringing a wall between them before blurting, “Go, go!”
Avalon and Shiori were already going. Pivoting on their heels, they sprinted toward the podium. Behind them, Sands worked to cover them with rapidly generated walls while backpedaling. There was other fighting going on in the background, with Dries. Avalon tried not to think about it. The book. She just had to get to the book.
“Go!” Shiori blurted, just as a sleek, eel-like Alter slipped past the wall and lunged at them. She intercepted him, diving into his path in a collision that took both to the floor.
Avalon kept going. The podium was right in front of her. She felt a tingle around her as she neared it, hand extending.
“No!” The voice came from surprisingly close. Paschar. He’d used his boost to reach Avalon, slamming into the girl. Both of them went to the floor, as she tried her best to roll with the impact. They hit the ground, skidding and tumbling over one another.
Then… then she was rolling on grass. Avalon felt that and dirt under her as she scrambled to her knees, gaze snapping around wildly. The podium was gone. The vault was gone. Everything was gone. She was sitting in a grassy field, in the middle of nowhere. Nearby was a cliff overlooking the ocean. “Wha–”
“Where are we?” Paschar demanded. He was there, about ten feet from her and already picking himself up. “What happened?”
Avalon scrambled to her feet as well, igniting her blades once more while glaring that way. Her mouth opened to say something, only to find herself interrupted by another voice.
“Hello, Paschar.” The beautiful, tall brunette who suddenly stood between them announced before turning to Avalon. Her form was partially-translucent, like a ghost. “Hello, Hannah.
“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time,” Liesje Aken informed them.