A hand caught Vanessa’s arm, squeezing tight before she was flung up and around to be slammed hard into the wall of the cabin she had just stepped into. The impact against the girl’s back almost knocked the wind out of her, and she barely managed to blink blearily through the pain to see who her attacker was. “Jo… phiel?” It was her, the beautiful Seosten who had, for so many years, posed as the literal goddess of love. Now, however, she seemed more like the embodiment of vengeance.
“Where is she?!” The words came in a shout, as the woman held Vanessa tight against the wall with one hand. Her eyes blazed with outrage, a righteous fury that seemed all-but ready to set the entire cabin ablaze from the sheer force of her anger.
This… wasn’t supposed to be how today went. The cabin Vanessa had just walked into wasn’t part of the Atherby camp. It was the one that Jophiel and Elisabet had taken the teenagers to before, one of their private little homes. They’d left an enchanted bit of rope for Vanessa, Tristan, and Tabbris, and Flick to use for the next bit of training. Which was supposed to be today. Was… was this a test? Vanessa couldn’t figure out the point of it. Was–what was–
“Jo, let her go.” The words, calm though with an edge of danger, came from the doorway, where Sariel stood. A metal bow, the humming energy string drawn to create the arrow, was held in her hands, and pointed at the woman. Just behind her, visible through the doorway, were Tristan, Flick, and Tabbris. All three looked anxious and just as confused as Vanessa felt.
“You.” Jophiel snarled the word, releasing Vanessa as she turned toward her ex-crewmate. “Is this one of your plans, huntress? We trusted your children, we trusted your children enough to let them tell you our secrets. And what happens? What happens the moment we trust them?”
Without lowering or moving the bow in any way, Sariel quietly replied, “I don’t know, what happens?” Her eyes remained locked on the clearly crazed woman. “Where is Elisabet?”
For a moment, Jophiel remained still. She glanced over her shoulder toward Vanessa, who had pressed against the wall and was staring at her with wide eyes. There was a tenseness to her, a fury that was barely held in restraint with the ever-present threat of boiling over. “Do not lie to me,” she began in a tone that shook slightly, anger and fear coming together in a volatile mixture that could explode at any second. “If you know where she is, if you have done something and I learn that you are lying now, I… I…”
“Jo.” The single word from Sariel came with far more sympathy than the previous warnings had. She lowered the bow, dismissing energy string and arrow in the process. The weapon itself folded up into something roughly the size of a flashlight, which she clipped onto her belt while stepping forward. “I swear to you, if Elisabet has disappeared, we had nothing to do with it.”
“She’s telling the truth,” Vanessa put in, slowly pushing herself up from the wall. “We didn’t know anything was wrong. Why would we come here for training if we did something to Elisabet?”
“For training…” From the way Jophiel echoed those words, it was clear that she had entirely forgotten about that. She had simply seen them come to the secret home for herself and her beloved, and reacted, as her outrage and terror about Elisabet completely took over.
Flick slowly stepped into the cabin as well, easing her way around Sariel as she stared at Jophiel the way one might a dangerous, hungry tiger. “How could something happen to Elisabet? I mean, she’s… she’s part of the Committee, and you’re always–”
“I was not there.” Jophiel’s retort was half-angry and half-distraught, her voice cracking just a little as her eyes snapped to Flick. Vanessa could see the way her friend took a reflexive step back, Tabbris moving in behind her leg. But Jophiel clearly wasn’t angry at her, or at any of them. Not now that she had been assured they had nothing to do with whatever happened.
“I wasn’t there,” the woman continued. “I had to… there were things I had to do, discussions to have with Cahethal. I left Elisabet back in our private offices, as I have many times before. While I was gone, our connection cut out. I could not reach her. When I returned to the offices, there was no sign of her. And… as far as I can tell, her connection to the Committee has been broken. I do not know how, but she was taken and her links to both myself and the Committee have been blocked, suppressed, or…” She saw the look on their faces, snapping, “She is alive. I would know if she were dead. But I cannot find her.”
“She’s your host,” Vanessa carefully pointed out. “But you still can’t–”
“I cannot recall to her, no.” Jophiel’s voice wasn’t quite a snapped retort. She was frightened, in a way Vanessa had never thought she would see the woman. “Something is blocking me. Which, I shouldn’t have to tell any of you, is all but impossible. But then, suppressing the link to the Crossroads Committee and holding one of them against their will is something that should also be impossible. Someone has managed it. And given your… let’s just say extensive history of the impossible…” She said the last bit with a look toward Sariel.
Vanessa watched then, as her mother stepped that way before embracing Jophiel. “I’m sorry,” she murmured quietly while hugging her. “We didn’t do anything to Elisabet, and neither did anyone that we know of. You have my word and I will give you a binding oath.” She leaned back then, meeting Jophiel’s gaze. “We’ll help you find out what happened, and where she is. Whatever is going on, whoever took her, we will find out the truth and save her.”
There was slight twitch to Jophiel’s expression, her shoulders hunched up a bit before she straightened. “You would do that?” Her voice was brittle. “You would expend the effort to find Elisabet when–” Stopping, she exhaled. “I suppose questioning such things at this point would be an insult to all you have already made a point of doing. I just… never believed that I would… be someone for whom you–”
“You were like family once,” Vanessa’s mother reminded the woman in a firm, yet somehow still gentle tone. Her hands found their way to Jophiel’s shoulders. “All of us–most of us on the Olympus were family. That’s why I stayed for so long, because I wanted our family to be… well, better. That includes you. I do not respect all the decisions you’ve made. But by that same line, I do not respect all the decisions I have made. You care about Elisabet, and she is in danger. That is what matters now, and that is what we will deal with. Other things… they can wait.”
Tabbris spoke up then, stepping more into view. “But what could hurt Elisabet? She’s part of the Committee, and like… a really powerful Heretic all by herself. What could actually do that?”
Tristan, who had moved in and slipped around the room to stand next to Vanessa, spoke up. “If they had something to block her connection to the Committee and to Jophiel, how powerful she is probably didn’t come into play. Maybe it also blocks Heretic powers completely?”
“Something that could do that…” A grimace touched Jophiel’s face briefly at the thought. Vanessa could see how pale the woman was. She looked physically ill with worry.
“Something that could do that at all, let alone without giving Elisabet time to warn you,” Sariel announced, “is one of the gravest threats I can imagine. To simply cut the connection to the Committee and prevent you from reaching her…” She frowned then, head tilting.
“Why?” Vanessa quickly put in, realizing what her mother was thinking about. “Why would they block you from her? I mean, how would they know to do that to begin with?”
“That is why I suspected–wanted to suspect you,” Jophiel flatly replied while stepping over to pick up a mug, which she slowly drank from before continuing. “You children were allowed to tell our secret, and in such a short time afterward, Elisabet was taken by someone who knew enough to cut off my return to her. It seemed to be too much of a coincidence.”
“Maybe someone already knew,” Tristan pointed out after giving Vanessa a brief glance. “I mean, maybe they knew and were waiting for a chance to do something like this. They found out you let us tell, so they took advantage because they figured you’d blame us. Maybe they even thought you wouldn’t stop to listen to reason and you’d do something… bad and Mom or someone else would have to fight you.” He shrugged, finishing with a quiet, “They were probably counting on you being too upset about what happened to be at all reasonable.”
“Elisabet said that you are smarter than you are given credit for,” Jophiel noted after watching the boy through his input. “I’m quite glad to see that her belief in that was well-placed.” The woman’s voice was decidedly more controlled now. She was still clearly reeling from the situation, but her emotions were held in check, only the slight clenching of her jaw and the way she looked around a lot more making it clear to Vanessa that she was still extremely upset.
“Wait.” Flick raised a hand, looking apologetic. “I mean, sorry to drive this home, but does that, um, does that mean you don’t have access to the Committee powers right now either?”
“Your apologies are not necessary,” Jophiel informed the girl curtly, yet without hostility. She extended a hand toward a nearby chair, paused, then sighed before stepping over to sink down into it. “Yes. I find myself cut off from the Committee entirely. Cut off from all of Elisabet’s powers, actually. Even the ones that were solely hers. Whatever is blocking our connection also blocks the spell we use to share such gifts. Which, upsetting as that is, is unfortunately logical.”
Vanessa swallowed hard, thinking about how the woman must be feeling right now. She had been basically inseparable from Elisabet for… for longer than the United States had been a thing. And now she had no idea what was going on with the person she loved so much. She didn’t know where Elisabet was, what kind of condition she was in, who had taken her, or… or anything. Spending those years not knowing what was happening to her family had been bad enough. This? This had to be torture.
Almost as if she had read her mind, Jophiel looked toward Vanessa. There was a moment of silent communication before the beautiful-yet-ancient Seosten spoke quietly. “You…” Then her eyes widened fractionally. She looked to Sariel, then to the children. Vanessa could see the realization there. She understood. With Elisabet gone and herself desperate to find her, Jophiel actually finally fully understood just how the children felt about getting their mother back.
Nothing was said, because nothing needed to be said. Jophiel understood. She straightened a bit, turning her attention fully to Sariel. “I do not believe that it was the Imperium. They would not leave me if they knew anything about our arrangement or situation. This is someone else. I would say Fomorian, but we would know if the Fomorians had returned.”
“Could be a solo one,” Flick hesitantly pointed out. “Like the one that attacked that boat with Larissa and Scout.” She gave a brief sideways glance toward Sariel before continuing. “Or the one that… that killed Koren’s father at Thanksgiving. There’s probably still a couple like that floating around. Maybe one of them did some… genetic tampering thing to make those blocks.”
Despite herself, Vanessa cringed at the thought of Elisabet being taken by a Fomorian, or anyone else who was powerful enough to completely shut her down like that. She still remembered the woman as Mrs. Reibach, the social worker who had been so nice to her when everyone else treated her like she was crazy. The thought that a Fomorian might have its hands on her made thick, choking bile rise up briefly in her throat. She didn’t want to think about it.
From the look on Jophiel’s face, she didn’t want to consider that either. But she gave a slight nod. “That is one possibility,” the woman acknowledged quietly. “Whoever they are, they are very powerful, very knowledgeable, and they were able to either get to Elisabet in our office, or lure her out in a way that made her not send a message to let me know what was happening.”
“We’ll find her,” Sariel promised, reaching out to take her former crewmate’s hand as she sat down in the chair next to her. “There has to be a trail, or clues. There’s a person or two in the Committee we can at least talk to, and…” She paused, before asking, “Does this mean the Committee think she’s dead?”
“No.” Jophiel’s head shook. “They believe that your group managed to capture her. The rebellion, I mean. They think it’s payback for their imprisonment of Gaia.”
“Wow,” Flick muttered, “they think a lot about our capabilities, don’t they?”
“We do have Gabriel Prosser,” Tristan pointed out. “And Lancelot. With that and everything else, especially the fact that they probably still think your mom is involved in all this somehow, it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility that the rebellion might be able to grab a Committee member like that. Even she kind of believed it for a second.” His hand waved at Jophiel.
As Flick gave a nod of acknowledgment to that, Vanessa looked back to Jophiel. “How do you know what the Committee thinks? I mean, they don’t exactly talk to you without Elisabet, right?”
“Yes and no,” the woman murmured while reaching out to pick up a mug. She took a drink from it absently before continuing. “Let’s just say I possessed a few of their staff and aides in order to go through the building and look at the, shall we say, ‘scene of the crime’ for myself, and listened in on certain conversations they were privy to. Then I simply erased their memories.”
“Wait,” Vanessa blinked, looking to the woman with a frown. “How–I mean, wouldn’t possessing others take away your… I mean…”
Jophiel gave her a brief glance. “Over the centuries, Elisabet and I developed a ritual involving her blood which allows me to make her my host from any distance. We have… tried it with others, but the spell seems limited to a particularly close bond.”
Moving up to stand by her mother, Tabbris quietly announced, “The Crossroads people’ll probably want to come after the rebellion even harder now if they think we can hold one of their own Committee members prisoner. Especially after Oliver was killed. They’ll want to hit something really hard so their own people don’t get, um, you know, discouraged or whatever. They’ve gotta prove they’re not weak.” Pausing, she added in an even softer voice, “And just make themselves feel better.”
“Your daughter is very bright, Sariel,” Jophiel murmured, eyes flicking from Tabbris to Vanessa and Tristan. “All your children are quite impressive. Yes, there are already voices within the Committee pushing for an immediate, powerful counterattack. Your allies in the group are doing their best to keep things from going too far. But I’m afraid that without Elisabet to temper the situation, things are… escalating. Litonya, Ruthers, Jue, Geta, Sigmund, and Davis wish to put an end to this rebellion before it starts, to deal a decisive blow. Sophronia, Calafia, Teach, and Percival are trying to calm things down somewhat, but they are outnumbered. If… if Elisabet was there, she might have manipulated a couple of the others such as Sigmund and Davis to hold back, with or without changing her own vote. But in this case… I’m afraid that very bad things may be coming in retaliation. The Crossroads loyalists are angry.”
“What are we supposed to do?” Vanessa couldn’t help but ask. “They don’t know where the camp is, but we can’t stop every bad thing they might try. There’s still a lot of sympathetic Heretics out there who haven’t made it to the camp, or who don’t want to come in. They could find one of those groups, or hit a place like Wonderland just to draw out the rebellion. They could–”
“They could do a lot of things,” her mother interrupted while reaching up to lay a comforting hand on Vanessa’s arm. The girl herself hadn’t even realized that she had been subconsciously moving closer throughout all of that. “There are many very terrible options they could go through, none of which I have any interest in seeing. It would be impossible to precisely predict what the target of their anger might be.”
Her eyes raised toward Jophiel then. “That’s why a better move would be to dismantle the source of that anger. If we can find Elisabet and return her to the Committee, get her to tell them who really took her… it may dilute some of their rage.” Her hand gestured that way. “Not to mention, bringing her back is the right thing to do. Either way, we have to find her.”
“I am so glad we are in agreement about the necessity of that,” Jophiel dryly replied, managing to keep her voice relatively flat. “If you would truly like to… assist me in finding her, I would be appreciative.” Though the words themselves were fairly simple, there was definite emotion there.
Vanessa felt her brother step next to her then, as he spoke up. “I don’t mean to put it this way, but are you going to be okay? I mean are you going to be able to help with this if you don’t have your link to use all those Committee and Heretic powers?”
Jophiel gave the boy a brief squint, before pushing herself up. “Young man,” she informed him. “I am older than your city of Jerusalem. I have been practicing magic and combat against the Fomorian scourge since before your bronze age. I have used my Tartarus-given gifts of manipulation since before the birth of your Olmecs. Do you understand?”
“I… I… think so,” Tristan slowly started, “But did you–”
Before Vanessa could say anything, their mother spoke up. “She said Olmec, Tristan, not the OMACs from Batman.”
“Oh,” Tristan gave a weak smile. “Then I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Olmecs,” Vanessa informed him. “As in the first major human civilization in Mesoamerica.”
Eyes flashing back and forth between them, Jophiel spoke sharply once more. “The point is yes, my abilities are far more limited right now than I have grown accustomed to. But do not for an instant mistake that for weakness. If need be, I will destroy anything, and anyone, who stands between me and the woman I love.”
“Good,” Sariel replied simply. “Because violence will probably need to happen at some point. But for now, we need to investigate the scene.
“Jo, you and I need to get back into the Committee’s offices.”