“You know, we don’t have to do this right now.” As she said those words, Jophiel fidgeted. The tall, auburn-haired Seosten who had once portrayed the goddess known as Aphrodite looked very different than most would have pictured her in that moment. There was no casual perfect grace and aura of untouchable power. She looked uncertain and nervous, a far cry from the image most Seosten tended to give off, let alone one of the Olympians.
The other woman in this small, unfinished basement room of the house they had been hiding out in for these past weeks turned to look up at her from the rune she had just finished drawing on the cement floor. Elisabet looked quite different than others who knew her would have expected as well. The Spanish woman’s skin was darkly tanned from the time she had spent on the Meregan world, her once-long and luxurious hair still cut short. Her form was visibly cleaner and more muscled. She was no longer wearing the leather armor she’d fashioned to survive on that planet, but nor had she come back to the sort of elaborate, fashion-heavy clothes she’d preferred before. She wore simple gray jeans with a few holes in them, along with a black button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows.
Smiling very faintly at the other woman, Elisabet shook her head. “You know we do. It’s not going to feel any better in the next few months, and we don’t have that much time. We need to have this discussion as soon as possible. Before something else goes wrong.” Saying that, she exhaled and looked away briefly. “I’m just sorry I can’t be that person anymore. I should be there with you through all of it.”
Taking a knee next to her, Jophiel put a hand on the other woman’s shoulder, then moved it to her cheek when Elisabet looked at her. “You have to be dead,” she reminded her. “If Maestro, or whatever he wants to call himself, finds out you survived and told us anything…”
With a visible grimace, Elisabet nodded. “I know. It would be bad. The only advantage we have right now is that he doesn’t know any of us know anything about him or what he’s up to. Still, I hate not being able to go in there with you. If anything happens while I’m stuck sitting around…”
Offering a very slight teasing smile, the other woman nudged her while asking, “And you miss the power just a little bit, maybe?”
That made Elisabet chuckle. “Yes, okay, maybe I do miss being part of the Committee. Being cut off took a lot of getting used to.” She considered briefly then before adding a sly, “But on the other hand, I am glad I don’t have to sit in on all of those meetings. No more actively restraining myself from punching half the people I’m supposed to be peers with.”
The reminder brought a grimace to Jophiel’s face. “On the other hand, maybe we can find some way for you and I to switch places. You attend these meetings and keep an eye on the Committee, and I promise to keep you up-to-date on everything the Brady and Horton families are up to in Salem.”
Snorting at the reference to the Days of Our Lives soap opera the two of them had become sucked into over the time they had spent sitting around the house with very little else to do, Elisabet poked her beloved in the nose and smiled. Much as they might tease one another, these past few weeks actually had been some of the best of her life. Despite all the outside pressures, which still existed, it was one of the nearest things to a true and relaxing vacation she’d really ever experienced. From the moment she had been a young Heretic and Jophiel had… seduced/recruited her, she had basically always been on the job in one way or another. And then, most recently, she’d had to spend all those months trapped on a desert world being chased by the Fomorian monsters. There had been so many times when she thought she would die before ever seeing Jophiel again. And yet, here she was. Thanks to Jophiel herself, as well as Sariel, the Chambers girl, and others, she had been rescued. Which had led to these past weeks of… well, some might have called it house arrest. She had to stay in this house. But what a wonderful time it had been. Staying here, in the middle of nowhere, spending time with the woman she loved while having absolutely nothing else to take care of immediately, had been truly amazing.
But, as they both knew, there was only so much time left in the truce between the rest of their people. They needed to be ready when things started happening. Which was why they had set this meeting up.
Shaking off those thoughts, she replied, “I’ll do you one better and record the show for you so we can watch it together. You know, while you’re at all those meetings you’re going to have to keep going to.”
The two smiled at one another rather goofily, more like a young couple who were just coming off their honeymoon than people who had been together for literally hundreds of years. And why not? These past few weeks had been a sort of honeymoon in many ways, particularly given how long they had been separated with no idea if they would ever see one another again. The separation, the reunion, and the time they spent together in this house had all only reaffirmed their commitment to one another. Whatever happened, whatever they had to do, they would stay together. Other things could be reconsidered, other arrangements and choices made. But Jophiel and Elisabet loved each other more than anything else in the world. Or any world.
And they owed the people who had fought to bring them back together. Which was also a debt they would not forget.
A beep from a phone in the corner reminded the pair that they were on a schedule. So, they tore their gazes away from one another and went back to work. It took only another few minutes to ensure that the spellwork was finished. This particular series of interconnected runes were a quite advanced bit of magic indeed. But then, they would have to be, for what they had in mind. It also wouldn’t last forever, so they were going to have to be somewhat efficient. Some might have considered hours to be plenty of time, but there was a lot to cover.
To that end, as soon as they had each carefully checked the entire spell (it extended across the entire floor and up over the walls) for absolutely any inconsistency or mistake, the two women rose and stood together in the middle of the room. Elisabet’s hand found Jophiel’s, and a moment later the Seosten woman disappeared inside of her. It was a comfortable feeling, the two of them fitting together perfectly, as they always had.
The moment Jophiel was safely hidden away within her, Elisabet reached out to touch one of the nearby runes. With a thought and several murmured words, she injected the last bit of power into the spell, triggering it. The runes around her began to glow various colors, bits of them moving or seeming to rise off the surface they were painted onto like three dimensional holograms. She felt the spell pull the power it needed from her, as the lights within the room began to flash violently, sending eerie shapes and shadows in every direction.
Abruptly, all the lights and colors and holographic shapes vanished. The entire space went completely dark for a few brief seconds, before a glowing blue circular portal appeared on the opposite side of the room from where Elisabet stood. It remained in place just long enough for a figure to pass through, before vanishing. The room immediately returned to its normal level of brightness, though the spellwork around them was lightly glowing, and its power could be felt.
Slowly letting her gaze pass across the basement area, the pale, beautiful, auburn-haired Sophronia Leven made a soft, thoughtful humming sound in the back of her throat before focusing on the woman across from her. “You certainly weren’t exaggerating the measures you were going to go through to ensure privacy in those coded messages, Els.”
Smiling just a little despite herself, Elisabet allowed a casual, “Well, I’m simply glad you were able to decode them properly.” After a brief pause, she added, “And that you trusted them.”
“You knew things only the real Elisabet would know,” came the response, followed by a belated, “Or someone possessing her. But then, you did say that you would be addressing that very possibility, and that you had answers about that and a great many other things.” Her expression softened then, as she took several steps that way before embracing the other woman tightly. Elisabet, though taken by surprise, returned it after a moment.
For a few seconds, the two remained like that, before Sophronia half-hissed in her ear. “Where have you been? Are you alright? Where are we now? Why did you insist on using these… masking spells?” She asked that bit while glancing around at the runes surrounding them. “None of my powers can tell me where we are right now, and I can’t communicate with the rest of the Committee. I know you said you had to go that far, but… well, reading it and seeing it for myself are two separate things.” She leaned back then, moving her hands to the other woman’s shoulders. “What happened?”
Taking a brief moment to smile softly at Sophronia, Elisabet gently stepped back while giving her a reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, I know I owe you an explanation. Even more of one than you understand just yet.” That bit was added with a sigh before she cleared her throat. “I’m going to explain everything. But I need you to listen to all of it, please. Before you judge, or act, just hear everything I have to say. After that, we can talk about what’s going to happen next.”
Sophronia looked her up and down searchingly before inclining her head. “Well, if nothing else, you have my attention. Of course, you had that with all the secret coded messages after being gone for so long. But now you have even more of it. I promise not to act hastily until you explain whatever it is you need to explain.”
Knowing that that was the best she could hope for, Elisabet took a breath before beginning with, “First, we should all speak face to face. Again, please, do not react hastily.”
The specific words made Sophronia frown, until a glowing figure emerged from Elisabet. Despite her promise, the woman found herself very nearly reacting violently, but stopped herself. Instead, she stared intently until the glowing form had resolved herself into a discernable figure. “Seosten, I presume,” she flatly announced, her voice making it clear just how close she had come to reacting in a way that would not have been good for anyone involved.
“It’s alright, Sophie,” Elisabet insisted while holding up a hand. “I am still me, and that was me you were speaking to just now. She’s not controlling me, and has not acted without my consent in all the time you have known us.”
“Known ‘us,’” Sophronia echoed, giving her a look before returning her gaze to the figure in question. “Exactly how long has this been a thing? And who are you, exactly?”
Cracking her neck, the Seosten woman met her gaze. “I am Jophiel. In the time of my peoples’ first excursions to this world, I was known to the humans here as Aphrodite. And yes, Elisabet and I have been bonded together for the entire time you have known her. Sometimes when we spoke, I was who you were speaking to, other times, it was she. I have not enslaved her. We are…” She paused to glance that way. “We have been far more than that.”
Sophronia took that in with a curious expression. “Perhaps you should both start from the beginning. And explain why you’re telling me about this now. Not to mention where you’ve been all this time. I said I would hear you out, and I intend to keep to that promise. But…” She gestured, summoning a comfortable chair, which she set herself down on before focusing on them once more. “Something tells me I’m going to want to sit down for this.”
So, she sat and listened as the two explained the truth behind their history. Which took awhile, particularly considering they had to first explain their history as they had seen it for so long, and then get into the added truths that had been revealed by the so-called ‘Gemini.’ Elisabet kept her expression neutral while explaining that she had, apparently, been entirely too enthusiastically accepting of the Seosten Empire, to the point that this secret ‘Maestro’ had installed Gemini in her head in order to tone that down a bit so that she would be more likely to accept a more subtle plan that would give the abomination the opportunities he wanted. His goals were to put the Seosten leadership in front of the Seosten-Human hybrid children for some reason. They weren’t sure why, precisely, only that his plans wouldn’t be good for anyone other than him.
They also explained that ‘Maestro’ was actually Zadkiel, a Fomorian-Seosten hybrid merged together within the Tartarus universe. Which led to a lot of explaining about the Seosten in general, who the archangels/Dyeusai were, and more. And that whole thing led to even more talk of where the Seosten came from, how much control they had, etcetera. Every bit of explanation led to more that needed to be elucidated. And through it all, Sophronia sat quietly, asking questions now and then, but mostly simply watching the two of them.
Once they finally finished as much as they could reasonably get through and answer in the time that they had before Sophronia’s absence might be noticed and investigated by someone who could cause trouble, two full hours had passed. Sophronia herself had eventually abandoned her seat to pace around the room, allowing all of this extensive information to bounce around through her brain. It was, putting it mildly, a lot.
“Okay,” she eventually managed, “presuming everything you’ve both told me is completely true and one or both of your memories haven’t been… let’s call it, adjusted, why did you call me in to tell me all this? The Committee already knows the Seosten exist, even if some of us do insist on… downplaying the threat they pose or influence they have had. And yet, something tells me you haven’t revealed yourself and told me the truth just so I’ll walk you right to the Committee and expose everything, with evidence.”
“You could try to do that,” Jophiel agreed. “You could tell your peers that the rebels are right, that my people have been manipulating you the entire time, turning you into weapons to use against the Fomorians while using the Earth as a training ground to make you stronger. You could tell them that we created the Bystander Effect in the first place. You could tell them all of it. But how much would that change, in the short run? And by short run, I mean soon enough to be of any importance before Zadkiel makes his move? If telling them doesn’t simply make him act immediately. He will have contingencies.”
“Not to mention,” Elisabet pointedly put in, “if the Seosten leadership think things are getting too out of control, they might lean more heavily toward the invade option when the truce the rebels arranged is over. This is a very sensitive situation.”
Finally, Jophiel added, “And all of that is presuming your companions would believe you. In all your experience with them, are the more… hardline members of your Committee likely to take this explanation at face value, or believe you have been manipulated in some way? Or many ways.”
If she was surprised by any of those points, Sophronia didn’t show it. Instead, she simply replied, “Which leaves the original question. Why come to me with this information? You called me here and took the time to explain all of this for a reason, and it was not simply to reminisce, or to have someone to talk to.”
“Yes,” Elisabet confirmed, “we did have a reason. Several. I–believe this or not, we both missed you. You have been a friend and acquaintance for a very long time, and perhaps a large part of why we chose you to speak with about this is because it was an opportunity to come clean.”
Meeting her gaze, Sophronia replied, “I won’t be childish and ask what sort of friends we truly were given how long this was kept from me. I understand the situation you were both coming from. That said, I don’t truly know either of you. Do you still wish for these Seosten to take over our world and dominate human society?”
Elisabet, in turn, took a long, deep breath before exhaling. “What I want, what I have always wanted, is for humanity to reach our potential. When I wanted the Seosten to take over, it was because I saw it as the best way for that to happen. They were a stronger, more advanced society than humanity. Absorbing us into their society could have improved things across the board.”
“In my experience,” Sophronia pointed out, “a more advanced society entering the land of people they consider to be primitive rarely works out the way you envisioned.”
Jophiel nodded. “That is fair. My people have an even worse history with that than humanity does.”
Elisabet glanced away, clearly thinking briefly before she continued. “In any case, the answer is no, I do not wish for the Seosten to… take over. I wish for our people to be united. The true threat are the Fomorians, and it’s clear that only by Seosten and Humanity working together will we ever be able to stop those monsters for good. But I’ve come to realize that we need to negotiate from a position of power, of strength. Not allow ourselves to be taken over. We need to convince the Seosten leadership to accept a permanent truce.”
“Unfortunately,” Jophiel added, “we believe there are large obstacles to that. For one, we are both afraid that Zadkiel may have infected other members of the Committee, or those around them, in some way. I was incapable of noticing his work on the woman I was literally possessing constantly.”
“And what makes you think I’m not infected in this way?” Sophronia started to ask, before her head tilted. “The spell here. It’s not just for blocking communication and tracking.”
With a small smile, Elisabet shook her head. “We’ve been spending our time here developing ways of detecting that sort of infection. It’s not perfect, but the longer you stayed here, the more time our spell had to scan you. It would have warned us if there were any issues.”
Sophronia took that in, her eyes scanning the walls as though searching out those parts of the spell. “So use that magic on every other member of the Committee to test them?”
Jophiel grimaced. “Unfortunately, there are issues with that. The scanning spell requires the rest of these magics. And very few of the Committee would submit to having all transportation and communication powers blocked while standing still for over an hour while the spell did its work. Not without explaining a lot more than we would feel comfortable with until the actual infections are identified and peace has been secured with the Seosten.”
“But there are other ways,” Elisabet added. “Our magic can work over extended exposure, without the other parts. It simply takes longer. Quite a bit longer. Yet that version can be cumulative. When it is near someone we wish to scan, it will run until it is no longer near them. Then it will pick up from there again when they are close once more.”
It didn’t take long for Sophronia to understand. “You want me to take this spell of yours close to the other Committee members for as long as it needs, repeatedly, to identify any of them who might have been infected by Zadkiel.”
“Yes,” Jophiel confirmed. “Elisabet cannot reveal herself. If Zadkiel finds out about her survival, it will be dangerous for everyone. We believed you were safe, and if you weren’t, we would have either eliminated the infection, or erased your memory of this event. Possibly both. But in any case, the others need to be checked, and any spies for that creature, knowing or not, must be identified. Quietly. Once we know who they are, we can plan for how to neutralize the infections when the time comes. And…”
“And?” Sophronia echoed, raising an eyebrow.
It was Elisabet who continued. “The Seosten leadership have plans for preventing the Committee from becoming a threat to them should open warfare become a possibility. Consider it a switch of sorts, built into the Committee bond itself.”
Jophiel added, “It will put them… you, into a sort of coma until you are awakened. However, their only way to use that method is through a Seosten who knows how to do it possessing one of your Committee members and activating it. Needless to say, they have become rather… antsy on that front given Elisabet’s disappearance.”
“They want you or another Seosten to take over another one of us,” Sophronia guessed, before adding with a double-take, “You want me to agree to that.”
Elisabet bowed her head briefly before looking back up as she nodded. “If another Seosten is sent in, we won’t have control of the situation. As I said, humanity needs to negotiate from a position of strength, and preventing them from shutting off the Committee is part of that strength. But we need to play along for now and calm them down, until the right time. Besides, having Jophiel with you could make it easier to deal with any Zadkiel infections. And she has a spell that will allow her to use the Seosten ability to recall to past hosts with more than one previous host.”
“So she can jump back and forth between us,” Sophronia noted quietly, “to communicate and plan.”
“Among other things,” Jophiel confirmed. “But I will not do this without your permission, Sophronia. We believe this is the best way to proceed. Zadkiel’s infections must be identified, and the Seraphim placated so they do not send another Seosten into the Committee. But if that is not something you can agree to–”
Sophronia interrupted. “No, I’ll do that. You’re right, we need to find out who Zadkiel has infected, and we should stop your people from sending in someone we can’t control or plan for. But I want something else while we’re at it.”
Pausing, Jophiel gave her a thoughtful look. “And what is that?”
“There’s a few minor things we can get into later,” the other woman replied, “but one big thing. I want you to tell me everything you know about the creatures our people call ‘The Whispers.’”
“The Whispers?” Elisabet echoed. “Why do you want to know more about them?”
There was another pause before Sophronia carefully explained, “My son, Zeke. Someone has been attempting to kill him for awhile now. I believe it has something to do with these Whispers. His father, before he died, came from the same colony world where they were originally discovered. He told me once that he found something there, but that he ‘took care of it.’ And yet, he also told me that Zeke could never go to that world because his blood was the key to it. He was going to explain more, but we were interrupted. He died before I could hear the rest of the story. I don’t know what he did there, or why my son is so important.
“But I do know that I am very glad Zeke is nowhere near those Whispers.”