A black blade glowing seemed unnatural. And yet, as she stood in the mostly dark room, holding the sword in the front of herself, Joselyn could see the illumination coming from it. Not from the ruby handle or the amber jewel on the end, but from the onyx blade itself. It was casting enough light on its own to brighten the room around her to the point of being able to read a small-print book if she had so-desired. Black metal giving off light with no apparent spell or source. She hadn’t activated any sort of magic on the blade. Nothing specific anyway. It just glowed all on its own while in darkness, without any sort of obvious input. It… created light around it.
The room itself was one of the empty magical research labs. Most of the larger ones were being used in developing the spell that would protect everyone from Seosten possession, but this one was free. She had brought the weapon here to examine it safely, where any sort of protections wouldn’t do any damage to the station.
“Pretty snazzy sword, isn’t it?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, as Abigail stepped into the room, trailed by Athena. “I only got to look at it for a second,” she added slyly, “but I’m pretty sure that’s at least two hundred on eBay, easy.”
Turning to face the two women, Joselyn smiled faintly at her oldest daughter before casually replying, “Maybe we could go as high as three if we put the right sort of filter on the pictures.”
“Ooh, we’ll have to have Koren work on that then,” Abigail returned, “I’m afraid the last time I tried to upload pictures of something, all we ended up with was photos of the carpet instead of my grandmother’s silverware.” Pausing, she amended, “I mean, the grandmother that…”
“Your grandmother,” Joselyn firmly put in. “Your parents–I mean… they raised you, Abigail. I’m not trying to take that away or anything. They raised you, they took care of you. They were there–they were there for everything.” Her voice caught a bit, the lump in her throat briefly choking the words away before she managed to swallow hard. Because that was both the truth and the problem. She hadn’t been there for anything in her eldest daughter’s life. As hard as it was to have missed ten years of Felicity’s childhood, she had missed almost everything of Abigail’s life. She’d missed her growing up, going to school, becoming a lawyer, getting married, having a child, over fifty years worth of a life, and Joselyn had missed all of it.
She was determined to be there for her daughter any way she could now. But she would never use that as an excuse to diminish what Abigail’s adopted family had been for her. Someday, Joselyn wanted to meet them. She had no idea how that would be possible, or what sort of explanation they would give to those people. But she did want to meet them. She wanted to know the people who had raised her daughter into such a fine, wonderful woman.
In the meantime, Athena had spoken up. “Jokes aside, if that is truly the sword of Mordred, it is priceless several times over. And I believe it truly is that weapon, from everything I have seen. Do you mind?” she asked, extending a hand that way with a raised eyebrow.
Some part of Joselyn bizarrely didn’t want to hand the sword over. For just a moment, that voice in the back of her head told her not to let the Seosten woman touch it. She hesitated, then shook that off and flipped the weapon around before handing it that way. As Athena took and examined the weapon, she focused instead on Abigail. Her voice was quiet, yet still intense. “How is she doing?”
Abigail, of course, immediately knew she was talking about Denise. Or Denny, as she apparently preferred to go by. It had been several hours since they brought the girl up to the station and allowed some of their people to give her a once-over. Sariel hadn’t been able to pull herself away from the anti-possession spell just yet, given how critical things were with it at the moment. But they at least had enough free people to get a better idea of what was going on in that girl’s head.
“Considering everything she’s been through, and is still going through,” Abigail replied, “she’s doing pretty incredible. That kid has been through hell and back. I can’t even think of what it would be like to have that voice in my head, his memories, his impulses. The fact that she’s kept it together this much is just… she’s amazing.” Clearing her throat, she added, “And in some ways she’s even more confused now than she was before she had any answers. Confused about how she feels, that is. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, you told her that she died. Not only that, you told her she used to be several years older than she is now. It might explain why she knows stuff she doesn’t consciously remember learning, why her education seems higher than it should be. And it explains her nightmares. It explains all of it. But she’s still confused. Just… differently confused.”
Joselyn heaved a sigh, nodding. “Of course she’s confused. If I was in her position, I have no idea what I would do. I mean, I suppose I was somewhat close, getting memories of my old life back when Fossor found me. But even that isn’t even remotely the same. I just…” Turning, she gestured and summoned a pair of chairs from the far side of the room. As they slid closer, she moved one over to Abigail before sitting down heavily. “I want to be there for her. I want to help her. But I don’t think I’m the right person for it. My son was the one who killed her. He was the one who did all of that. It’s not right for me to try to absolve my own feelings and guilt over that. She needs to be with people who can really help her, not make her feel worse just by being there.”
Gently, Abigail replied, “What she needs right now is time to cope with everything she’s being told. And… perhaps her parents?” She added the last bit pointedly. “That girl needs her mother and father, and we can bring them up here. We can give them the pills to temporarily restrict the Bystander Effect so they understand what we’re saying when we explain the situation. Let them decide how to handle things. They’re her parents, they deserve that chance.”
“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. “We’ll go there and explain everything to them. She can come with and… and we’ll see what happens. That’s going to be some conversation,” she murmured the last bit with a wince. “Though not even close to the hardest one I’ve ever had.”
Abigail opened her mouth to ask for more clarification about that, but before she could, Athena turned to them, holding the weapon up higher. “This is absolutely the real Clarent. No question about it. I have run every test I can think of, and it passes all of them. This is the genuine article. Although I have no idea how it could possibly have ended up in that hotel room, or where else it has been in the meantime.”
“Can it really do what Kushiel said?” Joselyn pressed. “Can it lead to Modred’s body? And if it does, can she really… possess that permanently the way she said she could?”
Athena, in turn, gave a helpless shrug. “Honestly, I have no idea. I wasn’t around my people when they built this sword, or when they… prepared Mordred’s body for Puriel to use. And I certainly have no idea how Kushiel could have returned as this powerful of a ghost. You said she was too strong for even Felicity to control?”
“Even with help from Tabbris’s Archangel boost,” Joselyn confirmed, “the best they could do was catapult her out of the hotel and into another state. Which, I know, sounds impressive. But it took everything they had to get rid of her. And they took her by surprise. Next time, I’m not sure how well that will work.”
“Next time, we will be more prepared,” Athena insisted. “And so will your daughter. She is getting stronger with her power every day.” A sigh escaped her then, as she added, “Although again, I have no idea how this could have happened. Yes, she is being fueled by Tartarus, but… is that what will happen to all of us with enough exposure? When we die, will we be brought back as… powerful ghosts?”
“People from your ship have died before, right?” Abigail pointed out.
“Minor… crew members, yes,” Athena confirmed. “No one from the bridge. Perhaps it takes a certain level of exposure, of power. Or perhaps… I don’t know. There are so many unanswered questions about that place. We need to bring Apollo and Sariel in on what is happening. If anyone around here has any chance of understanding this situation, it’s the two of them.”
“Beyond that,” Joselyn pointed out, “They both need to know about Kushiel coming back. You know she’ll go after them if she gets the chance. And have you talked to Theia yet?” She added that last bit while looking toward the other woman in the room.
Grimacing, Abigail shook her head. “Not yet. She’s working on some sort of project with Douglas Frey. I sent word for her to come see me as soon as they’re done. I don’t… I have no idea how to bring that up. How am I supposed to tell her that the woman who did all that to her for so long, who tortured her, who killed her friends, who… who did that… is back? How am I supposed to tell her?”
“She’s not back,” Joselyn replied flatly. “She’s still dead. She’s just…” A sigh escaped her. “The difference is elementary at this point, I suppose. She can still hurt people. She can still kill people. And she’ll want revenge against her daughter as much as she does Sariel or anyone else.”
Abigail swallowed hard, giving a short nod. “I’ll bring her in and explain what happened. She needs to know the truth, and she should hear it from me. I just… she’s doing so well lately. She’s improved so much over these months, especially after her mother died. I don’t know what this is going to do to her. But it won’t be good.”
Athena glanced away, clearly lost in thought for a few long moments before speaking quietly. “Kushiel’s return, in any form, is going to be bad for many people. Her daughter is near the top of an extensive list. It is something we need to deal with as soon as possible. I will be searching for any information about Tartarus-empowered ghosts. I do not expect to find much, if anything. But perhaps there will be enough to point in the direction of answers. My people have studied the energy from Tartarus quite extensively over the millennia. Someone may have found something helpful.” She sounded doubtful even as the words came, yet determined to at least try.
“I’ve already got a list of Necromancy experts,” Abigail put in. “Mostly from checking for people who could teach Felicity. I’ll see if any of them have any ideas about containing a super-boosted ghost. There have to be spells and such that can stop her. Or at least slow her down. And for the record, if I had heard myself say something like that just over a year ago, I might have had myself committed.”
“It is a lot to come to terms with,” Joselyn murmured quietly. “And you have even more than most. You only found out about this last year, and you’ve already taken on the role of principal for all these people.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” Athena noted, glancing back and forth between them. “I do not believe that any member of your family could stand to be an ordinary, average part of the crowd if your lives depended on it. You are all remarkable people, and none of you could ever simply blend in. I mean, look at what you did while in Laramie Falls. The youngest sheriff in county history. Even with your memories erased, you stood out and protected people. Your daughter was making a name for herself as a young reporter exposing the truth and standing up to injustice before she even reached high school.” To Abigail, she added, “You became one of the finest defense attorneys in the country. Hiding is simply not in the nature of any member of your family.”
As she finished saying that, the nearby door slid open, and another woman entered. “I’m sorry,” Virginia Dare spoke as she took in the sight of the other three. “Am I interrupting something?”
“No, you’re fine,” Joselyn assured her. “We were just talking about how to deal with our new ghost problem. And what to do about this body she’s supposed to be looking for.”
“Mordred’s body,” Virginia confirmed with a heavy sigh. “I sent word to Guinevere to come back so we can find out if she knows anything about that. She’s still on that little trip with Michael to Sudan, but hopefully we’ll get a response back soon.”
“I sure hope someone knows something about Mordred’s body and what it could possibly do,” Abigail muttered. “Because from what you people said, Kushiel knows, and I don’t think she’s going to give up on finding it just because she doesn’t have that thing.” She gestured to the sword. “She’ll keep looking for some other way to find it.”
“Well,” Joselyn noted while glancing to the weapon in the Seosten woman’s hands, “That thing is supposed to lead straight to it, so maybe we can beat her. But how does it work, exactly?”
Athena answered carefully. “As I said, I am far from an expert in that sword. But from what I know, it will only work properly and unlock all of its gifts for someone who has bonded to it. Which means keeping it on your person, using it in battle, training with it, and so on.”
“In that case,” Joselyn replied, “who is going to be the one bonding to it?”
“That, I believe, is an easy question.” Turning the sword around once more, Athena offered it back to her by the handle. “You are both a descendant of Arthur’s knights, and the leader of this rebellion in your own right. There is no better choice for who should carry this sword.”
Joselyn, however, shook her head. “I’m not the leader of anything right now. Gabriel Prosser has been leading the rebellion for longer than I ever did. I’ve been… gone for too long. And even if they did need a leader, I don’t know whether I would be the right person for it. After everything with Fossor, all the… everything I had to do…” She trailed off, pain in her voice.
The others exchanged glances, before Athena spoke up. “You have been through so much. Truer words have never been spoken. But you are wrong when you say that you are not the leader of anything. The Heretic rebellion was begun by you. The people who chose to abandon centuries of indoctrination did so because of you. It was your words that showed them the truth. And it was your memory that brought them back. The rebellion exists because of you.”
“No one wants you to step into a role you aren’t ready for yet,” Dare put in while moving closer. “You’ve been through more than enough. You deserve as much of a break as you need. Be with your loved ones, your… your family. But you are the one who should hold onto that sword. You need to bond with it, work with it, let it get to know you. And when you have, allow it to lead you to Mordred’s body.”
“Before Kushiel finds it, preferably,” Abigail added. “Though I’m still not sure how a sword is going to lead to a body, I’ve pretty much accepted that all of this is way beyond me.” Her voice softened as she looked at her mother. “But they’re right, even if you are taking a break from it, you are the leader of the Atherby clan, and of the rebellion itself. Believe me, I hear people talk. I listen to them. The ones who came back, came because of you. And the other ones, they came because of what they heard about you and about what you’ve done.”
Taking in a deep breath before letting it out again, Joselyn finally reached out to take the offered sword from Athena. Her voice was flat. “I don’t know if I can ever be the same person I was back in those days. That’s why I keep saying I’m Joselyn Chambers now, not Joselyn Atherby. I don’t know if that person, that woman, can ever exist the way she was, before everything that happened. Before Wyoming, before Fossor. I’m different now. I’m not the woman who started this rebellion. But then, the rebellion itself has changed. After all,” she added with a glance toward Athena, “we’re working together this time.”
Athena, in turn, gave a nod of agreement. “Of course. Both of our organizations… all of our people, are better off now than they were before. Being allied this way, that is what will make the difference. The Seosten, those of my people who cling to the old ways, they win these wars by keeping groups separate when they would be stronger together, by taking advantage of lack of communication. We didn’t take on the entire universe at once, we took one world at a time, bringing each under our heel by targeting their leaders, by exploiting weaknesses and making them fight against one another. Even the Bystander Effect itself was about creating divisions, about turning allies against one another.”
“It’s certainly the best chance we’ve ever had of making things right,” Dare confirmed. “We have Liesje’s spell, the original rebellion, the Aelasetiam people, the Seosten have already agreed and held themselves to this temporary truce, which gives us time to put things in order. Quite frankly, I don’t believe there will ever be a better opportunity to make this world–this universe, better. And you, Joselyn, are the right person to stand at the head of that.”
For a long moment, the woman in question gave no response. She looked away, clearly lost in thought. The flash of pain that went through her gaze was quick, but everyone in that room saw it.
“Like I said,” she finally announced, “I’m not the woman I was back then. But maybe I can try to be better than that. Maybe it’s not about going back to being the person who started the rebellion, but about being the person who can finish it.”
While the other three watched, Joselyn slowly turned to face them. “My father sacrificed his life to stop the Fomorian invasion. My mother allowed the memory of who she was to be erased from everyone’s mind. Now… I hope she still lives, but she could be anywhere. She sacrificed everything she was.” She gripped the weapon tightly, holding it out in front of herself as the black blade continued to give off light. “I’m tired of my family having to make sacrifices. It’s time to make some real changes. Lasting changes. The Fomorians need to be stopped for good. Which means stopping this war with the Seosten and working together. Those monsters don’t differentiate between Seosten, human, or anything else. If it’s not Fomorian, they kill it. We’re all in the same boat. And that boat is going to sink if we all keep fighting each other. Your people tried this their way,” she added with a glance toward Athena. “They’ve been trying their way for hundreds of millennia, and it’s not working. We have to show them a better way. We have to show the Seosten leadership that their best move going forward is to make the truce permanent. We have to make them see that working with us is the only way anyone is going to get anywhere. A true, lasting alliance is the only way this universe is going to survive total genocide at the hands of those monsters.”
“You think you can make the Eden’s Garden and Crossroads loyalists actually listen to you?” Abigail carefully asked.
“I don’t know,” Joselyn admitted. “They’re pretty stubborn. What I do know is that the best way forward is to make the Seosten leaders see that we’re a better asset than a liability. If we can make them stop backing up the loyalists, or even agree to show what they’ve done to create this situation in the first place, we’ll have a chance to change some minds. Maybe even enough to make everything better. But that’s the trick. We need to convince the Seosten to back off for good and let us bring our own people together. And we have about six months to do that. So I hope everyone enjoys the holidays and gets ready for the new year.
“Because as soon as that anti-possession spell is in place, it’ll be time for the real work to begin.”