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Exodus 44-05

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In that moment, it looked as though Ruthers realized that there was something far more to Harper than met the eye. Something even more than her being able to fly. He stood there, hand tight in my hair as he narrowed his gaze at her. His voice, when he spoke, was gruff and clearly beyond all reason. The rational thought he’d been capable of before Oliver was killed was gone. He had always looked either like a bulldog, or like a literal bull in a China shop, and that latter analogy was even more apt now.

“I do not have time for childish antics now, Miss Hayes. You will sit down and be quiet.” Along with his words, Ruthers used his free hand to make a dismissive shoving motion. I felt a wave of clearly powerful force pass me on its way to knocking Harper to the ground.

She didn’t go down. The girl stood there, watching him as bits of her hair ruffled as though pushed by a steady breeze before it finally settled, leaving her unbothered.

Ruthers squinted, clearly taken aback. Raising his hand, he made a grabbing motion before yanking it back down as though to physically force her to the ground with his invisible grip.

Once more, it seemed to have no effect on Harper. She lifted her chin a little bit and watched him. That was it. Whatever power he was using to try to yank her down accomplished nothing.

Ruthers snapped his fingers. A crystal formed around Harper before solidifying to freeze her.

She stepped out of it, like it wasn’t there. Said nothing. Did nothing else. Just stepped out.

“Who are you?” Ruthers snapped. His grip on my hair lessened as he turned his full attention to her. I slumped to the ground and grunted a little. The man ignored me, and I saw a few of the other students he had pinned down starting to sit up, all of them looking confused, and many frightened. The song that had driven them to flee had been cut off or silenced somehow.

“You are not a student,” Ruthers murmured. “Could you be… no, no. You are not Joselyn. I know her. I would know her. You…” His head shook, and he stared intently. “Who are you?”

Even as he spoke, I saw another figure. Actually, it was an identical figure. Another Ruthers, a duplicate, loomed up behind Harper. He held a sword made of some kind of red metal, and had done something to completely silence himself. Hell, I couldn’t even sense him with my item-power. The second Ruthers was definitely within range of it (and it was working, as I could sense the other students and the first Ruthers), but I couldn’t sense anything on this one at all. He was completely silent and invisible to other extra senses.

He’d silenced everyone else too. When I tried to blurt a warning, I found myself once more unable to move. I couldn’t open my mouth, couldn’t widen my eyes, couldn’t even nod toward the girl to get her to look back. All around us, everyone else seemed frozen too, from the hybrids who had been hesitantly and fearfully picking themselves up, to the other students who came to see what the hell was going on. Ruthers was simultaneously freezing and muting all of us together, while also duplicating himself to appear behind her with that red-bladed sword drawn back. I didn’t know if he intended to stabilize her after she was disabled and get her healed as soon as she wasn’t a threat anymore, or if he was actually going straight for the kill. But one thing was for sure, he wasn’t playing around. He was going to end this.

Or not. Because despite the fact that all of us were frozen, and the Ruthers in front of her had given no indication of the other’s presence, Harper somehow knew he was there. At the last possible instant, just as the second Ruthers drove his sword at her back, she abruptly spun. A sword I had never seen before appeared in her hand just in time to smack Ruthers’ blade out of the way. It looked… fairly ordinary, particularly against the fancy red sword that Ruthers wielded. The hilt was gold, with a simple, straight guard and a ball-like pommel. The blade itself was grayish silver. There were no special designs, jewels, or anything else to make the sword stand out.

And yet, despite that, I found myself unable to look away from it. The blade, as it casually caught Ruthers’ own sword to stop it, seemed to sing. It was a… a happy song. That’s the only way I could explain it. The metal of Harper’s sword sang as it collided with the other, in a way that made it seem happy, like a woman singing in joy.

“Joyous.” The word fell from the second Ruthers’ lips as he stared at the blade that had caught his own. At least, at first, I thought he was saying joyous, agreeing with my thoughts about what the vibrating metal sounded like.

That’s not what he said. It was Tabbris. She was back in my head, and sounded completely awed. He said Joyeuse. The sword. The sword is Joyeuse.

The first Ruthers was already moving. Or rather, he had moved. Suddenly, he was right there, on the opposite side of Harper as his own red-bladed sword was driven at her exposed side, her blade still caught out of position against his duplicate’s.

A second sword appeared in the girl’s other hand, flicking up to catch the first Ruthers’ blade. This one had a dark blue hilt that seemed to be made of some kind of crystal, like a sapphire shaped into the handle of a sword. The guard was a bit more rounded than the other sword’s straight one. Its blade was a very light blue to go with the hilt, aside from the edges and a bit going up the middle, which were white. The whole thing looked almost too thin to withstand any kind of hit.

Yet take the hit it did, catching the first Ruthers’ sword easily before she pushed it aside and down. Harper stood there, one sword in each hand with the blades stopping the blades of both Ruthers and his duplicate.

“Caliburn.” The first Ruthers breathed, staring at the sword that had stopped him. “No. No, that’s… that’s impossible.” His voice actually shook a little bit, his awe and disbelief audible.

“Caliburn and Joyeuse,” the second Ruthers murmured, sounding like he didn’t even know that he was actually speaking out loud. “You… you cannot have Caliburn and Joyeuse. You… no… no…”

Wh-what does that mean? I sent inwardly, still unable to make myself move. Even distracted as he was, Ruthers was still almost absently holding me and all the others completely motionless. That’s how powerful he was, how little of a chance I would have stood against him. Caliburn and Joyeuse? What does it mean if she has those?

What does it mean? Tabbris echoed my words, and I felt her broad smile. It means holy shit.

Ruthers clearly agreed with the words themselves, if not the sentiment or emotion behind them. His eyes narrowed, and the man snapped, “You’re going to tell me where you took those swords from, how you have them. You may know a few tricks. You may have a few toys. But I am of the Crossroads Leadership Committee. And this is over.”

“Is it?” Harper asked him, still blocking both of the other swords. “Because I think it’s just getting started.”

With those words, the music that had been playing was back, the song from Twisted Sister roaring to life once more to flood the island from every direction.

Something happened then. Something I couldn’t follow. Actually, it was a lot of somethings. There was a blur of motion, a clanging of swords. Both of the Ruthers and Harper moved too damn fast to follow. It was like they were moving so quickly my eyes and brain couldn’t keep up with them. It was just a commotion of color and shapes accompanied by the sound of clashing swords. They were fighting, but they were doing so with so much speed that I had no idea what was going on or who was winning. And not just clashing swords. I saw glimpses of fire, electricity, and more. I saw a glowing ball of plasma shoot across the field, burning through the ground it passed over and turning it to a blasted line of dirt. I saw lightning called down from the sky before being broken into smaller bolts and scattered across the island. It was completely impossible to follow. As the battle (and the song)  went on, I had no idea how it was going or who was doing better.

Though to be honest, the fact that Harper was in a full-on fight with one of the Committee (who had duplicated himself into two specifically to outnumber and outflank her) and I couldn’t tell who was winning said enough all by itself. Tabbris was right. Holy shit basically summed it up.

I saw energy whipping around through the air. I saw bits of ground raised up. I heard sonic booms, collisions of power and energy that I couldn’t even start to follow. I saw a whip made of darkness itself try to wrap around Harper before her sword cut through it. I saw both Ruthers’ sheathe themselves in some kind of diamond armor that completely covered them. Diamond armor that pulsed and crackled with what looked like contained lightning.

That lightning was sent forth through the hands of both Ruthers from either side of Harper, clearly intended to destroy her. The power just within those twin bolts from Ruthers and his duplicate sizzled the air. I could literally feel the heat from them despite being several yards away. Yet she caught the bolts on her swords, dissipating them as if they were no more than streams from a water gun.

It was enough, however, to distract her. And Ruthers, the main one (from what I could tell), took advantage by appearing in front of her. His diamond-covered fist lashed out, colliding with her face. Her head was knocked to the side, and I saw a bit of blood on her lip, a slight bruise forming.

A bruise and bloody lip from a blow that, I was absolutely certain, could have leveled a tank.

Ruthers followed up that blow. I knew he did, but I wasn’t sure how. Because the next thing I knew, Harper and both of the Ruthers were several yards away from where they had just been an instant earlier, separating as one of the man’s forms held a hand against a bloody cut against his cheek.

Then they were on the other side of me. I saw one of them on the ground, the other reeling back from a kick that Harper had put into his stomach. She had another bruise that hadn’t been there before, this one on her temple.

A blink, and they were somewhere behind me. I couldn’t move, but I heard a few clashes of swords and a grunt.

To my left, they suddenly appeared. Harper had a pair of cuts along her arm and there was blood on her leg. Both Ruthers looked damaged too. In front of me, behind, to the side. They kept disappearing, then reappearing with new injuries, new evidence of fighting that I hadn’t seen.

It was time stopping, I realized. Ruthers kept stopping time and trying to attack Harper. But Harper wasn’t frozen. They were fighting through each time-freeze until Harper landed a hit that broke the man’s concentration enough to restart time. That was why they seemed to keep bouncing randomly around us. We were only catching extremely brief glimpses of this fight, like getting snapshots instead of a movie. But why was Ruthers bothering to stop time if it wasn’t stopping Harper herself?

Because he knows the others are trying to take down the shield, Tabbris suddenly piped up. He wants to deal with her before they finish that. That’s why he keeps freezing time, so fighting her doesn’t give them a chance to take down the shield. He wants to finish her, then go to them.

Right, that made sense. Of course he’d be able to figure out that someone else was trying to take down the security shield, and wouldn’t want to waste time here with this fight. So he was just going to keep freezing time instead, making what should have been a several minute long struggle take place in a handful of seconds.

Whatever happened through the next time stop, only one of the Ruthers came out of it. He stood there, about a dozen feet in front of us. One side of his diamond-covered face was cracked a bit, and he was breathing heavily. He held his sword out in front of him, to where Harper stood. “Who are you?” the man demanded in between deep breaths. “You are not Joselyn. You cannot be… you… those swords…” He sounded like he was right on the cusp of figuring it out, yet didn’t want to. His voice cracked a little. “Who the hell are you?”

For a moment, Harper was silent. She stood with both of her blades crossed in front of her. Slowly, she looked to me, eyes gazing in my direction before moving to take in the others. All of us, dozens of students, were staring, everyone frozen in place while we watched and listened to the fight playing out before us. I even saw a few teachers mixed in there. They too were frozen, likely because Ruthers didn’t know who from Gaia’s staff he could trust. Harper looked to all of us, taking in the fact that everyone was watching. And everyone had the same question.

“You want to know who I am?” She drew herself up, literally growing a few inches in the process. Her hair lengthened, growing to her shoulders while shifting from simple pigtails to a pair of tight braids, blonde hair growing to mix with the pink.

“I am the one whose blade sings.”

Her Crossroads uniform fell away, dropping to reveal form-fitting armor. The legs and boots were mostly black, with a bit of blue going up the sides like shin and hip guards. The torso of the armor was a dark blue, with a white emblem etched into it starting at the waist and going up to the right shoulder. The emblem was of a griffin in flight.

The arms of the armor, stretching down into gauntlets, were black like the legs and boots, with the same blue reinforced spots.

“I am the one whose sword shatters fell magic. The one who stands at the right hand of Arthur, king of all and savior of this and every world. The one who shall end those who would betray Camelot and humanity to their oppressors. The one whose swords will break all that are raised against them, and send the pieces scattered as dust on the winds of their panicked cries.”

The woman stood straight, her true form revealed as she held both weapons in front of herself. A dark cloak fell into place, unfurling to drop across her armor. Her voice seemed to shake the very ground as she spoke. “I am the one who is telling you to move.

“I… am… Darkwing Duck.”

With what I swore was a literally audible record scratch, those last words made Ruthers blink, taken aback. He looked completely lost, his mouth opening to ask what the hell that was supposed to mean.

But before he could get a word out, Harper disappeared. She reappeared behind the man while he was still lost in confusion. One of her swords was driven into his side. Not enough to kill the man, I knew. Yet definitely enough to draw a cry of pain from him.

He spun, stumbling a bit as his sword fell. With his body still turned to diamond (or whatever it was), he swung for the transformed Harper’s face. But he was too slow. She ducked her head back to avoid it, before following through with her own punch. It connected against Ruthers’ face with so much force that I heard what sounded like a sonic boom explode across the school grounds. I felt the wave of concussive force like a rush of wind, even as Ruthers himself was sent flying. He went back a good twenty feet, crashing to the ground. His armor had disappeared, his skin back to normal. And he was bleeding.

“Watch a cartoon sometime,” Harper suggested. Then she was in front of him, appearing in a blink as her foot lashed out to collide with his face.

Ruthers fell, before disappearing. He vanished from sight, apparently reflexively retreating before he could fall unconscious.

“He’ll be back, probably with help,” Harper informed us, as I realized that I could move again. All of us could. The other Hybrids were picking themselves off the grass, staring at Harper in a mixture of shock and awe. I was right there with them. The one who stood at the right hand of Arthur? What did that mean? How could she… how could she do that? What… what…

Avalon and the others (Columbus, Shiori, and Aylen) had caught up by then. They skidded to a stop, looking just as confused and awed as the rest of us. In the back of my head, I could hear Tabbris stammering and babbling like a fangirl, going on about how awesome that was.

The teachers were moving again too. But none of them seemed to know what to do, or what was going on. They were all from the older years, teachers I hadn’t really officially met. They seemed lost, and I was pretty sure that none really wanted to be the first to launch themselves into a fight against someone who had just beaten a Committee member. Understandable, really. Especially since, given the secrecy surrounding this whole ‘arresting Gaia’ thing, none of them actually knew what the hell was going on.

“Who… who are you?” I finally managed. Around me, I heard some of the other students, Hybrid and normal onlooker, student and teacher, all echoing that single question.

For her part, Harper smiled faintly. It was a smile that reminded me of the innocent, cheerful, somewhat goofy girl I had seen her as until tonight. Until she did all of this, and stood against one of the Crossroads Committee.

“Who am I?” she echoed, a hint of teasing on her voice as she let the question hang on the air for a brief moment, her eyes glancing around briefly. “I am Lancelot. And I am here to get you, and everyone else who wants to go, off this island. But like I said, he’ll be back. They’ll be back. So what do you say?

“Who’s ready to run?”

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Exodus 44-04

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“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Shiori muttered a minute later as we made our way across the dark grounds with Avalon, Aylen, Columbus (with Vulcan), and Harper. We had to take a long, meandering route to stay away from the search patterns of the security guards, rather than heading straight for the main building. Luckily, their searches seemed to be mostly centered either around the dorms or off in the direction that Larissa had sent the ones who came to where Liam was.

Glancing that way while leaning just for a second on my staff, I asked, “Nevada really set some kind of evacuation order up with all you guys together?”

She hesitated briefly before offering me a shrug. “It’s not like we have meetings or anything like that. I’ve never actually met all of the other hybrids. She just talked to us individually and told us what to do if the alert goes out. Mostly it amounts to running and scattering. There’s some teleport escape hatch things in different parts of the jungle and beach.”

Avalon held up a hand up to stop us from moving, her eyes focused on the spotlight being cast by some kind of cyberform owl flying in the distance. Her voice was curious. “What kind of alert?”

For some reason, despite the situation, Shiori actually gave a tiny smile. “It’s sort of a song. Trust me, none of the hybrids will mistake it for anything else. Not around here.”

Well that definitely had Avalon and me even more curious. Even Aylen was clearly unsure, which made sense, considering Gaia and Nevada apparently hadn’t known that she was a hybrid. From the brief look on his face, Columbus already knew. But he seemed mostly distracted by his guilt about Sean not being with us. Because if there was one thing Columbus needed more of, it was definitely guilt.

Harper, who had been a few feet ahead as she watched the patrols, turned back to us. “Okey dokey, there’s a door around the side. It’s unlabeled and they don’t use it very much. We can go in there. It’s connected to the teachers’ lounge.”

Raising an eyebrow at her, I decided to try, “And you know that how? I am pretty sure they didn’t just let you wander through to check the place out.”

I wasn’t really expecting much of an answer, and she rewarded that by grinning. “You’d be surprised how far baked goods and a bright smile can get you in this world. Cookies open more doors than you’d think.”

That sounded like a pretty good advice, actually. But I still stuck my tongue out at her for being evasive. Then we were moving again, as I used my staff as a walking stick to keep up.

Flick? Tabbris’s mental voice came down. Are you guys okay? We have reinforcements, but they can’t get through the shield yet. They’re on the other side of the island.

Quickly, I let my little sister know what was going on, and what we were doing. I gave her a brief summary while letting her pick out details from my mind on her own.

So things are about to pretty much blow up around here. We are taking down the shield and letting the hybrid students know they need to GTFO. Which means that if you guys have reinforcements ready to come in and take some of the heat off when we do, that would be pretty damn peachy.

We exchanged mental hugs then as she urged me to be careful and said that she would keep the others updated. I promised not to do anything too stupid and felt her presence withdraw once more.

By that point, we had begun making a long, circular route around the main building.  At one point, we had to stop and crouch down as a lone security guy made his way around the building in the opposite direction. Harper did something. I wasn’t sure what, but she made us touch her shoulders and when the guy glanced in our direction, he didn’t show any reaction even though we were definitely close enough for him to see. He simply paused briefly before continuing his patrol. Still, I didn’t breathe again until he was out of sight.

“Clear,” Columbus announced after staring in that direction with his goggles faintly illuminated. “He’s still walking.”

Harper nodded toward what looked like just another bit of wall. “Faculty lounge door is right there. All we need is teachers credentials to make it open.” She looked to me then. “Sorry, but they’ve got it blocked against things like your security-breaking power. Too many students get stuff like that and try to go snooping.”

Avalon exchanged a brief look with Aylen before staring at Harper. “I don’t know if you’ve eaten too many cupcakes or something, but we don’t have teacher credentials.”

Aylen nodded. “Yeah, how are we supposed to deal with that?” Sovereign had landed on her shoulders earlier before attaching himself like some kind of backpack. His head came up over her shoulder to squint curiously at Harper as well.

Harper just smiled at them while holding up a golden card. “Don’t worry, I took Mason’s card off his unconscious body back there.”

Shiori sputtered. “When?! I swear, you didn’t even go near him.”

Winking, Harper started to the wall. “That would be a terrible thing to swear to. Besides, it’s not like this is the only faculty card I have.”

That time, all of us exchanged looks behind her back before following the girl. By then, she waved the card in front of the blank wall and part of it immediately slid aside in the shape of a doorway.

We stepped through quickly, and found ourselves, sure enough, in one of the faculty lounges. It basically looked a lot like the student lounge, except bigger, with more individual spaces for private working, and a library area attached to it. There were still pool tables, televisions, even video games. Which was pretty cool. Actually, now I really wanted to see one of my several hundred-year-old instructors playing Mario Sunshine. Or Pokémon!

Shiori glanced to me, whispering, “Nevada said that when she went here, she thought she was the best Pac-Man player on the island until Professor Pericles totally schooled her. A couple years ago they had a Mario Kart tournament that got really big and Pericles stomped everyone.”

I grinned reflexively before my face fell just as quickly. “I really wish I’d gotten to know him.”

Her hand found mine and squeezed as the two of us followed the others across the room at a brisk jog. Or at least as much of a jog as I felt comfortable with. Shiori helped with that too.

Stopping by the door, Harper spoke in a low, soft voice. “Nevada’s office is two floors up. We shouldn’t run into too much trouble, since everyone is either outside searching, asleep, or guarding Gaia or one of her people. But we need to be quick and quiet. Stay close.”

Once again, her voice had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.  It wasn’t quite rude or demanding, just… authoritative. It made me want to do what she said without even thinking about it.

Together, we slipped out into the dimly lit hallway and began to make our way through the eerie school corridors. Harper was right about the place being mostly deserted. There were a couple of patrols that we had to avoid, mostly with her making us invisible or whatever she was doing. But for the most part, we were able to move unimpeded.

On the other hand, I had the feeling that we would have been caught in a few seconds without her help. Then again, we also would have been caught instantly at the beginning of all this if she hadn’t shown up before Patrick and October.

Was Fossor counting on that? Did he plan on me being taken by Crossroads security? Did he have something else in mind? I had no idea what that psycho was thinking. But I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have counted on Harper. Maybe he thought another of Gaia’s people would get me out. Whatever he was up to, it was obvious that he knew a lot more about what was going on here then we’d even suspected after knowing he was controlling Escalan.

The man was a piece of shit, but an annoyingly competent one.

Reaching the stairwell, we made our way up two flights to the third floor. Just as we reached it, Harper stopped us again. Columbus’s hand was raised right after her. We knelt there in the stairwell, listening as voices grew louder.  From the sound of them, it was just two of the security guards asking each other what exactly was going on. All they seem to know was that the headmistress was in deep trouble and the Committee had stepped in. There were rumors flying around about Gaia killing one of the Committee members, about her trying for a coup, about one of them killing her instead, it was all a complete mess. And it was clear that they weren’t being told much yet. Just that they had to keep an eye out for all of us.

Columbus nudged me, his eyes on the door as he whispered, “They’re not looking at each other. They’re facing either direction. About ten feet that way.”

Knowing what he was implying, I nodded. “I’ve got one of them.”

Harper gave me a thumbs up. “Then I’ll handle the other one.“

Without another word, I reached out to touch the door, sending myself into the wood before moving through it and into the wall beyond. Sure enough, there were two guys there, each facing a different way. One of them was looking at the door I had just come through, his expression one of a mixture of boredom and slight apprehension. It was clear that he knew something big was going on and that he and his partner were mostly being left out of it. Probably because the Committee didn’t know how much they could trust Gaia’s own security team.

Sliding myself along that wall, I parked right near the guy and waited for a moment. He kept shifting his weight back and forth before eventually taking a step over to lean against the wall. Unfortunately, it was the opposite wall from the one where I was. And neither the floor nor the ceiling were made out of wood. So, I had to send myself all the way back around again, through the door and to the other wall. Figured.

Eventually, however, I made it back to where he was still leaning. Taking a breath, or at least as much as I could do that while possessing wood, I put a hand out, caught his arm, and possessed the man all in one motion.

Only then did it occur to me how much worse this could’ve gone if the guy was actually already possessed. Or worse, a hybrid himself. Thankfully, he wasn’t, and I was right inside of him.

He also clearly wasn’t very happy about it, as I instantly made his body freeze, his voice dying in his throat before he could cry out. I threw everything into keeping him still and silent, even as the man himself tried to jerk and shout in surprise.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I quickly blurted to him. I know this sucks, and it’s not fair, and I promise not to pry into your thoughts or make you do anything bad. We just need to get through here and we don’t want to hurt you guys. Or be hurt, come to think of it. I promise, we’re not going to do anything, I’m not going to go prying through your head, or anything like that. You just need to go to sleep. After we call your partner over here. But I promise, we’re not going to hurt him either.

Some part of me wondered if I should just use his body to fight and move around. But no. No, I wasn’t going to be that person. Not right now. Not here. This was already bad enough without me possessing a guy and forcing him to fight and be injured by his own friends. Or worse, killed. I didn’t know how far they were willing to go. If I took this guy into combat and things went wrong, I would never forgive myself.

From the serious rant this guy launched into, my words did little, if anything, to reassure him. But at least I tried. Turning my attention to his partner, I made the guy speak up. “Hey, did you see that?”

He looked to me, blinking. “See what?”

Holding a finger up to my host’s lips, I made a shushing noise while staring intently at one of the office doors. Slowly, I made him walk that way while he continued to silently tell me just how much trouble I was in. As if I didn’t already know that.

The other guy fell for it, coming in close, his attention on the empty office. We got close to it, heads bent as though to listen. The guy leaned in, squinting out the door before shaking his head. “I don’t see anyth—”

That was as far as he got before collapsing unconscious to the ground with Harper standing directly behind him. I interrupted my own host’s ranting and frantic questions with another brief apology before letting him fall unconscious as well. Stepping out of the body, I cracked my neck before taking a painful step. Yeah, while Seosten were apparently supposed to be basically completely healed whenever they possessed someone, I either hadn’t fully picked that trick up yet, or the poison that Kushiel used bypassed that. Either way, my legs still hurt. We’d already tried it back at the camp to no avail, so it wasn’t surprising now.

The others joined us, and we stowed the unconscious guards in that empty office before heading down the corridor.

“Don’t worry, boy,” I whispered to Vulcan, who was looking lost. “We’ll get Sean back, I promise.”

Porthos, who was still riding on Vulcan’s back, made a chittering noise of agreement. He was joined a second later by a soft chiming sound from VJ, attached just behind him, as well as squeaks from Jaq and Gus, poking their heads out of my pocket. The menagerie was in agreement. We were going to save Sean. Somehow.

Eventually, we made our way to the door into Nevada’s office. Avalon input the code the woman had given us, and the door clicked. After a quick glance up and down the hall, we slipped inside.

“We don’t know how long it’s supposed to be before someone checks on those guys,” Valley announced. “We should set off this alert and then get the hell out of here. If they know where it came from, they’ll be right on top of us.”

“You said it’s a song?” I asked Shiori. “How do we make everyone hear a song?”

She responded with a quick thumbs up before jogging across the room, toward Nevada’s cluttered desk in a corner. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this one.”

The rest of us watched curiously as she dug through the desk before coming out with a Rubik’s Cube and a silver hammer. She set the cube on the desk, raised the hammer, and brought it down hard on the thing. It shattered apart into a bunch of  pieces that went flying everywhere.

Instantly, a song blared to life from the speakers in the room. It was also coming from the hallway beyond, and, apparently, from every other speaker as well. I could even hear it blasting across the school grounds. It was everywhere. I had no doubt that it was playing in all the dorms as well. Every single speaker on the school grounds was blaring this song.

Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. That’s the song that was playing. That’s what was blaring out over every speaker on the school grounds. That’s what hundreds of students woke up to, what they heard exploding to life all around them.

I looked to Shiori, who grinned and pointed to the window. I moved that way, looking out. The school had come to life. Mostly by the dorms, I saw students swarming out of every doorway, through the windows, off the roof. A few security guards and Committee agents alike were trying to stop them, but were almost immediately overwhelmed just through sheer numbers. Over a dozen students went right over them. They were taken completely by surprise.

Behind that first wave of students, I saw more emerging with obvious confusion. These were the ones who weren’t hybrids and didn’t know what was going on. They looked around, rubbing sleep out of their eyes while staring as their class and teammates slammed right through the guards who had been searching for… well, us.

Mostly it was older students that did the brunt of the damage, students who were third or fourth years. There were about a half dozen of them, and they basically hit those security guards so fast and so hard that the guys were on the ground before they knew what hit them. Others from the younger classes followed, while their teammates called out confused questions about what the hell was going on. Two of the Committee agents tried to form a dome wall of energy to contain everyone, but were hit by about six different powers at once that put them on the ground. I saw one student shapeshift into a bee, fly straight at one of them, then turn into a rhino just in time to slam into him. Another used a series of vines from the ground to entangle them.

Then something happened. The hybrid students had started to split up, but suddenly all of them hit the ground. It was like some kind of invisible hand had reached up to smack them down, pinning them against the grass. There was a single figure still standing, his hands raised.

“Wait,” I started, “is that–”

I was interrupted by glass exploding in my face. Belatedly, I realized that I was being ripped through the window by an invisible force. The same force, in fact, that had pinned all the hybrid students. I was hauled through the air, slammed through the window as everyone behind me shouted my name, and then found myself dropped unceremoniously to the ground right at the feet of the one responsible for all this.

“You,” Gabriel Ruthers snapped, “are behind this.”

Blinking twice as I oriented myself, I started to say something. “Ruthers, you don’t–”

I was interrupted as the man caught hold of my hair, twisting it a little. “Stop,” he snapped. “You have been turning the students since you arrived, on your mother’s orders. Your mother and Gaia, working together.”

“That’s not wh–” I started, interrupted once again by a sharp pain in my head as he twisted my hair.

“Silence,” he ordered. “You will do nothing else. You and the Strangers that Gaia and Joselyn have brought in will be put through trial. And I can assure you, we will ensure that you are made an example o–”

It was his turn to be interrupted then, as a figure abruptly landed on the grass just in front of us, amongst all the still-pinned hybrid students. Harper. She had flown out, literally flown, before landing hard on the grass, sending up a spray of dirt from the shockwave.

Slowly, the girl I knew as Harper Hayes straightened from where she had landed. As Ruthers gripped my hair and stared, she met his gaze. Her voice, as she spoke, was as cool as ice. The kind of ice that would take your finger at a touch.

“You’re going to want to let her go now, Gabriel.

“You’re going to want to let all of them go.”

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Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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Exodus 44-02

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“We have another problem.”

The quiet announcement came from Aylen, who was looking off at nothing in particular. Actually her eyes were kind of unfo–oh, she was looking through Sovereign’s eyes. The cyberform hawk was soaring silently high above our heads, while people continued shouting down below. Any second now, a general alarm was going to go off and this was going to get even harder.

“Gaze upon the shock with which I react to that news,” I deadpanned before shaking my head. “What else is wrong?”

“Sovereign can see Scout,” Aylen informed us before adding, “And her dad is with her. I think they’re having some kind of argument.”

“What?!” Sands snapped. “Dad’s out with–we have to go get her.”

“The boys are right there,” I pointed out. “And if we don’t get them soon, they’ll be with the Committee. Then we’ll never get them out of there.”

From his place on Avalon’s shoulder, Porthos stood tall, his tail-sword clutched in one hand as he made a brief chittering speech that was complete gibberish, but kind of sounded as though he was challenging the guards down there to try dragging him off. It was apparently a pretty inspiring speech too, because Jaq and Gus were both up on their hind legs on my own shoulders, acting like they were trying to salute.  

“And if Dad takes Scout to them, we’ll never get her either!” Sands blurted. Her eyes were wide as she stared at me, her hands basically flailing. “Scout, Flick! We can’t let them take Scout!”

As she spoke, my eyes glanced toward the boys and their escorts. They’d stopped for the moment, arguing amongst themselves about what to do since the others couldn’t find us. We had a few seconds to decide what to do. But not much. Any second now, they’d push on. And if we let the guys or Scout end up wherever the Committee was, this whole thing would get worse.

Before I could say anything, Harper spoke up. “You won’t.” Her head nodded that way, even as she instructed us quickly and firmly. “Go. Go stall him. If you show up, it’ll keep him busy for awhile. Try talking him down. I’ll get the guys here and meet you.” Her voice still sounded like Harper, but it had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.

Behind me, Shiori hesitantly asked, “You’re going to go over there all by yourself and rescue Columbus and the other guys from a bunch of the Committee’s hand-picked goons?”

“Why aren’t they teleporting?” I suddenly put in. “I mean, why are they walking across the grounds instead of just instantly teleporting the boys straight to wherever they’re going?”

“Security measures,” Avalon replied while holding her jacket open for Porthos to clamber down inside with one more muttered bit of gibberish that was clearly another threat against the Committee’s goons. “They’re using the school’s security shield to shut down instant-transport powers to stop the rest of us from getting out with them. They don’t get to pick and choose who that affects, if they want it to actually work right.”

Harper nodded. “Which is why we need to get out from under it.” To Shiori, she added, “And yes, I’ll get your brother and the others. The only reason Deveron hasn’t done anything yet is because he doesn’t know where Flick and you guys are, so he’s biding his time. I’ll give him an opening, we’ll get the other boys and then meet up with you.”

She knew about Deveron. Or at least knew enough to plan on him being able to successfully fight back against the Committee’s goons if he wanted to. Which, given everything else she apparently already knew, really shouldn’t have been surprising. But it did raise more questions.

“Okay, wait, wait, wait!” That was Koren, snapping her head back and forth to stare at the rest of us. “Wait just a second. What the hell is going on? What was that about one of the Committee members being dead, and Joselyn being involved, and… and… huh? Who exactly is dead, damn it?!”

Quickly, Harper replied, “Fossor used Joselyn to lure one of the Committee members out. It’s not… clear yet exactly how it happened or which one of them killed him, but he’s dead. And the rest of the Committee think that Gaia did it. How or why, we don’t know. Not yet. Percival didn’t have time to tell me everything.”

“Percival?” I echoed. “You mean Committee Percival? He’s talking to–wait, you said him You said that Fossor killed ‘him’. But not Percival. Which Committee member was it? If it was Ruthers–”

“No, it was Oliver Brockett,” she replied simply. “He’s the one who was killed.”

Oliver. I thought of the rotund Committee member. I barely knew anything about him save for the very few brief words we’d exchanged in those meetings. He was the one who had been amused when I pointed out that I hadn’t asked to inherit Manakel’s necromancer powers, and the one who had brought up the Committee’s theory that I was involved with the people trying to kill Avalon.

Koren was shaking her head still. “So Fossor killed a Committee member, which should be basically impossible, and now they think Gaia did it for some reason. So they’re rounding us up. Or trying to. Well, shit.” She looked to me, biting her lip. “Has… has Wyatt…?”

“Nothing from him yet,” I replied quietly before looking away to distract myself from the worry that admitting that brought on. “Aylen? What’s going on with Scout?”

“Still arguing,” the other girl informed us. “He tried to grab her arm, but she pulled back. I think he’s about to give up on the talking thing and try dragging her back. We’re running out of time.”

Taking in and letting out a breath, I nodded. “Okay. Okay, we go distract him and try to get Scout. Let… let Harper get Deveron and the boys and meet back up with us.” Even as I said the words, I wondered just how easily I was rolling with this whole thing. Maybe later it would actually hit me and I’d have to fall over or something. Right now, there wasn’t time to react.

Harper was already over by the far side of the roof, facing the way that Scout and Liam apparently were. Her hand was raised, and I saw a weird distortion in the air, like a rippling effect. “Jump,” she quickly blurted, nodding to the distortion. “It’ll get you partway there. Then just keep your heads down and stay quiet until you get to them.”  Pausing then, she added, “And for the record, after you get used to it, it’s actually a pretty fun way to travel.”

The rest of us exchanged brief glances. But there wasn’t time to debate. There wasn’t even time to worry any more about where Wyatt was or why he hadn’t responded. We had to go, right now. So without another word, we went for it. Shiori and Avalon helped me up onto the edge of the roof, where I took a breath and put Jaq and Gus away in a pocket together before jumping as instructed into the weird air distortion.

Oh boy, did weird not come close to describing it. In an instant, I was abruptly a lot smaller. Like, smaller than Namythiet. Bee sized, or smaller. The world grew huge around me. At the same time, I was being flung wildly through the air like dandelion fluff on a stiff breeze. The whole world spun around me as I was propelled through the distortion in the air, over the heads of several searchers, who apparently couldn’t see or hear me when I passed by.

I hit the ground a hundred yards from the dorm building, lying flat on my stomach behind a bush as I resumed my normal size while clutching the grass and breathing hard. All around me, the others appeared the same way, whimpering and panting as we adjusted to what had just happened. Jaq and Gus clambered out of my pocket briefly, spinning around like they were dizzy before falling onto their backs. Apparently that had been disorienting for them too.

Slowly lifting my head, I stared out through the darkness. In the distance, we could see people searching all around the dorm buildings. Lights were going on in all the windows as students were either waking up, or the searchers were going room to room. Probably a bit of both.

They were searching everywhere around and inside the buildings. But not here. Harper had successfully gotten us outside of their search perimeter, at least for the moment. We had time to go find Scout and get her away from her father. But we had to hurry. Because I was pretty sure that as soon as the Committee’s people realized that we weren’t in the buildings, they’d expand the search pretty quick. And there wasn’t a lot we could do to hide from the powers they’d use.

That understanding made me push myself up a lot sooner than my stomach was exactly comfortable with. I came up to my knees, watching the people in the distance for another second before turning back the other way. Sands was already up in a crouched position, glancing back to the rest of us before she set off the way that Aylen was pointing.

For a brief second, I glanced to the part-Reaper girl. Part-Reaper. Was she really related to the Heretical Edge itself? Himself? Bob, as Koren called him. Was she really related to… him? It made sense. It explained why she was here, why she didn’t want to leave, what her purpose was. Did she want to free him? Of course she did. Of course. And now we were asking her to abandon that. Because there was no way we could get to the lighthouse with the Committee here. We wouldn’t get anywhere near the place before they would be right on top of us.

Together, Aylen, Avalon, Shiori, Koren, Sands, and I set off across the dark grounds. We kept ourselves low, hunching over as we jogged further away from the dorms. Just like the situation with Wyatt, I was also trying not to think about what was going on with Professor Dare. She was known to be basically Gaia’s right-hand woman and protege. So they would obviously try to contain her as well. Part of me wanted to insist that we go find her. But I knew that was stupid. For the same reasons that we couldn’t risk going to find Gaia, we couldn’t go find Professor Dare. If there was anything she couldn’t handle, we’d just end up being used against her.

Before long, I could hear voices. Scout and Professor Mason were definitely arguing. The two of them were right on the edge of the grounds, near one of the cliffs high above the jungle and the beach. The closer we got, the more we could make out their words.

“No, Dad, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. You’ve never understood.” Scout’s voice was raised. “You don’t understand the world or how much you’re being tricked. Just like all those other people. But it’s worse for you. It’s worse because they tried to tell you. They tried to help you, tried to show you the truth. But you wouldn’t open your eyes. Because you don’t want to know the truth. Because if you did, if you let yourself see it, you’d have to accept that you were wrong. You’d have to accept that you made a mistake, that you betrayed your friends and started a war for no reason. And you would rather drag everyone down again than admit that. You betrayed your friends for a lie, Dad. You let innocent people die because you wouldn’t believe Joselyn. And now you’re letting them arrest Gaia because you still won’t admit that you were wrong.”

A moment later, I heard Liam’s voice. “Scout, listen to me, it’s okay. You’re young and naive and I know you want to believe this stuff. You have no idea how much I wanted to believe it too. The idea that there can be good Strangers, that humanity isn’t alone? You think I don’t want that? But it’s wrong. It’s wrong, baby. They want to kill us, all of us. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. The monsters out there, the ones that pretend to be human, that pretend to be good… I’ve seen them. You think I just… that I just decided to turn on Joselyn for no reason? I tried. I…”

He trailed off for a moment before taking an audible breath. By then, we had managed to sneak close enough, ducked low behind some more bushes in a flower garden, to see the two of them. Scout was staying several feet away, her back basically right up against the cliff, while Liam was there with his hands raised placatingly, his back to the rest of us. From his body language, he was openly desperate to make his daughter understand what he was saying.

After taking a breath, the man pushed on. “There were Strangers, baby girl. There were Strangers and I tried to listen to Joselyn. They looked helpless. They looked safe. So I let them go. I let them go and they murdered an entire apartment complex. Do you understand?” His voice was choked. “I let them go because of what Joselyn said, and they massacred over a hundred people. She’s wrong. They’re wrong. We can’t let that happen again.”

He paused then before speaking in a softer tone. “The rest of you can come out now. I know you’re back there.” Turning slightly, the man watched as we collectively stood up.

“Dad,” Sands spoke sharply while holding her mace in one hand. “Get away from Scout.”

I saw the man’s mouth open, then shut as he looked at the mace, then back to the girl herself. “Sandoval, I know what you’re thinking. And why you’re thinking it. But Gaia is wrong. Joselyn was wrong. All of this is wrong. You need to stand down right now. All of you. No one wants to hurt you. We know you’ve been misled, okay? We know you’ve been listening to Gaia and her people and no one blames you for being idealistic. But put the weapons down, and sit until someone comes to collect you. We’ll handle all of this without violence.”

I saw a very brief smirk cross Sands’ face before she shook her head. “That’s where you’re wrong, Dad. Very wrong. Because you’re making a mistake, and you’re trying to drag the rest of us down with you. You’re trying to force the rest of us to believe the same lie you’re desperately clinging to.”

Scout spoke then. “Gaia didn’t kill Counselor Brockett. She couldn’t have.”

“She didn’t,” I confirmed, my voice drawing both her attention and Professor Mason’s. As they stared at me, I went on, trying to get the man to see reason. “Fossor did. He’s manipulating you all just like he manipulated the Heretics back before Crossroads, Professor Mason.”

The man blinked at me, then shook his head. “Fossor? What does he have to do with–” Cutting himself off, he shook his head. “No, you’re the ones who don’t understand. Brockett’s been collecting evidence that Gaia has been sneaking non-human students into the school. She’s been doing it for years. He found out, he confronted her with the evidence and gave her a chance to turn herself in. And she killed him for it.”

My mind was reeling. They knew about Hybrid students? That was bad, really bad. Earth-shatteringly bad. How–what–why did– There were so many questions spinning through my thoughts in those seconds that I couldn’t even order them properly. Fossor had found out what Gaia was doing and used that to frame her, or… or… something. What the hell?

From the corner of my eye, I could see Shiori and Aylen exchange brief glances. Yet Liam seemed to be paying very little attention to them. That seemed to mean that he didn’t know who the Hybrid students were. Only that they existed. But even that by itself was too much. Crossroads would root out anything like that. There was no way they’d rest until they found all of them. This was really bad. Even if–when we got away from here, how many students would that leave in danger here? Hell, how many graduated Heretics would be in danger? What was Crossroads going to do when word got out that some of their own people were half-Alter? What the hell would that mean?

Once again, Fossor had managed to completely fuck over everyone. And he’d probably been laughing to himself the whole time he did it, because of course the Committee (especially Ruthers) would play right into it. Damn it!

Clearly reading our reactions (or at least some of them), Liam gave a slow nod. “That’s right, we know a lot more than you think. And we also know that you kids were being manipulated. It’s not your fault. But you need to sit down right now. If I have to disarm you, I will. Either way, I’m taking you in to see the Committee, where we’ll get to the bottom of all this.”

“You’re wrong.” That was Sands, straightening up as she faced her father. “You’re wrong about all of this. You’re wrong about everything, Dad. Get away from Scout. We’re not staying with you.”

With a soft sigh, Liam let his gaze sweep over us. His tone was regretful. “Then I suppose you leave me no choice. I’ll have to make you.”

“No,” a new voice interrupted. “You won’t.”

Larissa came into view then, emerging from the trees. She stepped past us, putting herself in front of Liam. In one hand was her crystal weapon, currently shaped as a sword. Slowly, she raised it, pointing the end toward her husband. “You want to take these kids, Liam? Ours or any others?

“You’ll go through me to do it.”

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Mini-Interlude 75 – Chayyiel

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“You should not be here.”

Metatron’s voice was firm, the annoyance within it clear as the gray-haired old man stared intently at the only other figure within the small waiting area that served as a preparation room before those within would be admitted to speak before the full assembly of Seraphim, the leaders of the Seosten Choirs. From tradition, all who planned to speak before the Seraphim, even others of the same rank, waited in this small room. It was part of demonstrating that they all came from the same source, that all, no matter their current power and authority, were Seosten. That sentiment was stated plainly on a plaque within the room itself.

It was, on the face of it, a fine idea. Yet it was a statement which also, Chayyiel had long-since noticed, made the assumption that all who deserved to speak to the Seraphim were Seosten.

In response to Metatron’s words, the incredibly deceptively young-looking Chayyiel turned her head slightly to look at the man. Her voice, as she calmly replied, was even. “As I recall, kind Seraph, our ranks are equal in the eyes of this committee. And if you are making decisions regarding the situation on Earth, I have personal experience there. You do not.”

“It is that very personal experience that is why you should not be here,” Metatron informed her. “And we are not here simply to make a decision about Rysthael. We are here to determine if the deal which Lucifer and Sariel have offered should be honored. And you have entirely too personal of a history with those two to offer an unbiased opinion in that case as well. Flatly put, you have nothing to say here which will not be clouded by your past experiences.”

Chayyiel simply smiled at the man. “Only amongst the worst of bureaucracies is experience and detailed knowledge of the subject being decided upon seen as a disqualifying negative.”   

“Your words and retorts have grown sharp with age,” Metatron replied in a tone as even as hers. “But they do not change simple fact. Your perspective is clouded by your childhood with the traitors, therefore it cannot be trusted. You cannot make unbiased decisions regarding Rysthael, or the people upon it. Particularly Lucifer and Sariel, or anyone related to them in any way.”

Still smiling faintly, the girl gave a slight bow of her head to him. “I’m sure that the other Seraphim have already taken your words of caution into account and are thoroughly prepared for this briefing.” It was a not-so-veiled way of informing the man that she was well aware of the fact that he had been privately warning certain of their peers against what she might say, which also told him that they perhaps could not be as trusted as he believed. Or perhaps that their aids could not. It was hard to say where the information had leaked from to reach her ears.

And that was the point.

Before Metatron could respond to those words, the door at the far end of the room, just below the plaque which stated that all Seosten who walked through it were seen as equal in the eyes of those they were speaking to, opened. An aide stood there, dressed in a crimson robe with gold trim, the hood and mask raised to leave only his eyes exposed. Another bit of ceremony intended to show all as equal, which also served the function of disguising which specific Seraphim aid performed which duties during these meetings.

“They are ready for you, Honorable Speakers,” the masked and hooded figure announced. He bowed to each of them before turning on his heel, standing there in place until Metatron and Chayyiel approached. As they neared the man, he conjured a simple flame in his hand using a spell on his gloves, using it as a torch to light the pitch-black corridor beyond.

Following the man through that dark hallway, the two very mismatched Seraphim spoke no other words to one another. What needed to be said, as much as either would listen to, already had been. What mattered now was what each would say to the rest of the gathered leadership.

The long, completely straight corridor went on for almost three full minutes of walking, during which none were allowed to speak. The idea was that those who were about to speak would use that time to center themselves and prepare their minds for what was about to happen.

Finally, they reached the exit, a single wide door that slid silently out of the way, allowing them to exit the corridor. Stepping through, the trio arrived in a triangular room. A short set of stairs led up onto a stage in the same shape as the room itself, with three equal sides. Running up from each of those sides was a set of bleacher-like stands. Each of the gathered Seraphim were seated on plush chairs that attached to those benches.

Ninety-seven. That was how many Seraphim were attending this meeting. Not physically, of course. Each of the Seraphim, and the chairs they sat on, were actually safely within their own territory, being projected to this location via hologram.  Ninety-seven meant that only twenty-four currently living Seraphim had been unable or unwilling to make it. A decent amount of attendance, all things considered.

All conversation amongst the nearly one hundred Seraphim stopped as the trio entered. The masked aid immediately moved to the side, standing unobtrusively in one of the corners. Metatron and Chayyiel, meanwhile, walked silently up the stairs to stand in the exact center of the stage, facing the audience.

At this point, only one of the three sides of the triangular room, the one straight across from the tunnel entrance, was occupied. The other two stands of bleachers were each angled inward from the ends of that side before reaching the ‘point’ of the triangle where the door that the trio had just come through. Those sides were empty, because no one had spoken. This was the way that debates and decisions worked among the Seraphim. The bottom of the triangle, straight across from the door and the way those entering from the tunnel were facing, was where all of them began the discussion. As the meeting went on and the attendants began to choose which side of the debate they fell on, each would press a button on their chair, which would transfer their holographic image to either one side or the other, whichever was demonstrative of their opinion. They could change sides as they wished throughout the meeting, to show who they agreed with most throughout. At the end, votes were tallied based on where each Seraphim was seated.

“Kind Seraphs,” Metatron began without sparing a look for Chayyiel. “Thank you for taking the time from your schedules to meet with us on this important day. We are here to determine two things. First, what action should be taken regarding Rysthael now that the Aken spell has fallen into the hands of the rebel humans. And second, whether any attention should be paid to the deal that the traitors Lucifer and Sariel have offered, which is the potential ability to reopen the Summus Proelium project and begin creating newly empowered soldiers similar to the so-called Olympians.”

He paused then. “It is my belief that Rysthael should be taken by force. Due to our efforts, their space defenses are nonexistent, while the planet-based ones are easily compromised. The majority of their most powerful inhabitants such as the leadership of both primary Heretic organizations, Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, can be eliminated as a threat through their connection to our own operatives. The rest will easily be brought into line through a combination of our implanted members and military force from a few ships. Those same ships should prove sufficient to handle any opposition from the so-called Bystanders. We bring a few cargo haulers to the planet, set up our portals, and we can have the majority of the population taken to more secure facilities in a few weeks.”

“And then what?” Chayyiel put in, as she was serving as his opposition in this debate. “The spell is quite clear. Any Heretics from Earth cannot be possessed. Or, if they are successful at changing it, cannot be possessed without deliberate permission from the Heretic themselves. You wish to take seven billion inhabitants from their home planet and do what with them?”

Metatron turned a slight smile to her. “Breed them, of course. Yes, humans born on Earth would be immune to possession. So we take them away from Earth, breed them, and have their children as our weapons against the Fomorians.”

Chayyiel gave the man a dark look. “You have no proof that would work. Perhaps the spell applies to all descendants of those it is originally cast on, regardless of their physical location at the time of their birth. And even if not, what you are suggesting would require several decades to work, in a best-case scenario.”

“Two at the most,” Metatron corrected. “We can begin physical training and power-boosting of the offspring after the first ten years, and have the first ready to go before the end of the second. After that twenty years, we will churn out millions of these troops per year, a far higher rate of growth than our previous efforts. It will be enough to turn the tide against the Fomorians and end this war once and for all, within this century.

“And even if they cannot be controlled in our usual way, I guarantee that we possess enough power to force them to follow orders the old fashioned way. At least enough to send them at our true enemies. Or, we simply raise the offspring to adore and worship us, so that they do allow us to possess them. In any case, we retain control and point them at the Fomorians. One way or another.”

There were more than a few Seraphim shifting themselves over to the right-hand side of the meeting room, demonstrating their agreement with Metatron’s words. Chayyiel briefly watched them before speaking. “What you’re suggesting is to do the same thing with the humans that we’ve done with hundreds of other races for hundreds of thousands of years at this point. Because that has worked so well in our efforts to end this war and defeat the Fomorians. Specifically, we may possess the firepower to keep the humans in line, but that only works so long as we keep them weaker than we are, which would seem to hinder any efforts for them to destroy the Fomorians. They’re either too weak to overpower us, or strong enough to challenge the Fomorians. It literally cannot be both ways. Not to mention the fact that any strength we bring against the humans to keep them in line, a task which grows exponentially difficult with every bit of strength we allow them to have in our efforts to make them powerful enough to be useful at all, is strength we must take from elsewhere. Strength which will not be available where it is needed: on the front line.

“The entire reason the Earth-project was set up the way that it was is that doing so allowed us a steady influx of Heretic soldiers. It may not have been a flood of millions as you’re suggesting, but it was stable and it allowed the Heretics to gain enough power and skill to be useful before being brought to the war. That, in turn, gave them a better chance to survive and be useful when put against the Fomorians.”

Metatron nodded. “And that worked for its time. But that time has passed. It passed when the Aken spell was taken by the rebels. We have no other choice. Any Heretics born on Rysthael, or if your suggestion is true, any Heretics even descended from those born on Rysthael, cannot be unwillingly possessed. This is our only choice.”

“No,” Chayyiel pointedly disagreed. “There is another choice. We leave the humans with their space. We leave Earth alone and proceed with our human colony worlds. It will mean less of an influx of Heretics, but they will not be completely closed off. We take the colony worlds, break off all contact with Earth, and ensure that those colonies continue to grow. They can still become Heretics. We have species to bond them with, and we also have several with their own growing Eden Trees. They may only produce a few of the empowering fruit each year, but that is better than nothing.”

Metatron scoffed. “You are suggesting that we cede Rysthael in its entirety to the humans? That is absurd. Losing the influx of Heretics from the primary planet would be a blow we may never recover from. No, we take all the humans now. We may lose a decent percentage of them in the transfer and containment phases, but less than we lose by allowing the entire planet’s population to be taken from us. A little effort and risk now, and we will end this war within the century with an unending flood of new Heretics.”

One of the Seraphim in the audience cleared his throat. “I believe we’ve heard enough for a vote. Those in favor of invasion and forced relocation of the humans, to the right. Those opposed, to the left.”

It was fairly evenly split. Yet Chayyiel could see at a glance that more favored invasion. Of the ninety-seven who had attended the meeting besides herself and Metatron, fifty-six voted to invade, while forty-one voted not to. A clear winner.

Yet even as Metatron began to raise his voice to thank the gathered Seraphim for voting in his favor, Chayyiel spoke up. “I invoke Final Words.”

Final Words was an opportunity for one who had lost a vote to attempt one last time to convince those attending to change their mind about their vote. It allowed them as much time as they wished to speak for, so long as they continued without taking a break aside from answering questions from those gathered.

With a sigh, Metatron looked to her. “Do you truly believe you can say anything, in minutes or hours, to change the minds of at least fifteen of those who sit before us?”

“I have the right to attempt it,” Chayyiel pointed out to him, before addressing the audience. “But I have already attempted to convince you with my own words. Perhaps it is time to use the humans’ own words to convince you that they would be a powerful ally and a terrible enemy.”

One of the other Seraphim raised an eyebrow and asked, “What exactly will you say to convince us of that?”

Lifting her chin, Chayyiel announced, “It’s not what I will say.” She brought up a small handheld computer then. “It’s what I will read. The humans will change your minds themselves, with this.”

Another of the seated Seraphim nodded that way, his tone curious. “What is it?”

“This,” Chayyiel explained to the ruling body of all Seosten, “is a most sacred document, which will show beyond any doubt that the Seosten have much to learn from humanity, should we give them the time and opportunity. It is a text passed and shared throughout their world-wide communication system, which lays out the rules of engagement and governance of any enemies and peoples which the humans may find themselves brought into conflict with. It is a charter, a declaration, of everything they believe is necessary to achieve and retain victory over their enemies. And it is, I believe, the single most important letter to ever be penned upon that planet.

“It is titled, ‘The Top 100 Things I Would Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.’”

With that pronouncement, Chayyiel gave the audience a moment to murmur. Uncle Apollo would be proud of her for getting that entire spiel out with a completely straight face. She would have to see about obtaining the recording of the meeting to have it sent back to him, to show just how far the little joke he had sent her had gone. And how useful it had become in this moment.

“Ahem,” she began, holding the computer up importantly. “Number one. My Legions of Terror will have helmets with clear plexiglass visors, not face-concealing ones.”

One of the Seraphim shook his head, barking a short laugh of disbelief. “How in the void is that useful advice? Or important in any way. Or even slightly relevant?”

“Ah,” Chayyiel replied, “clearly it’s an indication that the humans will carefully inspect all of their troops. It’s shorthand for a rule that they will not allow themselves to be easily infiltrated, and will be on the lookout for spies and traitors, both of which are our go-to’s. By not covering their soldiers’ faces, they mean that each of them will be thoroughly vetted and identified at all times. That would make it even more difficult for our standard operating methods than it would already be.”

She continued then. “Number two, my ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.”

“Oh, come now!” One of the Seraphim blurted. “What relevance could that possibly have? With species as small as pixies, or those who can turn into mist, sand, water, or more, what point would containing the size of ventilation ducts have? This is a farce.”

Prepared for the question, Chayyiel easily replied, with as much seriousness as she could muster, “Again, your mistake is remaining too literal. This shows that they are security-conscious regarding their own buildings. If infiltrating an enemy’s personnel fails, what is our next option? To infiltrate and sabotage their structures. Yet here we have them stating their intention to guard against that very thing. They will be prepared for our efforts in that regard as well.”

She continued then, ignoring the murmured comments. “Number three, my noble half-brother whose throne I usurped will be killed, not kept anonymously imprisoned in a forgotten cell of my kingdom.” A pause then, before Chayyiel added in a flat tone, “I’m sure no one here can think of anyone who was kept alive in a prison cell for entirely too long and whose recent escape now threatens our entire society.”

With a moment to let that sink in, she pushed on through the list. Shooting was not too good for their enemies, the source of their powers would be kept in a private bank rather than stored supposedly beyond all reach, they would not gloat over their enemies, take the time to explain their plans before killing them, any required marriages would be immediate and private without wasting time or effort, and so on and so on. With each statement, she found some way to apply it to the current situation or to the Seosten in general.

Of particular amusement, for her own reasons, was the rule that any plan would be run past a five year old child to spot flaws within it.

Listen to advisors, no distracting maniacal laughter (she interpreted it as time wasted gloating), spending time and effort to make better uniforms for soldiers to raise their morale.

When she came to the point about not consuming any energy field bigger than their head, Chayyiel paused upon reading it. Her eyes lifted, and she smiled faintly. “This, of course, cautions against attempting to gain power that you are not prepared to handle. I think everyone here can understand the dangers of that.” She left unsaid, of course, the fact that they were all planning on doing just that anyway with the Summus Proelium project.

One of the Seraphim finally spoke up again. “These are preposterous. Number eighteen said that they would have no sons, and the next one stated they would have no daughters. How would their race continue?!”

“These points are clearly not meant in seriousness,” Chayyiel informed him, “but are intended to demonstrate the potential danger of rebellious, discarded children and show that we should take care of and guide our offspring. Something that Kushiel would have done well to listen to.”

Nearby, Metatron bristled, his mouth opening. “My daughter–”

She looked to him, expression soft. “Your daughter was killed by your granddaughter. I’m sorry that you lost her, but from all accounts it was self-defense, brought on specifically by ignoring that very rule.”

Only centuries worth of practice allowed Chayyiel to say the words with a straight face, rather than follow her first instinct, which would have been to put her fist through the man whose outright revulsion and near-violent reaction to Kushiel confiding in him the fact of his granddaughter’s disability had been the basis for the woman’s turn from being patient with the then-young girl’s gradual growth, to obsessively torturing her in a psychotic push for immediate results. Kushiel had, at one point, shown pride and care toward her child, until she made the mistake of confiding in her father what kind of tests they were doing. Learning that his grandchild was a Lie had made Metatron react horrifically, which in turn drove Kushiel’s hatred toward her daughter’s condition.

But she could not risk letting on that she knew that much about their situation. So, despite the urge to assault the man, Chayyiel went on with her list. Never push their luck or tempt fate by claiming invincibility, always have redundant systems, dress in bright colors to avoid appearing evil, turning into a giant snake never helped any situation, believe the words of their subordinates, do not employ bounty hunters who care about a fair fight, use a computer operating system that no one outside of those approved to handle it know how to work with, train their armies, listen to advice from underlings, and so on and so on. Every point, every statement, she found a way to apply to their own situation, at least in the hypothetical. Even one of the last ones, that data of crucial importance would be padded to 1.44Mb in size, seemingly completely irrelevant, was clearly a call to ensure that all important data would be too large to be easily copied to the most-used portable data storage device. Which was difficult to do in a society which could store terabytes worth of data on something the size of a fingernail. But the idea was sound.

Finally, she read the last entry, that all subjects would be kept in a mindless trance by providing free unlimited Internet access.

“Quite obviously, this is one of the most important entries on this list. It suggests that we avoid rebellion by keeping the people under our rule happy and content.”

“And by reading all of that,” Metatron slowly asked, “what did you accomplish? You cannot possibly believe that we actually have much to learn from the humans with this simple… childish… absurd list. You’ve changed the minds of…” He checked briefly. “Two. Two of our colleagues. You are still out-voted fifty-four to forty-three. The motion to invade will carry and–”

“Ahem.” A new voice spoke up, as their eyes turned back to the audience. Several more Seraphim sat there in the middle. A few more appeared a moment later. Late arrivals.

Late, in fact, because they had been speaking with Chayyiel’s top assistant and long-time friend, Aletheia. They were being convinced of which way to vote, but that had required more time than Chayyiel had before the vote would take place.

Hence, this elaborate ruse to buy more time.

The fifteen who arrived late all shifted to Chayyiel’s side of the voting, changing the results to be fifty-four to fifty-eight. Which meant there would be no invasion.

With a sigh, Metatron waited until all had shifted back to the middle before demanding, “Then what would you suggest? We cannot simply sit and do nothing. What should we do about the humans?”

“We could always turn them from subjects into allies,” Chayyiel mildly offered, well-aware of how that would be taken.  

“Allies?” Metatron snapped, his expression showing how ridiculous he found that idea. “What you’re suggesting is absurd. You do recall the history lessons of what happened the last time we trusted another species enough to ally with them as ‘friends’? They betrayed us to the Fomorians. Our entire species was nearly destroyed. Seosten can only trust Seosten. That is the way it has always been.”

“And yet this entire war that we have been fighting for untold generations,” Chayyiel pointed out, “is the direct result of the actions taken by Cronus, a Seosten.” She let that settle for a moment before continuing. “I am not saying that allying with the humans is our first choice. I am saying that leaving them in peace for now while potentially exploring that option for the future is the only true choice we have. Metatron’s suggestion, which has already been voted down, would have taken precious resources away from the front for decades, which we cannot afford to do. Unpossessable humans is not a problem that can be solved by bringing billions of those unpossessable humans into our territory and pissing them off. The best solution to this situation is to leave Earth in peace until we have a plan to convince them to willingly work with us.”

Metatron was watching her. “Or a plan to force them to obey orders. As we should have from the start.”

“I’m almost inclined to agree with him,” one of those who had originally voted for Chayyiel mused. “If it would end this situation, even if it’s a bit risky… better than risking an alliance.”  

One of the Seosten still seated in the middle raised a hand. “How much time would you need to craft these two separate plans? Invade or… hmm… convince the humans to work with us willingly.” He sounded a bit hesitant to even voice such a thing out loud.  

“As I said,” Metatron replied, “we can send a force today.”

“Five years,” Chayyiel informed the Seraphim in the audience. “Five years to create a plan that will convince the humans to work alongside us to defeat the Fomorians.”

The Seraphim in question turned to murmur something to a group behind him before facing her once more. “One year,” he countered. “We will give you one year to convince both this body and the Heretic leadership to adopt an alliance. Or at least an arrangement to continue providing Heretics for us to use. And as you are so drawn to Rysthael itself, we will use their calendar. One Rysthael year from today, you will have your chance in front of this body to prove that an alliance is possible and preferable to invasion. All in favor to the right, opposed to the left.”

Roughly three quarters of those attending moved to the right. It was passed. Which meant that they now had to debate what to with the offer that Sariel and Lucifer had extended, and that would be a whole other debate in and of itself.

But as far as Earth itself was concerned, the debate was done. Chayyiel and her people had one year to come up with a plan that would convince the Seraphim to ally with the humans. And vice versa.

She just hoped that Jophiel would be ready to present her students by then.

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Exodus 44-01

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Something really fucked up was going on.

That sentence basically could have opened almost any story from my life this past year. But this time it was particularly apt. Harper Hayes was in my dorm room where I had been sleeping with Avalon and Shiori, and she had just apparently knocked out another intruder with some kind of electrified knife before informing us that we had to go because Fossor just killed one of the Committee members and got Gaia arrested for it.

So yeah, with extreme emphasis, something really fucked up was going on.

Avalon was already on her feet, Harper’s words (if it was really Harper at all) bringing her up quickly. She grabbed the girl’s arm, giving her a quick shove up against the wall while hissing, “What the hell are you talking about? Who are you?”

“Valley,” I quickly blurted, tossing a pen to the girl. “Check her.” She caught it with her free hand while still holding Harper against the wall with her other.

Harper, for her part, gave a very soft sigh before extending her arm to the side, using her other hand to tug the sleeve down, exposing her skin. “Fine, do it. But quick, they’re already sending more to take your friends.”

Even as Valley scrawled the anti-possession rune on the girl, I was grabbing two things. First, a small coin that Wyatt had given me. My thumb brushed over it as I quickly activated the thing to let him know something was wrong. With my other hand, I grabbed my phone and pressed the button that would let Tabbris know that I needed her to check in. Wyatt and Tabbris, they were first.

Once the messages were sent, I pushed myself to my feet, trying not to wince. My legs still hurt. They weren’t crippled or anything, but they were definitely sore. Just putting my own weight on them after laying down for hours made a short, sharp pain shoot through me. Ow. Seriously ow. I wasn’t going to be jumping around anytime soon. Just the thought of launching myself with my staff and landing on them made me shudder.

One night. Could we not have one single night where we got to win without things going wrong?

In the meantime, Shiori had moved to check the guy on the floor. Glancing that way finally showed me who it was. October Atrean, one of the guys who had been sent by the Committee to keep an eye on things. Checking him, Shiori looked to me, whispering, “He’s breathing.”

Avalon finished with the rune then, stepping back a bit while we all stared. But nothing happened. There was no Seosten possessing her. Which meant… what, exactly? One of Fossor’s zombies? The thought of the chipper, perky girl I’d gotten to know a bit over that year being a zombie filled me with dread.

But no. I could tell she wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead, and she wasn’t possessed, so…?

“What are you?” Avalon snapped. “Who are you? What–shapeshifter, magic, what?”

“There’s a lot to tell you,” Harper agreed. “But now isn’t the time. Like I said, they’re coming for you. They already arrested Gaia. And by they, I mean more Committee members. They weren’t taking a chance with her, not after–” She stopped herself then, head shaking. “Explanations later. Right now, you want to get out of here without everyone you care about being thrown in Crossroads prison? Then we need to get off this island right now.

“Why should we trust you?” I demanded. “You could be working for… or with, any of like a dozen different people that want to get us out from Gaia’s protection. We have no reason to believe that you–”

Harper spoke then. Not words. Numbers. At first I thought she was listing temperatures, then time limits or something. Then I realized the truth.

“Latitude and longitude?” Shiori blurted. “What’s that supposed–”

“The baseball stadium,” I interrupted, staring at Harper. “That’s the coordinates for the baseball stadium that we fought Ammon at. You… you’re the one who sent that telepathic whisper to Professor Dare, the one who told her we were in trouble and where to find us.”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” Harper spoke quietly, yet urgently. “And I really want to answer them. But there’s not time. We have to leave, now.”

Avalon spun on her heel, starting to the door. “If Gaia’s in trouble, I–”

Shiori and I were both there, grabbing either of her arms. I spoke quickly. “Valley, stop. If she’s right–I don’t know who she is or what’s going on with her, but if she’s right, we don’t stand a chance. It’s the Committee, and if they have Gaia–if it’s something Gaia can’t handle…”

I felt Tabbris’ presence then. Not fully. She hadn’t recalled to me completely. Rather, she projected herself mentally, checking to see what was going on. I silently filled her in, letting her take in everything from my mind while urging her to stay at the Atherby camp to tell them. For a brief second, I felt a little more relief despite the insanity of the situation, just knowing that Tabbris was getting help.

“What do you want me to do, Chambers?!” Avalon snapped meanwhile, looking to me sharply. “Just abandon her? I can’t do that. I can’t just let her–if they’re going to–” She half-flailed helplessly, her eyes wide.

“Leave now,” Harper put in before I could respond. “Get off the island, regroup with others, and go from there. You won’t accomplish anything by getting yourself arrested. Nothing except turning yourself into leverage that can be used against her.”

Tabbris had everything by then. She was just as confused as I was, clearly. But she promised to tell everyone at the camp, and to get help. Then I felt her presence withdraw.

Spinning back to Harper in that time, Avalon started to blurt, “And who the hell–” Stopping herself as I quickly put a hand on her shoulder, she took a breath before staring intently at Harper. “We’re going to have a really long discussion after this.”

“Yes,” the other girl agreed. “We are.” She lifted her chin a bit. “But for now–” Suddenly and without warning, she threw her hand out. An invisible force caught Shiori, Avalon, and me, throwing all three of us out of the way. I fell over my bed with a yelp, while the other two hit a nearby wall.

An instant later, a new figure literally dropped in from the ceiling, phasing through just like October had. I immediately recognized him as the other man’s partner, Patrick. His fists were glowing with a violet energy, and the second he landed, the man was already swinging at Harper. In the span of about a second, as long as it would have taken me to blink, he’d already lashed out three times, twice with his right fist and once with his left. It was so fast, so ridiculously fast, that none of us had a prayer of reacting in time.

None of us, that was, aside from Harper herself. She ducked once to avoid the first swing, turned slightly to let the second go past her face, then rocked herself backwards just a hair so that the third would miss as well. Then her hand snapped up, as she slapped two fingers, just two fingers, against the side of the man’s neck.

He dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut, collapsing to the floor where he lay unconscious. It was that simple, that quick. Harper had barely moved. Now, she looked to the three of us, just as we finished picking ourselves up.

“They’ll send more. We need to go, right now.”

“We–” Forcing myself to focus despite the several thousand fucking questions I had, I snapped, “We have to get the others. Sands, Scout, Doug, Columbus, Sean, Koren…” My mind was going a million miles an hour. Vanessa and Tristan weren’t here, spending the evening at the Atherby camp with their parents. But the others, we had to get to the others.

“And Aylen,” Avalon put in sharply. “She’s Koren’s roommate, so it’s not out of the way. And even if it was, we’re not leaving her behind, not after what she did for us. If things are going wrong…”

“Yes,” Harper agreed. “You were the first targets because you were seen as the most… important to contain. But they’re already sending others for your friends.”

Everything the girl said and did made me want to call a time-out and interrogate her for several hours. But there wasn’t time. As much as I wanted to get actual answers from her (especially about how the living hell she had suddenly become such a badass), we had to get moving.

Wyatt hadn’t done anything yet. Or even responded. The thought of what could be keeping him made me cringe inwardly, but I forced myself to say, “We get the girls first, then grab the boys.. And after that…”

“After that,” Harper put in while moving to the door, “we get off the school grounds. I have a way off the island, but we need to be out from under their security system first. For now, get dressed.” She stopped at the door, seeming to listen for a moment before adding, “And grab anything you don’t want to leave behind.”  

Filing that right along with the list of all the other baffling things about the girl, I gave the other two a brief glance before running to my dresser. Hurriedly, I started to dress, shoving a few special things into my pockets and an extra-dimensional bag I’d been given earlier.

“Let’s go, guys,” I announced, kneeling by the box where Jaq and Gus were resting with their new roommate, Porthos. The two mice and the lizard all looked up at me as I extended my hands down, before the three of them hurriedly crawled up to my shoulders.

“Chambers,” Avalon started, and I glanced up to see the other girl by the windowsill where Herbie had been sitting (I’d gotten him back from Larees earlier). She tossed him to me, and I quickly put the little guy in my pocket before returning the favor by tossing Porthos to her.

Finally, I grabbed my notebook. Giving it a quick glance to make sure everything was in order, I shoved it away inside my bag before straightening. “Shiori?”

“Choo’s still with Savvy and the other kids,” she replied, having already slid into the same clothes she’d been wearing the night before. “I didn’t want to wake the little guy up when we got back. Guess that’s a good thing now. I’m good. Well, not good, but you know.”

We were ready. Which was a good thing, because as I looked to the doorway, I saw that Harper had disappeared.

The three of us quickly moved that way, Avalon going first. She hesitated, then slowly turned the knob and opened the door to poke her head out. I heard her make a noise of disbelief before opening it the rest of the way to step through.

Shiori and I glanced to one another, then slipped out as well. There, we found three Crossroads security people on the floor, soundly unconscious. Harper was there as well, just straightening from lowering a fourth to the floor next to Sands and Scout’s room. “Hurry,” she said quickly. “They’ll be coming in force now.”

The three of us exchanged quick looks. I pointed. “Valley, get Koren and Aylen, I’ve got the twins.” Then I started to the door Harper was next to, leaving Avalon to go the other way. I tried to sprint, but my legs protested too much, so I just sort of quick-hobbled my way there like some kind of old woman with hip and knee problems.

As a group, we had long-since passed each other copies of the keys that let us access each other’s rooms. Since I had the one for the twins’ dorm in my pocket, the door opened as soon as I turned the knob. Letting myself in, I fumbled for the light switch briefly before flicking it on.

The good news was that Sands was there, already sitting up and staring at me in confusion while her hand grabbed for her mace reflexively.

The bad news, because of course we needed more of that, was that the other bed was empty.

“Where’s Scout?” I blurted. “We have to go!” As if for emphasis, Jaq and Gus both chittered at her from either shoulder.

She stared at me in confusion, already picking herself off the bed. “Go? Where are we–”

“No time! Get dressed, grab anything you need. I–” Hesitating, I looked to her. “Fossor. It’s Fossor. He… he killed one of the Committee members, somehow.” While Sands gaped at me, I continued. “He killed one of them and blamed it on Gaia. They’re taking her in now, and coming after us. We have to go. Where’s Scout?”

To her credit, Sands had started getting dressed before I was even halfway through that. She hurriedly pulled on clothes, shrugging into her jacket before grabbing a backpack. “She probably went for a walk,” she informed me. “She does that sometimes, out on the far end of the grounds, near the edge of the shield where the jungle starts.” As she spoke, the girl grabbed a second backpack and tossed it to me, adding, “We, uhh, prepped for something like this.”

Catching what was obviously Scout’s bag, I blinked twice before nodding. “We’ll get her, come on, guys first.”

The two of us moved back to the hall, where Sands stopped short upon seeing the unconscious guards and Harper. “Wha–”

“It’s a long story,” I informed her. “And we’ve only heard like… five percent of it. She’s on our side, she’s helping us get out of here. The rest can wait.”

“Wait for what?” That was Koren, coming out of the other room with Avalon and Aylen right behind her. The latter had Sovereign perched on one arm, who looked as confused as his partner. Which was impressive for a hawk to begin with, let alone a mechanical one.

Both Aylen and Koren stopped short at the sight of Harper, looking just as confused as… well, everyone else except Harper herself. But before they could say anything, Shiori, who was standing by the door at the end of the hall, turned back to us and came sprinting. “They’re coming,” she hissed. “Four more security guys, plus Peterson Neal!”

“That guy is seriously annoying,” Harper muttered, sounding for a moment like the simple teen girl she was supposed to be. Then she waved us to the stairs. “Move, go. We’ll go up to the roof. Go, go, go.”

No one else questioned it. We all turned, rushing for the stairs. Sovereign hopped off Aylen’s arm to fly ahead, smart enough not to call out. Glancing back, I saw Harper touch something to the floor to activate a spell before she followed us, waving the group on. “Hurry,” she snapped, just as some kind of black cloud started to fill the hallway behind us. “It’ll take them a minute to get through that, but you need to move, now.”

Even as she said that, we were already moving up the stairs as fast as we could go. Shiori had moved to help me, putting one arm around my back so I could lean on her. Flashing the girl a grateful smile, I caught the railing with my other hand and kept heaving myself up that way. Sands, meanwhile, activated one of the privacy coins, as did Avalon, just to be on the safe side.

Around and up we went, running up those stairs while the sound of the door opening below reached us. They were right behind us. If Harper was right, the dark cloud would slow them down. But not for long. We had to get the others and get the hell out of here.

The speed with which Crossroads had gone from a place of safety to one of intense danger was kind of terrifying. I’d seen this place as… well, not completely safe, of course. That would have been blindingly naive, after everything that had happened. But now it was so much worse. The news that Gaia had been… had been arrested (was that even possible?!) and that they were all after us had turned everything on its end. The Committee had lost one of their own, and they were sending their goons to take us in.

Goons who, I had to remind myself, probably mostly thought they were doing the right thing. This wasn’t like fighting the Seosten. The vast majority of the people who were being sent to collect us were almost definitely good guys, at least in their own minds. They didn’t know what was really going on. How would they? Everything was set up for them not to know, and Fossor had taken advantage of that. Just like he’d taken advantage of the fact that everyone was exhausted after everything that had happened before making his move.

How he knew what happened, how he knew anything about it, I didn’t know. Escalan’s… body was long gone, and Gaia had done a thorough sweep of every other faculty member to make sure they were… well, alive. But somehow, Fossor knew enough to make his move right then, and I was positive that wasn’t a coincidence.

Passing every other floor (and a few confused older students who were milling around the halls looking around to see what was going on), we reached the top, where a ladder at the end of the hall led upward. Quickly, the seven of us climbed up, emerging on the roof, where we stayed low as the sound of voices outside calling back and forth reached us.

A sound caught my attention, and we all spun back to see one of the security guys floating up to land on the roof. He saw us at the same time, his mouth opening to shout something.

Then Harper was behind him. Her arm covered his mouth, as she did something with her other hand that made the man’s eyes roll back in his head. She let him fall gently, lowering him down before looking back to us. “Now,” she said sharply, “we have to go.”

“Go?” Aylen started. “Where are we going?”

“We have to get off the island,” I informed her. “It’s too dangerous here right now. If they’re taking Gaia… we have no idea how much they know, or what they’ll find out.”

“What?” the other girl snapped suddenly, eyes widening. “No, no, I’m not going–I’m not leaving the island. I can’t.”

“Aylen,” I started, “if they’re taking Gaia away, we don’t know if… if it’ll be safe for people like you and Shiori. Hybrids. We don’t–”

“We’ll come back for him,” Avalon cut in, watching Aylen. “You can’t free him right now, Aylen. Not with the Committee’s people all over the place.”

Realizing just what they were talking about, my eyes widened as I looked over toward the lighthouse. Aylen was part-Reaper. Actually, she’d said that she was a Reaper’s granddaughter. Did that mean that… Holy shit.

“But I–” Looking distressed, Aylen squirmed on her feet before swallowing. “Okay…” She didn’t look happy about it, but she wasn’t arguing. From the spot where he had perched nearby, Sovereign looked just as upset.

“Right,” Shiori started, “so we grab the boys and… uh oh.”

Looking the way she was, I muttered a curse. Because down below, the boys were right there. Right there being escorted out the back door of the dorm by several armed figures who weren’t dressed as Crossroads security.

“Committee lackeys,” Sands muttered, staring that way alongside us. “How do we get them and get to Scout?”

“Carefully,” I replied, just as a shout went up from below that ‘the girls’ weren’t in their rooms and to spread out to look for us.

“Very goddamn carefully.”

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Interlude 43 – Gaia and Athena

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Sitting at a bench on the far eastern edge of a small park, away from the playground that formed the primary hub, a lone red-haired woman watched the cars passing by on the nearby road. Her eyes followed one in particular as it pulled into a simple, somewhat worn driveway of an equally simple, worn house. The occupants, a young couple with their toddler son, emerged to start hauling in groceries.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

The voice came from a beautiful woman with short brown hair who stood behind Gaia Sinclaire. To some, she was still known as Auriel. To others, she was Athena. But to those who had been a part of King Arthur’s world, she would forever be recognized as…

“Nimue,” Gaia announced softly, without turning her head. She had known that the Seosten woman would come to find her. It had been one day since she and the others had returned to Earth, and this conversation had been a long time coming.

Stepping around the bench, Athena gave a faint nod. “Morgan Le Fey.” Slowly, she turned to look toward the house that Gaia was still watching. “Do you know who lives there now?”

Nodding, Gaia replied in a quiet voice, “I’ve always known, ever since they rebuilt the village and then… added to it. I know who lives there. I know who their families are, where they end up going. I don’t know why. It’s not like the house is even in the exact same spot. The cottage that Arthur and I grew up in was further to the left and back a bit. They… when they rebuilt after everything that happened, there wasn’t anything left of the cottage. There wasn’t–” She stopped talking then, giving a slight shake of her head before announcing simply, “You did not come here to hear the history of this place and all of its occupants over the centuries.”

“Well,” Athena noted, “that depends. I came to get an idea of how you are now. Part of doing that may be to hear the history of what interests you. Particularly that house.”

Smiling very faintly, an almost imperceptible upturn of her lips, Gaia observed, “You want to know if I have changed since those days.”

“I know you have changed,” Athena gently corrected. “Perhaps more than even you know, by this point. After all, those days were quite a long time ago for someone without the Seosten memory. Details may have faded.”

“I remember everything that I did,” Gaia informed her, still not looking that way. She sat a bit stiffly, her mind focused more on the thoughts of those long-passed actions and battles than on this particular moment. “I remember every choice I made, every… word that I spoke to my brother.”

Athena was quiet for a moment before she took a seat on the bench beside the other woman. She looked toward the house in the distance before speaking softly. “He never stopped believing in you. He never stopped believing that you could change, that you could be good.” She glanced sidelong to Gaia and spoke again in an even softer voice. “He never stopped loving you. I want you to know that, without any doubt. He loved you every moment of every day. And he always believed that you could change.”

For the first time, Gaia turned to look at her. Her mouth opened, then shut. It took her a moment to find the right words. “I… was angry. I was always so angry back then. So–” Pausing, she corrected herself. “I am still angry. I simply… control it more now. I direct it, I channel it into my work. But in those days, I… embraced the anger. I thought that I could make the world better by force, that if I could just… destroy and kill all of my enemies, the world would be a paradise.”

“You began with noble intentions,” Athena murmured. “Of a sort. The men who burned the village, the ones Arthur insisted on taking back for a fair trial, they did deserve to die.”

“They also deserved a trial,” Gaia pointed out. “One that I was in no mood to give them. They were evil men and the ones who committed that… evil act deserved to be killed after they were judged. That was Arthur’s law, but I didn’t care. I wanted them dead right then and there. So I killed them. All of them. Even the ones who… probably weren’t directly involved. I killed them and that was the end of my relationship with my brother.”

“Not for him,” Athena corrected while shaking her head. “As I said, he never stopped believing that you could change. He believed in you forever.” She paused before taking a breath while looking directly to the other woman. “If he could see you right now, if he could see everything that you have done and made out of yourself, he would be so proud.”

The two women went silent then, both of them simply thinking about those days while staring at the house that sat on the land where Arthur and Morgana had grown up. Finally, after a couple of silent minutes, Athena asked, “Do you remember how proud he was when he found you that first time?”

A tiny smile touched Gaia’s face once more, as she gave a faint nod. “Yes. I remember when we first met as adults, when we realized who each other was and he… brought me back to the place he called Camelot. I remember meeting his wife, his friends, his… his people.” Her voice was a bit hoarse, the emotions associated with that time drawing damp tears to her eyes that she dared not blink away for the moment for fear of also blinking away the memories themselves.

Chuckling softly, Athena mused, “He took you in front of the entire congregation at supper. Made you stand there while he said, ‘This is my sister, Morgana’.”

“And I corrected him,” Gaia pointed out. “I said my name was Morgan le Fey. Morgan of the Fay. That was so important to me then, to be known by the name they gave me, not the name that our mother had given, not the–” She stopped, sighing. “One letter. It should not have mattered. But it did, and I corrected him in front of everyone.” A somewhat sad, almost bitter smile came then. “Perhaps he should have taken that as a sign.”

“He didn’t care about that,” Athena assured her. “He would gladly have called you anything you wanted. He was simply happy to have you there, happy to have his sister back.”

“And I was still angry,” Gaia noted in a soft voice that betrayed her inner shame. “I was angry that he left me behind all those years earlier. He promised to come back and never did. He left me to go back into the village, so he wasn’t there when…” Trailing off, she forced her mind away from that memory and sighed softly. “I was glad to see him, but I was also angry because… because he was off learning all about his new dragon powers while I was forced to be a servant to an evil man. All those years when I was… when I took myself out of that service, when I made a life for myself only for that to be taken away when those Orcs abducted me straight from my little shop, when I… all those years and he never found me. It wasn’t his fault, but part of me thought it was. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for me to turn on him when I did. Maybe that’s why I could wage war against my own brother, because in my mind, I still blamed him for taking so long to find me. And for choosing to run into a burning village rather than stay with me.”

Once more, both of them fell silent, remembering those days and everything that had come after. It was another several minutes before Athena spoke again. “When you were there, he was happier. You were–are his family. You and Chadwick, and he…”

“We would not bring Chadwick into our world,” Gaia murmured. “He deserved to have a normal life. And he did. His descendants still survive to this day. I’ve seen a couple of them become Natural Heretics over the years, but none came to Crossroads.”

“My people would never allow that,” Athena agreed. “It would risk awakening Arthur. Particularly if any of Chadwick’s descendants happened to be the Key.”

Gaia shook her head. “I don’t believe they are. This… Key of Merlin, I’ve heard of it. Do your people believe that they’re a real person?”

“They are absolutely a real person,” Athena confirmed with a nod. “I believe some even know who it is, though I’ve never been able to find out for certain. The Key of Merlin will awaken Arthur when the time comes and his bones are all collected.”

Gaia took a moment then to watch the house once more, her eyes taking in the man as he stepped out to get something else from the car that had been forgotten. “I wouldn’t know where to begin searching for Arthur’s bones. I… I have looked, but whoever has them now has gone to great lengths to keep them hidden.”

Smiling at that, Athena nodded. “Yes, well, I imagine his wife would be greatly motivated to keep Arthur’s remains hidden. From my people and from you, given your history.”

That was enough to draw Gaia’s gaze to her, eyes widening fractionally. “She still lives?”

“We have not spoken in… a very long time,” Athena noted, “but so far as I know… I believe she is. It would take quite a lot to kill Guinevere. But one thing convinces me more anything else that she still lives.” Waiting for Gaia to raise an eyebrow curiously, she continued, “My people believe she is dead. And knowing her as I do, my people’s belief that she is gone is almost a certain testimony that she is not. No, I believe she is remaining quiet, caring for Arthur’s remains, and waiting for the right time. Perhaps she is searching for the key as well.”

Both women thought about that for a moment, their minds lost in the idea of what Guinevere could have been doing through all the years that the Seosten had believed her to be dead.

“Arthur was very happy with her,” Gaia said then, thinking back to those days. “She challenged him, made him grow, brought him up to the level he needed to be. I remember when I met her. She… ahhh, she reached out to me at first. She tried to be my friend. But I think even then, she knew there was something wrong. She was trying to get to know me, trying to feel me out for the sake of her husband. And I… I think a part of me saw her as my replacement. I was jealous, in a way. It almost felt as though Arthur had stopped looking for me when he found her.”

Chuckling just a bit, Athena replied, “There is a much longer story as to how Arthur and Guinevere met. And believe me, they did not get along at first. You’re right, she did challenge him. In more than one way. When they sparred, it was a sight to behold, particularly after an argument.”

That made Gaia raise an eyebrow. “I could not imagine those two in a serious argument.”

“Oh, they did,” Athena informed her. “They went at one another quite a lot, in the beginning. Both of them always had strong opinions, and Guinevere wasn’t about to let Arthur’s power deter her from telling him when she thought he was being foolish. She was raised by Michael. That kind of power didn’t frighten or intimidate her.”

“I don’t believe I ever met Michael,” Gaia observed thoughtfully.

“I know you did not,” Athena confirmed. “Because you still live, even after making yourself an enemy in her.”

Wincing, Gaia looked away. “Yes, I made myself quite an enemy of Guinevere, and of the rest of them… the rest of you. I did a great many things that I will regret for the rest of my life.”

“And you have survived to make amends, and to change,” Athena pointed out. “You have become a teacher, Morgan le Fay. You have helped far more than you ever hurt, after all these centuries. All the students whose lives you touched, the children you helped to raise up to become far greater than they would have been. They matter.”

“I have not done nearly as much as I wish I could,” Gaia muttered a bit darkly, her eyes glancing away. “I did not know of your people until quite recently, did not know of the… extent of their influence. Because I could not be trusted with that information. Because I betrayed Arthur all those years ago. If I had not… if I had remained loyal and learned the truth with everyone.. If I had been there when the true war broke in earnest…”

“Perhaps things would have changed,” Athena agreed. “Perhaps you would have turned the tide with your power. Or,” she observed, “perhaps my people would have gone after you specifically, to eliminate you as a threat. And if they did that, you would not be here now. You would not have done as much as you have to help others, to teach others.” She met the woman’s gaze while noting, “That is, after all, why Lucifer ensured that you were sent through time to begin with.”

Gaia blinked twice at that. “That was… him? He’s the one who sent Bernlak and I to the future after…” She flinched, looking away as her voice dropped to a whisper, “after Mordred…”

“After your son was killed, yes.” Athena raised a hand, resting it on the woman’s shoulder gently. “I am sorry about him. And about what came later.”

“They brought his body back,” Gaia muttered in a voice that dripped with an anger that would never be quenched. “Your… Puriel. He used my son’s reformed body as a host to attack Arthur. Because he was related to Arthur. The blood magic, they–” She grimaced, snapping her gaze away to glare at the ground, tears forming once more. “They used my son’s body to destroy my brother. And I was not there to help either of them.”

Athena’s hand stayed on her shoulder, squeezing firmly. “Lucifer knew they would come after you. His seers saw it, so he ensured that you would survive in order to atone for your mistakes, by sending you several hundred years into the future, long past the loss of Arthur and fall of Camelot. Because winning the war is far more important than winning a battle. Lucifer understands how to play the long game, perhaps better than almost anyone I have known.”

Taking in a long breath before letting it out as she carefully put the memories of her son back in the mental box where she kept such treasured thoughts, Gaia finally spoke. “Camelot may have been broken apart after Arthur’s… loss, but I have a very strong feeling that your people will come to lament that they never quite finished the job.”

“Such as with Guinevere,” Athena observed, bringing their conversation back to where it had been.

“Yes,” Gaia agreed, “such as with Guinevere.” Another smile touched her face at that thought, and she straightened. “However it comes out, I’m certain that your people will regret giving her so much time to do whatever it is she is doing.”

“They will regret a great many things,” Athena agreed. “We will all make certain of that.”

“Yes, we will,” Gaia agreed, bringing her mind back to the present while turning to look to the other woman once more. “We will make them regret everything they’ve done. And what they have failed to do. That… is part of what I have asked for Sariel’s help with. She has been working on a certain… project with me. And we believe that you can help to finish it, now that all the pieces have been brought together.”

Curious, Athena asked, “A project? What sort of project have you been working on with Sariel?”

So Gaia told her. She explained what she had sent Asenath and the others to gather, and why. She told the Seosten woman what she intended to do with the piece of the Hangman’s rope and every other ingredient.

By the time she was done, Athena gave a soft whistle. “You understand what that will do.”

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “I do. But it needs to be done.”

Thoughtfully, Athena noted, “For something like that, you would need to include someone who is actually–”

Gaia nodded again. “Yes. She knows about it. And she is ready for what it will mean… when the time comes. She is completely aware. I’ve… made quite certain of that, before we agreed to push forward.”

“Then I will help you,” Athena agreed, after looking back to the house. “Yes, I will help you finish this project of yours. And I do hope that I will have the chance to see the looks on my people’s faces when you use it.”  

With a slight chuckle, Gaia leaned back on the bench as she watched the house and thought back to the cottage that had been there before, and to the children who had played in front of it all those centuries ago. She thought of Chadwick and his chicken, of herself and Arthur playing with their stick-swords. She thought of everything that had come of their lives, memories playing out before her mind.

“Believe me,” she finally murmured almost silently, “there are many whose faces I wish to see when this spell is completed and used. Not only your people, but others. This whole thing has been a long time coming.

“And I, for one, cannot wait to see it through.”

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