Uncategorized

Interlude 39C – Gwen

Previous Chapter

Felicity Chambers was working with the Seosten. That was the first thing that had popped into Gwen’s mind as she sat there at the library table, pretending that she was frozen in time along with everyone else.

Well, technically it was the second thing. The first thing that had popped into her mind on the subject was that the girl had somehow been possessed the whole time (which seemed impossible), or had ended up being possessed before they came back. But listening to the conversation further made that obviously wrong.

She was possessed, but not all the time. There was no other way to parse what happened with the phone and the way the girl subsequently announced that they were all there. She had sent a message and her Seosten ‘partner’ had recalled back to her. Which meant that she wasn’t possessed at that time and had willingly chosen to be possessed again.

She was working with her possessor, apparently. And also working with Elisabet… who was possessed by the Seosten named Jophiel.

At least Gwen now knew who the Seosten-possessed Committee member was. That was something she could use.  

As to why Felicity was working with her, it very soon became clear that the alliance wasn’t exactly the girl’s first choice. She was about as close to openly hostile to them over the death of Rudolph Parsons as she could possibly be, without being incinerated.

From what little Gwen was able to piece together on this situation, it seemed that Felicity being possessed was something separate from her deal with this Jophiel. She was possessed and the two were willingly working together to the point that the one possessing her could leave for extended periods and keep Felicity‘s memories intact. Somehow, Jophiel had learned about that partnership, and had a similar relationship with her own host. They were now using that to convince Felicity to work with them so they could show the Seosten leaders the virtues of an alliance with humanity rather than subjugation.

Boy, would Michael ever be interested in hearing about this.

And speaking of things he would be interested in knowing, Sariel had children. Tristan and Vanessa Moon were half-Seosten, which… answered almost as many questions as it created.

In any case, the Moon twins were Sariel’s, and Felicity was willingly possessed by a Seosten whom she was at least friendly with, from the sound of things. The four of them had apparently been co-opted by Jophiel and Elisabet to try and convince the Seosten leadership to change their strategy for dealing with humanity.

Yes, Michael was going to want to know about all of this. And there were a lot more questions that needed to be answered. How long had Felicity been possessed? What made her work willingly with her possessor? How close were they? Another romantic connection of some kind? His name was Tabbris, which given the history that Michael had told her about the historical Tabbris who had ‘betrayed’ the Seosten and stolen a planet out from under them, said a lot about whoever had named him. Unless he’d adopted the name for himself at some point…

And what made Felicity not tell her friends about the situation with this Jophiel? Because it was pretty clear that all this was very secret even from her own team.

On and on the questions went. Gwen had learned an astounding amount in a very short time simply from pretending to be frozen. But she hadn’t learned enough. She had to find out more. And that meant doing some work.

The instant the time stop was dropped, after the group passed through the portal that had been created, Gwen was on her feet and heading for the door. She could still smell the very faint odor of the memory clouding smoke, but that was the extent of its effects on her. She had been learning to protect herself from such effects almost since the time that she learned to walk. The Seosten loved their memory powers and spells, depending on them almost to the point of it becoming a crutch. Even beyond, some would say.

“Hey, Harper!” Shiloh Lexx met her in the doorway of the library. “You done with that thing already? Because they’ve got a soccer game starting up and everyone wanted to know if you were in.”

For a decent portion of her life, Gwen had pretended to be more than one person. Throughout her life in Camelot with her beloved Arthur, she had been both Queen Guinevere and her husband’s closest knight, the swordsman known as Lancelot. For quite some time, all save for their closest friends had believed them to be separate people, thinking that Lancelot was a man.

That was an arrangement which had ended up backfiring rather hilariously when she had been observed secretly leaving or entering her own room through the window multiple times as Lancelot, leading to the speculation that the two of them were having an affair. That had been an interesting situation to deal with.

Lancelot wasn’t the only other fake identity, both male and female, that she had taken up over the intervening years either. All of which meant that Gwen was very experienced in compartmentalizing her thoughts and personality, adopting new ones and shifting through them very quickly and easily.

So, despite the fact that she had about a thousand very serious thoughts and questions running through her head right then, there was almost no hesitation before a quick, broad smile broke across her face at the other girl’s words.

“Oh man,” she chirped brightly. “I hope so! But we’re not done yet. Flick just had to use the bathroom. We’ve still got work to do, so you tell them that I’ll be there if I can, okay? And play hard, because I’ll bring cookies for the winner.” She held that for just a second before giggling. “Okay, okay, I’ll bring cookies for everybody. But still!”

Shiloh still wanted to chat, and it took Gwen about a minute to extricate herself without being rude or making the other girl suspicious. Which meant that she had between six and nine minutes before Felicity would be returning. Much longer from that girl’s point of view, apparently. But still, between six and nine minutes for Gwen. It was time that she would put to good use.

To that end, she went for the female dormitory. The good part about the personality that she had established for Harper was that skipping and such didn’t look at all out of place for her, and it was actually a fairly fast way to move around. Hell, as energetic and enthused as she generally was, no one really batted an eye to see her even jogging through the halls. Or dancing, though that wasn’t exactly fast.

Reaching the room that Felicity shared with Avalon, Gwen took two minutes to temporarily clear all the security measures on the room. It would have taken a lot longer if she hadn’t done it before, and actually had that first time. She’d been at it for literally hours, carefully undoing security measure upon security measure while avoiding tripping any of the myriad of alerts. It had been pretty absurd, the level of protection put on that one room. She expected to get in within the hour at the time, and it had ended up taking almost three hours of off and on work to make sure she made it without throwing up a dozen alarms, either obvious or secret.

But the work had been worth it, since it meant that she now had a much quicker back way through all the spells, which only took her two minutes to manage. Two minutes still in a room that she was prepared for and had been in already, when she could easily get through basically any other room in this dormitory in about three seconds. Whether it was Gaia or someone else putting these spells on Avalon and Felicity‘s room, they clearly knew what they were doing. Gwen was impressed, even if it was almost annoying for her own purposes.

She made it in, however, with about two to five minutes to spare. She was going to assume that they would use as much time as possible, but still. Better safe than sorry. She didn’t have to be sitting right there when Felicity got back. But if she wasn’t, the girl will probably go look for her at the bathroom, thinking that Harper had gone to find her or something. She’d meet her partway in that case. For now, all that meant was that she had a couple of minutes to do this.

Closing the door behind her, Gwen immediately turned to face it. She stood for a moment, focusing before a single tear fell from her eye. As it did so, she reached up, using one finger to take the tear from her cheek and brushed it against the door knob.

For about three seconds, the knob glowed bright green before the glow faded.

The tear was not really one of sadness. Nor was it a normal tear at all. It was actually a power she had sought out, that of a Yletseit, wolf-like creatures who cried over their offspring and packmates to mark them. They did the same with prey, to the point that early beings who had encountered them thought that the creatures were crying about killing their food. There were some poems about that. But in truth, it was a hunting method. A Yletsiet could track and find any creature marked by their tears for about twenty-four hours.

The tear would sit on the doorknob until Felicity touched it. But just to be safe, Gwen took a moment to put a quick spell on the knob itself, which would put a very light shield around it, basically an invisible and undetectable sleeve. The spell would stop anyone else from touching the tear if they happened to come in, and was set to dissipate the moment Felicity was reaching for it.

That would hopefully do the trick. When Felicity went to exit the room, her hand would touch the knob and the tear would be absorbed by her skin. Then Gwen would be able to track her perfectly for the next twenty-four hours.

She possibly could have just put the tear on her hand and then shook Felicity’s, or patted her back or something, of course. But with something like this and all the attention that was on the other girl, it felt best to do it as far out of sight as possible. Let Felicity be somewhere she felt safe, here in her dorm room where she might be less likely to notice anything and where there weren’t a lot of other eyes paying attention. Besides, if the girl did find out about the tear, Gwen didn’t want her to remember Harper deliberately touching her wherever it was found. Safety and subtlety, that was far and away more important than convenience. It might’ve been overly paranoid, but she hadn’t gotten to where she was by being careless or rushing things.

She wanted to do a lot more than that, including putting spells on the girl that would let her hear what was going on. But that felt too dangerous, with all the extra magic she’d found all over this room and the girl herself. Plus, from what she had heard and put together, Jophiel obviously had ways of blocking those tracking spells anyway. This was the best way that Gwen could at least follow when Felicity and the others were eventually sent on the mission that had been mentioned. This, at least, wasn’t a spell. It was the best she could do under the circumstances.

And whatever it took, Gwen was going to follow them that evening. She had had no way of tracking the group to wherever they’d gone a few minutes earlier, but this she could do. Above all else, she needed more information. She needed to know what Jophiel was having them do, exactly, and work from there.

Besides, it was very possible that Felicity and the Moon twins could get in over their heads with this, and they deserve to have someone watching their backs, even if they didn’t know about it.

That very simple, yet incredibly important bit of business done, Gwen made sure the hallway was clear, then used on intangibility power to quickly step through the door so that she didn’t have to touch the knob, before setting the alarm spells back to normal. Out of time, she turned, heading to the exit and for the library to meet up with Felicity once more.

Whatever happened later that evening, Gwen was going to be there. And she was going to get some more answers.

******

Tristan Moon was very perceptive. Gwen had to give him that much. He had noticed her shadow on the ground as she knelt above the group in the top of one of the apple trees, listening to their conversation. Her teleportation power was entirely too fast for him (fast enough that she had been able to use it to escape from the dormitory back when that mind controlling boy had tried to tell everyone to attack Felicity, sending herself far away out of earshot before he could finish his sentence), but still. The fact that he’d noticed at all in the instant her shadow had been visible was testament to his ability.

Not that she would have been recognized if he had seen her. She had not only slipped on a different enchanted bracelet that changed her appearance to be different from both that of Harper and of her true self, but also wore what amounted to a white and gold ninja outfit, complete with a mask that covered all of her face save for her eyes. Layer upon layer of security. Even if she somehow lost the mask and was seen, the face she was wearing in that moment would tie back neither to her true self nor to her identity at Crossroads.

Gwen had been able to stay close enough to listen to a good bit of the conversation, though she had missed some of it, words here and there. She learned a lot more than she already knew while the group waited for their target to arrive. They talked a lot, which was helped along by the spell that Gwen herself introduced which subtly pushed them to bring up certain subjects. It was all very illuminating.

She found a bit more about the being possessing Felicity, the one called Tabbris. From the sound of things, he had been possessing the girl for awhile, even before the girl had known of him. Which made Gwen assume that he must have been sent by the Empire to possess the girl, and then… grown fond of her. Fond enough to eventually become romantic? That was the impression she was getting.

Either way, he was a full Seosten who was staying at the Atherby camp along with Sariel herself, who had been rescued from some prison lab pregnancy factory run by none other than Kushiel. And apparently those two were not the only Seosten there either. From the sound of things, the Atherbys had more former prisoners who had been rescued from the same prison.

The Atherbys. Arthur-By, as it had originally been. Gwen had disagreed with that group from the beginning, though it was not an entirely unfriendly disagreement. She knew why they set up to do things the way that they had. Their goal had been to openly oppose and delay the Seosten wherever possible.

Gwen, meanwhile, had believed that the best way to do things was to go completely underground. They needed to act in complete secrecy for many years, preparing for when Arthur would return. He would need a support network and as much information as possible. And he needed people to focus on bringing him back in the first place. That’s what she and the people who had been with her had been doing over the centuries. They and their descendants, that was. They had gone completely dark, putting themselves out of sight and out of mind for so many years simply to convince the Seosten that they were completely gone. It was the only way that they would be able to work to bring Arthur back when the time came.

But Gwen bore no ill will toward the Atherbys. She knew why they had chosen differently, and knew that Arthur would have respected that decision as well. In truth, both of their groups were likely needed. The Seosten would never believe that the remnants of Camelot had simply completely disappeared. Having the Atherbys around helped with that. Especially after she faked Lancelot’s death, as he would have been high on their priority list.

Still, even if she held no grudge against the other group, Gwen wasn’t going to go spilling everything she had found out to them already. For one thing, she didn’t know how good their operational security was at this point, so there was no way of knowing if it would get back to the Seosten. Besides, there was still a lot more she was going to need to look into before she would feel that talking to the other group was advisable. Especially as it sounded like there were actually other Seosten there, which was… very curious.

And just maybe she was a little hesitant to even anonymously leave Gaia any information. Anything that might even vaguely possibly make her look at Harper anymore than she did was a bad idea. Gwen wasn’t ready to have an actual discussion with the woman who had been Morgan Le Fay just yet. So she would keep the secret, for now at least. She would keep the secret, and look into it for herself.

Crouching unseen in the field, she watched as the group of students attacked the bus that was obviously a Seosten transport. She hadn’t been able to find out what they were after aside from the fact that it was ingredients for some kind of spell. What spell exactly, she had no idea. Probably because they didn’t either.

Speaking of spells, she had noticed something else while observing the children. They clearly weren’t aware of it, but Jophiel and Elisabet seemed to have put some other kind of spell on them. The magic made it so that anyone observing them would quickly forget specific details about them. Hair color, height, eye color, things they said, how they acted. All of that would be reduced to to very general knowledge almost immediately after it happened. It was obvious that the Committee member and the Seosten woman were protecting the groups identities even more than the students were aware.

Gwen watched while they attacked that bus, noting their strategy and skill. They were already far and away beyond what a normal first year student should have been capable of. It was impressive. But then again, if they were being instructed by all the different tutors they seemed to be, that made sense.

When they finished, the group took a crate of some kind from the bus, using an enchanted something or other that Jophiel had provided which created a brief portal for them to disappear through. They also left several of the guards alive to escape, which was somewhat questionable. The humane part of Gwen applauded their mercy, even as the practical part of her worried about their leaving witnesses who might have identified them if it were not for the identity concealing spells that Felicity and the others clearly didn’t know about.

It was a hard question, compounded by the whole Seosten slavery issue. Some of their troops worked with them willingly or because that was all they had ever known, while others were more firmly oppressed and held under the boot of authority. It was always difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the person you were fighting deserved to die or not. Far too often, the answer was the latter.

So she absolutely understood why Felicity and the twins had left as many alive as possible. Though she did wonder if it was any point of contention with that Tabbris. If the Seosten had been assigned to possess Felicity Chambers, he was probably quite experienced at doing the hard thing. Still, maybe he respected that they were trying to retain their humanity even while being put in these impossible situations. Gwen certainly respected it.

But she also needed information. And she didn’t want her presence to get back to Jophiel, even if her identity was concealed. She didn’t want to risk that.

So, she would interrogate the survivors. She would determine what they knew about the ingredients that had been taken from the bus, and see if she could figure out what spell was being prepared. Then she would get to know the people themselves. She would determine which were too dangerous to really trust to release and which could be freed. Those the latter would be taken to Michael, who would ensure that they didn’t remember any specifics before sending them somewhere at least somewhat safe to start new lives. As far as the Seosten in general would be concerned, the group would have simply disappeared. With luck they would attribute it to them either been killed or running away while they had the chance.

Jophiel would be more confused, of course. But she would hopefully also believe that the survivors had taken the opportunity to disappear rather than face judgment and punishment for their failure.

It was the best plan that she could come up with in that time, the best that didn’t involve simply killing all of them, which she was loathe to do.

The group of surviving guards had run almost two hundred yards from the sight of their broken bus when Gwen made her presence known. Appearing in front of them in her costumed, masked form, she looked up to meet their startled gazes.

“I know you’ve had a very bad day,” she announced quietly. “It can either get better now, or worse. You each have to decide which.

“But for the record, you won’t get to change your mind.”

Advertisements

Interlude 39B – Haiden

Previous Chapter                                               Next Chapter

Please note that the scenes between Haiden and Sariel depicted later in this chapter are the same scenes as depicted from Sariel’s point of view in Interlude 13A

March 18th, 1986

As Haiden Holt stood at the glass door that was the back entrance into the apartment building that he had been calling home for the past couple of months, he heard a noise behind him. Instantly, the man’s hand found its way into his long coat to touch the handle of his sword. At the same time, he looked into the vague reflection in the door, summoning the power which allowed him to perfectly see and magnify anything that was seen by the glass itself. The power worked for up to thirty feet worth of glass, generally allowing him to view anything that could have been reflected within it.

The form coming up behind him, however, was not any kind of threat after all. Relaxing slightly, Haiden released his grip on the weapon before turning a bit with a smile. “Good evening, Mrs. Wen, you’re out late tonight.”

The tiny, yet ancient looking Asian woman returned his smile, tightly gripping her cane while leaning on it. “Oh yes,” she agreed, “I had to visit my granddaughter for her birthday. Do you know what film we had to go and see? Something called the, umm, High something. Lander, that was it. The Highlander. I couldn’t follow that nonsense at all. Can you believe it? A little girl wanting to go see something like that. Men with swords cutting each other, being immortal or some such.”

Restraining the urge to smile too much, Haiden gave a slight bow of his head. “Yes,” he managed, “it does seem like something of a stretch.”

“And a proper young girl wanting to see it?” The woman huffed a bit, head shaking. “It just seems wrong.” She blinked then, before waving it off with her free hand. ”Oh, but I just rant. I am glad she had a good time. Even if I don’t understand it.”

Agreeing that that was what was important, Haiden used his key to unlock the apartment building door and pushed it open before gesturing for the woman to go ahead. Together, they walked to the elevator and rode it up to the floor that they shared. As they reached her apartment, the woman wished him a pleasant good night and stepped inside, leaving Haiden to head for his own door.

Though he was part of Eden’s Garden, Haiden had been operating on his own in the city for the past few months. He preferred it that way, simply checking in whenever he needed to while chasing his own leads to find monsters before they could do any more harm.

Flipping the light switch on as he entered, the man headed straight for the kitchen. He took down a glass before starting to fill it with water from the sink.

As the water poured, it abruptly stopped filling the glass. Instead, the stream shot over beside him, forming into what looked like a water statue of a human being.

As soon as it started, Haiden jerked backward, pulling his sword from his coat before realizing what was happening. “Dammit, Lucy, what did I say about taking me by surprise?”

Lucy was the only name he had for the strange Heretic who had repeatedly contacted him for the past several years to point Haiden in the right direction. He had no idea why the man called himself Lucy, but he always seemed amused by it. Neither did he know why this ‘Lucy’ almost never appeared in person but almost always through some form of elemental communication spell, such as appearing in a bonfire or, as now, as a figure made of water.

Either way, from what Lucy had said, he wasn’t much of a fighter himself, and didn’t want to get involved in things. But when he knew something, he would appear and point Haiden the right way to stop something bad from happening. Apparently, he had his own contacts that fed him information in turn.

“Sorry, Haiden,” the man apologized through his water-messenger spell before speaking again. “But this one is important. It couldn’t wait. Comes straight from old Nicholas himself.”

Nicholas. Haiden didn’t know a lot about him, except that he was Lucy’s most reliable and yet seldom used contact. Every bit of information that Nicholas had provided before had led to stop incredibly dangerous monsters from an enacting horrific plans. Whoever this Nicholas was, he had provided enough information in the past to stop multiple wholesale slaughters from happening. He didn’t send along information often, but when he did, it was a big deal.

The news that whatever this information was came from him was enough to make Haiden relax slightly. “Okay, what’s happening?”

Running a hand through the water that comprised his hair, Lucy replied, “There’s this girl. Little kid apparently. She’s about to run into these gangsters or something, and there’s going to be a Stranger there. You need to save her.”

Haiden blinked at that. “A little girl needs to be saved from gangsters and some Stranger? If it means saving a kid, I’m on it, no doubt. But are you sure that was the whole message?”

Lucy shrugged. “He just said that she needs you more than anyone has ever needed you, and that when the gun is fired, if you don’t save her, a good person will die.”

Haiden frowned a little. “That’s oddly… specific. But I guess he’s been right too many times before to question it now.” Pausing, he looked to the man. “Don’t suppose you can tell me anymore about him yet?”

“Hey, man,” Lucy objected, “you know my rules for passing info.”

“Anonymous, always anonymous and with all the privacy you want.” Haiden waved a hand. “Right, right. Okay, so give me the location and time.

“I guess I’m saving a little kid from a monster.”

******

 

March 20th, 1986

 

In his hawk form, Haiden glided on the air currents above the forested area that his contact had pointed him toward. Scanning the trees below with a mixture of his hawk vision and other powers, Haiden searched for the right spot.

The sound of gunshots in the distance suddenly caught his attention, and Haiden abruptly wheeled around in the air, heading that way as fast as possible. He continued to scan for his target, asking himself if he was already too late.

There. The gunshots had stopped, and Haiden saw the figure of a young girl who had obviously been shot, stumbling to her knees. A feeling of despair and failure rose up in him just before he saw something else. A fully grown woman, appearing from inside the girl. The woman picked the girl up and started to carry her.

Stranger. It was the Stranger. She was taking the girl. Haiden might’ve been too late to stop her from being shot, but he was still going to save her. He wasn’t going to let some horrific ritual or whatever this stranger had in mind happen.

Something didn’t make sense. Nicholas‘s information had always been very specific and useful. He’d always given Haiden enough time to find his target before. What was different this time? Why had he sent Haiden somewhere without enough time to actually find the girl before she was shot? What happened?

And why wasn’t this woman setting off his Stranger sense? She had to be the Stranger that had been referred to, since he just seen her stop possessing the kid. Yet she didn’t set off his sense. That in and of itself wasn’t completely unheard of, of course. But it just added to all of his confusion.

Either way, Haiden wasn’t about to give up on saving the child. He dove for the woman, cutting her off before reforming into his human shape.

Drawing his sword while feeling a pang of remorse at the sight of the injured girl that was a reminder of his failure, he snapped at the woman, “I don’t know what you are or where you think you’re going with that girl. But I’m not gonna let you take her.”

Why he even said that much to her, he had no idea. The woman said something in response, but all Haiden could think about was saving that kid and rectifying his failure. He threw himself into an attack, wanting to end this as quickly as possible. He had to be careful to avoid hitting the kid, which slowed him slightly and stopped him from using any of his more dramatic area of effect powers.

Suddenly, the woman stopped dodging and knelt to put the girl on the ground. Why? Was she freeing her hands for something? Trying to make him focus on the kid while she escaped? He’d take that if that was what she was—

“Kill me then. But take the girl to the hospital after you do. Save her.”

At those words, Haiden flipped his sword around while his mind reeled. What the hell was going on? What kind of game was she trying to play with this?

Slowly, he replied, “I don’t know what kind of trick you–”

The Stranger interrupted. “It’s not a trick! Look, just–” Suddenly, a pistol appeared in her hand. Even as Haiden moved to react that, she blurted, “Save the girl.”

Then she pointed the gun not at him, and not at the kid. Instead, she pointed at her own head and began to pull the trigger.

Nicholas’s passed-along message was suddenly in Haiden’s mind. When the gun was fired, if he didn’t save her, a good person would die.

He had been sent here too late. He’d never had a chance to get to the girl before she’d been shot. That made no sense. Nicholas‘s information always gave them enough time. There was no way that he could have gotten to that spot before the gun fired. No way that he could have saved her like that. No way to stop it.

Unless that wasn’t the shot that Nicholas had been talking about. Unless the girl wasn’t the person he had been referring to. He’d said that when the gun was fired, if Haiden didn’t stop it, a good person would die. A good person.

The words that he hadn’t really been listening to before filled Haiden‘s mind even as the woman’s finger tightened on the trigger. Save her. She had said that she was trying to save the girl, and he hadn’t listened. Why would he listen to a Stranger rambling excuses?

Save her. Save her. Save the good person.

He moved. Lunging forward at the last possible instant, Haiden lashed out with his sword, interposing it between the gun and the woman’s head so that the bullet ricocheted off of it.

She looked just as surprised as he felt in that moment, staring at him in shock.

“Why would you do that?” As he voiced the question, Haiden had no idea he was talking to the woman… or to himself. Why would he make that choice right then? Why would he stop a Stranger from killing herself? Why had she been trying to kill herself? What was going on? Had Nicholas really sent him to save her instead of the girl?

The woman interrupted his thoughts. “The girl. Please. She’s dying.”

That was enough to stop Haiden‘s other thoughts. He quickly grabbed the woman by the arm, not willing to let her out of his sight until he figured out what was going on. Sheathing his sword, he pulled her over next to the injured girl and knelt to put a hand on her. Focusing on another power, he transported all three of them to the nearest hospital that he knew about.

They appeared in the middle of the entrance of the emergency room, and he quickly passed the girl to the nurses there while letting the Bystander Effect take care of any confusion about their sudden appearance.

As the girl was taken away by the medical professionals, Haiden saw the woman start to take a step after them. Before she could, he put a hand on her shoulder. Something made him speak reassuringly. “She’ll be okay. They’ve got it.”

Why? Why had she tried to save the girl to begin with? What happened back there? How on Earth was he supposed to explain this even to himself?

The woman looked to him with what looked like peaceful resignation, speaking hesitantly. “I… Thank you for letting me see that she was being saved. You… you can kill me now if you want to, if that’s your price.”

Now Haiden was even more confused than before. He had half expected her to use helping to save the girl as a trade for letting her go. Or maybe she would have used the innocents nearby as cover to escape. But she wasn’t. She was just standing there, waiting.

“If that’s my…” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, Haiden grimaced and took a second before coming to a decision. Looking back to the woman, he gestured to summon his teleportation power once more, sending the two of them back into the woods where they had just been. It was as good a place as any for this. He needed answers, and he needed them now.

Taking a few quick steps back from the woman to put space between them, he stared at her while demanding, “You’re not evil. You were really trying to save that girl. Why?”

Because that was the most important question of all. Why would a Stranger, a Stranger try to save a human child? It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. Not her actions, not his own decisions, and not the original message from Nicholas. What the hell was happening?

The woman was beautiful. He recognized that now that he was allowing himself to see it, now that there was time to process. She was blonde and gorgeous, an ethereal, almost angelic beauty that somehow made his knees feel weak when he looked at her. Where was the revulsion? She was supposed to be a monster, so… where was the monster? Looking into her eyes, he saw no evil. Instead, what he saw… was loneliness. He saw so much loneliness and emptiness that he wanted to embrace her.

It was insane. It went against everything he had ever been taught or known. But he wanted more than anything to put his arms around her and tell her that everything would be okay.

The woman spoke softly then. “It’s a long story. But I never wanted to hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it. She didn’t.”

His mind was still reeling from all of this. She didn’t want to hurt the girl? She didn’t want to hurt anyone? But… But she was supposed to be a monster. Even as he looked at her, even as he saw no monster in her, Haiden was still confused, still lost. Why had he been sent to her? What did Nicholas want him to do? Save her. He’d said that saving her would save a good person. Did he really mean her and not the little girl? Did he mean both of them? Everything was so… so confusing.

But right then, he did know one thing. Whatever the full truth, whatever the whole story behind all of this was, this woman was not evil. He couldn’t kill her. He couldn’t hurt her. She was lost, and what she needed right then was someone to be there for her. He didn’t know why he’d been sent, or what would come about this. But he did know that he could be that person right then. Whatever else happened, he could help the loneliness that he saw in her eyes.

“I think we have a lot to talk about,” he announced slowly while extending a hand to her. “What’s your name?”

As confused as he felt by all of this, that was a good place to start, at least. A name. He never really cared about the names of the Strangers he killed before, unless they were terrible enough for him to need to track them down by their identity. But this one? This one was different. No one, Stranger or human had ever made him feel the way he felt when he looked at her.

The woman answered while accepting his extended hand. “Sariel. What… what’s yours?”

If anything felt more weird than asking a Stranger what her name was, it was giving his own to her. Haiden took a moment, collecting himself as a million thoughts ran through his head.

This felt like his last chance to change his mind. If this was a trick, if it was some kind of strange trap, he would be walking right into it. He could have been damning himself right then to whatever terrible fate awaited those who mistakenly trusted monsters.

And yet, it didn’t feel like a trap. It didn’t feel like anything bad. Looking to the woman, Haiden felt more alive in that moment then he could ever remember feeling. This wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t bad. There was something happening here, something he couldn’t explain. Yet it felt like… it felt like this was quite possibly the single most important moment of his life. More important than becoming a Heretic, more important even than losing his sister during training had been, as terrible as that was. Something was here that would forever change his life. And he felt not fear in that moment, but excitement.

He came to a decision. He would be honest. Looking back up to her, he quietly replied, “Haiden.”

The woman repeated his name, and he repeated hers. Haiden and Sariel. Heretic and Stranger.

Then they started to talk, really talk. For quite awhile, actually. The woman had been right when she had said that it was a long story. It was a very long story, One that went on for quite a while and left him reeling even more than before as it shook the foundations of what he had ever understood about Strangers and about humanity.

And Haiden had been right as well. That moment changed his life forever. And in the future, he would come to realize that when he gave the woman who became his wife a chance, he had not simply been saving her.

He had been saving his own soul as well.

Previous Chapter                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 39A -Doug, Larees, and Sulan

Previous Chapter                            Next Chapter

As Professor Dare escorted him with the Seosten named Larees up toward the private booth where his Great-Great Grandfather Sulan was, Douglas Frey stole a glance at the woman beside him. He still didn’t know what to make of her, or the… good Seosten in general.

Actually, he was still honestly coming to terms with the fact that there could be good Strangers at all. Growing up the way that he had, it seemed pretty unthinkable. Especially after he’d seen the things that the Whispers made his family and friends do. He knew it wasn’t fair, since there were plenty of examples of evil humans, but still. He’d had very little experience with good Strangers, and his entire life had been built around them being evil.

It was a lot to take in and adapt to, basically.

Noticing him looking at her, Larees gave him a sidelong glance. “You okay, kid?” There was the faintest note of a challenge in her voice, but it seemed more like habit than anything else. Doug had to figure that growing up in the kind of society she apparently had, and then spending a bunch of years in a prison torture lab pretty much guaranteed that she’d be a little touchy about being stared at.

He nodded quickly, rubbing his hand over his hair with the now familiar naked sensation of missing his hat. “Yeah, yeah. I was just wondering if you and Sulan’ll be able to figure out anything about those Whisper things.”

They were on the stairs leading up to the private booths, and the woman stopped briefly. “I hope so. Because I’ve got to tell you, from what you’ve said, there’s something really fucking weird going on there.”

Professor Dare, who had stopped just a bit about them, smiled faintly. “Very weird indeed. But I’m sure that Sulan would like to be part of this conversation.”

So, they continued, heading up to an unmarked door before their escort knocked twice. There was the sound of a lock being disengaged, and then it was opened.

The man standing on the other side was instantly familiar to Doug. He was decidedly not a tall or muscular man, standing only at five foot eight with a rather thin body type. The hair on his head and the neatly trimmed full beard on his face were both silver-gray, while his eyes were a pale blue that still sparkled with kindness.

Those same eyes lit up when he saw his great-great grandson, and the man immediately embraced him tightly, his thin form belying his true strength.

Immediately returning the hug, Doug held on tight, resisting the urge to whimper at the familiar feeling of love and protection. “Hey, Grandpa Sulan.”

“Hey yourself, Commando,” Sulan teased Doug with the nickname he had given him as a very small child who liked to run around with toy guns. “Heard you’ve been pretty busy this year.”

His voice lowered then, as his face sobered. “Sorry about your friend. That… that shouldn’t have happened.”

Flinching, Doug nodded. His voice was quiet. “Yeah, it shouldn’t have. But hey, at least it gave them a great excuse for this party.” His hand gestured forward, past his grandfather and to the main room where this whole circus was taking place.

Everyone winced, and Professor Dare was the first to respond. “It may seem incredibly gauche and wrong, but for the most part, they at least believe they’re doing something good here. They want to remember Rudolph as—”

“They didn’t even know him,” Douglas snapped despite himself. His hand was clenched. “Most of them never met him and now they’re going to stand up there and talk about how his death is a tragedy but hey, at least we beat the bad guys? We didn’t beat the bad guys. Not really. The bad guys are still there. The bad guys are everywhere. The bad guys are probably some of the people up there talking about how great it was that we beat them when we didn’t!

“The problem isn’t just that they didn’t know Rudolph. The problem isn’t just that they’re celebrating when there’s nothing to celebrate. The problem is that there are people up there who are pretending to be on our side when they’re not. The problem is that Rudolph was murdered and some of the people responsible for him dying are probably up on that stage pretending they give a shit!”

Wow, that had kind of come out of nowhere. Realizing that he had actually said all that out loud, Doug finally snapped his mouth shut and flushed a little while holding his arms across his stomach. He was very glad in that moment that the booths were privacy protected. And, of course, beyond that, he knew that Dare at least had privacy spells running.

Sulan spoke quietly then. “You’re right. It’s a really shitty situation. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t. Sometimes you just have to accept that there’s shit and keep going. And trust me, with the Seosten involved, you end up dealing with a lot of shit.” He paused then, eyes moving up to Larees. “No offense to you in particular. But, you know… a lot of your people can be pretty bad.”

Doug thought he saw a tiny smirk on the woman’s face briefly before she inclined her head. “You’ll get no argument from me on that.” Her flask came out again, and she took a gulp before offering it to the man.

Sulan took it, and just as Doug started to warn him, took a drink from it. The boy started to wince, but his grandfather showed no ill effects. He paused, looking down at the flask in his hand before swallowing fully. Tilting his head curiously, Sulan took another brief swig before handing it back. “Good stuff,” was his only comment.

Grinning, Larees replied, “I knew I was gonna like you.”

They exchanged greetings and introductions finally, before moving into the booth to sit down. Dare excused herself for the time being, leaving the three of them to talk.

Doug only looked toward the stage for a few seconds before turning away. “I don’t need to see this,” he muttered before adding, “Can we do something productive instead?”

Nodding once, Larees addressed Sulan. “Your descendent already told us some of what happened back then, all of what he can remember anyway. But he was young and it was traumatic. Maybe you could… ehh, start at the beginning and explain things from your point of view?”

So Sulan did so. He explained how the two of them had been exploring the tombs on their colony world when they had accidentally released the invisible, mostly intangible entities that they came to call the Whispers, and how those beings had taken to literally whispering in the ears of their victims to drive them crazy and somehow control their actions so that they would do horrific things.

Larees shook her head, frowning a little. “They weren’t actually possessing people. So what were they doing? Mind control? Maybe something about their whispering lowers the target’s mental defenses to create an opening that the creature can then exploit.”

Sulan agreed. “That’s about the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with. Make sense given what we’ve seen of them. Not that we’ve seen them outside that world. Believe me, it’s under pretty heavy quarantine to make sure those things, whatever they are, don’t get out.”

“Not to mention,” Doug pointed out, “certain people probably don’t want the spells that block out the Whispers and also happen to block possession getting out there. I can see sorta see the Seosten having a bit of a vested interest in keeping that quiet, you know?”

Larees idly noted, “Which raises the question of why you were able to come here knowing everything you do. Something like that, our people would have definitely known at least something about it. And they would’ve tested it. I’m surprised they didn’t just annihilate the entire world to keep those spells from getting out, or at least…” Realizing what she was saying, the woman coughed. “Sorry.”

“Or at least killed everyone who was there,” Sulan finished for her. “Yeah, you can thank Counselor Percival for that, actually. He was something of an old friend even then. I called him when it happened, and he showed up with the cavalry. He also made damn sure that they couldn’t hush it up. He already knew about the Seosten. Not how ingrained they were, or that they were behind Crossroads from the start. But enough that he knew there were people he couldn’t trust. And enough to know that they’d be trying to silence and erase something like that. So he made sure they couldn’t, involved too many people, made it too much of a big deal. And he got me banished.”

Starting a bit, Doug blinked at that. “Got you banished?”

Sulan shrugged. “Yeah, well, I would’ve been a pretty big target for possession at that point. I am the one, the actual Heretic, who released those things and who knew the most about them. They would’ve come right after me. And if I was in one place with what was left of my family, they would’ve gone after you guys.”

Larees understood. “So this Percival had you disgraced and banished from your world in order to protect you and your family. They had no one they could use to get close to you, and you had reason to always keep moving. You had no world tying you down. And since you were disgraced and a laughing stock, they didn’t have to worry about you exposing them if you knew anything. No one would believe you.”

Doug’s mouth open and shut a couple of times as he looked back and forth between them. “He ruined your name and got you banished from us to protect you?”

Sulan nodded. “And to protect you, and your brother, and your mother. The three of you were all I had left after all that. And those bastards would have used you to get to me. Dragging my name in the trash and getting me exiled, that was the best way to keep everyone safe, and it was something the Seosten wouldn’t object to. Actually, I kinda wonder if they thought it was their idea, to be honest.”

Larees snorted at that, taking another drink from her flask before passing it to the man. “I guarantee you that one of us somewhere took credit for it.”

Doug was slowly shaking his head. “But that means that you knew a lot more about this for a long time. You knew that there were good Strangers, didn’t you? You knew that this whole place is full of shit. That Percival guy, you’ve been working with him. You knew all this already. But you still let me come here.”

Sulan nodded once more, putting the flask to his lips to take a brief pull before handing it back to Larees. “Yeah, I didn’t exactly want to thrust all this on you in your first year here. I kinda wanted you to just be a student and learn how to fight for a while before you had to know all of this. Maybe that was stupid. But I didn’t want you to have this shoved down on you this quick. After everything that happened when you were a kid… maybe I just wanted to let you be about as normal of a student as this place allows. Besides, Percy knew that Sinclair would be there for you.”

The man sighed softly. “And, like I said, we didn’t know that Crossroads was this infiltrated until somewhat recently. We didn’t know it was dirty from the very beginning. We knew there were some Seosten in there, they wouldn’t be able to resist. But the whole thing being started by them? That was news, let me tell you.”

Doug was quiet for minute. He looked to the front, his eyes facing one of the boring, worthless congratulatory speeches, but he wasn’t listening. His mind wandered, thinking through everything that had happened.

Finally, he sighed and looked back that way. “I know you were trying to protect me. And what happened this year wasn’t your fault. Mom and Jerek still don’t know?”

“No,” Sulan confirmed. “I didn’t want to involve them in this. Your mom is fine with just being a vet, and Jerek doesn’t really have the temperament for it either. Let them just keep being who they are. There’s no need to put a target on their backs.”

Doug couldn’t exactly disagree with that, so he bit his lip before nodding. “Yeah. They’re okay where they are. It’s not like the Seosten are going to be taking over a lot of people on some backwater world, I guess. Just enough to make sure the spells stay quiet. And that would just be the leadership, probably.”

Smiling, Sulan reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “You’re a smart kid, you know that?”

Looking over to him, Doug replied, “Smart enough to notice that you didn’t really answer the question about how I got chosen to come to the school and all that.”

With a tiny, guilty smile, Sulan nodded. “I might’ve had something to do with getting Percy to pull a couple strings for that,” he admitted. Sobering then, the man looked to his great-great grandson seriously. “I am sorry about your friend. I can’t tell you how much I wish I was there. How much I wish anyone was there who could’ve stopped it.”

Doug took his hand and squeezed it, unable to trust his voice. He missed Rudolph. He was glad Sulan was there and that he’d gotten a few answers. But he still messed his friend and teammate. He just wanted Rudolph to be alive. Or failing that, he wanted to get away from all this bullshit from people who didn’t know the first thing about the boy they were supposed to be memorializing.

Finally, he spoke up again, unable to stand listening to any more of the speeches. “You’re going to teach them how to use the spells, right? Larees and Sariel and… um, Theia.”

The man nodded. “I’m going to do a lot more than that, actually. I haven’t just been sitting on my hands or running errands for Percival these past few years. I’ve been researching those ruins we found, looking for others like them, worlds that might have some connections to them. It’s hard to really look that deep into it, since I don’t know how close attention the Seosten are paying attention to me. But I’ve learned a bit and found a couple promising leads. With their help, maybe we can turn that into something.”

Larees spoke up then. “Believe me, if there’s any information we can share that will end up fucking over the Empire, you’ve got it. I don’t know how much we’ll be able to figure out, but we’ll give it a shot. And we’ll stick a knife in those bastards while we’re at it. But just so you know, it’s probably going to be Sariel who does most of the research stuff with you. That’s not really my thing. When you have somebody that I can go and hit or, you know, immolate, that’s my thing.”

“I’ll go back to the camp with you when all this is over,” Sulan promised. “I’d like to meet this Sariel.” He paused then before adding, “I’d like to meet her kids too, actually. They sound pretty interesting.”

The words made Doug pause, a realization coming to him as he looked over to Larees. “Hey, from everything that they’ve said, or what I’ve heard anyway, Vanessa and Tristan were kind of a big surprise. Like your people didn’t know that they could have hybrid kids with humans.”

The woman nodded. “That’s very much news to me, and I guarantee it’s news to most others. That’s not something they could keep secret or quiet if it got out to too many people.” Realizing the obviousness of what she had just said, she coughed with a gesture. “You know what I mean. If any of them know about it, it’s not very many.”

“But isn’t that weird?” Doug persisted. “I mean, you guys have been here for a few thousand years now, and Sariel is the first and only one who’s had a kid with a human?” He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling awkward. It was a sensitive subject, he knew. Especially given everything that Larees had been through in that lab. Still, he had to say it.

“I mean, it just seems implausible that it hasn’t come up before now. And if it came up before now, like you said, it would’ve gotten out. It kind of seems like the only way your people would keep thinking that humans couldn’t breed with you is if…”

Larees’ voice was flat and cold. “Is if someone made sure those pregnancies failed and the only reason Sariel’s didn’t is because she wasn’t with the Empire at the time.”

All three of them were silent then, none of them really knowing what to say to that. It was a silence of mounting horror at the implications. And Doug felt sick to his stomach, almost wishing then that he hadn’t said anything at all. Yet he knew that given the choice again, he would still bring it up. Because truths, no matter how uncomfortable, were how things got fixed. Ignoring things just because they made you feel bad was stupid, and it was how terrible things stayed terrible.

Sulan was the first to find his voice. “Maybe we should watch the next speaker here.”

“What?” Doug blinked. “But they’re all just saying stupid bullshit.” Yet when he looked to the stage, he saw not some random person who didn’t know or care one bit about the real Rudolph, but Gaia herself. The woman paused there on the stage and seemed to look directly toward Doug for a moment.

“Trust me, Commando,” Sulan murmured.

“This one you’re going to want to hear.”

Previous Chapter                            Next Chapter

Day After Day 39-06

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

The portal, as it turned out, led to the front porch of a cabin in the middle of the woods. The place looked cozy, almost storybook-like. The porch wrapped all the way around the small building, and there were a couple rocking chairs sitting next to the door. Those chairs were occupied when we arrived, by Vanessa and Tristan.

Both of them jumped up at our appearance, the latter giving a rueful smile. “Hey Flick,” he started, “and Tabs, I assume. Fancy meeting you guys here.”

“Nah,” I replied with a straight face, “he’s still back at the camp.”

Giggling clearly despite herself, Vanessa moved her eyes to look at Elisabet. “So we’re all here, what did you want from us? I mean besides to turn us into your perfect little examples of human-Seosten cooperation.”

“That is the end goal of all of this,” the woman replied simply with a nod. “But at this precise moment, we have brought you here to plan and train for a very important mission later today.”

“Mission,” Tristan echoed, “does that make us your angels?” He snickered at his own words before tilting his head at them. “Which one of you is Charlie and which one is Bosley?”

“Elisabet’s Bosley,” I pointed out then. “Because you never see Charlie, remember?”

Tabbris turned my hair pink before speaking up through me. “You guys are weird.”

Elisabet or Jophiel immediately jumped on that. Coming forward, they looked at me curiously while murmuring, “Very interesting. We assume this is a signal you have worked out already?”

Vanessa answered for us. “When she changes her hair or eyes white or pink, that’s Tabbris talking.”

When I nodded, my hair shifting back to normal, Elisabet smiled. “Very good. That is an excellent plan. We shall do much the same. When I am speaking, my hair shall remain dark. When Jophiel is speaking, it shall turn blonde.”

Sure enough, her hair immediately lightened so that Jophiel could say, “We are very glad to see you working together already.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “we’re just great at the teamwork thing. So why are we here, exactly? You said something about a mission?”

I was tempted to say something more, thoughts of Rudolph’s funeral moving through my head, but managed to hold my tongue. There was no need to get overly antagonistic right now. Besides, part of me did acknowledge that without the two of them helping in the first place, I never would’ve saved Avalon the way I did. In some ways I was being irrational. But at least I was cognizant enough to know that and catch myself somewhat.

In answer, Jophiel (their hair was still light) gestured to make the door of the cabin open before heading that way. “Come,” she instructed, “we shall discuss it inside.”

So, we all followed her into what turned out to be a nice, cozy-looking interior. Basically all I could see was a small living room with a couch and a couple chairs in front of the fireplace, a small television, and an attached kitchenette. There was also a set of stairs leading up to what looked like a bedroom. I had been expecting something huge and elaborate, same old bigger on the inside thing. Instead, the cabin looked much the same inside as it did outside. Which, to be honest, was pretty surprising.

After letting us look around for a few seconds, Elisabet started, “Now, as we said, there is a mission to prepare for. But first, we would like to know if you have any specific questions for us.”

“Actually yeah,” I realized then while turning quickly to them. “Did you two know that Kushiel had little kids in that transport that Sariel was in?”

From the look on the woman’s face, I might as well have just announced that my father was marrying Jon Bon Jovi. Either they were both incredibly good actresses, which wouldn’t have been surprising, or they knew absolutely nothing about what I just said.

“What,” Jophiel demanded, “are you talking about?“

Vanessa answered for me. “Little kids. Toddlers. Seosten toddlers.  There were four of them in one transport pod.” She explained about how we had found them, what their names were, and what else we knew.

“Alatheia’s child, even by proxy,” Jophiel murmured under her breath. “That is a new low, even for Kushiel.”  She shook her head then, focusing on me. “No, we did not know about it. You may choose to believe that or not, as you wish. But as far as we were aware, all viable offspring were immediately shipped elsewhere. None should have stayed with Kushiel for longer than a week, let alone a couple of years. There are very few who are not aware that leaving that woman in charge of young, impressionable children would be a terrible idea. Think what you will of us, but we care for our children.“

Without missing a beat, I stared right back at her. “Unless their possession power is broken. Then you call them a lie and treat them worse than garbage. But yeah, you’re great family role models.”

That must have gotten through, because the woman flinched and walked away for a moment. I thought she might say something in defense of it, but when she straightened once more, the woman’s hair darkened to show that Elisabet was speaking. “We will look into this incident with the children remaining with Kushiel. And we will find out if it is an isolated incident or not. But for the time being, there is still a mission to perform.”

Tristan shrugged. “Okay then, Bosley. What are we doing?”

Elisabet explained. “There is a bus traveling along a back road in the middle of what you call Iowa. It is carrying a crate of special supplies. We would like you to take that crate and bring it here.”

Raising her hand, I shook my head quickly. “Wait, wait, wait. If you think we’re just going to do some dirty work for you and attack some innocent—”

Elisabet gave me a sharp look. “It is a Seosten supply transport, operating under the radar to avoid attention. The crate contains very rare magical supplies that are being delivered to our counterpart in Eden’s Garden.”

“Which means you can’t just grab them yourself,” I noted. “But why do you need the supplies in particular?”

It was Jophiel who answered. “As we said, they are very rare. And, as it happens, some of them are useful for a spell that we wish to help the two of you perform.” She nodded toward me and, I supposed, Tabbris. “It is a spell that you will find very useful, we assure you. But, it is one that requires very specific ingredients. Ingredients which are heavily monitored. We need you to steal them from that bus.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “Are you sure we can deal with the guards on that bus?”

Jophiel looked to her seriously. “If you can’t, we will have chosen our students rather poorly indeed.”

Her hair changed then to show that Elisabet was talking. “If we believed that the defending forces would be too much for you, we would not send you. We have no desire to have you killed in your first mission, I promise you that. And should things go wrong, we will find a way to influence it, even if that is simply to extract you. We will be monitoring the situation. But do not expect us to solve the problem for you. This is very much much a test. One that, should you succeed as we expect, will, as we said, provide the materials for a very useful spell.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by a spell that we would find useful. But it was pretty clear that they weren’t going to tell us anything more about it at the moment. So, I just sighed and looked to the twins. “In that case,” I announced, “I guess we should start planning out how we’re gonna do this.”

******

A few hours later, after going back to school to work with Harper and finish up that project, Tabbris and I were in position with Tristan and Vanessa.

The road was paved, but that was about all you could say about it. It led through what basically looked like an empty field that stretched on in every direction. There were a few houses here and there, but most seemed like they hadn’t been lived in for a long time, and were incredibly far apart. The road itself was cracked and potholed to death, looking as though it hadn’t been maintained in years, if not a decade.

Which probably wasn’t that big of a deal, since I doubted more than a few cars a day passed down this particular road. We were probably lucky that it wasn’t dirt.

The three of us, four with Tabbris counted, were crouched in a small grove of apple trees set just a bit back from the road. From this position, we would be able to see our quarry coming from as far away as possible. We would have plenty of time to prepare ourselves from the moment it appeared on the horizon. And with Vanessa’s telescopic vision, there would be no way to mistake what vehicle it was. Not that I expected to see any others before the bus, but still.

“You guys sure you’re ready for this?” I asked that before looking to the twins, biting my lip. “This is kind of a big deal. We don’t have any back-up or anything. I mean, we do, since I really think they’re telling the truth about not letting us get killed. But still. You know.”

Tristan nodded, glancing to his sister before replying, “We’re ready.” He looked to me then. “Actually, I was just thinking about how many times your mom probably did something like this while she was running the rebellion. You know, a quiet mission to ambush some transport or something along a back road, it seems like something she would’ve done a lot.”

Despite myself, I smiled just a little bit. “Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. I mean, I doubt she was doing it for the same reasons, but there’s… there’s definitely something there.”

Tabbris spoke up through me then. “We’ll get her back. That’s part of why we’re learning all this. We get better and better, and then save your mama.”

Vanessa nodded firmly at me. “She’s right, you helped us get our mom. We’ll help you get yours. Whatever it takes.”

“Damn straight,” Tristan agreed, “We’ve got your back. I’m pretty sure we–what the?” Interrupting himself, the boy abruptly jerked around, looking up into the trees.

“What?” I blurted, looking the same way. There was nothing there. The trees were empty.

“I…” Tristan frowned, looking over the branches. “I swear I thought I saw a… a shadow.”

“A shadow?” Vanessa echoed.

He nodded. “I mean the shadow of a person. I thought I saw a person’s shadow, from right above us. Right there.” He pointed into the tree, at a particularly large branch.

“Right there?” I blinked at that. “Someone that close, who didn’t set off any of our senses and who disappeared that quick? Who would that be? I mean, it wouldn’t be Elisabet and Jophiel. They wouldn’t be hiding.”

“I don’t–” Tristan started, before pointing. “Wait, there’s the bus.”

Sure enough, a shape had appeared at the far end of the road, off in the distance. Vanessa turned that way along with me, clearly focusing her vision for a moment before giving a quick nod. “That’s them, unless there’s some other red bus that fits the exact same description coming along the same road at this exact time.” Looking to rest of us she shrugged. “Hey, it could happen.”

Smiling just a little, I replied, “Let’s operate under the assumption that it’s the right one. You guys ready for your part?”

In answer, Tristan immediately shrank down dramatically. Suddenly, he was only about a foot tall. That was one of the powers he had picked up while we had been fighting to save Sariel back at Kushiel’s lab. He could shrink down to about one foot in height, or grow to a whole ten feet.

Doing so made him shrink out of his clothes, but revealed a previously invisible blue Seosten jumpsuit. Vanessa had one too, gifts from their mother to protect her children’s privacy when they shapeshifted. If anyone back at the school asked, they had been made by Nevada.

At the same time, Vanessa’s form changed as well, shrinking out of her own clothes while her jumpsuit appeared. But she wasn’t simply shrinking, the girl was turning into her raven form.

When she was totally transformed a few seconds later, the girl flapped a few times and flew over to pick up her shrunken brother by the arms. With a soft caw, she took off up into the air, flying low at first to stay away from the side of the road before climbing rapidly. As Tabbris and I watched, the two went high into the air, banking around to head back for the road.

“Okay,” I murmured, “almost our turn.”

As we watched, the bus got closer and closer. I could see a man of some kind crouched on top of the bus holding what looked like a rifle or something. He apparently hadn’t noticed Vanessa and Tristan high above, his attention focused on the road ahead or at the fields around them. It was a mistake that would cost him, and the rest of his group.

The bus was just about to pass the grove where I was crouched. It was close enough by then that I could see through the windshield to the driver. It looked like an Orc of some kind, complete with tasks. His big green hand was on the steering wheel as he bellowed something I couldn’t hear. Maybe he was singing.

Either way, he was about to have a very bad day. First I focused on creating a portal. One end appeared just in front of me, while the other appeared right in front of the man’s face. With that, I reared back. My hand immediately secreted a thick, gooey liquid that would make whoever it touched nauseous. Like Tristan‘s size changing, it was a power I’d gained back at the lab. Tabbris told me about it in the hospital, and I had practiced a little bit since that night.

Then I used another power I had gained to turn the liquid into a soft orb, before pitching it forward through that portal. The Orc barely had time to see the portal appear, before he was suddenly splashed in the face by a semi-solid ball that exploded into liquid which immediately made him violently nauseous.

The reaction was instantaneous, the bus careening off the road and into the field while the Orc hurled his lunch and dropped the wheel.

At the same time, the Vanessa raven dove toward the bus. She shot through an open window at the back, before shooting out the other side. I could no longer see Tristan in her talons. She’d dropped him off inside the bus.

Lunging  to my feet, I bought my staff to my hands and used it to launch myself forward and up. That made me a perfect target for the guy on the roof, who snapped his rifle my way. But before he could actually pull the trigger, Vanessa was there. She had flown up and around, to put herself back on top of the bus. Her talons raked the guys face, and he jerked backward before shooting his rifle off into the distance.

Landing on the hood of the bus in a crouch, I saw inside to where a now back-to-normal-size Tristan was busy ruining the day of the guys at the back. They were just starting to turn on him, reacting to the threat. Well, except for the driver, who was still on his knees puking his guts out. That nausea inducing stuff was apparently pretty strong.

I couldn’t leave Tristan alone in there, so I lashed out with my staff, triggering a short explosive burst that shattered the windshield. I was through immediately, hopping over the poor driver to put myself right at the front of the bus, and behind the guys who had been moving for Tristan.

Above, on top of the bus, I could hear a roar just before the roof caved in part way. Vanessa had turned into her bear and was dealing with the guy there. I almost felt sorry for him.

The guards on the bus froze at the sound as the roof crumpled slightly. Their eyes snapped from that, back to Tristan, and then to me.

“Sorry, guys,” I apologized while lifting my staff. “We kind of need this cargo more than you do.”

Apparently they disagreed, because the guards suddenly threw themselves into a desperate attack.

Well, no one said this little trip was supposed to be easy. Grimacing, I brought my staff up and met their charge.

******

“You allowed some to escape,” Jophiel noted a short while later. We were back at that cabin once more, with the crate that they had wanted.

“Everyone who tried to,” I confirmed. “If we could knock them out, we did. If they tried to escape, we let them go. Believe it or not, we don’t exactly want to kill everybody that you point out. Is that going to be a problem?”

There was a brief pause then as the two obviously conferred before shaking their head. Elisabet answered, “Unless it prevents you from completing the mission that we assign you, no. We were simply making an observation.”

Jophiel spoke then. “You actually did quite well. We were impressed by the plan you devised and your execution of it. You are all already quite beyond the normal skill of your age group.”

Tristan shrugged. “Just call us overachievers,” he murmured before using his foot to lightly nudge the crate. “So what’s in this thing that’s so important. What was that spell you were talking about?”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s got some kind of magical super lock on it. Are you sure you can get into it?”

With a slight smile, Jophiel replied, ”Yes, we are quite certain we will be able to open it. As for what is inside, they are very rare ingredients, as we said. A few of them are quite necessary for a spell that we will teach you.” She looked to me at the end of that.

“Yeah,” I replied, “you said it would be a very useful spell for us to learn. How useful?”

Elisabet smiled even more then. “It is a spell that we performed many centuries ago for ourselves. It will allow Tabbris to access any of your powers even while she is not possessing you.”

My eyes widened at that, both from my own reaction and my partner’s. “Use the powers even apart from me?” I blurted in surprise.

“Yes,” Jophiel confirmed. “So long as you are not actively using them yourself, she will be able to use them as well. This will allow you to act even more as partners. But as we said, it is a complicated spell with very rare ingredients. We will need to have you practice it for quite a while before you were ready to use the actual components. We wouldn’t want you to… ahh, mess up, after all.”

“Holy shit, Flick,” Tristan muttered, “that sounds amazing.”

All I could do was nod silently, taking in the implications of just such an ability. They were right, if Tabbris could actually use my powers separate from me, that would make us even more effective. Not to mention how much it would allow the other girl to protect herself. I had no idea how or if we’d be able to explain such a thing later if we needed to, but still…

In some ways, maybe learning from these two wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially if they managed to get me more prepared to deal with Fossor when the time came.

******

“Hey, Flick!” the cheerful, peppy voice called a short time later, as I was walking across the school grounds.

“Oh, hey, Harper.” Waving to her as she approached, I asked, “What’s up?”

Grinning at me, the pink-haired hyperactive girl replied, “I just thought I’d let you know that I showed what we did to Professor Vandel, and he says it’s an A project.” She gave me a thumbs up. “So we did good.”

Her smile was infectious, and I couldn’t help but return it, even if my school grades were kind of the least of my concerns right then. “Oh, right, cool. Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Sure you could!” Harper insisted. “I think you can do a lot of things if you put your mind to them.  But we do deserve a reward, so…” She produced something in one hand, tossing it to me. “Reward apple!”

Catching it, I blinked. Sure enough, it was an apple. “This looks fresh.”

Her head bobbed. “It is! My mom sends me a care package from our backyard orchard sometimes. I use most of the fruit for baking, but uhh, something told me you might like that one by itself. I’ve got other fruit too if you want that instead.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Thanks.” Shrugging, I took a bite of the apple. She was right, it was good. And definitely fresh.

It was funny. Not so long ago, I had been hiding in a grove of apple trees while waiting for that bus to appear. And now, I was eating an apple.

“Sure you’re not a serpent?” I asked then, while taking another bite.

She blinked at that. “A serpent?”

“Sure,” I replied while gesturing. “You know. Apple. Serpent?”

Getting it, she giggled. “Wouldn’t we need to be at Eden’s Garden then?”

“Good point,” I agreed. “I guess you’re not a serpent then.”

“Nope,” she chirped easily, “definitely not a serpent.

“Just plain old Harper.”

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

Day After Day 39-05

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

Bonus Interlude – Risa Kohaku

Previous Chapter                            Next Chapter

With a distinct clink, the metal ring bounced around the collection of bottles before settling on one in particular. It rattled around the neck for a bit, then stopped there on the center bottle.

“Geez lady,” the pimply-faced teenager running the game remarked, “how often have you played this game?” As he spoke, the boy took down the big blue bear that the woman silently gestured to before handing it to her. “I’ve never seen anyone pull off that many ringers in a row.”

Taking the bear, Risa Kohaku stared into its silent face for a second before murmuring, “I guess I’m just lucky today.”

It was early evening, the sun just starting to set as lights came on all along the amusement park grounds. The place was busy, people rushing to and fro between all of the rides and games, their voices raised in the light and wonder. Children laughed, couples held hands, and families explored the attractions.

Talking the bear under one arm, Risa gave the boy a nod before turning to walk away. She passed several small groups before speaking simply. “You do know that I know you’re there, right?”

In response to her words, Virginia Dare stepped almost out of nowhere, appearing beside the other woman with a short bow. “I thought I’d test you, see how much attention you were paying. Or see if you were rusty.”

To that, Risa tossed the bear sideways to the woman, remarking, “Let’s just say I got that one for you.”

Virginia caught the toy, blinking down at it before seeing the name emblazoned on the bright tag. “Dare Bear? Cute. Joke’s on you, I like him. I think I’ll keep the little guy.” She glanced sidelong at her companion, winking. “And you know Gaia said you should stay at the bungalow.” If it was a reprimand of any kind, it wasn’t much of one. Her tone was light, her expression making it clear that neither she nor Gaia were at all surprised by Kohaku’s failure to stay put.

It was a fact that Risa was well aware of, and she simply glanced to the woman beside her while retorting, “Yes, and the only reason that Gaia bothered to give that instruction is because she knew that being able to disobey it and do as I wish would help more than any conversation she could have with me. She knew it was pointless to tell me to stay. But she also knew that being able to disobey an order is kind of important to me right now.”

Dare smiled faintly. “We do know our old teacher, don’t we? Not nearly as well as she knows us, but still.” She was quiet for a few seconds as the two of them passed several more game booths. Finally, she sighed. “I can’t tell you how sorry—”

“Don’t.” Kohaku’s voice was sharp. “Don’t apologize. Please. You had no way to know. I’ve been withdrawn for a long time, longer than Manakel had me. Ever since…”

She trailed off, and Dare quietly finished for her. “Yuuto.” Her expression softened even more, and she put a hand on the other woman’s arm gently. “Your son’s death was a tragedy, Risa.”

“It was,” Kohaku agreed. “And after it happened, I stopped being myself. I threw myself into my work, and I withdrew. I stopped acting like myself for a long time before Manakel even got here. I spent five years accidentally creating the perfect cover for that monster.”

She sighed then. “Five years where I withdrew and acted different from myself for completely understandable reasons. Five years that gave Manakel all the cover that he needed when he took me.”

Their conversation paused then, as they stopped in front of a cotton candy stand. Risa took one for herself, again indulging in being able to make her own choices by eating something that Manakel wouldn’t have allowed in a million years.

The two women continued their meandering path through the amusement park, watching the people around them not so much from suspicion but more for the sheer enjoyment of it. Their silence was not one of discomfort, but that of understanding. They had been friends for quite some time, each having been born not too far apart. Their circumstances were quite different, given Risa’s birth during and within the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637 and Dare’s own roughly fifty years earlier in what eventually became America. Yet fifty years meant little in the scheme of centuries, and the two had been close ever since they had both come under Gaia’s tutelage. They knew one another, and had it not been for the past half-decade that Risa had spent pulling back from everyone after the death of her son, Virginia would have noticed Manakel’s influence.

Both felt guilty for their respective parts. Yet both were also mature and experienced enough to understand their own feelings. They walked in silence, each content to simply be with their friend.

That went on for a minute before Virginia slowly looked over to the other woman. “Have you spoken to Klassin?”

The question made Risa flinch. “I… for a few minutes. I didn’t know what to say to him. The relationship that he had with me, it wasn’t me. Manakel just wanted to use him to find out more about the students. He picked Klassin’s brain. I… I know he’s hurting right now. I can’t even imagine how this feels from his point of view. I just… I just don’t know what to do about it. We were together, but we weren’t. It wasn’t my choice. I didn’t… I didn’t fall in love with him. I almost wish that I did. It would probably make this whole thing easier. But…” Again, she trailed off, sighing as she hung her head.

Silently, Virginia took her friend’s hand, squeezing it firmly while remaining silent. Neither knew what to say. But just being there with each other helped.

Eventually, the two stopped in front of the park’s most famous ride, a spiral-filled roller coaster. Risa finished the last of her cotton candy before dropping the paper cone in the nearby trash can. She nodded to the ride. “You coming?”

Virginia agreed, and the two waited through the line before getting themselves seated in one of the carts.

“Remember the first time we rode one of these?” Virginia asked casually while they waited for the other passengers to board. Each of the pair had long since made certain that they could not be overheard by strangers, no matter how close they were.

Risa nodded. “LaMarcus’s contraption. That was 1884, wasn’t it?”

“Sure was,” Virginia confirmed. “Back at Coney Island. I had to practically dare you to get into that thing with me.”

“Dare me?” Risa retorted, “I see the Porter girl has been rubbing off on you this year.”

Winking sidelong at her friend, Virginia cleared her throat. “She and the other students will want to meet you, now that they’ll be meeting the real you.”

For a moment as the ride began to get underway, Risa said nothing. Their cart had began to rise up the steep incline before she finally murmured, “You’re going to ask me to speak with Columbus.”

“Gaia believes that the two of you can help each other,” Virginia confirmed. “You both understand what it’s like in ways that we can’t. And… honestly Columbus is dealing with it as well as can be expected, but he needs someone to talk to. Someone who isn’t his sister or his friends. Someone who will understand.”

“And I might feel better about opening up about my own feelings if I’m disguising it as empathizing with a student.” Risa’s reply was calm, the merits of the suggestion too obvious for her to be offended. Gaia had obviously known that she would understand just what the point was. That didn’t make it any less worthwhile.

They were almost at the top of the first steep drop then, as Virginia looked to her. “What do you think? Will you meet with him?”

Risa paused, before giving a short nod. “I will. You’re right, it might help. And even if it doesn’t help me, it’ll be worth it if it helps him.”

Virginia gave a bright smile then. “Now you see? That’s how I know you’re really you. You care abou—”

Her words were cut off then, along with her breath, as the roller coaster dropped off the incline and into its first incredibly steep dive. The two women stopped talking for the time being, and simply… enjoyed the ride.

******

“You know, when they said you were recovering, I kind of expected you to be hanging out in some monastery, or on an island or something.”

The remark came from Columbus as the boy stepped through the door of the coffee shop and onto the busy New York street the next evening.

Kohaku followed him out, taking a sip of her own drink before replying, “I’ve kind of had my fill of isolation. This..” Trailing off, she took in a breath while slowly looking up and down the street at the crowds moving all around them. “This is what I need. People. I need to be around people.” Belatedly, she looked to him. “But you know, if it’s making you uncomfortable…”

Columbus quickly shook his head. “No, no. I’m okay. I just, I guess I just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. Talking to Shiori’s mom helps. Actually that probably helped more than anything, really. But I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do, or how I’m supposed to feel. I keep thinking that I’ve got a handle on it, but then I just… it’s weird.”

The two of them began to walk down the busy street, sipping their drinks as they went. Neither said anything for a few minutes, each lost in their thoughts. Finally, Kohaku spoke. “Do you have any idea how much I just want to throw this cup in the air, spin around in a circle, and jump up and down while screaming nonsense words? It’s crazy, and would look utterly ridiculous. But still… I want to, because it would be me. It would be me deciding to do that. I can stop right now, turn around, and go back the other way. Not because some monster puppeted my body to do so, but because I wanted to. I can take a drink right now, just like this, because I feel like it. I can blink because I want to. I can raise my hand like this, just because I feel like it. Everything, everything I do, I can do because I choose to do it.”

Columbus nodded. “I know what you mean. I keep sitting in class, listening to everybody talk, and there’s these moments where I just want to push my desk over, jump up and start singing. I don’t even like singing at all, let alone in public. But I still kind of want to. Because it’s me. It would… it would be completely my choice, something that Charmiene would never, ever do. Sometimes I still stand in front of the mirror and make faces. Just because I can, you know?”

The two made their way through Central Park then, finding a bench to sit on while they watched a playground in the distance where kids were squealing and chasing one another. Kohaku finished her coffee and drop the cup in the nearby can. Her voice was soft and reflective. “I suppose, in a way, having those impulses and choosing not to do it still means a lot. Regardless, it’s our choice. One dictated by embarrassment or the explanation we’d have to give, of course. But still a choice. One that we get to make.”

Looking over to the boy beside her, she added, “I don’t think the possessed me ever really talked about my son in front of you.”

Columbus blinked at that, clearly surprised. “You have a son?”

She looked away at that, watching the children on the playground for a minute before softly murmuring, “Had. The one I’m talking about, anyway. He died five years ago, two years before he would have been a student at Crossroads.”

Columbus‘s eyes widened at that, and he quickly blurted, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t…” He trailed off before hesitantly asking, “Do you want to tell me what happened to him?”

There was no answer at first. Kohaku simply sat there, smiling faintly and sadly at the ground as her thoughts clearly cast themselves into the past. “Yuuto. he wasn’t my first son. I’ve had eight children in my life, three boys and five girls. One of the girls was killed over a hundred years ago, during the Fomorian invasion. The rest are grown and have moved on to their own lives, though I still see them. But even losing… even losing Kyomi was… she was grown. She was a warrior, and she saved a lot of people from those monsters. I grieved for her. But I was also so proud of her. As proud as a mother can be for a dead child. Outliving your children, that’s just something that Heretics tend to get accustomed to, I guess.

“But Yuuto was still a child. He was innocent. He never had a chance. He didn’t have a chance to fight back, or even a chance to live.”

Columbus opened his mouth to ask what had happened, but stopped himself. He sat silently, letting the woman get through the story at her own pace. It was the least he could do.

Kohaku continued. “Five years ago, during the summer holiday, I took Yuuto to visit Japan. I showed him some of the places from my childhood, and took him on a walk through the wilderness. We hiked all day before finding a place to camp. I showed him a ledge above us, where a Fringed Iris was. He said it was pretty, and I told him it was my favorite flower. We admired it for a minute, then went back to setting up our camp and I didn’t think anything else of it.

“Eventually we slept, and I was woken up the next morning right after done by a scream. Yuuto had tried to climb up to that flower when he woke up, the flower that I told him I liked so much. He was trying to get it for me. By the time I sat up, he had already fallen. His body was there on the ground.”

The woman’s words were clinical, but there were tears in her eyes. Her hands were clenched shut, and she could barely speak. “It wasn’t a monster. There was no enemy to fight, nobody to blame but myself. It was an accident. He died, and I had no monster to destroy. I could do nothing about it. Nothing at all.”

Columbus’s throat was dry, as he hoarsely and weakly managed, “I’m so sorry. That’s… I’m sorry.”

The woman nodded faintly. “That’s why I withdrew from basically everybody. It’s why Manakel was able to take over my life without being noticed.”

Columbus took that in, quietly watching the children in the distance for a minute before he spoke. “And then when there was finally someone you could kill, the monster who took over your life, someone else did it instead. You didn’t get to help.”

“Sariel had her own reasons to kill that creature,” Kohaku murmured before glancing to him. “Do you feel bad that it was Felicity who killed Charmiene?”

“Sometimes,” the boy guiltily admitted. “I mean, I know I helped. I know I put her in the position so that Flick could kill her. But sometimes, sometimes I wish I was the one who actually pulled the trigger. Err, so to speak.”  He sighed. “It’s dumb, and I hate it every time I think about it that way, but after everything she said… After everything she did, I wanted to end her.” He looked up, his eyes focusing on the woman beside him. “And I actually helped. I knocked her out the window. Flick killed her because I hit her first. And I still feel bad sometimes. That’s why I figured that maybe you… kind of feel the same way.”

Kohaku considered that for a moment before nodding once. “Yes, I suppose that part of me never stopped dreaming that I would be the one to beat him, but I would somehow overcome his control and win. Every time I failed to do so much as blink to send a message to the others, it felt as though I had… well, failed.”

Columbus’s head was bobbing up and down quickly. “Yeah, exactly. I kept trying and trying to let somebody know, just trying to do something that would look out of the ordinary. Something small. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t control anything. It…” He swallowed hard. “It sucked.”

“That is a very good summary of it,” Kohaku agreed. “It most definitely sucked.”

That much confirmed between the two of them, they sat in silence for a few minutes, simply watching the nearby children play. Eventually, Columbus asked, “Are you going to come back to the school? Eventually, I mean. Right now they’ve got that Rucker guy filling in, and he’s great and everything. But he doesn’t know the things that you know. And… And I guess I just…”

“You want to have someone around who understands.” Kohaku nodded. “Trust me, I get that. And yes, I will come back. I am not going to let that monster control me even after he’s dead. I’ll go back, eventually. I just need… I just need a chance to be myself for a little bit before I worry about all the students.” She winced a little then. “Does that sound selfish? I don’t think I have a very good barometer for that right now.”

Columbus shook his head. “No, it doesn’t sound selfish. It’s… it’s understandable. Do, um, do you mind if I keep visiting you sometimes? Wherever you want to stay, I mean.”

Kohaku smiled faintly at that. “No, Columbus, I would not mind that at all.

“In fact, I believe I would rather enjoy it.”

Previous Chapter                            Next Chapter

Bonus Interlude – Sariel and Scout

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

Knife into mayo. Mayo onto bread. Swish, swish. Knife into mayo. Mayo onto second slice of bread. Swish, swish. Meat onto one slice. Cheese onto the other. Close sandwich. Set aside onto plate. Repeat for the next sandwich.

Sariel had the rhythm down. Mindless repetition. Several bags of bread, a couple jars of mayonnaise, and packs of lunch meat and cheese were in front of the woman, and she slowly but surely worked her way through them. There were a lot of mouths to feed, especially given how hungry the members of her people who had been brought out of their stasis tubes were.

There were only a few of them at that point. Ten, besides those four children. Ten adults. They had Larees, the six parents, and three more that Gaia and the others had been convinced would be safe to release.

There would be more, of course. More prisoners in that group who could be trusted to stay in the camp and work with this… Gabriel and his people. But they had to take this situation slowly. Every single person that they released had to be carefully researched. Thus far, Kushiel’s data (or the data that someone at the facility had recorded at least) had been accurate as far as they could tell. They released one prisoner at a time and had Gabriel speak with them. That was it. That was their main vetting process beyond what they read in the files. Gabriel had a quiet, simple conversation with the person and then he and Gaia judged whether the person could stay out. Sariel and Larees were involved and could give their ideas, but final judgment came down to Gaia and Gabriel. That was the way it had to be, considering the other two were too close to the situation. These were their people, after all.

Thus far, Gabriel had not yet vetoed any of the people that Sariel and Larees chose to release. Because they were going slowly and only releasing the ones they were quite certain would work out, at least for now. Later they would get into the ones that were harder to decide on.

Actually… it made Sariel wonder why the ones who had been parents to the children that they had found had all been okay to release. By the odds, it would seem that at least one of them should have been untrustworthy, or at least harder to verify. Did it have something to do with Kushiel’s process? It could be as simple as the fact that the people Kushiel was most likely to keep locked up were the kind of people that would work with Sariel and the others.

Still, they would be careful. One at a time. Slowly. As glad as Sariel was to actually see and interact with others of her own people, they couldn’t rush this. Doing so and making a mistake would be… catastrophic.

Even lost in thought as she was, while her hands went through the motions of making one sandwich after another, Sariel was still aware of the presence behind her. Aware of the presence and… the identity of that presence. Yet, she chose not to acknowledge it at first. Part of her wondered if the girl behind her would choose to leave without speaking. Would her anger make her confront Sariel, or would she simply walk away?

Either way, it would be her choice. Sariel would not force the issue. She had failed in so many other respects, particularly when it came to… to this family, she would not take even that choice away from her. Stay or go, talk or walk away, she would let the girl decide.

Two more sandwiches made it to the plate before Sariel heard the girl behind her step more fully into the room. There was the brief sound of her inhaling and exhaling. Then came the quiet voice, a whisper that barely reached her ears, saying only two words. “I remember.”  

Carefully setting the knife on the counter, Sariel took a breath of her own before turning.

“Hello, Sarah,” she started before pausing, a slight frown touching her face. “No. It’s Scout now, isn’t it? I’m sorry. I spent… years thinking of you as Sarah. But they said you prefer Scout.”

For a brief second, the young girl didn’t react. She seemed almost lost, her eyes gazing somehow through Sariel momentarily. Then she straightened, head shaking as she quietly replied, “Sometimes I don’t know who I am. Or who I want to be.”

There was a lot that Sariel wanted to say to that. But she held her tongue. Held it, and looked away briefly as a jolt of painful memories worked their way through her before she could focus. When she finally did speak, her voice cracked just a little. “You… you said that you remember.”

Scout nodded once. After another brief hesitation, she walked closer, passing Sariel to move around to the other side of the counter. Silently, the girl reached out to the unfinished sandwich. Her hands found the meat and cheese, adding them to the prepared bread before closing it to put on the plate. Only once that was done did she speak. “I remember the boat… the Fomorian.”

Sariel’s mouth opened, but she hesitated, not trusting her voice. What could she say? What could she possibly say that would help this girl after everything she had been through.

Scout continued before the woman could find the right words. “I remember it… and I saw it.” She wasn’t looking at Sariel, her attention centered on the counter between them. “When I went through the Edge, I saw it again. The Edge showed me that day on the boat again.” While she spoke, the girl reached out to take two more pieces of bread from the open bag before laying them beside each other.

Moving almost automatically, Sariel spread more mayo on the bread. Her voice, as she spoke, sounded hollow and empty. “You saw… everything again. You saw… I–” Her hand held tightly to the knife, her body trembling slightly as she shook her head. “Scout–Sarah, I…”

Scout was already putting both the meat and the cheese onto the prepared bread, while continuing to not look at the woman. “I just… I just want to say something.”

Numb, Sariel put the sandwich together and set it aside with the rest. “There’s something that I need to tell you–something that I have been trying to figure out how to say for ten years. You’d think that would be enough time, but…” Her throat was dry, and she shook her head silently.

Silently, Scout took two more pieces of bread from the bag, leaving Sariel to put the mayo on them. The two of them worked silently through the next couple more complete sandwiches, neither able to find the words they needed to say.

“I’m sorry.”

Sariel said the words, her hands pressed flat against the counter, feeling the knife under her right palm digging into the skin from the force she was exerting. She said the words, only they sounded… strange to her ears. Was it just her voice, or…

No. No, that wasn’t it. The words sounded odd because she wasn’t the only one who had said them. Scout had spoken as well. She had said the exact same words, made the exact same apology in that exact same moment. And now, as Sariel’s eyes blinked up that way, she found the girl staring back at her, Sariel’s own confusion reflected back at her.

“What,” the young girl started with obvious uncertainty, “w-what are you apologizing for?”

For a moment, Sariel just stared back at her with a slight frown. “Why am I apologizing?” she echoed in disbelief. “Why are you apologizing?”

A look of incredibly intense shame crossed Scout’s face then, and she looked away with a slight shudder. “I…” she started slowly, that single word making her voice crack before she closed her mouth into a tight line. Her face showed her own revulsion at the words as she continued in a tiny voice that sounded more as though it were coming from the child she had been all those years earlier rather than the young woman she now was. “It’s my fault.”

Now Sariel was even more lost. “What—” she stopped, head shaking slowly. “What do you think was your fault?”

In an audibly shaking voice, Scout haltingly explained, “If I wasn’t there, you could have helped Mom. She wouldn’t have had to stall him. You both could’ve focused on him. You could have done something more. She sent you to help me. It’s my fault. If I wasn’t there… If I wasn’t there…”

It was in pure shock that Sariel stared at the girl then. “Lords…” she murmured quietly while the knife fell from her hand. In a couple of steps, she walked around the counter to reach her. “Have you been thinking that this whole time? Do you really think that was your…” She trailed off, seeing the luck in the girl’s eyes. “Oh Scout, no, no.”

Without thinking, she wrapped both arms around the girl and pulled her close into a tight hug. “No, no,” she repeated, “That wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.”

Standing there stiffly for a moment, Scout shook her head. “But I couldn’t help. Mom had to send you to try to protect me. She had to face him by herself. If I wasn’t there, or if I could’ve helped…”

Her words were shaky, the tears right there in her voice as she physically shivered against the woman.

Sariel couldn’t even find her own voice for a moment. The revulsion that she felt at what this girl thought of herself was too complete. It took a few seconds for her thoughts to even become coherent.

Finally, she pulled back, hands firmly on Scout’s shoulders as she stared down at her. “You listen to me. That was not your fault. You were a child. It was our job to protect you. You didn’t do anything wrong. And beyond that, even if you weren’t there, things would not have turned out any better.”

There was obvious disbelief in the younger girl’s eyes at that. “But if I wasn’t there, you could’ve—”

“I probably would’ve done the same thing,” Sariel admitted. ”Yes, given weapons, time, my full power while I’m not projecting all the way across the universe against all be spells that were trying to keep me in place, I probably could have dealt with that creature. But I didn’t have all of that, or any of it. And my not having it had nothing to do with you. If you weren’t there, it wouldn’t have made any difference to how strong I was. If you weren’t there, I still would had only one option, to pull your mother with me to Seosten space.”

She saw the uncertainty there as Scout bit her lip. “You really think that you couldn’t have done better if I wasn’t there? If you didn’t have to hide me…”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,“ Sariel insisted. “If nothing else, taking the time to hide you rather than fighting gave me the chance to think of the only solution I could come up with. And believe me, it’s been years since then, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. There was no other solution. Not with what I had, not with what any of us had. If I had to do it again, the only change I would make would be to only take the Fomorian. If I could have found a way to separate him from your mother and only take him back with me, I would have. I should have.” At the end of that, the woman’s voice cracked, her guilt outweighing her urgent need to convince Scout that nothing there had been the girl’s fault.

Scout, meanwhile, stared up at her searchingly. “But if you couldn’t have done anything better with what you had, why were you apologizing?”

“Because I never should’ve put your mother in that position,” Sariel quietly claimed. “The Fomorian smelled me on her. If I hadn’t come back, if I didn’t spend time with her…”

Scout’s head shook. “If you didn’t spend time with her, you never would have sent Tabbris to Flick. She would have been taken by Kushiel, and Flick would’ve been possessed. And then, well, lots of bad things would’ve happened. You…” Her face screwed up a little with thought before she exhaled. “It’s like I told Professor Dare. You should live in what can still happen, not what could have happened. And–” Stopping, the girl blushed a little. “… I guess it’s kind of hard to take your own advice sometimes.”

Sariel managed a very faint smile at that. “It usually is,” she murmured softly. “But Scout, I am so sorry. I–the last thing I wanted was to take a child’s mother away from her. I didn’t–” Her voice cracked once more, and she closed her eyes briefly, shivering.

Scout embraced her then. Sariel felt the girl’s arms wrap around her tightly. “You were trying to help Flick. You were trying to get back to your children, trying to get your family back together. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was just… just… bad luck.”

With a little shudder, Sariel returned the embrace, sinking down to one knee as she held onto the girl. “Very bad luck,” she agreed in a quiet voice. “And intentional or not, I still contributed to taking your mother away. I still–” She stopped, biting her lip hard before her head shook. “I still did plenty of bad things, still made plenty of mistakes.”

Scout’s voice was simple. “So do better next time. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Success is built out of the remains of failure. You try, you fail, you break down the fail into something that you can use to succeed. It’s like practicing. You learn from it. Or you let it pile on top of you. That’s kind of the only two choices, you know? Either you let your failures crush you, or you climb on top of them and use that to reach success.”

Swallowing hard, Sariel shook her head in wonder. “You are a very wise girl, Scout Mason.”

“I just have a lot of time to think,” the girl demurred with a small shrug. “Too much, sometimes.”

The two finally released one another, and Sariel leaned back to look at the girl while staying down on one knee. “You have to let go of that guilt, okay? What happened back on the boat was not your fault. You did nothing wrong.”

Softly, Scout replied, “Only if you let go of your guilt. Because you didn’t do anything wrong either. You saved Mom and me, even though you were… um, handicapped at the time. You did everything you could.”

Flushing guiltily, Sariel hesitated before offering, “I guess we both have to let go of that guilt for each other. Either way, that was still a very bad day.”

“It was,” Scout agreed. “But sometimes bad days just happen. It’s not because you screwed up, or because you’re evil, or because of anything you did. It just happens. It’s not fair, and it’s not fun, but it happens. And you just have to pick up and keep going. Push on. Or lay there and cry about it. It’s your choice.”

“You’re mostly right,” Sariel confirmed with a small smile. “Except sometimes we can stop and help up other people who have been knocked down. Or try to. No one can do all of this by themselves all the time. We all need someone sometimes. Maybe to offer hand, or to smack us when we’re being stupid. Believe me, everyone has ‘smack upside the head because you’re being dumb’ moments.”

Her words, intended lightly, still made Scout flinch noticeably. The girl glanced away, arms folding across her stomach tightly. “You’d have to be pretty strong to smack my dad hard enough to make him wake up.”

Wincing at that, Sariel hesitated before speaking quietly. “Your father… he tries, Scout. He makes plenty of mistakes, and he is… stubborn beyond belief. He’s wrong. But he does care about you, and your sister, and your mother. He even cared about Joselyn and the others that he… that he betrayed. He thought he was doing the right thing. Just like now, he still thinks he knows what’s best. And in his own way, he’s trying to take care of you. He just… he doesn’t understand. Or won’t understand. Maybe he never will, I don’t know. But he loves you. I know that much beyond any doubt. He may be a raging jackass sometimes. But he loves his family.”

Scout’s response came after a few seconds of silence, her voice cracking. “I love him. I love my dad. He’s my dad. I’ll always love him. I just… don’t like him very much.”

Feeling the girl’s pain like her own, Sariel embraced her once more. “I do hope he listens, that he learns, Scout. But even if he doesn’t, even if he never changes, you have to know that he loves you. Everything he does is because he thinks he’s doing the right thing. And sometimes you just have to accept that it’s not as simple as the good guys always being right and the bad guys always being wrong. Your father is a good man. He’s wrong. He’s done some very bad things, but not out of malice. He’s misled and often foolish. But he is trying. And he loves you very much. Never doubt that.”

After a few more long seconds like that, the two separated and Scout whispered hoarsely, “I just… I just can’t talk to him right now. I know he wants to. I know he wants me to just… listen to him and agree with him. I know he wants a lot of things that I can’t give him. But I don’t want to see him right now. I can’t trust him. I love him, and yeah, I know he loves me. But I don’t trust him.”

Sariel stood up slowly. “I wish I could tell you that he’ll learn his lesson and that everything will be alright. But I can’t. All I can say is that… you’re not alone. You are never alone in this, Scout. Your mother and your sister will make it back here. They’ll make it here as soon as they can. But even before then, you have your friends. You have your team, Gaia, everyone who will help you.”

“And you,” Scout put in, staring up at the woman.

Sariel felt a thick lump in her throat, swallowing hard to clear it. “And me,” she confirmed. “I’ll be there for you, if you want me to be around. I… I just thought that you would be angry with me.”

“And I thought you’d be angry with me,” Scout pointed out. “Because my being there screwed up your chance to save Mom. I–” She stopped then, flushing visibly. “We were both being dumb about it.”

“Maybe a little dumb, yeah,” Sariel agreed, managing a weak smile. “But hey, we can move forward, right? That thing you said about climbing on top of mistakes and failure to reach success? We can still do that with misunderstandings. And uhh, speaking of success, do you want to keep helping me make these sandwiches? I’m afraid if we don’t get food out to my people pretty soon, they might just start eating the cabins.”

Giggling just a little, Scout obediently moved to the counter to take two more pieces of bread. “Okay,” she murmured. “And umm… maybe you could… umm…” She hesitated, clearly feeling self-conscious.

Sariel took the knife, spreading mayonnaise on the bread once more. “What is it?” she asked as gently as possible. “What can I do for you, Scout?”

The girl’s voice was faint, her hands shaking a little while she put meat and cheese on the bread. “Could you… tell me a bit about my mom when she was a kid? I never… I wasn’t old enough to know anything about her before… before all that happened. I feel like I don’t know her at all. I just–” Her voice choked itself off.  

“Oh, Scout.” Sariel felt her own heart crack a little before she nodded once. “Yes. Yes, I’ll tell you everything I know about your mother.

“Starting with the fact that she has terrible taste in favorite Green Lanterns.”

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter