Interlude 32A – Team Stranded

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on Klassin Roe posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Where is she?!”

“Open the portal! Damn it, Haiden, open it again!”

“She pushed me… She pushed me…”

“What the hell happened back there? What was that?”

“What? She’s not here? What do you mean, she’s not here?! She was right behind us!”

The voices of Sands, Larissa, Jazz, Haiden, and Roxa filled the cargo bay of the ship as they all spoke over one another, their words blending into one large cacophony of noise that was almost impossible to actual pick a single coherent statement out of. It became a salmagundi of words that sounded something like, ‘Where portal hell not here right pushed was open it behind us!’

“Mom!” Sands managed to get out over the din, grabbing her mother’s arm. “Mom, where is she?! Where is Flick? We have to go back for her! We have to go back!” Her voice was hysterical, the realization that her friend had been left behind hitting the girl like a freight train.

“Okay.” With that single word, Haiden snapped his fingers, creating a zone of silence for everyone except himself. “Stop. Everyone stop. We have to-” In mid-sentence, the ship was suddenly rocked heavily, throwing Jazz and Gordon to the floor while the rest fought to keep their balance, Sands stumbling into her mother and Roxa catching hold of Gidget. The lights briefly flickered and dimmed, and the ship gave a second shudder under obviously heavy fire.

Cursing, Haiden turned to the nearby wall, putting a hand against one of the buttons there. “Jokai, Dries, what’s going on up there?!”

It was the old Heretic who answered, appearing in the hatchway to the cargo bay a moment later. “We are under heavy attack,” the thin, scraggly haired man with his thoroughly unkempt beard announced while taking a step into the room. “We must–” He paused then, his eyes widening a little as he looked past the group, to the rest of the cargo bay.

It was almost entirely full of the humanoid ant-people, the Kenkeans. Thousands of the people stood or sat in every available space. There were so many of them that had rather abruptly been thrust into this situation with little to no actual explanation beyond the fact that they had to leave before the Seosten arrived that they should, by all rights, have been making so much noise simply through whispering that the Heretics would have been drowned out.

Instead, each and every one of the Kenkeans were utterly silent. They sat or stood in place, eyes watching the proceedings while barely breathing. They were so utterly petrified of the Seosten in general that seeing what many still believed to be their ‘warsuits’ made them all but incapable of making a sound. They just watched, their collective silence so complete that, had the Heretics not been talking, one could have heard a pin dropping onto a bit of carpet.

For most people, seeing thousands of silent onlookers would have been plenty of reason for a bit of stage fright or uncertainty.  For someone like Dries, who suffered a host of psychological issues (with fears of crowds, open or new places, and of being watched or confronted being right at the top of the extensive list), it derailed his entire thought process and made the man reflexively try to retreat back the way he had come, stumbling a little as his heart rate skyrocketed, his throat closed up, and he felt the shudders start to come on.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. He knew that. He knew that. Half of his issues were simply the result of being trapped alone for such an extended time. And the other half… well, the Seosten hadn’t exactly been reluctant when it came to experimentation. They had wanted to ensure as much as they could that he wouldn’t escape their prison, so they had artificially instilled a plethora of fears and psychological dependencies in him. Over the centuries, he had learned to control a good number of them, but not all. Not the strongest. And every fear that he ignored or controlled took more effort, more willpower. Knowing they were artificial, knowing that the phobias and addictions had been forced upon him didn’t really help. They were still there.

“Dries.” Haiden was there, his hand on the man’s arm. “It’s okay. What–” The ship shuddered once more, as even more firepower was brought against it.

Forcing himself to focus, Dries made his eyes center on the center of Haiden’s shirt. Couldn’t look in his eyes, couldn’t look any of them in the eyes. That was too hard, too much. “We have to leave,” he mumbled, unable to raise his voice. “Jokai is… is trying to evade and outrun, but it is impossible. We are surrounded and blocked. We have to use a teleportation spell. I can do it. I have it. But I don’t have enough power. I need to take power. Your power. To trigger it. To go.” As he spoke, the man’s sentences kept getting shorter. It was too hard to make the words come when he felt so… somehow simultaneously closed off and yet also exposed.

“We can’t go!” That was Sands. She blurted that out with wide eyes. “Flick’s back there! Open the portal back to her! We have to grab her!”

Larissa’s head shook. “We can’t. Whatever Radueriel is doing, it’s blocking our portals. We could try to break through, but the ship won’t last that long.” Her voice cracked, face ashen. “We… we have to go.” From her voice, each word put another crack into her soul.  

“No!” Roxa, looking back and forth at them, shook her head. “We can’t just leave! Flick is there! And–”

“I know.” Larissa interrupted before the girl could give away Tabbris’ existence. “I know. But–”

Haiden abruptly spoke. “No time. Kids, we will go back for Flick, I promise! We will, but we can’t go back for her if we’re killed or captured too. Now come on.” To Dries, he nodded. “Do it. Use our power to trigger the spell.”

“W-wait!” Jazz’s head shook violently, her eyes wild and horrified as she took a step that way quickly. “She–she threw me out of the way! She threw me through the portal! That’s why she—she– you can’t leave her! You can’t leave her there! You-”

Her words were cut off as Gordon, who had remained silent the entire time, caught hold of the girl. He pulled her back while giving the others a silent nod, even as Jazz herself struggled against his grip. Despite his outward calmness, however, there was frustration, fear, and anger in his eyes, emotions that were barely being constrained through sheer force of will and habit. 

Without wasting another second, Dries produced a small wooden figurine that he had carved over the course of his long imprisonment. It was shaped like an elephant, and he had etched symbols into it. As he held the small figure up in his palm, the man spoke a single word.

Instantly, every Heretic in the room other than himself slumped. The teenagers collapsed completely, and would have fallen to the floor if  Larissa and Haiden (clearly woozy and unsteady themselves) hadn’t caught them. All still slowly slumped down, as the two adults couldn’t remain standing.

Meanwhile, Dries took the energy he had captured, pouring it into the teleportration spell that he had already set up. With another single word, he triggered the effect, and the ship was instantly shunted far away from the Kenkean planet.

Far away from Felicity Chambers.


The next day

“We left her there.”

Jazz Rhodes spoke the words flatly, her voice soft as she sat alone in one of the many side-rooms of the ship. Her gaze was directed to the screen on the wall, which was currently filling the facade of a window, overlooking a sea of stars. “We just… we just left her.”

Letting the door whoosh shut behind him, Haiden took another step in while shaking his head. “Not for long. We’re going back for her, I promise. We are going to find her.”

Remaining silent for several long seconds, when Jazz finally spoke, her voice was barely audible. “She saved my life. She threw me through the portal, knocked me through it with her staff. If she hadn’t done that, if she had just jumped through herself, or… or…” She trailed off, her wide gaze continuing to stare at the expanse of space depicted on the screen.

Slowly, the man moved up to stand beside her, his own eyes on the stars as well. “And you feel guilty about that.”

Flushing, the dark-skinned girl looked down as her arms folded themselves tightly against her stomach. “Wouldn’t you?” she demanded in a somewhat cracked voice. “If I’d been a little bit faster, if I’d gotten there just a little sooner, another… another step or two even, maybe… maybe…”

Before she could continue, Haiden put a hand out to rest on her shoulder. “Stop,” he urged quietly. “Blaming yourself for not being perfect, throwing yourself under the bus like that, it doesn’t help anything.”

“A real Torchbearer would’ve been faster,” Jazz informed him flatly, pulling her shoulder away from his hand as she lowered her gaze to the floor. “Any of the others, any of the real candidates would’ve made it without needing help. I should’ve used one of my gravity balls to push us both forward or… or something. I should’ve thought of that. They would have. I shouldn’t be at Crossroads. I shouldn’t–it should’ve been someone who could actually help.”

“Hey.” That time, Haiden took hold of the girl and turned her to face him. His voice was firm. “Look at me.”

As Jazz slowly lifted her gaze a bit reluctantly, he continued. “You need to stop worrying about what other Torchbearers would do. Because the truth is, all this garbage about what the ‘real candidates would have done’ is just that: garbage. You are the real candidate, the real student. You are the real Heretic, Jasmine. So stop worrying about what anyone else would do. Because the only thing that matters is what you do. What you do, not what you could have done and not what anyone else might have done. The only thing, the only fucking thing you can control is what you do in the moment. If it’s not enough and you get thrown into the dirt, then you pick yourself up, you brush yourself off, and you get back on that goddamn horse. That’s what you control, that’s all you control. Sitting around moping about it or trying again, that’s your choice, that’s your decision.”

The girl swallowed hard, flinching a little as her soft, quiet voice replied, “I’m scared that I’m not good enough.”

“Then use that fear,” Haiden urged, squeezing both of her shoulders. “Instead of letting it make you freeze up, use it to make yourself better, to push yourself to keep training, to keep trying. You think you’re not good enough? Good. Make yourself good enough. Keep trying. Keep working. Keep training and keep fighting. The only thing you could do to make yourself not good enough is to stop trying to be better than you are.”

Biting her lip, Jazz peeked up at the man. “Vanessa and Tristan are lucky they get to have you as a dad.”

Haiden blinked rapidly, chasing the moisture away from his eyes as his voice cracked a little bit. “I’m lucky to have them as my kids. Now I’ve just gotta get back to them.”

“And your wife.” Jazz met his gaze. “You’ve been apart from them for so long, but you haven’t stopped trying. You never stopped trying, working, moving that way.”

“Like I said,” he replied, “something knocks you off the horse, you get back on it, and you keep fucking going.”

Straightening a little bit, the young woman took in a heavy breath before letting it out slowly. “We get Flick. We get your wife. And we go home.”

“That’s the spirit.” Smiling, Haiden nudged his fist against the girl’s chin.

“But then, when we make it back,” Jazz continued, “there’s something else you have to do.”

“Oh?” Raising an eyebrow, the man asked, “and what’s that?”

“You have to teach me how to ride a horse.”


Later that evening


“You know, I’m really sad that I never worked on my Anthony Hopkins impression right now.”

The observation came from Isaac, as the boy stood in the middle of the room that had been specially prepared for him. The room itself was thirty feet wide by twenty feet long, but the boy was confined to a much smaller space than that. The red line painted on the floor created a square about eight feet by ten feet. That was the space that he couldn’t leave, which the spellforms drawn on the other side of the square, filling the rest of the space of the room, ensured. Within the small area, there was a bed as well as a toilet with a privacy screen.

On the other side of that square, facing the imprisoned boy, stood Larissa, Haiden, Dries, Roxa, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon. The students stood slightly to one side of the adults, both small groups watching him intently.

“Don’t fucking flatter yourself.” Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You’re not Hopkins-tier. You’re not even John Travolta’s villain character in Battlefield Earth. You’re bottom-feeding scum.”

“That’s enough.” Larissa’s voice was quiet, yet definitive as she took a step forward. “We’re here for one thing and one thing only. You guys are here because we promised you could be included, but now isn’t the time to make ourselves feel better through insults. Or anything else. It’s time to get information.”

“Oh, you want information?” Brightening, Isaac replied, “I’ve got a few ideas about what we could trade. But the thing is, you’re a little old for me. How about you leave Sandy in here for a little bit instead. I figure, ehhh, twenty minutes alone oughta be worth whatever you want me to tell you?”

Ignoring the brief, outraged sound that came from her daughter while her friends held her back, Larissa simply shook her head at the boy. “Sloppy. You want me to lose control, get angry, do something stupid? You’re going to have to try harder than that.” Calmly, she moved closer, walking straight up to the line. “Because quite frankly, put on even ground, I’m sure that my daughter would hurt you a lot more than you could hurt her.”

“Mom,” Sands managed, “be careful.”  

“It’s okay,” Larissa assured her daughter. “The spells cut off his power, not mine. He’s not a threat.” With that, she stepped over the line and into the containment square.

“What,” Isaac retorted while taking a reflexive step back, “no negotiation? Doesn’t have to be your daughter. I’d settle for the Little Orphan Wolfie. She’s more my type anyway. Seems pretty wi–”

His words were cut off as Larissa’s hand abruptly snapped out to catch him by the throat, though he managed a heavily strained, “Thought you said I wasn’t getting to you.”

“You’re not,” the woman replied, still holding the boy by the throat. “But you’re also an evil son-of-a-bitch, so I don’t feel the need to be gentle. Now, Felicity isn’t here right now, so you’ll just have to deal with me possessing you. So it looks like you don’t have much to–” She stopped.

“Hmm?” Grinning, Isaac tilted his head. “I’m sorry, are you having performance anxiety? Should I close my eyes? Would that make it easier? Maybe there’s a pill that–”

Again, his voice was choked off into silence as Larissa tightened her grip while looking over her shoulder. “He’s protected. I can’t possess him.”

“What?” Haiden started that way quickly, giving Dries a brief look before the other man followed suit. While the teenagers muttered amongst themselves, the adults moved in together, examining the boy.

“It’s the same effect,” Larissa finally announced as they stepped back. “He’s using the dibs spell.”

“Shit, did I forget to mention that?” Isaac’s broad smile was even more utterly incorrigible, his amusement written plainly across his face. “I feel like I probably should’ve mentioned that.”

“What the fuck?!” Sands blurted, moving right up to the edge of the line. She would have gone further, but her mother snapped a hand down to stop her. “How?! How could he possibly know how to cast that? That doesn’t even make sense. That’s bullshit! We learned the spell after he left! After he–” She choked herself off, looking like the thing she really wanted to do the most was put her fist through the boy’s chest a few dozen times.

Brightening, Isaac snapped his fingers. “Oh, right, I did mean to thank you guys for having those lessons in the same room where we were learning everything else. When I put in those spy cameras, I really wasn’t sure how useful they’d be, but I think you have to agree that they paid off.”

“Haiden,” Larissa snapped.

“I’m on it,” the man replied, already pivoting on his heel to go and deal with those and whatever the boy had left behind. They had been so distracted and broken up after that massacre, after the death of Ulysses and all those other people, that they hadn’t searched the ship as thoroughly as they should have. And now they were paying for it.

“It’s your spell,” Gordon observed from where he and the other students were standing. “Can’t you just undo it? Or bypass it?”

Larissa’s head shook quickly. “If we could just undo it, then the Seosten could have just undone it. The entire point was to make it so that it couldn’t just be dispelled. Plus, we don’t know how much messing with it that way we could do without unraveling the entire thing. Remember, we still don’t know what exactly Sariel did to create the initial effect that we’re piggybacking off of. The last thing we want to do is disable that part of it. We’d never get it up again. We mess around with this too much trying to turn his protection off, and we might turn off all our protection.”

“Hey,” Isaac put in then, in his infuriatingly smug way, “I’ve got an idea. You could torture me for it. You know, set me on fire, pull my fingernails, make me listen to Jazz whine for an hour or so. That might–oh, shit.” Snapping his fingers as though he had just remembered something, the boy pretended to lament, “I just had to go and throw a suicide pill into the spell, didn’t I? So, you know, if I’m under too much pain or fear or anything else–” He drew a finger across his throat demonstrably. “Then I suppose you won’t get any of the answers that you want.” .

From where he was standing, Gordon flatly remarked, “I’m not sure that making everyone as angry and upset as possible and then telling them exactly how to easily kill you is going to have quite the effect that you want. But then, I’m not the tactical genius that you are.”

“So, what,” Sands started while giving a heavy shrug as she ignored Isaac to focus on her mother, “we just wait for it to wear off?”

“You wanna tell her?” Isaac asked with a smirk, “or should I?”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Larissa looked to Dries first, then the others. “We made sure that the spell would last for a long time to begin with. There’s no point of having it if it’s just going to wear off a day after one of us was captured. It’s a long spell, and… and as far as we can tell, Isaac boosted it the last time that he cast it. Probably using that same blood ritual that he had connecting him to the Kenkeans. He used their life forces to supercharge the duration, which was already long to begin with.”

“So how long will it take to wear off then?” Jazz demanded.

“Honestly,” the woman replied slowly, “I have no idea. Weeks, at least. Maybe months.” Even saying the words made her want to incinerate the boy almost more than she could control. Flick and Tabbris were out there, they were… She stopped herself from that line of thought. If she didn’t keep herself under control, the kids wouldn’t either. And if they all lost it… then Isaac would get what he clearly wanted. As much as she wanted to express her anger and frustration, the kids needed a better example. 

Meanwhile, rather than devolve into cursing, Sands lifted her chin. “Or we go right to the source. We find Sariel, have her disable it long enough to get all the answers we need out of him. So nothing’s changed. We find Flick, we find Sariel, and we get everything we need out of this psycho piece of shit.” To the boy himself, she added, “And if I was you, I’d wipe that stupid fucking smirk off my face. You’re still a loser who was captured, and we’re going to find out everything you know. It’ll just take a little longer.”

“Indeed,” Larissa murmured, giving her daughter a brief smile despite herself. The girl had grown so much. Keeping herself calm enough to think straight even in this situation, even against Isaac’s taunting, she had definitely matured. It made Larissa… it made her proud. “Which means that we’re back to our number one goal.

“Finding Felicity.”


Mini-Interlude 56 – Klassin Roe

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“I just… I just want to explain, you know?” The voice of Russell Bailey, formerly monikered as Virus, was quiet even in the small room that amounted to Klassin Roe’s therapy office. The headmistress had offered to make it larger, but Roe had declined. He didn’t need an enormous room to work in. It was best that the students he worked with feel secure, not overwhelmed.

Now, he sat back slowly in his chair while lifting his chin to the boy. “You want to tell your family what really happened to your father.” His voice held no judgment, no condemnation.

The boy flinched a little bit, running a hand up through his newly shortened hair. At one point not long before, it had been long and dyed an obnoxious bright red, but Russell had taken most of it down to a short crew cut, and it had grown out to its natural light brown. He also no longer wore the facial piercings that had been such an extensive part of him at the beginning of the year.

“They think it was just some crazy cult initiation or something,” the boy mumbled, his gaze dropping to the floor. “They’ll never really know. They’ll never understand that it was… it was…” His voice caught a little, mouth working before he gave a little shudder. “That it was my fault.”

“You still think that it was your fault?” Again, Roe did not correct the boy, not in this particular situation. He believed that Russell was wrong, of course. But simply telling him that would accomplish nothing. What the boy really needed right in that moment was someone to talk to, someone to sit and listen to his turmoil without correcting or inserting their own opinion.

Russell gave him an incredulous look for a second anyway, blurting, “Of course it is! I–Just think about it. I hang out with a bunch of psycho gangbangers to look cool. My parents tried to tell me to leave them alone. Everyone tried to tell me to leave them alone. But I thought they were badass, so I made ‘friends’ with them.” His fingers jerked up to form the air quotes while mouth twisted in derision at that word. “I fucked around with those guys cuz they were sooo cool.”

He went silent for a few seconds then, his face contorting a little as his head shook violently. There were tears forming in the boy’s eyes, tears that he angrily blinked away. “Then I become a Heretic. So I go back over Christmas to hang out with my old ‘friends’, and guess what.”

Roe remained quiet. He knew this story, of course. He’d heard it many times. But talking it through, repeating it, helped Russell deal with everything. It seemed to help him cope.

“They’re monsters,” the boy spat, his hard gaze glowering at the desk between them. “They’re a bunch of fucking monsters, most of them. Strangers. And they know what I am as soon as they see me. They know I’m a Heretic, so I get the hell out of there. I’m freaking the hell out, so I run away. I didn’t know what to do. I should’ve called you guys. I should’ve called Crossroads. But I just ran to the arcade and screwed off for awhile. I had to think. I was just… I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. So I just hung out. I fucking–” His face twisted once more, and the tears threatened to come back. It was clearly all he could do to keep it somewhat under control.

When he finally continued a few seconds later, his voice was hollow. “I walked back home. I walked home and… and my dad… those assholes. Those fucking motherfuckers, they… they went to my house looking for me while I was hanging out at the arcade. But they found my dad instead. They found my dad and they… they murdered him. They killed my dad and–and–and tore him apart. The cops thought it was some kind of devil worshipping cult initiation because of all the–the blood and how they–how they just…” Trailing off, Russell lowered his head, no longer fighting the tears as they fell freely down his face.

As far as Klassin was aware, only the staff and the boy’s team were aware of exactly what had happened. And even some of his team might not have known the whole story. Most of the school was entirely unaware of the trauma that had caused the formerly-named Virus to change so much after that first semester. It was his choice to tell them or not, just as it had been his choice to continue attending classes so soon after everything that had happened. The headmistress had, of course, urged him to take some time off. She had almost insisted on it. But in the end, Russell had made the point that he needed to feel useful. He needed to keep himself busy, not dwell, and that the longer he spent just sitting around, the worse he actually felt. The creatures responsible for the murder and dismemberment of his father had completely disappeared, which meant that the most Crossroads could do was get his mother and little brother out of there, move them to a new city with a job transfer, and thus hopefully keep them away from any further reprisals from Russell’s former friends. The attack and murder had happened at the very beginning of the holiday break, and Russell had spent the remainder of it coming to terms (as much as he could) with the loss of his father.

“But I can’t tell them any of that,” the boy spat angrily, pushing himself up out of his chair rather than sit any longer. “My mom, Jake, I can’t tell them why Dad’s dead. I can’t—I can’t explain. I can’t tell them about the monsters, because they won’t remember it anyway. I just–” Turning, he lashed out, punching the nearby wall with both of his fists. The wall was reinforced, yet the twin blows still dented it visibly while the boy slumped, head shaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Russell.” Standing as well, Klassin moved that way, laying his hands on the boy’s shoulders from behind. “You know how easy it is to repair the walls around here.”

For a moment, the boy just stood there, fists partly indented into the wall while he shuddered. “I told you the story before,” he mumbled. “You already knew it anyway. I just–I want to tell them. I want to tell them so bad, but it won’t do any good. And I can’t—I can’t handle letting them know the truth once, just so they can forget it again right after. I can’t handle that. What if they hate me and then completely forget about it? I couldn’t… I couldn’t deal with that. I just–I can’t.”

Silence filled the room for a few long seconds then, before Klassin finally spoke up, his voice soft. “The Runners haven’t stopped looking for the Strangers who murdered your father. And they won’t stop looking. They will find them, especially with all the information you’ve given.”

“For all the good it does,” Russell muttered darkly. He turned from the wall, facing Klassin with a forlorn, empty look. “It doesn’t bring my dad back. It doesn’t–” He stopped then, biting his lip while his head shook as he changed to, “You know why I really wanted to keep coming here instead of taking time off like the headmistress wanted?”

Klassin had his guesses, but he simply inclined his chin curiously and let the boy speak. That was what Russell needed right then. He needed to talk. That was why he had brought up the entire situation again, despite the fact that they had already been through it several times.

“Because I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Russell’s voice was firm, his hands tightening into fists. “I can’t bring my dad back. I can’t go back in time and stop myself from being such a stupid fucking–” Cutting himself off, he gave a violent headshake once more, forcibly pulling himself back from the precipice of that emotional crater. “I can’t undo anything I did. But I can be a good Heretic. I can help other people.”

Smiling just a little bit, Klassin gave a slight nod. “That is an admirable goal, Russell. One that I think your father would approve of. And so would your family, if they understood the situation.”

For his part, the boy simply swallowed hard while looking down, folding his arms against his chest uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, can we talk about something else? I don’t wanna talk about that anymore.”

“Of course.” Nodding once more, Klassin asked, “What would you like to talk about?”

At first, Russell was quiet. He shifted, clearly unsure of whether he should really ask what he wanted to. “The umm, the car you were working on before.”

“The Sixty-Nine Mustang Boss 429?” Raising an eyebrow with a tiny smile despite himself, Klassin nodded. “Of course. It’s been a nice little project car for awhile.” Magic, of course, would have made the work pass much faster than the months that this had actually taken. But Klassin preferred doing this kind of thing the long, slow way. He enjoyed working on the cars with his own two hands, no powers or spells involved.

“Do… do you think I could–I mean I don’t know if you need—or want–or…” It was clearly hard for Russell to find the words, his face flushed.

Saving him from floundering even more, Klassin reached out to squeeze the boy’s arm. “Why don’t we get out of this place before we both develop claustrophobia, huh? Come on down and take a look at the car with me. If you’re up for it, maybe you could help me get some of the rebuild done.”

Gaze lifting at that, Russell managed a tiny smile. “You… you’re sure?”

Grabbing his leather jacket from the nearby hook, Klassin nodded while gesturing to the door. “Absolutely. Figure between the two of us, we should be able to get the old girl purring again in just a couple weeks.”

As the two of them started out of the office, the boy hesitantly volunteered, “My dad had a muscle car before he had to sell it a couple years ago. I helped him fix it up so he could sell it. That’s how he paid for our trip to Hawaii. I— I was pissed at him for selling it. I wanted it. I–I didn’t… I treated him like shit.”

“Hey.” Klassin stopped in the doorway, looking to the boy. “You helped your dad rebuild a car. I guarantee you, that’s what he remembered. Everyone knows that their kids are going to lash out and say stupid things. Especially teenagers. But I promise you, that’s not what he focused on. That’s not what he remembered. The time you guys spent working on it, that’s what your dad thought about. That’s what mattered to him.”

Russell’s voice cracked a little bit. “You… you think so?”

“I know so,” Klassin assured him before teasing, “Now come on, if I’m gonna exploit our time together to get free work out of you, we better be quick and quiet about it.”

“It’s Headmistress Sinclaire, sir,” Russell retorted. “I’m pretty sure she knew how we were going to spend our time today before we did.”

Chuckling despite himself as he stepped out of the office, Klassin bowed his head in acknowledgment. “You know what, you’re probably right. That headmistress is one smart cookie. But you know what I think?”

“What?” Curious, Russell stepped through and watched as the man closed the door to his office.

Klassin winked. “If we do get in trouble… we’ll just bribe her with the car.”


“So, how did it go today?”

Later that evening, Klassin was stepping out of his office and flicking the light off on his way when the voice spoke up from nearby. Smiling despite himself, he looked that way.

“Hey, Risa,” he greeted the woman, stepping that way. “You mean with Russell?”

Risa Kohaku nodded, stepping in to embrace him. The two exchanged an initially brief kiss that lingered slightly more than Klassin had intended before they both stopped to catch their breath. “Wow,” the security chief murmured under her breath with a tiny smile. “Looks like someone really needed that.”

“Long day,” Klassin agreed. He stepped back, still holding the woman’s hands. “I got Russell working on the car with me. It was even his idea, pretty much. I just…” He sighed. “I wish we had better news for him. Your contacts in the Runners, they don’t have any more news?”

Risa winced, shaking her head a little. “No, they’re still looking but… honestly, I’m not sure how much more they’ll actually find. The Strangers who murdered his father are… they knew enough to get the hell out of town afterward.”

“At least it means they’ll probably leave the rest of his family alone,” Klassin noted. “They’ll know that we’ll be watching for them.” Heaving a long, heavy sigh, he shook his head before asking, “Anyway, I thought we could go out for dinner tonight. You know that little place in Italy with the great seafood? What was the name of that village?”

“Atrani?” Risa supplied. “Sure, we haven’t been there for awhile. But umm….”

Lifting an eyebrow as the woman trailed off, Klassin poked her forehead. “This isn’t really you, is it?”

“It’s me,” she retorted a bit defensively. “Duplicates are totally me. But uh, yeah, it’s a duplicate projection. Sorry. I couldn’t get away yet, but I still wanted to meet you. I missed you.”

“And your duplicates can’t leave the island without you,” Klassin finished for her. Some types could, he knew. But Risa’s were limited to the same universe (or pocket universe, in this case).

“I promise,” the woman assured him, “it won’t take much longer. I just have to listen to Rucker’s report. Twenty minutes, tops. I’ll meet you by the Pathmaker?”

She offered him another kiss, and Klassin took it, giving her a little smile despite himself. “Sure. But you tell him that he’s gotta give you a couple hours without any interruptions unless it’s the end of the world. I want to have you to myself at least for a little while.”

Her smile, embarrassed as much as it was proud, lit up the little corridor. “I promise,” she agreed. “We’ll have some time to ourselves. Just you and me.”

The duplicate disappeared then, leaving Klassin standing in the hall by himself. The man smiled slowly, anticipating not only the upcoming meal, but everything else that the evening promised to bring.

Whistling softly, and just a little off-key, he shrugged into his jacket and started down the hall. As busy as things were, as much work as they still had to do (especially when it came to finding Chambers and the rest of the missing students), it was still possible to find bits of joy here and there. It was important to have those moments.

His phone rang a moment later, and the man glanced to it. Unknown number. Shrugging, since that didn’t mean much in his work, he answered it. “This is Roe.”

“Klassin Roe?” an unfamiliar voice on the other end replied. “The man who used to be Jonathan Ruthers?”

Pausing, Roe frowned. “I don’t go by that name–who is this?”

“It’s okay,” the voice replied, “I just got your name from… let’s call her an old, old friend of yours. She said that you could help me with something.

“But first, allow me to introduce myself. My name… is Denuvus.”

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Lessons 32-07

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“Today, we’ll mix in a little bit of your newest power,” Athena announced a few days later. At the moment, we were in a long, empty corridor. I wasn’t sure what it was for, but it kind of look like one of those special wind tunnels.

“So,” she continued then, “let’s see you make one.” She stepped back, folding her arms as she waited expectantly.

Right, she wanted to see that power, the one that I had gotten from that soldier who had been trying to make the portal to pull the rest of his companions through and cut us off while we were fighting Radueriel’s troops. Technically, I had killed two with that. There was the portal guy, of course, and the one who had been partially sticking out of the portal when it closed. From that second guy, I had received a significant boost to my balance. I could go across a beam like one of those trained gymnasts, or even make my way over marbles that were spread across the floor. Tabbris and I had practiced with that one a bit, and it was pretty fun finding out just how easy it was for me to maintain my balance even on slippery or narrow floors. And we’d definitely worked it into training. If nothing else, using my item-transfer power to suddenly cover a floor with a bunch of marbles or something to screw with people’s balance while mine remained just fine could end up being really useful.

But clearly, that wasn’t the power that Athena was talking about. Nor was she talking about the couple of other minor strength, stamina, and speed boosts that I have gotten from the few soldiers who had wandered into my planted mines. No, she wanted to see the other major one. So, I nodded and held up my hand while narrowing my eyes in concentration. Looking to the far end of the tunnel as far as I could see, I focused.

A couple of seconds later, a small, light blue portal appeared in the air right in front of my outstretched hand. It was only about a foot wide, or maybe even a little less. At the same time, an identical tiny portal appeared at the far end of the tunnel where my eyes were focused. With a smile, I stretched my hand forward through the portal. It appeared out the other end, and I waved to myself.

This was the power that I had inherited from that guy. I could make these small portals, not large enough to actually fit through or anything, but at least big enough to put my hand through and grab something small enough. They wouldn’t get any larger than this, or at least I hadn’t managed it yet. And I could only make them reach as far as I could see. The other end of the small portal had to be within my line of sight. But still, it was really cool. And there were a ton of ways to synergize it with my other powers and fighting style. I just needed practice. Especially when it came to making the portals appear quickly, without taking a few seconds to focus. If I could make them in the middle of a fight, it would be pretty awesome. Which, of course, was another advantage to having Tabbris around.

“Good,” Athena commended. “Now shut it down. Lady Tabbris, I would like you to take control of the left hand, and focus on creating portals and dismissing them. In the meantime, I will distract Lady Felicity. We will start very simply,” she promised.

With those words, the woman produced a simple baton. “Lady Felicity, I would like you to simply focus on blocking my blows with your staff. They will come slowly enough that you will be able to block them, but they will be sufficiently distracting that you will be unable to focus on creating the portals. You will need Lady Tabbris to do that. Shall we begin?”

We practiced that way for a little while, getting better and faster each time. Finally, I took a break to pick up a bottle of water, taking a long pull from it before remarking, “I wish you could train the others as much as you’re training me. Or at least Vanessa and Tristan. They deserve to learn from you more than I do. I mean, it’s their mother on the line.”

Blinking at that, Athena tilted her head a little while narrowing her eyes at me. “What do you mean?” she asked carefully. “Who exactly are Vanessa and Tristan?”

It was my turn to blink at that, equally confused. “Wait, you don’t know about them? I thought you knew about… uh, basically about all the stuff.” When the woman simply shook her head at me, I took a breath and let it out slowly. “Wow, okay then. Um, Vanessa and Tristan are Sariel’s other kids. You know, the ones that she had with Haiden, her human husband. The twins.”

For a few long seconds, Athena just squinted at me. “I am aware of Haiden Moon, and his work to locate his wife. But, as far as I am aware, they did not have any viable children.”

She doesn’t know? Tabbris sounded just as surprised as I felt. I thought she knew everything.

“Wow.” My mouth open and shut a couple times before I shook my head. “Well, whoever is giving you that information is either completely full of shit or they’re misinformed themselves. I… I just assumed you knew all this stuff, like… everything basically. I mean, what else don’t you know about? You know why Haiden and Larissa have been immune to Seosten possession, right? I mean–wait, no, you wouldn’t. Only Sariel, Larissa, and Haiden knew about it until we came along…”

Her response was to squint at me for a moment. “Their immunity is a topic of discussion, yes. The prevailing theory is that they were able to obtain the power of a rare creature with such an ability. Those do exist, though any who appear anywhere near Earth are quickly eliminated by non-human forces, and their remains utterly destroyed.”

Swallowing, I nodded slowly. “I can see why. But no, it’s a spell. Well, sort of.” Quickly, I explained what we knew about it, that the original effect came from something that Sariel had done, which Haiden and Larissa had figured out how to copy onto other people while obfuscating what it actually was.

Once I was done, the woman looked thoughtful for a moment. “This raises… many interesting questions, indeed. But not nearly so many as your previous statement. Viable children between a human and Seosten pairing. That is what I would like to know more about, Lady Felicity. If you would be so kind as to… enlighten me.”

So, I told her everything I knew about Vanessa and Tristan. I told her about Tristan being trapped on the Meregan world, about Vanessa ending up with the adoption people, and everything else they had told me. I told her about Tristan being linked to me in order to anchor him to Earth, and how we had to eventually transferred that to Vanessa. I even told her about how Vanessa had managed to make contact with her father thanks to Apollo’s help.

By the time I had finished, Athena was staring at me. If she had been the type, I was pretty sure her mouth would’ve been hanging open with surprise. As it was, she put a hand out to the nearby wall as if to steady herself. Her voice, when she finally spoke, cracked a little bit. “Viable children,” she murmured in a soft, utterly awed voice. “Viable children who show no ill signs or problems after blending human and Seosten genetics.”

Tabbris actually popped out of me then, stumbling a little before catching herself in her hurry. Looking up, she blurted, “You mean you really didn’t know about them?”

Athena looked back-and-forth between the two of us for a moment before her head shook. “I can assure you, I was not aware that any of this was the case. As far as I knew, no human and Seosten offspring had managed to survive past infancy. This is… remarkable. It is…” She trailed off, and I thought she looked pretty emotional about the whole thing. It really drove home to me just how much children meant to the Seosten. I remembered what Athena had said about how the Fomorians had murdered her husband and infant son. And now I wondered if she ever had a human lover after that, or anyone she had cared about that much, whom she was now imagining having another child with. Not to replace the one she had lost, but… to have another chance. I wondered what was going through the woman’s mind, as she blinked rapidly at the news that human/Seosten offspring were possible.

This was Athena, and I thought she might have been about to cry. Literally, physically cry, at the news that there were viable, living human-Seosten hybrid children.

Tabbris offered a hesitant, “I guess you really want to talk to them now too, huh?”

Meeting her gaze, Athena replied softly, her voice somewhat choked with emotion in a way that seemed utterly alien coming from her, “My… my lady, that is quite possibly the understatement of the past several millennia.”


“Come on, Tab! Come on, Flick!” Richton called a couple of days after our discussion with Athena about Vanessa and Tristan. He and the other three Seosten kids, along with Bandy and Reft, were standing at the far end of the sidewalk that ran in front of the house that Tabbris and I had been living in. The six of them wore obvious workout uniforms. Even Reft was wearing what looked like a bandana over his rocky head.

Approaching with my partner at my side, I asked, “You guys haven’t been waiting that long, have you?”

Kisea shook her head. “Nope, Richton’s just impatient.” Teasing her friend a little, she nudged him before looking back to us. “But are you guys ready?”

“Oh,” Meley put in then, her attention on Tabbris, “Those all fit okay?”

‘Those’, in this case, referred to the clothes that the little blonde girl was wearing. For once, she didn’t just have on that simple bodysuit. Instead, Meley had given her a pair of blue shorts and a white shirt. When Tabbris had objected, saying that all she really needed was the bodysuit, which would keep growing with her, Meley had pointedly replied that that wasn’t the point, and that Tabbris should have other clothes that were purely hers.

I liked Meley.

There had also been some talk about getting her an entire wardrobe of her own, along with other things. That had quieted down a little, but I was pretty sure giving her this single outfit was just the first step along those lines. Which was fantastic, because I wanted my little sister to have everything she deserved, even if she didn’t think that she needed any of it. She deserved that and so much more. These guys were great. It was just amazing to see how well they did with her, and how much they seemed to understand. Even if I hadn’t been getting all the extra training and everything else that I had been getting over these weeks, staying here would have been worth it just to have given Tabbris a chance to interact with kids at least close to her own age. Not to mention the fact that some were her own species, and weren’t horrible examples. My little partner needed that.

“Oh, uh.” Blinking down at herself, Tabbris nodded quickly. “Yeah,” she confirmed, “they all fit really good.” Belatedly, she added a quick, “Thanks!”

Meley just shrugged. “Plenty more where that came from,” she promised before adding, “Next time, you can pick out the colors.”

Before Tabbris could respond to that, Demeas cut in impatiently, “Okay, okay, can we stop talking about clothes and all that for now and focus on actually getting some exercise in? I’d like to work up a sweat for once.”

Richton nodded. “A couple laps around the neighborhood, and then we’ll make our way back for a break.” He looked to Tabbris then, his voice turning a little hopeful, “Then some magic and possession training?”

That was what we were doing with these guys. Tabbris was getting a little actual exercise of her own for once, while we had the chance. It was helping her with her coordination (which she desperately needed). And in exchange, she was teaching the others a bit of the magic that she knew from her mom, and some possession tricks. In the latter case, Bandy and Reft were the guinea pigs. Both had volunteered to let their friends practice their possession powers on them, which showed an incredible amount of trust between the members of the group.

The relatively short run wasn’t much of a workout for me of course, but I did like learning the magic and possession tricks, especially since I could actually do it myself. We all learned together from my little partner, who knew an incredible amount about that kind of stuff. Her mother had taught her well, and she was passing it on.

“Yup,” I confirmed while rubbing Tabbris’s head a little. “We run, then we practice, right?”

Her little head bobbing up and down quickly. “Right,” she chirped. The smile on her face told me everything I need to know about how much Tabbris was enjoying actually being able to contribute. Yes, these weeks that we were spending here were absolutely worth it. Even though I missed my friends, and especially missed Valley and Shiori, it was still worth it.

“Okay then,” I announced, turning to start jogging. “Let’s go, last one back is a rotten egg.”

Kisea piped up while following after me, her voice curious. “We have heard that kind of thing before, but I don’t understand. Why do Earth children call each other rotten eggs if they are slow? What does one thing have to do with another?”

Blinking at the question, I glanced over to the girl while all of us began jogging together. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Maybe that’s another mystery to add onto the pile.

“But hey, at least that’s finally one that shouldn’t be too hard to solve.”


“Are you girls ready?” Athena asked. “They’re going to be a bit faster this time. I think you can move to the next level.”

It had been a little over three weeks since the woman had saved us from Radueriel. If I had my days right, back on Earth it would be about April sixth, a Friday. Over three weeks since I had been brought here and started training with her. The time had pretty much flown by before I even realized it. I missed the others more than I could even try to articulate, but Athena kept me busy. She kept both of us busy. And when she wasn’t, I was kept distracted  by any number of things, from learning more about this place and all the people on it, to playing video games with my new friends, to just sitting in class with Tabbris sometimes. Or just by wandering around and getting to know this place and the people in it. They were all endlessly fascinating, and most were willing to just stand and talk with me as much as I wanted. There were some who were too suspicious, or to private of course, and I tried to give those ones their space. But for the most part, people were almost eager to tell me about themselves. And, I told them about myself in return. It was fun, and infinitely informative. And it definitely meant that I was never bored.

Now, the two of us were back in the training room, standing side-by-side. At Athena‘s question, we looked at one another briefly. “Yep,” Tabbris chirped. She had her hands clenched at her sides as she gave a firm nod. “We’re ready.”

“Good,” Athena replied. “Then let’s see how you do this time.“

With that, Tabbris grabbed my hand, and jumped into me. I felt her presence inside me like a reassuring and comforting blanket. We were together once more.

As soon as my partner was settled, Athena stepped back and hit a button on the remote that she was holding. The training began. From straight ahead of us, what looked like a pitching machine begin shooting small rubber balls at me. With a thought, I transferred my staff from its place at my side, into my hands and smacked the first ball out of the way. More kept coming. They varied in speed and direction, and I had to stay focused on knocking them away, or just dodging them when they came too close together.

Eventually, the balls came not just from in front of me, but from machines that had been placed to either side as well. I had to keep track of all of them, constantly turning one way or the other to bring my staff around as quickly as possible. One after another, I blocked as many balls as I could.

Meanwhile, I could vaguely feel things appearing behind me with my item sense. But I couldn’t focus on them and deal with the incoming balls at the same time. That was Tabbris’s job, and I could sense her intently focusing on those things.

After an intense ten minutes, Athena called a stop to it. She walked forward, stooping to pick up something off the floor. It was one of the things that had been floating behind me, a metal object in the shape of a letter. In this case, it was a W. “Very nicely done, Lady Felicity. Your reflexes and focus are getting better every day. Pretty soon, it will be time to add more speed, variation, and direction to the incoming balls.”

Coughing, I gave the woman a wry smirk. “I think you’re just upset that you’re not hitting me as often as you used to.”

She winked at me then, before asking, “And you, Lady Tabbris?”

My partner popped out of me, already reciting, “The bird flies low and the monkey flies high. Run fast, run slow, eat a banana, and away we go.”

What her part of our little training exercise here amounted to was that a bunch of those letters would float behind me, slowly forming into words. She had to use my item sense to get the idea of where each letter was, and what words they were spelling, then keep track of the actual sentences. She had to do all that while I was distracted with the incoming balls. The point was to show that she could do that kind of support stuff, while I dealt with the immediate threat.

Smiling broadly, Athena congratulated her, “Very, very good. I believe we are ready to move on to your item swapping test next.”

The item swapping test. That was where I would hold a green stick in one hand and a red stick in the other. Various targets would appear in front of me to either side, some red and some green. My job was simply to swing at them with whatever I happen to be holding in that hand. Tabbris’s job was to use the power that could move objects around my body to swap the sticks between different hands so that the right color stick always hit the right color target. Athena had already promised that once we got good enough at that, she was going to start making targets appear all the way around us, and include more than just two colors, while extra color sticks would hang from my belt to be swapped up into my hands. And once we actually got good at that, she would move on to something even harder.

The two of us nodded, and Tabbris started to jump into me again, before Athena held up a hand to stop us. “Hold one moment,” she announced while turning away. It looked like she was listening to something, leaving Tabbris and I to simply shrugged uncertainly at one another.

A moment later, she turned back to us and smiled. “Well,” the woman announced, “it looks as though we are going to need your aid with something else first, before continuing any more of your training.”

“Something else?” I echoed uncertainly while glancing to Tabbris. “You need our help?”

“Yes.” Athena winked. “We have finally located your friends. We can set up a portal to them, but I believe it would be better if you were with us at the time. It would… help avoid any issues.”

My eyes widened dramatically at that, surprise at the news making me gasp out loud. “You found them!?” I exclaimed, before adding quickly, “Yes, yes, yes. Let’s go get them.”

With a soft chuckle at my reaction, Athena turned to lead us out of the room, and I held out a hand to my partner. After Tabbris jumped into me once more, I quickly followed the older woman, unable to hold back the wide smile that had stretched its way way across my face.

The others, I was finally going to be reunited with them. Finally, finally, we could all get caught up on everything that had happened.

And boy were they going to be surprised by how I had been spending my time.

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Lessons 32-06

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“You must remember to use all of your powers. Practice with every instrument that you possess, so that when you fight, your battles are a symphony.”

It was several days later, and I was standing in the backyard behind the house that Tabbris and I had been assigned, listening to Athena’s advice. Tabbris herself was sitting on a wooden swing hung from a tree nearby as she watched us.

Athena continued, “I have spoken to your partner.” She gestured that way. “And she has shown me some of her memories. You do quite well for the short amount of time you’ve been training, quite well indeed. But you do have a tendency to forget about the powers that you have access to. You focus on one or two in a battle, to the exclusion of others that could help you just as much, if not more. You must learn to use them all.”

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “I know, it’s just kind of hard to remember everything I have access to in the middle of a fight. I have to focus.”

“Of course.” The woman’s head bowed in agreement. “It must become second nature, your powers must flow one into another and fit together seamlessly. For that, you require practice. Lots of practice.” Her smile quirked up a little bit. “After all, you can’t expect all of your Seosten opponents to be as arrogant and easily manipulated as Charmiene.”

Blinking at that, I blurted, “Okay, do you know what happened to her? You looked at me funny before when I brought her up, and you knew that I could possess you, but I’m not sure how much you… you know, how much you actually know.”

The woman’s eyebrow arched up slightly. “I was aware that you killed her, yes. The specific circumstances were… not explained. But knowing the former Nemesis as I do, I can make several educated guesses.”

Swallowing hard, I looked away for a second. “She possessed my teammate… my friend. She forced him to do awful things. And when we finally fought her, she was just…”

“Toying with you,” Athena finished quietly. “Allowing the fight to drag on far longer than it needed to. Charmiene would say that she was proving a point, breaking your spirit so that you would be more likely to fall in line.”

“Yeah, well she fucked up,” I muttered. “She dismissed Columbus, the boy she had been possessing. She dismissed him and he… hit her at just the right time. It left her open and I…”

“You took advantage.” Athena reached out, putting her finger under my chin to tilt it up. “Good,” she announced flatly. “Never hesitate to take any advantage you can get, Lady Felicity. Your enemies are far beyond you in straight capability. For you to succeed, or even survive, you will need to seize any and every possible edge. That includes cheating, if need be. All that matters is winning.”

Biting my lip, I met the woman’s gaze. “I’ll remember that, when I’m trying to deal with the rest of the Seosten on my list.”

That made her blink, head tilting curiously as she watched me for a moment. “You have a list of Seosten enemies?”

Despite myself, I flushed a little bit. “Yeah, well, they keep fucking with me and the people I care about. I–” Blinking up then, I quickly blurted, “I don’t suppose you have any idea who Manakel might be possessing at Crossroads?”

Her head shook, deflating that brief hope. “I am afraid I don’t have much contact with Earth at the moment. And what contacts I do have out here are either unaware of his host’s identity, or unwilling to share it. I have… made certain outreaches, anticipating that question. But thus far, they have not paid off.”

“If something does come back?” I asked then.

Athena gave a short nod. “I will inform you as soon as I know. You have my word.” She paused then before looking to me seriously. “When you killed Charmiene, you put a target on yourself, one that is even larger than what you already had. There are many Seosten crewmembers of the Olympus who will seek to end your life. You must be ready for them.”

She stepped back then while continuing. “And to be ready, you must train. So, let us begin with this sand manipulation power. Would you mind?”

Obligingly, I withdrew my staff from its place on my hip and triggered the button to let the sand come through the portal that was connected to the canister on my belt. As the sand poured out, I let it fly up and hover in a cloud between us.

Reaching out, Athena let her hand one through the sand for a second before looking to me. “Any fight in which your opponent has exposed eyes, or other ocular orifices, and you were not besieging them with this sand to blind them, you are wasting this power. If their mouth are exposed, choke them with it.”

“I try to do that,” I confirmed. “But a lot of the guys out here are wearing armor.”

“That special sense of yours,” the woman replied, “the one that allows you to identify and understand the position of objects that are close to you. Use that to identify where any chinks or openings in the armor happen to be. Let your sand flow to those openings and fill areas such as the knees and elbows, any joints. Send the sand into those areas to make it harder and slower for them to move. Making their arms and legs bend or extend even a second slower or less can mean the difference between winning and losing.

“Send it into their shoes or boots, so that they have to step on sand. Rub it over their skin to give them burns. Force it under their fingernails. Find any opening to any sensitive tissue and exploit it. This power is very strong, if you use it properly. Particularly if you use it in conjunction with that item sense power so that you know where those openings are.”

As I nodded quickly to that advice, she continued. “This new power that you have picked up, the one that allows you to transport any object from one part of your body to any other part of your body. You don’t seem to have done very much with that.”

I nodded a little sheepishly at that. “Yeah, I guess I haven’t really given myself much of a chance to practice with that one. Though it does make getting dressed a breeze. So I guess you could say that I’m incorporating it into my lion transformation.”

She gave me a little smile, chuckling. “Yes, of course. But it can be used in other ways as well. You can move your staff from one hand to the next without a second’s pause. But more than that, you can transfer items from your pockets or belt. Items that you have prepared with spells, or other abilities. Your new ability to embed sound into an object, for example. Imagine being in a fight, with a rock embedded with a very distracting sound in your pocket. In the midst of this fight, you transfer the stone from your pocket to your foot and kick it away while activating it. The sound distracts your opponent, drawing their attention that way for the brief instant you need to deal the finishing blow.”

Absorbing that advice, I nodded slowly with a smile. “That’s a pretty good idea,” I admitted. “Plus, there’s those flashbang rocks that I learned how to make. Those could work too.”

From where she was swinging, Tabbris piped up. “What about the Kevlar spell? You know, the one that makes projectiles lose their momentum just before they hit you. They only work against a few hits before the spell wears off, but what if you enchanted a bunch of little things like handkerchiefs with the spell and put them in your pocket. Then, just before something was about to hit you, you move one of the handkerchief to the spot where it’s about to hit.”

I nodded quickly to that. “See, that’s another great idea. I mean, it might be a little hard for me to focus on that, and on fighting at the same time. This is a lot to keep track of.”

“That,” Athena interjected, “is why this partnership is so important.” She looked to the younger girl, gesturing for her to come over. “If you wish this to be a true partnership, it must function as one. Everything that Lady Tabbris said just now could be done by her, while Lady Felicity here focuses on the actual fight. Even small things, such as monitoring the item sense power to keep track of where everything is, and similar abilities can be maintained and monitored by Lady Tabbris.”

From the look on the little Seosten’s face, Athena might as well have suggested that she murder me in my sleep. Her eyes widened, and she gave a mortified squeak before blurting, “You mean use her powers without asking permission first? You mean just do it? But, but, but…”

I interrupted,“Hey, we’re partners. I trust you. You can totally use those kind of powers to keep us both safe. That would be kind of cool actually, you run the powers like that, and I focus on actually fighting. If we practiced enough, get good at communicating when we need to, and you get good at just taking over certain abilities at the right time, we could be pretty damn dangerous together.”

“That,” Athena announced with a smile, “is precisely what I have been trying to teach you.”


Just under a week later, a voice abruptly announced, “Are you sure you’re a Reaper-Bonded?”

Blinking at the question coming from behind me, I turned away from the door of the classroom where I had just dropped Tabbris off for another few hours of learning from Mr. Reinswield.

The boy standing behind me was just a couple inches taller than I was. But other than the height difference between them, he basically looked like a male version of Bandy, the adorable little red and white fox-bunny girl.

“Uh, yeah. I mean,” I amended quickly, “not a natural one or anything, but the Seosten-created pseudo-version, sure.”

“Sorry.” The bunny boy’s ears dropped just a little bit and he looked kind of sheepish as he admitted, “That was probably pretty rude. I was just thinking, you don’t set off the internal alarm that those Reaper-Bonded do. And Reapers themselves, you know. Oh, and uh, I’m Grisson. I was just dropping off Bandy and I, uh, saw you.”

“Hi, Grisson.” I smiled. “I’m Flick. And yeah, I am definitely a Reaper-Bonded. But I also kind of have a power that makes it so that I don’t set off those alerts, unless you see me actually use another power.”

“Pssst.” From down the hall, a green-skinned face poked around the corner. The boy it belong to stage whispered, “Did you ask her about it yet?”

Wearing a long-suffering expression, Grisson slowly put his hand up to the end of his snout and heaved a long, heavy sigh before half-turning his head to look back that way. His voice was a loud hiss. “Funnily enough, I think she can hear you. Because she’s standing right here, you tetrikade.”

Resisting the urge to snicker (mostly anyway), I calmly replied, “Hey, he didn’t know. Maybe one of the powers I inherited was the ability to go completely deaf at inopportune times.”

Grisson smiled at that, letting me see his row of sharp canines. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” he informed me before hesitating. Looking back over the shoulder, he gestured to me. “Do, uh, you wanna come see something? I mean, if you don’t have anything else you have to do right now, or anything.” Shifting nervously on his feet, the boy gave an awkward shrug. “You don’t have to. Not that we could tell you what you had to do or anything. I mean, you know…”

Finally rescuing the boy from his floundering, I nodded. “Sure, Athena is busy right now, so she can’t beat me up again until this afternoon. I’ve got some time to kill. I was going to explore a little more, but I guess I could see what you guys are up to.” Pausing then, I asked, “But don’t you have class right now?”

The answer came from the green boy down the hall, who called out with his head still poking around the corner. “Our classes aren’t until after lunch! We’re totally free until then!”

Rolling his eyes, Grisson nodded nonetheless. “He’s right, we have classes starting in the afternoon.”

“Well,” I replied, “in that case, lead the way. And maybe you can introduce me to your friend.”

Or rather, as it turned out, friends. As we turned the corner, I found three more figures standing there waiting. One was the green-skinned boy who had been sticking his head around the corner. The other two were a boy and a girl who looked like they were twins, or at least very closely related. Each had steel skin, like a metal statue, and their arms were long enough to reach the floor despite them being just over six feet tall. Despite their height, I could tell they were young, probably younger than me. Or at least their bodies hadn’t fully matured. I didn’t know how long their species maturation rate was. For all I knew, they were two-hundred years old and would take another one hundred before they were fully grown. Alien species were weird sometimes. But, then again, they probably thought the exact same thing about us.

“We are fifteen,” the girl piped up quickly, clearly trying to be helpful. “By earth years, that is.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Wait, did you actually just read my mind?”

Looking a little abashed, the metal girl quickly shook her head. “No, no. It’s not exactly mind reading. It’s more that when people have questions around us, we kind of feel the same questions. If there’s a lot of people, or the question is really generic, we can’t tell where it’s coming from. But with this one, well, it was pretty obvious. I–I’m sorry if that was prying. We can’t really turn it off.”

The boy beside her nodded. “When we get older, it’s more than just questions, and they get clearer. We feel what people, you know, what they want. We feel when they’re cold, when they’re hungry, when they want the door to be opened. Stuff like that.”

The green boy cut in then. “You know how lots of rich and powerful people want servants that can anticipate their needs without being told? That’s what an Ullmis can do.”

With a nod, the metal boy (an Ullmis, I supposed) added, “I’m Aerlicht. This is my sister, Ferrdreis.”

“And I’m Layuerk,” the green boy put in. “But most people just call me Lurk.”

“Well,” I replied, “good to meet you guys. Like I said before, I’m Flick. Grisson said that you had something to show me?”

After exchanging brief glances, the four nodded and turn to head down the hall. I followed, letting them lead me out of the school area and through a brief maze of corridors until we reached a door that was set out of the way. It looked sort of like where I would expect to find a janitor’s utility closet or something.

“Behold,” Grisson announced while putting his hand near the pad next to the doorway, “our treasure.”

With that, the boy hit the button to open the door, and gestured for me to go in. I did, stepping through into what turned out to be a large room with tables everywhere. Scattered across all these tables were a dozen different televisions. Earth televisions. They were the really old, big boxy kind that they had before the flat panel versions. And with them were a bunch of different video game systems. I saw an original Nintendo, Super and N64 versions, a Sega Genesis, even an Atari. None of them looked any newer than the early 90s at the latest.

Standing behind me, Ferrdreis explained, “Some of it is scavenged from what the Seosten throw away whenever they pull in humans from earth, or when a colony gets absorbed, and some of it is from what refugees had with them.“

Her brother nodded, “We trade for it, or work for it, or just go digging through the garbage. Some of the stuff inside the machines is different than it was, but it still works.”

They showed me a cabinet at the back of the room where they had dozens and dozens of game cartridges all stacked up. Actually, there were probably a few hundred of them. A lot were duplicates, or too damaged to actually work. The damaged ones were piled up near the bottom, which they said they used for parts, or to try to fix later. But even going by the ones they actually had, there were a ton of games.

Running my hands slowly over the collection of game cartridges, I asked, “Why do you guys have all of these?”

“To play?” Lurk offered with a shrug. “We play the games, and we watch the movies.” He pointed then to another cabinet on the other side of the room, where I could see hundreds of VCR tapes of all different kinds.

“We like Earth things,” Grisson put in. “That’s kind of what this is, the Earth club. We really wanna go there someday.”

Pushing up the switch on one of the game systems, Aerlicht picked up a black controller and offered it to me. “We were hoping you could show us how to get through some of these.”

“Play video games?” I echoed a bit blankly. Looking around then, I shrugged. “All of this stuff is kind of from before my time. But sure, why not? I need a break anyway.

“Let’s play some games.”

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Lessons 32-05

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“Lady Tabbris,” Athena started later, once lunch was over. She was standing by our table. “How would you like to spend the afternoon attending classes with the others here, while I have a little bit of a private training session with Lady Felicity?”

My little partner’s immediate reaction to that was to lean closer to me, staring up at the woman with wide eyes.“You don’t want me to be there?” she asked in a squeaky voice that seemed half-suspicious, and half-terrified that Athena was going to insist on separating us.

The Olympian gave her a reassuring smile, shaking her head. “Nothing like that, I promise. I simply would like to evaluate Lady Felicity’s skills without any other influence. I promise, I will also see how she does with your aid. And, I thought that you might enjoy an afternoon of simply being… yourself.”

Staring blankly up at her for a moment, Tabbris finally admitted in a soft voice, “But I don’t know who I am.”

Lifting her hand, Athena gestured to the plate in front of Tabbris, which held the remains of what had been a bunch of dark red meats and peppers. “Did you enjoy your lunch?”

The little blonde Seosten blinked at the question, tilting her head to look down at it before looking up again with a furtive nod. “It’s spicy. I guess I like spicy food. Really spicy. But Flick doesn’t like it, so I never really tried it before.”

Athena’s smile grew a little bit. “You have my word that I have no intention of forcing you to stay apart. My young warrior, all I wish is for you to find everything that is you. This love of spicy food, a new skill, an interest that you didn’t know before. My wish is for you and Lady Felicity to become the very best versions of yourselves that you can possibly be. I want you to know yourself, to know who you are. Because when you know that, when you have become everything you can be, and then the two of you come together… you will be unstoppable.”

Leaning up really close to my ear, little bunny-eared Bandy whispered, “If you think that was a good speech, you should see the one that she gives the little kids who are scared to use the bathroom.”

Tabbris worked her mouth a few times, opening and shutting it before offering a slightly weak, “And we do all that just by me going classes by myself?”

Chuckling, Athena raised a hand and gave a vague gesture. “It will be a start. But you will not be alone.”

“Yeah!” Richton put in. “We won’t leave you by yourself, promise. I mean, enough of our species are beaufstains as it is. Those of us to know better, we gotta stick together.”

“Language, Richton,” Athena gently admonished. “You are still in school, after all. But yes. A quite admirable point.”

The others all expressed their own eagerness to have Tabbris stay with them for the afternoon, and eventually she looked over to me.

“Sure,” I agreed. “I’m pretty sure I’m just gonna spend the afternoon getting beat up by the goddess of war over there, so maybe you’ll have more fun in class.”

“But… but…” Tabbris winced. “ I haven’t been that far away from you for… forever.”

“Hey.” Reaching out, I put my hand against her cheek. “You can always recall to me, right? Anything happens, you get too nervous, you think something’s going wrong, anything at all, you just come straight back to me just like that.” I snapped my fingers in demonstration.

“Whoa!” That was Meley. “You already know how to use recall like that? We can barely possess people on purpose.”

Kisea was nodding. “And your mom taught you all that, just in your memories? She must be the best memory-witch ever!”

From Athena’s soft smile and the look in her eyes, I had a feeling that there was a bit of a story there. But she just nodded. “Sariel impresses in many ways.”

“So what do you say?” I asked my partner. “Meet up in a few hours and exchange notes?”

She still looked a little hesitant, but it was obvious that everything that had been said had helped a lot. “Yeah, o-okay. But just a few hours.”

Turning back to Athena, I gestured. “Well, you heard her. I guess I’m ready for my ass-kicking, Sensei.”


Three sounds filled the room in rapid succession. First, there was my loud yelp, followed by the solid whumph of my body landing hard on the floor, and then the clatter of my staff bouncing across it.

“Ow.” I took a second to catch my breath, before rolling over onto my side to look up at Athena. “How many days have I been letting you beat me up for now?”

She gave me a small smile, head shaking as she informed me, “Apologies, my lady, but it has not even been half an hour yet.”

“Half an hour, and you’ve knocked me down about fifty-seven times.” I gave her a wry, self-deprecating smile. “I must be one of the worst students you ever had.”

“Only forty-one,” she corrected me. “And no, my lady. The only bad students I have ever had are the ones who do not get back up again after being knocked down. You get up so many times…” Trailing off, she extended a hand and helped me to my feet before adding, “I know that it may seem frustrating, but you truly do learn more from fighting those who are better than you than those who are worse.”

I nodded, rubbing the back of my neck a little. “Yeah, that’s what Avalon says all the time.”

The woman paused at that, squinting at me for a second. “Yes,” she murmured, “Avalon. The name that Liesje Aken’s descendant adopted.”

“Oh, right,” I realized. “I guess that name has special meaning for you, doesn’t it?”

Her response was a little chuckle. “Yes, somewhat. And the girl, she means a lot to you.”

I swallowed hard at that, looking away before bending down to grab my staff off the floor. “I try not to think about it, but I miss her.” I held my staff tightly, closing my eyes. “I miss her so much. Her and Shiori. My girls. I miss them, I miss my dad, I miss the rest of my team. I miss my friends.”

Athena‘s hand found my shoulder, and she pulled me into an embrace. “You will see them all again,” she promised me. “And when you do, you will be so much stronger than you were.”

Managing a weak little smile, I opened my eyes while returning the hug. “You know,” I remarked, “you’re pretty comforting for someone who keeps knocking me on my ass.”

Giving me one more squeeze, the woman finally released me and stepped back, while offering, “Perhaps you’re simply a glutton for punishment.”

I laughed at that. “Lady Athena,” I countered, “if you knew everything that I’ve gotten myself involved in, you wouldn’t say perhaps.”

“You should tell me more about all of it,” she offered. “While we train, of course.”

“Of course,” I confirmed with a vague wave. “After all, if I couldn’t even touch you before, trying to do it while I’m distracted talking ought to do the trick.”

She gave a genuine laugh at that, eyes twinkling a little bit. “Distraction,” she informed me, “is simply another part of training, my lady.”

“In that case,” I replied evenly while readying my staff. “Bring it-”

Aaaand I was on the floor again.


“So, how was it with the other Seosten kids?”

It was later that night, and Tabbris and I were alone in the bedroom that Athena had given us. Well, to be more accurate, we were in the bedroom of the house that the woman had assigned us, in the human section of the habitat that we had originally arrived in. This was where we would be staying for the next month, while they worked on the Sariel-locator spell using a bit of Tabbris’s blood that had been drawn earlier.

The younger girl paused, biting her lip as she looked at me. “It was weird,” she answered honestly. “But good too, I think. It was fun, but also scary. Neat, but I wasn’t sure what to say.” She paused then, her eyes looking down as she amended quietly, “I never know what to say.” 

Sitting down on the bed, I reached out to pull her over to sit beside me, putting an arm around her. “Do you like them?”

”Uh huh.” Her head bobbed up and down, before she glanced over to me. “Do you?”

“Well sure,” I confirmed before giving her a firm hug. “But then again, I already knew the very best Seosten kid in the universe.

“Those other guys can’t hold a candle to my partner.”


“Mmmm, I love butterscotch pudding.” Three days later, I was sitting in Mr. Reinswield’s mostly-empty classroom, licking the last of that particular treat off the end of my spoon. “That Chef Gisby guy is really good at his job.”

The teacher smiled, taking the last of his own chocolate version of the dessert. “Yes,” he agreed, “the man does very good work. We are quite lucky to have him. Quite lucky indeed.”

Can you ask him how long he’s been a teacher here? Tabbris asked. She was back inside of me for the time being. We had been making a point of having her come out and act on her own more while we had the chance, but she was still more comfortable this way. It felt safe and secure to her. And I thought that part of her insistence on being with me so much also stemmed from wanting to fulfill the job that her mother had given to her, to protect me. Or rather, I amended pointedly within my own thoughts, for us to protect each other.

Obligingly, I looked toward the man in question. “Tabbris would like to know how long you’ve been a teacher here.”

The blond, scruffy-looking man raised an eyebrow at that. “Would she prefer to know how long I’ve been a teacher, how long I’ve been here, or how long I’ve been a teacher here?”

“Honestly, I think we both like to hear all of it.” After saying that, I paused to listen to my partner, that nodded. “Yep, if you want to tell us.”

Chuckling, Reinswield nodded agreeably. “As you might have guessed, I was a Heretic back on Earth. Well, I suppose I technically still am. But they don’t call us that out here.”

“Right,” I nodded, “it’s Bonded.”

“Indeed.” Continuing after that agreement, Reinswield added, “I was a member of Eden’s Garden since its inception. It shames me to say now, but I was one of the more… vicious of our kind. Enthusiastic, you might say.  Eventually I managed to get myself in over my head, and ended up with my leg turned to stone. It was fixable, but doing so took several months. It was quite a curse. While I was incapable of fighting like that, I still wanted to make myself useful. So I chose to fill in as a teacher at one of our outreach schools in London.”

Clearly noticing my uncertain look, the man explained, “Heretics will often take the positions of instructors or other staff members in particular schools within high risk areas, both to protect the students there, and to watch for high potential recruits.”

“So you were basically under cover?” I asked.

He nodded. “Basically, yes. At first I resented it very much. I saw it as a waste of my abilities, but it was the only job they would give me, and I wanted to keep myself occupied. But over time, I came to…” he swallowed. “I came to quite enjoy my time there, and my students. I took up a permanent position. This was during the second World War, so there was quite a need for teachers who could maintain order and keep the children calm.”

The man trailed off, clearly lost in thought for a few seconds before he gave a sharp shake of his head. “They wanted to recruit one of my girls. But she was too innocent. Too bloody pure for this kind of work. So I objected. I took my objection as high as I could, made a stink about it. My objection was noted, and I ended up out here, as the puppet for one of the Seosten warriors on the front lines of the Fomorian war. I spent about a decade out there before Athena rescued me, and brought me here so that I could go back to what I love doing. Teaching children.”

He had glossed over it, probably for both my and Tabbris’s benefit. But I couldn’t help shuddering a little at the thought that he had been enslaved by the Seosten and forced to fight the Fomorians for a whole decade. That was just… I shuddered once more. No wonder he was content to be a simple teacher again.

“Well,” I offered, “you seem happy here, at least?”

“Quite,” he agreed. “I do miss my old students quite often. And I regret never finding out what happened to little Sonya Eulcid. I am very sorry that my attempts to convince the leadership not to turn her into a Heretic and put her into this life led to my not being there to help her when she was recruited anyway.”

Swallowing hard, I repeated the name. “Sonya Eulcid. I have friends in Eden’s Garden. I promise, when I get back to earth, I’ll find out if she still alive. I’ll get a message from you to her, if I can.”

Reinswield smiled at me. “You know, that is a promise that deserves another pudding.”


Crack, crack, thump, yelp, thud.

Four days after my conversation with Reinswield, I was back in the training gym with Athena. We had been coming here every day, for at least a few hours. She knew that I didn’t really get tired very often, and took advantage of that, putting me through my paces as often as possible. She was just as much of a taskmaster as Avalon, if not more so.

Picking myself up off the floor that I do not to once again, I asked, “Is there any news about contacting Larissa, Haiden, and the others?”

Athena’s head shook while she stood there holding her own light staff. “We are trying, but it is slow going. As I said, this is a very large galaxy, and the last thing we want to do is be too obvious, and draw unwanted attention to either ourselves or the others.”

I nodded, as much as it pained me to think of what they were going through by that point. Leading the bad Seosten right to them wouldn’t be good for any of us.

From where she was sitting on the sidelines, Tabbris called, “Hey, I think you almost hit her once that time!”

Athena and I exchanged glances. I knew it wasn’t true. The only reason I ever even got one swing off, let alone multiple ones before she put me down each time, was because she was giving me a chance to actually learn. She took it slow and easy on me. For her, it was probably like when an adult play fights with a toddler and lets them think they’re actually getting somewhere. She kept adjusting my stance, correcting where my hands were, telling me when to choke up on the staff, when to turn faster, where my feet should be positioned, and more. Every move I made, she had advice for it. And she drilled it into me over and over again. She had taught me so much in these past few days, and she kept doing it, kept helping me. She was unbelievably patient.

And quite honestly, I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually learning from the real Athena. Honestly, how amazing was that? Every time I actually thought about it, I got a little giddy.

After a few more rounds of me ending up flat on my back, or on my face, Athena relented and sent me to get a drink of water from the bottle that Tabbris was holding. While I was gulping it down, she looked to the younger girl. “I have something for you,” she announced.

Tabbris blinked a little in obvious surprise. “For me?”

Nodding, Athena stepped over while extending her hand with what look like a small metal button about two inches across in it. “Go ahead,” she offered, “turn it on.”

Taking the small button, Tabbris put it between her thumb and index finger, and pushed them together. There was a distinct click sound, before she quickly put the thing in the center of her palm. From the little disc, a hologram about a foot and a half high appeared, floating above her hand. It was of a blonde woman.

The girl gave a soft gasp, staring at it. Her voice was soft. “Mama…”

Nodding, Athena explained, “That was the hologram that was taken for your mother’s identification on the Olympus. I thought that you would like to have it.”

While Tabbris nodded fervently, I examined the hologram a little closer. The woman was beautiful, with an intense gaze, and the kind of raw—

Crack. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in my leg, and I yelped, looking up to find Tabbris staring intently at me. She had kicked me.

“Stop it!” Her face was scrunched up as she pointed at me. “I know that look. I know that look! You were doing the whole ‘oooh, it’s a pretty older woman, let me pretend I don’t notice how long I’m staring at her’ thing. That’s my mama! Gross!”

Flushing guiltily, I shook my head. “I wasn’t looking at her like that.”

From where she was standing, Athena cleared her throat. “Well, it’s clear to me that you require another avenue of training as well.”

“I do?” I blinked at that.

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Training in lying, of course.

“You are quite terrible at it.”

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Lessons 32-04

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Before starting with that promised training, however, we had to eat. After everything that we had been through, I was seriously starving. I had to think back to the last time I had eaten something, which made me remember just how much had happened. Everything, from getting to the Kenkean planet, tracking down and fighting Isaac, fighting that delaying action against the Seosten army until Radueriel had shown up and then getting myself stranded there, only for Athena to show up and end up bringing me here had all been… just a couple hours, really.

Generally speaking, if describing everything that happened to you in the course of a couple hours turned into what looked a run-on sentence, there was probably entirely too much happening in your life. I needed a break, badly. Actually, what I really needed was Valley and Shiori, my dad, the rest of my team, my new (much older) brother and sister, and while I was throwing dreams in the air, my mom. But I was going to have to settle for lunch. Or dinner.

With the class ended for the time being, Athena stepped back and let all those Alter kids lead Tabbris and me out of the room and down the corridor back past Miss Handsy’s office (she called out greetings to us and everyone else as we passed) to the opposite hallway where there was a door leading into an open cafeteria that could have been in any middle school on Earth, if a bit outdated (and honestly, what schools weren’t?). Clearly, Mr. Reinswield had had a big say in how the school was set up. I wondered what his story was, how long ago he’d ended up out here and why. Actually, I had lots of questions in general. Which was pretty par for the course.

Actually, looking closer, there was a bit of a difference in this cafeteria compared to others. This one had tables and chairs of many different sizes. There were big stone-looking seats that looked too heavy for even me to lift, all the way down to tiny doll-sized seats for the pixies.

The whole time we were walking, Tabbris stayed right next to me, her hand in mine. She looked around a lot, continually peeking at the other Seosten kids. They, in turn, kept looking over at her. But they didn’t push or anything. They did, however, point to a table in the corner as we entered the cafeteria. “Come on!” the oldest boy, Richton, called while hurrying that way. “First to silence, first to order!” It sounded like he was quoting an often-repeated phrase. And sure enough, I could see all the other students, including a bunch more who had come out of other classrooms, all hurrying to their own various tables and getting seated as quickly as they could.

It wasn’t just the four Seosten that came with us. The magma kid with the pretty voice and a girl with sleek, dark red fur with a little bit of white mixed in, bunny ears, and a fox-like face accompanied us as well. The magma Alter reached out as we passed one of those big stone chair, hefting it up to carry with before setting it at the table while everyone else took the regular seats. All around us, I could hear other students shushing one another as they sat down.

With a shrug at Tabbris, I promptly sat at the table just to the left of the red fox girl, with Tabbris to my left and Kisea, the vaguely Asian-looking Seosten kid sitting to her left. Going the rest of the way around the table in that direction were Richton, his little sister Meley, then the magma kid, and finally the miniature viking-looking Seosten kid, Demeas, right next to the fox girl.

Once we were all seated, the rest of the kids put their hands flat on the table, sitting up straight in their seats while staying quiet. I saw several of them casting pleading looks our way, so I took the hint and did the same. Laying my hands on the table, I sat up in the seat while Tabbris followed suit. As soon as we did, a small green light appeared in the center of the otherwise white table. It blinked twice, then turned into the number three. Seeing that, the rest of the kids around the table smiled, but didn’t make any other noise. They stayed as still as possible.

A couple tables away, I heard a kid whisper, “Two.” That was followed by a couple frantic hisses for silence, before there was a quiet buzz. Our three promptly turned into a two, and there were even more smiles around the table. Meanwhile, over at the table where the whispering had happened, I caught a glimpse of their former two becoming a three in return. 

Right, so obviously the numbers were the order in which tables would be served (or rather, allowed to order, as Richton had said). As soon as everyone got to a table and sat silently with their hands on it, it gave that table the next number in line. But if you made noise after that (I was assuming up until everyone in the room was seated or something), your table switched spots with the next table after you. So if your table was originally fourth, making noise would make the fifth table become the fourth and yours would become the fifth. Fair enough, if kind of strict. It did neatly encourage everyone to get to their tables quickly and quietly, at least. Though I wasn’t sure which aspect of it did so more, the idea of getting food sooner, or competing with the other tables to do so. Whoever had come up with this whole thing had managed to find a way to gamify getting kids to be quiet and respectful. That took some serious talent.

Eventually, everyone seemed to be seated and ready. It looked like there were about three or four hundred students in here, all of them between ages nine up to about twelve or thirteen.

Almost the very second that I noticed that the tables were all full, a door at the back of the room opened and a portly man emerged. His body was as round as a beach ball, with dark green skin, four arms, and a long, luxurious mane of black hair. His eyes were bright red, and were almost all pupil with very little visible white to them. He wore black slacks and an almost blindingly pink, frilly shirt. “Yes, yes, children!” The round man called while making his way through the room, slipping between tables with surprising grace considering his size and shape, “very good, very quiet. Let’s not make you wait long, hmm? Just a little patience, my troopers!”

He reached the middle of the room then, clapping two of his hands. “Okay, number one!”

A bright green light appeared right over one of the tables in the distance, and everyone’s attention turned that way, including the round man’s. As soon as his eyes turned to them, each of the kids there began to take turns saying words that I didn’t understand at all. Belatedly and only through context, I realized that they each naming foods, telling the man what they wanted. He just stood there, nodding after each one without writing it down or saying anything else before he would turn his gaze to the next student.

Beside me, the little red fox-bunny girl whispered, “We’re allowed to talk very quietly while other people are ordering, as long it’s not too loud or disruptive.” She looked at me with these adorable amber eyes, snout twitching a little bit as she introduced herself. “My name is Bandy.”

“Hi, Bandy,” I whispered back. “I’m Flick. And-” I started to introduce my partner before pausing. Given how little chance she had out on her own, maybe giving her a chance to speak for herself would be good. So instead of actually speaking, I just nodded to her and smiled.

“Uh-um.” For one brief moment, it seemed like the poor girl had actually forgotten her own name. Which was doubly bad when the Seosten perfect memory was accounted for. She froze up, looking like a deer in headlights for a second before managing, “T-Tabbris. I’m Tabbris.”

“And I’m Reft,” the magma kid put in. There was a bit more visible lava around the lower part of his face, which I belatedly realized was his version of a smile. “How’re you doing?” As he spoke, the boy extended his hand. When I hesitated, he chuckled (a noise that sounded like softly ringing bells) and shook his head. “It’s alright. I can control how much heat I’m giving off. They just have me sit in the rock chair because it’s more comfortable. Doesn’t feel like I’m about to break it with my big fat butt.” Even as he said that, Reft gave another melodic laugh while all the visible lava on his hand was sealed over by the black rocky shell. That was his body, a mixture of semi-solid lava that stayed in place, and a dark, rock-like substance. Both seemed to shift almost randomly most of the time, the lava almost… flowing along the shape of his body.

Deciding to take the boy’s word for it, I accepted his outstretched hand. It was definitely warm, right on the verge of being uncomfortably so, but not quite. As I shook his hand, I pointed out, “I’m surprised you guys have this gesture all the way out here. I thought it was a human thing.”

It was Demeas who answered. “Mr. Reinswield taught us about human gestures and expressions.” The boy’s eyes grew a bit wider then, as he added excitedly, “He told us all about football too. Have you ever seen Liverpool play? They sound amazing.”

“Liver–” I echoed before realizing, “Oh, British football. Sorry, I haven’t really–”

I was interrupted as the round man stepped over to our table. “Second! Aha, tis my favorite little Reusfeil.” As he spoke, the man reached out a hand to rub the top of Bandy’s head, making the fox-bunny girl giggle. “And our newest galtrosi,” he added with a look toward Tabbris and me. “What would you like to be eating today, hmm?”

“Uh.” I hesitated, uncertain. “I’m not really sure what…  um, the choices are? I don’t–”

“Choices?!” The man sounded almost offended, though I was pretty sure a big part of it was an act, meant to amuse. “You think I would cheat by forcing my galtrosi to choose from a list? No, no, this is not so. Not so at all. You must be choosing something you like, not what I like.”

Meley leaned over closer then, whispering, “Chef Gisby will make anything you ask for. He has a perfect memory, even better than Seosten, and he uses it to memorize every recipe in the universe. And if it happens to be something he doesn’t know, he can usually make it pretty close if you can describe it well enough. Oh, and he really likes it when you make things a challenge.”

Bandy was bobbing her head up and down, her ears bouncing. “Uh huh. He has a machine that can replicate almost any type of meat or vegetable. It tastes just like the real thing!”

“Oh. Uh.” I blinked, shifting a little. “Well, in that case, how about umm… Shrimp Scampi with angel hair pasta and alfredo sauce?” I would have been happy with a plateful of sandwiches at that point, but if he wanted something more challenging than that. “Oh, and garlic bread?”

“Yes, yes, that we can do.” Chef Gisby grinned brightly, looking toward Tabbris. “And you?”

“I… I like that too,” the girl answered after a second, her face flushing a little bit at the attention.

The round man took everyone else’s order, moving on to the other tables. Eventually, he had everyone and disappeared into the kitchen. Once he was gone and the ordering was over with, people started talking a little louder, conversations carrying between tables. Apparently being so quiet and still was only a temporary thing. They still weren’t exactly wild the way I’d seen in public school cafeterias on Earth, but they were at least having normal conversations.

In the case of our table, ‘normal’ apparently meant that the four Seosten kids were focusing on Tabbris, asking her all about what she’d been doing with me on Earth.

“Wait, wait,” Richton blurted, “you mean you were secretly possessing her for years and she didn’t know? I mean you didn’t take control or anything?”

Flinching, the girl hesitantly nodded. “I, um… I did a tiny bit, when… when I had to stop the spells that the um… that the other Seosten were trying to use to spy on her, or… or worse.”

That made Kisea straighten up. “Hold on, you mean you were disabling spells from adults? Like, trained adults? They were using magic and you just… countered them?” Her voice sounded awed in a way that made me reflexively smile with pride despite myself.

“Mama, um, t-taught me how to use magic…” she slowly explained, shifting closer to me while clearly finding it hard to look the others in the eyes. “Well, the memory she implanted in me did, anyway.”

That raised even more questions, but after a couple of them, it looked like Reft realized that Tabbris looked uncomfortable being the center of attention. The magma boy quickly said something to Richton about some game they had been playing. Judging from the quick look at the oldest Seosten shot back and forth between us, he knew what was going on. But he also didn’t object, taking Reft’s hint and letting the subject change. The others seemed to understand too. They still asked Tabbris and me questions, but not quite as intently. They kept moving the subject around the table so that Tabbris didn’t have to feel like she was under a microscope.

It clearly helped, as the girl slowly started to ask questions of her own. She wanted to know about their parents, and how they had all ended up out here.

As it turned out, the answer only made me hate the Seosten in general even more. Basically, the Seosten didn’t actually raise their own children, generally speaking. Instead, children were sent to what amounted to private school/orphanages and raised there. At a certain age or whenever the orphanage in question thought they were ready, the child would be added to the list of potential recruits. Every Choir took turns looking at available recruits and choosing the ones they wanted. It was like the draft in professional sports, only if the players ranged in age from five or six all the way up to their late teens in some cases. Or some really fucked up version of adoption.

In any case, these four had been on their way to one of those ‘drafts’ when Athena’s people had ambushed the ship in question. Most of them had gotten away, but these guys and a few of their older peers were brought here to be raised and taken care of. There were others like that, young Seosten that Athena and her people had begun to rescue and raise differently. It was… encouraging. Especially for Tabbris. I really wanted her to have as many good examples of her own people as possible.

Eventually, our food came, floating in on these small hovering trays that went straight to the right spots before landing. The others quickly dug in, so I followed suit. And they were right, it tasted delicious.

“Bleh.” Beside me, Tabbris was staring down at her own plate, which looked almost identical to mine. She tentatively took another bite, before her head shook. “Gross. What is that?”

“Um. Shrimp?” I offered, a little confused as I tasted one off her plate. “Mmm, good.”

“But–but–I like shrimp too. I mean…” The girl frowned, staring down. “I think I do. Don’t I? I did.”

“Oh.” Meley cut in. “You never tasted it on your own, just when you were possessing her.”

My head bobbed quickly in agreement. “She’s right. You only tasted them through my taste buds, not yours. I guess you don’t like shrimp after all.”

Blinking a few times, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Oh. Um. What do I do?”

Before I could answer, Chef Gisby suddenly spoke up from behind us. “You come with me!” As everyone jumped, the round man smiled. “Apologies. But come.” He offered his hand to the girl. “I will let you taste all of the wonderful things I can make, until you find what you do enjoy.”

“I’ll go with you, if you want,” Meley offered, gesturing to her own plate. “I’m done anyway.”

Tabbris looked to me uncertainly, and I quickly nodded. “It’s okay. Go ahead. I’ll be right here.”

She still looked a little uncomfortable about leaving me, but slowly got up from the table. “O-okay, I’ll be right–” As she was standing, the girl suddenly pitched over backward, her feet somehow having gotten tangled in the legs of the chair. Just before she would have hit the floor, my hands snapped down to catch her, and there was a clatter as her chair landed on its side.

“You okay?” I asked, helping Tabbris back up.

Her face was red, dropping her gaze to the floor as she nodded, mumbling a little about her legs being different from mine. Once she was definitely alright, the girl went with Meley and Chef Gisby to find something that she actually liked to eat.

“I hope she’s okay,” Bandy offered, her ears drooping a little bit as she watched the door that the three went through. “I don’t think Seosten really grow up like that very often, possessing someone else the whole time they’re… um, you know, getting bigger.”

“She’ll be okay,” I assured the bunny-fox girl. “She just needs some practice being out in her own body.”

“Good thing you guys are here, huh?” Kisea put in. “I mean, she doesn’t have to hide or anything. And…” The girl hesitated briefly before adding, “It’s kinda nice to have another Seosten kid around.”

“Yeah,” Richton agreed. “There aren’t very many of us. They’re mostly adults.”

“You are staying here for awhile, right?” Bandy pressed, looking up to me urgently with eyes that made me think that someone had copied them to create Puss in Boots’ adorable pleading eyes in those Shrek movies.

How could I do anything but nod? “Yeah,” I promised. “We’ll be here for awhile. I have to wait for Athena’s people to get hold of my friends, and they’ll use Tabbris’ blood to find Kushiel’s lab.”

As soon as I said the name, the others hissed a little, looking like I’d just said Hitler or something.

“She is a bad woman,” Reft explained. “A very bad woman.”

I nodded slowly, “Yeah, I’ve kind of been getting that impression. She sounds like a real piece of work.”  And the thought that Tabbris’ mother had been in her hands… I swallowed hard, forcing that thought back. “We’re gonna find her. We’re gonna save Tabbris’s mom, and all her other prisoners. She’ll pay for the things she’s done.” For emphasis, I stabbed my fork hard down into the next bite of shrimp.

“She’ll pay for all of it.”

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Lessons 32-03

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From the reaction of the rest of the students, it was clear that this was a story that Athena had told many times before. But none seemed to object to hearing it again, and I saw several glance my way. It was sort of like when you’re watching a movie that you know well and it’s about to get to a really good part, so you look at the person who has never seen it so that you can see their reaction.

“The Seosten,” she continued, “were obviously not the first race to discover Earth. Humans had been interacting with other races for quite some time. But most of the non-Earth species that made their way there did so by accident up to that point. Some arrived through portal or teleportation mishaps or the equivalent, while others stumbled across it with their own starships as they either fled the Seosten/Fomorian conflict or simply explored what was unknown space.

“Either way, Earth, then known as Rysthael or an ancient word meaning Hidden, was just that. It was hidden. The planet was so far away from Seosten and Fomorian space, and so out of the way, that many beings sought it out in order to live apart from that endless conflict. It became a sort of… what you might call a fairy tale, a story about a paradise world free of that violent war.”

Letting her gaze slowly move across the room, the woman took a moment to meet everyone’s gaze, making sure we all understood just what a big deal it was for those people to have a safe haven to flee to that wasn’t part of the intergalactic war. Then she continued. “Unfortunately, this, of course, could not last forever. Rumors of such ‘haven worlds’ had naturally been going around essentially since the very beginning of this eternal conflict. But this one contained details and other evidence that made the Seraphim, leadership of the Seosten, take extra note of it. So, they sent out expeditions to search for it. There were dozens of small scouting vessels whose goal was to find this planet of untouched resources and a strangely Seosten-like species.”

Standing in the center of the room, Athena turned in a circle, her voice softening a little. “It took over thirty Elohim-standard years–” Pausing, she looked back to me. “Elohim is the Seosten home planet. For reasons that are as obvious as they are self-centered, the Seosten have made our world’s cycle into the standard for our space. An Elohim year is roughly eighty percent longer than an Earth year. So thirty Elohim years would have been around fifty-four Earth years.”  

“In any case,” she continued once that was clear, “for those thirty standard years, the scouting ships searched for this mythical paradise that the other species called Rysthael. Then, one vessel found it. Rysthael was located. This was roughly two thousand years ago.” Quickly, she did the mental math for me by helpfully adding, “Just under three thousand five hundred Earth years.

I thought about that for a moment, seeing the Seosten woman (and most of the rest of the class) watching me curiously before I finally put in, “That would be around what we call 1500 B.C?”

Athena nodded. “Somewhere in there, yes. The Seosten scouting vessel came to the planet and found… well, humans. Along with every other species that was there, of course. There were cities full of humans working alongside other species. But there were also places where humans hunted everything that wasn’t human. Or, of course, were hunted by them. But one place in particular stood out to the crew of that Seosten vessel. The land that, at that point, was known as Kemet, or Hwt-Ptah. Hwt-Ptah itself was translated roughly and rather literally by one of Earth’s other peoples into the word Aiguptos. Or–”

“Egypt?” I put in without thinking, then flushed deeply. “I mean, sorry. I don’t know if I should raise my hand or–or what the… yeah. I remember hearing the whole Aiguptos is Egypt thing.”

Athena smiled. “It’s quite all right, of course. Yes. The land then known as Kemet or Aiguptos, what would eventually become Egypt. When the Seosten scouting party investigated, they found that this civilization was comprised of equal parts humans and other intelligent species. They had come together to create one of the most powerful empires on the planet at the time.

“In fact,” she continued, “many of the so-called gods and other mythological creatures that this civilization had been telling stories of for so long were either Bonded humans or powerful non-humans.”

Alters and Heretics, I realized. Which made sense. As far as I knew, Egypt mythology had a lot of different gods and powerful creatures in it.

Mr. Reinswield briefly interjected. “As a point of fact, one of those Bonded eventually became one of the founding members of what those on earth call Eden’s Garden. The one known as Sobek, he acts as the leader of what they call Vigiles.”

Sobek. That was the crocodile god, right? He was one of the Vigiles, like Hisao? I wondered if that had anything to do with how independent they were. Since, as I understood it, they were basically given blanket authority to make their own decisions in the field, as judge, jury, and executioner.

Athena continued. “More interesting to the scouting team, there were many bits of the Egyptian mythology and stories that were clearly based on somewhat corrupted stories of powerful beings from back within the Seosten Empire. Somehow, the non-humans who dwelt there had lived on the planet for so long, generation after generation, that the actual truth of their origin had faded. All they had were stories that they passed on to one another. Stories that became myth, to the point that they didn’t even realize that they were actually worshipping the very same masters that their ancestors had fled from so long before.”

Reflexively, I started to ask what that meant, but the woman was already explaining, “You see, the Egyptians’ primary god was named Amun. In their language, that was a word meaning ‘Hidden One.’”

I sat back suddenly, blinking a few times. Amun. The Egyptian god Amun actually meant ‘hidden one’? Which itself was a veiled reference to the actual hidden ones, the Seosten. Clearly, it was just like Athena had said. Whatever Alters had settled with the ancient Egyptians had told their descendants about the Seosten, which had eventually become the basis for the god they actually worshipped. Wow. Just… wow.

“Seosten procedure at that time,” Athena went on, “was to quietly infiltrate the world to find out what we could. Unfortunately, having an entire religion that was at least partially based on us was unacceptable. So, the Seosten scouting force took measures to alleviate that problem by possessing the ruler, or as they called it, pharaoh at that time. He was a human male known as Amenhotep. The Seosten-Possessed Amenhotep ordered the worship of Amun and his like to be stopped, and established a new god for them to focus on: Aten, the sun deity. This allowed the Seosten to destroy many records that were solely about how to identify Seosten possession, among other important things.”

Biting my lip, I thought back a bit before offering, “But worship of Aten instead of Amun didn’t… um, it didn’t last very long, did it?” Granted, I was going by half-remembered things on a project I’d done a couple years earlier, but still. I was pretty sure his reign as the main Egyptian god had been relatively short.

Athena nodded. “Correct, as it turned out, there was an unknown force that was aware of the Seosten presence in the city. They eliminated Amenhotep, who had taken the name of Akhenaten in honor of Aten, as well as the Seosten possessing him. They then turned his heir, a young boy named Tutankhaten, into a Bonded with the blood of that same Seosten.” She gave me a brief look before explaining, “Bonded is another word for Heretic. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun, signifying the return of their focus on Amun instead of Aten. In other words, the return of the focus on teaching their people how to identify and defeat the Seosten.”

Tutankhamun or Tutankhaten, I realized, in our day was simply referred to as King Tut. King Tut had been a Heretic. Or rather, I supposed, a Bonded. He had been a Natural Seosten Heretic/Bonded.

“It was the Seosten’s first real encounter with the human method of bonding. Up to that point, they had encountered such things in isolated incidences on the planet, but that was the first time that it was very clearly a human becoming something more by being genetically bonded to another race. It was, obviously, rather surprising that it would work on a Seosten.”

“But who was it?” One of the other students, a furry bunny-like humanoid about four feet tall, asked quickly. “Who turned the human king into a Seosten-Bonded?”

Athena shook her head. “I’m afraid that we still don’t know. But between whoever it was, and the new pharaoh, they managed to fortify their kingdom against Seosten influence, despite the scouting force actually managing to eventually kill Tutankhamun. It didn’t stop the rest of their military from spreading word and spells that could somehow detect and expel Seosten from their hosts.

“So, the Seosten on the planet returned to our space for further instructions. With their information, the plan was made to have another ship go to the planet, a ship with a specially selected crew. Their job would be to locate another civilization on that planet, and use them to create a force that would eliminate the Egyptian problem. That ship was called the Olympus.”

My eyes widened, while Tabbris shifted on my lap, blurting a happy, “Mama was on that ship!”

With a smile, Athena nodded. “Yes, Sariel was my crewmate. The ship was captained by Puriel, while I served as the Chief Tactical Officer. Sariel was one of our infiltration specialists alongside the man who would become Apollo. Essentially, their role on the ship was to discover and research as much as possible about the target species and teach it to the rest of us.”

She trailed off for a few seconds, clearly lost in memory as a somewhat sad smile touched her face. Then Athena shook it off, returning to her story. “But this was no ordinary Seosten ship. The mystery of what force was behind this Egyptian empire, and what exactly humans were and why they could bond with other species so well, was entirely too important to leave to just any ship. Can anyone tell our new friends Felicity and Tabbris here what the Summus Proelium project was?”

That magma-student spoke up in a voice that sounded surprisingly gentle and melodic. “The Seosten Empire always has dozens of special projects running whose intention is to find special ways of challenging or defeating the Fomorians. Superweapon development, essentially. Some are straight-up weapons such as extra powerful ships, missiles, magic spells, and, in some cases, super-soldiers.

“Sommus Proelium was the latter. It was a secret project that was intended to create Seosten who were capable of matching Fomorians on the battlefield. They would be stronger than ordinary Seosten, capable of boosting themselves far beyond what most could, and would even have certain special abilities built right in. Abilities that the Fomorians would be unprepared for.”

“Precisely.” Giving the magma-student a brief, encouraging smile, Athena nodded. “Yes, that was the goal, in any case. Well, somewhat. The actual goal was to upgrade Seosten soldiers into having many different abilities and strengths. A full Seosten supersoldier, if you will. But reaching that goal required stepping stones. Which meant that the scientists involved needed volunteers to work with.”

Lifting my chin, I guessed, “And you guys were those volunteers?”

Her head bowed slightly before the woman confirmed, “Yes. We came from many different Choirs, all volunteering to be tested and experimented upon in the name of creating that perfect soldier. We were poked, prodded, injected, and went through more surgeries and other procedures than I can possibly count. They modified our DNA in ways that have not been done since Cronus.”

Okay, that was something I definitely wanted to ask about. But it sounded like a long story, so I elected to wait until later and ask privately.

She went on. “In the end, the project was… relatively successful. Each of us was enhanced, some more than others. And we were each given what you would call special abilities. Mine allowed me to process information incredibly quickly, and granted me an extremely limited form of precognition. I refer to it as scattershot precognition. It provides me with instant and complete knowledge of the immediate results of five or six different actions I can take, up to about five seconds away from the action. In other words, when I use it in the middle of combat, it instantly shows me exactly what would happen up to about five seconds in the future. And it does that for five or six different possible actions, giving me instant knowledge of what will happen for the next five seconds along each of those five or six paths. Then I simply choose one and carry it out. To most beings, it would look as though the world freezes every time I use it. It gives me a snapshot of the entire battlefield, along with the details of each of those potential actions. I choose one, and the battle continues. Nothing actually stops, but in that instant, my mind speeds up so much that the millisecond it takes for me to make my choice of what action to follow seems to be quite long to me.”

After explaining that much, the woman chuckled. “But as I said, we were all enhanced in different ways. Sariel was granted unerring accuracy, Puriel controlled many types of energy including the electricity he became known for, and Radueriel was given the ability to… essentially create and fix things. We all came out differently, based on what the scientists did to us.”

One of the other students bounced up in the air then, floating a little before going back to his seat. “Is that why Chayyiel looks so young?”

I had no idea what he was talking about, obviously. But Athena nodded. “Yes. Chayyiel, the Seosten who would eventually play the role of Hestia on Earth,” she added in an aside that was obviously for my benefit, “was perhaps the closest to a perfect success of the program. Ironic, in some ways, as she was not actually one of the volunteers. Chayyiel was, in fact, the daughter of the program’s director.”

To me, the woman explained, “Seosten do not generally raise their children themselves. Instead, they are raised within groups by qualified and trained professionals, and are later chosen by various Choirs based upon their merits. Each Choir may choose to make their choice from the available… stock,” saying the word made her grimace while continuing, “or allow another to take their turn or turns in exchange for one of their youth.”  

I grimaced. “You mean Seosten children are traded back and forth like baseball players.”

She didn’t look like she was sure what that meant, but nodded anyway. “I… imagine you have the right idea. Director Aysien, however, kept his own child, using his political influence to stop anyone from taking her to be raised by others. He put her through the same process as the rest of us, trying to create the ultimate super soldier. And in the end, she was his greatest success. Chayyiel is not only the strongest and fastest of all of us, she also received two incredibly potent abilities. The first allows her to know the weakness of anything she looks at. A building, a person, a ship, an entire army, anything that she focuses on she immediately understands their weakness and how they can be beaten, broken, opened, and so forth. Looking at a simple box, she would know exactly where to tap it to make the box open. Any living being she looks at, she immediately knows where their weak points are, both mentally and physically.

“Additionally, as though that wasn’t enough on its own, every time she faces an opponent, Chayyiel immediately gains every bit of combat skill, knowledge, and expertise they possess. For example, she started out an ordinary child with no particular skill. After spending less than sixty seconds in a room with one of the veterans, she possessed every single one of his combat skills and could perform them perfectly.”

A perfect understanding of anyone or anything’s weaknesses, and the ability to instantly download all the combat skills of anyone she ever met? God damn, the goddess of the hearth was freaking scary.

“Unfortunately,” Athena went on, “as you already noted, Ulstin, the process wasn’t perfect. We were all essentially frozen at the exact physical age that we were when we underwent it. Even more than most Seosten, our aging process was halted. For Chayyiel, this meant that she was frozen at the physical age of a young child.”

“So they turned you all into super soldiers and sent you to Earth?” I asked.

She chuckled, head shaking. “Actually, the project was ended roughly fifty years before the Earth, or Rysthael as we called it, was located. We were all assigned to the ship Olympus, and worked together on many other combat and exploratory missions before then. We were… shipmates, often friends… like family. Puriel was our captain. Those who had become the most powerful from the experiments were bridge and command officers, while others who were less enhanced were ordinary crew. These would eventually become minor gods on Earth.”

“Like Charmiene,” I muttered a bit darkly.

“Yes,” she confirmed, giving me a brief, curious look. “Charmiene would be known as Nemesis on Earth. On our ship, she was a soldier under the command of Abbadon, the one you know as Ares. Or even Paschar, who took the role of Eros or Cupid while serving as head chef on the ship.”

Cupid. Love potions. Yeah, I supposed that made sense. Under my breath, I mumbled, “Trust me, he’s on my list too.”

Again, the woman gave me a look that made it clear that she would be asking me many questions later, before going on. “In any case, we were eventually given the assignment to go and investigate this new planet. We were to find out what exactly was going on with the humans, who this mysterious force spoiling our plans with the Egyptians was, and whether we could use these humans in our war with the Fomorians.

“To that end, once we arrived on the planet, we began to infiltrate another powerful civilization of the time: the so-called Greeks. We found other gods that they had already worshipped, made alterations where needed so that they would fit us better, and took on their identities. It required minimal record and memory alterations, as we did so over the course of more than one generation. Allowing them to worship us as gods, we focused on making the Greeks as powerful as possible. Powerful enough to subjugate the Egyptians and discover who was responsible for teaching them about us, who had turned Tutankhamun into a Seosten-Bonded.

“Unfortunately, we never did discover that. Our Greece was merged with another potent civilization, the one known as Rome. Soon, it became more and more clear that our group was not going to be able to contain the humans for much longer. They were growing entirely too powerful. We had found that they were very good… weapons to have access to. Once we understood the human bonding ability, they became a goldmine of potential soldiers and hosts. Then came the prophecy.”

Afraid that I was going to regret the question, I nonetheless asked, “Prophecy?”

The Seosten woman snorted. “Well, they call it a prophecy. In reality, a figure appeared before the gathered Seraphim, a figure that was from far, far in the future. They told the Seraphim that the humans would destroy us, that they were the work of the Fomorians, and that when the Formorians returned to claim their creations, the humans would be used to kill all Seosten.”

My mouth worked a bit. “But–I don’t–who? Who was the time traveler who told them that?”

Her head shook. “Apparently, the figure died shortly after delivering the message. I don’t know any more than that, unfortunately. This was all part of the information we were given, along with the news that the Seraphim were debating two possibilities. Either we would destroy the planet entirely and end any chance of that future from coming to pass. Or we would use an incredibly powerful spell to block humans off from all other species, so that you could continue to serve as our weapons, only on our own terms.”

“The Bystander Effect,” I muttered, remembering what she had said earlier about that.

She nodded. “What you call the Bystander Effect, yes. It is the Seraphim’s attempt to avoid the future that was relayed to them, while retaining humans as a weapon against our enemies.”

My eyes rolled. “Yeah, because God forbid you guys just say, ‘Hey, wanna team up against these genocidal dickweasels?’ Why do I feel like just working together was never even considered?”

Athena met my gaze, nodding once more. “You know the Seosten too well. But that is precisely what we are trying to change. The Seosten partnering with other species and working together, especially with humans, is the only way that this war against the Fomorians is going to end well.”

She gestured toward Tabbris and me. “That is why you two are so incredibly important. Because with you, we can prove that very theory, that humans and Seosten would fare better working together as partners. And the first step toward that is to rescue all of the Seosten who have been imprisoned and experimented on by Kushiel.”

Tabbris’s voice was quiet. “Like Mama.”

Athena gave a single, grave nod. “Yes, like Sariel. I promise you, we will rescue her, and all of Kushiel’s other prisoners. But you will have to be ready when the time comes.”

“How do we get ready?” I asked, a bit hesitantly.

The Seosten woman smiled slowly. “How? By training, of course.

“Lots and lots of training.”

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