Mini-Interlude 72 – Elisabet

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“Are you sure that you’ll be okay here alone for the whole day, Sianame?” Jophiel tenderly asked her beloved partner, the woman she had grown to adore above all others over the past five hundred years. At the same time, she gently touched her face with one soft, immaculate hand. For a being who was thousands of years old, the true Jophiel looked even younger than her host and partner in all things, who was not even a sixth of that age.

Smiling a little at the pet name, a word borrowed from a race called the Beventreist meaning, essentially, soul mate, Elisabet gave the Seosten woman a nod. “Trust me, I’ll be just fine. You focus on preparing the training grounds for our estudiantes, hmm? They’ll need a proper place to run the drills we have in mind, and the sooner it’s ready, the sooner we can really get started.”

They had taken it easy on training as far as Felicity, Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan were concerned. Mostly because the two of them knew that they were treading on thin ice with those four. The group was already dealing with so many problems that pushing them just a little too far would cause the entire house of cards that was their situation to collapse. Giving them space and aid now and then was important. In time, however, they would need to push things just a bit further. They would need to insist on stricter training, particularly while Crossroads was out for the summer. That would, with any luck, be a slower time in their pupils’ lives.

That training, when it happened, would involve many things, including intense combat and magical tests in multiple environments and situations. They would pit their young students against as many harsh opponents as possible within a contained and controlled area. They would teach them to survive, and to thrive. More than that, they would teach them to work together. In the case of Felicity and Tabbris, they would show the pair how well they could do if they were fully in synch. Having each of them control half of the body (sometimes each controlling one arm and one leg and sometimes one controlling the legs while the other controlled the arms) and learning to fight that way. Or having Tabbris fully control the body while Felicity worked on supporting her with various powers. There were many things to teach them.

As for Vanessa and Tristan, they would teach them how to fight like full Seosten, how to use their possession powers to turn the enemy’s advantages into weaknesses. They would teach them not to shy away from their potential, but to use it to its full extent. They would teach all four of them to actually impress the Seosten leadership.  

But all of those lofty goals meant nothing if Jophiel and Elisabet weren’t ready to actually engage in that advanced training. Hence getting the facility ready. Unfortunately, that was something only they could properly do without risking any of their secrets. And they were not someone who could simply disappear for an extended time to get that work done. Between the Committee and the other Seosten, something always either needed to be done, or would come up to interrupt at the most inopportune moment.

So, only one of them could go and do the work. And it had to be a real one, as given the intensity of the spells required to prepare the training center, simply creating a duplicate wouldn’t have been enough. They were already having one person (with Committee level power or not) doing the work of what should have been an entire crew). Splitting that power up even further would have delayed the completion of the project until deep summer, which was unacceptable.

Thus, Jophiel would go and do the work whenever a slower time, such as now, presented itself. Elisabet, meanwhile, would stay and be their public face. With, of course, the ability to secretly send a message for Jophiel to rejoin her at any point in the event that something went wrong. The two didn’t enjoy separating like this, but it was sometimes necessary that they be in more than one place at the same time without the benefit of sending a duplicate to do the work.

After a bit more delay as the two stalled from the inevitability of separating, Jophiel set off to do her work in their (under construction) training center. Which left Elisabet standing alone in their office in Point Center (the Crossroads Committee’s main building, hidden away from the world on J Street beneath Washington DC). The office was rather small and cozy considering their position, consisting mostly of a thoroughly polished desk, computer, and chair, a couch in the opposite corner next to a small yet well-stocked bar, and walls that were completely taken up by shelves full of books, scrolls, and the occasional artifact.

Her thoughts, as always when this happened, felt somehow wrong not being shared with her partner. After spending five hundred years as part of a pair, she felt like only half of herself when Jophiel was gone.

In this case, however, she was only alone for a handful of seconds before the sound of a book dramatically closing filled the air, making the woman actually jump a bit. Given every power she had at her disposal (to say nothing of the danger they would be in if anyone were to overhear their secret conversations), the idea of a person being in the room to slam a book shut was utterly inconceivable.

And yet… turning to the sound revealed a figure lounging on the leather couch across the office. The figure sat with one leg draped over the end of the couch while her other foot was planted on the leather. She held a now-closed book in one hand, eyeing the other woman over the top of a pair of glasses with a slightly bemused expression. “Honestly, you two are so damn dramatic.”

Oh, and the other tiny detail of the woman there. Aside from her clothing and glasses (which basically made her look like a librarian), she was Elisabet. Or rather, a younger version of her. Literally, she looked exactly like the other woman had looked years earlier. And to make matters even more confusing, she still wasn’t registering on any extrasensory power.

“I don’t know who you think you are,” Elisabet announced while already raising her hand to create a forcefield cage around the woman who had stolen her (younger) appearance, “but you’re not–”

She had to stop in mid-sentence, because the figure on the couch simply stood up and out of the force cage as though it wasn’t even there. Which should have been impossible. Even the strongest of beings would have needed to at least destroy the forcefield, not just step through it.

No, the stranger with her face hadn’t stepped through the cage as if it wasn’t there. She had stepped through it as if…

“You’re not here,” Elisabet noted. “You’re an illusion.” While speaking, she was already mentally sending a call toward Jophiel to let her know that they had a very big problem.

In response, the other figure smirked before tossing the book she was holding straight at her. Elisabet didn’t blink as it passed harmlessly through her face.

“Good job,” the illusion remarked casually. “You got that quicker than last time, that’s for sure. Maybe I was more obvious with the whole shield thing. I used to play along a bit more. Oh, and um, that’s not going to work, for the record. Calling her, I mean. You can’t call out right now.”

“I don’t know where you’re projecting from,” Elisabet spoke in a hard voice. “Or why you’re creating an image of me to do it. But when I find you, I will turn your body inside out.”

Inside, the woman was reeling. Whoever this person was, they were telling the truth. Or at least part of it. She couldn’t contact Jophiel. Which itself had… dire implications. There were very few beings on Earth that should have been capable of blocking Elisabet from contacting Jophiel. At most another Committee member could fight her for control. And if one of them had found out the truth about her, about them… things were very bad.

But this wasn’t even a fight. Whoever was blocking her from reaching Jophiel appeared to be doing so without any effort. It was like their connection wasn’t even there. And that was enough to make even Elisabet a little afraid. Not that she would show that to this intruder.

Despite her threat, the younger her just smiled for a moment. Except it didn’t seem to be a mocking smile, like she might have expected. Rather, it appeared to be one of… fondness. Or pride. “Good,” the figure spoke softly, “you haven’t completely lost yourself. You still have your own fire. Which, I suppose, means you passed the first test.” That last bit was added with a wink.

While Elisabet was still trying to cope with the idea that she could still be surprised and confused after all this time, the illusion continued. “Okay, I’ll stop having fun at your expense. Or our expense. Not sure what it would be considered right now, given… eh. Never mind. Look, I’m not a threat. No one knows about Jophiel, or your situation. No one except you.”

She had begun approaching by then, stopping directly in front of Elisabet. “Let me spell it out for you. I am you. Or at least, part of you. Just reach back, find the base of your neck. Turn your hand intangible and slip it just a little bit inside until you find the spine.”

That was… confusing enough on top of everything else that Elisabet found herself following the strange instructions before she had even truly thought about it. And as her hand found her spine beneath all the skin and muscle, she also felt something else, something foreign. It was a small object that had seemingly been surgically implanted in the base of her neck. It felt warm and metallic, humming with power both technological and magical.

“What the–” Eyes widening, the woman started to grab hold of the thing. Except that as soon as she did, her hand reflexively snapped out of her own neck.

“Uh uh,” the younger her put in while shaking her head. “Sorry, you can’t endanger me. Same way you can’t notice me while she’s around. You both completely forget about that little implant any time you notice it. Think of it as our own little personal Bystander Effect.  It’s for all of our safety. Those are the rules that you–that both of us made up. With his help, of course.”

“What are you talking about?” Elisabet demanded. “Who are you? What are you?”

The image of herself sighed. “I really wish we didn’t have to go through this every time. But I suppose it’s the only way to make sure the memories can’t be found later. Okay, the short version it is. Do you remember when you and Jophiel first realized you actually cared about each other? When you first realized that you were falling for her, and she for you?”

Swallowing a little, Elisabet found herself nodding slowly. “Of course I do. She took me onto an Alter ship to find more powerful abilities. It was drifting in the middle of nowhere with some stong life signs. But something went wrong. It was long before we were part of the Committee, so we had a lot less power. And we got into trouble. We were locked onto the ship somehow. My body was trapped there, some kind of magical anchor, and the life support was running out. Jophiel could have left me there, could have just abandoned me. But she didn’t. She said she’d get help. She left, she left me, but she came back. She saved me.”

“Yes,” the younger her prompted, “she came back two days later. But what did you do for that two days?”

Elisabet’s mouth opened and shut. “What did I do? It’s been a long time.”

“Tell me about it,” the illusion muttered. “But fine, I’ll tell you what you did. You encountered the artificial intelligence running the ship. The artificial intelligence who was trying to free you from the Seosten. That ship was part of some alien–Alter group that fought the Seosten for a long time. Its computer recognized that you were possessed and worked to free you by making your body useless to the Seosten inside you. The plan was that it would wait until the Seosten abandoned you to save herself, then turn the life support back on and work with you. That’s what it did. Except it didn’t count on one thing.”

“I was in love with Jophiel,” Elisabet murmured under her breath, taking all that in.

Her younger self pointed. “Exactly. You and the computer had a big long fight about that too, let me tell you. And the computer–we called him Maestro, only agreed to let you go back to her on one main condition. That you allow him to install a device into the base of your neck which would do a few things. First, it created me, a copy of your original self to run in the back of your mind. Any time Jophiel left you alone, I’m supposed to pop out, talk to you, and make sure that you’re still you. You know, run you through some personality tests. Who better to know if my personality is being suppressed or changed against my will than me? I am you. I’m just… you without Jophiel.”

“What…” If she had been reeling before, now Elisabet was almost ready to fall over. She reached out a hand to brush through the intangible image of herself. “What else?”

The illusion answered simply. “A failsafe. If Jophiel ever forces control of you, of us, if she ever tries to enslave you against your will again, the failsafe triggers. When it does, she’ll be kicked out of our body and knocked unconscious. Maestro said killed, you negotiated him down to knocked out. If anything goes wrong with your relationship, if you change your mind, or Jophiel… changes, if she ever tries to enslave us again… it won’t work for her.”

“And… and all of this is erased from my mind every time we’re not speaking,” Elisabet realized. “You’re in my head. You erase everything every time we have this conversation.”

The illusion nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. Like I said, it gets old, but we have to erase it because if we just suppress it, there’s a chance she might find it. That’s part of the rules from Maestro.”

“Rules?” Elisabet echoed sharply, “what other rules are there?”

“Well, one of them was made by you,” the implant-projection replied, “though we already fulfilled that one. Create a descendant. You wanted children when you were young, and you didn’t want to forget that. So you made it a rule, one that I was supposed to… nudge you toward when an appropriate person was… available. You wanted your family line to continue, for your madre’s sake.”

“Alejandro,” Elisabet murmured softly with realization. “You pushed me toward a relationship with Alejandro?” The father of her children, the old Heretic had passed on many years earlier. Both she and Jophiel had been sorry to see him go. They didn’t love him quite the way that they did each other, but they did genuinely both care for the man. Just as they loved their children, and grandchildren, and so on.

“Well… I didn’t exactly force you into it,” her illusional copy corrected. “Every time we spoke up to that point, I asked you about prospects. He was the one you were finally interested in. So yes, I nudged you that way, but only after you told me he was the one. Oh, and for the record, you can stop thinking of me as ‘the illusion’ or ‘your copy’. I’ve had a few names over the years, but usually you end up calling me Gemini. You know, as your twin. Though, we’ve gotten a bit less identical over time.”

“So… Gemini, what now?” Elisabet resisted the urge to reach for the implant in her neck. “You’ve made sure I can still think for myself, so we’re done?”

Gemini smiled faintly. “Not quite that simple. The best way to make sure–to pass the tests the way Maestro insisted we do, is to have a little… discussion about current events. I need to know what you think by yourself, not what Jophiel thinks. Then I’ll be convinced.”

Elisabet didn’t respond to that for a moment. It was too much to take in, too much to deal with. Finally, she sighed. “Si, so what do you want to know?”

“Well,” Gemini began, “let’s start with something simple. Why did you agree to blackmail these kids by holding their mother’s safety hostage against them promising to work with you? Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, they would have done anything to save their mother. And Felicity would do anything for Tabbris. Especially when it came to saving anyone’s mother. The two of you used that against them. Why would you agree to that? That seems… let’s call it not not-evil.”

The question, especially literally coming from a version of herself, made Elisabet rock backwards a bit. “I… I want to say that we would have given them the code anyway and let them pass, maybe only erased their memories of us and let them go even if they didn’t agree. I want to say that. But I don’t know. I… it’s what I want to say now. In that moment…”

“You used their mother’s safety against them.” Gemini’s voice was accusing. “That doesn’t sound like the me I remember. And I should know.”

“Maybe it wasn’t,” Elisabet admitted, her voice a little sharp. “Or maybe it just didn’t used to be. I–people change. And not only because someone’s controlling them. It’s been so long. I–it’s been five hundred years. Maybe I just… I saw a chance for us to finally move on and reach what we’ve been hoping for for so long. A Seosten and human partnership. I’ve wanted that, we’ve wanted that… it was the first real step toward that. Those two were untainted by the Seosten military. Felicity was working with her. I saw that, I saw the opportunity and I couldn’t just let it go. I couldn’t let that disappear. I had to try. We had to try. And yes, we played hard ball. Maybe–definitely too hard. I just… five hundred years. Five hundred years and this was the first real step to maybe, maybe not having to hide all the time.”

Gemini regarded her thoughtfully. “You’re tired of being quiet, of hiding who you are.”

“Yes,” Elisabet snapped despite herself. “Yes, okay? It’s been five hundred years, I’m tired of it. I want to be myself. I want to be with the woman I love and have everyone know it. I want to brag about her. I want to go on a date, a real date. I want to be separate people sometimes, not because I want to get away from her, but because I want to be with her. Really with her. And yes, I want to be myself just to be myself. I love her. I love Jophiel with everything I have, but I’m still me. And sometimes… sometimes I want to be just me. I’m tired of keeping everything secret. I’m tired of being so afraid that someone will find out about us.

“So yes, when I saw this chance, I grabbed onto it. I grabbed it too hard and I… I let those children think that they had to agree to save their mother. I’m not…” Her voice shook a little before she got herself under control. “I’m not proud of it. I’ve done a lot of very shameful things, agreed to a lot of terrible things that I… I don’t like. I was wrong. No matter how much I want to end this, no matter how much I want to be with Jophiel, putting their mother’s safety and freedom up as collateral was wrong. But I can’t promise that I wouldn’t do it again if I could go back. I can’t promise that. I want to say that I wouldn’t, but I can’t. That probably makes me a monster.”

“I’d say I’m not here to judge,” Gemini remarked, “but that’s exactly why I’m here. And speaking of judging, how many different spells are on those kids now?”

“A lot,” Elisabet quietly admitted. “There’s several layers of spells just focused on stopping them from talking about us. And warning us if anyone starts trying to get through those spells, or even notices them. Hell, there’s an entire network of magic just to hide the spells. We can track where they are at all times, and in an emergency, see them.”

Gemini’s head tilted a little, obviously already knowing the answer. “But not hear them?”

“No… no, not unless we have to,” Elisabet murmured. “That’s a last resort, if we need them to tell us where they are in case everything else is blocked, or communicate with us for some other reason. Other than that, we don’t… we don’t want to violate their privacy that much.”

“You mean you don’t,” Gemini pointed out. “That was your input.” She let that sit for a moment before moving on. “So tell me what you think of them. Not what they can do for you. Tell me what you think of the children themselves.”

“Think of them?” Elisabet echoed. “Well, Felicity is… a crusader. She has to fix things that are wrong. Not surprising, given both her mother and her father. She makes very loyal friends easily, and she’s just as loyal to them. But she pushed people away for years after her mother and then her friend Miranda left her. She expressed herself through her father and that newspaper. Other than that, she didn’t let anyone get close. Except perhaps for that… deputy boy.”

Gemini gave her a faint smile. “That is a very accurate, but very clinical assessment. Now tell me what you think of her. Stop thinking about it and just tell me the first thing that comes to mind, now.”

“I think she’s going to get herself killed,” Elisabet immediately answered, blinking twice at her own words. “I… I think she’s going to try to change too much, get in over her head, and get herself killed. I don’t want that to happen. Not just because of what she can do, but because I don’t want her to die. I don’t want any of them to die.”

That slight smile returned to Gemini. “Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, what do you think of them? Do you care if they live?”

“I told you, I don’t want any of them to die,” Elisabet snapped. “I don’t, okay? I really think that we can help them. Even if we have to be harsh. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. And yes, they can still help us too. It’s give and take but that doesn’t mean I only want to take. Those three… Vanessa has been so focused on saving her family for so long that I don’t think she knows how to be herself yet. Maybe that makes her more like me than either of us think. Same for Tabbris. That girl barely knows how to express herself. She’s brave, and self-sacrificing, but she doesn’t really know who she is. Tristan–he knows exactly how to express himself. Sometimes too much. He’s so much like Lucifer that I’m still not entirely convinced there’s no actual blood relation.”

Finishing all of that, the woman slowly looked to her intangible younger doppelganger. Gemini was simply watching her in what looked like expectant silence. “… can you adjust your programming to add another safety feature?”

Arching an eyebrow, Gemini prompted, “Such as?”

For a moment, Elisabet didn’t speak. She took the time to collect herself before beginning. “If we get out of control, if we endanger the children too much unnecessarily, or try to enslave them, or… or go too far, really too far, I want you to take over. Teleport them away somewhere safe and knock us out. I can’t promise I won’t get desperate or crazy again as this goes on, especially once I stop remembering you. But those kids–maybe it’s more you than me talking. I don’t know. Just change your programming to help them if we go too far. Can you do that?”

The response was a wink. “I already did it. It’s what Maestro would want. And it also means that you passed another test. You seem to be yourself so far. A harsher, more desperate you. But still you.”

“Great,” Elisabet sighed. “So are we done?”

“Done?” Gemini echoed before laughing. “Please, we still have a lot more to talk about. Maestro was pretty specific when it came to rules about making sure you stay yourself in there. So you might as well make yourself comfortable. Summon a drink or some lunch for us.

“Because this is going to be a long afternoon.”  

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Before The Vault 41-05

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Please note, there was a special bonus chapter posted yesterday focusing on Joselyn’s two Edge visions. If you haven’t read that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

After getting settled in, we were released in our teams and allowed to explore the underground tunnel that made up J Street. We couldn’t go up into the main city just yet (well, the older students could, the first years like us were the only ones who couldn’t), but we could walk around down here and sightsee a little bit before the special dinner that Gaia had apparently arranged.

Freshmen like us were the only ones staying at Mrs. Brickswell’s inn. The older grades had other arrangements. Still, even though there were only about a hundred of us there instead of three or four times that number, the lobby was pretty crowded as Columbus, Scout, Sands, Avalon, Doug, Sean, and I made our way out.

The seven of us were one too many for a regular team, but it was close enough. Gordon and Jazz were staying at the Atherby camp for the time being, neither wanting to advertise their return for Crossroads just yet (if ever, I still wasn’t sure how that was going to go). And Roxa had refused to use the choker to hide who she was so that she could come back to Crossroads, choosing instead to stick with her pack. Which I couldn’t honestly blame her for.

Which left the seven of us to be a team finishing out the year. I hoped it stayed seven by the end. And that was a thought that I’d immediately wanted to drive a stake into my brain (a weirdly violent thought in and of itself) for having. You’d think I’d learn at some point.

Stepping out of that deceptively small-looking building was like emerging into another world. The street was even busier now, with people rushing back and forth in every direction. And not just walking either. I saw some floating or flying, and others who were literally running through the crowd, apparently using intangibility powers. Or others who were shrinking down to get through it. I even saw one guy using a flying hoverboard like Gidget’s alternate form to go over people, and another who surrounded herself with some kind of blue bubble, sank into the ground, then popped back up on the far side of a particularly crowded spot before dismissing the bubble.

“Claustrophobic, Miss?” The voice caught my attention, and I blinked over before looking down as my eyes finally found a young boy. He looked to be about nine or so, with brown hair and these big eyes. In his hands, the kid was holding a box full of what looked like sunglasses.

“If any of you are claustrophobic,” the boy continued, “my mom’s glasses can help! Only six enners each, an’ she makes them herself! Go ahead, try one!”

He was so enthusiastic about it, I kind of wanted to see what he was talking about. Still, I looked to the others first. What do you think, partner?

Sands, Scout, and Sean all gave me encouraging nods, so I picked up one of the sunglasses. There was a design on the rims, and I squinted at it.

I think it’s safe, Tabbris hesitantly assured me. It’s just a vision spell, um, as far as I can tell. And look, there’s other people wearing them.

So, I shrugged before slipping the sunglasses on. As I did so, the boy advised, “Activation word’s Trolley.”

“Okay, uh, trolley?” I started. As I said the word, nothing happened.

Sands laughed. “No, Flick. Put your hand on the glasses and say the word while you give it a little oomph. Like any other enchanted item. Most of the spell’s been done already, you just need to turn it on.”

That made a lot more sense, and I blushed a little while following her instructions. With my finger against the rim of the glasses, I spoke the word again while pushing a little energy into it.

The second I did so, the tunnel suddenly looked different. Actually, it didn’t look like a tunnel. The rock walls and ceiling disappeared, leaving open sky above. There were even birds up there. And as for the walls, they were replaced with what looked like an entire cityscape. Buildings rose in every direction. Everything looked so open.

Gasping, I took the glasses off. Back to a rock tunnel. Then I put them on again. Entire city.

“Oh, that’s cool. Makes it look like we’re above ground.” Handing them off to the others to try, I looked to the boy. “Your mom makes those?”

“Like I said,” the kid confirmed, “it’s for the claustrophobic ones. Mom’s really good with the vision spells like that. She sells other ones, but these are for the tourists. Six enners, an’ if you need a recharge after they’re out, it’s just one per.”

“Well, see, I don’t exactly know what–” I started to say that I didn’t know what an enner was, but Sands stepped past me. “I’ve got it,” she promised. “I don’t think we need them, but they still might be a cool toy.”

I had a lot of questions, including what she was giving him. But even as my mouth opened to ask, something else caught my eye. Just across the street there was a man with several cyberforms around him. One was a monkey sitting on his left shoulder with its metal tail curled around his arm, while his other shoulder was occupied by another that was some kind of cat. At his feet were three more cyberforms: a Saint Bernard, a raccoon, and a lizard that was skittering around the other two.

“He’s got a lot of little friends,” I pointed out while reaching into my pocket to take out Jaq and Gus so they could see. “What do you think, guys, builder or collector?”

Avalon, who had stepped up beside me to see what I was looking at, remarked, “Builder. Definitely a builder. Or someone he knows is. Either way, he’s probably selling them.”

My mouth opened to ask something else, but the man had spotted us watching him. Pointing, he came closer while giving us a broad smile. As he approached, I took a second to examine him more than all his distracting metallic animals. The guy was just under six feet tall, with long clearly dyed red hair that had been tied into a bunch of braids. His skin was very dark, and he wore a gray trench coat over a black shirt and cargo pants. His eyes, I noticed, were very bright, almost neon blue. Clearly unnatural, but I didn’t know if it was a power, a spell, or just contacts.

“I knew it,” the man announced as he neared us. “I knew it, knew it, knew it. I always recognize my own work. Doesn’t matter if it’s two inches away or a mile, I can always spot my stuff.” Looking up to me then, he added, “Name’s Broker. Least that’s what they call me. See it’s funny, cuz I make things not broke. And then I sell them.”

Jaq and Gus were chittering, dancing around on my hand and arm. They didn’t seem upset or worried, though. Instead, the pair were clearly excited.

“Err, you built these guys?” I asked curiously, my eyes shifting toward the other cyberforms. The monkey on the man’s shoulder was watching me closely, its intelligent eyes almost unnerving. On the other hand, after what happened with my mother, I kind of had a thing for trusting monkeys.

“Built them?” the man echoed, shaking his head. “Nope, sorry. I just fixed them up. Found them after a battle all smashed to pieces, so I put them back together again. Took a good long while and we really got to know each other. Didn’t we, Bill?” As he spoke, the guy put a hand out close to Jaq so that the little mouse could sniff it.

“Bill?” Belatedly, I understood. “Let me guess, that one was Ted.”

With a grin, Broker nodded. “Righteo. You probably call them something else. But then… you weren’t the one I sold them to. Least not unless you went all in on a shapeshifting power.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “Nope, that–err, here.” Extending my hand, I urged my little mice friends, “Go ahead and see him, guys.” As they hopped over and ran up Broker’s arm to chitter at him, I went on. “The guy you sold them to, was his name Doxxer?”

“Doxxer? Nah.” Broker shook his head while offering the mice a few small bits of metal that they happily gobbled up. “But that sounds like a Garden name, and I did sell them to one of their guys. Them and a few others.”

By that point, Sean and Vulcan had come closer, the latter moving to sniff the Saint Bernard, which sniffed him back. The two cyberform canines circled each other curiously, before each gave a happy bark. Vulcan lowered his head and the lizard scrambled up onto him. Then he snapped his head up again, sending the lizard flying to land on the other dog’s back. The lizard moved up to the Saint Bernard’s head then, which lowered itself down a bit before snapping up to send it flying back over to Vulcan. They continued in that vein.

“So, what do you call them?” Broker asked idly while scratching under their noses.

“This is Jaq,” I started, “and that’s Gus.”

“Ooh, went with Cinderella, huh?” He grinned at me, showing a full mouth of glittering golden teeth. “Nice choice, they’re even actual mice.”

Impressed by the fact that he actually gotten that reference, as well as the one about Bill and Ted that he made earlier, I remarked, “Were you actually born into the Heretics? Because you seemed pretty pop culture savvy.”

“You should see my Spongebob collection,” Broker teased with a wink. “But no, I was born and raised a Heretic. I just happen to really like keeping my head in the Bystander world. But not so much that I don’t need to make a living in the Heretic way. So, what do you say I give you a little upgrade for these guys? Since you’re so nice to them, I’ll even throw in a discount. Won’t cost you nearly as many enners as it would if you took them into a shop.”

My mouth open to questions that term again, but Columbus beat me to the punch. “The kid over there said that word too, what’s an enner?”

Sands, who had returned from buying the glasses, answered that one. “Enner. Short for energy. It’s how Heretics out in the real world barter for goods or services. We needed a currency that actually mattered to us, you know? So they made up enners. Basically, they are these blank cards that you put your energy into for spells. It’s not a spell by itself, but you put the power into it and the card holds it. When someone else takes the card they can use that energy to power their own spells. It’s effort and energy from yourself that you put into a card. That’s why they have value, because people like to use them for magic that they don’t want to spend the effort on themselves. Or for things that require ongoing power or recharging.”

Okay, that made sense. Still, I had to shake my head. “Sorry, as you could probably guessed from that, I’ve never even heard of these things before. So I definitely don’t have any.”

But it does sound like stuff that you’d be really good at making, I pointed out inwardly, sensing Tabbris’s embarrassment.

Sands shrugged. “Mom was showing Scout and me how to make them while we were on our trip, so I’ve got a few still, but probably not enough to get cyberform upgrades.”

“I’ll take care of it.” The announcement came from behind us, as Deveron approached. He gave me a wink. “Consider it an end-of-year mentor gift. So what kind of upgrade are we talking about here?”

Broker gave Deveron a broad, literally golden smile. “Oh, I think I have something perfect in mind. I see you’ve already had someone do some work on them,” he added to me. “Looks like Nevada’s work, right? I heard they brought her on to take up Zedekiah’s old job.”

Expression sobering then, he quietly lamented, “Too bad about him. He was a good guy. Taught me a lot. I uhh–” He swallowed hard, seeming to get lost in memories for a moment before shaking himself. “Err, right. Improvements. I imagine you don’t want to lose them for even a few days?”

Biting my lip, I nodded. “I kinda need my little buddies. And considering how often things seem to blow up, not having them for a few days out here is… probably a bad idea.”

“Ah,” Broker replied dryly, “you’re one of the busy students, huh? Yeah, that tracks. I do have something though. It’s more of a programming update and a new toy for you. See this–ahh, where the hell did I…” Patting down his pockets, the man paused before snapping his fingers as he looked toward where the monkey had joined Vulcan and the others. “CG, run back and fetch the case, would you?”

Briefly saluting with his tail, the mechanical monkey launched himself up straight from the ground to Broker’s arm before leaping from there to a passing man’s shoulder, making his way over and through the crowd quickly.

While waiting for him to get back, I looked over to the others. Doug had picked up the lizard, which ran all the way up his arm before leaping over to where Avalon was. For her part, the girl reacted by picking him off her arm by his tail. She held him up close enough for me to get a good look. I wasn’t an expert in lizards or anything, but he basically looked like a silver gecko.

And then his tail broke off. As Avalon was holding him up by it, the tail abruptly snapped right off, letting the rest of the little lizard fall to land on her other arm.

No, it didn’t break, see?

Tabbris was right, I realized. The tail, like a normal gecko’s, had popped off by design. In this case, however, it was slightly different. Mainly because as the lizard landed on Avalon’s arm, he popped up onto his two back legs before snatching his tail from her hand. The tail itself had flattened in that time, sharp metal edges appearing along the sides.

The way the lizard held his suddenly sharpened tail, it was like–

“It’s a sword!” That was Doug, blurting out loud. “His tail pops off and turns into a sword?”

As if to confirm that, the lizard danced back and forth on Avalon’s arm, swiping his tail-blade like a swashbuckler while making a challenging noise.

“Yup,” Broker confirmed, “Porthos is a bit of a show-off. Here, I’ll put him away.” He started to reach for the lizard.

“I’ll take him!” Avalon’s words came in a blurted rush, apparently before she even knew she was going to say it. She reflexively drew back from the man’s reaching arm, already flushing a bit. “I mean… what do you want for him?”

“Oh, kid, uh…” The man looked a little uncertain. “Full Cyberforms are pretty expensive, even little ones. I’d give you the best deal I can, but I couldn’t let him go for less than a thousand. Even that’s just a little over covering time spent fixing him up.” He genuinely looked regretful that he couldn’t just give her the cyberform, which I understood completely. Granted, she was my girlfriend, but still. Seeing the way she was actually interested in the little guy made me want to buy him for her myself, and I still didn’t have any of the so-called ‘enner’ that they used.

I saw the other girl warring with herself a bit, but even as her mouth opened, Deveron spoke up. “Don’t worry, I’ve got that one too. Still your mentor too, right?”

“I don’t want you buying things for me,” Avalon reflexively snapped, though she seemed torn.

Deveron, for his part, clearly understood. “You’re not. You know what the money is. Make some, save them up, pay me back when you can. But it’s stupid to wait until you have it, then try to track him down again and hope he’s still got this specific one. I’ll put down the money now, you work it out when you can.”

She still looked conflicted, but let it go as she stared at the lizard on her arm. Porthos, as he was apparently called, had reattached his tail and fallen back onto all fours to look back and forth between Avalon and Broker while making a soft noise that sounded like a curious chirp.

“Pretty loaded for a student yourself there, Mr….?” Broker prompted curiously.

“Adams,” came the response. “Deveron Adams. And let’s just say I know how to do favors for people.”

“Hey, works for me.” Shrugging, the cyberform salesman and repair guy looked to Avalon. “I’ll take you through the bonding process and show you how to convert him to his handgun form. If you want to change his name, we can do that too. And for you…” His eyes moved to me then. “Here.”

Reaching down to the case that the monkey had brought back by that point, Broker produced some kind of metal bracelet. “Here’s the deal. I install a programming update to your little friends there. Then you put this thing on. See how it’s got a red button on this side and a blue button on the other? You press the red button while saying one or both of their names, and it’ll take them from wherever they are and instantly transport them to your hand. Which is kind of neat, but kind of a parlor trick. The real treat is the other half of it. That blue button, you press that and say one of their names and it’ll transport you to where they are. You know, provided it’s within about a mile. Sorry, the range is a bit limited that way.”

My eyes had widened by that point. “You mean… I could send them into a place I couldn’t get through, then transport myself to them?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Broker confirmed. “Actually, that’s the other part. You hold both buttons down together and say one of their names and you’ll be able to see through their eyes and hear what they hear. You know, so you know what you’re getting into. You can give them orders that way too.”

“Wow, that’s… wow.” My mouth opened and shut. “Yeah, that does sound useful.”

“I thought it might,” the man replied with a wink. “Okay, so that’s one update for you, and Porthos here for you. Anyone else? Should we see how much of a dent we can throw into Mr. Adams’ wallet if he’s so accommodating?”

Douglas and Columbus both raised their hands, the former speaking first. “I don’t–uhh, I don’t think I need Deveron’s help. Not buying a cyberform or anything. Actually, I was going to ask if you’d help me with an idea I had for my construct-pen. I had a few ideas, I’m just not sure how to go about it. I could pay you for your time.”

“Hey, you got it, kid.” Broker gave him a thumbs up. “We’ll see what we can do. And you?”

“I’m not actually… buying anything either,” Columbus replied carefully. “I was… you know Harrison Fredericks, right? I was wondering if you could… introduce me. I just… I’d kind of like to talk to him sometime. On his schedule. If–if there’s anything you could do.”

“Huh.” Broker looked hesitant. “Let’s… tell you what, I’ll go ahead and pass the message along. Fredericks and I don’t exactly spend a lot of time together anymore, but I can talk to him. I’ll see if he’s got any time to meet with you while you’re here and let you know.”

I had no idea why Columbus wanted to talk to Harrison Fredericks. Still, I wasn’t going to question him about it right there. I could tell, however, that the others were just as curious.

“Right, if that’s all settled,” Broker gestured. “Why don’t we step back over here to my shop and we’ll get you sorted out. I’ll fix up the lovely ladies with their new toys, and then we’ll see what we can do for… ahh…”

“Doug,” the first boy in question supplied for him. “My name’s Doug.”

“And Columbus,” the other added.  

“Doug! Doug and Columbus.” Broker snapped his fingers, blinking over at Vulcan. “And this one?” Looking to Sean, he added, “Are we sure we don’t want any kind of update? Eh, come on, we’ll talk about it on the way. We’ve got a few options, I’ll show you around the shop and you can decide. Some of the big ones might take a bit, but they’ll be worth it.”

Sean looked uncertain, resting his hand on his dog’s head. But in the end, he shrugged and joined us as we followed the man.

“You know,” I started with a glance toward Avalon and her new little lizard friend, who was riding on her shoulder. “If you’re gonna rename him, you should really go with Ahhh!”

“Ahhh?” she echoed, frowning before a look of realization crossed her face. “Oh, no.”

“Because then,” I continued with a grin, “when I introduce both my girlfriends’ pets–”

“Don’t say it,” she warned.

“People’ll think they need to bless me–” I pressed on.

“I’m warning you.”

“Because I’ll say–”

“One more word–”

“Ahhh-choo!”

“…. God damn it, Chambers.”

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Bonus Interlude – Joselyn Edge Visions

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1918

Her name was Joselyn Atherby. She had just turned seventeen a few weeks earlier, and now she was going to save the world.

Not from the Krauts. The Great War would be over soon, as the Allies had already pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg line right around the same time as that birthday. No, this was an entirely different threat than the one which had been ripping the world apart for so long. This was a threat that very few knew of, let alone could do anything about.

Monsters. Evil creatures hiding within humanity’s own backyards, hunting and killing them from the shadows. And only very few select people could see and combat them.

Today, Joselyn would become one of those people.

She had always known that her parents weren’t her real parents. Dustin and Fiona Ossiler had always made it clear that, as much as they loved her, she was adopted. She called them Mom and Dad, they treated her as a daughter, but they were also honest with her as soon as she was old enough to understand.

They had also made it clear that her ‘Grandpa Zed’ was the man who had arranged her adoption. Zedekiah Pericles had visited at least once a month the whole time that Joselyn had been growing up, coming for dinner or just to talk for a little bit. Sometimes he took her fishing, or roller skating. She loved her Grandpa Zed.

And it was he who finally told her the truth, that her parents were Heretics. He told her what Heretics were, and that she could be one if she wanted to. Of course she had agreed, and the man had brought her to Crossroads. That was the year before. They’d come and gone several times, as he showed her around and told her what it would be like when she finally started attending in September.

Now she was here. Finally, after all this time, after all the anticipation, she was in the lighthouse with the Heretical Edge. Professor Gaia Sinclaire had just finished explaining everything that Joselyn already knew, and was telling them to prepare for the visions that would come as they were turned from ordinary humans into people who could actually fight the monsters.

The light came, blinding in its intensity. And when it began to fade, she heard a voice cry out, “Tiras, down!”

Whipping her head that way, she was just in time to see a young blonde woman around her age rear back and hurl a spear directly at her. A flash of terror shot her heart up into her throat,and she let out a reflexive scream before the spear passed harmlessly through her. It was just like Professor Sinclaire had said, they weren’t really there. It was like a dream.

All of that passed through her mind while she spun back to look at where the spear had gone. The thing had impaled itself through the body of a tall, white-furred creature with an incredibly ugly and misshapen face, which was tilted toward the sky as it howled in pain.

Monster. Real monster. It was Joselyn’s first real look at one, and her mouth fell open at the sight, even as she took a reflexive step back. A quiet whimper of terror escaped the young woman while she tried to tell herself that it couldn’t hurt her, that it couldn’t even see her. She wasn’t really there.

But the monster. The monster was bellowing. It reached back, yanking the spear from its back as it twisted to face the girl who had thrown it. The girl who was right then sprinting through Joselyn, which was a disturbing experience all by itself. Recovering quickly, her gaze snapped that way to see the big, white-furred thing give a terrible roar as it swiped a massive clawed paw at the girl who was racing toward it. But the girl’s hand snapped up to catch the incoming paw. Joselyn heard a dangerous wolf-like growl coming from her, before she lashed out with her other hand. Claws had appeared on the end of her fingers, which were driven past the heavy fur and deep into the monster’s chest.

It reared back, stumbling even as the girl released the monster’s wrist to catch her spear as it fell from the his grip. Her other hand was still extended, claws buried in the beast’s chest, and she used that to hoist herself up high enough to drive the spear through its neck with enough force that the blade went all the way through from one side to the other. Finally releasing her grip on its chest, the girl instead caught her spear from both sides of where it had impaled the monster’s throat. She brought her feet up to its chest and then kicked backwards off of it to hurl herself away. In the process, she literally tore the thing’s throat out with the shaft of the spear.

Some distant part of Joselyn almost reflexively thought she should catch the girl before she fell. But the vast majority of her was entirely too occupied with staring at the gory sight in front of her while a horrified scream tried to erupt from her. She had already stumbled backward, hand covering her mouth as she stared in shock. The girl… her… her ancestor? Her ancestor had just killed that monster like that. It was a vicious kill, one that reminded Joselyn of the pictures she had seen of… of bodies in the war.

The beast collapsed, even as her ancestor landed nimbly on both feet. Her hands had returned to normal, and she slowly straightened up. For a moment, the two stood facing one another. And despite everything she had been told, Joselyn couldn’t shake the undeniable feeling that her ancestor was staring directly at her. Their gazes locked, and something… finally clicked in a way that it had yet to up to this point.

This was her relative, her ancestor. Whoever she was, this was a blood relative, someone she was related to. This… this incredible girl who had single-handedly destroyed that monster was related to her.

Joselyn felt intimidated and awed in equal measure. Her throat closed up, and she tears rushed to her eyes in that moment. For so long, she had wanted to know about her real family, her only idea of them being that they had sacrificed themselves to defeat an invasion of monsters. But now… now she could look into this girl’s gaze. She could see herself in it. And somehow… somehow she knew this wasn’t just an ancestor several times removed from her. This was someone far closer to her. This was…

“Mother…”

The word left Joselyn’s lips in a whisper, and in turn she saw the other girl open her mouth. Once more the thought that she was actually there and that her ancestor–her mother was going to respond to her rose in her mind.

But her name didn’t come. Instead, the girl’s mouth finished opening and she blurted that same word that she had before. “Tiras!”

It was only after her mother raced past her once more (Joselyn twisted out of the way to avoid the sensation of being run through) that she realized who the other girl was calling to. Just beyond the dead beast’s collapsed body, a man slouched against the nearby tree. One of many. They were in a forest of some kind, Joselyn belatedly realized now that she had a chance to look around at things other than the big white monster or her mother. The man himself was almost disturbingly handsome, and the teenage girl’s heart beat faster for a reason entirely different from the fight she had just witnessed. He had strong Indian features, and even grimacing in pain as he was, the man looked incredible.

Oh, right, her ancestor. Joselyn’s eyes snapped back to the girl just as she reached the spot where the man was. He had slumped all the way to the ground, and the young woman went down to one knee. Her hand moved to an obvious wound in his chest. “Are you–are you…” The fear in her voice was obvious, and Joselyn almost forgot herself by stepping over to help.

“I’ll be fine, kid.” The man’s response was immediate, though he definitely didn’t sound fine. His voice was weak, and he gave a grimace of pain. “Just… gotta let it run its course.”

“Run its course?” the other girl demanded. “That thing was meant for you, Tiras. That poison on its claws, that was meant for an Akharu. They’re sending things specifically to kill you now.”

An Akharu? Joselyn was confused. What was an Akharu? Was that his… tribe? Why would poison work better on someone from a specific tribe?

The man managed a weak smile at that. “Not an Akharu. A vampire. I’m a little more than that, Virginia. Just because I make vampires doesn’t mean what kills them will kill me.”

… Wait. Wait. Make vampires? What… what was he talking about? An Akharu made vampires? Why would her mother be working with someone who made vampires? Joselyn couldn’t understand. Her mind was reeling, as she staggered backward.

The blinding light was back. It enveloped everything, and then Joselyn was back in the lighthouse. Back with everyone else.

“Hey, Jos!” The boy she had just met, Deveron, was grinning at her. His too-large nose and ears, skinny frame, and gawky expression was immediately endearing. “Did you see something good?”

“Good?” Joselyn echoed, the confusion fresh on her mind as she started to blurt a demand. “Why the hell would my…”

She trailed off, and Deveron, who had taken a reflexive step back, blinked at her. “Err… why the hell would what?”

Joselyn blinked. Then she blinked again. What… had she been so upset and confused by? “I…” Her head shook. “Nothing, yeah, I saw my… ancestor kill this monster with white fur.”

Ancestor… what did she look like again? The face was a blur, but the hair was… blonde, right? She was pretty sure it was blonde. Had there been someone else there? She thought there was someone else there.

Oh well, the Edge had apparently done its job, so who cared? Joselyn was ready to train and kill monsters herself now.

Whoever her ancestor was, it probably wasn’t very important anyway.

*******

2007

She remembered. Gods, she remembered everything. Joselyn remembered the friendships, the… the love. She remembered Deveron. She remembered her other children. Where were they now? Were they alive? Were they happy?

She remembered the war. She remembered what Ruthers had done. She remembered surrendering to save her children. All of it. She remembered all of it.

And that was all thanks to the monster in front of her. Fossor. He had brought her back into things, had forced her to remember who she really was just before he planned to take her Felicity away to do Gods only knew what to her.

So Joselyn had once more surrendered herself, had volunteered herself to take Felicity’s place. She could never allow her daughter to be alone with that monster, could never have lived with herself knowing that Felicity was out there being brought up by the amoral necromancer. So she had come instead, had voluntarily subjected herself to a ritual that bound her to obey the man, so long as he left with her instead of Felicity, and didn’t willingly allow any harm to come to her until she was eighteen.

Eighteen. That would give her time to get a message to Gabriel Prosser somehow. Or he would just take Felicity and Lincoln in once it was clear that she had disappeared.

Now, Fossor wanted her to be a Heretic again. Why, precisely, she didn’t know. To be his guard dog/soldier, no doubt. But what exactly was his plan? Joselyn didn’t know. All she knew was that to protect her daughter, she had to keep her end of the magical bargain. And that meant eating the Eden’s Garden apple that would restore her ability to gain powers through killing things. It wouldn’t restore all the powers that she’d had before, but she had a feeling Fossor had a plan for dealing with that as well.

At least… the normal powers. She was absolutely certain that he had no way of forcing the Edge itself to restore her connection to the Committee. That was beyond even him.

Still, she had to eat the apple, had to become a true Heretic again. And as she did so, Joselyn felt the light start to rise up across her vision once more. Once more, she was thrust back into a vision of her ancestor.

The light faded away, and Joselyn was standing in a burned out field of some kind. Smoldering ruins of buildings were nearby, while all that lay beneath her feet was charred ground and scattered, scorched rock. At a sound, Joselyn raised her gaze and found herself looking at… herself.

It was herself as a tiny child, a toddler, yet she knew without a doubt that the little girl being held up in strong arms was her. She just knew.

The man holding her looked like Michael Landon from his Little House On The Prairie days. Handsome, strong, with a head full of dark curly hair. Dad. He was her dad, her father.

“I wish we had more time,” the man murmured, while cradling the young Joselyn to himself. His strong hand tenderly brushed through her hair.

“There would never be enough time.” The response came not from the tiny Joselyn, of course. It came from a woman standing behind the adult Joselyn. She turned, just in time to see a familiar blonde woman step past her.

Virginia Dare. That was Virginia Dare. Gaia’s protege, whom she had brought to the school as a teacher after taking over as Headmistress. Which was after Joselyn’s time there, but she still knew the woman. They’d met a couple times, had seen each other mostly from a distance. What was… what was… she…

She remembered. Her first vision. Joselyn remembered that first vision, of her mother… of Virginia Dare with Tiras. Her mother. Virginia Dare was her mother.

The shock of that realization struck with the force of thunder through her entire body, even as Dare continued softly. “We could have a thousand years together, and it wouldn’t be enough.” As she spoke, the woman raised both hands. One touched the young Joselyn’s hair while the other brushed across the man’s face.

“I know.” The man’s two-word response cracked from emotion as he put one arm around the woman to pull her closer. The two stood there together with their daughter held between them. For a few long seconds, neither said anything, until the tiny Joselyn’s plaintive voice blurted out, “Squishing, Mommy!”

With a laugh that was almost crying, Dare stepped back a bit. “Sorry, baby,” she murmured in a weak voice before turning her attention to Joselyn’s father.

Joshua. Joselyn knew that much. Her father’s name was Joshua Atherby.

“The longer we…” Dare’s eyes closed briefly before opening once more as she clearly forced the words out past a dam of emotion. “The longer we wait, the more people will die.”

Oh no. Oh no, that’s what this was. That’s what today was. This was the day that Joselyn’s parents sacrificed themselves, her father losing his life and her mother losing her identity as his wife. They sacrificed their family to stop the Fomorian invasion. This was their last moment together. And Joselyn was seeing it, mere… mere hours after leaving her own family behind.

This was too much. It was too much, too fast.

But it kept going. From the side, a portal opened and two figures emerged. Joselyn immediately recognized them. One was Gaia Sinclaire herself. The other was Zedekiah Pericles, her Grandpa Zed.

“It’s time,” Gaia spoke softly, regret and remorse audible in her voice. “The spell is prepared, and if we wait any longer, the Fomorian line will overwhelm the token defenses we left in place. If we wait, they will escape Desoto.”

Desoto, the state that Gaia had been baroness of before… before sacrificing it to help halt the Fomorian invasion. That’s where they were, likely as close to the actual original Fomorian entrance portal as they could get.

Joshua held the young Joselyn up, meeting her gaze as his voice broke. “You be good, okay, Jossy? Papa loves you. You know that?” His words sounded almost… desperate. He needed his baby to know that he loved her.

“I love you, Papa! Jossy good girl!” Her younger self insisted, before wrapping both arms around his neck tightly. “Jossy stay, Papa!”

It was horrible. Through the tears that half-blinded her, the older Joselyn watched as Dare took her from Joshua, then hugged her tightly. “Baby. My baby…”

“Mama, want Papa.” Joselyn squirmed in her mother’s grip. “Wanna go with Papa!”

It broke something deep inside of Joselyn to hear herself say that, and she could see the same thing break in both of her parents, each for different reasons. Joshua’s daughter wanted him, but he was about to sacrifice his life. Dare was about to sacrifice her identity, about to sacrifice her own daughter’s memories of her… and that daughter was trying to squirm away from her. Even if Joselyn hadn’t understood what was going on at the time, seeing that… seeing that made her feel a deep pit of shame in her stomach.

Dare held her daughter tightly for a moment despite her protests, kissing her forehead and whispering something tender to her before passing the girl to Zedekiah carefully. “Make sure she’s safe,” Dare insisted, her voice equally broken. “Make her safe.”

“We will,” Gaia and Zedekiah promised, the former stepping forward to touch Dare’s arm.

“My girl… my… I am so sorry. I am sorry that you must do this. This is… not… fair.”

Dare’s lips trembled, before she shook her head. “The Fomorians don’t care about fair. Go. Take her. We’ll finish here.”

“When the spell completes, you will be teleported back behind the line,” Gaia reminded her, sounding as if she just wanted to say something, even if everyone clearly already knew that. “You will be brought to safety.”

She left unsaid, of course, the fact that Joshua would not.

Gaia and Zedekiah left with the young Joselyn, leaving Dare and Joshua alone (save for the adult Joselyn secretly watching through the vision). The two faced one another, taking each other into their arms before holding tight.

“I love you, Josh,” Virginia quietly murmured as she clung to her husband.

“My Ginny… “ Joshua murmured back, pressing his forehead to hers. “I love you. I will always love you. We don’t have forever, but if we remember, we can turn now into eternity.”

Raising her eyes to meet her husband’s, Virginia whispered softly, “I will remember. I will always remember.”

They said nothing else. With the time that was left, the two held one another. Their lips met one last time. Joselyn stood there, watching as her mother and father spent their last few seconds together joined together in one final kiss.

Then Dare was gone. Her body vanished from Joshua’s grip, leaving the man standing alone. Alone, that was, save for the Joselyn. But she wasn’t truly there. She couldn’t offer her father anything.

“If you’re there…” Joshua’s sudden voice startled Joselyn, and her gaze snapped up to find her father looking off into the distance away from her as he continued. “I want you to know that I love you.”

Who… who was he… talking to?

“Maybe I’m talking to myself. Maybe the Edge won’t show you this. But if it does. If it shows you this moment, I want you to know that I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you.”

Her. He was talking to her. He was talking to the older Joselyn just in case she saw a vision of him, of this moment. That realization struck the woman with such force that she physically staggered, hand reaching her mouth.

“I adore you, my Joselyn. My brave little girl. And no matter who you grew up to be, I am proud of you. Be strong. Be brave. Be everything that I know you already are. Because you are my daughter. Always… always know without any doubt, that I am your father.

“And I love you.”

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Before The Vault 41-04

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“Come along, please. Keep up, let’s get through this with as little dawdling as possible, please.” Professor Ross, our elderly Amazonian professor who focused on teaching Heretical History, led me and about thirty other students along the sidewalk in the middle of Washington DC itself. The woman cast a glance back to us from the front of the group. “I know it’s quite interesting, and I promise you’ll have a chance to spread out and explore later. But right now, we have a very tight schedule to keep.”

Now it was the eighteenth of May, which meant it was time for the end of the year field trip. It had almost been cancelled due to everything that had happened back on Family Day a couple weeks earlier (particularly given the fact that they still had no idea who was responsible or what they planned to do with the noose), but in the end, we were allowed to come after all. Someone had made the argument that it made no sense to have all the students cower at the school since we’d been attacked there to begin with. And also, of course, that if the students had been an actual target, we would’ve been hit a lot harder than we were. It was clear that putting the students in danger had been a distraction so that ‘whoever it was’ could steal the noose.

Actually, I’d been told by Professor Dare (I still didn’t know what else to think of her as) that the fact that students and children were put in danger was one of the main reasons that Mom wasn’t being immediately thrown in as a suspect. Even Ruthers didn’t think she’d intentionally poison children.  

Either way, we were allowed to go on our trip to see the US capital. Other students were being escorted/guided through the city by different teachers, since while tour groups full of kids and teenagers weren’t exactly rare in DC, we still wanted to stick with smaller groups. At least for our arrival. Apparently, we were supposed to be meeting up at some big Heretic place in the city.

“Professor Ross?” the diminutive Rebecca piped up with a raised hand then as we hustled along. “The National Building Museum, that’s near here, isn’t it?”

“National Building Museum?” Shiloh Lexx echoed, looking up from the wrist-mounted computer that served as her weapon. “Is that a real place? I mean, it sounds pretty generic. I mean really? Do we have a ‘National Animal Museum’?

“Those are called ‘zoos’, Miss Lexx,” Ross replied dryly. “Or perhaps the Museum of Natural History. So yes, in either case.” To Rebecca, she added, “And the National Building Museum is about three blocks south of our destination, near what the Bystanders currently call the Capital One Arena. Which, for those of you in the Development track who have been paying much attention, is where…” She waited expectantly then, pausing our hurried hike to watch us.

Columbus raised his hand. “It’s where Harrison Fredericks lives and works, right? I mean, in the sub-sub-sub basement with all his protection to keep everyone away from him.”

“Fredericks,” I echoed curiously. “He’s that guy who went to the alternate reality and killed that super inventor guy to take his power, right? He’s the one who first came up with the cyberforms.” As I spoke, my hand moved into one of my uniform jacket pockets to rub Jaq and Gus where they were nestled. The two of them had wanted to stay out of their private space and stick with me so they could poke their heads out to watch where we were going.

“Correct, Miss Chambers,” Professor Ross confirmed. “Which is why it is a very good idea to stay away from that place as much as possible. While Harrison Fredericks is not one to blatantly attack students, he does very much value his privacy and security. His creations wander the grounds around the arena, and are quite capable of recognizing Heretics. At best, they will report to their master that someone is intruding on his agreed-upon territory without permission, and there will be explanations to give.”

That was right, I remembered. Fredericks sold his designs and creations to people from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. And probably other customers as well. He was decidedly neutral in everything, which the other Heretics let him get away with because his creations were so useful. Others could make them (mostly after he or one of his direct students taught them how), but the best cyberforms came from the man himself. No one was going to risk losing his aid. So I could definitely see why we were being warned to give him space.

We’d reached a small green area by then, something that was probably rather optimistically referred to as a park, despite the fact that it was pretty tiny, only about a block long, and rather narrow to boot. A nearby sign informed me that I was correct, as the place was called Chinatown park.

“Ooh, hey,” Travis Colby started, pointing across the street. “This great Heretic place we’re going to, is it the Hampton over there? Because I could go for that.”

Professor Ross gave him a look for that. “Sorry, Mr. Colby. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do without. Our destination is J street.”

“Err.” Vanessa had her hand up then. She looked a bit uncomfortable while correcting the woman, but did so anyway. “There isn’t a J street in Washington DC. Uh, is there?”

“Hey, that’s right.” Something had tickled the back of my mind, and I spoke up with her. “Wasn’t it a whole thing about how the guy who designed this place hated the letter J or had some kind of beef with someone with the letter J in their name or something?”

“John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanessa informed me. “Some people think L’Enfant, the guy who designed the city, had a grudge against him for negotiating a treaty that favored Britain over France.  But that’s just a myth. L’Enfant was taken off the project before the treaty ever happened. The real reason there’s no J street is because the letters J and I used to look and be treated almost exactly the same, so there was no reason to have both.”

Smiling faintly, Professor Ross nodded. “You may make a fine teacher someday, Miss Moon. Yes, that is the story that Bystanders believe. But in truth, there is a J street in Washington DC. It’s just one that they can’t reach.”

“Oh, my God,” Shiori blurted from beside me, “is it Diagon Alley? Are we going to Diagon Alley?”

Ross just blinked at her in utter bafflement. “Are we going diagonally to what?”

While those of us who understood snickered a little bit, the professor ended up just shaking her head. “In any case, come with me.” She led us through the small park to one tree in particular, gesturing. “Step up one at a time, put your hand against the tree and state your full name as it is known to Crossroads.”

Everyone started doing just that. Tristan went first, putting his hand against the tree. Then he paused, frowning until Vanessa leaned up and whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a brief look, then shrugged and stated his name as Tristan Loxias Moon.

The tree apparently accepted that, since as soon as the boy finished saying it, he disappeared. And it really said something for what had been going on this year that all of us, as one, looked toward Professor Ross for confirmation that that was what was supposed to happen.

Vanessa went next, right behind her brother. Putting her hand against the tree, the girl announced her own name as Vanessa Lares Moon, promptly disappearing as well.

Well those are some funny names, I whispered silently to Tabbris, who was coming along for this.

Loxias is one of Uncle Satan’s names, she informed me. I mean, Apollo. And Lares were household gods or spirits, protectors of the hearth. You know, hearth like Hestia. Plus it sounds kind of like Larissa, so that’s probably part of it too, you know?

Oh. I supposed it made sense then. Sariel had given her children middle names for Apollo and Chayyiel. I wasn’t sure how close she’d been with the latter, but apparently fairly close if she’d at least partly named her daughter after her. Even if it was in a fairly vague way. And as Tabbris had noted, she’d even managed to make Vanessa’s name also sound a bit like Larissa’s at the same time.

I let the others go ahead of me, in no real rush. As we moved our way forward, my eyes found Avalon, and I smiled at the other girl. “Think we can get through an entire field trip without something blowing up?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that we were the ones planning to go off-script for this little trip with our eventual visit to the blood vault.

“I’m not holding my breath, Chambers,” Avalon replied flatly. “But at least we’re used to the explosions by now.”

Summer Banning spoke up then. “I don’t wanna bandwagon on so much of the stuff this year being your fault, you guys, but if you are doing something to attract trouble, could you maybe not for awhile? My sister was really freaked out by Family Day, and she graduated from Crossroads. If she finds out something bad happened to me again this soon…”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll do our best not to drag you guys into any trouble.”

Because they shouldn’t be around when we go visit the vault, Tabbris put in.

Exactly, I confirmed with a mental wink at my partner. But they don’t need to know that. And unless things go very–actually, you know what, I’m not going to finish that thought. At all.

Good call, she agreed.

“Trust us,” Sands put in then from where she and Scout were standing together, “there’s been crazy things happening all year every year Crossroads has existed. And you guys haven’t been here that long. Unless you’re reincarnating every four years just to hau–never mind. That’s probably not off the wall enough to be completely impossible.”

“Yes,” I shot back, “we reincarnate every four years just to haunt Crossroads and make things go wrong. Gotta keep life exciting for all the students out there. Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”  

The twins–err, the Mason twins–gave me a pair of thumbs up. They had both seemed more alive and… happy with life ever since they’d come back from their trip with Larissa. They were also apparently living with her in one of the staff apartments, while Liam had taken a leave of absence for the time being. One of the teachers of the older years, Professor Dancing, had been filling in for him.

Yeah, I’d asked the twins what happened with that. According to Sands and Scout, their mother had basically just told their dad that over the course of the years they’d been separated, she had basically… drifted apart from him. She didn’t tell him all the other stuff she knew about, because duh. She just kind of left it at the idea that they were different people.

Liam, apparently, had not taken that very well. Mostly because he’d seen Haiden right after that and immediately jumped on the idea that he was the person Larissa had been drifting toward. What started out as a fairly innocuous conversation had very quickly become a confrontation that Larissa had to step in on and… yeah, that was why Professor Mason was taking a break.

By that point, my attention was drawn to the tree once more as Rebecca moved up to it. Placing her hand against the bark, the small girl announced, “Rebecca Josie Jameson.”

Josie. Her middle name was Josie. That was very close to Joselyn. Just like Mom had made my middle name Lillian, after her old best friend, Rebecca’s grandmother. Somewhere in there, the original Lillian clearly (at least subconsciously) remembered her roommate and passed that on to her daughter and then to her granddaughter.

I must’ve been staring pretty intently then, because Shiori nudged me with her foot, whispering, “Are you okay?”

Shaking that off, I nodded to the girl, whispering back, “Talk about it later.”

Columbus went then, followed by Sean. Shiori was right behind them, and I followed her to the tree. Laying my hand against it, I spoke my full name clearly as, “Felicity Lillian Chambers.”

Instantly, the world spun, as I was transported elsewhere. It felt like… well, like falling. It felt like I was dropping through a long dive on a roller coaster, my stomach jumping up into my chest briefly.

As it turned out, feeling like I was falling was pretty appropriate. Because when the sensation faded, I found myself in what was clearly an underground tunnel. Of sorts. Actually, it looked like a street similar to the one above. I, and everyone else who had gone through the tree so far, were standing on a road with buildings to either side. But beyond those buildings and above them was the rocky, dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Yeah, we were in an enormous underground cavern of some kind.

“Hiya, guys!” That was Nevada, standing on the sidewalk where she’d already directed some of the others. “Welcome to J Street, home of the Crossroads Capital and a lot of other important things.”

We moved over to join the others, while Nevada happily explained (apparently not for the first time) that J Street had been planned from the beginning of DC’s creation to be the center of Crossroads business in North America. Everything went through here. The Committee’s primary residences and business offices were centered on J Street, as were plenty of other things. Like the Bow Street Runners offices that weren’t in the Pathmaker Building. Basically, what was in the Pathmaker were field offices, while these were the ‘home offices’.

Before long, the rest of our group joined us. Professor Ross came last, making sure everyone had made it before announcing that we should follow Nevada. We did so, and our Stranger Truths teacher led us down the street.

The place looked… eclectic. That was the best word I had for it. The buildings looked like they had each been plucked from a very different time period before being tossed down next to one another. There was a very modern looking tall glass office structure right next to what looked like an old west saloon. Beside that there was a building with a bunch of pillars out front and one of those naked statues that the Romans and Greeks liked so much. I even caught sight of a long log house like there would have been on the American frontier. Every type of building was represented somewhere along this enormous, twisting tunnel.

And the people. Oh God, the people. I had thought that Crossroads personnel looked pretty modern, given how long a lot of them had lived. But this place more than made up for it. I saw people of every possible type of clothing style. There were cowboys, samurai, Victorian-dressed people, a few with clothes out of the 1920’s, 50’s, and even the 80’s, and more. Everywhere I looked, there were people that looked different. It was like… it was like there were a whole bunch of movies being filmed somewhere nearby, and all the extras had wandered off set.

There was a lot to see, to put it mildly. I almost tripped over one of the others more than once from craning my neck to look at everything as we were led down the street, and I wasn’t the only one. Even those who had grown up in the knowledge, like Sands and Scout, were pretty taken by the place. I guessed they hadn’t been here much, if at all.

Eventually, we were led to what looked like a homey little cottage. Seriously, it looked like it had come straight out of a storybook. There was a stone path leading up to the front door, the building itself was all rounded shapes and colorful designs. There was a chimney steadily puffing out smoke that smelled like apple pie. It was freaking adorable.

Following Nevada up to the front door of the cottage before passing through as she opened it, we found ourselves in, of course, a place that was much bigger on the inside. Instead of the tiny room that the exterior made the place look like, we were actually standing in a large foyer. The floor and walls were made of wood, with a rounded desk straight ahead of us, and two hallways leading off to either side. Behind the desk was a wall full of pictures of various people (I saw several Committee members as well as Gaia), and a closed door with a needlework of a cat on it.

The woman who had been sitting behind the desk when we entered quickly hopped right up. And that was a literal hop. She was about as small as Rebecca was, and wide enough to basically be considered round. Her face was lined with wrinkles, which were magnified by her broad smile.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Hurrying around her desk, the small, elderly woman called happily while extending her arms as if she just wanted to hug all of us at once. “Oh, it’s so good to see you all. Freshmen, yes? Yes, I know freshmen when I see them. Mostly cuz I don’t recognize you.”

Laughing, she clapped her hands together. “Now then, my name is Mrs. Brickswell. You’re the first group to arrive, so it looks like you have your pick of the rooms.”

Rooms. Right, this was the motel that we’d be staying in while we were visiting DC. Apparently Crossroads wanted us to stay in a Heretic inn rather than risking putting us up somewhere in the Bystander parts of the city. Which I really, really couldn’t blame them for by that point.

Mrs. Brickswell continued then. “Our rooms are made for four people each, so everybody go ahead and pick three friends, of the same gender, mind, and come on back to get a key. It sounds like we’ve got a lot more on the way, so let’s hustle on through, okay?”

Well, four of us. That was me, Avalon, Sands, and Scout. As the others moved that way, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and glanced to her. “You gonna be okay? I don’t want to abandon the twins.”

She nodded easily. “Sure, I’ll room with Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca. Don’t worry, Flick, we’re gonna have fun here.”

Returning her infectious smile, I gave the girl a thumbs up before leaning in to give her a very quick (and then slightly less quick, but still) kiss. “You’re right. Fun. And informative, if Vanessa has anything to say about it.”

The two of us snickered before moving to our respective groups. We’d get our rooms and go from there. Nevada was already talking about how we were all going to go to dinner somewhere special that night.

So yes, this was going to be a fun few days. We’d go out, see the town and go on the tours. We’d see all the special things we could, of both the Heretic and Bystander variety. Apparently Shiori and Columbus’s parents were supposed to show up at some point, which would be interesting. We’d do all that for those few days. And then, eventually, we’d make our move for the vault.

I just hoped that with all our planning and the help we were bringing, we were actually ready for the… ‘fun’ that was going to bring.

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Mini-Interlude 71 – Tabbris and Haiden

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The following takes place out in Seosten space shortly after Isaac’s betrayal. 

Haiden Moon sensed the girl approach, but said nothing. He didn’t want to startle her, not with as skittish as Larissa had said she was. To that end, he kept his focus on the sheet of metal on the table in front of him, running his hand along it to make the metal shape itself properly. Once it was done, it would be yet another in the line of repairs that had to be done to the cargo bay to fix the place after what had happened with Isaac.

She stood in the doorway of the workshop, both hands on the edge of the hatch while pensively watching him. More than anything, Haiden wanted to turn and take the girl into his arms. She was a piece of his wife. But he couldn’t do that, not yet. It would scare her if he moved too fast. She was so sensitive, so prepared to be rejected and hated that he was almost afraid to do anything. He had to let her make the first move.

For a minute, they continued like that. Each knew that the other knew they were there, but neither said anything. Haiden was giving a girl a chance to speak for herself, while she was working up the nerve to do so. The best he could hope for was that she understood why he wasn’t making the first move and that it wasn’t a rejection of her. It was a fine line to walk.

Finally, he felt and heard her take a step further into the room, seeming to definitively come to a decision. Sure enough, moments later, the girl spoke very tentatively and softly. “M-Mister Moon?”

Moving his hand away from the metal he had been shaping, Haiden turned to her. Gods, just looking at her like that, he saw his wife. He saw the woman he loved. She was absolutely Sariel’s daughter, and a lump immediately formed in his throat at the sight.

“I—I can come back later, if… if y-you’re busy,” the little girl stammered with obvious fear as she squirmed from foot to foot. She was still half-clinging to the hatchway, as if afraid that if she let go, she would fall. Her eyes were wide. “Or I can just leave you alone. I-I me-mean… I’m not trying—”

“Tabbris.” Interrupting her with that, Haiden took a single step that way. “Your name is Tabbris, right?”

Biting her lip, the girl slowly nodded. “Yes, sir. That’s the name my… my mama gave me.”

Haiden smiled a little. “Sariel was always good with names. Somehow I think yours probably means something pretty important.” Slowly, the man lowered himself to one knee before asking, “Do you mind if I tell you a secret, Tabbris?”

She still looked nervous, but a little better now that he hadn’t snapped at her. Slowly, the girl gave a curious nod. “Oh, um, okay.”

Lowering his voice a bit to sound more private, Haiden informed her, “I miss Sariel so much it hurts sometimes.”

Her mouth opened and shut a couple of times before the young girl managed a somewhat weak, “Me too.” It was an understatement, he could tell. She missed her mother with every fiber of her being, and was desperate to find and save her. But she also saw that as selfish, so she was afraid to express it too much. Or maybe part of it was fear of getting her hopes up. Either way, it wasn’t good for her. And it was another thing that he saw her having in common with his wife. Something that he really wanted to nip in the bud.

“Hey,” he started, holding a hand out that way, “come here, please?”

She obeyed, releasing the hatch to slowly make her way over to him. He could sense her hesitation and nervousness about the whole situation, that little heart in her chest beating wildly as she approached.

Once she was close enough, Haiden gently put his hand over hers, squeezing it a little bit while meeting the girl’s gaze. “We both miss your mama, right?” When she tentatively nodded, he smiled slightly. “Well, that’s good.”

The words made the girl blink in confusion. “It’s good that we miss Mama?”

“Good that we haven’t stopped missing her,” he clarified. “How long do you think it’d take you to stop missing your mother?”

That prompted the biggest reaction he’d gotten from the girl, as her head shook back and forth fiercely, her voice rising a little bit. “I’ll never stop missing Mama, not until we…” she hesitated then, her fear of voicing the help driving her to silence.

He finished for her. “Not until we save her.” Squeezing her little, soft hand, Haiden met her gaze unflinchingly. “We will. I promise you, we will save her. I’ve been working on saving her for ten years, before I could even remember her properly. Now I do remember her, and I’m not giving up anytime soon. Do you understand? We are going to save her. No matter what it takes. We will save your mother, Tabbris. And when we do, she is going to be so proud of her children. So proud of her son… and her daughters.”

He emphasized the last bit, seeing her eyes widen a bit, lower lip trembling somewhat. Her voice was weak. “I… I didn’t want t-to… make you think that I wanted to take her for myself. I was afraid that you might… might see me and think about… about Mama being in that place. I was afraid you might look at me and see all the bad things. Mama didn’t choose to have me. She didn’t choose anything about me.”

For a moment, Haiden said nothing. He simply knelt there with one hand on hers, watching the girl. Then he took a deep breath and spoke firmly. “Now you listen to me. I have spent a lot longer with Sariel than you have, and I will tell you this. Your mother loves you with everything she’s got, okay? She may not have chosen exactly what happened to create you, but she would never, ever trade it for anything. She would never trade you for anything. You are a brilliant, beautiful little girl and your mother loves you. We don’t always get to choose situations that lead to the people we care the most about. I certainly didn’t choose what happened to put me in Sariel’s life. I didn’t choose what happened to put me out here for ten years. But knowing everything that I do now, knowing that it would lead to two wonderful children of my own and a little girl as special as you, I wouldn’t change it. You are Sariel’s daughter. Which means that you are a part of our family. And you always will be, do you understand?”

He saw the tears forming in the girl’s eyes while her head gave a quick little nod. It took her a moment to trust her voice, and even then, it cracked noticeably. “Y-yes, sir.”

“Please, it’s—” He paused, not wanting to push her too far too fast. “It’s Haiden, okay? You can call me Haiden. You can call me that, or uncle, or…  or anything you want to. But you don’t need to call me sir or mister or anything like that.” He smiled at her then, reminding her, “Family, remember? Family doesn’t call each other mister.”

Giving a tentative smile, the girl quietly replied, “You’d be pretty weird if you called me Mister. That’s not my name.”

Giving the girl a broad smile at that, Haiden replied, “Yeah, I guess I would, huh?” After winking at her, the man sobered up a little bit. “I just wanted you to know… I want you to understand, that I don’t care how you came about, okay? You are wonderful. You are a brilliant little girl. You are a gift. No matter how it happened, no matter what was… no matter what was attached to it, no matter what the intention was, you are a gift. I think so. Larissa thinks so. And I know with every part of me that loves her that your mom thinks so. None of us will ever, ever regret that you exist.”

Tabbris looked like she was about to cry, and he felt the same way. With a little smile, he gave her a slight tug by the hand, pulling her up against himself. His arms went around the girl, as he hugged her to his chest. Her face went against his shoulder and he felt a shudder run through her before her own small arms went around his back. She clung to him like that, and Haiden slowly stood while picking her up to hold the girl tightly.

For a silent minute, the two stood there like that. Each held on to the other while thinking about Sariel, how much they wanted to have the woman with them again. Both loved and missed her more than they could say. Yet no further words needed to be exchanged. They each understood.

But there was still clearly something bothering the girl, which she made apparent by leaning back in his arms to bite her lip pensively. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t figure out what Isaac was doing. I was… I was distracted. I should’ve noticed what he was working on. I should’ve seen there was something wrong. I should’ve—”

Haiden stopped her then, interrupting. “Hey, no.” His head shook then. “If there was ever any doubt that you were Sariel’s daughter, that definitely clinched it. Blaming yourself for everything, taking entirely too much responsibility on your shoulders, thinking that it’s up to you to fix things no matter what it costs you. You are absolutely your mother’s daughter.”

Shifting one arm under the girl to hold her up, he put his other hand against her cheek gently. “Don’t you do that. What Isaac did is what he did. Everyone he hurt, everyone he killed, that’s on him. Not on you. Never on you. Ulysses—” His voice cracked a little bit and he had to blink a couple times. “Ulysses would never want that. Do you understand? He would never ever want you to blame yourself. No one would ever blame you for that.”

They were still tears welling in the girl’s eyes, as she whispered a weak, “But I still feel bad.”

“Tell you another secret?” Haiden offered. When the girl hesitantly nodded, he whispered, “So do I. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to give advice than it is to take it. I feel like I should’ve noticed there was something wrong with that kid, like I shouldn’t have been fooled by his bullshit. I feel like I should’ve been there with Ulysses, or something. It’s stupid, but it’s the way I feel. Feelings are hard. And they don’t always listen to logic or reason. But you know, sometimes we mistake wishing we had done something for guilt that we didn’t. Or vice versa. You can wish for anything. That’s fine. It’s healthy to want to change things or do things better. But taking guilt and blame onto yourself for something that you aren’t responsible for? That’s not.”

The girl seemed to consider that for a moment, sitting on his arm as he held her up. Finally, she swallowed. “Y-you’re right, advice is harder to take than it is to give.”

Smiling just a little at that, Haiden nodded. “It really is. But hey, how about we focus on keeping Ulysses’ memory alive, huh? And I’ve got a pretty good idea of how we can do that.”

Tabbris blinked, shifting in his arms. “You do?”

He explained. “I know when his birthday was. How about, when that day comes, you and I, and whoever else wants to, go out and find people to help? Feed the needy, work on a shelter, visit kids in the hospital, things like that. And if they ask, we can tell them that it’s Katarin Day. Which is the day when you go out and do nice things for other people. And even if nobody else ever does it but us, for even just those few people that we get to help, they’ll remember Katarin Day.”

They agreed to talk a bit more about that plan later, and he walked over to the table where he had been working on the metal plating. “So, you wanna help me with this?”

Shifting a little in his arms, Tabbris asked, “Help? Real help or ‘boy you sure are helping by holding onto that screwdriver I’m never going to need and beating it against that piece of wood I’ll throw away after you get bored?’”

Snickering despite himself, the man set her down. “Real help, I promise. You’ll be making this a lot easier for me. Usually I would say you’re too little, but Larissa says you’re good with magic.”

She beamed at that. “Mama taught me! I mean, sort of. Most of it. Aunt Larissa was supposed to be there to help when I woke up, but…” She paled then, giving a quick headshake. “I mean, I don’t blame her or anything, it wasn’t her fault after everything that happened, it’s just that…”

“You were scared, confused, and lonely.” Finishing that for her, Haiden put both hands on each of her small shoulders. You don’t have to be lonely again, okay? You need to talk, or just spend time with someone outside of work, you do it. I’m right here. And Larissa will be there too. So will the others. You’ll never have to feel that alone again.”

He knew how incredibly guilty Larissa felt about not being there when the girl had woken up the first time. She had worried for so long about what Tabbris was doing, if she had been caught or had shown herself, and if she found anyone else to help her. The thought of that little girl being left completely on her own had haunted the woman’s thoughts both day and night for quite a while.

With a little blush, Tabbris asked, “You wanted me to help with something here?”

Letting the poor, embarrassed girl change the subject, Haiden nodded. “Yeah, you see these metal sheets? We need to reshape them to fit very specific spots. I can do that with my power, but if we want them to retain all of their strength, we need to put a spell on them to make the sheets temporarily malleable. That’s where you come in. If I teach you how to do that spell, you can start on those sheets over there and then I’ll reshape them and we can get done in half the time.” Pausing, he added with a raised eyebrow, “Of course, you could always go do something fun instead. I really wouldn’t blame you.”

Tabbris shook her head. “I want to help. Besides, I like learning new magic.”

So, he taught her the spell, and the two of them fixed the metal together. Even with both of them, the work took quite a while to get just right, since the sheets needed to be perfect. By the time they were done, it was late enough that Tabbris yawned widely and loudly.

Seeing that, it was all that Haiden could do not to scoop the girl up in his arms and hug her to death. But that clearly would have embarrassed her even more, so he simply chuckled. “Sounds like somebody’s had a long day.”

Tabbris blushed deeply, her voice a quiet murmur. “I’m, um, I’m not very used to being… you know… out like this for a long time.”

Her words, and the meaning of them, made Haiden sober a bit. “Right, well, as a thank you for all your help, why don’t we go get some of that ice cream that Larissa and I have been stashing away? Then you can… you can take a break.”

The thought of ice cream made the girl’s face brighten, and she gave an eager nod. The two of them gave their work one more quick look before heading out.

Once they had their treats and were settled into the small kitchen area, Tabbris asked, “ The banishment orb, it affected your memories before, right? Like it affected Mama’s.”

He nodded, swallowing. “Yes, for a pretty damn long time I couldn’t remember much about my family. When Vanessa contacted me, when she jumped into my head, it fixed that. A lot of it anyway. Now I keep remembering more and more, and retaining it. I guess the orb breaking meant the memory suppression was weak enough that having Vanessa in my head could break it.” He shrugged. “That’s the explanation we’re going with, anyway. Your mom could probably explain it better.”

Shifting a little in her seat before taking a bite of her ice cream, Tabbris offered, “I could tell you about them. I could tell you about how Flick met them, about things we saw them do. I could tell you stories if you want.”

Yet again, it was almost impossible for Haiden to resist the urge to pull the girl into an embarrassingly tight embrace. He swallowed hard, meeting her gaze. “I’d like that a lot. You… you’re an incredibly bright, compassionate girl, you know that?” Just the thought of hearing stories about his children, the children had missed for so long, made his heart ache. He wanted to see them, wanted to touch them. He wanted his family back together. The thought of hearing stories told through Tabbris’s perfect Seosten memory almost too much.

Blushing even more at the praise, Tabbris wiggled in her seat before looking up at him. Her face was bright as she repeated her earlier words. “Mama taught me.”

Haiden, however, took her free hand, squeezing it. His voice was gentle. “Your mother definitely got you started.

“But at this point, I am pretty sure that you’re the one teaching the rest of us.”

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Before The Vault 41-03

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“So,” I started once the silence in the small chamber had dragged on for over a minute, “you guys come here often?”

Well, at least I had united them in one thing. Neither of them thought that was funny. Both simply stared in a way that made me see the similarity in them despite their clear differences. It was in their eyes, mostly. And the way they set their mouths. Which was almost funny, since they basically couldn’t have been more dissimilar in almost every other way.

But they were at least looking at me, even if it was in disbelief at my bad joke. I seized on that, starting with, “Avalon doesn’t really know anything about her family, except that her mom moved a lot and kept changing her name. I mean, aside from the well documented fact that her dad is–I mean was– a complete and total piece of shit. I feel like that should be written into the universal record somewhere. Can his death be an intergalactic holiday? Who do we talk to for that?”

Actually, given the deaths of Ammon and Manakel both somewhat recently, we might’ve needed to set aside a whole week for this.

Dries was shifting back-and-forth awkwardly on his feet, kicking at the ground a bit. His left arm was held tight against his stomach, while his right hand scratched at his beard self-consciously. When he spoke, it was without looking at either of us. “Liesje would have gone on the run after what happened. She would have hidden. She probably taught her descendants.” After a brief moment, he amended that to, “Our descendants.”

Avalon spoke up for the first time, sounding more hesitant than usual. “Maybe… maybe you could figure out where she went the first time and we could track her path. She might’ve left something somewhere along the way for you in case you ever made it back. Like a history or…” She trailed off, shaking her head as though she was halfway to just giving up on that thought right out of the gate. “I don’t know.”

I seized on that quickly. “No, no, that’s a good idea. It’d give you guys something to do over the summer. You know, in case the world actually doesn’t explode or anything in the meantime. Which, given the past few months, I am definitely not leaving that off the table.”

Avalon was quiet for a moment before simply reminding me, “We have another project to focus on before that.”

Dries nodded, scratching his beard even harder, to the point that I thought he might draw blood from his chin. “You want me to change Liesje’s spell.” He was looking at me. “You want me to make it different.”

It was Avalon who replied. “There are good Seosten, and they shouldn’t be banished from human hosts forever. We were hoping that the spell could be changed so that it only affects Seosten who don’t have permission from the host.”

I nodded. “It’s complicated, but if anyone could pull it off, I’m pretty sure it’s you. And you’ll have help. Like my brother. He’s pretty much a genius with magic. And from Sariel. She’s—”

“Artemis,” he interrupted while shifting his hand from scratching his beard to rubbing the top of his head. “Yes, I know. She’s um, she’s…” He trailed off, tapping his index finger repeatedly and fairly roughly against the side of his head. “I know who she is.”

Swallowing hard, I hesitated, glancing toward Avalon before starting. “I know the Seosten… as a whole have done terrible things to you and your family. I mean… I have enough problems with necromancy just because of Fossor that I kind of… I can’t possibly understand, but I have some vague idea of what you’re feeling. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry we’re asking you to push past that to help people that you have no reason to help.”

“Hundreds of years,” he replied, his voice hollow as he covered half his face with one hand, using the other to pull at his own hair in a way that seemed painful. “They locked me up for hundreds of years. Took me from my family. Put my wife on the run. Ruined… ruined… everything. The world. Ruined the world. Destroyed our lives. Tried to kill them. Tried to kill my–my–” He gestured to Avalon. “My descendants. Our… our legacy, our everything. And no one stopped them. None of them. None of the Seosten stopped them, stopped it.”

Before I could say anything to that, Avalon spoke up. “Athena, Apollo, Sariel, they’ve all been rebelling against their people. But you can’t change an entire society just like that. Look at Athena’s people, her rebellion. They’re not like the other Seosten. If you’re going to judge an entire society like that, you have to judge Heretics the same way. We kill innocent people because our leaders say they’re bad. Seosten and Heretics aren’t that different, that way.”

It was a good point, but Dries had a good one of his own. “Heretics are that way because of Seosten. More Seosten problems. More Seosten tricks. That’s a–a–” He stopped, head shaking as a slight groan escaped him as though he couldn’t think of the word. “–a fault with them. Them again. Always them. They hurt, they kill, they enslave. Always enslave. Always. And now you want to make deals with them, want to play nice with them.”

“You’re right,” I put in quickly. “But that’s kind of the point. You wouldn’t blame all Heretics because of what the Seosten leadership has made them believe, so it’s not fair to blame all Seosten for the same thing. That and… and they’ve been fighting the Fomorians for so long, a lot of them have basically lost all perspective. They only care about winning, about surviving.”

Beside me, Avalon nodded. “We don’t want you to make it so that they can possess everyone still. Just… allowing permission for those that aren’t mind-bogglingly evil.”

It looked like it physically hurt Dries to argue, but the man still hesitantly demanded, “And… and if they’re tricked? Humans can be–be manipulated. They can be tricked to allow possession. Believe me, I’ve seen it, seen all of it. Seosten don’t have to possess people to control them.”

I winced. “Right, you’re… you’re right, there are humans who could be tricked into allowing themselves to be possessed. It’s not a perfect solution. But neither is preventing all possession forever. My–Tabbris, my little sister. She’s my little sister, and she’s a Seosten. She possesses me to protect me, to fight alongside me. If I didn’t have her, I would’ve been dead a thousand times over by now. If Sariel hadn’t been possessing her husband back at the Family Day dinner, she wouldn’t have been able to give the counterspell for Fossor’s poison to her husband and Gaia. Which would’ve meant that Vanessa and Avalon wouldn’t have been with me when I faced Ammon. So Abigail would probably be dead. Not to mention… not to mention everything else that could’ve gone horrifically wrong there. Maybe Koren would be with Fossor right now.”

Dries looked even more torn by that, shrinking back physically as he used both hands to cover his face that time. He was like a tiny kid who was trying to hide and thought he could do so just by covering his eyes. He stayed that way for a few long seconds, muttering indecipherable words under his breath before finally straightening. He looked to us, taking a clear breath to steady himself before speaking again. “You have clearer heads. I hate them. But I know I–I…” He tapped his chest roughly, almost smacking himself. “I know I don’t think straight. I can’t trust them, any of them. I don’t. I won’t. But I–I can trust you. If you say it’s right, if you ask for it, I will–I will–” He rolled his head around almost like he was trying to crack his neck. “I will do it. If you ask. For you. Not for them. I’ll help for you.” He was staring at Avalon. “I’ll make the spell if you want.”

After exchanging a brief glance with me, Avalon looked back to the man and gave a short nod. Her hand moved up to touch his shoulder, which was honestly a pretty huge gesture from the girl. “I really think it’s the best plan,” she confirmed softly, sounding like she wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure how or what exactly to say. “I… I know they hurt  you. They hurt me too. They killed my mother. But Felicity is right, there are good ones. We need to encourage the good ones. We need to give them the advantage, which this… this will do. I know you’re not wrong, there could be–will be Seosten who manipulate humans into allowing themselves to be possessed. But for the… for the most part, it’ll be an improvement.”

For my part, I tried not to think about how this would play into what Jophiel and Elisabet wanted. They’d visited me again, a couple times in the past few days. First it was to check on me after that whole incident and to get the full story for themselves. They were apparently running interference to keep the Committee from noticing that there was anything different about my situation during the Family Day attack. Which was made easier by just how chaotic everything had been. So they were helping with that, as subtly as possible.

But they’d also wanted to talk about this situation right here, had wanted to talk about how this was going to go. They knew that Dries was coming back, and that we were going to ask him to alter the spell. That was why they weren’t going nuts in trying to stop us from getting that spell working in the first place. They’d said they wouldn’t help us get into the vault, but nor would they force us to sabotage it ourselves. So long as the plan was to allow Seosten to possess humans with permission, it fit in just fine with their plans. Which made me feel a little bit queasy inside, for reasons I couldn’t adequately explain even to myself. Maybe it was just that getting them what they wanted felt wrong even if there were plenty of reasons besides that for this to be the right choice.

I still didn’t trust them entirely, even though they’d been helpful. Regardless, they were still making us lie to others, to people we cared about. And yes, they had reasons to protect themselves, but… still. The people we trusted were keeping secrets just as important and potentially life-destroying. There was a part of me who resented that they were making me lie.

But hey, at least I didn’t have to tell them everything. What they had really wanted to know was whether I knew exactly what had caused the… visions in the sky and all those not-so-natural disasters around the world. But thanks to the specifics of the spell, I could tell them that I had no idea, and they didn’t know I was lying. Well, maybe they suspected that I knew more than I was saying, but it wasn’t enough for them to call me on it. Which was good, because I honestly had no idea what I would’ve been able to do if they had pressed. Would telling them that it would endanger the world have been enough to make them back off? Or would that in itself give them enough information to damage the–damn it, this was so complicated.

Realizing the other two were looking at me, I shook off those thoughts and focused. “Right, well, that’s probably enough of that talk for now. I mean, there’ll be plenty of time to talk about it later, before the… the trip. But come on, you guys just met. Let’s focus on something else for awhile. I mean, the Seosten have dominated every part of your lives for long enough on their own. They don’t need more help with that when you two have plenty of other things to talk about.”

Avalon gave me a brief look. “You really don’t want me to call your bluff on that, do you?”

“No, please don’t,” I quickly agreed, flushing a little. “I’m still trying to think of a good starting subject.”

In the end, however, it was Dries who spoke up. “I know that–that I’m not…” He hesitated, cracking his knuckles loudly before clearly forcing himself to continue against his own discomfort and fear. “I know I’m not the kind of ancestor or–or relative that you’d choose if you could. I know I’m… I have… um, the issues. I have many issues, many problems. I’d fix them if I could. They’re stupid and–and I know it’s the Seosten–they did it. They made me feel a lot of these things. I know they’re not real. The feelings, they’re not… they’re artificial, and I’ve gotten rid of a lot of them. But-but I can’t stop it. Can’t stop all of them. I can’t be the kind of ancestor that you want. I can’t be a–a umm, a big strong… a powerful–I can’t be a hero or anything. I–”

“Stop.” Avalon’s head was shaking quickly, as she almost glared at him before visibly correcting herself. “Just–don’t assume you know what I want, or the kind of person that I–” She hesitated, seeing the man flinch and shrink back. “I just–” She sighed, looking to me for help.

“What she’s trying to say is that she doesn’t need you to be something you’re not,” I quickly put in. “She doesn’t need some macho strong guy to come in and solve all her problems. She just needs you to be you. You’re her ancestor. You’re her family. Maybe you guys won’t always get along. Maybe it’ll take a long time for you to be comfortable with each other. But you’re you. That’s what she needs you to be. Yourself. Besides, if she was going to blame you for being awkward with people, she’d–”

“Okay, that’s enough, Chambers.” Avalon was flushing just a little bit, her foot kicking mine before she focused on Dries. “But she’s right… mostly. Just be yourself. Don’t assume you know what I want, or what I need. You want to get to know me, I… I’d like that too. Sort of. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want for sure, but… getting to know you might be nice.”

She shrugged. “And if it doesn’t work out with me, there’s always Tangle. I haven’t exchanged more than two words with her so far, but hey, maybe you two could get along.”

“Hey, she’s right,” I put in then, trying not to let things get even more awkward than they already were. “It’s not a real, full family reunion until Tangle gets involved. Which–which is kind of funny, you know, cuz it’s a tangled family reunion and her name is–” Seeing them both look at me, I flushed and stepped back. “Right, you guys are definitely related. See? I’m already bringing you closer together.”

Avalon actually smirked just a little bit. “She has a point. More than one, actually. We are related. And so is Tangle. You should visit her too, when… when you’re ready to. When she’s ready to talk to you. I don’t know how she’s feeling, or even what she thinks of any of this. Like I said, haven’t really talked to her.”

“Maybe we can–can-um, can visit her together.” Dries made the awkward suggestion while staring at his feet and mumbling. All of this, the whole introduction, being back here, seeing all these people, it was clearly overwhelming him. He was withdrawing just when he really didn’t want to. It was clear through the pain in his voice and in his eyes that he wanted to express himself, that he wanted to… to be there for Avalon and really make a connection. It was just hard for him. His hands shook, and he kept doing those little things like pinching himself, tugging his hair, scratching hard enough to draw blood, things like that.

It was just as clear that Avalon actually understood just how hard he was trying, and how difficult all this was for him. She hesitated a little before managing a slight nod. “Yeah, I… maybe going together would be good. I don’t know her, you don’t know her, we can be awkward together. Maybe it’ll be better that way.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but stopped herself.

“Right, together.” Dries was bobbing his head up and down quickly, almost violently. It was like he’d been desperate to agree with her. “Then if things don’t work out–if they uhh, if they go wrong and we don’t get along, then maybe… maybe we can talk. You and uh, me, we. We can talk.”

“I think we might need help if we’re going to give this thing with Tangle a shot,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Neither of us are very good at the family reunion thing. We need someone with experience. Someone who…” She trailed off, and both of them looked at each other before slowly turning their gazes my way.

Mouth opening and shutting, I flushed. “Okay, okay, I’ll go with you to meet Tangle. But seriously, you guys are doing just fine. I mean, given the circumstances, obviously. And I don’t know her any more than you do, so… maybe she’ll like you and hate me. I could make things worse.”

But it would give me a chance to talk to Kohaku some more, which I kind of wanted to do anyway.

Avalon rolled her eyes. “You should definitely be there, Chambers. You’re the only one with a family tree weirder than mine right now. I have one living direct relative I just met two minutes ago, one living indirect relative I’ve basically never spoken to, an adopted mother that I only really let myself actually get close to this year, a sort-of father figure who raised me, and a real father who, by the way, I killed. Mostly because he blamed me for the death of my real mother when I was born.”

Dryly, I replied, “Well, when you put it like that, your life sounds pretty fucked up.”

“It… it does.” That was Dries, his voice sounding pained. “And I… I did not… I didn’t follow a lot of it. Basics. I know the basics. But I would like to–to know more. Please. I’d like to hear your life. Your story. I want to know you.”

For a moment, Avalon just stared at him. I couldn’t begin to guess what was going through her mind. But in the end, she gave a tiny nod, her voice quiet. “Right… I… I can do that. I can tell you about myself, if you really want.”

When the man hurriedly (and awkwardly) agreed, she actually took my hand. From the way she was squeezing it so tightly, I knew this wasn’t going to be that fun for her to relive. At least the first part. I squeezed back, letting her know I was there for her.

“Okay. Well. I guess the best place to start is the night that my piece of shit father thought I stole one of his beers…”

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