Patreon Snippets 6

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The following is the sixth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Present Day – Seosten Space

“Sir? I–can I get you anything?” Teures, Puriel’s young (an incredibly fresh-faced forty-seven years) Seosten assistant tentatively asked. He stood just in the doorway of a grand, if lonely-looking library. His eyes were on the room’s only occupant, a gray-haired man standing next to a globe. The globe itself was blank at the moment, though at any point it could be set to display any of the millions of planets within the Seosten databanks.

Considering the news he had just passed along, Teures had no idea how the old man was going to react. His wife had been killed, murdered by their own daughter. How would he react to that? How could he react to that?

Teures had just opened his mouth after a few moments of silence to offer to bring the man a drink, when Puriel spoke. “I’d like to be alone, please.” His voice was quiet enough that the young Seosten had to lean closer to hear him properly. “Just… alone.”

Bowing his head, Teures gracefully replied, “Of course, sir. I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.” As he backed out of the room and closed the doors behind him, Teures had a moment to wonder why it hadn’t been one of Puriel’s old crewmates to bring him the news. Surely a man as powerful and influential as he deserved to be told of his wife’s death by someone more important than his barely-adult assistant.

In the room, Puriel waited for the doors to close. His hand played over the blank globe as he let out a soft sigh. A few short steps took him to a plush armchair, where he sat and leaned his head back. His eyes closed, and he cast himself… elsewhere.

Well, not elsewhere. The place he went was into his own mind, a mental landscape that worked much like a much more stable dream-world. It was a virtual reality of sorts, created by him and maintained by his… companion, the girl who had been possessing him for years by this point. Sariel’s possession-impaired daughter.

“Spark,” he spoke quietly while ‘appearing’ in the middle of the girl’s workshop. In reality, he was still sitting in that chair in the library, but now all of his attention was directed inward, to this simple-looking room full of tables with various architectural designs and ship blueprints. All of them created and obsessively corrected and updated by the young girl herself. The girl he called Spark, not only because of his own penchant for electricity, but also because it was her presence that had pulled Puriel himself out of what would have been a completely self-destructive cycle of grief and regret.

She was there, standing by a table. For a moment, Puriel looked at her. The truth was, they had no idea what she would look like now, given that it had been years since she had possessed him and, for obvious reasons, she had not left him in all that time. What he saw was the image she chose to present. Which happened to be a small, ten-year old girl with hair fashioned into a tight, elegant braid. One half of the girl’s hair, the left side, was very light blonde, while the right half was pitch-black. The braid itself alternated black and blonde all the way down.

Exactly why she chose to present herself that way, with hair split between light and dark, was something Puriel had wondered for some time without bringing it up. He had a feeling it was an effort on her part to show her split between being Sariel’s daughter and being raised and cared for by him.

Those thoughts and more went through the man’s mind while he watched Spark standing there by one of her tables, intently working on her latest plans for a building. Her interest in architecture, in designing buildings, cities, worlds, and even various spaceships, had started almost as soon as they had first… come together. Now, it was how she spent so much of her time, here in his mind, creating entire worlds and only able to show him.

For now. He would find a way to free the girl, a way to return her to her mother. He would… somehow.

Finally, after a couple minutes of silence (aside from the steady sound of the girl marking the paper for her new design), she looked back to him. “How do you feel?” As ever, her words were economical, saying as much as possible in as few words as she could manage.

He’d had time to anticipate the question. And yet, even then, it took Puriel a few seconds to find the words. “How do I feel? As though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders… only to settle in the pit of my stomach. The woman I once loved beyond all reason has been killed… by our own daughter, who did so to save her own life. Or the life of her host.”

The man looked away then, feeling a slight dampness in his eyes. There was an empty pit that had been hollowed out of his soul by the news of Kushiel’s death. And yet, hadn’t that pit already been there? Because he’d lost the woman that he loved long before this day. Perhaps even before they had set foot on Earth, in many ways. He had lost her gradually over the past several thousand years, and had finally begun noticing that loss… when he had saved Spark from her. When he had recognized that there was something to save the girl from. Allowing himself to accept, in his own mind, that the child had to be taken away from his wife was when he had first truly recognized just how far she had fallen, how much she had changed.

He’d gone silent, but Spark had not done anything to fill that silence. It wasn’t her way. She never filled silences with random small talk, never spoke a single word that wasn’t exactly and only what she needed to speak to make her point. She simply turned back to her work and waited for him to continue. Not because she was intentionally being rude or uncaring, but because she loathed wasting time. Standing there in silence waiting for him to say something, or worse, filling the silence with platitudes, was utterly foreign and distasteful to the girl. When he was ready to speak, she would turn her attention back to him. Until then, she focused on her designs.

Whether it was a habit she had picked up on her own and always would have preferred, or a response to his tendency to drift off into his own memories for minutes at a time, even after these past years, he couldn’t say. He did know that when something was important, she called him back. Most of his people believed that he was much better than he had been. But the truth was that his mind wandered against his will just as often. He would lose track of where and when he was, believing that he was still on the Olympus, or on Earth, or even earlier than those times. He would lose track of who he was talking to, believing them to be someone else.

Spark brought him back in those times. She guided him back to his real memories, reminding him of who he was. And in the times that she could not get him to respond soon enough, she took over his body. They had been together long enough, and he had opened up enough to her, that when he was in one of those states, she was able to take over and, essentially, fake things enough to stop any questions.

Realizing that he was drifting off into another memory hole, even if it was a minor one, Puriel focused on answering.

“I feel… the end of a great loss. As if the life that I once imagined having with the woman whom I loved was a basin of water that has been steadily draining over these years. Her death is not the greatest source of the loss of the life we could have had. It did not empty the basin. It only ensured that the basin would never be filled again.”

For a few long seconds after that, Spark said nothing. Her hands were busily moving along her paper, marking out a few adjustments. She seemed to be thinking quite hard, though he didn’t know if it was about what he’d said, or about her design. When she did finally speak, it was in a slow, careful tone. “I’m sorry for what you lost.”

Extending his hand, Puriel conjured a chair within his mind space and sat down. He genuinely wasn’t sure what difference it made whether he was standing up or sitting down in his own mind, but it felt like the right thing to do. So he sat, and spoke. “It’s okay to be glad that she won’t hurt… anyone else. It’s alright for you to be happy about that.”

Turning away from her table finally, Spark looked at him in silent thought before stepping over. She stood by his chair, shifting on her feet and, for the moment, looking like the little girl that she was. “I am. But I don’t want you to be sad.”

Letting out a breath (another thing he didn’t understand the purpose of), Puriel carefully reached out and picked the girl up. He sat her on his leg with one hand against her back while the other gently touched her face. “Listen, okay? I have done very bad things, very wrong things. You’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve ignored things I never should have. I’ve turned a blind eye to situations that I could have fixed. I’ve let people down, and I have betrayed them.

“You are quite probably the best thing that I have done. You are the very best part of my life. So believe me when I tell you, feel what you need to feel. No one who matters will ever blame you for being happy that someone cannot inflict suffering and torture on anyone else again.”

Sitting there on his leg, Spark hesitated before meeting his gaze. “You loved her.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I did love her. And I allowed that love to blind me to her many faults, to our many faults. Perhaps if I had seen them, acknowledged them, she could’ve been saved a long time ago from becoming the person she was. Perhaps I could have pulled her back from what she turned into if I hadn’t spent so long seeing her as I wished she was.”

His head shook then. “But that is for me to think of. For now, I believe what I could truly use is a distraction. Do you think you could manage that?”

With a silent nod that made her black-blonde braid bounce, Spark slipped off his leg and stood, extending a hand to him. As he took it, she led him to a door on the side of the room.

They could have simply appeared wherever in his mindscape she meant to take him. But the process of using doors felt more natural. And it also made the space seem ‘real’ in a way that was important for her. Trapped as she was within his mind, Puriel felt as though even those small things were incredibly important.

Through the open door, the two emerged into a grassy courtyard. Ahead of them was a fountain that appeared to be split in half, with a statue of an androgynous figure in the middle holding the two halves together. On each side of the fountain was another figure, both of them with with an arm extended, holding the hilt of a sword. The blades of those swords were the water, each striking one side of the statue in the middle that was trying so hard to hold the two halves together while being struck down from either side by the water-swords.

Beyond the fountain was a building shaped like an L on its side, the long part half a dozen stories higher than the short, the top three of which were cut at a slant. On top of the shorter half was another courtyard where Puriel could see tables set for what appeared to be an outdoor restaurant.

It was only his first glimpse of what Spark had been working on lately, and as the girl pulled him by the hand, Puriel knew he’d made the right choice in coming here. Because while he could not be there for his actual daughter after she had killed her mother (the Seraphim would never allow him to go to Earth in his condition, even if he did seem to be improving), this right here was a reminder that there was someone else who depended on him.

And, if Puriel was being honest, he depended on her just as much.

 

******

 

1796 – Boston

 

Two figures stood at the top of a hill overlooking the thriving city of Boston. With a population of almost twenty thousand people, it was the third largest city in the fledgling United States, just after New York and Philadelphia. Large enough that no one paid attention to the two visitors who stood on that hill, watching the busy people rushing back and forth about their daily lives. Two figures, one an adult woman with dark hair and a round face that left her looking eternally cheerful, her smile lines a permanent indent, and the other a young boy with equally dark hair that was a curly mop atop his head. The boy held the woman’s hand tightly while scanning the people in the distance with the intensity of trying to pick out faces despite the fact that they were entirely too far away to even have a chance of doing so without some form of telescopic vision.  

“Mama, are Grandpap and Grandmam tall?”

Blinking down to the boy at her side with some surprise, Edeva Atherby asked, “Why do you want to know if they’re tall, Joshua?”

“Cuz,” he replied simply, “I wanna be tall. But you’re not very tall, and Papa’s not very tall. So I was hoping they were because then maybe I could be.”

With a very faint smile, Edeva answered, “Your grandfather is a little taller than your father. And your grandmother is taller than him. She’s about…” The woman held her hand up to about the six foot mark. “Here.”

“Wow!” Smiling brightly, the curly-haired boy excitedly babbled, “I can’t wait for them to get here, Mama! Do you think they’ll bring me a present? I mean, they don’t have to bring me a present, but I would really like a new whittling knife. Or maybe a kite. Oh, oh, do you think they know it was my birthday last week?”

Smiling a little sadly at her son, Edeva nodded. “Of course they did. They sent those little candies for you, remember? You’re still saving them, right?”

“Only one a day,” Joshua dutifully reported. “Uh huh.” Belatedly, he added in a whisper, “But it’s really hard. Sometimes I wanna have two.”

Rubbing her son’s head, Edeva started to respond to that, only to be interrupted by a crisp, no-nonsense voice that sounded as though it would be right at home belonging to a schoolmarm.

“It pains me that you allow the boy to eat such filth.”

As promised, Remember Humility Bennett stood a full six feet tall, not counting the severe, tight bun her gray hair had been tied into. Her eyes were a deep, dark green, while she wore a black dress, looking as though she were in mourning. Which her countenance did nothing to dissuade.

“Hello, Mother,” Edeva quietly greeted. “I promise you, no one is eating filth. It was very good candy that you and Father provided.” The last bit was added with a pointed glance toward her suddenly shy son hiding behind her leg.

“One should never lie to their children,” Remember primly informed her in a tone that her daughter was all-too familiar with. “It sets a poor example. You’ll note that I never lied to you.”

“Yes,” Edeva readily agreed. “You always spoke the truth and nothing but, no matter how it made me feel.”

“And you are a strong woman because of it,” Remember noted before turning her attention back to Joshua. “Now, to the point of this meeting. Come here boy, I would like to have a look at you.”

At an encouraging nod from his mother, Joshua slowly slipped out from behind her and took a couple steps that way before straightening himself somewhat. “H-hello, Grandmam. I am glad to finally meet you.” His voice had the quality of clearly reciting from memory. “Oh, and thank you for the clothes you send every year.”

Nodding primly, Remember spoke again. “You are welcome. I trust you are making good use of them.”

The boy nodded quickly. “Yes, ma’am. My friend Ossy and me–”

“Ossy and I,” Remember corrected sharply.

“Ossy and I,” Joshua obediently parroted, “we took the clothes and cut up the–” Again he was cut off, this time as his mother pointedly cleared her throat, correcting himself to, “Uh, cut up a tree and I didn’t get any splinters because of the long sleeves.”

Making a noise of both disapproval and pleasure of being proven correct in her own mind, Remember looked to Edeva. “You see? Lying begets lying. If he were in our training program at the tree, he would not dare. And what sort of name is Ossy for a little boy?”

“Ossy’s not a boy,” Joshua piped up, immediately wanting to correct the woman about his friend. “She’s a girl. And she’s not human, she’s–”

“Ahem,” Remember started, looking sharply to her daughter. “I was under the impression that Lyell was in line with our beliefs. Particularly given his… history with the necromancer.”

“Lyell understands that judging trillions of beings by the actions of a few is a level of ignorant that surpasses the heat output of the sun,” Edeva informed her mother, though she did so with a bright, put-on smile and tone that would hopefully stop her son from understanding that there was a dark and dangerous argument brewing. “And that people, including he himself, can change.”

Intent on changing the subject rather than waste her son’s precious time with his grandparents after he’d pleaded for so long to meet them, Edeva pressed, “Where is Father?”

Primly, Remember replied, “You ask that as if you believe I have any sort of relationship with Bernlak. I assure you, that is not the case. Where he chooses to keep himself is precisely none of my concern.”

“And isn’t that just wonderful for me,” a new voice announced as Edeva’s father, Bernlak, appeared. As always, he wore his trademark green. This time in the form of a waistcoat and breeches, with a black silk shirt and equally dark boots. He also wore glasses with emerald lenses that tended to attract at least a little bit of attention from unawakened humans.

“Hello, Father,” Edeva greeted the man, pulling her son out in front of her once more. “Joshua, this is your grandfather. Father, this is your grandson.”

“Aww, you’re already so big!” Bernlak took a step that way, going down on one knee in front of the boy. “How old are you now, sixteen?”

“I’m eight!” the boy retorted, giggling as his head shook.

“Oh, really?” Bernlak sounded doubtful, looking him up and down. “Well, you’re going to be huge when you get older, I’ll tell you that much.”

Smiling brightly as his earlier hope was seemingly confirmed by his grandfather, Joshua eagerly asked, “Really? You think so, Grandpap?”

Watching the two of them for a moment, Edeva felt a pang. Her father was so effortlessly good with the boy, so charming and able to bond with him. And yet, she knew from experience that it wouldn’t last. Bernlak was incredibly good in the moment. He was great at making promises, but very bad at following through with them afterward. He would bond with Joshua, make all kinds of arrangements, then disappear. As soon as they were out of sight, he would forget about them, sometimes for years at a time. He was unreliable.

Given that, and her mother’s emotional distance, it was no wonder that Edeva herself had been raised almost entirely by Zedekiah Pericles at Crossroads. Her father was always off on one of his jobs as a mercenary, and her mother was… busy and never in any mood to entertain a child. Papa Pericles, as she had called him, had taken up every bit of slack to take care of her. At some point, he had told her that Gaia Sinclaire, the baroness of Desoto, had asked him to keep an eye on her given her own history with Bernlak. But he had grown to see her as his own grandchild, and she adored him as a mixture of a father and grandfather. Zedekiah was her real family, not these two.

Another new arrival yanked Edeva’s thoughts away from that, as she turned to see her husband step into view. Lyell Atherby was, as their son had noted, not a very tall man, standing only five and a half feet. Which was, to be fair, above average for the unawakened who didn’t eat nearly as well as they should. Yet for Heretics, it was on the short side.

Despite his lack of height, Lyell still cut an impressive figure. His straight brown hair reached his shoulders, and he kept a meticulously maintained goatee and thin mustache. His brown eyes were somehow piercing despite their apparent plainness. The man seemed to have the ability to look straight through someone. Which, given his age and experience (he had led the Atherby clan for several hundred years), was understandable.

“Sorry I’m late,” Lyell murmured, stepping over to his wife. “What did I miss?”

Edeva shook her head at that. “Nothing, really. Joshua’s just… getting to know his grandparents.”

With a very slight wince, Lyell put an arm around her and leaned in to whisper, “Do I need to strangle anyone?”

The words made her smile despite herself, and she once more shook her head. “Not yet.”

Her attention returned to her son and father then, as she slipped an arm around her husband. The two were already whispering conspiratorially, while Remember stood in the background, looking stiff and vaguely annoyed that this was eating into her productivity time.

But Joshua had pleaded with his mother for weeks to finally meet his grandparents, and she could not deny him that chance. While she had no faith that her father would follow up any of these promises, or that her mother would lighten up, Edeva did think that perhaps this meeting wouldn’t be so bad. Her son could have at least one decent memory with his grandparents without either of them ruining it.

But if they did, Lyell wouldn’t have a chance to strangle them. Because she might just beat him to it.

*******

Present Day – Atherby Camp

 

Three female figures stood at the head of a cobblestone path leading from the Atherby camp off into the woods. It was a small path, one that was easy to miss if you didn’t know where it was. Particularly as people tended to leave that whole area alone as a form of reverence.

“You know, you don’t… have to do this right now,” Abigail hesitantly informed Theia as she stood on one side of the Seosten girl, with one hand on her shoulder. Ever since Theia had returned separate from Pace earlier that evening, Abigail found it hard to resist the urge to keep touching her. A simple hair stroke, a shoulder squeeze, she just wanted to keep reassuring both herself and Theia that she was indeed in her own body again.

Pace, meanwhile, was also staying close and touching Theia often. And in her case, it likely meant even more that she would willingly touch her after they were finally separated. At the moment, she was standing on the other side of the girl, looking toward Abigail. Her mouth opened as if she was going to say something, but then she stopped, clearly remembering that the girl was perfectly capable of speaking for herself.

A moment later, Theia seemed to remember that too, straightening to look over at Abigail. “Is it wrong?” she asked tentatively, clearly worried. “Is it… bad?”

“Wha–bad? No. No, sweetie, no.” Quickly shaking her head as she realized just why Theia would have taken it that way, Abigail clarified. “I meant they’re going to have an official memorial service in a couple days, and I’m sure they’d let you add a few names to that. You know, so it can be official.”

Theia’s head shook, and Abigail once again marvelled at just how much the girl looked like a young Kushiel (not that she’d ever seen the monster in person, but there were images and holograms of her). It made her wonder just how others who had known Kushiel would handle seeing the girl now.

“I wish to put them to rest myself,” Theia announced carefully, clearly taking a moment to choose her words. “They do not know them. They have no reason to think of them, or care for them. I don’t… want it to be part of their memorial. It is my memorial. It is my friends’ memorial.”

Slowly nodding, Abigail looked to Pace, then back to Theia. “Would you girls like to do this alone?” Suddenly, after the girl’s words, she felt as though she might be intruding.

“No.” Theia gave a quick headshake, turning slightly to look at her. “Theia–I… mean… I… I want you to be there. Here. You are… You matter… you being here matters to me. Theia wants– I… want… you… to be here and… and… help… me.” The last few words came out through a somewhat trembling voice before the Seosten girl quickly added, “But if you want to leave, if you want to go away, that’s okay. I won’t–”

“Shhh.” Abigail put a hand out to the girl’s face, gently touching her cheek. “Theia, it’s okay. I want to be here.”

“So do I,” Pace announced firmly, her hand squeezing the other girl’s arm as reassuringly as she could. “We both want to be here, okay?”

“Okay,” Theia parroted. “Then we go.” Yet despite her words, she didn’t move. Her feet remained firmly planted, as she stared at the path. Pace and Abigail exchanged brief looks, but neither urged the girl on. This was clearly not something to rush. They stood by, patiently waiting for her to actually be ready.

Almost two full minutes of silence passed like that before Theia started to walk up the path. With Abigail and Pace right with her, she moved through the trees, their way lit by tiny candles that only came to life as they approached, providing just enough illumination to follow the winding cobblestone walkway. They moved slowly, none wanting to disturb the atmosphere by rushing things.

At their pace, it took almost five minutes of quiet walking for the group to reach the end of the path. Eventually, however, they emerged into a pretty clearing, lit by more of those candles as well as glowing lamps that projected a somewhat brighter, yet still soft, illumination. The clearing was almost fifty feet in diameter from side to side, and just as deep. A polished granite monument, semi-circular in shape, ran along every side of the clearing aside from the opening. It stood nine feet high. All along its surface were glowing golden letters, names that had been inscribed in the memorial. Names of people who had died in service to the Atherby Clan or in some way connected to them. Children recorded the names of parents who had been killed by Nocen or Heretics. Or parents recorded the names of children.

There were so many names it was staggering, Abigail almost losing a step. All of these people, so many of them… so many deaths. It brought an involuntary noise of dismay to her throat. Somehow, seeing a tangible representation of it made the whole thing that much more real.

Theia, who had also stopped short, stared at the monument for several long, silent seconds before turning to Pace. Her voice took on an urgent tone. “Is this wrong?”

Of course she would look to Pace for that. The two of them had been together for so long, had been literally in each other’s minds, that Theia’s first instinct was to ask Pace if something was wrong or right, to seek her opinion and thoughts. Thoughts which, up until a few hours earlier, she would have gotten instantly and silently.

“No, Theia,” Pace answered while meeting the girl’s gaze. “It’s not wrong. I promise.” With those words, she held up the special pen that Gabriel had provided when he learned what they wanted to do. “It’s okay.”

Still clearly uncertain, but taking Pace’s word for it, Theia took the pen. She fidgeted then, rolling it between her fingers before looking toward Abigail. Getting a nod from the woman, she hesitantly stepped up to an empty spot on the memorial, placing the pen against it before going still once more. For a minute, the girl simply stood there, silently staring at that blank bit of polished granite while her mind was clearly focused elsewhere.

When she finally spoke, it was in a voice that was clear and firm, though it obviously took some effort to make it that way. “Debba Sleus. I’m sorry–” Her voice caught, hitching a bit before she pushed on. “I’m sorry that I possessed you and… and couldn’t stop. I’m sorry Momma killed you because I–because I f… failed.”

Pace opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of interrupting. She and Abigail both exchanged looks, each wanting to stop Theia from thinking that way, but neither wanted to stop her from what she was doing. There would be time later to convince her that none of that was her fault. Let her say goodbye now, and begin healing after.

Theia, by that point, had carefully written the name. Abigail was almost certain the girl was actually using her boost solely to keep her hand steady enough to be legible. She finished inscribing it, and as she took the pen away, the letters began to glow just like the others.

She moved to the next spot down then, resting the pen there. “Tedora of Deep Rock. I… I’m sorry.” She wrote the name carefully, then moved to the next line.

“Stavin Epks Nuel Rev, I’m sorry.

“Denanine Rache, I’m sorry.”

“Valian Lien Kodian, I’m… sorry.”

It went on… and on… and on. While Pace and Abigail watched and listened, Theia dutifully continued through a list of thirty names. Thirty names. Thirty people whom Kushiel had forced her to possess and then killed when she could not stop possessing them. Thirty people who were murdered in that insane woman’s quest to ‘fix’ her daughter’s disability. She might as well have pointed a gun at the head of an innocent person and ordered a paraplegic to walk.

And then continued to do that twenty-nine more times.

By the last name, Theia finally stopped. Her hand lowered to her side, and the pen fell to the dirt. She forgot about it for the moment, staring at the names she had written. Slowly, the girl looked up, then down once more, taking them all in. Her voice was a whisper. “I’m sorry.”

Slowly, she looked toward Abigail, her mouth opening and shutting a couple times before she found her voice. “There is something wrong.”

Blinking at that, Abigail stepped that way, carefully asking, “Something wrong?”

“I… I can’t… breathe,” Theia explained a bit haltingly. “I–I… it feels like I’ve been running, but I haven’t. It feels like I’ve been running, and I can’t… can’t get enough… breath. I can’t breathe. My… my eyes. My eyes hurt. They hurt, like needles. They hurt like needles but not. Because I don’t mind needles in my eyes, but I mind this. I mind this. It hurts. There’s acid. There’s acid in my eyes. It’s wet. And it stings. And it hurts, and I don’t like it. I want it to stop. Pain is okay. But not this one. It hurts my eyes. It hurts my chest. I can’t breathe. I want it to stop, please. I want it to stop now.”

“Oh, Theia.” Gasping those words quietly, Abigail gave Pace a quick look before stepping that way to embrace the girl. She pulled her in, wrapping both arms around her to hug Theia as tight as she could. “I’m sorry, baby. That’s not how… that’s not how this kind of pain works. You have to feel it. You have to feel it, but it’s okay.”

Standing stiffly for a moment, the Seosten girl gazed up at her with wide eyes that were indeed somewhat wet. Her voice was plaintive. “But it hurts, Miss Abigail. I don’t like it. I’m think I’m broken.”

“Oh God, no. No, sweet girl,” Abigail assured her. “You’re not broken. You are not broken. Listen to me, this is good.”

“G-good?” Theia echoed, her eyes widening a bit as she stared uncertainly at the woman.

Abigail nodded slowly. “Yes. It’s very sad that you’re hurt. I’m sorry that you’re in pain. But I am glad that you still feel it, that you can still…” She trailed off, swallowing hard as she sought the right words. “You’re sad for other people, Theia. You’re sad because someone else died, and that means you’re not broken. You aren’t broken at all. You’re bent. Bent all over. But you’re not broken. You feel. And that’s good. Okay? It is good to feel, because it means you care. You care about all those names, all those people. When you look at them, when you think about them, it hurts? It hurts here?” She leaned back a bit to touch her own chest.

Theia nodded to that, her eyes blinking rapidly. “It hurts there. It hurts here.” She touched near her eyes, swallowing hard before touching her throat, then her stomach. “And here… and here. It hurts and I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”

It was Pace who spoke then, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. “Here.” Carefully, she moved Theia’s fingers to the memorial, touching them against the first name the girl had written. “Say goodbye.”

Eyes snapping to her former host, Theia echoed. “Say goodbye? Say… say…” Slowly, her eyes moved back to the name of Debba Sleus. “Good…” She stopped short, making an almost silent noise in the back of her throat before forcing the word out. “… bye. Goodbye.”

Carefully, Pace lowered the other girl’s fingers to the next name. She remained silent, but Theia knew, quietly whispering, “G-goodbye.”

There was a slight hitch of her breath then, as she moved her own fingers down to the next one, repeating the word. One by one, she said goodbye to each of the names. By the end, she could barely speak, her voice halting repeatedly as she choked out the last of her farewells.

Or perhaps not the last, as Gabriel Prosser took a step into the clearing at the end. His voice was solemn. “They will be remembered, I promise you that.” He paused then, straightening. “I’m sorry. I would never interrupt. But Theia asked me to be here for the end, to make it official.” He looked to her then. “But this isn’t the end, is it? There’s one more.” He was watching Theia, eyes soft as he added, “One more you want to write down.”

Swallowing hard at that, Theia shrank back, somehow ducking into herself. “It… it’s wrong. It can’t go there. It can’t be there with them.”

“Here.” Extending his hand, Gabriel held a stone out to her, about the size of the girl’s fist. It too looked like polished granite, as if it had been taken from the memorial itself.  

Theia took the stone, then the magic pen as Pace stooped to pick it up for her. She held the pen and the stone in each hand, staring at both for almost a full minute before carefully scrawling the last name. Her mother’s.

Abigail watched as Theia wrote Kushiel’s name on the stone. Then the girl gave one last look at the memorial, to all the names she had recorded. She mouthed one last apology before turning on her heel to begin walking quickly back along the path.

Pace, Abigail, and Gabriel exchanged brief looks before following her. Without a word, Theia continued along the path, walking all the way back into the camp before moving to the lake. She stood there, facing the water with the stone in one hand. Her knuckles were white from how tightly she was holding that stone, and she gave a slight shudder while lifting it to stare at her mother’s name.

“Goodbye, Momma.” Her voice was so soft, Abigail almost didn’t hear her. Then she reared back, hurling the stone all the way to the middle of the lake in one toss. It struck the water and dropped out of sight, falling to the bottom with a single splash.

Theia stood there, staring at the water where the rock had gone. Then she turned to Abigail. Her mouth opened, shut, then opened again. Yet no sound emerged. No sound, that was, aside from the keening sound of grief which may as well have been the opening of a deep, long-buried well of pain.

Abigail was there. Arms opening, she took the girl into them once more. This time, Theia returned the embrace. She held on tight, face dropping against Abigail’s shoulder.

And in that moment, she let go of everything she had taught herself to hold in. She let go of all the pain, all the loss, all the grief. She let it out. For the first time in over twenty years, Theia cried.

It would be a long time before she stopped.

*******

Present Day – Crossroads

 

On the far end of Crossroads Island, beyond the jungle and as far from the school as possible, Guinevere, more currently known as Harper Hayes, stood facing the ocean. Taking a step forward, she skipped a rock across the water, grinning to herself as it popped up and back down four separate times. “Whoo! Four. I mean, without any powers, that’s pretty good.”

“It’s tremendous, my queen,” Karlee, the woman who posed as Harper’s mother, announced from a few feet away. “But…” She took a step herself, arm snapping out to send a stone skipping across the water five times. “Perhaps there are still goals to reach.”

Giving the woman (who appeared to be in her forties with dyed blonde hair to hide the effects of early aging) a brief smirk, Gwen retorted, “And how long have you been practicing to show me up, hmm?”

A small smile played at Karlee’s mouth. “Would it be better if I said a very long time, or a very short time?”

Huffing, Gwen raised herself up with put-upon self-importance. “Never mind, I’ve decided I don’t care to know.”

Giving a genuine chuckle, Karlee looked out at the water once more while asking, “If you don’t mind my asking, your majesty, why did you want me to meet you here? It’s… rather dangerous, isn’t it?”

“I’ll make sure no one sees you,” Gwen promised. “But I needed someone to talk to, someone to… bounce off of.”

“About Joselyn Atherby’s daughter, and her friends?” Karlee asked. “Are you afraid that they don’t understand the danger they’re in?”

“Joselyn Chambers,” Gwen corrected absently before nodding. “And yes, them. But no, just the opposite. I’m afraid that, with everything that’s going on, all the… danger and problems they’ve gotten into, they’ll forget how to enjoy themselves. And with this… Jophiel situation, that could easily blow up in Flick’s face. They’re being forced to lie to their friends and… and that never turns out well.”

“And you’ve thought of telling them that you know, and helping,” Karlee realized.

Again, Gwen nodded. “I’ve thought about it. I just… right now, I think it’s better to wait. But I don’t know how much longer I can. What’s better, to talk to them, or wait and watch? I can’t do both. The moment I show myself, all my… anonymity is gone. But if they don’t know that they have someone else who can help them…”

Karlee hesitated then before quietly asking, “And the pieces? What of them?”

A long, heavy sigh escaped Gwen, her eyes looking away before she murmured, “Three. In the time we’ve had this year, I’ve found three of the six that we were missing. Three pieces of Arthur’s skeleton, buried or hidden somewhere here on Crossroads Island. They could be under the school, somewhere in one of the walls, even out in the middle of the jungle.”

“What about the Merlin Key?” the woman hesitantly asked. “Have you worked out which one of the students they are?”

“Not yet,” Gwen admitted. “One of the assassins who was sent after the Leven boy last month knew something, but he killed himself before I could get it out of him. He worked with Fahsteth, so I guarantee the shark-man knows. Right now, I need the pieces, then we can figure out who the Key is.”

“You’ll find them, your majesty,” Karlee assured her. “I know you will. It’s just a matter of time.”

Gwen turned a slight smile to her. “Thank you, Karlee. It’s just that time… well, that’s the one thing I’m not sure we have. Something big is going down, very soon. And when it does, I’m not sure it’ll be possible for me to stay at Crossroads anymore.”

As Karlee opened her mouth to respond to that, Gwen abruptly snapped her head around to look at the jungle. Her hand came up in a fist to stop the woman, before pointing with two fingers to her.

Karlee took that as the sign and used the teleportation stone she carried with her to vanish, disappearing from the beach an instant later.

Gwen, meanwhile, focused on the approaching presence she had sensed. Her eyes narrowed as the figure came closer and closer before eventually emerging from the bushes.

For a moment, Gwen and the new arrival stared at one another silently. Neither spoke. Neither moved more than their eyes for several long seconds.

Finally, the man spoke. “I have to say, all my powers, all our experience together, and I had no idea it was you. But Nimue? She and Apollo worked it out in a few minutes after going through all the files and recordings together.”

“Percival,” Gwen greeted the man calmly, even as she continued scanning him and the area around him for any other surprises. “You’ve changed.”

“You’ve… shrunk,” Percival casually replied, winking at her. “I remember you being taller.”

“I remember you being not allied with the enemy,” she retorted, though her voice was more appraising and calculating than accusatory.

The man lifted his chin. “I’m where Arthur told me to be. I–it’s a long story and we don’t have time. Gwen, I…” His face fell a bit and he let out a breath before looking back up to her. “There’s so much to say, but we don’t have time.”

“What’s happening?” she asked carefully, still watching him closely, though her suspicion had somewhat lessened.

The man sighed. “Let’s just say you need to get Felicity Chambers and her friends off this island, right now.

“Before they’re arrested with Gaia.”

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Interim Incursion 43-10 (Shiori)

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A thousand things were running through Shiori Porter’s mind just then. Things like, how does Aylen know that Flick is going to die? Or since when are you two that close? And even can we just win for one goddamn minute without another aspect of our lives catching on fire?

But only one question made it to her lips, as she and Avalon stood there with the fighting going on around them. “How?! How do we get to her?!”

Without warning, Seller abruptly appeared next to them. His hand went up, creating some kind of fire burst that incinerated one of the troops who was coming for them. “Get to who?” he asked tensely, even as his other hand threw a handful of what looked like metal pellets. Instead of hitting any of their enemies, each of the pellets struck one of his weird flesh golems. Instantly, all of the damage that had been done to them was healed, and the golems were encased in a metal armor that made them look like almost comically overweight knights.

“Flick,” Avalon quickly snapped, her eyes wide with fear, uncertainty, and worry. “Flick. We have to get to–” She cut herself off, clearly at a loss for how to explain what was going on in only a few words before finally settling on, “She’s going to die, Seller. She’s going to die unless we get to this grocery store parking lot within the hour! Please, please, we have to get to her. We have to get there, we–”

Seller cut her off, holding up a hand quickly. He didn’t question how Avalon knew that, or how she could be so certain. All he said was, “You’ll get there, kid. Don’t you worry. Take this.” He handed the other girl a different cell phone from the one she already had. From the brief glimpse that Shiori had, there seemed to be a number already dialed into it. “Hit send, tell her what you need. And kid, get your girl out of there.”

Taking the phone, Avalon started, “I–”

“Go,” Seller urged, giving them both a brief smile. “We’ll clean up here and get everyone out. Better to get the book clear of this place anyway.”

“Columbus!” Shiori hurriedly blurted, fear for Flick’s situation also making her think about her brother’s safety through all of this. She didn’t know how everything upstairs with the zombies had gone, or what the rumbling earlier had been.

“I’ll get him out,” Seller promised. “Him and all the others. You focus on Chambers.”

With that, the man moved to help Sands, Dries, and his own golems. In the background, Shiori could see Kohaku suddenly arrive as well, throwing her weight into dealing with what was left of Paschar’s troops.

Avalon already had the phone to her ear. Shiori could hear it ringing, even as she kept her own eyes moving back and forth to cover the other girl, just in case one of the Seosten’s soldiers made it all the way to them. It would’ve been pretty bad to be stopped from saving Flick just because she or Avalon happened to be stabbed by a lucky hit.

It only rang twice, before a familiar voice answered. “What’s wrong?”

“Athena?” Avalon blurted, eyes widening. “When did–” Cutting herself off from what were obviously a lot of questions, she gave a blurted explanation, that they had the book, but now knew for a fact that Flick would die in less than an hour at a grocery store parking lot.

Like Seller, Athena didn’t question the girl’s words. Instead, she snapped, “Hit the red button on the back of the phone and hold it down. Have anyone you’re bringing hold onto you.”

Quickly doing so, Avalon glanced over to Shiori, who put a hand on her shoulder. Both girls exchanged an uncertain and worried look, while the fighting continued on the other side of the room. Despite the fact that Aylen had said they still had time, every second that passed felt like an hour.

Only three of those seconds passed, while Avalon held the button down, before Shiori felt a wave of nausea wash over her. The room spun right along with her stomach, and she found herself staggering with a yelp, falling to her knees on what turned out to be dirt. The dirt road. They were on the dirt road that had led to the bank.

A moment later, a portal appeared beside the two of them, while they were still orienting themselves. Through it emerged Athena herself, looking a bit worn, with a cut along her cheek and another bit of blood visible on her shoulder.

Eyes widening, Shiori found herself blurting, “Did you warn Flick?! Did you–”

Athena held a hand up. “First, the book. You have it?” When the girls nodded, she went on. “Good. And no, I did not talk to her. This is future information, seer-words, correct?” She looked to Avalon, who nodded hesitantly. “As I thought. I’ve found that trying to change the future like that is… difficult. We could end up creating the very situation that leads to Felicity’s death, if we warn her. The best thing to do is to go to that parking lot and wait for the actual situation to present itself. We can stop it then.”

“Are you okay?” Shiori quickly asked, gesturing to the blood.

Glancing that way, Athena nodded. “Penalties of cutting a fight with my old shipmate short to handle this situation. I’ll be fine. Now what was that location?”

Avalon gave it to her, and the woman produced her special portal-creating knife. After a moment of thought and focus, she seemed to stab the knife into midair, ‘cutting’ out a door-shaped opening before gesturing. “Go.”

Shiori went first, quickly throwing herself through the portal. She ended up coming out on a sidewalk, right in front of a group of teenagers, who nearly walked into her. One of them blurted for her to watch where she was going, another calling out an apology while the rest snickered for some reason. All of them glanced back as Avalon appeared right beside her. None noticed the portal, nor the fact that both girls had come out of nowhere. The Bystander Effect doing its work.

“Avalon!” Aylen was there, jogging across the nearby parking lot to join them. “Shiori! You–” She stopped short, suddenly taking a step back as Athena appeared. “Who–”

“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed the girl, looking to Shiori and Athena herself before adding, “On both counts. The point is, she’s on our side.”

Shiori took a moment to silently admire how well that single sentence worked to respond to both Aylen and Athena about the other, while Avalon pressed, “What’s happening right now?”

Aylen’s head shook. “Nothing. There’s not–”

“Quiet,” Athena interrupted, suddenly moving to them while holding up a small metal stick with a spell scrawled on it. She muttered the activation word, and Shiori felt a tingling sensation on her skin. In the next second, a pair of dark vans suddenly turned off the road, pulling into the lot. As Shiori looked that way, she could see a young Relukun behind the wheel of the rear van. She also caught a glimpse of his passenger, an Orc whose tusks reminded her of Choo.

She was glad the little guy was safe from this whole thing, spending the day with the refugee Seosten children at the Atherby camp.

“Well,” Athena murmured while staring at the two vans as they parked in the lot with a space between them, “at least we know we’re in the right place after all.” She gave Aylen a curious look then before adding, “If we’re going to stop this, it has to be quietly. They can’t have a chance to warn anyone else that they’ve been compromised. Here.”

Shiori looked down to see the woman extending a different metal rod to her while explaining, “Take that with you. The three of you deal with the soldiers in the left van. I’ll take the right. As long as you keep that rod, they won’t see you or be able to send any messages. And girls,” she added with quick look to them, “quickly and quietly.”

They moved. Aylen and Avalon stayed close, while Shiori held the rod. Together, the three jogged across the lot toward the left van. They could see the occupants in the front, the Relukun and the Orc, chatting with someone in the back. They looked relaxed, which made sense. None of them had any reason to expect trouble here, in the middle of nowhere well away from any of the fighting.

Why would Flick end up here? What were these guys doing? What was going on? How did Aylen know the future? All that and more kept running through Shiori’s mind, even as she tried to shove the thoughts away. Focus, she told herself. Focus on the only important part right now: making sure Flick didn’t die.

They reached the van without incident. Having no idea what Athena was doing with the other one, the trio made a brief plan, then spread out. Shiori moved to the driver’s side, while Aylen set herself up near the passenger door, and Avalon moved to the back. Together, the three of them waited for each other to be ready, glancing back and forth while listening to the conversation going on in the van. It was Latin, so Shiori had no idea what was being said. But they seemed calm enough.

That calm wouldn’t last. By mutual agreement, Shiori and Aylen waited for Avalon to make her move. Which the other girl did by yanking the back of the van open. Shiori heard a yelp from that way, followed by the hum of her gauntlets coming to life.

The Relukun in the driver’s seat was already turning to look behind them, his Orc partner doing the same. Neither had any time to react before Shiori and Aylen each yanked their respective doors open. With one of her discs in hand, Shiori slammed it into the Relukun’s face, triggering the energy blade on it with a quick flick of her finger. He was dead before he even knew what was happening, as a brief rush of pleasure raced its way through her.

Aylen had dealt with the Orc just as efficiently, having produced some kind of curved dagger to slit his throat. Together, the two looked at one another, then leaned in to peer into the back, where Avalon crouched over a pair of bodies of her own.  

“Good.” That was Athena, suddenly standing just outside the van, her own targets apparently already dealt with. “That was quick and quiet. Excellent work, all… three of you.” Again, she gave Aylen a curious look before turning back to the subject at hand. “Now the situation is secure, and we have… time before Felicity Chambers’ apparent demise?”

Aylen, who was being stared at by all three of them, swallowed and gave a hesitant nod. “I–I think so. I mean, the feeling is a lot stronger now, but… maybe twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes,” Athena echoed. “Yes. I believe that is long enough to come up with a plan. And,” she added pointedly, “for you to explain just how you know this?”

“She’s a hybrid,” Avalon answered for the other girl, after the two exchanged looks and Aylen nodded faintly. “A hybrid of a–”

“Reaper,” Athena finished, sounding like she’d already known that and only needed it confirmed. “The hybrid daughter of a reaper…”

“Not daughter,” Aylen corrected. “Granddaughter. It’s–it’s a long story.” She murmured the last bit, glancing away.

“It answers enough for now,” Athena agreed. “I believe you’re right about the twenty minutes. So with that time, let’s decide how to handle it when Felicity and what are clearly going to be her captors do show up.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a decent plan,” Shiori pointed out.

“I mean, we’ve got the goddess of tactics on our side.”

******

The plan that they’d eventually came up with worked. Flick was saved from what ended up being Radueriel and Abaddon, as both of the Seosten bastards were sent through the portal that Avalon had created with Athena’s knife, with a little ‘help’ from the woman herself as she hopped out of Shiori (after using Excalibur to allow the hybrid girl to be possessed in the first place) to take them by surprise.

In the end, they were gone, and Flick was… well, not okay. She’d clearly been injured heavily enough that it wasn’t healing very quick. But she was alive. She was alive.

And… curious, obviously, about what was going on. The blonde girl’s eyes were wide as she stammered a confused response to Avalon asking if she was alright. “I… I… I don’t know. What the hell happened?”

Joining the other two, Shiori replied, “With the vault, or right now? Because the former’s a long story. And the latter…” Turning a bit, she looked toward Aylen, who perched on a lamppost where she had served as lookout and warning for when the bad guys had arrived. Without Shiori needing to say anything, Aylen flew down and resumed her… well, not human shape. She resumed her human-ish shape, her Reaper-like features revealed.

“Well,” Shiori continued while gesturing toward the girl. “The latter’s a long story too.”

Before she could say anything else, however, a new light suddenly appeared in the form of Tabbris popping into view. Her form settled, the light fading even as the little girl spun to embrace Flick so tightly that it drew a gasp from her. She was crying, clinging, and seemed to not care about Aylen’s presence whatsoever.

Shiori couldn’t blame her for that, after what they had just witnessed.

“Hey, hey,” Flick murmured, hugging Tabbris to herself. “See, we’re okay. We’re… we’re safe, partner.” She held the little girl tight, before looking up to Aylen. “I guess we’ve both got secrets.”

Aylen, for her part, hesitated before extending a hand. “I guess we do. I’m… glad you’re okay, Flick.”

“She’s how we found you guys,” Shiori explained as the two shook hands. “She could sense that you were going to die here, so she called Avalon and… well, we came to help.”

“That’s why you disappeared,” Flick realized then, looking over to Athena. “That’s why you weren’t fighting Abaddon anymore.”

Athena gave a slight nod. “Averting catastrophes in the future is dangerous. But this was worth it. That said,” she added then, giving a quick glance around, “we should leave, now. We don’t know if anyone else was meant to meet them here.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed, “or if they’ll just send reinforcements themselves.” She blinked to the other woman then. “Where did you set the knife to send them, anyway?”

With a slight smile, Athena replied, “Let’s just say I promised Lucifer that I’d send them somewhere special that he and Sariel set up. They’ll be busy for quite awhile. But yes, we need to go.”

“Yeah,” another voice spoke up, snapping Shiori’s attention that way, “going is probably good.”

It was an almost ethereally pretty (and thus probably Seosten) brunette girl who stood next to Pace. Who–wait.

“Theia?” Shiori found herself blurting, eyes blinking back and forth between them. “And Pace? Wait–wait, you guys…”

“Another long story,” Pace replied with a nod. “But… yeah, we’re separate. It’s…” She looked up, her eyes moving not to Shiori, but to Athena. “She’s dead. Kushiel, I mean. Kushiel is… is…” She looked over to Theia.

“I killed her,” Theia confirmed. “I killed Momma.”

Looking taken aback, Athena took a moment to respond. “A… a long story indeed. And one we will need to hear, once we leave this place.”

Together, Shiori and Avalon helped the injured Flick up. The girl couldn’t walk very well, leaning on both Shiori and Avalon. Which, honestly, Shiori wasn’t going to object to at all. Tabbris was right there too, as they went through the portal that Athena created, which led them back to a spot near the Atherby camp, with the lake visible in the distance.

And now that they were out of immediate danger, Shiori could focus enough to see the book that Tabbris held clutched against her stomach.

“You’ve got it,” Avalon breathed, seeing it at the same time. “You got the other book.”

“Does that mean you’ve got the–” Flick started, before stopping short as the girl held it up. “You’ve–we’ve… we… we did it.” Her voice sounded awed. “We actually got both of the books. We’ve…” Then her face fell.

“Flick, what’s wrong?” Shiori asked, confused by the reaction.

“Shiori…” Flick started. “I… we… I have to tell you something. I have to tell you… about… about Seth…”  

*******

“They’re going to have a memorial,” Asenath quietly murmured a couple hours later, as she and Shiori stood on the edge of the lake. Up near the cabins nearby, Gaia and Gabriel Prosser were debriefing everyone who had been involved in the assaults and the distractions, thanking them for everything they did to help, and informing them that while they had taken losses, the missions were successful. They had the spell, though it would take time for Dries and the others to work it into what they wanted.

Shiori felt a hard lump in her throat as she closed her eyes while whispering, “For Seth?”

Asenath nodded. “Well, for everyone who was… who died. They lost a couple in Prosser’s group when they stopped the Seosten reinforcements from attacking Gaia’s group at the bank. They’re going to put their names on a memorial that they have here at the camp. It’s where they list the names of everyone who was killed in the service of stopping the Seosten. Or just evil in general.”

“He belongs there,” Shiori started to say, before the words choked themselves into a knot in her throat. “I mean… I mean he belongs here. He belongs here. I know he–he was–” Everything she had been trying to say came out jumbled, and she found her eyes suddenly flooding with tears.

Asenath took her, hugging Shiori to her with a murmured, “I know. I know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t–that I didn’t… that he…” She too had to stop talking for a moment until she collected herself. “We didn’t always get along, but… but he was always there when I really… I thought he would always be there.”

Together, Shiori and Asenath stood with the soft waves of the lake gently lapping against their feet. They were silent for several minutes, barely hearing the words of Gaia in the background.

“Did she say something about Crossroads earlier?” Asenath finally asked.

“Yeah,” Shiori confirmed. “They’re sending everyone–I mean the students–back to Crossroads early, stopping the field trip because of the… you know, the ‘attack’.”

Asenath nodded. “So it worked? They managed to make it look like the Seosten were responsible for the thing at the bank?”

“Technically, they were responsible,” Shiori pointed out with a tiny, almost humorless smile. “But yeah. Sariel, Apollo, and the other Seosten did a run-through and rewrote memories, and Gaia messed with the security recordings. Now everyone in charge over there thinks that it was another attack by the bodysnatchers. Which kind of screws over the party line that they were all beaten.”

“Boo hoo,” Asenath replied dryly. “Maybe they’ll actually do something about it now.”

Nodding, Shiori replied, “I just kinda want to see the Seosten scramble to fix this again. Especially now that they lost the spell completely, and Kushiel’s dead.”

“Clearly a great loss to the universe,” Asenath snorted while putting both hands on Shiori’s shoulders. “So you’ll come back in a couple days for the memorial?”

“Yes, of course,” Shiori agreed, moving to embrace her half-sister. “Do you think…”

“I think Mom will be here too, yes.” Asenath returned the hug. “But right now, I think what everyone needs is rest.”

Caught in mid-yawn, Shiori blushed. “I… yeah, I guess it’s been a pretty long day, huh?”

“You can say that again,” Asenath replied.

“You know, if you can do it before you fall asleep.”

******

Obviously, neither Shiori nor Avalon were in any mood to leave Flick alone, after the injury she’d sustained and what had almost happened. She’d nearly died. Literally. If it hadn’t been for Aylen, she would have. She would have been gone, and none of them were going to forget that any time soon.

So, they slept together that night, literally. Shiori, Avalon, and Flick stayed in the room belonging to the latter two, dragging blankets and pillows down onto the floor between both beds to form a sort of nest before the three cuddled up together. They burrowed deep under the covers, falling asleep almost immediately after the long day that they’d all had. None of them had energy to spare, not even Flick with her Amarok-derived stamina. They were beat. But hey, at least they had the books. And Professor Dare had given Flick something that was supposed to help her sleep so that her legs would completely heal.

For her part, even without being drugged, Shiori felt as though she could have slept for days after everything that happened. As it was, hours seemed to pass in an instant from the time her head found its way to the pillow beside Flick before her eyes finally opened once more.

When she finally did wake up, it was dark. Not that being dark meant that much given her senses, but still. Everything was slightly dim, and it took Shiori a disorienting second or two to even understand why she was awake.

Then it came to her in a sudden rush. There was someone else in the room, someone else crouched right near them, directly beside Shiori. A figure knelt there, with a knife in one hand, its blade glinting in the slight moonlight that came in through the nearby window. She had no idea who it was, because their face was covered by a dark, featureless mask.

Shiori immediately started to shout while trying to sit up, her hand moving to grab the knife. But the figure’s own hand snapped down to cover her mouth, and she felt some kind of invisible force catch hold of the rest of her body. She couldn’t move, couldn’t even make a sound, or kick out to wake up Flick beside her. She was completely frozen. Even her attempt to yank the knife away from the figure with her metal-control power accomplished nothing.

As it turned out, however, she didn’t need to move any more than that. Flick was already sitting up, with Avalon right behind her. Both other girls were moving so quickly that Shiori wondered if they had already been awake, silently planning on what to do about their intruder.

Flick moved. Avalon moved. And the masked stranger moved as well, blade flicking through the air. Yet, even as Shiori strained in vain to use her metal-control power to yank the blade off-course, that course turned out to not take the knife anywhere near any of them. Instead, the intruder threw the knife across the room, to where another intruder had in that instant stepped through the closed door like it wasn’t even there.

The second figure was clearly intangible. Yet the knife didn’t care, embedding itself in their shoulder anyway a second before there was a sudden spark of what looked like electricity. They jerked in place, giving a soft yelp of surprise before collapsing.

It was enough to make Flick and Avalon both come up short, the girls freezing just as completely as if they too had been caught by the same power that held Shiori motionless.

Or had held her. It disappeared then, leaving the girl to jerk in place, while the figure stood quickly, turning to face them.

“Get up,” the intruder spoke in a voice that was at once familiar and also completely foreign in its tone. “We have to go.”

“Who the hell–” Flick started, her own senses not quite advanced to the point of picking out the voice. Not that knowing who it belonged to help explain anything in Shiori’s mind.

“We have to go,” the figure repeated, before reaching up to take the mask off, revealing, sure enough, Harper Hayes.

“Listen to me very carefully. Fossor is making his move. He just used Flick’s mother as a distraction to kill one of the Committee members, and blamed it on Gaia. They arrested her, and now they’re coming for the rest of you.”

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Interim Incursion 43-09 (Avalon Part B)

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Exactly how Avalon knew that the woman in front of her was Liesje, she couldn’t say. She had never seen a picture of her. Despite that, she knew with utter certainty that this was indeed her ancestor, the woman who had started all of this. Or an image of her… or a ghost. And somehow, someway, she had drawn Avalon and Paschar to this grassy field overlooking the ocean. Unless…

“We’re not really here,” she realized, looking around for a second. “We haven’t gone anywhere.”

A smile broke across the ghostly woman’s face, and she gave a single nod. “Very good, Hannah. No, you haven’t gone anywhere. Everyone in that room is exactly where they were, including you. It’s frozen for the moment while we talk right here in your head. And his.” Her eyes turned slightly toward Paschar then, softening with regret.

“You…” For his part, the Seosten man had been stunned into silence for those few seconds. Now he spoke in a voice that shook from the intense emotion he was feeling, while taking a slow, hesitant step that way. “I–you are… you are dead. You are not here.”

Liesje smiled sadly. “You’re right,” she agreed, “I’m not here. This is no more than a memory, a ghost of sorts. This is a magical copy of my mind at the time it was made, when I left my spell in this vault. It’s as close as I could get to being here when my eventual descendant returned to finish my spell.” She seemed to swallow hard before adding, “And when you came, Paschar.”

Despite the simplicity of her words, the man flinched as if she had physically struck him. “I never wanted t–” He stopped himself then, falling silent for a moment before audibly sighing. “You are not here. It hardly matters to speak of it. And yet, I wish to tell you that I am… sorry. I–I am sorry, and I am… so very angry.” He lifted his gaze finally, staring past Avalon at Liesje’s ghost. “You and Dries were supposed to leave. You were supposed to run away. I told you to protect you. I wanted to save you. I wanted you both to walk away and live. I would have gone with you.”

A litany of retorts came to Avalon’s mind right then, making it all the way to her tongue as her mouth opened. But before she could say them, Liesje quietly spoke for herself. “He was my father, Paschar. I could never abandon him without trying to save him from the slavery that you told us about. You showed us what he was going through, and thought that I could walk away?” Her head shook slowly. “It wasn’t in me. I didn’t… I didn’t believe that it was in you.”

“I heard this part,” Avalon finally put in, needing to speak up. “You–the three of you were… you were together?” Her eyes snapped toward Paschar, feeling a rush of hatred and disgust. This was a man who had been responsible for so many terrible, evil things in her life and in the lives of her family for so long. He was the one who had hurt them, who had killed them, who had… who had done so much. It was all him, and he had been a lover of Liesje and Dries? She had been left reeling and stunned for a bit, but now she wanted to curse. And rant. And throw things.

“Yes.” Liesje turned to face Avalon, putting her back to Paschar. “We were together. We were happy, or I believed we were. We loved each other, all three of us, together. Dries and I believed that Paschar was a natural Heretic of some creature. He didn’t show us his possession capability until… until the end, until he finally revealed the whole truth. Before that, we just… we hunted together. We trained together. We explored, learned, played, and lived together. Paschar was…” She looked away from Avalon then, eyes closing briefly as a single tear made its way along her cheek. “He was everything to us.” Eyes opening then, she added, “We didn’t know that we were a job for him, that he was… assigned to watch us while my father was forced to do his work.”

“You were more than a job,” Paschar abruptly spoke up, starting to step that way. “You were both everything to me. I was willing to throw my people away and escape with you!” His voice rose at the end, turning sharp before choking itself off as he stopped, head shaking silently.

Rather than acknowledge his words, Liesje focused on Avalon. Her hand rose to touch the girl’s face, and Avalon actually felt it. Or her mind was deceived into thinking that she felt it. Either way, it was as close to real as it could be, and she found herself somehow instinctively leaning into the touch.

“We thought we had a spell that would eject the Seosten enslaving my father,” Liesje quietly explained. “But it failed. It failed and the Seosten knew what we had tried. He… attacked me. He would have killed me, but…”

“Dries intervened,” Avalon finished for her, having heard that part from the man himself before. “He saved you, but he killed Hieronymus to do it. And that still left the Seosten. Radueriel.”

“I was too injured to do anything then,” Liesje informed her, looking over her shoulder at the silent and motionless Paschar briefly before turning back to Avalon. “But Dries sacrificed his freedom, his chance of escape, to send me away. Thanks to him, I escaped and survived. But Dries was taken away. And I was hunted for the rest of my life. One of my beloveds had become the prisoner of an invincible empire on the other side of that sea of stars in the sky. And the other… the other became my hunter, tracking everywhere I went, never more than a step or two behind.”

“I had no choice!” Paschar suddenly interrupted, the turmoil he had carried with him all that time boiling to the surface. “You never understood that! You refused to understand it! I loved you! I–I still love you. But I can’t–” His face twisted from emotion, and he gave a violent shake of his head. “I can’t betray my people! I can’t betray the universe! You would create a spell that would end our ability to do what we must do to defeat the Fomorians! You would destroy our entire society, our–our civilization! I love you, but I could not allow that!” His voice cracked sharply. “I cannot… cannot allow it.”

“I don’t understand,” Avalon found herself saying. “How could you come here and make this vault if the Seosten were already after you by the time you knew to make it in the first place? How could you put this spell here at all, if they were looking for you? Because before they were looking for you, you couldn’t have known to make it. And afterward, you shouldn’t have been able to… to even get in here without them grabbing you.”

Some part of Avalon, a quite large part, thought that even having this conversation with everything that was going on was completely insane. Hell, not throwing herself at Paschar in a clearly vain and impossible attempt to kill the bastard felt just as wrong. But when would she ever have a chance to talk to Liesje Aken, or even a memory-ghost of her, again? Everything in this year, everything had been fucked up and crazy in some way. So why not this moment too?

Liesje herself was already replying to her actual spoken question. “The Heretic world wasn’t as… united in those days. The group who created the bank that you’re standing in were separate from what became this… Crossroads. The Seosten eventually swallowed them up and made most of the separate groups part of this single organization. It was easier to control them that way. But at the time, this place was run by people completely unconnected to… to the people who took my father and started all of this. It was enough to let me create this vault and ready it to hold the spell. And to put… myself here, of course.”

“How did you create it at all?” Avalon demanded, staring at the ghostly woman. “All these people, all these ancient people and you managed to create a spell that can totally fuck over their entire civilization? How? Are you–I mean were you just…”

“Just that brilliant?” Liesje finished for her, before shaking her head. “No. I mean, I like to think I get by, but no. I had a lot of help from Grandfather and Bastet.”

Blinking a couple times at that, Avalon started dully, “Who?” She could see Paschar voicing the same question, clearly equally confused.

The woman smiled faintly. “That is a much longer story than we have time for. But you’ll find it in the book. I recorded more than just the spell there. Some of it may not present itself to you immediately, but I wrote quite a bit, and it will be there for you when the time is right.”

“Why?” That was Paschar, moving closer to step right behind Liesje. “Why tell her that much? She can’t take the book, Leesh. I–I can’t let her take it. They can leave. They can all leave, even Dries. I can let them go.” His tone turned pleading, almost desperate. “I can let them go. But I can’t let them take the book. I can’t let them take the spell. It has to end here. Don’t you understand that? Please. It has to end here. No one else has to die.”

“No one else?” Avalon retorted, her voice rising as she took a quick step that way, toward the Seosten. “No one besides my mother, you mean? No one besides everyone else you’ve hunted down and killed for this spell, including her?!” She pointed to the ghostly figure of her ancestor, hand shaking violently. “You wanna talk about love? You’re a fucking monster!”  

Paschar snarled at her. “You think I wanted any of this? Do you think this is my ch–” He cut himself off then, head shaking silently before he managed to speak through gritted teeth. “As I said, we can end this entire thing right here, right now. You walk away, I take the spell and destroy it. Then it’s over. It’s done. I can convince my people to leave you and yours alone.”

“You mean give up,” Avalon snapped despite herself. “You mean give up and just let your people keep enslaving everyone against their will. Let you pieces of shit keep using us.”

“Would you prefer the alternative?” Paschar demanded. “If we were not here, the Fomorians would be. And believe me when I tell you that that is an enslavement far worse than the one that we offer. You have a gilded cage under our touch. Under theirs, it would be a living hell.”

“Option C,” Avalon retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Everyone who isn’t an enslaving, murdering, torturing piece of shit teams up against the rest of you and puts you all where you belong.”

Paschar looked as though he was going to violently snap something before stopping himself. He took a long, deep breath before focusing on her once more. “You need to listen to me. None of this has to go on. Please. Stop this now. We destroy the spell and then it’s over. Your friends, you, the people you care about, they can all leave.”

“My mother can’t,” Avalon reminded him in a soft, yet firm tone. “Because you helped kill her.”

The Seosten man physically recoiled as if she’d actually struck him, eyes dropping as he made a noise that was half-denial, half-grief. “I did–I didn’t…” Taking in another breath, he looked up to her, clearly shaken. “No one else has to die for this. If you use that spell, billions will. Trillions. Do you understand that? Do you understand the scope of what you’re doing? Millions of worlds rely on our armies to protect them. If you take away or… or weaken our ability to provide Heretic troops, you are condemning them to die.” He was pleading again, desperately trying to make her understand this from his point of view.

“This isn’t about abandoning those worlds,” Avalon informed him tersely. “It’s about not being slaves. We’re not going to be your tools anymore. You want Earth to help you, you need to be our partners.”

The man’s eyes narrowed uncertainly at that. “What is that supposed to–”

She interrupted. “Sands was telling the truth. It’s like she said, we’re using the spell, but we’re changing it. You want to possess a Heretic, you need permission. Permission from them. No permission, they can kick your Seosten ass right out. No more slavery. Like I said, partners. Allies. We’ll find the ones who will work with us, and we’ll put an end to the monsters, Fomorians or otherwise.”

Paschar stared at her open-mouthed for a moment before collecting himself. His head shook. “That won’t work. In the time it would take to explain everything, to reconfigure our training, to convince humans of how important it is… the Fomorians will take more worlds. Maybe enough to completely turn the tide. And who’s to say that you humans will even want to keep helping? Your world is safe. Even if enough of you can be talked into it, that’s even more time. And those who won’t help–that’s… the war is hanging by a thread as it is. If we lose our Heretic supply…”

“You fought this war without us before,” Avalon informed him. “For a pretty long time, in fact. And you have plenty of humans off world already. You’ll tell your people to come and negotiate in good faith, to come and work with us. Because enslaving? That’s not going to work anymore.”

“Or they’ll come in force,” he pointed out. “If they can’t keep this going quietly, they might just bring enough strength to take the world openly.”

Avalon didn’t blink. “Sure. And if they do, it’s gonna be awfully hard to convince all those humans to work with them willingly, isn’t it?”

“Look, I…” Paschar seemed to look past Avalon for a moment, toward Liesje’s ghost before turning back to her. “I understand. I understand your… your goal here, and your feelings. It’s admirable. I even understand your hatred of me. I–I would feel the same way. But you can’t do this. I… I cannot let it happen. I won’t endanger the universe like that, not for you. I wouldn’t do it for Leesh and Dries. I won’t–I can’t let you put everything at risk. Millions of worlds rely on this. It’s too much. It’s too important. I won’t let you take it.” His voice was hoarse from emotion.

“Won’t let us?” Avalon echoed, staring him down. “Who said we needed your permission?”

“Your people are spread out across the bank,” he quietly reminded her. “I have far too many soldiers for you to win this, even with Dries. This will end badly for all of you. Please. It’s your last chance. Walk away from this. If you don’t, I can’t save you. Please don’t make me hurt you and Dries again. Please. Don’t force me to kill you. I don’t want to. But I will if it comes to it, if you force me to. And you don’t have the power or the numbers to stop me.”

Before Avalon could respond to that, Liesje spoke quietly. “You mean they didn’t.” As both Avalon and Paschar blinked that way, she continued. “You see, this… here, what we’re doing? It wasn’t only meant to let me talk to my descendant and you for sentimental reasons. It was also because I knew that you would outnumber them. I went to a seer, and they saw it. They saw that my descendant would have help coming, but that it would be too late. Only by a matter of minutes, but too late is too late. You would win, again, simply because of a few minutes.”

Paschar realized what she meant after a brief second of shaking his head in confusion. “Wh–the time stop. You’ve stopped time here in the vault to talk to us like this, but it’s still going everywhere else. You still–”

He was interrupted by Liesje, who moved to touch his face. “I loved you,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry it came to this. I’m sorry that everything between the three of us… went so wrong.”

The Seosten opened his mouth, but abruptly, he disappeared, cast out of the… vision or… whatever it was. Then Liesje turned to Avalon. “Hannah,” she spoke gently, her expression softening even more. “Dear Hannah, everything you’ve been through, everything… I am so sorry. I’m sorry that we couldn’t handle this a long time ago. I’m sorry for what happened to you, everything I’ve seen in your memories, it’s… you have had a hard life. But you have friends too. You have a family. You have a mother. Take the book. It is only one of two you need for the spell. The other is in the Auberge, where your friends went. You need both books to complete the spell. Take them. Do what you need to do. And tell Dries… tell Dries that I love him, and that I am proud of him.”

“Wait!” Avalon blurted. “I–I have… I have so much I… I want to say, so much I want to ask.”

“I know,” Liesje quietly, sadly replied. She met her gaze, speaking only two more words. “Good luck.”

With that, Avalon was suddenly moving once more. Moving, that was, just as Paschar slammed into her. The two of them went to the floor, tumbling end over end right in front of the podium with the book on it. The Seosten man crashed down on top of her, and even as Avalon tried to bring her arm up to cut with her energy blade, he caught hold of her. The force of his grip nearly broke her arm, while he hissed a quiet, “I am sorry.”

Then he jerked to the side, his head snapping away just as a blade was shoved through the air where it had just been. Just as quickly, the Seosten spun, ducking to avoid the follow-through from his attacker.

“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” Seller announced while lashing out with a kick. That one connected, sending Paschar off of Avalon with a grunt.

The Seosten clearly boosted, suddenly back on his feet with some kind of bow made of solid energy in his hands, the string drawn back with four arrows. He loosed all of them simultaneously, each heading for the green-suited Heretic faster than a bullet. All of it happened so quickly that the only reason Avalon could follow any of it was the vampire speed she’d picked up.

Seller, in turn, moved just as quickly. His hand snapped out, throwing what looked like five red marbles. Four of those marbles went for each arrow, transforming in midair into a small bird which then grabbed the shaft of the arrow to pull it off course. The fifth, meanwhile, turned into a tiny worm or… caterpillar or something. Whatever it was, the thing went straight through Paschar’s open mouth.

The Seosten went to fire another quartet of arrows, but Seller held up a hand to stop him. “Nuh uh. You don’t wanna do that.”

“I won’t let you take the book,” Paschar snarled, adding a fifth arrow in that time. “It–it–” Blinking a couple of times, he made a face and staggered. “What…”

“Yeah, that’s the little friend of mine you just swallowed,” Seller informed him. “My daughter Edeva, she used to call them boom-bugs. That one’s gonna burrow its way to your heart and then… well, it’s right there in the name. So you can stand here and fight until your heart literally explodes after a worm crawls into it, or you can go get some help. Your choice, but I’d be quick about it.”

“I–I won’t–I won’t…” Trying to say the words, Paschar staggered again. He lifted his bow with somewhat shaking hands, until another figure moved next to Avalon. Dries.

That was what it took. Being faced with his heart exploding wasn’t enough. But seeing Dries there, that pushed Paschar over the edge. He made a noise of despair before abruptly disappearing. Recall. Whoever his last host had been, he’d used the recall to them to escape.

“Hey, kid,” Seller spoke simply while turning to extend a hand to her then, “hope you didn’t actually think I’d miss this whole thing.”

“Seller!” Avalon blurted before taking his offered hand. “You–”

“Not that I’m objecting to the help,” Sands abruptly announced while skidding to a stop, with Shiori right beside her. “But what are those things?”

The question made Avalon’s gaze snap over toward the sound of fighting on the other side of the room. Paschar’s troops were still there, but they were… occupied. There were a dozen reddish-brown golem-like creatures of various shapes and sizes fighting and tearing into the Seosten’s troops.

“You… you’re using your bio-powers,” Avalon breathed. Seller and Gaia shared an origin, she knew that. They had both gained powers from the same creature, gifts so potent that even a Natural Heretic could only take one aspect of them. While Gaia had received the gifts of technology control and understanding, Seller had taken the nature and biology-based gifts. Among those was a potent bio-tech skill, such as making those golems, the birds-from-marbles, the boom-bug… and more.

Unfortunately, after the war with the Fomorians, he didn’t tend to use that aspect very much, for its… connotations and the reactions they provoked in anyone who had been through those battles.

Seller gave a very faint smile to her words, and winked at the confused Sands. “Well, I figured if this wasn’t the time for it, nothing ever would have been. Now go on, grab that book so we can get out of here. My guys can hold the line, but we’ve still gotta leave. Get the book and let’s get the hell out of this place.”

She went. Mind racing from everything she had just learned, and what it meant, Avalon raced those last couple of steps to the podium. Her hand snapped out… and she caught hold of the book.  

She had it. She had the book. After everything that had happened, after… after… She had it. That was the point. She had it, and she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone take it from her. Keeping it clutched to her chest, Avalon looked quickly to the fighting. Paschar may have been gone, but there were still plenty of problems between them and the way out of the vault.

While shoving the book into a special pouch inside her jacket, Avalon abruptly felt her phone buzz deep in another pocket. Just as it did, she heard Shiori shout a warning. More of the Seosten troops had arrived, overwhelming the line of golems to attack. Seller and the others were already fighting, and one of the soldiers (a blue-skinned lizard with compound eyes) was almost on top of her, flying on bug-like wings that beat blindingly quickly).

She threw herself backward, avoiding the pike that the lizard-bug was trying to impale her on. Just as quickly, she had to duck under a spray of spit that he followed up with. It wasn’t normal spit either, considering the little bit that caught her gauntlet before instantly hardening into some incredibly durable resin.

Her phone was still buzzing throughout that, including adding a pair of chimes to let her know that a voicemail and then text message had both been received.

The bug-lizard made a loud chittering cry and charged through the air, flying straight for her. Avalon let him come, then focused on her own ability to temporarily borrow other people’s abilities. One in particular: his resin spit.

She felt it in her mouth, and just before he would have reached her, she spat into his face and twisted aside. The spit went right into the creature’s eyes and instantly hardened, forming a blindfold of sorts while he squealed and flailed.

It was enough of a distraction for Avalon to take his head off with a sweep of her energy blade, all while her phone buzzed yet again.

Cursing, she checked the phone finally. Aylen, having some kind of breakdown. Taking a quick look at the scene in front of her, she answered it quickly, just to avoid being distracted. “Aylen, it’s not a good time.”

She started to hit the disconnect, only to hear the other girl shout, “Don’t hang up. It’s about Flick! Is she there?!”

Flick. It was about Flick? Avalon froze, looking to where the others were fighting just in time to see a reddish-rock creature come barreling for her. Quickly, she moved to intercept, forgetting the phone in her hand for an instant as she cut through the rock-man’s arm, drawing a cry of pain just before she followed up by putting her blade through his chest.

“Flick?” Avalon snapped through the gasp of pleasure. “No, she’s not here. She’s… what about her?” A sudden thought came then. “Wait, she’s not with you…”

Aylen’s reply came tersely. “No. No, but if you don’t listen and come here as soon as you can, she’s…”

Fear clutched her, as Avalon snapped, “She’s what?” In mid-sentence, she saw two of the Alter troops produced some kind of automatic rifles as they took aim at her. Quickly, she dropped to one knee and put her gauntlet up, turning the blades from one of her gauntlets into a shield that intercepted the bullets. By that point, Seller was there, dealing with the two of them swiftly.

Aylen’s voice came back then, with an announcement that made every other thing instantly disappear. “She’s going to die.”

As those words settled like a lead weight in the pit of Avalon’s stomach, the girl continued. “I’m at a grocery store parking lot. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know she’s going to die right here fairly soon. Maybe another hour? I’m not sure. But it’ll happen. I can give you the address.”

Shiori was there, hand on Avalon’s arm. Her eyes were wide with confusion and terror. She’d heard. Through the fighting that continued in the background, the two of them stared at each other.

“Are you positive?” Even as the words came from Avalon, she knew they were absurd. Of course the girl was positive.

Sure enough, the answer came. “Yes. Trust me. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, what you guys are doing right now, or anything. But I know that if you don’t help me stop it, she’s going to die here tonight.”

There was no hesitation. Avalon didn’t care what else was going on, how many soldiers they had to go through, or what was standing in their way. She didn’t even care that she already had the book they’d come for, or that there was already a fight going on right then and there. One thing and one thing only was on her mind. Saving Flick. Everything else, even the thoughts of the real history between Paschar and her ancestors was just… noise.

“Where are you? We’ll be there.”

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Interim Incursion 43-08 (Avalon Part A)

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Through the maze of corridors in the Crossroads blood vault bank, Avalon Sinclaire sprinted with Sands Mason, Shiori Porter, and her own great-something grandfather. The sound of their racing footsteps echoed up and down the halls as the quartet followed their memorized directions toward the goal that so many had been working toward for literally generations.

“How small do you think the odds are that we’ve actually got a clear path to the vault now?” Shiori asked as they went straight through the second-to-last intersection. They’d already followed Doug’s pen marks to get back to the actual path without encountering any problems.

Without looking at the other girl, Avalon snapped, “About as small as me being able to throw a stick and hit the sun. Keep your eyes open, watch for spells or traps.”

Sure enough, barely a few seconds later, Dries called a sharp halt. The man, who had been content to stay behind them up to that point, moved past the girls. He stepped a couple feet forward before raising a hand and extending it slowly, with a look of intense concentration. “There,” he murmured, while tiny sparks of what looked like electricity danced over his fingers.

Biting her lip, Avalon glanced to the others before hesitantly asking, “What is it?” She still felt awkward, talking to a man who was actually related to her without wanting to stab him repeatedly. It was a really new experience that she just… really didn’t know how to react to.

It also didn’t help that Flick wasn’t here. Of all the times throughout this year that Avalon had imagined what would happen at this point, how all of this would go down, Flick had always been there. Her presence in those imagined scenarios, no matter how bad they went, was always a comfort. But now… now she wasn’t. She was off helping with another part of the mission which… while important, wasn’t here.

God, that felt selfish to think. Avalon knew that. Consciously, she knew it was wrong, and tried to shove the feeling away. But it just wouldn’t completely disappear. She wanted Flick to be with her. Especially now. They were so close to reaching the spell that Liesje had left, so close to finally ending this whole thing after all this time. Flick should be here with her. With them. With Avalon and Shiori. The two of them having to do this part without her was wrong.

Dries was answering. “En–en–trapment spell.” He hesitated, shifting on his feet before explaining, “If you trigger-ahh-ahh trigger it, your brain is trapped in a simulation. You’d think you were going t-t-to the vault but you’d really just be standing there.”

It took a moment, but he disabled the spell. Avalon made sure to watch what he was doing, paying close attention. Not that she had any expectation of being able to do it herself any time soon, but she wanted to learn. If the situation hadn’t been so urgent, she would have insisted that he talk the whole process through. But in this case, that felt like something that could wait.

It certainly wasn’t her last chance to observe him. Over the next few minutes, it seemed like they hit another protection spell every other step. And they started getting much nastier very quick. Dries muttered about just how dangerous the spells were as he disabled them, carefully untangling various effects with an expert touch. But even he couldn’t do it alone through simple lack of enough hands. In those cases, he would call Avalon or even the other two girls forward and tell them exactly what to do, placing a hand in one spot, pushing power here or there, saying a word, anything that he couldn’t do by himself because he was focused on another point. It was slow-going, but still a hell of a lot faster than it would have been if they’d just walked right into the spells.

And yet, even knowing that, the time it took still made Avalon squirm and twitch a little despite herself. Which, combined with the way Dries constantly squirmed and twitched, made the two of them look more alike than they ever had.

Finally, it was there. The vault in question was right in front of them, only a few steps away. As Dries disabled the last spell, however, the floor around them suddenly shook.

“Wha-what was…” Shiori started, stumbling a little as her gaze whipped around.

“Not here,” Dries assured her. “Definitely not here. That is… that is something else.”

“What do we do?” Sands asked, looking to Avalon. “That could be something bad.”

Slowly nodding, Avalon agreed, “It could. But we can’t do anything about it. We have to trust the others to deal with… whatever it is. We’re here. Come on.”

With those words, she stepped up to the vault. The doors looked like any of the others they had passed, two simple metal structures that had apparently been enough to stop the entire Seosten Empire from getting into the room beyond.

Well, that and the fact that the vault itself was actually located in a pocket dimension unreachable by any other means. But still.

As she neared them, the doors actually changed color. Instead of being that simple white-silver, they shifted to a faint red with a two much darker spots in the shape of handprints, one on either door.

Following Dries’ instructions, Avalon reached up to place one hand against either of the prints. She held them there, even as a slight tingling sensation ran through her. The spot where her hands were grew warm almost to the point of being uncomfortable, but she left them there anyway. It took almost five full seconds before there was a very soft, almost inaudible chime. The handprints disappeared as the doors turned blue then, sliding out of the way to reveal the room beyond.

It was open. After all this time, after everything that had happened throughout her life, the oh-so-important vault was open. Swallowing, Avalon glanced to the others. They were waiting for her.

She stepped inside. With the others right behind her, Avalon stepped into the vault. It was circular, with a single podium in the middle where a book sat. The spell. Liesje’s spell. It was right there.

Unfortunately, the four of them had barely taken a few steps inside before they were interrupted.

“Did you really think it would be that easy?”

The voice came from behind them, at the doorway into the vault. As Avalon and the others turned, they found themselves looking at a man. He looked… well, he looked like an elf. Or at least the Tolkien version. He was tall, with long blond hair and an eternally youthful, innocent face. His eyes were a bright, bright green that reminded Avalon of the forest, his figure almost feminine in its androgynous shape. A long, thin sword hung from his hip, while he held a bow made of solid energy. Arrayed around the man there just inside the vault were more than a dozen other figures of various Alter species, all of them heavily armed. Worse, more were quickly filing in by the second, until over twenty troops were there.

The elfen man spoke once more, as they all stared at him. “I’m afraid we cannot allow you to leave with that book. Though perhaps, if we reach a deal, you can leave with your lives. Would that be enough for you, now that you and I have finally come face to face after all this time?”

“Honestly?” Avalon snapped at the man, “I have no idea who the fuck you are. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t care even if I did. You’re just–”

“Paschar.” That was Dries, the man trembling with only barely constrained rage as he took a step in front of Avalon, literally blocking her from the other man. “He is Paschar.”

“Dries?” The man, Paschar apparently, sounded taken aback, his eyes widening as Avalon’s ancestor stepped into view from behind the others. “Is… is… that you? It… I… my… friend.”

Somewhere behind Avalon, she heard Shiori quietly whisper a confused, “Friend?”

It was the wrong thing to say. Dries took two steps that way, apparently heedless of the weapons being pointed at him. “We are not friends!” he snapped angrily, fury burning through his voice. “You betrayed us. You betrayed Liesje.”

“I… I betrayed my own people first,” Paschar quietly, yet firmly replied after his voice caught briefly. That bow continued to aim steadily at Dries, though he didn’t release the arrow. “I made a mistake. I betrayed them for Liesje, for you. I told you what they were–what we were doing. I told you the truth, and you almost destroyed us. You murdered Liesje’s own father.”

Avalon’s eyes snapped back to Dries as the man retorted, “Radueriel would have killed Liesje! I did what I had to do to protect her. I killed her father because I had no choice, because Radueriel gave me no choice! And I would do it again, all day, every day, to protect her.”

“I loved you!” Paschar shot back, all of the forced calm in his voice vanishing. “You and Liesje both! I loved you both. I told you the truth, I gave you the–” He stopped, taking a moment to collect himself emotionally before blurting, “You were supposed to leave! You were both supposed to run away! We were–we were supposed to…”

For a moment, the man stopped again, dropping his gaze to the floor before taking a long, deep breath. His voice shook. “We were supposed to escape… together. We were supposed to build something new, the three of us. You weren’t supposed to confront them. You weren’t supposed to kill him. You weren’t supposed to be taken away, or become the new holder of–” He sighed, closing his eyes. “I loved you. I gave you a chance. That was a mistake. One that I have spent generations rectifying.”

“Um.” Sands slowly held up a hand. “Am I the only one who is just totally lost right now?”

“Liesje and I were in love with him,” Dries quietly spoke, his eyes never leaving Paschar. “We thought he was human. We… we spent a lot of time together. Then he told us the truth. That’s how we found out that her father was possessed, that he hadn’t really made the Heretical Edge at all.”

“And you were supposed to run away,” Paschar snapped. “I told you everything to show you how far it went, to convince you that staying was idiotic and pointless. You let her go to her father. You might as well have doomed everyone yourself. I trusted you to get her out of sight, to run away. I would have run away with you. I wanted to run away with you.” With those words, the man’s voice actually shook a bit, as the admission, or maybe the memory itself, tore something from him emotionally.

“Liesje wanted to save her father,” Dries retorted, his voice cracking as well as he kept tightening and loosening his fists. “If you’d actually known anything about her, you would have understood that. You would have known. But you didn’t. Y-you just wanted to–”

“I wanted her to live!” the Seosten man all-but shouted. “I wanted Liesje to live. I wanted you to live. I wanted all of us to live! I wanted us to escape! I gave you both a chance! Do you know what that cost me? Do you have any idea what my–what I had to–what…” He trailed off, the obvious rush of emotions twisting his expression to something far uglier for a moment before he reigned them in.

In love? Liesje and Dries had been… had been in love with this… this Paschar? Some part of the back of Avalon’s mind found a twisted bit of humor in that, given that he had played Eros/Cupid while the Seosten were pretending to be gods here on Earth. But still, it left her reeling. Her mother… her family… they had been… this man right here had been the one… he…

She finally found her voice then, as her confusion and anger mounted. “Wh–you’re the one who helped chase our whole family down! You’re the one who killed my mother, who helped make my father hate me, who used a love potion on Tangle! You turned Torv against me, you destroyed my best friend! You made me kill him!”

The Seosten man’s expression softened then, as he glanced away with a visible wince. “Yes,” he murmured. “Yes, I did. I’m not proud of it, any of it. I never wanted to hurt Liesje’s family. That’s why I… why I took such a hands off, slow, careful approach. I didn’t want to do it myself. I never wanted any of this to happen.” By that point, his voice had dropped to barely a whisper.

“Never wanted it to happen?!” Avalon grabbed Dries by the arm, using it to yank herself in front of him while her eyes glowered to the point of nearly reducing the man to cinders if she’d had that particular power. “Never wanted to spend hundreds of years systematically hunting down the woman you claim you cared about and her every descendent?! You destroyed our lives! You! You chose to do that! You are a piece of shit!” Even as she spoke, Avalon instinctively triggered her gauntlets to produce a pair of humming energy blades.

She started to take another step that way, but Shiori was there on her right side, putting a hand on her arm to stop her from going any closer.

Paschar raised his eyes to stare at her, not looking away. “I didn’t want to. Liesje wasn’t thinking straight. The thing she wanted to do, the spell she wanted to make, it–” He cut himself off, grimacing as he fought for the right words before forcing them out. “It would have destroyed the universe. She wanted to block Seosten from possessing any Heretics, ever. Without Heretics, do you have any idea what would happen on the front lines of the war with the Fomorians? The front lines would become Elohim. They would overrun everything. You’ve heard about what happened the last time the Fomorians were here on Earth. Without us, without my people, you would have been overrun. Earth would be a Fomorian world and your people would be their slaves, forever.”

Avalon’s head shook once. “It wasn’t the Seosten who kicked the Fomorians offworld and put up a spell that blocks them from ever coming back.” Even as she spat the words, the girl was trying to think of a way to get over to the podium where the spellbook was seated without making what had turned into two dozen troops arrayed around Paschar reduce her to cinders. She was kind of surprised they hadn’t already opened fire. An opening. She just needed an opening, and if Paschar wanted to talk until she saw one, all the more power to him.

Besides, right now she really wanted to know what the hell had happened between him and her ancestors.

The elfen-looking man nodded. “Yes, but it was my people who helped yours last long enough for that to even be an option. Earth lasted for years before getting to that point. Do you think they could have done that without Seosten help? The Fomorians would have destroyed your civilization and turned you all into their tools to annihilate the rest of the universe.”

Dries spat from behind her, his voice full of fury that left him barely capable of coherent words. “None of that matters! What matters is you! You! You chose to hunt down our family! You chose to destroy their lives, for hundreds of years! You—you’re the reason Liesje is dead! You’re the reason any of this is–that any of that–that–We loved you!” The last three words tore their way from him in a violent outburst, a scream which seemed to make the entire room shake.  

He shoved Avalon back then, suddenly crossing the room in a blur of motion to throw himself at the other man. Before he was halfway there, the surrounding troops threw up their weapons and fired.

But their shots hit a forcefield… created by Paschar. The Seosten held his fist up, a glowing stone held tight in it that was clearly producing the shield.

Whether he’d created the shield to stop his men from shooting Dries, or to stop Dries himself from reaching him, Avalon had no idea. And to be honest, she kind of doubted anyone in the room, including Paschar in that moment, knew either.

“I loved you too,” the Seosten quietly murmured, staring at the other man through the glowing shield. “I loved both of you.” His voice cracked a little bit. “I still do. Whether you believe it or not, I do love you, Dries. But I cannot endanger the universe because of my feelings for you, just as I could not endanger it because of my feelings for Liesje. I never wanted to hurt either of you, but I will not allow the Fomorians to destroy all life because of it.”

Dries looked like he was going to say something else, but Sands interrupted. “You don’t have to!” The girl took a quick step over by Avalon’s left side, opposite Shiori. She edged in front of the other two a little bit while everyone looked at her. “We can work together. We don’t have to fight right now. We’re not… we’re not trying to use the spell to ban Seosten from ever possessing humans. We’re going to change it, we’re going to make it so that Seosten can only possess Heretics with permission. If your people work with us, if they talk to us and explain the whole situation with the Fomorians, we can be allies! We won’t be slaves, but we can be your allies. We can work together.”

The surrounding Alter soldiers looked at each other, while Paschar just stared past Dries at Sands. Slowly, his head shook. “That is a fine, noble sentiment, girl. But it is… naive. Do you think that the Fomorians will quietly wait for us to sort out that kind of thing? Do you think they’ll hold back their attacks until we have reorganized our entire society? Your people have often had a thing called a draft, in times of desperate military action and war. This is your draft. It may seem unfair, and… and it is. It truly is. But the alternative is complete universal devastation. The Fomorians will not negotiate. They will not stop. They will not spare man, woman, or child. They will destroy this universe and all life within it. And we cannot afford to give them one more centimeter. I’m sorry. I truly am. But it won’t happen.”

He paused then before adding, “But I have come to offer a deal. Walk away. Leave this vault now without the spell, and neither I nor any of my people here will stop or harm you or any of yours. You can leave. You can walk away. Then we take this spell, and your family will be safe. With the spell gone, we’ll have no reason to come after you. You can leave.” His expression actually turned pleading then. “Please. Just walk away. I don’t want to hurt any more of you.”

“You know what, dude?” Sands spoke up for all of them. “Fuck you.”

With those words, the girl swung up hard with her mace, bringing a wall between them before blurting, “Go, go!”

Avalon and Shiori were already going. Pivoting on their heels, they sprinted toward the podium. Behind them, Sands worked to cover them with rapidly generated walls while backpedaling. There was other fighting going on in the background, with Dries. Avalon tried not to think about it. The book. She just had to get to the book.

“Go!” Shiori blurted, just as a sleek, eel-like Alter slipped past the wall and lunged at them. She intercepted him, diving into his path in a collision that took both to the floor.

Avalon kept going. The podium was right in front of her. She felt a tingle around her as she neared it, hand extending.

“No!” The voice came from surprisingly close. Paschar. He’d used his boost to reach Avalon, slamming into the girl. Both of them went to the floor, as she tried her best to roll with the impact. They hit the ground, skidding and tumbling over one another.

Then… then she was rolling on grass. Avalon felt that and dirt under her as she scrambled to her knees, gaze snapping around wildly. The podium was gone. The vault was gone. Everything was gone. She was sitting in a grassy field, in the middle of nowhere. Nearby was a cliff overlooking the ocean. “Wha–”

“Where are we?” Paschar demanded. He was there, about ten feet from her and already picking himself up. “What happened?”

Avalon scrambled to her feet as well, igniting her blades once more while glaring that way. Her mouth opened to say something, only to find herself interrupted by another voice.

“Hello, Paschar.” The beautiful, tall brunette who suddenly stood between them announced before turning to Avalon. Her form was partially-translucent, like a ghost. “Hello, Hannah.

“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time,” Liesje Aken informed them.

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Interim Incursion 43-07 (Tristan)

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The entrance to the staff elevator was set up against the wall a couple feet from the regular one, only really hidden if you weren’t looking for it (and hadn’t just seen a creepy yarn-creature disappear into it a few seconds earlier).

Standing in the elevator with Scout, Sean, and Columbus after they’d pried the doors open, Tristan Moon bounced his foot anxiously while staring upward. “Top floor. Gotta get to the top floor. That’s where the bomb is.” He could see it perfectly in his mind, the memory of that Strings-creature’s thoughts crystal clear. As was the memory of just how terrible possessing it in the first place had been. It wasn’t like possessing a normal person. It was like being part of a hive. He’d nearly lost his mind and entire separate sense of self just in those brief seconds. It was an experience he never wanted to repeat, and shuddered now at the thought that the memory would always be a part of him.

But it saved Scout, so it was worth it. And if it helped them disable this bomb, it would be even more so. All they had to do was get to the thing before Strings set it off.

“It’s not moving,” Columbus blurted while hitting the elevator button a few more times. He grimaced, looking to Tristan. “Strings must’ve shut it down. I could try to get into it and turn the power back on, but–”

“Too long,” Tristan quickly agreed. “We’ll just have to get up the old fashioned way.” He wasn’t quite to the point of blind panic. From what he’d read in that… creature’s mind, even once it was armed, the bomb would still need time to gather energy before it actually exploded. They couldn’t exactly dawdle, but the explosion wasn’t going to happen any second.

Spending years helping Grandpa Nick and growing up on his ship had really helped with that whole ‘keeping calm when a bomb wasn’t literally seconds from exploding’ thing. Even if he tried not to think about that time too much at the moment since he knew it would be at least five years before he could have any contact with them. Consequences of time travel that had been thoroughly hammered into his head by Nicholas, Gaia, and more recently by Apollo and his mother. No matter how much he missed Nicholas Petan (or the other people who meant a lot to him, like Dexamene), he could not have any contact until their current time had caught up with the other man’s.

So for now, Tristan focused on dealing with the current problem, moving under the hatch in the elevator roof before looking up. It was pretty high, about nine feet up in this enormous elevator. Luckily, he could handle that. First, he touched the spell on his clothes that would send them into the pocket of the Seosten bodysuit that he wore underneath, not wanting to rip them. Then he let Bobbi-Bobbi off his arm, letting her sit in the corner of the elevator in snake mode for the moment.

Flashing the others a quick grin, the boy couldn’t help but note, “Let’s just hope that safety plaque over there isn’t lying about how much weight it can hold.”

Focusing briefly on his growth power then, Tristan made himself tall enough to reach up and push the hatch open. Then he reached down for Sean, picking the boy up before giving him a lift out of the hatch. He did the same for Scout, Columbus, Bobbi-Bobbi, and Vulcan before catching onto the edge, shrinking down to his normal height, and climbing out to join them.

Standing on the roof of the elevator, all four of them (plus the cyberforms) looked up. The shaft was long, with the top floor where they needed to get at least the equivalent of forty stories away.

“Why is this thing so big?” Columbus demanded with obvious exasperation. “The vaults are all below us, right? So what the hell is above us that takes up that much room?”

“Offices,” Tristan answered, remembering what he’d taken from that piece of Strings (that String?). “Security training rooms. Apartments for the permanent employees. I think a bowling alley too. Things like that. Even an on-site hospital. Oh, and generators for all the power they need. Electrical and magical.”

He paused then, before making a face. “Can we go? I sound way too much like Nessa right now. And Strings already has enough of a head start anyway. It’s gonna take time for them to get the bomb going, but not that much time.”

“I don’t think I can teleport that far,” Columbus murmured while staring up that way. “Especially not with all of you. I could try teleporting from floor to floor in those little elevator doorways, but that’s gonna wear me out pretty quick.”

“Nah,” Tristan replied, “I’ve got this one.” He moved to the other side of the lift, making sure to give the others as much room as possible before growing once more. That time he hit his full ten foot limit, which brought him within a few feet of the next floor. Close enough that, with brief hits from his boost, he could hop up and grab the elevator doorway, hauling himself onto it.

It wouldn’t have been hard to get up the elevator shaft normally. He could’ve done it as a child, scrambling up between the walls and cables. But with the added height and boost, it was even easier. He hopped from floor to floor, jumping to the side of the shaft, using the cable, or just clinging to the wall with his feet dug into small crevices. He climbed the elevator shaft in just a few short seconds, barely slowing to pay attention to what he was doing long enough to make sure there were no trap spells waiting at various stops.

Then his head hit an invisible forcefield just as he was starting to make one of the last jumps, and Tristan yelped. Nearly losing his grip, the boy windmilled before grabbing a nearby wall to catch himself. Grimacing, he looked up. Sure enough, the powerful shield hummed a little. He was three floors from the top.

With a sigh, he looked back. This was going to have to do. Settling himself against the nearest elevator doorway, the boy reached out for the cable and began to haul back on it. Bit by bit, he hauled the elevator with his friends on it up to meet him.

The bomb. Every bit of him itched to go after that bomb. But Grandpa Nick had hammered it so many times into his head to not run off by himself in situations like this. And there had been more than a few involving bombs, some of which were much closer to going off than this one was.

He knew they had time. He’d seen it in that String’s… brain, such as it was. But even telling himself that the bomb would need at least a few minutes to fully prep and deploy once Strings got to it didn’t really help that much. It was a bomb, they had to get to it now. Now. Holding himself back, forcing himself to be calm and smart about things, it wasn’t easy.

“What happened?” Scout asked him as soon as he’d hauled the elevator up to his level. She was standing with Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around her waist, the snake’s head resting on her shoulder as both stared at him. She glanced upward at the several floors-worth of shaft yet to go.

“Forcefield,” he replied, “gotta find another way up.” With that, he shrank back to his normal size, before turning to face the closed elevator doorway leading to the corridor beyond. “Bobs?”

His snake unwrapped itself from Scout, lunging to him while he held his arm out for her. As soon as the cyberform was reattached to him, Tristan shifted her from cannon-mode to blade-mode and shoved the end through the tiny crack in the doors, using that to pry them open before pushing the rest of the way.

The others joined him, stepping off the elevator roof and into the corridor. The place was deserted. It looked like the lobby of some office building, complete with an empty receptionist’s desk ahead of them. There were signs on the wall about how to get to each office through the three different corridors (one to either side and one straight ahead past the desk), and even a flyer advertising some kind of staff basketball tournament.

Quickly scanning all of the signs, Tristan pointed. “Stairs. There, that way!” Without another word, he started running to the left, trusting the others to follow.

“How much time do we have?!” Sean called as he ran alongside Tristan, with Vulcan a few feet ahead. “And why does a bomb have a time delay before it goes off anyway?”

“It’s the only way they could do it,” Tristan replied without breaking stride. “The bomb needs a lot of power to break through the whole building with its defenses and take out everything below us. But if they had it just sitting there with all that power, Heretics who weren’t on their side would’ve noticed. They would’ve sensed it. So they had to leave it and let the thing charge up when the time came. Besides,” he added, “they figured if the bomb took a few minutes to charge up, they could nail Avalon and whoever was with her on their way out of the vault. You know, destroy the spell after she brought it out for them.”

“Two birds, one bomb, got it,” Columbus put in from behind him. “So we just have to get to it before it finishes charging up.”

Nodding her agreement, Scout added, “What if it’s about to go off?”

“It can’t be,” Tristan informed her and the others, “we’d feel it. Believe me, we’ll know when the bomb hits its half-charged point.”

He started to elaborate on that, only to stop as they reached the door leading into the stairwell. Without pausing, he lashed out to kick the door open, passing right through it. Unfortunately, a familiar hum brought him up short. Cursing, he lashed out to punch the forcefield blocking the way on the stairs. “Damn it!”

He looked toward Scout then. “Can you use your scope-portals to find the shield generator and destroy it?” Then his eyes flicked over to Columbus. “Or, or can you teleport through it?” He was mentally flailing, every other thought he had some version of wishing that Vanessa was there. She was smarter. She could have figured this out.

Scout’s head shook, even as she lowered her rifle. Her voice was soft. “Scope can’t go through.”

“Neither can I,” Columbus reluctantly muttered. “It’s protected against teleportation.”

“Can we just cut up through the ceiling?” Sean quickly put in, staring upward while shifting Vulcan into his minigun form.

Tristan’s head shook. “It’s all made out of starship grade metal. Trust me, Vanessa made m–starship grade metal!” He interrupted himself to repeat those words, eyes widening.

“Tristan?” Scout prompted as he went silent for a second, mind racing. “Are–”

He interrupted her that time. “Engraver! I need a–” Fumbling in his pockets, he finally came out with a field-engraver, promptly shifting himself up to a tall enough height to reach the ceiling even as he began frantically drawing a rune there. Too slow, it was too slow! He had to be faster. But he also had to get it right. It had to be just right. And he was too focused to explain anything. Thankfully, the others didn’t ask. They just waited while he drew the spell, planting power in it at the appropriate times.

Time. How much time did they have? Not enough. Faster. Remember faster. Draw faster. Work faster. Tristan scrambled, almost messing up the spell, which would have been the end of… everything. But at the last instant, he caught himself and adjusted the swirl of the line he was drawing. Just a little more. Do it right. He had to do it right the first time.

Finally, he tapped a hand against the completed rune, shoving the last of the power into it before dropping back to his normal height. “Please, please, please…”

It worked. The rune briefly glowed with a pale red light, before tiny darts of energy shot out of it to form a circle about four inches across. There was a brief high pitched sound like an electrical saw, before a small hole abruptly appeared in that space where the circle had been.

“Columbus!” Tristan blurted, “now, now, you can get through that, right?!”

With a nod, the other boy caught hold of everyone, pulling them in and snapping, “Hold on.” He stared up through that hole to the next floor up, and quickly transported them. Then they were through. They were on the next floor, in a hallway just outside what turned out to be the gymnasium.

Without wasting a second, Tristan was already moving for the stairwell ahead of them. He didn’t say anything to the others. There was no need, they were right behind him.

“What did you do?” Sean quickly asked once they hit the stairwell. “How did you do that? Did Vanessa-”

“Not Vanessa,” Tristan started before cutting himself off. Reaching ahead of himself on the stairs, he muttered a prayer… and was rewarded with no forcefield. They were already past it, and the bad guys hadn’t put one on every level. Pumping his fist briefly, the boy started to race up the stairs three at a time while continuing to explain. “Grandpa Nick! They use bigger versions of that spell during battles in space to transfer metal from these big blocks they have in order to patch holes or weak points in the hull. I just reversed it and sent metal from that little spot to other parts of the ceiling. It would’ve taken longer to make something big enough for all of us to get through, but since all you needed was a clear view to teleport through…”

By the time he finished giving that brief explanation, they were at the top floor. The door was locked, but Tristan was completely done with letting things delay them. He simply shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her cannon form, pointed, and blew the door open.

They emerged onto the top floor, an area for executive offices and the suites for the bank’s leadership and owners. It looked like a semicircle with half a dozen open doors spaced evenly along either side of a much larger set of doors that were straight across from the stairwell and elevator. The smaller doors led to vice-presidential areas, while the big ones right in the middle marked the entrance to the bank owner’s private home and personal office.

“Through there,” Tristan announced, moving for those doors. “They’ve got the bomb in the owner’s private quarters, it was the only way to make sure no one found it before they were ready.”

Just as they reached the doors, the group suddenly felt a heavy rumble go through the floor around them. It only lasted for a second, but all of their eyes widened as they looked to each other.

“It’s half-way through powering up,” Tristan snapped. “Which means we’ve got three minutes. Three minutes before it goes.” Even as he spoke, the boy was already racing for the doors. These too were locked, and resisted two quick shots from Bobbi-Bobbi. “Fuck!”

Scout’s hand caught his arm then, as the girl unslung her rifle with the other hand. “Together,” she muttered.

The others were already moving to do the same. Columbus put his hand to his goggles to move them up to full power, while Sean set Vulcan down to let the cyberform shoot on his own, taking VJ in his rifle form to add just a little more firepower. Together, they took aim for the middle of the doors, where they joined. Tristan counted down from three, all while hearing the inevitable clock of that bomb counting down each precious second.

They fired together, a sudden deafening cacophony of violent gunfire and lasers that blew the doors in, leaving a smoldering hole where they had been. Alarms finally started blaring, but none of them cared. They had to get to the bomb, now!

Two and a half minutes. Tristan’s internal clock was telling him that was how much time was left, even as they raced through the broken doors and he led the way in a dead sprint. Could they make it to the bomb in two and a half minutes?

They had to. It wasn’t a question. They would make it because there was no other choice. The Seosten Empire was not going to win this. Period, end of story.

Paying no attention to the lavish penthouse they were racing through, Tristan and the others ran straight for the back room, where the generator was. That would give the bomb its initial oomph, which it had just spent the past several minutes charging up into the devastating, skyscraper-demolishing explosion that it was about to trigger.

Step by step, they passed other rooms in a blur. One and a half minutes left. One minute, fifteen seconds.

At exactly one minute according to Tristan’s internal clock, they reached the room in question. It should have been a simply utility room with a couple generators and temperature regulators.

Should have been. The Seosten had… changed it. As the group raced into the room, they found it much larger. Football field-size, in fact. At the far end lay the bomb they were looking for, a device that looked like a dark blue cylinder pulsing with energy while surrounded by coils of metal and a complicated computer system. With every passing second, the cylinder was pulsing faster and brighter.

And Strings was there. Standing just in front of them, the hive-minded creature seemed to bounce from foot to foot, waving oversized hands. “Just in time,” they called. “Just in time to boom.”

“I got this,” Columbus snapped, catching hold of Tristan. He focused, then stopped. “… can’t teleport. Something’s blocking it. Something–”

“No cheating!” Strings interrupted. “No more cheating. Just stand there and be blown sky high like good children!” As they spoke, as if to add emphasis to the words, the hive-creature hit a button on a remote they held in one hand. Instantly, the full one hundred yards behind them leading to the bomb was taken up by hundreds of crisscrossing lasers. Some stationary, some mobile. It was a maze of deadly light. And Columbus couldn’t teleport through it.

Thirty seconds.

“Keep them busy!” Tristan snapped. He was already dropping Bobbi-Bobbi, leaving the snake behind as he ran straight for the lasers.

Behind him, his cyberform along with everyone else all opened up on Strings, driving the creatures to throw themselves out of the way, just as Tristan go close enough to leap past them. A half-dozen strings raced out toward him, but he dropped his size down to being a foot-tall, letting all of them miss before returning to his normal size.

Columbus and the others had Strings then, keeping the creatures occupied. Which just left the lasers, and the distance. Twenty seconds and a football field worth of deadly beams of light.

The record for the hundred yard dash among humans was just under ten seconds. And they didn’t have to deal with a shitload of lasers blocking their path.

But they also didn’t have Tristan’s boost, so he was going to call it even.

Kicking that on, the boy felt a rush of power and speed run through his entire body. He tore across the open space toward the bomb. Every move he made was instinctive, trusting his body to know how to avoid the lasers. They came from every direction, forcing him to dive, leap, spin, roll, and lunge to avoid them. At one point, he threw himself through a tiny square of open space between three crisscrossing beams, only able to make it through by shrinking himself down briefly.

But through it all, he kept moving. He kept running for the bomb.

Fifteen seconds.

Ten seconds.

Five seconds.

Lunging through the last row of lasers, Tristan’s hand slapped for the spellwork lined along one side of the bomb. He could feel the power in the thing rumbling through the floor and making his teeth rattle.

Four seconds.

Finding the right spot, he shoved his fingers into the appropriate spots and quickly began blurting the cancel code that he’d taken from Strings.

Three seconds.

The code was out, the system waiting for verification, which he snapped hurriedly.

Two seconds.

One second.

It stopped. The bright pulsing blue light suddenly went dim, and the bomb powered down.

Half-collapsing against the device, Tristan only belatedly remembered Strings. He quickly spun that way, finding the lasers shut down as well. Scout and the others were there, about halfway to him, while Strings was glowering, vibrating with anger. “Bad, bad, bad!” they snapped, quivering furiously. “Master will not be glad for this. Master will be very angry. Master-”

In mid-sentence, another figure suddenly appeared beside Strings before falling to the ground. It was a Seosten, heavily injured. His head was bald (and covered with blood along with his clothes), and he had a snake tattoo.

“Master!” Strings blurted, reaching for the gravely injured Seosten. The man, in turn, used what looked like the last of his strength to grab onto his extended hand, before disappearing into one of the String-creatures.

Tristan had already pushed himself back up and took several quick steps to join the others. Bobbi-Bobbi wound her way over his arm to resume her place, as he and the rest braced themselves.

But Strings apparently had no interest in fighting. Spitting a curse at them and a promise to make them pay for hurting Master, they disappeared.

“Is… is that it?” Sean demanded, staring at the spot where the creatures had been. “They just ran away?”

“Don’t trust it,” Columbus snapped. “They might come back.”

Tristan nodded. “He’s right. We wait here and guard the bomb, make sure Strings or… anybody else doesn’t double back to turn it on again. We’ll keep it safe.

“And hope Avalon gets into that vault soon.”

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Interim Incursion 43-06 (Vanessa)

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Two figures, one male and one female, sprinted full-out down the corridor with vault doors on either side of them. Their footsteps, pounding loudly against the floor, echoed through the hall along with the sound of their heavy breathing.

Not even thirty feet behind them, the giant snake was hot on their heels. Its tongue flicked out, coming close enough to almost taste the pair, while the caustic gas it continuously exhaled withered the walls around itself to mark its own path. The snake was so fast that it kept nearly catching up to the two, only slowed at various corners and turns that they made to keep it from overrunning them. Even that didn’t help too much, since the snake simply shrink down for a few seconds to make the turn.

Maybe running wasn’t the right word for what the snake was doing. Overslithering them.

“The funny thing is, I’ve had nightmares exactly like this!”

As Doug Frey’s words interrupted her thoughts, Vanessa glanced sidelong at the boy. “Nightmares about being chased through a maze of corridors by a giant snake with acid breath?”

“Okay,” Doug admitted, “the acid breath is new, but other than that!” Producing his pen, the boy clicked twisted the cap to go through his recorded options. “I don’t know what else to hit it with! It’s already shrugged off three spears and any of my spell balls that I try to throw at it.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa confirmed, “Larees said they’re kind of resistant to magic. We don’t have any spell that can hit it hard enough to matter.” As she spoke, the girl freed the Seosten laser pistol that she’d acquired earlier. They were sprinting down a long corridor by that point, racing full-out with the snake catching up with each passing step. Before it could make that last lunge, she pointed the pistol over her shoulder and triggered three quick shots. The first two struck the snake in the eyes, while the third found its flicking tongue. The snake gave a terrifying sound of pain and anger, but didn’t stop. It did, however, slow fractionally to recover, buying the two a few precious extra steps.

In those steps, Vanessa’s other hand snapped out ahead of them, sending her whip that way to crack against one of the walls. At its touch, the whip left a glistening silver rune. A quick snap of the whip the other way left an identical rune a few feet further on the opposite wall.

The two of them ran through the planted traps just fine. But when the still-reeling snake passed through them, they triggered a cloud of intensely cold, supernatural ice that made the summoned creature slow just a little bit more. Another few steps were gained, saving the two from the snake’s stomach once more. It did not, however, solve the overall problem. As resistant as the snake was, they were lucky the ice-mines even slowed it down. They could (barely) hurt it and (kind of) slow it, but nothing actually stuck. Nothing seemed to last long enough to matter. And they didn’t have time to actually prepare anything better with it so close. Unless…

“We can get far enough ahead to buy some time,” Vanessa informed the boy beside her, even as the snake was shaking off the last of the ice effect and began catching up once more. “If I boost us.” With those words, she extended a hand toward him.

Doug hesitated only for a second, before his own hand grabbed hers. With a thought, Vanessa possessed him. She let him keep running (an easy thing to do with his hat), and focused on boosting the boy. Suddenly, he was running much faster, almost flying down that corridor. The snake lost ground, particularly when they turned the corner at the end of the hall and kept going.

Vanessa only kept the boost going for about fifteen seconds. But that was enough to buy some time. Once it was done and Doug slid to a stop, she hopped out.

“Can’t get too far ahead,” the boy muttered, “or the damn thing’ll just shrink down, turn around, and go back to find the others.”

Vanessa nodded, looking back the way they’d come. They could both hear the snake’s approach, though it wasn’t in sight yet. They’d gone just far enough to buy a few seconds to talk without being interrupted by the thing trying to eat them.

Thankfully, she already had a plan.

“You can make anything you draw, right?” Vanessa quickly blurted. “I mean, anything simple without a lot of moving parts.”  

“Uhh, yeah?” The boy was clearly confused. “I mean, for about ten minutes at least. Why?”

“Can you draw it big enough to block the hallway?” she pressed, already turning to start running so they could stay ahead of the snake. “Look.” she pointed as they passed another set of doorways on either side of them. “Can you make things that fit into that doorway from one side to the other, so the doorjambs hold it in place? Like a wall.”

“Sure,” he confirmed, glancing at her while they ran to maintain their lead over the snake. “But you know it’ll just melt through anything we put in its way.”

“Path of least resistance,” she replied, “it wants to catch us.”

Now he was even more confused. “What does that–”

“Take this,” she interrupted, reaching into a pocket before tossing the boy a bag without breaking stride. “Mom and Uncle Apollo made Tristan and me make up emergency camping supplies if we ever got lost somewhere. There’s books, tools, sleeping bags, weapons, everything.”

“Okay…” Doug opened the small bag, peeking within. “And why is that useful now, Vanessa? And what does it have to do with anything we just said?”

“Take it and keep going,” she hurriedly instructed, pointing down the hall. “Get out of sight so you can set things up.” Even as the girl spoke, they could hear the snake in question, and glancing back showed it turning the corner behind them. It would catch up soon, so they only had a few more seconds to talk.

She took advantage of them, quickly telling Doug exactly what to do. She told him how to set up what they needed, stressing just how important it was that he do it right.

“And what are you gonna do?” the boy demanded, even as they continued running to stay ahead of the snake for just a bit longer.

“I’m going to be my brother,” Vanessa informed him. “Since he’s not here to do it.”

“Be your brother?” Doug was baffled. “What does that even–”

“I’ll buy you time!” she interrupted, pivoting back the other way. “Just do everything I said!” With that, Vanessa began to sprint back toward the snake, raising her hand to touch a spell that had been stitched into her shirt. As it was activated, the spell sent her clothes into a safe pocket dimension, leaving the blonde girl in the simple skin-tight Seosten bodysuit.

That done, she lifted her appropriated pistol, firing several quick shots. She hit the snake’s tongue each time, even as the thing jerked back and forth wildly. It was easy. She just thought about where she wanted the shot to go, and it went there. She knew exactly where to point the gun, exactly when to pull the trigger, exactly how to adjust it for each movement… she just knew.

The shots did more to annoy the snake and sting it a little bit than any actual damage. Still, they made sure that its attention was on her. Not that there was much question of that, considering she was running straight at the thing.

The instant she was close enough, the thing struck. Its head snapped down at her as quick as… well, as quick as a snake. But Vanessa used her boost to react just as quickly. With a grunt, she launched herself up, letting her super-leaping ability carry her all the way up to the ceiling, over the snake’s lunging head and its acidic gas.

Then she shape-shifted. Because Vanessa had discovered something interesting while experimenting with her powers. When she normally shifted into her bird or bear forms, it took at least a few seconds. Longer for the bear. But if she was boosting at the time, the change was almost instantaneous.

In the blink of an eye, she was suddenly in her bird form, above the snake’s head. With a few quick flaps, she flew down the length of it to the tail, even as the snake was still trying to figure out what had just happened.

Reaching the opposite end of the snake, Vanessa flipped around in the air while shifting into her human form. Her human form with her weapons. Because thanks to Uncle Apollo, the Seosten bodysuit she wore had been given a little upgrade, which made it so that anything she was holding when she shifted would disappear, automatically shunted into the same space as her clothes, and then reappear instantly when she shifted back.

So, with weapons in hand, she landed, skidding from her own momentum while snapping her whip out to create a fire rune against either wall. Both exploded immediately, turning into a brief, yet intense ball of flame right on the tip of the snake’s tail.

That got its attention. The summoned creature shrank, spun to face the other way, and regrew almost in the span of time that it took for Vanessa to take two quick steps backward. It had inverted itself that easily and quickly, and was practically right on top of her once more.

It lunged again, but Vanessa leapt backward while snapping her whip down at where her feet had been. This time, she created a wind rune. A sudden gust blew into the creature’s face. It did nothing to damage the thing, but it did blow all of its caustic gas away for the moment.

Vanessa took advantage of that. Boosting again to speed her shifting, she threw herself at the snake while changing into her bear form. Now a massive grizzly, she slammed her meaty, furry, frying pan-sized paw into the side of the snake’s head, colliding with a satisfying thud that drew a brief noise of pain from the snake. Before it could recover, she slammed her other paw into the opposite side of its head, digging deep with her claws. It wasn’t going to kill the thing, but she did some damage. If the snake hadn’t already been pissed off, it definitely was now.

By that point, the snake had begun to spit up more of that acid cloud. But Vanessa boost-shifted again, going back to her bird form to retreat down the corridor a bit with a couple quick flaps, luring the thing after her and giving Doug space to work.

She repeated that process a couple of times, clearing the gas before shifting to bear to dart in and do a little damage. It was annoying the snake, which was the point. Plus, it gave Doug more time.

But it was also predictable, which Vanessa didn’t want to be, since she had no desire to be eaten by a snake anytime soon. So she had to mix things up after a few quick rounds of that.

Back to human again, and that time, she made a quick grasping motion with both hands. The air itself seemed to solidify, forming what looked like a pair of almost clear glass balls in her palms.

This was the power she had inherited from the minor Olympian Seosten that she had killed (with a lot of help from her father and Larissa) back at Kushiel’s lab. She could solidify air into these extremely durable ‘glass’ balls and then control them with her mind. According to her mother, the Olympian she had taken it from had been able to make more of the balls and then reshape them into other forms like blades. Or even combine them to make much larger things.

Vanessa couldn’t do that yet. But she could send these small, nearly invisible orbs flying at the snake, making them rebound off its eyes or any other spot she wanted them to hit. They were tough enough to ram full speed into the back of the thing’s scaled head without breaking. Which didn’t really do any actual damage to it, but did help distract and annoy it.

Clearly enraged by that point, the snake lunged for Vanessa as she crouched near the right-hand side of the hall. She let it come, then leapt to the left while mentally summoning her orbs. One flew right under her outstretched foot, acting a brief step for her to push off of before finding the other with her opposite foot. Now just above the snake’s head, balancing on her two orbs, she lashed out with the whip, smacking the wall just next to the serpent before it could recover, creating a fire rune that exploded essentially in its face.

That really pissed it off. The snake whipped around, tongue lashing out to catch Vanessa in a way more like a frog than the animal it was supposed to be. It came close to managing it, but Vanessa was faster, barely. She flipped up and backward off her floating orbs, letting the grasping tongue strike the air where she had been before landing a few yards back. Her whip lashed out to create three quick lightning runes along the floor. As the snake rushed over them to get her, the triggered electricity coursed into its body, making it seize and spasm for an instant.

That instant was long enough for Vanessa to trigger another quick wind rune to once more clear the area of gas before she darted forward. Her whip created yet another rune then, this one ice. It exploded into a freezing mist centered directly on at the creature’s extended tongue as it spasmed from the electricity.

Resistant as the summoned snake was, the ice rune only managed to freeze a very small part of that tongue. But that small part was enough. As the snake recovered and lunged, Vanessa threw herself backwards, using her super-leap to travel further horizontally that time. While in mid-leap, she snapped that pistol up and triggered several quick shots. Each landed perfectly right at the small spot that had been frozen by the ice rune. That was enough to sever it, cutting the tongue in half. And the snake, well, the snake was beyond pissed off. It made a furious, horrible shrieking sound and thrashed its head from side to side briefly before narrowing its eyes at Vanessa.

“That’s right,” she murmured softly. “Come get me.”

Whether it understood or not, the snake obliged. Suddenly, it was tearing after her even faster than it had been before, a speeding train with an open mouth rushing down the corridor at her.

With a thought, Vanessa was back in her bird form, pivoting in the air to fly straight out away from the creature. Now she could be pretty sure that it wouldn’t lose interest and go after Doug or one of the others. It was solely focused on her.

To an outside observer, it might have looked as though Vanessa were flying wildly and frantically with no plan. But she knew exactly what she was doing. While the others may have memorized the exact path to the vault they were looking for, she had memorized the entire layout of the floor. She knew exactly where she was, and exactly where she had been.

Weaving her way through the corridors, Vanessa took a long, yet purposeful route back around in a wide circle. Eventually, she was flying over the same spot that she had left Doug at. The snake was right on her tail feathers, in no mood to let her get away no matter what form she took.

By that point, Vanessa was starting to get tired. But she pressed on. Two more quick turns, and she leveled out in a long hallway. Straight ahead of her, about halfway down, was the contraption that she’d convinced Doug to make. It looked like a wall with a single hole in it just large enough for a human to crawl through. As requested, it was stuck between the doorways of the vaults, and was thick enough to take up that entire space.

In mid-flight, Vanessa shifted back to human, lashing her whip out behind her as she landed. The whip swung in a wide arc, creating a half dozen lightning and ice runes, just enough to slow the snake for a second or two.

As the creature hit the debilitating effects and powered through them, Vanessa gave one last snap of her whip. Or rather, two. These were not to lay runes, however. Instead, as her whip touched the wall, Vanessa used her weapon’s original power to copy the material. Then, with the backswing of the whip, she cracked it against Doug’s creation. Immediately, it became the same metal.

The snake was almost on top of her, and Vanessa felt exhausted. But she moved anyway, forcing herself to use her boost yet again while diving toward the hole that Doug had left. Hearing the snake hiss furiously, she crawled on her hands and knees as quickly as possible through that little tunnel.

But the snake wasn’t going to be dissuaded that easily. Though it could have taken the time to use its acid to melt through the thick wall, Vanessa and Doug might have gotten away in that time. Especially now that it was made of the same material as the nearby walls. And there was a much quicker way to chase its prey.

Before she was even all the way through the tunnel, Vanessa heard the snake behind her. It had shrunk down once more to throw itself through the hole as well. And it was gaining fast. That was how much she had pissed it off. It didn’t care what it had to do, or what size it had to be, it was going to eat her.

Reaching the end of the tunnel finally, she threw herself bodily out of it while screaming out loud, “Now, now, now!” Her voice echoed loudly through the hall.

The snake was right behind her, and lunged, just as she did, for the opening. But Doug was there. The instant that Vanessa was clear, he appeared, holding something in front of the hole. Vanessa scrambled around on her knees, grabbing onto the thing as well to help keep it in place, just as the snake flew out of the tunnel.

It was the extradimensional bag that she had given the boy a few minutes earlier. He had already dumped all the extra stuff out of it to make room. Room for the snake.

The two of them held the bag in front of the hole and let the snake rush right into it. Then they closed the bag and cinched it tight, trapping the creature within. As long as the bag wasn’t opened, there would be no way for the snake to escape. Unless it was simply de-summoned, in which case it still wouldn’t be their problem anymore.

As soon as the bag was closed, Vanessa turned and collapsed, falling backward before staring at the ceiling while panting heavily.

Doug collapsed next to her, turning his head to look to Vanessa. “You okay?”

It took her a moment, but Vanessa nodded. She was breathing hard, eyes wide as she came down from the panic high of the last few minutes. “Uh huh. Uh huh. Peachy. No more snakes for a while, okay?” Her voice was a bit squeaky from her own rush of adrenaline.

“I’m not sure if the bad guys will listen,” the boy replied, “but I am totally on board with that rule. And hey, good job calling that it would shrink down to chase you if you pissed it off enough.”

“Like I said,” she replied, “path of least resistance. It didn’t need to take the time to melt the walls if there was another opening. One we wanted it to go through.”

The two of them laid there like that for a few moments, just catching their breath. The snake bag lay between them, completely still and silent, of course. But that didn’t stop either of them from keeping half a wary eye on it.

“It definitely can’t get out of that, right?” Doug pressed. He obviously just needed to hear a little reassurance that they weren’t about to be ambushed by the worst game of Jack-in-the-Box ever.

Vanessa’s head shook. “Definitely not. As long as we keep it shut tight, there’s no portal for it to come through.”

With a soft side of relief, Doug nodded. “Good. Somebody else gets to check and see if it’s gone later.”

He paused, before asking, “How do you think the others are doing?”

Vanessa took a moment before answering. “We should probably go find out. This is too important to lay down on the job.”

Doug winced, but nodded, picking himself up before offering a hand to her. “Right.

“Let’s go see what we missed.”

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Interim Incursion 43-05 (Scout)

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At least Scout knew what power she had picked up from the Seosten woman in the other building. As the swarm of the zombies made their way across the room toward the small group and the spell behind them, Scout kept trying to shoot faster to keep up with all the targets that presented themselves. Then, as if she had flipped a switch, she could suddenly think, move, and react much faster. It was like she had been thrown into fast forward, able to aim a shot, fire, aim another shot, fire, aim a third shot, and fire that as well before she normally would have finished aiming the first one.

She could only keep it going for a brief time, but in that time, she took down fifteen zombies with precise head shots. It was like that video game that Shiori had been showing her where you could use the occasional turbo boost to throw the world into slow-motion and auto-aim at your targets.

But it wasn’t enough. The zombies kept coming. They poured through every vault door, and immediately joined the horde in rushing for the spell that was blocking communication with the outside world. Even with Columbus, Sean, Tristan, and Professor Tangle adding their own firepower, there seemed to be no end to the creatures. They were killing them, but the zombies didn’t let up. More and more kept appearing, dozens at a time, even as they were mowed down just as quickly.

Beside her, Tristan took aim at a large clump of the creatures with his cannon, charged up a powerful shot, and let loose with it. The blast bowled through them and more beyond. But it was no more effective than anything else had been at actually stopping more from appearing.

Sean and the two Vulcans were laying down a dizzying hurricane of suppressive fire together. Sweeping their firing arc from one side of the room to the other constantly, they were doing the most to keep the flood of zombies from overwhelming everyone. Columbus’s goggle-blasts and Tristan’s cannon blew through the larger groups, and Scout picked off the sneaky lone figures that tried to go around.

Meanwhile, Tangle dealt with the ones that slipped through the cracks, sending waves of her ghost-like cars and other things summoned with her weapon to crash into them and knock the collective group back once more.

They were killing the zombies as fast as they could, and the flood wasn’t getting anywhere. But it also wasn’t going away. There seemed to be an unlimited number of the creatures that just kept pouring through. And eventually, Scout and the others were going to slip up, get tired, or run out of firepower. It was looking like the zombies would win this war of attrition through sheer force of numbers.

“Block the doors?” Scout blurted the suggestion in between firing three more quick shots, two of which struck home. If they could somehow close the vaults off, it could give them a break and stop the reinforcement zombies from coming through.

“With what?” Sean asked, even as he used Vulcan to tear through another handful of the relentless monsters. Hovering over his right shoulder, VJ fired a few shots of his own as if for emphasis. “We don’t have anything to block them, unless Tangle can?” He glanced that way with those words.

Tangle, for her part, grimaced while shaking her head. “Sorry, the only thing that comes to mind is–” She stopped talking for a moment, extending her flashlight-like weapon to project an elephant, which charged across the room to trample a dozen zombies under its feet. “The only thing I can think of is breaking the portals, but we’d need to be inside each vault to do that!”

“Scout!” Tristan blurted, charging up another shot to fire. “Scout, your rifle! Use the scope-portals to see into the vaults.”

“He’s right,” Tangle realized aloud. “Scout, forget shooting the zombies. We’ll handle them. Focus on getting a view into each room. Look for runes above and to both sides of the door and hit them with whatever you can to break them. Guys, hold the line until she manages that.”

Taking a half second to put a hand on Scout’s shoulder and squeeze, Tristan urged, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this. We’ll cover here.” Suiting action to words, the boy simultaneously fired a charged shot from his cannon that blew through a handful of the undead creatures while also producing a knife with his other hand. A quick flick of his wrist sent the blade through the eye socket of another zombie that he’d barely been glancing at. A moment later, a spell on the knife ignited the zombie’s head and blew it apart.

Trying not to think about how much pressure this suddenly was (or about how it felt to have Tristan’s hand on her shoulder even under these circumstances), Scout pivoted away from the group. She let them cover her, dropping to one knee while bringing her rifle up. Taking aim through her scope at a random bit of wall near the ceiling, she fired a scope-portal about midway there, above everyone’s heads. Then she switched her view to seeing through the portal, adjusting to point it toward the nearest vault doorway. Form that position, she could barely see the entrance, firing to create another scope portal in the doorway, just above the heads of the zombies.

From there, it was a simple matter to make one more scope portal inside the vault itself. The whole place was literally filled with zombies. The room was the size of a football field, with the creatures packed in like sardines. No wonder they kept coming, if every room was like this one. The only thing slowing them down was the size of the doorway they were coming through.

Time to end that. Adjusting the scope-portal to see back toward the vault entrance, Scout zoomed in on the doorway. Behind her, she could still hear all the fighting going on, but had to force herself to ignore the distraction and just trust that Tristan, Columbus, Sean, and Professor Tangle could handle it.

Sure enough, there were lines of runes along the top and sides of the door. As Tangle had said, now she just had to damage it enough to break the spell creating the portal. For that, Scout flipped two switches along the side of her rifle, switching to her explosive rounds. Those weren’t as plentiful as the regular ammunition that her rifle basically generated on its own, but they would do the job of damaging that wall a lot better.

She took a breath, slowly let it out while ignoring all the fighting going on mere feet away from her, and fired the first shot through the portal. Shifting the scope slightly to the right, she fired again, then repeated it a third time after another shift. All along the spell where her shots struck it, the rounds exploded into miniature balls of fire.

That was enough. The damage to the spell disrupted it, and Scout saw the doorway leading into the main room suddenly disappear, leaving behind a blank wall and cutting off that horde of zombies waiting to emerge.

Quickly, she looked up from her rifle, glancing toward the door from this side. Yes, the first vault was cut off, stemming one source of the monsters, at least. Unfortunately, that left a lot more to go, considering there were six vaults along on either side.

Oh well, that just meant she had to get busy rather than continue patting herself on the back. Quickly disabling the scope-portals she’d used already, Scout got to work setting up a new line into the second vault. This time she had a better idea of what she was doing, firing each viewing portal in rapid succession to get a good line on the spell there. In the background, she heard Tangle telling Columbus and Sean to focus on one side, and felt someone bump against her as they adjusted their stance. Ignore it. She had to ignore it. They would handle the problem here in the room, she just had to do her job. Even if the thoughts of what was going on with her mother back in the main building, or her sister downstairs, were just as distracting as the zombies right here were.

Shutting out every other worry, Scout took more shots at the portal spell for the second vault, destroying it and cutting off that room as well. Through the scope, she could see the confused zombies stumble up against the blank wall where the doorway had been.

Two down, ten to go. Faster. She had to be faster with it and shut these vaults down before she and the others were overrun. Every second that she let pass without closing another portal was a second where a dozen more zombies could stagger through into the room to join their relentless companions.

Settling into a routine by then, Scout took out the third vault, then the fourth one. Eight to go, and there was definitely a noticeable lag to the flow of zombies by that point. It was helping. Especially as she’d focused on one side first, cutting off two-thirds of the zombie portals from that direction to allow the others to focus more attention on the other side. More attention meant more focused firepower, which took the zombies down faster.

As she turned her attention to the fifth vault, Scout paused briefly. A strange, tingling sensation, like she was being watched, came over her. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and briefly raised her head from the gun. Her eyes glanced around, but could find nothing. There were no zombies anywhere near her, and no other threat that she could see.

Apparently catching sight of her looking out of the corner of his eye, Tristan turned slightly to see what she was doing. Scout started to shake her head at him, but the moment he was facing her, she saw his eyes widen.

“Scout!” the boy blurted, lunging to grab her arm. He yanked her up and out of the way, falling backward in the process. The two of them crashed together to the floor with a pair of yelps.

Right where she had been crouching, Scout saw them. Ten little… strings? They came from above, wiggling as though in agitation. Confused, the girl raised her eyes, following the strings to their source. And then she saw him.

The man clung to the ceiling high above. His figure was… wrong. His legs were drawn up so that if he had been on the floor, he would have been kneeling. Though he was ostensibly facing the ceiling itself, his torso was twisted around unnaturally to face the floor below, while his head was twisted even further so that he was looking at them from a completely different angle than the way he should have been. His arms were wrong as well, twisted away from the direction of his torso to point straight down. His long, gangly fingers were attached to hands that seemed three times too large for the rest of his body, and those ten strings that had been about to grab onto Scout came from each of those fingers. Strings which were already slurping back up even as the man’s twisted-around head met her gaze with eyes that weren’t there, the sockets dark, empty voids.

Tristan and Scout both brought their weapons up to shoot at the thing as their Stranger senses went wild, but he had already inverted to drop to the floor nearby. With creaking bones, the figure drew himself up to his full, impressive height, standing eight feet high. He wore black pants and an old-fashioned striped tailcoat over a frilly white shirt and stained brown vest.  

Tangle had realized what was happening by then, spinning that way with her weapon up. Seeing the man there, however, she paused. “What the…”

“Hello.” The man greeted them while holding up his hands, palm out. The strings were still hanging a few inches out from his fingertips, wiggling in the air like worms. “We can’t let you break any more of our master’s toys. It’s time to sleep.”

Abruptly, the ten strings launched outward, shooting through the air toward Scout and the others. The five of them each had two strings coming their way, fast enough that even as her recently acquired boost kicked in, Scout realized that they were coming too fast for most of the others to escape. Her gun snapped up and she fired two quick shots while throwing herself to the side. Though her boost made everything else seem to be in slow motion, the strings were so fast they seemed to be moving normally.

Both of Scout’s shots went straight for the man’s head. But just before they would have struck home, that head literally opened up. A hole appeared right in the middle of the man’s face, leading through to the open air behind the man just long enough for the bullets to pass harmlessly through before closing once more.

Beside her, Tristan was moving just as quickly, his own boost kicking in to send him the other way while he fired a shot of his own at the man’s chest. A shot which met with the same reaction, as his torso pulled apart with a distinct slurping noise, creating a large hole that the beam easily passed through.

The cannon on Tristan’s arm shifted then, switching from gun to gauntlet with an extended blade all along the side. With a grunt, he threw himself that way, his figure blurring as he swiped at the creepy figure. In response, the man instantly bent all the way backward at the knees, his body horizontal to the ground while the blade went through the air just above him. Staying in that awkward position, he sent those strings from his fingers up.

“No!” Tangle was there, using a wave of her hand and some kind of telekinetic or wind power to throw Tristan out of the way just before the strings would have caught him. “Don’t let those things touch you.”

“But we like to touch,” the eyeless figure announced, righting himself once more. The strings danced through the air as he wiggled his fingers. “We Strings touch and play. Strings do good work for their master.”

“If they touch you, they puppet you,” Tangle informed them, keeping a wary eye on the figure as it watched for an opening, head cocked unnaturally to the side. “Like a marionette. They’ll take control. Everything you see is strings. The whole body. That’s why it can pull apart and put holes in itself like that. The whole body is just millions of sapient strings shaped like a person. They’re a colony creature.”

A colony creature. Scout’s eyes widened at that. It was true. The whole misshapen thing was just one huge collection of strings, like a… like a puppet made of yarn.

The creature (or creatures, apparently) gave an empty smile at that. Then a dozen strings suddenly burst from their chest, rushing not for the group, but for the rune on the wall that was blocking communication with the outside world. They were trying to break the spell, but were blocked by a quick wave of fire that Tangle created, shrieking in a collective voice.

“Scout, keep killing the doors,” Tangle ordered, before going after the String-thing with Tristan right behind her. The two of them were dealing with that, while Columbus, Sean, and the Vulcans focused on the zombies.

Which left Scout to get those vaults closed off. Hurriedly, the girl returned to her work. Now it was even harder to ignore everything else that was going on. The horrible creepiness of the so-called Strings and the thought of what might happen to Tristan and the others was almost too distracting. But she bore down, forcing herself to shut that out. The sooner she closed those vaults, the better for everyone.

Finishing off the vaults on one side before turning her aim to the six on the far side, Scout heard Sean telling Vulcan to keep helping Columbus. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy rush by her while VJ transformed into his sword mode and fell into his hand. He threw himself into the path of several more strings, slicing through them with his word before shifting VJ to a shield and batting away another group. They had been coming for her, but Sean stopped them, standing in their path. “Keep going!” he blurted. “I’ve got you!”

Another vault down. Five left. Just five. The zombies seemed to have realized they were being cut off, so they were trying to pour out even faster. But there were still less vaults, allowing Columbus and Vulcan to narrow their firepower. She just hoped they could keep it up long enough for her to close off the rest.

Another trio of shots. Another vault down, its portal broken. Then another. Grimacing as the sounds of fighting only intensified behind her, Scout set another line of portals. She was moving as fast as she could, her inherited boost kicking in once again to slow everything down so she could line up her shots in what amounted to a second. Three more shots. Boom, boom, boom. Another vault cut off.

Finally, she was down to the last one. Just as she lined up her shot, there was a thud beside her. Scout’s eyes snapped down to see Sean on the ground, trying to roll over. Before he could get up, one of those strings came shooting through the air toward her. Scout started to jerk her gun around while half-falling backward, but it was too late.

It was not too late, however, for Tristan to throw himself into the string. Literally. He used his possession, disappearing into the string just before it would have struck Scout. Instantly, the string jerked backward away from her. Tristan came stumbling out of the string a moment later, falling to his knees and puking on the floor. At the same time, the String-creature itself (themselves?) stumbled as well. Giving a shriek, they leapt to the ceiling and scrambled away, disappearing into what looked like a second elevator shaft across the room.

She wanted to check on Tristan, but there was one more vault. Taking those last couple shots to close it off, Scout finally dropped her rifle and looked up in time to see Columbus finish the last of the zombies that had emerged. He was utterly soaked in blood and… and other things, panting as he stood in the midst of a pile of re-killed corpses. But it was done. The doors were closed, the vaults were cut off.

“Tristan?” She managed, looking that way.

“Good,” the boy himself replied, even as Tangle crouched by him. “I’m–uuulph. Not doing that again. Hive mind. Controlling one just gets all the others in your head and… not… not good. Not fun.”

His head snapped up then, almost violently. “Bomb. Bomb. There’s a bomb.”

“What?” Tangle demanded. “What bomb?”

“Strings,” Tristan hurriedly blurted, “the Strings. They have a bomb in the building. It’s a failsafe. If they really think there’s a chance of Avalon getting to the vault, they’re going to blow this whole place up. They’re probably on their way to set it right now.” He forced himself to his feet, stumbling a little. “We have to stop them.”

“But if they double back,” Sean pointed out, “and we’re not here, they could break the communication-blocking spell and get reinforcements that we can’t handle.”

Tangle nodded. “I’ll stay here. I can protect the spell myself, just in case. You saw how the bomb works?”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “I can disable it.” He tapped the side of his head then. “I know where it is, and how to disarm the thing. Perfect memory’s good for something after all.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” Columbus hesitantly asked Tangle.

The woman gave a single nod. “Kids, I–I hate this. I hate sending you–never mind. Not time. Just go. Stop the bomb. You can do this. Get past Strings and disable that bomb. Go!”

Glancing briefly to one another, Scout and the three boys ran for the elevator.

“Tell you one thing,” Sean announced as they sprinted.

“I’m about ready for a vacation from this vacation.”

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