Abaddon/Ares

Interlude 42B – Radueriel and Abaddon

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“She’s got a better sense of humor now, I’ll give her that much.”

The words, with their grudging admiration, came from Abaddon as the large man stepped through a door and into the parking lot beyond.

Joining him a moment later, Radueriel grunted while nodding his head back toward the building they had just exited. “Personally, I don’t find teleporting us to a human strip club to be that amusing.”

“Gay strip club, man,” Abaddon coaxed with a broad smile as he reached out to ruffle the other man’s hair. “Come on, you’ve gotta see the humor in that. Either she’s being funny or she was making some kind of peace offering. Maybe both.”

For a few seconds, Radueriel held his unamused-leaning-toward-annoyed expression. Finally, he relented, dropping his head with a slow exhale. Then he glanced up again, offering a very faint and wry smile for his lover. “If so, she’s going to have to do better than that. The selection in there wasn’t even that good.”

Pausing briefly, he added, “Not that it matters. You know we still need to kill her at this point. She already escaped custody once. They’re not going to make that mistake again, no matter how special she is. Same goes for the others.”

Abaddon gave an easy, languid shrug. “Well sure, given the chance, we’ll crush her head like a grape. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good joke. I mean come on, it’s Auriel. Who would’ve thought that she’d ever pull something like this back on the ship?”

After accepting that point with a bow of his head, Radueriel pressed, “Ahem. Do you know where we are? That transport knocked out contact with all my little friends.”

Abaddon shook his head. “Probably wasn’t the portal. Whatever knocked out your contact with your toys is probably part of the same group of spells back in the club there that are blocking transport powers. Speaking of which, how far do you think we need to go to get out of range?”

Radueriel started to respond, before pausing. Slowly, the man looked around before letting out a long, low sigh. “You know, I really don’t think it matters right now.” He gestured up. “Look at the sky. We’re still in the human North America, but even counting being on the other side of the continent, it’s still been hours. Hours, in what should have been the three minutes it took us to recover and come out here.”

Abaddon blinked at that, glancing up to confirm for himself before muttering several quick yet creative and colorful curse words. “Time spell on the building. She had us slowed down in there so that time out here went faster. Whatever happened at the vault, it’s over by now. I am both pissed off and impressed. I didn’t know the old girl could get something like that ready to go on short notice.”

“That wasn’t Auriel,” Radueriel murmured under his breath. “It’s the twins. They have to be the ones behind this. It has their stink all over it.”

“That’s funny,” Apollo abruptly spoke up from the other side of the parking lot where he and Sariel were suddenly standing together. “I don’t feel like I stink. Pretty sure I took a good long shower today.” He looked to the woman beside him curiously. “Do you feel like you stink?”

“I don’t think so,” Sariel dryly replied without taking her eyes off the two men across from them. “Maybe they can smell themselves. Have you boys been doing anything dirty?“

As one, Radueriel and Abaddon started to move that way, but Apollo held a hand up to stop them, his voice taking on a warning tone as he used one finger to point to the ground. “Uh uh. You might want to look down before you come any closer.” He was smiling faintly, though there was fire visible in his eyes behind the put-on amusement and casualness. There was a rage that burned deep in him, a rage born of what the men before them had helped do to the woman who was standing at his side.

Taking his warning seriously, considering the look in his eyes, the two men paused in mid-step to look down. Sure enough, all along the pavement in front of them were spell designs that had been etched there. Spells that they quickly were able to piece together the intentions of. There were dozens of them, all interconnected with one another. Some would do direct damage when triggered, while others had more esoteric effects. The gist of the entire set meant that if either of the two men disturbed the spells, either as themselves or while possessing someone, it would be very bad for them.

Radueriel grunted, staring down at the incredibly intricate spellwork. “Let me guess, this is you.” He looked up, meeting Sariel’s gaze. “The time spell inside, that was him.” His head nodded toward Apollo without taking his eyes off the woman. “But this? This is you. You’ve got it all tied together. If the wrong spell is disabled first, it sets off all the others. There must be a dozen spells tied in a knot here. That would take… well, maybe twenty minutes to disable.”

“Twenty-seven spells,” Sariel corrected. “And it will take you just over forty-five minutes.” She spoke with absolute confidence of her assessment. “Unless you mess up.”

“That would be a problem,” Radueriel agreed slyly, “except for…” As he spoke, the man reached into his jacket pocket with his cybernetic arm before stopping. A slight frown crossed his face while he pulled out a simple coin, turning it over in his hand. Then he sighed. “It wasn’t just a time spell in there, was it?”

“There might’ve been another part to it,” Apollo agreed. “A part that disabled every enchanted item you have on you. Think of it as a spell EMP. It also makes your extra-dimensional storage items inaccessible for a little while. You know, for any toys that you have stashed in there.”

Abaddon couldn’t keep a hint of admiration out of his voice. “So you get Auriel to send us through a portal into a trap that speeds up time, keeps us trapped there so we can’t teleport out, cuts us off from any outside contact, and disables all our magic. You must’ve been working on that for awhile.”

Apollo’s smile showed his teeth then. “Let’s just say a good hyperbolic time chamber gives you plenty of opportunity to plan out exactly what to do.”  

Both other men stared at him with utterly blank expressions. “A good what?” Abaddon finally managed. “The hell does hyperbola have to do with–you know what, never mind.”

“I’m sorry,” Apollo casually and unhelpfully replied, “do you prefer hypertonic lion tamer?”

“Now what does a lion have to do–” Radueriel started before catching himself. From the expression on the other man’s face, he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. It was clearly nothing more than an absurd joke that only Apollo found amusing. Instead, he focused on Sariel. “You both went through a lot of trouble to put us in this position.”

“And yet,” Abaddon finished for him, “you’re not going for the kill. Would that be because you’re afraid that you can’t pull it off, little researcher?”

Sariel’s retort to that was flat and emotionless, eyes hard as she stared back. “Ask Manakel.”

“We could fight,” Apollo put in as the two men exchanged brief, yet very telling glances for that bit of information, reaching up to set a hand on his ‘twin sister’s’ shoulder. “And who knows who’d win. It’d be pretty epic, I can tell you that much. But that’s not why we’re here.”

“Manakel,” Sariel repeated the name from a moment earlier. “Charmiene. Kushiel. And so many others now. From Kushiel’s lab, from the Auberge, the main vault… there’s too many dead Seosten, too many of our dead people. You two need to leave.”

“Go back to the front lines,” Apollo continued for her. “Go fight the real monsters. Fight the Fomorians. If our people get too weak, those things will overrun the universe. You’re done here. You two can do a lot more good on the front lines of the actual war than you can by sticking around here terrorizing the humans. We’re giving you a chance to walk away.”

Their words made both men raise their eyebrows, glancing to one another before Abaddon spoke. “Walk away, huh? Well, you seem to have cut us off from contact with anyone on the outside, so we don’t exactly know who won the little battle at the vault. Who has the other book now, our side or your side? Just how pissed off is Metatron going to be?”

Neither Sariel nor Apollo’s expression gave away any answer to his question. The blonde woman simply replied, “We’re not talking about that right now. We’re talking about you. Leave this world. Go away and never come back. And if you try to hurt any of my family again, I will make you regret the day you agreed to be part of the Director Aysien’s project to begin with.”

With a broad smile, Abaddon chuckled. “That’s adorable, kid. You’ve come a long way from that scared, quiet little girl, haven’t you? And hey, speaking of family, congratulations on the munchkin. You’ve got no idea how much she’s driven old Cahethal insane. If we weren’t bitter enemies right now, I might just give you what the humans call a high five.”  

“Tabbris, right?” That was Radueriel. “That’s what the Chambers girl called her. Tabbris. You named her after him?” The disbelief in his voice was palpable. “You named your child after the traitor Seraphim who used stolen magic to erase an entire world from the Empire after stashing all of his pets there?”

“Pretty sure they’ve got a different opinion on that subject,” Abaddon informed his partner quietly before focusing on Sariel. “But the point is, you got a kid away from Kushiel back at the lab. Held prisoner and you still managed to get a whole kid out of there without her knowing. Got her out and all the way to Earth somehow. I think I’m almost back to wanting to high five you again. Not that Kushiel had the best track record with kids anyway. I mean, hers went and killed her.” Though his words were fairly light on the surface, there was a slightly buried anger there too. Though Kushiel had not been his favorite person, she was one of his people and had been for a very long time. Between that and the Seosten aversion to killing their own people, there was a deep broiling rage buried just below the surface. But he found that rage unhelpful at the moment, so he kept it locked down.

“Of course,” Radueriel noted, “the Empire knows about your kid now. So she’s probably in a little bit of trouble.” Seeing the rage in the woman’s face, he quickly added, “Whether from us or not, the Empire knows about her. Metatron will be sending people to find the girl. Especially since he okayed the killing of the Chambers girl. He wants your daughter, Sariel. And you know what Metatron wants, he usually gets. No matter how long it takes.”

Apollo spoke up for his sister, who was bristling with rage at the thought of someone trying to take her daughter away. “Like we said, we’re here to tell you to leave this world. But we’re also here about that. We want you to send a message to Metatron, and bring back the answer before you leave. We have an offer for the Seraphim.”

Radueriel’s head tilted with curiosity at that, as he glanced toward his mate before looking back at Apollo and Sariel. “An offer for the Seraphim? One that’s going to convince them to leave your daughter alone, I take it? Oh, I can’t wait to hear this. It should be a good one.”

“Indeed,” Abaddon agreed slowly, his eyes narrowing. “What could you possibly have to offer that could be worth that, I wonder. I’m sure you know Metatron isn’t going to be easy to convince. After all, the last I heard from him, he’s rather… upset with both of you. And everyone associated with you, of course. He might be taking this whole thing just a little personally.”

“The Summus Proelium Project,” Sariel replied in a voice that made it clear she knew just how much of their attention that would draw.

“You mean the one that was shut down when you and your ‘brother’ there destroyed the entrance to the reality that gave us all of our powers?” Radueriel clarified with narrowed eyes. “What about it? Because I know you’re not about to say what I think you’re-”

Sariel interrupted. “We can reopen it. We can show Metatron how to reopen it. He wants powers, people who can oppose and stand up to the Fomorians? Summus Proelium is the way to do it.”

Disbelief dripped from Abaddon’s words as the big man retorted, “You really expect us to believe that you have a way to create a new entrance to that reality after everyone else has failed to make any progress for thousands of years? After Radueriel couldn’t do it?” He gestured to the man beside him, his faith in his lover’s ability much greater than that for the so-called twins.  

“Why do you think I stayed with the Empire after Apollo left?” Sariel shot back. “Resources. I–we were working on it since the day the entrance was destroyed to begin with. We failed a thousand times. Apollo left, he saw what the Empire did with the Bystander Effect and he was afraid of what they’d do if we opened a new way into that world. But I stayed. I kept working. Off and on for awhile, sometimes more off than on, but I worked. While I was working with the Empire, while I was with my family, while I was imprisoned and could only work the calculations in my head, I worked on it. Eventually, all I needed was one thing: advice from my partner.” She paused slightly, lifting her chin as her hand found Apollo’s. “He filled in the last few gaps, the parts I couldn’t. And now, I know how to do it. I know how to make a new entrance.”

“Which she’ll tell you,” Apollo continued for her. “Or rather, she’ll tell Metatron, in exchange for a deal.”

“What kind of… deal?” Abaddon slowly asked. “Metatron leaves your daughter alone in exchange for the information? That doesn’t sound like something that’s easy to enforce.”

Sariel met his gaze. “That’s why Metatron is going to take a magical vow. He will swear not to order or allow any harm to come to any of my family, and to leave them alone. Me, my husband, all my children, and…” She paused very briefly before clearing her throat. “And my brother.” Radueriel and Abaddon could see her squeeze Apollo’s hand with those words, even as the man himself reacted with a quick double-take.

“So,” Radueriel summarized, “a magical vow to leave you and your family alone. And in exchange, you provide the information we need to open the Summus Proelium project again.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Apollo confirmed. “And it’s why you’re both still alive. That and like she said, enough of us have died already. Take the offer back to Metatron, find out what he says. We’ll meet you in one week. Be at this address at eight in the morning, local time.” He took a bit of paper from his pocket and dropped it on the ground at his feet for the two men to collect later. “When you’re there, you’ll get a message about where to go to meet us. You know, just so you can’t stake the place out ahead of time or prepare anything.”

“Make Metatron understand that you need this deal,” Sariel pressed. “Our people need every edge they can get if we don’t want the Fomorians to win. Leaving my family alone is a small price to pay for that.”

“I can tell you this much,” Abaddon informed them, “he’s not going to feel all that disposed toward you after Kushiel’s death. You know he had a soft spot for her.”

Sariel, in return, simply shot back, “He’ll get over it. If he wants access to all that power, he’ll find a way to move on. He’s lost a few Olympians already by trying to come after us, by trying to hurt my family. Ask him if he wants to keep losing more, or if he’d rather make more.”

“Just pass along the message,” Apollo added, already turning on his heel while pulling the woman with him. “And make sure he knows the terms are non-negotiable. He comes here himself to swear a magical binding oath, or he gets nothing. And remember what we said before. Even if he doesn’t agree, you guys need to leave this world after that meeting. Because if we have to fight again, we’re not holding back.”

The two walked away then, disappearing from sight a moment later. Left standing in that parking lot, Abaddon and Radueriel watched them go before looking to one another.

“I suppose we should get out of here and find out how the rest of the mission went,” Abaddon noted thoughtfully. “Since those two weren’t considerate enough to tell us.”

Nodding, Radueriel took a knee, examining the spells that left them trapped. Sariel hadn’t been exaggerating. It would take the better part of an hour for them to carefully untangle the enchantments, similar to disarming a bomb. Especially with all of his cheating tricks currently unavailable. “It appears that we have to do this the hard way.”

Retrieving a field-engraver from a pocket, he started to reach for one of the spells before looking to his partner. “What do you think? Is Metatron going to go for their deal?”

For a brief moment, Abaddon didn’t answer. He simply looked thoughtfully off into the distance. Then he let out a breath. “I don’t know,” the man admitted. “But I do know one thing.

“I can’t wait to see his face when we give him the message.”

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On The Edge 42-10

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A hand caught the back of my neck. Abaddon. He was there, lifting me up by the neck while his other hand produced what had to be a field engraver, or his version of it. He scrawled something quickly on my arm before I could react, his form blurring so much I’d barely realized what was happening before it was over. As he activated the spell, I felt a sharp but not quite agonizing burning sensation on my arm for just a moment.

Wh-what was that? I quickly blurted inwardly.

I… I dunno, Tabbris sent back. We didn’t see it. What did he do? What’s going on?

Dangling there from the big guy’s firm grip on my neck, I could do nothing while he bellowed, “Aletheia!” His voice echoed throughout the room like thunder, almost painfully loud. But hey, he was using her name. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but it meant something.

Radueriel, who had blurred his own form to rush over to where Kushiel’s body had fallen, looked up that way. His gaze met Abaddon’s and I saw him give a slight head shake. Gone. She was gone, and there was nothing they could do to fix that.

Theia and Pace (separate now) both took a bit longer to react to the voice, each of their gazes remaining focused on Kushiel’s body for another moment. When the Seosten girl finally did look up, I saw confusion there. She looked… more lost than proud. Like she wasn’t sure what had just happened, as if killing her mother hadn’t actually set in yet. Which I couldn’t blame her for, since it hadn’t set in for me either and I had a much smaller personal stake in it. She made a noise of confusion, even as Pace slowly moved up to put a hand on her arm, stumbling slightly on the way.  

Kushiel was dead. That’s what hadn’t set in, what would take much longer to feel real. A woman who had to be close to ten thousand years old was just… dead. Just like that. Just like Manakel. And Charmiene. All these ancient people, alive for millennia, all dying within a few months of each other. No wonder their leadership was so pissed off at us.

Well, if they’d leave us alone, they wouldn’t have that problem, Tabbris primly informed me.

Abaddon continued, his gaze focused on the dark-haired girl. “That’s what you call yourself, right? Aletheia?” His tone was darkly curious. “Huh. Can’t say it’s what I would’ve gone with, but I can appreciate the whole parental rebellion thing. Though uh, you may have taken it a bit far.” As he spoke, the man used my whole body, dangling from his grip, to gesture at Kushiel’s fallen figure. Though he kept his tone fairly light, I could hear the anger only partially hidden deep under his voice. The man was keeping things incredibly professional, but it was quite clear that he was putting forth some effort to control himself.

This was a man who had spent thousands of years losing people he got close to. But Kushiel had been there for a long time, and I had the feeling that while he might not have always seen eye to eye with her, she was part of ‘his group’. And now she was dead, killed by her own daughter. A daughter who happened to be what his people called a Lie.

“She’s dead.” The words that came from Theia then sounded hollow, like they were from a foreign language that she didn’t actually understand the meaning of. “Mama’s dead.”

“That’s right.” Abaddon’s voice cracked just a little, belying the professionalism he was trying to portray. “You killed her. Congratulations, I’m sure it’s a big moment for you. But look here.” He gave my body a hard shake, making me yelp a bit despite myself. My legs still hurt. “You care about this one, right? Don’t wanna see her dead?”

Before Theia could answer that, there was another blur of motion. Radueriel. He suddenly went from crouching by Kushiel’s body, to standing just a few feet away from Abaddon. And he had Pace, his real arm wrapped around her throat while his cybernetic one produced an engraver from one finger, which he used to draw a quick spell on. Given her brief gasp, it was probably the same spell that Abaddon had drawn on me a minute earlier.

Some part of me thought I should try to free myself, but… it just wasn’t going to happen. The pain that I’d felt in my legs just from standing up before, even with the help of my staff and leaning against the wall, it was too much. I had that pain-reduction power and I could still feel it, which made me a little worried about just how badly my legs were damaged.

Theia started to move then, but Abaddon spoke quickly. “Uh uh! Stop. Look here, kid. You weren’t there when your mother’s power started up, but it used to need a bit of a cooldown after a couple times. I’m betting yours does right now too. Gonna be awhile before you can… what do they call it?”

“Spam,” Radueriel informed him simply.

“Really?” Abaddon blinked that way. “The hell does that–never mind. Gonna be awhile before you can spam it, kid. But just in case, you see those spells we just put on these two? They’re harm-bound to us. Know what that means?”

Apparently she did, because Theia answered immediately. “You get hurt. They get hurt. You die. They die.” Her eyes were narrowed at Radueriel, and I had the feeling she was a bit more concerned about Pace than me. Which, yeah, that was fair.

“That’s right, kid,” Abaddon confirmed. “Damage duplication. We get hurt, they get hurt. We die, they die. So let’s all just calm down here. You killed your mother, which…” He made a noise under his breath that sounded like a growl. “But I owe your father and… well, let’s just say that’s why you aren’t a smear on the ground right now. So instead of killing you like I probably should, you’ll come with us.”

Radueriel clarified then. “He means all four of you.” He released Pace, giving the girl a little shove away from him while looking my way. “You walk with us. First one to put up a fight… well, let’s just say that neither I nor my partner here need much of an excuse to put one of you down.”

Abaddon nodded, letting go of my neck without warning. I fell, yelping as the pain in my legs when I landed flared up dramatically, making me collapse to my hands and knees. The Seosten man looked down at me, frowning briefly. “Right, Kushiel’s blade. Afraid it won’t get better any time soon. She keeps–ahhh, kept that thing enchanted to do a hell of a lot more damage than it should. Damage that lingers. Gets into the muscles and bones and… well, it won’t heal very quick, let’s put it that way.”

While I was digesting that, he continued. “Anyway, what my partner said. No more games. One of you pulls something, someone else dies. And to be straight with you, I’m not super-particular which one right now.” His voice was hard, making it completely clear just how close the man was to losing his tenuous grasp on his anger. I had a feeling that it was only the importance of their mission that was keeping that in check even this much.

“Are we all clear?” Abaddon demanded then. “We’re walking out of here together, and none of you are going to do anything else that makes this whole situation worse. Because you give either of us an excuse, and one of you will die for it. Don’t talk back. Don’t argue. Don’t be cute. Get all those thoughts out of your pretty little heads. Walk to the door and stand there. Now.”

The others have to be coming, right? Tabbris quickly put in, even as I tried to force myself to stand up. It hurt. God, it hurt. Pain reduction or not, I could barely make myself stagger, wincing with each motion.

I hope so, I silently replied, because I think I’m basically out of tricks right now. We can’t beat two Olympians, Tabs. Not on our best day, and definitely not right now. I’m wiped. And I’m pretty sure if I tried to so much as skip, I’d break something.

As if in agreement with that, I stumbled on the next step. Nearly falling, I found myself caught by Pace, who moved quickly to support me on one side, whispering, “Are you okay?”

“Been better,” I whispered back. Not that there was much point. I was pretty sure Abaddon and Radueriel could both hear us just fine. “But hey, you’re… uh, you again. Congratulations.”

“We will have a party soon.” That was Theia, stepping over to join us on the way to the door. She supported my other side, making it a bit easier to move. “With cake and ice cream. When we get away.”

Instead of focusing on that last bit, I looked the Seosten girl up and down. It was my first real chance to get a look at her. She was, like all Seosten, incredibly pretty. Actually, I could definitely see how she was related to Kushiel. There was a distinct family resemblance, and not just when it came to the power.  

You okay?” I asked the girl quietly, after giving Abaddon and Radueriel a brief glance. They weren’t objecting to us talking just yet. Nor were they apparently ready to leave. The two of them were standing a few feet away, having a quiet (probably magically protected) conversation. But I had no doubt that if we tried to make a break for it, we wouldn’t get very far.

“We–” Theia started before stopping herself. “I… killed Mama. I killed Mama.” Again, her voice sounded almost empty. She didn’t sound happy about it. But nor did she sound sad. “Mama’s dead and… and I… I don’t know.”

Standing there while trying to think of what to say to that, I noticed the door. It was closed. But it was also lying in pieces on the floor nearby. The same door, closed in front of us yet broken on the floor. What the…

Theia noticed my confused glances back and forth, explaining, “Radueriel’s glamor spell. Makes the door look like it’s there, when it’s really there.” She gestured between the intact door in front of us and the shattered one on the floor.

Abaddon chose that moment to step over to us. “That’s right, it keeps any interruptions out. Now, we’re leaving. All of us. I’m not going to reiterate the previous threats, because I don’t believe any of your memories are that terrible. But keep them in mind.”

As he spoke, I could see Radueriel in the background, attaching some kind of badge-like device to each of the bodies. Including Kushiel’s. Once they were all attached, the man pressed a button on his cybernetic arm. A square metal block about the size of a Rubik’s cube appeared, floating to the middle of the room. As soon as it was in place, all of the bodies, unconscious and dead alike, all disappeared in various beams of light that shot into the cube. Transferred. He… transferred them into the cube.

F-Flick, Tabbris worriedly put in. I… I don’t know what to do now. I’m… I’m…

I’m scared too, I assured her without making the girl say it. But we can’t push them right now. I’ve got nothing left, partner. No tricks, no… if we tried something, I’m pretty sure they would kill one of us. We just have to… to wait and hope something happens. Trust the others. They’ll be there.

Radueriel took the cube as it floated back into his hand, nodding to his partner. In turn, Abaddon held some kind of rock above our heads, crushing it into dust, which swirled through the air. Instead of falling completely to the ground, the dust seemed to form a cloud around us and then just… stayed there. Then we stepped through the illusion of the door, moving to the hallway beyond.

Immediately, my heart jumped. Because the others were right there. Deveron, Koren, Wyatt, that Francis guy, everyone from the room. They were there, standing right in front of the door that we had just come through.

My mouth opened to blurt a warning that Pace and I were both spelled to take any damage the two Olympians took. But before I could say a word, Deveron spoke. “How do we get it open?”

Get it open? Wait–they still saw the intact door, of course. But why weren’t they reacting to–

“Scream if you want,” Radueriel informed us in the middle of my confusion. “Rant, yell for help, whatever you wish. But they won’t hear you. Nor will they see you. The dust renders us undetectable.”

“And if we grab them?” I demanded despite myself, annoyed by his smug voice. In the background, Deveron and the others were still talking as if we weren’t even there. Which, to them, we weren’t.

“Then we will be forced to kill one of you,” Abaddon put in mildly. “I’d sort of appreciate if you didn’t make us do that. Come.” He pointed with a small metal cylinder, hitting a button to create a portal. Through it, I could see a parking lot. “Time to meet with the others and see how their side of the mission went.”

Radueriel shrugged. “Either way, Sariel’s kid has the book and we have Sariel’s kid.” He gave me, or rather, Tabbris, a hard look. “So either the others took their book and we have the whole spell. Or they didn’t, but we still have ours so the humans can’t do anything with their half.”

He was right. If the spell had been split in half, them even just having half of it would prevent it from actually being useful, even if Gaia, Avalon, and the others had successfully retrieved theirs. Somehow, that thought made me feel even worse. If we’d been just a little bit faster, just a little bit… better, or smarter, or…

Kushiel’s dead, Tabbris reminded me. That wouldn’t have happened any other way, you know.

Before I could say anything to that, Radueriel gave me a firm shove toward the portal. “Have your private conversation while walking. Whatever you happen to be planning, just know that the Li–Aletheia’s former host will be the one who pays the price first.”

Pace. They would kill Pace first. She was the most immediately expendable. And they probably figured that if Tabbris and I pulled something that got Pace killed, it would turn Theia against us. Swallowing hard, I glanced back to Deveron and the others one last time. They were setting up some kind of spell to blast the door open, even though it was already open. The illusion was still affecting them. As was the dust that stopped us from being noticed.

Nothing. There was nothing else I could do. Risking Pace’s life was a non-starter. Even if I did want to risk it, there was nothing to say that I could get everyone’s attention and make them understand before they just killed all of us. They could kill me and take Tabbris.

No. No, I couldn’t–couldn’t do that. I had to hope a new opportunity to escape would actually present itself. Or that one of the others would figure something out and come after us. Francis, he’d know when we left the building entirely, right? Or Jophiel. There was also Jophiel.

Under the hard and uncompromising glares of Radueriel and Abaddon, the four of us slowly (but not slowly enough for my liking)  walked to the portal. Nothing. I couldn’t do anything. Hell, at that point, I could barely walk. Scratch that, I couldn’t walk without help from Pace and Theia supporting me on either side. Fighting would be out of the question for awhile. Every time I even took a step, even with help, shooting pain went up through each of my legs. I had to move gingerly. Every motion hurt.

We reached the portal and I still hadn’t thought of anything. We had to go. We had to move through the portal. I couldn’t endanger the others by making any kind of last ditch attack or attempt to escape. I wouldn’t stand a chance and it would only end up with at least one of us dying. I couldn’t risk that. After everything that happened, I couldn’t give them an excuse to kill Pace.

I had to let myself be taken. Swallowing hard, I took a breath and moved through that portal. Abaddon was right behind us, actually putting a heavy hand on my shoulder tightly even as I was supported by the others. Apparently he didn’t trust me not to have something ready to go to escape. Or maybe it was Tabbris he was worried about. Either way, he maintained that grip all the way through the portal and out to the unfamiliar parking lot.

I had no idea where we were, I realized almost immediately. This wasn’t the lot right outside the hotel. It was… it was… somewhere else entirely. Oh God. As the portal disappeared behind us, I finally understood that we were far from where we should have been. We were far from where anyone, anyone would expect to find us. Basically, we were screwed.

The parking lot was along the side of what looked like a grocery store that had been closed for a long time. There were a couple cars parked ahead us and a few spaces apart, dark vans that gave me child abductor vibes. On a street lamp nearby, a dark bird perched and gave a soft caw.

As all of us looked around, Radueriel spoke. “They’re not here yet, do we wait?”

Abaddon didn’t answer for a second, and I had a feeling that it was because he was instinctively waiting for Kushiel. When he realized his mistake after a couple seconds of silence, the big man started a bit. I felt him squeeze my shoulder so tightly it hurt, nearly drawing a yelp from me. Another sign, as if I needed one, of just how tenuous his grasp on his temper was.

“This is the rendezvous,”  he finally announced through gritted teeth. “We give them another few minutes to show up. It–” He stopped talking then, head turning as though listening to something. From the pause, I had the feeling there was an extensive mental conversation going on.

Finally, the big guy straightened. His eyes found me, and he coughed. “Sorry, kid, I spoke for you.”

“What?” I managed, just before his hand collided with my face. He moved so fast I didn’t even have a chance to think. It was like a truck slamming into the side of my head. I fell, sprawling out on the ground. Nearby, I heard Pace shout something, and Theia made some kind of threat. But Radueriel was restraining them.

Abaddon stood over me. “Told you, it ain’t personal. But orders from above say put you down and take the kid in. I tried to tell ‘em you could be useful. They ahh, they don’t want to play any more games. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t like it.”

Tabbris was saying something, frantically begging me to get away. My hand produced my staff, and I swung it up to… I didn’t even know at that point. Part of me was trying to hit Abaddon with it while another part thought to use the boost on it to throw myself away from them. But where I would go with legs that didn’t work right was anyone’s guess.

It didn’t matter anyway. Abaddon caught the staff, tearing it from my hand with less effort than it took to remove a toy from an infant. He tossed it aside, producing an enormous sword with his other hand. My mouth opened, but his foot lashed out, kicking me in the face so that I sprawled on the ground once more.

Tabbris was screaming. Pace was screaming. Theia was threatening. My body was screaming. I grabbed the ground, trying to push myself up even as Abaddon stood over me, his foot coming down hard on my chest. Possess him!

Couldn’t. He had a forcefield up. Couldn’t possess him. No wood. No weapon. No– nothing. Nothing. I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight. I could barely understand the words that Tabbris was screaming at me, even as she took control of the body. But she couldn’t do anything either. We were trapped. As Abaddon lifted his sword and judged his aim briefly, as everyone screamed, as the bird on the nearby lamppost gave a loud cry, we were trapped. Helpless. Broken. Lost. Lost as the sword started its downward plunge.

But I never got to save my moth–

A sudden eruption of sound stopped Abaddon’s descending blade. One of the vans–no, both of the vans were blaring their horns. The obnoxious, loud and cacophonous noise filled the air, drawing everyone’s attention, while Abaddon stood with the blade hanging right near my face.

The door of the nearest van opened, and two bodies came tumbling out of it to land on the pavement with a solid thunk. Abaddon and Radueriel recoiled with collective curses, as another figure, this one standing, hopped out to stand between the two dead bodies.

“That’s my girlfriend,” Avalon announced while straightening to her feet. She looked bloodied, bruised, her clothing heavily torn… and more beautiful in that moment that I ever remembered. “Get the fuck away from her.”

“What she said.” The new voice came from Shiori, exiting the side of the second van, on the opposite side from where all of us were standing. Two more bodies fell to the ground at her feet as she stood there. We, including Radueriel and Abaddon, were between them.

The two Olympians looked to one another and then started to chuckle. Abaddon spoke calmly. “Congratulations on somehow finding the rendezvous, children. But I am afraid that you’ve made a grave error if you think you pose a threat by yourselves.”

I started to blurt a warning, but Avalon was already stepping forward. “The only error is with you people not getting it through your thick skulls to leave me and the people I care about alone.” As she spoke, the dark-haired girl ignited both of the energy blades from her gauntlets.

“Heh,” Abaddon snorted. “That’s cute. Okay then, bring it on.”

Avalon threw herself that way. Behind them, Shiori did the same. Both girls sprinted, their forms moving almost fast enough to blur like the vampires and Seosten did. Together, they went right for Abaddon, even as I screamed for them to stop.

Then Avalon did. She suddenly pivoted and dropped to the ground while pulling something from her jacket, driving it into the pavement.

At the exact same time, Shiori stopped too. But the glowing figure that leapt from her kept going. Athena. Her fist collided with Abaddon’s jaw. Instantly, I felt a horrible pain in my own face as I was knocked to the ground.

While he was reeling from the punch, Athena reared back to kick Abaddon. Once more, I felt that pain, this time in my chest. A rib or two cracked. But Abaddon had it worse. Because that kick sent him stumbling back two steps. And that put him right where Avalon had just used Athena’s magic portal dagger to make a hole leading who knew where.

Abaddon fell through. And an instant later, Athena caught Radueriel by the arm and hurled him through as well, before he knew what was happening. Both men fell through the portal in the ground just before it disappeared.

“Have a nice trip,” Shiori called from where she had skidded to a stop to let Athena jump from her. “See ya next fall.”

“Wh-what?!” The terror of nearly dying, coupled with the sudden rush of being saved by my girlfriends, and everything else that had just happened, made me feel light headed. “How–wha–what–huh?” Behind me, Pace and Theia were equally lost.

Avalon took a knee by me, her face paling a bit. “Are you alright?”

“I… I… I don’t know. What the hell happened?”

Shiori joined us. “With the vault, or right now? Because the former’s a long story. And the latter…” She turned, looking over past Athena, to the lamppost where the dark bird was still perched.

It flew down to us. Once the bird neared the ground, I saw that it was a crow. Was a crow, because it suddenly changed, shifting form until a familiar girl stood there.

Aylen. Aylen was there, except… except her hair and eyes were blue and there was… there was something alien about her.

A reaper. Aylen looked like a reaper. Like the ones I’d seen in class this year.

“Well,” Shiori finished, “the latter’s a long story too.”

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On The Edge 42-09

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Lying there, basically crippled on the floor as my injured legs refused to cooperate, I could do nothing as Abaddon approached. Not that I would have been able to do much to him even at my peak, but still. This was worse. He took his time, meandering casually across the room before stopping in front of me to look down with a slight shake of his head, almost looking regretful.

Tabs, I started inwardly.

I’m not leaving you alone here, she quickly shot back. So shut up.

Before I could retort to that and plead with her not to stay here, the Olympian spoke in a voice that made it sound like we were just having a chat. “Pretty good job back there, kid. I took a second to watch through, ah, let’s just say someone else’s eyes and I gotta say, impressive.”

From where she was standing by the pedestal that held that book, Kushiel distractedly snapped, “Stop toying with the monkey-child and kill it before something else happens to make that impossible.” She wasn’t looking our way, her attention solely focused on her goal. Yet she also wasn’t reaching for it. Instead, the woman seemed to be taking the time to disable what had to be a lot of security spells that had been placed around that pedestal.

Abaddon, however, glanced that way while musing aloud, “Kill her?” He seemed to consider that before looking back to me, his voice contemplative. “Eh, I don’t know.”

For a moment, Kushiel apparently forgot her current objective (which said something considering how obsessed the Seosten were with it), turning to face the man. Her voice was dark. “Excuse me?” she asked with icy brittleness. “You seemed very much in line with the goal of ending that monkey’s life before, so pray tell, what don’t you know now?”

The big guy shrugged one shoulder, watching me intently rather than looking to the woman. “Saw her fight,” he replied simply, “she’s pretty good. Got good instincts, good drive. Kind of be a damn shame to waste all that just because she’s on the wrong side right now.”  

“Wrong side?” I put in despite myself, a mixture of sarcasm and anger filling my voice as I shifted my weight, grimacing from the pain that hit me then. “Yeah, because I’m so sure that the people who are enslaving every other species in the universe are totally the good guys.”

A slight smile crossed his face. “Didn’t say we were the good guys. Said we were the right guys. There’s a difference.” For a moment, the man looked serious. “We do some awful shit, that’s for sure. But believe you me, it’d be worse without us. Fomorians are the real monsters out there.”

For a moment, I just stared at him in disbelief from my prone position. “I’m sorry,” I put in once I’d managed to find my (incredulous) voice, “are you actually trying to recruit me right now?”

Kushiel, who had turned back to her work of disabling the spells around the pedestal, spoke without looking. “I must agree with the monkey-child, which I will tell you right now annoys me to no end. What precisely do you think you’re doing?”

It was Radueriel who answered, from where he was standing over by the doorway. “Now, Kushiel, there’s no reason to be rude or ungracious in victory. The child did her best for her own side. Given what she faced, falling short in the end was to be expected. Still, she did quite well.” Looking to me, he added, “And in case you’re trying to stall until that headmistress of yours gets here, there’s, ahh, really no point. They won’t be showing up.”

Before I could demand to know what he meant by that, Kushiel actually elaborated for him. “Indeed. It seems that Liesje was slightly more… clever than we gave her credit for. This vault has been shifted into two connected pocket universes. The book itself was also split. One must have both halves, or it is useless. What we believed was the ‘back door’ into this vault was actually the door into the second vault. But it is no matter. We have… other forces gathering the book from the first vault as we speak.”

“The point is,” Radueriel explained, “they’re not coming, because you can’t get from one vault to the other without going through the right door, you see? That door to get to this one.” He gestured to the one we had come through. “And the ahhh, ‘front’ door to get to the other one. Two vaults. Two books. They might as well be a billion light years apart.”

“Look, kid,” Abaddon announced in a voice that rumbled like thunder while I was mentally reeling from that, “it’s like we said, you did pretty good. You even killed Manakel. Still not sure how you pulled that off, but hey, he was trying to kill you at the time, so I get it. Don’t like it, but I get it. None of this was personal.”

“Not… personal?” I managed, staring at him. “You killed Seth. You killed Seth like… less than an hour ago, and you don’t think this was personal? You don’t think it’s personal?” My voice rose at the end, almost turning to a shriek despite myself as I shoved myself up a bit against the pain.

He gave an easy nod at that. “Yeah, I did. He was a threat, so I finished it. Just like Manakel was a threat to you.” Reaching up, he pointed at me with two fingers. “Both of you. Yeah. The old man managed to let us know that you’ve got a little friend in there. Still doesn’t make sense. A kid wouldn’t be able to even pose the slightest threat to old Manakel. So what’d you do?”

They knew about Tabbris, I realized. Which made sense, considering how much time Manakel had had to send that message along while he was trying to escape the hospital. Still, I kept my face as expressionless as possible. “Maybe your old war buddy wasn’t as tough as he thought.”

If I hit a nerve, Abaddon didn’t show it. He just gave a small shrug. “Maybe. But like I said, none of this was personal. We’ve got a job to do, a war to win. I think you’d do pretty well if you just let go of all these other… distractions and worked with us instead of against us. You think we go too far? Eh, maybe. But what do you want, a universe with some jackasses like us keeping things in line, or one with the Fomorians killing everyone to remake them in their image? Sometimes you don’t get to pick the good guys, kid. Sometimes you just have to pick the less evil ones. And if it’s down to us or the Fomorians, well, I don’t think it’s much of a question, do you?”

“I think you’re all evil pieces of shit,” I snapped, “and we can do better.”

The whole time, my mind was racing. As was Tabbris’. What the hell were we supposed to do?! Where… where was everyone? Where was anyone? The Seosten were about to take Liesje’s spell, and there was no one here to help! I couldn’t stall anymore, I couldn’t fight anymore. I had no chance, none, against three Olympians at once even if I hadn’t been injured. They were going to take the spell and there was nothing I could do about it. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to try? I had nothing. Nothing that would help. I’d thrown everything I had at delaying them this long and it wasn’t enough. It just… wasn’t enough.

As if to make that realization even worse, there was a sound of satisfaction from Kushiel just then. The woman straightened, cracking her neck with a visible smile as she glanced my way. “That’s it. The last of the Aken woman’s spells. Do you feel accomplished for delaying us from our goal for this long, monkey-child? Do you feel as though you’ve achieved something? Because you have not. You’ve done nothing, accomplished nothing. The spell,” she declared while reaching out to grab the book, “is ours. And it will be destroyed. So all this wasted effort, do you still think it was worth it?”

“Every second where you’re still a loser is most definitely worth it,” I shot back. “Hey look, there’s another one. And another, and another. Yup, still a loser.”

Her eyes narrowed, while her hand tightened around the book. “And yet, you are the one who has lost.”

“Have I?” I asked flatly. Then I moved. My hands came off the floor, creating two quick portals in front of myself. One led right in front of Kushiel, while the other led to my staff. Tabbris hit the boost, just as I grabbed the weapon and the book. Even as Kushiel started to yank the book away, I triggered the blast on my staff, sending myself flying backwards and tearing the book from the psycho bitch’s hands. My back hit the far wall, and I slammed the staff down to shove myself to my feet with the book under one arm.

All three Olympians gave me equally unimpressed looks, though Kushiel’s was mixed with obvious annoyance. “Is that all,” she demanded while taking a step my way. “You are not leaving with that book. You have no way out of here, no way to escape. What is the point of this?”

“Well, like I said,” I put in as casually as I could manage while my legs were screaming in pain from putting weight on them, “every second you’re still a loser, yada yada. You know the drill.”

“You ignorant child!” Kushiel snapped, clearly losing it then while the other two Olympians simply stayed out of the way. “You are the one who has lost! You will not leave this vault. You will die. No one is coming to save you. You will die here, right now.” As she spoke, the woman’s hand produced a gold-handled blade, which she brought to her own chest. “Even if I must do it myself.”

“Last chance, kid,” Abaddon casually remarked from where he stood with his arms folded. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d like to see what you could do for our side. But you’ve gotta give me a reason to speak up for you.”

“She wants me dead,” I replied while keeping my eyes on Kushiel as the woman held that knife against her own chest. With a single push, she could kill me. With a single push, she could end all of this. But I kept talking anyway. “But not because of this. She wants me dead because she knows. She wants to kill me because she knows, but she wants to make sure. She wants to see her.”

“What are you rambling about?” Kushiel snapped. I had a feeling that she might have just stabbed herself and been done with me for good, but Abaddon put out a hand to catch her arm. He was clearly curious himself, and maybe even serious about wanting to recruit me. Either way, it was a chance, small as it might have been.

I took it, pressing on. “You want me dead, because you know. Or maybe you’re just afraid that you know.” Raising the hand that wasn’t clutching the book, I pointed to my own chest. “You know who’s in here. That little girl that Abaddon mentioned and you just keep conveniently ignoring. You know what she is. And you know what her being with me means. That’s why I keep calling you a loser. Not this book. Her. You know where she came from. That’s why you want me dead, so you can look at her and know once and for all. Because it’s been eating you up this whole time, hasn’t it? Ever since you heard from Manakel what he saw, it’s been right there. You’ve known. You figured it out, even if you didn’t want to. So you want to look at her.”

“Pardon me.” Radueriel spoke up then, raising his cybernetic hand. “Would you mind filling in the rest of the class, or is this rambling distraction going to go on much longer?”

“Sariel,” I announced flatly, after a brief consultation with my partner. “You had her locked up. You tortured her for years. You tried to destroy her. You took everything she had, and she still beat you.”

“Sariel beat nothing!” Kushiel snapped, her voice nearly a shriek. She shoved Abaddon off of her, moving to drive the knife into her own chest to end me.

“Mother!” The shout came from the doorway where Radueriel was. But he wasn’t the one who spoke. It was Theia, of course. She was standing there, staring directly at Kushiel with narrowed eyes. “You will not harm her. You will not harm any of my friends again.”  

Radueriel himself had moved to stop her, but when she did nothing but stand there to talk, he slowed, glancing curiously to the woman in charge.

The anger that Kushiel had shown me was nothing compared to what appeared in her eyes then. Slowly, she turned to look at her own daughter (or her own daughter’s host, anyway) with a look of utter contempt and hatred. It was the kind of look that no mother should ever give their child. “You,” she snarled, that single word pouring forth centuries worth of scorn and malice. “You should not have shown yourself. It was bad enough when you were merely a failure. But a traitor? A traitor? You are not my child. You are an abomination. You are a–”  

“Tabbris!” I shouted out loud, interrupting before the head she-bitch could keep going on her rant. At the word, all of them snapped their gazes my way, even as my partner, my sister, stepped out of me. Her hands took hold of the book with Liesje’s spell, and she gave the trio of Olympians, as well as Theia and Pace, a quick wave. “Mama says hi.”

Then she recalled back to me, with the book. Both disappeared from sight.

Kushiel’s eyes went wild with fury as she lunged at me. “If you think we won’t tear Sariel’s spawn from your corpse to take her and the book, you are sadly mistaken, you–” Her voice devolved to a wordless cry of rage as she closed a hand around my neck. I was hauled off the ground and shoved hard against the wall, flailing a bit as she choked me.

“Mother!” Blurting the word again, Theia crossed half the distance between us. “Let her go! We told you, you will not harm any more of our friends. You will not kill any more of my friends.” Her voice cracked with each word, the overwhelming fear evident. In spite of it, she stood straight, staring hard at the woman who had birthed her.

In turn, I saw that blinding rage in Kushiel’s face redirected that way. She slowly turned her head to glare that way while holding me off the floor with one hand. “You…” The word came in a snarl, before she pulled me off the wall and then shoved me hard against it once more, slamming me in a blow that sent a shock of pain through my back. “I told you never to call me that. That word is not for you to use, you pathetic, filthy abomination of a Lie!” The last word came in a shout that sent spittle flying from her mouth.

The shout from Theia, however, was just as angry. Scared, trembling, but angry. “I am your daughter! Hate it, hate me, but you are my mother! You spent thousands of years wishing for a child. Then you had one. You had one! I am your child. Your flesh is my flesh, your blood is my blood!”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Radueriel start to take a step that way. But Abaddon held a hand out to stop him, giving a slight shake of his head when the man looked to him.

“Blood?” Kushiel echoed in disbelief. “Flesh? You… you are a humiliation. I should not have allowed you to take one breath more than the breath you took in the moment I learned you were a Lie!” She was shouting, her rage filling the room. “I was a fool! I believed that my child, my child could learn, that you could beat the handicap that you were born with, that you could be cured. I was wrong. You were a failure at birth and you will remain a failure to your death. Now leave that host so that I may see that that death.”

With those words, Kushiel gave me a hard throw to the side. I hit the ground, sprawling out painfully. But my focus was on the woman herself, who had produced a gleaming silver dagger. Without another word, she hurled that blade across the room. Before I could even think of focusing on a portal, the dagger embedded itself into Pace’s chest, even as both of us (all four, if we counted Theia and Tabbris) screamed.

A girl stood there, form glowing briefly before fading. Pale skin. Dark hair. Theia. The real Theia. She straightened, taking in what had to be the first breath of her own in over a year.

And then she stepped forward, revealing another girl behind her. Pace. Alive. Standing with the bloody dagger in one hand. The wound in her chest… almost nonexistent.

“Your power.” The words that came from Theia just then sounded as though they were occuring to her the moment that she said them. She realized the truth and spoke it in wonder. “It’s your power, Mother.”

As she spoke those words, Kushiel slumped to her knees. Blood thoroughly coated the front of her shirt, while she held both hands against the traumatic wound in her chest, mouth gaping like a fish.

“You killed her,” Theia continued softly, her voice dull with shock. “You killed her. But I am… I am your daughter. I have your power. I… I moved it. I moved the damage. You killed her, just long enough. But I moved it. And you can’t… reflect what’s already been reflected.”

That was it. Theia had inherited her mother’s power to transfer damage. But because Pace had taken lethal damage, even if only for a bare instant before it was transferred, that had allowed Theia to stop possessing her.

Distantly, I noticed Radueriel and Abaddon. Both seemed frozen in confusion and disbelief, incapable of driving themselves to move against what they were witnessing.

From her knees, blood soaking the floor beneath her, Kushiel held her hands tight against the wound in her chest. She lifted her head, speaking a single, trembling word in a voice still full of hate and disgust. “… L… Lie…”

“My name,” her daughter informed her while plucking the dagger from Pace’s hand, “is not Lie.

“It is Aletheia.”

Recognition for that name and what it meant abruptly dawned in Kushiel’s hateful eyes, her mouth opening to spit a denial. But Theia moved first, driving the dagger into her own throat.

Once more, the damage was reflected. And once more, Kushiel was faced with her own power being used against her, as she had used it against so many others over so many centuries. Once more she was faced with a daughter who could hurt her the way that she had hurt her and everyone else for so long.

Once more… and for the last time.

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On The Edge 42-07

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Catching the swinging arm of the fur-covered figure who was trying to claw me, I pivoted, keeping one hand on his bicep and using the other to grab the back of his neck. With a grunt, I shoved him hard into the nearest wall, then used his body to brace myself as I popped up into a double-kick into the chest of another figure. I used the force from that kick, planting both feet against him and pushing off as he was knocked to the floor, to push myself into a backward flip over the head of a man who had been coming up behind me. My foot kicked his leg out from under him, and as he collapsed I brought the same foot down hard on his back to make him hit the floor with even more force. With one foot there still, I reached out to catch hold of the shoulder of the man I had first shoved into the wall, yanking him backward while stepping aside so that he tripped over the man I had just knocked down. At the same time, three more guys who were running toward me ended up flat on their faces as a cloud of sand flew under their feet.

Got one? I sent inwardly while all that was going on.

Got it, Tabbris shot back, filling my head with the exact information about what she was doing and what she needed, even as the two men on the floor at my feet ended up in a tumbled heap and the one I had kicked was recovering from staggering backward. In the distance, the trio I had knocked down with sand were trying to extricate themselves, but my partner threw more of the sand into their faces. Which would have been bad enough, but this sand was super-heated, so they had to deal with being burned as well. It was… not going well for them.

As the two guys at my feet got themselves situated and lunged at me, I dove into a forward roll to put myself next to the man I’d kicked. All three were right there, practically on top of me as my hand slapped down against the floor. Tabbris used my instant-image power to inscribe a rune into it, before throwing in some of our combined energy to trigger it.

The reverse and increase gravity spell activated, glowing red just before the three men who were diving for me were caught by it. The trio went flying up, slamming hard into the ceiling an instant before the reverse part of the spell cut off, leaving only the ‘increase’ part. Which, of course, yanked them back down again. They landed hard and didn’t move again, aside from a couple of groans.

It was an effect that had been limited to that very small area, and only for a moment. Still, Tabbris would need to recharge for a few seconds, at least. She would watch for another opportunity to use spells that she had learned from her mother over the past couple weeks and let me know.

In the distance, I saw Asenath and Bobbi. The two of them were working together to try and clear a path to the security panel. Unfortunately, the pair had been waylaid by a few controlled security guards and a single Seosten. And they couldn’t make their efforts to clear the path to the panel too obvious, or Kushiel’s forces would figure out what we were trying to do and just destroy it. Or at least make it even harder to reach, which we really didn’t need.  And I couldn’t exactly just use a portal to reach it. I didn’t know precisely where the slot for the USB thing was, and as soon as our friends here saw me groping for it, they’d… again, know to stop me.

No, I had to get to it. And the others were trying to help that happen.

Elsewhere, I could see Roxa in wolf form leaping on top of someone, carrying them to the ground before she bit into their arm. A second later, she shifted into her human self, twisting over to kick an approaching figure hard in the stomach from her prone position, a blow that sent that person flying backward. At the same time, her arm turned into its tree form, extending into an enormous branch that slammed into four more people to knock them over.

Miranda and Theia were fighting together too, also trying to clear a way for me to get to that panel. The two of them (or three, considering Miranda had split herself several times and two of them were there) were teaming up against an adult Seosten who just would not go down.

Further down the hall, the other werewolves of the pack were also fighting. Or… most of them were. Fezzik was on the ground. The big guy… I didn’t think he was ever going to move again. I hadn’t been there to see what happened, but given the size of the silver blade embedded in his chest and the way his head was… yeah. Yeah, he… damn it. God fucking damn it. The other wolves couldn’t even mourn him just yet or they’d risk losing even more of themselves.

He also wasn’t the only one down. A couple of the Seosten who had come in with us were on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or not, but… I wasn’t optimistic.

Then, of course, I had another problem. One of the young Seosten who wasn’t on our side was coming after me with a laser sword. He kept slashing at me, forcing me to back up or twist from side to side to avoid each humming swipe while I watched for an opening.

Not far away, I caught a brief glimpse of a third iteration of Miranda from the corner of my eye as the other girl used the metal shield on her arm to create three quick identically-sized and shaped round forcefields before making a quick gesture that sent them flying off to collide with the side of a big guy who appeared to be made of hundreds of different coils of rope all put together into one man-shaped figure. He turned at the blows, just as yet another Miranda hopped on his back, creating some kind of burning fist with one hand as she plunged it into his neck. He roared and jerked backward to throw her off, while that first Miranda ran that way at full speed, leaping up and twisting to plant her feet in his rope-coil chest. The impact sent him falling backward while the second Miranda hopped off. Another one appeared right where the rope-man was falling, already swinging that shield. The flat of it collided with the figure’s head and sent him to the ground, dazed.

Throughout all of that (which was only a couple of seconds), I was bobbing and weaving while backpedaling as the figure with the laser sword continued doggedly after me. Watch for the opening, watch for the opening, watch for it, watch for it…

There! As the man switched up his attack to stab at me instead of slashing with that blade, I created a quick portal with one hand right where his blade was heading. The other end appeared just behind the Seosten’s left leg. Which, since he had stabbed forward, made the energy blade go through the portal to stab himself. The man cried out, dropping the sword. I caught it, spinning to slam the hilt into the side of his head while he was collapsing. He went down and stayed down. For the moment, anyway.

That was the problem. While the Kushiel-aligned Seosten and the possessed or controlled Auberge security had no problems killing any of us, we were trying our level best not to use lethal measures with at least the latter. We really didn’t want to kill the guys who didn’t have a choice with what they were doing. But that was costing us. Had already cost us.

The security panel. It was still there, just past a spot where Larees and that Hasty chick were fighting basically back to back. They were right there, the fighting going on all around the panel. But it wasn’t too damaged. Not yet. Plugging in this USB could still bring us some help. But first, I had to get there.

Briefly, I thought of just shouting out for the Seosten woman or the werewolf and telling them what to do while throwing or portaling the USB to them. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. Everyone would hear me, and I was pretty damn sure the bad guys would work out that they needed to destroy the panel pretty quick.

Had to get to it. And since whatever the floors and walls up here were made of, it wasn’t wood, I had to get there the old fashioned way. As I took a step, a figure blurred over to my right side. Theia. She flashed me a dangerous smile. “We’ll cover you. Get to the button to deploy presents for all the good boys and girls.”

Her saying the word ‘present’ instinctively made me tense up despite myself. But another voice spoke from my left. One of the Mirandas. “Yeah, we’ll cover you. Go. Go!”

No time to think about how Theia made me feel. Shaking it off, I went for it. The other two girls were on either side, covering me as we raced down the hallway. Theia’s fire and ice guns were busy. Mostly the latter, freezing people’s legs or other limbs. Meanwhile, Miranda’s energy shields kept us safe from that side. They blocked for me, and together we beelined right for that panel.

Four hefty figures were ahead of us. They looked like gray elephant-skinned orc things, and they clearly weren’t in any mood to move. Nor were they affected by either of Theia’s elemental guns, apparently simply absorbing both fire and ice with the only apparent reaction being that the parts of their bodies touched by either turned red or blue.

Oh, right, there was another effect. Namely, they spat out that fire and ice by opening their mouths to send it right back at us. We had to dive to the floor to avoid it. Then roll to either side (Theia one way and Miranda and I the other) so we wouldn’t be trampled as two of the four rushed to do just that, stampeding right where we had just been.

A quick input from Tabbris and I knew what to do next. Kicking myself up and into a roll, I ended right near the nearest gray elemental-absorbing orc and slapped a hand against the black leather pants that he wore. At that brief touch, my partner made a rune appear, once more using that instant-image power. She shoved more power into it, igniting the spell immediately.

The effect was just as immediate. The orc’s pants, and the rest of his clothes, turned to metal. He was trapped in place, utterly incapable of moving. I heard his shouts of confusion as he struggled, but the transformation extended down to his shoes. And they themselves were fused with the floor. He was stuck, and wouldn’t be a threat for awhile.

Unfortunately, there were still the other three. And while Theia/Pace and Miranda were dealing with two of them, that left one. Which was the one that yanked me up off the floor, throwing me into the ceiling hard enough to daze me. As I fell back down, a wild swing from the gray orc knocked the remaining sense from me, and I was pretty sure I blacked out for a second before the collision with a nearby wall snapped me awake once more.

Ow. Oww. At the last instant, Tabbris took over and threw us out of the way just as that same orc tried to stomp where my head had been. Then I was back in control, snapping my foot up and out of his reaching grasp. A thought sent a cloud of sand into his eyes, and I flipped myself backwards to my feet while he was recovering.

Still pain. Lots of pain. Regeneration was working on it, but this wasn’t fun.

Somewhere along the line of being thrown around, I’d dropped the laser sword that I had picked up. But I could still feel it. I knew where it was. As the gray orc–Deunren, Tabbris informed me. As the Deunren growled and lunged for me once more, I made a quick portal in the air above myself. The other end appeared right where my item-sense told me that laser sword was. It fell through, into my upraised hand. I hit the button to ignite the blade and swept it in front of myself quickly. The blade cut off both of the Deunren’s raised arms, making him stumble while crying out.

“Something something disarming pun,” I managed before slugging him in the face as hard as I could. Unable to put anything up to protect himself, he took the blow full on, crashing to the floor.

Hopping over him, I tried to reach the panel once more. There, I was there. I was right there.

Then I wasn’t. A gust of wind or something struck me. It felt like wind, but it was powerful enough to send me spinning down the hallway, tumbling into a heap.

I had no idea what had hit me, or if it had even been purposeful. There were so many powers and weapons being thrown around, I could’ve been targeted or that could’ve been accidental. But either way, now there were even more people between me and where I needed to get.

This wasn’t working. I couldn’t get there. The others couldn’t get there. Everyone who actually knew what to do at the security panel even if I could get the USB to them was pinned down. Larees was there with Hasty still, but neither of them knew what to do with it. And I couldn’t just shout across the– Wait a second. Duh. Stupid, Flick. There was something I could do for that. Part of which I had been practicing with basically all year long.

Keep them off us for a second, I sent inwardly while scrambling in my pocket. Tabbris took over my feet, making us backpedal as more enemies came for us. Two laser shots struck nearby before one hit my chest, but I absorbed it. By that point, Tabbris had sent up a cloud of sand, superheating it. The burning sand flew in a wild circle, forcing everyone back a few steps and giving us a momentary respite.

The whole time, my hands were moving. From my pocket, I managed to pull out Herbie in one hand. With the other, I produced a privacy coin. Quickly, I used it with myself as the only ‘allowed’ person to hear what I was saying.

Then I went back to fighting. Tabbris took over the other part. With Herbie in one hand, she used my–our ability to instill sound in an object. With my voice, she spoke the quick explanation, to plug the USB into the slot on the panel. The power would only let us use sounds that were a few seconds long. But there was a lot you could say in roughly five seconds if you were really motivated to make it fit.

The whole time she was fixing Herbie, I was avoiding all the guys who wanted me to be a smear on the ground. And there were a lot of them. Kushiel’s forces were everywhere. And they were clearly interested in what I was doing.

What I was doing right then, as it happened, was making a portal. The other end came out near where Larees was, and I quickly shoved a second privacy coin against Herbie, lodging it into the spot where his sword was while activating it to only allow the Seosten woman to hear. Then I chucked Herbie and the USB together through that portal while activating the sound projection on him.

She heard. And thanks to the privacy coin, no one else did. I saw Larees use her firebird to clear a space, shouting something to Hasty, who turned into a wolf and lunged onto the biggest of their opponents to clear a path. Larees went right over them, hitting the nearby panel where only a single enemy waited in her path.

The rest of the Seosten knew then. They made a beeline that way, a half-dozen of them converging on the spot where Larees was. They would get to her before she could deal with the single threat in her way and find the slot.

But a figure appeared in front of them. A very… very small figure. Namythiet. She flew down, hovering between the six enemy Seosten and Larees, with that tiny sword held out toward them. She said something I didn’t catch, but part of it was ‘Mister Seth’. The Seosten looked at each other for an instant, then ignored the tiny pixie to lunge past her.

That, ignoring Namythiet, was a mistake that they paid for immediately. Because that little pixie chose right then to show them (and me) why she had named the tiny sword of hers Cataclysm. The blade, itself about the size of a pin, began to glow bright red. A dozen lines of energy shot out away from it in the same positions as the numbers on a clockface, stretching about three feet in every direction before opening up a small portal at the end of each. And from each of those twelve portals appeared several more lines that created more. Twelve initial portals, each with three additional ones attached. Forty eight of them in all. Each were only about a few inches across. But through each of those portals appeared the barrel of various weapons. I saw cannons, rifles, wide-barreled shotguns, some kind of metal coil with electricity humming around it, even a flamethrower.

The literal arsenal instantly unleashed on the briefly paralyzed Seosten. Most of them managed to hurl themselves away from the worst of it at the last second. But two were caught right in the middle and went down for good, while the rest were at least injured. Not to mention the damage done to the wall behind them, which was quite literally blown to shreds. There wasn’t much of a ‘wall’ left to speak of.

It also gave Larees the chance she needed. The woman managed to deal with the only remaining threat that had been in her way, hopping over the falling body to reach the panel. Her hand slammed the USB into place.

And that was enough. The second the last number left her mouth, a dozen portals appeared all along the ceiling. Portals, not doorways. Which made sense. It meant that the turrets that shot down through those portals could actually be housed anywhere and just pop out where needed.

Either way, the turrets appeared and, as promised, began shooting only Kushiel’s forces with some kind of electrical stun blasts that knocked them out. Our side was completely safe, while theirs immediately began to collapse.

It was working. Between the turrets, which amounted to powerful reinforcements, and our own people, we quickly turned the tide against the mix of Kushiel’s Seosten and the controlled security forces. Getting that security to deploy had done the trick. We could hold them until the others managed to show up. We could hold them.

And then the turrets were ripped out of the ceiling. In a spray of sparks, they were torn down from the portals. The metal guns let out a scream of protest while being ripped open and flattened out. In the next second, while I was still realizing what had happened, pieces of the turrets began flying in every direction. Straight at us. One big piece slammed into my side before I could avoid it, knocking me to the ground. Then the chunk of metal literally wrapped around me, fusing itself to the floor while trapping me beneath it.

The same thing was happening everywhere else, up and down the hallway. Not just the turrets, but parts of the walls themselves, even the doors and decorations. They were all tearing their way free and trapping everyone on our side. The werewolves were being pinned in ways that would make it impossible for them to escape even if they shifted.

The green-skinned elf-like figure standing at the end of the hall with his arms going through motions like a conductor. It was him. He continued to pin everyone down. Then his form shifted once everyone was solidly trapped.

Ares. Abaddon. Whatever. It was him. He took back his normal form, while Radeuriel and Kushiel joined him. The three Olympians stood there, observing the corridor for a moment before starting to walk, calmly as they pleased, toward the door.

Where was Athena? Where was… was… anyone else? Where were they?

Not here. That was the answer, or at least the only one that mattered right then. They weren’t here.

Damn it, damn it. Move. I had to do something, anything!

There, Flick! Tabbris moved my eyes, making me look toward the unconscious figure lying nearby. It was one of the Seosten. I didn’t even know whose side they were on. He was several feet away, but that didn’t matter.

I saw Ares shift into another form as they walked, Kushiel casually telling him, “And make sure they don’t wake up any time soon.”

It was now or never. Whatever form Ares had shifted into, it would clearly knock everyone out. Quickly and as surreptitiously as possible, I made a tiny portal, just big enough to stick my finger through. With that finger, I touched the fallen Seosten and quickly possessed him.

My temporary host was unconscious, so I couldn’t see what happened. But I could hear some kind of pop in the air. I waited for a brief moment, then quickly stopped possessing him.

I was kneeling on the floor as I emerged from the unconscious man, keeping myself as low as possible. Ahead of me, the trio of Olympians had been joined by what remained of their forces. It wasn’t much, just three actual Seosten and a couple of the controlled security guards. But that was enough, considering everywhere else I looked, our side was knocked out. They’d been pinned beneath metal, then Ares had done… something. Whatever it was, whatever that popping sound had been, everyone was down. Everyone in the hallway that could have helped was unconscious.

Then it got worse. As the Olympians approached the door that led into the vault, there was a click, a chime, and then the door opened. It just opened for them. Just like that. the door was open. All that, everything we’d done, and Kushiel, Radueriel, and Abaddon were right there in front of the open door. They were about to go through it. They were about to go into the vault. Their little miniature honor guard or whatever it was had already gone inside. They were in.

We’re too late, Tabbris lamented, sounding crestfallen and about as broken as I felt then.

No, I shot back despite everything inside me saying she was right. We’re not. Boost.

With those words, I lunged to my feet. Shifting myself back to my normal form, I hurled myself that way. With everything I had, every last bit of strength and speed that I could drag from the pit of my soul, I sprinted down that hallway. The boost kicked in, and I was almost flying. My hands moved, calling my staff into their grip and pointing it behind me before I triggered the boost from that as well. And then I literally was flying. My feet left the ground as I rocketed straight to that group of Olympians.  Abaddon was at the back, then Radueriel, with Kushiel at the front. All of whom could kill me practically with a thought.

I hit them from behind. Only I didn’t hit them. I possessed them… all of them, in a line. One by one, starting with Abaddon, I possessed each one just long enough to avoid physically colliding with them before popping myself back out the front. I didn’t stay long enough to bother with a mental domination fight, because I wasn’t trying to control them. I possessed Abaddon, popped out through his front, immediately possessed Radueriel from behind before going out his front, and finally did the same with Kushiel. One by one, before my body even had time to shift properly from the glowing energy form that it took when exiting someone, I threw myself through all three of them, rocketing out of Kushiel before ending in a dive that took me the rest of the way into the vault itself.

As I passed through the last of them, my hand produced that crystal that Wyatt had given me. I let it go, before flipping over in the air. My staff was already shifting into its bow form as I took aim, drawing back an energy arrow. With a grunt, I released it, shooting the arrow back that way right as I landed in a crouch.

The arrow collided with that crystal, shattering it. I caught a brief glimpse of trio of Olympians there at the doorway, just as the spell on the crystal activated. A thick wall, appearing to be made of a mostly opaque crystal itself, appeared to block that doorway.

I was there. I was in the vault, which itself was mostly an empty circular room. Empty, that was, aside from a single pedestal in the middle of it with a book sitting on top. I was there and, for the moment, the Olympians weren’t.

It wouldn’t keep them out for long. But maybe… just maybe, it would be enough. Every second counted, and I had to hope… I had to believe that help was on its way. Deveron and the others in the panic room, Avalon, Gaia, and everyone else coming in through the other side. Seconds mattered. However long it would take Kushiel and the other two to break through that… whatever it was that Wyatt had given me, it might just be long enough.

Of course, I wasn’t in here alone. There were three non-Olympian Seosten and three other figures in here with me, all of whom looked pretty pissed off right then.

Help was on the way. It had to be. They were coming. But so were Kushiel, Radeuriel, and Abaddon. The first question was who would make it first.

And the second question, which sprang to mind as the guys in the room with me drew weapons of their own, was whether I would survive long enough for that to matter.

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On The Edge 42-03

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Ares. Ares was there, just a few feet away from me. And he had killed Seth, killed Seth, after pretending to be an ordinary, rank and file Seosten long enough to take us by surprise. So I supposed that the ‘god of war’ knew a bit about tactics after all.

A blur of motion put Asenath between us, though I didn’t know who was actually in control there. How was the vampire girl reacting to the death of the man who had basically been a big brother to her throughout her life, even if they didn’t always get along? Which actually probably made them even more like siblings.

Later. There would be time to deal with that later. Assuming the rest of us survived this.

“Gabrielle,” Asenath’s voice spoke, using the fake name that I had given. “You need to run, right now.”

“Ohhhh.” Ares was smiling as he waved our finger knowingly. “Is that you in there, Auriel? It is, isn’t it? I was lucky enough to pull you, wasn’t I?” He was smiling as though he’d just won a great prize.

“But why are you telling your little friend there to run away? I thought you were all about being some great war general. Scream and run away doesn’t seem like much of a strategy to me.”

His eyes found me once more as the man’s smile grew. “And don’t you run away too fast there, sweetheart. Because the fun just started. Isn’t that right, boys?”

Turning slightly as both his words and my item sense warned me about new arrivals, I saw a small assortment of figures appear in the doorway. From their beautiful appearances and the fact that they wore the Seosten bodysuits, I was going to guess that Kushiel had gotten some reinforcements of her own people for this.

They’re not very old, Tabbris quickly put in. Those suits are the cadet ones. This must be their first real mission. They’re probably younger than the ones we fought back on the slave planet.

But still dangerous, I replied, feeling her agreement. I could also feel her horror at what had happened to Seth, but we were both kind of suppressing that as much as possible. Later, later. If we didn’t deal with it later instead of now, we’d have a lot more than just him to lose.

Athena’s glowing figure appeared beside Asenath. She held Excalibur in one hand. “Take Gabrielle,” she ordered her former host. “Get out of here. Complete the mission.”

With a tiny smirk, Ares offhandedly replied, “Even if they make it out of this room, they’re going to have a hard time getting anywhere else. Just like the rest of your friends. But hey,” he added with a languid shrug, “I’m looking forward to seeing them try. This should be fun.”

As if fun was some kind of trigger word, the Seosten cadets all launched themselves into an attack. In the background, I could see Ares and Athena close with one another. But I couldn’t pay any attention to it. I was already in a fight for my life.

Cadets or not, the Seosten were incredibly fast. They were clearly boosting, the first two racing to grab my arms while the third trailed right behind them with a laser dagger that he had produced. It was aimed for my shoulder, clearly to disable me once his two companions had me immobilized. Beyond those first three were another trio backing them up. Six cadets. I was in trouble.

But I also wasn’t alone, even without Athena. A blur of motion sent Asenath past me to engage the second trio, even as the first reached me.

At the last instant, Tabbris triggered her own boost. Between that and the werewolf reflexes, I could briefly move as fast as they were. My body twisted aside from their grasping hands, and I caught one of their wrists. There was a brief impulse to possess him, but I didn’t want to give away who I was just yet.

Instead, I gave his wrist a hard yank, twisting him into the path of the guy coming up with the dagger so that he would take the energy blade instead. At the same time, my foot lashed out to kick the other guy who had been coming for me right in the chest. That part was Tabbris, taking over briefly.

The man whose wrist I was gripping took the laser dagger in his opposite shoulder with a grunt. Before he or his companion could recover, I kicked the legs out from under the one I was holding, releasing his wrist as he fell. Before his body hit the floor, My rising foot collided with it, werewolf strength working to send the man flying into his dagger-wielding partner.

The man that Tabbris had kicked had recovered by then, suddenly producing a handgun, which he pointed at me before firing several quick shots. But it was a laser weapon, and Tabbris was on the case. My energy absorption power took the shots without issue, and I sent that energy right back out again in the form of a blast that took the gunman in the chest. Or it would have, if he hadn’t been fast enough to dive aside. As it was, he still lost part of his arm as the searing beam cut through it.

The two who were behind me had recovered by then. One was diving for my leg with his hand outstretched, clearly intending to end the fight by possessing me.

I let him reach me. His hand grasped my leg, and I saw a brief flash of confusion cross his face just before I twisted to bring my opposite leg up. My hand caught his hair and I held him in position while driving my knee into his face hard.

My body turned of its own volition then, or rather, of Tabbris’s volition. She had been using the item sense to keep track of where the third guy was, and turned us just in time to avoid the energy sword he had produced as it swept through the air with a hum. Before he could recover, my hand snapped out, shoving into the blade even as Tabbris brought up the absorption power again. I could only absorb an instant of the blade’s power before it would overload me, at which point I would lose my hand. But that single instant was enough, thanks to an idea that Shiori had given me while the two of us were talking. The instant my hand caught the energy from that blade, I shove it right back out again, downward into the hilt of the weapon. I sent all that power it was shoving out into my palm back into the handle of the weapon itself.

It overloaded, exploding in the man’s hand and drawing a cry from him as his arm was flung backward. His fingers were mangled and burned from the exploding weapon. Then I added to his problems by planting my fist in the small of his throat, collapsing it inward from the concentrated force of the blow. His eyes widened and he doubled over, wheezing for breath through a collapsed windpipe.

Claws emerged from my hand then, as Tabbris focused on making a partial change into my lion shape, just enough to give me the barely formed paw with claws on the end. I used them, slashing across the throat of the doubled-over figure in the same spot that I had just punched him. Blood sprayed everywhere, and he gargled before collapsing. His body hit the floor with a final thud, even as my aura flared up.

My attention turned to the other two, while Tabbris muted the rush of pleasure. But before I could move to either of them, Asenath called my name. Or rather, my fake name.

“Gabrielle!” She was standing by the door, over the bodies of her own opponents. “Let’s go!”

“Larees!” I blurted back. In the back of my mind, I’d noticed enough of Athena and Ares’  fight to know that her unconscious form was being used against the woman. Athena kept having to protect it from one power or another that Ares would throw as he cycled through various bodies. We had to get her out of there so Athena could focus.

Asenath reacted instantly, her form turning into a barely visible blur as she raced across the room.

At that exact instant and just in time, Athena used Excalibur to reflect some kind of energy shot from Ares, who looked like a small furry creature at the moment. With her other hand, she reached down to catch hold of Larees’ arm and flung her right to the racing vampire.

Asenath caught Larees, hooking the woman’s arm around her shoulders before racing back. Ares tried to stop them, but Athena was there. The two went for each other even harder, and I had the distinct feeling that if the rest of us didn’t get out of this room immediately, we would be collateral damage very quickly.

My two surviving opponents were trying to block the doorway, rifles appearing in their hands. But the broken table lay nearby, and I stuck a foot out. As my toe brushed the wood, I sent myself through it to the other hand, popping out behind the men. My hands, each still in the shape of the lion’s paws with claws extended, grabbed onto both of their necks. It wasn’t enough to kill them, but I did slam both together so that their heads collided, then shoved them in the opposite direction to collide with either side of the doorway before releasing their limp forms.

Asenath reached me then, and I helped by taking one of Larees’ arms. Together, we retreated from the room, leaving Athena and Ares to fight. As much as I wanted to see her kick his ass, we were a distraction she didn’t need.

Unfortunately, things didn’t let up once we hit the hallway. There were three figures right there dressed in security uniforms. One was a big furry guy who towered over the other two lizard men.

I didn’t know if they were actually regular security for the hotel reacting to the noise or if they have been compromised by the Seosten. And it didn’t really matter in that instance, as the two reptilian figures brought their arms up, launching some kind of gas from their palms. It was dark sickly green, and I had a feeling that we really didn’t want to breathe it in. At the same time, the big guy came rushing for us, moving astonishingly quickly for his size. He was a furry freight train with rockets strapped to it.

While that gas was still flooding toward us, my free hand moved to the collar of my shirt. Tabbris activated the fresh air breathing spell there while using my mouth to warn Asenath, “Paralytic, don’t breathe it!”

The big guy was right there. We had to drop Larees. Asenath and I each let go of the woman, lunging to either side just as the large furry figure grabbed for us. Quick as he was, he still managed to kick out with a foot, catching me in the side to send me flying into the nearest wall with a yelp of pain. Asenath made no sound, even as he caught her arm and flung her up into the ceiling, because she was busy holding her breath. From the quick bit of information that Tabbris dumped into my head, breathing in even a tiny bit of that gas would result in us not being able to move for hours. We couldn’t let that happen. Even if I had this spell to protect me, the vampire girl didn’t. Thankfully, I was pretty sure she could hold her breath for a pretty long time.

But we had to finish this. And I still wasn’t sure if I should use my weapon yet. I was pretty confident that they would know who I was the second I did, and Athena wanted me to keep that secret for as long as possible. If they knew who I was, they would know I could possess them. Which was a trick I didn’t want them to be ready for just yet.

Besides, whether these guys were possessed or not, what they were doing wasn’t their fault. Either they were just doing their job protecting the hotel, or they had been possessed and enslaved by the Seosten.

With a grunt, I rebounded off the wall, throwing myself into a roll that took me right next to the big guy before ending up on one knee. He brought a massive fist down toward my head, but I snapped both hands up to catch it. Sort of. Oof. Pain rocked through my arms from the force of the blow and I nearly collapsed. Still, I held his fist and looked.

Nothing. He wasn’t possessed. I didn’t know if he was compromised in some other way beyond simply doing his job, but there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.

He glared down at me,  yanking his fist free. Before he could do anything else, I pointed to the floor near me. A portal appeared there and behind the man’s head, just before I slammed my foot down through it, colliding with the base of his skull with enough force to draw a grunt of pain from him. It also distracted him just enough that he didn’t notice Asenath, who had recovered and reached the spot behind him. Her hand snapped out to smack against the small of his back. She must have hit some kind of pressure point, because the huge guy collapsed to his knees just before she hit something on the side of his neck. At that point he hit the ground and lay still.

The lizard guys did not react well to that. Realizing their gas wasn’t working, they switched tactics to something more direct. Namely, solidifying that gas into random solid shapes and trying to literally beat us with them. A dark green rectangle the size of a microwave narrowly missed the side of my head, just before another one in the shape of a trapezoid took my legs out from under me. Where I was struck, I felt my legs go a bit numb. It wasn’t the immediate paralysis that breathing the gas was, but I could see how it worked. They turned their gas into solid shapes and bludgeoned people with them to gradually paralyze. I couldn’t let myself be hit any more.

Also, being stabbed with them was probably worse, so I threw myself into an awkward roll to avoid the pointy end of an arrow-shaped bit of converted gas. Unfortunately, it kept following me, and I had to continue evading.

Then it all stopped. The shapes collapsed back into gas and then dissipated. Larees was there, standing over the unconscious forms of the guards while looking to the two of us. “The fuck just happened?”

We told her on the way, racing from the hallway even as the sound of Athena and Ares tearing the place apart grew louder behind us.

Larees didn’t curse, surprisingly. She got really quiet for a moment, then what sidelong toward Asenath. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for Seth.”

“Later,” the other woman replied simply. “Not the time.”

“We’ve got to meet up with everyone else,” I put in before realizing, “Wait.” I slowed a bit, my hand moving up to find the communication badge Gaia had provided before this all started. I tried to contact the others with it, to no avail. There was some kind of jamming going on. And if it was jamming that could stop something Gaia provided, it was pretty damn effective. No wonder the people outside hadn’t said anything yet. They couldn’t.

Wait, did that mean they didn’t know what it happened? I had no doubt that they would send in reinforcements as soon as they lost contact with us, but if they didn’t know what they were walking into…

“Well this just keeps getting better,” Larees muttered. “Now we’ve completely lost contact with everyone outside, who might or might not know something’s wrong. And we have no idea where anyone else in this place is. Oh, and everyone wants to kill us.”

I started to say something, but then heard a voice in my head that wasn’t my partner. It was Deveron.

Pinned down in one of the basketball courts. It’s Radueriel. He’s controlling all of the security and most of the staff with some kind of implant device. If anyone finds that bastard, break his toy.

Right, this did just keep getting better. Now we had at least three Olympians in the building. And we were all cut off from each other. What else could go wr—

I didn’t have time to even finish that very stupid thought. Even as my brain was frantically trying to backspace over it, the sudden appearance of a new figure to my right where there hadn’t been one before penetrated my mind. But it didn’t set off my item sense. My gaze snapped around that way quickly just in time to catch a brief glimpse of a figure in a white suit.

Asenath and Larees were both reacting, even as the figure caught hold of my arm. Then we were elsewhere. I had time to register what looked like a grand dining room of some kind before my back hit the wall hard.

Finally, I had a chance to see the person who had grabbed me. He looked like a guy in his mid-twenties, with very light blond hair. What I had briefly thought was a suit was actually a pristine white trench coat worn over a dark red silk button-up shirt and white slacks. His amber eyes were fierce as he held me up against the wall with one hand.

“I have questions,” he announced. “You’re going to answer them, quickly and honestly. What do your people want here? How are they controlling the others?”

Oh, he’s not with Kushiel at all, Tabbris realized right with me.

It was true, I’d already seen that he wasn’t possessed, but now it was clear that the guy didn’t know anything about what was actually going on. And he wasn’t being controlled. So he could have been an ally. If I could explain things.

“Okay,” I started, trying not to think about what was going on with the others. I had to get this guy to understand and get back to Asenath and Larees.

“Wait.” The man spoke that single word, then looked me up and down. His lip curled a little. “Shapeshifter.” With that, he brought his free hand up. It was glowing blue. As he waved it at me, I felt my form shifting without my input, going back to normal.

Once it was done, the man started to speak again. “Right, now explain what y—” Abruptly, he stopped short. His mouth opened and then shut, and he stared at me intently for a few seconds.

“Should… uh, should I talk?” I asked, confused.

“Atherby.” His voice was as certain as it was confused. “You are related to Joselyn Atherby.”

It was my turn to look flabbergasted, blurting, “You remember my mother?”

Slowly, he lowered me to the floor, taking his hand away. “Joselyn Atherby saved my soul,” he murmured. “And the life of the Auberge’s current owner. She and her family have always been welcome here.”

Well. Call back the umpires, dust off the bases, and tell the players to limber up.

Because this was a whole new ballgame.

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On The Edge 42-02

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“You know,” Seth’s voice announced, “this guy is really good at violence. I think I like this partnership thing.”

His expression changed then, as the man spoke for himself. “That was a compliment,” he drawled, “so I let her go ahead and say it.”

Larees was the first one who had spoken. She and the vampire had chosen to team up. As capable as Seth was normally, I couldn’t even imagine what he would be like with a full Seosten boost. To say nothing of Asenath and the werewolves.

Even with short notice, we definitely weren’t going in unprepared. I just hoped it would be enough to deal with what we found in there. I didn’t want to have to fight the hotel residents any more than we had to, and I had no doubt that Kushiel would throw as many of them in our path as she possibly could. It wasn’t like killing innocents mattered to her.

A group of us was walking down the street to approach the most recent entrance to the Auberge. It wasn’t everyone. The Auberge had rules about larger groups. Even if you were together, you couldn’t approach and enter with more than seven or eight people at a time. It was to avoid attention from the outside (and probably for other security reasons) and they were very strict about it. Which worked for us, since splitting up to search the hotel was what we wanted to do anyway.

I was going in right alongside Wyatt and Deveron, of course. Neither of them had agreed to be possessed. Asenath, on the other hand, had agreed to be possessed by Athena. I’d pointed out that that seemed like a good way to commit suicide given the whole vampires being hybrids thing, and Athena had told me that holding Excalibur actually allowed her to possess hybrids, so long as she held the blade against them for a few seconds first. Which… was there anything the sword couldn’t do? We also had Seth, possessed by Larees and Namythiet (with Clubber), Bobbi, and Twister. Each of them (including the tiger cub) were possessed by a different Seosten, who were all quietly waiting for if (or when) things went wrong. I just hoped all the possessors and possessees were taking a chance to get to know each other while they had the chance. Because when this went down, they really needed to be able to work together as much as possible.

Either way, it wasn’t long before we reached the back alley that Seth had pointed us to. At the end of it was a single red door, lit by a weak little lamp. There was no sign of anything special about it at all. Which made sense, given the fact that it was, well, a secret.

Deveron looked towards me, quietly asking, “You ready for this, kid?”

My eyes met his. Not that either of our eyes, or the rest of our faces, looked the way they should. He had made himself look like a very pale blonde guy with a hint of fat in his cheeks, while I had gone with the appearance of a nearly anorexic redhead.

Besides our appearance changes, we were both also using the spells Wyatt had provided to fool any shape-shifting detectors the hotel happened to be using. That was on top of the spells he had put on us that would allow the others out in the van, like Abigail, to watch what happened. Which had once again reminded me of just how important and useful my magic-inclined big brother was.

“I’m ready,” I replied simply. “We’re ready. Or at least as ready as we’re going to have a chance to be. I’m pretty sure Kushiel won’t pay attention if we call for a time out for a year or two so we can really get ready.”

“Yeah,” Asenath put in. “I’ve found that people like her are really inconsiderate when it comes to that.” Pausing, she added, “And when it comes to basically everything else, really.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, as Athena spoke through her. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know how long they’ve been here, or how many resources they brought in. Assume that everyone inside is a potential threat, either through coercion or possession. It’s okay to look around and be curious. Remember, we’re tourists, so it’s expected. It’s our first time here.”

“Well,” Twister put in, “most of your first times here. Some of us know how to enjoy ourselves now and then.” She and Seth exchanged high fives without either looking at the other.

We reached the door then, and Seth reached out to knock. One quick, two long, then three quick.

As soon as that was done, a slit that hadn’t been there before appeared in the door. It slid open to reveal a pair of eyes, which immediately gave me the creeps. The eyes shifted slowly to take in each of us in turn, scanning up-and-down. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it tickled. These definitely weren’t ordinary eyes, which was to be expected.

Apparently the shape-shifting combined with Wyatt’s spell worked, because a moment later the slit closed and the door slid open. As a group, we exchanged glances before starting through. Seth with Larees and Asenath with Athena went first.

We emerged into an incredibly lavish and beautiful hotel lobby. Seriously, this place was gorgeous. If it had been a Bystander place, it would have cost like a thousand dollars a night for an ordinary room. It was that good. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, fine wood paneling, luxurious chairs, a huge fountain in the middle of the lobby, and even statues. The place was amazing.

It was a good thing that we were supposed to look like tourists, because I spent a minute just standing there looking around with my mouth open. Now I felt even worse about there being a potential (Probable, Tabbris corrected) fight here, because I didn’t want to break anything.

My attention was drawn then to the approach of a smartly dressed, dark haired man. He wore a crisp suit, and he was one of those guys whose appearance made him look anywhere between thirty and fifty with no real way to be sure. Not that appearance meant anything with people who could live for centuries or longer since I had no idea what this guy was (aside from the fact that he did set off my Heretic-sense), but still.

I also sensed an awful lot of weapons hidden on him under that simple suit. He had several guns, knives, what felt like a very large sword, a couple grenades, and more. The man was a walking arsenal. Which almost made me tense up a bit reflexively, but he didn’t seem to be coming for a fight. Not yet, anyway.

“Good evening,” the man started politely. “My name is Deacon Carterfield, and I would like to welcome you all to the Auberge. It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Dozeran. And you as well, ahh, Twister.”

Nodding politely to both of them, the man continued, “I’m told that your Wonderland organization is interested in creating an ongoing relationship with our establishment. A relationship which would have you picking out permanent residences and allowing your people to, ahh,  take turns?”

That was a lie that we hoped we would be able to explain to them later. We couldn’t exactly tell them the real reason why we were there, and with any luck, when we were done, we wouldn’t have ruined any relationship between the two places. Especially if it meant we cleared out their Seosten infestation. Explaining that we couldn’t tell them the truth beforehand because any of them could have been possessed or compromised in some way would probably go along way toward handling things.

But first we had to get through this.

Deveron extended a hand to the man. “That’s what we’re hoping,” he confirmed with an easy smile. “It’d be nice for everyone to have a little treat like the Auberge to look forward to if they behave, you know?”

Deacon bowed his head in acknowledgment of that while shaking of the other man’s hand. “I’m quite certain I do. Just as I am certain that your party will enjoy their stay here, and that we will come to a very equitable agreement.“

He took a moment to shake hands with a couple of the others, before turning to me. Which made it my turn. And more importantly, made it time for the first test.

I was wearing the choker of Anuk-Ite. It had been disguised to look like a different necklace, of course. But I was still wearing it. It was a quick and easy way of testing for possession, and we weren’t going to go in here without an advantage like that, relatively small as it might have been in the long run.

I shook the man’s hand, introducing myself as Gabrielle Sezmin.  As our hands touched, I watched they man, but there was no sign of possession. Which still didn’t mean we could exactly tell him everything that was going on, considering every other way he could have been compromised. But still, at least there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.  

Eventually, he led us up to the front counter to check in, promising that he would send our other group around when they arrived and that he or any of the hotel staff would be more than happy to answer any questions we might have in the future.

We checked in, got our room keys, and then a little goblin girl named Elky, who was dressed like a maid, showed us to our rooms on the fourth floor. She babbled on the whole time very adorably, telling us about the hotel and some of the amenities in it, as well as promising that she or one of her fellow staff would take care of anything we needed if we just rang the little silver bells that were in each room. She was incredibly enthusiastic about everything, and it was fun to listen to her. I also took the chance to surreptitiously touch her shoulder on the way up, confirming that she wasn’t possessed either.

The rooms themselves were so nice that I was almost sad that we weren’t actually planning on staying. Each was enormous, of course, built like a million dollar penthouse with full-sized kitchens, bedrooms so big you could play a half-court basketball game in them, and bathrooms with tubs that you could do laps in. The place was amazing, and it was easy to see why they were proud of it.

Once we were left alone (Asenath gave the goblin girl some kind of gold stone for a tip), we waited for Mateo and the members of his pack who had come in with him to join us. Briefly, Athena separated from Asenath within the privacy of the room that we were using for this discussion so that she could go over the next part of the plan. We would split into somewhat smaller groups and wander around the hotel, ostensibly just doing touristy things. There were plenty of other inhabitants doing the same, so we wouldn’t stand out. Once we knew what was going on, we would join up again and plan out how to assault wherever Kushiel and her people were holed up.

Tabbris and I were paired up with Asenath and Athena. The four (or two, depending on how you were counting) of us would check the pool area and fitness rooms on the third, fourth, and fifth floors (they had a lot of them). Considering the choker, we would have the easiest job of identifying the Seosten. Which, I was almost positive, was the reason Athena had paired herself with me. Because she wanted to be the first one there when I finally found one of her people. I was also just as positive that Deveron and Wyatt, who were also paired together, had only agreed to the separation because I was with Athena. If Deveron would trust anyone to keep me safe, it was her. Plus, Wyatt had those spells to let him know if I was in trouble. That combined with the fact that Abigail and the others outside would see everything that happened gave them plenty of reason to go with the plan.

And yet, I still had to promise about twenty different times that I wouldn’t run off on my own when things went down. Which, yeah, that tracked.

Separating into our small groups after making sure that those outside in the van could still see everything just fine, we started out. I walked alongside Asenath down the hall to the elevator, making sure a privacy spell was active before speaking.

“How many people do you think she’s brought in with her for this whole thing?”

Reaching the elevator, Asenath reached out to hit the button while Athena spoke through her. “I am not certain. Losing the laboratory base would have put quite a dent in both her resources and her reputation. But this mission is important enough that the Seraphim may not have cared. She was… she was likely given anything she asked for that could be spared.”

“But if she fails here, after all that…” I started slowly.

“She will be, as you say, boned?” The word sounded unfamiliar coming from Athena, even through Asenath’s voice. “Yes. The Seraphim will not be pleased.”

“Which is just another reason to make sure it happens,” I noted while stepping onto the just-arrived elevator with her. “As if we didn’t have enough already.”

Together, we started working our way through the various gyms and pool areas. And of course, it was yet another reminder that I actually would’ve liked to stay here. The pools were beautiful, and while a couple were the standard rectangle, there were others in various shapes, with islands and fountains spread through them. Some were clearly meant for kids to play in, while others were reserved for adults. Some were quite hot to the point of boiling for species who enjoyed that, while some had chunks of ice floating in them. And the gyms were just as eclectic, with so much equipment that I couldn’t even begin to guess the uses of. I saw one Alter in there that looked like a mass of tentacles attached to a furry ball. Each of his (or her) several dozen tentacles were latched onto a different circular hook attached to a cable, which itself was attached to various weights.

There were lots of people around, actually. And though I couldn’t really outright shake everyone’s hand, I did find excuses to bump into them or brush by, which let me check them for possession. One by one, as we continued through a couple floors worth, they came up clean. No Seosten. And judging by the reports we were getting from the others, no one else was having much luck either.

That, however, changed entirely in an instant. We were heading through an otherwise empty conference room that we’d looked through after clearing the spa on that floor, when I brushed past a bellboy carrying a couple suitcases. As my hand brushed his leg, the choker activated, and I glanced that way to see the outline of a woman. Not Kushiel, but definitely a Seosten.

Something in my gaze must have given it away, because the man’s hand abruptly caught my wrist so tight I felt the bone in it snap. His fist was flying at my face.

Then he was stopped as Asenath caught him by the elbow. Without a word, she spun, hauling him off the ground before hurling the man back into the conference room we’d just been leaving. His body collided with the wall, before the vampire super-sped that way. Her foot hit the back of his head hard enough to stun him, before she went down on top of him, using her body to keep him pinned. “Now!”

I was already there, putting my hand to the man’s arm while he was dazed. With a thought, I used my ‘instant-picture’ power to make the expulsion-rune appear. So much faster than using the field-engraver, especially as I’d practiced with it extensively.

It worked. The female Seosten (one I didn’t recognize at all), was forced out of his body. She stumbled, and Asenath was right there to grab her. Using one hand and a hell of a lot of strength, she hauled the Seosten off the floor before slamming her down in one of the conference room chairs. From her pocket, she produced a length of magically reinforced cable, securing our new prisoner to that chair so that she couldn’t go anywhere.

Then she looked to me, and it was clearly Athena speaking. “Call in the others, we have no time. They’re connected, so Kushiel and her people will already know that we have her.”

From her secured position, the now-exposed Seosten smirked. “Is that who I think it is? Auriel? It’s you, isn’t it? You just had to involve yourself in this. Why? Why do you want to destroy our people? Are you that much of a traitor?”

“I don’t know you,” Athena informed the woman. “So don’t think that you can judge me.”

“Don’t know me?” The Seosten woman echoed, head tilting. Her voice was quiet, a bare whisper that was somehow much more immediately frightening than a scream would have been. “You wanna bet?”

Then it happened. Without warning, the Seosten lunged up from the chair. Her bindings were gone. She was so fast that the first hint I had that anything was wrong was her foot hitting me in the stomach. The air was knocked from my lungs as I went flying backward, rolling into a heap. As my head snapped up, I saw Asenath take a hit that made her crash into the nearest table so hard that it collapsed under her.

Wait, that didn’t make sense. Asenath had Athena. There was no way that some random nobody Seosten should have been able to lay a finger on her. None.

Tabbris helped me orient myself, getting my hands down to push up. But before we could do more than get to a kneeling position, there was a rush of motion. Seth was there. The vampire blurred his way across the room, slamming into the Seosten woman. His knife was driven into her chest, and his other hand caught hold of her throat to snap the woman’s neck. Then he gave her a shove backward to fall against the nearby wall as the body collapsed.

“Now see,” Seth started while turning to where Senny was. “That’s what happens when you don’t just finish the job. You end up looking embarassi-”

Too late, I saw the shape behind him. Too late, I saw it rise up. Too late, my mouth opened to scream a warning.

Too late, Seth began to turn in mid-sentence, his arm rising with that knife. Too late.

He stopped short, arms falling to his sides, knife collapsing to the floor. Larees appeared nearby, her glowing form resolving into her full body, her face settling into a confused expression.

Seth fell. His body collapsed, as the figure standing behind him held the vampire’s heart in one hand, crushing it between blood-soaked fingers before straightening to his full, impressive height.

“Okay, that makes us even,” Ares, the Olympian whose power allowed him to shift into the forms (including the powers) of the past several dozen people he had possessed, announced while cracking his neck. His foot lashed out, colliding with Larees to send her flying into the nearest wall, her unconscious form sliding to the floor. “You killed one of me, I killed one of you.”

“But something tells me you’re gonna run out before I do.”

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Patreon Snippets 3

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The following is the third 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. 

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

Through the pitch black night, three figures picked their way along a winding mountain trail. Trees lined both sides of the path, branches often sticking out in their way. Yet despite that, and despite the winding nature of the path that often seemed terribly random, none of the three ever missed a step. Through the complete darkness that came from the stars and moon being hidden behind clouds and the nearest city lights being many miles away, they nonetheless avoided every branch, stepped over every loose rock and random hole, hiking the trail as though it was illuminated by the bright light of noon.

Shiori, Columbus, and Jiao. Shiori and her mother had been spending a few days… or nights rather, each month meeting for things like these hikes, so that they could get to know each other. And this time, with her mother’s blessing, Shiori had invited her brother along, feeling that he really needed to get out. Manakel was now as dead as Charmiene. Avalon had been rescued and was recuperating at the Atherby camp. Things had… for the most part, settled down at least for the time being.

“Do you ever, umm, miss it?” Columbus, whose goggles really did allow him to see everything as if it was daytime, asked hesitantly while looking toward the taller of his two companions.

Jiao, whose vampiric gifts included the vision that allowed her to function perfectly in darkness, paused very briefly before guessing what he was referring to. “You mean the sun.”

Shiori paused as well, glancing over her shoulder at her mother. Though she wasn’t an actual vampire, she was a dhampyr, a hybrid. Which meant that her own night vision was good enough that she was no more inconvenienced by the darkness than either of the others. When she spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?”

“Two hundred and twenty-seven years,” the woman confirmed, her always soft voice even more so as she turned her head to look up at the dark, cloud-covered sky. “And yes, in some ways, I do miss it. It’s different now, with motion pictures. But back then, being away from the sun for so long was… sometimes very hard. All I had was my memories, and paintings. Over the years, I’ve seen more of it. Pictures, silent movies, when color came to the motion pictures, I was… I spent a long time watching them, because they allowed me to see the sun in real time.

“I–” Wincing, Columbus offered a weak, “I didn’t mean to make you sad or… or anything.”

Meeting his gaze, the Asian woman gave a slight shake of her head. “You didn’t make me sad, Columbus. At least, not in the way that you think. Yes, being a vampire means that I cannot function in daylight. But it also means that I am alive. If I had never met Tiras, if he had never shared his blood with me, I would have died in that hospital. I didn’t lose two hundred and twenty-seven years of sunlight. I gained two hundred and twenty-seven years of moonlight. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of seeing the world grow, of seeing society develop. I was sick, I was dying. I did not lose anything. I gained. I gained two incredible men that I love very much, along with two beautiful, amazing daughters whom I would not trade for any amount of sun.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” Shiori pointed out hesitantly. “You haven’t seen Tiras in… over two hundred years, almost as long as you haven’t seen the sun. And then you fell in love with… with my dad… with Liang, and you haven’t seen him for years either.”

Jiao gave the slightest nod. “You’re right. And I miss them both terribly. I still believe that I will see them again, that I will find them, or they will find me. But if we don’t… if I live a thousand years and never see them again, that won’t erase the reason that I love them, or the time that we did spend together. There are so many bad things in this world, and so many good things. If you spend all your time dwelling on the bad, like the years that you spend apart from someone you love, you’ll forget about the good, like the reason you miss them to begin with.”

Her golden-amber eyes remained locked on Columbus’s. “The trick is to remember that no matter what’s wrong… whether you feel lost, confused, alone… frightened… angry… betrayed, that they are your feelings. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way.”

“I–” Columbus spoke that single word before his voice cracked, breaking right there as he gave a sharp shudder. His eyes closed behind those goggles, his voice a whisper that barely carried over the soft breeze. “I’m afraid.”

The admission was accompanied by a sag of his shoulders, his entire body slumping a bit. “I’m afraid. She’s dead. She’s gone. He’s dead too. They’re dead. I have protection. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I’m afraid. I don’t…” Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, along with his fists, the boy shook his head. “I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be afraid.”

He felt arms wrap around him then, recognizing his sister as she embraced him tightly. “It’s okay to be afraid, Columbus. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

His mouth opened and shut before he managed to protest, “They’re dead. They’re gone. She’s dead.”

“Oh, my boy.” Reaching past her daughter, Jiao put one gentle, soft hand against the side of his face. “The hurt and fear that someone leaves behind after they’re gone doesn’t simply disappear when they do. Bad things can last for quite awhile. But so do good things, if you let them. You want to know how to fight this, how to move on? Make new memories, better memories. Be with your family, with your friends. Do things that you enjoy.

“The pain that your demons inflicted on you doesn’t fade when they die. It fades when you live.”

Columbus couldn’t speak for another few seconds, the lump in his throat taking his voice while he simply clung to Shiori. Finally, he managed to move one arm, opening it while Shiori did the same. His own voice returned, just enough for the boy to whisper, “Thank you.”

Jiao took one step closer, letting both of her arms wrap around the two. She embraced them, brother and sister, her daughter…

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

The tiny blonde girl, face still adorned by fox paint, staggered through the portal that had been opened to lead her back to the Atherby camp. Two steps through, and she was there, standing on the grass next to the lake. Standing, that was, for all of a brief second. Then her legs buckled and the girl began to collapse.

She didn’t fall far, however, before a pair of strong arms caught her. Lincoln Chambers, taking a quick knee to grab onto the girl, lifted her up smoothly while rising. “Whoa, hey there.”

Starting a bit, Tabbris belatedly realized where she was, blinking up at the man who held her in his arms. A slight tremble came to the girl, before she turned a bit to hug onto him as tightly as she could manage. “M.. Mr… Mr… I… I mean… Dad. Dad. Avalon… Avalon–”

“She’s okay,” Lincoln promised. “They’re taking care of her right now. You kept her alive, Tabbris. Brave, brave girl. You kept her alive. You saved her.”

“Columbus too,” she murmured, not relaxing her grip at all. “He’s… he’s…” She could barely speak. The exhaustion from everything she had done, even with Columbus’s help, had left her entirely too far gone. She needed to sleep. But first, she needed to know that things were okay.

“He’s okay too,” Lincoln assured the girl. “And Flick. She’ll be okay.”

“R-Rudolph won’t,” Tabbris whispered, tears suddenly filling her eyes as she shuddered. “Rudolph. Rudolph’s–”

“I know.” His own voice cracking as well, Lincoln hugged the girl tight against himself. He couldn’t say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t. Not anytime soon. A boy had been murdered by a monster, and Tabbris had seen his body. She had seen… too much. She’d seen entirely too much. Not just that night, but throughout her life. She never had a real chance to be a little kid. Even when she had been hiding inside Felicity, the girl had still needed to worry about intruders, about monsters trying to enslave or abduct her charge. And she had had no one to help her.

But she would never lack for that now. Never again. Lincoln vowed that to himself. Tabbris would never have to feel that alone again.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, holding the exhausted girl close. “Flick is safe. It’s over, my little fox-girl. It’s done. You saved Avalon. You beat them.”

Her eyes blinked up at him then, still wet from tears even as she clung desperately, both to him and to consciousness itself. “Dad,” she whispered softly. “Daddy. Please don’t go away.”

Heart aching, Lincoln shook his head. “I promise, baby girl. I promise, I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone. I’m right here. My girl. My beautiful, brave little girl.”

Tears returning, Tabbris closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t find the words. And the thought of opening her eyes now that they had closed seemed an impossibly daunting task.

So she didn’t. Eyes closed, the girl turned her head a little to rest it against her father’s chest. Just for a moment, just to catch her breath. Just to feel, for a second or two, the unconditional paternal love and acceptance that she had been so starved for through so much of her life.

It would be hours before her eyes opened again. And true to his word, Lincoln stayed with her through all of it.

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

They were in the forest of Eden’s Garden. Pace with her fellow werewolves Valentine and the pack leader Lemuel. Facing them was the blonde girl that Doxer wanted to play with, that Felicity Chambers. Somewhere in the distance came the sound of the other girl, the one that Lemuel had turned into a werewolf. That one was currently going through her first change, and from the sound of things, it was not going well.

Pace, or Lies in that moment, had just shared her secret with the Felicity-girl, had just revealed the hilarious truth that she was both werewolf and Heretic.

Werewolf, Heretic, and Seosten Lie, but the girl didn’t need to know that part. That was an even bigger secret. Couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t let her ruin it.

Aloud, she announced, “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

Technically, she was referring to the secret about her be a werewolf. But she also meant the secret about her being a Seosten. The secret that Felicity didn’t know yet. Sometimes Lies got herself confused about what people did and didn’t know. It was all so exhausting, keeping those secrets.

See? that voice in the back of her mind, the true Pace, who still refused to just be quiet and stop talking, put in. You keep pretending you don’t know her name. You call her Present to her face. But you think of her as Felicity. She’s a person. They’re all people. Roxa’s a person. Roxa. That’s her name. That’s the name of the person you let Lemuel put through hell. Felicity. That’s this girl’s name. You know her name.

The girl, Felic–Present was babbling. She was saying something, but then Rox–the new wolfie girl was very, very rude and interrupted with a scream of agony. So whatever Present was about to say had been forgotten, as she blurted the other girl’s name and moved as though to go to her.

Well, that was just rude. Growling deep in her throat at the sheer audacity, Lies quickly put herself back in front of the other girl. Her arms snapped up, her hands found both of Present’s shoulders, and she forcefully shoved her back a step. “No!” she blurted, “Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

Lies. Lies, look. Look. Focus. Look!

In mid-rant, the words of her host penetrated, and Lies found herself slowly lowering her gaze slightly, from Present’s face to a spot a bit lower. She saw then, what she had been too distracted by her anger to see before. She saw what her host had immediately seen, even in that brief split second when they had shoved Present.

She saw the other girl. She saw the child… the child inside of Felicity Chambers.

Seosten. A Seosten child. There was a Seosten child inside of Felicity Chambers. That was why she was immune to being possessed. All the manpower, all the time, all the arguments over what Joselyn Atherby had done to render her daughter immune to possession, all the ranting from Cahethal about the problem… and the answer had been that simple.

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

Chambers was saying something else, something about them making Roxa into a werewolf as that realization dawned on her.

“Isn’t it funny?!” Lies blurted with a loud, crazed cackle of laughter. She wasn’t talking about the Roxa girl. Who cared about the Roxa girl? She knew why Chambers couldn’t be possessed. She knew another secret.

But the others didn’t. No one knew what she knew. She had to cover. So she let them think she was talking about the Roxa girl, babbling on something ridiculous about not giving the girl her toy.

She brought up the choker, even flicking a finger against it, while keeping half an eye on the Seosten child. Was she a Lie too? Was she controlling this Felicity this whole time?

No. Felicity moved without the girl moving the same way. The girl wasn’t controlling her, she was just… standing there, so to speak. She was possessing her, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. She was just there… protecting the girl from being possessed.

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

So distracted was she, that Lies didn’t see the attack coming. She was caught flat footed as Felicity moved suddenly, lashing out with that staff of hers while triggering a kinetic blast that sent Pace flying off to hit a tree.

She recovered instantly, of course. But still, the girl sat there, thinking.

What are you going to do? The voice, fearful, came from the real Pace once more. You know the truth. So what are you going to do with it?

We could make Manakel love us forever, Lies pointed out. Manakel would love us. Cahethal would love us. Even Charmiene would be happy. They would tell Mama that we did good. Maybe–

You don’t believe that. The voice was soft, far different from the tone that had come before. Pace had seen as much of her mind as Lies had seen of hers. But you’re right about Manakel and the others. They’d be really happy. They’d reward you. All you have to do is tell them about that girl. All you’d have to do is tell them about the girl.

Chambers had sent herself through the trees, reappearing directly behind Lies as the girl picked herself up. Before that staff she had could reach her head, Lies had already reacted. She spun, ducking as she moved before lashing out with a punch.

The girl. The child. She needed to activate the choker again so that she could see the child.

The punch did the trick. As did grabbing hold of Felicity’s bicep to keep it active. Lies yanked too hard, breaking the girl’s arm as she threw her to the ground.

She could see her again. The child, right there in plain view. She was so… innocent, so young.

But they’ll take that away, Pace reminded her. You can make yourself the Seosten hero. All you have to do is sentence that girl to whatever Manakel and the others… like your mother, would put her through. Torture. Pain. Loss. They’ll take Felicity away from her. They’ll take that girl back to Seosten space and they will get answers out of her. But you’ll win. You’ll be the hero.

So again, what are you going to do?

In answer, Lies lashed out, kicking Chambers repeatedly while calling her a bad present.

Our secret, she informed her host. No one else’s. Ours. Maybe we’ll get the girl out later. Protect her. Have a friend. We could do that. That… that might be nice. But we don’t tell anyone. We don’t… do that to her. We make this look good. But we keep the secret.

She didn’t know this girl, didn’t know anything about her or why she was there. Or how she’d gotten there, for that matter. But she did know one thing. If it was the choice of  being the Seosten hero and subjecting this girl to the same kind of things she had gone through as a child, or keeping it secret… she would keep it secret.

Because what was the point of making Manakel and the others happy and finally winning the approval that she had so desperately wanted for so long… if she couldn’t live with herself?

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

“Mr. Gabriel, that train is pretty big. Are you sure you can stop it?”

The question from Tabbris came as the young girl waited a little bit away from the man himself. Gabriel, meanwhile, stood in the middle of a set of the road tracks, watching the incoming freight train as it bore down on him while seeming to pick up speed with each passing second. It was no ordinary freight train, but one that had been heavily reinforced, armored by both technology and magic. The train projected a force field around itself, had heavy plating mounted to it, and there were even turrets attached to the top all along its length, one to each car.

Meanwhile, the tall, yet unassuming black man stood in its path. One hand rested lightly on the handle of his ever-present shovel, which had been pushed into the ground a bit.

In answer to the girl’s question, he gave a slight nod. “It’s quite alright, thank you. Just stay there, and no one will see you.” He had put up half a dozen protection and cloaking fields around the girl.

He could have simply send her home through a portal, of course. They had been out looking at tropical fish near an island that he had wanted to show the girl when the call came in about a train carrying prisoners and slave labor toward a Seosten transport ship had come in. He could have sent the girl home then, but she had asked to stay and watch. He would still send her away the instant anything went wrong, but for the time being, he let her stay.

The train closed on him and the first few turrets spun toward the front to take aim. The ones behind the front each rose a bit more on platforms to shoot over the others. Leaving nothing to chance, as many as possible opened fire, while the train itself picked up speed, doubling in an instant, even as the force field around the front grew even brighter and stronger.

As dozens of blasts of powerful, pulverizing energy that could have punched their way through armored tanks shot toward him, Gabriel held up his free hand. The blasts were drawn toward it, narrowing into a single dazzlingly bright beam before disappearing into the man’s palm with no more apparent effect than a flashlight.

With all that power summarily absorbed, Gabriel immediately released it once more in the form of dozens of bright blades of energy, which appeared near each turret and instantly sliced through them, leaving the guns useless.

The train itself was still bearing down. As it neared him, in the bare couple of seconds before he would have been left as a smear on the tracks, Gabriel narrowed his eyes. At a thought, two things happened. First, a pair of portals appeared directly in front of him and a bit further back, just further apart than the length of the train itself.

Second, the train’s momentum was taken away. It immediately began to slow down, passing repeatedly between the two portals as it did so. He didn’t want to instantly stop the train, to avoid injuring those on board. So, he simply gradually stole its momentum while repeatedly sending it back and forth through those two portals. From the outside, the train appeared to stay almost in one place, repeatedly running over the same path of track, while from the train’s perspective, it was still covering lots of ground.

Within a few seconds, the train was safely stopped, unable to move no matter what it drivers tried. Almost as quickly, dozens of armored soldiers appeared, dropping off of the train or scrambling up on its roof to surround the man who had stop them. Their weapons were raised and ready. Before long, fifty troops of various shapes and sizes were there.

In response to all of this, as their weapons were leveled and the troops awaited the order to attack, Gabriel spoke three simple words.

“You may surrender.“

They didn’t, of course. But he had to offer. Instead, as their leader shouted a single word, the soldiers all opened fire, or used whatever ranged power they happened to have. Whatever it took, they would destroy him. Dozens of energy blasts, fireballs, jets of ice, hyper-accelerated metal balls, contained explosions, and more collided with the man in a terrifying display of power.

Then it was over. The dust cleared, and Gabriel Prosser stood entirely unaffected. Not a single attack had managed to so much as ruffle his shirt.

“Okay,” he said then, even as the troops prepared to attack again. With that simple word, Gabriel lifted his shovel from the dirt and drove it down hard once more.

As the blade of the shovel was driven through the dirt, dozens of copies of it appeared simultaneously. They shot up out of the ground, out of thin air, or out of the side or roof of the train itself. The duplicated shovel blades instantly grew to several times their normal size while glowing with unbelievable power. Each was positioned perfectly to slice straight through one of the soldiers. No armor or protection could save them. The troops, to a man, were instantly cut in half from every direction by that single thrust.

Throughout all of this, Gabriel had only moved twice. Once to raise his hand, and the second time to lift his shovel and drive it down once more. Now the train was stopped, its mounted weaponry destroyed, and its troops eliminated.

“Okay,” the man announced simply, turning to where Tabbris was.

“Let’s see how our new friends on board are doing.”

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

“And then Trierarch Bayest drew his gun, pointed at the Fomorian on the ground, and said, ‘You didn’t leave one survivor, you’ve left two.’  And then he pulled the trigger and blew the Fomorian’s whole head into splatter dust like fwoomsh!

With the end of her pronouncement, the young Chayyiel suddenly threw her arms wide open, going as far as jumping into the air to demonstrate the explosive nature of the aforementioned head explosion. She added in her best approximation of gooey noises as well right at the end, as if demonstrating the resulting gore dripping from the walls.

The first of her two-member audience who had been listening to the girl’s story gave her a broad smile. Abaddon, his enormous figure completely dwarfing the child’s as they stood on one of the Olympus’s space observation decks, raised his hand. His thumb was lightly pressed against the side of his index finger, while the other three fingers were tucked down against his palm. Millennia in the future and far away, the human equivalent of that gesture would be a thumbs up.

“That’s right, aucellus,” he announced, using his favored nickname for the child. “That’s exactly how that went down. I should know, I was the other survivor. And Bayest was one of the most badass trierarchs I ever had the pleasure of serving under.”

The other occupant of the observation deck grunted in disbelief. Cahethal, her incredibly, distractingly green eyes focused on the man, disbelievingly asked, “Are you quite certain that you’re not exaggerating even a little bit? I find it difficult to believe that one man, no matter how talented he may be, was capable of single-handedly wiping out an entire Fomorian strike force, no matter how motivated he may have been.”

Grunting, Abaddon thumped a fist against his chest. “You believe what you want, science girl. I know what I saw. Bayest is the biggest damn hero of the Seosten that I’ve ever met. And there ain’t never going to be another one like him.”

“You just said—” In mid-sentence, Cahethal visibly gave up and shook her head with a sigh. “Never mind.”

She focused on Chayyiel then. “Come, you know that you are here for more than simply listening to totally exaggerated war stories.”

Obediently, Chayyiel moved over to stand next to the woman who had, over the past year or so since the ship had launched, taken up a role as one of her teachers.

Once the girl was there, Cahethal asked, “You asked to work on your experiment here on the observation deck so you could watch the stars. Are you sure you won’t be too distracted? And did you bring your materials?”

Quickly nodding, the girl promised, “I’ll work on it. I have my things right over there.” She pointed to a couple of cloth bags sitting near the entrance. “Thank you, praeceptor. It’s so boring in the test lab.”

Grunting a little, Cahethal simply gave a single nod. “Just be sure that you do not make me regret this allowance. I will return in one hour and I hope to see some definite progress.”

As the girl fervently promised to get her work done, Cahethal and Abaddon stepped out, leaving her alone for the time being. On his way, the large man glanced back and winked at her. “Biggest badass of the Seosten, kid. You remember that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and meet him one day.”

Once they were gone, Chayyiel move to the nearest wall and used the screen there to call up an exterior view of the ship. She stood there, smiling giddily at the projected image.

“Oh Olympus,” the girl murmured while running her hands through the holographic shape, “you’re the most amazing ship in the universe.”

Bias aside, the girl wasn’t that far off. Though their crew was somewhat limited only to those who had passed through the Summus Proelium Project, it was easily state of the art. The latest in technology and magic lay at their fingertips. The Olympus was truly remarkable in every conceivable way.

The main central body of the ship was made up of an orb exactly five hundred meters in diameter. This was where the living and science facilities, as well as the primary slide-drive that allowed the ship to enter what amounted to hyperspace, were. Attached to that orb in three separate places (the top and both sides) were three long structures that extended about twenty meters behind the orb, continued along the outside of the orb and ahead past it another one hundred. Each of the three structures was shaped roughly like part of a cylinder, curved inward so that they lay almost flat against the surface of the orb itself. They were wide enough that with one on top and the two equidistant apart on the bottom left and bottom right of the orb, each nearly touched one of the others. The far end of each of these half-cylinder structures narrowed into sharp points, forming a jagged end.

At an order from the ship’s captain, each of those three (or fewer if needed) could separate from the main orb. As it did so, that half-cylinder would extend its sides, opening wing-like structures so that it could function as a separate combat-capable ship. When all four of its pieces were locked in place, the Olympus was a terrifyingly powerful vessel for its size, precisely because it was essentially three gunships mounted against a very well shielded central core. It could fight like that, as one, or separate itself into the three distinct combat ships and one command orb that could stay to direct the battle, or flee with all of their intact leadership and resources if need be. The separate, incredibly heavily armed combat ships had their own slide-drives just in case, but they were only rated for a much slower jump, used for emergencies. The vast majority of their power and available space was given to shields and weapons. There was no doubt about their intended purpose.

As the girl stood there admiring the hologram, the nearby door slid open, admitting Amitiel to the observation room. “Hey, kid,” he started with a wave. “Thought you might like some company.“

Immediately smiling, Chayyiel nodded. “Hi, Uncle Amitiel.”  She paused, turning to look both ways before taking a bit of metal from her pocket. Her thumb pressed against it and she murmured a spell that she had picked up from a few of the adults. After a second of that, she nodded. “It’s okay, nobody’s watching.”

With that established, she then asked, “Did you think about what we were talking about? The bit about you having your own name, I mean.”

Shaking his head, the being who had once been known as a Lie before taking the body of the true Amitiel replied, “It might’ve been over a year, but I’m still getting accustomed to answering to his name. Besides, what’s the point of having a name that only you or I know about?”

Shrugging, Chayyiel answered, “Other people might know someday. You can trust Sariel and Lucifer, you know.”

Rather than directly respond to that, Amitiel asked, “How are you doing with them still being gone on that mission? You alright?”

Looking back that way, Chayyiel hesitated, biting her lip before honestly answering, “I miss them. I know we have to maintain radio silence and everything, but we don’t even know if they’re okay.”

“Don’t you worry,” Amitiel assured her. “You know how good those two are. Kushiel may have pushed for them to go that first time just to get rid of them, but they showed her, didn’t they?”

The girl swallowed at that memory before giving a short nod. “Why does Kushiel hate them so much?”

The question made him sigh, hanging his head before shaking it. “Why does Kushiel do anything? She pretty much hates everyone she can’t control, and you know how Lucifer is about people trying to control him or his partner.”

Frowning, Chayyiel folded her arms across her chest while her brow knitted. “Kushiel isn’t very nice. But Uncle Puriel is… usually. Except when he listens to her.” She paused briefly before amending, “Okay, sometimes he’s nice. But she’s never nice. So how come he likes her so much?”

Amitiel opened his mouth, before pausing to shake his head. “You know what kid, I think you just stumbled across one of the great mysteries of the universe. I mean, sure, she’s pretty and all, but…” He paused again, then shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

Changing the subject then, the man asked, “So what kind of project are you doing for the old microscope?”

Giggling despite herself, Chayyiel chastised, “You shouldn’t call her that. Just because she’s short and has special eyes…”

“Still makes you laugh though,” Amitiel pointed out with a wink. “So about this project, you wanna show me?”

Brightening, the girl asked, “Do you want to help me with it? The stuff is right there.” She pointed to the bags next to him.

Amitiel glanced down before grabbing the bags to walk that way. “Sure, why not. Let’s see what we’re working with.

“And while we work, you can tell me what outrageous story Abaddon’s filled your head with this week.”

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

Alone in the room that she shared with Koren Fellows, Aylen Tamaya stood at the window, gazing down at the grassy field where her fellow students walked, sat, or even ran. They studied and worked there, enjoying the always-beautiful afternoon on the magical island.

The Native American girl’s eyes found their way to one group in particular. Sitting there on the grass, engrossed in another of their deeply private conversations, were Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Douglas Frey, and Scout Mason. Avalon wasn’t there, because she had been hurt, taken by monsters and terribly hurt in some way before being rescued by her team, and by Gaia. She was recovering now, apparently, off in some secret place with people the Crossroads headmistress trusted.

Aylen hoped that the girl was okay. Avalon had… had helped her when she really needed it. Without her, Aylen’s… secret would have gotten out. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it. She owed her life to the other girl, and so much more. If there was anything she could have done to help Avalon, she would have, without a second thought.

But the others, the rest of Avalon’s team, didn’t trust her. And she didn’t blame them. Why wouldn’t they keep secrets? After all, she was keeping a very big one. One that she had even convinced Avalon herself to keep for her. A secret from everyone, except for Avalon, now.

Whatever problems Avalon’s team was going through, Aylen wished that she could help. But that would mean revealing herself, revealing the truth about what she was. And that was… that was too much. She wanted to help, but exposing herself like that, revealing herself was… she couldn’t do that. Not yet. No matter what Avalon had said about how they could be trusted.

She’d promised to think about it, and she would, she had, quite a lot. More than once, Aylen had stood outside either Felicity or Scout’s door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and tried to work up the courage to knock. She wanted, so badly, to tell them everything.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Not only from a lack of trust, or an overabundance of fear. But also because whatever they were going through, it would be so much worse if they had to deal with her problems too. And that wasn’t fair to them. Felicity and the others had far too much to deal with as it was without Aylen piling onto the secrets they were keeping.

With a sigh, the girl gave the group one last look before turning away from the window. She walked from there to the wall, where a mirror had been mounted. Standing there, she faced the mirror and examined herself, seeing what others saw when they looked at her.

Dark hair that fell to her shoulders. Dusky skin. High cheekbones. Dark eyes. As she examined herself from each angle, Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, made a noise from where was perched on his wooden stand. The nest that he slept in was on top of Aylen’s dresser nearby.

“I know, Sovereign,” the girl assured her partner. “We’ll leave soon, I promise. I just have to see.”

From her pocket, she withdrew a small comb. The comb had been a gift. Running a thumb over the runes etched in it, the girl slowly touched it to the side of her face, and whispered the activation spell.

In an instant, she changed. And Aylen saw her true form. Her skin was still dark, testament to her true Native American roots. Or at least, those of her mother. Or at least… one of her mothers. What the comb revealed was the genetic contributions of her other mother.

Her first mother’s contribution to the child made possible by the being known as Grandfather was her Native American appearance. Sonoma had also passed along her werecrow gifts. Aylen had kept them secret ever since she had come to this school, though she had gifted herself a few private flights with Sovereign whenever she needed to clear her head.

But as the magical comb revealed her true self, Aylen saw the parts of her that she had inherited from her other mother.

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

Hair that was much the same. Blue. The blue of the cloudless sky.

The blue of the Reapers. Or a half-reaper, like her second mother, Bastet.  

Bastet and Sonoma, her mothers. And with any luck at all, Aylen would soon be able to save her grandfather.

No, not that one. Her other grandfather. Bastet’s father.

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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Several Thousand Years Ago

Three figures, one much smaller than the others, stood in front of the great transparent wall of the space station Aquilari’s observation deck. Before them lay the vastness of space, filled with innumerable stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond comprehension or belief. The universe, itself to the larger multiverse as this single station was to the galaxy it lay within.

“Are we really gonna see it all, Uncle Lucifer?” The soft, reverent voice came from the child, as she stood between her older companions. Chayyiel, only ten years old, could not hope to comprehend the scale of what lay before them. Despite all the incredible power that had been thrust onto her, despite the accident that had made her into what could become one of the most powerful Seosten in existence, she was still a child. She was still innocent.

With a slight smile at that, Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel. She, in turn, returned the smile. Which was nice, considering he was one of the few people she seemed comfortable enough to smile with. Shy and withdrawn, his female partner didn’t tend to do much talking. She let him do that. And he was good with the arrangement, since he loved to talk.

Even before his own enhancement. An enhancement that had been just as accidental as both Sariel’s and Chayyiel’s. All three of them, accidents.

Well, mostly accidents. Chayyiel’s father had intended to expose her to the physics-defying energies of the other-world. But only for a short time, just long enough to… to help her. Unfortunately, it had gone wrong. The man had been distracted and taken away from his work at the worst possible time. Which resulted in Chayyiel being abandoned in that other-world and assumed lost forever. At least until Sariel and Lucifer, his lab assistants, had saved her with the help of one of the actual project subjects, a man named Amitiel. He had been the one who came to the two in the first place, pleading with them to do something to save the girl. He had begged them to go beyond all safety measures, pleaded for them to not just bend the rules, but shatter them in order to open the portal again and get the girl out.

They had done so, at the cost of destroying the Seosten’s only method of accessing that other-world.

For some time, there had been talk of locking Lucifer and Sariel up, of containing them to some prison lab, of… doing any number of things that angry people talked about doing when something as bad as losing access to the ability to create ageless super soldiers happened. But in the end, higher powers had decided that since their numbers of project successes were limited, throwing away any of them wasn’t viable. The two had instead been assigned to the same exploratory ship as the rest of the products of that project. Though they were currently given no real assignment, being relegated to caring for and watching over Chayyiel herself.

Lucifer didn’t mind that either, any more than he minded being the ‘face’ of his partnership with the shy Sariel. Chayyiel was a good kid, and smart as hell even before she had been upgraded.

“We’re gonna try,” he replied to the girl’s question, giving her a wink. “It’s a pretty big universe though. It’ll take a long time.”

“Very long,” Sariel quietly agreed. Her hand moved to Chayyiel’s shoulder, squeezing it. She had been the one to come up with the solution that allowed herself and Lucifer to extract Chayyiel. It was a solution that had ended up destroying the project itself, even as it saved one child’s life. Lucifer had tried to take that blame for himself, but it was one time where Sariel had not meekly and quietly allowed him to take the lead. He’d wanted to spare her from being the focus of so much anger, yet she had done so anyway, confessing that it was her plan.

Seeing her small, fragile figure hunched in on herself while being bombarded with so much vitriol from the investigative committee had been the one and only time in his life to that point that Lucifer had been tempted to murder other Seosten. And not just one of them, but each and every figure who had been hounding, insulting, and belittling the woman beside him.

Not deterred in the least, Chayyiel’s head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh, but we’ve got time, right?” She looked first toward Sariel, then to Lucifer, eyes shining with curiosity and innocence as she firmly declared, “We’ve got lots of time to see everything out there.”

Chuckling, the man put his hand on the opposite shoulder from where Sariel’s still was. Both of them stood there with their hands on their young charge. “You’re not wrong about that,” he admitted while turning his gaze back to the stars. “We do have a lot of time.” Curiously, he asked, “So, how long do you think it would take to see everything there is to see out there? Every star, every world, every moon, everything. How long would it take us to see  all of it?”

Chayyiel blinked at that, face scrunching up with thought for a few seconds before guessing, “Ten thousand years?”

“Longer than that.” That was Sariel, her voice quiet, yet firm. “Much longer.”

“She’s right,” Lucifer agreed. “You want to see everything, you better settle in for the long haul. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And,” he added, “a lot of danger. Not just Fomorians. Other things too. A whole universe worth of monsters and problems.”

“We can handle it.” Chayyiel’s voice was assured, arms folded across her stomach as she gazed out at that starfield, determination written across her face. “We’re gonna see it all. And we’re gonna end the war with the Fomorians. We’re gonna fix everything.”

Again, Sariel and Lucifer exchanged brief glances. That time, it was Sariel who spoke up first. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome… aboard the Olympus.”

Pride filled the voice of the man who made that announcement. The figure, who was just barely under six feet in height, with black hair that was lined at the temple and along the sides with silver, smiled. It was a smile that spoke of adventure, of daring, and of battles yet to come.

His name was Puriel, and this was his ship. He stood directly in the middle of the bridge, surrounded on all sides by the consoles that his people, his people would use to direct the ship along their journey, through their missions. This pristine, almost perfectly white with hints of gold room was the command center, the brain of one of the most technologically and magically advanced ships in the entire Seosten fleet. Entire planets had worked to put this single ship through its theoretical, testing, and practical phases. And now it was real. It was complete.

And it was theirs. The products of the Summus Proelium Project, the experimental upgrading process created by Director Aysien, who had been granted an endless lifespan as their aging was frozen, along with other enhancements and unique, individual gifts, had all been gathered onto this single ship. A single ship with a single mission: to explore the vast, unending reaches of space and find some advantage that would allow the Seosten to finally finish the forever war. It was a war that had been raging for hundreds of thousands of years. Literally dozens of generations of the Seosten, whose members lived roughly ten thousand years by themselves, had come and gone without ever experiencing anything except this war against Cronus’s children, the Fomorians.

And now, Puriel’s people, his people, would have a chance to find a way of ending that war, of ending the threat that the Fomorians posed to the entire universe, once and for all. Yes, he felt pride at that fact. Yes, he felt immeasurable happiness at the very thought that his children might, might grow up in a universe where they would be safe.

That thought made his gaze move to the console near the very back of the bridge, next to the main door. And to the beautiful figure who sat there, looking back at him from across the room. Tall and regal, with a beauty that was matched only by her sharp wit and sharper tongue for those who had failed her, Kushiel still took his breath away. To have a child with her, to give that child a chance to live in a universe free of the Fomorian threat… he still held to that hope, to that dream. Old as he was even now, that was a dream worth working for.

And he could live to see it. His age, like all of the crew of the Olympus, had been frozen. Unless killed by some outside means, they would never die. They could, conceivably, actually live to see the end of this war, and whatever would come next.

But the others were watching. As much as he felt that he could lose himself in the gaze of his wife forever, this was too important of a day. So, Puriel pulled himself back, clearing his throat. “Logistics,” he used Kushiel’s position rather than her name. Must stay professional. “Report.”

Granting him one of her rare, yet beautiful smiles before it vanished behind a mask of professionalism, Kushiel gave one slight nod, her voice crisp. “Yes, Trierarch. All supplies are in the green. Fuel stores are reporting maximum capacity. Weapons are pristine. We are clear for six months of regular rations and travel before restock and refuel will be required.”

“Good to know how long we’ve got ahead of us,” Puriel replied with a broad smile. He couldn’t help it. He was professional, not dead. Still, he cleared his throat before his gaze moved slightly to the next station. “Engineering?”

Radueriel returned his brief smile, giving a hand gesture that was part wave and part salute. “Believe me, Trierarch, we are just fine down in the engine room. The boys and I have spent the past week going over every millimeter of that beauty down there. She’ll get us where we need to go, and give a little kick to anyone that tries to stop us from getting there.”

“Given the things we’ll be running into,” Puriel replied, “it better be a big kick.” He turned his attention to the next console over then. “Tactical?”

Auriel stood at rigid attention beside her station, hands clasped behind her back. “Sir,” she began crisply, “All weapons are online and at full capacity.” And yet, even the always professional woman (to the point that many had joked when they thought neither she nor Puriel could hear them about the enormous stick that must have been lodged deep in her backside) could not entirely contain the excitement of what was about to happen. There was the faintest of smiles that briefly flickered across her expression. “It will be a very big kick, sir.”

Puriel smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Security, Crew Liaison, any issues getting everyone settled in?”

From opposite sides of the bridge, Abaddon, as ship’s security chief, and Jophiel, as the crew liaison, both reported negative. The former continued with, “We all did a bit of partying last night, but we’re good for departure.”

It was technically against the rules, as military crews that were about to set off were supposed to remain ‘dry’ for a full day before departure. And Abaddon definitely wasn’t supposed to outright tell the ship’s trierarch about it. But what the hell. It was a special occasion. And everyone knew that no one paid attention to that rule.

Though, from the dirty look that Auriel was shooting Abaddon, if she had her way, it definitely would have been an issue. It was good for him then, that Puriel was far more easygoing. Well, as far as that kind of thing went, anyway.

Next, Puriel turned his attention to the woman who stood near the door, clearly waiting to be dismissed as soon as this launch procedure was over.  “Research and Development?”

The small woman who met his gaze had startlingly green eyes, the result of an earlier enhancement after losing the ones she had been born with. They allowed her to see into many different spectrums, and enhance down to the microscopic level. Her name was Cahethal, and she was also one of the members of his crew that Puriel knew the least about, aside from the late-comers. And they… well, they were a different situation entirely.  

She was also clearly anxious to get back to work, since her response was a simple, “We’d be doing a lot better if I wasn’t wasting my time up here. I have a whole roster of bright-eyed know-it-alls that I need to whip into shape before they run an experiment that blows up this entire ship.”

“Well,” Puriel replied easily, “I guess we’ll have to let you get back there as soon as possible to avoid that, won’t we? Let’s finish up then.” His attention moved to the man next to her. “Medical?”

The man there, Manakel, had been working with Puriel for the past five hundred years. The two knew each other quite well, and exchanged brief smiles. Neither could believe they were finally here, commanding their own ship. And not only that, but one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. It was a dream come true, for both of them, in many different ways.

“The crew checks out,” the medical chief reported crisply. “We are ready to go.”

“Indeed we are,” Puriel agreed before looking at last toward the nearest console to his own seat. “Unless my executive officer has any problems to raise?”

The man there, Sachael, was almost as tall as the giant Abaddon, though he also looked to be much older. His long, pure white hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match, along with eyes that were pale blue, like a pair of frozen ponds set against the snow of his hair. He had also worked with Puriel even longer than Manakel had. Which meant that Puriel was pretty certain Sachael had been the one to convince the crew to go out for drinks the night before.

On-duty, Sachael was the consummate professional. He did his job, and he did it very well. Perfectly, in fact. He was the best first mate that Puriel could have asked for. But off-duty, the man was another story. He was fanatical about separating his two lives, to the point of almost seeming to be two entirely different people. He valued his freedom and fun. That was why he worked so hard while on-duty, so that he could turn it all off and let loose when he wasn’t. And woe be to the person who made him work when he considered himself done.

In this case, the man nodded crisply. “All departments and systems seem to be green.”

Puriel turned to the front then, his mouth opening to address the helmsman, when the door at the back of the room, near Kushiel, Manakel, and Cahethal, slid open. Three figures entered then, one much smaller than the other two.

Lucifer and Sariel, both of them barely past their mid-fifties in age. Barely more than children, really. Neither had actually been selected by their Choirs to be a part of Summus Proelium, or this ship. No, they had been simple lab techs back at the project itself, little more than assistants to Aysien himself until… well, until things had changed. Mostly due to the other figure they had entered with: Chayyiel. The director’s daughter, whose accidentally extended excursion into the other-world where they had drawn their extraordinary gifts from had resulted in the ending of that project.

Or, more specifically, whose unprepared retrieval from that excursion had ended the project, along with any way of actually accessing that other-world, possibly forever.

It was that fact that likely fueled the audible annoyance in Auriel’s voice, as the woman snapped, “What are they doing here?” It looked like she was about to order them off, but stopped herself with a look to Puriel.

Heedless of the reaction (most of the bridge crew looked no less annoyed or outright angry than Auriel herself did) that their presence was creating, Chayyiel all-but sprinted across the bridge, letting out a whoop as she saw the starfield ahead of them. “Are we really leaving, Uncle Puriel?!” She blurted while stopping beside him. Her hands grabbed his arm and she gazed up adoringly. “Really really leaving?”

Kushiel’s own tone was even darker than Auriel’s. “If the girl’s babysitters cannot even perform that duty adequately–”

“We’re sorry. Sorry.” Lucifer hurriedly put in, head shaking quickly as he moved with Sariel right on his heels. The blonde woman was slightly younger than her constant companion, and she was also much more shy. Puriel wasn’t sure he’d heard the woman speak more than a few words that she didn’t absolutely have to speak in the whole time that he’d known her. She relied on her research partner to do that talking for her so much that the rest of the lab, and now the crew here, had begun referring to them as ‘twins.’

“We tried to keep her in the mess hall,” Lucifer was explaining, “so she could watch the launch from there. But she kept insisting that–”

“Ahem.” Manakel raised a hand, drawing Puriel’s attention. “I’m afraid I did indeed extend an invitation to the young miss to bring her guardians with her to see the launch from the bridge. I thought it would be something she would enjoy. Who wants to see the first launch of a ship like this from the mess or the observation deck when you can see it from the bridge?”

Pausing briefly, Puriel looked down to the girl, whose eyes were shining with hope as she stared right back up at him, batting her eyelashes like some kind of innocent bifestel.

“Well,” the man finally replied, “how can I argue with that? Over there.” He nodded to a nearby couple of seats set against the wall near Abaddon. “Strap yourselves in, okay?”

That earned him a hug from the girl herself, before she and her two caretakers (who would have to be given some other job at some point, but Puriel wasn’t sure what that would be just yet, particularly if Cahethal continued to insist that she didn’t want them) moved to the seats.

With that interruption settled, Puriel finally looked to the front. “Helm and Navigation?”

The man there, Amitiel, gave a short nod. He had been looking briefly toward the three newcomers, his attention apparently caught by a wave from Chayyiel herself before belatedly realizing that he had been addressed.

“Ah, ready, sir,” he replied carefully.

Puriel didn’t know Amitiel that well, but he had noticed that whatever else the procedure that changed them all had done, it also seemed to have made him quieter than before. Less boastful of his skill and more… calm than he’d been in those first few weeks. Which was a good thing, as far as Puriel was concerned. Having a calm, professional helmsman would help the ship get through its shakedown voyage without too many problems. Hopefully.

“Very good,” he announced then, realizing that everyone’s eyes were on him. His command crew. His people. They were watching him, waiting for his word to launch. Waiting for him to give the command that would begin their great journey.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began then, turning his attention to the stars.

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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Interlude 37A – Mennin Tombs

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A pair of stunningly polished, gleaming black shoes stopped smartly directly at the edge of a puddle that was half-water and half-mud. The shoes were attached an equally well-dressed man in neatly pressed dark slacks, a red silk shirt, and black tie. A black suit-jacket completed the perfectly coordinated, yet utterly safe (and in many ways, boring) ensemble. The man within the clothes stood just under six feet in height, and could have been anywhere between forty and sixty in normal human age, his hair dark and well-groomed, his face vaguely lined.

“Mr. Tombs.” The gravelly voice that emerged from the man himself sounded in equal parts exasperated and sympathetic. It was the voice of a man who very much cared about the subject of his ire, yet was also at a loss of what to do with them. “What is the first rule of the Auberge?”

The subject of his attention, who lay face-down in that muddy puddle, groaned a little in response before slowly lifting his head. Turning, he spit out a rather extensive amount of dirty liquid in one thin line, like a drinking fountain. The water narrowly missed his admonisher’s perfect shoes, before the prone man ran a hand up through long, dirty-blond hair that fell to his shoulders.

In many ways, Mennin Tombs would have been considered a quite handsome figure. He stood just an inch or so taller than the man who stood before him, and looked quite a bit younger, appearing to be barely into his twenties. His skin was fair, his shape on the thin side, yet not drastically so. His nose was perhaps a bit small for his face while his mouth was just barely too large, leaving his face looking very slightly oddly proportioned. He looked like a stunningly handsome preset within a video game whose player had tinkered somewhat with the face, throwing it off in ways that were sometimes too subtle to truly describe, yet were subconsciously noticeable.  

“Uh, sorry, Deacon,” Mennin mumbled before slapping a hand against the side of his head. “Water in my ears. What’d you–hold on.”

Grabbing his earlobe, the young man yanked down. The ear stretched to three times its normal size, before a truly impressive amount of water fell from it as he tilted his head, filling the puddle up to about twice what it had been. Releasing the lobe made the ear pop back to what it had been.

“Hah! Told you I had water in my ear. Now I can hear you.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Deacon repeated himself. “The first rule of the Auberge, Mr. Tombs.”

“Don’t talk about the Aube–no wait, that’s something else.” Squinting, Mennin snapped his fingers. “Don’t let anyone find the Auberge who isn’t a registered guest.”

“And the second rule?” Deacon prompted.

That one, Mennin answered instantly. “Don’t get any of the guests killed.”

“Mmmhmm.” Deacon paused then, before taking one step back, safely away from the puddle before nodding past them. “And do you see how your actions tonight may have… strained both of those rules?”

Turning that way for the first time, Mennin looked to where six figures were at the opposite end of the alley that they were all hidden within. Three of those bodies lay on the ground in various states of decapitation and dismemberment. The fourth and fifth sat on summoned wooden chairs, while the sixth, a man in a spotless white coat with a truly impressive looking sword in his hand, quietly calmed the sitting pair down and assured them that they were safe.

“They wanted to see the Red Sox game,” Mennin explained with a helpless shrug. “Isn’t one of the rules, ‘keep the guests happy?’ I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.”

“Yes,” Deacon confirmed. “And there is a reason that it comes after not getting them killed, or leading threats back to the current entrance. Mr. Tombs, the Auberge has existed under various names since before the times of the biblical New Testament, and yet we have never suffered an invasion, nor have we lost one single guest while they are under our protection, so long as they followed our rules. Residence within the Auberge is expensive precisely because our reputation precedes us. We can afford to be selective in our clientele. We provide protection and security beyond what any other Earth-based location is capable of. If you find that any of our guests wish outside entertainment, your job is to take it through the proper channels. Our people, your coworkers, will ensure that the path is safe from both Nocen and the more zealous Heretics.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sighing, Mennin offered a weak shrug. “I just thought if I impressed Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin with a fun night out, they’d put in a good word for me and Mom wouldn’t think I was such a screw-up. But now I guess she’s gonna know I’m an even bigger screw-up than she thought.”

There was a brief pause then, before Deacon shook his head. “I see no purpose in bothering your mother with every minute detail of her establishment, Mr. Tombs. The Ulfins are safe, and Francis enjoyed the work-out. He may even have acquired interesting gifts from the Heretics who followed you back here.”

Blinking up at that, Mennin found a smile. “So I didn’t fuck everything up?”

“Let’s consider it a learning experience,” Deacon offered, before clearing his throat as he stepped around and past both the man and the puddle he had fallen into during the fighting, when Francis had swooped in to kill the other three Heretics. “Mr. Ulfin, Mrs. Ulfin,” he started in a perfectly polished voice. “Come, I’m afraid that while our security is top of the line, as you see in the form of Mr. Gale here, even we must put discretion over valor when Heretics are involved. With three of their number dead, there will be more sent along to investigate.”

The two guests let themselves be escorted by Deacon and Francis past where Mennin had finally made his way to his feet, Mr. Ulfin offering a sympathetic nod to him (though the man’s wife turned up her nose and sniffed with annoyance at his appearance).

Mennin followed, and the group made their way to an innocuous-looking red door in the middle of the alley. Deacon raised a hand, knocking twice, then once, then three times in rapid succession. At the end of it, a small window-slit appeared in the middle of the previously blank door, and a pair of dark, scowling eyes peeked out. Mennin and the others stood perfectly still as the eyes scanned them (in more than one way, several of which tickled) before there was the sound of half a dozen locks being undone.

Finally, the door was pushed open, revealing a truly lavish looking hotel lobby. It would have put any of those in the human world to shame, with its lavish fountains, gold marbled floor, and hanging chandeliers.

Once they were through the door, it closed behind them. And from the point of view of any on the Earth-side, the door simply vanished, leaving behind a blank brick wall attached to an unremarkable office supply store.

“Mennin!” As Francis led the two shaken guests to the bar for a drink to calm their nerves, a pointy-eared, green-skinned female goblin in a maid’s uniform bounded across the lobby holding a stack of towels. “Nine-thirteen asked for more towels. Can you take them up? They always yell at me for being too slow. Plus, that’s right next to nine-twelve.”

“Oh, uh, sure, Elky.” Mennin started to reach out for the towels, only for Deacon to stop him with a cleared throat.

“Mr. Tombs,” Deacon spoke simply when the man looked to him, “a towel is generally used for drying oneself. Which becomes exponentially more difficult when that towel is already wet.” He nodded to the floor, where Mennin was still dripping from the puddle.

“Oh, shit!” Blurting that out, Mennin whipped a handkerchief from his pocket. “Hold on, I can do this. It was… uhh… bluebeo.”

Nothing happened, as he waved the cloth at the puddle impotently.

“Ablee?” He tried again. “Abledable? Ablingle? Blue Beetle? Blue One? Beetle Bailey? Bluckblahbleen? Ableeze?  Ablaze?”

Gently, Deacon plucked the cloth from his hand, tossing it to the floor with a firm, “Abluo.”

Instantly, as the magicked cloth touched the water, it sucked all of it up, including what was soaked into Mennin’s clothes, leaving him clean and dry before the cloth itself disintegrated and vanished.

“I would’ve gotten that one eventually,” Mennin claimed, before taking the towels from Elky.

He hurried to the elevator, riding it up to the ninth floor. Whistling under his breath, the man stode toward the door with nine-thirteen engraved in the side of it. On the way, he did his level best not to look at room nine-twelve. Though without even glancing that way, he knew what he would see if he did: a door very different from the others. One made of metal rather than wood, with no numbers engraved on it. The metal looked like steel, but was actually much stronger. Strong enough, in fact, that should the entire hotel be destroyed as the rest of the Auberge was burned to the ground, room nine-twelve would still be intact, untouched, floating in the air in whatever tiny pocket dimension the Auberge called home.

No one living seemed to know why this particular room out of all others had been so thoroughly upgraded. Aside from, perhaps, the interesting fact that its position put it in the exact center of the building, with eight floors below it and eight floors above it. It was quite literally in the center of one of the most private and protected buildings on the planet.

The spells that were on it which ensured no one could ever enter, or use any magic or power to see inside, were the most powerful of their kind that anyone Mennin knew had ever seen. The most anyone else seemed to know was that it had been that way for at least five hundred years. Whoever had been the last to rent that room had paid for permanent residence, and had spent Gods only knew how much time and energy ensuring that it would never be accessed.

Beyond that, all Mennin knew, all anyone knew, was that no one ever opened that door. No one entered that room, and no one left that room. Ever.  

Reaching the next room over, the man raised a hand to knock twice before stepping back. He did his best to pull his clothes into something resembling presentable with one hand before clearing his throat as the door opened. “Your, uh, towels, sir.”

Grunting, the big (human-looking) man took them from his hands and stepped back while jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Err, she?” Blinking uncertainly, Mennin waited until it was clear that the big guy wasn’t going to offer any further insight. With a shrug, he slowly stepped over the threshold of the room and moved inside.

The place, like all suites in the Auberge, wasn’t like some cheap, normal Bystander motel room. Each was practically the size of a palace inside, with a dozen rooms of fairly enormous size. This particular door opened into the foyer, where a second man much smaller than the first, with an obviously mechanical arm and leg stood beside a dark-haired woman whose cold expression sent a shiver down Mennin’s spine.

“Um,” he started once more, “sorry it took awhile to bring your–”

“Quiet,” the woman interrupted. After speaking that single word, she slowly moved closer. A frown touched her face. “You are the child of this facility’s current owner, are you not?”

That was a strange question, and it took Mennin a moment to answer. “Uh, yeah? I mean, technically. But Mom doesn’t really… you know, involve me in the nitty gritty of the family business very much. I’m not much more than busboy. And a handyman sometimes, so if you have problems with your pipes or–”

“Quiet,” the woman repeated that single word that made his mouth snap shut almost against his will. She watched him for another moment before speaking again. “He may be a fool, but he has access to everything we need, and won’t be suspected. He will do.”

“Oookay, yeah, I think this is where I say that you won’t–”

In mid-sentence, Mennin felt a hand on his arm. The shorter man, the one with the mechanical limbs, had moved surprisingly quickly to grab him. He opened his mouth to object while starting to pull his arm back… and then stopped.

The other man was gone, and Mennin froze. Not because the man had disappeared, but because he quite literally could not move. Until he did. His arm lowered, and he straightened up, entirely against his will.

Wha–what?! Hey! Hey! With mounting panic and confusion, the man worked to stop himself, to make himself move and take back control of his own body. What the hell just–did you just Bodysnatchers me, you son of a bitch?!

“I’m in,” his voice announced aloud. “I should get back down there before someone wonders where he is.”

“Yes,” the woman replied, and that time her voice cracked just a little as she stood up. “And while you are at it, do try not to get yourself killed by an ignorant monkey-child, thereby forcing the rest of us to abandon our actual missions to solve your problems while the rest of the Empire scrambles to correct a mistake that endangers not only our place on this world, but our entire civilization.” By the end of her brief diatribe, the woman was shaking a bit, her fist pressed against the table as she glowered at no one in particular.

Mennin didn’t have the slightest clue what they were talking about, but the big guy grimaced. “Told you, just let me have one straight go at the little bitch. I’ll make her pay for it.”

“No.” The woman’s voice was brittle, like slowly cracking glass. “You know Metatron’s orders. Until we know how she did what she did, hands off. Whether it is her mother’s doing or some other force, we are not losing anyone else to this barbaric child. Stay away from her. It’s too much of a risk, given what we have lost already.”

Boy, Mennin inwardly wondered. Whoever had pissed these guys off so much must have been pretty damn powerful.

Too bad she wasn’t here right now.

The woman said something else, but Mennin was too busy struggling in vain against the being that was puppeting his body to listen. Hey! Hey, don’t ignore me, I’m talking to you! Pay attention to–hey! Hey, I know you can hear me. Don’t make break out the Lambchop song. I went a full twenty minutes once and I’m willing to break my own record.

His body was turning by that point, heading back to the door. The big guy who had let him in was holding something in his hand. It took Mennin a second to recognize it as a flyer for the demolition derby that was happening in the same town he’d just taken Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin through. He’d seen a few ads for it while they had been out.

Waving that flyer, the big guy grunted, “You promised.”

“I did,” his own voice replied, as he gave a bow that the real him never would have been able to pull off without looking ridiculous. “You’re quite right, my love. Allow me some time to ensure my cover with the coworkers and family, and then we will have our date. I know you’ve been quite looking forward to seeing Earth entertainment again. And, while it is hardly what I would consider stimulating, I would say that your enjoyment more than makes up for such deficiencies.”

“Yeah,” the big guy replied, “love you too.”

While Mennin was trying to comprehend that, his body moved out into the hall.

Now then, the voice of his puppeter spoke, a few ground rules. First, I will tolerate your attempts at escape. It’s only natural, and I would wonder about your sanity if you did not at least try. But I will tell you now, it is futile. You are not nearly strong enough to even present a challenge. That is not meant as an insult, only simple fact.

Second, should you attempt to distract or annoy me purposefully, particularly at important points or around others, you will regret it. You will be punished, and if you manage to actually convince anyone that something is wrong, one of three things will happen. They will be possessed as well, their memories will be erased, or they will be killed. Do you understand that?

Part of Mennin thought that he should object, or threaten to hold out to the bitter end, promising the man that he would fight him forever. But… well, honestly, he was afraid. Afraid of these clearly powerful people and what they could do to him or the people he cared about.

So, after a brief pause where all those thoughts ran through his mind, he quietly (or at least he felt it was quiet, given there was no sound involved at all) responded, I understand.

There was a sense of satisfaction that he was sure the man who was his slaver allowed him to feel. Good. Now, for the good news. You could have ended up with a much worse person than me taking you, I promise you that. If you behave, do not annoy or distract me, and generally sit quietly, I will allow you moments of entertainment. You will be allowed to retain control of your own body while alone in your room, whenever I do not need you. And, so long as circumstances do not change, our business here should not end in the death of those you care for. Do you understand that?

Yes, Mennin started before blurting, but why are you here? I mean, are you thieves or assassins or…

There was a brief pause before his eyes turned to look at the door into room nine-twelve. There. The woman who purchased that room hid something inside of it. Something which we are here to recover. That is our mission. Cooperate, and we will leave when that mission is over, you will not remember any of this, and you may continue your life.

After another brief hesitation, Mennin asked, I don’t understand. If you want what’s in the room so bad, why don’t you just break the door down and get it?

He felt some minor amusement from his captor then, before the response came. I am afraid that it is much more complicated than that. His body turned then, heading back for the elevator. To enter a blood vault requires a good bit more effort and planning than simply breaking down the door.

Whoa, whoa, what? That’s a blood vault? Mennin was still reeling from everything, but that threw him for yet another loop.

Well, the other man replied, to be specific, it is a backdoor into a blood vault. Same protections as the front door, but less… shall we say, public. But yes.

That doesn’t– Mennin started to say that it didn’t make sense, before stopping himself. You need the oldest blood relative to get through that, the heir.

Yes, well… for reasons that are too involved to get into right now, we are forced to seek alternative measures, came the response.

Alternative measures? Mennin hesitated. Like… like what? How the hell are you going to get through a blood vault without the, you know, blood part?  

His body stepped onto the elevator then, his hand reaching out to press the button for the lobby as his captor replied simply, Quite carefully.

Quite carefully, indeed.

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Interlude 34A – Kushiel, Radueriel, Abaddon, and Jophiel

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Please note a couple of important things. First, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Tabbris posted a couple days ago. If you missed it, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. And second, there are two very important notes in my first comment at the bottom of the chapter, concerning the start of voting for the joke tag contest (with all nominees listed), and big updates to the Patreon to add actual rewards (including access to chapters a day early!) for you wonderful patrons!. Thank you all very much, and you can find all that information, again, in my first post in the comments. 

“It seems that you somehow neglected to mention that your little emergency escape hatch was pointed directly at Earth,” Jophiel, back inside of Elisabet, noted in a voice that made her displeasure at that fact clear. Though whether the bulk of her annoyance was because she hadn’t been informed of it, or because of the information itself, was a little more ambiguous.

They sat, arranged around a table in the spacious and exquisitely decorated dining room deep within one of several castle-like mansions that Kushiel and Puriel owned on the Seosten homeworld of Elohim. The four of them, including Radueriel and his lover, Abaddon, had come here after abandoning the remains of the research lab to Athena’s forces (and in some cases, after being magically healed from their injuries). Not that Athena’s forces had been able to stay there for long before they in turn had been forced to flee when the Seosten reinforcement fleet had finally arrived.

“Hmm?” Making a show of thinking about what Jophiel had said, Kushiel pursed her lips slightly, wine glass held close while she gazed into the ruby liquid as if answers to her put-on uncertainty would be found deep within. “Earth… Ah, you mean the human name for Rysthael. Honestly, why bother to use the vulgar human term when the planet’s true name is so much more elegant and descriptive? Hidden. That is a much better name for that world. Don’t you agree, gentlemen?”

Radueriel spoke first, his tone casual. “Setting aside the fact that my husband has never been described as gentle by anyone who has had any proper experience with him, I do prefer our name for the planet, yes. Rysthael suits it.”

Grinning at his lover’s words, Abaddon put an arm around the other man and tugged him closer. “Yeah, well, I like Earth. It’s simple. Easy. And Urrr is a good sound. Urrr-thuh. Good, strong sounds.”

They’re changing the subject, Elisabet noted, her own annoyance at the revelation that had been brought up making the thought-words come through as a slight growl.

“You’re changing the subject,” Jophiel announced aloud, agreeing with the other woman. “Although that was a very well choreographed attempt, I will admit. But please, do tell me why you were set to flee to the planet that is my responsibility.”

Partly your responsibility,” Kushiel stressed, in a voice that failed to sound quite as offhand or uncaring she clearly intended. “After all, your authority begins and ends with events involving the… what was the name for that school, again?”

“Crossroads,” Radueriel supplied, after taking a sip of his own wine. Of course the man would remember that. He had, after all, been responsible for the creation of the Heretical Edge itself, the partially-living construct which gave Heretics their Reaper-derived power.  

Kushiel gave a slight nod then. “Ah, yes, Crossroads. Your authority begins and ends with events involving Crossroads, I believe. We mustn’t ignore poor Cahethal in the Garden of Ethan. She holds as much authority as you, after all. And then, of course, there is Metatron. I do believe that the old man might object somewhat to you claiming that the human planet is your responsibility.”

“Eden,” Jophiel corrected. “Garden of Eden. Eden’s Garden, actually. While you are trying not to ignore Cahethal, you should get that right. And the loss of your lab, subjects, and failure in the face of Lucifer and Auriel must have thoroughly shaken you,” the woman noted that part in a flat tone that she allowed only a hint of amusement to creep into. “You are not usually quite so transparently obvious in your attempt to distract from an uncomfortable subject.”

Kushiel’s glare was priceless, and worth it. “I did not see you actively participating in the effort to repel them,” she noted through tightly gritted teeth. “What, precisely, was your contribution?”

Resisting the morbidly tempting instinct to tell the woman exactly what she had been doing, Jophiel instead gave a little shrug. “I was not willing to risk my identity being exposed by contributing to your attempt at a trap. Perhaps if I had been told ahead of time, I could have prepared myself. And I did retrieve you from the… situation before any permanent damage was done.”

The other woman’s scowl only darkened. “You certainly waited long enough. If you had given Lucifer and Auriel any longer…”

“My apologies, of course,” Jophiel replied in that syrupy-sweet tone that implied no such thing. “I assumed that you would be annoyed if I interrupted your confrontation with the two traitors so soon. Given your status, I was quite certain that you had the situation well in hand.”

Radueriel interrupted before the harshly glaring woman could snap back with whatever she had been about to say. “Now now, I believe the human phrase is no use crying over spilled juice and all that. Let us assess the current situation and determine where we now stand.”

“Most of the prisoners are gone,” Abaddon grunted while reaching out to pick up a thick roll full of meat from the table. Taking a heavy bite from it, the man continued without bothering to swallow. “Including Sariel. She’s out.”

Radueriel gave a faint nod at that. “Indeed,” he confirmed. “What was the last count, something like ninety percent of your subjects were just stolen? And are now completely missing, according to the scouts who were sent to check on the other end of that transport. They’re gone, possibly gallivanting around somewhere on Earth. Perhaps together, or perhaps not. They may well have scattered by this point. More than that, the transport itself is gone, with no sign of its location. And multiple members of the… ahem, Crossroads Committee, none of whom are under our direct control, have taken several of our dead soldiers. They have the bodies, and their equipment. They know more than they should, and have the potential to learn entirely too much.”

“I will handle that,” Jophiel informed the man as well as the other two. “Accidents will happen. Reports will be adjusted. We will allow them to gather some information, but only that which points them in a useful direction.”

Taking another bite of his meat roll, Abaddon demanded, “Why the hell was the transport pointed at some empty spot in the desert instead of some secure place like a prison or something?”

Kushiel bristled slightly at that, clearly annoyed. “The final destination was a secure facility that was prepared ahead of time. The trouble was that the transport had not finished aiming at that facility before it was prematurely activated. The targeting was only off by a very small number of degrees, but that itself was enough to make them end up thousands of miles away from the intended destination. Even then, the force that was able to transport out to meet them would have been enough to contain the situation and hold the children there as long as necessary for reinforcements to arrive, if…”

“If Sariel had not woken up,” Jophiel finished for her, mostly resisting the urge to smirk at the woman’s failure, particularly given her own contribution to that. “It seems that despite her extensive imprisonment, her intervention was too much for your security force to handle.”

Kushiel’s glare returned to her. “She should not have been able to wake up at all,” she snapped. “The only way that Sariel could’ve been released from that pod is if those children somehow had the security code. That is what I do not understand. How did they extract the code? And, for that matter, why would Eulfe have started the transport to begin with? We have seen the security recordings taken from before the transport set off. There was no reason for him to do so. None. He had the situation perfectly in hand, and would have known better.”

The answer, in both cases, was sitting right across from her. Not only had Jophiel and Elisabet provided the children with the code to open Sariel’s pod, but it had also been a simple matter to convince Kushiel’s powerful telekinetic underling that activating the transport right at that moment was the right move to make.

Oh, to be able to see the look on her face if you actually told her the truth, Elisabet lamented with a soft, inward sigh. It would almost be worth the trouble that it would cause.

Almost, Jophiel agreed before giving the woman in question a little shrug. “Lucifer has ways of obtaining far more information than he should have. It was clearly his doing.” Her eyes narrowed then. “My question is… why, precisely was your transport aimed toward Earth in the first place? What were you planning on doing with your test subjects there?”

“First of all,” Kushiel began, “What better place would there have been to keep Sariel away from those attempting to liberate her than the one planet that we knew they could not get to? The banishment was removed from her in preparation for the trip, but it should still be affecting her mate. Not to mention the fact that it would be the last place they would naturally look, and would be beyond or shielded from any tracking spells they might have attempted.”

“And secondly,” the woman continued with a tiny smirk, “the question is what am I planning on doing. Which, I should think that would be patently obvious. It has, after all, become very clear that Sariel’s offspring are viable. Particularly now, as the assault on the lab fully demonstrated, their Seosten genetics are enough that the two of them have been developing our gifts. Slowly, of course, but they have been developing. This is very… interesting. Yet, you have made it clear that you will not allow full experimentation to done on them. Thus, the next solution is to go straight to the source.”

Jophiel stiffened slightly at that. “Surely even you are not so desperate that you would see human-Seosten hybrids as a viable solution to our population issues. The Seraphim would never allow that. They would not accept the dilution of our race to that extent.”

Jophiel herself, of course, had less of a personal problem with that. But she also knew that there had to be more to it than that. Kushiel, after all, was not the type to accept that the only path forward for the Seosten as a race was to combine themselves with another. Her arrogance, which Jophiel had to accept that she also had more than her own fair amount of, was too much to allow that.

“Of course not,” Kushiel confirmed with a quick shake of her head. “But just as the humans have proven useful in other ways, so they may also be useful in this way. With the right human test subjects, it may be possible to add just enough of their genetics to a developing fetus to slow the development of the possession power long enough for the baby to be born and develop a little bit before it emerges. Of course, that will require a great amount of trial and error. We will lose a great many before the true solution is found. But then, they are only human after all. There are plenty more where they will have come from.”

Elisabet was the first to react, her thought-voice full of horror. She doesn’t want to make a human-Seosten alliance. She wants to use the humans as simple genetic stock to be pulled from to allow a Seosten to be born. We would be nothing but a pile of DNA for her to use just to slow the possession power.

Radueriel spoke up then, his tone curious as the man watched her. “Is something wrong, Jophiel? After all, you were the one who pushed the idea that humans and Seosten were genetically compatible. This solution would not have presented itself without those arguments.”

Resisting the strong urge to put her former crewmate on the floor, Jophiel shook her head slightly. “That solution was not my intention,” she replied flatly before returning her gaze to Kushiel. “And you say this is still your plan? Even with so many of your subjects missing?”

Kushiel smiled humorlessly. “A few of the subjects were already moved to the lab via other methods before the transport was arranged, while the new facility was being created. Between those and the subjects I will be able to acquire on the planet itself, it will be enough for a start. Not as much as I would have preferred with the rest of my patients, but enough.

“And in any case,” the woman continued pointedly, “Sariel is on that planet now. And I will not rest until she is back under my care. She is a traitor and deserter, and will not be allowed to roam free.”

“Speaking of which,” Radueriel put in then, “What became of her human mate, and the others back in the facility?”

It was Jophiel’s turn to answer. “At the request of Metatron, once Athena forced the two of you to withdraw and made her way to the transport room, I extracted Kushiel from the situation before it could deteriorate any further.”

If only the old man hadn’t been paying  so much attention to the situation that it was impossible for Jophiel to get away with allowing Kushiel to fall, or at least be captured. But with his eyes on what had been going on, she had been forced to rescue the woman or risk her cover.

From the look on her face, Kushiel was none too pleased with that fact either. The idea that she had been rescued by Jophiel clearly annoyed the woman even more than she would say. Instead, she pointed out, “And yet, you could not find it within yourself to take a couple of them prisoner as well, while you were at it? Don’t tell me that you were afraid of taking a few human children along with us. They would have made excellent hostages to force the future compliance of Sariel and the others.”

Meeting the other woman’s hard glare, Jophiel replied simply, “My instructions were to ensure your survival and escape. To do anything else might have risked that.”

“And as a consequence of that,” Kushiel snapped, “they have all escaped. The Aelaestiam forces managed to rescue and extract any subjects who were not sent on the main transport itself, as well as a great deal of research data from those computers before it could be scrubbed. They also took weapons and supplies, before leaving the area ahead of our reinforcements. This has been a completely unmitigated disaster.”

With a completely straight face, Jophiel noted, “It’s almost as if attempting to plot a successful trap against the so-called goddess of wisdom and warfare is a fool’s errand.”

Kushiel glared at that. “Do not use Lucifer’s foolish terms. Those days are long over, and his scribblings are not relevant.”

It was Abaddon who voiced his disagreement with that. “Actually,” the large man noted, “they seem pretty relevant. You wanna catch him, you gotta know how he thinks.”

“Indeed,” Raduriel agreed. “And under Metatron’s new orders, it is our job to locate both Sariel and her pseudo-sibling, and bring them to the new facility on Rysthael.”

Somehow keeping her rising annoyance out of her voice, Jophiel looked to the two men. “That means you’ll be coming to Earth as well.”

Abaddon grinned at that, giving her a nod. “That’s right, Metatron figures going after Auriel and those others would be a waste of time. Sariel’s the real prize. Her and Lucifer. He says that guy’s been given too much time to run around. So we’re going there to drag those two into Kushiel’s new lab, one way or another.”

Raduriel gave a nod of agreement. “After all,” he noted, “we wouldn’t want to distract you from the missions that you are already involved with. You are quite busy as it is. It will be our job to locate Sariel and Lucifer and return them to their proper place, while Kushiel works to acquire other new subjects.”

Jophiel didn’t like it. She really didn’t like it. After all, the last place she wanted these three to be was on Earth, where they could cause more problems for her projects, which were in sensitive enough situations as it was. But there was also nothing she could do about it now that things had been set in motion. Metatron outranked her by far too much for her to put a stop to this.

So, she simply gave a small, tight-lipped smile while looking toward the two men. “You say that Lucifer is one of your targets for… acquisition. Yet as far as we know, he is still here in our space, not anywhere near Earth.”

Radueriel offered a slight shrug at that. “Knowing him, he will have a way to return there soon. Better to get ahead of him since we know what his final destination will be, than to stay behind in some pointless attempt at tracking him. As was the case with the prison facility, we know where they will be going. Thus, we move ahead and prepare for his arrival. While, of course, searching for Sariel herself.”

Unfortunately, he had a point. One that Jophiel couldn’t pick apart. Instead, she looked toward Kushiel. “It has been quite some time since you set foot on Earth, has it not?”

“Not nearly long enough,” the other woman retorted. “And I look forward to this unfortunately necessary time there being as short as possible before I may leave that place once and for all.”

That makes three of us, Jophiel noted inwardly toward her beloved before simply nodding. “Well, we will have to do everything within our power to ensure that you don’t have to stay for long.”

The two women stared at one another for a moment, their mutual dislike written across their faces. They tolerated one another out of little more than necessity, but had never been friendly. Not that Kushiel ever had many friends. There was a reason, after all, that Lucifer had not attempted to cast her as a loving and kindly figure within his stories.

Abaddon grunted then, interrupted the long and silent glare between the women as he pushed himself to his feet while taking one more meat roll. “Are we going or what? I don’t feel like sitting around anymore. Been awhile since I’ve been to Earth too, and there’s a few things I’ve been meaning to check out. Humans may not be Seosten, but from what I’ve heard, they’ve come up with a few good ideas here and there. After all,” he added with a toothy grin, “any species that makes a whole sport around building the biggest, baddest vehicles and using them to crush smaller vehicles can’t be all bad.”

Patting his lover’s arm, Radueriel nodded while standing up as well. “Yes, we will be joining you on your trip back. After all, there is no sense in all of us going separately.”

Except that if I have to spend much more time around the three of you, I may kill at least one, Jophiel muttered inside her own mind for no one but Elisabet to hear. Aloud, she simply replied, “Of course. Except…” To Kushiel, she asked, “Are you quite certain that you wish to leave your husband for that long? I highly doubt he will be coming with you.”

The woman had a flash of what looked like annoyance on her face before masking it. “Puriel will be fine. He has his healers and minders to ensure that he does not do anything too… foolish. I will visit him as necessary. While,” she added then, “also working toward a cure for his affliction, of course.”

His affliction. Jophiel resisted the urge to laugh in the woman’s face. Puriel did have many problems, conditions that weakened the man and left him unable to perform his duties. But his main ‘affliction’, as Kushiel had put it, was one that no amount of medicine or tests would fix. The man had been fundamentally changed by his experiences following the destruction of the banishment orb.

Instead of saying that, however, Jophiel simply stepped away from the table. “In that case,” she began, “the men are absolutely correct. We should go. After all, it’s going to be a long trip back to Earth.

“And I’m sure you can’t wait to get started.”

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