Abigail Fellows

On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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Interlude 41A – Pace, Theia, Miranda, and Abigail

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“Oooh, can we get a Two-Face suit?”

The question from Theia came as she (with Pace, of course) stood in the middle of a clothing store holding a black leather jacket in one hand and a red leather jacket with the other. The store itself was a relatively small, corner-located business that specialized in second-hand clothing.

Abigail blinked once at the question, looking over to the girl(s) from where she stood at another of several nearby clothing racks. “A… two-face suit?” She had brought the girls here thanks to a conversation they’d been having earlier. Abigail had asked when Theia’s birthday was, which was something the girl herself didn’t know. Appalled by that, Abigail had said they would make today her birthday. So now they were out shopping for presents. Presents which, among other things, included getting Theia and Pace some actual personal clothes that they could enjoy.

The whole birthday thing was also helping to take Abigail’s mind off the memory of being abducted and nearly killed by her own much younger half-brother, who himself ended up dead in the process.

It had been a very long school year.

“She means like this.” Moving by Theia, Miranda reached out to take the jackets before arranging them next to each other so that the left half of one and the right half of the other were hidden, leaving the two jackets looking like one with different colors on each side. “Two-Face. You know, Batman.”

“We would make a very good Batman,” Theia noted. “Except for killing people. And being a girl. And not a detective. Or rich. Or broody. But we do enjoy beating people up. And scaring people by magically appearing behind them. Which is worth at least a passing grade at Batmanning.”

“So which is it?” Miranda asked, “Do you want to be Two-Face or Batman?”

Theia’s mouth opened, before the girl paused, a sudden gasp of realization escaping her. “We have a brilliant idea. Where is the nearest Batman writer? We can–”

“You can’t turn Two-Face into Batman,” Miranda interrupted, catching the other girl by the arm. “I’m pretty sure something like that already happened with Spider-Man anyway.”

“Besides,” Pace put in then as she briefly took over, “we’re here for new clothes. And if we went with a Two-Face suit, we’d probably stand out just a little bit. Or a batsuit,” she added belatedly before completely changing the subject, as she was wont to do. “You have a codename now too.”

“It’s not a codename,” the other girl corrected, “it’s a Garden name. It’s supposed to signify your rebirth or loyalty to the tribe, or to the Tree, or… whatever.”

Abigail sighed, looking to her. “The name is an insult. You know why they chose it, what they mean by it.”

Meeting her gaze, Miranda shrugged. “Stray? Yeah, I know why they offered the name Stray. Because I’m straying from the tribe, supposedly. Because I’m just a stray in general, just a nobody orphan that sniffs around until someone takes me in. And I know they expected me to object and drag it out. They expected me to make a big fuss about it, expected me to refuse and go with a different name. But I don’t need a different name. The name doesn’t make me, I make the name. And I’ll make this one what I want it to be.”

Theia, watching her carefully, offered an uncharacteristically somber, “Names are powerful. Like a wild bull. If you control it, you’re strong. But sometimes people throw you onto one, because they want it to throw you off and trample you. They throw you onto a bad name, because they want to hurt you.”

“I can ride this bull,” Miranda replied simply. “They don’t get to win.”

Running a hand over the girl’s hair, Abigail looked like she was going to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she settled on reaching out to pick a handful of clothes. “Here, why don’t you three go ahead and head into the back to try these on. See if you like any of them, then we can go from there.” The woman smiled a little. “And while you do that, I’ll see if there’s a Batman costume hiding somewhere in the corner over there.”

The girls headed into the changing rooms at the back. Theia and Pace stepped into the nearest booth, taking some of the clothes in with them. Unfortunately, they had only just positioned themselves in front of the mirror with a pair of pants held up in front of Pace’s body when both abruptly stopped their ongoing inner dialogue about what color was better. Pace’s head turned, but it was hard to say which of them turned it. Both were in sync, both with that and with the slow, careful sniff that came next.

“Heretics,” Theia muttered aloud.

“Strange Heretics,” Pace added.

“What?” That last one was Miranda, poking her head under the partition to stare up at them. “What do you mean strange Heretics?”

Theia opened the door, whispering, “We smell Garden things. Fresh Garden things. And it’s not the Selling man. Four…” She sniffed again. “Five of them. On Theia-My’s birthday too. Rude.”

She started for the front, but Miranda stopped her with a hand on Pace’s arm. “Wait. They can’t see you like this, remember? Let me go check what’s going on. Just… wait here.”  She gave them a brief look of warning before quietly moving that way to glance around the corner.

Unfortunately, she did so just in time to be grabbed by the arm and neck and yanked fully out into the front area. The large man gripping her was covered in some kind of red metal that coated his skin, and he was incredibly strong. In one motion, he hauled Miranda into sight and gave her a firm shove, tossing the girl into the middle of the room. She landed next to Abigail.

“Hey!” Abigail herself reached down to help Miranda up, glaring at the man. “Watch what you’re doing, she’s a student!”

“What are you doing?” Miranda put in then, even as she set herself in front of Abigail. The other woman may have been older, but she was far less experienced if this came down to a fight. And Miranda knew too much about Eden’s Garden to think that this guy and his friends were here just to talk. “You–” She started to look for the proprietor of the shop, only to see the man lying unconscious near the checkout counter. One of the other Heretics was standing nearby. Another was by the door, scribbling a spell onto it that would convince any Bystanders who approached to go somewhere else. That was three, while the other two remained out of sight.

“You attacked that poor man,” Abigail finished Miranda’s sentence, pointing that way. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Who are we?” the red-armored guy who had thrown Miranda to the ground echoed with a smirk. The armor went away, revealing a man who appeared to be a Pacific Islander, and a well-built one at that. “We’re the heroes, duh.”

Abigail’s voice was flat. “Yes, I’m sure the Greeks would have been proud to write stories about what heroes you are, pushing around little girls and attacking innocent old men.”

“He’ll be fine.” The words came from one of the larger coat racks, as a man stepped into view. He wasn’t that tall, standing a couple inches under six feet, with a thin goatee and slicked back dark hair. “He’s just sleeping. We spend enough time risking our lives to protect these Bystanders, the least they can do is take a nap when we want to have a private conversation.”

“I know you,” Miranda announced, staring at the man while still standing protectively in front of Abigail. “Lovac. Your name is Lovac. You’re Weston Marrero’s uncle.” The boy and his arm-candy girlfriends Josie and Kumiko (who were suspiciously similar in appearance with Flick and Shiori) had clearly been holding a grudge against Miranda ever since she and Koren had their confrontation with them much earlier. The confrontation which had led to finding the video of Pace first being possessed.

“Yeah,” Lovac agreed, “so maybe I’m enjoying this a little more than I would.”

“Enjoying what?” Abigail demanded, setting a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder. “What is it you want? You have to have a point to all this. A point other than posturing, I mean.”

The large man who had been armored a moment earlier started to speak, but Lovac interrupted him. “A point? Yeah, there’s a point. But for the record, if you’re waiting for Seller to show up, you’re going to be waiting for awhile. Let’s just say the Victors have a job for him that should keep him out of the way long enough to do what we need to do.”

Squeezing Miranda’s shoulder before the girl could retort, Abigail spoke first, keeping her voice as calm and level as possible to avoid setting off this powder keg. “And what is it you think you need to do?”

A slight smirk touched the man’s face as he casually replied, “You think you’re hot shit. Old Bystander lawyer, stomping in and waving the rule book around. You think most of us care what some dusty old paper says? We’re the ones doing the work. We’re the ones protecting humans, and sometimes that means getting your hands dirty. You think you can just come in here, wag your finger, and change everything? You’ve got another thing coming. Mostly pain. Now, we’re not gonna kill you. After all, you’re one of us. But when we’re done, both of you are going to think twice before you try to throw your weight around again. You’ll shut up and do what you’re told.” He smiled thinly then. “Or we’ll just come back and give you the lesson until it sticks.”

The man who had put the spell on the door spoke up. “Stray there needs to be reminded that her loyalty is to Garden, not to some stupid little friend from Bystander school. And you need to figure out that you ain’t a lawyer here. You’re a bitch who can’t even fight. Maybe taking a little beating will make that sink i–”

That was as far as he got, before there was an abrupt and terrifying crash as something… or someone was hurled through the front window of the store. All eyes jerked that way in time to see another Garden Heretic, bound, gagged, and unconscious, crash to the floor amidst the shattered glass.

An instant later, the door was kicked open, as Theia appeared. She caught hold of the man there by the head, slamming him sideways with enough force to put a hole in the nearby wall from the impact. At the same time, she kicked his feet out from under him. Then she snapped his dazed form back the other way to drive his head into the counter before letting his unconscious form drop to the floor.

“You will not touch Miss Abigail or Miranda-Stray,” she informed the men. There was no humor in her voice, no mockery or sense of mischievous fun. She was bristling with anger.

Weapons were yanked free as the men all focused on the intruder, before Lovac put a hand up to stop them. He was staring, a bit wide-eyed at the figure. “… Pace? That… you’re… you’re a…” Slowly, he looked her up and down, a gradual smile touching his face. “Oh, this is beautiful. This is even better than I could’ve imagined. They’ve been harboring you? And you’re a monster. Werewolf, right? That’s my guess. Werewolf. Were something anyway. They’ve been hiding a fucking werewolf and lying about it? Oh, that is… thank you. Thank you all so much. Now we don’t have to stop at just beating the shit out of them. We can have them imprisoned. Probably even wiped and banished. This is just like… I’m so happy right now.” Belatedly, he added toward Theia, “And you can be dealt with properly of course. Locked up until you’re useful, or put down to make room for something that is. Like any other abomination.” Even as he spoke, the man was gently rubbing his thumb along the shaft of the long, metallic spear he had produced.  

Righteous fury filled Abigail’s voice then, as she snapped, “She’s not an abomination! Listen to yourself, what makes you think she’s any different than she was before? She has different powers now because she’s a werewolf? That doesn’t make her a monster! You have to judge people by their actions! She even knocked out your friends there instead of killing them! Would a mindless monster do that? Think for yourselves! Think! What has she actually done to make you call her a monster?!”

“Well,” Lovac replied casually while shifting his spear from one hand to the other. “She killed the poor, innocent Bystander that owns this store, for one.”

“What?” Miranda blurted, head shaking. “No, she didn’t! He’s fine! He’s right there!”

“Huh.” Lovac shrugged. Then, without any further preamble, unceremoniously drove his spear down through the unconscious shop owner’s chest. “That’s funny, he looks pretty dead to me.”

Miranda and Abigail both shouted in horror and disbelief, the latter throwing herself that way. She went to her knees by the impaled man. “What–what are you doing?! He–he was an innocent old man! What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“Wrong?” Lovac echoed. “Wrong with me? Nothing. What’s wrong is you not understanding something important. That guy was weak. We’re strong. The Strangers we kill or put to work, they’re weak. We’re strong. You are weak. We are strong. You think we don’t know that there’s Strangers out there just… living their dull lives, playing house, not attacking anyone? Of course we know. But we don’t care. We kill them, we get power. Because we’re stronger. We’re better. We are the superior breed. How are you not doing the math on this? Do I have to simplify it down to the point that your pathetic Bystander-bred mind can comprehend the–”

In mid-sentence, the man was cut off, his voice turning to the squeal of air escaping a balloon while he doubled over. Abigail’s foot was planted firmly between his legs.

“Funny,” the woman snapped, “the superior breed still has an off-switch.”

Chaos erupted then. The man who had been standing by Miranda armored up once more, spinning to grab the girl only to miss as she dove out of the way. Across the room, the other man brought his shotgun up, firing a shot at the front area where Pace and Theia stood.

With a roar of anger the man lashed out with his spear, only to have it caught by a suddenly-moving Theia, who had blurred forward away from the other man’s shotgun blast. She snatched hold of the spear to stop it, glowering. “I told you, you’re not touching Miss Abigail.”

Lovac’s response was a bellow, as a ball of concussive force erupted from his hand, slamming into the girl to send her flying backwards. She crashed through into the back area where the changing rooms were.

“Deal with them!” he snapped to his companions, already sprinting that way. “I’ll handle this one.” With those words, his body blurred as he too activated his own enhanced speed, reaching the back in an instant.

A broken off chunk of concrete from the back wall flew like a bullet at the man’s head as he stepped into the back room. But he twisted aside at the last instant, letting the projectile pass by, missing him by centimeters. In the process, he dropped his spear, leaving it to clatter along the floor.

Then a red blast of energy took the man in the face, burning his skin and singing that thin goatee even as his head jerked back with a gasp. Theia was there, her kusarigamas raised in their gun forms. Her finger pulled the trigger of the second weapon, sending a white freezing blast his way.

He recovered fast, conjuring a forcefield in front of himself that caught both incoming beams. A quick gesture with one hand collapsed part of the ceiling above the girl, forcing her to dive out of the way. With that opening, the man kicked his speed in once more, rushing that way. Before the girl could recover, he caught her by the throat while using his other hand to knock both weapons from her grasp. With a shout of fury, Lovac slammed her into the wall. Then he did it again, harder.

“Think I’ll get all your Heretic powers and there werewolf ones when I kill you, cunt?” he demanded while making a fist with the hand that wasn’t closed tightly around her throat. “Let’s find out.”

His fist slammed forward, only to collide with the bone-armor that had suddenly appeared around Pace’s body, including her face. Before he could recover from that, the girl shot a collection of bone darts into his foot, making him stumble just a little. That was enough for Theia to jerk free of his grip on her throat, catching his shoulders to hold herself up long enough to slam her armored head into his face.

Landing on her feet, Theia made a blade of bone pop from her armored wrist, snapping, “We are killing him.” With those words, she lashed out.

“We?” the man echoed, catching the blade before snapping it off. He kicked the girl back against the wall before driving the broken bone-blade for the slots in her bone-helmet. “It’s just you and me back here, bitch.”

Pace jerked their head out of the way an instant before the blade would have struck home. I’ll keep us alive, she privately informed her Seosten partner. You focus on putting him down.

Lovac was already following up his first bone-blade swipe with another, but Pace instantly ducked down and under his extended arm, Theia taking the opportunity to drive their fist into his gut. She extended another bone-blade in the process, but it snapped off against his skin.

What followed was a tornado of madness and violence that utterly demolished the back rooms. Acid, bone-darts, fire, and more were thrown in every direction. The two figures slammed each other through the walls of the changing areas, kicked benches into one another, used the shattered mirrors to fling glass into each other’s eyes, and thoroughly destroyed every scrap of furniture in the process. And considering their enhanced speed, all of it took less than a minute.

Lovac should have won handily, given his age, experience, and greater powers. But the man was too angry to take a step back and use his better abilities. And beyond that, he also wasn’t fighting only one person. Pace being able to focus solely on keeping them alive while Theia took any possible opening for attack was an advantage that allowed them to mostly keep up with him. Even then, he was still vastly superior, but their werewolf regeneration helped pick up some of the slack.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough. In the end, Theia and Pace ended up on the ground. They were just starting to roll over, as Lovac drove his spear that he had managed to collect at some point through their left leg. The pain drew a howl from them. Which was worse as the sharp point at the end of the spear extended outward like a grappling hook, individual blades snapping into place to hold the spear in position so that it would be almost impossible to yank back out again.

“You like that?!” The man’s voice was high from the rush of violence, his breathing haggard. “Huh, you little bitch?! Tell me! You like it? You like losing?! You like knowing you’re about to die? You like knowing that?! You lose! All that, all that was worthless! You’re gonna die! What do you think of that?! What the fuck do you think of that?” He was so angry in that moment that it had taken him so much to actually put the girl on the ground that he wasn’t thinking clearly. His eyes were wild and crazed.

Lying there, Theia and Pace both looked up at the man. They stared for a moment. Then, together and yet with the same voice, they chuckled softly until it became a full on laugh.

Lovac, looking worn and bruised, stood there, spear impaled through Pace’s leg as he glared down at her. Spitting blood, the man demanded, “The hell do you think is so funny?”

From her position on the floor, Theia gave him a simple smile that was barely visible through the intense bruising already adorning Pace’s face. “We… are just… wondering how you are going to like being killed by a werewolf who is also a Heretic.”

With a sneer, Lovac twisted the spear in her leg to drive even more pain through Pace’s body. “Kill me? You’re as delusional as you are stupid. You aren’t killing anyone. You can’t even stand up. You’re just as pathetic as–”

In mid-sentence, a hand covered the man’s mouth. An instant later, the hand and the arm it was attached to turned into a tree branch. Part of that tree branch extended into the man’s open mouth, driving its way down his throat while he gave a muffled scream.

“She meant the other one, jackass,” Roxa Pittman informed him, before extending the branch that had been sent down through the man’s throat out in every direction. Sharp wood was driven through his heart, stomach, lungs, and more. Every internal organ in the man’s torso was torn apart in an instant.

Shifting her arm back to normal, Roxa let the body fall then, while her glowing bronze aura filled the demolished room. The pleasure made her stagger, almost falling as a loud gasp escaped the girl.

“Either the Heretic killgasm has become contagious,” Theia noted thoughtfully, “or we are just very glad that man is dead.” Pace took over then, expression clearing despite the pain as she quickly asked, “Miranda and Abigail?”

Roxa took a knee, nodding. “They’re fine. Mateo and the rest already helped Miranda finish dealing with the guys out there. Here.” Getting the girls to lift their leg a bit, she checked the spear before hitting the button that made the blades close back up into the shaft. Then she took hold of it and gave them a three count before tearing the weapon out. “Seller sent a message, said they were keeping him busy and that you might need help. You okay?”

It was Pace who replied. “Werewolf healing, can’t beat it.”

“You can if you use Heretic powers to stack a lot more healing on top of it,” Roxa pointed out with a wry smirk. With the bloodied spear in one hand, she extended the other to help them up. “Come on. We may have dealt with the initial problem, but there’ll be more. One of those guys got some kind of message out. Besides, I’m pretty sure Mateo wants to make you, Abigail, and Miranda an offer.”

Theia’s head tilted as she moved their hand to take Roxa’s, painfully straightening up even as their leg began to heal with the spear no longer embedded in it. “An offer?”

“Well,” Roxa pointed out, “you guys can’t exactly go back to Eden’s Garden like that. Not after what happened here. You’re kind of off on your own, and you’re gonna have a lot of pissed off Heretics who want to kill you. So it kind of sounds to us like what you guys need is a pack.”

It was Pace’s turn to blink at that, taking over the body to speak. “Miranda and Abigail aren’t wolves,” she pointed out. “Is that even allowed? I mean, traditionally a werewolf pack is for… you know, werewolves.”

“Sure, usually,” Roxa admitted with a shrug. “But what can I say?

“I’ve never really been much for tradition.”

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Family Day 40-06

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I didn’t realize that I’d spoken aloud until Koren repeated the word, looking to me then over to Professor Dare. Her mouth was open, the girl gaping pretty much like how I assumed I was.

For her part, Professor Dare was staring down at the body that lay at her feet. She was silent and motionless. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine the expression on it.

My mind was reeling. Explanations for so much that had happened over the year and even before that were flooding into my brain.

Mom… her parents had sacrificed themselves, each in different ways. Her father, my grandfather, had sacrificed his life. Meanwhile, my grandmother had sacrificed her identity, everyone’s memories of her. Everyone had forgotten who she was, her life erased in a way that was very different than her husband, yet still just as potent.

Dare knew Prosser. She’d said things about him that couldn’t come from just a casual acquaintance.

She’d even said that she missed my mother. She said she missed her as a student. But, as the realization thundered its way into my head right then, she hadn’t been a teacher when Mom was a student. Gaia had brought her in as a teacher after she became headmistress, which happened after Mom already left the school. How could Dare possibly miss her as a student?

She had been the one to come and pick me up at the start of the school year. She had showed over and over again that she cared about me. The things she had been so close to saying, but had repeatedly stopped herself from. I had thought that she was simply trying to maintain a teacher-student distance, but it was more than that. So much more.

It made sense. It made sense in a way that I should have figured out before. Was I just blind to it, or had the memory spell been making it hard to put those pieces together until it was made patently obvious?

My mouth opened, and the ground suddenly shook beneath me. It was an earthquake, yet somehow more than that. I felt the rough shaking, and I also felt something else. It was like magic itself was protesting violently. There was a dizziness in my head that made me stumble. Beside me, Koren fell to her knees with a yelp. Bright colors appeared in the sky above us, and a stickiness on my face made me realize that my nose was bleeding. So were the others.

There were clouds in the sky, only they weren’t normal clouds. They were thicker, more full and solid. They looked almost like gigantic, misshapen… body organs. They looked like a twisted, demented versions of a heart, or lungs, pulsating right there in the air above us, beating as though they were alive. Yellowish orange lightning streaked across the sky, cutting through the odd colors while the ground continued to shake. There were fires between the clouds, but it was more than fire, the flames seeming to burn the sky itself away to reveal visions beyond that my brain refused to acknowledge. Horrors lurked through those wounds in the sky, horrors that would have brought tears to the eyes of even the bravest amongst us had they been forced to see them for more than a few seconds. Living terror peeked through those cuts. Peeked through… and saw us. It met our gaze, its hunger… its amusement… its power swelling.  

And then it stopped. The sky faded back to its regular color. The ground went still once more. The lightning stopped, and those weird organ clouds disappeared. Everything was still and quiet once more.

“It didn’t break.” There was relief in Dare’s voice, and I saw her slump just a little bit. “It didn’t break. The spell held. They’re not coming back.”

The Fomorians. That was what all of that was. It was the spell that had banished them from the world reacting to us finding out the truth about her. It had been damaged, it had nearly shaken itself apart, nearly failed. But not permanently. It held, though by what strand I had no idea. There was no way of knowing just how close we had just come to the Fomorians having a new open invitation to invade the planet.

No way of knowing just how close we had come to complete destruction, except too close. Entirely too close. If that was the spell’s reaction to just Koren and me learning the truth, I had no questions about why Dare had kept it secret for so long. If the Fomorians made it back here, if they managed to invade again… it would basically end society as we knew it.

And then I realized exactly what the position Dare had been in right then. She could either press the button to kill innocent people as well as Vanessa, Avalon, and one of her own grandchildren, or risk the spell breaking and thus condemn a lot more people to death. No wonder she had sounded so tortured, so broken when she made her decision.

But it was even more than that. Not only did she risk the spell breaking, to do so, she had to kill another one of her grandchildren. Ammon may have been a psychotic creep, but he was still her grandson. And the way he had been was forced on him by Fossor. That was why I had been so hesitant to just straight up kill him. For everything he’d done, he was still a kid that could maybe have been fixed if we could just stop him long enough. But now… now…

“I had no choice.” Dare’s voice still sounded empty, hollow. “He had so much protection, so many other ways to escape. And it was the only way to be sure it would end his orders to the people in the stadium. If he survived and figured out the truth…”

Koren spoke up then. “It would be three people figuring out the truth of who you were. Four, if he got back to Fossor.”

Dare nodded silently before looking up to us. There were tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

My head shook quickly. “No, don’t apologize. You don’t have anything to apologize for. We get it.” Glancing to the girl beside me for confirmation, I waited until she nodded and then repeated, “We get it. We both get it. If that’s how the spell reacted to adjust to that… You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Koren nodded. “Do… do you need to erase our memories? To protect the spell.”

Dare looked taken aback, her mouth opening and shutting briefly. “You… you would both…” Then she took a few quick steps, her arms moving out to grab onto Koren and me, pulling us into a tight embrace. I was pretty sure that she had been waiting to do that for a very, very long time.

We hugged her back, while the woman whispered both of our names. Then she shook her head. “No. The damage to the spell has been done now, and it held. There’s no reason to be erase it from your memories.” Pausing, she looked to us seriously. “But—”

“We can’t tell anyone, or it’ll damage the spell even more.” Even as I said those words, my eyes widened. “Wait, what about Tabbris? The next time she possesses me…”

Dare shook her head. “She will not know. She won’t be able to read your thoughts on the subject. Or it will just replace those… specific ones. That’s the way the spell works. The information can’t be involuntarily pulled from your head like that. Not even through possession.”

I really couldn’t tell Tabbris, or anyone, I realized. If the spell had reacted that badly to the two of us finding out, the risk of anyone else knowing, even my little sister were… no. I couldn’t endanger everything like that. When the time came, if it came and Tabbris or any of the others found out that I had kept that secret, I had to believe that they would forgive me for it. They would understand. In this particular case, lying really was the best thing to do. As much as I might’ve loathed doing so to Tabbris, my father, or any of the other people I cared about… I had to.

Koren swallowed hard before speaking my own thoughts aloud. “Then we’ll keep it secret. We won’t tell anyone. We’re not going to risk…” She trailed off then, going silent as her eyes moved to the body on the ground. “Oh my God. That means that… that he was…”

My eyes followed hers. Ammon. Ammon was dead. The shock of realizing who Professor Dare really was had completely overshadowed that fact. But it was true. The threat who had been lurking in the background of my thoughts for so long was… was dead. Just like that. My own half-brother, raised by a monster who in turn had made the boy into one as well. He was… he was dead. It didn’t seem real. But it was. His body was there. His body was… was… there.

Staring down at him for a second, I felt bile rise up in my throat. Mom… Mom, what was I going to tell her? What would Fossor tell her? Oh God. His body was… was practically dismembered. He looked almost like a… victim that way, like… the little kid he was supposed to be. A little kid whose head had been… had been…

I turned, falling to my knees to throw up there on the ground. It felt like I was heaving my entire stomach out, as tears stung my eyes. Nearby, I could hear Koren in basically the same position.

Dare moved to kneel between us, putting a hand on each of our backs, repeating herself from earlier. “I couldn’t… risk him realizing the truth. If he did, and he told Fossor…” Her fingers tightened against my back almost painfully, and I heard her make a noise that sounded like a barely restrained, choked sob. As hard as it was for me to see that, she was the one who’d had to actually do it. She’d been the one to make that awful, impossible choice to kill her own grandson. Evil or not, psychotic or not, he was still her grandson. And a part of me would always wonder if he could have been saved.

Just as, I was sure, she herself would wonder the same thing.

We knelt there like that, the three of us turned away from the terrible, disgusting sight behind us. I was just trying to get myself under control when Koren abruptly jerked upward, blurting, “Mom!”

Oh God, oh fuck. Right, the distraction of everything we had just learned vanished in an instant. Both of us scrambled to our feet, while Dare quietly informed us, “The fighting inside is over. Ammon’s control disappeared the moment he–the crowd stopped fighting. The others are alive, but… confused. We should go to them.” She paused then, picking herself up before looking to us. “I know you have a lot of questions. Now that… that you know, I can answer them. But it will have to be later, okay? We need to get out of here. And you can’t… you can’t act differently in front of others.”

The two of us nodded. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to say. But at the moment, making sure that Avalon, Vanessa, and Abigail were okay was all I could really focus on, all I wanted to focus on. So we promised to keep acting as normal as possible (given the situation), before Dare gestured to create a portal that would take us back to the baseball field.

On the way to the portal, I hesitantly asked, “What about everyone else? Fossor, he was—“

“Controlling Escalan,” Dare finished for me. “Yeah. And we didn’t know you weren’t part of any group until I went around and checked them.”

Pausing at the portal, I asked, “How did you find us to begin with? I know he had this whole place blocked off from communication and monitoring spells.”

It was her turn to be quiet for a moment before shaking her head. “Honestly, I don’t know. I just heard a whisper by my ear that told me your latitude and longitude and that you were in danger. I don’t know who it was, or how they knew where you were. It sounded like a girl’s voice, and… familiar. But other than that…”

Great, more mysteries. Then again, if they had sent Dare to save us, maybe they weren’t so bad. Or maybe it was Jophiel? I could see that.

Either way, we passed through the portal and I immediately saw Avalon, Abigail, and Vanessa. The other two girls had just finished helping my sister out of the contraption holding her down. When we appeared, they spun toward us. Avalon and Vanessa had their weapons up before stopping short. Disabling her gauntlets, Avalon rushed to me, arms going around me tightly as she basically lifted me off the ground. She didn’t say anything, but then again, she didn’t need to.

“You saved her,” I murmured while returning the hug as tightly as I could. “You saved my sister.”

Looking around, I saw a lot of unconscious and injured civilians, along with others who were awake and incredibly confused. I had no idea what the Bystander Effect would convince them had happened, but it was probably going to be a doozy of a story.

Seeing all those people and thinking about what Ammon had said, I had no doubt that it had taken everything Vanessa and Avalon had to save Abigail without killing any of them. If they hadn’t been there… My body shuddered fully at the thought and I hugged Avalon even tighter. Then I hugged Vanessa and thanked her as well before moving to look to Abigail. Koren was still hugging her and didn’t look like she was going to let go anytime soon.

So I simply met her gaze and nodded to her with a very slight, kind of sad smile. “I’m glad you’re okay.” Boy was that ever an understatement.

Dare’s head was tilted, as if she was listening to something. Then she straightened a little and nodded. “We’re going back to the school. They’re sending people in to deal with the bombs here and to get the civilians home. They’ll be okay.”

She paused then before adding, “Gaia has someone collecting the body.”

So she created another portal, and we passed through it together. Avalon and Vanessa were both giving me and Koren confused looks about what had happened, but it wasn’t until we were back on what turned out to be the school grounds outside of the main building that they finally spoke.

“Where’s Ammon?” Vanessa asked. “What happened? What bombs? What body?”

Answering the last question first, I swallowed before looking toward Abigail as I quietly explained, “Ammon, he… he’s dead.” Even saying it out loud didn’t make it seem real. I felt hollow inside. The idea that the psychotic little boy who had been my little brother and a threat lurking in the background of my mind for so much of the year was just dead now didn’t really compute.

All three of the others look taken aback by that, eyes widening as their mouths fell open. It was Abigail who found her voice first. “What? Dead? But he was… he was just… it wasn’t…”

“There was no choice.” That was Dare. There was guilt, resignation, and sadness in her voice, all for reasons beyond what Abigail could possibly have understood in that moment. I had far more of the story and even I wasn’t sure I actually comprehended the things that the woman was feeling right then.  

She continued, telling them about how Koren and I had been fighting to stop him from detonating those bombs and that she had shown up right at the end. She told them that there had been no other choice when he had started to order her to detonate the bombs. We wouldn’t have been able to stop her, and she’d had no idea exactly what would knock him unconscious or not with all his powers. The only choice she’d had was to kill him to save them and everyone in that stadium.

Glancing around while listening to that, I could see pockets of people here and there already popping in all over the grounds, appearing either through portals or coming out of the Pathmaker. More and more kept arriving, bloodied, injured Heretics trying to understand what they had just been through. It was pretty much total confusion. From what snippets of conversation I could pick up here in there as people moved past, no one knew exactly what happened. And it didn’t seem like anyone was looking our way.

Abigail looked torn, her face ashen as she shook her head back and forth. “There was supposed to be a way to save him, to change him. He was just a little boy. Just–”

“A boy whose soul Fossor destroyed,” I pointed out softly, wincing at the look on Dare’s face. Yeah, I definitely couldn’t imagine the guilt she was going through. “I have to think that the boy Ammon could have been would have rather died than let you and all those other people die in his place. Maybe that’s childish and naïve, but it’s the best I’ve got right now. It’s the best any of us have got.”

Before any of us could say anything else, the others all started to arrive. The rest of the team, Deveron, Tristan, Haiden (with Sariel still possessing him), Larissa, even Gaia. The latter looked harried, but just as relieved as everyone else when she saw us (especially Avalon in her case) with her own eyes.

As we all took turns exchanging embraces and greetings, Sands blurted, “What the hell happened? Are you guys okay? What was that? What—”

Gaia interrupted. “Perhaps it would be best to have this conversation somewhere more private and comfortable.

“I have a feeling it will be a long one.”

******

“Does Gaia know?”

It was hours later, as I sat out on the beach watching the ocean. Next to me was Professor Dare.

For once, I actually wasn’t the center of the Committee’s focus. They apparently had no idea, as a group, what had happened. They didn’t know Fossor was the one behind it, just as they didn’t know that I hadn’t been transported along with everyone else. I wasn’t a suspect, and I was kind of glad about that. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t have dealt with another Committee interrogation right then. As far as they were concerned I had just been part of another group that was transported somewhere and had to be rescued. Which, to be fair, was kind of the truth in some ways.

They did know that the rope had been stolen, and several Heretics killed in the process. But they didn’t know who was responsible for it, since no one who had seen anything had survived to give an explanation. All they knew was that all of this had been a huge distraction so that whoever was behind it could steal that rope.

I’d heard a few people trying to blame Eden’s Garden for it, which I really hope it was a theory that wouldn’t gain too much traction. All we needed right now was war with them. Fossor would probably find it hilarious.

Fossor. The thought of him made me think of my mother. How was she doing with the news about Ammon? Yet again, I desperately wanted to talk to her. I wanted to be there with her. Not there, come to think of it. I wanted her to be here with me. I wanted us to be somewhere safe. I wanted to be able to hug her. How was she dealing with Ammon’s death?

Dare had been quiet for a moment after my question about Gaia. Finally, she spoke up. “Does she know that I am Joselyn’s mother? Yes. She learned it shortly before she brought me to the school. She’s the only one. Her, and now you two.” She looked to me then, face softening. “I know this must be very confusing.”

“Actually, it answers a lot of questions,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Err, except one really. You were Grandma Atherby, so you should’ve known about the Seosten. And if Gaia knew about you… why…”

Dare winced. “Simple answer? I forgot.”

I stared at her. “You… forgot…? Wait, you mean it was a–”

“Memory spell, yes.” She nodded. “Or rather, part of the same memory spell that erased my identity. The… Seosten who helped us with it didn’t want someone who was going to be completely erased from all of their memories to be running around with all that information about them. So part of the deal for their help with it was that I would allow all knowledge about them to be erased from my mind. And it was, until we found out about the Seosten without any help from me. After that, it started coming back. And I told Gaia what I could.”

That made sense, I supposed. And it also confirmed that the Seosten were definitely helping during the Fomorian invasion, though I did wonder what kind of nerve they had to be setting terms when they’d wanted the Fomorians gone as much as everyone else did.

There was a lot I wanted to get to on that subject. But another one came to mind right then. “The prophecy that said your blood would destroy the world or whatever it was. Could they have been talking about Mom and her revolution? That’s kind of destroying the world if you think about it.“

Dare nodded slowly. “Trust me, I’ve thought about that a lot. It could be. I don’t know, but it might be that. Or it could be something that Fossor does.”

Biting my lip, I admitted, “I don’t really want to think about that right now. Could you… Could you maybe tell me a little about you? And about my grandfather… and my mother when she was little.” By the end of that, my voice was a whisper.

Dare gave me a soft smile. “Yes,” she murmured, “It has been quite a while since I was able to talk about it with anyone other than Gaia. But I think I would like that very much.”

She started to talk then, and I tried to shut out all of the other thoughts that were swirling in my head. Ammon was dead. But Fossor had still gotten his hands on the Hangman’s rope. What was he planning to do with it? Something that powerful, that important, it had to be pretty bad. Especially given the lengths to which he’d gone to get it. And I had the feeling we were going to find out just how bad at the worst possible time.

But there was nothing I could do about it right then. Nothing I could change immediately.

Later, there would be time to deal with everything else. But for that moment, I simply listened to Dare telling stories. Honestly, I had the feeling that she needed it as much as I did.

I couldn’t help my mother yet. I couldn’t go to her, I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me.

But for the first time… I could be there for my grandmother. Not answer anything, not solve anything, but just be there.

And sometimes… being there was enough.

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Family Day 40-04

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All the people and powers that we had protecting us. People who could face down literal armies. And once again, we were on our own. Fossor had managed to occupy the entire Crossroads Heretic force, and cut off our communications. Given time, we could have restored them. We could have found someone to help us. Somehow. But that was time we didn’t have, and he knew it. He knew that I had to choose to either find my mother, or save Abigail and Koren, and that I wouldn’t be able to wait for help, no matter how fast they dealt with that situation. I had to do something right then.

He hadn’t known that I would have Avalon and Vanessa with me, but even with them, it didn’t change what had to happen. Ammon had to be stopped. Koren and Abigail had to be saved. We couldn’t wait for help. Not now. Not with something like this. I knew what Ammon was capable of. This… we had to deal with it. Now.

Emerging through the portal, the three of us immediately found ourselves standing in an enormous, utterly empty parking lot. There were no cars anywhere. Straight ahead of us was some kind of baseball stadium. Minor league, I was guessing from the size of this place. The area looked abandoned. The sign where the team name was supposed to be was cracked and broken, with graffiti on it. In the distance, I could make out the scoreboard at the far end of the actual field and it was clearly broken as well. This place obviously hadn’t hosted an actual game in quite awhile.

There was someone behind us, and I spun that way, only to find a man I didn’t recognize. He looked homeless, beard grizzled and gray and clothes just this side of falling apart. He was holding something in one hand, and there were lights blinking on his vest.

Vest. Bomb. My eyes and my item sense both agreed with that instantly. The man was wearing a bomb vest, and the thing in his hand was one of those deadman switches that would trigger if he let go of it.

Well, this just managed to get even worse than it already had been. Which was kind of impressive.

“S-stop!” The man blurted the word, looking and sounding completely terrified. “D-d-don’t come any closer. Don’t try to stop me. He said I have to let it go if you try to stop me! Please! I have to do what he says. I can’t stop it!”

Quickly holding up my hands to stop the other two, I shook my head at the man. “It’s okay. We’re not coming toward you. The boy, little boy about this high, blonde hair, he’s the one that told you?”

The man’s head bobbed up and down, his eyes wide with fear. “He made me put it on. He said to wait here and escort you to him. If you do anything else, I have to… to…”

“It’s all right,” I promised, “we’re not going to…” Trailing off, I glanced to the others before looking back at the man. “What exactly did he say to you? Be specific.”

The guy was almost hyperventilating as he whimpered, “He said to stand here, right here, and that a blonde girl would appear. And that when she did, I had to take her to him and if she tried to stop me or take the bomb away or anything I had to let go of the detonator.”

“Right.” Clearing my throat, I held my hands out to show they were empty while carefully enunciating, “I’m not coming near you. I am not going to take the detonator away. I am not going to stop you. I’m going to do everything you tell me to. I am going to do everything he wants.”

The others understood immediately. Vanessa took a few cautious steps that way, moving slowly up to the man while his gaze snapped back and forth between us. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “What’s she doing?!”

I raised my voice to keep his attention. “Hey, see, I’m not coming near you. He said that I couldn’t come near you. He said that I couldn’t take the detonator way. So I’m not. I’m going to do everything you tell me to and I am not trying to stop you.”

Sure enough, Ammon’s orders had been so specific that Vanessa was able to go right up to him and very carefully take the detonator from his grasp. She got her own finger over the button and pulled it out of his shaking hand. Then Avalon moved up to him and began to work on the vest itself. It took her about ten seconds to find the right wires to cut with a small energy blade from her gauntlet, then she simply cut the vest free of him and pulled it away. “It’s safe.”

The man let out a sigh of relief, collapsing to his knees while hugging himself as he rocked back-and-forth a bit. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

Crouching in front of him, I gently put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Where were you supposed to take me?”

He shuddered, looking like he wanted to throw up before answering shakily. “The stadium, the field. He wanted me to take you out to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Okay,” I murmured, “then you should—”

“Down!” That was Avalon. The girl was suddenly right in front of us, snapping her arm up as a shield was projected from her gauntlet. Just as the shield shimmered into view, there was a loud crack of a gunshot, and a bullet ricocheted off of it.

My eyes snapped that way in time to see the sniper laying on the roof of the distant ticket booth. He racked another round and fired at the shield again.

Shifting my staff into its bow form, I notched an energy arrow, took a breath, and then aimed high over the shield before letting loose. The arrow arced up and over before landing close enough to the man that the burst of kinetic energy it released made him roll out of the way with a cry.

“Vanessa!” I blurted while loosing another arrow that way. The poor civilian guy was covering his head and openly sobbing. Which, honestly, was pretty understandable given the situation. Apparently Ammon had thought to have a back-up plan after all. How annoying was that?

“On it!” the other girl replied. She was already shrinking down out of her clothes and into the jumpsuit before that in turn faded into the feathers of her raven form. As a bird, she looked at me and waited for cover.

I provided it. While Avalon focused on keeping her shield up as two more shots ricocheted off of it, I launched a couple quick arrows in rapid succession. They forced the sniper to pull back a bit and gave Vanessa an opening to fly straight up into the air. She shot up quickly, gaining as much height as possible before the man could recover.

From high above and ahead of the man, the Vanessa raven dove toward him, picking up speed as she went. He barely had time to notice her approach before she was passing by directly above him. In that instant, the girl shifted back into her human form, already lashing out with her whip. It wrapped around him, and her momentum carried her past the man while he was yanked off his feet and onto his back.

I couldn’t see what exactly happened next, but a second later Vanessa was standing on the edge of the roof holding the man’s gun, which she tossed aside before waving to us.

Avalon and I both looked around cautiously for a second. Finding no threats, the other girl lowered her shield and looked to the cowering man. “Go,” she ordered with a firm gesture off into the distance towards the road. “Get the hell out of here and keep running.”

Avalon might not have had Ammon’s power to control people, but she might as well have in that moment, because the man instantly shot to his feet and sprinted away like his pants were on fire. Which, I guessed I really couldn’t blame him for.

Vanessa joined us, and I grimaced. “Well, Ammon knows we’re here now. And he knows his plan A didn’t go right. And he probably also knows his sniper didn’t finish the job either.”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “I possessed him to knock him out,” she informed us. “And I read his mind. He doesn’t know anything except what Ammon told him to do. He’s just a SWAT sniper that Ammon grabbed and put there.”

Gesturing to herself, Avalon muttered, “Observe my super-surprised face that Ammon doesn’t have a bunch of loyal friends to recruit for this shit.” Looking to me, she asked, “Did you check your phone?”

“Check my– Oh, right.” Digging it out of my pocket, I replied, “I would die of shock if Fossor didn’t cover his–yeah, it’s not working. What about you?” I looked to Vanessa. “Whoever you were possessing before, with that whole practice thing, could they help?” Belatedly I added, “Though I guess it’s a moot point since you possessed the sniper.” 

“It was Doug anyway,” she informed me, wincing. “We were testing out that whole anti-Whisper spell thing to see if it affected hybrid Seosten. And I’m pretty sure they have their own problems right now, even if I could have still used it.”

“Point,” I agreed, biting my lip. The last person I’d possessed who was still alive was Scout. But she was in the same position as Doug. Not useful in this case. And I didn’t trust myself to project just enough to talk to them without teleporting there, which would totally screw this whole thing up.  “So that’s out, and so are the phones. We could try getting out of range of whatever jammer he’s using, but…

“We don’t know how far that is, or how long they have,” Avalon finished for me. She sighed before starting to move to the stadium. “Right, then we need to get inside and on the offensive before that little puke starts up plan C.”

As three of us jogged for the entrance, I noted, “He’s had all the time he wanted to turn this place into one giant trap. We’re on his turf.”

“On that note,” Vanessa put in while holding a hand out to stop us from passing through the open ticket gate. She knelt, looking at the turnstile before gesturing. “Spells. Lots of them. I think I see one to knock people unconscious if they aren’t a specific person, and this other one over here inflicts pain until a password is said. There’s more, probably on all of these.”

Charging my staff in one hand, I noted, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to make sure those spells can’t work anymore.” With that, I shoved my staff up against the nearest turnstile and triggered a blast that blew the metal off and sent the whole thing careening away from us. “There.”

At the same time, Avalon used the energy blades from her gauntlets to cut another turnstyle open before turning one of the blades into a grapple claw thing that picked up the metal and tossed it away.

Our way sufficiently opened then, the three of us cautiously passed through while keeping our eyes open. Straight ahead of us was the main walkway entrance that led to the field and bleachers. To either side was the gift shop and a couple of food places advertising horrifically overpriced snacks.

“He wants me out on the field,” I murmured. “That’s where our friend back there was supposed to escort me, right to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Which probably means that’s where he has a bunch of traps,” Vanessa pointed out. “He might even have some spell to take you somewhere completely different, or knock you out, or anything.”

Avalon nodded. “We’re not going near that field. Playing into his grubby little hands would just be stupid.”

“Doesn’t that mean that it’s perfect for you?”

The familiar voice came from a nearby PA speaker, one of the things that let people hear the game announcements while they weren’t actually watching the field. It made me jump a bit, before I glared at it. “Ammon,” I spat.

His voice carried on then, addressing the other two as if I hadn’t said anything. “You’re not supposed to be here. This is a family thing. Didn’t you pay attention to the calendar? It’s family day. Family day. You’re not family. You’re cheating. Go away!”

“They’re a lot more family than you are,” I snapped. “Ammon, let Koren and Abigail go. This isn’t going to end well for you. Just let them go and walk away. Fossor is just using you as a distraction. You have to know that. You’re a spoiled kid, but you’re not that stupid. He doesn’t care what happens to you here as long as he gets what he wants.”

There was the ever so brief moment of silence where I was silly enough to think that he might have listened. Then the boy’s voice came back.

“My name is Ammon. Pound your heads against the wall until you pass out.”

This was the moment, the real test. I tried not to visibly react too much, wanting to look confident for however Ammon was watching us, be it cameras, a spell, a power, or whatever. I wanted him to think that I had no reason to think his words might work. Biting the inside of my cheek, I counted to three, then looked to the others. “So, how about it? You guys have any desire to beat your heads against the wall?”

There, now they knew what Ammon had ordered them to do, since the plugs in their ears would have cut off their hearing. I didn’t want him to figure out that they couldn’t hear his words, since that might give him some idea of how to get past it. Giving Ammon as little information as possible while getting him to give up his own info, that was the way to get through this.

Also, beating him into a coma with my stick. That was a good way to get through it too.

“Hey!” Ammon sounded taken aback. “I said, my name is Ammon, beat your heads against the wall until you fall unconscious!”

Okay we couldn’t sit here all day and let him keep trying. But I also didn’t want him to know that there was a limit, so I forced myself to shrug languidly up at the speaker. “You know, we could just wander over and check out that gift shop over there if you’re busy.”

The rage in the boy’s voice was almost worth it. “You’re cheating!” He blurted through that loudspeaker. “You’re not supposed to cheat! It’s a game and we’re playing by the rules! It was supposed to be you and me and my things, not these stupid girls. You’re cheating and that’s not fair. How would you like if I cheated too?”

“Pretty sure I’d die of shock the day that you don’t cheat,” I muttered under my breath before offering a smile. “You sound upset. Maybe you need a hug. Let me come find you and give you one.”

“Announcer’s box,” Avalon said flatly. “That’s where he’s got to be. It gives a full view of the field where he wanted you to go, and control of that PA system.”

I had a feeling that she was right, and the three of us quickly started running further into the stadium to reach it. But before we went too far, Vanessa suddenly struck a hand out to stop us. Her gaze was past the stands, all the way down into the field. “Look!”

I looked, and my day went from bad to worse. The field wasn’t empty, not by a long shot. There were dozens, if not hundreds of figures all around the baseline and back toward the stands. In the middle of the field, right by the pitcher’s mound, there was what looked like an actual guillotine. Yeah, a guillotine. And strapped into it was Abigail.

There was some kind of contraption beside the guillotine that had ten lights on it. Seven of the lights were red and three were green. There was a big red button at the bottom.

Koren was there too, and she seemed to be fighting off two of the crowd that had run out there. But they didn’t seem that interested in fighting her. Instead, they were dead set on reaching that button, and she was equally determined to stop them.

“See,” Ammon’s voice snidely announced from another speaker, “she knows the rules. Every time they hit the button, a light turns green. When all 10 lights are green, fwooshsniiict! Off goes Mommy’s head!”

His voice turned a bit conversational then. “I didn’t really want to throw away a sister like that, but Father says she’s useless anyway. And I guess having a niece to play with is just as fun.”

Then his anger audibly returned. “But you had to start cheating. So maybe I’ll cheat too. We were all playing by the rules until you showed up and ruined it. Now how about we don’t have just two or three at a time? How about…”

His voice suddenly filled the whole stadium and the field below, pouring from every loudspeaker as he vindictively announced, “Stupid sister is a big, fat cheater! So now… my name is Ammon, everybody go push that button!”

The crowd immediately started to surge that way, and I knew there was absolutely nothing that Koren would be able to do to stop them for more than a couple of seconds. Not against that many. I let out a cry of alarm, taking a step that way before a hand caught my shoulder.

“Felicity,” Avalon quickly spoke while pulling me back. “Go. Get to Ammon. We’ll stop them.” She was already moving, sprinting down the steps of the stands to reach the field. Her figure was a blur of motion as she sped to reach the spot in time, slamming right into one of the group who had been trying to get past Koren.

Vanessa gave me a quick nod while following after. “We’ll keep them away from the button, just get to Ammon!” She glanced back for a brief second, meeting my gaze. “I promise,” the other girl informed me solemnly. “We’ll stop them.”

Then she was gone, she and Avalon throwing themselves into the middle of that crazed and mind controlled crowd to help Koren keep them away from the button.

Which left me. I had to trust them in that moment. I had to let Avalon and Vanessa save Koren and Abigail. I had to let them fight out there while I dealt with the actual source of the problem.

Turning, I looked at the sign on the nearby wall that indicated the way to the announcers box. Gritting my teeth, I held tight to my staff and muttered under my breath, ”Okay, you little psycho asshole. Let’s finish this.”

Then I started to run.

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Mini-Interlude 70 – Pace, Theia, and Miranda

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The following takes place after Interlude 32B, in which Pace-Lies was found by Seller, Miranda, and Abigail and they agreed to work together to free Pace from Lies in exchange for information on Manakel. It is also after Lies took up the name of Theia.

“Are you girls sure you’re going to be okay here by yourselves?” The clear worry in Abigail’s voice was evident even to Theia, as the woman stood by the door of the hotel room.

Seller, who was standing next to her, laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine, Abigail. Trust me, we lost any pursuers and there’s enough spells up over the room right now, as long as they stay in here, there’s no way anyone could find them. And even if they do, there’s warning spells for that too. We have spells up to let them and us know if anything goes wrong.”

“And we have the phone too,” Miranda pointed out from where she was sitting on one of two king-size beds in the room. “It’ll be fine. Trust us. We’ve got the emergency teleports, the phone to call you, and we can protect ourselves too. Not to mention… well, me.”

Another Miranda poked her head back in the room from where she’d been watching the hall. “Exactly. If all else fails, that me will give a tug so that I-me absorbs her again. Then I’ll know everything that’s going on. See, redundancy upon redundancy upon redundancy. It’s cool.”

“It’s as ‘cool’ as we can make it,” Seller confirmed. “We can’t take Pace back to Garden with us, and we need to check in. The others need to see us around. If nothing else, it’ll throw the scent off about Pace being with us. Trust me. Trust them. They’ll be okay here for a couple days.”

“Right,” Abigail muttered unhappily, “I know. We need to look around Garden and see if there’s anything there that could help separate Pace from Theia. And they can’t come with.”

Not that anyone expected there to be some specific ‘separate Lie from host’ spell, since even the Seosten didn’t have anything like that. But the hope was that there might be something that could be appropriated and adjusted that way, with both Pace and Theia being willing subjects. Maybe there would be a way to make a second body for them, like Miranda’s duplication power, only permanent, and then shift each of their minds into one of them. Or… something. They weren’t sure yet. But looking around the archives couldn’t hurt, considering they didn’t have a lot of other options.

Theia, who had laying on her back, half-hanging off the bottom of the other bed with her head near the floor as she watched the group by the door from her upside-down position, nodded. “Can’t go back to Garden without the hidey-choker. Or Heretics get cutty-stabby-shooty. Not very nice.”

Inside her own head, Pace silently muttered, That or they’ll just enslave us. Remember, Crossroads is the kill on sight one. Eden’s Garden likes to make people like us useful for awhile first if they can. They might kill us, or they might just throw us in a cage to see if we could make decent cannon-fodder later. Depends on the tribe.

“Oh, don’t get me started on them being ‘not very nice’,” Abigail all-but growled before heaving a sigh as she looked to them once more. “Okay, fine. But remember, no leaving the room unless it’s an absolute emergency, right? You stay in here, have food delivered. That’s why we came to a place with room service and a good pizza place nearby. Stay in the room where it’s… safe-ish.”

Theia gave a thumbs up at that, before belatedly realizing that in her current position, it looked like a thumbs down. So she awkwardly turned her hand over a bit to correct it. “Stay in the room. It’ll be like a slumber party-oooh! Can we have a pillow fight? And play truth or dare? Or spin the bottle?”

Before the Miranda on the other bed could respond to that, Abigail quickly put in, “Just don’t do anything to attract attention, okay? Keep things nice and quiet and calm. Watch TV, talk, whatever you need to do. But stay in the room and stay… calm. The last thing we need is for someone to get uppity about why there’s a couple teenage girls alone in a hotel room together.”

“Dear Penthouse,” Theia began to recite with a wicked grin.

Stop that! the horribly embarrassed Pace blurted, even as Miranda’s foot kicked her in the leg from the other bed. Both of their reactions made Theia cackle out loud.

“Again,” Abigail reiterated. “Be nice, be quiet, and don’t get in trouble. And don’t–”

“–attract attention to ourselves,” both Mirandas finished for her in chorus. “We know. We all know.”

The Miranda by the door pulled Abigail by the arm. “Come on, the sooner we look through everything we can find back at Garden, the sooner we can get back here, right? So let’s go.”

Abigail couldn’t argue with that, and so the three of them headed out. As the door closed behind them, the Miranda on the bed and Theia-Pace were left in the room, looking at one another.

“So,” Theia started easily, “was that a no to truth-or-dare?”

******

“So what do you want to have for–Theia, what… what the hell are you doing?”

The question came from Miranda, as the girl stood in the open doorway of the bathroom, staring in confusion.

Theia, meanwhile, was once more laying on her back, this time in the bathtub. The tub itself was void of any water, which was a good thing since she still wore all of her clothes. Her head was under the faucet of the tub, as she stared curiously up into it.

See? Pace pointedly informed her, I told you this was weird.

Aloud, Theia replied, “We wanted to see how the faucet worked, and Pace-I said that taking it apart was a bad idea. So we’re trying to see.”

“She’s right, it would be a bad idea,” Miranda agreed instantly. “But how are you going to–”

While the other girl was in mid-sentence, Theia reached up and turned one of the handles, sending a spray of cold water down into her already open and waiting mouth. She swallowed rapidly, gulping the water while squinting up. After a few seconds of that, she turned the handle off once more.

“It didn’t work,” Theia lamented mournfully, “we still can’t see how the water comes out.”

“You should Google it,” Miranda advised before coming into the room. Carefully putting the lid of the toilet down, she sat there. “That or ask a plumber. They could probably explain it. Actually, you come from a super-advanced spacefaring civilization, and you don’t know how plumbing works?”

“Don’t have to know how it works to use it,” Theia recited, tilting her head a little to look at the other girl. “Never had to learn. Besides, space-plumbing is different.”

“How is space-plumb–you know what, never mind.” Miranda’s head shook. “I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation with you.”

“You still don’t like Theia-me very much,” the girl murmured, hand playing idly over the faucet as if trying to feel out its secrets.

“You tried to kill my best friend,” Miranda snapped. “You’ve been helping the people who have been making her life hell all year and who, oh yeah, are responsible for a hell of a lot more bad things than that. Like, for example, the entire Heretic situation. Your people have been fucking with humans since you got here however long ago you showed up. Yeah, maybe you’ve had problems too, but you still tried to kill Flick. You still hurt her. You still hurt a lot of other people.”

We did, Pace silently confirmed. We did a lot of bad things. It’s… kind of a miracle that they even want to help us at all, you know. Abigail is pretty much a saint.

There was a moment of silence from the girl in the tub, before Theia corrected aloud, “You did not do bad things. Theia-I did.”

“What?” Miranda blinked. “I know–”

“Not you, Pace-me,” Theia informed her before sitting up. “Theia-I know that I did very bad things. Very evil, very nasty, icky, terrible things. That is not what Theia-I was confused about. I was confused about… why are you here now? Because of Pace-me?”

“It’s not that I–” Miranda paused before nodding. “Partly that, yeah. I want to help Pace. But…” She paused then, considering her words. “I don’t know if I like you or not, okay? You’ve done evil stuff, but you had reasons. You’ve suffered too, I get that. You’re kind of… it’s hard to…”

Again, she sighed. “It’s hard to explain. Even to myself, okay? I… want to like you. I think you could be smart, and funny, and all that. But every time I start to relax around you, I remember the other stuff you’ve done. You’re playing nice now, but what if you change your mind again and start hurting people I care about? What if your old bosses say ‘hey, all is forgiven if you kill that Abigail person’, and you–”

“I would never kill Miss Abigail!” The sudden and almost violently forceful interruption made Miranda reflexively jerk back, even as Theia found her way to her feet. She continued, the lack of prefacing her ‘I’ with Theia showing just how out of sorts she was by the suggestion.  “I would never hurt Miss Abigail! I will die before I hurt Miss Abigail. I will gouge my own eyes out and tear apart my spleen before I hurt Miss Abigail!”

Our spleen, our eyes, Pace reminded her. And I agree. Never hurt Abigail. Never hurt Miranda. Never hurt Seller. They’re our friends. We get that. But calm down, Theia. Don’t scare her. Don’t freak her out.

Listening to her host’s words gave Theia pause enough for Miranda herself, who had also stood up by then, to speak up. “Okay, okay. I get it. You care about Abigail. Probably because she was the first person to really…” She paused, grimacing. “I get it. No hurting Abigail.”

“Never,” Theia reiterated firmly and pointedly.

Fists, Theia, Pace silently.

Realizing belatedly that she had balled their hands into fists, Theia relaxed them as best as she could, wincing visibly. “We… we are both sorry. Theia-I and Pace-I. We did not mean to… scare you.”

“It’s umm…” Miranda paused before clearing her throat. “It’s okay. I get it. I shouldn’t have said that you might hurt or kill Abigail if they told you to. But… but do you see why I’m still afraid of–why I still don’t know how much we can trust you? You worked for them for a really long time. They have to mean something to you. They’re your people.”

The other girl’s voice was soft. “Theia-I was never one of them. They would not allow it.”

Miranda was quiet for a second, before she gave a single nod. “You’re right. You’re not one of them. You’re better. You can be better. Just… make sure you remember that, okay? Remember that you’re better than they want you to be. Whatever happens, this whole… cure or… separation thing? However that goes down, it doesn’t matter. You’re still better than them. You’re better than your psycho piece of shit mother. All those people that hate you just because of how you were born? Fuck them. Worry about the people who actually care about you think.”

Like me, Pace reminded the Seosten girl who was sharing her body. Believe it or not, I do care about what happens to you, Theia. I’ve seen your past, remember. Parts of it anyway. And she’s right. Those people, they don’t matter. Fuck them. Abigail, Miranda, and Seller. They matter. Maybe it’ll take awhile to prove ourselves to Miranda and Seller. But we’ll do it. You worked your whole life to convince your own people to give you a chance, and they never cared. They just used you. But these people are giving you a chance.

Theia was quiet once more, listening to what both of the others were saying, before she lifted her chin. “Yes,” she said simply. “Miss Abigail matters. Mr. Seller matters. You matter, Miranda-person. Even if you do not like Theia-me very much because of the bad things that I did.”

“I…” Miranda paused, then simply replied, “I came in here to find out what you want for dinner.”

After a brief consultation with her host, Theia piped up, “Cheeseburgers? One with only ketchup and mayo, and one with everything. And extra onions.”

Miranda shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat. Err, boats. Now come on, let’s order it.”

Obligingly, Theia stepped out of the tub to follow the other girl out of the bathroom. “And maybe we can call a plumber so they can tell us how the water comes out.”

Heading for the phone on the nearby desk, Miranda shook her head. “We’ll just Google it, Theia. Google knows everything.”

Standing there, Theia considered that. She thought about what they were trying to do, the whole reason they were working together. “Hey… do you think…”

Miranda replied without looking back, “–that Google might know how to separate a Seosten with SPS from their host?”

Clearly confused by that, Theia echoed blankly, “SPS?”

“Sticky-Possession Syndrome,” Miranda informed her. “It’s better than calling you or… or people like you Lies. And no, I promise that Google doesn’t know how to fix it.

“…. because I already checked.”

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Convalescence 38-08

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Eventually, Shiori (who had very quickly been protected by the dibs spell, of course) and I managed to extricate ourselves and Sahveniah from the room so that Avalon could get some sleep. She put on a brave face and was, of course, incredibly stubborn about it. But I could tell that even just sitting there eating food with us had taken a lot out of her. It was going to take some time for her to recover. Which was made abundantly clear by the fact that she didn’t really argue that much about it.

The three of us stepped outside of the cabin in time to see that the others had apparently already met the remaining kids. The three Seosten toddlers, Tabbris, and Theia were all there with Columbus, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Koren.

Of course, my very first thought was that if one of these guys got possessed, even accidentally, by one of the toddlers, it could be pretty bad. But even as my mouth opened to call out to them, Tabbris saw me and waved to show that everything was okay. She mimed writing a spell, and I realized she had apparently copied the dibs protection onto these guys as well.  

I should’ve known that my little sister wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Hell, I’d done the same thing with Shiori back in the room, just to make sure little Savvy didn’t end up… well, just to make sure very bad things didn’t happen. And now that my reflexive worry was dealt with, I could actually focus on what the others were doing.

Because I apparently had not yet had my fill of weaponized adorableness, Grisiniel, the brown-haired boy, was currently hanging from Sean’s outstretched arm, making squealing sound as the boy raised and lowered it. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the red-haired Penemue was doing pretty much the same thing with Scout and Koren as they kept raising and lowering him by his hands, bouncing him up in the air and then down again.

And to put the cherry on top of the cute sundae, the other girl, Kemetiel, was sitting on Vulcan’s back. She was actually riding him around in a circle as if he was a horse.

I almost would have believed that this entire thing had been some big elaborate plot to kill me, because I seriously almost died just standing there watching that for a couple of seconds.

It was made even worse (read: better) a second later, as Savvy squirmed out of my arms and to the ground. With a happy squeal, the girl ran off to her friends, joining Kemetiel on Vulcan’s back. For his part, the cyberform dog proudly held his head high while trotting around in a circle with both of his riders.

I could see some of the camp inhabitants watching with curiosity. I had wondered if they would be afraid of the Seosten children. But while most did seem to at least be cautiously keeping their distance for the time being, I couldn’t see any outright hostility. Which made sense, considering they hadn’t been outright hostile to me, and the Alters on this world likely had more experience being hunted down and killed by Heretics rather than Seosten.

Besides, I couldn’t see how anyone could look at these kids for longer than three seconds and think that they were some kind of monsters.

As if in agreement with that, Columbus, who had been standing up away from the others, moved next to his sister. Lifting his chin, the boy murmured, “Well, they sure don’t look evil.”

“Right?” Looking over to the boy with that, I asked, “Did you get any sleep at all? We didn’t leave you that long ago.”

The boy’s response was a grunt before he shook his head. “I’ll sleep later. Right now, every time I close my eyes, I just see…”

He trailed off, but I knew. “Rudolph.” Saying the boy’s name, I sighed and lowered my head. “Yeah. I keep thinking about things we could have done differently, other choices that we could have made.”

“I should’ve been there.” Columbus’s voice was a bit hollow, showing me how much he had been dwelling on it. “I should have been the one who stayed behind to hold the zombies off. I could have done it without Sean, and if Manakel had still shown up, there would’ve been just me to put in that tube. He wouldn’t have had an extra to kill. Then all of us would still be alive right now.”

Shiori spoke up before I could say anything. “Or he just would have killed you anyway. We don’t know. Besides, Sean or I would’ve insisted on staying with you. Then one of us would’ve died.“

“I–” Columbus started before stopping. He sighed, lowering his head just look at the ground while murmuring, “I just didn’t want anyone to die.”

Before either Shiori or I could find anything to say to that, as if there was anything we could say that would matter, Theia approached along with Doug. Tabbris waved again and looked uncertain for a moment, but once I returned it and let her know I was fine, she stayed over with Scout, Sean, and Koren to keep entertaining the little ones.

“Good,” Theia started, “you’re here. Pace-I thought we should wait for you to test these Whisper spells.”

“Yeah,” the boy with her drawled, “and Doug-I agreed that waiting was a good idea.”

Briefly, I wondered how much of that was him wanting the rest of us have to see how well it worked, and how much with him being afraid that if it did work, Theia would run off with his favorite hat if he didn’t have someone around to stop her.

Either way, they were here now, and I nodded. “Well, I guess the easiest way to do it is just to put the hat on her head and see what happens?”

Making a face as if he couldn’t believe he was bringing it up, Columbus asked, “You don’t think it’ll just erase her or something, do you? I mean, we don’t know exactly how would the whole Lie thing works. If it shuts her out, but she can’t leave the body…”

Grimacing at that, I hesitated before shaking my head. “It didn’t do that to me when I possessed Scout before. It just let both of us control her body at the same time. Like one of those cars with steering wheel and pedals on both sides.”

“Yeah.” Columbus coughed. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve been a little more scientific and careful about that one to begin with.”

In the end, we left it up to Theia, and she chose to try it. So, Doug handed her his hat, though he looked a bit reluctant to let go of it. “If it works,” he started firmly, “we’re making you a different one. You don’t get to keep it.” He only let go of the hat once the girl nodded.

Still, she didn’t put it on yet. Instead, she stood there staring down at it and her hands before her head shook. “Not yet,” she announced firmly. “We want to wait for Miss Abigail. She should be here.”

Without turning around, I gestured behind myself. “Well, you’re in luck, because here she comes. With…” Turning to make sure, I nodded. “With Scott.”

Yeah, Scott and Abigail were approaching. The two had clearly been deep in conversation, but they stopped once they were close enough.

“I didn’t know there were children in that prison transport,” Abigail announced, nodding past us to where the kids were.

“None of us did,” I assured her. “Trust me, it was a surprise to everyone. Gaia and the others are working out which adults they can let out of the pods so we can try to get some answers about it.”

“They’re children.” I could hear the horror and revulsion in Abigail’s voice. “What could that… creature have meant to do with them at her lab here? What could she possibly–” She stopped herself then, unable or unwilling to continue that thought.

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath, “Kushiel being a monster isn’t exactly front-page news at this point.”

In what was obviously an effort to tear her thoughts away from that dark pit of despair, Abigail looked to Theia. “What’s this?”

So we explained, giving the quickest rundown we could. And once Abigail had some idea of what might be about to happen… Theia put the hat on.

For a second, I thought nothing had happened. The girl’s head simply tilted a little, and then she looked down at her hand. She stared at the hand for a moment before her mouth opened.

“I… I can… talk. My… hand. My my my my hah-hah-handuh. My hand. My mouth. Talk. Talk!”

Suddenly, she sprang over to wrap both arms around Doug, hugging the younger boy tightly while he gave a strangled yelp.

“Well,” I started with a little smile, “I guess that makes you Pace. The real Pace, I mean.”

Apparently my speaking up then meant that it was my turn for a hug, since Pace threw herself at me next. That was followed by a hug for Shiori and Columbus as well. The latter even managed to avoid pushing her away, though he did stiffen a bit.

Then it was Abigail’s turn. She received the longest, tightest hug of all. I saw Pace’s (and this time, it really was Pace) shoulders shake visibly as she clung to the woman who clearly meant so much to both Pace and the Seosten possessing her.

Giving a broad smile as she finally leaned back, the Hispanic girl announced, “It’s me.”

Immediately, her face shifted just a tiny bit. It was almost entirely unnoticeable unless you were really looking for it. “And Theia-me. We are both here. Share and share alike.”

“Oh…” Gasping in clear awe, Abigial put both hands on the side of Pace-Theia’s face. “My God. You can talk. You can… you can… it’s really you. Both of you.”

Shiori was staring. “Wow. Well, it’s good to finally meet you? This is kind of weird.”

“You’re telling me!” Pace blurted. “I haven’t been been able to talk, or raise my hand, or sneeze, or—wait.”

In mid-sentence, the girl turned away from us. She took a breath, then move three quick stops over before her hand snapped up to hold onto the hat. With that, she proceeded to do a quick, perfect one-handed cartwheel, followed by a side-flip. Finally, Pace simply jumped up and down, releasing the hat so that she could pump her arms in the air while squealing. She clearly didn’t care about attracting attention or looking ridiculous. Which… yeah, at that point, I wouldn’t have either. She’d been unable to control herself for so long, who cared if people were staring?

That was apparently the cue for the four Seosten toddlers, who all scrambled over to start jumping up and down together with Pace, even though they had no idea what was going on. That didn’t seem to affect their excitement one bit, as they continued jumping up and down while pumping their arms just like she was. To say it was adorable would have been beating a dead horse by that point, but still. It was.

Reaching down to pick up Kemetiel as she finally stopped jumping, Pace grinned. “You have no idea how good this feels right now. It’s amazing. It’s like being locked up for year and just now being able to stretch my legs. I can move, I can talk, I can turn my head because I want to turn my head! I can blink! See? Blink, blink, blink.”

Nearby, Columbus murmured, “I can imagine.” He paused then as if deciding how to broach the subject before asking, “Does this mean that you and… Theia are actually…”

“Working together now, yeah.” The girl confirmed it with a nod before her face shifted a little.

“We are partners,” Theia put in, before clearly relinquishing control back to Pace again.

Koren approached with the others, her eyebrow raised. “We leave you alone for five minutes, and you show up again with a herd of chibi Seosten?”

Scott spoke up then. “You think that’s bad, you should’ve seen what she got into when she was six and I left her alone in the bathroom for three minutes. There was–”

My hand snapped down, covering his mouth as I growled, “Not another word, you.”

There was confusion written across Koren’s face (and she wasn’t the only one) at that. But before we could explain anything, I blinked around with realization. The rest of the camp, the ones who had been watching carefully, had withdrawn a bit more. There were less faces, like they were even more nervous than they had been a minute earlier. It couldn’t have been the Seosten toddlers. They weren’t doing anything wrong. So what–

And then I realize the truth. The people weren’t keeping their distance from the kids. They were staying back from the portal nearby where Gaia, Sariel, Larees, and Gabriel had all just shown up, flanked by a half dozen adult Seosten. There were four males and two females. All seemed a bit dazed and taken aback by everything. They wore the same clingy jumpsuit thing that the toddlers and Tabbris wore, and were looking around in a vague state of confusion and uncertainty while they were led through the camp, toward where we were.

The tallest of the men, standing about three inches over six feet, looked like a more handsome version of Schwarzenegger as of the first Terminator movie. His body looked like it had been sculpted from steel, with incredibly defined muscles that were visible through that bodysuit. His short, dark-blonde hair and chiseled face were capped by these piercing blue eyes.

Yeah, Seosten were unbelievably gorgeous. That wasn’t exactly news. But still, this guy was something else.

Not that the others with him were exactly slouches. The other three men were less overtly muscular (two were more handsome in that boy band, androgynous sort of way), but still eye-catchingly attractive. As were the two females. One of the pair was my height, with short brown hair shaped into a crew cut, while the other was slightly taller than Avalon with very long blonde hair that was tied into a very tight braid that made me want to call her Rapunzel in my head.

The kids stopped laughing and jumping around when they saw the adults approaching. For a second, all four of them stayed completely still, just staring that way as they clustered together. I saw uncertainty written across their faces in that moment, as if they weren’t sure what was going on.

“It’s okay,” I heard Sariel announce to the other Seosten adults. “You can pick them up. You have my word, the spell will protect you from accidental possession. They’re your children.”

The reassurance was apparently all they needed. The Seosten moved to the toddlers. That big guy reached down, picking up Kemetiel with a look of wonder written across his face while she regarded him curiously. Beside him, the taller woman stepped up, raising a hand that shook nervously before she laid it against the girl’s hair.

Nearby, Penemue, the red-haired boy, was picked up by one of the other males who (of course) also had red hair. Next to him, the smaller woman had picked up Grisiniel, while one of the other males, who had the same sandy-brown hair as that boy, reached out to touch his shoulder and back in obvious disbelief that all of this was real.

Sahveniah, meanwhile, was approached and picked up to be held tightly by the remaining man. He was the shortest of all the males, though he still stood just a tiny bit under six feet. His skin and hair were as dark as hers, and he trembled a little before pulling her to himself.

Sariel had stopped near the rest of us, watching that reunion. Quietly, she nodded to the big guy and the taller woman. “Micah and Disetiel. Kemetiel is their daughter, though they’ve never met. None of them have ever actually met, actually, aside from perhaps passing in the hallway between cells and… well…”

She shook her head, moving on by looking toward the red-haired man with Penemu. “Forsenti. And the woman with Grisiniel is Xenaphiel. She is the mother of both boys there.”

“I take it the guy there with Sahveniah is her father,” I started with a nod that way. “But where’s her mother?”

“His name is Zadriek. And as to her mother…” Sariel paused before continuing. “If the records that we were able to dig up are to be believed, her mother is complicated.”

“Complicated?” Shiori echoed before I could say anything. “What kind of complicated?”

“The kind of complicated,” the woman answered, “where she was technically carried and birthed by an unidentified woman in Kushiel’s lab. But she was a surrogate. The actual mother, from whom the egg came… was Aletheia.”

Well, that made everyone’s eyes snap around. Especially Pace-Theia’s. She… or possibly they, as I could see both agreeing with that particular action, blurted, “What?”

“Not you,” Sariel started, “the original Aletheia. Somehow, Kushiel was able to obtain at least one of her… eggs, fertilized it, and placed it inside of the unidentified woman. Sahveniah, for all intents and purposes, is the original Aletheia’s daughter.”

“Wow…” I murmured the word under my breath, trailing off as I stared that way. “Wow.”

That same sentiment was basically shared by everyone, as we stood there, staring at the Seosten children and adults being reunited. Or, I supposed, just plain ‘united’, since they had never actually met before.

The dibs spell. This was because of the dibs spell. It was thanks to Sariel right here that these parents and kids could even be with each other like this. As far as I knew, most Seosten parents never had this kind of relationship with their children. They were shipped off to be raised by other dedicated schools, orphanages essentially, to avoid any kind of accidental possession problems. But now they could be with their kids. Because of that spell.

Wow. Just… wow. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

My mouth opened to say something else, when I noticed Scout. The girl was staring not at the kids, but at Sariel. She was staring in what looked like open wonder, while Sariel herself looked away with an expression of barely held regret and shame.

And then I remembered. Sariel was the one who had saved Scout from that Fomorian as a child, back on the boat. She had saved Scout. But in so doing, she had also taken Scout’s mother out of there. And, well, just how much the Fomorian being there in the first place was probably up to debate between everyone who felt guilty about it.

Complicated. That whole thing was complicated, and judging from the looks between both Scout and Sariel, they were going to need some privacy to talk it through.

But it wasn’t my business, so I looked to Gaia nearby. “What about the rest of the prisoners?”

The headmistress answered. “It will take time to go through them. But many will be able to be released, hopefully to stay here in the camp. Having so many Seosten to help bolster defenses and knowledge of the Empire itself will be invaluable in countless ways.”

She was right, of course. The kind of help that adding a bunch of loyal Seosten to the Atherby clan and having them actually work together would be incredible. But as Gaia had said, it would have to be done slowly and carefully. Because it was also something that could go wrong very easily.

“I see that you’ve tested it, then?” My attention was pulled away from those thoughts then, toward where Sariel was nodding toward the hat that Theia-Pace was still wearing. “And it…”

“Works,” they confirmed with a quick nod, before giving a broad smile. Pace, because it was clearly her, added, “I can talk. I can move. We have to share, but I can move. I can…” She shivered noticeably, before Theia took over.

“We must give it back. We will have our own as soon as possible. But we promised to give it back.”

“Uhhh…” Doug hesitated, looking torn before his head shook. “I can’t–damn it, you know what? Why don’t you keep it for now. Just for now. You uhh, you need it more than I do. Just until Grandpa Sulan gets here for the–” He stopped, clearly not wanting to finish that sentence. “Just until he gets here. Then he can help make something else, something just for you, okay? I can make them, but they’re temporary, not like… not like the hat. He’ll make you something you can have. And then I’ll want the hat back.”

For their part, Theia-Pace stared at the boy for a moment before giving a smile that was, again, clearly from both of them.

“Thank you, Douglas,” the two said in a voice that was singular, yet also somehow plural.

“I–” The boy flushed, shaking his head as he looked away. “Just don’t lose it.”

Everyone looked back to the rest of the Seosten then. By that point, some of the camp inhabitants had started to emerge, bolstered both by the sight of the parents with their children, and by the fact that Gabriel was there. They came closer, and I heard a few start to ask questions.

“You really don’t hold back, do you?” That was Scott, staring at me with those too-old eyes. “Look at all this. You’re just like your mom. Changing the world.”

My mouth opened, and then I paused. I thought about everything that was happening, everything that would happen.

I had no doubt that the Seosten would continue their efforts to either break into the vault themselves or use Avalon to do it. But this was the Atherby camp. She would be safe here, so that she could recover. The Seosten wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in this place.

She had time to rest. Time in which, with any luck, Larissa and the others would manage to make their way back to Earth. Because Dries would be with them, and if anyone could change the spell that his wife had stored in that vault, it was him. Especially with all the help he would have. With Dries and Avalon, we would get into the vault and find Liesje’s spell.

“Change the world?” I echoed, giving Scott a wink.

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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Desperate Times 36-02

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“So how do we do this, exactly?” Standing on the beach of the lake next to the large raft that had been summoned for this specific purpose, I looked over to Theia. Somehow, I managed to tamp down the anger that I still felt at the fact that she hadn’t just told us what we needed to know before any of this had happened, before Avalon had been abducted. As true as it was, lamenting that or getting pissed at the girl wouldn’t help or accomplish anything. So I focused.

We had split up into those three groups. I was a part of Professor Dare’s group, at her request. She had also requested Theia. And since Abigail was going wherever Theia went, she was there too. Finally, rounding out our group were Scout and Shiori.

Tabbris wasn’t with me right now. I had assured my partner that I would be okay and that she should stay with her mother and siblings. And with my dad. Yeah, he was going to help look around, just in case his super bullshit perception and analytical ability that should have been classified as a superpower actually noticed anything.

That was Gabriel’s group: Sariel, her three children, and my dad. And as worried as I was about the idea of Tabbris and my father going somewhere without me, them being with both Gabriel and Sariel was pretty much the very best case scenario, as far as that option went. Prosser wouldn’t let anything happen to them. And with Sariel’s help, they were about as safe as they could be.

Finally, there was Deveron’s group, which consisted of himself, Columbus, Sean (with Vulcan of course), and Koren when they had left. Plus, they were planning on meeting up with Seller (whom I still hadn’t seen since getting back) and Miranda before they got too far. Again, with Seller and Deveron together, I had to trust that they’d be as okay as they could possibly be.

Koren had considered going with our group to be with her mother. But in the end, she’d hugged the woman, saying that our group was large enough and that she thought she could help ‘Grandpa Dev’ even more if she went with them. Yeah, I didn’t think Koren was ever going to get tired of teasing Deveron by calling him grandpa whenever she could get away with it.  

So, that was our three groups. And now, our group was standing next to this raft on the lake.

Stretching up on her toes, the Seosten girl looked toward Dare. “You made the coin like Theia-I said?” she asked while carefully and pointedly cracking her knuckles with a loud pop.

In response, Professor Dare held up a single golden coin between her thumb and index finger. “Just like you said,” she replied before flipping it to her. “Tell me if I missed anything.” She had been the one to enchant it rather than Theia herself because Dare was quicker with magic and we didn’t have time to waste.

Giving the coin a once over, Theia nodded. “Yes,” she announced easily, with a toothy smile, “it’s ready. This is the key. Except it’s a coin. Coin key.” Pausing as if considering her words, she finally nodded before gesturing onto the boat. “All aboard that’s going aboard.”

Shiori took my hand, and I squeezed it while stepping onto the raft with her. The magicked-up creation was sturdy enough, rocking only a little on the water as our weight settled on it. The others followed suit, and soon the six of us were all there on the raft. Still holding that coin, Theia waited until we were all set. Then she tossed the little metal desk to the floor of the raft, and we all watched as it melted into the wood, disappearing.

Then the raft started moving, seemingly by itself. The boat slowly began to work its way across the water towards the middle of the lake, as if driven by invisible oars. As it moved, Shiori squeezed my hand a little tighter while leaning up to whisper quietly into my ear, “We’ll find her.”

I was still afraid. God, was I ever afraid. I was utterly terrified about what they might be doing to Avalon, to my girl. But having my other girl here with me helped a bit.

Ugh. That was still a weird way to think of it. My girls. I was proud of them, ecstatic that the two of them even wanted anything to do with me in… well, in that way. But it still felt awkward to try and refer to them as… as my girls. But they were. Shiori and Avalon. My girls. And I was their girl. Weird as it might have felt to try and describe or define, that’s what we were.

Either way, the point was that the anxiety, anger and everything else I felt at the thought of what Avalon could have been going through then was tempered just a little by the presence of Shiori. She grounded me, made me feel more human and more… capable at the same time. Feeling her hand in mine, hearing her voice, knowing she was there, it made an awful, horrific situation just a tiny bit better. It let me breathe a little more, let me focus on what we needed to do.

Abigail was looking at me from where she had carefully sat down to avoid the rocking of the raft as it moved. Her voice was quiet, cleary concerned. “Felicity,” she started, “are you sure you’re okay? You’ve been through a lot today, you must be exhausted.”

My head shook slightly at that. “I’m okay,” I replied. “The Amarok power, it uhh, it’s working overtime. But I’ll be fine. It’s Vanessa and Tristan I’m worried about. They’ve been going for a long time too. And… they’ve been through a lot of emotional stuff.” To say the least.

The other woman gave a slight nod. “I’m glad they’re with their mother, and with Mr. Prosser.”

“He doesn’t like being called Mr. Prosser,” Dare informed us absently, her gaze on the water in front of us. “He prefers Gabriel. Even Prosser is something he’s… accepted over time but doesn’t exactly love. It was the name of his… owner during his days as a slave. He’s mostly taken the name as his own, and understands why people use it, but just Gabriel is best. And definitely not Mr. Prosser if you can help it.”

Wincing, Abigail quickly acknowledged, “I’ll remember that. I… think I called him Mr. Prosser about a dozen times, but he never said anything about it.”

“He’s not the type to,” Dare replied quietly, before straightening. “We’re here.”

Wait, what? Blinking, I looked around. Whoa. She was right. I hadn’t noticed anything happening, my eyes and brain had never actually consciously acknowledged the moment when we had magically moved from the lake to some other water. But it had happened. At some point, maybe when I had blinked, we had disappeared from the lake by the Atherby camp and reappeared on a much larger body of water. Ahead of us was an island with a large, fairly spacious-looking cabin set up against a small grove of trees. It looked peaceful… and empty.

Sure enough, after closing her eyes briefly with a look of concentration, Dare shook her head. “No one,” she announced quietly. “The island is empty.”

That wasn’t even the least bit surprising, of course. But I still let out a low sigh. It would’ve been completely beyond shocking if we had just happened to come straight to where Manakel was holding Avalon. But still, the fact that it didn’t happen made my stomach twist up into even more of a knot regardless. No matter how unlikely finding her that easily had been, I’d apparently been holding onto at least a tiny bit of hope for it.

Scout, who had been far more characteristically quiet this entire time, finally spoke up as the raft reached the simple wooden dock that extended from the beach. “Is there any way to know when they were last here? Or when anyone was here?”

Shaking her head, Dare stepped carefully up onto the dock, pausing for a moment to make sure things seemed safe enough before she gestured for us to come as well. “Normally,” she replied, “yes, there would be ways. But now I wouldn’t trust them. Not with people like the Seosten. They know how to cover their tracks too well.”

The thought that the Seosten were good at covering their tracks didn’t bode well for our chances of finding something here we could use to track down Manakel and Avalon. But it wasn’t like we had a lot of other options at this point. We had to give it a shot, unlikely as it may have been.

The rest of us joined Professor Dare on the dock, before the woman held up a hand to stop us from going any further. Her eyes were squinting ahead suspiciously. “Traps,” she murmured.

“Oh yes,” Theia brightly confirmed. “Manakel does enjoy his traps. And zombies. Those too.”

My eyes rolled at that, even as I snarled, “One way or another, I’m going to have one less asshole necromancer fucking with my life soon.”

So, Abigail, Scout, and I stood back a bit while Dare and Theia worked their way through the apparently numerous magical alarms and traps that had been set to catch anyone who happened to invade this particular Seosten sanctuary. I felt even more anxious and worried with every second that passed, and had to physically stop myself from pressing them to hurry.

Was this how Avalon had felt, sitting around having to wait while I was stuck out in Seosten space? Or was that somehow even worse than this, since she hadn’t been able to do anything to help me? At least I had this search to keep myself busy, to stay occupied. Right now, I couldn’t imagine being in the position that Valley had been. It must’ve driven her crazy.

And now, now right as I had finally gotten back, right before we would have been reunited, Manakel had abducted her. God… damn… fucking Manakel. I hated that son of a bitch.

And I wasn’t feeling too fond of Jophiel and Elisabet in that moment either. If they had known anything about this, if they could have stopped it or at least warned me… would they? Fuck, would they even care? After the way they had introduced themselves, I wasn’t sure.

One thing was certain, however. We were going to have words. I couldn’t do anything right now, of course. My disappearing to go talk to those two would have caused a lot more problems. There was no way that anyone would believe that I wouldn’t be right in the middle of this search.

But the first chance I got… yeah, I was going to talk to those two. And whatever it took, I was going to push them to actually do something about Avalon. Either help Valley, or… or… something. I didn’t know what. Damn it, I didn’t know. But I wouldn’t rest until they did something to help. They had already barely lifted a finger to help us save Sariel. If they wanted us to keep working with them now, they were going to do something in return, goddammit.

Abigail was looking at me, a slight frown of concern touching her face. “Flick,” she started hesitantly, “are you sure you’re okay to be here right now? I–” She winced then. “I know, you won’t sit out, not with Avalon involved. But if you need to sit down or something until we’re ready…”

My head shook at that. “Thanks,” I murmured, not wanting to snap at the people who cared about me no matter how anxious and upset I felt. “But I’m… I’ll be okay. I can’t rest right now.”

Abigail looked like she wanted to say something else to that. But before she could, Professor Dare spoke up. “We’re through. It’s safe now. They’ll know we were here, but there’s no avoiding that anyway. Just be quick, but thorough.”

From her pocket, the woman produced a familiar silver and violet orb that fit in the palm of her hand.

“What’s that?” Abigail asked, lifting her chin as she watched the golf ball-sized orb curiously.

“Panoptic Analysis Window System,” I replied, remembering the Heretic device I’d learned about much earlier in my Investigation classes with Dare. “PAWS. It takes a full holographic recording of an area. It’ll even record things that aren’t in the open, like stuff in closets or drawers.”

Nodding, Scout added, “Then you can plug it into one of the display rooms back at Crossroads to and look through the whole area at your leisure. It’s really useful for Heretics to go through a whole crime scene even when Bystander authorities lock everything down.”

Abigail was staring at us with an expression of awe. “Do you have any idea how useful that would be for normal law enforcement to have?” she demanded, sounded pretty openly offended that it wasn’t something that Heretics shared with normal humans. “Do you know how many murders and other horrific crimes could be solved if they had access to something that preserved the crime scene that well? That would completely revolutionize the–” Cutting herself off, the woman devolved into making a few annoyed grumbling sounds about Heretic secrets.

Soon enough, we made our way down the dock and up to the cabin itself. Dare made one last check that everything was clear, then told us to go ahead and look around while she made sure that the PAWS was scanning everything correctly for later.

So, Scout, Shiori and I slowly began making our way through the cabin together, while Abigail and Theia did the same on their own. The place was pretty spacious and luxurious for a cabin. There were three floors in the place, and about a dozen different rooms. Which included a truly impressive dining hall. Manakel had some expensive tastes as far as hideouts went.

All of which meant that there was a lot of ground to cover, so I was really glad that Professor Dare had thought to bring the PAWS. That would be beyond useful so that we could scour every last millimeter of this place, even after we had to leave.

Still, we could look through the live thing right now. So that’s what we did. I even set Jaq and Gus on the floor and had them look around through some of the smaller areas just in case there were any hidden areas that would be too small for us to quickly spot.

Unfortunately (and as expected), there really didn’t seem to be that much to find. There were food supplies, some books that we’d have to look through more thoroughly later, a few interesting-looking weapons, and other odds and ends that might have been interesting, but had nothing to do with actually finding Avalon. There was no letter sitting out with ‘Dear minions, meet me at this specific address when you get a chance. Thanks! – Manakel’ written on it.

Not that I’d been expecting anything like that, of course. But again, it would have been nice.

Eventually, however, we did find one somewhat important-looking door. It was made of some kind of very heavy metal, probably reinforced by magic. Even with my strength, I couldn’t make it budge. But there was a tiny keyhole, and when crouching there, I could peek inside at a roomful of empty metal cages or kennels, like the kind that you’d keep a dog in at the pound. They were each about three feet across by three feet high, and stacked on top of each other in piles of three all along the left and right walls. At the far end of the room there was what looked like a table with some notes piled on top of it.

“We need to get in there,” I announced then, straightening up while looking to Shiori. “You up for a quick sand trip through the hole?”

Scout, however, shook her head. “I can do it.” As both of us looked that way, the other girl held her hand out. A small glowing orb appeared in her palm, before shrinking and reshaping itself into the form of a key. Scout put the key in the lock, then clearly adjusted it a few times, making the thing fit into the lock precisely before she turned it. With a click, the door opened.

“Wow,” I murmured, “now that seems useful.”

In reply, Scout winked at me, her voice soft. “You’re not the only one who got some new tricks while you were gone.”

Together, the three of us stepped into the room. Immediately, I wrinkled my nose. “Oh, God, what is that smell?”

Cringing beside me, clearly affected by her own enhanced senses, Shiori shook her head. “It’s… kind of like… tangy, but also rotten? Like a bunch of lemons that went bad. And also just a bit of, umm… chlorine. Heavy chlorine.”

I felt the approach of a figure who I recognized as Theia. The girl’s approach still made me tense up, looking back that way as she stepped closer. “Mesches,” the Seosten announced. “It smells like Mesches.”

In response to our collective baffled looks, she added, “Mesches block magic sight or tracking. It’s their… their gift? Yes, their gift. If you have a bunch of them in an area, they can make that place impossible for any spell to follow. And also make ongoing spell effects run out faster.”

“Any spell,” I murmured, “including the ones that Avalon has on that are supposed to let us find her. That’s how Manakel’s keeping Avalon hidden and speeding up the clock on those spells. He has a bunch of these Mesches.”

Theia was frowning. “Yes,” she murmured, “but Mesches aren’t that easy to use. They make powerful poisons. Their smell isn’t just awful, they make a poison cloud in the air that does very bad things. Keeping someone near enough to them for the beneficial effect and avoiding any poison problems would be… hard.”

Honestly, the fact that she was actually being this helpful, not making any cracks, and seemed serious about the situation made me believe even more that Theia genuinely felt bad about what had happened. She wanted to make up for it, in whatever way that she could.

Still, she did kind of creep me out a little. It hadn’t been that long since she’d been trying to kill us, after all. It was going to take a little more time for me to totally move past that.

Did that make me a bad person, or a hypocrite? I… I wasn’t sure. I was trying to control my reaction to her. But again… time. It would take time.

Then there was what she had said. Poison. Poisoned air. Somehow, that was important. It was tickling something in the back of my head. But what was it? What…

Shaking it off, I moved through the room to the table at the back end. The cages were all empty, as Manakel had clearly moved his herd or… pack or whatever they’d be referred to as to his new hiding place. The papers were all mostly just confirming what Theia had already said, that the creatures were useful for blocking magic trackers and for speeding up magical effects. He’d been planning this for awhile.

With an inward sigh, I looked up from the papers to glance slowly around the room. Nothing. I had a feeling that there was something important about all this, something that would tell me a lot more, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

What could it be? What was so important about this room, or the animals that had been here, or… or… whatever it was that was bothering me? What was it?  

“Flick?” Shiori was looking at me. “What’s wrong? What are you thinking about?”

Slowly, I shook my head. “I’m not sure. There’s just something… it feels like this should be telling me something, but I can’t… I can’t quite reach it. This is a clue, an important one. I’m just… not sure how it fits.”

With a sigh, I quickly finished gathering up the rest of the papers, tucking them under an arm. “Let’s go see what the others found. And hope that they’ve had more luck than we have. Because judging from the number of cages in here, I’d say that Manakel has a lot of those Mesches things he can use to speed up those protection spells. Which means Avalon is running out of time.”

“It’s worse than that, I’m afraid.”

The voice came from nearby, and I turned to find Seller there. Blinking, I asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be with the others?”

The man with the emerald shades gave a slight nod. “Yes, but there’s been another complication that you should all know about.”

Looking like the last thing she wanted was another complication, Professor Dare ground out, “What happened?”

“It’s the boy, Trice,” Seller replied slowly and reluctantly.

“Someone found a way to break into Gaia’s private dimension and freed him. He’s gone.”

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