Abigail Fellows

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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Desperate Times 36-01

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“Who is he?!”

The sound of my own hard, furious, frankly wild voice was punctuated by the loud crack of the large tree reacting to the body being violently shoved up against it. I had Theia by the arms, having literally lifted the other girl off the ground before slamming her against the tree in my anger. I heard someone calling my name, but I wasn’t sure who. And quite frankly, I didn’t care. My only focus was on the girl in front of me, the girl who knew exactly what I needed to know.

“No more games!” I blurted while still holding her like that. “No more playing around, no more deals, no more tricks! Who is he?! He has Avalon, damn it! He has Avalon, so tell me who he is. Tell us who he’s possessing, so we can get to him before he kills her! God damn it, who is–”

A hand fell on my shoulder then, squeezing gently as Professor Dare spoke quietly from beside me. “Let her go, Felicity,” she urged while giving me a firm tug backward. “I know how you feel. Believe me, I do. But she can’t say anything if you keep slamming her against the tree.”

She’s right, Flick. Tabbris, back in my head after recalling to me basically the second after I had last screamed Manakel’s name, urged. She can’t tell us anything if we keep hurting her.

Dare could have made me stop very easily, of course. Probably about a hundred different ways, actually. To say nothing of what Tabbris could have done from inside my head. But neither of them did anything that drastic. In Professor Dare’s case, she simply pulled me by the shoulder while speaking softly, and I let the other girl go. Stepping back, I gave a quick glance around while Theia collected herself. We had company besides just Dare here at the edge of the Atherby camp. Abigail was there, along with Koren, Deveron, Gabriel, and a couple of his people. Sariel and my dad were together with Vanessa and Tristan, a bit off to the opposite side, while Columbus, Scout, Shiori, and Sean stood in a small group somewhere in the middle. I could even see others watching from off in the distance, their curiosity clearly piqued.

Gaia and Wyatt were back at Crossroads, in the exact spot where Avalon–or rather, the temporary duplicate of Avalon, had disappeared. Apparently Professor Kohaku was there too, as the head of Security. The three of them were looking for any hints or clues, any magical trace that might lead to Manakel. But I doubted they’d find anything. Our best lead was right here, where Gaia had taken the others and me an instant after she had shown up, which itself had been barely a second after the rest of my friends had come running up.

I had briefly, tearfully, explained what happened to the others. Then I had seen her: Theia. A red haze had settled over my vision, and the next thing I’d known, she had been against the tree with my hands clutching onto her arms while I shouted the demand for information into her face.

So they were all watching as I took a slow step back, tightening my hands into fast while I stared at the girl in front of me. “Who is he?” I demanded, my voice as hard as I could make it. “Who is he possessing? Tell us now. If you actually give a shit at all, if you’re not just faking all of this, tell us now. He has Avalon, goddammit. He has her. He’s going to kill her as soon as he can, as soon as the spell protecting her runs out. So tell us who he is.Tell us so we can save her!”

She has to t-tell us, right? I could hear the fear and worry in Tabbris’s mental-voice. She won’t really make us wait until we figure out how to fix her? That could take… that could take too long.

Swallowing hard, I breathed in and out, trying to collect myself. We won’t let it happen, I promised my partner, my sister. We’ll find her. I swear. We will find her. I don’t care what we have to do. We will get her away from that evil piece of shit. Somehow.

Tabbris was good enough not to point out the doubt and fear that had taken over my mind. Doubt and fear that she wouldn’t even have had to be in my head to hear in my words.

Shiori moved up inside me, joined quickly by her brother, Scout, and Sean. Even Vulcan came closer. All of them were watching Theia as well, though it was the Asian girl who spoke. “I know we already made a deal with you,” she pleaded with the Seosten. “But this is different. Avalon is going to die. She is going to die if you don’t help us. Please, you have to tell us something.”

Abigail was there then. She stepped almost directly between Theia and me, her expression pained. “Theia,” she started slowly while looking toward the girl in question, “they’re right. Avalon is in very deep trouble. If there’s anything, anything at all that you can–”

“Stop.” The Seosten was shaking her head. “Stop, you don’t have to say it. All of you are saying words that Pace-I am already saying. It’s distracting, it hurts. It hurts different from being hit. It still hurts. Theia-I know pain, but it’s different. Theia-I don’t like it. Please stop saying it.”

It was Scout who realized what she meant first. From beside me, the girl announced, “Guilt.” She straightened, brushing a bit of hair from her face as she continued. “You feel guilty.”

“Guilt,” Theia echoed. “Guilty. Pain. Pain in here.” Her hand found her stomach (Pace’s stomach, whatever) while she shook her head. “Theia-I don’t like it. Really don’t like it.”

“You don’t like it?” That was Columbus. The boy’s voice was hard, and it looked like he was about to say something else, but caught himself just in time. Whatever he had been about to say, it probably wouldn’t have helped the situation. And I knew exactly how that felt, because I was really tempted to say, or scream, a few things that wouldn’t have helped at all either.

Sean was there, moving beside his roommate and friend to put a hand on his arm. He leaned in to whisper something to him that I didn’t catch. Hopefully it would help the other boy somehow.

Professor Dare was the one who found her voice next. “Theia,” she started slowly, “I… understand a bit of what you’ve been through. I know what kind of life you’ve had, even if I don’t know the specifics. I know that you have no reason to trust what anyone says. But I promise you, we will not go back on our promise just because you give us what we need right now. Tell us what we need to know to save Avalon, please. We will still do absolutely everything possible to help separate you from Pace safely. I give you my word, Theia. Please, help us.”

Through all of that, Theia just stood there with her hand against her stomach. Her head was down, as she slowly shook it back and forth while visibly trembling. Whatever else I might have thought about the girl in my anger at the whole situation, I could believe that she did indeed feel guilty. She might not have understood what it meant or how to handle it, but she definitely felt it.

I’m sorry, Flick. Speaking guilt and pain, there was a lot of it in Tabbris’ voice. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have–

Stop, I quickly interrupted. You couldn’t have done anything, Tabs. Believe me, it was too late even before I got there. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t you dare put that on yourself. Put it where it belongs: on Manakel. He is the piece of shit that we need to stop.

“Okay.” The voice was small, and quiet to the point of barely being audible. Theia had slumped a little in front of us, her shoulders and head down. “Okay,” she repeated, “We will tell you what we can.”

Even as my own eyes widened at that, Abigail snapped her gaze that way, blurting, “You will?”

The girl was nodding slowly. “Yes,” she answered softly. “Pace-I says… says that it is the right thing to do. Theia-I am… am scared. Theia-I do not believe that you will help us if you are not properly motivated, if we do not have anything to offer. But…. but Avalon is in danger. Manakel will kill her, and Pace-I…” She paused briefly before correcting herself. “We do not want that to happen. So y-yes. We will tell you what we know. We will tell you who Manakel is possessing.”

Oh God. It was going to happen. After everything that had happened that year, everything that we had been through, we would finally find out exactly who Manakel was. He had gone too far that time. He took Avalon, and that had finally pushed Pace into convincing Theia to talk.

“Who?” I pressed, my voice jumping an octave despite myself. “Who is that son of a bitch?”

And then Theia said the words that made my heart instantly drop into my stomach. The worst words she probably could have said in that very moment.

“I just told you.”

There was no confusion, no uncertainty. Only heart-wrenching anger and frustration. Because I immediately knew what that meant. “No,” I murmured, my head shaking back and forth in pointless denial. “No, no, no. You can’t–they can’t–no! No, damn it! You can’t have the memory spell on you! Wasn’t that the whole point of them trying to kill you to make sure you didn’t talk?! What–what–no, say it! Say it again!”

She tried. For ten minutes, the Seosten girl tried to tell us what she knew. She tried to write it down, she tried to hint about it, she tried everything. Everything. But it didn’t help. She couldn’t say or do anything that would lead us to know who Manakel was possessing.

Even Sariel tried. Putting her hand against the girl’s head, she focused for awhile before sighing. “Normally,” she informed me, “You would be correct. It takes very powerful magic to enact this kind of spell on an unwilling target that is not even present. But it seems that Manakel has managed to convince his superior… probably Metatron, to grant him the resources necessary for that. I may be able to break it, but it will take time. Weeks, probably.”

“That’s too long,” I blurted, my voice rising dramatically despite every attempt I made to control it. “That’s too fucking long. It’s–” Turning, I lashed out with a punch that put my first all the way through the same nearby tree that I had shoved Theia into before. “–too fucking long!”

Spinning back the other way then, the words came from my mouth before I could stop them. “If you just hadn’t played games before, this wouldn’t have happened!” I shouted at Theia. “If you had just told us what you knew! If you’d just helped us before they had a chance to put this on you, we’d be done with this already! Avalon might die because you had to hold back instead of telling us!” My loud, panicked voice was growing more hysterical. “Avalon might die because–”

Hands grabbed me, turning me around away from the Seosten girl then. It was my dad. He wrapped both of his arms around me, holding tight as he shook his head. “Easy, easy,” he urged while pulling me close to him.

I quickly grabbed on tight rather than following my first instinct to pull away. Burying my face against his chest, I felt my shoulders shake as tears flooded my eyes. If Avalon died. If Valley was–was killed after everything we’d been through, just because Theia hadn’t told us about who Manakel was while she’d had the chance… The anger, fear, terror, grief, and helplessness all warred around with each other inside me, and I simply held onto my father even more tightly.

“Daddy,” I whispered, my voice soft and fearful as I pleaded, “I can’t let her die. Please, please, I can’t lose Valley. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. I can’t let her die. We have to do something. We have to do something.”

I had no idea what kind of fear and helplessness my father was feeling in that moment as he held onto me, but it had to be something similar to what I felt at the thought that I could do nothing to actually save Avalon. I was helpless. Theia had been our best shot, except–

“The pixie,” I blurted, pulling back a bit while turning to the others. “The pixie that Tristan told us about. She was supposed to know something, right? Could she–would she…”

“She might be able to say something, considering they would know much less about her than they know about Theia,” Sariel confirmed hesitantly. “Any protective spell would be far less effective in that case.”

“She’s not awake yet,” Dare informed us with a visible wince. “She is still healing, recovering from her escape. Staying away from Avalon’s father and the other vampires while they were chasing her took a lot out of her. Too much. It’ll be… awhile before she can talk to us.”

“Damn it!” Putting both hands to my forehead, I cursed again before lamenting, “It’s always something. There’s always something stopping us from finding out the truth. One thing after another.”

Jophiel, I announced inwardly. Maybe we can get what we need from her, from them. They want our help, our cooperation? Well they’re not gonna get it if Avalon dies. Fuck them. Fuck them. They want us to work with them? They can’t let Avalon die. Damn it, damn it!

I felt Tabbris’ agreement. Y-yeah, we won’t cooperate unless they help with Avalon. Th-they have to help, right? They helped us save Mama, even if… even if they made us make a deal with them first. We… they-they’ll have to help find her… won’t they?

Before I could respond to that, Theia spoke up once more. “Wait,” she murmured. “Maybe we can help and be useful. Maybe we can still tell other things. Not direct identity things.”

I looked that way, my mouth opening. But it was Koren who spoke first. “You mean, you might be able to tell us things that eventually lead to Manakel, in a roundabout way. Clues.”

Theia was nodding. “Clues, yes. Like… where his secret hidey holes are and how to get to them. He might have left clues there about who his dancing puppet is, or other things.”

So, she did. With surprising speed and conciseness, the girl told us how to find three separate ‘islands’ that were apparently secretly connected to Crossroads, yet only accessible through specific spells. There were apparently even more than that, but those were the three that she knew about. Apparently, Manakel had supplies in all of them. And probably troops too. They would likely be guarded.

With a hell of a lot of luck, he would be holding Avalon in one of them too. But I wasn’t nearly naive enough to think that he would be that stupid. Not now. He knew that we might be able to get information out of Theia (or Lies, as he still obviously thought of her as), so keeping Valley in one of the hidden locations that the Seosten girl actually knew about would have been beyond idiotic.

But still, I could hope that there would be some hint or clue in one of those places that we could check out, which would actually lead to Avalon. Please. Please, whatever deity might be out there. Please let it lead us to Avalon.

“Three places,” Professor Dare was murmuring. “If there is anything to find, he’ll get rid of it the second he finds out that we’re looking in them.”

“So we need to check all of them at once.” That was Deveron. He had come forward, pointedly staying away from Sariel and keeping his gaze off her. “That means splitting up.”

Dare nodded in agreement with that. “Three groups to check three areas. I’ll take one group.”

Deveron immediately announced, “I’ll take another.”

Finally, Sariel opened her mouth. But she was interrupted by Gabriel Prosser, who stepped up. “And I,” he put in, “will take the third.” Casting a glance toward the woman he had interrupted, Gabriel added, “If you would be kind enough to accompany me, I would very much appreciate your help.”

“Right,” I spoke then. “So we go in three groups, tear these places apart, and look for anything that might hint at where Manakel is, who he’s possessing, or anything else that could be helpful.”

It was a good thing that I had that Amarok-stamina. Because it had been a very long fucking day. Just when I had thought that everything had settled down and I was back at Crossroads for the time being (or at least for the night), this had happened. Now we were going out to search these places, and I still hadn’t had any actual sleep.

Yeah, I was, yet again, grateful for that enhanced stamina. Not that it would have mattered. I couldn’t have slept at this point even without it. The thought of Avalon being out there, being… I shoved the thought of the other girl being hurt, or worse, out of my mind. Or tried to. Right now, I had to focus on what we could do. And that meant searching these secret islands for any information that had been forgotten and left behind.

Hold on, Valley, I thought desperately, trying not to let my worry and fear totally overwhelm me. We’re coming, I promise.

We are coming for you. I swear to God. We are coming for you. We’ll be there. We’ll find you. Somehow, we’ll find you.

Just hold on.

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Homecoming 35-06

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For a few long, agonizing seconds, no one said anything. I was pretty sure most of us weren’t even breathing. A pin could have dropped and I was pretty sure that even those of us without enhanced hearing would have noticed.

It was Deveron who finally made the first move. But he still didn’t say anything. Instead, he straightened up a bit, opened his mouth as if he was going to speak, but stopped. His face twisted, and I saw anger there. I saw rage. The kind of rage that had been building for half a century. His hands closed into fists, and I saw that pitch black obsidian armor extend over them. It didn’t cover his face, however. His face continued to show that anger.

He took one step. One step forward. I wasn’t sure what he was planning to do. He probably wasn’t planning anything. But he took the step. Then I was there. I put myself in his way. I saw his mouth open, then he stopped. For almost ten full, long seconds, the two of us stood in silence.

Or at least, we stood in outward silence. There was a hell of a lot of silent communication going on between us. He was angry, and he had every right to be. But he couldn’t take that anger out on Sariel, no matter how at fault she had been. She had already paid enough for her sins.

Through those long seconds, neither of us spoke. And neither did anyone else. Heavy silence prevailed as he stared at me, and I stared right back at him.

And then he walked away. Literally, turning on his heel, Deveron walked away. I could tell that each step was an effort for him. His children had been taken from him. That had led to his wife being taken from him. Even if Sariel hadn’t meant for it to happen, that probably didn’t matter so much to him right in that particular second.

But it mattered enough for him to walk away. That was probably the only reason that he walked away. That was the only thing that stopped him from literally flying into a blind rage and throwing himself at the woman, whether I was there or not. And even then, I was pretty sure that it took everything he had, all of his willpower, just to keep walking.

Abigail and Wyatt hesitated. The two of them glanced to one another, and then looked back to Sariel. Lots of emotions crossed both of their faces, mostly Wyatt’s. Sariel, accidentally or not, had been at least partially responsible for the way he had been raised. The things that he had gone through, the pain of his childhood and all that had led to his incredible level of paranoia was partially the fault of the woman in front of him.

Abigail, meanwhile, had led a more normal and less terrible life. She had at least been given to a nice family in the regular, Bystander world. But even then, it meant that she had never known her real parents. The person she might have been, the family that she might’ve had, was taken away. And again, it had been, to at least some small extent, the fault of Sariel Moon.

Then, also without speaking, the two of them turned and moved to follow their father. They walked away, just like he had.

Theia looked torn, as if she almost kept saying something and then stopping. I somehow had the feeling that Pace was actually talking her out of speaking up. Strangely enough, it was actually that moment, the realization that she was actually listening at least somewhat to the girl that she had possessed, that convinced me she was being truthful about her claims.

Having moved beside me once more at some point in all of that, Miranda slowly breathed out. Her hand squeezed my arm, and I felt her tension. Or maybe it was just my own, since I had a lot of it to go around.

Throughout those tense few moments, Sariel had simply stood there as if she was ready to accept any retaliation that they chose. She made no move to protect herself or flinch away. Once the three of them had finally settled on simply walking away, her shoulders slumped a little, and her eyes closed. I saw her mouth the words, I’m sorry, though no sound emerged.

It was Gaia who finally spoke, though I hadn’t even seen her arrive. “Our actions,” the headmistress began in a quiet voice, “very often have unpredicted consequences.”

“I should have predicted that,” Sariel insisted. Her voice was flat, though I could see the pain in her eyes as she opened them to look that way. “I should have predicted what would happen, what he’d do. I should have known. I was blind. Because I would never have put such young children in that kind of situation, I didn’t entertain the idea that he would. For me, it was a mistake. For them…” Her eyes moved to where Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail had been, and she visibly cringed once more. “For them, it destroyed everything.”

God, what could I say to that? What could anyone say to that? The whole situation was just so terrible. She clearly hadn’t meant what happened. Ruthers had taken her whispers in his ear completely the wrong way, far beyond what she intended. At least, and this was an awful thought in and of itself, but at least with Deveron, she had been targeting a combatant. Not children. But that didn’t make it any better for the people that her suggestion had affected. Hell, it could have been argued that her suggestion had led to the capture of my mother, which itself led to the continuation of the Heretic efforts to genocide every Alter species on Earth. What could possibly be said to make that any better, for anyone involved?

Nothing. The truth was that anything I could possibly have said would have sounded like meaningless prattle. Empty words with empty sentiment. There was no easy answer to this, no simple good guy or bad guy. Sariel hadn’t intended what happened, and she had more than paid for any unintended consequences. And yet, Deveron and the others had every right to be angry. They had every right to not forgive her. Fuck. This was… complicated.

Vanessa and Tristan had moved to stand next to their mother, as did Tabbris. My dad stepped up behind me, putting one hand on my shoulder and one hand on Miranda’s. From a glance toward his face, it didn’t look like he had any idea what to say about this either. I didn’t even know exactly how much he understood about the situation. But given what I knew of my father and how long he had been here, I was willing to bet that he had a pretty firm grasp of it.

“Sometimes,” Gabriel, who had appeared with Gaia, started, “the only thing that you can do, is give people time. And they might never forgive even unintended consequences. That’s their right.”

Sariel’s voice was barely audible. “I know,” she whispered, before kneeling. Wrapping both arms around all three of her children, she pulled them close, hugging them tightly. I saw her whisper something to them, but couldn’t make it out. I didn’t really want to. Whatever she was saying, it was meant for them, not for me. And the brief glimpse I had of the confusion on all three of their faces made it clear that… well, they needed to hear something from their mother.

Partway through that, Gaia and Gabriel moved to speak with them. Which meant that they were probably going to be busy for a few minutes, at least. Swallowing hard, I looked over to Miranda. The other girl was staring at me, biting her lip. When our gazes met, she asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I started, before shaking my head. “No.” I sighed then. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.” Glancing to my father, I asked, “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?”

“To be honest,” he replied simply, “I don’t know. Sorry, kid. It’s just… sometimes there is no villain. Just a bunch of heroes running headlong into each other on their way to opposite goals.”

I started to say something to that, but movement caught my eye. Theia was approaching me of all people. Or, wait, maybe she was approaching Miranda, since she’d actually apparently spent time with her. Yeah, that made more sense.

For a moment, she didn’t say anything, though it looked like she wanted to. Instead, the girl seemed to be having some kind of internal debate with her host that carried on for almost a minute before she carefully asked, “Pace-I would like to know… if the Roxanne girl is alive.”

“Alive?” I nodded. “Yeah, she’s alive. She’s doing–uh, pretty well, actually. I swear, if she stacks one more survivability power, she–wait, why are you asking?” For a second, I’d forgotten who I was talking to, and now I squinted at her a bit uncertainly.

Her response was a small shrug. “We have been talking, and after Pace-I’s words, Theia-I feels… responsible for what was done. It was… maybe not very… Pace-I says it was bad. Abigail said it was bad.” She smiled then, that feral, dangerous and unhinged smile. “Abigail is smart. She knows many things. Right and wrong things.”  

For a moment, I just stared at her, unsure of what to say to that. Pace and Abigail had told her it was bad? I–it was like she was a little kid who didn’t know a thing about actual morals or ethics or anything, and was learning all of them from scratch. Learning, apparently through a combination of actually listening to what her host said, and from my older sister.

And yet, she still wouldn’t tell us who Manakel was possessing. She wouldn’t tell us what we really needed to know. Instead, she was holding that back until she got what she wanted. Which, I supposed, made sense in her mind. Given what I knew about Kushiel, being her daughter, particularly as a Lie, had probably been really hard. I kind of doubted that Theia had had any actual role model or anything while growing up. Having something important that someone else really needed and holding onto it until she got something she really needed in return clearly made perfect sense to her. Manakel’s identity was her bargaining chip, and she would obviously cling to that with her dying breath until she got what she wanted.

This whole situation was just plain screwed up, to be honest. Totally screwed up. I couldn’t follow my half-siblings and their father because I had no idea what to say to them. I couldn’t go to comfort my new adopted sister, her mother, and her half-siblings because I had no idea what to say to them. And now I had a more-than-half crazy Seosten girl who was cooperating with her own host (whom she happened to be trapped inside of) trying to talk to me, and I had no idea what to say to her either.

Finally, I just settled on, “Whenever she gets back here, you two should talk.”

Behind me, Dad cleared his throat. “I take it,” he started slowly, “you’re one of the… people who have been trying to kill my daughter and one of her girlfriends all year long.”

“Yup!” Showing utterly no shame, Theia beamed at my father instead, giving him two thumbs up. “Your daughter’s pretty resilient. You should be proud. Theia-I am very good at killing people.”

Dad seemed completely disarmed and confused by that response, clearly having no idea what to say to it. His mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out.

“I know.” Miranda was nodding at both of us. “That’s my reaction to a lot of what she does too. But she’s serious about helping. I mean, she won’t tell us what she knows about Manakel and all that, but she’s still be useful to have around. And, you know, better to be with us than against us.”

Theia was nodding right along with that, brightly chiming in, “That’s true, we are a very annoying enemy to have. We wouldn’t want to fight us.” Her eyes crossed briefly as if she was trying to follow the logic in her own head before she gave a slight nod of satisfaction. “Definitely not.”

Giving up on knowing what to say to her, or them, or whatever, I instead turned to Miranda. “What was going on that made it take so long for you to get here? And why didn’t Seller come with you? Abigail said you guys were dealing with something, and that Wyatt left to help you handle it so you could finish up sooner.”

Grimacing, Randi shook her head. “Just a little enchantment problem that was faster with Wyatt’s help. We’ve been looking for solutions to Theia and Pace’s situation, which sort of… requires breaking into a few places that we’re not supposed to be anywhere near. Secure locations that are magically locked. We sorta… tripped a security measure in this guy’s vault and needed Wyatt to help deal with the situation. Seller’s finishing up with that. Plus I don’t think he feels all that comfortable coming here for some reason.”

Blinking at that, I tilted my head to squint at the other girl. “Are you saying you have adventures and a whole life when I’m not there to see it? I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Randi stuck her tongue out at me. “Oh, so sorry. You’re totally right. We’ll make sure not to let anything important happen unless you’re there next time.”

Giving her a firm nod, I replied, “Good. Make sure you remember that.” Then I just hugged her tight. Because as complicated and hard to deal with as things might have been, she was still my friend, and interacting with Randi had a way of making everything better.

As we separated, Theia looked between both of us, then asked conversationally, “Are you going to kiss?”

“What?!” The high-pitched squeak burst from me, while I heard it in stereo from the girl beside me. Giving Miranda a brief glance, I turned back to the strange Seosten. “What the hell–why do you–why would we–what?”

“You are sexually attracted to females, like Pace-I am,” Theia innocently replied. “And apparently males, though we have seen little evidence of that. You already have more than one female that you are romantically involved with, and you are very close to Miranda.” After summing that much up, her head tilted. “What part of the question was confusing?”

My mouth opened and shut at that, as a noise escaped me. Luckily, I was saved from having to respond by my father, who cleared his throat. “Relationships don’t really work like that. Miranda and Felicity are friends. Yes, they’re close, but that doesn’t mean they’re–” He paused, seeming to consider his words for a moment before just settling on a simple, “They’re just friends.”

I barely had a chance to mumble a thank you to him before Gaia approached. “On the other hand,” she began, “Miss Chambers does have friends and girlfriends who are very eagerly waiting to see her back at Crossroads. And I’m afraid that I can only justify delaying so long before taking our wayward students there, lest our Committee representatives and the ears that they whisper into start to wonder too much about what we could have been doing.”

Grimacing a little at that, I gave a slight nod before glancing toward Tabbris and the others. “Um, give me just a minute?” With that, I slowly walked that way. They had already stood up and were waiting with Gabriel, who had a hand on Sariel’s shoulder. The woman herself looked shaken, and a bit lost. Yeah, it was… going to take a lot to get her through that.

Actually, I was kind of surprised that Gabriel hadn’t reacted worse to the whole thing. Though, come to think of it, as controlled as he was, maybe I shouldn’t have been. But still, Sariel’s actions had affected him a lot too, and the rest of the Atherby camp.

Then again, I supposed they were accustomed to accepting people that had done or at least been partially responsible for terrible things in their past.

“Time to go back?” That was Tristan, giving me a faint smile as he stood between and slightly behind both of his sisters. “Does that mean our vacation is over?”

Snorting, I retorted, “Some vacation. I wanna fire my travel agent.”

Then I sobered a bit, looking to Tabbris. “You gonna be okay here with Dad and your mom for a little bit?”

She looked scared at that prospect, quickly lunging forward to wrap her arms around me. “What if you need me?” the girl protested. “And we made up that whole system about communicating.”

“Hey,” I replied while hugging her back, “we’ll still use the system, don’t you worry. Trust me, we’ll have plenty of time together. But you need to get to know your mom, and let both your mom and our dad get to know you. I’ve got the dibs spell still, so I’ll be safe from anyone trying to trespass on your turf.”

“And,” Gabriel put in, “you’ve already been promised a bit of an education on how to protect your charge.”

It took Sariel a moment to respond to that little prompting. She was looking away, a slight frown on her face while clearly lost in thought. Finally, the woman seemed to realize what had been said, and gave a quick nod. Her lost, vacant look was replaced by a smile that was meant to reassure her daughter that everything was alright. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I will teach you how to place your own possession claim upon Felicity, so that she will be protected even if you aren’t right there. It will… take a few days.” Her voice was soft, cracking just a little with restrained emotion that she was clearly holding back to avoid upsetting her children with.

Sariel Moon needed a therapist. Like… really badly. Thankfully, I was pretty sure that plenty of other people had already noticed that fact. Like my dad, and Gaia, and Gabriel. They would do something about it. Especially since she and Gaia had clearly shared a conversation while Sariel possessed the headmistress.

Actually, that brought up a point. “Hey, I thought Larissa was protected because her body thought you were possessing her even though you weren’t,” I put in. “Did possessing Gaia screw that up?”

The woman shook her head. “No,” she replied quietly. “It is not… “ She coughed then. “I will explain how it works when the time comes. Suffice to say, though there is a… time-based limit to how many could be protected the way that I have protected Larissa, it does not require me to never possess anyone else.”

Well, that was confusing. Now I really had no idea how that whole thing worked. I really hoped that I could get some clarification on that soon, because as it was, I had a lot of questions.

Vanessa was hugging her mother then. “I can’t believe we have to walk away from you already,” the other girl lamented. “It took so long to find you, and now we’re already leaving?”

“You can come back.” That was Gaia, standing nearby once more. “We’ll set up a system to allow you to travel back and forth safely so that you can visit. And, thankfully, we already know that Crossroads is… uniquely and specifically prevented from noticing or tracking the presence of Seosten on the island. So your mother will be able to visit there as well.”

It was better than nothing, but I could still tell that they were reluctant to separate. The whole family embraced once more.

No. Not the whole family. Just the ones who were there. They were still missing Haiden. Even after everything that had happened, not everyone had made it back to Earth yet. Like Sands and Larissa. I was going to have to talk to Scout about how her sister and mother weren’t here.

Clearly, I still had a lot of emotional conversations ahead of me.

Speaking of which, I looked back to Gaia. “Are Deveron and the others going to be okay?”

“They will be,” the woman assured me simply. “Give them time. I will come back to check on them after taking the three of you back to Crossroads.” She nodded toward the twins and me. “Then Sariel and I will go over the Seosten prisoners and see what can be done about them.”

With a nod, I started, “What about Professor… umm… Professor…” Slowly, I turned, realizing that Dare hadn’t actually been around for a bit. Actually, when was the last time I’d seen her?

There she was. The blonde woman was standing a bit away from everyone, looking at a tall, reddish tree on the edge of the camp. Frowning, I stepped that way. “Professor?”

“Hello, Felicity,” she answered without looking back. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I think we are. I mean…” Pausing, I asked, “Are you okay?”

Turning back to me finally, the woman smiled just a little. “Yes. Sorry, I was just… thinking. And answering Scout.” Holding up her phone, she explained, “She called for help getting back to the school awhile ago, so I sent Nevada to get her. She’s with the others, and apparently very eager to talk to you.”

Wincing at that, I sighed. “She probably wants to know why I made it back, but Sands and Larissa didn’t.”

“Hey.” Dare stepped over, putting both hands on my shoulders. “They will make it back. Give them time.” With a wink, she added, “Now you’re stuck in the same position we were while you were gone: waiting.”

“Yeah, it sucks,” I retorted. “But,  you know, speaking of waiting, I guess we’ve made them do it long enough.”

So, I did the rounds one more time, hugging my dad and Tabbris, and thanked Gabriel for letting them stay. I thought about walking after Deveron, Abigail, and Wyatt. But in the end, I decided they still needed a little space and privacy together. I could always talk to them in a little bit.

Finally, it was time. Gaia opened a portal, gesturing. “Your friends are waiting.”

Friends. Sean, Scout, Columbus, even Koren… and more than friends. Shiori and Avalon. I would finally, after two months, get to see them all again. I felt nervous. And excited. And a little sick, sort of. Finally. Finally, I was going to be reunited with the others. I could explain everything that had happened. Maybe Tabbris not possessing me at the time would even help me convince them that I wasn’t being manipulated by her into accepting the possession.

Either way, it was a conversation that had to happen, and a reunion that was long-past due. So, with a deep breath, I moved to the portal along with Tristan and Vanessa.

Then the three of us passed through it, and, for the first time since late February, set foot on Crossroads island.

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Homecoming 35-05

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“Felicity!”

It was a minute after my little conversation with Tabbris about sharing my body. The two of us had just joined back up with the others, and the voice came from Abigail as she came straight through the portal that had been created to bring her in. My older sister swooped in, arms covering me as she pulled me into an embrace.

Grinning through the hug, I tried to joke, “Boy, I should disappear for a little bit more often if this is the kind of—ow!”

Dad, who had just jammed his finger into my back, gave me a sharp headshake. “Don’t you even tease about that,” he warned. “We’ve got enough problems with you disappearing without making a game out of it.”

Pulling back a bit, Abigail gave me just as stern of a look. “Your father is right,” she agreed. “No more disappearing for you for at least a… a…  as long of a time as it is realistically likely.”

Tristan, arms linked behind his head, joked, “We’ve been back for like, what, an hour? I’m pretty sure we passed Flick’s safe zone for not disappearing again like fifteen minutes ago.”

“Jerks,” I informed them, “you’re all jerks.”

Abigail embraced me again, just as tightly as before. “Where were you? What happened? Where are the others? Are you okay? Wait, never mind the first question. I know where you were. But what happened? How did you get back?” Looking to Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And what about you two?”

Even as she spoke, the woman was giving a significant look toward my dad and the others with him. It was clear that she was trying to silently ask them certain questions without being obvious.

“I know I was possessed,” I quickly put in. “It’s okay. We already talked about it, and… well…” Turning a bit, I gestured for Tabbris to come out. She stepped into view, holding tight to her mother’s hand while giving a nervous, shy little wave. Even then however, the girl couldn’t keep the broad, giddy smile off her face that had been plastered there ever since what my father had said.

There were a lot of reactions that I could have expected from Abigail. What I absolutely did not expect, was to see a girl step into view from the shadows, move right beside Abigail, and announce, “Yep, that is definitely the kid we saw before.”

“Lies!” I blurted, not out of disagreement with what was being said, but because I knew that the girl standing there wasn’t really Pace. My staff was in my hand, and I almost lunged that way before two things happened. First Deveron’s hand caught my arm to stop me. And second, Abigail stepped in front of the possessed girl.

“Flick, no!” My sister’s voice was sharp as she held up both hands. “It’s OK, it’s not what you think. And,” she added even more sharply, “do not call her that.”

Beside me, Deveron sighed while still holding my arm. “I thought you said you were going to keep her out of sight until Flick understood what was going on. You asked for a chance to explain it yourself.”

Biting her lip, Abigail glanced back to where Lies was before turning to me. “Yes,” she replied, “I told her to stay on the edge of camp and wait until I called her.”

Lies was grinning. “Theia-I’m a bad puppy,” she announced.

“What-what-what?” I was a broken record. Even more than I had already felt like after telling the same story a couple different times. “What the hell are you doing? She’s one of the bad guys.” I pointed at Lies, feeling like I had suddenly gone crazy. Or maybe everyone else had.

Abigail shake her head. “It’s more complicated than that, Felicity. Just calm down. First of all, she’s the only reason that the Seosten didn’t didn’t already know about you being possessed. Because she saw you with that choker. She knew that you were possessed. But she never told her bosses about it.”

Lies confirmed that with a little sing-song, “They were being mean. And besides, us girls have to have secrets, don’t we?“

My mouth open and shut a couple of times then, before I threw both of my hands out and blurted, “She calls me Present! Present! As in she wanted to present me as a gift to Doxer!”

The other girl’s reply to that was simple and matter-of-fact. “Doxer was Theia-my friend. Theia-I wanted to get him a really good present. And you’re a really good person. So you would make a good present.  You’re smart and cute and funny and really good with your stick. The best present!” She finished with a completely innocent-sounding, “It was a compliment.”

“A… a…” I stared at her, then to the others, then back to her before finally demanding, “What the hell is going on?”

So, they started to explain. Mostly Abigail. She told me how they had tracked down Lies–now apparently named Theia, and how they had come to an arrangement. They would look for a way to free Pace from her, a way of fixing her condition. And in exchange, once that was done, she would tell us everything that she knew about Manakel and the other Seosten. And they also told us about her mother. Kushiel. Kushiel was her mother. Which… Gah. It did explain a lot, but still.  

“What about Pace?” I asked flatly after they’d finished. “And where are Seller and Miranda? Weren’t they coming?”

“They’ll be here soon,” Abigail assured me. “They just had something else to deal with. That’s why Wyatt’s not here right now. He stepped out to help them, so they could get here sooner.”

Nodding a little bit, I focused on Li–Theia. “If you’re really trying to be good, why don’t you tell us everything you know right now? That might be a bit more convincing.”

Smiling cunningly at me, the other girl shook her head. “Can’t give away something for nothing. That’s a terrible strategy. Especially if we want to keep living. We know things. We tell you when we get help. That’s the deal.”

“How about Roxa?” I snapped despite myself. “Did she get help when you helped turn her into a werewolf and left her in the woods to die from it?”

“She’s not dead,” the easy response came once more. “She’s even stronger now, right?”

“That’s not the–” Stopping myself from pointlessly arguing with her, I shook my head. “The point is that if you really wanted to help, you could tell us almost everything we need to know right here, right now.”

Her gaze met mine. Or rather, her host’s gaze did. “And give away the only reason we’re still alive? Sorry. Theia-I am just not that trusting. We need help. Pace-I needs help. Help us separate. Help fix Theia-me.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sariel stepped forward. Her voice was quiet. “Do you know who I am?”

Theia seemed to really focus on her for the first time, and as she did so, Pace’s eyes widened. “Wh–you,” she actually stammered a little. “The Hunter. You’re–but… Mother…”

Sariel gave a slight nod to that. “My children and their friends are very resourceful. But the point is, you know who I am. And you know where I was. So please. Look at me, and tell me that you are being genuine. Is this a game? Are you leading everyone on, Theia? Or are you really willing to help if you get help in return? Can you help us?”

A moment of silent near-communication passed between the two of them briefly before Theia dropped her head in a tiny nod of her own. “Theia-I can help. Will… will help. But not until you fix us. Not until you separate Pace. It’s all we have.”

“I will.” Sariel’s voice was quiet, yet firm. “I will find a way to help you, Theia. I promise. And when we do, when we help you, then you have to be ready to keep your side of it.”

“Cross our heart and hope to die,” Theia promptly replied, before amending, “Well, maybe not die. But Theia-I’ve taken a needle in my eye. Does that count?”

God, no wonder that girl was so screwed up. Even just the simple hints that we’d gotten throughout her story about how her mother had treated her was just… Kushiel. She was Kushiel’s daughter, which explained so fucking much. And as much as I wanted to be furious with her for holding back, along with everything else she had done, I kind of understood the situation she had been in along with the type of person that she had been raised to be.

Actually, the fact that she hadn’t told Manakel about Tabbris was basically enough for me to forgive everything else, now that I’d had a chance to calm down and think about it.

“Um.” Abigail raised a hand. “Maybe she knows who you are,” she informed Sariel. “But I’m still a little fuzzy on it.”

So, it was our turn. I felt a little uncomfortable talking in front of Pace/Theia, still. But they were right. I would have been even more screwed if she had told Manakel about Tabbris. She had already kept that secret. If she was playing us, we were already pretty screwed. And Abigail trusted her. So, once more, I explained about what had happened out in Seosten space. For the third time in a short span, I went through everything. Actually, I was getting pretty good at summarizing by that point.

“You poor girl.” Abigail was addressing Tabbris. She had taken a knee as soon as things settled enough, and opened her arms for my little partner to rush into them for yet another hug. Throughout the explanation, she had been holding the girl and stroking her hair. “You were practically a baby. I can’t believe you had to do all that.“

Sariel, who had never looked more guilty than in that moment, cringed. “There was no other choice,” she spoke quietly, giving a brief glance toward Theia before she continued. “They had to protect each other. And it was better than what they would have done with her.”

Abigail looked a little hesitant at that, but gave a slight nod. “Well,” she announced, “at least that’s over now. You don’t have to be in danger anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Tabbris looked confused. “Flick’s still going back to Crossroads, right?”

Abigail looked just as confused. “Well, of course,” she replied. “But you don’t have to. I mean, Flick can be protected from possession in other ways now, like that Dibs spell you were talking about. There is no need for you to be in that kind of danger anymore. You can stay-“

Tabbris pulled away from her. “If she’s going back,” she announced firmly, “I’m going back. We’re partners. She needs me.” As she spoke, the girl’s lip was poked out a little stubbornly.

In the background, I heard Tristan whisper, “Told you it was gonna be a thing,” to Vanessa.

Dad was nodding. His eyes were on Tabbris. “Honey,” he started, “Abigail’s right. You don’t have to be in danger like that. You’ve done an amazing job. But—”

It was the wrong thing to say. Tabbris suddenly disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear right beside and partly behind me with both of her arms around my waist. She had used her recall to put herself with me, though not completely inside. Not yet, anyway. Her head shook. “No! You can’t make me leave Flick! She needs me! I–I need… I need Flick. We’re partners.”

Her voice turned plaintive and desperate then, gaze turning up to me as she repeated the same thing. Only that time, it was a question. “We’re partners?”

I didn’t hesitate for a second. “We’re partners,” I confirmed, before looking up to the others. Abigail looked confused. Dad looked pained. And Sariel looked… tortured. Like there was so much that she wanted to say, but didn’t know how. And so much pain locked in her memories.

“You can’t make her do anything,” I informed them. My gaze turned slightly to Sariel. “I know you didn’t have a choice. I know that you did the only thing you could do to keep her safe, and to keep me safe. It wasn’t a fair situation. But it happened. She grew up with me. She was never a little kid. She saved me more times than I think she’ll ever actually tell anyone about. She should have had a chance to be a little kid, yes. But she didn’t get that chance. And forcing her to leave me now, taking her agency away from her and making her do what you think is right for her, that’s wrong. After everything she’s done, after everything she’s been through, she’s earned the right to make the choice herself. I’m not saying it’s a good situation. But you can’t take the choice away from her. Not after everything she’s done.”

Turning slightly then, I looked down to the girl at my side. “That said…” When she looked  up at me with those wide eyes, I touched her face. “I’m not gonna make you do anything either. You’re right. We’re partners. And I couldn’t have gotten this far without you. I’d be lost if I didn’t have my little sister when I need her. But… it’s okay… not to be together all the time.”

Lip quivering a little, Tabbris whimpered. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean,” I explained, “you deserve a chance to spend some time with your mom, Tabbris. You and me, we’re partners for life. I’ll be there for you any time you need me. And I know that you’ll be there for me. But your mom needs you too. And so does our dad. They deserve a chance to see you, to know you like I do. I’ll always be there for you to jump to. We’re connected. You can hop back to me any time you want to. And I’m not going to make you do anything. You deserve the choice. But I think you should spend a little time here, with Dad and your mother.

“I will always need my partner, my sister. But they need you too. And you need them. Why don’t you give it a little chance. I’ll be okay. And if I’m not, if I need you, you know I’ll find a way to let you know.”

“I… I can help with that.” It was Sariel, glancing toward Theia briefly before she spoke up. “I can show you what I did, to make sure that no one would ever be able to possess Larissa, as long as I’m alive. I can show you how to mark her so that it looks like you’re possessing her, even when you’re not. Even when you possess someone else. So you’ll be able to communicate with her any time you want to, no matter what happens. They won’t be able to possess her, as long as you’re alive. And I can teach you a spell so that you’ll be able to transport between her and here any time that you want to, at will. So you can visit here as long as you’d like to, pop over to where she is for a little bit, then come back, whenever you like.”

“Y-you can teach me that?” Tabbris stammered, staring up at her mother while still clinging tightly to me.

Sariel nodded a bit then, giving her daughter a tiny smile. “If you’ll let me, there are a lot of things that I can teach you.” Her voice sounded a little hopeful.

Head bobbing quickly then, Tabbris agreed. “O-okay. Okay. Um, w-we can do that, Mama.” Her gaze turned to me then, as she added earnestly, “Are you sure you don’t need me for a little while?”

My own head shook. “Partner, I’m pretty sure I’ll always need you. But I can get along for awhile without you. Consider it a vacation. I mean, you’ve been on the job your whole life. Literally. Take a break to be with your mom and dad for a little bit. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Especially your mom. If I need you, I’ll let you know.

“And besides,” I added then, “from the sound of things, your mom’s gonna be able to teach you a lot more stuff so we can be even more dangerous together. Right?” Shifting a bit, I held my hand up for her.

“Right.” Quickly, Tabbris slapped my hand, giving me five. “Okay, Mama. I’ll… I’ll st-stay for awhile.” She gave a tentative smile then, the crisis averted.

Nodding, Sariel looked toward Theia. “And I’ll help you too. I don’t know if I have an answer for your situation. But I will help, any way that I can. Between all of us, who knows, we may figure something out. Our people haven’t, but… well, they refuse to listen to any outside aid or suggestions. Maybe humans will see something that our scientists haven’t.”

“Flick!” It was Miranda. She and Wyatt had just arrived, apparently. My old best friend tore across the grass as she ran to me, throwing herself my way with a laugh. “You really made it!”

Grinning, I returned the tight embrace. “Randi! Took you long enough.”

Her eyes rolled, as she leaned back to stare at me. “Took me long enough? You were the one that took a two month vacation.”

“Oh, trust me,” I retorted, “I’ll tell you all about that ‘vacation’ in a minute. But maybe I should start with–” My hand started to gesture toward the nearby Tabbris, who had just barely stepped out of the way.

“It’s okay,” Randi informed me. “We heard most of it. Abigail’s been wearing a… uh, phone-spell, basically. It let us hear what you guys were saying. You don’t have to explain it again.”

Blinking once at that, I recovered quickly. “Oh, thank God,” I blurted. “I’m beginning to think that I need to write it all down and just hand out copies to everyone.” Smiling then, I hugged her again. “You look good.”

“Eh, lots of exercise,” the other girl replied with a wink before stepping back, her gaze moving to Sariel. “So… Artemis?”

“She’s my mama!” Tabbris, sounding incredibly tickled and proud about that fact, announced while hopping over to wrap both of her arms around one of her mother’s. “And she’s brilliant and perfect.”

“I am not perfect,” Sariel quietly protested.

“She’s modest,” Abigail put in then, smiling as she stood beside Wyatt. “She’s a very good person.”

“No.” There was torture, pain, agony in Sariel’s denial that time, as she stared at the two of them. “No, I’m not. I’m not a good person. It’s my fault. It was my fault.”

“What?” I blinked at that, confused as to what she was talking about and where it was coming from. “What do you mean? What’s your faul–”

“It was me,” she interrupted, her pained gaze locked onto Wyatt and Abigail. “I didn’t know how he’d take it, but it was me. I… I told Ruthers, back then… I told him that if he wanted to beat Joselyn, he had to take someone that she loved and make her stop to protect them.”

Her gaze flicked toward Deveron then. “I meant you. Not you-you, because we didn’t know who you were then. Her lover. I meant Joselyn’s lover, her husband. Not her children. I didn’t mean her children. But that’s how he took it. He took my words and he… that’s what made him think of taking her children. So it’s my fault. It’s my fault you were abducted. So I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.

“Because everything that happened to you, it’s my fault.”

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Interlude 33B – Avalon, Theia, and Company

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Three figures hurried along the sidewalk near a mall in the middle of a mid-sized town somewhere in the western United States. Two female teenagers trailed behind a thin, older man, who bustled along in front of them, urging them onward.

“Come along, Veronica,” he prompted with a gesture toward one of the girls. “Let’s pick up the slack. We’re already running late. Wouldn’t want to be late for your meeting.”

Avalon paused in mid-step, looking toward the man in front of her. She glanced to Koren beside her before coolly pointing out, “We still have four and a half hours before the meeting, you know. And my name isn’t Veronica, it’s—”

That was as far as she got before the man was suddenly facing her, his hand covering her mouth. He made a loud, long shushing noise while putting his other hand to his lips, his eyes darting around wildly. He stared suspiciously at a car that was passing by, waiting in silence, even though there was no possible way that the inhabitants could have heard them. Silence, that was, aside from the uninterrupted, “Shhhhhhhhh…”

“I would’ve done that,” Koren idly remarked from where she was standing, “but I figured I’d probably end up on the ground with a broken arm if I tried it.”

“No real names,” Wyatt urged, his hand still covering Avalon’s mouth. “You don’t know what kind of traps might be set up to trigger if it hears your name. Or who else might be listening. We use codenames and stay subtle. That’s how we survive. You understand? Subtle.”

Avalon could have pointed out that none of the people who had stopped to look at the quirky-looking man with his hand over a teenage girl’s mouth as they stood beside a busy street thought he was being all that subtle. But that probably would have caused more problems than it solved. She wouldn’t put it past the man to try to interrogate every person who had stopped to rubberneck at the sight. And even though they did have plenty of time, she didn’t want to sit through that. What they had come for was much, much more important than that.

So, she just gave a slight nod until the man removed his hand from her mouth. There was no sense in arguing about it. As eccentric as he might have been (and she had a feeling that he played that up to some extent so people would underestimate him), Wyatt was still the very best security guard that Crossroads had. He was the reason she was still alive, that much she was certain of. And, beyond all that, he was a good man. He was a good person. And he was Flick’s brother. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. She just had to listen to him, quirks and all.

“Fine, I’m Veronica,” she replied simply. Waiting until her response made the man relax a little bit, she added, “But we still have four and a half hours before we’re supposed to meet them.”

Them, in this case, was Koren’s mother (Wyatt and Flick’s sister), Abigail,  Flick’s ancestor and Avalon’s first real father figure, Seller, and Flick’s old best friend, Miranda. They had asked Wyatt to come see them, because they needed his help with something that they didn’t want to talk about except in person. It was some big secret that they wouldn’t even tell Gaia.

Koren had come to see her mother, and Avalon had convinced Wyatt and her adopted mother to let her come as well to get away from the school for awhile. And, because if the trio from Eden’s Garden had something that important to talk about, it clearly either had something to do with Flick, or with the people who were trying to kill Avalon herself. Either way, she was involved.

Besides, she wanted to see Seller. It had been awhile.

If any part of Avalon had expected the news of how long they had to calm the man down, she was sorely mistaken. “Only four and a half?!” he blurted, head shaking as he spun around. “No, no, no, it’ll take at least that long to set up even a rudimentary perimeter. Come, hurry, hurry. We have to get this done before they show up. No time to waste.” Then he was moving even faster than before, rushing remarkably quickly along the sidewalk while leaving Koren and Avalon to shrug at each other before jogging after him.  

Together, the three made their way down into the parking lot. But they didn’t go into the mall itself. Instead, the trio moved to one of the buildings in the far corner of the lot. At one point, it had been a seafood restaurant. But that had been closed down for several months, with barely any interest paid to the for sale sign in the window.

By the time they reached the back door, Wyatt had already taken a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked the door, ushering the two girls in before turning to the nearby keypad as the alarm steadily beeped its warning at him. His finger danced over the pad, inputting a seven digit code from memory before the beeping finally stopped. Rather than relax, however, Wyatt immediately input a second seven digit code before there was an audible chime.

As the man finally turned away from the keypad, Avalon stared at him. “There was a second alarm? How did you know that? How did you get the keys? That wasn’t a magic spell or anything, you had the actual keys to get in here.”

“Of course there’s more than one alarm!” Wyatt informed her incredulously. “Do you think I’d only have one alarm on one of my buildings?” Belatedly, he amended, “Technically, there’s six, but I disabled the first four on our way here. Those last two have to be done in the building itself. Even I can’t do it remotely. Remember, your security is only as good as you make it be.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Avalon’s head was shaking. “Your building? I thought you just picked a random place that was closed down so we could meet the others in private.”

From the way that the man was staring at her for that, she might as well have suggested that the three of them abandon the whole Heretic thing, form an interpretive dance troupe, and take their act to Vegas. He sputtered for a moment before managing, “Picked a random place? Picked a random place? As if I would do something like that. As if I would relegate something this important to chance? That’s–that’s just- I would never even–”

As the man continued in that vein, Koren spoke up. “Wyatt owns about thirty or forty different places like this all over the country, under different names. Restaurants, laundromats, motels, pawn shops, little businesses that no one really pays attention to. He’s constantly making sure there’s a few that are closed down. You know, either they’re out of business, or they’re under renovations, pest removal, whatever. The point is, he always has a few to choose from that he knows are safe for private meetings, to fall back to in case Crossroads is attacked, or anything like that.”

Wyatt’s head bobbed quickly at that. “Yes, naturally. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that. It’s common sense. Why would you meet in a random place that you have no control over? That’s preposterous.”

“Okay, sure.” Avalon found herself nodding. “But on the way down here, you were acting like four hours wouldn’t be enough to make this place secure. If it’s your place, then–”

Wyatt interrupted. “Of course! If this was some random place, we’d need days to secure it, not hours. Now come, we’re wasting time. Abigail was very specific. Whatever they need to talk about, it’s important and we need absolute privacy and secrecy. Take this.” Extending his hand, the man offered the two girls a notepad before nodding to Koren. “You know what to do.”

The other girl nodded, taking the notepad before gesturing for Avalon. “Come on. He’s got instructions for spells written in this thing. We’re supposed to use them on the parking lot while he gets things done in here. And,” she added while stepping outside, “we have to follow the instructions exactly. He’ll be double-checking and triple-checking everything we do, trust me.”

Trailing after the other girl, Avalon quietly remarked, “Sounds like you’re learning a lot from your uncle.”

Koren coughed at that. “Oh, trust me, you have no idea. He takes this whole mentor thing really seriously. You should’ve seen the written test he made me take last week. It was like an inch thick. I felt like I was taking the SAT’s or something.”

As the two reached the parking lot and started to look at the pad of instructions that Wyatt had given them to work from, Avalon asked, “What do you think Seller and your mom want to talk about?”

Koren shrugged. “I’m not sure. But from what Mom said, it’s really important. They need Wyatt’s magic expertise for something. Believe me, I tried to get more details, but they wouldn’t talk about it. They’re being really cagey about it.

“But whatever it is, I get the feeling that the Seosten would be pretty pissed if they knew about it.”

*******

Hours later, as Koren and Avalon sat at one of the booths in the restaurant while Wyatt went over his last minute security measures one more time, the man abruptly stopped. “They’re here,” he announced, moving toward the nearby door. He was there before any knock came, opening it to reveal Abigail and Seller standing there.

“Mom!” Koren darted that way as her mother stepped in, embracing the woman tightly.

While those two reunited, Avalon exchanged a brief embrace with Seller. She felt a lump in her throat. After what had happened with her birth father, seeing the man who had been her real father figure for so long affected her more than she had expected it to.

“You okay, kid?” the man asked, clearly noticing her reaction as much as she tried to hide it.

She forced herself to nod. “Yeah, I… I’m fine. Better since that piece of shit is gone.”

Seller grinned at that. “You did real good there. That cockroach had too many chances.” Expression softening then, he added, “But I’m sorry you had to be the one to do it.”

“I’m not,” Avalon replied flatly. “If anyone was going to put that bastard in the ground, it was me. If anyone else did it, I don’t know if I’d believe it was real. I almost still don’t.”

Coughing, Seller nodded to her. “Listen, there’s a lot we need to talk about. That and other things. But right now, there’s something really important to get through.”

“The other one,” Wyatt suddenly announced, “you said the other one would be here. Miranda. Where is she?”

“She’s beyond the security spells,” Seller replied, “waiting with our…” He paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. “…our guest. We told them to wait until you were ready.”

“He means until we warned you,” Abigail quietly put in.

“Warned us?” Koren blinked, she and Avalon exchanging confused looks before the girl added, “Warned us about what? What kind of guest did you bring? It’s not like you’ve got some kind of Seosten informant or anyth–wait a minute.”

That was all she needed to hear. Avalon was already through the door and moving across the lot while Seller tried to say something else. Her eyes darted around wildly until she spotted two figures standing in the shadows near the edge of the lot. Three more steps carried her closer, until she finally recognized the person standing next to Miranda.

Lies. Pace. Whatever she was going by. The Seosten-possessed girl stood there, staring through Avalon. It was obvious that she didn’t even see her. The intricately layered privacy spells that Wyatt had made them lay down ensured that all Miranda and Lies could see or hear was an empty parking lot. They had no idea that anyone was approaching.

“You,” Avalon blurted then, even as her hands moved to the bracelets that she wore on either wrist. One at a time, she slapped the bracelets with her opposite hand. There was a confirmation beep, and the bracelets expanded into her familiar gauntlets, before a solid-light energy blade emerged from the ends of both while she stalked that direction, moving for the unsuspecting crazy Seosten murderer while raising one of those blades..

“Stop.” It was Seller. The man appeared behind Avalon, catching her by the shoulders to bring her up short. “It’s okay. She’s with us.”

“With you? With you?” Avalon stared at the man incredulously, her mouth open. “Are you serious right now? Is she still possessed? Because I’m pretty sure there’s no way she couldn’t be. How is she with you? Do you know what she-”

“I know.” The man shook his head. “Trust me, Ha–Avalon, I know. Yes, she is still possessed, but it’s more complicated than that. Just… let us explain.”

If it had been almost anyone else, Avalon probably wouldn’t have listened. But for Seller, she sighed, retracting the energy blades from her gauntlets without actually dismissing the gauntlets entirely. “Fine,” she muttered. “But you do something for me first.”

Knowing what she wanted, Seller extended his arm, pulling his sleeve up. He waited patiently then, while Avalon used her field-engraver to carefully draw the Seosten-expulsion rune. Not that she expected it to actually do anything, but just to be on the safe side.

Sure enough, though Seller grunted a bit from the pain of the spell being used, he definitely wasn’t possessed.

By that point, Wyatt had joined them. He started to berate Avalon for storming out of the room where the majority of the security spells were concentrated, before stopping when his eyes found Lies standing there.

“That,” he announced flatly, “is one of the bad guys.”

Sighing, Seller nodded. “As I said, it’s complicated. Right now, she’s willing to help us. But she needs something in return. And her people are trying everything they can to kill her before that happens. Which means we need you to let her through the security spell so that she can get under cover before they find her again. Believe me, they’ve been… tenacious on that front.”

It took another few seconds of convincing that they weren’t being manipulated or coerced into this before Wyatt finally took the time to add Lies into the security exceptions. Once it was done and he had lowered the spell enough to let them in, Miranda and the Seosten suddenly jumped as the group clearly appeared right in front of their eyes.

“Oooh,” Lies started with a wide smile, “good trick. But do it again, this time with more flair. There was no showmanship behind it, no panache.”

“Take it easy, Theia,” Seller cautioned. “Things are complicated right now.”

“Theia?” Avalon blinked, looking between the man and the Seosten girl. “Who the hell–what?”

Clearing her throat, Miranda spoke up. “It’s a long story. Can we talk about it inside? My other selves think we’re still clear for the time being, but being out here like this makes me nervous.”

Wyatt was bobbing his head suddenly. “Yes, yes, inside. Everyone inside. There are spells out here, but many more covering the building. Quickly now.” He gestured for them to go, before adding in Lies’ direction, “And don’t think that you’re off the hook just because I’ve let you inside. You try anything, and you won’t live long enough to regret it, Missy.”

“Aww,” Lies’ smile just grew wider as she addressed Seller. “You said this was going to be complicated, but he’s already flirting with Theia-me.”

While everyone else sputtered at that, she started to walk to the building with a low whistle, leaving Avalon and the others to follow behind.

Koren was waiting there with her mother as they stepped into the restaurant, looking incredulous. Avalon had the feeling that Abigail had told her daughter at least some of what was going on while they were alone. But clearly not enough to stop her from still being confused.

“Okay,” Avalon started once they were all back in the building and the door had been closed once more. “What is going on? Why is Lies here?”

“Hey!” Abigail suddenly barked, “don’t call her that. It’s not her name.” She stepped that way, with Koren beside her as she put a hand on the Seosten’s shoulder. “Her name is Theia, and she’s going to help us. She’s going to tell us who Manakel is possessing.”

“Her name is Pace,” Avalon pointed out in a sharp tone. “Lies, Theia whatever you call her, she’s the one enslaving the girl you’ve got your hand on. And why would she help us?”

“Because she wants to stop enslaving her,” Abigail shot back, her own voice just as sharp as Avalon’s. “Theia wants us to help her get out of Pace without killing her. That’s why we need Wyatt.” She looked to her brother then. “We already tried the spell that Felicity brought back from Gabriel’s people. It didn’t work, but some other spell might, and you were the best idea we had about who could try and come up with something.”

“That’s the trade, isn’t it?” Koren put in then. “She wants to get out of Pace, in exchange for telling us about Manakel.”

Miranda nodded. “Yup. We help ‘fix’ her little problem, and she tells us everything she knows. Not just about Manakel, but all of it. Manakel especially. She says… she says that’s something we’ll want to know.”

“Yeah?” Avalon demanded, “And how are we supposed to believe that this is for real? What if she’s just setting all this up? What makes you think that we can trust her?”

“Trust?” Theia interrupted before any of the others could speak. “Theia-I am very trustworthy. We could have done a lot worse than we did. Why, Theia-I never even told Manakel about Present’s little secret.”

That was enough to drive Avalon across the few feet that separated them. Her hands caught the other girl by the shoulders as she shoved her back against the nearby wall. “Flick,” she spat. “Her name is Flick. Call her Present again, and I don’t care what kind of deal you’ve got. I will end it. And you.”

Holding up both hands placatingly, the Seosten nodded. “Right. Force of habit. Flick. Flicky. Yes. But for the record, Pace-I would really like you to do that again, harder next time. And maybe with mud and bikinis invol–oh. Would you pretend we didn’t say that?” She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what Pace-she’s telling Theia-me to say, and what was just a subconscious thought.”

Clearing her throat, Abigail reached out to pull Avalon’s arms back from the other girl. “Theia speaks for both herself and Pace. She uses the names to differentiate. Pace-I or Theia-I.”

Opening and shutting her mouth at that for a few seconds, Avalon finally shook her head. She felt tense, like she desperately wanted to hit something or someone. “What… what did you mean? What secret of Flick’s did you not tell Manakel?”

“The big one,” Theia replied, her tone knowing. “You know, the reason she can’t be possessed? Believe me, they all want to know that. But we didn’t tell them. We kept it nice and secret.”

Blinking blankly at that, Avalon glanced to the others before shaking her head. “Are you saying that you actually know why Flick can’t be possessed?”

“Of course we–” Theia suddenly stopped, head tilting. “Wait, wait.” She laughed suddenly. “You don’t? You really don’t know? Oh. Oh… wow. That’s funny. That’s really funny. We thought it was a trick. We thought you were keeping it secret.”

Avalon grabbed the girl again. This time, instead of pushing her against the wall, she pulled her closer, hands locked around her shirt. “What? What do you know? What the hell is it?”

“Theia.” That was Miranda. The girl looked just as taken aback as Avalon felt. “Please. What happened to Flick? Why can’t she be possessed?”

“Well,” the Seosten replied simply, “that’s easy. She can be. In fact, she already is.”

The words made no sense. They were gibberish. Avalon gave a sharp, confused shake of her head. “Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Possessed,” Theia elaborated. “She’s already possessed. She’s been possessed the whole time. Obviously since before you knew her, since the Seosten tried to possess her a long time ago and couldn’t do it. She’s been possessed for years.”

That time, Avalon did shove the girl, hard against the wall. “Shut up!” she blurted. “No, she’s not! I know Flick! I know her. She’s not really one of your fucking people. She’s not being puppeted by one of you. She’s not one of your slaves!”

Bouncing off the wall, Theia shook her head. “Theia-I didn’t say that. We said she was possessed, not that she’s being puppeted.”

Miranda was there too, cursing as she demanded, “What the hell are you talking about?! Flick isn’t possessed.”

“But she is,” Theia insisted. “Remember the choker all of you stole from us? Our special choker? Theia-I saw the Flicky with it, while we still had it. We touched her. We saw her. We saw the Seosten inside her.”

Avalon felt numb, confused, lost, and empty for a few seconds. In the background, she saw Wyatt slumping down, muttering to himself about how he could have missed it. He looked shellshocked.

Abigail, meanwhile, was already pushing past her. She took hold of Theia, her own voice rising. “You said that the Seosten is in her, but not puppeting her. What does that mean?”

“Wait.” Theia shook her head. “Pace-I will explain. She is better at it. She understands more, doesn’t make the same assumptions. Theia-I will just… say the words that she thinks.”

Taking a long, deep breath, she continued. “We saw a small Seosten child with Flick. She was young, and small. Not an infiltrator. Not a spy. Not enslaving Flick. She was not controlling her. She was just there. Just possessing her. Waiting. We… thought that she was part of Gaia’s plan. Or maybe part of Gabriel Prosser’s plan, a rogue Seosten child that they used to protect Felicity Chambers from being possessed.”

Avalon rocked backward, taking all that in. Around her, she could see the others looking similarly shocked by the explanation. “Gaia… Gaia doesn’t know anything about that,” she muttered. “She would’ve told me, would have told us. And Gabriel… no, it wasn’t him.”

“Flick’s possessed?!” Miranda blurted. “But-but how? How? Why? Who would–some Seosten kid? A kid?! She–I don’t… That– that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand.”

Seller’s voice was dull. “Neither do I. I… knew there had to be some reason she was immune. But I never thought—I didn’t.. Oh God. Gaia’s going to want to know about this.”

Theia spoke carefully again, clearly relaying only what Pace was telling her to say. “As far as we could tell, the Seosten child was not controlling her. She never made her do anything.”

“Flick didn’t know.” That was Miranda, speaking quietly, yet confidently. “Flick didn’t know she was possessed. Trust me, she didn’t know.”

Koren shook her head, speaking up for all of them then. “But if it’s not one of Gaia or Gabriel’s plans, then who’s the Seosten that’s possessing Flick? Where did she come from? And what does she want? If she’s not controlling her, then… then… what the hell is going on?”

The only response that came to that was silence, as everyone in the room exchanged helpless, confused stares. None of them knew the answer. None of them knew anything about the Seosten who was apparently possessing Flick, who had been possessing Flick the entire time she had been at the school, and long before.

“I’m calling Vanessa,” Koren suddenly blurted. She looked to Avalon while yanking the phone from her pocket. “I’m calling her before she jumps to her dad’s head again. I’ll tell them to meet us out on the beach, so we can tell them about this. If we can tell her before she jumps to her dad’s head again, she can pass on the message, it’ll–”

She stopped then, as the phone was clearly answered at the other end. “Hello? Vanessa–wait, Headmistress?”

That made everyone’s heads snap that way, as Koren blurted, “Why do you have Vanessa’s–oh. I… yes, ma’am.” Silently, she handed the phone to Seller, who took it and stepped away for a moment. Wyatt joined the other man immediately, both of them having a conversation with Gaia over the phone. 

“They’re gone,” Koren spoke quietly, her voice dull. “Vanessa and Tristan, they disappeared. They… they think the Seosten took them.”

“Pffffft, no way.” That was Theia, shaking her head. “She’d never allow it. Manakel tried to make her let him take them before. She wouldn’t agree to it, and he wouldn’t dare go behind her back.”

“What?” Avalon’s head snapped around at that. “Who? Wouldn’t let Manakel take them?”

“Uh uh.” Theia wagged a finger at her reproachfully. “First, you have to help us, before we tell you more of those yummy secrets. We already gave you a freebie about the little Seosten possessing the Chambers girl. See, we’ve been downright charitable.”

The others tried fruitlessly to press the Seosten girl to tell them more, while Avalon just took a step away. The reminder made bile rise in her throat, as she turned to face the nearby window. In the background, she could hear Seller talking to Gaia. But she didn’t listen. All she could focus on was her rapidly mounting fear and confusion.

Felicity was possessed. Why or how that had happened, or what the apparent child Seosten wanted, she had no idea. But if they were in Seosten space, would the child remain silent? Was she still leaving her host alone, still content to just possess the girl without making her do anything? Or had things progressed past that point? Was she playing the long game? Now that they were in Seosten space, was it only a matter of time before the girl made her move and took over?

“Flick,” Avalon whispered, her cracked, hoarse voice barely audible as she stared up at the stars dotting the night sky. “Flick, please be okay. I don’t know what’s going on. But please… please be safe. I need you to be safe. I need you to be okay. I need you to… to be here. I need… I need…

“I need you.”

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