Amitiel/Mercury

Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes daring around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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Patreon Snippets 11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks to all of the wonderful $10+ donators to my Patreon for these snippets! There’s one more joint 1000 word snippet coming that is set in Summus Proelium and will come at the end of the next chapter of that story. For now, I hope you enjoy these four snippets. 

Fight Club

“You hear about Lorek?” 

The casual question, at odds with the heavy grunting of effort and pain that filled the wide, circular pit of Fossor’s fighting arena, came from a tall, yellow-skinned figure with pointed ears and four arms. His name was Povin, and he held a heavy mace in one hand, which he was idly swinging back and forth in the air, testing its heft. 

The man he was talking to looked like he was made of wood. Most of the uneducated would have referred to him as a Relukun. And in many ways, he was, genetically. But Temmfiel would have stabbed anyone who made that comparison. He and his people considered themselves Herr-Pala, or the saplings of Pala, their ancient leader who had ruled most of the Relukun home planet for so long. Pala was long dead and his teachings forgotten by most, save for those like Temmfiel, who abandoned the other Relukun to form their own society. One far more devoted to ways of war than their brethren. 

They also had their own tricks that they had developed over the centuries, as evidenced when he held up one one arm and focused to make a long bit of bark-like material extend from his wrist in the shape of a blade. It even hardened, becoming tough and sharp enough to pierce most things it could have hit. 

“Lorek?” he asked, glancing around the pit. There were dozens of other sparring partners practicing. It wasn’t time for a major fight just yet, everyone was simply training. 

There were four kinds of people who went into this pit. The first were nothing but victims, marks for Fossor’s pet Heretic to feed on and gain powers from. Sure, the old necromancer promised them freedom or whatever if they managed to survive, but none ever did. The second group were volunteers, either soldiers or random thugs who wanted to make a name for themselves and thought they could impress Fossor enough to be made part of his living army. Because even he couldn’t handle everything with dead troops.  These fights were sometimes against one another, and sometimes against the Heretic. Either way, they weren’t always to the death. Just sometimes, depending on what kind of mood the Necromancer was in. 

It might’ve seemed odd to outsiders that people would risk their lives that way, but being part of Fossor’s living army actually wasn’t such a bad thing. As long as you kept your head down, did your job, and didn’t give him a reason to lash out, it paid pretty well. Not to mention all the benefits that came with looting so many juicy targets. Fossor wanted the bodies and enough wealth to be comfortable. That left plenty for his army to take for themselves. And they did. Living members of Fossor’s army were quite comfortable.

The third type of person who went into these pits were also volunteers. These ones, however, knew they were going to die. They volunteered themselves as food for the Heretic. In exchange, Fossor would provide a reward to their families or designated survivors. The level of the reward actually depending on how good of a fight they made it, so they would genuinely try to take her down. They always failed, naturally, but they gave it their best shot for their family’s reward. 

Then there was the last group who could end up in the pit. And as he walked around at the training soldiers, Temmfiel felt a sinking sensation in his stomach that the missing Lorek, a casual acquaintance, but still a somewhat friendly one, was part of that group. “Don’t tell me…” 

Povin was already nodding, tossing the mace to his other hand. “Yup, poor guy made the mistake of talking back to the boss. He’s in with the scraps.”

The scraps. That’s what they called the last type of person who would end up in the pit. They were people who had once been in favor, but had fallen out of it for whatever reason and were being thrown into the arena to fight until they died.

Before Temmfiel could respond to that, there was a clang from the upper walkway of the arena as Fossor himself walked in. His Heretic followed behind, as always. It was like night and day. Fossor looked utterly unassuming and unimpressive. He wasn’t that tall, had a somewhat pudgy figure and a balding head, as well as clothes that made him look like some random suburban human dad or something. He looked average at best in every conceivable way. 

The Heretic, meanwhile, was beautiful. Not just in appearance, though there was that. She also radiated power and grace. She was like an untamed lioness, and Temmfiel knew he wasn’t the only one here who had a bit of a crush on her. It was fucked up, given how easily she would kill him without even thinking about it. Not to mention what Fossor would do if any of them so much as looked like they might do something about it. But still… the thoughts were there. She wasn’t even his own species and the thoughts were there. Some part of him had thought up the idea of rescuing her. An impossibility, and one he would never even think about actually entertaining, but the thought of how grateful she might be persisted in his darkest, most secret dreams. It was wrong. Wrong in ways he couldn’t begin to describe or list. But it was there. 

Either way, despite their disparate appearances, Joselyn Chambers obeyed Fossor like a dog on a chain. A dog that would gladly devour its master given the slightest chance, but a dog nonetheless. She trailed behind him, ignoring the gathered troops who all stared up at her. Not at Fossor, at her. They were afraid of Fossor’s anger, his power, his vengeance. But they were in awe of Joselyn Atherby.

As soon as the old necromancer assumed his seat, the last bits of training stopped. Everyone made their way toward the exits, while the actual fighters for the next ‘show’ were brought in. Sure enough, Lorek, a werewolf, was among them. He and Temmfiel exchanged brief glances before both carried on their respective paths. 

It was too bad. Temmfiel liked Lorek. But he wasn’t going to risk throwing away his life for the guy. Not when the beautiful Heretic lioness was there. If he was going to risk that kind of wrath for anyone, it’d be her. 

Heh. Maybe someday he could impress her. 

Somehow. 

********

Rebecca

 

Rebecca Jameson stared at Shiori. “Excuse me?” she demanded, “what do you mean most of her life? I asked how long that little girl has been possessing Flick.”

Shiori, in turn, nodded. The two of them were standing out on the dock over the lake in the Atherby camp. “Yeah,” she replied, “most of her life, like I said. Well, okay, I think she was like eight or something? And Tabbris wasn’t conscious for the first few years, she was sort of in hibernation while possessing Flick? Her mom, Sariel, implemented this virtual reality version of herself in her head to keep her unconscious and teach her things for when she eventually woke up.”

Staring at her old teammate, Rebecca open and shut her mouth a couple times, head tilting to the side as the weight of the realization that the other girl wasn’t kidding really struck her. “That kid’s been possessing her all that time? Really? And she was protecting Flick from being possessed just by possessing her first?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “More than that, she protected her with magic and stuff too, whenever the Seosten would try other ways of getting at Flick and… like… spying on her and stuff. It really pissed them off because they couldn’t figure out how this human girl had magic protecting her.”

Still reeling a bit, Rebecca managed a weak, “They’d probably be even more pissed to find out it was a little kid the whole time. Wait, they know about that now, don’t they? Did anyone get a picture of their faces?”

With a regretful sigh, Shiori shook her head. “Nah. I don’t think so, anyway. But hey, Seosten can share memories, so maybe we can get one of those.” 

“I sure hope so,” Rebecca murmured. “I mean, I barely know anything about these Seosten, and I’d be willing to pay money to see something like that. Can you imagine what other people would pay for it? We could make a fortune.”

“Why, Rebecca,” Shiori teased, “how capitalistic of you.”

Flushing a little bit, the smaller girl stuck her tongue out before lifting her chin thoughtfully. “Uhhh, if this Tabbris girl was possessing Flick the whole time, that means she never really had any privacy. Not even when you guys…”

It was Shiori’s turn to blush deeply, giving the other girl a shove. “Gross, Tabbris knew how to put herself to sleep so she didn’t witness anything embarrassing.”

That earned a nod, as Rebecca snickered. “Well that’s good, because I’m pretty sure you’d never be able to look the kid in the face otherwise.”

Still red in the face, Shiori waved her hand dismissively. “Never mind that. Tabbris is really cool. She’s basically Flick’s little sister. When you get to know her, you’re gonna like her.”

A smile touched Rebecca’s face. “Dude, I’m pretty sure I already do. But yeah, let’s go see if they’re busy. And if the kid’s interested in some tutoring.”

Blinking at that, Shiori slowly asked, “What do you think you can tutor her?”

Rebecca shook her head. “No, you’ve got that backwards. Come on, you just spent half an hour telling me about all the cool shit she’s done to protect Flick. 

“Frankly, it sounds like I need to take magic lessons from a ten year old.”

 

*******

Carfried and Mercury

 

“So, are you ready to ask me?” 

It was shortly after dawn, as two men sat on the balcony of a small restaurant overlooking a quaint, quiet little street somewhere in southern New York. They had been silent for the past few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts while sipping their warm tea. That silence had been broken by the voice of one. Mercury, as he called himself. Amitiel, as those who did not know the full truth about him believed he was. And Lie, as those who were not his friends would have called him if they had known that the real Amitiel had been possessed and overwritten millennia ago by the so-called Lie (or Mendacia in their language) who had since posed as him. 

Sitting at the other side of the table, Benji Carfried blinked once. “Ready to ask you?” 

Mercury took a sip of his tea before giving a slight nod. “We’ve been meeting for breakfast or lunch every other day for the past several weeks, ever since you found out the truth about me… possessing you. You’ve… asked some things, but there’s been something else on your mind too. I told you, I’m glad to answer anything you’d like.” 

There was a brief moment of silence as Benji regarded him. The two of them had indeed had many conversations in the past few weeks, enough that he was… at least somewhat comfortable with the fact that he’d been secretly possessed for a year. Or so he told himself. Really, the thought that there had been an intruder in his head for so long creeped him out beyond belief. He wanted to hate the other man. And… to be honest, a part of him actually did. There was part of him that wanted to punch Mercury in the face and never stop. He pushed that part of himself down, but it left him somewhat conflicted.

Thus these private meals. More than anything, Carfried wanted to understand the man who had possessed him. He wanted to push his own feelings of anger… rage, really, down with actual knowledge. Information, data, truth. Those were the ways to smother his feelings of betrayal and… invasion. So he’d asked questions. But there were a few that he’d held back. 

“Yes,” he finally replied. “I’ve got a couple that I haven’t asked yet.” Instead of continuing, however, he fell silent once more. Disguising his hesitance with a sip of tea, he exhaled before finally pushing on. “I need to know exactly how long you were possessing me. I mean… it was since I was a teacher, I know. But I need to know…” 

Mercury watched the other man trail off before finishing for him. “You need to know if you were possessed because you were chosen to be a teacher, or if you were chosen to be a teacher because you were possessed.” 

In a somewhat tight voice, Carfried confirmed, “Yes.” 

“You were chosen to be possessed because you were a teacher,” Mercury assured him simply. “We were looking for a good person to possess to get close to Aylen and… well, honestly, Pericles was our first choice. My first choice. But we were overruled and told he was not a possibility. We didn’t find out exactly why until later. So, I went with my next choice. A young teacher. You’d been chosen by Gaia by that point, so… so I found my way to you.” 

They both went silent then, neither wanting to dwell too much on that. But there was one even more important question that Carfried had. “You knew the Seosten who possessed Columbus Porter.” 

“Charmeine,” Mercury murmured with a nod. “Yes, I knew her. And I know she’s dead now.” 

“Thanks to Felicity Chambers,” Carfried agreed before adding, “and Columbus himself. They killed her.” 

Mercury’s voice was almost inaudible. “After she killed your ancestor.” 

“Josiah.” When he said the name, Carfried’s voice caught a bit, and he grimaced. “He was… he was important to me. Damn it, he was my Greats-Grandfather, of course he was important to me. He was a damn fine man, a fucking good person, and that… that…” He fought to bring himself back under control. 

“And as glad as you are that she’s dead,” Mercury finished for him, “it doesn’t really give you any closure. Your greats-grandfather is still gone, you never got to even see his killer, and you don’t feel like her death actually accomplished anything. At least, as far as your own life goes.” 

Not trusting his voice, Carfried gave a single, slight nod. 

“I’m sorry.” Those simple two words came from the Seosten man before he gave long, low sigh. “I know apologies mean little in this case. But I am sorry that you don’t get that kind of closure.” 

“It’s just as well,” Carfried pointed out, “because even if she was still alive, I couldn’t do anything about it. That would risk our little truce, and something tells me having a truce with you people is more important than my vengeance. But…” 

“But you’re not sure you’d be able to feel that way if she was still running around out there.” Again, Mercury finished his thought once the man waved to him rather than conclude it himself. “You’re probably right. If Charmeine was still there, it would probably make things worse.” 

For the next minute or so, the longest silence of all settled in the air, as Benji mentally fought his way to perhaps the most important question. Mercury waited for as long as he needed until the words finally came. 

“Did I–did you have anything to do with putting Josiah in that position to be killed by Charmeine?” 

Again, silence reigned for a few torturous seconds before Mercury found his voice. “It’s your choice whether to believe what I say now. I will put it before any truth spell or power you like. But right now, right here, I tell you no. Neither I, nor Chayyiel, were a part of that mission. My job was to watch over the Merlin Key. I had nothing to do with the Avalon situation, and I did nothing to either put your greats-grandfather there or to have him killed. Our people operate in cells where we are in need-to-know situations. I didn’t need to know about that plan.” 

But you wouldn’t have stopped it if you did know, would you? 

Benji didn’t ask that last question. He couldn’t bring himself to. Instead, he took a sip of his tea, pushing the thought aside before looking to the man. Some part of him liked Mercury. And another part of him hated Mercury. He couldn’t decide which was stronger right now. So, he would continue having meals with him. Continue talking to him. 

Eventually, he’d figure it out. 

********

December, April, and May

 

Abigail Fellows, Virginia Dare, and Hisao stood in the private transport room, watching the portal ahead of them as it formed. In a quiet voice, Abigail murmured, “This is a bit of a risk, isn’t it?” 

Dare and Hisao exchanged brief glances before the former spoke. “Allowing probable spies into the school so they can report back to Cahethal about everything we’re doing? Yes, it’s a risk. But you already knew that when you decided to go for it.” 

Hisao added, “It’s also worth the risk. She’s being upfront about it. Yes, she wants information about this place in case things go wrong, but them being here also gives us information about her own agents. She knows that. She’s offering to let us know some of how she operates in exchange for reports from her own agents about what’s going on here. Reports she can actually trust.” 

They’d had all these conversations before, of course. They’d had them several times, while Abigail decided whether it was a good idea to allow three of Cahethal’s agents into the school. In the end, no matter the risk, it was the right thing to do. Particularly when she’d learned that those three agents were all SPS Seosten. Or ‘Lies’, as their own people would disgustingly call them. Nothing had changed. This was the best choice. But talking about it was better than fidgeting until–

Three figures appeared in the portal. Two teenagers and…

“A child?” Abigail blurted. Marina had said that one of them was a young girl, but–but she hadn’t fully understood just what–

“Hiya!” the kid in question suddenly blurted the instant the three of them were fully in view and the portal closed behind them. “ThanksforlettinguscomeherecuzitsoundsfunandIknowyou–” 

Before she could go further, the Asian-looking girl put a hand over her mouth in a casual, practiced gesture. “Good morning,” she greeted them pleasantly. “Nice to officially meet you, Miss-ahhh, you prefer Principal now, Marina said? Principal Fellows. I am May.” 

“I’m April,” the red-haired teenager piped up, smoothing down the schoolgirl uniform she wore before adding, “And that’s December. Just tell her to slow down or repeat herself until you get it if you need to.” 

Squirming free of May’s hand, December’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “That’smeI’mDecemberhow’reyou?” 

With a brief look to her two far-more-capable companions, Abigail took a few steps that way, extending a hand. “Abigail is fine when we’re not in school hours. It’s… very interesting to–” She blinked at the looks the three of them were giving her outstretched hand. “Are you okay?” 

“Marina was supposed to tell you,” May informed her. “We…” 

“We’reLiessowecan’ttouchyourhandoranythingelsecuzitmightmakeyouthinkwe’retryingtopossessyouandruinthetruceandwedon’twannadothat,” December explained in a rush of words that came so fast Abigail only caught every other one and had to piece together what was meant from that. 

“I know what you are,” she finally responded once she was confident enough about what the incredibly fast-talking girl had actually said. “I know what you’re capable of. And it’s okay.” She kept her hand extended. “I believe what you said about not wanting to ruin this truce.” 

It was the three Seosten’s turn to look somewhat baffled. The trio exchanged looks, both May and April seeming reluctant even with Abigail’s stated permission. 

December, however, finally extended her own hand, tentatively taking the older woman’s. Her grip was hesitant and she very clearly almost yanked her hand back immediately, only stopping herself at the last second. Visibly unsure of herself, she kept her hand pressed against Abigail’s until the other woman shook it up and down firmly. 

“Are you…” Abigail started before hesitating. Finally, she pushed on. “Are you really part of this… this group? Shouldn’t you be in school? I mean, a real school. Shouldn’t you be in a Seosten school?” 

May spoke up defensively. “We teach her. We all teach ourselves. Besides, Lies like us don’t go to regular school. We…” She stopped, clearly torn between answering the question and not wanting to speak ill of her own people. Finally, she settled on, “We teach each other. We are the Calendar. We take care of our own. December is our own. We stay together. We learn together.” 

Cahethal knew what she was doing, Abigail realized. The Seosten ‘Lies’ were so thoroughly oppressed, so horrifically treated, that being given any freedom for individuality made them… made them loyal to her in a way they would never be loyal to their own people. But even that, even the bit of humanity, for lack of a better word, that she showed them was manipulation. These girls were so accustomed to not being touched by anyone outside of their own little group that the simple concept of a handshake was too much. That was just… it was…

Pushing those thoughts back, she squeezed December’s hand, meeting the girl’s gaze. “We’re glad to have you here, girls.” 

Dare spoke up then. “We certainly are. Of course, we’re going to have to go through a lot of tests before we’re comfortable letting you out into the school population. It may take a few days before all of our security people are fully satisfied that things are on the up and up.” 

“Of course,” April remarked. She looked to May, then shrugged and took Abigail’s still extended hand once December had released her. “We’re not in a rush. Whatever you want.” 

What Abigail truly wanted was to hug December. The girl had leaned into the simple handshake like it was… like it was far more than that. Abigail wanted to hug her and tell her she didn’t have to play soldier anymore. But that would make things worse. She knew that. No, the way to handle this was to show the girls, show all of them, a better way. 

So, she stepped back and gestured. “Come then, 

“Let’s get started.”  

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Denouement 5 – Cercetare (Heretical Edge)

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The Committee’s primary headquarters was not something that anyone could just walk up to. Unlike Eden’s Garden, which kept their leadership at the top of the tree and in a very known location, Crossroads tended toward more obfuscation. There were several ‘offices’ kept by the leadership in various locations that could be accessed, such as J Street in Washington DC. But their actual stronghold was much more difficult to get to. It was that place, that most private and secure location, that Elisabet had disappeared from, which could only be reached by select people using a select few methods.

At the moment, Sariel, Jophiel, Mercury, and Larees were possessing four of those people, and were driving one of those methods. The Range Rover had been deeply enchanted, allowing it to pass through the dozens of shields and misdirects set up to keep intruders away and/or alert the Committee and their people. The spells were slightly altered every day, preventing one from simply finding an old copy and passing through that way. And they would have been altered automatically should anyone expect that this group had run into trouble. Hence the need for such subtlety to get to this point.

Driving the SUV along the street away from the Lannery Towers building, Jophiel reached down. Her hand (or the hand of the man she was possessing, in any case), found a button there, which she pushed and held in for five seconds. At that point, there was a crackle-boom of electricity that engulfed the vehicle, reminiscent of a certain famous Delorean traveling in time. Any Bystanders watching would immediately forget the other vehicle had ever existed. 

The Range Rover, meanwhile, appeared driving along a completely different road somewhere on the California coast. A bright blue light manifested itself in front of the vehicle, just as they passed through it. If the spells on the car had not been correct, they would have slammed into it like a fly hitting a windshield. As it was, they passed through like it wasn’t there. A second later, the crackle-boom was back and they were driving along some mountain road somewhere in the midwestern United States. A green light appeared that time, allowing them to pass. 

That continued another six or seven times, as they passed through shield after shield. The final light was gold, and it transported them to a small country road in a place surrounded by grassy fields, with high, snowy mountains visible off in the distant horizon. One more shield, a black one, appeared in front of the car. This one actually tingled as they passed through it. 

Then they were through, and a massive castle lay ahead of them. A literal fortress, perched on the edge of a deep cliff, a thousand foot drop into the ravine below surrounding three quarters of the enormous stone building. It towered over the surrounding landscape, bigger than any made by ancient humans. Three layers of black walls of ascending height, about fifty yards apart, surrounded the part of the castle that was still accessible by land, and each of those walls were manned by dozens of gargoyle statues. Not the literal gargoyles, those small creatures that piloted their suits of armor, but statues similar to those at the academy. Given provocation, the statues would spring to life and form a first line defense. 

There were more defenses than that, too many for Jophiel to easily name. But with any luck, they would not come into play. They just had to continue being… subtle. Which, given the presence of Sariel and Mercury, two of the Olympus’s best covert agents, should be doable.

Using the memories of the man she was possessing, Jophiel drove right up to the large gate at the first wall. His hand moved to press against the reader there, which read far more than just his prints before the gate began to slid open. They were able to pass through into the first courtyard, where a guard house stood. The Heretic there looked them over before stepping closer. He spoke a passphrase, testing them before Jophiel gave the answering code. Then he let them pass through. 

They continued that in the second courtyard with a new guard, before finally being admitted into the lot of the castle itself. There, Jophiel pulled the car around to park amongst several other cars along the side of the castle, before the four emerged, along with their non-possessed companions. A brief bit of small talk followed, before Jophiel’s group managed to excuse and extract themselves to their own business. Giving a brief look to one another, they left the others and started along the marble path to the main doors. On the way, they passed several small flower gardens and fountains before reaching the flight of steps leading up to the entrance, a pair of doors that stood a good fifteen feet high, each eight feet wide. The doors opened as they approached, revealing that they were also several feet thick and lined with powerful spell runes that glowed as the group passed through. It would take an army to break into this castle by force. 

Or a handful of Seosten could do it much more quietly. 

The inside of the castle itself was much more modern than the outside would suggest. It looked like the interior of any other high end office building, not that different from the one they had just left. People bustled to and fro, everyone clearly moving with a mission and not paying much attention to the Seosten-possessed group who had just entered. They were all quite busy. 

As were Sariel and the others, of course. Without looking to one another, they continued on. Jophiel took the lead, as she had been to this building far more recently than the others (Larees, of course, had never been there at all). She walked onward, guiding the other Seosten through the maze of corridors and a couple different elevators until they reached the right floor. Each Committee member commanded their own floor of the building. This one was Elisabet’s. 

Even with her gone, the floor was nowhere near empty. Dozens of Heretics moved through the various rooms and halls on this floor, their work continuing in the hope that their leader would be found soon. Elisabet’s focus had been on the security of every Crossroads-controlled place on Earth, and that kind of thing wasn’t going to go away just because Elisabet herself was missing.

Ignoring everyone just as they in turn were being ignored, the group moved down the hall. The main office belonging to Elisabet was, of course, protected from entry. Only other Committee members or those with the correct spell code could pass through the doors.

Jophiel, of course, had the codes. As they approached deceptively simple-looking wooden door, a holographic circle appeared in front of it. She reached out, and as her finger made contact with the glowing circle, a dot appeared there. Carefully, yet with a quickness born of so many years experience, she drew the symbol. It glowed briefly to match the circle, then both disappeared and the door opened. 

No one spoke until they had entered the room, the door closed, and both Sariel and Mercury checked the place for any listening or observation spells. Once the two gave a nod, Larees finally exhaled. “I’m kind of surprised they don’t have people all over this place still.”  

“They don’t see the need,” Jophiel informed her. “As far as they’re concerned, Elisabet wasn’t here when she disappeared. They believe she was ambushed elsewhere, by Prosser and his people. They have no reason to specifically lock down this office. Though we should be as quick as possible. Our… hosts have some time free, but they will be missed eventually.” 

This first room wasn’t the actual inner sanctum for Elisabet. Instead, it was the outer office where her assistant was supposed to work. But Elisabet had purposefully not kept an assistant for quite some time. Actually, she and Jophiel had entertained some possibility of asking Vanessa to take the job in a sort of internship capacity over the summer. That, of course, was before everything had happened. 

Passing through the outer office to reach the sanctum itself, the Seosten looked around briefly. Jophiel and Sariel took opposite sides of the office, making some preliminary inspections and preparations for the assortment of spells they would need to use. At the same time Mercury stepped over to the desk while using a Seosten field-engraver to draw a spell on the sleeve of the man he was possessing. He activated it a second later, producing a silver and purple orb, slightly larger than a golf ball. It was what the Heretics referred to as a PAWS, which stood for Panoptic Analysis Window System. Essentially, it recorded the entire area it scanned, including the contents of all the dressers, bookshelves, and so on. Later, it would be able to project a solid holographic reconstruction of the room and everything in it. If, by chance, there were any clues in the room that they didn’t have time to go through now (such as a note stuck or scrawled into one of the books), the PAWS recording would allow them to find and read it. 

The downside, of course, was that it (understandably) took a decent length of time to make a full recording of the entire room and every object within. Given the size of the place and the amount of books and other things in it, the scan would probably take at least twenty minutes. Between that and the spells that Sariel and Jophiel were working on, they weren’t getting done here any time soon. 

Moving back through the outer office and checking the door to make sure the hallway beyond was clear, Larees turned back, giving a beckoning gesture to Mercury, visible through the other door as he finished setting the PAWS to record the room. He nodded before joining her, and the two of them slipped back out into the hall. They had their own work to do while Sariel and Jophiel were busy. 

Passing other Heretics in the corridor and beyond that in the elevator, Larees and Mercury used the knowledge pulled from their host’s minds to greet them appropriately. To any and all who saw the two of them, they were those people. They knew names, histories, the way each person interacted with them, and more. They knew it all, passing seamlessly as the one they were possessing. They even knew what to say when asked what they were doing to allay suspicion. 

Riding the elevator several floors up, the two stepped off, giving a farewell to the ones they had ridden with before heading on through a softly carpeted, pleasantly lit corridor with paintings of various historical figures lining the walls. 

As they were passing a couple of other Heretics who were talking, Mercury abruptly stopped, looking back that way. Something they’d just said… “Hey,” he spoke up, drawing the attention of the other pair. “What was that about Joselyn Atherby?” They all knew the name, of course. After Gaia’s spell removed the memory eraser and flooded everyone’s minds with that rush of information (or misinformation, as many were calling it), there was no need to be coy about it. Of course a Heretic, even one working in here, would be curious about hearing the name. 

One of the other men, a guy named Turry according to Mercury’s host’s memories, gave that easy smile of one with gossip. “Yeah,” he replied, “one of the scouting pairs think they spotted her outside some mall in Timberline, Iowa. Can you believe it? They’re suiting up a group to go check it out.” He winked. “Who knows, maybe those fucking traitors are holed up somewhere in there. Get in one of the old stores, use magic to make it bigger on the inside? They could do it. Hiding in plain sight.” He shrugged. “Or maybe it’s bullshit. Everyone wants to be the one who catches these assholes, especially that psycho bitch. Maybe the scouts were just seeing things.”  

Reaching out, the man clapped Mercury on the shoulder. “But hey, man, either way, they’ll get ‘em, right? Those fucks’ll get what’s coming to them.” 

With an easy smirk, Mercury patted the hand on his shoulder, nodding. “Of course they will. Those guys are gonna get exactly what they deserve.” 

They split apart then, the two Seosten-possessed Heretics heading further down the corridor while Larees spoke through their silent connection. What in the living fuck? 

I don’t know, Mercury replied a bit tensely. But it’s obviously not any of us. Joselyn… why would she be at some mall to be spotted by Crossroads scouts right now, of all times? This doesn’t make sense

Should we tell the people back at camp about it now? Larees asked. Her real question, of course, was if they should tell Joselyn’s children about their mother potentially being seen. 

There was a brief pause from the man before he sent back, No. Not right now. We don’t know everything about it, and looking into that too much is going to draw suspicion we can’t handle. We’ll keep our ears and eyes open, see what we can take in. If we told them now, we’d just be distracting them right as they’re working on getting that Gerardo kid and the other prisoners out. We’ll see what happens and let them know once we have real information. No point adding more confusion and distraction right now. 

Larees agreed. She had agreed, actually, before even asking the question. But Mercury was the superior officer here, and she had defaulted to his opinion. 

The two continued on, heading through several more layers of security. These they passed not simply with information drawn from their own hosts, but also codes provided by Jophiel. They were ways through security that she and Elisabet had built in over the years without the other Committee members realizing, so there was no reason the codes would have been revoked after Elisabet disappeared. 

Security was tight here. Yet no one questioned them. The other side of having so many layers of protection that it was (supposedly) impossible to quietly break through them was that once you were past it, everyone there just assumed you were supposed to be. As long as you looked like you knew where you were going, you could be invisible. 

Reaching an unlabeled metal door down an unremarkable side corridor, the two exchanged brief looks. Mercury produced a pair of sunglasses from his host’s jacket, slipping them on. As one, the two turned to put their backs against the nearby wall. They checked for surveillance one last time, before Mercury stepped out of his host. As he did so, Larees put an arm around the Heretic, using a telekinetic power from her own host to keep her partner’s upright. She stood there like that, keeping the unconscious Heretic upright to avoid drawing any attention from someone who might pass by. 

Mercury himself, meanwhile, stepped right to the metal door. He input the code they were given by Jophiel, tugging it open before stepping through. As he did so, a warm tingle began to spread over him. 

This was the security measure that even Jophiel couldn’t do anything about. Elisabet had not been in charge of this section of the building. She could get them the code to go through the door, but could do nothing about the actual magical scan that was supposed to ensure that only those with access were allowed in, code or no code. The security scan would see that his host was not allowed in, and immediately alert security. 

Or… it would, if not for Mercury’s Tartarus-given ability to delay magic affecting him. The scan should have immediately shown he wasn’t allowed in that room, but he was delaying its work, slowing the magic from completing on him long enough to do what he needed to. It was why he had to be the one to do this.

The room was relatively small, mostly filled with computers, monitors, and a table with a holographic map on it. There were several wheeled leather chairs around the room, though only one was occupied. The man there turned in his chair, speaking up casually. “What’d you forget this ti–what the–” 

That was as far as he got before Mercury used his Seosten-boost to lunge across the room. His hand grabbed the other man’s, possessing him instantly. 

With his new host in hand (and immediately shuffled into unconsciousness), Mercury moved to the nearby console. The security station was just starting to flash its warning about the man who had just moved through it when he used memories drawn from his new host to silence it with a guest access code. He then added another couple codes before opening the door for Larees. The two of them brought in his earlier host, setting him on a chair. 

“I’ll deal with the blood,” Mercury informed the woman. “You handle the logs and cameras.” 

Larees nodded, moving to one of the nearby computers. Working quickly, she adjusted the security logs to remove all traces of their group’s access and presence in any of the places they shouldn’t have been. She also deleted them from any of the camera footage in those areas.

Mercury, meanwhile, moved to the holographic map in the middle of the room. It showed an image of the Earth, with various countries and cities listed and marked with different colors. In the middle of the table, below the map, was a vial of blood, set in a provided slot there with several green lights on around it. 

The vial was Elisabet’s blood. While there were many ways to shield against a scan like the one being performed here, intended to point out where in the world the person eventually appeared, there was still an off chance the scan might eventually pick up something if Elisabet were ever on Earth without such defenses up. 

Jophiel, therefore, wanted the vial for her own use. Tracking her partner (in every sense of the word) would be easier with the blood. And she definitely didn’t want Crossroads to have it. So, carefully, Mercury replaced the vial set into the map slot with an identical one drawn from his pocket. Identical, that was, save for the contents. The blood in that vial was taken from a long-dead Heretic woman who had been lost in the war against the Fomorians. The odds of it showing up anywhere on Earth any time soon were… slim, to say the least. But the computer would keep scanning for it, and the Heretics would be none the wiser. 

Both of their work done, Mercury erased the memory of his current host, leaving him to wake up in his chair in about thirty seconds with no idea anything had changed. He then repossessed his previous host, and they left the room, heading to rejoin the others. The work that Larees had done would continue to erase their presence for another hour, just to be on the safe side. 

By the time the two rejoined Jophiel and Sariel, the place was a lot more active. People were running around, orders were being shouted, and there was general barely ordered chaos. Not because they had been found out, of course. No, the reason this particular beehive had been kicked was that news of both distraction-attacks had reached them. Committee agents were being mustered to back up the other Heretics already being sent to respond. 

We should go, Sariel murmured as the four stood in the corridor, watching a group rush past. Before things get too crazy.

What did you find? Mercury asked, once they started moving together for the exit. 

The answer came from Jophiel. Not enough. There was obvious frustration in her voice. Someone went in and erased almost all of the evidence. There were trace signatures of a teleportation happening around that time, but not enough to get an actual location. 

Not yet, anyway, Sariel put in gently. This wasn’t a complete waste. We have the blood, so if we can get a general location, even just a place to start, we can use it. And there’s more we can do. Whoever cleaned up the room didn’t do a perfect job. Believe me, I have some ideas. But they’ll take time. 

Time that Elisabet might not have! Jophiel snapped, while they climbed into the same vehicle that had brought them here. 

I know, Sariel assured her. Let’s just go. We’ll leave these guys at a restaurant with memories of going to get food, and get out of there. Then find out if the others managed to save Sean and the rest of the prisoners. 

In the meantime, Mercury informed her, there’s something else we heard. Something we might want to go check out.  

It’s about Joselyn Atherby, and a mall. 

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Denouement 2 – Appropriation (Heretical Edge)

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Four figures, three female and one male, sat in the back corner of a coffee shop. Given the beauty and general attractiveness of each of them, it would have been easy to mistake the group for being models or actors. Or even to believe that one observing them had fallen through a dimensional rift into the world of film or television where such stunning features could be found randomly wherever they went. 

Four ridiculously attractive figures. Four Seosten. Sariel, Jophiel, and Larees were the females. The male was Mercury. He was the one who spoke first, after taking a sip of coffee with his eyes on the nearby window. “I guess it’s almost like old times, huh?” 

“For some of you,” Larees pointed out before taking a gulp of her own cup. It was only about half-coffee, while she had filled the rest of it from her trusty flask. Swallowing hard, the spikey-haired woman added, “Some of us weren’t actually on that spiffy ship of yours.” 

“It’s too bad,” Jophiel noted, her own expression somewhat distracted. “We probably could’ve used another one of your… people.” She nodded slightly toward the younger Seosten’s face, where the blue-green phoenix tattoo normally was. It had been magically hidden for the moment to avoid drawing even more attention. “Could’ve been useful to have you around.” 

“Another?” Larees asked with a raised eyebrow. Her hand snapped out to catch hold of a biscotti from the middle of the table before popping it directly into her mouth. 

“Esconeas,” Sariel replied. “He was another from your group. His partner was a Laevok.” That was a creature about the size of a large moose, with an armored, tank-like shell fashioned similarly to an armadillo that covered a body that was very similar to one of Earth’s predator cats. It was a tiger with an armored shell it could retract or expand at will. Often it would use that by capturing its prey with the shell down, then raise it to trap the target inside the shell to be eaten.  

Larees nodded with a smirk. “That’s Esconeas alright. Never met the guy, he was before my time. But I’ve seen the holos. Pretty fierce fighter, from what I saw, and what others said.”

“Sounds like Esconeas to me,” Mercury confirmed. He shifted in his seat, his attention clearly focused somewhere off in the past. “Big guy, big temper. But useful to have around. Had some good jokes too. He was fun.” Heaving a sigh, he added, “Gonna suck if we have to fight him.” 

Jophiel spoke up, her gaze laser focused on the table in front of them. “I don’t care who we have to fight. If it turns out our people actually are the ones behind taking Elisabet, I will destroy all of them.” Her voice was dark, yet also very slightly hesitant through part of that before she pushed on. She really wasn’t accustomed to talking about her true feelings for her host/partner in front of others. Sariel had convinced her that they needed help if they were going to actually find out what happened to Elisabet, so she had agreed to bring in Mercury and Larees. But it was still a new thing, and she had made it very clear what she would do to them if the story got out. 

“Right, guess that’s us back on track,” Larees noted. “How’s our guy doing?” She was looking at the window once more, toward a tall office building across the street with various people in suits moving in and out of it now and then. There was a sign on the front near the doors denoting it as ‘Lannery Towers’ along with a list of the companies who kept offices inside the building. 

Sariel wasn’t looking at the building. She had a small hand mirror out, with which she was watching the view through the Lannery Towers’ security cameras that had been enchanted earlier that day. “Still in his meeting,” she murmured. “Looks like it’s about to wrap up, though.” 

“Time to move out, then,” Mercury announced while pushing himself up. “We’re all clear on how this goes? No one needs to check the notes again? Nobody has to pee? Cuz this operation is going to fall completely apart if someone has to pee in the middle of it.” 

Unamused, Jophiel grunted, “Just do your job and don’t screw it up. Understand?” 

He gave her a brief salute, before turning on his heel to head out. Larees was just behind him, while Sariel stayed back a bit, her attention on Jophiel. “I know this is hard. But–” 

“Is there a reason you didn’t involve Lucif–Apollo?” Jophiel cut her off, looking that way. “Or did you ask him, and he turned you down? Because I can’t see you not involving him. Though I suppose you did let him go off without you for a pretty long time.” 

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the woman winced. “I mean…” She sighed then, looking uncomfortable. “Right, I’m sorry to put it like that. I am curious about why he’s not here, but I didn’t mean to make it… confrontational. And I didn’t mean to imply that you were–” 

“I understand,” Sariel informed her quickly, “And he’s busy, as you know.” 

Jophiel gave a slight nod. “Of course. But we could have timed this to take place either before or after that little… mission. The distraction is not absolutely necessary. Which makes me wonder if you wanted it to take place now so that he would have an excuse to not participate in this one.” 

“That’s not it,” Sariel assured her. “He helped with some planning, and he would have come in to help. But I told him not to, because the time and effort for this is… a lot. He needed to focus on the plan to save Sean and the other prisoners.” She shrugged then. “We don’t know what might happen on either our mission or theirs. Security might be raised, so better to do this before they change too much from what you know about. Doing all this at the same time is the right call, and Apollo is exactly where he needs to be to get Sean out.”  

For a moment, the two Seosten women stared at one another, before Jophiel quietly noted, “If there was a way for Elisabet and I to have gotten the boy out without blowing our cover… I believe we would have, even if simply for the points it would have gained us in the eyes of our students. Not that our cover seems to have done us much good in this situation.” 

“We don’t know what happened yet,” Sariel reminded the woman, putting a hand out to rest on her arm. “Have you actually spoken to Metatron, or anyone else in command?” 

Jophiel gave a slight nod. “There was a message from him in one of the drop points. It said to report to an address in Chicago to give an explanation of what happened to my host. I was supposed to be there two days ago. I sent a messenger that I have the situation under control, but can’t report in yet. I’m sure he’s not happy about it, but I’m not leaving before I find Elisabet and get to the bottom of just what happened.” 

“And it could have been a trap,” Sariel noted, getting a nod from the woman. “He’ll probably start sending people after you. They won’t just let another of us defect. Especially one of your level.” 

“Let him send whoever he wants to.” The words came with a gaze that had turned hard. “I might be able to get answers out of them about how much the old man knows. Or suspects.”

With a brief look of understanding between the two, they moved out. Sariel took a moment to drop a twenty dollar tip in the jar for the time they had taken, before they emerged from the coffee shop to the street where Larees and Mercury were already waiting. The four stood facing the office building across from them, while cars and people passed steadily by. 

“Well,” Mercury started in a low, somewhat drawling voice, “what are we waiting for?

“Let’s do this.” 

*******

Larees

 

The pale woman with short, spiky hair that was black with blue tips strode through the alley. “Hey!” she called out, holding up an outstretched hand with cash in it. “Hey buddy!” 

With a snort and a cough, the homeless man laying on his side jolted awake. He blinked blearily at her, frowning. “I didn’t fucking do nothing,” he grumbled, “just tryin’ sleep. Ain’t you got no–” 

“Look, shut up,” Larees interrupted impatiently. “I don’t have time for it. You want this?” She held her hand up in front of his face, showing him five one hundred dollar bills. When he went to snatch the cash, she brought it out of his reach. “Not yet. I need to borrow you first.” 

The homeless man squinted at that, his eyes still a bit bleary and bloodshot. “Borrow? The hell is this, some kinda day labor thing? Cuz if it’s prostitution, I’m–” He burped, loudly. “I’m pretty sure you’re confused about how that whole thing is supposed to go.” 

With a soft sigh, Larees shook her head. “It’s not prostitution. Kind of day labor. I just need to borrow your body for a few minutes.” 

Her words earned a squint from the dirty, drunk man. “Sounds a lot like prostitution to me. But whatever floats your boat, princess.” He reached down to start undoing his pants right there in the alley, in broad daylight. “Just gimme a second to get m’self up to the task, and we’ll start–” 

That was as far as the man got before Larees sighed and grabbed his arm. A second later, she had disappeared, possessing him. His body jerked once, falling back against the wall before she took control of it. 

Wha–what the fuck?! the man blurted inside his own head. 

Don’t worry, Larees assured him. I’d explain it, but you wouldn’t remember anyway. Here, short version. I need to pilot your body for a few minutes. You won’t be in too much danger and I’ll eject from you if anything happens. You also won’t remember any of this afterward. You’ll wake up after that with the money I offered you and no memory of how you got it. Say no right now and I’ll find someone else to help. Say yes and I’ll put you into a… let’s call it a dream. The next thing you know, you’ll be five hundred dollars richer. Choose now. 

Ahh, body snatcher lady, the man hesitantly replied, if’n this is actually real, then five hundred bucks is five hundred bucks. But I want something else too. 

This had better not have anything to do with prostitution, Larees warned him sharply. 

Nah, nah, nothing like that, he assured her, having adjusted remarkably quickly to the whole situation. It’s just, I dunno if I’m dreaming or if you’re really in my head. But if this is real, I figure you can do more than five hundred. Not more money, a ahhh, help getting a job. You help me get cleaned up and get a job, and you can drive me around any time you want. 

Larees paused for a moment. She hesitated, then poked through the man’s subconscious for just a moment, to see how serious he was. It was an invasion, but she tried not to look too far. In the end, she simply replied, Deal, it might not be immediately, but I’ll see what I can do. 

Well then, pretty lady, the man replied, you said something about me going into a dream? Could I make a request? 

Don’t worry, I can read your mind, Larees assured him. And I think you’ll enjoy this. With those words, she shifted the man’s consciousness over to the dream scenario she had built up for him, before focusing on the mission at hand. Lannery Towers was across the street and down a short distance. Reaching down to grab the nearby bottle, she made the man take a swig of it before heading out. Through the magical Seosten connection the four of them had set up, she reported, Got him. On my way to position. 

*******

Sariel

 

Striding toward the main entrance of the office building, Sariel carefully timed her approach to coincide with that of a man in a crisp, dark blue suit carrying a briefcase in one hand. Seeing her near the doors, the man slowed, tugging one open before standing aside with an easy smile. 

She returned it gratefully, quietly thanking him while stepping into the doorway. Her hand brushed across his arm faintly. 

And then she was gone, possessing him. Yet she didn’t take control. She didn’t read his memory, didn’t do anything aside from sit in the back of his mind. The man, stopping short as the woman in front of him disappeared, gave a soft gasp of confusion. Then that was gone too, as the Bystander Effect removed the memory of her disappearing. To the man’s recollection, she had simply passed through and kept going. He shrugged to himself, wondering which office the pretty woman had business in, before dismissing her entirely in the span of a couple of seconds as he stepped through the door and let it close behind him. 

There were locked gates with ID readers about halfway through the spacious lobby, with security guards at a desk nearby. One of the guards looked up as Sariel’s ride walked by, greeting him by name with a slight wave, which the man himself returned. His card found its way to his hand, and he flashed it in front of the scanner, which beeped as the gate opened for him. He passed through and headed for the bank of elevators at the end of the room with a few others. Together, the small group waited for the next lift to appear before stepping onto it.

Five people were in the elevator. Then six, as Sariel simply stepped out of the man she had possessed to get through security. The appearance of her glowing form resolving into her solid self drew a few startled gasps as everyone’s attention spun to her before just as quickly disappearing entirely as they too forgot what they had seen. To them, she had always been there. One of the men gave her a brief nod before turning his attention to the doors as they opened. He and one of the other men got out, while Sariel and the others continued on. 

Eventually, the rest of the people, including the man she had used to get past security, stepped off, leaving Sariel alone on the elevator as it reached the floor she wanted. Once there, she waited for the doors to open, then held them while glancing at her magic mirror. Through the security cameras, she could see the meeting had indeed broken up. Her target was heading for the elevators now, flanked by no less than three bodyguards and two assistants. All six were Heretics. The man Sariel had been watching was one of the Committee’s top aides, here at Lannery Towers in his guise as an ordinary businessman to keep real, tangible money flowing.

Each of the six Heretics wore glasses of some kind, the bodyguards sunglasses and the others normal ones. Except not normal. Because the glasses were the reason Sariel and the others had to do this whole runaround, subtle thing to begin with. The glasses were linked to the security room in the Committee’s headquarters, allowing people there to monitor everything they saw.  Lately, every time someone linked so closely to the Committee went out in public like this where they could be vulnerable, they and everyone connected to them wore the glasses. It meant that not only could Sariel and the others not depend on the Bystander Effect to erase the memories of the Heretics watching their targets if they happened to see, but even actively possessing and erasing their memories wouldn’t work, because they couldn’t do anything about the people sitting in the security office at the Committee headquarters watching everything. 

They had to be subtle. Hence, this plan. Sariel waited until the group were approaching, then held the door and glanced out as if just noticing them. “Going down?” she asked pleasantly. 

The men barely gave her a passing glance, enough to ensure (to their senses) that she wasn’t a Stranger or a threat. One by one, they stepped onto the elevator. As planned, given the routine the Seosten had noticed, the Committee’s aide held a large cup of coffee with a lid, and a tiny hole to sip it through. He took a sip then, after giving her a nod before turning to face the doors. The men, as a whole, dismissed her, though she had no doubt that their senses would pick up any actual threatening moves. 

So, she made none. Instead, Sariel linked her hands behind her head and leaned back against the wall. One of the men glanced her way, saw what she was doing, and turned back once more, wary for any trouble. 

With two fingers, Sariel produced a tiny, barely visible pill. She glanced up toward the corner of the elevator opposite her, then to the wall next to it, and finally to her target. With the tiniest, imperceptible flick of her wrist, she threw the pill toward that corner. It bounced from there to the wall, rebounded backward, and fell, completely unnoticed, through the tiny sipping hole in the cup. There, it would immediately dissolve, entirely tasteless. 

Without noticing a thing, the Heretic took another couple sips of his coffee while the elevator continued. By the first floor, however, he called for a stop, saying he needed to use the restroom. The group piled off, and they all, sans Sariel, headed that way. 

Coming your way, Mercury, she sent through their communication connection. Hope you’re ready. 

*******

Mercury 

 

Possessing a man to get through the ordinary security wasn’t hard. Mercury simply waited for someone to be going in, hitched a ride, then directed him to the restroom before stepping out once he was there. Nodding to the man who had unknowingly taken him into the building, he stepped into a nearby stall and waited. 

Before too long, the report from Sariel came, and Mercury moved. His hand touched a spell he had drawn on the nearby wall, activating it to turn himself invisible to pretty much any sense so long as he remained relatively still or moved slowly. A second later, two of the Heretic bodyguards entered. They held up an orb, activating the spell on it. Mercury felt it tingle against him. The spell would immediately disable any stealth abilities or magic being used to hide someone, revealing them. 

Well, for most people it would immediately disable them. Mercury’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, delay, or quicken effects like that. He delayed it, forcing the effect not to take place just yet. The men glanced through the room, made a thorough check, then left. Their boss, clearly wanting privacy, came in then and made a beeline for the nearest stall. 

Mercury let the man do his business. It was only polite. As he heard his target finishing up, he slowly eased himself down to the floor. His stealth spell was about to run out, and he carefully reached out. The man in the other stall stood up, and opened the door just as Mercury’s hand found his foot. His stealth spell ran out, but by that point, he was already possessing the man. 

He didn’t take control just then. Not yet. Instead, he sat in the back of the man’s mind, letting him walk them back out of the restroom to meet up with the rest of his entourage as they returned to the elevators and descended the rest of the way to the parking garage. 

*******

Jophiel

 

Waiting outside the building, near the entrance into the parking garage, Jophiel watched the street. Her eyes scanned the approaching cars before she saw the one in question. Spending so much time as part of the Committee, she knew all the vehicles that belonged to them. There, she sent to Larees, the dark green Range Rover. 

She watched then, as Larees, in the form of the homeless man she had possessed, approached that side of the street. The vehicle in question slowed to avoid running over ‘him’, and she directed her host to hurriedly go up to the windshield to start cleaning it with her rag and the spray bottle of cleanser she had picked up. Jophiel walked past, hearing the homeless man’s voice rambling apologies and promising to do a good job, a great job, at cleaning up the car while the lone driver repeatedly said that it wasn’t necessary. 

What he didn’t see, of course, was Larees using one hand to attach a small metal disc to the vehicle that would silently disable all of the security sensors on it. As soon as that was done, Jophiel reversed course, walking toward the vehicle while activating the spell on her jacket that would turn her invisible, immediately removing her from the memories of any nearby Bystanders.

By that point, the Heretic was getting out of the Range Rover. He pulled a couple twenty dollar bills from his pocket, handing them to Larees’ host while politely but firmly telling him to step away from the car. Not needing or wanting to push things, Larees did so, stepping back just as Jophiel reached the man. He seemed to feel something behind him, turning right when Jophiel put a hand on his back. 

She was possessing him then, immediately taking over while shunting the Heretic’s consciousness into dreamland. There wasn’t time to be gentle or polite about it. “Get in,” she ordered Larees, before stepping back to the driver’s seat. 

The driver wasn’t wearing the glasses connecting him to the Committee security room, so there was less need for subtlety. So, Larees simply stepped out of her host. She put a handful of more cash into his hands, thanked the thoroughly confused-looking man, and stepped into the back of the car, settling herself into one of the seats. Jophiel waited just long enough for the man to notice how much money he was holding and give a startled, yet shocked yip of surprise before pulling away to guide the vehicle through the entrance and down into the garage. There, she parked near the entrance. A moment later, the door opened and Sariel stepped down into the seat beside her. 

The call from Mercury came a moment later, prompting Sariel and Larees to activate their own invisibility spells, just as the Heretics emerged. One of the bodyguards stopped by the door, asking, “All that’s good?” 

It was a passphrase. Reading her host’s mind, Jophiel gave the positive return code. “Sparkles as gold.” 

That was enough. The doors opened and the men began to get in. Of course, two of those seats were occupied by invisible Seosten. But Sariel and Larees simply waited for the Heretics to almost sit on them, then reached up to touch their backs, possessing the figures in the midst of sitting down. 

Mercury was possessing the Committee’s aide, Jophiel their driver, and Sariel and Larees two of the bodyguards. Together, the four exchanged brief glances, while the people around them remained blissfully unaware. Then Jophiel shifted the car into drive, pulled away from the curb, and headed out of the garage. 

It was time to get into the Committee’s offices and find out exactly what happened to Elisabet.

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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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“Oh damn it, I liked you as a teacher!”

The outburst came from Tristan, as the boy put the heels of both hands against his forehead, fingers pressed against his scalp. “Seriously, dude, you’re possessed too?”

Wyatt, meanwhile, had a hand against his own forehead as well. In his case, however, the man was repeatedly slapping himself. “No! No, should’ve known. I did it wrong. I knew I did it wrong. Had to test. I had to test and it was supposed to work. What did I do wrong?”

There was a brief pause as the man in the doorway blinked at her, before stepping fully inside. “First, Mr. Moon,” he began simply, “I promise, the man you enjoyed having as an instructor is basically the exact same guy you always knew. My, ahhh… influence runs pretty much the same way as Sariel there. You know, I act as subtly as possible, and only taking direct control when I absolutely have to. For the most part, all the teaching you experienced was from Benji himself.”

Flick was pointing at him. “You–that–we tested you! I tested you! I swear, I used the choker thing and you didn’t show up as Seosten. And Wyatt! He’s right! Wyatt used the ejection rune thing on everyone who came in here. Why wouldn’t it work on you? Why didn’t you show up as Seosten before? What?”

Holding up both hands for peace, the Seosten-possessed-man carefully replied, “There’s a reason for both of those not working. My old friends here, they already know.”

“Amitiel,” Sariel herself announced neutrally, already having moved to step in front of the man.  

“He prefers Mercury,” Apollo reminded her as he put himself beside his pseudo-sibling. “Right?”

The man wearing Benji Carfried gave a very slight swallow before his head bowed. “Yup. That’s right. Mercury’s my name. Just like Apollo is yours. Do you want to explain why their tests didn’t work?”

“It’s Mercury’s Olympian power,” Apollo murmured, glancing to the others. “It allows him to extend, delay, or quicken the effects of any magic that’s used on him. When you tested him with the choker, or the expulsion rune, he just delayed the effect long enough to convince you it didn’t work, then got out of sight before letting it happen.”

Wyatt, cursing rapidly under his breath, yanked a well-worn notebook from his pocket once more and set about rapidly scrawling in it. He tore three pages out, looked around briefly as though looking for somewhere to throw them, then simply shoved the paper into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before setting out to scribble even faster.

“Errr, right,” Mercury murmured at that before shaking his head. “But before we get too far with this, I ahh, I’d kind of like to speak to you guys directly. Without my host, I mean. Do you have a place for him to rest for the time being? He and I… we need to have a conversation about where we’re going from here, if he’s up for it. But that can wait. This seemed more pressing.”

“So you’re not going to try to possess him against his will again?” Flick put in, staring intently at the man. She too had enjoyed Carfried as a teacher and didn’t know what all this meant for that, despite Mercury’s words. “You’re not just gonna make some deal about jumping back in?”

The man offered her a brief, genuine smile. “You know, I’m pretty sure the days of that are almost gone as it is,” he pointed out. “After all, Liesje’s spell must be pretty close to being ready to go. So I would’ve revealed myself eventually regardless.”

He heaved a slow sigh. “No, I’ve no intention of forcing control of Benji again, after this. I’d… ahhh, kind of like it if somebody else would sorta… talk to him and explain the situation. Tell him that, if he wants, we can have a face-to-face conversation any way he wants. Or I can leave him alone. His choice. Either way, it’d  be best if he hears it from someone other than me, at first.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “You really don’t take much control of your vict–host?” She was squinting suspiciously at him.

Clearing Carfried’s throat, Mercury quietly pointed out, “Yeah, I get your doubts, trust me. All I can say is that you’ll see for yourself when you talk to him enough after I’m gone. You’ll know it’s him. He’s your teacher and he always was. I took control only when I had to for my mission. Or to protect some other Seosten secret. For the vast majority of my time with Benji, I was a passive observer.”

“He definitely sounds different,” Flick pointed out. “I can’t explain it, but he’s not really talking like Carfried does. If I didn’t know about Seosten or anything, I’d almost say they were twins.”

From the corner where she was still standing, Gwen agreed, “She’s right. This guy may look like Benji Carfried, but you can tell the difference. He’s not trying to blend in. I can’t say if that means that he wasn’t acting different before, or that it proves what he’s claiming about not taking control. But he is different now.” As she spoke, the woman continued to look the man up and down with a hard, yet thoughtful expression, still deciding exactly what she thought of him.

“I’m sorry,” Abigail suddenly put in, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole ‘Flick, Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris have been co-opted by Aphrodite to convince an intergalactic evil empire to completely change everything about itself in order to win a war against another intergalactic evil empire full of even worse monsters, and they have a year to do it’… thing. Now this guy’s another Seosten?” She paused, taking a breath before exhaling long and hard while muttering, “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss law school.”

“Don’t worry,” Flick assured her sister with a hand on her shoulder, “we’ll let you learn Seosten law so you can help convince the Seraphs not to kill all of us.” As Abigail lifted her head to squint at her, the girl raised her hand to give a thumbs up. “You got this.”

Lincoln finally spoke, standing up. “Well, Mr… ahh, Mercury. Whatever’s going on, I guess you can put your… host over in the bedroom here.” He waved for the man to follow while heading that way. “He can sleep on the bed, and we’ll explain things to him later.” Pausing, he added, “I should probably make sure there’s alcohol nearby at the time.”

While the two went to do that, Gwen took a breath before quietly asking, “Are you sure we can trust him to tell us the truth about the Merlin Key?” Her eyes were on Sariel and Apollo.

The ‘twins’ exchanged glances before Sariel spoke. “He has no real reason to lie right now. It’s in the best interest of everyone who stays on Earth that Arthur be awake before the year is up. The Seraphim are much more likely to listen to alliance suggestions if we make them from a position of strength.”

Apollo nodded. “Kinda hard to get any stronger than a natural Dragon-Heretic. If you guys say that Jophiel sent him, I don’t see why he’d lie about anything here. He has to know that that would be a bad idea for the trust they’re trying to foster.”

“And,” Sariel added, “he’s the one who first convinced us to… to save Chayyiel. He begged us to find a way to get her out of Tartarus. He was willing to risk everything, willing to do anything, to save her.” She paused briefly, before finishing with, “I’d say we can trust him for that, if nothing else. Besides, as we said, he has no tactical reason to lie right now.”

Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s arm, asked, “Does he really possess people like you did?”

“As far as we know, he does,” Apollo confirmed. “Mercury was always getting in trouble for not taking more control, for not having a… firm hold on his hosts. If he says he’s barely been doing anything with Carfried, I’d believe him.”

“Thanks.” That voice, unknown to most of them until now, came from the doorway where Lincoln stood with the actual Mercury. He was shorter than the man beside him, yet taller than his host, standing just over six feet. His hair, dark red to the point of nearly being black, was worn long, with a tight ponytail, and his skin was very tanned, with firm, lean muscles. He looked like a lightweight boxer, with eyes that were bright green.

“I’d like to say it’s nice to meet all of you face to face,” the Seosten observed. “Honestly, I would’ve preferred to do it without all this tension, but I suppose that was pretty inevitable.” Taking a breath, he stepped forward and extended a hand toward them. “Let’s start this again. You can call me Mercury.”

Haiden was the first to step that way, taking the man’s hand firmly as he looked him straight in the eyes. “I hope my wife and brother-in-law are right about trusting you with this.”

“Yes,” a new voice announced from the entrance into the cabin. Athena stood there, watching the other Seosten as she let the door close after her. “So do I.” Glancing to Flick and the others, she added, “Guinevere has brought me up to date about what happened. I…” She paused to consider, then finished with, “I’m sorry you were put in that kind of position.”

Vanessa offered her a weak shrug. “We’ve been in worse. I mean, Jophiel isn’t that bad.”

With a small smile, Athena agreed, “Yes, there were certainly worse people who could have discovered Tabbris at the lab that day.”

She and Gwen exchanged brief looks and a silent conversation passed between the two before Athena turned back to the others, her gaze finding Mercury once more. “As tense as it may be for some of us, for this alliance to ever work, we are going to have to trust each other.”

“In the… interest of that,” Mercury began slowly, “there’s something that Chayyiel was trying to convince me to do a long time ago. I resisted. But it’s probably time, if it’ll help with trust.” While the rest of the room looked uncertain, he focused on Flick. “The Anuk-Ite choker, do you have access to it?”

Of all the things he could have said right then, that was probably one of the most surprising. Blinking at him, Flick hesitated before looking over toward Athena. Only when the woman nodded to her, did she hold her hand out. “Tabs?” Tabbris, in turn, produced the necklace and passed it over.

“Go ahead,” Mercury urged gently while putting his hand out, palm down. “Test me.”

“But you’re–” Stopping herself, Flick put the choker on, adjusting it. Giving one last look to the others, she shrugged before putting her hand on his. Her eyes had just begun to squint that way when she jumped, stumbling backward a step. “What–the–but you’re–”

“SPS,” Abigail murmured. “You’re an SPS-Seosten, like Theia, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure what that stands for,” Mercury replied, “but I am what my people call a Lie, yes.”

Sariel was staring at him. “You… you’ve been like this the whole time. Back in the lab, you were supposed to have disappeared, run off with some supplies or something. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“And that’s why Chayyiel trusted you,” Apollo added. “Why you were so intent on saving her. And why you prefer the name Mercury instead of Amitiel. Because you’re not really Amitiel.”

“She kept my secret,” Mercury confirmed, swallowing visibly. “She… she was my friend, in the lab. The original Amitiel saw me in her room when I went to visit her, and jumped to conclusions. We fought. He was gonna…” He grimaced, looking away. “He was going to kill me and tell them that I was doing things to Chayyiel. She was my friend. I would never–” Cutting himself off, he sighed. “I possessed him. We… struggled. I won. I was going to turn myself in, but Chayyiel convinced me not to. So it’s been a secret. Our secret. Until now.”

Flick, who had been staring at the man that whole time, swallowed hard. “That… you’ve been keeping that kind of secret for that long?”

“Yeah,” the man murmured, “saying it out loud like this is pretty… pretty hard.”

It was Tabbris who moved to him then. Stepping in front of Flick, the young girl squinted before speaking softly. “It must’ve been really scary to hide for so long, around so many people that would’ve hated you.”

Meeting her eyes, Mercury slowly sank to one knee. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I kinda got used to it. Mostly, anyway. But I never forgot that I didn’t belong there.”

After a very brief hesitation, Tabbris reached out to embrace the man. “It’s okay,” she informed him. “You can belong here, if you want to.”

Flick glanced to her younger sister and partner before nodding. “Yeah,” she murmured, “she’s right. If you’re open about things now. Which means telling us everything about this… Merlin Key.”  

Taking that as her opening, Gwen stepped forward with a nod. “Yes. Everything.”

Glancing up to her, Mercury offered a slight smile. “Honestly, I’m kind of glad to have good news for you, your majesty. And not just because I’d rather not have to face you when you’re angry.”

He straightened then, standing up to face the woman. “I should probably explain first. You see, Chayyiel… she wants to bring back Arthur too. She had me track down and keep an eye on the Merlin Key, to make sure they’re safe.” Pausing, he amended, “Well, technically my official orders from Metatron were to make sure the Merlin Key didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, and that no one found them.”

Raising his hand, Tristan asked, “Not that I’m objecting, but they didn’t tell you to just… kill this Merlin Key?”

The man shook his head. “No one exactly knows how the Key is supposed to wake up Arthur. They’re worried that if the person is put in too much danger, that could be what wakes him up. The rules were to keep an eye on them and keep anyone else from interfering or doing anything that might set things off. Chayyiel wanted me to watch for the right moment and… help things along.” His gaze moved to Gwen. “When I saw you, as you, that’s when I figured it must be about time. At least… time to tell you all the truth about it.”

“Yeah,” Abigail put in, “I’ve kind of noticed that you’ve been really careful to not even give away the gender of this Merlin Key while you’re talking. It’s all ‘they’ and other such words.”

With a slight chuckle, Mercury bowed his head to acknowledge that. “True. I ahh, sorry, product of spending a long time keeping secrets. I’m a little too accustomed to being careful.”

“Okay,” Haiden acknowledged. “So who is this Merlin Key? Are they here at the camp?”

Holding up a hand, the Seosten man murmured, “First, yes, they are here at the camp. But before we get into the who, we need to make something clear.” His eyes moved over everyone in the room slowly, his voice firm. “This is the one chance to bring Arthur back. One. If we fuck this up, he’s gone forever. And here’s the thing, even the Imperium doesn’t actually know what might make him return. We know who is supposed to bring him back, but not how. Putting that person in danger might be the thing that triggers it. Or that might stop it. No one knows. But we do know that if Metatron and the other Seraphim find out that you know who it is, let alone that you’re trying to make it happen, they might just panic. The last thing we need is panicking hostile Seraphim in the middle of a truce. So everything we talk about here, everything, has to stay secret. I mean it cannot leave this room. At all. I don’t care how much you trust someone else, things have a way of getting out there.”

Abigail’s mouth opened to respond to that, but Athena spoke first. “He’s right. We won’t get another chance to bring Arthur back. If this goes wrong, that’s it. So we have to make it perfect. Which means not letting the information out of this room. If anyone here isn’t okay with that, you’re free to leave.”

Apollo nodded, arms folding across his chest. “Believe us, if the Seosten Empire can stop Arthur from returning, they will. Too many of them will always see him as too much of a threat to their power, instead of as the ally against the Fomorians that he could be. So we’re gonna have to play this perfectly. Which is gonna mean keeping secrets. For now.”

“We can do that.” That was Vanessa, her voice soft and reflective. “If it’s a chance to bring Arthur back to life, I think you’re probably right about keeping it secret.”

“But if the Imperium already knows who it is,” Flick put in, “what if they get jumpy and order something done about them?”

“I’ll be the one they ask,” Mercury pointed out. “And I’ll give you the heads up. That’s another reason for why we have to keep it secret. If they find out I’m talking to you, this whole thing blows up.”  

Slowly, and with various degrees of reluctance, everyone in the room agreed to keep the identity of the Merlin Key secret, until the time was right. Once they had all done so, Tristan offered, “You know, this might be a bad time to ask, but are we keeping the whole Merlin Key thing secret from… well, them? The person themselves, I mean. Cuz that could be a pretty big conversation all by itself.”

“It’s okay,” Mercury informed him simply, “that’s not a conversation you have to have. Mostly because I already had it. I’ve revealed myself to the Merlin Key and I’ve been talking them through it for the past few days. It felt like something they should know ahead of time. I’ve been helping them deal with it.”

“You have?” Tristan blurted, snapping his fingers. “Oh. Well, I was kind of thinking it’d be Avalon. You know, the name Avalon and all. It seemed appropriate.” He frowned then. “Except they were trying pretty hard to kill her before… huh. Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s no one in this room,” Mercury assured him with a slight smile. “Though I have asked them to come here. Now that we’ve talked it out this far, they should be–”

Once again, the people in the cabin were interrupted by a knock at the door. As everyone else looked that way, Lincoln stepped over, glanced to the others, and then opened it.

Everyone watched then as the person destined to bring back the Once and Future King stepped hesitantly into the room, the door closing behind them.

“Uhhh… hi. I umm, I guess back when Arthur was still… right before his village was attacked, right before he… before he became a Dragon-Heretic, my grandfather was the Reaper who met him.

“Which I guess means,” Aylen Tamaya continued, “I’m the one who has to wake him up.”

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Summer Epilogue 9 (Heretical Edge)

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“Well, guys… you’ve assembled quite a little group here.” As he spoke, Haiden Moon glanced around at the other occupants of this small cabin. Sariel was there beside him, as were Apollo, Lincoln, Abigail, and Wyatt. They were arranged around a table, their eyes on the other side of the room where Vanessa and Tristan stood with Flick and Tabbris. Guinevere stood in the corner of the room, watching the proceedings.

“Yeah, you have,” Abigail agreed. Her gaze was focused intently on the quartet who had asked all of them to come. “I was even planning on going with Koren and the others on that hike that Klassin’s running until you asked to meet up here.”

“Don’t worry,” Tristan assured her, “there’ll be other hikes. But this is a lot bigger.”

“Why?” Abigail pressed. “What’s going on? Did… something else happen?”

Apollo, who had been watching them closely, spoke up. “I’m pretty sure something happened a couple weeks ago. Something that let them know what was going on with Sean.”

Instead of answering immediately, Flick and the other three exchanged glances. Finally, Vanessa was the first to speak. “Something did happen. But it happened awhile ago. We… umm, we couldn’t… exactly talk about it before…” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable while shifting from foot to foot.

“Hey, Nessabird,” Haiden started while frowning a little at his daughter’s nervousness. “It’s okay. You know you guys can tell us anything. No one here is gonna get mad at you, whatever it is.”

Lincoln nodded slowly, his own gaze centered on Flick and Tabbris. “Girls? Something’s been off with you lately. Especially today. But if something’s wrong, something that’s got you this… out of it, even after everything else that’s happened…”

Apollo, whose gaze had been more on Gwen than the children, spoke quietly. “Oh yeah, something’s definitely been off. But for longer than that. It’s been off since around–”

“We don’t like lying to you,” Flick abruptly blurted. “We hate it. We… hated it. But we had to.”

Raising an eyebrow, Sariel echoed in a slow, soft voice, “You… had to lie?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, only curious, as her eyes moved from Flick to her own children. She said nothing else to prompt or push them, content even now to let the story come in their own time.

Tabbris, who was half-hiding behind Flick while clinging to the girl’s waist, nodded. “We had to. Magic ‘had to.’ It was part of the deal.”

Before Sariel or any of the others could question that, Tristan spoke up. “We should really start from the beginning instead of skipping around so much. It’d be a lot less confusing. So um, it started back on that prison lab, the one… the one Kushiel was running, when we were…” He hesitated, glancing toward Sariel. “When we were saving Mom.”

Haiden leaned forward, glancing to his wife before turning his attention back to the group that had called them all here. “That’s right, you four were off on your own at the end of that, weren’t you? You made it to the room just before Apollo showed up to help.”

“We made it a little sooner than that,” Tristan muttered. “We made it in time to hit that security field that knocked Tabs out of Flick.”

Eyes widening just a bit, Abigail blurted, “I’m sorry, what? There was some kind of anti-possession field and you walked into it with Tabbris?”

Wincing a little, Flick nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t know about that until it was too late. We walked into the room just outside the place where that transport ship thing was and suddenly she was… outside me.”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Tabbris added, “Uh huh. It felt funny. And then Miss Jophiel showed up.”

For as simply as she stated those words, the girl might as well have thrown a bomb into the middle of the room. Two different chairs hit the floor as both Sariel and Lincoln jolted to their feet. Several people spoke at once, all talking over each other.

Finally, Apollo cleared his throat. “Ahem. Maybe it’d be easier to get the answers you’re all looking for if you let them keep talking.”

His words made Sariel flush a little, but she remained standing, her gaze fixed on her children. “What… do you mean, Jophiel was there?” Her voice was careful and deliberate, but it was very clearly a shell covering her true fear at the revelation that the other Seosten had seen Tabbris.

It was apparently Vanessa’s turn to speak, drawing her mother’s (and everyone else’s) attention with, “She came in her host.” A brief pause, then, “Elisabet, from the Committee.”

Again, there was a flurry of reactions. Lincoln was staring at Flick. While most of the others were talking, he met her gaze and silently mouthed, ‘Are you okay?’ Getting a quick nod from the girl, he relaxed just a little. It helped.

Wyatt, meanwhile, was on his feet, though he said nothing. For once, he wasn’t blurting out conspiracy theories or accusations. Instead, the man drew a notebook from his pants and proceeded to scribble in it quickly. He crossed out several entries, added a few words to others, and even seemed to draw a picture. Meanwhile, everyone else kept talking, until Sariel stepped around the table and moved to where the children were. “She… did she…”

“They didn’t hurt us,” Tabbris promised her mother, hesitating slightly before moving to embrace her tightly. “We’re sorry, Mama. We’re sorry we didn’t tell you, but we couldn’t.”

“Magic.” Of all people, it was Abigail who realized that first. “They used magic to make sure you couldn’t tell anyone about them seeing you, didn’t they?”

“That figures,” Apollo muttered, adding a few words in Latin that was clearly a curse of some kind.

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “But it’s–it’s not like they wanted to hurt us or anything. They weren’t setting up a trap or… you know, they could’ve told the Empire about Tabbris way back then. They could’ve captured us. They–right, gotta tell it in order.” He looked to his sister for help explaining.

“We freaked out,” Vanessa supplied dryly. “Especially when Jophiel, umm… revealed herself. It was scary. I mean, they knew about Tabbris, and we couldn’t exactly… fight her. We couldn’t fight either of them. But it’s like Tristan said, they didn’t want to hurt us or anything.”

“You keep saying ‘they,’” Haiden observed, trying to keep his mind from spinning out. “But it sounds like it was just Jophiel and her host. Are you saying that…”

“They’re a couple,” Flick confirmed, clearly watching everyone’s reaction to that. “Jophiel and Elisabet. I mean, even when she’s not possessed, Elisabet is head over heels for Jophiel. Still.”

Apollo coughed. “I don’t know how much I’d trust that. Jophiel’s got ways of manipulating people’s feelings. Supernatural ways.”

“Yeah, she checked that.” Flick gestured to the corner of the room where Gwen stood, the woman nodding once in acknowledgment. “She used something to block Jophiel’s Olympian power and it didn’t change how Elisabet felt. They’re in love. They’ve been in love for a long time. But that’s not the point. I mean, it really is a huge part of the point, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Vanessa nodded in agreement. “Yeah, totally getting ahead of ourselves. Jophiel and Elisabet showed up, but they didn’t want to turn us in. They… they wanted our help.”

“Your help?” Apollo echoed, glancing toward Sariel as the woman held Tabbris close. “Help with what, exactly?”

Tristan took that one. “They don’t want to dominate humans anymore. I mean they didn’t want to, even before we got the spell from that vault.”

“Jophiel’s in love with Elisabet,” Flick added. “So she wants humans and Seosten to work together. You know, sort of… combine forces.”

Vanessa quickly pushed on while everyone stared. “They said the best way to make an alliance with the humans is to prove to the Seraphim that humans and Seosten working together willingly is better than their other system. The umm, constant enslavement and manipulation of our entire society, I mean. And the way to do that–”

Lincoln realized what she was going to say first, supplying, “–was to show them human-Seosten hybrids and a human-Seosten possession pairing worked together willingly instead of with slavery. They wanted Flick and Tabbris to show their leaders how effective a willing, cooperative partnership could be.” Pausing then, he added with a frown, “Because apparently those same leaders haven’t heard it enough times from Athena’s rebels, or that Chayyiel girl’s people. Or basic common sense. Remind me, how did they get to be your people’s leaders again?”

“Trust me, it takes a lot to convince the Seraphim of anything,” Apollo informed him in a flat voice. “It kind of needs to be hammered home a lot. And sometimes I’d really like to do that with an actual hammer.”

Looking a bit troubled, her forehead wrinkling thoughtfully, Flick put in, “Anyway, they’ve kind of adjusted a lot of the plan now, especially the timeframe, considering the whole ‘one year to prove they shouldn’t invade’ thing. But the deal we made back then was that they would teach us what they knew, that they’d… you know, train us to impress the Seraphim so we could convince them that an alliance is better than slavery.”

“And God forbid they use themselves as the example,” Abigail muttered darkly, “instead of using children. After magically forcing them to keep it a secret from their families.”

“Wait, just… wait.” Flick’s head shook. “That’s not really fair. I mean, yes, they strong-armed us into keeping it secret, but they were just protecting themselves. It’s a really big secret. Like Vanessa and Tristan said, they could have completely destroyed us if they wanted to. They could have taken us in, exposed Tabbris, kept Sariel imprisoned… they didn’t. And their plan, the one about teaching us to be an example for the Seraphim, that… like it or not, it’s a better plan than anything else we’ve got. The Seosten leaders obviously aren’t going to listen to people they see as rebels or traitors. Jophiel staying in power long enough to train us and then using us as the example might sound crazy or like they’re taking advantage of us, but they’re kind of just working with the hand they were dealt. Maybe they’re not perfect, like with the whole… being okay with enslaving other races just because they think it’s the best way to beat the Fomorians thing. But they’re not that bad.”

Vanessa was nodding. “Yeah, and really… they would be putting themselves at risk. As they pointed out already, the Seraphim aren’t stupid. They’d figure out that Elisabet and Jophiel weren’t exactly a normal Seosten-slave host relationship pretty quick once they started talking up the benefits of being partners. Like Flick said, maybe they’ve done some shady stuff, but they’ve also got the best chance of actually convincing the Seraphim of changing things. Bright wishes and hopes just aren’t going to do it. Maybe their plan can.”

“Still,” Abigail insisted, “They just had to terrorize a handful of minors into doing what they… what they…” She trailed off then, her eyes widening as something occurred to her. “Those… God… damn…” Abruptly, the woman jerked upright, staring at Flick. “They made rescuing Sariel a condition, didn’t they? They made rescuing their mother a condition.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan while her voice cracked audibly. “If you guys wanted to free her, you had to agree to their plan.”

Hearing that was enough to make Sariel drop to one knee, wrapping both arms around Tabbris tightly. “You–oh. You’re right. They–she would… Jophiel would do that.” She sounded stricken upon the realization that her own imprisonment and subsequent freedom had been used to essentially blackmail her children into obeying Jophiel and Elisabet.

Swallowing hard, Flick managed, “Yes. But we would’ve agreed to a lot more than that. All they wanted was for us to meet with them for training any time they wanted so they could use us to prove their point to the Seraphim, and to keep the truth about their own relationship secret. I mean, we had to keep all of it secret. They used magic to make sure we couldn’t talk about it.”

“I knew it!” That was Wyatt, suddenly blurting out loud as he pointed at Flick. “I knew you had a different spell on you! I could smell it. I could taste it. But I couldn’t see it. They hid it really well. But I knew. Iiiii knew it. Thought I was being paranoid, huh? No! You were spelled. I tried to find the spell, but I couldn’t. I thought it was Gaia’s spell, the one she broke to let you bring back the rebellion. That was a secret spell too. So I thought the secret spell I sensed on you was that one. But it wasn’t! I mean, it wasn’t just that. You had that one and this one, and–”

He paused then, frowning at Flick. “Has it occurred to you that you get a lot of secret magic put on you?”

With a tiny smile, the blonde girl nodded to him. “It, uhhh, crossed my mind a few times, yeah.”

Haiden had moved by then to take a knee by the twins, holding one of each of their hands. “They said you had to take this secrecy spell thing to save your mom, and you went for it?”

Blinking away tears rapidly, Vanessa stammered, “W-we had to. It was Mom. It was our chance to get her back. They said that… they said they’d give us the passcode to unlock her stasis chamber.”

“That’s how you had that,” Sariel breathed, rising to step that way while pulling Tabbris with her. She embraced all three of her children, and her husband, together. “I thought there was… something about it that you weren’t telling. But I didn’t know it was anything like this.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Flick carefully explained. “They really do seem like they want humans and Seosten to work together.”

“And other species?” Abigail prompted pointedly. “How do they feel about stopping all enslavement?” Seeing the expression on her younger sister’s face, she nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. And I don’t see them speaking up to stop the mistreatment of SPS Seosten either.”

Finally speaking up for the first time, Gwen asked from her spot in the corner, “SPS?”  

“Sticky-Possession-Syndrome,” Flick supplied. “Miranda made it up. It’s better than calling them Lies.”

“Huh,” Gwen murmured thoughtfully. “Yes, I imagine it is.” She went quiet once more, allowing the group to continue their story.

Tristan was shaking his head at Abigail. “Yeah, they’re not exactly all-in on ‘everyone is equal’ yet. It’s more of a human and Seosten thing. But hey, it’s a start. It’s probably easier to go from ‘humans and Seosten should totally be allies’ to ‘all the non-assholes band together against the assholes’ than to get there from ‘everyone who isn’t Seosten is worthless.’”

Muttering something under her breath about how that should be self-evident, Abigail continued to bristle for a moment before sighing audibly. “Fine, it’s a start. But they made you lie to everyone.”

Tabbris’ head bobbed up and down while she clung to her mother. Her voice was quiet. “W-we’re sorry. We had to take the spells so we could save Mama.”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Lincoln assured her. He exchanged a brief look with Sariel before reaching out to pick the young girl up, holding her to him. “No one’s mad at you.”

“I can think of a few choice words I have for those two, though,” Haiden put in, his eyes cloudy as he stared at the nearby wall as though imagining having a chance to confront the pair.

Looking over to Sariel, Lincoln asked, “What do you know about this… Jophiel?”

There was a brief pause from the Seosten woman before her head shook. “It’s been a long time since I had much to do with her. If she’s really in love with a human… then she’s changed a lot.”

“She is,” Gwen put in. “I put them both through enough tests to be sure of it. Elisabet’s feelings for her are real. And as far as I can tell, so are Jophiel’s toward Elisabet. It makes sense given what they’ve done. Jophiel wants to prove humans are okay to ally with so that she can be open about her relationship with Elisabet. But they want to use these kids to prove it. Which means getting them ready.”

“So they’ve been… training you?” Sariel asked carefully, her voice bristling with what was clearly tightly controlled anger.

The group exchanged glances before Vanessa nodded. “Teaching us how to use our Seosten gifts, how to fight, and… everything else they could think of that could be impressive. And they were teaching Flick and Tabbris how to work together.”

“Basically like what Athena started,” Flick put in, “but more intensive. Plus, they’ve worked together for so long, they have a lot of tips.”

“That’s just fantastic,” Haiden dryly remarked, “but how about they do it the right way, instead of sneaking around behind all our backs and magically forcing our kids to lie to us for months?” His words were followed by a collection of tight nods, as the adults tried not to let their kids see just how upset they were with the whole situation.

“What changed?” That was Wyatt, who spoke up while the others were all silent as they took in everything that the group had told them. “They had magic spells to keep you quiet. Why can you tell us now?”

Straightening a bit while still holding Tabbris, Lincoln looked toward Gwen. “That’s a good question. And I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with you.”

Flick nodded. “Yup. She umm, sort of accidentally found out part of the truth while she was posing as Harper, and I guess she followed us to find out more. She’s been keeping an eye on us.”

“And when all this went down,” the woman herself added, “there was no point to keeping my involvement secret. So we arranged a meeting a couple weeks ago and… made an arrangement for the secrecy spells to be removed. There’s little point to them. We have a year to prove to the Seraphim that invading this planet is a bad idea. Which they have their way of doing, and I have mine.”

That drew Sariel’s attention. The woman looked to her, blinked once, then realized. “Arthur. You want to bring Arthur back.”

“Having him would tend to push the Seosten toward cooperation, yes,” Gwen confirmed. “Not that I don’t like the idea of happy alliances against the bigger threat, but with people like the Seosten, it’s a good idea to extend one open hand while holding a really big gun with the other.” Pausing, she added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Apollo and Sariel both replied simultaneously. The two exchanged looks of their own that said just how much was going through their minds, before Apollo added by himself, “We need to talk to Jophiel. About this and a lot of other things.”

“She said you’d say that,” Tristan informed them. “And they said they’ll meet with you later, once they can get away. Plus, we have this other meeting first.”

“Other meeting?” Lincoln echoed, frowning.

Gwen took over once more. “To bring Arthur back, we need to identify the Merlin Key, the prophesied figure who will wake him up. That person is supposed to be one of the students at Crossroads.”

“And Jophiel knows who?” Apollo quickly asked, his eyes widening. “I couldn’t get that much, even with what was, let me tell you, an awful lot of work.”

“She knows someone who probably knows who,” Flick informed them, biting her lip then before adding a quiet, “Mercury.”

That made the two Seosten look at each other once more, their eyes meeting before Sariel snapped, “Mercury is here too?”

The teens started to respond to that, only to stop as there was a knock at the door. Gwen, standing next to it, glanced to the door, looked it up and down before whistling softly as she reached out to tug it open, revealing a figure standing there.

“Good evening,” the man who appeared to be Benji Carfried announced. “May I come in?

“I’m told we have things to discuss.”

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Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Patreon Snippets 3

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

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

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

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

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

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

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

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So again, what are you going to do?

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You may surrender.“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

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

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

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

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

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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