Apollo

Interim Incursion 43-01 (Columbus)

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To be honest, Columbus was pretty sick of the Seosten Empire at this point.

Everything he learned about them, everything he heard from others about their monstrous actions in their war against the Fomorians, all the lows they were willing or eager to sink to, all of it just made him want to find the people in charge of their society and beat them until he couldn’t swing his fists anymore.

But that was the problem. He couldn’t do that, or it just wouldn’t accomplish anything. They were so far outside his league that he might as well have been a fly dreaming about upper cutting a human being. Their leadership, the ones actually responsible for all of this, were untouchable.

At least… directly. But he could screw with their plans. He could be a fly that buzzed in their ear at the right moment and ruined what they were trying to do. Even if he couldn’t take them on directly, he could hurt them. He could help fuck over those sadistic, enslaving bastards with every breath he had.

That was why he had to be a part of this. A mission that would stop the Seosten from enslaving Heretics here on Earth? Yes. Yes, he was all over that. If the headmistress or other adults had tried to keep them out of it… he didn’t know what he would have done, but he definitely would not have sat out and done nothing. The Seosten had been fucking with him and people he cared about for too long, to say nothing of how long they had been fucking with the human race in general. Columbus was going to help kick them in the collective balls, come hell or high water.

“Hey.” Shiori’s voice pulled him out of his introspection. “You okay?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around. They were sitting in the back of a van. They, in this case, referred to himself, his sister, and Avalon, Doug, Sean, Sands, and Scout. The rest of his team aside from Flick. In the front of the van, Larissa was driving, with Haiden beside her.

“Am I okay?” he echoed while turning his gaze back to Shiori. “It’s a chance to fuck over the Seosten. Yeah, I’m good.”

Sean, sitting in the seat behind them, leaned up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Damn straight. We’re going to teach these caremondas that their puppets don’t like having their strings pulled anymore.”

From his place beside Sean, Doug murmured, “I just hope we get there soon. I really can’t take much more of this waiting.”

They had to drive to the vault’s location because Crossroads did not allow any special transportation anywhere near it. No teleportation, no superspeed, no portals, nothing. They had the whole place locked down tight. Not only that, there was some kind of special spatial affect around it that made traveling to the vault physically several times longer than it should be. That allowed the people inside plenty of time to see who was coming and prepare if there was trouble. They had to travel along a deceptively simple looking dirt road for miles and miles just to get there.

From the driver’s seat, Larissa apparently heard Doug, because she called back, “Five minutes, guys. We’re almost there.”

Five minutes. They would be there in five minutes. Taking a breath, Columbus turned to look behind them. The second van was coming along right on their heels. Gaia and Dare sat in the front of that one, the latter driving. Sariel was in the back, along with Apollo, Dries Aken, and a handful of the freed Seosten who had agreed to come with and help.

Dries hadn’t been any more comfortable being around all those Seosten than Columbus would have been. But he was still working with Apollo and Sariel to discuss various things they might be able to do to change Liesje’s spell once they got hold of it. If they got hold of it. As well as discussing what defenses she might have put on it in addition to what was provided by the vault. Given their dramatically shortened timetable thanks to the Seosten making their move early, everyone was scrambling to be ready.

The rear van would also appear to be much emptier than it actually was, as far as the vault’s security was concerned. Apparently, just like Crossroads itself, the automated part of the security, the spells and technology that let the staff know who and how many were approaching, were blind to Seosten unless they chose to be seen. It was the same weakness, built into their society from the ground up, that had allowed Charmiene to wander freely through the school grounds without alerting anything.

They wouldn’t be invisible to actual people once they left the van, but that wouldn’t be a problem by that point.

Looking toward Avalon then, he saw the distracted look on her face. She was clearly busy worrying about what was going on with Flick. Just like Shiori, who was occupying herself by asking how he was doing.

“Hey,” Columbus spoke up toward Avalon, “you ready to see what your ancestor left for you?” An incredibly blatant and obvious attempted to draw her attention away from worrying about her girlfriend, of course. But obvious was all Columbus had at that point.

The girl took a moment, letting out a long breath while pushing a strand of dark hair back behind her ear with a thumb. “I just want to get this over with. Those assholes have been hunting my family for literally generations. They killed my mother. They… this needs to end.” Her voice was strained, making it perfectly clear just how much this was affecting her. As if it hadn’t been just from the look in her eyes.

“It will.” That was Scout, speaking up quietly from her place beside her sister. “We’re ending it.”

Sands nodded. “And Flick’ll be okay. She’s with Athena, remember?”

“Actually,” Columbus put in, “that reminds me, at what point do the Seosten leaders ask themselves why both the Olympian who embodies strategy and tactics and the one most associated with seeing the future decided the best way to beat the Fomorians was to change their entire society through civil war?”

Doug muttered, “I’m pretty sure if the Seosten leaders were capable of asking themselves introspective questions like that, Earth would’ve been cordially invited to join the Seosten Interstellar Alliance of Planets two and a half thousand years ago.”

The van pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a simple farm. But from the extensive briefings they’d been given, Columbus knew better. The farmhouse itself was where the lobby and offices of the vaults were. They had to go there first to check in and be taken through security procedures to ensure that they were who they said they were. The nearby barn held all the heavy duty equipment that would be brought out if anyone tried to take the vaults by force. Not every vault under their control was a blood vault. Those were extremely specialized and rare. There were many items under their protection that relied on ‘normal’ security measures.

As Columbus understood it, most of the vaults, blood or otherwise, weren’t even actually located anywhere near this place. It was just that the only entrances to get to them, through continually active portals of sorts, were kept here. The vaults themselves could be anywhere in the world, normally heavily buried and protected by a myriad of spells. Or even in their own little pocket dimension.

The way to those vault entrances was through the grain silo. It was an elevator of sorts, according to Gaia and Larissa. Once they were cleared by the staff in the house, they would be taken to the silo.

The other van pulled in behind them, and Columbus started to get out with the others. He glanced over to Shiori, hesitating. Even just glancing at her now, months after he had been freed, the boy couldn’t get Charmiene’s threats out of his head. Everything she had promised to do to hurt his sister. Everything she would have done given half an excuse, still haunted him. He couldn’t stop hearing her voice. He woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and had to get up just to prove to himself that he could. Sean had woken up more than once to find Columbus slapping himself, using the pain and the motion of his arm to convince himself that he was still in control.

Talking to Klassin Roe helped, but the nightmares were nowhere near going away. Maybe this right here would help. Maybe fucking over the Seosten this much would give him some kind of closure.

Shiori had clearly noticed him looking, because if she met his gaze and managed a slight smile despite her obvious worry. “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing right now?”

“Hiking,” Columbus immediately replied. “They’re definitely hiking. And Mom is taking pictures while Dad complains that she’s already got hundreds of them. Mom will see some bird or something that she wants that perfect picture of, so they’ll  go wandering off the trail. But it’s okay because they’ve been all over that place so much they know it better than the rangers. They’ll wander out there. Dad’ll complain but he’ll go anyway because he can never really tell her no. He’ll make a big show of it and pretend to be lost. But then he’ll lead her to some picnic spot he set up ahead of time.”

He paused then, head tilting. “Mom and Dad are kind of dorks, aren’t they?“

Snorting, Shiori retorted, “Duh, have you met us?”

Her smile was more genuine then. “I helped him set up picnics sometimes.”

Columbus grinned back at her despite himself. “I helped Mom decide what exotic bird she’d pretend to see as an excuse to go off the trail. I’m pretty sure Dad caught on when we started using South American birds.”

The others had climbed out by that point. Everyone from their van was stretching in the parking lot. But from the other van, only Gaia and Dare emerged. The Seosten, still invisible to any detection magic, stayed in the vehicle. And Apollo had ensured that no one glancing that way from outside the van would see anything amiss.

Cracking her knuckles, Professor Dare waved a hand, calling, “Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road.”

Rather than immediately start in with the others, Columbus hesitated a moment, scanning their faces. He wanted to see if he could notice when it happened. Because those words had been a signal for the Seosten in the van. Immediately, they would have recalled to Gaia, Dare, Doug, Sands, Scout, and Sean, having possessed them earlier just to make this possible.

Shiori and Avalon could not be possessed, and Columbus, for obvious reasons, had chosen not to. So it was simply those four who now had an extra passenger.

They could have simply been possessing them the entire time, of course. But for obvious reasons, everyone was more comfortable being possessed for as short of a time as possible. Besides, though it was mainly a Dries/Sariel/Apollo project, the other Seosten still wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to fix the spell when they found it. After all, it affected their people.

But even knowing it was about to happen, and watching for it, he still couldn’t tell exactly when his teammates were possessed. Which somehow made him feel even worse about the whole situation even though the obvious point was that they weren’t actually exerting any control, thus there was nothing to see.

With a soft sigh then, he followed the others toward the house. Dries would be waiting in the van while using some kind of magic to make himself as invisible to detection spells as the latter. Between that and Apollo’s magic on the van itself to thwart anyone glancing through the windows, they would be safe there until things went down.

Two elderly men, guards apparently, sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. As the group approached, one of the men spoke up. “Headmistress.”

“Chauncey,” Gaia greeted him with a smile. “How are Emma and Diane?”

The man shrugged. “Emma’s chomping at the bit to head to your school next year. And Diane’s preparing a dissertation on how she should be allowed to attend too, because she’s totally at least three years more advanced for her age.” Eying the woman, he added a sly, “What do you say? You want a precocious and motivated fourteen-year-old next year to shake things up?”

Chuckling softly, Gaia informed the man that things were already quite shaken enough without help. The man expressed mock disappointment before saying something to his partner. Then he stood up and moved to the door. “Come on,” he started easily, “I’ll take you through. Using a little student help to clear out one of your old vaults? Extra credit project?”

On the way, Columbus couldn’t help but wonder what Flick was doing right then. Was she in that hotel yet? How long would they have to wait? And just how long would they be able to stop the group there from breaking into the vault through the supposed back door? Would they be enough? All those questions and more kept rebounding through his mind. And a glance toward the others made it pretty clear that they were in the same position.

The door into the ‘farmhouse’ didn’t lead into anything resembling what it appeared to from the outside. Instead, Columbus and the others found themselves standing in what actually looked like a fairly modern bank lobby. The floor was marble, while the room itself stretched out several times larger than the entire building should have been. There were various pillars leading to a wide domed roof with stained glass windows, a security station straight ahead with a handful of armed and armored soldier-like figures standing beside what looked like metal detectors, and a wider area beyond where the bank personnel were all working with various clients at desks separated by privacy shields. At the far end of the wide open room was an alcove that reached all the way to the ceiling, with an enormous statue of Hieronymus Bosch.

Yeah, Columbus was pretty sure it was a good thing Dries had stayed out in the van. Even now, every adult Heretic likely knew what the man who killed Bosch looked like. And they might object to him coming into their bank.

The ‘farmer’ who walked them in stopped by the security checkpoint desk, as he and the guards there took a minute to chat casually with Gaia. One of them even recognized Larissa and came around to embrace her tightly, going on about how much she’d helped his son back when she’d had Peterson Neal’s current job as Head of Student Affairs. The man made her promise to visit that son and his new wife at some point before turning back to the rest of them.

“Okay, let’s get you all on through here. Everyone needs to move through the checkpoint. I hope you don’t have any weapons or unauthorized magic on you, because that’ll set off the machine. It’s going to give us a list of every bit of active magic. So no weapons, no unnecessary spells, no extradimensional containers that might have weapons on them…”

“It’s quite alright,” Gaia assured the man, stepping through the machine and out the other side first with no apparent issue. “They are all well prepared for this step.”

It was true. Everyone moved through the detector without setting it off. Even Sean didn’t have Vulcan with him for once. Nor did Avalon have her new little lizard, Porthos. Columbus wasn’t even allowed to wear his goggles into the building. But all of them were… well, close.

Once they passed through the detectors, a man in an extremely old-fashioned suit with ancient-looking bifocals and an actual white powdered wig approached. “Headmistress,” he began in a voice that sounded like he was literally talking through his nose, “So very good to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’ll begin the procedure to grant access to your vaults.”

With a smile, Gaia simply replied, “I’m afraid it’s not my vaults we’ll be visiting today, Fenwick. We’ll need to access my daughter’s vault.”

Blinking twice, the man turned his head that way. “Daughter’s vault? I wasn’t aware that Miss–ahh… that your daughter had a vault with us.”

“Liesje Aken’s vault,” Gaia informed him, like she was just giving him the name of a soup brand.

That made Fenwick do a quick double-take, mouth opening. “Ah, I’m sorry? I mean… I’d heard the rumors of course, but I– if you’re saying the girl is truly… if…” He paused, clearly taking a moment to find the right words. “It will all need to be verified, of course.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied dryly, “fortunately, our blood vaults come with a very simple method of identity verification which should make that quite simple.”

Giving a soft cough, the man bowed his head. “Of course. Let us see what–” In mid-sentence, he was interrupted by an annoying buzzer. It blared loudly, followed by a series of loud clanging sounds as a series of thick metal shields descended across every door in the room, as well as the stained glass windows above. In seconds, the entire room was cut off. The rest of the staff and customers were looking around in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, their mutterings getting louder.

Fenwick cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with the security system lately. It keeps triggering the lockdown. We thought we had it fixed, but… well, I’m afraid we might be here for a little while until they sort out the new problem.”

From where he was standing by Larissa, Haiden remarked, “Sounds like you need some new engineers.”

Gaia, meanwhile, calmly asked, “Would you like some help with that?”

“Well, sure,” Fenwick quickly answered. “Of course, you probably won’t be able to do anything. The shields are spelled to be protected, and the control boxes for them are secreted in random pocket dimensions, far outside the reach of any kind of tech manipulation. Not to mention the spells and shields protecting them from influence. I’m afraid it’s quite impossi–”

That was as far as the man got before all the shields over the doors and windows abruptly retracted at once.

“I took the liberty of permanently disabling them,” Gaia informed the man casually. “That seemed the most prudent course, until you’re able to send people in to diagnose the problem.” She gave a very slight smile then. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, we should.” The answer came not from Fenwick in front of them, but from behind them, near the security station. As Columbus and the others turned, they found that Chauncey guy, the ‘farmer’ from the front porch who had walked them in. Now, the man was standing with some kind of massive harpoon gun leveled at them. Beside him, every security officer they’d passed was doing the same with their own weapons.

Almost in unison, everyone else in the bank leveled weapons at the group. Fenwick, the other employees, even the supposed customers. All of them, without fail or hesitation, drew arms and moved to surround them.

“You just couldn’t wait one more day, could you?” Chauncey complained. “One more day and then we all could’ve moved on from these hosts and no one would’ve been hurt.”

Seosten. All of them were possessed. Every last person in the bank, each a Heretic, was being puppeted. The whole thing was a trap.

Boy, if that had been a surprise, it probably would’ve been a bad one.

A forcefield appeared around them. Not part of the trap. It was Larissa, projecting the shield in a dome.

“Let me tell you how this is gonna go,” Chauncey, or the Seosten controlling him, continued. “First.” He snapped his fingers, and Columbus’s attention was instantly drawn to the nearby wall, where some kind of turret or cannon appeared. The thing sighted in at them with a threatening high-pitched whine of power, before just as quickly falling silent.

An instant later, it disappeared, only to be replaced by a different cannon that appeared at a different part of the wall. It too powered up to shoot before going quiet. Then three appeared at once, in different parts of the room. Then a single one directly above them. Then four together.

“Yeah, that’s gonna keep going,” Chauncey informed them. “Gaia there, she’s disabling these things the second they appear. But here’s the trick. They’re gonna keep coming. Every second or two, sometimes more than one. Maybe a dozen at once. Maybe just one. But they’ll keep transporting in, and if you give them even an instant to get a shot off, well… then you’ll be leaving with less people than you came in with, I’ll tell you that much. Those are capital ship-tier cannons, which will treat that cute little forcefield like tissue paper. If the headmistress lets herself get distracted even for a moment to do anything other than disabling those things…” He made a face. “It won’t be pretty.

“So, she’s a little busy right now. Which leaves all of you…” He looked to Columbus, Shiori, Scout, Sands, Sean, Doug, Avalon, Haiden, and Larissa. Then he looked around the room at the much larger group surrounding them. “And all of us. While you don’t even have your weapons. Such a pity.”

To Gaia, the possessed man slyly remarked, “See, you shouldn’t have come in here with a bunch of students. I mean, you’re a bit busy right now to be doing anything else, and we’ll get through that forcefield in a few seconds. Or we can just wait for you to miss one of the turrets. Really, what were you thinking?”

Disabling seven turrets at once as they transported in, Gaia answered the man absently, “I am a teacher at heart. I like to think of everyone as my students. For example, consider this a lesson.”

A being of energy appeared beside the woman, resolving into Sariel. That was followed immediately by the appearance of Apollo, who stepped out of Sean. The man was holding a bag, which he opened up to allow Vulcan to hop out and join his partner. Four more Seosten were right behind him, emerging from Dare, Doug, Scout, and Sands. Each held the weapons that belonged to their respective host, and handed them over as soon as they appeared.

From Haiden and Larissa respectively, Tristan and Vanessa appeared. Both of them held their respective host’s weapons, which they passed along as well. Vanessa followed that up by tossing Columbus’ goggles to him, while Tristan produced Avalon’s gauntlets and Porthos for the girl.

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Then they were all just as armed as the ones who surrounded them, while having added considerably to their numbers.

“Man,” Doug put in, “you guys are not used to people using your own tricks against you.”

Apollo snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”

“It… it doesn’t matter,” Chauncey retorted, though he seemed somewhat shaken. “You think this is the only people we brought to deal with you, witch? We brought an entire army. Hundreds, just to turn you people into so many smears on the ground.” His hand touched the communication badge on his pocket, and he announced, “Send in the rest of the troops. We’re ending this.”

There was a brief, expectant pause. Then, “What do you mean busy? What attack? Who–Gabriel Prosser’s–”

He stopped talking then, slowly lifting his gaze to look at Gaia.

“That,” the headmistress informed him while disabling another six turrets that popped into existence, “is another lesson.”

“You know,” Apollo remarked, “we will respect any one of you who wants to surrender right now.”

Instead, Chauncey leveled that harpoon gun. “Raise turret generation speed by five hundred percent.”

Instantly, the cannons began appearing much faster and with more at once. Dozens were popping into existence all over the room, generating as fast as Gaia could disable them. Each capable of punching a hole through a starship, and each only prevented from doing so by Gaia’s power.

“She’ll lose track,” Chauncey all-but snarled. “She’ll miss one. In the meantime, the rest of you… open fire,” he snapped. “Break the shield and kill them.

“Hope you guys are ready!” Haiden called, even as the gunfire started.

“Cuz here we go.”

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Interlude 42B – Radueriel and Abaddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus Interlude – Team Stranded

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“All the planets in the universe,” Sands Mason announced, “and it turns out that the last piece of the banishment orb thing that we need to fix what was done to Mr. Moon happens to be on the first real alien world that my team went to?”

It was true. She, along with Jazz, Roxa, Gordon, Haiden, and Larissa, were standing on one of the many sandy dunes across the Meregan homeworld.

“It’s not too surprising,” Haiden pointed out. “Tristan was brought here, after all. So of course one of the bits of the broken orb is here too.”

Larissa nodded. “And we’ve got all the others. This is the last one. Once we get it… we can go home.”

Their search had been immeasurably hastened with the aid of Athena. With the woman and her people, they had very quickly tracked down all the other remaining pieces, a process which, without that aid, very likely could have taken at least another year. With Athena and the Aelaestiam, it had taken only a couple of weeks.

Most of that time, honestly, had been spent getting back to the Aelaestiam base. And once they were there, they had gotten the somewhat disturbing news that there had been a visit from Chayyiel, who had simply walked into the top secret base with what was apparently the sole purpose of killing Isaac.

Isaac was dead. Just like that. It was still a strange thought for the students to get used to. As big of a piece of shit as he had turned out to be, it was still… still hard to think that he was just dead like that. Not hard from grief, really. More hard from… disbelief was one word for it. It didn’t seem real.

Beyond just freaking out about Chayyiel (though mostly before that had happened), Athena’s people had been working to find the rest of the shards, to the point that they’d either had direct portals set up to the area the shards were in, or actually had the shards themselves. All except for a couple, of which this was the last one.

Athena herself was busy with a certain other matter at that moment, along with Apollo. But they had both promised to meet them as soon as possible. And Dries had chosen to stay on the ship with Jokai. Which left the rest of the small group to find this final piece.

Roxa spoke up then. “So, we’re in a giant sandbox, and we’ve got to find a little shard about the size of my pinky finger. Not to mention the magic radiation crap Fossor left all over the place we need to search. Good thing we’ve got ways of cheating or this might be kind of hard.”

Haiden started walking then. “We’ll go to the… affected area, as close as we can get to where the scans narrowed it down to. Then we’ll send our little friends out from there.”

No one was surprised by the man’s eagerness to get started. After all, his entire family was back on Earth waiting for him to finally get there. He’d been waiting long enough.

As they all moved that way, Gordon looked to Sands, quietly asking, “So the Meregan, they all left with Nicholas Petan after you guys woke them up and settled the misunderstanding?”

“The ones who were left from the scouting ship after Fossor got done with the rest of their population,” the girl confirmed. “Most of them did anyway. I asked Tristan about it before, and he said there was a group who stayed here to try and rebuild something. But I’m not sure where they are right now. The odds that we’d happen to run into them with this entire planet to work with are… not huge.”

Roxa shook her head. “That’s still confusing. Tristan was frozen for a few years so he was still a little kid when you guys first met him. Then he went off and spent years with his great-whatever grandpa Nick to get up to the age we all are before being sent back in time to meet Flick and the others.” She paused, then shook her head. “Time travel always overcomplicates things. It’s annoying.”

Larissa smiled faintly. “Just be glad that there aren’t clones involved yet.”

They walked for another few minutes. Now they weren’t simply moving through featureless rolling sand dunes. There were ruins around them, the skeletal remains of structures that had been long-since destroyed. They could see single walls here or there, or even large, partly-intact pieces of buildings. It was an entire city that had been utterly destroyed many, many years earlier.

Haiden held up his hand. He held a sheet of paper in the other, his brow furrowed as he watched it. “That‘s it,” the man announced. “Dries’ spell says that we’re right at the edge. The shard is somewhere ahead of us, in that area about one square mile across.”

Jazz spoke up then. “So all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack the length of seventeen football fields. No big deal.”

Reaching out, Roxa patted the other girl on the back. “That’s why we’ve got our little helpers, remember?” Pausing, she amended, “Not so little in some of our cases.”

“Yeah,” Sands muttered, “and the fact that whatever Fossor did to this place before means it’s still poisoned even now.”

That, more than anything, was why they were not going to be able to go inside of that area with their human bodies. The magical radiation-like poison covering the land would have killed them entirely too quickly, powers be damned. Still, they had other options.

“Everyone get comfortable,” Larissa instructed. She had already produced a couple of blankets and laid them out for the group to sit on. “It shouldn’t take too long to find the shard, but still. We’ve got water and food. Keep your strength up and don’t try to act tough about it. If you need a break, take it.”

They all sat, arranging themselves before each took out a bit of wood that had already been prepared with the theriangelos spell.

It was the same spell that Flick used to summon her fox. Athena, Larissa, and Haiden had taught it to the kids over the past couple of weeks. Taught it to them, that was, with a bit of an upgrade. With the addition to the spell, the animals that were summoned would be able to track the first object they touched, or things related to it. In this case, they had brought along a piece of the broken orb with them. When the animals touched that piece, they would be able to sense the other piece if they were close enough.

Larissa finished first, a testament to how experienced she was in using this particular spell. At that moment, as she tossed it in the air, the enchanted bit of wood transformed into a small hummingbird. Its belly, bits around its eyes, and its beak were pink, the same aura color as her daughters. Meanwhile, the rest of its body was the standard red that existed on all of these summoned animals.

Haiden was the next to finish. His own stick grew much larger and shifted before becoming a red and bronze jaguar.

Almost directly after that, Gordon finished his own casting. His stick, like Larissa‘s, grew into a bird. His, however, was a great horned owl with a green body, while the underside of its wings, as well as its talons and beak, were red.  

Sands was next. Where the others had only grown a bit, with Haiden’s jaguar being the largest, hers exploded in size. It suddenly become an enormous rhinoceros, with a red main body and pink horn, face, and underside.

Jazz’s own animal grew large as well. Not as much as the rhino, but still big. Hers was a horse, its main body the white of her aura, while its hooves, mane, and tail were red.

Finally, there was Roxa. Her animal was… unique. At first glance, it appeared to be a wild cat, similar to Haiden’s jaguar though much smaller at only about twenty pounds. It was larger than a housecat, yet much smaller than a leopard or a cheetah. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be an odd combination between a cat and a weasel of some kind, along with a long tail similar to a monkey. The tail itself was about as long as the rest of the animal.

Despite its apparent similarity to a cat, the animal was not a feline. It was more closely related to a mongoose. The thing was quick and agile, able to rush through the trees and keep its balance with its semi retractable claws and that long tail.

Then there was its name, the name which had convinced all of the kids that Haiden and Larissa were messing with them somehow and had made Roxa spit out the water she had been drinking when they’d said it.

Fossa. The animal was called a fossa. Which was a name that was so close to a certain other name that everyone had misheard them the first time and thought they were saying that Roxa’s animal was somehow related to a psychotic necromancer. It was, however, apparently an animal native only to Madagascar. How that ended up being her animal Roxa would probably never understand.

The fossa was a rich mixture of bronze and red, her aura matching both Haiden and Tristan. When she and Tristan had first discovered their auras were identical, Tristan had joked that maybe he had another long lost relative. Roxa had snickered at the time, but now she was seriously leaning toward demanding a DNA test, given everything else that seemed to be happening.

That was their rather eclectic collection of animals, the menagerie they would use to search this area of desert. They had a jaguar, a hummingbird, an owl, a horse, a rhino, and a fossa.

It was still extremely disconcerting to experience the world through two different sets of senses in two different locations, so they all shut their human eyes and tried to ignore that side of themselves as much as possible. Instead, they focused their attention through their animals and began to spread out from there. They would work in pairs, in case one of them missed something. Haiden’s jaguar would search with Larissa’s hummingbird, Sands’ rhino with Jazz’s horse, and Roxa’s fossa with Gordon’s owl.

The other upgrade that they had received to the spell and worked into it, thanks to Athena in that case, was the ability to communicate through their animals. Each of the summoned and controlled creatures was capable of silent, essentially telepathic communication. Not that it was specifically needed when their human selves were sitting right next to one another, but it was still a nice thing to have. And having the communication be at the site of the animals instead of their human bodies would make it easier to avoid confusion about who was talking to who.

Did you talk to Jokai? As Sands’ rhino lumbered along through the sand, she addressed the horse beside her. About the um, the plan.

There was a moment of silence from the other girl briefly before she confirmed, He’s coming back to Earth with us. We’re going to help with whatever we can and all that. She paused once more before finishing with, And then when Athena leaves to come back out here, we’re coming with her. There was a firm note of finality to her words. I am not staying on Earth and I’m not going back to Crossroads.

Feeling a pang deep in her stomach (which was an odd sensation for it happening so far away from where they were having the actual discussion), Sands replied, I understand. I think we’ll all understand. But we’ll still miss you, you know.

Having her horse bump up against the other animal affectionately, Jazz injected a bit of brightness into her silent voice. Don’t worry so much. If Athena‘s plan about fixing up that prototype ship works, we’ll be able to go back and forth and visit whenever we want. So it’s not like it’ll be the last time we see each other or anything.

Sighing then, she added, I just can’t stay there, you know? I can’t go back to Crossroads and deal with all their lies. I can’t be a part of hunting Strangers when I’m in love with one of them. I love Jokai. I’m not going to pretend or hide that part of myself anymore than I absolutely have to. I’m just not going to.

It was Sands’ turn to make her rhino bump up against the horse. Like I said, we understand. Believe me, we get it. No one blames you, and I’m pretty sure everyone basically saw it coming.

Still, we’re going to have to throw a huge party before you leave again.

Meanwhile, Roxa and Gordon’s animals were moving through the ruined desert city faster than their heavier, larger counterparts. Leaping from the sand up to a half broken wall, Roxa’s fossa turned its head to look up as the boy’s owl glided by overhead. You should talk to Flick’s friend Miranda, you know. Or even to that Seller guy. If anyone can help you find out where your dad is or what’s going on with him, it’s people who live at Eden’s Garden.

Alighting on top of the jagged remains of a pillar, Gordon replied, You know, I was about to deny having any idea what you were talking about? I suppose I might have been keeping it secret for a bit too long. It’s reflex. He paused briefly then before agreeing, And yeah, I guess there are people I can ask for help.

Believe me, Roxa assured him, it’s a pretty new sensation for me too. But hey, when we get back, I’ll find out if any of the wolves my pack is friends with know anything about Garden’s prisoners. Sure, it’s a longshot. But every little bit could help. And before you say anything, I’ll keep your name out of it.

Gordon flew ahead a bit while she trailed along beneath him, nimbly jumping from wall to wall. After a minute of that, he asked, So you’re not going back to Crossroads either, huh? Like Jazz. I mean, technically you have the choker. It’s your choice.

Roxa’s answer was firm. My pack was loyal to me and accepted me even when they knew I was a Heretic. I like Gaia and my friends at the school, but I’m not going to live in a place that would kill me if they knew the truth. I’m not abandoning my pack. Not for people like that.

So yes, I guess Jazz and I are both leaving Crossroads for good.

In the third search area, the bronze and red jaguar trotted through a ruined building while the hummingbird flitted back and forth seemingly wildly in the air above.

We are getting pretty close to going home, you know, Haiden noted. I am pretty sure the others are already talking about what they’re going to do. But what about you?

There was a brief moment of silence before Larissa let him hear her sigh a little bit. I’ve been working for so long, trying to get back to my girls… I’ve put off thinking about what to do about Liam. There was pain and regret in her voice. Part of me still loves him, still wants him. But it’s been so long and everything he did is still in my head. It would be one thing if he seemed guilty about it, but I don’t think he does. I think he still believes he did the right thing. Which means I can’t trust him. What would he do to me or our girls in the name of toeing the Crossroads line, if he turn on his friends like that? Maybe nothing. I want to say nothing. But what if? And that what if is going to destroy our marriage.

Haiden started to respond that he and his family would be there for her and her girls no matter what happened. Before he could say more than a couple words, however, a voice back at their bodies spoke up.

“Hey,” Sands announced, “Jazz and me, we’ve got something. It’s either the shard or this tracking spell is screwing up. We think it’s in this building here.”

The other animals converged on the building that the horse and rhino were waiting outside of. Sure enough, as they got closer, each of the summoned creatures felt a tug toward the building. The shard they were looking for was definitely inside.

So, they searched. Jazz had her horse trot around the outside of the building to narrow down where the sense was the strongest. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino knocked down walls and cleared rubble inside as the rest did the actual searching.

Roxa found it, in the end, though she had Larissa’s hummingbird pick it up in her tiny beak and fly it to their bodies. Eventually, they were all back to themselves, their creatures dismissed as they stood and stretched.

“This is it,” Larissa announced while staring down at the tiny sliver in her hand. “That’s the last one. We can undo the banishment now.”

“Good to know.” The reply came from Apollo, as he and Athena appeared and approached. The man grinned. “And pretty good timing too, since we’ve got a way to send everyone back to Earth.”

Eyes widening, Jazz blurted, “You do? Even without waiting for enough communication from Vanessa to talk Gaia through fixing the prototype thing?”

Athena gave a slight nod. “The Meregan still on this planet, we…” She paused, looking to her fellow Seosten. “We offered them aid in their rebuilding efforts. In exchange, they are going to allow us to use their transport device.”

She looked toward Sands then. “It is an earlier, less refined and advanced version of what you experienced before. As such, it will only allow a few transports at a time before it must recharge for several days. So we will not all be able to go through at once.“

“Hey, that’s okay,” Sands replied. “It’s still sooner than we thought it would be.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed quietly.

“And I’m pretty sure we all know who should go first.”

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Interlude 39B – Haiden

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Please note that the scenes between Haiden and Sariel depicted later in this chapter are the same scenes as depicted from Sariel’s point of view in Interlude 13A

March 18th, 1986

As Haiden Holt stood at the glass door that was the back entrance into the apartment building that he had been calling home for the past couple of months, he heard a noise behind him. Instantly, the man’s hand found its way into his long coat to touch the handle of his sword. At the same time, he looked into the vague reflection in the door, summoning the power which allowed him to perfectly see and magnify anything that was seen by the glass itself. The power worked for up to thirty feet worth of glass, generally allowing him to view anything that could have been reflected within it.

The form coming up behind him, however, was not any kind of threat after all. Relaxing slightly, Haiden released his grip on the weapon before turning a bit with a smile. “Good evening, Mrs. Wen, you’re out late tonight.”

The tiny, yet ancient looking Asian woman returned his smile, tightly gripping her cane while leaning on it. “Oh yes,” she agreed, “I had to visit my granddaughter for her birthday. Do you know what film we had to go and see? Something called the, umm, High something. Lander, that was it. The Highlander. I couldn’t follow that nonsense at all. Can you believe it? A little girl wanting to go see something like that. Men with swords cutting each other, being immortal or some such.”

Restraining the urge to smile too much, Haiden gave a slight bow of his head. “Yes,” he managed, “it does seem like something of a stretch.”

“And a proper young girl wanting to see it?” The woman huffed a bit, head shaking. “It just seems wrong.” She blinked then, before waving it off with her free hand. ”Oh, but I just rant. I am glad she had a good time. Even if I don’t understand it.”

Agreeing that that was what was important, Haiden used his key to unlock the apartment building door and pushed it open before gesturing for the woman to go ahead. Together, they walked to the elevator and rode it up to the floor that they shared. As they reached her apartment, the woman wished him a pleasant good night and stepped inside, leaving Haiden to head for his own door.

Though he was part of Eden’s Garden, Haiden had been operating on his own in the city for the past few months. He preferred it that way, simply checking in whenever he needed to while chasing his own leads to find monsters before they could do any more harm.

Flipping the light switch on as he entered, the man headed straight for the kitchen. He took down a glass before starting to fill it with water from the sink.

As the water poured, it abruptly stopped filling the glass. Instead, the stream shot over beside him, forming into what looked like a water statue of a human being.

As soon as it started, Haiden jerked backward, pulling his sword from his coat before realizing what was happening. “Dammit, Lucy, what did I say about taking me by surprise?”

Lucy was the only name he had for the strange Heretic who had repeatedly contacted him for the past several years to point Haiden in the right direction. He had no idea why the man called himself Lucy, but he always seemed amused by it. Neither did he know why this ‘Lucy’ almost never appeared in person but almost always through some form of elemental communication spell, such as appearing in a bonfire or, as now, as a figure made of water.

Either way, from what Lucy had said, he wasn’t much of a fighter himself, and didn’t want to get involved in things. But when he knew something, he would appear and point Haiden the right way to stop something bad from happening. Apparently, he had his own contacts that fed him information in turn.

“Sorry, Haiden,” the man apologized through his water-messenger spell before speaking again. “But this one is important. It couldn’t wait. Comes straight from old Nicholas himself.”

Nicholas. Haiden didn’t know a lot about him, except that he was Lucy’s most reliable and yet seldom used contact. Every bit of information that Nicholas had provided before had led to stop incredibly dangerous monsters from an enacting horrific plans. Whoever this Nicholas was, he had provided enough information in the past to stop multiple wholesale slaughters from happening. He didn’t send along information often, but when he did, it was a big deal.

The news that whatever this information was came from him was enough to make Haiden relax slightly. “Okay, what’s happening?”

Running a hand through the water that comprised his hair, Lucy replied, “There’s this girl. Little kid apparently. She’s about to run into these gangsters or something, and there’s going to be a Stranger there. You need to save her.”

Haiden blinked at that. “A little girl needs to be saved from gangsters and some Stranger? If it means saving a kid, I’m on it, no doubt. But are you sure that was the whole message?”

Lucy shrugged. “He just said that she needs you more than anyone has ever needed you, and that when the gun is fired, if you don’t save her, a good person will die.”

Haiden frowned a little. “That’s oddly… specific. But I guess he’s been right too many times before to question it now.” Pausing, he looked to the man. “Don’t suppose you can tell me anymore about him yet?”

“Hey, man,” Lucy objected, “you know my rules for passing info.”

“Anonymous, always anonymous and with all the privacy you want.” Haiden waved a hand. “Right, right. Okay, so give me the location and time.

“I guess I’m saving a little kid from a monster.”

******

 

March 20th, 1986

 

In his hawk form, Haiden glided on the air currents above the forested area that his contact had pointed him toward. Scanning the trees below with a mixture of his hawk vision and other powers, Haiden searched for the right spot.

The sound of gunshots in the distance suddenly caught his attention, and Haiden abruptly wheeled around in the air, heading that way as fast as possible. He continued to scan for his target, asking himself if he was already too late.

There. The gunshots had stopped, and Haiden saw the figure of a young girl who had obviously been shot, stumbling to her knees. A feeling of despair and failure rose up in him just before he saw something else. A fully grown woman, appearing from inside the girl. The woman picked the girl up and started to carry her.

Stranger. It was the Stranger. She was taking the girl. Haiden might’ve been too late to stop her from being shot, but he was still going to save her. He wasn’t going to let some horrific ritual or whatever this stranger had in mind happen.

Something didn’t make sense. Nicholas‘s information had always been very specific and useful. He’d always given Haiden enough time to find his target before. What was different this time? Why had he sent Haiden somewhere without enough time to actually find the girl before she was shot? What happened?

And why wasn’t this woman setting off his Stranger sense? She had to be the Stranger that had been referred to, since he just seen her stop possessing the kid. Yet she didn’t set off his sense. That in and of itself wasn’t completely unheard of, of course. But it just added to all of his confusion.

Either way, Haiden wasn’t about to give up on saving the child. He dove for the woman, cutting her off before reforming into his human shape.

Drawing his sword while feeling a pang of remorse at the sight of the injured girl that was a reminder of his failure, he snapped at the woman, “I don’t know what you are or where you think you’re going with that girl. But I’m not gonna let you take her.”

Why he even said that much to her, he had no idea. The woman said something in response, but all Haiden could think about was saving that kid and rectifying his failure. He threw himself into an attack, wanting to end this as quickly as possible. He had to be careful to avoid hitting the kid, which slowed him slightly and stopped him from using any of his more dramatic area of effect powers.

Suddenly, the woman stopped dodging and knelt to put the girl on the ground. Why? Was she freeing her hands for something? Trying to make him focus on the kid while she escaped? He’d take that if that was what she was—

“Kill me then. But take the girl to the hospital after you do. Save her.”

At those words, Haiden flipped his sword around while his mind reeled. What the hell was going on? What kind of game was she trying to play with this?

Slowly, he replied, “I don’t know what kind of trick you–”

The Stranger interrupted. “It’s not a trick! Look, just–” Suddenly, a pistol appeared in her hand. Even as Haiden moved to react that, she blurted, “Save the girl.”

Then she pointed the gun not at him, and not at the kid. Instead, she pointed at her own head and began to pull the trigger.

Nicholas’s passed-along message was suddenly in Haiden’s mind. When the gun was fired, if he didn’t save her, a good person would die.

He had been sent here too late. He’d never had a chance to get to the girl before she’d been shot. That made no sense. Nicholas‘s information always gave them enough time. There was no way that he could have gotten to that spot before the gun fired. No way that he could have saved her like that. No way to stop it.

Unless that wasn’t the shot that Nicholas had been talking about. Unless the girl wasn’t the person he had been referring to. He’d said that when the gun was fired, if Haiden didn’t stop it, a good person would die. A good person.

The words that he hadn’t really been listening to before filled Haiden‘s mind even as the woman’s finger tightened on the trigger. Save her. She had said that she was trying to save the girl, and he hadn’t listened. Why would he listen to a Stranger rambling excuses?

Save her. Save her. Save the good person.

He moved. Lunging forward at the last possible instant, Haiden lashed out with his sword, interposing it between the gun and the woman’s head so that the bullet ricocheted off of it.

She looked just as surprised as he felt in that moment, staring at him in shock.

“Why would you do that?” As he voiced the question, Haiden had no idea he was talking to the woman… or to himself. Why would he make that choice right then? Why would he stop a Stranger from killing herself? Why had she been trying to kill herself? What was going on? Had Nicholas really sent him to save her instead of the girl?

The woman interrupted his thoughts. “The girl. Please. She’s dying.”

That was enough to stop Haiden‘s other thoughts. He quickly grabbed the woman by the arm, not willing to let her out of his sight until he figured out what was going on. Sheathing his sword, he pulled her over next to the injured girl and knelt to put a hand on her. Focusing on another power, he transported all three of them to the nearest hospital that he knew about.

They appeared in the middle of the entrance of the emergency room, and he quickly passed the girl to the nurses there while letting the Bystander Effect take care of any confusion about their sudden appearance.

As the girl was taken away by the medical professionals, Haiden saw the woman start to take a step after them. Before she could, he put a hand on her shoulder. Something made him speak reassuringly. “She’ll be okay. They’ve got it.”

Why? Why had she tried to save the girl to begin with? What happened back there? How on Earth was he supposed to explain this even to himself?

The woman looked to him with what looked like peaceful resignation, speaking hesitantly. “I… Thank you for letting me see that she was being saved. You… you can kill me now if you want to, if that’s your price.”

Now Haiden was even more confused than before. He had half expected her to use helping to save the girl as a trade for letting her go. Or maybe she would have used the innocents nearby as cover to escape. But she wasn’t. She was just standing there, waiting.

“If that’s my…” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, Haiden grimaced and took a second before coming to a decision. Looking back to the woman, he gestured to summon his teleportation power once more, sending the two of them back into the woods where they had just been. It was as good a place as any for this. He needed answers, and he needed them now.

Taking a few quick steps back from the woman to put space between them, he stared at her while demanding, “You’re not evil. You were really trying to save that girl. Why?”

Because that was the most important question of all. Why would a Stranger, a Stranger try to save a human child? It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. Not her actions, not his own decisions, and not the original message from Nicholas. What the hell was happening?

The woman was beautiful. He recognized that now that he was allowing himself to see it, now that there was time to process. She was blonde and gorgeous, an ethereal, almost angelic beauty that somehow made his knees feel weak when he looked at her. Where was the revulsion? She was supposed to be a monster, so… where was the monster? Looking into her eyes, he saw no evil. Instead, what he saw… was loneliness. He saw so much loneliness and emptiness that he wanted to embrace her.

It was insane. It went against everything he had ever been taught or known. But he wanted more than anything to put his arms around her and tell her that everything would be okay.

The woman spoke softly then. “It’s a long story. But I never wanted to hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it. She didn’t.”

His mind was still reeling from all of this. She didn’t want to hurt the girl? She didn’t want to hurt anyone? But… But she was supposed to be a monster. Even as he looked at her, even as he saw no monster in her, Haiden was still confused, still lost. Why had he been sent to her? What did Nicholas want him to do? Save her. He’d said that saving her would save a good person. Did he really mean her and not the little girl? Did he mean both of them? Everything was so… so confusing.

But right then, he did know one thing. Whatever the full truth, whatever the whole story behind all of this was, this woman was not evil. He couldn’t kill her. He couldn’t hurt her. She was lost, and what she needed right then was someone to be there for her. He didn’t know why he’d been sent, or what would come about this. But he did know that he could be that person right then. Whatever else happened, he could help the loneliness that he saw in her eyes.

“I think we have a lot to talk about,” he announced slowly while extending a hand to her. “What’s your name?”

As confused as he felt by all of this, that was a good place to start, at least. A name. He never really cared about the names of the Strangers he killed before, unless they were terrible enough for him to need to track them down by their identity. But this one? This one was different. No one, Stranger or human had ever made him feel the way he felt when he looked at her.

The woman answered while accepting his extended hand. “Sariel. What… what’s yours?”

If anything felt more weird than asking a Stranger what her name was, it was giving his own to her. Haiden took a moment, collecting himself as a million thoughts ran through his head.

This felt like his last chance to change his mind. If this was a trick, if it was some kind of strange trap, he would be walking right into it. He could have been damning himself right then to whatever terrible fate awaited those who mistakenly trusted monsters.

And yet, it didn’t feel like a trap. It didn’t feel like anything bad. Looking to the woman, Haiden felt more alive in that moment then he could ever remember feeling. This wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t bad. There was something happening here, something he couldn’t explain. Yet it felt like… it felt like this was quite possibly the single most important moment of his life. More important than becoming a Heretic, more important even than losing his sister during training had been, as terrible as that was. Something was here that would forever change his life. And he felt not fear in that moment, but excitement.

He came to a decision. He would be honest. Looking back up to her, he quietly replied, “Haiden.”

The woman repeated his name, and he repeated hers. Haiden and Sariel. Heretic and Stranger.

Then they started to talk, really talk. For quite awhile, actually. The woman had been right when she had said that it was a long story. It was a very long story, One that went on for quite a while and left him reeling even more than before as it shook the foundations of what he had ever understood about Strangers and about humanity.

And Haiden had been right as well. That moment changed his life forever. And in the future, he would come to realize that when he gave the woman who became his wife a chance, he had not simply been saving her.

He had been saving his own soul as well.

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Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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This is the second of two interludes to be posted today. If you missed the first one that was posted this morning, you may wish to use the previous chapter button to check that one out quickly. 

Several Thousand Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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Patreon Snippets 1

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Tristan and Vanessa

“See, Nessa, the real question isn’t ‘Can I name every Roman Emperor in order and list their birth and death dates as well as the year that they took power.’ The real question is, ‘Why would anyone in the world ever need to do that?’ And making the answer be ‘for a trivia contest’ is cheating.”

As he finished speaking, Tristan grinned across the long, hollow log that he and his sister were sitting on opposite ends of. The log itself sat a short distance into the jungle from the beach, and was large enough that he almost could have laid across the width of it. Not nearly as big as the trees at Eden’s Garden, of course. But still respectable.

Squinting at him, Vanessa sniffed the words, “For Heretics, that kind of information actually could be useful, Tristan. What if you run into a magical trap that says something like, ‘I was the first Roman Emperor to use the cognomen Germanicus instead of Caesar, move these floor tiles into the correct spelling of my name to turn off that poison gas’? What would you do then?”

“Well,” the boy replied dryly, “first, I’d congratulate Spielberg and Lucas for making their Indiana Jones movies a far more accurate depiction of ancient booby traps than I thought they were.” Pausing then, he stared off into the distance, smiling to himself while his mouth twitched.

Vanessa sighed. “You’re trying not to laugh because you said booby, aren’t you?”

“Technically,” Tristan answered easily, “now I’m trying not to laugh because you said booby.”

A tiny, reluctant smile played at the girl’s mouth even as her face pinked a little bit. “Come on,” she pressed, “we’re supposed to be testing your memory. And I thought you’d like the historical stuff more than the math stuff. Plus, you never know when any kind of information might be useful. It’s not like you’ve got limited storage space in that brain, you know.”

“Hey, if you knew how many baseball stats, X-Men comics, and movie quotes I’ve got locked up in here,” her brother retorted, “you might change your mind about that ‘unlimited storage space’ thing. Ooh, and Guitar Hero songs. Do you have any idea how easy that game is when you can watch a song once and then play it perfectly without even looking at the screen the entire time?”

In response to that, Vanessa stuck her tongue out at her brother before offering, “Make you a deal?”

Tristan was intrigued, raising an eyebrow. “A deal, the devil says?”

“Don’t call me the devil,” she shot back. “I’m the devil’s niece. Get it right. Anyway, yes, a deal. You take my thing seriously and memorize this stuff, and then you can teach me the stuff that you’re interested in. You know, the X-Men and baseball stuff.”

Blinking, the boy quickly asked, “You’re serious? You really wanna know that stuff?”

Vanessa nodded without any hesitation. “Of course I do. I mean, you’re interested in it, and I want to have more things that we can talk about. If it gets you to pay attention to the stuff you’re not really interested in, that’s just a second bird for the stone.”

Tristan grinned then, head shaking. “You know, Nessa, it’s a good thing I’ve got this perfect memory now.

“Maybe it’ll help me stop forgetting how great it is to have a sister like you.”

 

————–

Tabbris

 

A handful of fish scattered in various directions as the water was suddenly and violently disturbed by a small head covered in blonde hair abruptly shoving its way through the lake surface and into the space where they had just been swimming. Bright green eyes popped open then, as Tabbris, from her upside down position, tried to apologize for disturbing the fleeing creatures.

Of course, since her head was currently in the lake and she had not used any kind of spell to compensate, what came out of her mouth was water-muffled gurgling. Which was a mistake that the girl realized quickly, lifting her head out of the lake long enough to fumble at the pockets of her jumpsuit (Seosten technology meant that even skin-tight jumpsuits could have pockets of considerable size) until she found what appeared to be a keychain with a large number of small wooden discs, about the size of quarters, all of varying colors. There were some red ones, some blue ones, white ones, green ones, and so on.

Shifting straight to the blue ones, the young girl quickly flipped through them until she found the one she wanted. A quick tug yanked it from the keychain, and she whispered the activation word for the spell attached to it. Within another second, a faint glowing bubble-like forcefield appeared around the girl’s head. It wouldn’t actually stop anything that hit it with any force. But it would act as… well, an air bubble.

Suitably prepared then, she poked her head back down and looked for the fish she had frightened. “Sorry!” the girl called, hoping that some of them might hear. And even if they didn’t (not that they’d understand if they did), apologizing when you scared or hurt someone was just the right thing to do.

She heard footsteps behind her, slowly approaching along the wooden dock that she was hanging off of. The footsteps stopped, and the girl lifted her head from the water to find the very old-looking, knightly man in literal chainmail. “Miss Tabbris,” the man politely spoke, “are you alright?”

“Oh! Um, yeah. Hi, Mr… uh, Enguerrand,” Tabbris quickly replied while shaking her wet hair out a bit. She was blushing. “I’m okay. I–oh.” Reaching up, she poked the bubble while dismissing the spell, making it pop. “I just wanted to look at the fish for a minute.”

The man smiled a little at that. “Am I to take it that you like fish, Miss Tabbris?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh! I like fish a lot. I wasn’t sure before because I–I didn’t want to accidentally make Flick like something she didn’t, so I was trying not to think about things that I like very much, except when I couldn’t help it. But I think I really like fish.”

That kind smile broadened a little, and the elderly man (who had been around long enough to have diapered and babysat Flick’s mother’s father) slowly sank down to sit on the edge of the dock beside her. “Well, my dear, at the risk of straying from my chivalrous stereotype into one more befitting a far more modern gangster, would you like to, ahh, swim with the fish?”

“Uh huh!” Again, Tabbris nodded as fast as possible, her wet, blonde hair shaking with each motion. Then she stopped. “Oh. But um. I can’t swim.”  

“That’s quite alright,” Enguerrand assured her. “We’ll simply start there, and teach you to swim.”

“You–you’d do that?” the girl asked in an awed voice. “You’re not too busy or… or anything?”

The man shook his head. “Miss Tabbris, I assure you… as someone who has witnessed the birth, growth, and loss of so many people whom I called my friends and family, these are the moments that are remembered. Not the training or the battles. These moments right here. I try to make those memories whenever possible. So please, do believe my sincerity when I say that I would very much love to teach you how to swim.”

Finally smiling back at him, Tabbris chirped, “Okay, Mr. Enguerrand.

“Where do we start?”

 

—————

 

Apollo and Kushiel

 

Deep in the heart of Kushiel’s prison facility, two figures stood facing one another. One was held locked in rigid stasis that was enforced by the yellow light surrounding her. A yellow light which was projected from a ring worn by the other figure, who held his hand up that way. Bodies of those who had tried to interrupt the pair lay scattered along the floor around them.

“You know,” Apollo remarked in a tone of faux-casualness underlied by extreme tension and effort, “if I had it to do over again, I’d probably make the light green instead of yellow. Much rather be Hal than Sinestro, you know?”

Straining to free herself, the Seosten woman snarled an annoyed, “You are prattling nonsense, as you always have. One would think that you would have matured some small amount in the millennia proceeding your banishment. But then, perhaps that is hopeless optimism.”

Despite the fact that this was a struggle that was far more centered around magical strength than physical, sweat still poured from both Apollo and Kushiel from the effort of holding or breaking the paralysis respectively. Each was calling upon vast reserves of energy and stamina, their duel essentially stalemated. Kushiel could not free herself from the power of the ring, but Apollo couldn’t manage anything that would actually end the problem. The slightest slip at that point would have allowed her to move and therefore escape. Or worse.

Grimacing a little before turning that into a small, tight smile, the man retorted, “I see you’re still creatively reinterpreting my telling you all to go fuck yourselves. I’ve got news for you, sweetheart. When the guy packs his stuff, moves to a new country, changes his name, and files a restraining order, you didn’t break up with him.

“Ah,” Kushiel spat with a dark smirk, “but you didn’t choose to go by yourself, now did you? No, no, you wouldn’t have. You were counting on the one that you thought you could trust. You were expecting dear, dear, would-be sister to go with you. How much did it hurt when she refused? How hard did you take that betrayal, hmm? Everything we did to your name, every action we took to destroy that reputation and turn you into humanity’s worst villain, and none of it was as bad as what she did. You asked for her help, for her to join you, and she stabbed you in the back.” Near the end of that, the magically paralyzed woman was chuckling.

Shaking his head a little at that, Apollo quietly replied, “Betrayed? Kushy, does Sevesensiel ring a bell? Little code that those kids used to fuck with Radueriel? I gave it to Sariel when I left, just in case she ever needed it. Did she ever tell any of you about it in the.. Oh… two thousand years she had? Did she ever tell you about any of my plans? Did she even tell you that she knew I was leaving? Not much of a betrayal, then. Hell, she even told her kids about it, and it looks like they were smart enough to tell their friends.”

That wasn’t how Felicity had ended up with the code, of course. But there was no need to give Kushiel any reason to think otherwise.

“Sure, I was disappointed that she didn’t come with me,” he continued then. “But betrayed? Don’t be so dramatic. I know my sister. I knew she’d get there eventually. But she had her own path to take, and it wasn’t my place to force it. I wanted her company, I wanted to spare her some of the guilt that I knew she’d end up feeling. I wanted her to come with me. But even when she didn’t, I knew she would eventually. I just had to give her time. And if there’s one thing people like us have a lot of, it’s time.”

Straining even more against the spell that held her rigid, Kushiel gave a low snarl. “It’s too bad then, that you will have to wait even longer for that reunion that you have wanted for so long. Or did it escape you that the transport holding all of those prisoners, including the other traitor you care for so much, has disappeared? And with her twin children aboard as well. What an added treat that will be.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Apollo informed her, his expression unchanging. “But you know what? I noticed something else too. You were pissed off. When that thing disappeared, you weren’t giddy. You weren’t happy about it. You were mad, which tells me that it’s not gonna be that simple for you to go after them. So we’ve got time. And until we find them, I’ve got a good feeling that those kids can handle themselves. Besides, if you think Sariel is going to be a prisoner for much longer, then you’ve actually gotten dumber than I thought. And let me tell you, ‘torture everyone that hates me into having more babies’ was already pretty dumb.”

The anger and frustration in Kushiel’s voice was audible as she snarled, “I am going to make you cry, Lucifer. I will make you plead and beg for me to just kill you to end your pain. I will take away everything that you care about, make you watch your loved ones suffer and burn in your stead.”

“Even your threats are growing old, Kushiel.”

The retort came not from Apollo, but from Athena. The brunette Olympian had entered the room, moving to stand beside Apollo himself, while holding Excalibur loosely in one hand. “You’ve had over a thousand years to find something more creative,” she informed the other woman flatly, “and you’re still relying on the same old tired cliches.”

“You,” Kushiel growled the word, straining even harder against the paralysis.

“Me,” Athena confirmed. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Radueriel and Abaddon will show up whenever they finish licking their wounds. In the meantime, it may not be very chivalrous or knightly to kill a helpless opponent. But in this case…” That sword rose. “I think we can make an exception.”

Unfortunately, in the next instant, a figure in a dark cloak that obscured their identity, magical darkness of some kind enveloping the face under that hood, appeared between them. A gesture from the cloaked figure dispelled the yellow light around Kushiel, freeing her from that paralysis.

Apollo and Athena both moved, but the other figure was faster. Their hand snapped out, catching hold of Kushiel. Then they were gone, leaving the other two to explain to the just-arriving Haiden where his wife and children were.

 

————-

 

Harper/Guinevere/Lancelot

Boston, on the far side of midnight yet still hours from dawn. A dark alley, barely illuminated by a struggling streetlight on the corner whose flickering glow did little more than cast imposing shadows for half a dozen figures who needed no such help.

Six of them. Each a were of a different kind. Two wolves, one bear, a single coyote, a raven, and a snake. All were in their mostly-human phase, their forms just changed enough to grant them monstrous features as they loomed over their target: a slim, gray-haired man in a business suit whose wire-rim glasses had just been snatched from his face by one of the two wolf-men.

“P-pl-please, please, I have money,” the man stammered. “I have money. You don’t have to hurt me. Please.” His lip quivered.

“Hurt you, old man?” The mangy-haired werewolf gave a chuckle that was more growl. “Oh, the boys and I have been aching for a real hunt. But I suppose you’ll have to do for an… appetizer. Now the cops that show up to investigate once we make you scream…” He crushed the glasses in his hand, mangling them. “… maybe they’ll be more fun.”

“Father.”

The voice came from further down the alley, toward what should have been a dead-end. Yet a girl stood there, a girl whose bubblegum-pink hair and pigtails were at odds with the serious expression on her face.

To those at Crossroads, she was known as Harper Hayes. Yet to others, she had a different name.

“Gwen?” The old man, his once quivering voice turned to curiosity, tilted his head. “What are you doing here?”  

“Father? Oh. Oh this is rich.” The werewolf who was clearly in charge of his ragtag pack laughed, joined by the others (the coyote’s laugh was more of a high pitched yip that carried on far too long). “Never mind that bit about the cops. I think our evening’s entertainment just arrived,” the man noted while smiling broadly at the girl who was seemingly surrounded by the pack of weres. He stopped short of literally licking his lips, but it was a near thing.

“Father,” Guinevere quietly and firmly spoke, ignoring the supposed threats. “Stop playing with the children, please. I need to speak with you.”

“Okay,” the wolf-man cut in, sounding annoyed as he lifted the hand with their first ‘victim’s’ broken glasses still clutched in it. “I’m feeling a touch ignored and belittled here, and I–”

Night turned to day as light flooded the alley as fully as if the sun itself had risen to its noon position in that intervening second. The pack of weres spun as one, expecting to see the floodlights from several trucks centered on them.

Instead, they saw the same man they had just been terrorizing. He stood on the opposite side of them from where he had been an instant earlier. And from his back extended the source of that unnatural light. Wings, beautiful, ethereal, and seemingly consisting of pure, blazing light. They unfurled, expanding to fill the width of the alley while glowing even brighter, to the point of being nearly too much to look at. The collection of weres were left staggering backward, hands raised to block some of the light.

“Very well,” the winged-man announced easily. “I suppose we can cut to the good part.”

The weres ran. Or tried to. Spinning, each scattered, trying to flee toward the dead end, toward the girl, toward anywhere but that spot. One fled in the opposite direction, skidding right past the glowing figure on his way to the street.

It did them no good. Staying where he was, the man lashed out with both of those brightly-glowing wings. The energy-constructs extended, stretching to cut between the fleeing figures before abruptly slamming outward.  Of the five weres who fled further into the alley, three were caught by the left wing, while the other two were caught by the right wing.

They were killed instantly. The wings burned straight through them, cutting through every defense, every bit of strength or power they had. Their bodies were literally disintegrated, as surely as if they had been tissue carelessly tossed into a crematorium.

The remaining were, the snake, had just reached the street as the man turned his way. Rather than give chase, he simply angled his wing. A beam of light, as deadly as any ship-mounted laser, shot from the wing to envelop the fleeing figure. In a moment, all that remained was dark ash floating through the air.

“Now then.” The wings vanished, returning the alley to its previous darkened stated, as the man turned to face Guinevere.

“What can I do for you, Duckling?”

*******

“And now she’s gone.”

Some time later, as Guinevere sat on a bench in a nearby park with the man who had adopted her as a child and raised her as his own, she finished relaying the story of what had happened to Avalon Sinclaire.

“I promised myself that I would protect her. But I couldn’t be on top of her every moment. I thought she would be safe enough. I told myself she would be safe enough while I searched for the pieces for Arthur. But the Seosten took her. I let my guard down and they… they took her.”

She turned slightly, squinting at the man beside her. “Your people are very persistent.”

Not truly his people, of course. The man who had adopted her had left his own race far behind long before he’d ever met her, long before he had taken the scraggly, orphaned child under his (literal) wing and taught her everything she needed to know to one day become both the queen of Camelot and Lancelot, one of its staunchest defenders.

Once, he had been known to his own people and to the humans he first presented himself to as Quirinus. Later, the humans had known him as Romulus, a founder and first king of Rome. Later still, he had taken the name he was most known for in the modern age, a name he still used to the present day, millennia after abandoning his own people.

Michael. Michael the archangel, whose glowing wings were a result of his own genetic enhancements from a different experiment than the one that had created the Olympians. Those same wings, despite being present only within very, very few like Michael himself, had somehow become synonymous with all Seosten. Or angels, as they were known to the humans. Several more Seosten had taken to using magic to create wings that carried on that symbolism, simulating the power that belonged to Michael and that handful of others who were like him. But their magical wings were nothing even close to the real thing, a simple parlor trick.

“My people,” Michael replied then, “have been fighting this war for a very long time, and tend to react poorly to anything that might challenge their supposed superiority.” His head turned a little then. “But tell me more of the others, these children who oppose them. Tell me more of Joselyn Chambers’ daughter, and her friends. I have heard some from Gabriel already. But what do you make of them?”

Guinevere was silent for a few seconds, several thoughts working their way through her mind before she began. “Felicity is very intelligent and talented, particularly for her age. She is insightful, learns quickly, and adapts even faster than that. But she is still young, and very much in over her head. I believe that she could grow to be just influential and important as her mother, if not more so.

“But if she loses Avalon Sinclaire at this early stage, if the girl is ripped away from her like this… it will do more damage. She lost her mother, and spent a good part of her life thus far hating her for that supposed abandonment. To lose Avalon now would be… very bad for her development.”

“That was a very clinical and likely accurate assessment,” Michael announced then, nodding before his eyes met hers. “Now how do you feel about her, Duckling?”

Flushing a little, Guinevere glanced away a bit guiltily. She had been keeping her assessment as detached as possible. Now, she sighed. “I like her. She reminds me of myself at her age, except possibly not as hot-headed and impulsive. She could do a lot of good for this world, Father, and for more beyond it. But not if she loses herself here. That is why I want to help her, why I will help her. So much has been taken from that girl as it is. I’m afraid that a loss like this, if Avalon Sinclaire is truly killed, the grief of it may destroy what fire Felicity has. Or awaken it too early, into a flash-burn that exhausts itself and fades to nothing. A flame like hers must be carefully nurtured.”

“Speaking of those who are nurturing the Chambers girl,” Michael carefully asked then. “The headmistress.. What do you think of her now?”

There was no answer for a moment. No answer until Guinevere slowly lifted her gaze from the ground to look at him. “She seems to have changed. Perhaps she has. I believe she is trying, after all she has done in these past few centuries to make up for those dark times. I would be a fool to discount her efforts in that regard. But I will not extend more trust to her than I must. Not yet.

“It will take more to convince me that Morgan le Fay has truly redeemed herself.”

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Interlude 34C – Haiden Moon

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“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrggggggggh!!!”

With that earth-shattering (if they had been anywhere near Earth) roar, an ogre’s massive and meaty fist, blood dripping from the knuckles, swung through the air with enough force to pulverize the side of a cement mixer. The impact would have turned almost any normal being into little more than dust, scattered around the ground where the poor fool had been standing.

It was stopped, in turn, by a much smaller hand. Haiden Moon stood with one arm outstretched, his long coat flapping behind him a bit from his own motion in stepping forward to meet the ogre. His hand, dwarfed by his opponent’s, completely stopped it cold. He grunted from the impact, his arm rocking backward just a little bit as if from the force of firing a rifle. But the reaction on the ogre’s side was far more dramatic, as the energy from that punch that had suddenly stopped almost cold had to go somewhere. In that case, it manifested in the form of the ogre’s arm breaking in multiple places. Bits of bone all along the arm tore through muscle to poke visibly out of the skin, like dozens of tiny grayish-red stalagmites popping out of the ground.

In the face of the ogre’s utterly bewildered expression, unable to comprehend the agony of its shattered arm, Haiden gave a humorless smile. “Hi there,” the man announced. “Normally I’d have a great joke right now. But I’m right in the middle of trying to save my wife, and you’re in my way. So–” With his other hand, he flipped his shotgun around and up, putting the barrels against the ogre’s neck before pulling the trigger. “Consider that my punchline.”

Turning away from the falling, decapitated body, the man cast a quick glance around him. He and Larissa had finished with the soldiers in the ship before making their way down into the tower where they had sent the kids. There, they had found Sands, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz (with Gidget, of course) fighting to stop more reinforcements from following Flick and the twins through the tunnel into the lab. But now there were no more soldiers. At least none that were standing and ready to fight. Most of their bodies littered the floor, some of them having been killed by the kids while the rest he and Larissa had finished off.

Satisfied that there were no more threats, the man stored his weapon and strode purposefully to the tunnel. No more delays. He was going to catch up with his kids, and find his wife, right now.

“Mr. Moon,” Sands called while quickly putting herself in front of the man. “Wait!” She had both hands up. “You can’t go through that tunnel yet.” Quickly, the girl explained about the traps that the other soldier had told them about, and about the badges that were needed to get through safely. Once she got her point across, Larissa cast a glance toward the fallen soldiers and flicked her hand. A second later, a handful of the appropriate badges came flying to them.

“Everyone okay?” the woman asked while quickly passing them out. “Jasmine?”

The black girl rubbed her shoulder while taking the offered badge, grimacing a little in pain that she was clearly trying to hide. Blood was visible on her temple, as well as along the front of her shirt from a blow that had put her on the ground for a while before her healing had caught up with it. “I’ll be fine,” she muttered under her breath. “Don’t slow down on my account.”

“We should hurry,” Gordon announced while ducking under the outstretched arm of the large, frozen-solid figure who had made the mistake of grabbing the boy. It looked like a statue, intricately carved from ice down to the smallest detail. It wasn’t simply a block of ice encompassing the figure. It was as though the attacker had been completely turned into ice. Roxa, breathing heavily and liberally soaked through with blood (most of which came from other people) to the point that it looked like she had gone swimming through a pool of it, gave a sharp nod then. “He’s right, we need to go. We’ve gotta catch up with Flick and the others.”

They had a point, there was no time to waste. And the adults didn’t dare leave the kids behind again. There was no telling what other troops might come out of the woodwork. So they had to stay together. With that in mind, Larissa and Haiden quickly made their way through the tunnel and up through the lab itself at a swift jog. They saw the damage that had been done, following it onward while picking off a few more stray soldiers on the way. There was no stopping, or even slowing down. The two adult Heretics mercilessly picked off every figure that made the mistake of trying to stand in their way.

Eventually, they made their way to the observation room above another chamber. They arrived just in time to see Athena and Apollo below, facing off with Kushiel in an otherwise empty room, a moment before another figure, covered in an identity-obscuring cloak, appeared. The new figure caught hold of Kushiel, and the pair vanished. Clearly, the figure had been some kind of stooge that the psycho bitch had employed to extract her from a dangerous situation.

Rather than bothering to waste time taking the nearby stairs, Haiden raised a hand and disabled the power running into the forcefield ‘window’ in front of them. As it flickered out, the man hopped through, his coat billing behind him as he dropped down into the chamber below, landing easily. Behind him, he heard the others following suit, while he focused on the two Olympians. “Where is she?” he demanded. “Where’s my wife and kids? Where are the others?”

Apollo, for his part, looked pained as he quietly explained what had happened. At least the part that he knew about. Apparently, Felicity, Vanessa, and Tristan (with Tabbris, of course), had made their way into the strange transport that had been parked in the now-empty middle of the chamber. A moment later, the doors had closed and the transport had disappeared.

He’d barely finished before Haiden was in his face. The Heretic caught the Seosten by the collar, shoving him back against the nearby wall. “What?!” he demanded, outraged. “What the hell do you mean!? You let them go?! They’re gone! We were this close to finding Sariel, this fucking close, and now you’re telling me that not only do the Seosten still have her, they’ve got my kids too?! And not only that, they’ve also got Flick, which means they’ve got Tabbris! What the hell were you doing?! How could you let that happen?! How the fuck did you let that happen!?” Even as he shouted, a part of Haiden knew and recognized that he was being irrational. After all, what was Apollo supposed to do, not engage with Kushiel? She would have killed them all. He knew that. But in the moment, the thought that he’d lost his entire family just when he’d been so close to actually bringing it back together was too much. And Apollo was a handy target for the emotional rage that spilled up and out right then.

it was Larissa who stopped him, which was probably a good thing, as she was one of the few that he would’ve listened to in that moment. Putting her hand on his shoulder, the woman gave him a tug backward. “Haiden, stop,” she urged. “Wait, we might be able to figure out where they went. We’ve still got all these computers. We can look through them and figure out where that thing was aimed. But we need to hurry, before–”

Dad?

The voice in his head made Haiden jump. Reflexively, he spun around. But of course, there was no one there. Or at least no one that hadn’t been there before.

Then it came again. Dad! Dad, I’m here. I’m–

“Vanessa!” the man abruptly blurted, interrupting the others, who all looked at him. “Vanessa, are you okay?”

Then she appeared in front of him, his beautiful, wonderful, brilliant, amazing little girl. For a second, the man nearly tried to grab her. But he realized quickly that she wasn’t really there. She was visible and audible, yes, but none of his other senses detected her. She was mentally projecting herself to him from where that transport had taken her.

“I’m okay!” the girl’s head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We’re okay. We–Dad, we’ve got Mom!” The sheer, unbridled and unrestrained joy in the girl’s voice made Haiden want to embrace her even more. To say nothing of what the actual words did for him. “We’ve got her, she’s awake, she’s out, she’s safe! She saved us! Dad, Mom’s awake, she’s out!”

“Oh my God.” Despite all his strength and power, Haiden had to slump back. He grabbed the wall, catching himself as his mind raced. In the background, he saw some of the others cringe, clearly misinterpreting his reaction since they couldn’t hear Vanessa’s side of things.

So he found his voice. “She’s out,” he managed weakly, the shock and tumultuous series of emotions taking their toll. “Sariel, they have her. She’s awake. She helped them. She’s out. She’s… she’s…” Swallowing hard, he shook that off while doing his best to ignore the burst of enthusiastic relief and cheers that came from the others. “Where?” the man quickly asked his daughter. “Where are you? Is Kushiel there? We’ll come get you. We’ll get you right now, I swear.” With each word, his voice grew louder and faster. He had to get to his family. He had to put them back together. It had been too long. No more. They couldn’t wait any longer. Sariel. The thought of having her back in his arms, of being with her after all the time that had passed, it made him physically ache. He needed his wife. He needed his children, his family. And now they were so close. “Tell me where you are, sweetie. We’ll come to you.”

“Um.” Vanessa shifted on one foot, visibly blushing. “You might not believe this, but we’re, uhh… we’re on Earth, Dad.”

Of all the hundreds, or maybe even thousands of locations that Haiden might have guessed that his daughter would give as to where they were, that was pretty much the absolute last one on the list. He stared at her once the words came, mouth opening and shutting before he finally shook his head. “You’re where?” He needed to hear it again, needed to know that he hadn’t misheard somehow.

Sure enough, Vanessa confirmed with a knowing nod. “Earth, Dad. That transport sent us and the rest of the prisoners to Earth. We don’t know why yet. But we’re safe, for now. Mom’s okay. We’re all together, and we’ll figure out how to contact Gaia. What about you? How will you–”

“We’ll get there, baby,” Haiden promised his daughter firmly. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, I promise. We’ll have to find the rest of those shards, or… something. We’ll get there, okay? You stay with your Mom and brother, and your little sister. You hear me? You stay with them and keep each other safe. We will find a way to get back to Earth as soon as possible.”

Earth. How the hell were they on Earth? What had Kushiel been planning? Despite his joy that the Sariel was awake and with their children, Haiden still felt a little apprehension about why that psychopathic bitch had been taking her prisoners to Earth of all places.

His beloved little girl gave a quick nod. “Yes, Dad. I promise. We’ll stay together. Dad, it’s Mom. She’s okay. She’s alive. She’s… she’s…” Tears were streaming down her face, just as the same filled Haiden’s own eyes.

“I know, baby,” he murmured, aching to take his daughter in his arms. But he also didn’t want to. Because that would mean that she had projected herself to him, which would also yank Tristan along with her. And as much as he may have wanted to hug his children, the last thing he wanted to do right then was take them away from their mother.

So no, they would stay there on Earth. And as Haiden had promised, he and the others would make their way to them. His family would be together again. They were so close now. And Sariel… Sariel was there. She was awake and with their twins, and with Tabbris.

“Dad,” Vanessa was talking again. “I’m gonna go back. I don’t want–” She hesitated, clearly feeling guilty about what she had been about to say: that she didn’t want to accidentally project herself physically to where he was and away from her mother.

“It’s okay, Nessabird,” he promised. “You stay with your mom, alright? Keep each other safe. Like I said, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Check in when you can, but you stay there. Mom needs you guys more than I do right now.”

Head bobbing, Vanessa sniffled a little. She clearly didn’t like the idea of leaving her father, even if it was to be with her mother. She wanted the whole family back together as much as Haiden did. “Okay, Dad. Be careful! And hurry, okay? I love you. We love you.”

“I love you guys too,” the man assured her. “And I’ll be there as soon as possible. We’ve got help now. Check in when you can, and take care of your mom.”

He could feel the connection already starting to fade. Vanessa couldn’t hold it for long, especially when she was trying to avoid being physically drawn to him. Resisting the urge to push for her to try and stay longer, he simply repeated, “I love you, Nessabird. Take care of your mom. Be safe!”

She promised once more, repeating her own love for him before the connection broke apart and the image of his brilliant little girl vanished. Once it did, the man slumped a bit. “They’re on Earth,” he muttered under his breath. “They made it to Earth and Sariel’s awake. They’re safe, for now. But…”

Earth?” That was Sands, who was standing there open-mouthed. “How? Why?! What the hell was that crazy cunt planning to do on Earth?!”

“I wouldn’t say was,” Larissa noted quietly. “I doubt this will make her change her mind about it.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. I don’t know what Kushiel wants with Earth, but I guarantee she hasn’t changed her mind just because of this setback. And whatever it is, it won’t be good for humanity. We need to get you back there.”

“But to do that,” Athena put in, “we need the rest of the shards from that banishment orb. Which should be easier to find with the data from the computers here. If Kushiel doesn’t either know where all the shards are or have good leads on them, I’ll eat every sock in the Aelaestiam fleet.”

“Right.” Haiden cleared his throat, focusing on moving forward, rather than dwelling on how close he had been to being with his entire family together. “So we take everything we can from their computers and get the hell out of here.”

“You could go back right now, couldn’t you?” Gordon was the one speaking, his eyes on Apollo. “I’d be shocked,” the eternally calm boy announced, “if you didn’t have a way back to Earth, even without Jazz.”

“I may have a trick or two for that,” the Seosten man confirmed before shaking his head. “But I’m not using them. Not yet. You think I’d leave Sariel’s husband stranded out here? To say nothing of my chosen champion.” His hand gestured toward Jazz with a wink at the girl. “No, I’ll be right here helping you get home.”

“As will I,” Athena added, her brow furrowed in thought. “Whatever purpose Kushiel has in setting up a lab on Earth, it cannot be good. We will look for data about that new project in the computers here, but either way… a field trip may be in order. Once, of course, we have ensured your ability to reach the planet yourselves.”

“We find the shard and put the orb back together,” Apollo promised, “and we can get you back there.”

Haiden’s head gave a sharp nod. “Then let’s get a move on. Whatever Kushiel’s up to, I’ll tell you one thing she’ll be doing: trying to get Sariel back. So I’m not just gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs while she hunts down my family.”

“Of course.” With those words, Athena turned and used her own communicator to call up to the Aelaestiam fleet. In a few brief orders, the woman called for a series of retrieval teams to be sent down in order to strip everything usable out of the facility, and to take as many prisoners as possible. They would take everyone as prisoners to start, working their way through them to see who could be released, who could be recruited, and who would need to remain imprisoned. As tempting as it was to take all of the Seosten’s enslaved troops and free them in one mass release, they had to be a little smarter about it and know who they were dealing with in each instance. That would take time. Beyond that, there could (and likely would) be actual Seosten hiding inside any of the other troops or slaves, which would also take time to sort out.

Once that was underway, a portal was created to take the group back to the Sunstrider, where Jokai and Dries waited. As they arrived, Jazz moved to her Eulsen boyfriend, embracing him tightly while Jokai returned it with a noise of approval and relief at her safety.

Dries, meanwhile, started by shaking his head with a frown. “No new Seosten woman?” he asked before doing a quick doubletake. That frown grew deeper, and he blurted, “Felicity, and the half-Seosten. Where are they? Where are they?” The repeated question was louder, becoming a demand as he took a step forward. For all of his issues and aversion to conflict, the man actually looked ready to hit someone if they didn’t tell him where Felicity and the other two were.

Quickly, Sands and Roxa explained the situation, telling the man that Flick and the others were on Earth, and that they were going to find a way back there as soon as possible. With, of course, the aid of the Aelaestiam. Which would ensure that it wouldn’t take nearly as long to find the remaining pieces as it had taken Haiden and Larissa to find what they had by themselves.

Once they finished, the man slumped back a little. His expression was uncertain. “Earth. They are… they made it home.”

“And so will we,” Larissa assured him. “All of us, okay? You’re going home, Dries. You’ll meet Avalon, I promise. We just need to work a little bit longer.”

The man met her gaze for a moment before giving a little nod. “Yes,” he murmured then, “find the shards, fix the orb, and get home.”

Turning away from that scene, Haiden gazed at the nearby viewscreen, taking in the sight of the damaged and destroyed ships all around them. The rest of the Seosten fleet had fled, but they would be back with reinforcements. Hopefully after the Aelaestiam retrieved what they needed and they all managed to leave.

Either way, the battle, for the moment, was over. Sariel and their children were back on Earth. It may not have been the reunion he had been hoping for, but it was something. He couldn’t be upset about the fact that his wife and children were together, no matter how much he wanted to be there himself.

And he would be. He would find his way back to them. Soon. He would be with his family once more.

No matter how many fucking armies he had to tear to the ground to make that happen.

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