Aylen Tamaya

Interlude 42A – Aylen

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Several Months Ago, While Flick And The Others Were In Seosten Space

Aylen was hungry.

But not that kind of hungry. Not the kind of hungry that could be satisfied by a trip to the cafeteria or by raiding a box of snacks. This was a very different, yet just as pressing, type of hunger.

When she was a child, she would have said that she was lower stomach hungry. That didn’t actually make sense, as this was not a hunger that had anything to do with a stomach. But it was as good a descriptor as any.

Reapers, like most species in the known universe, had to eat. Unlike most species, they did so in two very different ways. They did so the physical way, and they also did so by absorbing the energies that were given off at the time of death. Often, these two tasks were accomplished together.

Aylen was not a full reaper. She was, essentially, a quarter reaper. Which meant that she only had to absorb death very seldomly, once a week or so on average. And it didn’t even need to be anything big. Being near a few animals when they died was often enough, depending on the size. Hunt nights that came once a month were another good time for it. Those were a feast, really.

The point was, a little less than once a week, the girl would go into the jungle and find an animal to hunt. It allowed her to hone her tracking abilities and test herself while also taking in the energy that she needed.

But she had been stupid. She had put it off for too long this time, busying herself with schoolwork. And then, when it had become clear that she was very hungry indeed, the girl had ended up being trapped in a mandatory school project that she couldn’t get out of without drawing attention. Given Heretic regeneration, playing sick was a lot harder than it would have been. It wasn’t that Heretics couldn’t get sick at all, but it would need to be something that would definitely draw attention. And the last thing she wanted was attention.

So, she had been forced to put it off for even longer. Long enough that, as she flew over the jungle now in the werecrow form that she had inherited from her other mother, the girl felt a little sick. She needed to eat, quickly. Otherwise, she stood a chance of losing control of herself and if that happened, she would stop paying attention to consequences or morality. It wouldn’t be quite the same as becoming what the Heretics called a Hangman. This would be a temporary state that would only last until she was sated. But it was closer than she wanted to be. And if either of her mothers knew she’d let it go that far, they’d both chew her out thoroughly. And possibly take her out of the school entirely.

But everything was okay. She just needed to spot an animal that she could kill and feed off the death of. The jungle was a wonderful resource for that. And in her crow form, it wouldn’t be hard to find a decent candidate.

In fact, there was a strong candidate directly below, a small deer. She could fly down there, kill it, and after absorbing that energy, she would be able to think straight again. Things would be fine.

Dropping on top of the deer from above while transforming into her humanoid self to drive her dagger into its neck was a simple matter. Unfortunately, the not-simple part was the thing she had missed by being so intent on the deer. Namely, the Alter-snake that had been about to bite it from the underbrush. A snake that still lashed out as the deer was brought to the ground. Except instead of hitting the animal, its fangs found their way into Aylen’s ankle.

She felt it, the sharp pain that made her blood run cold, and turned it to see the snake disappearing. But by then, it was too late. The paralyzation had set in, and the girl collapsed to the ground with a strangled cry. Stupid, how could she be so stupid? The venom wouldn’t kill her, of course. But it would leave her paralyzed. Worse, the magic paralyzation poison forced her to revert to her reaper form. Now, she lay in the middle of the jungle, completely paralyzed and unable to move or revert to her more human coloring. Her hair was distinctly blue, as were her eyes.

And because things couldn’t possibly stop getting worse that day, she had barely been laying there for a few minutes waiting for the paralyzation to wear off before the girl heard voices. Multiple voices, speaking English. Students. There were students walking through the jungle in her direction.

Having different colored hair and eyes was really nothing new when it came to students around Crossroads. At most, it would result in a raised eyebrow given she had never changed her hair like that before. But the real problem was that she was paralyzed. As soon as they noticed that, teachers would be brought in. And teachers were a problem. They would pay too much attention.

Aylen was in trouble. Big trouble. If she screwed this up and had to get out of Crossroads without freeing her other grandfather, just because she had been an idiot, she’d never forgive herself.

Move, damn it! She tried forcing it, tried shifting into her crow form, at least. Nothing happened. The paralyzation was total. Which was kind of the point. But she had to keep trying. There was nothing else to do. She had to move. She couldn’t let other students see her like this. There would be too much to explain, too many problems. If the teachers got involved and had to investigate her…

Then she heard something else, something coming from the other side of the clearing, opposite from where the sounds of the students were. It was the sound of someone who was much closer than the others, clearly not a part of that group. From the corner of her eye, Aylen saw a figure come into view, but couldn’t quite make it out.

The figure seemed to freeze for a second, then came closer. As she stepped more into Aylen’s sightline, the girl finally recognized her. Avalon Sinclaire. The headmistress’s adopted daughter. She was the one standing there.

For a moment, both girls simply stared at one another. Avalon looked Aylen up and down, taking in what she was seeing. Her eyes moved up toward the sound of the approaching students.

Then Avalon moved. She was suddenly kneeling next to the other girl, scooping her up in her arms. And with a quick blur of motion they disappeared into the deeper jungle just before the other students would have seen them.

Still paralyzed, Aylen could do nothing to voice any of the myriad of questions that swam through her mind at that point. She was forced to play silent in Avalon’s arms until the girl put her down in a patch of grass well away from the path of the other group.

Her regeneration had kicked in by that point, and even as Avalon moved to gently inspect her, Aylen quickly sat up, shifting back against the nearby tree.

“I guess I don’t have to ask how long the paralyzation will last,” Avalon noted dryly. “I wasn’t sure how much it would affect a… hybrid. That’s what you are, right? Half human and half… half something else.”

Aylen finally found her voice. “How do— why aren’t— what…”

“I wish Flick was here,” Avalon muttered. “I mean, I’ve said that a lot lately, but especially now.” She let out a long breath before focusing once more. “First, it’s okay. You’re not in danger. I’m not about to turn you in or… or whatever else you were just thinking about. I don’t know what your exact situation is, why you’re here, how much you know, or anything else. But you are not in danger from me, okay?”

Before Aylen could respond to that, a wave of hunger washed over her and she groaned, clutching her stomach. It was getting even worse now. She had to eat or she would lose what little control she still had. Aylen was keeping a very tight leash on herself, but if she lost it…

“What’s wrong?” Avalon started, frowning. “Are you okay?”

It was Sovereign who responded then, by diving out of the canopy with a sharp cry as he opened his talents to drop something into Aylen’s lap. It was a rabbit, a squirming, kicking rabbit that she barely caught onto before the terrified thing could escape.

There was no time to explain. It would barely qualify as a snack, but it would keep her going and stop her from losing control. Gripping the thing’s neck, Aylen snapped it in one motion. The rabbit died completely painlessly, going still in her hands.

Death. The energy from it, small as it was, flooded her senses. She slumped back with a deep breath, taking it in. There. It wasn’t a lot, but enough. She could think now. She could focus.

“That…” Avalon slowly started, “that is… definitely something. Are you umm… do you feel better?”

Flushing, Aylen paused a moment. Then she nodded. “I’m okay. Are you freaking out right now?”

Avalon shrugged. “ A little. But that’s not the weirdest thing I’ve seen this year. You weren’t cruel to it or anything. You just… you were hungry, right? You just sort of fed from it dying?” Rather than sounding disgusted or horrified, the other girl seemed fascinated in a way that made Aylen blush.

“I, um, I shouldn’t have waited that long. It was dumb. It… are you sure you’re not freaking out right now?”

Again, Avalon shrugged. “Like I said, seen worse. I’m just glad I got to you in time and that you’re okay.”

“Okay,” Aylen echoed the word slowly before looking up once more “What do you mean, ‘got to me in time’? That sounds like it wasn’t an accident. How did you find me?”

Avalon shrugged. “Tiss. She said she bit a student that tasted weird. She didn’t mean to, you scared her.”

“Tiss,” Aylen echoed. “The snake.”

“Yeah,” Avalon confirmed. “We’ve talked a little bit. Ever since I figured out that I could talk to snakes now. The point is, she found me and let me know where you were. She said you might be hurt, and that there was something weird about you. She said you tasted strange. I guess we know why.”

Aylen was shaking her head. “I don’t understand. You know about… about hybrids and all that?”

“It’s a long story,” Avalon replied. “I guess yours is too.”

Aylen nodded. “Yeah. You could say that. But I’ll tell you one thing, I definitely owe you.

“And someday, I’ll pay it back.”

******

Present Day

 

Aylen had no idea what she was doing.

Something… something she couldn’t explain had driven her to abandon her tour group as they made their way through the city, giving an excuse before slipping away. They obviously objected that she would miss the best part of the tour, but she promised to listen to them tell her about it later.

From there, she had wandered for a little bit, feeling somehow drawn by a touch that was so light it was very easy to lose it. If she focused on the pull, it would disappear. The only way was to wander aimlessly and allow herself to be subconsciously drawn where it wanted her to go.

It took over an hour before she was relatively certain that she was in the right place. In confusion, the girl looked around. She was in the middle of a parking lot near a grocery store that very clearly hadn’t been open for quite a while.

Here? Why would she need to be here? She didn’t understand. But this was definitely the spot.

It was the Reaper part of her. She knew that much. Mother had told her about this kind of thing. Sometimes, not often or even enough to be dependable, but sometimes, they were drawn toward locations where either a lot of death or a very important death would soon happen.

But what kind of death would happen here in this parking lot? It either had to be one that would involve a lot of people, or one that involved someone personal to the girl herself.

But there were no other Reapers here. And she refused to believe that there weren’t any near Washington DC. That would just be absurd. As weak as she was, if there was some huge tragedy about to happen here with lots of dead people, another Reaper would have been drawn to the spot. Which meant that it had to be someone personal.

There was one way to find out for certain, but she had never actually done it by herself before. Still, if it was someone important, she had to try.

Nodding over to Sovereign as the metal bird landed on a nearby lamppost, Aylen murmured. “Wish me luck.” The cyberform bird in turn gave a soft squawk.

Taking a moment to make sure that no one was anywhere nearby, the girl used a small knife from her pocket to cut part of her hand. Squeezing it tight, she let blood pour out onto the ground to form a small puddle. Then she crouched and used her finger to carefully and intently draw a rune in the blood. Her mother had taught her this spell. Aylen just hoped she was doing it right.

She wasn’t. It took her three tries to remember the exact spell, and she was about to give up and call her mother when the blood rune finally reacted. It sizzled, the blood boiling away before her eyes.

“Okay,” Aylen murmured under her breath, “here goes.” Placing both hands on the spot where the blood had been, she focused all the power that she could into it. But not all at once. It had to be a slow, steady charge. This wasn’t the kind of magic that could be done in a minute or two. She would have to sit here charging it for most of an hour. Others could do it more quickly, Reapers who had more experience and power. But she needed time to do it right. Time that she hoped she actually had, since the feeling that had led her here didn’t seem to be overwhelmingly urgent.

Forty minutes later, it was finally done. A wave of exhaustion washed over the girl before she blinked blearily at the ground. The blood was back. Actually, it was a lot more blood than she had initially dropped. It boiled up out of the ground, forming a large puddle that she had to scramble away from on her hands and knees, staring at it.

The blood puddle kept growing. Then it began to rise up, forming the shape of the body that would eventually lie in that spot, the spot that she had been drawn to. Though it remained simply blood, enough details began to form to make out the image of pants, a shirt, fingers, and a distinct head. There were even waves of blood that formed hair. It gradually became an intricate statue that appear to be made out of red Jello.

The face filled in last, of course, sketching itself in slowly while she stared impatiently. Once it was finally done, Aylen had to stare open-mouthed for a moment.

Chambers. Flick Chambers. That was who the blood formed into. That was who was going to die soon in that spot, and Aylen suddenly knew why she had been drawn here by her death sense. If Flick died, Avalon would…

No. Aylen couldn’t let that happen. Not after Avalon had saved her and kept her secret. Whatever was going on, she refused to let Avalon‘s girlfriend just die like that.

Quickly fumbling in her pockets, Aylen scrambled to get her phone out. She scrolled through the contacts until she found the right one and hit the button to call. Nothing. There was no answer.

She called back again and got the same result. Leaving a quick voicemail to call her back, she bolted from her seat on the pavement and turned in a circle before heading for the nearest street to see where she was. On the way, she sent a text with multiple 911’s and exclamation marks. Then she called back a third time, disconnecting just before the voicemail picked up and called yet again.

On the fifth attempt, the phone was finally picked up. “Aylen,” Avalon started flatly, “it’s not a good time.”

Pausing only briefly as she heard what sounded like fighting and shouting in the background, Aylen blurted, “Don’t hang up. It’s about Flick! Is she there?!”

There was a very slight hesitation, then the sound of a humming energy blade going through someone, followed by a cry of pain that was abruptly cut off. Avalon gave a soft gasp before responding, “Flick? No, she’s not here. She’s… what about her? Wait, she’s not with you…”

“No,” Aylen replied. “No, but if you don’t listen and come here as soon as you can, she’s…”

“She’s what?” Avalon quickly snapped before the sound of gunfire cut through their connection for a moment.

“She’s going to die,” Aylen informed her simply. “I’m at a grocery store parking lot. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know she’s going to die right here fairly soon. Maybe another hour? I’m not sure. But it’ll happen. I can give you the address.”

Avalon was silent for a few seconds. Then she spoke quietly. “Are you positive?”

“Yes,” Aylen assured her. “Trust me. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, what you guys are doing right now, or anything. But I know that if you don’t help me stop it, she’s going to die here tonight.”

That time, there was no pause at all. Avalon immediately replied, “Where are you?

“We’ll be there.”

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On The Edge 42-10

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

Wh-what was that? I quickly blurted inwardly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spam,” Radueriel informed him simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I never got to save my moth–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patreon Snippets 3

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

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

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

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

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

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

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

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So again, what are you going to do?

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You may surrender.“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

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

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

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

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

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Day After Day 39-02

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So Larees was with me as I walked across that cobblestone path, making my way with the Seosten woman around all the beautiful statues and fountains before reaching the building itself. Up close it was even more intimidating. The entire width of the front of the building was taken up by a wide flight of about twenty stairs to reach the midway point. There was a sort-of landing there with more gardens to look through that seemed to stretch all the way around the building before another twenty steps continued up, narrowing the whole way before reaching the enormous, fifteen-foot high double doors. Those were open already, while a couple Heretics stood on either side of them to let people in.

I didn’t recognize either of the doormen, which wasn’t exactly surprising. They each held enormous weapons. One was a sword that looked bigger than my entire body. Correction, it looked bigger than my dad’s entire body. The guy who held it was almost seven feet tall, and was holding the blade against the ground with his hand resting on the hilt. He gave me a brief nod as we approached, exchanging a brief look with his partner (who was only a few inches shorter than him and held an equally large axe) before turning his attention back to us. “Names, please.”

“Um, Felicity Chambers,” I replied before nodding toward the woman next to me. “This is Lara Rheese.”

“Guest of Gaia Sinclaire,” she clarified after taking a slow, deliberate drink from her flask.

The two men actually seemed to react more to my name than Larees’s. They barely acknowledged her at all. But in my case, they visibly rocked backward somewhat, giving me a much more thorough inspection before the bigger guy cleared his throat. “You can both go in.”

Once we had passed through the doors and made our way into what turned out to be a circular lobby area with twin staircases leading up either side to a landing and about a dozen doors scattered around both levels, Larees glanced to me. She produced something that I had to believe was a privacy spell of some kind before speaking. “Is it me, or were you a bigger deal to those guys than some woman they’ve never heard of that’s only here on their school headmistress’s say-so?”

“Yeah,” I muttered after glancing around at the small pockets of quietly murmuring people spread throughout the room, “I’m starting to wonder just how many people kept their memories of my mother. Or if I just have that much of a reputation already. It could be about my mom, or it could just be my own stuff.” Belatedly, I added, “And I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.”

Taking another swig, Larees offered me the flask. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure those big guys were intimidated by you. So I’d say whatever it is, you’re getting some kind of reputation.”

“Uh.” Pausing, I shook my head while waving the flask off. “No thanks. I’m not exactly a big drinker. And I have no idea what something that could affect a Seosten would do to to a human. Though the whole regeneration thing would probably–no, thanks. If nothing else, now’s just probably not the best time for experimenting.”

As Larees shrugged before taking a sip for herself, the others approached from the other side of the room where they had been waiting. Sean was first, and I had a second to appreciate how handsome he was with his hair slicked back. Like the rest of us, he was wearing his school uniform, while Vulcan, trotting alongside him, had a neat little bowtie.

“Hey, Flick,” Sean started before seeing exactly who was with me. “Who’s your–holy shit!” The last bit came out in a burst even as the boy’s own hand snapped up too late to cover his mouth. He stared, letting the others catch up before hissing, “Uhh, you’re–but you’re a–what–”

“He wants to know what you’re doing here.” That was Columbus, translating flatly while staying well away from Larees. His tone wasn’t exactly openly suspicious or anything, but it was clear that he had… let’s call it mixed feelings about the woman’s presence.

Quickly, I explained, “She’s here to speak to Doug’s grandfather Sulan. Sariel was going to come, but she doesn’t want Vanessa and Tristan’s mother returning to overshadow Rudolph’s funeral. So Larees came as Gaia’s guest.”

“Natural Heretic,” Scout quietly guessed after looking the woman up and down briefly.

“That’s the story,” Larees confirmed. “So don’t blow my cover or anything, okay? If could get pretty awkward if I have to fight my way out of here in the middle of a funeral. Oh, and uhh…” Belatedly, she looked toward Doug. “I heard you were close to him. So, I’m sorry for your loss.” Her tone had changed by that point, turning sincere as she offered her condolences. “And I want you to know that I didn’t come to make light of his death. I’ve seen too fucking much of it as it is. But I did want to look around and see what we’re dealing with, and beyond meeting with this Sulan guy, this was a… a decent way to see a lot of Heretics in one place.”

“It’s okay,” Doug informed her. “Most of these people didn’t really know Rudolph at all anyway, so what’s one more person? You–” He stopped, visibly flinching. “That sounded worse than I meant. I just–”

“Don’t worry about it.” Larees insisted. “You don’t have to explain anything. But I do want you to know that if you want me to leave and just meet Sulan somewhere else, you just say the word. This, this right here? It’s about your friend, about his life. And I don’t plan on being the one who fucks that up.”

There was a brief pause then before Doug shook his head. “Like I said, there’s plenty of people here who didn’t know Rudolph. Besides, if letting you get a look at the people around here, and meeting with Grandpa Sulan helps… well, Rudolph would’ve wanted it that way. He would have wanted his funeral to mean something, he’d want it to be worth something more than… this. Not just a bunch of people standing around making speeches about him when they never–”

He looked away then, choking up a little while reflexively reaching up toward his head. Only there was no hat there, so he just sort of awkwardly rubbed his hair.

I didn’t blame Doug for his reaction to all of this. The Heretics were mostly using Rudolph as a sort of… not quite a prop, but they were essentially saying that he was the last death from the infiltrators. There had been funerals for those who had died in that ‘final’ assault all week long, with Rudolph being the final and apparently grandest one. They were making a big deal out of it not because of who Rudolph was or anything he had done, but as ‘the final victim’ of the infiltrators that they believed they had destroyed. In a way, it was almost as much a celebration as it was a funeral.

So yeah, I really didn’t blame Doug one bit for his reaction. In fact, I was kind of surprised that he hadn’t hit anyone yet.

Professor Dare approached then, crossing the circular lobby to join us. If she was the least bit surprised by Larees’s presence, which I doubted to begin with, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad you all made it through,” she started softly before stepping back to gesture with an arm. “Come, I’ll show you where to sit. Douglas, your grandfather would like you to sit with him, but he said if you’d rather stay with your teammates until after–”

“It’s okay,” Doug replied simply. “I want to see him too. And–” He gave Larees a brief glance. “And I guess we should make introductions anyway.”

Dare nodded before leading us across the room. “We’ll take the others to their seats, then I’ll show you where Sulan’s box is.”

Box? I had a moment to wonder about that just before we went through one of the doors on the lower level. What we came into didn’t look like the meeting room part of a church. It looked more like… like the theater or an opera hall. There was a stage far below, with rows upon rows of comfortable-looking seats rising up toward the back where we were. Above, I could see the privacy booths or box seats or whatever they were that Dare had been referring to. There were a dozen of them, small balcony areas where important people could sit away from the crowd.

Jeez, what was this place being used for when there wasn’t a funeral to do? Was this an actual theater? Were there Heretic… performers? That made sense, but I was still a bit surprised. And it reminded me that there was still an awful lot about Crossroads as a society that I didn’t know.

Showing the rest of us to seats about halfway down, near the right-hand railing, Professor Dare asked, “Do you guys need anything else right now? It should be starting in about ten minutes.”

We shook our heads, and she went with Doug and Larees to show them to the balcony room where Sulan apparently was. I kind of wished that I was there for that conversation, but I supposed I’d just have to wait and hear about it later.

Which left me sitting there with Scout to my left, Columbus to my right, and Sean on the other side of him. Vulcan was sitting at attention on the floor right next to Sean, between his seat and the wall. We were only alone in that area for a minute or two, before Marina joined us, sitting beside Scout. A moment later, Shiori and Koren showed up with their team, escorted by their mentor, Andrew Bruhn. Both my niece and my girlfriend gave me brief looks before I nodded to show that I was alright.

Aylen was there too, her presence reminding me of that weird conversation we’d had before everything happened at the hospital. I still didn’t know what happened between her and Avalon. I was really going to have to ask about that eventually.

Leaning forward to see past Scout, I looked to Marina while whispering, “Do you know where Deveron is?”

Her head shook a little. “He said he was still helping Mr. Rendell. Do you… do you want me to text him and let him know you need him?”

She sounded a little hurt, and I knew why. Marina had to have figured out that we trusted Deveron more than her, that he knew more than she did. And she probably thought that it had something to do with what happened to the team that she was mentoring. There was no way she could understand that it wasn’t her fault, that no one blamed her for what had absolutely not been her fault. Unfortunately, there was no way I could explain that, no way I could make her understand without telling her too much. I didn’t know the girl enough to make that leap. I didn’t know anything about her or how she would react.

Still, seeing that look, I wanted to trust her. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. It was too much. But I didn’t have to add to it, so I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. He’ll get here when he gets here. I was just wondering.”

Sitting back, I reached into my pocket to touch my cell phone. My thumb found the power button, which I pressed quickly three times. As soon as I did that, the phone would send an alert to the phone that Gaia had given Tabbris. In normal cases, that would tell my partner that I suddenly needed her for something. But in this case, she was expecting it.

I felt her presence a moment later. As usual, it made me feel more complete, more of myself, just to have her there. Hey, partner.

We conversed for a minute while, outwardly, I simply sat there watching people file into their seats. I told her about Elizabet and Jophiel approaching me, and she was just as upset as I had been. She thought, just like I did, that the two of them could have saved Rudolph if they had stepped in instead of playing the middle ground.

I talked a little with the others as well, whispering back and forth until the main lights dimmed, and the lights on the stage came up. There were a bunch of people up there. I saw the entire Committee, a bunch of people that were either Parsons family members or their close friends, and other important figures.

And then the memorial began. There were talks from several people, speeches or eulogies or whatever one would call them. Some came from the people who were Rudolph’s family members. Doctor Therasis spoke for awhile, and my feeling of guilt just kept getting worse every time I thought of how confused and lost the man had to be feeling. He didn’t know what happened. He didn’t know the truth, why his grandson had really died. He knew… about as close as we could actually tell him, but that wasn’t enough.

He missed Rudolph. He missed his grandson. And the fact that we couldn’t tell him the whole truth about why the boy was dead just made me want to scream right there in the middle of the funeral. Seeing his sad eyes, seeing his grief, it… it was awful. It was all awful. Just sitting there, thinking about how much Rudolph’s family would miss him, it… it was a kind of pain that I couldn’t describe.

Then there were the people who clearly didn’t know anything about Rudolph. The political-type speeches that were all focused on how we should feel triumphant, because the threat against our society had been defeated, about how the intruders had failed just like every threat against Crossroads would fail. Those talks had nothing to do with Rudolph himself, and I couldn’t decide if that offended me more, or if it was the fact that they were wrong. The threat was still out there, and the more they talked about how it was over, the more I wanted to scream that they were idiots, because the threat was all around us, the threat was built into Crossroads at its core.

But that wouldn’t have gone over very well, so I just sat in silence and watched.

Then it was Gaia’s turn. The headmistress spoke toward the very end of the memorial. She moved to the front of the stage, standing there with her hands clasped behind her back. No microphone because she didn’t need it. Her words would reach everyone, no matter how quietly she spoke.

At first, the woman said nothing. She simply waited, silence slowly settling upon the entire room until you could have heard a pin drop. And then she started.

“Rudolph Parsons.”

Gaia paused, gaze moving slowly over the entire audience. It felt as though she made eye contact with every single person in the room. Then she said it again, loudly and clearly.

“Rudolph Parsons. I have come here to speak not of his death, but of his immortality.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and the woman allowed their reactions to continue for a few seconds before saying his name once more.

“Rudolph Parsons. I would like you all to remember the name. Because time and again, someone will ask you, or you will ask yourselves, why we devote our lives, often quite literally, to fighting monsters. And when that happens, remember the name of Rudolph Parsons. He died. But before he did that, he chose to stand by his classmates, his friends. He chose to stay with them, despite all the risks, because it was the right thing to do.

“He stayed. And he fought. And he died. But in so doing, Rudolph showed the kind of bravery and humanity that many of us should rightly stand in awe of. He faced a threat beyond what any student should ever be put before. But Rudolph Parsons did not run. He did not hide. It’s quite easy to be brave when you hold the kind of power and experience that many of us do. But it’s quite another thing to be brave when the thing that you are facing is exponentially stronger than you could ever truly imagine.

“Think for a moment. Think of being that boy. Be Rudolph Parsons. You are a child before a malevolent mountain. And you choose to stand against that mountain. You choose to climb it. And maybe you fail. Maybe you fall. But in so doing, you help others. You push others up that mountain. They climb it. They reach the top and triumph because you stayed, because you helped. You gave your life because it was the right thing to do. Could you do that? Could you stand against such a threat and surrender your life purely to help others?”

Gaia let the question stand for a moment, allowing the silence to make her point more clearly than any words could, before lifting her chin. “We teach our youth to fight. We turn children into soldiers because if we did not, those who come from the shadows to destroy us would find only children. But it would do us well to remember that they are children. And yet they choose to stand, often against threats far greater than they. They choose to stand, as Rudolph did.

“Rudolph Parsons was a child. And yet, he was brave. He was loyal. He was kind. Our world is worse for having lost him. But perhaps in so losing, it could also gain. If we remember him. If we strive to emulate his bravery and kindness, if we keep him alive in our deeds and our hearts… perhaps a part of him will live on.

“When you see someone suffering, when you see a threat, or a problem, or a danger and you wonder if it is your place to stop it, let Rudolph Parsons live on. When you see someone who needs help, even if they mean nothing to you, let him live on. When you see one who has fallen, friend or stranger, let him live on. Let him live through your actions, through the way you treat those around you. Let him live through your kindness and your bravery. Let him live on, and tell those who would ask why we devote our lives to slaying monsters that it is because Rudolph Parsons stood when he could have run. His immortality will be in your words, in your actions, in your hearts and in your choices. He will live forever if we remember him. Choose to remember him. Choose to remember Rudolph Parsons.

“Thank you all. And thank you, Rudolph. I, for one, will remember you.”

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Desperate Times 36-04

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Before we had crossed the length of the cafeteria to reach the door where Rudolph and Douglas were, I was approached and interrupted once again. This time, however, it wasn’t Zeke. Instead, Aylen Tamaya, the tall Native American girl who always looked like she belonged on a throne somewhere, stepped into view. Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, was perched on her shoulder, its gaze piercing straight through me. “Um,” she started hesitantly, “Flick. Hi.”  

The girl seemed strangely nervous, or unsure of herself, which I wasn’t accustomed to. Actually, I wasn’t accustomed to talking to her at all. Even though she was on a team with both Koren and Shiori, the two of us hadn’t really interacted that much all year.

“Err.” Blinking once at the other girl, I offered an equally hesitant, “Hi?” I had no idea what she wanted, but I also didn’t want to be rude or anything. We may not have talked much, but Aylen had never given me any indication that she was anything like Zeke. Actually, she had basically told him off back when he insulted Shiori when the girl was upset about finding out she wasn’t fully human. So yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to react to her the same way I had Zeke.

“I, um.” She paused, looking down at the floor for a moment before lifting her gaze to me. “I hope Avalon is okay. I don’t know what’s going on or why there’s all these people who have been trying to hurt her for so long, but whatever happens… I hope she comes back.”

“She will,” I blurted quickly, the words coming out a little more firmly than I intended. Taking a breath then, I amended, “Trust me, Gaia’s gonna make sure she does. But–” Hesitantly, I added, “I didn’t know you guys were… um, I didn’t know you two spoke that much.”

The response was another brief, clearly self-conscious pause before she carefully replied, “Avalon helped me with something while you were… um, while you were gone. She promised not to tell anyone about it, and–” Her eyes flicked toward the others behind me before she finished with, “I guess she really didn’t. The point is, I hope she’s okay. And I owe her, so if you… you know, if you need anything, if she needs anything, I… I can help. Just ask.”

With that, she headed off without looking back. Watching her go briefly, I bit my lip before glancing toward Shiori. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what that was all about?”

As expected, the other girl shook her head. “Uh, nope. I think they were working out a little in the mornings, but I didn’t know there was anything more than that going on.” Pausing then, she added thoughtfully, “Avalon’s really subtle and discreet when she wants to be.”

“Not that subtle is the first word that probably springs to mind when people think about her,” I pointed out with a cough. “But yeah, I take your point. She doesn’t go blabbing about things. I guess if she told Aylen she’d keep a secret, she really kept it. I just wish I knew what it was.”

Sean spoke up then. “If whatever Aylen’s deal is was relevant to our problems or something bad that actually needed to be talked about, she probably would have said something before.”

Columbus was already nodding to that, his voice a bit gruff. “To Gaia, at the very least.”

“You’re right,” I agreed once more. “Avalon’s not dumb. She’d have said something, or at least pushed Aylen to. Yeah, I just… I guess I’m not good with other people having secrets. Which is totally the height of hypocrisy, so I’m gonna let it go now. See, this is me letting it go.” Suiting action to words, I turned on my heel and began to walk to the boys in the doorway once more.

Whatever was actually going on with Aylen, I was sure it would come up soon enough. There was no need to rush it. Right now, it wasn’t like we didn’t have enough issues to deal with. Case in point: the person who actually knew what the other girl was even talking about had been abducted by people who were just waiting for the best chance to kill her. So, focusing.

And speaking of focusing, Rudolph and Douglas seemed awfully focused on me as we approached them. The two were staring, both looking like they were just about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, they just waited for me to speak first.

“Hey, guys,” I started before taking a breath. “I guess maybe we should talk.” When they nodded, I gestured. “Not here. Let’s go for a walk.” I could feel the eyes of so many others on us, could hear the whispers. This may have been a school that was known for crazy things happening, but I was clearly surpassing even those levels by this point. People were curious.

I ignored them, at least as much as possible. With any luck, something else would happen soon enough to draw attention away from me. Though I didn’t really want to think about what would have to happen to make my situation (or as much as the public knew about it) less interesting.

One person whose attention I didn’t ignore, however, was Professor Dare. The woman’s eyes found me from where she was sitting with a few other teachers. As she watched me questioningly, I raised my hand to give her a brief thumbs up before turning back to the others.

Together, the seven of us made our way out of the cafeteria, past the rec room, and out of the building proper. I led them across the grounds and all the way down to the beach, where we could have the best chance at privacy. Especially with a little help from one of those secrecy coins. I’d actually gotten out of the habit of using them while in Seosten space. Really, as dangerous as it had been out there, at least I’d been able to talk fairly openly for the most part.

Eventually we seemed to be far enough away and alone. After glancing around, I used one of my spare coins that had still been waiting in the dorm, before glancing to Shiori. “Are we good?”

She nodded, letting me know that the power she’d picked up awhile back that let her know if anyone she didn’t know about was watching her wasn’t picking anything up. Between that, the privacy of the beach, and the secrecy coin, we were about as assured of privacy as we could be.

With all that done, when I finally turned around to face the two boys, Rudolph was actually the first one who spoke, before I could. His voice even, if slightly curious. “Doesn’t seem like whatever you’re about to say is going to be the same story that everyone else is talking about.”

“It’s a little different, yeah,” I replied dryly. “But before we say anything else, we need to check.”

“Check?” That was Douglas. The skinny little blond boy, who was actually about the same height as me, frowned a bit at that while shaking his head. “Check what, exactly?”

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Check you guys, actually. Trust me, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand soon enough. And if you do know, well…”  

That was all I had to say. Because by that point, Rudolph and Douglas had realized that Scout, Columbus, Shiori, and Sean had carefully surrounded them. In the case of Scout and Shiori, they had their weapons ready. Vulcan was standing by his master, giving a very low growl.

“What–what the hell–” Douglas started, head jerking around as his hand moved to his pocket.

Quickly, I shook my head. “Stop, stop. There’s nothing wrong. Look, just… we have to be careful, guys. We just have to be careful until we make sure you’re you, that’s all.”

“Make sure we’re us?” Rudolph didn’t look any more happy about the sudden situation than his teammate did. He looked from the quietly growling Vulcan over to me. “What do you mean, m–”

Douglas interrupted him. “Wait.” His eyes were locked onto mine, and he reached up to self-consciously rub at the New York Rangers cap on his head. “Make sure we’re us. You mean…” His mouth opened and shut a couple of times then, and the boy looked a bit indecisive before lifting his chin as he came to a decision. “Are you talking about the Whispers?”  

“Whispers?” I echoed blankly, completely thrown by the question. “What do you–wait, what?” Of all the things I might have expected these guys to say at this point, that really wasn’t on the list.

The fact that I didn’t seem to know what he was talking about clearly confused Douglas even more than he had been before, and his head shook. “Then–wait, what are you talking about?”

Well, I’d have to hand it to them. If he really was possessed and this was some obfuscation tactic, it deserved some points for originality. Now, I was completely thrown off, and it took a moment to collect myself so I could focus on what mattered. “Err, right. Like I said, sorry about this whole thing.” My hand gestured toward the others, still ready for any kind of fight. “But you’ll understand in a minute. First thing, and I know exactly how bad this is gonna sound, but I need both of you to put your arms out so I can draw a spell on them.”

Douglas stared at me, his voice as flat as ever. “You must think that we’re complete idiots.”

Wincing, I shook my head. “Trust me, I don’t think you’re idiots. It’s just–just trust me, please. You guys want to know what’s really going on? You want to know what happened to Avalon, and where I’ve been, where the rest of your team is? You wanna know the truth about all that? We need to know that we can trust you. And that means using this spell. And if you already know what I’m talking about because you aren’t really you? Well, then we’re as ready as we can be.”

It was Scout who spoke up bluntly then. “Columbus,” she informed them. “Remember the woman who came out of Columbus? That’s what she’s checking for.”  

Briefly, the two exchanged glances. I saw the brief indecision there for a moment before Rudolph extended his arm. Pulling his sleeve up, the boy gave me a slight nod. “Do it.”

With a long, heavy sigh, Douglas followed suit by pulling his own sleeve up. “If that’s what it takes to finally get a straight answer out of someone around here, yeah, just do it.”

“Right.” Stepping that way, I plucked the field-engraver from my pocket. “I hate to tell you guys this after you already agreed, but this is gonna hurt a little bit. Sorry, we had an easier way to do this checking part, but it’s still with Roxa. So we’ve gotta do it the old-fashioned way.” Pausing, I added, “Actually, there’s a non-hurt way that we could do it, but that one involves me butting a lot further into your privacy than I think any of us are comfortable with. So yeah, this is easier.”

“Hurt?” Douglas was squinting at me again. “How much hurt are we talking here?”  

Shiori piped up then. “Don’t worry,” she announced, “you might think you’re in pain, but Vulcan spends a lot of time in agony.”

“Hah.” Despite the situation, I couldn’t help but smile back at the goofily grinning girl. “A-gun-y.”

“Oh, my God, please just write the spell on me.” Douglas was holding his arm out a bit desperately now. “Any amount of pain you’re about to inflict has to be better than more puns.”

So, I did. The boys hissed and grunted through the pain of the spell. But other than that, there was no sign that either of them were possessed. Which, as I’d mentioned earlier, I could have ascertained just by possessing them myself (I wasn’t quite good enough at it by myself to just start to possess them to check if they could be possessed without going all the way), but that would have involved me getting a much closer look at their inner thoughts, memories, and opinions than I actually wanted.

Either way, the point was that they weren’t possessed. So, slowly, I began to explain everything. I told them about the Seosten, about how Crossroads had been created, about where the others and I had been, about why the assholes wanted Avalon–and why they had actually taken her.

It took awhile. And by the end of it, Douglas and Rudolph were both staring at me. They looked, pretty understandably, utterly flummoxed. It was clearly all they had been able to do to stay quiet long enough for me to finish. And now that I had, neither had any idea how to actually start.

“You’re crazy.”

Oh look, Douglas had actually found his voice after all. He took a reflexive step back, shaking his head. “You’re completely batshit,” he blurted again, a little stronger. “This is insane. Do you have any idea how insane this sounds? A whole alien conspiracy, an evil Empire that created Crossroads and uses us to kill their enemies? What the fuck? You’ve lost it. You’ve all lost it.”

“We have all lost a great many things,” a new voice announced then, as Professor Dare stepped into view. “Unfortunately, their minds are not one of them. Miss Chambers is absolutely correct.”

Rudolph and Douglas both jumped. The rest of us didn’t. Mostly because we knew she was there. That thumbs up that I had given her back in the cafeteria had been a signal. Since we all knew that I would eventually need to tell Douglas and Rudolph the truth, Dare and I had set up that sign. It let her know that we were about to have the talk with the boys, so that she could wait nearby and watch to make sure that things didn’t go completely wrong.

I may have had a pretty good idea that the two of them could be talked around, but I wasn’t a complete idiot.

“Wha–Professor?” Douglas jerked around at that, his eyes widening even more. “What are you–wait, you’re not serious. None of this is serious, right? This is some big, long-running joke. It’s a prank. You’re just–it’s a test, right? Just a test. Some fucked up, crazy test.”

“It’s not a test,” Rudolph informed him before any of us could speak. The boy had been watching me through all of that, before he finally shook his head. “They’re serious about all of it.”

“A little too serious,” Sean muttered under his breath before sighing. “But yeah, it’s true. Every last word. Listen, a werewolf saved my life when I was a kid. Saved my life.”

“A Stranger saved me too.” That was Scout, her voice soft as she informed the boys of that much.

“And me,” I put in. “A vampire definitely saved me when I went home for my birthday. And they’ve kept saving me ever since. So yeah, we are absolutely serious about it.”

“Serious?” Douglas clearly couldn’t decide where to look. His gaze kept snapping back and forth between all of us. “You can’t be, okay? You just can’t be. You’re trying to say that our entire civilization was designed by evil aliens that possess anyone they want to and that all of this, killing Strangers, is all some big training exercise so they can send us out to fight their universe-spanning war against the Fomorians. Does that about sum it up?”

Professor Dare started to speak then, but I interrupted. “What’s a bigger stretch, Doug, that a race of aliens that can take over our bodies are using us as fleshy mech suits and to do that they’ve convinced us to kill anything that could give us power, or that of trillions and trillions of members of dozens if not hundreds of intelligent species that we know of, every last one except humans are completely evil? Seriously. Which one of those sounds more likely?”

That got their attention. I saw Douglas openly flinch. His mouth opened and shut before his gaze moved to the others, all of whom nodded, including Professor Dare. Finally, he dropped his head and muttered a dark, “Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh… fuck. But we–everything we–all the people that we–it’s our whole… oh… oh.”

That went on for a little bit, as more and more of the ramifications of what we were telling him sank in. I saw a hurricane of emotions cross the boy’s face, while he folded his arms against his stomach and looked physically ill.

Rudolph, meanwhile, didn’t look a lot better. He was keeping it together a little more, his reactions not quite as outwardly readable. But still, it was obviously an almost physical blow. His eyes closed, and he seemed to be absorbing all of it, working through his reaction inwardly and privately.

Finally, Doug lifted his gaze, looking toward Professor Dare. “This is a big secret, isn’t it? Worlds-changing secret.”

She nodded. “We don’t know how many have been possessed or were… compromised in other ways. Or how many would listen even if they weren’t. We’re working on solutions, but right now, there’s a more pressing problem.”

“And… and Jazz, Gordon, and Isaac, they’re trapped out there with these… these Seosten?” Doug was looking to me then. “Who are the ones that killed Paul?”

“Oh.” Cringing, I shook my head. “Umm… sort of. Listen, this is gonna be hard to hear, I know. Maybe even harder than the rest of it, in some ways. But umm… Jazz and Gordon are okay. Isaac… Isaac is….”

Taking a breath, I told them. I told them the truth, about what had happened. I told them that it was Isaac who had killed Paul, and that he had also killed Professor Katarin.

If they had been shocked by the overall truth about the Heretic-Seosten thing, that one left them almost… broken. Rudolph had taken a step back as I went on, before Shiori found him to put a hand on his back a bit reassuringly.

Doug, however, sank to one knee, his hand over his mouth. The boy looked physically sick. “No,” he murmured, his horror written across his face. “No, no. I knew he was… I knew he was a jerk, but not… not–oh God.” His hand covered his mouth, and he made a choking sound deep in his throat. “Katarin? He killed Katarin, and… and Paul. That piece of shit–that–” He was clearly trying for anger, but it broke into far harder emotions, as his words devolved into a weak noise.

Professor Dare moved that way. She took a knee next to the boy, letting him lean into her as the grief, confusion, and feelings of obvious guilt worked their way through him.

“I’m sorry,” I offered, feeling weak and inadequate even as I said it. “He’s imprisoned now, and I don’t think Athena is going to let him go anywhere or hurt anyone again.”

“She should kill the son of a bitch.” That was Doug, his voice hard as he looked up from where he was still kneeling with Professor Dare. “If he did what you said, if he–she shouldn’t take a chance. That’s just stupid. If he’s that kind of monster, then just end it and stop tempting fate. I–wait.” Frowning, he asked, “Who’s Athena?”

“Oh.” I blinked once then. “Right, I guess I haven’t told you everything. Um. Yeah, turns out there’s kind of a lot more we need to talk about, as soon as possible. But uh, that story took awhile to tell. So we’re kind of on the clock. If you guys really wanna help save Avalon, we could use you. Uh.” I nodded to Rudolph then. “You, specifically.”

“Me?” the boy blinked at that, hesitating before asking, “How?”

“Well,” I replied slowly, “how do you feel about helping to distract your great-great-grandfather, just in case he’s actually one of those ‘possessed by the evil bodysnatcher aliens’ people, long enough for us to wake up Professor Tangle?”

Douglas abruptly announced, “You know, I should’ve guessed that she was involved in this.

“Because if there was any single person who was absolutely going to play a central role in a plot this tied up in knots, it’s someone named Tangle.”

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Mini-Interlude 48 – Vanessa and Tristan

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“Nessa, how many times are you gonna read that message?” Tristan asked his sister. “It’s less than twenty words long, and you’ve been staring at it for days now. I’d say you have the whole thing memorized, but you know, with your memory you did that the second you glanced at it. At this point, you’ve probably got every possible anagram for the message memorized too.”

The two of them were sitting in the grass just outside of the Pathmaker building, waiting for Professor Carfried and the rest of their Explorer track to show up.

”There has to be a secret code or something,” Vanessa murmured as she continued to stare intently at the paper. “He called himself Uncle Satan, whoever this is. Why would he do that unless it was meant to be a special message we need to to decode?”

Tristan shrugged. “Maybe he’s really Satan,” he offered. “I mean, would that really be the strangest thing that’s ever happened us? And remember, you’re talking to the kid who was pretty much raised by a combination of a race of giant aliens and our long lost great great something grandfather in another dimension.”

The blonde girl squinted at her brother for a moment. “We are not related to Satan,” she insisted. “Satan doesn’t exist. Hell, he was—“ she stopped then, sighing as she watched Tristan try to smother his snickering. “And now you’re laughing because I said Hell when talking about Satan, aren’t you?”

The boy waved his hand, coughing. “I’m good, I’m good. Seriously though, you can’t just dismiss this. Remember the whole thing about how the Seosten act like angels? Well, if there’s angels then maybe there was actually someone who they called Satan.”

Vanessa’s mouth open and then shut, as she watched him. Considering that for a moment, she finally offered, “You know, you’re smart enough to be getting better than C’s in all your classes.”

“Eh.” Tristan gave a vague, dismissive gesture with his hand. “You’re the smart one, I’m the athletic one. Let’s just stay in our lanes.”

“You’re smart too,” Vanessa insisted. “You just don’t care about doing the work, or studying, or really paying that much attention in lectures.”

The boy stretched widely. “That’s because everything you just described is boring as hell,” he announced with an exaggerated yawn.

His sister started to say something else, only to stop while nodding past his shoulder. “They’re coming,” she whispered, her hand already reaching out to take the privacy coin they had been using. Dismissing the spell, she tucked it away in a pocket. The two exchanged brief glances, nodding to each other before picking themselves up and brushing the grass off their legs.

“See?” A Heretic-born boy named Dominic announced while gesturing at the two. “I told you guys they’d be out here already. And you wanted to wait inside or check their rooms.” Scoffing, he addressed the twins. “How long’ve you guys been sitting here, anyway? Hours? Don’t you have anything better to do?” His tone was teasing, but there was also an underlying curiosity.

His roommate, another Heretic-born named Tejas, spoke up dismissively then. “Who cares? They’re right here now, so can we get this show on the road? I’m ready to go to another world.”

“Don’t worry, man,” Sean Gerardo announced while patting the other boy on the back as he slipped by, “I’m sure we’ll get there before all the good restaurants are full. But personally, I’m kinda hoping there’s some Hamilton seats available over there.” He grinned. “I mean, it’s not like taking a portal to another world is the furthest people have gone to get tickets to that thing.”

Vulcan left his partner’s side then, moving over to the twins for some petting and affection. Vanessa gave it to him, smiling a little as she rubbed the mechanical dog’s snout and fed him a handful of mixed copper and steel balls that she had been keeping in her pocket for him.

That, of course, led to a haughty screech from nearby as the cyberform hawk known as Sovereign left Aylen’s shoulder. He flapped twice on his way over before landing on Tristan’s quickly raised arm. The metal bird then proceeded to squint pointedly at Vanessa.

“Sovereign,” Aylen chastised her cyberform companion, “don’t be so rude.” The Native American girl stepped over that way, shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she murmured with a slight blush. “He may be a glorious bird of prey. But sometimes, he is also a great spoiled pig.”

Tristan just shook his head with a grin, already producing bits of metal from his own pockets. “Don’t worry, Aylen. We came prepared this time.” He held the gleaming balls up for Sovereign to quickly peck at, seeming completely unconcerned by how close the bird’s razor-sharp beak came to his skin. He knew just how deadly the cyberform could be with it. Yet the boy also knew how accurate Sovereign was. His hand wasn’t in any danger. “There you go, big guy.”

After a moment of looking back and forth between Sovereign and Vulcan as the two ate their treats, Tristan’s eyes widened. “Hey, you know what we should do? He turns into a suit of armor, and he turns into a big gun, right? And Bobbi-Bobbi,” he indicated the chain around his neck that would turn into his own cyberform snake, “makes a big cannon too. We should totally see if we can get some of the Development people to make it so these three can like… combo-transform into one big robot with two giant freaking guns on it. That’d be so badass! Or a tank. They could all combine into a mini-tank. How goddamn awesome would that be?”

“Not a bad plan, Mr. Moon!” The response came from their Track leader, Professor Carfried. The young teacher made his way up through the group, carrying his heavy walking stick in one hand as he moved to the front. “Unfortunately, however, it shall have to wait until after our excursion today! Which, I’m sorry to say, will be to an utterly uninhabited planet. So,” he added with a wink toward Sean, “no Hamilton tickets. Do let me know if you happen to find any though. Of all the perks related to being a trainer of monster-killing heroes, apparently those are not included.”

“So, uh,” Freya Sullivan, a beautiful, red-haired amazon-like girl who almost looked as though she had been carved from marble to be the perfect representative of a warrior goddess spoke up. “Is this one of those Bystander things where we’re all just supposed to smile and nod as we pretend we’ve got the slightest clue what you’re talking about?”

“Pretty much, yes!” Turning on his heel, the man let the walking stick slide down before catching one end of it. He then tapped the other end against the ground. “Everyone, with me. And–” From the point where his stick touched the ground, a narrow glowing red pathway appeared, leading off toward the building. “–stay on the path, please. Let’s not have a repeat of last time. We may be called Explorers, but that does not give us carte blanche to wander off in the Pathmaker building itself and set off half of the alarms in the building, Tejas.

The Indian boy coughed, shrugging a little while he muttered, “I told you, I just got lost.”

Sovereign returned to Aylen’s shoulder then, and the group followed Carfried into the building. They were careful to stay in the path. No one wanted to lose their chance to go to another world by breaking the rules again. And Tejas didn’t really want to deal with everyone (most of whom were already watching him closely) yelling at him if it looked like he was about to wander off.

As they walked, Tristan gave his sister a nod. Whatever happened, they would find their answers about who this ‘Uncle Satan’ really was, and what he actually wanted, very soon.

But whatever happened, he still wasn’t going to give up on that ‘combine the three cyberforms into one awesome tank-robot’ plan. That was a genius idea, and no one was going to convince him otherwise.

******

“Okay, so now what?” Tristan asked Vanessa a while later as the two of them wandered through what looked like the equivalent of a pebble-covered beach. Only in this case, the pebbles were bright pink and green, and all seemed to have been polished to an almost-glowing sheen. Meanwhile, the lake they were walking past was filled with beautiful turquoise water. Occasionally, fountains sprayed up here and there, reaching a hundred feet in the air and creating brief, gorgeous waterfalls on their way back down. The path they were following actually wound its way out across the lake in a sort-of natural land bridge, allowing the twins to watch the occasional fountains on both sides.

Their track had split up shortly after arriving on the planet. Their job was to explore, catalogue anything interesting they found, and meet back in a couple hours. They had ways of calling in if anything happened, or if they wanted to share something particularly important. Basically, the world had been cleared by actual full Heretics of anything too threatening, so it was supposed to be a relatively safe place for them to split up and look around. Safe enough for them not to (hopefully) not stumble across anything too deadly, while still unique and interesting enough to feed the curiosity and sense of wonder for anyone who had signed up for the Explorers track.

“You mean, what do we do now since we managed to get away from everyone else just in time for the meeting that the note mentioned?” Vanessa clarified while leaning down to poke her finger at the water. It shimmered under her touch, the turquoise shifting to a light purple for a moment in an area a few inches around from her finger, while making a soft chiming sound.

“Exactly.” Tristan nodded, reaching down to scratch Bobbi-Bobbi’s head as the mechanical snake arched up toward him. He had released his cyberform partner from her necklace form once they arrived to let the snake stretch her… coils.  “I mean, the note said 2:30 on this planet. But it didn’t say anything else. So how’re we supposed to know where we’re supposed to go to meet this ‘Uncle Satan’?”

“Maybe if you say his name three times real fast while staring into the water, he’ll appear.”

The suggestion came from behind the two, and as they spun, Vanessa and Tristan found themselves looking at a man who stood on top of the water a few feet from the glistening pebble-covered land bridge. He stood around six feet tall, with shaggy light blonde hair and a roguish smile that seemed especially made to melt hearts. With his thin, neatly trimmed mustache and the wink that he gave the two, the man looked like Cary Elwes in his prime.

“Or was that Bloody Mary…?” He trailed off thoughtfully before shaking it off. “I can never keep it straight. But just to be on the safe side, don’t say Biggie Smalls anywhere near a mirror. I have it on good authority that that never turns out well for anyone involved.”

Bobbi-Bobbi had started along with the other two, and now she wound her way around Tristan’s legs, up his waist, and rested her head on his shoulder while staring with beady eyes at the stranger.

“Wh–are you….” Vanessa stared at the man, eyes glancing briefly down to his feet as they continued to treat the surface of the water like it was a solid floor before darting back up once more. “Are you… the one who sent us that note?”  

The man’s head tilted, his smile growing as he gently teased her. “Oh, come on. You can say it. I was really looking forward to hearing you say it.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa glanced to her brother briefly before giving a low sigh as she turned back to the man. “Okay,” she started slowly, reluctantly asking, “Are you Uncle Satan? And… and why don’t you tell us what you want?” Lifting her chin, she added, “We don’t know who you are.”  

The man’s smile immediately changed from teasing, to genuine warmth. “Vanessa,” he spoke the name almost reverently. “I’m sorry for my jokes. There are many times when I fail to know where the line should be, particularly when I am… excited. I’ve been waiting a very long time to meet you. So long that it almost feels as if we’ve known each other for ages. But you are absolutely correct. You don’t know me at all. And you have no particular reason to trust me.”

“You’re…” Looking the man up and down for a moment, Vanessa bit her lip. “You’re a Seosten.”

“Wait, does that mean you’re actually our uncle?” Tristan quickly asked as his eyes widened. He put a hand on his snake’s head, calming her.  “And are you really Satan? Is our uncle the devil? Oh my God, what does that make our mom?”

“Technically yes, technically no,” the man replied brightly. “Lots of technicalities, I know. I’m not technically your uncle. Your mother and I aren’t related. But we were partners for a very long time, and I considered her a sister. Well, so did a lot of people, really. And, well, there’s a lot more. But we should go somewhere a little more private and safe than this if we’re gonna keep talking. Come on, I’ve got a place prepared.” Turning, he started to walk back over the lake.

“Uh.” Tristan looked to Vanessa before tentatively touching the surface of the lake with his foot. It went right through the water, creating a little splash that sent the sound of chimes into the air once more. “That might be a little harder than you think.”

“Oh!” Spinning on his heel, the man snapped his fingers, conjuring a pair of brightly colored bags. “Right, totally forgot. Here, put these on.” He tossed one of the bags to each of them. “Just consider them one of the many, many birthday and Christmas presents that I owe you.”

The twins opened the bags, only to find a pair of shoes in each in their size. The shoes looked ordinary by almost any respect, save for the symbols that could be found etched into the bottom. With a shrug, they both took off the shoes they were wearing before pulling on the new ones. Tristan shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her necklace form, whispering encouragement to her.

“They’re magic, right?” Vanessa straightened up, wiggling her feet a little. “What do we say to, uh, activate the spell?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was kind of in a Wizard of Oz mood, so all you need to do is click your heels together three times. Click your toes together three times to turn it off.”

The two of them did just that, tapping their heels against one another several times. Then, with a nod to one another, Tristan and Vanessa each stepped out. Their feet came down on the water, and stayed there. It felt solid, yet a little giving, sort of like a trampoline. After testing their balance, the two started to walk out slowly over the top of the lake.

“Holy crap, dude.” Tristan laughed, bouncing a little on the water’s surface. “This is awesome!”

The man nodded as he walked ahead of them. “You think it’s amazing now? It doesn’t just work on water. Acid, lava, mid-air. You can pretty much walk on top of anything with those things on. And yeah, magic can be pretty amazing. It’s something that school of yours could stand to focus on a little more instead of all the killing.”

He led them to the middle of the lake before giving a brief, sharp gesture with one hand. As he did so, the surface of the water itself rose up ahead of them into the shape of a cave mouth, with water falling freely off both sides. As the group got closer, Vanessa and Tristan could see a tunnel beyond. A tunnel that didn’t seem to actually be there within the water itself. It was like some kind of portal or something, though it was unlike any portal either of them had ever seen.

“It’s an invisible tunnel,” the man informed them. “Trust me, it’s safe. No one can find us in there.”

“And are we safe with you?” Vanessa asked a little pointedly, folding her arms as she stood next to her brother in front of the cave. “Why exactly should we trust a Seosten we’ve never met before who wants us to walk right into a secret, invisible cave on another world with him?”

“Yeah, that’s a fair question.” The man met her gaze. “Vanessa. There are no words that I can give you that will make you trust me. But I can say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry you grew up around people who didn’t believe you when you told them what happened. I’m sorry you had to hide how special you are for so long. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when you really needed me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for both of you, and for your parents. But I swear to you, on my soul, I would never, ever harm you or your brother. As I said, I see your mother as a sister. She is family to me, and so are you. I would die before I hurt you.”

It was enough. Tristan and Vanessa exchanged nods before following the man into the tunnel. After they walked a few feet further as it sloped sharply downward, the man gestured to make the mouth of the tunnel close once more. Then he led them down the (somehow brightly lit) stone corridor to a wider cave, with several chairs and a table already prepared and waiting.

“Okay,” he announced while turning to face them once more. “Here, we won’t be interrupted, and we can talk freely, about everything.”

Vanessa’s hand instantly shot into the air, waving around until the man blinked and nodded to her. “Um, could you tell us what your name really is? Cuz calling you Uncle Satan is kinda weird.”

Grinning at that, the man nodded sagely. “Well, of course. We can’t have you feeling weird. In that case, you could use my real name.” Letting that hang for a few seconds, he finally finished with, “It’s Lucifer.”

“You gotta admit, Nessa,” Tristan informed his sister as she stared open-mouthed, “you kinda walked right into that one.”

“Yes, yes, Lucifer. That Lucifer,” the man acknowledged with a wave of his hand. “But I assure you, the stories they tell about me are… well, they’re not nearly as interesting as the stories I told about them. I mean honestly, can you point to a single coherent tale of my misdeeds that isn’t logically baffling and incompatible with any other story about me? Honestly, it’s as if they just took a bunch of stories about other villainous creatures and copy-pasted my name in their place no matter how little sense they made. How would you like to piss them off and find the name Tristan Moon filled in as the dark bane of Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Twilight Sparkle?”

“They…” Vanessa murmured, blinking up at him. “You mean the other Seosten. They… they made the name Lucifer into humanity’s greatest villain and monster. Why? Because you… because you betrayed them… you pissed them off–you quit. You left, didn’t you? You left a long time ago and it pissed them off so much that they tied your name to the embodiment of evil.”

“Pretty much, yup,” the man nodded. “But I’ve been pretty unfair. Honestly, I just wanted to see your reaction when I told you what my Seosten name was. In truth, I haven’t gone by that in a long time. I prefer the name I took here on Earth a few thousand years ago.” He winked then. “So I’d much rather you call me Apollo.”

“Apollo?” Vanessa echoed, head tilting. “Wait, like, Apollo-Apollo? As in–”

“Sesenev ble’de uvun!” Tristan blurted unthinkingly, eyes widening. “If you’re supposed to be Apollo, does that mean our mom is–am I the son of Artemis?! Oh my God, that is so fucking awesome!”

Apollo dropped his head back to laugh. “Now that’s the reaction I was looking for. Though, I don’t know who exactly taught you Nereid curse words, but you have got a serious potty mouth there.” Shaking his head in wonder, the man finally added, “And yes, that’s right. Your mother was the one they called Artemis. Though, sadly, she stopped using that name when the others did.” There was a moment where the man looked regretful, sighing a little before he shook it off. “Anyway, that’s your mom. We were all part of the initial Seosten infiltration of Earth. Puriel, you saw him when he showed up at your house, he was Zeus.”

“Zeus? Zeus is that piece of shit who showed up at our–Zeus is a bad guy?! Are you seri–” Tristan started to gasp before correcting himself with a nonchalant, “Actually, no, that kinda makes sense. Yeah, I’m on board with that. Carry on.”

‘You…” Vanessa hesitated, swallowing a lump in her throat. “Do you know where our mom is?”

Face softening, Apollo shook his head. “I swear, kid, if I knew where she was, I’d already be beating down their door.”

“So why did you want us to come meet you now?” Tristan asked. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am totally up for having freaking Olympian gods in our family tree. That’s like the coolest thing ever. That’s even cooler than Grandpa Petan on our dad’s side of the family. But seriously, why now? Why here?”

“I have been a very… absent uncle,” Apollo acknowledged with a wince. “So that’s a fair question. Trust me, there are reasons for it. But right now, I needed to meet with you because of you, Vanessa.” He looked that way. “You’ve started to awaken into your Seosten gift. You can’t fully possess people yet, but you–”

The blonde girl straightened with a little gasp. “You know? You know that I’ve been getting… visions of our dad? But… but how could you possibly know that?”

“Hey,” Apollo pointed out, “you don’t get to be three thousand years old without having a few tricks up your sleeve. Especially when your entire interuniversal empire-running race wants you dead. I’ve got my ways. But the point is, you’ve been seeing through your father’s eyes. You’ve been projecting to him. Which means that you can communicate with him.”

“But… but I can’t,” Vanessa pointed out with a slight whimper. “I’ve been trying, and it doesn’t work.”

The man’s expression softened. “You can,” he assured her. “You just need a little help. That’s why I’m here. Because I can teach you everything you need to know about how to use that gift.”

Heart beating hard and fast, Vanessa stared at him. “Y-you can? You can… you can teach me to… to talk to our father in my dreams?”

Apollo smiled at that. “Kid, I’ll teach you to do it when you’re awake, any time you want to. And Tristan too, as soon as he starts developing that part. Which should happen any day now,” he added with a glance that way. “I’ll teach you both how to use it.”

“We… “ Tristan bit his lip, exchanging a look with his sister. “We want to talk to our dad, send a message to him because our friends, they’re–”

“Stuck in Seosten space,” Apollo finished for him. “Yeah. Yeah, I know about that. One of them used a secret spell that I set up a long time ago to deal with a… really nasty piece of shit that works out there. The only way they could have known about it is if I told them, or your mother did. And I never told them. Which only leaves your mom… somehow.”

Both of the twins stared at him, Vanessa blurting, “But how could Mom tell them a secret spell? She never–they never–if they–”

“Yeah, I know,” the man confirmed, “I’m confused too. Trust me, I don’t know everything. Which is kind of annoying sometimes, let me tell you. But the only way that we are going to find out the answer to that is by getting them back here. Which we can do by contacting your dad through your connection to him, so we can point them in the right direction.”

“Too bad we don’t know exactly where to send them,” Tristan lamented. “I mean, we’re probably working with a really short time frame here, and it’s a big universe.”

“Oh,” Apollo smiled then. “Don’t you worry about that. I have a ahh, certain connection to one of those kids out there. Not enough to project myself to them, but let’s just say I can tell where they are. We’ll be able to tell your dad exactly where to go. And,” he added thoughtfully, “a little birdie told me that they might want to pack a pretty powerful teleportation spell.”

“How powerful?” Vanessa asked, curiously.

The man met her gaze. “Powerful enough to move a spaceship.”

“M-magic can do that?” Vanessa blurted, mouth falling open in amazement.

“My girl,” Apollo started with a wink, “magic can do more wondrous things than you can imagine in a thousand lifetimes. I’ll help you learn as much as I can. But first, why don’t we start with contacting your dad so we can pass along that message?”

“You can really teach me just like this?” Vanessa hesitated before adding, “We don’t really have a lot of time before they’ll notice us missing. And believe me, they really aren’t in the mood to have more students go missing.”

“Actually,” the man corrected her, “we’ve pretty much got as much time as we need. Well, not all the time we need. But at least, I’d say, most of a month.”

“A month?” Tristan shook his head. “Dude, we’re supposed to meet up with the rest of our group in like… twenty minutes.”

“Remember how I told you that magic is wondrous?” Apollo asked, before gesturing toward the top of the cave they were in. As his hand moved that way, the lighting rose until they could see some of the most elaborate, intricate runework they had ever laid eyes on. There must have been over a thousand symbols, most of them carefully interconnecting with one another, lining the ceiling of the cave.

“What… what is this?” Vanessa asked in wonderment as she turned in a circle to stare at the beautiful spellforms. “It must’ve taken… years to get this all done.”

“This,” Apollo informed them, “is my planning room. It’s kind of how I come up with all my ideas without taking forever. See, with those spells up there, for every day that passes in here, about a minute passes out there. So you say you have to meet up with your group in twenty minutes? That leaves us almost three weeks to teach you everything I can. Yeah, I call this place my–”

“Hyperbolic Time Chamber!” Both Apollo and Tristan blurted. The latter kept going. “Oh my God, oh fuck! You have a Hyperbolic Time Cham–” Interrupting himself, the boy lunged that way to hug onto the man. “Best uncle ever! You are the best freaking uncle in the universe!”

“What… what…” Vanessa was staring at them, mouth working. “What are you talking about? How do you–what’s a–”

“Don’t you worry, Vanessa,” Apollo informed her while returning Tristan’s embrace. “We’ve got all the time we need to catch you up to speed, and teach you everything you need to know about contacting your dad so you can get that message to them.

“Or,” he added with a gesture. “You can leave. I want… I want to be part of your life. I want to help you. But I’m not going to force anything. If you want to walk out of here, you’re free to do so any time. I don’t… I don’t want you to feel trapped. I don’t ever want you to feel trapped, or forced into this. I want to be a part of your lives, but… but if you don’t want me around you, I understand. Especially after I was gone for so long.”

Shifting from foot to foot, Vanessa hesitated before slowly asking, “While you’re teaching us, could you… could you tell us more about our mother, about what she’s really like?”

The man smiled at that, bowing his head. “Of course, Vanessa. I’ll tell you guys anything you want to know, everything I can. Like I said, I may have been a pretty absent uncle before, but I’m here now. And I’ll teach you everything I know. And what I don’t have time to teach, you can pick up from the collection of manuscripts that I’ve picked up over the past couple millennia.” He gestured toward a corner of the chamber, and a rock wall lifted away to reveal a room about ten times larger than the one they were in, filled to the brim with full bookshelves. “After all, all these belong to you too. You’re family.”

Mouth opening and shutting a couple times, Vanessa slowly walked that way. Making a noise of  shock and wonderment, she stared at the ancient books and scrolls for a few long seconds. The girl was whimpering at the very thought of being able to look through all of them. There had to be thousands of books from the past several thousand years all lining the shelves. It was an even better collection than Crossroads had.

“Damn, Uncle Satan,” Tristan stage-whispered. “I think you broke Nessa.”  

Pivoting, the girl quickly took two steps that way before embracing the man alongside her brother. Hugging him tightly, she announced, “Tristan’s right, you’re the best uncle ever.”

Apollo returned their embraces firmly. “Guys,” he started through an obvious lump in his throat, “you…” He swallowed hard. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to meet you, how long I thought about… all of this. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there before.”

“You’re here now,” Vanessa pointed out, lifting her chin as she met the man’s gaze. “And you’re… you’re really ready to teach us everything?”

The man nodded. “Everything I can. Which means it’s gonna be a long three weeks.

“So let’s get started then, shall we?”

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