Bobbi-Bobbi

Homecoming 35-07

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It was Gaia’s office that we emerged into after passing through the portal. A nice, private area to have our reunion in.

And there they were, standing in front of the portal while clearly waiting for us. My team, my friends, my niece. Columbus, Scout, Sean, and Koren. Even Vulcan gave a happy bark when he saw the three of us. And in the second after that, I found myself nearly knocked backward through the portal once more as a lithe, dark-haired girl threw her arms around me and held on tight with a noise that sounded like it was a cross between a shout of joy and a sob.

“Oof.” Taking a quick step back, I caught myself on my back foot before returning the embrace, just as tightly. “Hi, Shiori.” My voice was soft, its tenderness hopefully portraying what I felt as I held onto the other girl.

God, holding onto her felt so good. It felt so right. For everything that had made the trip to Seosten space interesting and useful, I had missed my girls more than I could express. It all came back to me in a rush as I held onto one of them now. Feeling her arms around me and her body against mine, it was all I could do not to burst into tears myself. I was home. I was really, truly home.

Her hug grew almost painful as she squeezed me even tighter. Her voice was plaintive. “Don’t do that!” she snarled at me. “Don’t do that again! Don’t disappear like that. You can’t just disappear like that. You could’ve died and… and…”

In the background, I half-heard Vanessa and Tristan greeting the others, and I had a brief thought that it wasn’t fair that the rest of their team had to be kept out of it. I knew why, of course. But it still sucked.

But then my thoughts on that, as well as every other conceivable subject, disappeared as Shiori kissed me. Her mouth found mine, and I almost collapsed at the electric feeling. My hands gripped her back even tighter, and I pulled her up against me. I could have sworn that there was uplifting, beautiful music somewhere.

Wait a second, there was music. Pulling back a bit, I turned to find Tristan standing there with Bobbi-Bobbi in her full snake body. The cyberform’s mouth was open, and that song was coming out.

The boy grinned at me, adding a thumbs up. “Don’t let us interrupt,” he announced, “just thought you might like some mood music.”

Flushing a little bit, I turned back to give Shiori one more quick kiss. “I’m okay,” I promised while holding onto her. With a smile, I added, “Hey, where’s the girl that goes on this arm?” I waved my left limb a little teasingly. “It’s lonely.”

Winking, Shiori replied, “She’s waiting for you down on the beach. You know, for a private reunion. I’m pretty sure she didn’t think she could restrain herself when you showed up, and you know how she hates it when people see her being affectionate and… well… human.” She made a face at her own phrasing before shaking it off. Then she kissed me again, and I lost myself for another moment.

After a few seconds of that, I pulled back and smiled. “Seriously. I’m right here and I’m just fine.”

“Are you really, though?” That came from Columbus. He was staring at me through his goggles. And his posture remained a bit standoffish. “Are you really okay?”

My eyes passed from him to the others. They seemed just as withdrawn, watching to see what I did, how I acted, who I really was. Seeing that, I let out a long, low sigh. “Guys,” I announced, “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s me. It’s always been me.”

Koren cut straight to the point, as was her wont. “You’re possessed,” she announced flatly.

“Err…” I coughed once, then shook my head. “Technically, not right now I’m not. I mean, yes I have been for most of my life, but no, I’m not possessed right this second. She’s back at the Atherby camp.”

“She?” Sean pressed, sounding curious.

Before I could say anything to that, Scout quickly piped up. “Sands? And… Mom…?” She had clearly been restraining herself as much as possible, wanting to give me a chance to actually greet the others and all that  before she burst in with all of the many important questions that she had. But she hadn’t been able to hold back any longer, and I couldn’t blame her for that.

“They’re okay,” I quickly assured her. “We,” I gestured toward Vanessa and Tristan, “were sort of transported here through a shortcut. The others are still out there. But your mom and sister are safe. They’re just going to have to take the long way to get back. But trust me, they’ve got plenty of help. They’ll make it.”

“And by we, you mean the three of you… and your passenger.” Columbus, again making it clear through his words and tone that he wasn’t very happy about that idea. And honestly, who could blame him given what he had been through?

And then it really struck me. How long had it been since I actually spoke to the real Columbus as himself? I hadn’t had a chance to really talk to him since that fight.

My expression of softened, and I stepped that way. My arms went around him, and I felt him stiffen for just a moment before he hesitantly returned the hug. I could sense his worry and apprehension through it.

“I’m sorry,” I announced quietly while holding onto him. “I am so sorry we didn’t figure it out sooner, Columbus. I’m sorry you had to go through all that with that… that… psycho bitch.”

Grimacing a little, the boy met my gaze. His own eyes were partially shielded by those goggles. “What about yours?” he asked simply. “Pretty sure she wasn’t on the Seosten payroll.”

Quickly, I shook my head, replying firmly, “Definitely not.”  Then I took a breath before starting to explain everything once again. The others, especially Shiori and Columbus, listened intently as I went through everything that had happened. I told them all of it, from the moment that I had been left in that forcefield prison and Tabbris had exposed herself to save me, all the way up through getting back to Earth. I told them about Athena and the Aelaestiam, about Lord Yup, about Jokai and Jazz becoming an item.

And I told them about Katarin. And, of course… Isaac.

As they had before, Vanessa and Tristan spoke up now and then to help out. Especially when we got to the parts that they were there for. But mostly it was me, doing a lot of talking.

Through it all, the others stared at me, most of them open-mouthed. Occasionally, someone would ask a question for clarification. But for the most part, they were silent.

Scout slumped once I was done. There were tears in her eyes, and she folded her arms across her stomach while looking sick. “Professor Katarin was nice,” she murmured in a voice that sounded broken. “He was nice to me when…” Blinking away those tears as best as she could, the girl sat down on a nearby armchair and dropped her head into her arms. Her shoulders shook a little bit.

I took a step that way, but it was Tristan got there first. The boy went down on his knees in front of the chair, taking Scout’s hands and squeezing them a little. I heard him murmur something quietly, but turned my attention away rather than eavesdrop. Scout needed someone to comfort her right then, and Tristan was the one who was doing it.

Instead, I focused on Koren, who asked, “Isaac, he’s still at that space station?”

Nodding quickly, I confirmed, “Yeah, and trust me, Athena isn’t going to let him out. Actually, I’d be really surprised if they don’t just find a way to rip those secrets out of his head. I bet Apollo could do it with that gift of his.”

Columbus’s voice was pointed. “You sound awfully chummy with them.”

I looked back to the boy, nodding once. “Yeah,” I replied easily, “because they’re not all one hundred percent evil anymore than any other species is. I just told you, Athena and her allies are working with other species trying to fight and change things. Yeah, they’ve got an uphill battle to do it, but they’re trying. “Besides,” I added while gesturing to the twins. “Look at Vanessa and Tristan. More to the point, look at their mother. It’s not the species that’s evil, Columbus. It’s the individuals. It’s the society they were raised in. That’s what has to change. It’s not that different from all the Heretics here. Mom was trying to change that. We’re trying to change that. And Athena and her people are trying to change their side. You can’t condemn an entire species because some of them do awful, terrible things. You change the society that brought them up to be like that.”

From the expression on his face, I wasn’t sure that I had gotten completely through to him. But he looked away and didn’t say anything else for the moment. I hoped he was at least thinking about it. Though I knew that it would take time, especially after what he had been through. And it was time that I was willing to give him. He deserved that kind of patience.

It was Koren who spoke next. “This girl, this… Tabbris, you said? You really trust her that much? You trust her enough to be in your head like that?”

“She’s my sister,” I repeated simply. Then I gestured back to the twins, to where Vanessa stood by helping Tristan with Scout. “She’s our sister. She was in my head for years and she never did anything wrong. Believe me, we can trust her. Dad and her mom are with her right now, but I want you guys to meet her. You know, the next chance we get. I want you to talk to her outside of my body. I want you to get to know her as herself before you make any real judgments.

“But think about it this way, if it wasn’t for her revealing herself and saving me from that trap, I wouldn’t have shown up at that hotel. Which means that Charmiene would have succeeded with everything she was trying to do right then. All of us would either be dead or Seosten slaves. Tabbris didn’t just save me that day. She saved all of us. And she did it by risking herself in every way. She’s a kid, and she’s the bravest kid I know.”

“Well, then I guess we need to meet her,” Sean replied before stepping forward. He embraced me then. “Glad you made it back, Flicker.”

Koren took her turn then, as did Scout after rising from the chair. Despite her grief about the man that she had known for a lot longer than I had, and her disappointment about her sister and mother not being with us, the girl found a tiny smile. “Avalon’s waiting.”

“And you’re talking,” I shot right back, grinning. “I think Herbie’s gonna win your next quiet contest, at this rate.”

She perked up a bit at that. “You have him?”

Grinning at her, I nodded. “Of course I do.” From my pocket, I produced Herbie. “Here, rockstar, say hello to your adoring fans.”

Boy, it was weird… strange… funny not getting Scout’s input filtered through Sands. I wasn’t accustomed to hearing so much of her voice or for her to be quite so open about things. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d had a lot going on in that time. Scout had grown too. They all had.

I wanted to hear everything. And I wanted to talk to them all a lot more. Especially Columbus. I had a feeling that it was going to take quite a lot to talk him around on not every Seosten being evil, after what he’d been through.

I would do it. I would take as long as I had to. But right now, there was someone I really wanted to see. So, after a little more interaction with the others, I excused myself. Then Shiori and I left the room. The others would stay with Vanessa and Tristan so that the twins could fill in any gaps I’d left in the story, or answer questions.

Together, the two of us made our way out of the office and through the school. On the way, we were stopped no less than a dozen times by a mixture of teachers and students. Everyone wanted to know what was going on, if I was officially back, where I had been, where the others were, and so on. Apparently as accustomed as Crossroads was to crazy things happening, a half-dozen students disappearing for two months was pushing it.

I just kept promising that they’d get answers later, that I was okay, that Gaia was working on saving the others, and so on. All of which meant that it took much longer to reach the beach than it normally would have.

Finally, we made it. Shiori pointed, telling me, “Just keep going that way, you’ll find her. I’ll meet you guys in a few. Choo needs walkies anyway. And I–”

Abruptly, she kissed me again. That time, I tasted tears that had fallen to her lips, and pulled back after a moment to stare at her. Clearly realizing what happened, she sniffled a little. “Sorry,” she said quietly. “I was just… I thought I might never see you again.”

“Oh, Shiori.” Smiling despite myself, I brushed those tears away gently with the back of my finger. “I’m here. And you, you’re amazing. You know the only reason I can even think about walking away from you right now is because Avalon’s waiting, and she’ll kill both of us if she doesn’t get a turn.”

Arching an eyebrow, the other girl dryly replied, “You know how lucky you are, right?”

“Ohhh yeah, the thought has occurred to me a few thousand times,” I promised. Together, we giggled just a little. Then we embraced once more and Shiori promised again to meet up with us so that we could all walk back and rejoin the rest of the group to go over everything again. Once the initial reunions were over, we could talk a lot more about specifics. And I was sure that everyone would have a million questions for me, even after the quick summary that I’d given them along with the twins.

But for now, I needed a break. I needed to see Valley. So I made my way down that beach, eventually jogging. I had to see her. The prospect made me giddy. Even after everything that had happened, the idea of seeing Avalon after two months made me so… happy that I could almost laugh out loud.

I bet you think I’m cra–

Oh. Right. Tabbris wasn’t there. Tabbris wasn’t… in me… she wasn’t…

Well. Now I felt… empty. I hadn’t noticed that much before. But now that the thought had come, it was all I could focus on. Or at least, it was all I could focus on until I rounded another corner and saw… my girl.

There she was, standing on the edge of the beach with her gaze out toward the ocean as if she was waiting for me. The setting sun framed against the beautiful Avalon took my breath away for a moment. It was all I could do just to remain standing, as a lump formed in my throat. I tried to speak, but nothing came for a few seconds. It was almost enough to simply stand here, watching her. After all the time that we had been apart, seeing her like this, it was… powerful.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed to touch her, feel her, be with her. I needed to hear her voice. So I shook off my brief moment of stunned silence and called out, “Valley!” Hearing the joy in my own voice, I couldn’t help but giggle a little before throwing myself into a sprint. My feet kicked up sand as I ran that way. If my moment with Shiori had been what finally convinced me that I was home, this was icing on the cake. My other girl. My girl. Avalon. I was home. Finally.

Hearing my voice, Avalon turned. I saw her eyes meet mine, and I knew that little smile was coming. The one that was reserved just for me. The put-on reluctance, the acceptance, the happiness that I knew she felt. The happiness that I felt whenever I saw her.

She didn’t smile.

Instead, she spoke… in a voice that was not her own. “Miss Chambers. So glad that you made it home.”

The strange voice that wasn’t at all like Avalon, the fact that she didn’t smile, or move other than to look at me, all of it combined to bring me up short. A frown found its way past the joyful smile that had been on my face. “What…?”

“I do mean that sincerely,” Not-Avalon informed me. “Though you may doubt it. I am very glad that you escaped your banishment and returned. After all, this would not have been possible without the distraction that your arrival created. Gaia leaving the island completely for an extended time, leaving her daughter alone? It was an opportunity that I couldn’t possibly resist. Staying here until you arrived, however, that was a bit of an unnecessary indulgence. But, well, we all have our vices. And in my defense, you have been quite an annoyance this past year. So, I believe I have earned this moment.”

My mouth opened and shut, and then I felt my stomach drop as my knees went weak. The horror of my growing realization became a dark cloud that seemed to blot out all light. “M… Manakel? No. No, that’s impossible. You can’t–she can’t be possessed! That’s impossible!” Even as I spoke my denial, the words sounded hollow and empty to my own ears, like I was a terrible actress, reading them from a script that I had only just then picked up.

“Correct,” the horrible, fake Avalon in front of me confirmed. “Miss Sinclaire cannot be possessed. You are absolutely right about that. However, given… well, shall we say, most of a year to prepare, and multiple false attacks in which it was possible to… ahh, secretly gather samples of the girl’s DNA… it was very possible to create a spell which would… well, to put it simply, make a temporary duplicate of her. A duplicate which included every possible thing that could be used to identify or track her. Including, of course, all of those lovely, and dare I say, incredibly advanced protective spells.

“You didn’t think that I was sitting on my hands all this time, did you? All those failed attacks? They weren’t failures. Not really. Each one allowed me to gain a little more knowledge, a little more understanding of those spells, a little more of what I needed to create this temporary duplicate, complete with copies those same protective spells.Of course, I couldn’t use it just any time. After all, Gaia and whoever else she has monitoring those spells on the young Miss Sinclaire would notice if there happened to be two different versions of their charge at the same time. However quick I might have been, if Gaia were here on the island, she would have noticed. But when I learned that she had gone to collect you, well that presented a unique opportunity.

“You’ve seen that film… ahh, Indiana Jones? I refer to the part in which the great Indy must ahh, switch the artifact from the bag of sand, hoping to do so quickly enough that the device it was sitting on wouldn’t notice the switch? Well, I dare say that my endeavor was more successful than his. Taking Miss Sinclaire to a safe location, and leaving this duplicate behind to speak through, it was quite… challenging to time that perfectly. But I think even you can admit if you look at things objectively, it worked out rather better for me than it did him. I mean, hah, I don’t see a large boulder crashing this way, do you?”

Horror and disbelief clashed within me, their war becoming the awful pounding that filled my head even as he continued speaking through the simulacrum of Avalon. “And now, well, all that’s left is to hold onto Miss Sinclaire in a safe location far away and shielded from any tracking devices or spells, where we may wait until that nasty protection spell has run out. Thankfully, I have access to a great many resources that can speed that up a bit. And once the spell has run out without being renewed or refreshed… heh, well, then it will be time to eliminate Miss Sinclaire, complete my duty here on this world, and move on to bigger, better things.”

“No!” The shout tore its way out of my throat, filling the air. “No! No! You can’t have her! You can’t take her!

Not-Avalon smiled slowly. “But Miss Chambers… I already have.”

A wordless scream of fury and loss escaped me as I threw myself that way. My empty hands rose, only to tear straight through the fake body, as Not-Avalon dissolved into a cloud of sand and dust that simply drifted away on the wind. I was left standing there alone on the beach as my broken voice tore up to the sky.

“Manakel! You can’t have her! Manakel!”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-05

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Flames, metal, lasers, and more suddenly filled the air with the fury and force of a hurricane as the Seosten forces opened fire without any further preamble. In the same instant, a glowing forcefield dome appeared directly around all of us as Larissa held both hands out to her sides. Her face contorted a little from the effort as more shots rebounded off of the shield, and she shook her head. “Can’t hold it for long,” she announced with a grunt of effort.

Even as she said that, Haiden reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. I saw the forcefield grow stronger and stop flickering quite as much as he somehow helped take some of the strain off of her. It still wouldn’t last for long under all this firepower, but between the two of them, at least it wouldn’t immediately collapse.

“Category three,” Athena immediately announced while drawing Excalibur from its sheath once more. The incredible dragon-tooth sword seemed to hum with power as she held it in front of her.

We had come in here with several different plans of what to do as things progressed. Category one, of course, was that we could go straight to the cells, free Sariel and the others, and leave. Athena had considered that the least likely possibility, and I had to agree with her.

On the other hand, category three was the idea that there would be some large enough threat that Athena and Apollo would have to split off from us to slow down or stop, while the rest of us pushed onward without our most powerful escorts. At least at first. We were each carrying something similar to the communication badges. In this case, however, the badges were specifically set to allow Apollo and Athena to teleport straight to us the moment we found the cells, or Sariel in particular, in the case that we were separated.

Haiden was already nodding as he reached into his pocket to withdraw what looked like a small, circular metal band. At the same time, I saw a brief second of deeper concentration passed over Larissa’s face, and the partially translucent forcefield around us turned completely opaque, stopping the people outside from seeing what we were doing. More than that, the forcefield wouldn’t let any powers see or hear through it either. We were, at least for those few seconds, completely cut off from them. They would have no idea what was going on in here.

I could still hear the shots pouring into it, however. And the field itself was still occasionally flickering under the strain. We had to make this quick.

“Wait,” Tristan quickly protested. “You mean you want us to just abandon you guys here with all of these assholes?”

Apollo gave him a quick look. “Kid,” he announced, “you need to save your mom, got it? You forget these guys. We’ll deal with them. You get to your mom so we can get her out of whatever torture chamber she’s been strapped into. She’s been waiting long enough. You do your part, we’ll do ours.”

“Be careful,” Vanessa urged. She put a hand up against her uncle’s arm. Her expression was pensive, and I thought about how awful it must’ve been for her to see her family ripped away from her as a child. While not remotely the same now, this whole situation had to be bringing back those memories. Memories that, in her case, were absolutely crystal clear and perfect.

Apollo winked at her and gave the girl a thumbs up, just as Haiden threw the metal band to the ground. Instantly, a glowing portal erupted out of it.

This was another one of Dries’ tricks, essentially a quick escape spell. The other end of the portal would seek out the nearest area that was at least a few hundred yards away, and didn’t seem to have any immediate threat within it. Basically, it would jump the person out of an immediate conflict. Like, for example, this one.

Part of me wanted to tell Apollo and Athena they should just go through the escape portal with us, but I knew why they weren’t. They had to stay behind and distract these guys. We had been expecting for them to have to deal with Kushiel. Now… well, I just hoped that they wouldn’t be too busy back here with Abbadon and Radueriel when that particular threat showed her face.

Haiden went through the escape portal first, weapon raised in its gun form. An instant later, he was followed by Roxa and Gidget, then Jazz and Gordon together, with Sands heading right after. The twins jumped through then, with one last look back at Apollo.

Go for it, I urged my partner, knowing what she really wanted to do.

My feet moved without my control, as Tabbris moved us over to the blond man. My hands went up to clutch his arm, and my voice pleaded, “Be careful, Uncle Apollo. Mama wants to see you too.”

Apollo‘s broad smile grew even wider at that, and he reached out to ruffle my hair. “You keep each other safe,” the man urged. “All of you. Now go find your mom. We’ll meet you there.”

Back under my own control then, I moved to the portal quickly. Larissa was there waiting for me, and the two of us went through pretty much simultaneously. I could hear the forcefield fall as we passed through, and the sound of fighting suddenly erupted just before the portal closed behind us. Apollo and Athena were on their own. Silently, I wished them luck.

And us. I wished us luck too.

The others were all waiting for us. Looking around, I saw that we had emerged into some kind of military cafeteria. Or at least it had been before the place had been destroyed by the crash. The tables, once drab and uniform with simple benches, had all been broken and tossed around, their remains scattered around the room. Against one wall was a window where the crew of the ship had gotten their food from the kitchen that I could see beyond. In that kitchen, I could see the remains of several fires, and destruction that made it look like a tornado had hit the place.

There were three sets of doors in the room. One clearly led back into that same kitchen that was visible through the window, while the others led out into the rest of the facility. I could see a single body on the floor of the kitchen entrance, with Sands, Roxa, and Gidget standing over it. Meanwhile, Haiden stood by one of the other entrances, with Vanessa and Tristan standing by the other. Jazz and Gordon were in the middle of the room.

“Time to go,” Haiden announced as soon as Larissa and I appeared together. He peeked out into the corridor beyond the doors before beckoning. “Hurry, we are not going to give them time to move her.”

As we moved to the doorway, Jazz glanced to me. “Looks like you made even more enemies than we thought. Those guys back there looked pretty pissed at you.”

Grimacing a little at that, I nodded. “Who knew that Charmiene actually had friends?”

“Well so do you,” Sands pointed out. Her fist bumped my shoulder. “And we’re not gonna let anything happen to you, no matter how many of those assholes come looking.”

Together, we all moved into the hallway. It hadn’t fared much better in the crash. I could see places where the metal walls were bent and broken, big jagged holes revealing other parts of the ship, or just the wiring and pipes. Everything was a mess.

To our left there was a flame-scorched wall, through which we could hear the distant sound of fighting. Apollo and Athena were busy. Meanwhile, the hallway stretched on to the right, gradually curving, with several doors and other corridors leading off in various directions.

Haiden picked up the pace, jogging quickly. “The way the ship came down,” he announced, “the best exit to put us in the tower is this way.”

So we followed him. Larissa brought up the rear, while the rest of us teenagers jogged along behind the man as he lead us through the maze of the broken ship’s interior.

We were ready for a fight, but no one stopped us at first. There was no one to stop us. Everyone on the ship had either been teleported off, or had been brought on with Ares and Radueriel and were busy dealing with Athena and Apollo. Our path, for the moment, was clear.

Was being the operative term. Because just as we emerged into a larger chamber that I belatedly recognized as some kind of shuttle bay with wide open doors leading outside, that stopped being the case. Ahead of us, coming through those same enormous shuttlebay doors that would take us out of the ship, were a couple dozen soldiers of various species. They were accompanied by several enormous mechanized things that look like twelve-foot tall metal rhinos with a bunch of weapons attached to them. Tanks, or at least one of the Seosten versions.

As if that wasn’t enough, noise behind us drew our attention back to where several more of the Seosten, likely the ones who had the biggest problem with me, had apparently abandoned the fight with Athena and Apollo and had caught up with us. Once again, we were surrounded. And this time, we were actually going to have to fight our way through them to get out of the ship and into the lab.

There was no time to discuss things, no time to make another plan or have any kind of conversation. These guys weren’t in the mood to negotiate or even make any wisecracks. The soldiers on both sides saw us, and instantly attacked.

Chaos ensued, complete and utter chaos. Shots, fire, and more filled the air, even as those big rhino-tank things began to pound their way forward, the cannons on their backs and sides opening up.

Without hesitation, Haiden went forward, intercepting the tanks as well as all the soldiers who were on that side. He was a whirling dervish with his long weapon that kept rapidly switching between its sword-form and the shotgun. A shotgun which, apparently, was powerful enough to stagger one of those tanks when he shot it point-blank.

Vanessa and Tristan moved to help their dad, backing him up while he did the bulk of the work. The twins were right there, able to fight alongside their father for the first real time. It was almost beautiful to watch, and I wished for a second that I could afford to pay more attention to it.

I did, however, get to see Vanessa snap her whip out, catching it around the leg of one of the men before yanking him up and forward into the air just as a blast from Tristan’s arm-cannon tore through him like the two of them were skeet shooting.

Larissa, meanwhile, disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear between us and the small group of Seosten who had apparently been coming after me specifically. The handful of shots that had been on target were intercepted in mid-air, held motionless before being tossed aside. At the same time, a large burst of fire that had been coming from one man’s outstretched hand was frozen solid before shattering into a dozen pieces.

She went to work then, throwing herself at that group and taking the attention of most of them. Which was a pretty good thing, since if these guys were even remotely close to the level that Charmiene had been on, I seriously doubted that even Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Tabbris, and I could take them all on together. Six of them and six of us? Five if you counted Tabbris and me as one. I had a pretty bad feeling that we would have been slaughtered.

As it was, two of them broke free and kept going for their main target: me. Which left Larissa fighting four of them, a serious enough threat that the woman actually produced the weapon that she and Athena had been working on.

Essentially, Larissa’s new weapon was a hunk of very clear crystal. Or at least, something that looked like crystal. The thing seemed like it would shatter if you stared at it too hard. But it was apparently strong enough to withstand almost anything. And more than that, the thing could change shape. It basically had some kind of unconscious mental connection to the wielder. At a thought, it would reshape from a sword, to a spear, to a shield, and so on.

Plus, any kind of energy that hit it, like fire, electricity, sound, several kinds of magic, or even simple kinetic force (often by smacking the thing against the wall a few times), were absorbed and contained. The thing could contain those energies pretty much indefinitely. Then, at any time, they could be fired back out of it, often by making the thing take the shape of a gun.

The point was, the weapon was still very new, and they hadn’t worked out everything about it yet. So, seeing her draw it now showed just how serious the situation was. And it meant that even facing two of these guys was going to be a pretty big problem for the six of us.

Even as the two Seosten came at me, with their weapons drawn, Roxa and the others withdrew. I found myself standing there alone while they dropped back. But the thought that they had abandoned me never entered my head. I knew what they were doing: pulling back so that the two Seosten would come straight at me and could be attacked from the side or behind. They were leaving me standing there as bait. And quite frankly, I completely understood that. We needed every advantage we could get in this fight, and using their own rage about the loss of their friend (the thought of which was still a little weird) against them was an advantage.

I just had to survive the initial assault.

Tab, I thought then with that in mind, get ready to boost. Yes, she could only do so for a brief time, but she was getting better at it constantly. And now felt like the best time to actually use it. I had to survive the next few seconds so that the others could help.

The two Seosten were in sync. Just before they would have reached me, one dropped to a knee, producing a pistol of some kind. He fired at me rapidly, filling the air with shots. Meanwhile, his partner leapt, producing another one of those laser-blades in one hand, which he swung down at my head while spinning in the air as he passed over me. They were basically trying to force me to choose between diving into the incoming shots, or jumping into the blade. Even I wasn’t fast enough to deal with all of this at once.

Or at least, I wasn’t before. But in that instant, Tabbris hit the boost, and everything seemed to slow down dramatically. It was like one of those video games where you can hit a button and make everything go into slow-motion, while you move fairly normally. I was suddenly stronger, faster, and everything else seemed like it was moving through some kind of very thick liquid.

I used it. Raising my hands quickly, I set two small portals right in the path of a few of the incoming shots. At the same time, I could feel that laser sword inching closer and closer to my exposed neck as the other Seosten’s leaping spin carried him over my head. But with everything appearing to move as slowly as it did, I was able to turn my head and shoulders just enough that the energy blade passed right near me, even as those bullets were intercepted by the portals.

With a grimace, I stabbed the bladed end of my staff upward, straight at the man who was passing over my head. He was right there, exposed above me in mid-leap. I could end at least his part of this.

Or at least, I could have. But in that same instance, the Seosten was suddenly moving as fast as I was. His slowed motion turned normal as he snapped his hand down to catch hold of my weapon just before it could have pierced his chest, stopping it. Then he landed, still holding my staff as his strength nearly tore it from my grasp.

In the background, I also saw the other guy neatly and smoothly avoid the shots that I had sent back through those portals at him, moving like they were going in slow motion.

Right, great, these guys could boost too. And they were clearly doing so. The first man tried again to yank my stuff out of my hands, and he would have managed it if I hadn’t been boosting as well. My foot lashed out to kick at him, but the man easily twisted aside before stepping in to backhand me. I took the blow on the side of my head, seeing stars as I staggered. In the background, I could feel the other guy running closer with some kind of blade of his own.

Worse, even as I managed to yank my staff back away from the grip of the man holding it, I felt the last of the boost give way. I was back to normal, or at least, what was normal to me. In the background of my mind I could feel Tabbris’s exhaustion from the effort of making me as fast and strong as possible for as long as she could. She had been getting so much better, but she was still a kid, and could only make it happen for a few seconds at a time. Still, she had absolutely saved my life in that moment. Throw it onto the pile of all the other times she had saved me.

But now she was exhausted, and I was standing there with two murderous Seosten coming at me from either side.

But like Sands had said, I had friends too. And they suddenly made themselves known. Behind me, as my head turned slightly at a sound, I caught a glimpse of the guys there being ambushed by Jazz and Gordon. His weapons were yanked away from him by a focused gravity ball, just before one of Gordon’s new light blue concussive energy blasts struck the Seosten himself. It didn’t do that much, barely staggering the man. But I knew that each consecutive hit would do more damage. Plus, every time he hit the guy, Gordon would be better able to predict his actions.

Gidget was there too, backing the other two up by pinning the guy down with a rapid series of shots from her hoverboard/weapons platform mode, before she switched back to her normal cougar/form and lunged at him.

Meanwhile, a shadow slid across the floor between me and the other Seosten, before Sands popped up, reforming with her hands raised.

“Hey,” she blurted, “why don’t you pick on someone your own size?!”

The man obliged, rearing back with his foot to kick at her with blinding speed, and enough force to have put a hole in a brick wall. But, as strong as he might have been, Sands was standing still, which meant that her invulnerability and immobility power had kicked in. The man’s foot landed right in the middle of the girl’s chest, and I heard a couple snaps as bones in his foot and ankle snapped from the force of it. Meanwhile, Sands herself stood completely motionless and unbothered.

As he recoiled with a grunt of pain, favoring that foot, I saw Roxa. The blonde girl was coming up from behind the man with her claws extended. He had no idea that she was there, since her own power rendered her completely undetectable by anything other than direct line of sight.

He did, however, know that Sands was there. And he was pretty ticked off at her. With a growl, the man snapped that laser sword out. And while she may have been pretty much invulnerable to physical impact while standing still, I wasn’t sure that extended to something like that laser sword.

Sands apparently felt the same way, because she suddenly moved with blinding speed of her own, boosting with the power she had taken from the Seosten that she had killed. Pivoting away from the incoming blade, she caught hold of the man’s extended arm with a grip that I knew was stronger than mine even at normal times, let alone now that she was boosting.

Unfortunately, holding the Seosten like that was apparently the wrong move. Because the moment that she did, his entire arm transformed into what looked like a literal tree branch, an instant before two smaller branches stabbed out of the side of that branch, piercing straight through Sands’ hands. The blood-covered, pointed ends immediately widened too much for Sands to yank free, even as the girl cried out. She had been moving, so she wasn’t invulnerable.

Worse, a larger branch, also pointed at the end, grew from the bottom of that arm-branch before stabbing upward toward the other girl’s chest.

But I was there. Or rather, Tabbris was. My partner had apparently recovered from her exhaustion enough to kick in the boost once more, and I was suddenly a blur of motion as my staff snapped out to cut that spear-like wooden ‘branch’ with the bladed end an instant before it would have stabbed through Sands. A second later, she managed to rip her injured hands free with a violently blurted curse.

Taking back control then, I snapped the bladed end of my staff up at the man’s face. I whiffed entirely of course, the man entirely too fast for a blow like that. His head jerked back instantly away from the blade, while a cocky smile grew across his face.

It was a smile that vanished an instant later, as Roxa got to him. My deliberate swing had put the man right in her path. With his head back like that, his neck was exposed. And Roxa grabbed onto that exposed neck with both of her hands. I saw her claws dig deep into the meat of his throat, tearing into his jugular and spraying blood everywhere. I could literally see the inside of the man’s throat as it was torn open like… like a banana having the peel torn off of it. A very bloody banana.

At the same time, Roxa opened her mouth to reveal enormous fangs as she bit into the back of his neck to do even more horrific damage. Her mouth tore through the man’s spinal cord in his neck, the bones shattering under her teeth while she used the claws buried into his torn open throat to push it back further into her mouth. A vicious, animal-like snarl rose from the girl, while her teeth tightened enough to finish completely breaking through the Seosten’s spine. Between her teeth buried in the back of the man’s neck and her claws embedded in the front of it, Roxa tore his head completely off.

The man died like that, and Roxa’s glowing aura popped up as she staggered with a sudden gasp of pleasure. Blood, bits of bone, and flesh coated her mouth and face, falling from her open mouth as she coughed and gave a little shudder.

A second later, I heard a scream of rage, and then a cry of pain. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see the other Seosten shove Jazz to the floor with a clearly broken arm. His eyes, full of rage and fury, were on Roxa and me.

He took a step our way, but Gordon was suddenly there, catching hold of the Seosten’s arm tightly. For his part, the enraged man blinked down, then snarled, “No possession defense?” His other hand snapped out to catch hold of Gordon before the boy could pull back. “That was a mistake.”

Wait, why wouldn’t Gordon have the possession defense o– My thoughts disappeared an instant later, along with the shouted warning that had been materializing on my lips. Because the Seosten briefly disappeared as he began to possess the boy… only to almost immediately reappear. But he reappeared wrong. Totally and completely wrong. I could see organs where there was supposed to be skin. His head was down near where his foot should have been, while teeth and shattered bones were scattered over his entire body, haphazardly sticking out of various bits of flesh. His pulsing heart was where his head had been, with one eye stuck in the middle of it, while his other eye was down around the middle of the body. One of his lungs was up atop a lump of flesh shaped into a hump on his back.

It got worse everywhere I looked. What had been a Seosten man was now just a disjointed monster with bits stuck here and there, his entire body turned inside out and swapped around randomly. And the worst part was, he was still alive, at least for a few seconds. I could see the mouth near the bottom of his contorted right leg open and clearly screaming silently for a few seconds before the entire miserable figure completely collapsed and lay still.

As Gordon’s forest-green aura glowed brightly, the rest of us stared at him open-mouthed in complete silence and shock for a moment. The realization of what had just happened, and why the boy had always refused to allow me to possess him, sank in then.

“You… you…” That was Sands, her eyes wide. “Dude. You’re… why didn’t you tell us you were a… a…”

“A hybrid?” the boy’s voice was flat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… want you to treat me any differently. I didn’t want to add to everything else going on, everything else you’re dealing with. I didn’t want to be another project.”

Before I could say anything to that, Haiden was suddenly there, along with the twins. They (mostly Haiden) had destroyed both of those tanks, and taken out several of the soldiers. But there are more (both soldiers and tanks) coming through several of the other open shuttlebay doors and making their way to us.

“We’ll talk about that later,” the man announced while helping Jazz to her feet. “Right now, there’s too many of these guys to deal with,” he announced. “They’re slowing us down too much. You need to get out of here. We’ll slow them down. You find the lab. Get into it anyway you can. When you get to the lab, use those badges that Athena gave you. Use those, and we’ll be able to teleport right to you.”

“But Dad,” Tristan started. Before he could continue however, Haiden caught his son and yanked him out of the way of an incoming shot from one of the newly arrived tank things. The shot obliterated part of the far wall, where I caught a glimpse of Larissa fighting the other Seosten.

“Go!” Haiden ordered. “Find your mother. I have to help Larissa, and you need to get out of here. Now go.” He punctuated that with a little push, nodding to both of his children. “Find your mom,” he repeated tersely. “You can do it, just get to her and summon the rest of us.”

The rest of us looked at one another for a brief second. I could see the fear and hesitation in Sands’ eyes. She wanted to stay and help her mother as much as the twins wanted to stay and help their father. And I could also see hesitation in Gordon’s eyes. Not because he didn’t want to help, but because he was afraid that we would treat him differently now that we knew the truth. And honestly, even though I had no plans to treat him differently, of course, I did want answers. I wanted to know how long he had known that he was a hybrid. I wanted to know who his parents were. I wanted…. I wanted to know a lot. 

But we also knew that Haiden was right. There wasn’t time for any of that. We had to get to Sariel. So, as one, we turned and ran past the remains of the tanks and soldiers, on our way through the open doors.

One of those rhino-tanks appeared in our path, blocking the way out. As its weapons began to come to life, I started to dive out of the way.

But there was no need. Without breaking stride, Vanessa lunged that way. In mid-leap, the girl transformed. Her body grew, expanding into a massive, fur-covered figure. The werebear. She was in her werebear form. With a pants-wetting roar, the normally quiet and studious girl smacked the tank out of the way, sending it tumbling end over end like a normal person hitting a crumpled up piece of paper. Then she just kept going like that, running on all fours without even glancing back.

With that, we were through the doors. And for the moment, we had left the last of our adult escorts behind. 

Leaving the ship and entering the tower that would lead us to Kushiel’s lab, we were officially… on our own.

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Gathering Force 33-06

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Please note that there was a full bonus chapter posted on Wednesday (33-05), which may leave you slightly confused if you read this one before that one. So if you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I still can’t believe you’re here. You guys actually made it.” Larissa’s voice was completely awed as she stared at Vanessa and Tristan.  

We weren’t in the cafeteria anymore. Rather than continue tying up that place with our emotional reunions and explanations while other people wanted to eat, the rest of us had gone to meet Larissa and the others down in the city area, at the house. We were all in the backyard, where Haiden was cooking burgers on an actual barbecue that had been salvaged from somewhere. Athena had offered to have food brought down, but the man had said something about how he was going to barbecue for his kids, damn it.

That was what we were doing while Athena used the blood that she had collected from Vanessa and Tristan to add into that locator spell to search for Kushiel’s base.

Vanessa was standing over by her dad, helping him cook alongside Tabbris, while Tristan bore the brunt of the questioning from everyone else.

“Hey, I’m still surprised that you’re here,” the boy pointed out in response to Larissa. “I mean, I know we already knew that, but still! You and Sands both coming back together when this is over, her mom and her sister? Scout’s gonna be so stoked.” As he spoke, the boy rubbed the top of Bobbi-Bobbi’s head. He had taken off the necklace that his cyberform snake transformed into so that she could stretch her… well, scales, I supposed.

And I was still curious about how that thing’s size-changing thing worked, how she could go from the size of a simple chain that fit around Tristan’s neck, to a giant snake that could turn into a cannon on his arm. But then again, there was that boy Eiji back at Crossroads whose backpack could turn into both a full-sized rhino and a motorcycle, so I supposed it wasn’t that crazy.

Sands, who had been standing by her mother, quickly blurted, “How is she? How…. how’s Scout doing?” She looked anxious, and I realized yet again just how much she had missed, and was missing, her twin. Being reunited with her mother had done a lot to alleviate that, but still. She and Scout had never been separated like this.

“Oh, she’s, um…” Tristan coughed before giving her a smile. “She’ll be okay. She’s really tough, you know? She’s been stepping up a lot through all this. There was this–” He stopped, considering for a moment. “Eh, should probably let her tell you the story. It’s a good one, and I wouldn’t wanna spoil it for her. But trust me, it was great. She’s great. Just, just great.”

At the end of that, even Bobbi-Bobbi was shaking her head while giving him a pitying look.

“Great?” Sands smiled a little at that before narrowing her eyes a little suspiciously at him. “She’s great, huh?”

“Yes,” Larissa added, having clearly picked up on the same thing. “She’s… great?”

Tristan actually blushed at that, shifting as he cleared his throat. “Err, yeah. You know, everyone thinks so. Just–like, everyone. Cuz she’s great, and everyone notices, like–”

Jazz stepped forward from where she had been standing with Gordon and Roxa then, quickly speaking up to save him. “Speaking of great people, how’re Doug and Rudolph?”

Giving the other girl a quick, grateful look, the boy replied, “Oh, yeah, they’re doing okay. I mean, they don’t know much about what’s going on, but they know a little bit. Especially after what happened with-” In mid-sentence, the boy stopped before looking at me.

“Oh, right,” he started. “Speaking of which, I should probably tell you what happened with Avalon and her dad, huh?”  

Well, that was enough to make me choke as my eyes shot open so wide I thought they might pop out of my skull. “What?!” I blurted, eyes widening as I shot a look to the boy. “Avalon and her dad?” I took a reflexive step that way. “What the hell?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in, “what she said. What the hell?!”

“Sorry, sorry.” Tristan looked abashed. “I probably should’ve started with, ‘she’s fine’. Or, you know, at least included that in the first part before making you panic. She’s okay, I swear.”

Beside the boy, Bobbi-Bobbi rose up to bat the side of her head against his while giving a reprimanding hiss, head shaking like a disapproving parent.

“Yeah, yeah.” Tristan scoffed at her. “Don’t start with me, or you can go right back to being a necklace for awhile.”

Bobbi-Bobbi darted back, clearly playing up her ‘fear’ of that as she wound her way around me, pretending to hide before poking her big head up around my shoulder and hissing.

“Don’t worry,” I assured the metal snake. “We won’t let the mean boy hurt you. Right, guys?” At that, Jaq and Gus both came clambering up my other shoulder, crawled around my back, and then put themselves on Bobbi-Bobbi, pointedly chattering threateningly at Tristan.

“See?” I nodded that way. “Snake and mice working together. You better listen to them. They can get nasty if they want to. Now tell me what happened to Avalon and… and her dad.”

The boy complied, explaining, “He came after her and the rest of the team–oh, uh, they sorta combined both your old teams to make one new one.” He was nodding to Roxa and me at that point. “So they were out in the woods to save this pixie that was supposed to know something about Manakel–”

“Tristan,” I interrupted. “This isn’t Memento. Tell the story in chronological order, for God’s sake.”

The boy actually blushed a little, head shaking. “Okay, okay. So from what they said, Avalon got a call from Asenath about this pixie that was on the run and injured because she knew something about Manakel and all that. She talked the others into helping her find the pixie, but when they got out there, a bunch of vampires with Avalon’s dad showed up. They got some help from Deveron and Wyatt, but Avalon mostly faced her dad by herself. She won. He’s dead.”

“Avalon killed her dad.” Saying the words flatly, I slumped a bit, nearly falling over before Roxa practically materialized beside me to put a hand on my back. My voice was hollow. “I should’ve been there. I should have been there with her, for her. I…” Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “I’m missing so much.”

Sands looked to me, her voice soft as she gave me a smile. “We’ll get back there,” she promised. “And then you guys can compare stories about who did the most insane thing while you were apart. And since she killed her psycho dad, I’m pretty sure you’ve got some catching up to do–oh, look, we’re about to go raid the crazy Seosten lady’s secret torture prison as soon as we get an address.”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Okay, you’re right. I just–yeah, we all miss the guys back there. Got it. No more moping. Acting. I mean action. Whatever. Moving forward.”

“Moving forward can happen after lunch.” That was Haiden. The man was holding up his spatula. “For now, we have burgers. Come and get it!”

So we did. Everyone filled their plate. The food was all as artificial as everything else (no store-bought buns or anything, since Wal-Mart hadn’t progressed quite that far in their domination of the universe yet), and yet I couldn’t detect a difference now any better than I’d been able to at any other meal in this place. The burgers tasted just like any regular backyard barbecue. And we had even had french fries too, thanks to a quick delivery from Chef Gisby’s kitchen. Everything was incredibly authentic.

Vanessa apparently thought so too, since she was inhaling french fries. That girl and potatoes, I swore. I had never seen anyone who liked potatoes of every type as much as she did.

It was great, but I still noticed when Larissa leaned over to whisper something to Sands, and the expressions they both had sometimes, when they thought no one was looking. They really didn’t want to bring the mood down, but it was obvious that they missed Scout.

Tristan noticed too, because he cleared his throat. “Uh, hey, Sands and uh, Mrs. Mason, sorry. I swear, if we’d known that Nessa would be able to jump us out here this easily, or thought about it first, we would’ve tried to see who could come with us. We would’ve asked your sister.” He gave a deep, long sigh then. “It’s my fault. If it was Vanessa by herself, she would’ve been more careful. I just… I thought she’d be able to check and then stop herself or something, I dunno.”

Larissa quickly shook her head at that. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Tristan. Just the fact that you both made it out here is amazing.”

He jerked a thumb toward his sister at that. “Hey, she gets the credit for that.”

Vanessa squirmed under the attention, fidgeting from foot to foot as her face pinked. “It was an accident,” she murmured helplessly. “If I thought it would actually work, I would’ve told Headmistress Sinclaire first. And the others. We could have brought a lot of people if they just touched Tristan.” She flinched, looking to the grass. “I should’ve thought about it first.”

“Like I said, that’s my fault.” Tristan immediately defended his sister against her own self-recrimination. “I said you should try it. I didn’t think about what would happen either.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Athena spoke up from where she had just appeared. “Now that is very familiar.” She smiled a little, coming closer. “The girl who is usually so careful and thoughtful being led into impulsive decisions by the boy. And both standing up for each other. They may not have not truly been related, but you remind me very much of Lucifer and Sariel. It is almost uncanny.”

Right, right. Lucifer was Apollo. I had learned that over the time since we had been here, but it was still a little confusing to hear him called that.

“Uncle Apollo,” Vanessa murmured. “He’s going to be worried about us.”

Her brother nudged her. “Trust me, Nessa, he’ll be okay once we bring back Mom.”

“Indeed,” Athena agreed, her voice drawing everyone’s attention to her. “That,” the Seosten woman announced, “is actually why I’ve interrupted your lunch. It seems that your blood is even more potent than I had hoped for. Your growth for your age is… extraordinary.”

“Wait, more potent?” Larissa started. “Does that mean…?”

“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed, “the spell has succeeded.”

Eyes widening a little, I blurted excitedly, “The spell? It worked? It’s done?”

As Athena nodded at that. “Yes. We now know the exact location of Kushiel’s lab and prison. We know where Sariel is being kept.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I demanded.

“Let’s go get her.”

******

Two hours later, Tristan, Roxa, Sands, and I were hauling enormous, heavy crates through one of the long, winding corridors of the station. Even Gidget and Bobbi-Bobbi were helping, dragging a pair of crates by chains in their mouths. Larissa had put some kind of spell on the crates so that they floated a couple inches off the floor rather than just letting them scrape and slide the whole way as Roxa and Tristan’s cyberforms pulled them.   

And speaking of Tristan, the blond boy had clearly gotten some kind of strength boost himself at some point, because he could carry just as much as I could without any trouble.

The crates were full of supplies for the trip. Plus weapons and a bunch of other stuff that Athena thought could be useful. We were taking them to the portal in one of the cargo bays that Yup had set up. Jokai and Dries were only about a day out from finally arriving at the station itself, but we couldn’t wait that long. So we were going to portal out to it with the supplies and tell them the new destination, the coordinates of Kushiel’s base. I had them written down.

Normally, Yup would just come to us and make his portal. But apparently, hitting a moving ship like that, even with the beacon that he had left on it, was a little tricky. So he preferred doing it from the cargo bay, where he had multiple spells set up to enhance and help direct his own natural ability. In his words, it helped avoid any ‘accidents’.

Plus, we had been told that carrying the crates down there ourselves would be exercise, which was good for us.

Meanwhile, Athena was having Larissa, Haiden, and the others collect a few more things that she thought we’d need, and giving instructions to the rest of her people. Tabbris was with them, since she had wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to the other Seosten kids before we left. She and the rest would meet us on the ship. And once everyone was on board (both literally and figuratively), we would head for the location of the secret lab as fast as possible.

“Are you guys sure we’re not totally lost?” Sands asked as we turned another corner of the near-maze, only to find ourselves facing a three-way fork. “Cuz I’ve gotta tell you, all of this stuff looks the same to me.” She gestured to the trio of corridors before us. “Which way now?”  

“That way,” both Tristan and I announced together, pointing to the left-most fork immediately.

“Okay,” I started, “I’ve been here long enough to know where I’m going. How do you know?”

The boy gave me an incorrigible grin. “Hey, I basically grew up on Granddad Nick’s ship. I know how to read these signs.” He gestured to the words along the wall. “That one says that Cargo Bay A is that way. That’s where we’re going, right? Athena said that Yup guy would be there.”

Shaking my head, I nodded. “Right, right, yeah. Sorry, sometimes I forget how long you spent out there. Or is that out here…?” I paused, frowning a little. “Wait, we’re not about to risk you blowing up or whatever by getting too close to your past self out here, are we? Cuz that’s bad.”

“Nah.” The boy shrugged at that. “We were mostly out on the fringe of Seosten expansion. Different universe, basically. Never came in this deep. We should be fine.”  

“Right,” Sands replied while squinting at him. “Should be. We should be fine. That makes me feel better.” Visibly shaking that off, she hefted the crate in her hands. “Come on, let’s go then.”

We were approaching the cargo bay then, with the doors right ahead of us. They slid aside, revealing one of many massive cargo bays that I’d seen throughout my stay here. This one was almost half empty, aside from the glowing portal that Yup was standing in front of.

“There you are!” the small, purple-skinned figure called. “I thought you got lost.”

“No, you didn’t,” I retorted. “You can see through my eyes. You knew exactly where we were.”

Grinning, the little guy wiggled his quartet of ears at me. “Busted. Yes, I knew you were almost here. Didn’t even set up the portal until you were close.” Stepping our way, he extended a hand toward Tristan. “Name’s Yup. Close enough anyway. And you would be?”

Blinking, Tristan lowered his crate before shaking the bright violet man’s hand. “Uh, Tristan. Tristan Moon. Good to meet you, Yup. You’re…” His eyes widened then, as realization came. “Holy shit, you’re a Tseuckaviel, aren’t you? I mean, a living one. I saw pictures and stuff when I was with Granddad Nick, but never one that was alive. He thought you guys were all… gone.”

“Most of us are,” Yup replied while I cringed inwardly (and probably outwardly). “Between the Seosten and the Fomorians, it doesn’t pay to be a race with something they really want to use.”

“That’s what Granddad Nick said…” Tristan’s voice had sobered, the boy swallowing a little before he met Yup’s enormous, compound eyes. “I’m sorry. I could’ve phrased that better. It was just–he told me stories about your people, about what you could do. We met one of the robots that you guys built, your umm, your servants or whatever they were?”

Brightening at that, Yup chirped, “You mean one of the Mevari? You actually met one? I thought they’d all been destroyed or lost for good by now.”

Tristan’s eyes were wide. “Destroyed? It’s possible to destroy them? We–I mean, the one we met calls herself Quattor. We went to this colony world and she was the only one there. I guess these Fomorians attacked and she was the only survivor. And by that, I mean she killed the Fomorians. Plural. Like, two actual Fomorians and all these pet monsters they had. Quattor killed them all. She said that she was… gone when they massacred the colony, but when she got back she made them pay for it.”

Yup was smiling, clearly proud. “We built the Mevari to serve as friends and bodyguards for our people. They are… quite dangerous when provoked. And since they are all mechanical, they are incapable of being possessed and Fomorian bio-weapons are fairly useless.” His face fell a little bit then. “We thought it would be enough to help us. But it only encouraged our enemies to get… creative. Still,” he added while visibly making himself perk up. “I am glad to hear that at least one is still out there. It gives me hope. And that is sometimes in very short supply.”   

“So, they’re like… robots?” Sands asked tentatively, clearly interested. “Your people built robot companions, like the cyberforms that Heretics use?” She gestured toward Gidget, Bobbi-Bobbi, and the two mice, who were all collectively investigating the portal curiously.

“More advanced,” Yup corrected her. “The Mevari are basically just like any other person, except they’re artificial. They’re made of–okay, it’s too complicated to get into. Yes, they’re like robots. Only robots that can think, feel, and make their own decisions.”

“Cyberforms think and feel too,” I pointed out. “But I get what you mean. They were more like people than animals.” Taking a breath, I added, “Maybe you’ll get a chance to meet this… Quattor someday? It sounds like it’d be good for you guys to spend some time together.”

Nodding, Yup gestured to Tristan. “Yes, someday… and I would like to hear more stories of her, young man.”

“You got it.” Giving him a thumbs up, the boy replied, “Trust me, I’ve got plenty of ‘em. Quattor’s cool. And she would definitely like to know that you’re alive. She was… sad about your people.”

There was another moment of quiet contemplation, before Yup ordered us to stop wasting time and hurry up. He was right, so we quickly made our way through the portal and onto the ship. So, basically we just went from the station’s cargo bay to the ship’s cargo bay.

“Nice place,” Tristan announced while slowly looking around. “What’d you say the ship’s name was?”

My head shook. “I don’t think it actually has a name. I mean, unless the Seosten called it something.”

Clearing her throat, Roxa spoke up while exchanging a brief look with Sands. “Actually, we sort of gave it a name while you were gone. Or, Jokai did, anyway.”

“Really?” I blinked that way. “What did he call it?”

The answer came from Jokai himself, as the chameleon-man came into the room. “Sunstrider. It is… reference? Reference to song from your world, of walking on the sun shine.” Face actually turning a little red then, he admitted, “It is… first song Jazzy and me were… dancing to. It is… good song, and I wanted to… give ship name that gives… happy thoughts.”

Smiling broadly to that, I repeated, “Awww, you named the ship after yours and Jazz’s first song. Sunstrider, walking on sunshine. I like it.”

Still blushing, Jokai asked, “Why… are you here? Why have you… brought boxes? And…” He gestured toward Tristan. “You… are new.”

“This is Tristan,” Sands explained. “Tristan, this is Jokai, our pilot and… well, a lot more than that. And Jokai, I hope you guys weren’t dead set on getting to Athena’s space station anytime soon.

“Cuz we’ve got a new destination.”

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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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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Mini-Interlude 20 – Scout

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Please note, the following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout. It takes place about a week or so before the current events, not too long before Scout and Sands leave for their European trip with their father.

The satisfying pop of the fast-moving ball landing smack in the middle of the open leather glove was followed almost instantly by the whiff of the swinging bat cutting through the air just barely too late.

“Whoo,” the boy with the bat, Tristan Moon, tapped the end of it against the ground while shaking his head. “Nessa’s right, you’ve got a great arm over there. What’d you do, kill a Stranger-Nolan Ryan?”

Standing where she was, Scout Mason felt a blush touch her face. Which wasn’t anything new. It seemed like any time anyone addressed her, the uncertainty and embarrassment tried to set in, let alone if they were paying her a compliment. Strangely, criticism wasn’t as bad. She could handle that. It was when people were nice to her that she felt weird and didn’t know how to respond.

After finally settling on shaking her head, she held her glove up and waited. Rude. Wasn’t it rude not to say anything? But she wasn’t trying to be rude. She just didn’t know what to say. She hardly ever knew what to say to anyone, let alone when it was someone as boisterous and… well, confident as Tristan.

“See?” Vanessa herself straightened up from her crouched position behind her brother, shaking her hand out where the wicked fast ball had slammed into her glove before looking to the boy. “I told you she’d be a good match for you.” As she spoke, the blonde girl carefully threw the ball back to Scout. She wasn’t quite as awkward and uncertain as she had been when the pair had first started to play catch on the roof of the dorm, though it was obvious she would never be the kind of natural athlete her brother was.

Scout saw the sly look on the boy’s face at Vanessa’s choice of words. The same look she’d seen on plenty of other faces when someone left them open for a great joke or bit of teasing. His eyes glanced toward her, mouth open to put voice to what was obviously a play off of his sister calling her a ‘good match.’

Except he didn’t. The words were obviously there and ready to come out, but the boy paused when he looked at Scout. Remaining silent like that for a couple seconds, he finally shrugged and set himself back up with the bat up. “All right, let’s go, let’s go. I got your timing now.”

Vanessa resumed her position, and Scout took a moment while asking herself why the boy hadn’t said anything. It was obvious that he caught the unintended insinuation, yet he chose not to capitalize on it. He just let it go after he looked at her.

Rather than dwell, she carefully checked the ball against her mitt. Taking a breath, she wound up and then let it fly.

As promised, the boy was ready. That time, his wooden bat connected with the ball rather solidly. The white sphere rebounded from the bat with a satisfying crack that sent the ball spinning off into the air toward the right side of the grassy field they were in.

Scout didn’t bother chasing it. Instead, she turned to watch while tucking her mitt under her arm. Further out, a different figure went after the ball. A very different figure. Tristan’s giant robotic snake twisted its way through the grass, head craned up to watch as it moved at a pretty impressive clip considering its lack of legs, managing to keep up with the flying ball and stay under it as it began to fall. Mouth opening wide, the snake let the ball fall right inside, swallowing it. In the same second, the snake rotated, to aim its mouth toward Scout and fired the ball back toward her. She quickly caught the ball with her glove and turned back to the boy.

“Aww, whose side are you on, Bobbi?” Tristan called to his snake. “You could’ve let that one go.”

“Her name is Bobbi-Bobbi,” Vanessa reminded him. “Not Bobbi.” She, of course, had been the one to come up with the name for the snake-robot that had become her brother’s weapon and companion.

For his part, the boy just blinked. “There’s a difference between saying it once and saying it twice?”

“I’m gonna make you read the book,” the blonde girl threatened before sighing. “Bobbi-Bobbi was the Australian snake-god, remember? Loved humans, gave them bats so they’d have something to eat. Only the bats flew too high to reach, so he took one of his own ribs and gave it to the humans to use as the first boomerang.”

“Right.” Tristan gave a quick, satisfied nod before teasing, “Don’t worry, sis, I’ll only ask you to explain it fourteen more times before it sticks.” With a wink, he called to his partner. “You must reaaaaally love being helpful, don’t you, Bobbi-Bobbi? Just like your namesake.”

The snake made a hissing noise of agreement, and Tristan shook his head before focusing on where Scout was still standing. “Err, right, speaking of being helpful… you mind if we take a little break and talk about something serious?”

Giving her head a quick nod, Scout started to gesture that she would head off to give the two some privacy so they could talk. To her surprise, however, Vanessa shook her head. “No, um, it’s sort of something we want to talk with you about.”

Blinking at that, the quiet girl hesitated before walking in to join them. Her eyes moved quizzically from one to the other.

It was Tristan who spoke first. “Listen, you can do that whole… coin spell thing, right? We sort of need that, just in case.”

Coin spell. Right, the privacy spell. Clearly the boy just hadn’t wanted to be obvious by outright saying the word. With a quick nod, Scout reached into her pocket and took out one of several already-prepared coins that she had from back when the rest of her team kept asking her to do it. Touching her finger to the coin, she activated the spell before nodding to them.

“Great,” Tristan started immediately, not even bothering to beat around the bush. “We need your help to find our parents.”

Clearly recognizing the surprised look on Scout’s face, Vanessa quickly put in, “You remember who—I mean what they are, right? And what happened to them?”

Scout hesitated before slowly nodding. Her voice was a whisper as she spoke only two words. “Garden. Seosten.”

“Yeah, our dad was from Eden’s Garden and our mom was one of the Seosten,” Tristan confirmed. “But the thing is, Nessa’s been looking everywhere in this place and there’s nothing about the Seosten. Nothing. We even asked Gaia and she said that Heretics don’t learn about them. It’s like everything about those dicks has been erased and removed. Which isn’t surprising considering, you know, they made this place.”

“The point,” Vanessa added before her brother could rant any further. “Is that there’s nothing here, so we were hoping you could help.”

She wanted to, obviously. Except… Scout hesitated before whispering a single word. “Vacation.”

Both twins bobbed their heads up and down quickly. Tristan spoke first. “Right, we know. You’re heading out with your sis and dad pretty soon. Off to Europe and all that?”

That was right. In fact, Sands was busy packing up the last of their stuff as they spoke. And probably cajoling their father for more spending money for she and Scout to spend on souvenirs. They’d be leaving pretty much as soon as that was finished.

When she nodded silently, Vanessa gave her a slight smile. “That’s kind of why we’re asking you for help, actually.” She went on in the face of Scout’s uncertain look. “See, you’re going to Europe. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden still have presences there, but they’re not as strong. There’s even entire countries where different Heretic groups are in charge, like France. Crossroads and the Garden barely have an embassy there, and they don’t really have any power. So we were thinking that–”

Scout’s eyes lit up with realization, and she silently raised both hand to pantomime opening a book.

“Yeah!” Vanessa clearly couldn’t hold back her smile. “If the Seosten don’t have as much power in those other places, there might be books about them. We were hoping you could maybe look around while you’re there. Just see if there’s anything about them, or Strangers that possess people, or angels or… or anything like that.”

“Sorry, we know it’s a lot to ask,” Tristan added with a regretful look while laying a hand on the head of Bobbi-Bobbi. “But we don’t really have an easy way to get over there. So when Nessa found out where you were going, we figured… it couldn’t hurt to ask. But if it’s too much, don’t worry about–”

Scout interrupted by holding a hand up to stop the boy. Her head nodded once, and she gave them a tiny smile. Of course she’d help them find their parents. If there had been a chance of saving her mother, she knew she’d never, ever stop trying. She’d run herself into the ground for a chance to go back and rescue her mother from the… from the–

She forced herself to focus, tuning out the memory of the Stranger simulating her mother’s voice to plead for the young Sarah to come out and help her. Looking straight at the other two, she announced simply, “I’ll help.”

A look of obvious relief crossed over their expressions, and Vanessa actually hugged her. “Thank you, thank you. If you find anything, it’ll help. But especially anything about an orb that can teleport people to other worlds and bind them there. If there’s a way to track them, or to undo it, or to build another one, or to–”

“She gets it, Nessa,” Tristan gently interrupted while putting an arm around his twin. “Really, anything at all. Like we were saying, the Seostains erased everything that could’ve been in here. Or they stop it from being recorded at all. Whichever, there’s nothing, so we’re running on just what Grandpa Nick could tell me. Or would tell me. Plus, you know, maybe the Natural Heretics here on Earth found out something he doesn’t know about.”

Scout was already nodding when she saw two figures approaching from across the field. Quickly dismissing the privacy spell, she murmured an almost silent warning while nodding that way so that they’d stop talking about it.

Still, Vanessa gave her a smile and mouthed, ‘Thank you’ while her brother raised his hand in front of his chest to give her a hidden thumbs up. Even Bobbi-Bobbi leaned in and pushed her nose against her shoulder in a show of affection.

“Hey, guys!” Scout’s father called once he and Sands were close enough. “Sorry to interrupt your game, but we’ve gotta get going if we’re gonna make it in time for dinner. Rome’s about seven hours ahead of us.”

Sands turned to poke the man before stepping over to her sister’s side. “So that’s why you wouldn’t let us eat lunch. I thought you were just making some kind of object lesson about respecting people who don’t have as much food as we do or something.”

Their dad gave her a look. “Now what kind of father do you think I am?”

Sands shrugged. “I dunno, one who wouldn’t let me have the cheeseburger I wanted an hour ago?”

Shaking his head, Scout’s father looked toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You two all right over there? We weren’t interrupting anything important, I hope.”

“Nope,” Tristan lied so easily that Scout was immediately envious. “Just trying to decide who got to bat next. Guess it’s Nessa by default.” When Bobbi-Bobbi bumped against him, he shot her an exaggeratedly exasperated look. “You can’t bat, you don’t even have hands!”

Chuckling, the man reached out to grab both of his daughters by the shoulder. “Right, good luck with that. All right, girls, ready to go? All the stuff’s waiting in the Pathmaker.”

“O’course we’re ready!” Sands blurted. “We’ve been ready forever. I’m starving, old man. Let’s go.”

So they started off, heading for the portal building that would send them clear across the globe. On the way, Scout looked back over her shoulder toward the other pair of twins. Vanessa and Tristan were watching, matching expressions of mixed relief and worry on their faces.

She gave them a quick, surreptitious thumbs up before turning back.

Of course she’d help them find information about the Seosten. After all, she hadn’t forgotten that those were the people who had created the Bystander Effect, and probably everything else that had to do with the hated, vile memory erasing spells.

Which meant that if she was going to fulfill the vow to herself to get rid of all of those horrible, evil spells so that everyone could retain their memories the way they should, she’d have to find out as much as possible about the Seosten themselves anyway. If it meant helping Vanessa and Tristan along the way, that was even better.

But one way or another, she was going to make sure no one’s memory was ever erased against their will again.

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