“So, what have you guys been doing while we’ve been apart?” I asked a bit conversationally a few seconds later as our little group started to make our way through the crowd to where the others were supposed to be.
I saw Roxa and Sands exchange glances briefly before the blond girl replied, “Let’s just say it’s been a hectic month.”
Sands nodded. “Like we said, we thought you were taken by Radueriel, so we’ve been fighting our way through anyone that could give us a hint about where his most secret lab was, where we thought he was keeping you. You should’ve seen Mom. She was… really mad. When she thought you and Tabbris were being experimented on, she basically went ballistic.”
By the end of that, she had lowered her voice, for all the good that did. I was positive that her mother had heard every word, even if she kept her focus elsewhere.
Roxa nodded, before glancing to the young Seosten girl beside me. “Speaking of which, so the plan is just to pretend that you guys just met during this month?”
“Not permanently,” I replied. “We just want to give them a chance to get to know her for herself, without the weight of her having possessed me for so long. Once they know her, then we’ll tell them the truth. You know, if we can.”
“You mean if they can be trusted?” Sands asked carefully.
My head shook a little. “I know they can be trusted, after everything we’ve been through with them already. It’s just… this is a lot and them knowing it puts them in danger.” Belatedly, I corrected myself, “Okay, so they’re already in danger even if they don’t know about it. But them knowing about it puts her in even more danger. And, you know, they’re still getting used to this whole trusting Alters thing.”
Again, the other two girls exchange glances. The fact that they kept doing that told me a lot about how much they had been through in the past few weeks. Roxa started slowly, “Well, as far as Jazz goes, I’m pretty sure you don’t have to worry about her and the whole trusting Alters thing. She’s kind of… advanced as far as that goes.”
I blinked at that, head tilting as I glanced toward Tabbris. She offered me an equally confused shrug, and I looked back to the others. “What does that mean?”
Sands was clearly suppressing a little bit of a snicker. “Oh, you’ll see,” she replied mysteriously.
I wanted to push for more information on that, but Larissa spoke up first. “Once we get the others, we can all portal back to our ship. She looked over to Athena and Yup, her eyes narrowing just a little bit. “We’ll need to get a lot more information from you about exactly what’s going on before we agree to go anywhere with you.”
Athena herself lowered her head in acknowledgment of that. “Of course, Miss Larissa,” she replied easily. “Your suspicion after your charges’ long absences was expected. Given my people’s general reputation, this could quite easily be a trap.”
“And your acknowledgment of that doesn’t make it any less likely,” Larissa pointed out, though her voice was mild. “I do hope that you will be more open to full introductions once we are away from this world.”
“Indeed,” Athena promised with another nod. “Once we are aboard your ship, we will discuss everything.”
Before anyone else could say anything, Sands raised her hand to point off in the distance. “There they are,” she announced.
I looked that way. Sure enough, I immediately spotted Haiden and Gordon speaking with one of the merchants. A second later, Jazz and Jokai came into view.
The two of them were holding hands. And not in a buddy system sort of way either. It looked like…
“Yup,” Roxa confirmed, clearly reading my expression. “They’re a thing now. Not exactly sure how it happened, but like we said, she’s definitely all in on the trusting Alters thing.”
“Uh… yeah.” I coughed, unsure what to say. Wow, I had known that Jazz felt close to Jokai after all that had happened, but I hadn’t known exactly how close. I really had missed a lot while I was away.
By that point, Haiden had noticed us. His eyes widened a little bit as he glanced over our way, before saying something to Gordon. I saw even the dark skinned boy’s normally unflappable demeanor jump a bit as he looked our way, his mouth opening in what was clearly surprise. And if he was noticeably surprised, that really said a lot.
Both of our groups convened, Jazz abruptly blurting, “Flick! You’re— I mean you’re not—” she glanced briefly toward Roxa for verification.
“She’s not possessed,” the other girl confirmed.
“And it’s really her,” Sands added. “Mom double-checked.”
Err, she had? I wasn’t sure how, or when exactly she had done that. But I was glad that I had passed whatever kind of inspection that had been.
I was pulled into an embrace by Haiden then. “Hey kid,” he announced while ruffling my hair. “You look good. A lot better than we thought you’d look anyway. Should’ve known you’d end up making friends.” That last part was added with an appraising glance toward Athena and Yup, as well as a brief glance toward Tabbris. But most of his attention centered on the older Seosten. I saw his eyes narrow briefly as he took in her appearance with an obviously appraising look.
Gordon, meanwhile, gave me a nod. His mouth twitched up in what was as close as he tended to get to a smile. “Glad to see that you’re okay.”
Raising my hands, I held them in front of my face as if warding off a crazy fan girl. “Whoa, whoa, don’t get so emotional, buddy. I’m not sure I can handle it.”
While the others were snickering a little bit at that, Jokai’s attention remained riveted on Athena. I didn’t think that he actually knew exactly who she was, but he did seem fully aware that she was a powerful Seosten. He looked scared, like he knew that she could kill him in an instant if she was of the mind to, but also like he wasn’t going to back down or run away despite that.
“It’s okay,” I quickly reassured him as much as I could. “She’s a friend. I promise, she is not going to hurt you, or any of us.” Boy, I really hoped that he understood enough English at that point to follow my meaning. Especially since Tabbris was standing beside me, rather than possessing me. I really didn’t want to have to try to explain why I didn’t know as much Latin as I should at that point.
Apparently he did, because the chameleon-alter glanced to me, then back to Athena, before nodding as his attention returned to me one final time. The man spoke carefully and slowly. “You are safe. This is good.” He smiled. “Very good.”
Smiling back at him, I slyly replied, “Yeah, and speaking of good, it looks like you guys have been having a pretty good time yourselves.” With that, I nodded toward his and Jazz’s clasped hands.
The two of them flushed noticeably at that, and Jazz murmured, “It’s kind of—”
“A long story?” I guessed. “Yeah, there seems to be a lot of that going around. Pretty cool though, you guys are cute. But what do you call yourselves? Jazzkai? Hidden Heretic? Jokazz?”
Coughing, Jazz very clearly changed the subject. “Who’re these guys?” She asked while gesturing to Athena, Yup, and Tabbris.
Before I could say anything, Larissa interrupted. “We’ll discuss all that back on the ship,” she announced. “Let’s head back to the extraction point and we can talk about all those things that we all really need to talk about.”
Jazz gave me a hug then, quickly and tightly. Her voice was soft. “I really am glad that you’re okay. We were all scared for you. You…” She swallowed audibly, meeting my gaze. “You saved me. You could have boosted yourself past me, or tried to boost both of us together.”
My head shook at that, and I returned her hug. “I didn’t know if boosting both of us would get us to the portal in time,” I replied easily.
The other girl started to say something else. She made it sound like there was something caught in her throat, before just shaking her head. Together we all walked the way that Larissa was guiding us. I saw Jazz and Gordon give Tabbris brief looks here and there. They clearly noticed how close the girl was to me, and were curious. But no one said anything as we made our way through the market.
Eventually, we reached what looked like an abandoned building. Larissa looked both ways, then held up her hand in front of the doorway and said something. There was a series of clicking sounds, and the door opened. We all filed inside of a small, dingy room with a single small metal ball sitting in the middle of it.
Yup, who had been incredibly quiet up to that point, took one look at the orb before announcing, “Portal spell. A really powerful one.”
Haiden gave the small, purple man a brief, curious look before nodding. “ A friend of ours set it up. It’ll take us back to the ship. Us and everyone in this room.” Reaching down, he picked up the orb and glanced around briefly. “So, if everyone’s ready?”
There were no objections, specially not for me. I couldn’t wait to get back to the ship. For one thing I really wanted to see Dries, who I was positive had been the one to set up that portal spell to begin with. If I couldn’t see Avalon anytime soon, the least I could do was see how her great-great-great whatever ancestor was doing.
And of course there was… My eyes widened as I realize that, with all the distractions that had been going on, there was one incredibly important thing that I needed to know about. Looking toward the others, I said a single word. “Isaac?”
Holding that orb in his hand, Haiden flinched. His head gave a slight shake along with the others. “Couldn’t get answers out of the kid,” he replied flatly. “Tell you why not once we get up there.”
Well, that was ominous. And more than a little confusing. But before I could say anything else, the man activated the orb, and the world spun around us.
Once everything had resolved back into its proper place, we were standing back in that familiar cargo bay of the ship. It was mostly empty once more since all of Jokai’s people had moved off into that other base, and the ant-like Kenkeans… “Wait, are the Kenkeans okay?”
Jazz nodded. “Yeah, they’re all moved in with the other guys back at the asteroid base. We’ve taken them a couple loads of supplies in between, you know, looking for you.”
“Right.” I took a breath, then let it out. “So, dare I ask, what is the deal with Isaac?“
Sands’ response was as immediate as it was flat and monotone. “He’s a piece of shit psycho traitor who is worth less than the barnacles clinging to the broken remains of a rowboat on the bottom of the ocean? Actually, do barnacles poop? Because I’m pretty sure he’s worth less than that too.”
“More to the point,” her mother put in with a brief glance to her, “we can’t get answers out of him. Not even by possessing him.”
I blinked at that, surprised. “What do you mean you can’t get answers by possessing him? Possession is pretty much the trump card. It gets answers. Between Dries’ magic and someone possessing him, you should be able to get everything you need.”
“That’s the problem,” Sands replied, “No one can possess him. He can’t be possessed.”
That made my head snap around as I did an almost violent double take. “What do you mean, he can’t be possessed? It’s not like he knows how to ca— oh son of a bitch.”
”Yep,” Roxa confirmed my curse. “The asshole can block possession. Turns out, he still had a couple surprises left behind in this ship. Like cameras that he was using to watch when they were teaching us the dibs spell. So he knows how to cast that.”
“But that doesn’t last forever,” I pointed out while feeling my annoyance manifest in the form of a headache.
“No,” Haiden replied. “But it does last for a really long time. That was the point, that’s what we intended it to do. Remember, the whole point was to make it too hard for the Seosten to just wait out the effect. We wanted to be able to escape before they could just wait out the spell and then possess us anyway.”
Larissa nodded. “He also seems to have used the blood connection that he forged with the Kenkeans to supercharge its duration. Which, let me tell you, is incredibly dark, dark magic. He definitely didn’t learn that at Crossroads. But it means we have no idea how long it will last.”
My mouth opened and shut before I managed a dark, “There are no words for the kind of bullshit that this is.”
“Tell us about it,” Sands muttered. “We’ve been dealing with it for the past few weeks.”
“The real problem,” Haiden announced then, “is that we don’t want to go messing with the spell too much, because we’re still not exactly sure what Sariel did to set up in the first place. We’re afraid that if we worked too hard to take it off of him, it could have a rippling effect across everyone else. And if the spell gets taken down completely, well, we’re all kind of screwed.”
Roxa nodded. “Screwed seems to be where we live in general now. And before we say anything else in front of all these people, who are all these people?”
Smothering the urge to keep randomly cursing about Isaac, I stepped back and gestured. “Right, uh, first, this is Auriel. I guess you guys would know her better as Athena.”
Okay, yeah, I did get a little bit of a kick out of the collective double take they all gave at that. It made me giggle inwardly. Totally worth it. Well, everyone except Haiden. He just gave a slight nod, clearly either having known or heavily suspected her identity the entire time.
One corner of her mouth twitching up a little bit, Athena gave a slight nod. “It is a pleasure to meet those who have been giving my former colleagues so much trouble. They have been quite thoroughly vexed by you.”
“You… you’re…” Larissa looked flabbergasted. “Sariel mentioned you. She said that you were banished, imprisoned far away..”
Athena gave a low, humorless chuckle. “Yes,” she murmured. “My people do tend to try and pretend that they are firmly in control of the situation.”
Haiden spoke up then. “She thought you might find your way out at some point. Told me a lot about you. She wasn’t sure how much you would… want to talk to her, but she said that you could be trusted, if you ever showed up.”
“She can be. She’s the one who saved me back there,” I put in. “She was possessing that soldier who tripped and slowed them all down. She showed herself when I got left behind, and pretty much wiped the floor with that entire army. Then she took me to her base. They’ve got a bunch of people living there. There’s even a school.”
Haiden raised an eyebrow at that. “You weren’t kidding about it being a long story,” he muttered. “Sounds like quite a place though. Must be pretty well hidden to stay off the Seosten radar. No way they’d let a place like that stay up if they knew where it was.”
I coughed. “Well hidden? You have no idea. Anyway, this is Yup.” I gestured to the small, purple man. “His people are… let’s just say they’re really special. He’s the one that helped us find you guys, and brought us over to that planet you were on.”
The man himself gave a quick nod. He extended his small hand to Larissa. “It’s a right pleasure to meet you finally. I sort of feel like I know you like my own family already, what with all the time I’ve been spending scouring the galaxy for you.”
Blinking, Larissa accepted the man’s hand, shaking it firmly. “Well, sorry we were so hard to find. Especially since we were apparently looking for you too.”
Sands coughed then, looking to me. “Seriously, you’re safe. That’s just… holy shit. But um, does that mean that… you know, our lord and savior—”
I grinned despite myself, digging in my pocket until I came out with the figure in question, holding him up proudly. “Herbie’s fine. See? He got a little scuffed through all that, but I got him cleaned up.”
Grinning back at me, the brunette girl gave me a thumbs up. “Oh, good. As long as he’s safe.”
Haiden was shaking his head. “Someday, I’ll understand the point of that rock.”
Huffing a little, I gave Herbie a little rub. “The point? The point is that he’s the hero of this whole story. Aren’t you, buddy?”
“And who’s your other new friend here?” That was Jazz. She was nodding toward Tabbris. “Hi, what’s your name?”
My little partner glanced to me slightly, her eyes briefly questioning before she looked back the other way with a soft, “H-hello, I’m Tabbris. W-when Flick showed up at the—”
“Stop,” I abruptly interrupted. My head gave a violent shake. Giving a brief, apologetic look toward Athena, I turned back to the others. “I can’t do this. I can’t lie to you guys, especially not right now, not about this. Not to you guys.” Pointedly, I looked to Jazz and Gordon. And to Jokai. “The others already know, and it was supposed to be safer for her to introduce her to you like this. But I can’t lie to you. I just– I can’t. Even if it was temporary, even if it was safer. I can’t just lie to you. After everything we’ve been through, everything you’ve already accepted, you deserve to know the truth.”
“Wait, what?” Jazz did a brief double take, looking totally lost. “What truth? What are you talking about?”
It was Gordon, of course, who seemed to immediately get it. The boy looked at me, then to Tabbris, then back again. His voice with certain. “She’s not a new friend, is she?”
My head shook once more. “No,” I replied while reaching out to pull Tabbris up in front of me. Wrapping both arms around her, I continued. “Like she said, her name is Tabbris, and even though I didn’t know about it until right before we got transported off Earth, she’s been with me for a long time. She’s my partner. She’s been possessing me in secret ever since I was a little girl, and protecting me from any other Seosten who might have tried to possess me. She’s awesome, and amazing, and she’s been working her butt off to keep me safe.
“She’s my little sister, and I am not going to lie to you guys about that.”