Columbus Porter

Desperate Times 36-06

Previous Chapter

We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used  a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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Desperate Times 36-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re crazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desperate Times 36-03

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“I’m so tired of people that care about me getting hurt because of me.”

The soft, quiet admission came as I knelt in the sand of the Crossroads beach some time after our thorough investigation of everything in the secret hideaway places that Theia had exposed for us. I didn’t want to say that we’d found nothing, since there was still plenty to go over later with the PAWS, but… yeah, there was no bright neon sign pointing at where Avalon was. Not that we’d found yet, anyway. And none of the other groups had had much better luck.

And to make matters worse, I had no real way of contacting Jophiel and Elisabet. Especially when I didn’t even know if they had gotten back to Earth yet. Hell, I’d even asked for a way to contact them and they had simply said that they would contact us. So that was just great. Which meant no ranting at them about helping Avalon until I could figure out how to initiate that contact. That, of course, had resulted in a lot of internal ranting and cursing that had made me glad that Tabbris wasn’t listening in.

And to make matters even worse than that, Trice was gone. We had no idea how he’d gotten out, only that he was gone. Gaia was apparently looking into it, but I wasn’t sure how much she’d find out.

Avalon was captured and Trice had escaped somehow. That was just… perfect. Just super fucking perfect.

So now I was back at Crossroads. It was late enough (so late that everyone else was in their dorms) that I probably should have been asleep. Especially after the day that I’d had. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t go there, couldn’t… couldn’t go to that room right then.

I wasn’t alone, in several ways. Shiori was with me, having gotten a special pass from Gaia to stay with me. Her head was on my lap, and she was very gently snoring while one of her hands lay limply against mine, the girl having fallen asleep that way. Not that I minded. The fact that she was right here, safe, and so close to me made me feel… well, a little bit better. With one hand, I gently stroked her hair, listening as she breathed in and out peacefully.

My shark buddies were there too. We’d had a pretty big reunion as soon as I made it out there earlier, with the girl who was now sleeping against me. I wasn’t sure how sharks could actually show emotion, but somehow, my shiver had managed it. They were clearly happy to see me, and we’d gone for a long, thoroughly exhausting swim (part of my desperate attempt to focus on something else and wear myself out a bit to hopefully sleep at some point).

So, I had played with them for an hour or so, letting my sharks carry me around through the water. They were deadly killing machines, of course. But they were also like happy, goofy little puppies who were so glad to see me that they kept swimming in circles and bumping up against me. It was weirdly adorable, and despite the terror in the back of my mind the whole time about what Avalon was going through, it did help a little bit. Not as much as Shiori’s presence did. But still. It helped.

And yet, it was neither Shiori nor my sharks (who were still swimming about as close to the beach as they could manage) who were the focus of the words that I had quietly spoken. No, those had been directed toward the person standing silently behind me, who had clearly come just close enough for me to sense him before waiting for me to actually speak.

Deveron, of course. Now that I had spoken, he came closer, hesitating before moving to sit on the other side of me, opposite from Shiori. His voice was as soft as mine had been. “You know better than that, Felicity,” he quietly reminded me. “Avalon being taken wasn’t your fault.”

My head shook at that, voice catching in my throat briefly before I managed to reply, “You didn’t hear Manakel. The only reason he managed to take Valley is because Gaia was distracted by me. If I hadn’t come back right then, if I hadn’t made Gaia come deal with that situation–”

“Then it would have been something else,” Deveron interrupted. He raised a hand like he was going to touch me before stopping himself. But his eyes were intent. I could feel them on me despite the fact that I was still looking out at the ocean. “There would have been some other distraction, Flick. Something else would have pulled Gaia away long enough for him to make his move. Don’t let him get into your head like that. He wants you to feel guilty about it.”

“Well,” I muttered darkly, “it’s working. I do feel guilty. He took her right when I came back. He used me to hurt her. Just like Fossor used me to hurt Mom. He threatened her, threatened to take me, and she traded herself instead. She traded herself to that psycho monster to save me. Everything she’s been through, everything that happened to her since then, it’s–”

“Fossor’s fault,” Deveron interrupted again, his voice hard. “It is Fossor’s fault, not yours. Just like this is Manakel’s fault, his doing, not yours. It’s the fault of the person who does the action. You know that, Felicity. You tell other people that all the time.”

For a moment, I couldn’t respond to that. I looked down and away, my eyes settling on the peacefully slumbering girl beside me. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, I quietly asked, “What about when the person does something terrible because of the society they were raised in, or bad things happen because of something they did even if they didn’t intend it, and they change later? Are they allowed to be a better person, or does that taint them forever?”

That made it Deveron’s turn to not say anything at first. From the corner of my eye, I saw him flinch just a bit, his gaze turning out to the water before he sighed. “I know she’s not the same person she was,” he said quietly. “And I know she didn’t intend what happened. But–” He went quiet again before his head shook. “But it’s not that simple. My head can know something, but my… damn it.”

“Yeah,” I murmured softly. “Exactly.”

For a couple of minutes, we just sat there, quietly watching the waves as they lapped against the shore. Finally, I started, “I… know why you can’t just forgive her or anything, just like that. I know. I understand. Emotions are more complicated than that, and… and even if she didn’t mean what happened, even if she’s changed, even if so on and so on, that doesn’t fix things. You were still hurt, your family was…” Swallowing hard, I finished with, “I understand.”

A moment later, Deveron’s head dipped into a slight nod. His voice was a bit hoarse. “And I know… I know why you do trust her, why you feel close to her… them. I understand what she did for you, what they’ve done for you. I’m glad that–I’m glad that it helped you. But I just can’t–” He stopped for a second, clearly fighting for words before ending with, “I just can’t. Not yet.”

“I get it,” I assured him, biting my lip before hesitantly asking, “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad at you?” He blinked my way before coughing. “Oh, you mean for back at the camp when–” Stopping, Deveron shook his head. “No, Flick. I’m not mad at you. I’m just…” He sighed. “It’s complicated. Joselyn was always better at the talking to and understanding people part. I–”

He stopped himself from actually saying it, so I said it for him. “I miss my mom.” My voice cracked a little bit at the admission, and I lowered my head, shivering just a little despite the warmth of the night air. “I want her to be here. I… I want my mom.”

Eyes closing, Deveron took a moment, clearly unable to speak. Finally, he managed a very slight nod. “Yeah,” he spoke simply, his voice almost breaking. “I miss her too.”

My head shook a little, as I fought to control myself even just a little bit. “I… what… what about the thing for tomorrow?” Because we did have a slight plan, something that would at least help protect Avalon for the time being. Specifically: Tangle. We had been holding off from actually giving her the cure and waking her up to avoid forcing the Seosten to do something drastic before we were ready. But, well, right now we were the ones that were down to doing something drastic. If we woke up Tangle and took her somewhere safe, the Seosten wouldn’t have their alternate candidate for opening up Liesje’s blood vault. They would have to keep Avalon alive, at least for the time being.

But thanks to hospital rules, we couldn’t just go straight there. The whole situation was going to require some… finesse. More finesse than I’d had in mind when I’d first blurted out that we should just go wake her up, so it was a good thing that Gaia and Dare had more sense.

“Gaia’s arranging it,” Deveron replied easily. “You’ll be going with her, then?”

I gave a quick nod at that. “We’re all going. The rest of the team, I mean. I’m not going back to classes yet. Gaia already set it up so I could have more time to recover from the… from being imprisoned and all that, the stuff the rest of the school is supposed to think happened. And the others are supposed to get the day off to help. And to deal with… with Avalon being kidnapped. So we’re using that.” I grimaced then. “I wasn’t going to leave them behind again. They deserve to be there for this too.” Glancing that way, I added, “So do you, you know.”

He hesitated, but in the end, the man shook his head. “I’ve got some other things I can check out, contacts I can work with. They probably don’t know anything, but… you know, can’t hurt. But speaking of which, when you say you’re going with the whole team…”

“Oh.” Flushing a little, I nodded. “Right, I meant Scout, Columbus, and Sean, mostly. And Shiori, but she’s not…” I glanced to the sleeping girl, gently stroking two fingers down her cheek. “I haven’t even seen Doug or Rudolph yet. They… they’re going to want to know about their friends, about…” My face twisted. “… about Isaac. They–oh God, how much am I supposed to tell them? I don’t know what–I mean, Scout and Tristan said that they know some of it, that Avalon was… prepping them for it. They think that it’s okay to let little threats go to get big threats, but even that’s a big step away from the truth. I… I don’t know what to do.”

That time, Deveron really did put his hand on my shoulder, squeezing firmly. “If you’re anything like your mother, you’ll know when they’re ready to hear it. And you’ll be damn convincing.”

The words made me flush deeply. “But no pressure or anything.” Coughing then, I looked away, letting the silence carry on for a few seconds before hesitantly asking, “Could… um. Could you tell me a story about her? Just… anything. I wanna hear about my mom.”

Deveron’s hand on my shoulder squeezed just a little once more, before he nodded. “Sure, kid.

“Let me tell you a story about Jos.”

******

It was breakfast the next morning. Monday, April 23rd. Not that it mattered since, again, we weren’t going to class. Which was probably a good thing, since I was absolutely not in the right state for it. I’d gotten just under an hour of sleep, so I was… well, pretty rested considering my Amarok-stamina, but not exactly perfect after that long and incredibly stressful day.

Shiori had slept with me, in my bed. It was the only way that I could stand to be in that room while thinking about what kind of situation Avalon must have been in.

Now, we were sitting together to eat breakfast, with Sean, Columbus and Scout. Vanessa and Tristan were over regaling (mostly in the latter’s case) their own team with the (adjusted) stories of our exploits. And as for Douglas and Rudolph, they… seemed to be staying back for the time being. The two of them had seen me, but either they didn’t know what to say just yet, or they were deliberately holding back to give the rest of my team time to actually catch up with me.

Either way, I was sitting there, staring at the food on my plate even as a much bigger rock than Herbie seemed to have settled into the pit of my stomach. “… I’m not hungry.”

Columbus was the one who spoke first. His voice was quiet, yet firm as he looked to me. “I know how that feels. But you need to eat. It’s hard, I know. It might taste pretty much like dirt. But you need the food. So, try to choke it down? It’s easier when it’s warm than if you let it get cold.”

I still wasn’t sure where Columbus and I stood. I knew he felt uncertain (at best) about the whole Tabbris thing, and Seosten in general. That was understandable. I also knew that he cared about me, that his hesitation on the Tabbris thing was him being protective. But still, I wasn’t sure how things were going to proceed. We were… awkward.

For a moment, the two of us locked eyes. I hesitated before giving a slight nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “I know, I can’t just not eat. It’s just… I keep thinking about Avalon and whether they’re feeding her or…” Stopping short, my eyes closed and I gave my head a sharp shake.

He was right though, so I shoved my fork into the food and began to eat mechanically. It probably tasted good. Chef Escalan’s food usually did. But I didn’t really notice. I just pushed the food into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. I also tried not to think about Avalon too much, not that it really helped.

Beside me, Shiori gave me a little nudge, clearly trying to distract me. “Do you know what time we’re supposed to leave?”

“Gaia said about nine o’clock,” I replied. “So not for a couple hours.” Taking another bite, I found myself looking across the room. There were people staring at me, people who had just started to hear some of the stories from Vanessa and Tristan. Word of what had (supposedly) happened to us and the others was spreading. Which meant that some of those stories would soon get to Rudolph and Douglas, who were currently among those staring at me as they stood in the cafeteria entrance.

Right. I needed to talk to them. Before they heard about Isaac and… and all of that from anyone else. I didn’t think that Tristan was talking too much about that part of the story just yet, but still. They needed to hear it from me, not third or fourth hand through rumors.

Unfortunately, I had just decided that when someone else approached the table. I sensed them getting near, but wasn’t sure who it was before he spoke up.

“So,” Zeke announced, “Pretty funny how you disappear for two months, and two minutes after you show up again, Avalon vanishes.”

Shiori started to say something then, but I nudged her while shaking my head at Sean, who had also opened his mouth. Instead, I tightly replied to the boy standing behind me, “The only funny part is that you’ve managed to survive for all this time and still think this is a good time to start your juvenile macho bullshit. Besides,” I added, “Didn’t you spend the whole past year thinking that Avalon’s a Garden spy or plant or something?”

The boy’s response was a shrug. “Maybe I just think that the rest of these guys should be careful,” he drawled lazily, adding a gesture to the others. “Getting close to you seems pretty dangerous right n–”

I was on my feet, the squeak of the chair being shoved across the floor from the force of me standing and turning so quickly barely reaching my ears as I put myself face to face with him. “Do you have something to say, Zeke?” Behind and around me, I heard the others stand up as well. And there were even more people watching us.

Zeke met my gaze, looking briefly uncertain before finding his voice. “Yeah, just that maybe since you didn’t bother to bring Sands back with you, maybe someone else should take care of her sister. Which means getting her away from–”

Wham.

It wasn’t me. As Zeke doubled over with a cry from the fist that had been firmly planted in his stomach, I belatedly realized that I wasn’t the one who had hit him. Instead, it was Scout. The other girl was there, having stepped between us to punch the boy.

“Nobody takes care of me,” she informed Zeke, even as he clutched his stomach and took a step back, still doubled over. “I’m quiet, not an invalid.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Reid Rucker, the second-in-command of the security team behind Professor Kohaku, called out as he approached quickly. “Something wrong here?”

By that point, Zeke had mostly recovered. He opened his mouth like he was going to say one thing, but hesitated while thinking better of it. In the end, the boy just muttered, “Isn’t there always?” Then he pivoted and stalked off.

“You guys okay?” Rucker asked, looking to Scout first, then to me, before turning his attention to the others. “We don’t have a problem or anything, right?”

“No,” I answered. “No problems here. No more than usual.”

He took a moment to get the same general answer from the others before nodding. “Right, no problems then. Although, if that problem were to come wandering back over running his mouth again, it may behoove you not to hit said problem in front of so many witnesses. Even if that problem does so richly deserve it.” Leaning a bit closer to Scout, he lowered his voice. “I got enough work to do around here. I don’t need the paperwork, you know?”

Scout nodded, and the security man stepped away, moving to talk to another table. The tension lowered a bit, and Sean spoke up. “You girls really okay? Zeke’s just a carechimba who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. “But he’s not wrong about Sands and the others still being out there. And…” Slowly, I looked over toward where Rudolph and Douglas were while taking a deep breath. “… their teammates deserve to know what’s going on.”

“You want some help?” That was Columbus, standing beside his sister.

“I…” Considering that for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, maybe you guys better come. I’ll talk to them. I’ll tell them the truth, but maybe you should be there.”

“When you say tell them the truth,” Sean started hesitantly, “how much of it do you mean?”

For a few seconds, I didn’t answer. My eyes dropped to the floor, as I considered before lifting my gaze once more. “All of it,” I replied.

“They deserve to know all of it.”

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Desperate Times 36-01

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“Who is he?!”

The sound of my own hard, furious, frankly wild voice was punctuated by the loud crack of the large tree reacting to the body being violently shoved up against it. I had Theia by the arms, having literally lifted the other girl off the ground before slamming her against the tree in my anger. I heard someone calling my name, but I wasn’t sure who. And quite frankly, I didn’t care. My only focus was on the girl in front of me, the girl who knew exactly what I needed to know.

“No more games!” I blurted while still holding her like that. “No more playing around, no more deals, no more tricks! Who is he?! He has Avalon, damn it! He has Avalon, so tell me who he is. Tell us who he’s possessing, so we can get to him before he kills her! God damn it, who is–”

A hand fell on my shoulder then, squeezing gently as Professor Dare spoke quietly from beside me. “Let her go, Felicity,” she urged while giving me a firm tug backward. “I know how you feel. Believe me, I do. But she can’t say anything if you keep slamming her against the tree.”

She’s right, Flick. Tabbris, back in my head after recalling to me basically the second after I had last screamed Manakel’s name, urged. She can’t tell us anything if we keep hurting her.

Dare could have made me stop very easily, of course. Probably about a hundred different ways, actually. To say nothing of what Tabbris could have done from inside my head. But neither of them did anything that drastic. In Professor Dare’s case, she simply pulled me by the shoulder while speaking softly, and I let the other girl go. Stepping back, I gave a quick glance around while Theia collected herself. We had company besides just Dare here at the edge of the Atherby camp. Abigail was there, along with Koren, Deveron, Gabriel, and a couple of his people. Sariel and my dad were together with Vanessa and Tristan, a bit off to the opposite side, while Columbus, Scout, Shiori, and Sean stood in a small group somewhere in the middle. I could even see others watching from off in the distance, their curiosity clearly piqued.

Gaia and Wyatt were back at Crossroads, in the exact spot where Avalon–or rather, the temporary duplicate of Avalon, had disappeared. Apparently Professor Kohaku was there too, as the head of Security. The three of them were looking for any hints or clues, any magical trace that might lead to Manakel. But I doubted they’d find anything. Our best lead was right here, where Gaia had taken the others and me an instant after she had shown up, which itself had been barely a second after the rest of my friends had come running up.

I had briefly, tearfully, explained what happened to the others. Then I had seen her: Theia. A red haze had settled over my vision, and the next thing I’d known, she had been against the tree with my hands clutching onto her arms while I shouted the demand for information into her face.

So they were all watching as I took a slow step back, tightening my hands into fast while I stared at the girl in front of me. “Who is he?” I demanded, my voice as hard as I could make it. “Who is he possessing? Tell us now. If you actually give a shit at all, if you’re not just faking all of this, tell us now. He has Avalon, goddammit. He has her. He’s going to kill her as soon as he can, as soon as the spell protecting her runs out. So tell us who he is.Tell us so we can save her!”

She has to t-tell us, right? I could hear the fear and worry in Tabbris’s mental-voice. She won’t really make us wait until we figure out how to fix her? That could take… that could take too long.

Swallowing hard, I breathed in and out, trying to collect myself. We won’t let it happen, I promised my partner, my sister. We’ll find her. I swear. We will find her. I don’t care what we have to do. We will get her away from that evil piece of shit. Somehow.

Tabbris was good enough not to point out the doubt and fear that had taken over my mind. Doubt and fear that she wouldn’t even have had to be in my head to hear in my words.

Shiori moved up inside me, joined quickly by her brother, Scout, and Sean. Even Vulcan came closer. All of them were watching Theia as well, though it was the Asian girl who spoke. “I know we already made a deal with you,” she pleaded with the Seosten. “But this is different. Avalon is going to die. She is going to die if you don’t help us. Please, you have to tell us something.”

Abigail was there then. She stepped almost directly between Theia and me, her expression pained. “Theia,” she started slowly while looking toward the girl in question, “they’re right. Avalon is in very deep trouble. If there’s anything, anything at all that you can–”

“Stop.” The Seosten was shaking her head. “Stop, you don’t have to say it. All of you are saying words that Pace-I am already saying. It’s distracting, it hurts. It hurts different from being hit. It still hurts. Theia-I know pain, but it’s different. Theia-I don’t like it. Please stop saying it.”

It was Scout who realized what she meant first. From beside me, the girl announced, “Guilt.” She straightened, brushing a bit of hair from her face as she continued. “You feel guilty.”

“Guilt,” Theia echoed. “Guilty. Pain. Pain in here.” Her hand found her stomach (Pace’s stomach, whatever) while she shook her head. “Theia-I don’t like it. Really don’t like it.”

“You don’t like it?” That was Columbus. The boy’s voice was hard, and it looked like he was about to say something else, but caught himself just in time. Whatever he had been about to say, it probably wouldn’t have helped the situation. And I knew exactly how that felt, because I was really tempted to say, or scream, a few things that wouldn’t have helped at all either.

Sean was there, moving beside his roommate and friend to put a hand on his arm. He leaned in to whisper something to him that I didn’t catch. Hopefully it would help the other boy somehow.

Professor Dare was the one who found her voice next. “Theia,” she started slowly, “I… understand a bit of what you’ve been through. I know what kind of life you’ve had, even if I don’t know the specifics. I know that you have no reason to trust what anyone says. But I promise you, we will not go back on our promise just because you give us what we need right now. Tell us what we need to know to save Avalon, please. We will still do absolutely everything possible to help separate you from Pace safely. I give you my word, Theia. Please, help us.”

Through all of that, Theia just stood there with her hand against her stomach. Her head was down, as she slowly shook it back and forth while visibly trembling. Whatever else I might have thought about the girl in my anger at the whole situation, I could believe that she did indeed feel guilty. She might not have understood what it meant or how to handle it, but she definitely felt it.

I’m sorry, Flick. Speaking guilt and pain, there was a lot of it in Tabbris’ voice. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have–

Stop, I quickly interrupted. You couldn’t have done anything, Tabs. Believe me, it was too late even before I got there. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t you dare put that on yourself. Put it where it belongs: on Manakel. He is the piece of shit that we need to stop.

“Okay.” The voice was small, and quiet to the point of barely being audible. Theia had slumped a little in front of us, her shoulders and head down. “Okay,” she repeated, “We will tell you what we can.”

Even as my own eyes widened at that, Abigail snapped her gaze that way, blurting, “You will?”

The girl was nodding slowly. “Yes,” she answered softly. “Pace-I says… says that it is the right thing to do. Theia-I am… am scared. Theia-I do not believe that you will help us if you are not properly motivated, if we do not have anything to offer. But…. but Avalon is in danger. Manakel will kill her, and Pace-I…” She paused briefly before correcting herself. “We do not want that to happen. So y-yes. We will tell you what we know. We will tell you who Manakel is possessing.”

Oh God. It was going to happen. After everything that had happened that year, everything that we had been through, we would finally find out exactly who Manakel was. He had gone too far that time. He took Avalon, and that had finally pushed Pace into convincing Theia to talk.

“Who?” I pressed, my voice jumping an octave despite myself. “Who is that son of a bitch?”

And then Theia said the words that made my heart instantly drop into my stomach. The worst words she probably could have said in that very moment.

“I just told you.”

There was no confusion, no uncertainty. Only heart-wrenching anger and frustration. Because I immediately knew what that meant. “No,” I murmured, my head shaking back and forth in pointless denial. “No, no, no. You can’t–they can’t–no! No, damn it! You can’t have the memory spell on you! Wasn’t that the whole point of them trying to kill you to make sure you didn’t talk?! What–what–no, say it! Say it again!”

She tried. For ten minutes, the Seosten girl tried to tell us what she knew. She tried to write it down, she tried to hint about it, she tried everything. Everything. But it didn’t help. She couldn’t say or do anything that would lead us to know who Manakel was possessing.

Even Sariel tried. Putting her hand against the girl’s head, she focused for awhile before sighing. “Normally,” she informed me, “You would be correct. It takes very powerful magic to enact this kind of spell on an unwilling target that is not even present. But it seems that Manakel has managed to convince his superior… probably Metatron, to grant him the resources necessary for that. I may be able to break it, but it will take time. Weeks, probably.”

“That’s too long,” I blurted, my voice rising dramatically despite every attempt I made to control it. “That’s too fucking long. It’s–” Turning, I lashed out with a punch that put my first all the way through the same nearby tree that I had shoved Theia into before. “–too fucking long!”

Spinning back the other way then, the words came from my mouth before I could stop them. “If you just hadn’t played games before, this wouldn’t have happened!” I shouted at Theia. “If you had just told us what you knew! If you’d just helped us before they had a chance to put this on you, we’d be done with this already! Avalon might die because you had to hold back instead of telling us!” My loud, panicked voice was growing more hysterical. “Avalon might die because–”

Hands grabbed me, turning me around away from the Seosten girl then. It was my dad. He wrapped both of his arms around me, holding tight as he shook his head. “Easy, easy,” he urged while pulling me close to him.

I quickly grabbed on tight rather than following my first instinct to pull away. Burying my face against his chest, I felt my shoulders shake as tears flooded my eyes. If Avalon died. If Valley was–was killed after everything we’d been through, just because Theia hadn’t told us about who Manakel was while she’d had the chance… The anger, fear, terror, grief, and helplessness all warred around with each other inside me, and I simply held onto my father even more tightly.

“Daddy,” I whispered, my voice soft and fearful as I pleaded, “I can’t let her die. Please, please, I can’t lose Valley. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. I can’t let her die. We have to do something. We have to do something.”

I had no idea what kind of fear and helplessness my father was feeling in that moment as he held onto me, but it had to be something similar to what I felt at the thought that I could do nothing to actually save Avalon. I was helpless. Theia had been our best shot, except–

“The pixie,” I blurted, pulling back a bit while turning to the others. “The pixie that Tristan told us about. She was supposed to know something, right? Could she–would she…”

“She might be able to say something, considering they would know much less about her than they know about Theia,” Sariel confirmed hesitantly. “Any protective spell would be far less effective in that case.”

“She’s not awake yet,” Dare informed us with a visible wince. “She is still healing, recovering from her escape. Staying away from Avalon’s father and the other vampires while they were chasing her took a lot out of her. Too much. It’ll be… awhile before she can talk to us.”

“Damn it!” Putting both hands to my forehead, I cursed again before lamenting, “It’s always something. There’s always something stopping us from finding out the truth. One thing after another.”

Jophiel, I announced inwardly. Maybe we can get what we need from her, from them. They want our help, our cooperation? Well they’re not gonna get it if Avalon dies. Fuck them. Fuck them. They want us to work with them? They can’t let Avalon die. Damn it, damn it!

I felt Tabbris’ agreement. Y-yeah, we won’t cooperate unless they help with Avalon. Th-they have to help, right? They helped us save Mama, even if… even if they made us make a deal with them first. We… they-they’ll have to help find her… won’t they?

Before I could respond to that, Theia spoke up once more. “Wait,” she murmured. “Maybe we can help and be useful. Maybe we can still tell other things. Not direct identity things.”

I looked that way, my mouth opening. But it was Koren who spoke first. “You mean, you might be able to tell us things that eventually lead to Manakel, in a roundabout way. Clues.”

Theia was nodding. “Clues, yes. Like… where his secret hidey holes are and how to get to them. He might have left clues there about who his dancing puppet is, or other things.”

So, she did. With surprising speed and conciseness, the girl told us how to find three separate ‘islands’ that were apparently secretly connected to Crossroads, yet only accessible through specific spells. There were apparently even more than that, but those were the three that she knew about. Apparently, Manakel had supplies in all of them. And probably troops too. They would likely be guarded.

With a hell of a lot of luck, he would be holding Avalon in one of them too. But I wasn’t nearly naive enough to think that he would be that stupid. Not now. He knew that we might be able to get information out of Theia (or Lies, as he still obviously thought of her as), so keeping Valley in one of the hidden locations that the Seosten girl actually knew about would have been beyond idiotic.

But still, I could hope that there would be some hint or clue in one of those places that we could check out, which would actually lead to Avalon. Please. Please, whatever deity might be out there. Please let it lead us to Avalon.

“Three places,” Professor Dare was murmuring. “If there is anything to find, he’ll get rid of it the second he finds out that we’re looking in them.”

“So we need to check all of them at once.” That was Deveron. He had come forward, pointedly staying away from Sariel and keeping his gaze off her. “That means splitting up.”

Dare nodded in agreement with that. “Three groups to check three areas. I’ll take one group.”

Deveron immediately announced, “I’ll take another.”

Finally, Sariel opened her mouth. But she was interrupted by Gabriel Prosser, who stepped up. “And I,” he put in, “will take the third.” Casting a glance toward the woman he had interrupted, Gabriel added, “If you would be kind enough to accompany me, I would very much appreciate your help.”

“Right,” I spoke then. “So we go in three groups, tear these places apart, and look for anything that might hint at where Manakel is, who he’s possessing, or anything else that could be helpful.”

It was a good thing that I had that Amarok-stamina. Because it had been a very long fucking day. Just when I had thought that everything had settled down and I was back at Crossroads for the time being (or at least for the night), this had happened. Now we were going out to search these places, and I still hadn’t had any actual sleep.

Yeah, I was, yet again, grateful for that enhanced stamina. Not that it would have mattered. I couldn’t have slept at this point even without it. The thought of Avalon being out there, being… I shoved the thought of the other girl being hurt, or worse, out of my mind. Or tried to. Right now, I had to focus on what we could do. And that meant searching these secret islands for any information that had been forgotten and left behind.

Hold on, Valley, I thought desperately, trying not to let my worry and fear totally overwhelm me. We’re coming, I promise.

We are coming for you. I swear to God. We are coming for you. We’ll be there. We’ll find you. Somehow, we’ll find you.

Just hold on.

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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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