Dis

Homeward Bound 8-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: There’s a bit of info about the upcoming first non-canon chapters in my first comment after this chapter, for those who are interested.

Talking to the Meregan was hard. Like, really hard. Standing in front of them and telling them what had happened to the people they left back on their own world was one of the worst experiences of my life. And that was saying a lot after all the time I had spent with Fossor. Not only did I have to tell them about Fossor killing and enslaving even more of their surviving people, but there was also the fact that what little was left of their world had been taken over by the fucking Fomorians. What very little strides they may have made toward putting their planet back together had been entirely wiped out, and the people they cared about who were left behind were gone. Whether it would have been better if they were taken by Fossor or the Fomorians was both a hard question to answer, and entirely meaningless semantics. The point was, they were dead. And I had to stand in front of them, people I liked, to tell them that. 

When I was done, the assortment of Meregan I had been talking to were silent for a few long moments. I couldn’t bring myself to even try to say anything reassuring. I could barely look at them. The disgust I felt, the horror of what I had to report, made me physically ill. 

Finally, Purin cleared his throat. The nine-and-a-half foot tall, bronze-haired man stood with his hand on his son’s shoulder. Dis, by that point, had grown from his previous height of about six feet up to seven. He’d looked like he was about ten years old (discounting his height) at the time, and now looked like… well, he looked like he was only about twelve or thirteen in the face, height be damned. It was a strange effect, seeing a young boy who nonetheless towered over me. 

“We are being thankful to you, Friend-Flick Chambers, for being telling us of your information, sad as it might be. Please do not being mistaking our quiet for anger to your person.” 

“It’s okay,” I managed quietly, forcing the words out. “I get it, believe me.” 

Dis spoke then, his voice cracking a bit. “Family-Father, if our world-people are not-being, what will be of us?” 

His father whispered something in his ear, before picking the boy up to hold against him. Then he looked to me. “Friend-Flick Chambers, our people should being speak of what we are to doing.” It was obvious that he could barely get the words out. And equally obvious that he and the rest of the Meregan people were were trying to put on a brave, strong face after the horrible news I’d given them. That was for me. They were trying to conceal their despair in front of me, either because they didn’t want to upset me, or they were just proud, or… something. The point was, they couldn’t grieve properly with me standing there gawking. So, with useless apologies spilling from my mouth, I promised to come visit again and left them to their own privacy. 

Hurriedly retreating, I waited until I was on the next floor up before turning away to start punching the metal wall repeatedly. A violent series of curses escaped me, punctuated by more apologies. Who was I apologizing to? Everyone? Did it matter?  All I knew was that I wanted the wall in front of me to be Fossor’s evil, psychotic fucking face. I wanted to fucking kill that monster more than I had ever wanted to kill anything in the world. He deserved to die. 

Rahanvael appeared nearby, watching me silently and with an expression that made it clear she  completely understood the reaction. I had a feeling that, if she had been solid, she might have punched a few things too. Because, of course, the Meregan world was only one example of what had to be many similar atrocities she had personally witnessed her brother perform over the millennia. She had sat helplessly by, unable to do anything but watch as her once-beloved twin had become this… this thing. How would that have affected me? What if it was someone I loved as much as she had loved her own brother? What if my dad had turned into this kind of monster? What if Fossor had succeeded at turning my mother into a vicious, evil attack dog who could do those things? I had no idea how I would have continued to exist after that. 

Finally, I stopped, exhaling long and hard before turning to look at the ghost. “I’m sorry.” My voice was barely audible. I had to swallow a hard lump in my throat. “I’m sorry about everything you’ve gone through. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the stuff you’ve seen. I’ll definitely never  understand what it’s like to be that helpless. And I hope to hell I never understand what it’s like to have someone I care about that much turn that… wrong. I’m sorry. I just can’t… comprehend.” Despite my intentions,  the words sounded hollow and fake to my own ears. They were completely inadequate. But what was I supposed to say?  What could I ever possibly say that could make the slightest bit of difference? Nothing, really. I couldn’t say anything. 

Despite that, however, Rahanvael offered me a very faint smile. There was deep pain there, along with incredible sadness and remorse. There was a sense of loss in that smile that I couldn’t even begin to understand. Still, she spoke in a quiet voice. “We all carry our own regrets, Felicity. We all have our agonies. Yours are not invalidated by another’s. What should be compared between two people is not the depth of each other’s woes, but the strength that each gives to the other. Take two pieces of cloth. Poke holes in them in random places. In one poke more than the other. Then sew them together. They will each cover one another’s holes. Though the one with less damage covers more, even the heavily damaged cloth will help to cover the few holes within the less damaged cloth. They aid each other, cover one another. That is what it is to be alive and to find those you love. It is to be a damaged cloth, sewing yourself to other damaged cloths, to protect and cover one another’s flaws and pains.” 

Once she finished saying all that, I stared at her for a moment. Finally, I managed a quiet, “The real tragedy here is that I can’t hug you.” My eyes closed briefly before I made myself look at her again with a firm nod. “We’re going to stop your brother. We’re not going to let him get away with his plan. We’re going back in time and we’re going to put a stop to him once and for all. We’re going to end him so you can have peace. I promise. I’m not going to let up until he’s gone.” 

She met my gaze silently for a few long seconds. Then her head inclined, chin set. “Yes. And I will be there with you. I will see the creature my brother has become killed and put out of its misery. Out of everyone’s misery. Whatever it takes, he will die. He has gone too far.” 

The two of us continued to talk for another minute before being joined by a Rakshasa in what looked like a highly decorated cloak, who approached from the other end of the hall. “Much apologies for the interruption, Madam of Chambers. The Lord of Petan would like to know if you require sustenance at the current time. The evening meal is being prepared.” 

Food. At the word, my stomach growled. Yeah, I definitely needed food. With a quick nod, I thanked the Rakshasa, and he began to lead me to dinner. Rahanvael had vanished once more, but I felt her with me. She was there. She would be there, as the two of us went back to face Fossor once more. Because whatever happened, we had to stop him. Everything depended on it. 

Everything.

******

Six days later, enough power reserves had been scraped together to use the time travel spell on Dexamene, so she could be sent back to create the time loop. It was going to take even longer after this to pull enough power together to send me back. Probably at least a few weeks, according to Petan. It was more important right now to establish the loop so all of this didn’t get undone. I really didn’t want to get shunted into some other time line where I ended up imprisoned by Fossor again after all. Besides, I was already in the future. I could really take as much time here as I wanted as long as I ended up traveling back far enough to stop Fossor. 

Of course, the whole ‘time travel to solve the problem’ thing was even more complicated than I’d already known. According to Petan’s magic experts, people even more skilled than he himself was, who had put their entire long lives toward the study of such spells, traveling to a time and location (by location they meant an entire world) where a very powerful spell had recently happened (like the casting of the original Bystander Effect) with effects that traversed such a large area, was all but impossible. Basically, such huge spell effects fucked with time travel magic, as well as a number of other kinds. It ended up raising the cost of such spells exponentially, up to levels that no one could reasonably afford even if they had the resources of the full Seosten Empire, or those of Fossor himself. 

Those skilled with the magic we needed could find those blips on the timeline. And, of course, there was a massive one right near the time I needed to go. It blotted out entire months afterward where there was so much excess power in the air that it would have cost multiple Seosten Empires worth of magical energy just to send me there by myself. 

That, of course, had to be the spell that Fossor was planning to cast. There was no other explanation. A spell that size, with effects that far-reaching, would definitely explain the blot over the timeline. He had cast it. He’d cast the spell, which told me… which told me…

Oh, don’t think about it. I was going to change things. I just had to get back to a point before the spell had happened. Except, even that was difficult. Passing a point like that on the timeline was hard too. Because it apparently tended to try to suck you into it as you passed, particularly if your intended destination was temporally close to it. ‘Like a black hole’ was the explanation I’d been given. It was another reason that going to the past to change things didn’t tend to happen. There were a lot of others, apparently. But the kind of power it took to muscle all the way past all the powerful, world altering spells throughout time to get to where you needed to go made it nearly impossible to do without wrecking the magical economies of entire galaxies. 

Sending one person to a time of limited powerful magical effects happening was one thing. But to get me to the place and time I needed to get to if I was going to stop Fossor from pulling this off was a whole other story. I had to go back to a point after the last time I was there, but that point was so close, relatively (within a week) to when the big spell actually went off that I would be pulled toward that event. They were going to have to spend extra power just to stop me from being pulled right to when the spell went off. The way it had been explained to me was, again, like a black hole. I was supposed to imagine being on a ship that was being pulled in by that gravity well. The closer I was to it, the harder the ship’s engines would have to work to stop from being hauled in and crushed. 

What it came down to, in the end, was that I had to skirt the very edge of the line of safety. The time travel spell had to put me right near when Fossor would cast his own spell, without letting it be too late. We had to let Fossor’s spell pull me in partway, then gun the engines, so to speak, right at the very edge of the effect going off. I would be walking a very fine line between going back too early (thus destroying myself by ending up existing in two places of the same world at the same time) and showing up too late and being swallowed mid-transit by Fossor’s spell. 

It was, in a word, dangerous. Dexamene, at least, was going to a whole different universe than the one my version of Earth was in. She was going to the Meregan world. That made things a little easier, though not completely. It would still take an awful lot of power to pull off, even just sending that one girl by herself. 

Speaking of that one girl by herself, we were standing in one of the designated spell casting ribs. There were a group of over a dozen powerful mages of all different shapes and sizes (including Petan himself) putting the finishing touches on the spell while Dexamene and I stood off to the side. I gave her a look. “You’re pretty brave, you know.” Over these past few days I had gotten to know her better, and I could tell why Tristan liked her so much. The last thing I wanted was for something terrible to happen to her, especially at the hands of the monsters I was sending her toward. 

Blushing a little, she shook her head. “Not as brave as you. You’re going to go right into the Gaawdef’s den when it’s your turn.” 

“I’m not sure what a Gaawdef is,” I admitted, “But I’m fairly certain that a planet that’s been taken over by the Fomorians is probably right up there on the danger scale.” With that, I turned and put a hand on the Nereid’s shoulder. “Be careful, seriously. I know I told you everything you need to say to make this loop work. But I have no idea what you’ll be going into back there. Please, just stay with Elisabet and be as safe as you can, okay?” 

She nodded, spontaneously leaning in to hug me. “You be careful too. And Flick… please, if–when you get through the thing with that evil Necromancer, come get us, okay? I know there’s a whole world to hide on, but… but don’t leave us there with the Fomorians any longer than you have to.” I could hear the fear in her voice that she was trying to keep buried. The girl was rightfully terrified about what would happen if those things captured her. Terrified almost beyond comprehension, and yet she was still doing this. 

Yeah, it was easy to understand why Tristan considered her such a good friend. 

I swore to her that we would be there as soon as possible, and then the girl stepped away to have a last few minutes with her parents, who kept shooting me dirty looks. They weren’t happy about their daughter being sent back in time like this, no matter what the circumstances. Neither of them would talk to me. I understood their anger, and wasn’t going to push them. 

Before long, Petan announced that it was time. Dexamene hugged her parents tightly, tearfully promised to see them again someday, and moved to the center of the spellforms that had been drawn on the floor. As the chanting for the spell began, she looked to me, and gave a thumbs up. A gesture she must have learned from Tristan, of course. 

Despite all the fear and doubt that had crept into my head, I returned the thumbs up. We had to pull this off. She had to create the loop that got me to this point, and then I had to go back to the time right before Fossor used his spell, and stop him. 

The chanting took a good ten minutes, during which Dexamene had to stay right where she was, with minimal movement or speaking, which would have disrupted the casting. Finally, it worked. With a rush of power even I could feel, the girl disappeared. 

One down… me to go. 

******

Three and a half more weeks after the point when Dexamene had been sent back. That was how long it took before Petan’s people had enough power to send me as well. Three and a half weeks of sitting around, worrying about what would happen, training to fight better, and experimenting. 

Experimenting, in this case, with my new powers. Or at least the ones I’d managed to figure out in the past month. A lot of what I’d put together was thanks to long discussions with Petan and others on the ship about what I’d managed to kill lately coupled with a lot of trial and error.

I’d managed to figure out what the whole deal with being able to make those sticks hover very briefly in the air was, at least. It came from an Alter I’d killed back in Fossor’s place called a Lemevwik. At full strength, a powerful-enough Lemevwik was capable of rewinding, pausing, or fast-forwarding the effect of outside forces on inanimate objects. Throw a glass at the floor and watch it shatter, then the Alter could rewind the object to be in one piece. Drop it toward the floor from high, and then fast-forward the effect and it would shatter before it ever hit. Or would fall faster. The Lemevwik could apparently choose exactly how to apply the power, making the glass simply fall faster, or making it shatter before it hit.  

The pause worked much the same way. Throw the glass at the floor and pause the effect, and it wouldn’t shatter until the pause ended, even after landing. Or it would hover in the air. Again, just like with the fast-forward, the specifics of whether the entire glass was paused or simply the effect of hitting the ground was up to the Lemevwik. I supposed because they chose whether they were pausing the effect of gravity or the effect of the physical force of the impact. 

It wasn’t just throwing something down, of course. The power also applied to things like erosion, acid, physical force, anything similar affecting an inanimate object. 

I couldn’t fast forward, apparently. I could pause or rewind outside effects like that on a physical, non-living object for a whole five seconds. Yeah, it was pretty situational, and didn’t work to stop or rewind magic, but could still be pretty useful. 

I’d also figured out one other thing I’d gotten during the time with Fossor. It allowed me to designate any single word and know whenever anyone within a certain radius of about a quarter-mile used that single word. It didn’t tell me everything they said, just one word before and one word after. I would get a sudden flash in my head of those three words and the face of the person who said them. 

Again, really situational, but still. I supposed there could possibly be a use for it at some point. 

Meanwhile, from the fighting against all the Fomorian creatures, I’d picked up mainly bonuses to my regeneration, my overall strength (I was up to deadlifting about three thousand pounds, which was pretty nifty), running speed (I could hit forty miles per hour outside of lion form and without boosting), and general toughness (needles and simple metal blades used with normal human-level strength had a really hard time penetrating my skin, and I could tank a punch pretty well). 

Two unique powers that did stand out were the ones I had picked up from that big Deer-Snake thing, and the Ape-Croc. From the former, I had gained the ability to spit globs of that same hardening resin stuff. I could only work up enough to encase an object about the size of a shoebox, and wasn’t quite as strong as the exact stuff that thing had spit, but still. It could be really useful in taking a weapon or something out of play for awhile. 

Then there was the Ape-Croc. I did not, unfortunately, have the power to stop an entire ship from lifting off the ground. The way Rahanvael had put it, those things, at full strength, could prevent the ship’s engines from achieving the thrust needed to escape the planet. Technically, what the thing did was dramatically multiply the force needed to move something. The full creature could, indeed, stop an entire giant ship from getting more than a few feet off the ground.

In my case, it wasn’t quite that strong. Basically, by concentrating on a non-living object, I could greatly increase the energy or force needed to move it. I could slow down a car or motorcycle to a crawl. I could use it on the ball that someone was throwing and make it fall far short from how far it should have gone. Or even make bullets drop before they reached me. That kind of thing. 

They were all good things to have, and I was pretty sure I was going to need absolutely everything when it came to beating Fossor and saving my mother. 

“Are you positive that you’re ready for this?” That was Petan himself. We were back in that same magic room, with even more complicated room designs covering the entire place. The same mages were focused on finishing touches while their leader stood in front of me, his expression that of obvious concern. I’d gotten to know the man pretty well over the past month, and he’d gotten to know me as well. I was sad that it would probably be years before I could see him again.

“Ready as I can be,” I confirmed. “I have to do this. I have to get back there and I have to stop him. There’s no other choice.”

“You have the flares,” he noted, referring to the beacon spells I had already prepared. “The second you arrive, use them. Do not hesitate at all, do you understand? No matter what you see, trigger the flares.”

I gave a quick nod. “Trust me, I have no interest in fighting him by myself. As soon as this spell dumps me into position, I’m calling in all the reinforcements. He’s not getting away this time.” 

Pausing then, I impulsively stepped over to embrace the man. “Thanks for everything. I couldn’t do any of this without you. Especially with all you’ve done to help me get ready for it.”

Petan was clearly taken aback, but returned the embrace after a moment before stepping back. “You can do this, Felicity Chambers. Good luck. And we will see you on the other side, someday.”

With that, he moved to join the rest of his mages, and the chanting picked up. I stood there for ten minutes, trying not to move very much. My attention was focused on the ground, keeping my breathing slow and steady. I could feel the reassuring presence of my ghost companion, and the certainty that, whatever happened next, the wait for dealing with Fossor and saving my mother was finally over. It was time. 

The chanting reached its crescendo, and in a flash of blinding power, I was gone.

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Against The Odds 9-09

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“Wait, what?” Columbus demanded, looking between Shiori and me. “That one kid? You think he’s–”

“It makes sense,” Avalon interrupted with a frown. “He’s the only human here, and the Meregan have been taking care of him. Maybe this Nicholas guy thinks they’re holding him prisoner or something.”

Sands rolled her eyes. “Well that’s just stupid. They’re fighting over a miscommunication? Have they ever considered just talking things out so they don’t run into these kind of prob—wow is that really me saying that?” She made a face of confused discomfort for a brief moment before shaking her head.

Beside her sister, Scout made a slight snickering sound before quietly putting an arm around her.

I glanced to Senny first. The vampire girl was standing near the doorway, listening intently. Noticing my attention, she shook her head to indicate that no one was coming. Not yet anyway. I had no idea how much longer we’d have before being interrupted, so I quickly returning my attention to the Meregan boy who had been talking. Making myself smile, I asked as gently as I could, “Listen, uhh, what’s your name? I’m Flick. This is Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, and Asenath.”

Something nudged my leg then, and I looked down before smiling slightly. “Oh, right. This is Vulcan.”

The boy took a hesitant step forward, still clearly uncertain about the situation. But he did smile a little at the mechanical dog, slowly reaching an open hand to him. “I am being… the… one of named Dis.”

While Vulcan curiously sniffed at the large boy’s hand and then nuzzled it eagerly, Sean’s eyes grew wide with delight at the obvious possibilities. “Wait, wait, lemme get this straight. Dis is your name?”

“Work out your Who’s On First routine later,” Avalon instructed before turning her attention back to the boy. “You were statues until just a few hours ago, weren’t you? What happened when you woke up?”

Dis blinked once, his head tilting a little curiously. “We are… were… being awakened in small room in talling building.” He pointed in the direction of the tower outside. “We were… being… much hunger.”

“You were frozen for a long time,” I acknowledged quietly. “I bet you were hungry. What happened?”

“Man-Nicholas had being surprise,” Dis answered promptly. “But he had being giving food and bringing I and others here to wait. He was being putting Other-Things to find Dis and other parents to trade Dis and others to giving them for boy-thing-human-person child-long-many-childs. Dessadant.”

“Descendant,” I corrected absently, frowning a little. “So he sent those people to contact the Meregan? If that’s true, why did they attack as soon as they found them? Why are they constantly fighting at all? Because I don’t believe the Meregan would just make that up. They said he’s been attacking them. That’s the whole reason they initiated the umm, statue thing, because they couldn’t save you without help after he kidnapped you to begin with.” My head shook. “We’re missing something important.”

“Yes,” the voice of Gaia replied. The woman herself appeared in the middle of the room. Except she wasn’t really there. Her form was semi-translucent, like a hologram. “You are missing something. It’s all right, there’s no need to fight anymore. We’ve… worked it out. You can come to the tower, and bring the Meregan children with you. The guards won’t try to stop you. There is… a lot to discuss.”

“No offense,” I retorted, glancing to the others. “But how do we know that’s really you, Headmistress?”

A slight smile touched the woman’s face and she gave a short bow of her head in acknowledgment. “Very good, Felicity. How do you know it’s me? I suppose I’ll just have to promise that we will find your mother and that when this situation is over, I will tell you the identities of her other two children.”

My mouth opened and shut before I coughed while looking to the others. “It’s either her, or she’s being controlled somehow. If it’s the latter, I think we’re kind of utterly screwed no matter what we do.”

Sands shifted her weight, clearly uncomfortable with the situation even as she gave a faint nod. “G-good point. If the headmistress was taken over, there’s no way we’d ever get out of here anyway.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the others, and Gaia’s image gestured. “Come to the tower. The guards there will let you in and guide you up to where we are. Trust me, you’ll all be fine.”

Left with little option other than to trust that things were kosher, we slowly left the building along with the Meregan kids (most of whom were as tall or taller than us). In the street outside the building, three of those hooded cat-figures stood a few yards away. They stiffened as we emerged, but did nothing. After a few seconds, the trio stepped out of the way, hands raising together to point to the tower.

“Well, that’s not creepy or anything,” Sands muttered under her breath. Her eyes were moving quickly from side to side, clearly anticipating some kind of betrayal or attack either from the cat-people or some other source, but she didn’t say anything else as we moved past them and toward the tower.

I noticed Columbus and Shiori talking quietly to each other as we walked, and when I glanced that way, they waved me back to them. I looked to the tower briefly, then took a step back. “What’s up, guys?”

“We think we both got the same power,” Shiori answered quietly after glancing toward her brother.

Columbus nodded. “It’s some kind of metal manipulation. Moving it, I mean. Shy-guy killed two of these yellow humanoid things back there, so it was probably them since she’s not just manipulating it.”

“Not just manipulating it?” I echoed, looking to the other girl for clarification. “What else can you do?”

For a second, Shiori hesitated before lowering her voice. “I was experimenting while you were talking to Gaia, and I can sort of… hear and see through it? The metal that I control, I mean. I tried it with one of my discs, and I heard those cat-people talking. It wasn’t English or anything, but the voice talking to them was. It was some kind of radio or phone or something they were listening to, taking orders from.”

Pausing, I looked toward Avalon as the group neared the doors that led into the tower. There were a couple more Alters there, including one that looked like an enormous, very ugly man with three different heads that were all facing different directions. One of those heads was glaring at us.

“What did you hear, exactly? Are we in trouble?” I asked quietly, hand lowering a little to my belt.

But Shiori shook her head. “No. I mean, I don’t think so. The guy talking to the cat-people was ordering them to stand down. It sounded like they were sort of arguing, but then he said they could either obey him or lose his protection and risk being taken by ‘them.’ That made them stop arguing really quick.”

Asenath stepped up on Shiori’s other side. Her voice was quiet. “The question is, who is ‘them?’”

The boy glanced to her, mouth open to say something, but Shiori spoke first. “Did you hear them too?”

“Yes,” Senny confirmed. “They weren’t there before, but they came just as your headmistress started to talk. Whatever they were saying to the man talking to them, they obviously weren’t happy about standing down. I don’t speak their language, but I’m pretty sure they wanted revenge for the ones that Flick and I… ahhh, killed.” Her eyes glanced toward me briefly. “Oh, and they’re called Rakshasa.”

“Oh good,” I muttered. “It’s probably a good idea to know the name of the race that wants to kill me.”

“Hey,” Senny replied with a casual, confident wink. “At least you’re not the only one they’re mad at.”

By that point, we had reached the doors of the tower itself and passed inside. The entranceway was shaped like a Y, with two separate, wide corridors splitting off from the main doors and a set of stairs directly in the middle that led up in a spiral shape. The floor looked like obsidian, while the walls were some kind of shiny, reflective metal that had been polished so much we could see ourselves in them.

Even more Alters of every kind I’d seen so far, and more that I hadn’t, stood along the walls. Most were glaring, obviously not happy about our presence. But none of them made any move toward us. They simply stood out of the way, glowering with a sense of silent vindictiveness, their anger palpable.

Only one made any move toward us. He was a shorter figure, his skin a pale blue while his hair was sea-green. He had four eyes, two stacked on top of each other on either side of his face. When he spoke, his voice was melodious, like a pleasant song. “The children of Crossroads, students of Gaia?”

Avalon answered for us, nodding once without taking her eyes off the figure. “Yes, that’s us.”

The blue-skinned man, who wasn’t quite as tall as I was, inclined his head acceptingly. His voice remained song-like. “I am called Valecie and will bring you to your teacher for discussions.”

He made an elaborate bowing gesture then with his arms spread wide, then pivoted smartly before starting to the stairs. As he climbed, the rest of us looked at one another. I could read the hesitation on all of our faces. But as we’d already established, at this point we didn’t have much choice otherwise.

Besides, the Meregan kids were already following, and we had to quickly catch up or risk letting them go on without us. So we trailed after the blue man, passing more silently hostile figures on the way

“Valecie,” I spoke as we continued to climb after passing a couple Alters that had practically been quivering with barely contained rage. “I know why all your people are… angry. And okay, I get it. We killed some of their friends, their families maybe. I know why they’re mad. But why aren’t they doing anything about it? How were Nicholas and Gaia so sure we could walk past all of them without someone getting pissed off enough to risk getting some revenge? I mean, if they’re that angry…”

A brief pained expression crossed the man’s face for a moment before he shook his head once. “It is very true that some of our united kind are angry with the students of Crossroads and would seek retribution if given no other recourse. But they will not, for the pain of loss pales against the threat of being cast away from Heretical protection and left as prey for Seostenic capture and entrapment.”

“Seostenic capture and entrapment?” I echoed the words, frowning. But before we could get any clarification about what the man meant, he stepped off the stairs at the very top and gestured to an enormous, dark red door that was almost fifteen feet tall, and wide enough to drive a car through.

“Our Lord Petan awaits you within, Students of Gaia, children of Crossroads. Do not tarry for long.”

Dis actually stepped closer to me. There was a look of uncertainty on the very big kid’s face. “We… we will being go to parents and families?” he asked hesitantly. The slight quiver of his lip reminded me that, as large as he and the others were, they were still just kids. There were a couple as small as Scout and Sands that were probably only six or so. Most probably didn’t understand anything we were saying.

Asenath was the one who spoke, her hand moving to squeeze the boy’s arm as she smiled. “Trust us, Dis. You and your friends are going to be home with your parents very soon. What’s your dad’s name?”

“P-Purin,” Dis answered. “He is being putting in charge of K’lecnahn.” There was pride in his voice.

Beside me, Shiori put in, “We met your dad, Dis.” When the boy looked toward her with a clearly hopeful expression, she slowly reached out a hand to lay against his arm reassuringly. “He’s okay.”

My eyes moved from seeing the girl comfort and reassure the Meregan boy, to the spot where Sands was standing silently watching this. I couldn’t read the expression on her face, but it wasn’t exactly anger. It wasn’t even the confusion that had been there so many times. Now, she just looked thoughtful.

By that point, Avalon had reached up to shove the door open with help from Columbus and Sean.

I’d been expecting some kind of throne room on the other side. Instead, what I saw looked more like a war room. It was enormous, easily as long as a football field and just as wide. Throughout the room there were long tables scattered around that were covered with maps, papers, parchment, and what looked like weird pyramid-shaped figurines whose purpose I was unsure of. Alters of every size and type surrounded these tables, talking with each other, pinpointing places on maps, arguing, and seemingly acting out what looked like war plans. Along the walls I saw even more maps, not only of land, but some that looked like actual star maps, as well as photographs of multiple different planets.

At the far end of the room, Gaia stood next to the man that I immediately recognized from my vision. He looked a bit older by that point, enough to have some gray in his hair. But it was definitely him.

The Alters in the room, the ones who had been so busy with whatever wars they were planning, stopped talking one by one and straightened. All of them stared at us as we moved gradually past them. There was that same anger and frustration in their eyes. Yet, as promised, none moved to threaten or attack us.

Whatever this Seostenic thing was, the threat was stronger than their anger about the ones we’d killed.

Gaia stepped over as we approached, her gaze taking us in briefly before she focused on the Meregan. Her voice was as gentle as I’d ever heard it. “Children, are you ready to return to your families?”

Dis translated that for the rest of his friends, and there was a collection of quick nods. Apparently they understood at least enough English to know that that was confirmation. That or it was the same in the Meregan language. I wasn’t sure which was more likely. Either way, they were talking excitedly.

“They may leave,” Nicholas spoke smoothly, though it seemed like he was addressing the other Alters in the room more than the Meregan or any of us. “And I have summoned the expedition force back from their pursuit of the Meregan ship. We have an arrangement, and I have kept to my end of it.”

“Yes,” Gaia agreed. “And we will have Tristan here soon, I promise you that. First,” she held a hand out, making a quick circle motion before murmuring something under her breath. One of the rings on her hand began to glow bright blue before literally disintegrating in front of our eyes. As it faded away, the air in front of Gaia changed to reveal the interior of the Meregan ship, in the transport room.

“Go, children,” the woman instructed, holding the portal open while the Meregan kids quickly rushed through. On the other side, I could hear a cry of delight and surprise from Alecra.

Once they were through, Gaia collapsed the portal before looking back to the man. “The students deserve an explanation, and it should come from you, Nicholas.”

“They are not all students,” he observed, his eyes landing on Asenath. “Are you sure she can be trusted? They might have taken her.”

“She is safe,” Gaia informed him. “I am as certain of that as I am of anything else.”

“What—what are you talking about?” I finally blurted, unable to take any more of this. “What do you mean ‘taken’ her? Who’s they? What’s going on? Why did you attack the Meregan instead of just asking for Tristan? Why didn’t you explain any of it to them? Do you know who cursed him? Do you know where the rest of his family is? What are you doing out here? What’s with this army? What does ‘Seostenic’ mean? Why are these people so afraid of that’s more important than revenge for killing their friends and family? I thought my mom was the only Heretic who had an army of Strangers.”

Nicholas held a hand up to stop me by the end. “First, I will answer what I can, but some of your questions will have to wait for a later time, when you are more ready to hear them.”

I stared at him in disbelief, but it was Sean who spoke. “What kind of bullshit excuse to be cryptic is that?”

“Sean,” Gaia warned. “There’s more going on here than any of you know, and yes, some of it is going to have to wait. Explain what you can, Nicholas. Quickly.”

The man obliged. “Suffice to say, there is a… group. We call them Seosten, but they have many other names that you would recognize more quickly if they were used. This group has the ability to… among other things, capture and possess the bodies of Alters, taking them over entirely. Their identities, wants, desires, all are suppressed in favor of the Seosten who is controlling them.”

“You mean they’re possessed, like demons or whatever,” Columbus put in.

Nicholas gazed at him briefly before nodding. “The idea of such possession stems from the capabilities of these Seosten. Once they have taken someone, it is impossible to tell them apart from the real person. They gain access to all of their victims’ thoughts and memories. But the true individual is trapped, incapable of expressing themselves in any way. The Seosten has complete control of them.”

Sands was the next to speak. “You didn’t talk to the Meregan because you thought they were controlled by these Seosten people. You thought that’s why they had your descendant.”

“I have been their enemy for a very long time,” Nicholas confirmed. “I’ve learned magic that makes those loyal to me immune to the Seostenic possession. So long as they remain loyal, the creatures can’t take them over. My goal was never to destroy what remains of the Meregan race.”

“No,” I shot back. “You just sent your thugs to attack them for fun. I can’t believe I looked up to you when I–” Closing my mouth, I just shook my head angrily.

The man winced. “I instructed my people to retrieve the Meregan survivors. Their… interpretation of that order leaves something to be desired. For that I will make amends. My… attention has been elsewhere, I’m afraid. Until Gaia appeared, I was not physically present here. I believe that some of my people have creatively reinterpreted my orders in my absence, stretching the spirit of obedience as far as they can while remaining within the protection it provides.”

“And Tristan, was that why he’s been cursed?” Shiori pressed. “Did the… Seosten curse him because he’s related to you?”

Nicholas shook his head. “I do not believe that it is related, no. Well, only tangentially so. My descendant—Tristan’s father sought to kill one of the Seosten. Instead, he fell in love with and married her.”

I straightened at that, my eyes widening. “They said Tristan was half human and half something else, but they didn’t know what that other part was. Just that he wasn’t fully human.”

“Indeed,” Nicholas bowed his head slightly. “He and his sister are the products of a Heretic-Seosten coupling. I believe that his banishment was an unplanned side effect of whatever was used to retrieve my descendant’s Seostenic wife.”

“I don’t get it,” Columbus started with a frown that we all shared. “Have any of you even heard of these Seosten before? What’s the big deal? Aren’t they pretty much any other Stranger, only with a possession trick?”

Nicholas’s gaze was hard. “Any other Stranger? Hardly, child. The Seosten are not just Strangers, they are responsible for the very concept of Strangers.

“The Seosten created what you call the Bystander Effect.”

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