Dries Aken

Interim Incursion 43-09 (Avalon Part B)

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Exactly how Avalon knew that the woman in front of her was Liesje, she couldn’t say. She had never seen a picture of her. Despite that, she knew with utter certainty that this was indeed her ancestor, the woman who had started all of this. Or an image of her… or a ghost. And somehow, someway, she had drawn Avalon and Paschar to this grassy field overlooking the ocean. Unless…

“We’re not really here,” she realized, looking around for a second. “We haven’t gone anywhere.”

A smile broke across the ghostly woman’s face, and she gave a single nod. “Very good, Hannah. No, you haven’t gone anywhere. Everyone in that room is exactly where they were, including you. It’s frozen for the moment while we talk right here in your head. And his.” Her eyes turned slightly toward Paschar then, softening with regret.

“You…” For his part, the Seosten man had been stunned into silence for those few seconds. Now he spoke in a voice that shook from the intense emotion he was feeling, while taking a slow, hesitant step that way. “I–you are… you are dead. You are not here.”

Liesje smiled sadly. “You’re right,” she agreed, “I’m not here. This is no more than a memory, a ghost of sorts. This is a magical copy of my mind at the time it was made, when I left my spell in this vault. It’s as close as I could get to being here when my eventual descendant returned to finish my spell.” She seemed to swallow hard before adding, “And when you came, Paschar.”

Despite the simplicity of her words, the man flinched as if she had physically struck him. “I never wanted t–” He stopped himself then, falling silent for a moment before audibly sighing. “You are not here. It hardly matters to speak of it. And yet, I wish to tell you that I am… sorry. I–I am sorry, and I am… so very angry.” He lifted his gaze finally, staring past Avalon at Liesje’s ghost. “You and Dries were supposed to leave. You were supposed to run away. I told you to protect you. I wanted to save you. I wanted you both to walk away and live. I would have gone with you.”

A litany of retorts came to Avalon’s mind right then, making it all the way to her tongue as her mouth opened. But before she could say them, Liesje quietly spoke for herself. “He was my father, Paschar. I could never abandon him without trying to save him from the slavery that you told us about. You showed us what he was going through, and thought that I could walk away?” Her head shook slowly. “It wasn’t in me. I didn’t… I didn’t believe that it was in you.”

“I heard this part,” Avalon finally put in, needing to speak up. “You–the three of you were… you were together?” Her eyes snapped toward Paschar, feeling a rush of hatred and disgust. This was a man who had been responsible for so many terrible, evil things in her life and in the lives of her family for so long. He was the one who had hurt them, who had killed them, who had… who had done so much. It was all him, and he had been a lover of Liesje and Dries? She had been left reeling and stunned for a bit, but now she wanted to curse. And rant. And throw things.

“Yes.” Liesje turned to face Avalon, putting her back to Paschar. “We were together. We were happy, or I believed we were. We loved each other, all three of us, together. Dries and I believed that Paschar was a natural Heretic of some creature. He didn’t show us his possession capability until… until the end, until he finally revealed the whole truth. Before that, we just… we hunted together. We trained together. We explored, learned, played, and lived together. Paschar was…” She looked away from Avalon then, eyes closing briefly as a single tear made its way along her cheek. “He was everything to us.” Eyes opening then, she added, “We didn’t know that we were a job for him, that he was… assigned to watch us while my father was forced to do his work.”

“You were more than a job,” Paschar abruptly spoke up, starting to step that way. “You were both everything to me. I was willing to throw my people away and escape with you!” His voice rose at the end, turning sharp before choking itself off as he stopped, head shaking silently.

Rather than acknowledge his words, Liesje focused on Avalon. Her hand rose to touch the girl’s face, and Avalon actually felt it. Or her mind was deceived into thinking that she felt it. Either way, it was as close to real as it could be, and she found herself somehow instinctively leaning into the touch.

“We thought we had a spell that would eject the Seosten enslaving my father,” Liesje quietly explained. “But it failed. It failed and the Seosten knew what we had tried. He… attacked me. He would have killed me, but…”

“Dries intervened,” Avalon finished for her, having heard that part from the man himself before. “He saved you, but he killed Hieronymus to do it. And that still left the Seosten. Radueriel.”

“I was too injured to do anything then,” Liesje informed her, looking over her shoulder at the silent and motionless Paschar briefly before turning back to Avalon. “But Dries sacrificed his freedom, his chance of escape, to send me away. Thanks to him, I escaped and survived. But Dries was taken away. And I was hunted for the rest of my life. One of my beloveds had become the prisoner of an invincible empire on the other side of that sea of stars in the sky. And the other… the other became my hunter, tracking everywhere I went, never more than a step or two behind.”

“I had no choice!” Paschar suddenly interrupted, the turmoil he had carried with him all that time boiling to the surface. “You never understood that! You refused to understand it! I loved you! I–I still love you. But I can’t–” His face twisted from emotion, and he gave a violent shake of his head. “I can’t betray my people! I can’t betray the universe! You would create a spell that would end our ability to do what we must do to defeat the Fomorians! You would destroy our entire society, our–our civilization! I love you, but I could not allow that!” His voice cracked sharply. “I cannot… cannot allow it.”

“I don’t understand,” Avalon found herself saying. “How could you come here and make this vault if the Seosten were already after you by the time you knew to make it in the first place? How could you put this spell here at all, if they were looking for you? Because before they were looking for you, you couldn’t have known to make it. And afterward, you shouldn’t have been able to… to even get in here without them grabbing you.”

Some part of Avalon, a quite large part, thought that even having this conversation with everything that was going on was completely insane. Hell, not throwing herself at Paschar in a clearly vain and impossible attempt to kill the bastard felt just as wrong. But when would she ever have a chance to talk to Liesje Aken, or even a memory-ghost of her, again? Everything in this year, everything had been fucked up and crazy in some way. So why not this moment too?

Liesje herself was already replying to her actual spoken question. “The Heretic world wasn’t as… united in those days. The group who created the bank that you’re standing in were separate from what became this… Crossroads. The Seosten eventually swallowed them up and made most of the separate groups part of this single organization. It was easier to control them that way. But at the time, this place was run by people completely unconnected to… to the people who took my father and started all of this. It was enough to let me create this vault and ready it to hold the spell. And to put… myself here, of course.”

“How did you create it at all?” Avalon demanded, staring at the ghostly woman. “All these people, all these ancient people and you managed to create a spell that can totally fuck over their entire civilization? How? Are you–I mean were you just…”

“Just that brilliant?” Liesje finished for her, before shaking her head. “No. I mean, I like to think I get by, but no. I had a lot of help from Grandfather and Bastet.”

Blinking a couple times at that, Avalon started dully, “Who?” She could see Paschar voicing the same question, clearly equally confused.

The woman smiled faintly. “That is a much longer story than we have time for. But you’ll find it in the book. I recorded more than just the spell there. Some of it may not present itself to you immediately, but I wrote quite a bit, and it will be there for you when the time is right.”

“Why?” That was Paschar, moving closer to step right behind Liesje. “Why tell her that much? She can’t take the book, Leesh. I–I can’t let her take it. They can leave. They can all leave, even Dries. I can let them go.” His tone turned pleading, almost desperate. “I can let them go. But I can’t let them take the book. I can’t let them take the spell. It has to end here. Don’t you understand that? Please. It has to end here. No one else has to die.”

“No one else?” Avalon retorted, her voice rising as she took a quick step that way, toward the Seosten. “No one besides my mother, you mean? No one besides everyone else you’ve hunted down and killed for this spell, including her?!” She pointed to the ghostly figure of her ancestor, hand shaking violently. “You wanna talk about love? You’re a fucking monster!”  

Paschar snarled at her. “You think I wanted any of this? Do you think this is my ch–” He cut himself off then, head shaking silently before he managed to speak through gritted teeth. “As I said, we can end this entire thing right here, right now. You walk away, I take the spell and destroy it. Then it’s over. It’s done. I can convince my people to leave you and yours alone.”

“You mean give up,” Avalon snapped despite herself. “You mean give up and just let your people keep enslaving everyone against their will. Let you pieces of shit keep using us.”

“Would you prefer the alternative?” Paschar demanded. “If we were not here, the Fomorians would be. And believe me when I tell you that that is an enslavement far worse than the one that we offer. You have a gilded cage under our touch. Under theirs, it would be a living hell.”

“Option C,” Avalon retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Everyone who isn’t an enslaving, murdering, torturing piece of shit teams up against the rest of you and puts you all where you belong.”

Paschar looked as though he was going to violently snap something before stopping himself. He took a long, deep breath before focusing on her once more. “You need to listen to me. None of this has to go on. Please. Stop this now. We destroy the spell and then it’s over. Your friends, you, the people you care about, they can all leave.”

“My mother can’t,” Avalon reminded him in a soft, yet firm tone. “Because you helped kill her.”

The Seosten man physically recoiled as if she’d actually struck him, eyes dropping as he made a noise that was half-denial, half-grief. “I did–I didn’t…” Taking in another breath, he looked up to her, clearly shaken. “No one else has to die for this. If you use that spell, billions will. Trillions. Do you understand that? Do you understand the scope of what you’re doing? Millions of worlds rely on our armies to protect them. If you take away or… or weaken our ability to provide Heretic troops, you are condemning them to die.” He was pleading again, desperately trying to make her understand this from his point of view.

“This isn’t about abandoning those worlds,” Avalon informed him tersely. “It’s about not being slaves. We’re not going to be your tools anymore. You want Earth to help you, you need to be our partners.”

The man’s eyes narrowed uncertainly at that. “What is that supposed to–”

She interrupted. “Sands was telling the truth. It’s like she said, we’re using the spell, but we’re changing it. You want to possess a Heretic, you need permission. Permission from them. No permission, they can kick your Seosten ass right out. No more slavery. Like I said, partners. Allies. We’ll find the ones who will work with us, and we’ll put an end to the monsters, Fomorians or otherwise.”

Paschar stared at her open-mouthed for a moment before collecting himself. His head shook. “That won’t work. In the time it would take to explain everything, to reconfigure our training, to convince humans of how important it is… the Fomorians will take more worlds. Maybe enough to completely turn the tide. And who’s to say that you humans will even want to keep helping? Your world is safe. Even if enough of you can be talked into it, that’s even more time. And those who won’t help–that’s… the war is hanging by a thread as it is. If we lose our Heretic supply…”

“You fought this war without us before,” Avalon informed him. “For a pretty long time, in fact. And you have plenty of humans off world already. You’ll tell your people to come and negotiate in good faith, to come and work with us. Because enslaving? That’s not going to work anymore.”

“Or they’ll come in force,” he pointed out. “If they can’t keep this going quietly, they might just bring enough strength to take the world openly.”

Avalon didn’t blink. “Sure. And if they do, it’s gonna be awfully hard to convince all those humans to work with them willingly, isn’t it?”

“Look, I…” Paschar seemed to look past Avalon for a moment, toward Liesje’s ghost before turning back to her. “I understand. I understand your… your goal here, and your feelings. It’s admirable. I even understand your hatred of me. I–I would feel the same way. But you can’t do this. I… I cannot let it happen. I won’t endanger the universe like that, not for you. I wouldn’t do it for Leesh and Dries. I won’t–I can’t let you put everything at risk. Millions of worlds rely on this. It’s too much. It’s too important. I won’t let you take it.” His voice was hoarse from emotion.

“Won’t let us?” Avalon echoed, staring him down. “Who said we needed your permission?”

“Your people are spread out across the bank,” he quietly reminded her. “I have far too many soldiers for you to win this, even with Dries. This will end badly for all of you. Please. It’s your last chance. Walk away from this. If you don’t, I can’t save you. Please don’t make me hurt you and Dries again. Please. Don’t force me to kill you. I don’t want to. But I will if it comes to it, if you force me to. And you don’t have the power or the numbers to stop me.”

Before Avalon could respond to that, Liesje spoke quietly. “You mean they didn’t.” As both Avalon and Paschar blinked that way, she continued. “You see, this… here, what we’re doing? It wasn’t only meant to let me talk to my descendant and you for sentimental reasons. It was also because I knew that you would outnumber them. I went to a seer, and they saw it. They saw that my descendant would have help coming, but that it would be too late. Only by a matter of minutes, but too late is too late. You would win, again, simply because of a few minutes.”

Paschar realized what she meant after a brief second of shaking his head in confusion. “Wh–the time stop. You’ve stopped time here in the vault to talk to us like this, but it’s still going everywhere else. You still–”

He was interrupted by Liesje, who moved to touch his face. “I loved you,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry it came to this. I’m sorry that everything between the three of us… went so wrong.”

The Seosten opened his mouth, but abruptly, he disappeared, cast out of the… vision or… whatever it was. Then Liesje turned to Avalon. “Hannah,” she spoke gently, her expression softening even more. “Dear Hannah, everything you’ve been through, everything… I am so sorry. I’m sorry that we couldn’t handle this a long time ago. I’m sorry for what happened to you, everything I’ve seen in your memories, it’s… you have had a hard life. But you have friends too. You have a family. You have a mother. Take the book. It is only one of two you need for the spell. The other is in the Auberge, where your friends went. You need both books to complete the spell. Take them. Do what you need to do. And tell Dries… tell Dries that I love him, and that I am proud of him.”

“Wait!” Avalon blurted. “I–I have… I have so much I… I want to say, so much I want to ask.”

“I know,” Liesje quietly, sadly replied. She met her gaze, speaking only two more words. “Good luck.”

With that, Avalon was suddenly moving once more. Moving, that was, just as Paschar slammed into her. The two of them went to the floor, tumbling end over end right in front of the podium with the book on it. The Seosten man crashed down on top of her, and even as Avalon tried to bring her arm up to cut with her energy blade, he caught hold of her. The force of his grip nearly broke her arm, while he hissed a quiet, “I am sorry.”

Then he jerked to the side, his head snapping away just as a blade was shoved through the air where it had just been. Just as quickly, the Seosten spun, ducking to avoid the follow-through from his attacker.

“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” Seller announced while lashing out with a kick. That one connected, sending Paschar off of Avalon with a grunt.

The Seosten clearly boosted, suddenly back on his feet with some kind of bow made of solid energy in his hands, the string drawn back with four arrows. He loosed all of them simultaneously, each heading for the green-suited Heretic faster than a bullet. All of it happened so quickly that the only reason Avalon could follow any of it was the vampire speed she’d picked up.

Seller, in turn, moved just as quickly. His hand snapped out, throwing what looked like five red marbles. Four of those marbles went for each arrow, transforming in midair into a small bird which then grabbed the shaft of the arrow to pull it off course. The fifth, meanwhile, turned into a tiny worm or… caterpillar or something. Whatever it was, the thing went straight through Paschar’s open mouth.

The Seosten went to fire another quartet of arrows, but Seller held up a hand to stop him. “Nuh uh. You don’t wanna do that.”

“I won’t let you take the book,” Paschar snarled, adding a fifth arrow in that time. “It–it–” Blinking a couple of times, he made a face and staggered. “What…”

“Yeah, that’s the little friend of mine you just swallowed,” Seller informed him. “My daughter Edeva, she used to call them boom-bugs. That one’s gonna burrow its way to your heart and then… well, it’s right there in the name. So you can stand here and fight until your heart literally explodes after a worm crawls into it, or you can go get some help. Your choice, but I’d be quick about it.”

“I–I won’t–I won’t…” Trying to say the words, Paschar staggered again. He lifted his bow with somewhat shaking hands, until another figure moved next to Avalon. Dries.

That was what it took. Being faced with his heart exploding wasn’t enough. But seeing Dries there, that pushed Paschar over the edge. He made a noise of despair before abruptly disappearing. Recall. Whoever his last host had been, he’d used the recall to them to escape.

“Hey, kid,” Seller spoke simply while turning to extend a hand to her then, “hope you didn’t actually think I’d miss this whole thing.”

“Seller!” Avalon blurted before taking his offered hand. “You–”

“Not that I’m objecting to the help,” Sands abruptly announced while skidding to a stop, with Shiori right beside her. “But what are those things?”

The question made Avalon’s gaze snap over toward the sound of fighting on the other side of the room. Paschar’s troops were still there, but they were… occupied. There were a dozen reddish-brown golem-like creatures of various shapes and sizes fighting and tearing into the Seosten’s troops.

“You… you’re using your bio-powers,” Avalon breathed. Seller and Gaia shared an origin, she knew that. They had both gained powers from the same creature, gifts so potent that even a Natural Heretic could only take one aspect of them. While Gaia had received the gifts of technology control and understanding, Seller had taken the nature and biology-based gifts. Among those was a potent bio-tech skill, such as making those golems, the birds-from-marbles, the boom-bug… and more.

Unfortunately, after the war with the Fomorians, he didn’t tend to use that aspect very much, for its… connotations and the reactions they provoked in anyone who had been through those battles.

Seller gave a very faint smile to her words, and winked at the confused Sands. “Well, I figured if this wasn’t the time for it, nothing ever would have been. Now go on, grab that book so we can get out of here. My guys can hold the line, but we’ve still gotta leave. Get the book and let’s get the hell out of this place.”

She went. Mind racing from everything she had just learned, and what it meant, Avalon raced those last couple of steps to the podium. Her hand snapped out… and she caught hold of the book.  

She had it. She had the book. After everything that had happened, after… after… She had it. That was the point. She had it, and she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone take it from her. Keeping it clutched to her chest, Avalon looked quickly to the fighting. Paschar may have been gone, but there were still plenty of problems between them and the way out of the vault.

While shoving the book into a special pouch inside her jacket, Avalon abruptly felt her phone buzz deep in another pocket. Just as it did, she heard Shiori shout a warning. More of the Seosten troops had arrived, overwhelming the line of golems to attack. Seller and the others were already fighting, and one of the soldiers (a blue-skinned lizard with compound eyes) was almost on top of her, flying on bug-like wings that beat blindingly quickly).

She threw herself backward, avoiding the pike that the lizard-bug was trying to impale her on. Just as quickly, she had to duck under a spray of spit that he followed up with. It wasn’t normal spit either, considering the little bit that caught her gauntlet before instantly hardening into some incredibly durable resin.

Her phone was still buzzing throughout that, including adding a pair of chimes to let her know that a voicemail and then text message had both been received.

The bug-lizard made a loud chittering cry and charged through the air, flying straight for her. Avalon let him come, then focused on her own ability to temporarily borrow other people’s abilities. One in particular: his resin spit.

She felt it in her mouth, and just before he would have reached her, she spat into his face and twisted aside. The spit went right into the creature’s eyes and instantly hardened, forming a blindfold of sorts while he squealed and flailed.

It was enough of a distraction for Avalon to take his head off with a sweep of her energy blade, all while her phone buzzed yet again.

Cursing, she checked the phone finally. Aylen, having some kind of breakdown. Taking a quick look at the scene in front of her, she answered it quickly, just to avoid being distracted. “Aylen, it’s not a good time.”

She started to hit the disconnect, only to hear the other girl shout, “Don’t hang up. It’s about Flick! Is she there?!”

Flick. It was about Flick? Avalon froze, looking to where the others were fighting just in time to see a reddish-rock creature come barreling for her. Quickly, she moved to intercept, forgetting the phone in her hand for an instant as she cut through the rock-man’s arm, drawing a cry of pain just before she followed up by putting her blade through his chest.

“Flick?” Avalon snapped through the gasp of pleasure. “No, she’s not here. She’s… what about her?” A sudden thought came then. “Wait, she’s not with you…”

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

Fear clutched her, as Avalon snapped, “She’s what?” In mid-sentence, she saw two of the Alter troops produced some kind of automatic rifles as they took aim at her. Quickly, she dropped to one knee and put her gauntlet up, turning the blades from one of her gauntlets into a shield that intercepted the bullets. By that point, Seller was there, dealing with the two of them swiftly.

Aylen’s voice came back then, with an announcement that made every other thing instantly disappear. “She’s going to die.”

As those words settled like a lead weight in the pit of Avalon’s stomach, the girl continued. “I’m at a grocery store parking lot. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know she’s going to die right here fairly soon. Maybe another hour? I’m not sure. But it’ll happen. I can give you the address.”

Shiori was there, hand on Avalon’s arm. Her eyes were wide with confusion and terror. She’d heard. Through the fighting that continued in the background, the two of them stared at each other.

“Are you positive?” Even as the words came from Avalon, she knew they were absurd. Of course the girl was positive.

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

There was no hesitation. Avalon didn’t care what else was going on, how many soldiers they had to go through, or what was standing in their way. She didn’t even care that she already had the book they’d come for, or that there was already a fight going on right then and there. One thing and one thing only was on her mind. Saving Flick. Everything else, even the thoughts of the real history between Paschar and her ancestors was just… noise.

“Where are you? We’ll be there.”

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Interim Incursion 43-08 (Avalon Part A)

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Through the maze of corridors in the Crossroads blood vault bank, Avalon Sinclaire sprinted with Sands Mason, Shiori Porter, and her own great-something grandfather. The sound of their racing footsteps echoed up and down the halls as the quartet followed their memorized directions toward the goal that so many had been working toward for literally generations.

“How small do you think the odds are that we’ve actually got a clear path to the vault now?” Shiori asked as they went straight through the second-to-last intersection. They’d already followed Doug’s pen marks to get back to the actual path without encountering any problems.

Without looking at the other girl, Avalon snapped, “About as small as me being able to throw a stick and hit the sun. Keep your eyes open, watch for spells or traps.”

Sure enough, barely a few seconds later, Dries called a sharp halt. The man, who had been content to stay behind them up to that point, moved past the girls. He stepped a couple feet forward before raising a hand and extending it slowly, with a look of intense concentration. “There,” he murmured, while tiny sparks of what looked like electricity danced over his fingers.

Biting her lip, Avalon glanced to the others before hesitantly asking, “What is it?” She still felt awkward, talking to a man who was actually related to her without wanting to stab him repeatedly. It was a really new experience that she just… really didn’t know how to react to.

It also didn’t help that Flick wasn’t here. Of all the times throughout this year that Avalon had imagined what would happen at this point, how all of this would go down, Flick had always been there. Her presence in those imagined scenarios, no matter how bad they went, was always a comfort. But now… now she wasn’t. She was off helping with another part of the mission which… while important, wasn’t here.

God, that felt selfish to think. Avalon knew that. Consciously, she knew it was wrong, and tried to shove the feeling away. But it just wouldn’t completely disappear. She wanted Flick to be with her. Especially now. They were so close to reaching the spell that Liesje had left, so close to finally ending this whole thing after all this time. Flick should be here with her. With them. With Avalon and Shiori. The two of them having to do this part without her was wrong.

Dries was answering. “En–en–trapment spell.” He hesitated, shifting on his feet before explaining, “If you trigger-ahh-ahh trigger it, your brain is trapped in a simulation. You’d think you were going t-t-to the vault but you’d really just be standing there.”

It took a moment, but he disabled the spell. Avalon made sure to watch what he was doing, paying close attention. Not that she had any expectation of being able to do it herself any time soon, but she wanted to learn. If the situation hadn’t been so urgent, she would have insisted that he talk the whole process through. But in this case, that felt like something that could wait.

It certainly wasn’t her last chance to observe him. Over the next few minutes, it seemed like they hit another protection spell every other step. And they started getting much nastier very quick. Dries muttered about just how dangerous the spells were as he disabled them, carefully untangling various effects with an expert touch. But even he couldn’t do it alone through simple lack of enough hands. In those cases, he would call Avalon or even the other two girls forward and tell them exactly what to do, placing a hand in one spot, pushing power here or there, saying a word, anything that he couldn’t do by himself because he was focused on another point. It was slow-going, but still a hell of a lot faster than it would have been if they’d just walked right into the spells.

And yet, even knowing that, the time it took still made Avalon squirm and twitch a little despite herself. Which, combined with the way Dries constantly squirmed and twitched, made the two of them look more alike than they ever had.

Finally, it was there. The vault in question was right in front of them, only a few steps away. As Dries disabled the last spell, however, the floor around them suddenly shook.

“Wha-what was…” Shiori started, stumbling a little as her gaze whipped around.

“Not here,” Dries assured her. “Definitely not here. That is… that is something else.”

“What do we do?” Sands asked, looking to Avalon. “That could be something bad.”

Slowly nodding, Avalon agreed, “It could. But we can’t do anything about it. We have to trust the others to deal with… whatever it is. We’re here. Come on.”

With those words, she stepped up to the vault. The doors looked like any of the others they had passed, two simple metal structures that had apparently been enough to stop the entire Seosten Empire from getting into the room beyond.

Well, that and the fact that the vault itself was actually located in a pocket dimension unreachable by any other means. But still.

As she neared them, the doors actually changed color. Instead of being that simple white-silver, they shifted to a faint red with a two much darker spots in the shape of handprints, one on either door.

Following Dries’ instructions, Avalon reached up to place one hand against either of the prints. She held them there, even as a slight tingling sensation ran through her. The spot where her hands were grew warm almost to the point of being uncomfortable, but she left them there anyway. It took almost five full seconds before there was a very soft, almost inaudible chime. The handprints disappeared as the doors turned blue then, sliding out of the way to reveal the room beyond.

It was open. After all this time, after everything that had happened throughout her life, the oh-so-important vault was open. Swallowing, Avalon glanced to the others. They were waiting for her.

She stepped inside. With the others right behind her, Avalon stepped into the vault. It was circular, with a single podium in the middle where a book sat. The spell. Liesje’s spell. It was right there.

Unfortunately, the four of them had barely taken a few steps inside before they were interrupted.

“Did you really think it would be that easy?”

The voice came from behind them, at the doorway into the vault. As Avalon and the others turned, they found themselves looking at a man. He looked… well, he looked like an elf. Or at least the Tolkien version. He was tall, with long blond hair and an eternally youthful, innocent face. His eyes were a bright, bright green that reminded Avalon of the forest, his figure almost feminine in its androgynous shape. A long, thin sword hung from his hip, while he held a bow made of solid energy. Arrayed around the man there just inside the vault were more than a dozen other figures of various Alter species, all of them heavily armed. Worse, more were quickly filing in by the second, until over twenty troops were there.

The elfen man spoke once more, as they all stared at him. “I’m afraid we cannot allow you to leave with that book. Though perhaps, if we reach a deal, you can leave with your lives. Would that be enough for you, now that you and I have finally come face to face after all this time?”

“Honestly?” Avalon snapped at the man, “I have no idea who the fuck you are. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t care even if I did. You’re just–”

“Paschar.” That was Dries, the man trembling with only barely constrained rage as he took a step in front of Avalon, literally blocking her from the other man. “He is Paschar.”

“Dries?” The man, Paschar apparently, sounded taken aback, his eyes widening as Avalon’s ancestor stepped into view from behind the others. “Is… is… that you? It… I… my… friend.”

Somewhere behind Avalon, she heard Shiori quietly whisper a confused, “Friend?”

It was the wrong thing to say. Dries took two steps that way, apparently heedless of the weapons being pointed at him. “We are not friends!” he snapped angrily, fury burning through his voice. “You betrayed us. You betrayed Liesje.”

“I… I betrayed my own people first,” Paschar quietly, yet firmly replied after his voice caught briefly. That bow continued to aim steadily at Dries, though he didn’t release the arrow. “I made a mistake. I betrayed them for Liesje, for you. I told you what they were–what we were doing. I told you the truth, and you almost destroyed us. You murdered Liesje’s own father.”

Avalon’s eyes snapped back to Dries as the man retorted, “Radueriel would have killed Liesje! I did what I had to do to protect her. I killed her father because I had no choice, because Radueriel gave me no choice! And I would do it again, all day, every day, to protect her.”

“I loved you!” Paschar shot back, all of the forced calm in his voice vanishing. “You and Liesje both! I loved you both. I told you the truth, I gave you the–” He stopped, taking a moment to collect himself emotionally before blurting, “You were supposed to leave! You were both supposed to run away! We were–we were supposed to…”

For a moment, the man stopped again, dropping his gaze to the floor before taking a long, deep breath. His voice shook. “We were supposed to escape… together. We were supposed to build something new, the three of us. You weren’t supposed to confront them. You weren’t supposed to kill him. You weren’t supposed to be taken away, or become the new holder of–” He sighed, closing his eyes. “I loved you. I gave you a chance. That was a mistake. One that I have spent generations rectifying.”

“Um.” Sands slowly held up a hand. “Am I the only one who is just totally lost right now?”

“Liesje and I were in love with him,” Dries quietly spoke, his eyes never leaving Paschar. “We thought he was human. We… we spent a lot of time together. Then he told us the truth. That’s how we found out that her father was possessed, that he hadn’t really made the Heretical Edge at all.”

“And you were supposed to run away,” Paschar snapped. “I told you everything to show you how far it went, to convince you that staying was idiotic and pointless. You let her go to her father. You might as well have doomed everyone yourself. I trusted you to get her out of sight, to run away. I would have run away with you. I wanted to run away with you.” With those words, the man’s voice actually shook a bit, as the admission, or maybe the memory itself, tore something from him emotionally.

“Liesje wanted to save her father,” Dries retorted, his voice cracking as well as he kept tightening and loosening his fists. “If you’d actually known anything about her, you would have understood that. You would have known. But you didn’t. Y-you just wanted to–”

“I wanted her to live!” the Seosten man all-but shouted. “I wanted Liesje to live. I wanted you to live. I wanted all of us to live! I wanted us to escape! I gave you both a chance! Do you know what that cost me? Do you have any idea what my–what I had to–what…” He trailed off, the obvious rush of emotions twisting his expression to something far uglier for a moment before he reigned them in.

In love? Liesje and Dries had been… had been in love with this… this Paschar? Some part of the back of Avalon’s mind found a twisted bit of humor in that, given that he had played Eros/Cupid while the Seosten were pretending to be gods here on Earth. But still, it left her reeling. Her mother… her family… they had been… this man right here had been the one… he…

She finally found her voice then, as her confusion and anger mounted. “Wh–you’re the one who helped chase our whole family down! You’re the one who killed my mother, who helped make my father hate me, who used a love potion on Tangle! You turned Torv against me, you destroyed my best friend! You made me kill him!”

The Seosten man’s expression softened then, as he glanced away with a visible wince. “Yes,” he murmured. “Yes, I did. I’m not proud of it, any of it. I never wanted to hurt Liesje’s family. That’s why I… why I took such a hands off, slow, careful approach. I didn’t want to do it myself. I never wanted any of this to happen.” By that point, his voice had dropped to barely a whisper.

“Never wanted it to happen?!” Avalon grabbed Dries by the arm, using it to yank herself in front of him while her eyes glowered to the point of nearly reducing the man to cinders if she’d had that particular power. “Never wanted to spend hundreds of years systematically hunting down the woman you claim you cared about and her every descendent?! You destroyed our lives! You! You chose to do that! You are a piece of shit!” Even as she spoke, Avalon instinctively triggered her gauntlets to produce a pair of humming energy blades.

She started to take another step that way, but Shiori was there on her right side, putting a hand on her arm to stop her from going any closer.

Paschar raised his eyes to stare at her, not looking away. “I didn’t want to. Liesje wasn’t thinking straight. The thing she wanted to do, the spell she wanted to make, it–” He cut himself off, grimacing as he fought for the right words before forcing them out. “It would have destroyed the universe. She wanted to block Seosten from possessing any Heretics, ever. Without Heretics, do you have any idea what would happen on the front lines of the war with the Fomorians? The front lines would become Elohim. They would overrun everything. You’ve heard about what happened the last time the Fomorians were here on Earth. Without us, without my people, you would have been overrun. Earth would be a Fomorian world and your people would be their slaves, forever.”

Avalon’s head shook once. “It wasn’t the Seosten who kicked the Fomorians offworld and put up a spell that blocks them from ever coming back.” Even as she spat the words, the girl was trying to think of a way to get over to the podium where the spellbook was seated without making what had turned into two dozen troops arrayed around Paschar reduce her to cinders. She was kind of surprised they hadn’t already opened fire. An opening. She just needed an opening, and if Paschar wanted to talk until she saw one, all the more power to him.

Besides, right now she really wanted to know what the hell had happened between him and her ancestors.

The elfen-looking man nodded. “Yes, but it was my people who helped yours last long enough for that to even be an option. Earth lasted for years before getting to that point. Do you think they could have done that without Seosten help? The Fomorians would have destroyed your civilization and turned you all into their tools to annihilate the rest of the universe.”

Dries spat from behind her, his voice full of fury that left him barely capable of coherent words. “None of that matters! What matters is you! You! You chose to hunt down our family! You chose to destroy their lives, for hundreds of years! You—you’re the reason Liesje is dead! You’re the reason any of this is–that any of that–that–We loved you!” The last three words tore their way from him in a violent outburst, a scream which seemed to make the entire room shake.  

He shoved Avalon back then, suddenly crossing the room in a blur of motion to throw himself at the other man. Before he was halfway there, the surrounding troops threw up their weapons and fired.

But their shots hit a forcefield… created by Paschar. The Seosten held his fist up, a glowing stone held tight in it that was clearly producing the shield.

Whether he’d created the shield to stop his men from shooting Dries, or to stop Dries himself from reaching him, Avalon had no idea. And to be honest, she kind of doubted anyone in the room, including Paschar in that moment, knew either.

“I loved you too,” the Seosten quietly murmured, staring at the other man through the glowing shield. “I loved both of you.” His voice cracked a little bit. “I still do. Whether you believe it or not, I do love you, Dries. But I cannot endanger the universe because of my feelings for you, just as I could not endanger it because of my feelings for Liesje. I never wanted to hurt either of you, but I will not allow the Fomorians to destroy all life because of it.”

Dries looked like he was going to say something else, but Sands interrupted. “You don’t have to!” The girl took a quick step over by Avalon’s left side, opposite Shiori. She edged in front of the other two a little bit while everyone looked at her. “We can work together. We don’t have to fight right now. We’re not… we’re not trying to use the spell to ban Seosten from ever possessing humans. We’re going to change it, we’re going to make it so that Seosten can only possess Heretics with permission. If your people work with us, if they talk to us and explain the whole situation with the Fomorians, we can be allies! We won’t be slaves, but we can be your allies. We can work together.”

The surrounding Alter soldiers looked at each other, while Paschar just stared past Dries at Sands. Slowly, his head shook. “That is a fine, noble sentiment, girl. But it is… naive. Do you think that the Fomorians will quietly wait for us to sort out that kind of thing? Do you think they’ll hold back their attacks until we have reorganized our entire society? Your people have often had a thing called a draft, in times of desperate military action and war. This is your draft. It may seem unfair, and… and it is. It truly is. But the alternative is complete universal devastation. The Fomorians will not negotiate. They will not stop. They will not spare man, woman, or child. They will destroy this universe and all life within it. And we cannot afford to give them one more centimeter. I’m sorry. I truly am. But it won’t happen.”

He paused then before adding, “But I have come to offer a deal. Walk away. Leave this vault now without the spell, and neither I nor any of my people here will stop or harm you or any of yours. You can leave. You can walk away. Then we take this spell, and your family will be safe. With the spell gone, we’ll have no reason to come after you. You can leave.” His expression actually turned pleading then. “Please. Just walk away. I don’t want to hurt any more of you.”

“You know what, dude?” Sands spoke up for all of them. “Fuck you.”

With those words, the girl swung up hard with her mace, bringing a wall between them before blurting, “Go, go!”

Avalon and Shiori were already going. Pivoting on their heels, they sprinted toward the podium. Behind them, Sands worked to cover them with rapidly generated walls while backpedaling. There was other fighting going on in the background, with Dries. Avalon tried not to think about it. The book. She just had to get to the book.

“Go!” Shiori blurted, just as a sleek, eel-like Alter slipped past the wall and lunged at them. She intercepted him, diving into his path in a collision that took both to the floor.

Avalon kept going. The podium was right in front of her. She felt a tingle around her as she neared it, hand extending.

“No!” The voice came from surprisingly close. Paschar. He’d used his boost to reach Avalon, slamming into the girl. Both of them went to the floor, as she tried her best to roll with the impact. They hit the ground, skidding and tumbling over one another.

Then… then she was rolling on grass. Avalon felt that and dirt under her as she scrambled to her knees, gaze snapping around wildly. The podium was gone. The vault was gone. Everything was gone. She was sitting in a grassy field, in the middle of nowhere. Nearby was a cliff overlooking the ocean. “Wha–”

“Where are we?” Paschar demanded. He was there, about ten feet from her and already picking himself up. “What happened?”

Avalon scrambled to her feet as well, igniting her blades once more while glaring that way. Her mouth opened to say something, only to find herself interrupted by another voice.

“Hello, Paschar.” The beautiful, tall brunette who suddenly stood between them announced before turning to Avalon. Her form was partially-translucent, like a ghost. “Hello, Hannah.

“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time,” Liesje Aken informed them.

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Interim Incursion 43-04 (Doug)

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As the elevator descended toward the lower vaults, Doug glanced around at the others. Professor Kohaku, Dries Aken, Shiori, Avalon, Sands, Vanessa, and himself. They were the ones who were left to make the run for the vault. Everyone else was occupied, keeping most of the bad guys busy. Gaia, Gabriel Prosser, Professor Dare, so many powerful people who were solely focused, at that moment, on keeping the way to the vault as clear as possible. Even Grandpa Sulan was with Prosser’s group, along with Jazz and Gordon. If Doug couldn’t be with his (former?) teammates, he was glad that his great-great-grandfather could.

And who was he here with? The man who killed Hieronymous Bosch. The greatest traitor and murderer in Crossroads history, in Heretic history. One of the most infamous people who had ever lived, as far as Heretics were concerned. There was no single human being regarded more hatefully or as more of a monster by Heretics than the man who had murdered Bosch. Even now, knowing everything he actually knew, Doug could still feel that instinctive anger that came from so many years of hearing the stories about Dries Aken. Instead of trying to suppress it, he redirected it. He used that anger and pointed it toward all the lies that he’d been told throughout his life, all the lies that his entire family going back generations had been told.

That made it easier to not be so fucking scared right in that moment. Using the anger he felt about all of that and pointing it to this situation. The anger helped cover the terror.

Dries seemed to notice him staring, because the man’s head abruptly whipped around to face him as the elevator descended. His eyes were wild, and he demanded, “Are we enemies?”

“Err, wh-what?” Doug stammered, taken aback by that. “Uh, no? No, it’s just… I’ve heard a lot of lies about you and all that, so it’s kind of a big deal to meet you. I mean, I know it’s not true, but still, seeing you like this… I…” He tried to think of how to explain the whole ‘transferring anger to cover up his own fear’ thing, but it suddenly sounded stupid, so he clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s okay, Douglas,” Professor Kohaku calmly and knowingly informed him. “Everyone is afraid of what might happen next. Just remember, you are not alone. Stay with the others. The goal is the vault. Let me handle the worst of what we run into while you focus on getting to the vault.” Raising her voice a bit then to address everyone, she added, “You all remember the way?”

“Straight, straight, right, left, straight, straight, right, straight, straight, right.” Avalon was the one who spoke, but Doug ran the whole thing through silently in his head as well. Gaia had made sure they all memorized the exact route through what apparently was a labyrinth to get to the right vault. Doug had spent more time repeating the directions back than he had spent on actual schoolwork in the past couple months.

It would be just great, to pull all this off and then end up getting held back a year because his grades had suffered. Absurd as the thought was, considering how involved the actual headmistress was in all of this, it still made the boy swallow a bit at the thought. Another distraction, another thing to focus on instead of worrying about what was going to happen once the elevator reached the bottom of this apparently long descent.

Abruptly, a different distraction presented itself in the form of a clanking noise. It was faint, and came from the top of the elevator. For a moment, Doug almost thought that he might have imagined it, until he saw that the others had all looked up as well. They glanced toward the faint sound just as it came again, event fainter that time.

What wasn’t quiet, however, was Kohaku’s reaction. Her hand snapped up, and a pale green forcefield suddenly appeared over their heads. An instant later and with no further warning, something horrific dove through the roof of the elevator. A ghost of some kind. The thing was terrifying, its semi-translucent face looking equal parts rotted and melted. Holes in its throat revealed the inside, flaps of skin in its face showed muscles and gums, and one of its eyes was melted shut like a wax candle. Worse, the thing dove through with no warning other than those two very faint clanking sounds, rebounding off the shield that Kohaku had put up.

At a quick, sharp gesture from Kohaku, the part of the forcefield that the ghost had rebounded off of suddenly elongated into a blade, stabbing into the creature. With a terrifying shriek that half-deafened Doug and the others, the ghost exploded into what looked like blue-gray slime that splattered all over the ceiling of the elevator.

“More coming,” Kohaku snapped sharply. With one hand, she held out a bag. “You know what to do.”

Because of course Gaia and the others wouldn’t send them in unprepared for this kind of thing. Doug produced his pen, clicking it once to create a spear. As the weapon appeared in his hand, he reached into the bag that Kohaku was offering, taking out a bit of cloth before pushing it against the tip of the spear. On the cloth was a spell rune made up of a triangle surrounding a circle, while nine curly lines emerged from the triangle, three on each side. Between each of those lines was a diagonal equals sign, each pointing up and to the right of the whole thing, toward a second symbol that looked like an infinity symbol drawn around the handle of an upside down pitchfork.  

The spell, once activated, would allow the target object to actually affect ghosts and other intangible creatures for the following fifteen minutes. It was one of several bits of preparation that Gaia and the other adults that made sure to have ready since there was no way for them to know exactly what the Seosten would throw at them as they neared the vault. Aside, of course, from ‘every fucking thing they possibly could.’

The others around him were doing the same, aside from Avalon, as her gauntlet’s energy constructs could already affect things like ghosts. Kohaku, meanwhile, produced what looked like two batons. Each was only a little over a foot long. Rather than hold them by one end, however, the woman held each in the middle. At a button press, a sharp metal blade appeared from both ends of both batons. Four blades in total, each with various runes inscribed along them. And at a touch from Kohaku, each gave off a soft glow.

Dries, meanwhile, hadn’t been sitting on his hands. The man took a small lens, like one from a telescope, and brushed his thumb over it while murmuring something. Then he threw the lens at the ground, shattering it. As he did so, the walls, floor, and ceiling of the lift abruptly became just as partially translucent as the ghosts themselves were. Doug could see the shaft they were dropping through. Not that there was that much to see, aside from a few other lifts (where they went, he wasn’t sure and was kind of confused by) and the blank metal walls of the shaft.

Oh, and the ghosts. Lots of ghosts. The creatures were flying all around them. Above, below, to the sides, the whole shaft was flooded with the creatures.

“Columbus was right,” Doug found himself muttering, “we should’ve brought our necromancer.”

“I don’t think she’s ready for ghosts yet,” Shiori pointed out while holding one of her frisbee-disc things in either hand. Her eyes were snapping around, watching for the first of the horde of clearly malevolent (or at least malevolently targeted, since it probably wasn’t fair to blame them for whatever the being directing them had ordered) spirits to make a move.

“Douglas, watch the floor,” Kohaku started. “Avalon, that wall. Sands, that wall. Vanessa, behind us. Shiori, straight ahead. I’ll watch the ceiling. Mr. Aken, try to back up anyone who needs it. Thirty seconds before we reach the bottom, so they’ll be–now!”

Sure enough, the ghosts were coming. Doug’s attention snapped quickly to the floor, just in time to see two of the creatures flying straight up toward them. He readied his spear, muttering a quick series of curses under his breath. Then the first ghost was there, shoving itself up through the floor while grabbing for his ankle. Instantly, Doug stabbed his spear down into the thing’s head. It shrieked and withdrew, but there wasn’t time to celebrate, because the second ghost had already grabbed onto Vanessa’s leg and was trying to yank her down before Doug stabbed it as well. It took two more quick jabs before the thing exploded into foul-smelling goo.

All around him, more ghosts were attacking from every side. He felt one snatch hold of his elbow from the side just before Sands slammed her mace through the thing. Nearby, Shiori was yanked backward with one ghost’s arm around her neck, until Avalon killed it with a quick swipe of her humming energy blade.

Thirty seconds. They just had to keep doing this for thirty seconds. Well, thirty seconds until they were let out of the elevator. There was no reason to think that the ghosts would leave them alone after that. But there would be more room to maneuver, at least.

More ghosts. More stabbing. Doug couldn’t focus on any other spot, couldn’t think about what anyone else was doing. He was too busy keeping dozens of ghosts away from the floor of the elevator. They just kept coming. No matter how fast he stabbed with his spear, more appeared. Some of the ones he struck howled and withdrew, while others exploded. Before that thirty seconds was half-over, the entire floor was covered in their ectoplasm.

All around him, the others were in the same position. He was jostled back and forth, elbowed in the side, and even had Sands’ arm smack against the side of his head accidentally as she swung for another ghost. There wasn’t enough room here, and the ghosts were flooding the elevator from all sides. There had to be hundreds of the things.

At least they weren’t the strong kind. There were several types of ghosts, and the stronger versions would have completely overrun them in these kinds of numbers. The fact that these ones were so relatively easy to kill and didn’t set off any kind of Heretic pleasure sense when they were killed meant they were the lowest tier of ghost. Barely capable of following instructions. Which, in this case, seemed to be ‘attack everyone in that elevator’.

Still, it was only thirty seconds. Thirty of the longest seconds in all of existence that hadn’t literally been magically extended, but only thirty seconds. They made it, finally, the doors opening to let them out into a octagonal-shaped room, with different hallways along each ‘side’ of the octagon aside from the one where their elevator was.

The fight spilled out into that open room, until Dries stepped forward and put a rock he had been scribbling a rune onto against the elevator. He spoke a single word, and the stone crumbled to dust. At the same time, what looked like a massive burst of electricity shot up along the walls of the elevator, disappearing through the shaft with an echoing boom.

Silence came then. The ghosts had stopped. Doug doubled over a bit, catching his breath while staring warily at the elevator. “What–what was–”

“No more.” Dries was tapping the side of his head. “G-gone. Gone. They’re gone, and they’re not… they’re not… they won’t be here.” He nodded rapidly, his attention shifting to the floor while he shuffled back and forth on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with everyone staring at him.

“Thanks, man,” Doug finally managed, not wanting to stress the poor guy out even more, but not wanting to say nothing either. “That was cool.”

“Indeed,” Kohaku agreed. “Very cool.”

That said, the woman immediately turned away from the elevator. “We need to keep moving. Is everyone good?” She gave the group a quick once over, taking a moment to check a bit of blood on Vanessa’s arm that ended up being a deep cut. It would heal, however, and Kohaku placed a quick bandage on it to stop the bleeding. “Okay, let’s go.”

Their notes said to go straight, so the group took the hallway directly across from the elevator doors. The floor was some kind of white polished stone with little purple swirls in them, while the walls were more violet. As they entered that first corridor (which was wide enough for Kohaku, Avalon, and Shiori to jog side by side in the lead), Doug could see white double-doors set on either side, each several feet apart. There were labels above each door with either a family name or, in some cases, an alphanumeric code.

The first junction came up, with a corridor cutting across their path. Again, they went straight, before making a right a few seconds later at the next one. Then a left. Unfortunately, just as Doug made the mistake of thinking that they might have a clear shot at the vault after all, trouble found them again. Or rather, they found it, in the form of a figure standing in their path at the next junction, where they were supposed to go straight.

He was a Seosten. That much was clear, from the bodysuit that he wore, to his darkly handsome features, to the arrogant look in his gaze as he stared them down. Along his throat and apparently up over the back of his neck was a long tattoo of a coiling snake. The man’s head was bald, though not bare, as the head of that snake tattoo was visible there, with its eyes facing them from his forehead.

“Oh,” Sands muttered as they came to a brief stop. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy.”

The Seosten held that glare for a moment, before his expression abruptly shifted into a broad smile. “Hey there, good job getting this far. I mean seriously, I’m pretty sure no one thought you’d make it, which is why they don’t have an Olympian down here. Hell, you even cut through my ghosts, you’re keeping my zombies busy, and you blocked me from contacting anyone on the outside. Bravo. No, really, congratulations. But you see, I can’t let you go any further. I just… it’s my boss, you know? He can be a real pain in the ass and if you get by me…” He whistled low, shaking his head. “I’ll be in… I think you call it deep shit? Deep shit.”

His hand waved dismissively then, as the man informed them, “But I’ll tell you what. If you turn around and go back the way you came, we’ll just let bygones be bygones. No hard feelings, you gave it your best shot. Just walk away.”

Kohaku’s voice was quiet as she watched the man. “I’ll handle him. The rest of you go on to the vault.” With those words, she started to walk that way deliberately, spinning the two-bladed baton-daggers in each hand.

In response, the Seosten man cracked his neck before tapping each arm of his bodysuit in turn. At his touch, a pair of gauntlets appeared. Along the outside of each gauntlet was a long, sharp blade that ran the length of his forearm from fist to elbow. Meanwhile, a pair of electrified whips extended from the end of the gauntlets, crackling with energy.

“Well,” he announced, “if you insist on doing it the hard way.”

“Go!” Kohaku ordered while sprinting to meet the man. She dodged around one of his whips as it was sent toward her, leaving behind some kind of shadow-clone that lasted just long enough to kick the whip out of the way before falling into ashes.

Doug and the others didn’t need to be told twice. Even as Kohaku reached her target, blades colliding with his, they were already running. Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Vanessa, Dries, and Doug sprinted down that hall.

Unfortunately, the Seosten wasn’t just going to let them go. Ducking away from a swing from Kohaku, he extended his hand after them. “Sic ‘em, boy.”

At those words, as Doug looked over his shoulder that way, he saw the man’s snake tattoo come to life. Springing off the man’s head while solidifying, the blue-green snake rushed after them.

“Heh,” Sands started, “it’s a snake, are we really supposed to b–”

Before she could finish that sentence, the snake abruptly grew. Not a little bit, a lot. In a blink, the snake was suddenly large enough that it barely fit in the corridor. And it was coming very quickly. Worse, there was some kind of green smoke coming from its mouth that seemed to melt through the walls around it.

Cursing violently, Sands whipped back around. “I changed my mind, go, go, go!”

“He’s like Larees!” Vanessa blurted, even as they ran, keeping straight once more at the next intersection.

“Not enough like Larees!” Doug pointed out, already snatching his pen once more as they ran past the next section. They were supposed to turn right there, but there wasn’t time. The snake was right behind them. Right behind them. Doug could feel its acidic breath practically melting his shoes, could hear its hissing. “Avalon, don’t you talk to snakes now? Can you–”

“Not working!” the girl blurted back at him. “Probably because it’s not a real snake! It’s magic!”

Cursing, Sands waved her mace, creating a wall behind them. It lasted only a couple seconds before the snake’s acid breath melted through it enough for the creature to burst through. If anything, it seemed even bigger somehow. And angrier.

They kept running, until Sands finally made a dozen quick walls in a row at another intersection. Then she tapped her mace against the actual corridor wall before moving to make another wall over the right-hand corridor. The new constructed wall was made of the same material as the rest of the hall, so it blended in well enough to hide that there was a corridor there at all.

“Quick,” Sands blurted even as they heard the snake coming through the walls she’d thrown in its path. “Over here.” She waved to the left-hand corridor. “We hide behind another wall on that side, let our new friend keep going down the hall, then–” She made another three walls in rapid succession to keep the snake busy. “Then we go back the way we came and find the vault.”

“It’ll notice too fast,” Doug pointed out. “Then we’ll be in the same position. Someone needs to lure it away. I’ll–”

“Someones,” Vanessa corrected him. She looked to the others. “Doug and I can do this. You guys hide. Wait for the snake to chase us, then get to that vault.”

“I… yeah.” Doug tried not to look too relieved that he wouldn’t be by himself, though he still flashed the girl a brief grateful look. Then his hand gestured to the nearby wall, where a faint pen mark was visible. “I drew a line the whole way up here, since we passed that last turn. If you follow it back to where it starts, then turn left at that spot, you’ll be on for straight, straight, right.”

Sands, who had been remaking walls over and over again as fast as she could while backpedaling as the snake kept breaking through them, blurted, “Running out of room here, guys!”

There was no more time to discuss it. Avalon, Dries, and Shiori moved quickly to the other corridor. Sands joined them, blurting, “Good luck.” Then she made another wall, blocking them off and leaving Vanessa and Doug standing in the corridor alone.

“Ready to run some more?” Doug asked the girl beside him.

“We better be,” she replied, already starting to back pedal at the sound of the last constructed walls crumbling. The final one melted under the acidic breath, before the snake’s massive head slammed through. “Because here it comes!”

The snake hissed in a mixture of fury and triumph at having found them, lunging just as Vanessa and Doug both leapt back. The two turned, sprinting away with the snake right on their heels. They left the others behind, hopefully so that they would reach the vault.

But at the moment, Doug and his companion had other things to worry about.

Like not being eaten by a massive snake. That sounded like a good place to start.

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Interim Incursion 43-03 (Sean)

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There was at least one good thing about the vault mission coming a few days earlier than expected. It meant that Sean Gerardo didn’t have time to dwell on what his parents could possibly be doing with those Runner guys. It was probably just something for their work, but still, he’d been thinking about it ever since he and the others had spotted them.

Normally he was okay with his parents not really having much to do with him. He wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, after all. He’d grown up this way and it was just the way it was. He’d moved on from getting sad every time his parents failed to show interest in him. But this time, they had been right there. They were right there, and they either knew he was there on a field trip so they could have come over to say hi. Or they didn’t know, meaning they’d paid absolutely no attention to where he was and what he was doing. That one… that one kind of stung.

But now he didn’t have to focus on any of that. Because his attention was quite thoroughly occupied. If there was one thing that was going to stop him from thinking about his parents, it was a mission to prevent the intergalactic evil empire of body-snatchers from destroying the one thing that could stop them from enslaving all Heretics on Earth. That sort of had priority.

At the moment, the Seosten and their pawns at the bank were busy fighting Gaia and a bunch of other adults. They also thought that Sean and the others were safely contained under a marble dome that Sands had created at her mother’s insistence. As far as they knew, there was no way to escape that building.

But Sean’s side had a secret weapon: Dries Aken, who knew how to create temporary holes in their anti-teleportation technology. He’d done just that and extricated the group from their covered dome. So now, while Gaia and the others in there kept the bad guys busy, Sean, Avalon, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Doug, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan had joined Dries, Tangle, and Kohaku to sneak into the actual vault.

“Everyone move very slowly,” Professor Tangle quietly murmured as she led them around the side of the vans. The dark-skinned woman had one hand up, a red ball of energy pulsing with power within her grasp. From what she’d said, the ball was part of a power that would keep everyone within a few feet of her invisible against most forms of detection. They just couldn’t move too quickly or suddenly. It seemed a bit like Jazz’s invisibility power, except stronger.

Jazz. She and Gordon were with Gabriel Prosser and his people, helping to deal with the army that the Seosten had had lying in wait to act as reinforcements when the fight broke out here. Everyone was doing their part, from his group, to Gaia and the others playing distraction, to Prosser countering the Seosten’s reinforcements, to Roxa, Flick, and the others at the Alter hotel to stop the bad guys from going in the back door of the vault.

Thinking about Roxa in that moment was a mistake. It was a distraction. He couldn’t start thinking about every bad thing that could happen to her at that place, because then he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. With effort, he shoved it aside, burying those nagging worries while reaching down to put a hand on the top of Vulcan’s head for comfort. VJ (Vulcan Junior) was there too, attached to Vulcan like a backpack, since letting him fly around would have stressed the invisibility power too much.

Even with the group inside drawing so much attention, there was still security outside in the form of cameras and a couple guards standing by the actual entrance to the vaults (hidden in what looked from the outside like a grain silo). Which was why they had to stay invisible and move slowly. Even knowing that, however, Sean was still antsy. With everything that was going on and how critical this entire mission was, the idea of moving across the lot and then the field beyond at such a… gradual pace was hard to accept. Part of him wanted to just make a sprint straight for the vault. It was right there, and the people inside were busy fighting Gaia and all the others. Surely they could make it if they just ran for it. Get to the vault and teleport out. But if something happened while they were taking their time and just sort of walking that way, either to them, to the people inside, or… or to the others like Roxa, he’d… they’d…

No. As hard as it was, as much as it let his mind drift more than he wanted it to, moving slowly was the answer. The Seosten would move entire planets to stop them from reaching the vault. If they had the slightest idea that Avalon wasn’t safely contained under that dome inside, that she was so close to the spell that her ancestor had left, they’d abandon the fight in an instant.

So they walked. With Dries and Tangle at the front, Kohaku at the back, and Sean and the others between them, the group gradually moved across the parking lot and through the field that led to the fake silo. Sean could see the two guards standing out front, their attention riveted on the main house where all the fighting was going on. He wondered how much they knew about what was going on in there from moment to moment. Did they have a way to watch the battle, or were they relying on updates? How distracted were they?

Both guards were dressed in what looked like simple ranch hand clothes, jeans, flannel shirts, and thick boots, with shotguns held loosely in their hands. Despite their appearances, however, Sean and the others knew the truth. They were both incredibly powerful Heretics who were currently possessed by incredibly powerful Seosten. If Sean and the others were going to pull this off without wasting too much time or alerting the others inside, the only chance they had was in taking them by surprise.

That in itself would have been impossible without Kohaku, Tangle, and Dries. The three adult Heretics between them had enough powers and spells to keep the group hidden. Kohaku by herself had been the head of security for the school for decades, and Dries, for all his issues, was a genius at that stuff. Tangle wasn’t particularly focused on stealth or security, but she was an experienced Heretic with plenty of motivation to stop the Seosten Empire.

They didn’t approach the silo directly. Instead, Tangle and Dries led the group slowly on a curved, rounding path, ever so gradually looping in toward the group from the side. It was excruciatingly slow, and every time the guards at the silo happened to glance that way or shift their attention at all, Sean became briefly convinced they had been exposed. Walking like this, right out in the open, was basically torture.

But it worked. Gradually, the group moved out of the guards’ line of sight and looped back from the other direction. They approached the silo from the side, moving slowly enough that any disturbance in the grass and weeds could be taken as just the wind. One step after another, they drew closer and closer to that building. And closer, by extension, to finishing this whole thing.

Finally, about twenty yards from the pair of guards, Professor Kohaku moved to the front while holding a hand up to stop them. She and Dries then moved slowly that way, relying on invisibility of their own while Tangle stayed with Sean and the others to keep them hidden. While Sean watched with the rest of the group, one hand still on Vulcan’s head, Dries and Kohaku slowly made their way closer, step by step, to the unaware guards. Despite himself, Sean had to hold his breath. This was a key moment, if something went wrong here… he didn’t want to think about it, despite his traitorous brain’s insistence on doing just that.

Dries and Kohaku split up once they reached the guards, each moving behind one of them. The security chief looked back toward Tangle, holding up a hand with three fingers raised. Gradually, she lowered each finger, then made a fist.

At the end of the countdown, Tangle used the hand that wasn’t currently raised with the glowing red orb to produce a small stone with a rune on it, activating a spell that would cast an illusion over the entire area around them to hide what was about to happen from the cameras and anyone who happened to glance that way. When he was told about it, Columbus had compared it to the humans looping camera footage. In this case, it created a hologram of the past several minutes and projected it over the area, hiding what was actually happening within it.

The guards clearly noticed something happening when the spell activated. But before they could do anything about it, Dries and Kohaku struck. Moving simultaneously, the two of them quickly slapped prepared bits of cloth against each of the men’s necks. There were three spells on those cloths, each prepared by Dries, Apollo, and Sariel working together. The first would knock the man out. The second was a variant of the expulsion rune, which would instantly kick their Seosten host out of the body. And the third would cut off those Seosten’s connection to the rest of their group through that mind-link thing they tended to have. Unless any of the Seosten inside actively tried to contact them, they wouldn’t know what had happened. And with any luck, Gaia and the others would keep them too busy to think about that.

As the unconscious Heretic guards dropped to the ground, the two utterly surprised Seosten who had been possessing them were revealed. They were then just as quickly killed as Dries and Kohaku cut their throats before they could recover from their abrupt exorcism.

With the guards down and their approach hidden by the magical hologram, Sean and the others quickly raced to the door. Dries was already working on getting it open, while Kohaku checked the fallen Seosten for anything useful, taking a couple weapons and other enchanted objects and dropping them into her jacket. Tangle, finally able to stop using that cloaking power, moved to help.

Sean, meanwhile, found himself looking toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You guys ever think this year would turn out like this when it started?”

Tristan, in turn, shrugged. Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around his shoulders, basically did the same thing. How a mechanical snake managed to shrug was beyond Sean, but the creature somehow pulled it off.

“When your school year started, I was basically frozen in super-carbonite,” Tristan pointed out. “And also I was a kid.” He paused then, considering before giving a sharp headshake. “This year has been weird.”

“This life has been weird,” Vanessa corrected him. She was holding her whip with one hand and one of the Seosten laser pistols with the other after apparently commandeering it during the fight back in the building.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I’ve only known most of what’s actually going on for a little while. I can’t imagine how long this year has been for anyone who saw the whole thing.”

“Some of us have been dealing with it for longer than just the year,” Avalon quietly muttered, exchanging brief looks with both sets of twins before turning her attention to Sean. “And some of us are practically saints for sticking through this even though it doesn’t directly affect them.”

“You’re my team,” Sean replied simply. “It affects me. Besides, kind of a personal connection to werewolves, remember? Getting rid of the bad Seosten and fixing this whole mess does affect me.”

“Now,” Sands started, teasing, “when you say personal connection to werewolves, do you mean through your uncle’s romance, or your own?”

Sean was saved from answering that by Dries, who announced, “It’s open.” He stood, stepping back as the twin doors into the silo slid apart, allowing them to enter.

“Move,” Kohaku urged, waving a hand quickly. “The sooner we get inside and close the doors, the sooner Dries can stop blocking the alarms about them being open.”

“Right, c’mon, buddy.” Sean waved for Vulcan to keep up, heading for the doorway. His cyberform partner followed, and they joined the others in entering the vault. Well, the building the vault entrances were kept in, anyway.

The room they entered was a couple hundred feet across and square. It was also completely empty, aside from six doors that lined the walls to either side. Twelve in total. Straight ahead and on the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a large freight elevator.

The elevator. That’s what they needed. The other doors were low-security vaults, and there was no way Liesje’s would be anywhere near ‘low-security’. They needed to take the elevator down into the bowels of this place.

Heh, bowels. He was still a teenage boy, damn it.

“No-no-nobody move. Nobody move.” Dries spoke quickly, already moving to draw something on the nearby wall while repeating those words to himself. “Not moving. I said don’t move so they better not. Better not move or this is going to go wrong. Wrong wrong, can’t go wrong. Too important. Stay–stay in place. Stay in that place. Not a prison. Have to stay out of prison. Look, do the spell. Do the spell, you can do the spell, see? See. Spell. Good, all good, it’s good.”

“Mr. Aken,” Kohaku started once she exchanged looks with the man himself, “has put a communication block over the building. Whatever happens in here, as long as the spell remains active, no one outside will hear about it.”

Raising her hand, Vanessa spoke when the woman looked to her. “Does that include the Seosten mind-link spell?”

It was Dries who answered. “Yes, yes, of course. Of course it includes that. But that–that…” He looked like he lost his train of thought for a moment, staring off at nothing long enough for everyone to look at each other, a bit antsy considering the time table they were working with. Then he just seemed to snap out of it, continuing. “That’s good and bad. It’s–it’s–it’s good and bad. It means they can’t send out a message. But it–they don’t get messages either. They don’t get messages, and they’ll know they’re cut off.”

“So any Seosten who are in here will know that they’ve been blocked,” Professor Tangle murmured. “And that means that–” In mid-sentence, the woman suddenly stopped. She pivoted on one foot, spinning completely around while her hand snapped out.

Three partially decayed figures were there, by one of the random vault doors that was suddenly open. They’d stumbled through the door and, seeing the group, started to lunge that way.

But Tangle was quicker. As she held her hand out, a ghostly image erupted from her. It looked… well, it looked like a car. A sedan, actually, aside from being grayish-blue and partially translucent. Like the… ghost of a car.

It certainly didn’t seem ghost-like, however, as the car literally slammed into the approaching zombies. It flattened two and sent one flying across the room. A second later, the ghost-car continued its path right through the far wall, disappearing without causing any other damage aside from its collision with the zombies.

Kohaku finished the creatures off, while Sean and the others simply stared with wide eyes. “What–what the hell kind of power is that?” Sean demanded.

“Not a power,” Tangle informed them. “My weapon.” She turned to show them then. It looked like a simple flashlight in her hand. “The short version is I record things and then project them doing the same thing that they were recorded doing. But more importantly, why are there zombies in here?”

“Security measure,” Scout announced, her brow furrowed as she pointed. “They’re not alone.”

She was right, there were more zombies emerging from more vaults. One that the girl herself shot, before the one that appeared beside it was taken down by a blast from Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi cannon. Another on the opposite side of the room was killed by a blast from Columbus’ goggles.

“She’s right,” Kohaku agreed. “Either an automated feature or someone below triggered them. Either way, I bet every one of these vaults is full of those annoying bastards.”

“They’ll go for the spell,” Tangle murmured. “That’s what I’d make them do. They’ll look for any unknown magic and try to destroy it. And the second they do–”

Columbus finished her words. “They’ll know we’re here. Too bad our brand-spanking new necromancer isn’t here. She’d be pretty useful right now.”

“But we can’t just stand here and babysit the spell all day,” Shiori pointed out, pretty clearly trying not to think about what Flick was doing rather than being there at the vault with them. “We’ve kinda got things to do.”

“We don’t all have to,” Sean found himself saying. “A few of us stay back, guard the spell, and the rest of you go.” Even as he spoke, a couple more zombies emerged from another vault and were put down.

“They’ll start coming faster,” Kohaku warned him. “There could be thousands of zombies in each of these vaults. You’ll need plenty of help.”

“He’s got it,” Columbus announced. “I’ll stay with him.” The two boys exchanged brief looks, their silent meaning clear. They didn’t want this to be like what happened back at the hospital, when Rudolph was… Sean shut the thought out of his head.

In the end, Tangle, Scout, and Tristan agreed to stay back as well. The five of them would guard the spell (and the exit, just in case they went for that too) from the zombies and anything else that came out. Meanwhile, Kohaku and Dries would go with Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, Sands, and Doug to find the actual vault.

Shiori, Vanessa, and Sands were obviously more than a little hesitant to leave their siblings behind, but it was the best way. And there wasn’t time for more discussion, as the zombies kept pouring in, their appearances already starting to come faster and with more numbers. There was no telling which door they would come through next, and what had once been one or two was starting to be four or five per door. Sean didn’t want to think about what would happen if they all came at once.

When. When they all came at once.

Everyone wanted to say more, but there wasn’t time. Gaia and the rest could only keep their people busy for so long in there. Not to mention how long it might be before someone noticed something wrong in here. Every second that passed… they didn’t have time.

Killing several more zombies that had appeared to clear a path, Kohaku led her group on a sprint to the freight elevator. Then they were gone, descending deep underground to find the vault. Hopefully before Sean and the others were overrun.

“Okay,” Professor Tangle murmured while looking to the small group. “Don’t break ranks. Don’t let the zombies get past you. Stand together, shoot them as they approach. Watch for groups to cluster, and make sure they’re dead. Don’t let crawling ones take you by surprise. And… I know I haven’t really had a chance to be your teacher this year, but I want you guys to know that I’m really proud of everything you’ve managed to do so far. You’re–you’re pretty amazing.”

With VJ flying over his shoulder and Vulcan in his gun form in both hands, Sean set himself. He glanced to Scout and Tristan to his right, then Columbus to his left before replying. “Don’t worry, Professor. You might not have been there for any of our classes…

“But this is definitely a kick-ass field trip.”

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Interim Incursion 43-02 (Sands)

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As the shooting started, Sands had already tapped her mace against the floor to register that reinforced material. Then she swung it up, creating a wall out of that same material in front of herself and her sister. The building was designed to be almost impregnable through force. That included damaging the interior, such as cutting up through the floor. Which was coming in handy now, and would again in a few minutes. Once it was time.

Beside her, Scout snapped her rifle up and aimed at one of her scope-portals before pulling the trigger twice quickly. Sands wasn’t sure what her sister was aiming for, but there was a yelp of pain barely audible over the onslaught of gunfire. She kept that up for a moment, taking careful, pointed shots. The enemies they were facing weren’t going to go down that easily. They all had protection. Some weren’t even hurt that much by the bullets. But it still kept them busy. And helped distract them from the bigger threat. Namely, the adults.

On Sands’ other side, Doug appeared, putting his back against the wall she had created. He had a spear in one hand and shield in the other. “Your mom took that forcefield down pretty quick,” he remarked while clearly catching his breath. There was blood on his spear and dents in the shield.

Sands nodded. “There was no point to keeping it up. We need to fight these guys. Maintaining the shield would just drain her, and sitting here behind a forcefield isn’t the point. The point is to fight.”

“Kinda seems like you disagree with that,” the boy pointed out while nodding to the wall they were behind.

Sands grinned at him while raising the mace to make the wall as tall as she could. “Not exactly,” she replied before looking to Scout. “Ready?”

The other girl nodded, and Sands pivoted to face the wall. She made a sweeping motion with her mace. Because Sands, like others, had been upgrading her weapon over the year. Namely, she could now control portions of the structures that she created with her mace.

The wall, which she had added long, jagged spikes to all along the front, immediately began to tip forward as Sands removed part of the bottom front and directed the whole thing with her mace. With a terrifying crash, it collapsed toward the ground. The thing was tall enough that it reached all the way to the nearest wall, forcing any of the enemies who had been in front of it to scatter toward either side.

And the girls were ready. Scout already had portals set up along one side, creating a shooting gallery that she was able to flood with bullets without bothering to aim.

Sands, meanwhile, cut around the other side of the fallen wall. Her mace swung hard, colliding with the man who had just managed to dive out from under the collapsing structure. Even at full strength, which for her was pretty impressive, the mace barely seemed to do anything. It glanced off the man’s back as if she had hit a brick wall without any enhanced strength.

Sands swung again, a backhand strike with her mace. But the possessed Heretic was too fast for that. His hand snapped out, catching the edge of her weapon before his foot collided with her stomach.

His foot broke. Because, as tough as the man might’ve been, Sands was standing still in that second. And as long as she stood still, she was basically invulnerable. All of the force that the man put into his attack went right back into his leg as it met the immovable object.

With a quick gesture, Sands made a very small section of floor rise up under the staggering man’s good foot. It was barely an inch high. Then she immediately made a pulling motion that yanked the floor bit toward herself. The man was hauled completely off that remaining foot and began to stumble, even as Sands spun to bring her weapon around into a full roundhouse swing with both hands.

Even then, the man was too quick. He suddenly shrank down, dropping to about a third of his normal height so that her mace completely missed, whiffing over his head. Returning to his normal height as he pivoted, the man planted his suddenly healed foot down solidly. It had repaired itself that quickly. His hand snapped out, stopping just in front of Sands’ face before the man conjured some kind of blindingly bright flash centered right in front of her eyes. She stumbled with a yelp as she was briefly blinded, losing the invulnerability that staying still offered. Which was the opening that the man had been looking for, his fist lashing out toward her face while a gleaming metal blade slid out from his knuckles. Sands couldn’t see it, but she heard the blade appear, and felt as it cut right across the side of her face when her head jerked desperately to the side at the last instant.

Bullets tore into the man then, striking from several different angles. Scout, coming to her aid. Still not enough to kill him, but they stung and made him stagger back a step. Which bought Sands a brief opening, and she took advantage of by shifting directly into her two-dimensional shadow shape, hugging the floor like a puddle of darkness.

Using that insubstantial shadow form, Sands ‘swam’ up the man’s legs and over his back before reforming herself there to wrap up her mace around his throat tightly from behind.

He didn’t exactly go down. The man’s hand reached back to grab onto her, but before he could, Doug was there. He drove his spear into the distracted man’s hand. The blade broke against the skin, but the impact was enough to draw his attention that way just as Doug slammed his shield into the guy’s face.

Sands’ vision had come back by then, just in time for her to make that out. It was also in time for her to see the man snap his hand up, that blade that had extended from his knuckles cutting through Doug’s shoulder.

Choking him wasn’t working. The man clearly didn’t need air. Or at least not enough to matter in the short term. Instead, Sands released the man and swung her weapon one way, then the other, conjuring two quick marble pillars that wrapped around his arms to hold him in place. For a moment, anyway. With her other hand, she threw something into the air.

As expected, the man shrank once more to free himself easily from the pillars that held his arms. Which was when a shadow appeared over his head. His gaze snapped up, just in time to see Sands’ theriangelos rhino, conjured from the bit of prepared wood that she had just tossed into the air.

The man made a tiny noise in the back of his throat, already starting to dive out of the way. He was, after all, possessed by a Seosten, who boosted him to escape.

But two quick bullets from Scout caught his face, even as Doug’s hands lashed out, sending two metal coils from his palms that wrapped around the man to hold him. A new power that he’d picked up from the hospital trip. It was kind of gross, actually, seeing metal coils emerge from his palms. Columbus and Shiori kept calling him Scorpion for some reason.

The rhino fell, slamming into the man from above while he was held by those chains. And as tough as he may have been, that wasn’t something he could just shrug off. As the rhino straightened up under Sands’ command, the possessed man lay unconscious at its feet.

Which, of course, still left the actual Seosten. A glowing figure appeared, quickly resolving into a beautiful dark-haired female form. The so-called angel acted instantly, turning into a blur that kicked the feet out from under Doug, caught him by the arm, and threw him into Sands. She was even quick enough to dodge to the side just as another bullet from Scout tore through the air right where her head had been. She pivoted, her hand lashing out while she activated some kind of spell that brought five little marbles to her palm, throwing them. The tiny metal balls flew, correcting their course to collide with the sniper-girl in the distance before exploding in bursts of flame and made the girl yelp while falling over. Her rifle clattered to the floor.

“Scout!” Sands blurted before scrambling out from under Doug and to her feet. “Throw me at the bitch, then get ready to grab her,” she blurted to the boy beside her while grabbing onto his damaged shield. With a thought, she possessed it.

He did. Like that Captain America guy that Columbus kept talking about, Doug hurled his shield at the Seosten woman. As it spun through the air, Sands waited until the last second, just before the woman’s hand snapped out to catch it. Then she dove out of the thing, hitting the marble floor to slide between the woman’s legs and out the other side. In the process, Sands made a last second gesture with her mace, sending a thin pillar up. The pillar crashed into the shield as the Seosten woman held it horizontally in front of herself, slamming the thing up into her face.

As she slid between the woman’s legs, Sands popped back to her feet on the other side, already spinning to slam her mace into the back of her head. But the Seosten was still too quick. Even stunned by the shield to the face, she spun to catch the incoming mace with one hand. She yanked the thing from Sands’ grip, tossing it aside just as Doug’s chains caught both her wrists from behind. Her arms were yanked to either side, but the woman simply glowered briefly before giving a hard yank. Doug was hauled off his feet and brought flying toward the woman, even as she used the resulting slack to pivot in place, bringing up her foot to kick the boy when he reached her.

But Sands was quicker that time. Her hand caught the woman’s shirt, possessing it just long enough to pop out the other side. Landing directly in front of the woman, she braced herself. Simultaneously, Doug crashed into her from the front, while the Seosten’s foot slammed into her back. Neither made a dent against her motionless invulnerability, Doug yelping as if he had hit a wall, while the Seosten’s foot snapped, just like her host’s had.

Sands tried to follow up from that by slamming her elbow back into the woman’s face. But despite her broken foot, the Seosten was still too fast. Her head snapped out of the way, before she caught the back of Sands’ neck and gave a hard shove, smashing the girl’s forehead into the still-recovering Doug’s face. The next thing Sands knew through the moment of being dazed, she was being yanked around before a fist found its way into her stomach. Then she was flipped to the ground. A coin landed on her chest, before the spell on it was activated to create some kind of metal cocoon/shell that covered most of her body aside from her head and feet, trapping her against the floor.  

Oh well, it wouldn’t hold her. Sands started to shift into her two-dimensional shadow form to escape. But in that instant, she was struck by some kind of electrical shock, drawing a cry from her and leaving her unable to focus. Dazed, her eyes blinked up just in time to see the Seosten ignite one of those laser sword things, which she started to drive down toward Sands’ exposed face before she could recover or even think of using any kind of power.

Doug was there. Clicking his pen, he made some kind of ball appear in his other hand, flinging it at the woman’s face just before it exploded into a flash of blinding light that made the Seosten recoil, her laser sword missing Sands.

Another click of his pen and another simple ball was thrown. This one burst into goop. As the Seosten threw a hand up to block her face, the goop covered her arm. It instantly hardened and began to spread over the rest of her body, completely encasing her arm, then her shoulder and over her chest. As it continued to spread, the Seosten woman cursed, yanking a field-engraver out before drawing something quickly on the rapidly-spreading stuff. It turned to dust then, freeing her. Her hand immediately launched another of those coins, which struck Doug in the chest and expanded into a metal cocoon similar to the one trapping Sands. This one kept him upright, but he was just as contained.  

An instant later, the woman clearly heard the heavy pounding of Sands’ now-charging rhino, just before the animal would have slammed into her. That Seosten speed kicked in, and she managed to twist aside enough to avoid being gored by the horn. But the massive beast still sent her crashing along the floor while her laser sword flew from her grasp. But she got back up just as quickly, muttering a couple words while throwing what looked like a one foot long rope at the rhino. As the enchanted rope struck the theriangelos, it apparently cancelled the spell, dropping the animal back into a simple wooden block.

Doug and Sands were both trapped, and every time Sands tried to use her shadow-form to escape, the cocoon shocked her. From the sound of things, the boy wasn’t having much better luck.

Then the sound of a gunshot filled the air, followed by several more in quick succession. The Seosten woman was struck several times. Unfortunately, the protective magic she clearly had meant that none of the shots were lethal. Still, they hurt enough to get her attention. Scout had clearly recovered.

Taking several painful shots from all sides, the woman hit something on her arm to throw up a forcefield around herself, before turning right toward one of the one of the random pillars in the room. Scout’s gun was barely visible as it fired yet again through one of its portals.

Evading that bullet despite the fact that it came through a portal behind her, the Seosten threw yet another enchanted coin that way. That time, the coin exploded into some kind of white light which disintegrated the pillar, leaving Scout… not exposed. The girl wasn’t there. Her rifle was, set up on a tripod and left to fire through an automated routine.

Realizing that in the same instant that Sands did, the Seosten woman spun… too late. Scout was there, having worked her way around behind her during that distraction. Using the solid-energy power that most of the team had picked up from the Tzentses to form a dagger, she slammed into the woman hard while driving it into her neck repeatedly, yanking it out and then driving it in again several times before they hit the ground together.

In the end, the woman was dead and Scout lay atop her body, her own exhausted panting cut off by the gasp of pleasure that came along with her pink aura.

“You guys okay?” Columbus was there, with Shiori and Sean. Vulcan was trotting alongside them, while Vulcan Junior flew overhead, sending out the occasional shot at an enemy.

“Little help?” Sands asked. “I can’t get out.”

Columbus and Shiori both used their metal-manipulation powers to tear the cocoon apart, freeing Sands before doing the same for Doug. By that point, Avalon (with Porthos riding on her shoulder), Vanessa, and Tristan had arrived, the boy picking up Scout’s gun along the way and tossing it to her. The nine teenagers were together once more, while sheer chaos surrounded them. The adults were still fighting in a furious tornado of violence and magic. Sands knew that both the Columbus, Shiori, and Sean trio and the Avalon, Vanessa, and Tristan trio had dealt with more than the single enemy that her group had. But the adults were in another league beyond even that. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. Most of the possessed Heretics and enemy Seosten weren’t paying any attention to them. They didn’t have the chance to.

Looking to Avalon, Sands started, “Think it’s time for the next–”

“Get down!” Her mother’s voice interrupted, as a new forcefield dome suddenly covered the nine of them. Sands saw her mom appear nearby, just outside of the field with her crystal weapon in one hand, shaped like a spear at the moment.

“It’s too dangerous here,” the woman sharply informed them. “Cover and turtle.”

“But Mo–” Sands started.

“Cover and turtle now!” her mother snapped, holding a hand out to conjure some kind of wooden spike, which she sent flying at an enemy.

With a heavy sigh, Sands focused on her mace, making a wide sweeping gesture. Another dome, this one made from the same material as the floor, rose up and over to cover them.

It was only dark for a second before everyone produced their own glowing rocks for light. Avalon and Columbus also held privacy coins that would ensure their words weren’t overheard by anyone who happened to have enhanced senses (and happened to somehow be paying attention through the fight).

“Yes,” Avalon dryly replied to Sands’ earlier question. “It’s time for the next part.”

The annoyance that Sands had pasted across her face when her mother had told them to turtle had already vanished, since she no longer had to put on a show. “Great, so that means–”

Again, she was interrupted. That time, it was by a sudden bright light as a portal appeared directly in front of them. Through the portal, they could see the area just outside the main building, behind the vans and safely shielded from view.

Without missing a beat, the group quickly moved through the portal, disappearing from the room with all the fighting going on. They emerged to find three figures standing there waiting for them: Dries, Professor Tangle, and Professor Kohaku. The latter two had worked their way to the vault after the vans drew everyone’s attention, before guarding Dries as the man had worked over the past few minutes to make a brief hole in the security that kept people from teleporting out of the main building.

Now Avalon and the others were out, while everyone inside believed they were trapped under that dome and simply hiding through the fight. A fight which was really nothing more than an elaborate distraction, drawing everyone in to deal with the flashy spectacle of Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Larissa, and several other Seosten.

“Everyone make it?” Professor Kohaku asked, casting her gaze over them briefly as though doing a headcount before nodding to herself. “Great, sounds like Gaia and the others have everyone’s attention in there.

“Let’s go open that vault.”

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Interim Incursion 43-01 (Columbus)

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To be honest, Columbus was pretty sick of the Seosten Empire at this point.

Everything he learned about them, everything he heard from others about their monstrous actions in their war against the Fomorians, all the lows they were willing or eager to sink to, all of it just made him want to find the people in charge of their society and beat them until he couldn’t swing his fists anymore.

But that was the problem. He couldn’t do that, or it just wouldn’t accomplish anything. They were so far outside his league that he might as well have been a fly dreaming about uppercutting a human being. Their leadership, the ones actually responsible for all of this, were untouchable.

At least… directly. But he could screw with their plans. He could be a fly that buzzed in their ear at the right moment and ruined what they were trying to do. Even if he couldn’t take them on directly, he could hurt them. He could help fuck over those sadistic, enslaving bastards with every breath he had.

That was why he had to be a part of this. A mission that would stop the Seosten from enslaving Heretics here on Earth? Yes. Yes, he was all over that. If the headmistress or other adults had tried to keep them out of it… he didn’t know what he would have done, but he definitely would not have sat out and done nothing. The Seosten had been fucking with him and people he cared about for too long, to say nothing of how long they had been fucking with the human race in general. Columbus was going to help kick them in the collective balls, come hell or high water.

“Hey.” Shiori’s voice pulled him out of his introspection. “You okay?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around. They were sitting in the back of a van. They, in this case, referred to himself, his sister, and Avalon, Doug, Sean, Sands, and Scout. The rest of his team aside from Flick. In the front of the van, Larissa was driving, with Haiden beside her.

“Am I okay?” he echoed while turning his gaze back to Shiori. “It’s a chance to fuck over the Seosten. Yeah, I’m good.”

Sean, sitting in the seat behind them, leaned up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Damn straight. We’re going to teach these caremondas that their puppets don’t like having their strings pulled anymore.”

From his place beside Sean, Doug murmured, “I just hope we get there soon. I really can’t take much more of this waiting.”

They had to drive to the vault’s location because Crossroads did not allow any special transportation anywhere near it. No teleportation, no superspeed, no portals, nothing. They had the whole place locked down tight. Not only that, there was some kind of special spatial affect around it that made traveling to the vault physically several times longer than it should be. That allowed the people inside plenty of time to see who was coming and prepare if there was trouble. They had to travel along a deceptively simple looking dirt road for miles and miles just to get there.

From the driver’s seat, Larissa apparently heard Doug, because she called back, “Five minutes, guys. We’re almost there.”

Five minutes. They would be there in five minutes. Taking a breath, Columbus turned to look behind them. The second van was coming along right on their heels. Gaia and Dare sat in the front of that one, the latter driving. Sariel was in the back, along with Apollo, Dries Aken, and a handful of the freed Seosten who had agreed to come with and help.

Dries hadn’t been any more comfortable being around all those Seosten than Columbus would have been. But he was still working with Apollo and Sariel to discuss various things they might be able to do to change Liesje’s spell once they got hold of it. If they got hold of it. As well as discussing what defenses she might have put on it in addition to what was provided by the vault. Given their dramatically shortened timetable thanks to the Seosten making their move early, everyone was scrambling to be ready.

The rear van would also appear to be much emptier than it actually was, as far as the vault’s security was concerned. Apparently, just like Crossroads itself, the automated part of the security, the spells and technology that let the staff know who and how many were approaching, were blind to Seosten unless they chose to be seen. It was the same weakness, built into their society from the ground up, that had allowed Charmiene to wander freely through the school grounds without alerting anything.

They wouldn’t be invisible to actual people once they left the van, but that wouldn’t be a problem by that point.

Looking toward Avalon then, he saw the distracted look on her face. She was clearly busy worrying about what was going on with Flick. Just like Shiori, who was occupying herself by asking how he was doing.

“Hey,” Columbus spoke up toward Avalon, “you ready to see what your ancestor left for you?” An incredibly blatant and obvious attempted to draw her attention away from worrying about her girlfriend, of course. But obvious was all Columbus had at that point.

The girl took a moment, letting out a long breath while pushing a strand of dark hair back behind her ear with a thumb. “I just want to get this over with. Those assholes have been hunting my family for literally generations. They killed my mother. They… this needs to end.” Her voice was strained, making it perfectly clear just how much this was affecting her. As if it hadn’t been just from the look in her eyes.

“It will.” That was Scout, speaking up quietly from her place beside her sister. “We’re ending it.”

Sands nodded. “And Flick’ll be okay. She’s with Athena, remember?”

“Actually,” Columbus put in, “that reminds me, at what point do the Seosten leaders ask themselves why both the Olympian who embodies strategy and tactics and the one most associated with seeing the future decided the best way to beat the Fomorians was to change their entire society through civil war?”

Doug muttered, “I’m pretty sure if the Seosten leaders were capable of asking themselves introspective questions like that, Earth would’ve been cordially invited to join the Seosten Interstellar Alliance of Planets two and a half thousand years ago.”

The van pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a simple farm. But from the extensive briefings they’d been given, Columbus knew better. The farmhouse itself was where the lobby and offices of the vaults were. They had to go there first to check in and be taken through security procedures to ensure that they were who they said they were. The nearby barn held all the heavy duty equipment that would be brought out if anyone tried to take the vaults by force. Not every vault under their control was a blood vault. Those were extremely specialized and rare. There were many items under their protection that relied on ‘normal’ security measures.

As Columbus understood it, most of the vaults, blood or otherwise, weren’t even actually located anywhere near this place. It was just that the only entrances to get to them, through continually active portals of sorts, were kept here. The vaults themselves could be anywhere in the world, normally heavily buried and protected by a myriad of spells. Or even in their own little pocket dimension.

The way to those vault entrances was through the grain silo. It was an elevator of sorts, according to Gaia and Larissa. Once they were cleared by the staff in the house, they would be taken to the silo.

The other van pulled in behind them, and Columbus started to get out with the others. He glanced over to Shiori, hesitating. Even just glancing at her now, months after he had been freed, the boy couldn’t get Charmiene’s threats out of his head. Everything she had promised to do to hurt his sister. Everything she would have done, given half an excuse, still haunted him. He couldn’t stop hearing her voice. He woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and had to get up just to prove to himself that he could. Sean had woken up more than once to find Columbus slapping himself, using the pain and the motion of his arm to convince himself that he was still in control.

Talking to Klassin Roe helped, but the nightmares were nowhere near going away. Maybe this right here would help. Maybe fucking over the Seosten this much would give him some kind of closure.

Shiori had clearly noticed him looking, because if she met his gaze and managed a slight smile despite her obvious worry. “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing right now?”

“Hiking,” Columbus immediately replied. “They’re definitely hiking. And Mom is taking pictures while Dad complains that she’s already got hundreds of them. Mom will see some bird or something that she wants that perfect picture of, so they’ll go wandering off the trail. But it’s okay because they’ve been all over that place so much they know it better than the rangers. They’ll wander out there. Dad’ll complain but he’ll go anyway because he can never really tell her no. He’ll make a big show of it and pretend to be lost. But then he’ll lead her to some picnic spot he set up ahead of time.”

He paused then, head tilting. “Mom and Dad are kind of dorks, aren’t they?“

Snorting, Shiori retorted, “Duh, have you met us?” Her smile was more genuine then. “I helped him set up picnics sometimes.”

Columbus grinned back at her despite himself. “I helped Mom decide what exotic bird she’d pretend to see as an excuse to go off the trail. I’m pretty sure Dad caught on when we started using South American birds.”

The others had climbed out by that point. Everyone from their van was stretching in the parking lot. But from the other van, only Gaia and Dare emerged. The Seosten, still invisible to any detection magic, stayed in the vehicle. And Apollo had ensured that no one glancing that way from outside the van would see anything amiss.

Cracking her knuckles, Professor Dare waved a hand, calling, “Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road.”

Rather than immediately start in with the others, Columbus hesitated a moment, scanning their faces. He wanted to see if he could notice when it happened. Because those words had been a signal for the Seosten in the van. Immediately, they would have recalled to Gaia, Dare, Doug, Sands, Scout, and Sean, having possessed them earlier just to make this possible.

Shiori and Avalon could not be possessed, and Columbus, for obvious reasons, had chosen not to. So it was simply those four who now had an extra passenger.

They could have simply been possessing them the entire time, of course. But for obvious reasons, everyone was more comfortable being possessed for as short of a time as possible. Besides, though it was mainly a Dries/Sariel/Apollo project, the other Seosten still wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to fix the spell when they found it. After all, it affected their people.

But even knowing it was about to happen, and watching for it, he still couldn’t tell exactly when his teammates were possessed. Which somehow made him feel even worse about the whole situation even though the obvious point was that they weren’t actually exerting any control, thus there was nothing to see.

With a soft sigh then, he followed the others toward the house. Dries would be waiting in the van while using some kind of magic to make himself as invisible to detection spells as the latter. Between that and Apollo’s magic on the van itself to thwart anyone glancing through the windows, they would be safe there until things went down.

Two elderly men, guards apparently, sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. As the group approached, one of the men spoke up. “Headmistress.”

“Chauncey,” Gaia greeted him with a smile. “How are Emma and Diane?”

The man shrugged. “Emma’s chomping at the bit to head to your school next year. And Diane’s preparing a dissertation on how she should be allowed to attend too, because she’s totally at least three years more advanced for her age.” Eying the woman, he added a sly, “What do you say? You want a precocious and motivated fourteen-year-old next year to shake things up?”

Chuckling softly, Gaia informed the man that things were already quite shaken enough without help. The man expressed mock disappointment before saying something to his partner. Then he stood up and moved to the door. “Come on,” he started easily, “I’ll take you through. Using a little student help to clear out one of your old vaults? Extra credit project?”

On the way, Columbus couldn’t help but wonder what Flick was doing right then. Was she in that hotel yet? How long would they have to wait? And just how long would they be able to stop the group there from breaking into the vault through the supposed back door? Would they be enough? All those questions and more kept rebounding through his mind. And a glance toward the others made it pretty clear that they were in the same position.

The door into the ‘farmhouse’ didn’t lead into anything resembling what it appeared to from the outside. Instead, Columbus and the others found themselves standing in what actually looked like a fairly modern bank lobby. The floor was marble, while the room itself stretched out several times larger than the entire building should have been. There were various pillars leading to a wide domed roof with stained glass windows, a security station straight ahead with a handful of armed and armored soldier-like figures standing beside what looked like metal detectors, and a wider area beyond where the bank personnel were all working with various clients at desks separated by privacy shields. At the far end of the wide open room was an alcove that reached all the way to the ceiling, with an enormous statue of Hieronymus Bosch.

Yeah, Columbus was pretty sure it was a good thing Dries had stayed out in the van. Even now, every adult Heretic likely knew what the man who killed Bosch looked like. And they might object to him coming into their bank.

The ‘farmer’ who walked them in stopped by the security checkpoint desk, as he and the guards there took a minute to chat casually with Gaia. One of them even recognized Larissa and came around to embrace her tightly, going on about how much she’d helped his son back when she’d had Peterson Neal’s current job as Head of Student Affairs. The man made her promise to visit that son and his new wife at some point before turning back to the rest of them.

“Okay, let’s get you all on through here. Everyone needs to move through the checkpoint. I hope you don’t have any weapons or unauthorized magic on you, because that’ll set off the machine. It’s going to give us a list of every bit of active magic. So no weapons, no unnecessary spells, no extradimensional containers that might have weapons on them…”

“It’s quite alright,” Gaia assured the man, stepping through the machine and out the other side first with no apparent issue. “They are all well prepared for this step.”

It was true. Everyone moved through the detector without setting it off. Even Sean didn’t have Vulcan with him for once. Nor did Avalon have her new little lizard, Porthos. Columbus wasn’t even allowed to wear his goggles into the building. But all of them were… well, close.

Once they passed through the detectors, a man in an extremely old-fashioned suit with ancient-looking bifocals and an actual white powdered wig approached. “Headmistress,” he began in a voice that sounded like he was literally talking through his nose, “So very good to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’ll begin the procedure to grant access to your vaults.”

With a smile, Gaia simply replied, “I’m afraid it’s not my vaults we’ll be visiting today, Fenwick. We’ll need to access my daughter’s vault.”

Blinking twice, the man turned his head that way. “Daughter’s vault? I wasn’t aware that Miss–ahh… that your daughter had a vault with us.”

“Liesje Aken’s vault,” Gaia informed him, like she was just giving him the name of a soup brand.

That made Fenwick do a quick double-take, mouth opening. “Ah, I’m sorry? I mean… I’d heard the rumors of course, but I– if you’re saying the girl is truly… if…” He paused, clearly taking a moment to find the right words. “It will all need to be verified, of course.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied dryly, “fortunately, our blood vaults come with a very simple method of identity verification which should make that quite simple.”

Giving a soft cough, the man bowed his head. “Of course. Let us see what–” In mid-sentence, he was interrupted by an annoying buzzer. It blared loudly, followed by a series of loud clanging sounds as a series of thick metal shields descended across every door in the room, as well as the stained glass windows above. In seconds, the entire room was cut off. The rest of the staff and customers were looking around in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, their mutterings getting louder.

Fenwick cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with the security system lately. It keeps triggering the lockdown. We thought we had it fixed, but… well, I’m afraid we might be here for a little while until they sort out the new problem.”

From where he was standing by Larissa, Haiden remarked, “Sounds like you need some new engineers.”

Gaia, meanwhile, calmly asked, “Would you like some help with that?”

“Well, sure,” Fenwick quickly answered. “Of course, you probably won’t be able to do anything. The shields are spelled to be protected, and the control boxes for them are secreted in random pocket dimensions, far outside the reach of any kind of tech manipulation. Not to mention the spells and shields protecting them from influence. I’m afraid it’s quite impossi–”

That was as far as the man got before all the shields over the doors and windows abruptly retracted at once.

“I took the liberty of permanently disabling them,” Gaia informed the man casually. “That seemed the most prudent course, until you’re able to send people in to diagnose the problem.” She gave a very slight smile then. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, we should.” The answer came not from Fenwick in front of them, but from behind them, near the security station. As Columbus and the others turned, they found that Chauncey guy, the ‘farmer’ from the front porch who had walked them in. Now, the man was standing with some kind of massive harpoon gun leveled at them. Beside him, every security officer they’d passed was doing the same with their own weapons.

Almost in unison, everyone else in the bank leveled weapons at the group. Fenwick, the other employees, even the supposed customers. All of them, without fail or hesitation, drew arms and moved to surround them.

“You just couldn’t wait one more day, could you?” Chauncey complained. “One more day and then we all could’ve moved on from these hosts and no one would’ve been hurt.”

Seosten. All of them were possessed. Every last person in the bank, each a Heretic, was being puppeted. The whole thing was a trap.

Boy, if that had been a surprise, it probably would’ve been a bad one.

A forcefield appeared around them. Not part of the trap. It was Larissa, projecting the shield in a dome.

“Let me tell you how this is gonna go,” Chauncey, or the Seosten controlling him, continued. “First.” He snapped his fingers, and Columbus’s attention was instantly drawn to the nearby wall, where some kind of turret or cannon appeared. The thing sighted in at them with a threatening high-pitched whine of power, before just as quickly falling silent.

An instant later, it disappeared, only to be replaced by a different cannon that appeared at a different part of the wall. It too powered up to shoot before going quiet. Then three appeared at once, in different parts of the room. Then a single one directly above them. Then four together.

“Yeah, that’s gonna keep going,” Chauncey informed them. “Gaia there, she’s disabling these things the second they appear. But here’s the trick. They’re gonna keep coming. Every second or two, sometimes more than one. Maybe a dozen at once. Maybe just one. But they’ll keep transporting in, and if you give them even an instant to get a shot off, well… then you’ll be leaving with less people than you came in with, I’ll tell you that much. Those are capital ship-tier cannons, which will treat that cute little forcefield like tissue paper. If the headmistress lets herself get distracted even for a moment to do anything other than disabling those things…” He made a face. “It won’t be pretty.

“So, she’s a little busy right now. Which leaves all of you…” He looked to Columbus, Shiori, Scout, Sands, Sean, Doug, Avalon, Haiden, and Larissa. Then he looked around the room at the much larger group surrounding them. “And all of us. While you don’t even have your weapons. Such a pity.”

To Gaia, the possessed man slyly remarked, “See, you shouldn’t have come in here with a bunch of students. I mean, you’re a bit busy right now to be doing anything else, and we’ll get through that forcefield in a few seconds. Or we can just wait for you to miss one of the turrets. Really, what were you thinking?”

Disabling seven turrets at once as they transported in, Gaia answered the man absently, “I am a teacher at heart. I like to think of everyone as my students. For example, consider this a lesson.”

A being of energy appeared beside the woman, resolving into Sariel. That was followed immediately by the appearance of Apollo, who stepped out of Sean. The man was holding a bag, which he opened up to allow Vulcan to hop out and join his partner. Four more Seosten were right behind him, emerging from Dare, Doug, Scout, and Sands. Each held the weapons that belonged to their respective host, and handed them over as soon as they appeared.

From Haiden and Larissa respectively, Tristan and Vanessa appeared. Both of them held their respective host’s weapons, which they passed along as well. Vanessa followed that up by tossing Columbus’ goggles to him, while Tristan produced Avalon’s gauntlets and Porthos for the girl.

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Then they were all just as armed as the ones who surrounded them, while having added considerably to their numbers.

“Man,” Doug put in, “you guys are not used to people using your own tricks against you.”

Apollo snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”

“It… it doesn’t matter,” Chauncey retorted, though he seemed somewhat shaken. “You think this is the only people we brought to deal with you, witch? We brought an entire army. Hundreds, just to turn you people into so many smears on the ground.” His hand touched the communication badge on his pocket, and he announced, “Send in the rest of the troops. We’re ending this.”

There was a brief, expectant pause. Then, “What do you mean busy? What attack? Who–Gabriel Prosser’s–”

He stopped talking then, slowly lifting his gaze to look at Gaia.

“That,” the headmistress informed him while disabling another six turrets that popped into existence, “is another lesson.”

“You know,” Apollo remarked, “we will respect any one of you who wants to surrender right now.”

Instead, Chauncey leveled that harpoon gun. “Raise turret generation speed by five hundred percent.”

Instantly, the cannons began appearing much faster and with more at once. Dozens were popping into existence all over the room, generating as fast as Gaia could disable them. Each capable of punching a hole through a starship, and each only prevented from doing so by Gaia’s power.

“She’ll lose track,” Chauncey all-but snarled. “She’ll miss one. In the meantime, the rest of you… open fire,” he snapped. “Break the shield and kill them.

“Hope you guys are ready!” Haiden called, even as the gunfire started.

“Cuz here we go.”

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Before The Vault 41-03

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“So,” I started once the silence in the small chamber had dragged on for over a minute, “you guys come here often?”

Well, at least I had united them in one thing. Neither of them thought that was funny. Both simply stared in a way that made me see the similarity in them despite their clear differences. It was in their eyes, mostly. And the way they set their mouths. Which was almost funny, since they basically couldn’t have been more dissimilar in almost every other way.

But they were at least looking at me, even if it was in disbelief at my bad joke. I seized on that, starting with, “Avalon doesn’t really know anything about her family, except that her mom moved a lot and kept changing her name. I mean, aside from the well documented fact that her dad is–I mean was– a complete and total piece of shit. I feel like that should be written into the universal record somewhere. Can his death be an intergalactic holiday? Who do we talk to for that?”

Actually, given the deaths of Ammon and Manakel both somewhat recently, we might’ve needed to set aside a whole week for this.

Dries was shifting back-and-forth awkwardly on his feet, kicking at the ground a bit. His left arm was held tight against his stomach, while his right hand scratched at his beard self-consciously. When he spoke, it was without looking at either of us. “Liesje would have gone on the run after what happened. She would have hidden. She probably taught her descendants.” After a brief moment, he amended that to, “Our descendants.”

Avalon spoke up for the first time, sounding more hesitant than usual. “Maybe… maybe you could figure out where she went the first time and we could track her path. She might’ve left something somewhere along the way for you in case you ever made it back. Like a history or…” She trailed off, shaking her head as though she was halfway to just giving up on that thought right out of the gate. “I don’t know.”

I seized on that quickly. “No, no, that’s a good idea. It’d give you guys something to do over the summer. You know, in case the world actually doesn’t explode or anything in the meantime. Which, given the past few months, I am definitely not leaving that off the table.”

Avalon was quiet for a moment before simply reminding me, “We have another project to focus on before that.”

Dries nodded, scratching his beard even harder, to the point that I thought he might draw blood from his chin. “You want me to change Liesje’s spell.” He was looking at me. “You want me to make it different.”

It was Avalon who replied. “There are good Seosten, and they shouldn’t be banished from human hosts forever. We were hoping that the spell could be changed so that it only affects Seosten who don’t have permission from the host.”

I nodded. “It’s complicated, but if anyone could pull it off, I’m pretty sure it’s you. And you’ll have help. Like my brother. He’s pretty much a genius with magic. And from Sariel. She’s—”

“Artemis,” he interrupted while shifting his hand from scratching his beard to rubbing the top of his head. “Yes, I know. She’s um, she’s…” He trailed off, tapping his index finger repeatedly and fairly roughly against the side of his head. “I know who she is.”

Swallowing hard, I hesitated, glancing toward Avalon before starting. “I know the Seosten… as a whole have done terrible things to you and your family. I mean… I have enough problems with necromancy just because of Fossor that I kind of… I can’t possibly understand, but I have some vague idea of what you’re feeling. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry we’re asking you to push past that to help people that you have no reason to help.”

“Hundreds of years,” he replied, his voice hollow as he covered half his face with one hand, using the other to pull at his own hair in a way that seemed painful. “They locked me up for hundreds of years. Took me from my family. Put my wife on the run. Ruined… ruined… everything. The world. Ruined the world. Destroyed our lives. Tried to kill them. Tried to kill my–my–” He gestured to Avalon. “My descendants. Our… our legacy, our everything. And no one stopped them. None of them. None of the Seosten stopped them, stopped it.”

Before I could say anything to that, Avalon spoke up. “Athena, Apollo, Sariel, they’ve all been rebelling against their people. But you can’t change an entire society just like that. Look at Athena’s people, her rebellion. They’re not like the other Seosten. If you’re going to judge an entire society like that, you have to judge Heretics the same way. We kill innocent people because our leaders say they’re bad. Seosten and Heretics aren’t that different, that way.”

It was a good point, but Dries had a good one of his own. “Heretics are that way because of Seosten. More Seosten problems. More Seosten tricks. That’s a–a–” He stopped, head shaking as a slight groan escaped him as though he couldn’t think of the word. “–a fault with them. Them again. Always them. They hurt, they kill, they enslave. Always enslave. Always. And now you want to make deals with them, want to play nice with them.”

“You’re right,” I put in quickly. “But that’s kind of the point. You wouldn’t blame all Heretics because of what the Seosten leadership has made them believe, so it’s not fair to blame all Seosten for the same thing. That and… and they’ve been fighting the Fomorians for so long, a lot of them have basically lost all perspective. They only care about winning, about surviving.”

Beside me, Avalon nodded. “We don’t want you to make it so that they can possess everyone still. Just… allowing permission for those that aren’t mind-bogglingly evil.”

It looked like it physically hurt Dries to argue, but the man still hesitantly demanded, “And… and if they’re tricked? Humans can be–be manipulated. They can be tricked to allow possession. Believe me, I’ve seen it, seen all of it. Seosten don’t have to possess people to control them.”

I winced. “Right, you’re… you’re right, there are humans who could be tricked into allowing themselves to be possessed. It’s not a perfect solution. But neither is preventing all possession forever. My–Tabbris, my little sister. She’s my little sister, and she’s a Seosten. She possesses me to protect me, to fight alongside me. If I didn’t have her, I would’ve been dead a thousand times over by now. If Sariel hadn’t been possessing her husband back at the Family Day dinner, she wouldn’t have been able to give the counterspell for Fossor’s poison to her husband and Gaia. Which would’ve meant that Vanessa and Avalon wouldn’t have been with me when I faced Ammon. So Abigail would probably be dead. Not to mention… not to mention everything else that could’ve gone horrifically wrong there. Maybe Koren would be with Fossor right now.”

Dries looked even more torn by that, shrinking back physically as he used both hands to cover his face that time. He was like a tiny kid who was trying to hide and thought he could do so just by covering his eyes. He stayed that way for a few long seconds, muttering indecipherable words under his breath before finally straightening. He looked to us, taking a clear breath to steady himself before speaking again. “You have clearer heads. I hate them. But I know I–I…” He tapped his chest roughly, almost smacking himself. “I know I don’t think straight. I can’t trust them, any of them. I don’t. I won’t. But I–I can trust you. If you say it’s right, if you ask for it, I will–I will–” He rolled his head around almost like he was trying to crack his neck. “I will do it. If you ask. For you. Not for them. I’ll help for you.” He was staring at Avalon. “I’ll make the spell if you want.”

After exchanging a brief glance with me, Avalon looked back to the man and gave a short nod. Her hand moved up to touch his shoulder, which was honestly a pretty huge gesture from the girl. “I really think it’s the best plan,” she confirmed softly, sounding like she wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure how or what exactly to say. “I… I know they hurt  you. They hurt me too. They killed my mother. But Felicity is right, there are good ones. We need to encourage the good ones. We need to give them the advantage, which this… this will do. I know you’re not wrong, there could be–will be Seosten who manipulate humans into allowing themselves to be possessed. But for the… for the most part, it’ll be an improvement.”

For my part, I tried not to think about how this would play into what Jophiel and Elisabet wanted. They’d visited me again, a couple times in the past few days. First it was to check on me after that whole incident and to get the full story for themselves. They were apparently running interference to keep the Committee from noticing that there was anything different about my situation during the Family Day attack. Which was made easier by just how chaotic everything had been. So they were helping with that, as subtly as possible.

But they’d also wanted to talk about this situation right here, had wanted to talk about how this was going to go. They knew that Dries was coming back, and that we were going to ask him to alter the spell. That was why they weren’t going nuts in trying to stop us from getting that spell working in the first place. They’d said they wouldn’t help us get into the vault, but nor would they force us to sabotage it ourselves. So long as the plan was to allow Seosten to possess humans with permission, it fit in just fine with their plans. Which made me feel a little bit queasy inside, for reasons I couldn’t adequately explain even to myself. Maybe it was just that getting them what they wanted felt wrong even if there were plenty of reasons besides that for this to be the right choice.

I still didn’t trust them entirely, even though they’d been helpful. Regardless, they were still making us lie to others, to people we cared about. And yes, they had reasons to protect themselves, but… still. The people we trusted were keeping secrets just as important and potentially life-destroying. There was a part of me who resented that they were making me lie.

But hey, at least I didn’t have to tell them everything. What they had really wanted to know was whether I knew exactly what had caused the… visions in the sky and all those not-so-natural disasters around the world. But thanks to the specifics of the spell, I could tell them that I had no idea, and they didn’t know I was lying. Well, maybe they suspected that I knew more than I was saying, but it wasn’t enough for them to call me on it. Which was good, because I honestly had no idea what I would’ve been able to do if they had pressed. Would telling them that it would endanger the world have been enough to make them back off? Or would that in itself give them enough information to damage the–damn it, this was so complicated.

Realizing the other two were looking at me, I shook off those thoughts and focused. “Right, well, that’s probably enough of that talk for now. I mean, there’ll be plenty of time to talk about it later, before the… the trip. But come on, you guys just met. Let’s focus on something else for awhile. I mean, the Seosten have dominated every part of your lives for long enough on their own. They don’t need more help with that when you two have plenty of other things to talk about.”

Avalon gave me a brief look. “You really don’t want me to call your bluff on that, do you?”

“No, please don’t,” I quickly agreed, flushing a little. “I’m still trying to think of a good starting subject.”

In the end, however, it was Dries who spoke up. “I know that–that I’m not…” He hesitated, cracking his knuckles loudly before clearly forcing himself to continue against his own discomfort and fear. “I know I’m not the kind of ancestor or–or relative that you’d choose if you could. I know I’m… I have… um, the issues. I have many issues, many problems. I’d fix them if I could. They’re stupid and–and I know it’s the Seosten–they did it. They made me feel a lot of these things. I know they’re not real. The feelings, they’re not… they’re artificial, and I’ve gotten rid of a lot of them. But-but I can’t stop it. Can’t stop all of them. I can’t be the kind of ancestor that you want. I can’t be a–a umm, a big strong… a powerful–I can’t be a hero or anything. I–”

“Stop.” Avalon’s head was shaking quickly, as she almost glared at him before visibly correcting herself. “Just–don’t assume you know what I want, or the kind of person that I–” She hesitated, seeing the man flinch and shrink back. “I just–” She sighed, looking to me for help.

“What she’s trying to say is that she doesn’t need you to be something you’re not,” I quickly put in. “She doesn’t need some macho strong guy to come in and solve all her problems. She just needs you to be you. You’re her ancestor. You’re her family. Maybe you guys won’t always get along. Maybe it’ll take a long time for you to be comfortable with each other. But you’re you. That’s what she needs you to be. Yourself. Besides, if she was going to blame you for being awkward with people, she’d–”

“Okay, that’s enough, Chambers.” Avalon was flushing just a little bit, her foot kicking mine before she focused on Dries. “But she’s right… mostly. Just be yourself. Don’t assume you know what I want, or what I need. You want to get to know me, I… I’d like that too. Sort of. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want for sure, but… getting to know you might be nice.”

She shrugged. “And if it doesn’t work out with me, there’s always Tangle. I haven’t exchanged more than two words with her so far, but hey, maybe you two could get along.”

“Hey, she’s right,” I put in then, trying not to let things get even more awkward than they already were. “It’s not a real, full family reunion until Tangle gets involved. Which–which is kind of funny, you know, cuz it’s a tangled family reunion and her name is–” Seeing them both look at me, I flushed and stepped back. “Right, you guys are definitely related. See? I’m already bringing you closer together.”

Avalon actually smirked just a little bit. “She has a point. More than one, actually. We are related. And so is Tangle. You should visit her too, when… when you’re ready to. When she’s ready to talk to you. I don’t know how she’s feeling, or even what she thinks of any of this. Like I said, haven’t really talked to her.”

“Maybe we can–can-um, can visit her together.” Dries made the awkward suggestion while staring at his feet and mumbling. All of this, the whole introduction, being back here, seeing all these people, it was clearly overwhelming him. He was withdrawing just when he really didn’t want to. It was clear through the pain in his voice and in his eyes that he wanted to express himself, that he wanted to… to be there for Avalon and really make a connection. It was just hard for him. His hands shook, and he kept doing those little things like pinching himself, tugging his hair, scratching hard enough to draw blood, things like that.

It was just as clear that Avalon actually understood just how hard he was trying, and how difficult all this was for him. She hesitated a little before managing a slight nod. “Yeah, I… maybe going together would be good. I don’t know her, you don’t know her, we can be awkward together. Maybe it’ll be better that way.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but stopped herself.

“Right, together.” Dries was bobbing his head up and down quickly, almost violently. It was like he’d been desperate to agree with her. “Then if things don’t work out–if they uhh, if they go wrong and we don’t get along, then maybe… maybe we can talk. You and uh, me, we. We can talk.”

“I think we might need help if we’re going to give this thing with Tangle a shot,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Neither of us are very good at the family reunion thing. We need someone with experience. Someone who…” She trailed off, and both of them looked at each other before slowly turning their gazes my way.

Mouth opening and shutting, I flushed. “Okay, okay, I’ll go with you to meet Tangle. But seriously, you guys are doing just fine. I mean, given the circumstances, obviously. And I don’t know her any more than you do, so… maybe she’ll like you and hate me. I could make things worse.”

But it would give me a chance to talk to Kohaku some more, which I kind of wanted to do anyway.

Avalon rolled her eyes. “You should definitely be there, Chambers. You’re the only one with a family tree weirder than mine right now. I have one living direct relative I just met two minutes ago, one living indirect relative I’ve basically never spoken to, an adopted mother that I only really let myself actually get close to this year, a sort-of father figure who raised me, and a real father who, by the way, I killed. Mostly because he blamed me for the death of my real mother when I was born.”

Dryly, I replied, “Well, when you put it like that, your life sounds pretty fucked up.”

“It… it does.” That was Dries, his voice sounding pained. “And I… I did not… I didn’t follow a lot of it. Basics. I know the basics. But I would like to–to know more. Please. I’d like to hear your life. Your story. I want to know you.”

For a moment, Avalon just stared at him. I couldn’t begin to guess what was going through her mind. But in the end, she gave a tiny nod, her voice quiet. “Right… I… I can do that. I can tell you about myself, if you really want.”

When the man hurriedly (and awkwardly) agreed, she actually took my hand. From the way she was squeezing it so tightly, I knew this wasn’t going to be that fun for her to relive. At least the first part. I squeezed back, letting her know I was there for her.

“Okay. Well. I guess the best place to start is the night that my piece of shit father thought I stole one of his beers…”

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