Dries Aken

Gathering Force 33-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on Abigail posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“Are you mad at me?” I asked Larissa a few minutes later, while the others continued to digest and come to terms with what I had just told them (Haiden was having some kind of private discussion with Athena, while Jokai and Yup had their own conversation a few feet away).

The question made the woman pause, and she glanced over to where Tabbris was hesitantly and nervously answering questions from Jazz and Gordon (with Sands, Roxa, and Gidget standing protectively nearby). “For telling the truth?” Larissa’s voice was soft. “No, I’m not angry with you for telling the truth, Flick. I am… afraid of what kind of danger this knowledge may put Tabbris and the others in, but… I suppose in the latter case, if it was to the point that such knowledge was being pulled from them, they would already be in the worst possible danger anyway.”

I swallowed hard. “I don’t like lying to people. I’m tired of it. Especially people who are supposed to be on our side. Jazz and Gordon have earned trust. Everything they’ve been through–everything that happened, they’ve earned it. And Tabbris deserves to have people know how important she is and how much she’s done. She deserves to have friends.

“And,” I added pointedly, “keeping them in the dark now just seems like a big recipe for some kind of stupid drama later when they would’ve inevitably found out at the worst possible time. What if they secretly realized I was possessed somehow and stopped trusting me? Or worse, exposed Tabbris in front of the wrong person?” My head shook. “Athena wanted to just introduce her first so they could get used to her, but… there’s too many ways that could have backfired.”

With a little smile at that, the woman reached out to brush a hand gently through my hair. “But I’m not really the one you should be asking about being mad.”

Flinching, I looked that way. “It was wrong to just outright say it without making sure she was okay, I know. I just… I think she’s okay with it. I feel like I know her. But that’s an excuse, I should have asked her, it was just a spur of the moment thing.”

“Make sure you talk to her,” the woman instructed, her tone firm, yet caring as she met my gaze. “Don’t just assume anything. When you get a chance, take her aside and talk about it.” When I nodded, Larissa gave me a soft smile. “I’m glad you’re safe.” An obvious sigh of relief escaped her then, as she glanced toward Tabbris. “I’m glad you’re both safe. This whole time, we thought that you were both… that Radueriel…” Trailing off, she swallowed audibly before meeting my gaze pointedly. “You are very lucky that Athena showed up when she did.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Trust me, I know.” In the background, I could hear Tabbris nervously answering questions from Jazz and Gordon. They were asking her how long she had been around, what kind of things she had actually helped with, and so on. Neither of them actually sounded that accusatory, though there was definitely some uncertainty there. I suppose the fact that they met the girl while she wasn’t actually actively possessing me might have helped with that. So I hadn’t really totally abandoned Athena’s plan about how to introduce Tabbris. I’d just… adjusted it somewhat, to avoid actually lying.

Shaking off the thought of just what might have happened to both of us if the old Olympian hadn’t been there, I cleared my throat before raising my voice to get the attention of the others. “So, um, does my partner meet with your approval?” While speaking, I stepped over that way.

Jokai, who had been quietly talking with Yup up to that point, moved behind Jazz, leaning in to whisper something in her ear that I didn’t catch. Whatever he said, it made the girl smile just a little, her lips twitching slightly before she nudged him in the side while looking back to me. Her expression was slightly flushed. “She’s really been around this whole time? Like, the whole time you were at school?”

“And before that,” Sands put in, folding her arms with a shrug. “Since Flick was a kid. She’s been helping whenever she could. She’s the reason that Flick escaped from Charmiene.”

“And thus,” Gordon noted flatly, “the reason that all of us weren’t either killed or captured then.”

As we spoke, I saw Larissa move over to where Haiden and Athena were. Soon, the three of them were deep in conversation, probably talking about getting to the Aelastiam base.

“Which must have been pretty scary,” Jazz put in, dragging my attention away from the adults and back that way while looking at Tabbris. “I mean, you were in Flick’s head for a long time, sure. But you couldn’t know for sure how she’d react. You must have been really… really afraid when you showed yourself to her, especially after being alone for so long.”

Not for the first time, I was inwardly surprised by just how much Jazz picked up on and how insightful she could be once sufficiently motivated. She was far different than I had initially assumed back when the only thing I knew about her was that she had made that guy cover up the Kaiser Wilhelm portrait in the library so that it wouldn’t stare at them while they made out. Or subsequently, when she had thought that I had done something to Roxa. Yeah, our relationship had definitely advanced since we had been unceremoniously tossed out into Seosten space.  

For her part, Tabbris took a step back to move right up against me, swallowing as I put my hands on her shoulders. Her voice was shaky, clearly betraying her remaining nervousness. “I ju-just wanted to help,” she announced quietly, but with obvious determination. “I couldn’t hide from… from Flick anymore. She… she didn’t have anyone else. Nobody knew where she was, she didn’t have any weapons or magic, and… and I couldn’t let Charmiene win.”

I saw Roxa’s little smile at that. “Trust us, kid, as little as we actually saw that bitch, I don’t think any of us could blame you.” She gave a quick look to her teammates then, laying a hand on Gidget’s head as she added, “Right?”

Gordon shook his head, his voice flat and emotionless. “She was a very unlikeable person.”

Coughing, I muttered, “You can say that again.” My head shook, and I looked to them. “Everything she’s done has been to try and help us. She’s brave and smart and…” Biting my lip, I squeezed Tabbris’s shoulders firmly, pulling her back tighter against myself. “And I’d be a slave of the Seosten if it wasn’t for her. We all would have been completely screwed without her.”

“And you knew she was there for awhile, didn’t you?” That was Jazz, looking to Roxa. “That’s what that whole thing was about when you were having that secret, intense conversation in the cave while you were supposed to be changing clothes, back when we first got to that planet.”

Flushing a little, the blonde girl nodded once. “Yes. I saw that she was possessed with the choker when I touched her back on Earth. But I didn’t know what was going on, so I didn’t want to blow everything until there was a little bit of privacy. Sorry we didn’t tell you before. But…”

“But you didn’t know how we’d take it.” Jazz paused then before offering a slight shrug. “Yeah, I get it.” Her chin lifted toward me. “I guess we’re all kind of in the deep end now. Nobody can find out about her, or they’ll know why you’re immune to being possessed. And I dare bet they have ways to make Seosten eject against their will, just like that rune. Which would be… bad.”

Sands made a face then, her head nodding rapidly. “No kidding. Which means we keep her a total secret. Especially from that worthless, psychotic piece of dogshit.”

“Yeah,” I agreed easily, “Isaac can’t know about her. Never. I don’t even want that asshole to ever look at her.” As I spoke, my hands squeezed Tabbris protectively.

“Agreed.” Gordon looked slightly disturbed at that thought, which said a lot about how much it actually affected him. “We don’t let Isaac know anything about her. It’s too risky.”

“But seriously.” Roxa was looking at me. “You’ve really just been hanging out with Athena and this Yup guy the whole time that we were terrified about Radueriel taking you apart and torturing you?” Her fist hit my shoulder hard enough to make me flinch. “We were worried about you!”

“Ow.” Rubbing the spot she had punched, I offered a helpless shrug. “We tried to get in contact, but it’s surprisingly hard to find you guys. Now I know why the Seosten are so annoyed at us.”

“The… Seosten,” Jokai hesitantly spoke up, his English clearly greatly improved (though he still had to carefully choose his words), “are very annoyed with any who do not tie their line.”

“Toe,” Jazz corrected him simply. “Annoyed with any who do not toe their line. As in they make a line of rules, and you have to stand right on it, with your toes against it. Toe.”

“Toe.” Jokai repeated that, giving a slow nod. “That is… more sense, yes.” He looked to me then, adding, “I am… glad… that you are not… in the danger of the Seosten prison.”

“Trust me, Jokai,” I replied with a faint smile, “you’re not even half as glad of that as I am.”  

“So,” Jazz slowly started, looking to Tabbris. “Your mom was really Artemis?” When Tabbris hesitantly nodded, the other girl smiled. “That must be pretty cool.”

Her words made me let out a breath as I smiled despite myself. Not just because I agreed with her. But also because it was clear that she and Gordon had accepted Tabbris’s existence. And at least for right now, things were going to be o–

“Seosten!” The word, spat like an epithet, came from the doorway. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see Dries. The man stood there, staring first at Athena, then toward Tabbris. He took a step inside, hand rising as he started to speak the word of a spell.

Haiden was suddenly there, before any of the rest of us could react (though I was pretty sure that Athena was deliberately allowing him to act first to avoid setting Dries off even further). He caught the other man by the arm, shaking his head. “Dries, no. Stop. It’s okay. Look.” He pointed to me. “They brought Flick back, see? It’s alright.”

The older man stopped. His eyes finally looked my way, as if seeing me for the first time, his attention previously having been entirely taken up by the Seosten. When he actually realized it was me, I saw the man slump a little, as if a weight had been lifted from him. “You,” he murmured, “you are… you’re alive.” The relief and emotion in his voice almost made me feel like I was listening to my own father. He had obviously been incredibly worried about me, so much so that it at least briefly overrode his reaction to finding the Seosten on the ship.

“Uh.” I coughed, shrugging. “Yeah, pretty much entirely thanks to Athena here.” Pointedly, I gestured to the woman. “She saved me. Because she’s one of the good Seosten. You know, the ones that are rebelling against the bad guys. Like Sariel.”

“Good Seosten.” Dries didn’t look entirely happy about the situation. He was still incredibly twitchy, and he wouldn’t look directly at either Athena or Tabbris. His hands kept clenching and unclenching.

“Umm, yeah…” Realizing how awkward this was, and how much the man clearly wanted to talk to me despite his obvious distrust of the Seosten, I gave Tabbris one last squeeze before stepping that way. “Come on, why don’t we talk in the hall? That’s probably, you know… quieter.” Quieter, and, of course, it would get him away from the Seosten that made him so nervous.

“Yes… yes, talk.” Giving a faint nod, Dries pulled himself from Haiden’s grip. For a moment, I thought he might say something to Athena. But in the end, he just stepped backward into the corridor while giving me a brief, indecipherable look. I had the feeling he still wasn’t happy about the whole thing, no matter what anyone said to him about Athena being trustworthy.

Breathing out in relief that things hadn’t gone even worse right then, I glanced to the others before following him. The rest of the group had already gone back to asking Tabbris and Athena questions, leaving me to talk privately with Dries. Somehow, they had already come to accept all of this, pretty much. They understood. They weren’t mad at me.

******

“I changed my mind, I’m really mad at you.”

With those words, a fist punched me in the same shoulder that Roxa had hit earlier, and I yelped. “Ow! Hey, what was that for?”

Sands, the owner of that fist, squinted at me. It had been an hour or so, just long enough for me to have a conversation with Dries about what the Seosten had done for me, and for Yup to charge himself up and create the portal that brought us to the Aelastiam base.

He hadn’t brought the entire ship, of course. Yup was good, but not quite that good. Instead, Athena had given instructions to Jokai and Dries about how to get the ship to the same system that the base was in, and they were bringing it the long way. Which was okay, since it would give Dries in particular time to come to terms with the idea of being around more Seosten.

If anything went wrong, Athena had given them a way to contact the base for help, and Yup had left behind a beacon that he could create a portal straight to wherever the ship actually was. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best that we could do.

I wasn’t sure how well Dries was taking the Seosten thing. He really disliked them. But he wasn’t completely irrational about it. He understood that Athena had helped, that Tabbris was innocent, and all that. He was just… uncomfortable, and reflexively distrusted them on principle. Which I couldn’t exactly blame him for, after everything he had been through. Actually, the fact that he was dealing with it as well as he managed was actually more than a little inspiring. But it was a good thing that he would have some time mostly alone on the ship to accept it a bit more.

Now, Athena was busy with Larissa and Haiden, while Tabbris stayed with them mostly to be with ‘Aunt Larissa’ for awhile. They were talking about, well, everything. And sticking Isaac in a more permanent cell. Yeah, we’d brought him along with us, after he had been magically rendered unconscious for the trip, as well as blind and deaf just in case. Athena had a place to put him so that he wouldn’t be left on the ship with just Dries and Jokai.

So that’s what they were dealing with, while I showed the others around the place. We’d started at the house and met with Mr. Pentsecol, before gradually working our way through the station. Now, we were in the front hall of the school, near Miss Handsy’s office.

“I’m mad at you,” Sands explained then, “because you’ve been hanging out in this mirabilis place for the past month while we were killing ourselves trying to find you.”

“Miraballwhat?” I echoed, shaking my head before mumbling, “And it was only three weeks.”

Jazz rolled her eyes at me, speaking up then from where she was standing next to Gordon. “Right, only three weeks. Mirabilis, it means like, amazing. Jokai uses it all the time. I guess it sunk in.” As she spoke the name of the chameleon-like Alter, the girl smiled a little bit. It made me wonder if I smiled like that whenever I mentioned Shiori or Avalon.

“Seriously,” Roxa put in then, “this place is really cool. We’re all–” As she spoke, her foot kicked Sands in the back of the leg. “–glad that you weren’t kidnapped and experimented on by that freak.”

At her words, Gidget made a noise of agreement, moving to nuzzle up against my hip insistently until I took Jaq and Gus out, setting them on her back so the cyberforms could interact a bit.

Winking at me to show that she was just playing up her reaction to Roxa’s kick, Sands rubbed her leg while muttering an offhand, “Yeah, yeah, we’re so happy and all that. So you gonna keep showing us around paradise here, or what?”

I flushed a little, shrugging. “Hey, if it makes you feel any better, Athena’s been making me work my ass off training this whole time.”

“I might be mistaken,” Gordon spoke in his dry tone, “but I really don’t think that ‘I got to do a bunch of one-on-one training with the literal Athena’ is going to make your time here sound worse.”

“Right, good point.” Coughing, I gestured. “But hey, you guys will get to train with her too. Trust me, she’ll put you all through the wringer whether you want it or not. She’s basically like, ‘Older Avalon’ that way. Training, training, and more training.”

Sands was practically openly salivating at that point. “Oh man, this is gonna be great. Next to finding my mom, this is the best thing about being banished out here. Scout’s gonna be so jealous. Hell, Avalon is gonna be so jealous.”

“If we are actually planning on rescuing this… Sariel,” Gordon noted calmly, “we’ll need as much of Athena’s extra training as we can get.”

After a brief hesitation, I put in, “Are you guys sure you all want to be involved in that? I mean, this Kushiel sounds like really bad news, and… and going to her lab to rescue a Seosten…”

“Stop it.” Roxa gave me a look. “We’re with you. And that Seosten has done a lot to help all of us, even if we didn’t know about it. She’s Tabbris’s mother. We’re not just gonna sit things out and let you go without us.”

“She’s right,” Jazz confirmed. “Maybe we didn’t know about the kid before, but if she’s done everything you say she’s done… she deserves to have her mom back. Plus, that’s Vanessa and Tristan’s mom too. And Haiden’s wife. We’re in this. Dangerous or not.”

Looking around at the collection of nods then, I let out a long, low breath. “Well, okay then. Like I said, I hope you guys are ready for a couple weeks of the most intense training you’ve ever been through. Because they are definitely going to put us through it before they let us go with them.

“I think Athena’s boot camp is about to be open for business.”

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Interlude 32A – Team Stranded

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on Klassin Roe posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Where is she?!”

“Open the portal! Damn it, Haiden, open it again!”

“She pushed me… She pushed me…”

“What the hell happened back there? What was that?”

“What? She’s not here? What do you mean, she’s not here?! She was right behind us!”

The voices of Sands, Larissa, Jazz, Haiden, and Roxa filled the cargo bay of the ship as they all spoke over one another, their words blending into one large cacophony of noise that was almost impossible to actual pick a single coherent statement out of. It became a salmagundi of words that sounded something like, ‘Where portal hell not here right pushed was open it behind us!’

“Mom!” Sands managed to get out over the din, grabbing her mother’s arm. “Mom, where is she?! Where is Flick? We have to go back for her! We have to go back!” Her voice was hysterical, the realization that her friend had been left behind hitting the girl like a freight train.

“Okay.” With that single word, Haiden snapped his fingers, creating a zone of silence for everyone except himself. “Stop. Everyone stop. We have to-” In mid-sentence, the ship was suddenly rocked heavily, throwing Jazz and Gordon to the floor while the rest fought to keep their balance, Sands stumbling into her mother and Roxa catching hold of Gidget. The lights briefly flickered and dimmed, and the ship gave a second shudder under obviously heavy fire.

Cursing, Haiden turned to the nearby wall, putting a hand against one of the buttons there. “Jokai, Dries, what’s going on up there?!”

It was the old Heretic who answered, appearing in the hatchway to the cargo bay a moment later. “We are under heavy attack,” the thin, scraggly haired man with his thoroughly unkempt beard announced while taking a step into the room. “We must–” He paused then, his eyes widening a little as he looked past the group, to the rest of the cargo bay.

It was almost entirely full of the humanoid ant-people, the Kenkeans. Thousands of the people stood or sat in every available space. There were so many of them that had rather abruptly been thrust into this situation with little to no actual explanation beyond the fact that they had to leave before the Seosten arrived that they should, by all rights, have been making so much noise simply through whispering that the Heretics would have been drowned out.

Instead, each and every one of the Kenkeans were utterly silent. They sat or stood in place, eyes watching the proceedings while barely breathing. They were so utterly petrified of the Seosten in general that seeing what many still believed to be their ‘warsuits’ made them all but incapable of making a sound. They just watched, their collective silence so complete that, had the Heretics not been talking, one could have heard a pin dropping onto a bit of carpet.

For most people, seeing thousands of silent onlookers would have been plenty of reason for a bit of stage fright or uncertainty.  For someone like Dries, who suffered a host of psychological issues (with fears of crowds, open or new places, and of being watched or confronted being right at the top of the extensive list), it derailed his entire thought process and made the man reflexively try to retreat back the way he had come, stumbling a little as his heart rate skyrocketed, his throat closed up, and he felt the shudders start to come on.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. He knew that. He knew that. Half of his issues were simply the result of being trapped alone for such an extended time. And the other half… well, the Seosten hadn’t exactly been reluctant when it came to experimentation. They had wanted to ensure as much as they could that he wouldn’t escape their prison, so they had artificially instilled a plethora of fears and psychological dependencies in him. Over the centuries, he had learned to control a good number of them, but not all. Not the strongest. And every fear that he ignored or controlled took more effort, more willpower. Knowing they were artificial, knowing that the phobias and addictions had been forced upon him didn’t really help. They were still there.

“Dries.” Haiden was there, his hand on the man’s arm. “It’s okay. What–” The ship shuddered once more, as even more firepower was brought against it.

Forcing himself to focus, Dries made his eyes center on the center of Haiden’s shirt. Couldn’t look in his eyes, couldn’t look any of them in the eyes. That was too hard, too much. “We have to leave,” he mumbled, unable to raise his voice. “Jokai is… is trying to evade and outrun, but it is impossible. We are surrounded and blocked. We have to use a teleportation spell. I can do it. I have it. But I don’t have enough power. I need to take power. Your power. To trigger it. To go.” As he spoke, the man’s sentences kept getting shorter. It was too hard to make the words come when he felt so… somehow simultaneously closed off and yet also exposed.

“We can’t go!” That was Sands. She blurted that out with wide eyes. “Flick’s back there! Open the portal back to her! We have to grab her!”

Larissa’s head shook. “We can’t. Whatever Radueriel is doing, it’s blocking our portals. We could try to break through, but the ship won’t last that long.” Her voice cracked, face ashen. “We… we have to go.” From her voice, each word put another crack into her soul.  

“No!” Roxa, looking back and forth at them, shook her head. “We can’t just leave! Flick is there! And–”

“I know.” Larissa interrupted before the girl could give away Tabbris’ existence. “I know. But–”

Haiden abruptly spoke. “No time. Kids, we will go back for Flick, I promise! We will, but we can’t go back for her if we’re killed or captured too. Now come on.” To Dries, he nodded. “Do it. Use our power to trigger the spell.”

“W-wait!” Jazz’s head shook violently, her eyes wild and horrified as she took a step that way quickly. “She–she threw me out of the way! She threw me through the portal! That’s why she—she– you can’t leave her! You can’t leave her there! You-”

Her words were cut off as Gordon, who had remained silent the entire time, caught hold of the girl. He pulled her back while giving the others a silent nod, even as Jazz herself struggled against his grip. Despite his outward calmness, however, there was frustration, fear, and anger in his eyes, emotions that were barely being constrained through sheer force of will and habit. 

Without wasting another second, Dries produced a small wooden figurine that he had carved over the course of his long imprisonment. It was shaped like an elephant, and he had etched symbols into it. As he held the small figure up in his palm, the man spoke a single word.

Instantly, every Heretic in the room other than himself slumped. The teenagers collapsed completely, and would have fallen to the floor if  Larissa and Haiden (clearly woozy and unsteady themselves) hadn’t caught them. All still slowly slumped down, as the two adults couldn’t remain standing.

Meanwhile, Dries took the energy he had captured, pouring it into the teleportration spell that he had already set up. With another single word, he triggered the effect, and the ship was instantly shunted far away from the Kenkean planet.

Far away from Felicity Chambers.

*****

The next day

“We left her there.”

Jazz Rhodes spoke the words flatly, her voice soft as she sat alone in one of the many side-rooms of the ship. Her gaze was directed to the screen on the wall, which was currently filling the facade of a window, overlooking a sea of stars. “We just… we just left her.”

Letting the door whoosh shut behind him, Haiden took another step in while shaking his head. “Not for long. We’re going back for her, I promise. We are going to find her.”

Remaining silent for several long seconds, when Jazz finally spoke, her voice was barely audible. “She saved my life. She threw me through the portal, knocked me through it with her staff. If she hadn’t done that, if she had just jumped through herself, or… or…” She trailed off, her wide gaze continuing to stare at the expanse of space depicted on the screen.

Slowly, the man moved up to stand beside her, his own eyes on the stars as well. “And you feel guilty about that.”

Flushing, the dark-skinned girl looked down as her arms folded themselves tightly against her stomach. “Wouldn’t you?” she demanded in a somewhat cracked voice. “If I’d been a little bit faster, if I’d gotten there just a little sooner, another… another step or two even, maybe… maybe…”

Before she could continue, Haiden put a hand out to rest on her shoulder. “Stop,” he urged quietly. “Blaming yourself for not being perfect, throwing yourself under the bus like that, it doesn’t help anything.”

“A real Torchbearer would’ve been faster,” Jazz informed him flatly, pulling her shoulder away from his hand as she lowered her gaze to the floor. “Any of the others, any of the real candidates would’ve made it without needing help. I should’ve used one of my gravity balls to push us both forward or… or something. I should’ve thought of that. They would have. I shouldn’t be at Crossroads. I shouldn’t–it should’ve been someone who could actually help.”

“Hey.” That time, Haiden took hold of the girl and turned her to face him. His voice was firm. “Look at me.”

As Jazz slowly lifted her gaze a bit reluctantly, he continued. “You need to stop worrying about what other Torchbearers would do. Because the truth is, all this garbage about what the ‘real candidates would have done’ is just that: garbage. You are the real candidate, the real student. You are the real Heretic, Jasmine. So stop worrying about what anyone else would do. Because the only thing that matters is what you do. What you do, not what you could have done and not what anyone else might have done. The only thing, the only fucking thing you can control is what you do in the moment. If it’s not enough and you get thrown into the dirt, then you pick yourself up, you brush yourself off, and you get back on that goddamn horse. That’s what you control, that’s all you control. Sitting around moping about it or trying again, that’s your choice, that’s your decision.”

The girl swallowed hard, flinching a little as her soft, quiet voice replied, “I’m scared that I’m not good enough.”

“Then use that fear,” Haiden urged, squeezing both of her shoulders. “Instead of letting it make you freeze up, use it to make yourself better, to push yourself to keep training, to keep trying. You think you’re not good enough? Good. Make yourself good enough. Keep trying. Keep working. Keep training and keep fighting. The only thing you could do to make yourself not good enough is to stop trying to be better than you are.”

Biting her lip, Jazz peeked up at the man. “Vanessa and Tristan are lucky they get to have you as a dad.”

Haiden blinked rapidly, chasing the moisture away from his eyes as his voice cracked a little bit. “I’m lucky to have them as my kids. Now I’ve just gotta get back to them.”

“And your wife.” Jazz met his gaze. “You’ve been apart from them for so long, but you haven’t stopped trying. You never stopped trying, working, moving that way.”

“Like I said,” he replied, “something knocks you off the horse, you get back on it, and you keep fucking going.”

Straightening a little bit, the young woman took in a heavy breath before letting it out slowly. “We get Flick. We get your wife. And we go home.”

“That’s the spirit.” Smiling, Haiden nudged his fist against the girl’s chin.

“But then, when we make it back,” Jazz continued, “there’s something else you have to do.”

“Oh?” Raising an eyebrow, the man asked, “and what’s that?”

“You have to teach me how to ride a horse.”

********

Later that evening

 

“You know, I’m really sad that I never worked on my Anthony Hopkins impression right now.”

The observation came from Isaac, as the boy stood in the middle of the room that had been specially prepared for him. The room itself was thirty feet wide by twenty feet long, but the boy was confined to a much smaller space than that. The red line painted on the floor created a square about eight feet by ten feet. That was the space that he couldn’t leave, which the spellforms drawn on the other side of the square, filling the rest of the space of the room, ensured. Within the small area, there was a bed as well as a toilet with a privacy screen.

On the other side of that square, facing the imprisoned boy, stood Larissa, Haiden, Dries, Roxa, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon. The students stood slightly to one side of the adults, both small groups watching him intently.

“Don’t fucking flatter yourself.” Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You’re not Hopkins-tier. You’re not even John Travolta’s villain character in Battlefield Earth. You’re bottom-feeding scum.”

“That’s enough.” Larissa’s voice was quiet, yet definitive as she took a step forward. “We’re here for one thing and one thing only. You guys are here because we promised you could be included, but now isn’t the time to make ourselves feel better through insults. Or anything else. It’s time to get information.”

“Oh, you want information?” Brightening, Isaac replied, “I’ve got a few ideas about what we could trade. But the thing is, you’re a little old for me. How about you leave Sandy in here for a little bit instead. I figure, ehhh, twenty minutes alone oughta be worth whatever you want me to tell you?”

Ignoring the brief, outraged sound that came from her daughter while her friends held her back, Larissa simply shook her head at the boy. “Sloppy. You want me to lose control, get angry, do something stupid? You’re going to have to try harder than that.” Calmly, she moved closer, walking straight up to the line. “Because quite frankly, put on even ground, I’m sure that my daughter would hurt you a lot more than you could hurt her.”

“Mom,” Sands managed, “be careful.”  

“It’s okay,” Larissa assured her daughter. “The spells cut off his power, not mine. He’s not a threat.” With that, she stepped over the line and into the containment square.

“What,” Isaac retorted while taking a reflexive step back, “no negotiation? Doesn’t have to be your daughter. I’d settle for the Little Orphan Wolfie. She’s more my type anyway. Seems pretty wi–”

His words were cut off as Larissa’s hand abruptly snapped out to catch him by the throat, though he managed a heavily strained, “Thought you said I wasn’t getting to you.”

“You’re not,” the woman replied, still holding the boy by the throat. “But you’re also an evil son-of-a-bitch, so I don’t feel the need to be gentle. Now, Felicity isn’t here right now, so you’ll just have to deal with me possessing you. So it looks like you don’t have much to–” She stopped.

“Hmm?” Grinning, Isaac tilted his head. “I’m sorry, are you having performance anxiety? Should I close my eyes? Would that make it easier? Maybe there’s a pill that–”

Again, his voice was choked off into silence as Larissa tightened her grip while looking over her shoulder. “He’s protected. I can’t possess him.”

“What?” Haiden started that way quickly, giving Dries a brief look before the other man followed suit. While the teenagers muttered amongst themselves, the adults moved in together, examining the boy.

“It’s the same effect,” Larissa finally announced as they stepped back. “He’s using the dibs spell.”

“Shit, did I forget to mention that?” Isaac’s broad smile was even more utterly incorrigible, his amusement written plainly across his face. “I feel like I probably should’ve mentioned that.”

“What the fuck?!” Sands blurted, moving right up to the edge of the line. She would have gone further, but her mother snapped a hand down to stop her. “How?! How could he possibly know how to cast that? That doesn’t even make sense. That’s bullshit! We learned the spell after he left! After he–” She choked herself off, looking like the thing she really wanted to do the most was put her fist through the boy’s chest a few dozen times.

Brightening, Isaac snapped his fingers. “Oh, right, I did mean to thank you guys for having those lessons in the same room where we were learning everything else. When I put in those spy cameras, I really wasn’t sure how useful they’d be, but I think you have to agree that they paid off.”

“Haiden,” Larissa snapped.

“I’m on it,” the man replied, already pivoting on his heel to go and deal with those and whatever the boy had left behind. They had been so distracted and broken up after that massacre, after the death of Ulysses and all those other people, that they hadn’t searched the ship as thoroughly as they should have. And now they were paying for it.

“It’s your spell,” Gordon observed from where he and the other students were standing. “Can’t you just undo it? Or bypass it?”

Larissa’s head shook quickly. “If we could just undo it, then the Seosten could have just undone it. The entire point was to make it so that it couldn’t just be dispelled. Plus, we don’t know how much messing with it that way we could do without unraveling the entire thing. Remember, we still don’t know what exactly Sariel did to create the initial effect that we’re piggybacking off of. The last thing we want to do is disable that part of it. We’d never get it up again. We mess around with this too much trying to turn his protection off, and we might turn off all our protection.”

“Hey,” Isaac put in then, in his infuriatingly smug way, “I’ve got an idea. You could torture me for it. You know, set me on fire, pull my fingernails, make me listen to Jazz whine for an hour or so. That might–oh, shit.” Snapping his fingers as though he had just remembered something, the boy pretended to lament, “I just had to go and throw a suicide pill into the spell, didn’t I? So, you know, if I’m under too much pain or fear or anything else–” He drew a finger across his throat demonstrably. “Then I suppose you won’t get any of the answers that you want.” .

From where he was standing, Gordon flatly remarked, “I’m not sure that making everyone as angry and upset as possible and then telling them exactly how to easily kill you is going to have quite the effect that you want. But then, I’m not the tactical genius that you are.”

“So, what,” Sands started while giving a heavy shrug as she ignored Isaac to focus on her mother, “we just wait for it to wear off?”

“You wanna tell her?” Isaac asked with a smirk, “or should I?”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Larissa looked to Dries first, then the others. “We made sure that the spell would last for a long time to begin with. There’s no point of having it if it’s just going to wear off a day after one of us was captured. It’s a long spell, and… and as far as we can tell, Isaac boosted it the last time that he cast it. Probably using that same blood ritual that he had connecting him to the Kenkeans. He used their life forces to supercharge the duration, which was already long to begin with.”

“So how long will it take to wear off then?” Jazz demanded.

“Honestly,” the woman replied slowly, “I have no idea. Weeks, at least. Maybe months.” Even saying the words made her want to incinerate the boy almost more than she could control. Flick and Tabbris were out there, they were… She stopped herself from that line of thought. If she didn’t keep herself under control, the kids wouldn’t either. And if they all lost it… then Isaac would get what he clearly wanted. As much as she wanted to express her anger and frustration, the kids needed a better example. 

Meanwhile, rather than devolve into cursing, Sands lifted her chin. “Or we go right to the source. We find Sariel, have her disable it long enough to get all the answers we need out of him. So nothing’s changed. We find Flick, we find Sariel, and we get everything we need out of this psycho piece of shit.” To the boy himself, she added, “And if I was you, I’d wipe that stupid fucking smirk off my face. You’re still a loser who was captured, and we’re going to find out everything you know. It’ll just take a little longer.”

“Indeed,” Larissa murmured, giving her daughter a brief smile despite herself. The girl had grown so much. Keeping herself calm enough to think straight even in this situation, even against Isaac’s taunting, she had definitely matured. It made Larissa… it made her proud. “Which means that we’re back to our number one goal.

“Finding Felicity.”

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Rendezvous 30-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focused on Jophiel and Elisabet (with a lot of information about the Seosten in general) posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“You what?” The words accompanied a sudden rush of movement as I was yanked up from the ground. Professor Katarin had me by both arms, holding up to his eye level. Which, considering how tall he was, left my feet dangling in open air. “Would you mind repeating that?” he rumbled, the eagerness in his voice making him sound almost more like a kid in a candy store than the giant drill sergeant-like combat instructor I knew him as.

It was later that same day, and I was taking the chance to talk to Katarin about what had happened, as well as try to get past that damn memory spell.

“Um.” Dangling there, I gave as much of a shrug as I could with my arms held like that. “It was really Columbus blasting her when he did. That was what really made the difference. I just…”

“You followed up,” the man finished for me. “You took the opening and didn’t let her get away. Say it, Chambers. Let me hear those words one more time.”

“I… killed Charmiene?” I managed, blushing a little. “But like I said, I–hhhrrrk.” That last bit was because the man was hugging me. Hugging me so tightly I couldn’t breathe for a second.

“You followed instructions!” he announced after finally relenting a bit. Holding me out in front of him once more, he beamed the same way my own father had the day I’d first managed to ride a bike without training wheels. “You didn’t let up, you saw an opening and you took it! You see? You see? Doesn’t matter how strong they are, you wait for the right opening, don’t hesitate, and…” He just smiled broadly and proudly.

“Like… like I said,” I mumbled self-consciously, “Columbus deserves most of the credit. So, make sure you talk to him as soon as we get back, okay?”

Finally setting me down on the deck of the cargo bay (we were on the far end from where the refugee Alter camp was, for some privacy), Professor Katarin winked. “Oh, believe me, I’ll make sure Porter gets all the accolades he deserves, if it hasn’t happened yet. But you keep that up. You see these openings, you go for them. Got it, Chambers?”

Biting my lip, I nodded before hesitantly asking, “I… I never really got to ask you what you thought of my… my mother.”

His expression softened then. “I… didn’t have a lot of personal experience with Joselyn, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t a teacher when she was a student. So I don’t have a lot of personal anecdotes or anything. What I can tell you is that, from everything I know, your mom’s an incredible woman. And I knew her parents. Or at least… I think I did.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I met her father, Joshua, before the Fomorians were kicked off Earth. And I’m pretty sure I met her mother too, but…”

“The censor spell thing,” I finished for him. “The one that erased my grandmother from everyone’s memory?”

He nodded. “Kind of makes everything fuzzy. I’m almost positive that we met. I think she was one of the people who saved me. But…” His head shook. “Sorry. It’s just not there.”

“It’s okay,” I replied. “But speaking of things being hard to remember…”

“Right.” Straightening up, Professor Katarin cracked his neck twice before nodding to me. “Disabled the possession defense a few minutes ago. Which, let me tell you, makes me feel really uncomfortable out here. So let’s get this done, huh?”

Yeah, we were going to try to bypass that memory-erasure spell that was stopping us from remembering what Katarin knew about Manakel’s host by having me possess him and look for the memory that way. He didn’t know about Tabbris (As much as I trusted him, I was still keeping her existence as secret as humanly possible), but she would be quietly helping too.  

“Yes, sir,” I replied quickly. “And um, I promise to be as quick as possible and… not to go rummaging too much. Thanks for trusting me with this.”

With that, I took the man’s hand and focused on possessing him. A moment later, I felt much taller and a lot stronger. Seeing through Professor Katarin’s eyes, I took a second to collect myself from the disorienting feeling.

“Chambers?” He spoke out loud. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, Professor,” the man’s voice spoke again, and I belatedly realized that I had made him reply out loud. “Err–”

Sorry, sir, I switched to internal conversation. You can think at me if you want. I mean, I can kind of hear your thoughts too, but you can make it a conversation if you just sort of purposefully think in my direction.

I’m going to think the identity of Manakel’s host to you, the big man’s voice came into my head. Ready? And…

I waited. Waited another moment. Then, out of pure desperate hope, I waited a little more. But in the end, all I could do was sigh. Well, that didn’t work. Um. Let me try looking for it myself. What were you doing when you found out?

Walking through the jungle, he replied. I thought that I saw….

You thought that you saw what? I–oh. I sighed inwardly. It won’t let me know who you thought you saw, because that’s the person that’s possessed. Great. This memory spell is seriously annoying, Professor.

We kept going like that for another twenty minutes, trying to come after it from every angle we could think of. We tried getting me to see his memory, and even tried having Professor Katarin think about every person it wasn’t so that I could fill in the blanks. It didn’t work. Even Tabbris couldn’t figure out how to get past it. The moment I had the idea of who it could be, the spell erased everything. Basically, Katarin would think every wrong name at me, and the second it was obvious who he wasn’t thinking about, every name he’d already thought at me would disappear. The spell would not allow us to get the name even indirectly.

It was, as I had already said, seriously annoying.

Finally, I stepped out of the man, shaking my head. “Sorry, Professor,” I mumbled.

“Not your fault,” he assured me, rolling his arms back and forth now that he had control of them once more. “And like we said, don’t count us out yet. Dries has some idea about breaking through it with help.

“Yeah…” I mumbled, glancing down while frowning. “I just hope it works.

“I really, really hope it works.”

******

“You really have no idea what this anti-possession thing that your wife put into her vault was?”

It was the next day, and I couldn’t quite keep the disappointment out of my voice as I stood next to Dries on the Liberty Bell, watching the Alter camp through the open hatch.

In the distance, I could see most of them sitting attentively in a large circle, watching Katarin as the man led them through some basic self-defense instructions. He’d basically jumped right back into teaching just like before. Not only was the man offering to help any of the Alters here learn how to protect themselves, he’d also insisted on having all of us students run through regular exercises and combat training as if we were still at Crossroads. Avalon would approve.

Dries gave a slight shake of his head at my question. The thin man’s voice was still rough and hoarse. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I think Liesje started her work after I was imprisoned.” As he spoke, the fingers of his left hand scratched at his beard while the fingers of his right hand rubbed his left wrist. Occasionally, he would bite his knuckles or look around suddenly.

Biting my lip, I hesitated before starting slowly, “I know this might be a little, um, forward, but–”

“–Why did I kill Hieronymus?” Dries finished for me. He was looking away, watching the Alters with Katarin. Rather than answer, he said, “They told me about you, about your mother and what she did. What she tried to do. They told me about the rebellion and everything that happened.”

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I just watched the man silently, letting him go on at his own pace.

Eventually, he did, lowering his head a little to look at the floor while speaking quietly. “Liesje and… and I, we knew something was wrong with her father. We knew something was wrong with Hieronymus. Eventually, we found out he was–” Swallowing hard, Dries jerked a little, twitching to look over his shoulder as if he had heard something. He stared at the empty ship behind us for a long moment before continuing. “We found out he was possessed, that… that he wasn’t this genius inventor, that it was really a Seosten behind everything.

“Liesje, she confronted him. Tried to force the Seosten out of her father. It–” Again, he hesitated. This was clearly hard for him to remember, let alone talk about. “It didn’t go well. The Seosten would have killed her, would have killed her with her own father’s hand. I couldn’t–I didn’t have a choice. I had to save her. I had to save her, so I just- there was so much blood and–and I…”

Quickly, I shook my head. “It’s–it’s okay, you don’t have to go on. I get the picture. But why did they keep you alive after that? Larissa said that they found you imprisoned in a tower and had to go through all this stuff to break the spell that was holding you there. Why did the Seosten go through all that instead of just killing you, or possessing you for their war with the Fomorians?”

Twitching a little, the man responded, “They need me alive. Something… something they did to Hieronymus. I don’t know, still don’t know. Something they did to him that had to do with the Reaper, the one that gives Bosch Heretics their power. They did something to Hieronymus, and when I killed him, I inherited it. So they need me alive. I don’t… I don’t know more than that. Just that they need me alive, but don’t really care what condition I’m in. It’s been so long since they shut me up in that tower, I just… I don’t know.”

I blinked at that. Why would the Seosten need him alive? What could they have done to Hieronymus that had been passed to Dries when he killed the man? And why wouldn’t they just kill him in order to pass it on to someone else? Clearly, we were missing something important.

Do you know anything about what he’s talking about? I asked Tabbris curiously.

I could sense her confusion and uncertainty as she quickly replied, Nuh uh. Mama never mentioned anything about it. Maybe… maybe she didn’t know about it. Or maybe she just didn’t think that it would, you know, um, come up? She didn’t have time to tell me everything, I mean–

It’s okay, Tabbris, I assured her hurriedly. I know. The fact that she told you as much as she did is still really impressive. It’s okay if she couldn’t give you every answer. We’ll figure it out.

Deciding to change the subject then, I asked, “But you can really break the spell that’s stopping Professor Katarin from telling us who Manakel is possessing?”

His head gave a quick jerk of a nod. “Yes. We couldn’t before, because we didn’t have enough power. But with you… you students and all those people out there supplying power, we can do it. It’s uh, it’s not elegant, but I can break it. Just needed more power.”

“Right.” I nodded then. “Well, they’ve been collecting energy from volunteers ever since you guys arrived. Last I heard, they’ll be ready for it tomorrow.”

The man gave a little crooked smile then, the awkwardness of it making it obvious that it was not an expression he was accustomed to making. “Then tomorrow we will break the spell.”

A motion caught my eye then, and I looked out through the open hatch to see Professor Katarin waving me over. He already had the others with him, though Isaac was wrist deep in one of his drones. The boy had been obsessively working on them pretty much since we’d left the planet, and especially over the past day since Katarin, Dries, and Haiden had shown up. I had tried to get him to tell me what he was doing, but he insisted it was a surprise and that I would be, to quote, ‘so fucking surprised.’ Honestly, I just hoped he didn’t end up blowing himself up. Or us.

“Oh,” I started while straightening. “Looks like I’ve gotta go work with the others. Do you, uh…” I looked over to Dries, who was already shrinking back from the open hatch. No. He wouldn’t be coming out with me. The man did not do well around crowds. He was barely functional enough with just the few of us all together. Situations like this, where we were one-on-one, were better.

“Never mind,” I quickly put in, giving him a smile. “I’ll be back later. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Thank… thank you,” the man hesitantly spoke. “And… next time, maybe you could tell me a little bit more… about the girl.” His eyes raised to look at me, and I saw the shielded hope there.

“Avalon,” I murmured, nodding quickly. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell you anything you wanna know.”

With that, I hopped through the open hatch and headed down the ramp to join the others. On the way, the hatch behind me closed, leaving Dries alone again.

Honestly, I really hoped that we could get the man back with us. Because I kind of had the feeling that he needed Avalon as much as, if not more than, she needed him. It seemed like they really could help each other through a lot of their issues. They both needed family.

All we had to do was get everyone back to Earth in one piece.

******

“Hey guys!” I called while stepping up onto the Liberty Bell the next day. As Isaac, Roxa, Jazz, and Professor Katarin looked up from where the man had been teaching the other two something about the ship, I waved. “They’ve got the stuff all ready to get rid of that spell.”

“Great,” Roxa announced, jumping to her feet before reaching down to pull Isaac up. “Let’s do this.”

“How is Dries doing?” Katarin asked, hitting a button with his closed fist to turn off the console that he had been using. “I haven’t seen that guy leave this ship since we got him onto it.”

Yeah, there hadn’t been enough open space on this ship to set up the spell. It had taken a little prompting and a lot of patience, but Dries had slowly, gradually made his way off the ship. They had to set up a private little temporary corridor for him with Sands’ construction mace and some other powers so that he didn’t have to be right out in the open with all those other people, but he made it.

I had seen the shame on Dries’ face, his agony that he couldn’t stand to be around people. He fought it, had tried for the past couple days (and probably long before then) to get over it. Yet, as powerful and knowledgeable as the man clearly was, the simple act of standing in a room surrounded by others was too much for him. After everything that had happened, after he had spent hundreds of years trapped in a tower, he couldn’t do it. His agoraphobia was too encompassing and powerful.

“He’s… doing a little better,” I confirmed with a nod. “Once they got him in that other room away from the cargo bay, he started opening up a little bit. And he said it’s all ready to go.”

“Well,” Professor Katarin gestured while starting to move. “Let’s go, then.” The man paused on his way past, clapping me on the shoulder. “I heard you spent some time with him yesterday, Chambers, that you talked with him about Avalon. Good. He uh… he’s been through a lot. Keep doing that, okay? He might not always show it, but he really wants to know about her.”

He was right. Even in the short conversation that I’d had with Dries the day before, telling him about how I’d met Avalon, I had been able to tell that he needed it. He had been like a dying man in the desert, desperate for even a drop of information about his descendant, his family.

Avalon’s family. I still couldn’t believe that was a thing. When we got back home, she would meet her ancestor, a male blood relative who actually wanted to know her.

Professor Katarin moved on, heading down the ramp while Gordon, Roxa, and Jazz followed suit. They seemed just as impatient and excited as I was to finally deal with this spell and learn the truth.

“So it’s really that simple?” Isaac asked curiously from behind me then. “We just use the spell and Katarin’ll be able to tell us who the big bad guy’s possessing?”

I nodded, pausing in the hatchway to look back at the boy while the others finished stepping down. “That’s what they sa–oh hey, looks like one of your buddies doesn’t wanna leave.” I gestured past the boy to where one of the orb-shaped drones from the boy’s flail was hovering next to one of the ship consoles. “You think he’s got a hot girlfriend or some–wait.” In the middle of my joke, I saw the screen itself. It looked like a view of the cargo bay behind me, with targeting reticles. “What’s that thing doi–”

That was as far as I got before Tabbris screamed a warning in my head. I felt my body jerking backward as she took control, but it wasn’t fast enough. A sledgehammer blow took my breath away as Isaac’s suddenly metal-covered foot slammed into my chest. I was sent flying off the ramp, crying out in surprise as I hit the deck hard, rolling onto my side. I couldn’t breathe for a moment. I couldn’t even think. The strength behind the kick, it felt like he’d broken a couple ribs, at least.

Even as I hit the floor, a deafening, high-pitched shriek of power filled the air, and a blinding green light shot over my head. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see an emerald laser as wide around as my body literally vaporize three Alters who happened to be standing in its way. One instant they were there, and the next, they were gone. Dead. Atomized.  

But the laser didn’t stop there. Everything seemed to slow down dramatically, as my horrified gaze took in the sight of Katarin surrounded by the others. I saw the man’s eyes as the enormous ship-powered laser shot directly at them. He had half a second to react. And he reacted by throwing both arms out. An invisible force picked up Jazz, Roxa, and Gordon, hurtling them away. In that instant, Katarin’s immediate action saved all of their lives.

But he paid for it with his own. Unable to protect himself, the laser ripped through the big man, burning half his body away just like that. The remains were charred and burned beyond recognition, blown apart by the incredible force and heat of the laser cannon.

I saw Professor Katarin die. I saw his realization that it was going to happen, and that his first and only reaction had been to save his students. He could have thrown himself out of the way or done anything whatsoever to protect himself, or he could focus on saving them. In that brief, tiny window, he chose the latter. He sacrificed himself to save their lives. In my head, I heard Tabbris scream, her own terrified cry of shock and horror matching my own.

Behind me, a moan of pleasure reached my ears. My head jerked back that way in time to see Isaac. Isaac, the traitorous, murderous, fucking evil piece of shit who had just murdered three Alters and Professor Katarin, was all-but collapsed there in the hatchway, his orange kill-aura glowing almost blindingly bright. He gave me a thumbs up then, winking just as the hatch whooshed closed, cutting us off from each other.

Why? Why, why, why?! Why was he doing this?! What the hell?! Was he possessed? Had we missed something? Was Isaac actually possessed and I’d somehow missed it? Had another Seosten managed to get on the ship somehow? No. No, I knew that wasn’t it. It couldn’t be, because I knew Roxa was wearing the choker. She had been wearing the choker when she helped Isaac to his feet just a minute earlier, and she had said nothing about him being possessed. Which meant that he couldn’t be. So what the hell was going on?! What… what…

An instant later, a glowing blue forcefield appeared around the smaller ship. The shield. He’d activated the shield, or one of his drones had, more likely. Which meant that no one could teleport onto the Liberty Bell. No one could stop what was about to happen, what was about to keep happening.

Because the ship wasn’t done firing. Lifting off its landing struts, more of its cannons finished popping up into place. And they all opened up. Blinding emerald lasers flooded the cargo bay. I saw three, four, five more Alters torn through. Alters who should have been safe. Alters who were supposed to be free and protected now were suddenly gone. Dead. Murdered by Isaac, an Isaac who wasn’t possessed. No one was forcing Isaac to do this. He just… was.

Chaos reigned. More blinding shots from the ship’s cannons filled the cargo bay. I saw one heading straight for Karees. Karees! My mouth opened to scream a warning, knowing it was too late.

Except, while it was too late for me, it wasn’t too late for Jazz. The other girl literally slammed into the tree-man, knocking him to the ground. An instant later, that laser tore through the girl… except she had turned into her mist-form. I saw her turn, staring at the ship with a look of complete horror, mouth open as she screamed a name. Isaac. She was screaming Isaac’s name, a look of rage overtaking her face.

I pushed myself up then, ignoring the pain in my ribs, only to be knocked to the floor once more as Sands came out of nowhere, tackling me to the ground an instant before another massive laser tore through the air where I had just been. I felt the heat of it burn part of my skin.

Sweeping her mace up as we landed, Sands created a short wall. It didn’t matter. The next shot from the ship’s cannon tore through it like it wasn’t even there. We had to move!

Getting my staff out, I grabbed Sands, wrapping an arm around the girl while pointing the staff backward. Lying there on my side, I triggered the boost, sending both of us rocketing along the floor. An instant later, three more laser shots utterly destroyed the spot where we had just been.

The Liberty Bell was floating backward toward the open cargo bay doors, firing its lasers the whole time. Screams and death filled the air along with the heat and light of those deadly cannons. In those few seconds while I was picking myself up from the floor, I saw a dozen more die, snuffed out just like that.

Jazz, Gordon, and Roxa were all trying to help, trying to get the Alters behind what little cover there was, or out of the cargo bay entirely. The problem was that there was so much open space. A lot of them were trying to hide behind the metal shipping containers, but there were only so many of those, and there was too much open ground to cover to get to them. 

It felt like hours had passed, but I knew it had actually only been a few seconds. A few seconds, and Isaac had already done so much damage.  

Just as the other ship reached the exit, the cannons all pointed toward the biggest cluster of terrified Alters who were running for cover. I screamed a warning, the force of the words burning my throat, even as those cannons opened up one last time. An armageddon-worth of deadly light tore through the air, straight at all of those innocent people.

At the last second, Haiden Moon appeared out of nowhere. His arm jerked up, and I saw a dark red forcefield appear, surrounding both the man and the clustered group. Seven, eight, nine enormous, pulverizing lasers collided with the shield, which barely held. I could see the strain on it, and on Haiden himself as he kept it up, protecting the people behind him.

Then Larissa was there. She appeared beside Sands and me, both arms outstretched. Her right hand jerked to the side, while the left glowed red. I saw two of the laser cannons on the other ship literally torn free of their housing, ripped off the ship. At the same time, another one literally melted into a heap of molten metal.

That was enough. The ship stopped firing, instead throwing its engines into reverse before shooting out into open space.

And just like that, as suddenly as it had started, the carnage was over. The ship was gone, with Isaac onboard. And in his wake, he left… devastation. Bodies, or pieces of bodies, filled the cargo bay. At least a quarter of the Alters that we had saved and spent the past several days with were dead. Professor Katarin was dead.

“Girls!” Larissa was facing Sands and me, her eyes wide. Alarms blared, the survivors screamed and sobbed, as she blurted in total confusion and horror, “Girls, what happened?!

“What the hell happened?!”

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Rendezvous 30-03

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“So explain again how their warp speed or whatever works?” I asked Larissa a couple days later, as the two of us stood on the bridge of this stolen mining ship. Jokai was sitting at the controls next to Sands, going over them with the girl again. My teammate had really taken to the idea of being able to pilot this thing (not that I could blame her at all), throwing herself at the subject the way that Vanessa threw herself at… well, pretty much every subject back in school.

“Of course,” Larissa (was it weird that I kept thinking of Sands’ mother by her first name rather than as Mrs. Mason or anything?) replied easily while gesturing for me to follow her to the side of the bridge, where a small console sat. Waving her hand in front of it, she made a hologram appear. It showed a bunch of different planets and stars, taking up several feet in front of us.

“You know the way normal travel works,” the woman began. Putting her finger on the hologram at one planet, she slowly dragged it across to another one, creating a red line between them. “Say a ship starts here, powers on their regular, day-to-day engines, and putters along until they reach the next closest planet. With the kind of engines that the ships use when flying around normally, that one trip would take about… say, a hundred and twenty years. Give or take.”

“Uh, yeah.” I coughed, shaking my head. “Seems like that kind of travel time would be pretty hard to run an interstellar empire on. ‘Hi, we have some new orders from the capital planet.’ ‘Oh, when did they send those out?’ ‘I think it was about three hundred and forty years ago, why?’”

The woman gave a slight smile at that. “Exactly. It doesn’t really work. So there’s a few other options. First, there are certain Alters who can create foldjumps, linked points where people can travel instantly from one spot to another no matter how far away it is, even on another planet.”

“Abeonas,” I finished for her. “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. Even met one of them named Berlin.”

“You are definitely not a normal first year student,” Larissa informed me with a little cough before nodding. “But good, you know about them. There’s a few others like that, but Abeonas are the strongest and the most well-known. They’re also pretty rare, and it’s hard to keep their loyalty. I mean, when they could go pretty much anywhere in the universe they’ve already been at the drop of a hat, it’s not easy to keep them contained. Even possessing them isn’t a perfect answer, since they tend to be pretty resistant to it, and using a Seosten to keep them under control means that Seosten can’t be doing anything else. Basically, if the Abeonas is strong enough for interstellar transport, they’d need an equally strong Seosten to maintain control.”

When I nodded to that, the woman went on. “So that’s the first option, Alters with some kind of transport ability. Limited for the reasons we just talked about. After that, there’s regular teleportation spells, like the one I used to get this ship away from Radueriel and his ship.”

“Let me guess,” I put in, “those are rare too. I mean, you said you got that one from Apollo.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Rare and hard to do. We only moved a few solar systems, and that took four strong Heretics to pull off, exhausting three of them for a few days. Like I said, not easy.”

I started to nod once more to that, before stopping myself. “Wait, what do you mean, four?” Pointedly, I counted on my fingers. “You, Haiden Moon, and Professor Katarin. That’s three.”

“We, ah,” the woman paused, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “We met a new friend out here. But that’s a long story that’s best told once we actually get back with the others. Which, I know, sounds needlessly cryptic. But just trust me, this is something that you really need to find out in person.” She smiled then. “Besides, we’re getting off subject. Innate Alter abilities and magic teleportation are two ways to move from world to world. But with ships like this, you want something reliable. Something that isn’t super rare and doesn’t exhaust your most powerful people right when you get to what might be a planet where you need them to fight.”

“So, technology-based?” I asked then. “Rather than magic or ability-based. Something where you can just flip a switch and go faster. I mean, I know it’s not not that simple, but basically.”

“Basically,” she confirmed. “Now, like I said, there’s the normal engines that work fine for tooling around the same solar system. But for interstellar travel to take less than several centuries, you need the big guns. You need a reliable way that doesn’t exhaust your important people and allows you to send entire fleets all over the universe. That’s where the slide-drive comes in.”

Tilting my head a bit, I asked, “Slide-drive? So that’s what they call their hyperdrive or whatever.”

“Yup.” The woman reached out to the hologram of the space map once more. “So, here’s how they work. Remember how I said a normal engine just takes you from one spot to another?” She drew her finger along that red line once more demonstrably. “Well, the way a slide-drive works is by repeatedly opening a small pocket dimension. You already know what those are, right?”

I nodded quickly at that. “Sure, they’re basically the things that our weapons disappear into.”    

“Exactly. The slide-drive on each of these ships basically slips the ship into one of those pocket dimensions for a few seconds, then pops it back out again. Except for two things. First, while the ship is in that pocket dimension, the universe just continues on without it. Everything is always moving at millions of miles per hour. So the ship wouldn’t appear at the same point anyway. It would pop out at wherever that spot was with the universe moving around it. It’s like… say you have a spinning plate with an olive sitting on it. Pick the olive up and drop it again, and it’ll be in a completely different spot from where it was, because the plate itself keeps on spinning.

“And second, before the ship comes out of the pocket dimension, it travels to the limit of that space. See, every kilometer in the pocket dimension translates into a thousand kilometers in real space. The more powerful the slide-drive, the bigger the pocket dimension. Which means-”

“The further they travel with each slide,” I realized. “If their slide-drive can make a pocket dimension that’s a hundred kilometers long, that’s a hundred thousand kilometers in real space.”

She gave a short nod at that. “Yes. And most decent ships are capable of making pocket dimensions that are at least a few hundred kilometers. So that helps.

“Put together, those two things mean that when the ship pops back into the regular universe, it’s not in the same place. It basically jumps from one spot to another very quickly just by slipping out of the universe and then slipping back in. The computer calculates where they are in relation to where they need to go, adjusts, and then slips out of the universe again, only to pop back. That’s why we call it a slide-drive. They slide into a pocket-dimension, then slide back out again. It keeps doing that, sliding in and out of regular space until they get where they need to go.”  

“Huh.” I thought about that for a few seconds before nodding. “Thanks for the explanation. You… you weren’t a teacher back at Crossroads, were you?” It felt a little awkward bringing up her life on Earth after she had been away from it for so long, but I shoved that back down.

“No,” she confirmed with a quick head shake. “You’re right, I wasn’t a teacher. Not exactly, anyway. But I did work with students a lot. I was the Head of Student Affairs for the school.”

I did a quick double-take. “You had Peterson Neal’s job? Damn, we really missed out, then.”

Smiling a little, the woman gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Yes, Ulysses told me that he was the one who took my job. I’m sorry. Peterson is… competent, but not exactly creative or warm. But between Ruthers and his brother, I’m not surprised that he ended up with an important job.”

Blinking at that, I looked back to the woman while asking, “His brother? Who’s his brother?”

“Counselor Davis,” she informed me, looking a little surprised. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew that the two of them were related. I know you’ve had some conversations with the Committee.”

I thought back to what I knew of the Committee member called Davis. All I really remembered was that he looked like a lumberjack. Did he actually do anything important? I asked Tabbris.

Um, she replied a little hesitantly, not really. He didn’t say much at all, actually. Mostly he just brought up that thing about how people have been trying to kill Avalon for awhile.

Right. I squinted thoughtfully for a second. So he didn’t really say much. No way of knowing how he feels about things, or if he’s anywhere near as much of a stooge as his brother.

“So,” Larissa started with a raised eyebrow. “How the conversation with the little one going?” When I gave a quick glance over to where Jokai was, she waved a hand. “It’s okay, he can’t hear us right now. Or, more to the point, he just hears us talking more about Davis.”

“Sorry.” I blushed a little bit despite myself. “I guess it’s probably kind of obvious what’s going on when I trail off and go silent for a few seconds like that if you know what to look for, huh?”  

She nodded. “It is. So you’ll need to be careful with it. Very careful, Felicity. If the Seosten ever suspect that you’re possessed and that that’s the reason they can’t possess you–”

Blanching, I interrupted. “They’ll hurt Tabbris. I know. Trust me, I won’t let anyone hurt her.”

Her hand found my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “Sariel made the right choice when she sent her to you.”

After a moment of that, she continued. “So, let’s talk about the ship a little more. I’m sure you’ve got more questions about how these things work. Though there’s something I really hope you can tell me about.”

“There is?” I blinked. “Uh, I’ve told you pretty much everything I know. The Seosten want to kill Avalon, Fossor has my mother and is coming after me when I turn eighteen, my dad’s living with Gabriel Prosser, my mom’s first husband is my team mentor… what else could I tell you?”  

“Well…” Larissa gave me a brief pleading look. “There’s a really important question I have to ask you that Ulysses couldn’t answer. I’ve kind of been stuck out here for over seven years now, and I’ve been waiting all that time to find out…

“Do you read DC comics? And if so, what the hell happened in Flashpoint?”

******

“Your ship is a lot smaller than this one, Mom.” Sands was standing in front of the bridge’s viewscreen the next day, her eyes centered on the image of the vessel in question. We had met up with them in the middle of what was basically empty space, far from any planet or star.

She was right. The ship that Larissa had brought us to meet up with was much smaller than this one. It was more around the size of a large jetliner, and was shaped a bit like a narrow oval with two angular boomerangs attached to the top and bottom that glowed red in contrast with the middle oval part’s bright white. I was pretty sure that the boomerang parts were where the engines and weapons were, while the oval part held the main compartments and bridge.

“Yeah, we’ll have to bring the Liberty Bell aboard this one for now,” the woman replied easily from her place behind her daughter. “There should be plenty of room, even with the Alter camp.”

Liberty Bell?” I blinked that way after giving the ship another look. “That’s the name of it?”

“Well, yeah, after we renamed it,” Larissa amended with a slight chuckle. “I think its previous name was something like Letum Praedator. Ruin Hunter. We liked Liberty Bell a bit better. And besides, they vetoed my vote for the ship name. Said Starjammer made them think of hair metal bands. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why that’d be a bad thing. But Liberty Bell’s okay.”

A light on the nearby console flashed green, and the woman waved her hand in front of it. A moment later, half of the viewscreen was taken up by the image of a familiar face.

“Professor Katarin!” Sands blurted, waving a hand. The relief in her voice was obvious, and I knew how she felt. We’d already known that the man was alive and well (enough) from Larissa herself and through Vanessa, but knowing it and seeing it were two entirely different things.

The man smiled broadly then, and I could tell in that moment that he was just as relieved to see us. It did kind of look odd, considering his tendency to remain as stoic and… drill sergeant-like as possible while he was training us. But then again, this was a pretty unique situation.

“Sands, Flick, you’re both alright!” Katarin announced before lifting his chin. “And the others…?”

“They’re okay,” Larissa answered for us. “Everyone’s… physically fine. They’re in the cargo bay with the former slaves. So, you wanna dock that thing so we can have this reunion in person?”

He agreed, as did someone offscreen (Haiden, I assumed, though it could have been the mysterious ‘other Heretic’ that Sands’ mother wanted us to meet), and the ship started to dock.

“Guess we should head down to meet them, huh?” Sands looked to her mother, smiling immediately. She’d been doing that pretty much constantly over the past few days. Which was more than just understandable. If it had been my mother, I probably wouldn’t be able to tear myself even a few inches away from her for at least a couple of weeks. I was honestly surprised that Sands was able to focus on anything other than the fact that her mother was standing there.

Leaving Jokai at the helm just in case anything happened, we headed down to the cargo bay once more. On the way, we used the intercom system that Jokai had shown us to warn the others so that nobody would freak out too much. The last thing we wanted was to give any of these poor guys a heart attack when they saw a Seosten ship pop in.

The Alters had taken up about a quarter of the cargo bay with their little camp, which actually looked pretty homey. They had tarps set up for different sleeping areas, a cooking area in the middle, and a spot for everyone to work on the anti-possession spell that we’d taught them. They’d been using that spell a lot, on themselves, on each other, basically whenever possible. Even though they knew they weren’t possessed, they still wanted that little bit of reassurance. And, of course, they wanted to make sure that none of the Seosten had projected into one of them. That was another reason that I was glad they had all decided to stay together in the cargo bay. It would be harder for one of the Seosten to screw things up if they never left each other’s sight and were constantly just sitting in a room with no idea of where the ship actually was.

By the time we made it down there, all of the Alters were already gathered right at the edge of their camp as they nervously watched the Liberty Bell rise up through a forcefield-covered opening on the other side of the room. The thin, invisible shield was enough to keep the atmosphere inside, while allowing the other ship to slip through.

The murmuring stopped as we entered, and they all looked to us expectantly. Gordon, who had been standing near the front of the group, raised a hand as we came over. Isaac was kneeling nearby, tinkering with something on one of his drones.

“They’re still a little nervous,” Gordon announced as I stepped up next to him. He nodded toward the other ship, which was extended three landing struts while slowly easing down onto them.

“I bet they are,” I replied. “I’d be nervous too if I had their lives, even if we did tell them that it’s safe.” Glancing around, I added, “Where’s Roxa?”

“Here.” The girl herself emerged from a clustered group. She looked sweaty (distractingly so), like she had just been working out. Pushing a hand back through her hair, Roxa explained, “Just ran through a little training with some of these guys. They wanna learn how to fight, so I thought I’d help. Seemed like a good idea.”

“It is,” Larissa agreed. “The best thing we can do is help them learn how to take care of themselves.”

That seemed to generally be the sentiment all around, judging from what I’d seen of the rest of our new friends. There were a few who didn’t really want to fight at all, but most of them at least wanted to know how in case the time came that they had to.

By that point, the ship had finished settling in. A hatch opened along the side, and we watched as a ramp extended before two figures appeared at the top. Katarin and a man that was clearly Haiden Moon. I could see the resemblance between him and Tristan, though his hair was dark and worn long. He was ruggedly handsome, like he should have been stepping off a horse in some kind of western movie. They both descended, stepping easily down onto the deck.

“Well,” Vanessa and Tristan’s father started, “I guess we screwed that up. Weren’t we supposed to ask for permission to come aboard?”

“I’m not sure who you’d ask,” Larissa pointed out. “The job of captain seems to have been divided among three or four different people over here.”

Chuckling, the man took a look at us. “Well, I guess I don’t have to guess who you guys are. This must be Sandy. Your mom’s said a lot about you. Though I have to say, you’re not nearly as pretty as she claimed you were.”

“Sir,” a thoroughly unamused Gordon replied, “Sands is over there.”

Doing an exaggerated double-take, Haiden pointed. “Oh, there you are!” He stepped over, extending a hand with a smile. “Miss Mason, it is my great honor and privilege to finally meet you. Though I feel like I know you already.”

Sands shook his hand, blushing a little. While they spoke for a moment, I looked to Professor Katarin and blurted, “Okay, I can’t wait anymore!”

The man blinked at me. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve been trying to keep calm and focus on everything else,” I hurried on, babbling a little bit. “Because there’s so much else to do. But you’re here now, you’re right here, and we really need to find out before anything else goes wrong. Manakel. We know you got sent out here because you saw who his host was. So… so who was it? Who is he possessing? And tell me that it was the first thing you sent back through to Vanessa when she contacted you guys!”

“Ah.” The man lifted his chin. “Yes, well, there is a slight problem with that, when it comes to telling you who the Seosten’s host is.”

I frowned. “What do you mean, there’s a problem with it? Can’t you just tell us?”

He gave a long, low sigh. “I just did, Miss Chambers.”

“No you–” I stopped. Tabbris, did you?

N-no, she answered. I didn’t hear anything. I mean I don’t… remember…

“Oh,” I said simply. And then I cursed, long and loud.

A spell. They were using the same spell to stop Katarin from telling anyone who Manakel was possessing that had been used to stop me from telling people about Wyatt and Abigail, or that the people who had cast the spell that erased Mom’s identity were under to stop them from telling anyone else about her who didn’t already know. Or a similar effect anyway. This one was clearly stronger since it wasn’t limited to Earth. And it was even affecting Tabbris.

“Yup,” Haiden agreed. “That’s pretty much what we said. But hey, it’s not a total loss. Our new friend onboard might be able to do something about it, with a little help. He’s got some ideas about breaking the spell, but needed more juice to get it done.”

“New friend?” Jazz had joined us. She looked like she’d just woken up. “What new friend? You mean the mysterious fourth Heretic that you keep refusing to tell us anything about?”

They all exchanged glances before Larissa gestured. “Ah, it’s better if you meet him in person.”  

Professor Katarin was already moving back to the ramp. “Inside. He doesn’t do well in front of a crowd.”

At the reminder, I glanced the other way. Karees and his people were all there, staring at the new arrivals with obviously barely constrained fear. Yeah, Katarin had a point. If whoever this guy was happened to be that skittish about crowds, I couldn’t see it ending well if he had to come out.

So, with a collective shrug, we followed our professor and the others up into their ship. I had no idea who they wanted us to meet, who could have been out here that was so important, and apparently so traumatized that he had to stay away from large groups.

The answer, as it turned out, was a man that I didn’t recognize at all. He stood a short distance away from the entrance ramp as we climbed aboard, clearly having been close enough to listen to what was going on without exposing himself.

He didn’t look like anything all that impressive. Actually, he looked like any countless number of homeless veterans people passed on the street every day. He stood only about five foot six, a bare couple inches taller than me, his figure ragged and bone-thin. He had long, scraggly hair and beard, both of which were dirty blonde with flecks of brown and gray spread throughout.

Seeing us, the man opened his mouth to say something, only to stop and cough, clearing his throat noisily. When he finally did speak, his voice was rough and hoarse. “You. Hi. Hi. You would be… the… students. The students from Earth.”

“Guys,” Larissa started, stepping closer that way. “I’d like you to meet Dries Aken.”

Aken–wait. As I realized that that was the same last name as Bosch’s daughter, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon all made collective sounds of shock around me.

He’s alive? Tabbris squeaked inside my head, her own shock just as thorough as everyone else’s. They kept him alive all this time?!

“Y-y-you.” Sands’ voice cracked almost as much as the man’s had. “You… you’re alive? You killed… y-you killed Hieronymus Bosch. You killed him.”

Aken. Aken. As in… as in Avalon’s ancestor!? This guy, this guy was… was related to Avalon somehow. He was her… great, great, something something great something!

“Hi, sir,” I started to extend a hand toward the man, only to stop as he stepped back from me. From the look on his face, I might as well have offered him a live snake. His eyes darted to my hand and then back again, visibly forcing himself to relax. 

“It’s–” He started roughly before seeming to lose track of what he was saying. His eyes drifted up to the side, and I saw his mouth move a little like he was actually silently sounding out his next words, practicing. “I’ve been waiting to meet you,” he finally settled on. Then he nodded, as if convincing himself that he’d said the right words in the right order.

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly, lowering my hand. “It’s–” A thought struck me then. “Oh my God. Oh… my God,” I muttered, my eyes widening as I stared at him. “Do you guys know what this means?” As they all looked at me, I motioned wildly. “Look, we’re bringing back Sands’ and Scout’s mom, and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, right? And now, now–” I gestured at Dries like Vanna White. “We’ve even got Avalon’s ancestor! This is like… the family reunion roadtrip.”

“What… is a roadtrip?” the man asked, sounding confused as he looked at us.

“Um.” I paused. “It’s like when you start at home, then go for a really long trip just to visit someplace far away, for like… vacations. Or to visit family. Like you and Avalon, see? This is amazing.”

“Sure, okay.” Sands was nodding slowly. “But Flick, he’s also like… the worst criminal in our entire society. I mean, no offense, Mr. Aken, but the regular Heretics, the people who grew up in the knowledge, they see him as… as…”

“Hitler,” Jazz supplied. “Hitler mixed with Benedict Arnold… if he killed Jesus… by strapping him down in an orphanage and setting it on fire. Arsonist, Orphan-Murdering Benedict Hitler.”

I nodded slowly at that. “So what you’re saying is, to get Avalon have an actual relationship with her long-lost family member, we’d have to change an entire society’s opinion of the worst monster in their entire history.”

“Yeah, it’s totally– wait.” Sands squinted at me. “Are you saying it like that because you’re illustrating how impossible that would be, or because you’re adding it to your to-do list?”

I just smiled.

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Interlude 26B – Katarin, Haiden, and Larissa

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Percival posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

A little over a month ago.

“I believe–” Those two words, spoken in a simple, quiet voice that was at odds with the sheer size and football linebacker-like build of their speaker, were punctuated by a dull thud as the head of the green-skinned man that he was holding two feet off the ground smacked into the wall. “–that a bit of context is needed here.”

Ulysses Katarin continued, his hand literally covering the face of the smaller, alien man as he held him against that wall, muffling the figure’s protests and threats. “You see, I was born in a place called Desoto. It’s a territory on Earth that no longer exists. My coming-of-age was spent witnessing my home being devastated and ruined by the creatures known as Fomorians. I saw my parents and sister tortured, torn asunder, used as experiments in their breeding programs. The destruction and loss of Desoto was so complete that the only option was to erase it from both maps and from history, to wipe it completely out of the minds of all humanity. I became a Heretic after seeing just what these creatures were capable of, just how far they would go. I became a Heretic to stop any other living being from witnessing the loss that I witnessed.”

His second hand moved up to close around the figure’s throat, just tight enough to hold him in place while he removed his first hand from the man’s face. “So,” he went on, “when you think of how to respond to my question this time, it is very, very important that you bear that context in mind when I tell you that this has been an incredibly long day. I am, as they say, not in the mood. Now, for what will be the last time you will ever hear me speak these words in this order while you are still capable of coherent thought: where am I?”

Before showing up here, Katarin’s last memory was of stumbling across… the Seosten. That’s all he could think of them as now, the person he was supposed to be able to trust. Obviously, they were possessed. Realizing what was going on, he’d tried to do something about it. Through the resulting struggle, his opponent had produced a small orb, and Katarin had found himself transported to this place. There had been soldiers here, soldiers who were obviously waiting.

Keechun, the green-skinned roughly amphibian-like humanoid who had, up to about two minutes earlier, been boasting of those soldiers’ prowess and power as they stared down the newly arrived Heretic, made a rough gurgling sound. The armed figures he had used to threaten Katarin with lay broken and shattered around the floor of the research facility. When the grip on his throat loosened just a little more, he managed a strained, “Not supposed to be you.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Katarin replied. His eyes narrowed then. “But that doesn’t answer the question. Where am I? And now that you bring it up, who was I supposed to be?”

Even as he asked the question, the man focused on the man’s emotions. He’d killed a Stranger a long time ago that had given him the ability to read the emotions of anyone he was looking at. It gave him a distinct advantage in a lot of cases, particularly when kids in class were trying to get one over on him. And in this case, it meant he could probably tell if this one was lying.

“S-Seosten research facility Caleikas,” Keechun answered quickly. “You’re about as far from your–ehh, Earth as it’s possible to be. Without dimensional shifts, at top speed it would take the fastest ship in the Seosten fleet about two hundred and fifty years to get back to your planet.”

“Research facility…” Katarin murmured before straightening. “That–the Seosten who sent me here. The orb they used, it was meant for someone else. Someone you were waiting for. Who?”

The alien man looked like he wasn’t sure he should answer that, until a hard look from Katarin made him gulp before quickly explaining, “Th-the one called Chambers, the female that was–”

“Felicity Chambers.” Katarin frowned, straightening a little, which had the added effect of pulling his prisoner further up the wall. “Why were they trying to send Chambers to a research facility out in the middle of Seosten space?” he demanded in a tone that was even harder than before.

“Immune–she’s immune to their possession power,” Keechun managed to get out. “They want to us to take her apart, to find out why, how she’s immune. And it gets her out of the way. If she’s gone, they can focus on the other one, the founder’s descendant.”  

Obviously. Obviously the orb had been for Chambers. No wonder they were possessing… The very thought made Katarin grimace, head shaking. Obviously, they wanted Chambers gone to get her away from Avalon. Couldn’t possess her, so they wanted her out of the picture. Plus, it would distract everyone. Wyatt, Gaia, Dare, Avalon herself, they’d all be distracted, focusing on finding Chambers instead of protecting Avalon. If it had worked, it would’ve been devastating.

“How long will it take them to set up another one of those orb things?” he demanded, glancing around the facility. If they were planning on sending Chambers here, he’d have to find a way to-

“Menses,” Keechun answered quickly. “Several menses. It takes time to build them, to charge them. Sending someone this far, banishing them from that world? It’s not an easy process.”

Katarin frowned at that. “Menses. What is that? Hours, days–wait.” He turned his head a little, shaking it. “How can I understand you? Why are you speaking English right now?”

“He’s not.” The voice came from behind Katarin, and he turned sharply to find a dark-haired man standing in the doorway. A man who didn’t set off Katarin’s Stranger-sense, which meant that he was either one of the species who didn’t happen do so, or he was actually a–

“Human,” Katarin announced, staring at the newly arrived man for a moment until the memory clicked into place. “You’re human-wait, I know you. You’re the guy from Eden’s Garden, the one who took off and disappeared a little while back. Holt. Haiden Holt.”

“Right,” the other man replied casually while strolling into the room. “But actually, it’s Moon now. Has been since I got married. Haiden Moon. Sounds better than Haiden Holt, don’t you think?

“And,” he added easily, “like I said, the answer to your question is that they’re not speaking English. They’re speaking one of several languages that the Seosten use, that we call English. Latin is Old-Seosten, from their homeworld, and as they spread out through the universe, that ended up mixing with a lot of other species languages. So when they came to Earth, we got Old-Seosten, what we call Latin in Rome, then more of their languages spread out from there. Mostly English, since that’s their biggest trading language nowadays. But hey, guess you didn’t really ask for a lecture, huh? ” He took a look around then, whistling at the bodies. “Nice work.”  

Squinting, Katarin dropped Keechun, letting the green figure fall to the floor before putting a foot on him so he couldn’t slither away. “That’s far enough,” he announced while reaching to the small container at his belt. Flipping it open, he grasped the handle within and withdrew a long staff with a three-pronged blade at the end: a trident, his chosen weapon. “See, I know about the Seosten’s possession power. And you? You’ve been gone an awfully long time.” Hand gripping his weapon, he focused on what he could feel from the other Heretic. From what he could tell, there was no deception. But then again, could he really trust that in this case? Especially since he hadn’t been able to sense deception… before.

“Hey, great, you’re one step ahead of the curve.” Haiden smiled, holding both arms out. “But I’m not possessed. Not sure exactly how I can prove that in the time we’ve got, but we do need to get out of here. The Seosten are sending a fleet this way. And fun as it is to take apart their outposts, they do kind of have an advantage when it comes to numbers and technology.”

“Haiden’s right,” another voice announced then, as a female figure stepped around the man in question and into view. “We need to get out of here while we can still avoid the… Ulysses?”

All thought of suspicion and anger vanished in that moment. Katarin’s eyes widened, and he lost his grip on his weapon while staring at the figure who had appeared. “Larissa,” he breathed out before taking several steps that way. The next thing he knew, he’d lifted the woman off the floor, crushing her against his chest while making a noise that was decidedly not man-like. But he didn’t care. Only one thing mattered now, one thought that drowned out all others. “You’re alive.”

He could sense it. The empathic power he’d inherited meant that Katarin could sense the woman’s relief and joy. She was doing nothing to hide those feelings as she clung onto him. “Ulysses,” she repeated tenderly. “Oh my God, you have no idea how glad I am to see you.”

“Larissa.” It was all he could do to find his voice enough to say the name of his long-time friend. “Larissa, how are you–what are you–how?” Something caught in Katarin’s throat, and he leaned back, holding the woman in front of him to get a better look at her. It had been so long, years since he’d seen Larissa. She’d been a student of his, and then a colleague. But most of all, she was a friend. Losing her had been a terrible blow. One that he had experienced many times before, of course. And yet, somehow, that one had hurt even more than most.

“It’ll take a long time to explain all of it,” she quietly, yet quickly informed him. “And Haiden’s right, we need to get out of here before the Seosten reinforcements show up. They’re still too dangerous for even three of us to take on in a straight fight. We’ve got a ship nearby.”

“Ship,” Katarin raised an eyebrow. “As in a spaceship… yeah, you’ve got a lot to explain.”  

She grinned at that, hugging onto him even more tightly than before. “I will. And you can tell me how my girls are doing. It’s… it’s their first year at the school. They are… they are at the school?” When he nodded, Larissa looked like she was going to say something else, but stopped herself. Head shaking, she pulled him by the arm. “But we’ve gotta get out of here first.”  

So, with a last look back toward the bodies scattered around the floor and the green-skinned figure huddled in the corner pretending to be invisible, Katarin followed the other two Heretics. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, why Larissa had ended up out here, or how they were all going to get back home. But he did know one thing with absolute, crystal-clear certainty.

Whenever they found a way back to Earth, he was going to bring Larissa back to her family.

******

Present Day

The gray-skinned orc-creature let out a bellow of rage, which was cut off into pathetic gurgling as Katarin’s hurled trident took him in the throat. The weapon lifted the creature from the ground, sent him flying backward a dozen feet, and impaled itself (with the orc dangling by the throat) in the side of a great, stone tower that lay in the middle of this otherwise barren field.

“So what you’re saying is,” Katarin started while teleporting himself next to his weapon in order to yank it out so that the orc could fall back to the ground, “the Seosten brought their own languages to Earth just to make themselves a bit more comfortable while they were busy enslaving or mind wiping humanity.” As he spoke, the large dark-skinned man flicked a switch on his trident. The left prong began to glow green, even as he made a swift upward motion with it, followed by a sharp, outward thrust that moved straight out before sweeping down once more.

In response to the motion, a solid four foot wide pillar of earth (or ground, at least if they couldn’t call it earth) tore itself up. It followed Katarin’s gesture, dirt and rock moving like snake, weaving through the air before slamming into one of the winged demon-like Strangers who had been diving in toward them. The pillar of earth caught the flying creature, slamming into it hard before the downward gesture sent it down to piledrive the thing straight into the ground.

In the same motion, the man kept swinging the trident around and backward without bothering to look. The gray-orc, who had been struggling to pick itself up even with the traumatic damage to its throat, was impaled once more. That time, one of the prongs of the trident went through its left eye. It made a weak, gurgling noise of pain before collapsing lifelessly to the ground.

Katarin had been doing this for so long, over a hundred years by that point, that he barely noticed the pleasurable sensation of both Strangers’ deaths giving him their power.

Nearby, Haiden rose from the body of the Stranger whose chest he had driven his sword through. As his glowing bronze aura faded along with Katarin’s own silver glow, the man replied, “Pretty much. We’ve still got some of our own languages, but the Seosten influenced them so much it’s hard to tell where theirs end and ours start. Like I said,” he added while flipping the sword up and around to transform it into its shotgun form so he could take a shot at one of the nearby creatures, “Latin is mostly Old Seosten, from their homeworld. And English, hell, most of those Germanic languages, comes from the universal trading language most species speak.”

The past month (or Mensis in both Latin and Old Seosten, apparently) had been… incredibly busy. Katarin had learned enough to know he could trust Haiden Moon, as well as a lot of other things about all that was going on. But this was the first time they’d returned to this particular conversation about the language similarities. It had come up again since the three of them had eavesdropped on the orders being given to this same group minutes before ambushing them.

The last of that patrol that had stood in their way fell into two bisected halves, revealing Larissa in her water-form. Her arm was raised, a water-whip extending from her hand. It was that whip, a whip made of water, that had cut the Stranger in half lengthwise with a single lash.

She paused there like that, obviously taking in the rush of pleasure as her pink aura flared up before speaking. “When I first got here, I thought they were speaking some indecipherable alien language. Turns out, it was just Latin.” Pausing, the woman added with a briefly thoughtful frown, “I guess I really should’ve paid more attention to that class back when I was in school.”

“English has got a lot of other languages influences in it though,” Katarin mused as his eyes scanned the field for any more potential threats. “How does that work?”

“Well, sure,” Haiden agreed while stepping that way, “they’re not one hundred percent the same. Languages grow apart. But a lot of those other languages that influenced English are actually alien languages that influenced the Galactic Trading Language. The Germanic and Romance languages, mostly. Basically, Alters have been all over the planet for so long that their established languages had a lot better chance of sticking than anything new us humans came up with. Combine that with the Seosten using the Bystander Effect to erase everything humans used to know about non-human species and… well, you end up with us thinking we made up the language. Pretty convenient though, not needing a translator out here.”

Finally satisfied that the field was clear, the three of them walked around the stone tower where Katarin had impaled the earlier orc, toward the entrance that the patrol had been protecting. There was a metal door there, but Haiden simply made a sharp grasping gesture and the thousand pound, two foot thick thing crumpled itself into a ball and fell aside with a loud clang.

“So what do you think this place is?” Larissa asked while they moved in through the opening. Her voice echoed slightly through what turned out to be a large, empty space. Across the chamber, there was a set of stairs leading up further into the tower, and more leading down.

“All I know,” Haiden replied, “is that one of the shards from that banishment orb is here. Which means as soon as we grab it, we’ll be one step closer to being able to undo the spell, so I can get my memory back, get my wife back, and get home for our kids.”

It was… frustrating. Katarin had figured out very quickly that Haiden was the father of Vanessa and Tristan. But every time he told the man any of the details about that, he had forgotten. The same went for whenever Larissa tried to tell him what she knew about his wife. Just like a memory spell. The Seosten sure loved those.

Descending down into the depths of the tower basement, it soon became obvious that the place had been a prison of some kind, though it hadn’t been used for that in a very long time. What it was being used for, as well as who that patrol had been working for, was anyone’s guess. Not to mention the question of why it still looked like some kind of Earth medieval tower.

The basement was almost as empty as that first floor had been, save for one thing: a five foot wide, six foot high cage in the middle of the otherwise barren space. And in that cage sat a figure, faced away from them.

“I knew you’d come.” The voice was male, and it cracked a little as if from a long period of disuse. “I knew you’d make it here. It’s why I held onto this.” Without looking back to them, the figure held up a dirt-encrusted hand, revealing what looked like a small shard of black glass.

“The orb piece,” Haiden breathed, moving that way before stopping himself. “Who are you? How do you know what it does or that we want it? Why are you in that cage in the middle of nowhere? Why was there a small army guarding this place?”

“The tower is from Earth,” the man in the cage replied, his voice hoarse and dry. “They wanted to ensure that I had no way of leaving it, and did such a good job that they had to transport the entire thing here when they took me off the planet. Then they… mostly forgot about me. It’s been too long. I don’t matter that much to them anymore.”

“Who are you?” Larissa spoke quietly, moving forward a step. “Why did they imprison you and then forget about you?”

Slowly, the man reached out a pale hand to catch hold of the cage bars. He pulled himself up, bones creaking as he did so before turning to face them.

“You,” Haiden blurted, taking a reflexive step back in surprise. Beside him, Katarin said the same thing, while stepping forward.

“Him?” Larissa blinked in confusion, looking back and forth between the men. “Him who?”

“Yes,” the man in the cage confirmed quietly. “It’s me.”

“Dries Aken,” Haiden explained, without looking away from the caged man. “Hieronymus Bosch’s son-in-law, his daughter’s husband.

“And the man who killed Bosch himself.”  

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