The portal, as it turned out, led to the front porch of a cabin in the middle of the woods. The place looked cozy, almost storybook-like. The porch wrapped all the way around the small building, and there were a couple rocking chairs sitting next to the door. Those chairs were occupied when we arrived, by Vanessa and Tristan.
Both of them jumped up at our appearance, the latter giving a rueful smile. “Hey Flick,” he started, “and Tabs, I assume. Fancy meeting you guys here.”
“Nah,” I replied with a straight face, “he’s still back at the camp.”
Giggling clearly despite herself, Vanessa moved her eyes to look at Elisabet. “So we’re all here, what did you want from us? I mean besides to turn us into your perfect little examples of human-Seosten cooperation.”
“That is the end goal of all of this,” the woman replied simply with a nod. “But at this precise moment, we have brought you here to plan and train for a very important mission later today.”
“Mission,” Tristan echoed, “does that make us your angels?” He snickered at his own words before tilting his head at them. “Which one of you is Charlie and which one is Bosley?”
“Elisabet’s Bosley,” I pointed out then. “Because you never see Charlie, remember?”
Tabbris turned my hair pink before speaking up through me. “You guys are weird.”
Elisabet or Jophiel immediately jumped on that. Coming forward, they looked at me curiously while murmuring, “Very interesting. We assume this is a signal you have worked out already?”
Vanessa answered for us. “When she changes her hair or eyes white or pink, that’s Tabbris talking.”
When I nodded, my hair shifting back to normal, Elisabet smiled. “Very good. That is an excellent plan. We shall do much the same. When I am speaking, my hair shall remain dark. When Jophiel is speaking, it shall turn blonde.”
Sure enough, her hair immediately lightened so that Jophiel could say, “We are very glad to see you working together already.”
“Yeah,” I shot back, “we’re just great at the teamwork thing. So why are we here, exactly? You said something about a mission?”
I was tempted to say something more, thoughts of Rudolph’s funeral moving through my head, but managed to hold my tongue. There was no need to get overly antagonistic right now. Besides, part of me did acknowledge that without the two of them helping in the first place, I never would’ve saved Avalon the way I did. In some ways I was being irrational. But at least I was cognizant enough to know that and catch myself somewhat.
In answer, Jophiel (their hair was still light) gestured to make the door of the cabin open before heading that way. “Come,” she instructed, “we shall discuss it inside.”
So, we all followed her into what turned out to be a nice, cozy-looking interior. Basically all I could see was a small living room with a couch and a couple chairs in front of the fireplace, a small television, and an attached kitchenette. There was also a set of stairs leading up to what looked like a bedroom. I had been expecting something huge and elaborate, same old bigger on the inside thing. Instead, the cabin looked much the same inside as it did outside. Which, to be honest, was pretty surprising.
After letting us look around for a few seconds, Elisabet started, “Now, as we said, there is a mission to prepare for. But first, we would like to know if you have any specific questions for us.”
“Actually yeah,” I realized then while turning quickly to them. “Did you two know that Kushiel had little kids in that transport that Sariel was in?”
From the look on the woman’s face, I might as well have just announced that my father was marrying Jon Bon Jovi. Either they were both incredibly good actresses, which wouldn’t have been surprising, or they knew absolutely nothing about what I just said.
“What,” Jophiel demanded, “are you talking about?“
Vanessa answered for me. “Little kids. Toddlers. Seosten toddlers. There were four of them in one transport pod.” She explained about how we had found them, what their names were, and what else we knew.
“Alatheia’s child, even by proxy,” Jophiel murmured under her breath. “That is a new low, even for Kushiel.” She shook her head then, focusing on me. “No, we did not know about it. You may choose to believe that or not, as you wish. But as far as we were aware, all viable offspring were immediately shipped elsewhere. None should have stayed with Kushiel for longer than a week, let alone a couple of years. There are very few who are not aware that leaving that woman in charge of young, impressionable children would be a terrible idea. Think what you will of us, but we care for our children.“
Without missing a beat, I stared right back at her. “Unless their possession power is broken. Then you call them a lie and treat them worse than garbage. But yeah, you’re great family role models.”
That must have gotten through, because the woman flinched and walked away for a moment. I thought she might say something in defense of it, but when she straightened once more, the woman’s hair darkened to show that Elisabet was speaking. “We will look into this incident with the children remaining with Kushiel. And we will find out if it is an isolated incident or not. But for the time being, there is still a mission to perform.”
Tristan shrugged. “Okay then, Bosley. What are we doing?”
Elisabet explained. “There is a bus traveling along a back road in the middle of what you call Iowa. It is carrying a crate of special supplies. We would like you to take that crate and bring it here.”
Raising her hand, I shook my head quickly. “Wait, wait, wait. If you think we’re just going to do some dirty work for you and attack some innocent—”
Elisabet gave me a sharp look. “It is a Seosten supply transport, operating under the radar to avoid attention. The crate contains very rare magical supplies that are being delivered to our counterpart in Eden’s Garden.”
“Which means you can’t just grab them yourself,” I noted. “But why do you need the supplies in particular?”
It was Jophiel who answered. “As we said, they are very rare. And, as it happens, some of them are useful for a spell that we wish to help the two of you perform.” She nodded toward me and, I supposed, Tabbris. “It is a spell that you will find very useful, we assure you. But, it is one that requires very specific ingredients. Ingredients which are heavily monitored. We need you to steal them from that bus.”
Vanessa spoke up then. “Are you sure we can deal with the guards on that bus?”
Jophiel looked to her seriously. “If you can’t, we will have chosen our students rather poorly indeed.”
Her hair changed then to show that Elisabet was talking. “If we believed that the defending forces would be too much for you, we would not send you. We have no desire to have you killed in your first mission, I promise you that. And should things go wrong, we will find a way to influence it, even if that is simply to extract you. We will be monitoring the situation. But do not expect us to solve the problem for you. This is very much much a test. One that, should you succeed as we expect, will, as we said, provide the materials for a very useful spell.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by a spell that we would find useful. But it was pretty clear that they weren’t going to tell us anything more about it at the moment. So, I just sighed and looked to the twins. “In that case,” I announced, “I guess we should start planning out how we’re gonna do this.”
A few hours later, after going back to school to work with Harper and finish up that project, Tabbris and I were in position with Tristan and Vanessa.
The road was paved, but that was about all you could say about it. It led through what basically looked like an empty field that stretched on in every direction. There were a few houses here and there, but most seemed like they hadn’t been lived in for a long time, and were incredibly far apart. The road itself was cracked and potholed to death, looking as though it hadn’t been maintained in years, if not a decade.
Which probably wasn’t that big of a deal, since I doubted more than a few cars a day passed down this particular road. We were probably lucky that it wasn’t dirt.
The three of us, four with Tabbris counted, were crouched in a small grove of apple trees set just a bit back from the road. From this position, we would be able to see our quarry coming from as far away as possible. We would have plenty of time to prepare ourselves from the moment it appeared on the horizon. And with Vanessa’s telescopic vision, there would be no way to mistake what vehicle it was. Not that I expected to see any others before the bus, but still.
“You guys sure you’re ready for this?” I asked that before looking to the twins, biting my lip. “This is kind of a big deal. We don’t have any back-up or anything. I mean, we do, since I really think they’re telling the truth about not letting us get killed. But still. You know.”
Tristan nodded, glancing to his sister before replying, “We’re ready.” He looked to me then. “Actually, I was just thinking about how many times your mom probably did something like this while she was running the rebellion. You know, a quiet mission to ambush some transport or something along a back road, it seems like something she would’ve done a lot.”
Despite myself, I smiled just a little bit. “Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. I mean, I doubt she was doing it for the same reasons, but there’s… there’s definitely something there.”
Tabbris spoke up through me then. “We’ll get her back. That’s part of why we’re learning all this. We get better and better, and then save your mama.”
Vanessa nodded firmly at me. “She’s right, you helped us get our mom. We’ll help you get yours. Whatever it takes.”
“Damn straight,” Tristan agreed, “We’ve got your back. I’m pretty sure we–what the?” Interrupting himself, the boy abruptly jerked around, looking up into the trees.
“What?” I blurted, looking the same way. There was nothing there. The trees were empty.
“I…” Tristan frowned, looking over the branches. “I swear I thought I saw a… a shadow.”
“A shadow?” Vanessa echoed.
He nodded. “I mean the shadow of a person. I thought I saw a person’s shadow, from right above us. Right there.” He pointed into the tree, at a particularly large branch.
“Right there?” I blinked at that. “Someone that close, who didn’t set off any of our senses and who disappeared that quick? Who would that be? I mean, it wouldn’t be Elisabet and Jophiel. They wouldn’t be hiding.”
“I don’t–” Tristan started, before pointing. “Wait, there’s the bus.”
Sure enough, a shape had appeared at the far end of the road, off in the distance. Vanessa turned that way along with me, clearly focusing her vision for a moment before giving a quick nod. “That’s them, unless there’s some other red bus that fits the exact same description coming along the same road at this exact time.” Looking to rest of us she shrugged. “Hey, it could happen.”
Smiling just a little, I replied, “Let’s operate under the assumption that it’s the right one. You guys ready for your part?”
In answer, Tristan immediately shrank down dramatically. Suddenly, he was only about a foot tall. That was one of the powers he had picked up while we had been fighting to save Sariel back at Kushiel’s lab. He could shrink down to about one foot in height, or grow to a whole ten feet.
Doing so made him shrink out of his clothes, but revealed a previously invisible blue Seosten jumpsuit. Vanessa had one too, gifts from their mother to protect her children’s privacy when they shapeshifted. If anyone back at the school asked, they had been made by Nevada.
At the same time, Vanessa’s form changed as well, shrinking out of her own clothes while her jumpsuit appeared. But she wasn’t simply shrinking, the girl was turning into her raven form.
When she was totally transformed a few seconds later, the girl flapped a few times and flew over to pick up her shrunken brother by the arms. With a soft caw, she took off up into the air, flying low at first to stay away from the side of the road before climbing rapidly. As Tabbris and I watched, the two went high into the air, banking around to head back for the road.
“Okay,” I murmured, “almost our turn.”
As we watched, the bus got closer and closer. I could see a man of some kind crouched on top of the bus holding what looked like a rifle or something. He apparently hadn’t noticed Vanessa and Tristan high above, his attention focused on the road ahead or at the fields around them. It was a mistake that would cost him, and the rest of his group.
The bus was just about to pass the grove where I was crouched. It was close enough by then that I could see through the windshield to the driver. It looked like an Orc of some kind, complete with tasks. His big green hand was on the steering wheel as he bellowed something I couldn’t hear. Maybe he was singing.
Either way, he was about to have a very bad day. First I focused on creating a portal. One end appeared just in front of me, while the other appeared right in front of the man’s face. With that, I reared back. My hand immediately secreted a thick, gooey liquid that would make whoever it touched nauseous. Like Tristan‘s size changing, it was a power I’d gained back at the lab. Tabbris told me about it in the hospital, and I had practiced a little bit since that night.
Then I used another power I had gained to turn the liquid into a soft orb, before pitching it forward through that portal. The Orc barely had time to see the portal appear, before he was suddenly splashed in the face by a semi-solid ball that exploded into liquid which immediately made him violently nauseous.
The reaction was instantaneous, the bus careening off the road and into the field while the Orc hurled his lunch and dropped the wheel.
At the same time, the Vanessa raven dove toward the bus. She shot through an open window at the back, before shooting out the other side. I could no longer see Tristan in her talons. She’d dropped him off inside the bus.
Lunging to my feet, I bought my staff to my hands and used it to launch myself forward and up. That made me a perfect target for the guy on the roof, who snapped his rifle my way. But before he could actually pull the trigger, Vanessa was there. She had flown up and around, to put herself back on top of the bus. Her talons raked the guys face, and he jerked backward before shooting his rifle off into the distance.
Landing on the hood of the bus in a crouch, I saw inside to where a now back-to-normal-size Tristan was busy ruining the day of the guys at the back. They were just starting to turn on him, reacting to the threat. Well, except for the driver, who was still on his knees puking his guts out. That nausea inducing stuff was apparently pretty strong.
I couldn’t leave Tristan alone in there, so I lashed out with my staff, triggering a short explosive burst that shattered the windshield. I was through immediately, hopping over the poor driver to put myself right at the front of the bus, and behind the guys who had been moving for Tristan.
Above, on top of the bus, I could hear a roar just before the roof caved in part way. Vanessa had turned into her bear and was dealing with the guy there. I almost felt sorry for him.
The guards on the bus froze at the sound as the roof crumpled slightly. Their eyes snapped from that, back to Tristan, and then to me.
“Sorry, guys,” I apologized while lifting my staff. “We kind of need this cargo more than you do.”
Apparently they disagreed, because the guards suddenly threw themselves into a desperate attack.
Well, no one said this little trip was supposed to be easy. Grimacing, I brought my staff up and met their charge.
“You allowed some to escape,” Jophiel noted a short while later. We were back at that cabin once more, with the crate that they had wanted.
“Everyone who tried to,” I confirmed. “If we could knock them out, we did. If they tried to escape, we let them go. Believe it or not, we don’t exactly want to kill everybody that you point out. Is that going to be a problem?”
There was a brief pause then as the two obviously conferred before shaking their head. Elisabet answered, “Unless it prevents you from completing the mission that we assign you, no. We were simply making an observation.”
Jophiel spoke then. “You actually did quite well. We were impressed by the plan you devised and your execution of it. You are all already quite beyond the normal skill of your age group.”
Tristan shrugged. “Just call us overachievers,” he murmured before using his foot to lightly nudge the crate. “So what’s in this thing that’s so important. What was that spell you were talking about?”
Vanessa nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s got some kind of magical super lock on it. Are you sure you can get into it?”
With a slight smile, Jophiel replied, ”Yes, we are quite certain we will be able to open it. As for what is inside, they are very rare ingredients, as we said. A few of them are quite necessary for a spell that we will teach you.” She looked to me at the end of that.
“Yeah,” I replied, “you said it would be a very useful spell for us to learn. How useful?”
Elisabet smiled even more then. “It is a spell that we performed many centuries ago for ourselves. It will allow Tabbris to access any of your powers even while she is not possessing you.”
My eyes widened at that, both from my own reaction and my partner’s. “Use the powers even apart from me?” I blurted in surprise.
“Yes,” Jophiel confirmed. “So long as you are not actively using them yourself, she will be able to use them as well. This will allow you to act even more as partners. But as we said, it is a complicated spell with very rare ingredients. We will need to have you practice it for quite a while before you were ready to use the actual components. We wouldn’t want you to… ahh, mess up, after all.”
“Holy shit, Flick,” Tristan muttered, “that sounds amazing.”
All I could do was nod silently, taking in the implications of just such an ability. They were right, if Tabbris could actually use my powers separate from me, that would make us even more effective. Not to mention how much it would allow the other girl to protect herself. I had no idea how or if we’d be able to explain such a thing later if we needed to, but still…
In some ways, maybe learning from these two wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially if they managed to get me more prepared to deal with Fossor when the time came.
“Hey, Flick!” the cheerful, peppy voice called a short time later, as I was walking across the school grounds.
“Oh, hey, Harper.” Waving to her as she approached, I asked, “What’s up?”
Grinning at me, the pink-haired hyperactive girl replied, “I just thought I’d let you know that I showed what we did to Professor Vandel, and he says it’s an A project.” She gave me a thumbs up. “So we did good.”
Her smile was infectious, and I couldn’t help but return it, even if my school grades were kind of the least of my concerns right then. “Oh, right, cool. Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Sure you could!” Harper insisted. “I think you can do a lot of things if you put your mind to them. But we do deserve a reward, so…” She produced something in one hand, tossing it to me. “Reward apple!”
Catching it, I blinked. Sure enough, it was an apple. “This looks fresh.”
Her head bobbed. “It is! My mom sends me a care package from our backyard orchard sometimes. I use most of the fruit for baking, but uhh, something told me you might like that one by itself. I’ve got other fruit too if you want that instead.”
“Oh, that’s okay. Thanks.” Shrugging, I took a bite of the apple. She was right, it was good. And definitely fresh.
It was funny. Not so long ago, I had been hiding in a grove of apple trees while waiting for that bus to appear. And now, I was eating an apple.
“Sure you’re not a serpent?” I asked then, while taking another bite.
She blinked at that. “A serpent?”
“Sure,” I replied while gesturing. “You know. Apple. Serpent?”
Getting it, she giggled. “Wouldn’t we need to be at Eden’s Garden then?”
“Good point,” I agreed. “I guess you’re not a serpent then.”
“Nope,” she chirped easily, “definitely not a serpent.
“Just plain old Harper.”