Elisabet

Summer Epilogue 5B (Heretical Edge)

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Neither Jophiel nor Elisabet responded outwardly to Gwen’s words at first. Instead, they simply glanced to one another for a brief moment, communicating silently. After a few seconds of that, the Seosten woman plucked her glass up daintily, taking a slow sip from it as though savoring the taste. Only then, once she had thoroughly enjoyed that single sip and set the glass back down, did she finally speak.

“You believe that something needs to be changed about our arrangement with the children, Queen Knight of Camelot?” Her tone was a mix of vague challenge and more curiosity.

Meeting her gaze, Gwen replied evenly, “I believe that you took advantage of your position of power over these children, and their desperation, to make an arrangement that suits you far more than it does them. More to the point, I believe you are forcing them to repeatedly and consistently lie to the people they care about, which is an odd thing to do for someone who is supposedly trying to advocate trust and alliance amongst humans and Seosten.”

It was Elisabet’s turn to speak then. “You’re right, it’s not ideal. But it’s for our safety. If word of our intentions with Miss Chambers or Sariel’s children were to get out, we would be expelled from our position and likely hunted down by Jophiel’s own people.” She paused briefly before adding, “And I would be hunted by my own people. Our position is rather tenuous.”

Tabbris abruptly put in. “Oh boy, a secret that could really hurt someone if it got out. Yeah, you better use magic to keep us quiet, cuz we’ve never had anything to do with something like that.”

Clearing her throat, Jophiel gave the young girl a brief squint before speaking again. “Experienced or not, we were and are not willing to put our lives in the hands of children. Look at what happened with Manakel possessing Miss Kohaku. Gaia Sinclaire had no clue. Even if we did wish to tell you which people we know are possessed currently or recently, we are not aware of all of them, particularly those who move often. The odds of our secrets getting out rise exponentially with every person who knows them. Given the amount of friends and family close to these four… that is an unacceptable risk.”

Tristan shook his head with a blurted, “That’s bullshit.” As everyone looked to him, the boy flushed a little but pushed on. “Yeah, sure, it’s a risk. But everything we do is a risk. Besides, we know how to check for possession now. We know how to guard against it. There’s about to be a spell that makes it impossible for any Heretic to be possessed without permission! We’re taking care of things on our end. And you’re still making us lie to everyone we care about. Like Tabs said, we’ve had secrets to keep all year long. It’s not just yours.”

With a little nod, Flick agreed, “I don’t like lying to my friends, or my dad. Actually, I hate it. You want to teach us how to have an alliance with your people, how to trust your people and work with them? But you’re not willing to take a risk yourselves. You might be a lot more powerful than we are, but you’re both so paranoid about someone you know finding out who and what you really are that you might as well be helpless. You’d rather we risk destroying our relationships with the people we care about, than you risk other Seosten finding out you love each other. Yeah, that wasn’t hard to figure out, for the record. You want to prove Seosten and humans can work together? Then stop making us lie to the people we’re supposed to trust.”

“Like I said,” Gwen announced, “we’re going to renegotiate this little agreement from a more equitable point of view. Yes, being cautious is understandable. You are taking a risk. But so are these kids. And there’s plenty of ways to make sure the people they’re talking to aren’t possessed. But first thing first, they couldn’t exactly tell me the whole story. So why don’t you two tell me instead? I want to hear the entire arrangement and plan, not just what I’ve inferred or gotten through eavesdropping. All of it. Then we can talk about how to make it more fair for everyone.”

Again, Jophiel and Elisabet exchanged glances. The latter opened her mouth to speak, but Gwen held a hand up to interrupt. “Wait. Actually, you put this on first.” With a flick of her wrist, she produced a bracelet, tossing it to the Seosten woman. “You know what it is?”

Catching the bracelet, Jophiel frowned at the small reddish-gold gemstone in the middle. “… Jaresh stone.” Her eyes snapped up to stare at Gwen. “You want to block my Tartarus power.”

“Tartarus power?” Flick echoed, blinking back and forth between the women. “You mean the other-dimension Olympian thing? That stone can do that?”

“Yes, it can,” Gwen confirmed. “As you might imagine, it’s very rare. And the power of the gem is drained relatively quickly.” Her eyes moved back to Jophiel. “Yes, I want you to put it on before Elisabet speaks. You know, just to make sure this entire… relationship you both have is actually her choice and not your little ‘shift the emotions someone feels about someone else to me’ power. If you two really trust each other, if your feelings are genuine, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Mmm,” Jophiel murmured, “of course not. And yet, you are asking me to put myself at a disadvantage. Should you have ill intentions–”

“I’m sure you’ll be just fine,” Gwen interrupted. “After all, if Elisabet’s feelings for you are real, she’ll protect you. So you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Let’s just call this practice, for you actually risking yourself a little bit instead of risking everyone else.”  

Pausing for a moment before heaving a slow, soft sigh, Jophiel nodded. “Fair enough,” she muttered before slipping the bracelet on. The stone flared brightly for a second before fading once more to a dim glow. “There,” she announced while holding her wrist out for inspection. “I cannot use my Olympian power. Everything my Sianame feels is her true, real feelings.”

Gwen took a moment, looking the bracelet over to make sure Jophiel hadn’t pulled a fast one somehow. Nodding in satisfaction, she looked to Elisabet. “First, why don’t you tell us how you feel about Jophiel here?”

The answer came immediately. “She is my Sianame, my partner. I love her more than anyone in the universe. I would do anything for her, and she’d do anything for me. That’s why we wouldn’t let the children tell anyone about our arrangement, because we won’t risk each other. We…” She paused, swallowing. “We want to fix things between our species, but we didn’t know how. But with Vanessa and Tristan there, our species can produce viable offspring together. That has to mean something. We have to convince the Seosten to work with humanity. The only way we knew of how to do that was to train them, so they could show the Seraphim how much better things could be with an alliance.”

“I seem to recall another of your members suggesting an alliance with my husband,” Gwen pointed out. “In fact, she convinced him enough to bring him to a vulnerable location for a ‘chat’. That turned out to be a trap. Why should we believe that this is anything different?”

It was Jophiel who spoke. “That was Chayyiel. And she did not betray Arthur. Puriel betrayed her by attacking their meeting point against her request. A betrayal which Chayyiel did not take kindly to, considering her promise to kill Puriel should he ever attempt to give her one more order.”

Showing no outward reaction to that, Gwen watched the Seosten woman for a moment before speaking again. “As I understand it, she has already negotiated your leadership into a potential alliance with humanity, in response to the impending Liesje spell.”

“An alliance,” Jophiel confirmed, “or invasion. They have not decided which. We have one year to prove that an alliance would be preferable to full enslavement. Which is why we must step up our training endeavors.”

“Does she know about what we’re doing here?” Vanessa put in. “Chayyiel, I mean.”

Jophiel started to respond that before pausing. “I… would say no, but it is Chayyiel. Who knows what that girl is aware of. She learned from the Apocalypse Twins, and has only improved on their teachings in many ways. That said, I do not believe so.”

From there, Elisabet and Jophiel explained the full original agreement to Gwen, who waited through all of it with only a few questions and clarifications. Finally, the former (and many would say current) queen of Camelot announced, “Yes, we’re changing that deal. You’ll get everything you wanted. The children can still agree to train with you. But you are going to remove the requirement that they not tell anyone about it. Yes, it puts you in danger. Just as they are in danger every time they interact with you. Just as they have been in danger for so long. If you want some measure of trust to be extended to you, then you will extend some as well.”

“We’re not gonna go blabbing it everywhere,” Tabbris piped up. “But making us always lie about it is wrong. How’re you gonna convince Mama and the others that you really want to be friends if you’re making us lie to them all the time? I mean… you do know that you’d eventually have to explain all this to them? If your plan works, I mean. If it works, and Seosten become allies with humans, you’d have to explain to Mama what you did.”

Vanessa stepped forward, hesitating slightly before putting herself in front of Elisabet. “When you guys pretended to be Mrs. Reibach while I was in the foster system, you were nice to me. You took me out for ice cream and helped me. You helped me feel like I wasn’t just crazy. I thought you were the only person there who cared about me.”

Swallowing, the Spanish woman lowered her head briefly before raising her gaze once more to meet Vanessa’s. “I did care about you, Vanessa. I do. We do. We care about you very much. We had… several discussions about possibly taking you in ourselves. But that would have been too dangerous. Not only for us, but for you as well. The best we could do was ensure that Kushiel did not take you.”

“You protected me,” Vanessa murmured. “I’m… I was free because you and Jophiel made sure the other Seosten didn’t take me in. Kushiel… she… she would’ve done bad things. You guys stopped her. You protected me. I never really had a chance to thank you for that.” Lifting her chin, she stared into the woman’s eyes. “I wouldn’t betray you. I won’t go telling everyone about you and Jophiel. I know it has to be a secret. We all know that. Please. Don’t make us hurt our families anymore. Don’t make us lie to them just to protect yourselves.”

On the heels of those words, Flick quietly added, “Just think about how you two would feel if you were put under a magic spell to lie to each other all the time, about anything, let alone something this important. This isn’t just something like lying about who ate the last cookie. We are working with the Seosten possessing one of the Crossroads Committee members, and we can’t tell anyone. You’re making us lie to the people we love, because you don’t want to put the person you love at risk. Isn’t that fucked up for people who want to make an alliance?”

Tristan nodded. “Seriously. Come on, let’s work together by working together. Like Nessa said, we’re not about to go blabbing everything all over the place. We’re smarter than that. You wanna be allies, let’s be allies by trusting each other. I mean, from what you said, we’ve only got a year to work all this out. We’re never gonna get there if you’re making us lie all the time. Yeah, it’s a risk. Everything’s a risk.”

Finally, Flick finished with, “What it comes down to is a choice, I guess. If you want to be perfectly safe, you guys could ignore us. Hell, you’re strong enough, I bet you could go off by yourselves and be just fine. If all you care about is each other, you could probably be just fine without anyone’s help. I’m pretty sure no one could track you down if you put your mind to disappearing. So you could do that.

“But I don’t think you want that. I think you want to make this alliance work. I think you really want humans and Seosten to work together. And the only way we’re gonna do that in one year is with some risks, and some trust. From both sides.”

In the end, it was Jophiel who sighed and looked to Elisabet. “I suppose they have a point.”

“But it’s still a risk,” the other woman pointed out quietly. She looked to Gwen and the others. “Give us a moment?” Receiving a nod, she and Jophiel stepped over to the other side of the clearing, using a spell or ability to mask their conversation as they spoke quietly and intently.

“Thanks for coming,” Vanessa softly said toward Gwen. “Even though everything we said would be true without you, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be as quick to listen.”

Gwen, in turn, smiled easily. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I don’t mind playing muscle sometimes. Besides, like you said, it’s all true. It’s not fair that you have to lie to everyone you care about. That’s not how you foster an alliance. And they took advantage of your desperation to save your mother to make you agree to it. Whether their overall intentions are noble or not, that’s what they did. And it’s wrong. If they want a true alliance, they’ll do it from closer to even ground.”  

“You’re all correct.” That was Jophiel, who had moved back to them with Elisabet at her side. She still wore the faintly glowing bracelet. “We have discussed it, and in the interest of ensuring a lasting, true alliance between our people, we will agree to remove the prohibition against discussing it with anyone.” Even as she said those words, the woman’s voice seemed to tremble just a little. It was obvious that she was truly afraid of what might happen.

“However,” Elisabet added, “we would request time first. Before you begin discussing our arrangement with anyone, we would ask for two weeks. We’re not saying you are incapable of keeping secrets. But the Seosten are incredibly good at ferreting those secrets out at the worst possible time, regardless of your intentions or how careful you are. We would like to use those two weeks to prepare potential countermeasures and… escape plans in case things go wrong. We have things we can do to prepare for being exposed and to provide some advance warning should worse come to worst.”

“We know this is a lot to ask,” Jophiel informed them. “Particularly after you have made such compelling points about not lying to your loved ones. But we hope you will understand our own precaution. The Imperium is not forgiving. Should word of our relationship escape and we not know about it, there is a chance that… that they will take her from me.” She swallowed hard then, looking from Gwen to Flick and meeting the girl’s gaze. “Please. We will undo the spell and allow you to tell your loved ones, if you give us two weeks to prepare.”

Felicity and the rest all looked to one another before Vanessa spoke up. “I don’t see why we couldn’t do that. It’s an alliance, right? That means compromise. We can keep quiet for two more weeks while you get ready in case something goes wrong.”

“Yeah,” Flick agreed, “we’re not gonna be assholes about it. Deal, we’ll wait a couple weeks for you to set up your countermeasures and escape plan or whatever.”

Clearing her throat, Gwen gave a very faint smile. “It seems that you have come to an agreement. So let me make my own promise. Should either of you prove untrustworthy or should I believe for a second that you are putting these children at greater risk, I will end the arrangement as… thoroughly and permanently as needed.”

She stared intently at Jophiel. “I don’t know if I trust you. But I do know that the Fomorians are worse than anything your people might do to this world and everyone on it. So you’re right, we need an alliance. We need to work together. Just don’t give me a reason to think you’re playing us, or that either of you are a threat to these guys.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment of that, Jophiel watched the woman carefully. Her tone was soft. “If I might ask, your purpose at Crossroads, was it to seek the Merlin Key or something else?”

“We are far from any point in our relationship where I might answer that question with anything truthful,” Gwen pointed out in a flat voice. “Suffice to say, I am not done at Crossroads. Not by a long shot.”

“Merlin Key?” Tabbris piped up. “What’s–”

“The Key of Merlin,” Elisabet informed them, “is a person who will help to wake Arthur from… who will bring him back to life. It was a prophecy given by fifteen different seers across the world at the exact second of his… pseudo-death. Fifteen seers that we know of, anyway. At the exact second of his fall, these fifteen unrelated, unconnected seers announced that a child known as the Key of Merlin would awaken Arthur.”

Staring at her, Flick managed, “And you guys think that it’s someone at Crossroads?”

“I know they are,” Gwen confirmed. “But I do not know who, exactly. I was making progress, until… well, until all of this happened. Perhaps they are still at the school, or perhaps they fled. Unless…” She looked to Jophiel and Elisabet.

“We do not know either,” Elisabet replied. “You may believe that or not, but it is the truth. However, we may know someone who does.”

Eyes snapping to the woman then, Gwen spoke in a sharp tone. “Do not toy with me.”

“Arthur was amenable to an alliance with Chayyiel,” Jophiel pointed out. “We would not exactly be against his return, in that regard. Again, give us two weeks to prepare, and we will tell you what we know.”

For a moment, it looked as though Gwen might argue with that. Her desperation to finally be reunited with her husband was so great that it took a physical effort for the woman to contain herself. She took in a long, deep breath before letting it out, her voice soft. “Very well. You can have two weeks to prepare for everything going wrong. After that, you will break the secrecy spell to allow these guys to tell the truth to their loved ones. And you will tell me everything you know about bringing back mine.”

“We can agree to that,” Elisabet murmured thoughtfully, nodding. “And as a show of good faith, there is something you should be aware of, concerning your… friend who was taken.”

Blinking once, Flick asked, “You mean Sean? What about him? I mean… wait, he’s okay, right? Dare said they wouldn’t really hurt him, just lock him up. But if they–”

“He is physically well,” Elisabet assured her. “But their methods of changing his mind, of… of breaking him of this loyalty to you are barbaric. And risk destroying his mind if something is not done.”

She explained what was happening then, that Sean had been put in a cell that accelerated time. For every day that passed in the outside world, weeks and months would pass in there. Weeks and months where he was left alone, with only the occasional visit from Crossroads loyalists to wear him down.

“Oh my God, Sean…” Putting a hand against her mouth, Flick gasped before cursing. “Ruthers. It’s Ruthers. It’s his plan, isn’t it? He’s the one who–”

“Litonya, actually,” Jophiel interrupted. “This is her doing. She is the one pulling the strings of this particular endeavor.”

“Then get him out!” That was Vanessa, her eyes wide. “We thought we could get ready and get him out of there in like a month or two. But–but two months? That’s years in there! He can’t stay in there that long. He’ll be–they’ll make him–they… get him out!”

“As I said,” Jophiel replied shortly, “The prison is being run by Litonya. We have no authority there. Or at least none that would not be run by her first. We cannot extract him without exposing ourselves. If we are exposed to Crossroads, we will be exposed to all of our people. That will be the end of any authority we might have. We understand your loyalty to your friend. But this is not something we can risk.”

Tristan started to open his mouth to argue, but Flick held up a hand. “What if there was something you could do? Not taking him out of there, but a way you could help him without completely exposing yourselves?”

Meeting her gaze, Jophiel asked, “What do you have in mind?”

“You might not be able to break him out without Litonya and everyone else finding out,” Flick replied, “But you’d know what kind of security measures are on him. I mean, maybe you can’t march in there and order him released, but you know what they’ve got to stop that from happening.”

Elisabet glanced to her partner before squinting at the blonde girl. “If you think you have a way of taking that boy out of that cell just because we give you the security details–”

“No.” Flick’s head shook. “I don’t know how to get him out, not yet. But I think I know how to help him.

“Or rather, who can help him.”

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Summer Epilogue 5 (Heretical Edge)

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“Let me guess,” Felicity Chambers announced while staring at a wall packed full of dozens of various mounted animal heads and other such trophies, “this cabin belongs to a devout vegetarian.”

Behind her, three more figures stood, also staring at the trophies. They were Vanessa and Tristan Moon, and the younger sister of all three of them, Tabbris. All four were here in this hunting cabin together, far from the Atherby camp. The smallest of the group was standing between her two half-siblings, her eyes wide as she stared almost face-to-face with an enormous boar head. “I hope whoever lives here never meets Choo!” she squeaked out.

“Pfft,” Tristan retorted, “Trust me, li’l dipper, that lightning pig would wipe the floor with whoever set all this up.” He glanced toward the majestic-looking elk head that served as the display’s centerpiece, grimacing a little at the look of the thing. “And let’s not let Salten into this place any time soon. I’m pretty sure he’d tear the whole place down pretty damn quick.”

“Cornelius there put up a wonderful fight,” a voice from the nearby cabin doorway. As the four turned that way, they found themselves looking at a man with dark hair cut short along both sides and artfully tousled on top. He wore dark green army camo pants and a black turtleneck, with sunglasses. On one hip was a pistol, while a knife was attached to his opposite leg. He also wore heavy boots on his feet, as well as an easy smile that was somehow charming and disarming despite how on edge the group obviously was.

“Hi there,” the man announced. “Sorry if I startled you guys. I’d say it was unintentional, but I did kind of want to see if I could still get away with it. But it was probably rude. I’m sorry for it.”

“I didn’t sense you at all,” Flick murmured, her eyes watching the man intently. “Who are you?”

“And what are you doing here?” That was Vanessa, as she leaned up on her toes as though to look past him, searching for the person the four of them were actually waiting at this cabin for.

“Shit, sorry. Yeah, you’re probably confused and a bit lost right now,” the man realized. “Okay, introductions. First of all, Jophiel sent me. I’m supposed to make sure things are copacetic here. I guess you could call me the acceptable loss if there’s a problem. But that’s okay, I’m pretty used to being in that position.” He extended a hand to them. “The name’s Orion.”

That made everyone in the group do a sudden double-take. Tabbris was the first to blurt, “Orion?! Like… like… Mama’s Orion? But–but… but…”

With an easy smile, the man, Orion apparently, nodded to her. “Yup, that Orion. And yeah, Sariel and I were… friends. Pretty good friends, actually. At least for a little while. I liked her. Still do, from what I’ve heard. She’s a good woman. Strong woman. And it looks like she had some really good kids.”

Biting her lip with a glance toward her siblings and friend, Vanessa then looked back to the man. “You said… friends. So you guys–I mean, the myths said… and Uncle Apollo…”

Orion’s head shook. “Nope, we weren’t like that. Just friends. Maybe with a few–ahh, never mind. It’s personal. But the point is, Sariel and I were good friends for awhile. What happened between us at the end of that was… kind of personal. You should ask your mom if you want to know about it, it’s probably not my story to tell. Not without her permission, anyway.”

“But why are you here?” Tristan finally managed. “I mean, why are you working with Jophiel?”

“Now that’s a good question,” Orion confirmed. “I’m not… really working with her so much as working for her. See, I’m kind of a mercenary. Jophiel hired me because she thought my history with Sariel and Apollo would make this whole thing a little bit easier. Like I said, Sariel was my friend. I still consider her one. Her and Apollo both, even if we haven’t really… even if we haven’t exactly been close for a long time. Jophiel hired me because she knew I’d never do anything to hurt Sariel’s kids, or even be a part of anything that did. That’s why I’m here.”

“And yet,” Vanessa murmured, “you’re still okay with working for Jophiel.”

The man met her gaze. “I’ve worked for a lot worse than her, believe me. Don’t get me wrong, I have my lines I won’t cross. No children, no innocent civilians, that kind of thing. But there’s a hell of a lot of gray area between that and being a paladin of righteousness. And Jophiel’s closer to the light side of that line than you might think. Closer than plenty of others, anyway. So yeah, I’m working for her. Because her money’s good. And because I want to make sure whatever meeting you guys have goes smoothly, for Sariel and Apollo.”

“Sounds like she didn’t tell you much,” Flick noted thoughtfully, looking the man up and down.

“I didn’t ask her much,” Orion corrected. “Because I don’t need to know. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure this meeting goes smoothly, and that it’s not a trap.”

Looking over her shoulder at the elk trophy, Vanessa curiously asked, “You called that thing Cornelius. Does that mean this is your cabin? She just sent us that whistle and told us to blow it while we were all touching to come here.”

He nodded. “This is one of my places, yeah. And for the record, I put up trophies of my hunts that were the strongest, the smartest, the most impressive. I honor the creatures who have earned a place on that wall, or any of my walls. Because I want them to be remembered. Cornelius… I hunted him seventeen times. He kept getting away. That last time, I… I had him. I had him and I almost let him go. I almost let him escape again. But that would have been an insult. It would have tarnished his memory. His place of honor there, in the center, is because I respected him. His meat went to feed a hungry family. He did not die in vain, or for simple glory. But his glory will be remembered nonetheless. I will not forget him.”

The man let that settle for a few seconds before he spoke again. “And in any case, I was told to come here and meet with five people, not four. Actually, the fifth one is the reason this meeting is happening. I’m assuming you would’ve already told me if there was that big of a change, so they must be–”

It was his turn to be taken by surprise, as Gwen spoke from behind the man. “They were also making sure this wasn’t a trap.” She waited for him to turn to face her before raising an eyebrow. “It’s been a long time, Orion.“

“You guys know each other?” Flick put in before amending, “I mean, that’s not really all that surprising, I guess. But still, you know each other?”

A small smirk touched Gwen’s face. “You could say that. Arthur and his knights fought with and against him a few times. Depending on who was paying his salary at the time.” Her chin rose then. “Arthur always said that he respected you in a lot of ways. Even if there were times that he didn’t really like you. He knew you were a man of principle.”

“That’s funny,” Orion remarked with a curious look. “She said I was meeting with a woman who claimed to be the mysterious and always masked Lancelot. But here before me I see a woman who looks very much like the good king’s lovely wife, Guinevere. It does raise a few questions.”

“Questions are fun things to have,” Gwen replied easily. “But right now, all you need to know is that you can call me Lancelot. My friends may call me other things. And you can also tell us where Jophiel is. This meeting was to be with her, not someone she hired to stand in the way.”

Orion nodded at that. “I’m supposed to take you to her, just as soon as I’m convinced that you’re not a threat. Not that she’s afraid of you, per se, but… well, let’s just say everyone wants to avoid any misunderstandings.”

“Yeah,” Tristan agreed, “misunderstandings suck. So would screwing all this up. So just… what do we need to do? We brought her like Jophiel agreed to, and we’re all here. Bring her in and we’ll talk this whole thing out, huh?”

“Actually,” Orion corrected, “I’m going to be taking you guys to another place, where she’ll meet us. Or more to the point, we’re going for a walk and she’ll join in whenever she feels comfortable. So, ahhh…” Turning a bit, he gestured to the door that Gwen/Lancelot was standing in front of. “Shall we go? Up to you how you’d like to do this… Sir Lancelot.”

Giving a slight bow before stepping back through the doorway, Gwen replied simply, “After you.”

With a soft chuckle, the man stepped past her. The rest of the group followed then, as he led them out of the cabin, down the short flight of steps, and to a nearby path. The cabin was surrounded by a mountain on one side and trees on every other, aside from that single, narrow path. It was only wide enough to travel single-file, which they did with Flick first after Orion, then Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan, with Gwen at the back of the group. They walked quietly through the dark, thick forest for a few minutes, each left with only their own thoughts. Their way was lit only by the moon and stars, and even that was only what made it through the thick canopy of leaves and branches that hung above their heads. The sounds of animals making their way through the night filled the air, though none strayed close to their path.

Finally, Flick broke the silence. “So, Orion, are you actually a… you know…”

“Am I Seosten?” the man finished for her without breaking stride or looking back to the girl. “No. I’m not. I… well, it’s a long story. Let’s just say there are a lot of very powerful, dangerous things out there that you kids don’t really have any experience with yet. Primordial things that ancient people thought of as gods. The kind of gods that were sacrificed for. A few of which would terrify even the strongest of you Heretics now. Monsters in every meaning of the word. I was an ordinary man until one of those primordial things possessed me. It made me do some pretty terrible things. Sariel and Apollo helped save me from that. I lost most of the power that being connected to it gave, but kept enough. I’m stronger, faster, I heal from almost anything, and have a few other bells and whistles. I’m not connected to a god anymore, but just the bare shadow remnants of the power it left in me is more than enough to keep me going all this time.”

He paused briefly then before adding in a somewhat softer voice, “And a bit of the hunting instinct. It’s why I have those trophies, why I’m always looking for something bigger and better to track. Because hunting, winning, that keeps the remnants of that thing content. It helps keep me… me. More me than I ever was since it possessed me, anyway.”

“Possessed you?” Tabbris piped up. “Like a Seosten?”

“Nope,” he replied. “More like… you guys read comic books? It was more like–”

“Venom,” Tristan finished for him. “It was more like Venom, wasn’t it? The Symbiote thing.”

The man nodded to that, again without looking back to them. “Gooey stuff that climbed my arm and poured itself down my throat, yeah. Fun times, let me tell you.”

“Wow, do I ever really want to hear more about that,” Flick noted with a little grimace. “You know, at some point. But now, what I’m really interested in is…” She paused, looking around expectantly for a moment before coughing. “Ah. I uhh, kind of expected Jophiel to interrupt me right there.”

“That does seem to have been a thing today,” Orion agreed casually. “But no, not yet.” Still walking, he turned his head to look over his shoulder at them. “I don’t know what kind of deal you guys have set up here, but a word of advice to the children of a woman I consider a friend… be careful. Jophiel is better than a lot of the snakes out there, but even the kindest snake is still a snake. They have instincts, and if they feel trapped… just watch yourself.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Gwen informed the man from the back of their line. “Jophiel has an arrangement with them. I’m just going to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of.”

“And I’m sure they couldn’t ask for a better mediator on their behalf,” Orion replied. “Or a guardian, if it comes down to it. I heard about your little tussle with Gabriel Ruthers. It sounds like you gave him a bit of a wake-up call about the invulnerability of the Committee.” There was a slight smile on the man’s face then, barely visible through the deep shadows they were walking in as he glanced back once more. “Reminds me of that time with the Rougarou in Paris. What year was that?”

“Seven oh three,” the woman replied. “And trust me, the look on Ruthers’ face was even better than the one that was on Albinet’s.”

Raising his hand, Tristan announced, “I hope you guys know that I have a perfect memory now, so I am not going to forget to demand that someone tell us the whole story about all this stuff you’re talking about.”

They kept walking after that, continuing on in relative silence for another five minutes before a series of flickering purple candles appeared along either side of the path, leading off into the distance.

“That’s the signal,” Orion informed them. “If I turn the candles one color, it means she should stay away. If I turn them a different color, it means the meeting is safe.” He paused then, looking straight at Gwen. “I have a professional reputation to uphold.”

“I have no intention of harming that woman,” Gwen assured him in a flat tone. “Unless she gives me a reason to believe she intends harm to these children. We’re here to negotiate.”

Considering that briefly, Orion finally nodded and leaned down to touch one of the candles. He spoke a word under his breath, and the color of the flame changed from purple to blue. A second later, its opposite on the other side of the path changed color as well, followed by the two ahead of them, and on down the line. Soon, the path was lit by blue candles.

At a wave from the man, they started walking again. Gwen took a moment to look at one of the candles herself, murmuring a soft spell to enchant a bit of glass she was holding in front of one eye. Whatever she saw assured the woman enough to let Flick and the others keep walking.

The path curved gradually, a faint blue fog filling the air to ensure that everyone present knew that it was not a natural event. Their destination appeared in front of them in the form of a clearing with a series of plush, comfortable chairs arranged in a circle, and a beautiful Seosten woman who sat at one of those chairs, sipping wine from a crystal wine glass while she watched them approach.

“Thank you for your service, Orion,” Jophiel began as soon as they had all filed into the clearing. It was lit by several glowing white balls that hung in the air, making the place as bright as a lit stadium field. “I assume there were no complications.” When the man nodded, she snapped her fingers, causing a bag of what sounded like jingling coins to appear in the hand that wasn’t holding a wine glass. A simple toss sent it into Orion’s waiting hand, before the woman spoke again. “You can leave now.”

“Here, kid.” The man passed a piece of paper to Vanessa. “You can reach me at that phone number. You know, if you ever want to talk.” With a nod to the others, he turned and walked back the way they had come. Gradually, Orion disappeared from sight.

Once he was gone, Gwen spoke up. “Hello, Jophiel.”

“Hello, Guinevere,” came the reply. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet with you, but that remains to be seen. Let’s revisit that at the end of this little tête-à-tête, shall we?” As she spoke, the woman stood, taking another brief sip from her glass.

“Of course,” Gwen agreed, her eyes watching the other woman like a hawk. “But first, why don’t we all come to this meeting? After all, you’re only one half of your party. And I’d like to speak with both of you.”

It was Jophiel’s turn to squint very slightly, clearly undecided about how all of this was going to go. The two women stared at one another in silence while Flick and the others simply stood and waited, almost forgotten. Whatever would happen next had much to do with them, but they could do little to affect it.

Finally, Jophiel relented. Setting the wine glass down on a glass table that appeared from nowhere, she gave a single nod. “Yes, we should all speak.” Turning her head, she added in the direction of the trees at the edge of the clearing, “It’s okay.”

At her words, Elisabet appeared, stepping through the trees to enter the clearing. The Spanish woman looked first to Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris, taking in the three of them before her eyes moved briefly to Flick. Once she saw that the four were there, she moved to Jophiel’s side. “Guinevere. We never had the pleasure of meeting.”

“Yes, we did,” Gwen replied simply. “You just didn’t know it.” With those words, she looked back to Jophiel. “Okay. We’re all here. And we all know the deal that you made with these kids.

“Now let’s talk about how we’re going to change it.”

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Before The Vault 41-07

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“Excuse me?” I demanded, only remembering at the last instant not to throw my arms out. It might’ve been hard to pass this for a normal conversation from behind at that point. Torn between staring at the man in front of me or turning to glare up at the shapeshifted figure in the distance, I settled for the former as being less obvious. “What do you mean, they’re taking the vault tonight? They can’t take the vault. They can’t get into it.”

Even as I said it, I knew the words were dumb. It wasn’t like Jophiel and Elisabet would tell me this just for the hell of it. They weren’t making it up. But still… still…

They have to be wrong, Tabbris murmured, putting words to my thoughts. They have to. After everything we’ve been doing, they can’t beat us into the vault…

Yeah, that. Exactly that. It wasn’t–at some point I would stop expecting things to be fair. My eyes found the man’s again even as he began to speak in that hollow-echoey voice that apparently came from being remotely controlled.

“Kushiel and her people have apparently been working to find a way into the vault for weeks now. They have been attempting to break through a… back door of sorts that was placed inside of an Alter hotel by Liesje herself, so that she would not always have to go through Crossroads authority to reach her own vault.”

That made a depressing amount of sense, and I sighed. “Please tell me that it’s at least hard to get into. I mean, obviously since they’ve been trying for weeks. But you said they’re almost through?”

“They will be ready to enter the vault within a few hours,” came the response. “Which is why we must not hesitate. There is no time to waste. You need to have a legitimate way to have gained this information. Which means it must come from this man.”

“After I possess him because he tries to kill me,” I finished for them. “Right, this should be… fun.” I was already dealing with the fact that what should have been a relaxing few days was being cut short again. We’d deal with it. The vault was too important to sit and pout.

“Are you ready?” they asked carefully through the man. “We will yank you over the counter and trigger a magical shield to stop the others. You should try to fight. Make it look real. Eventually, we will give you an opening to possess him. Take enough time to have gotten the information and then render him unconscious. After you step out of him, we will teleport the body away. They can believe that there was an emergency retrieval spell.”

“Right,” I muttered. Behind me, Columbus called out, wanting to know if I was ever going to get my ice cream. It was now or never. “Do it.”

They didn’t waste any time. The next thing I knew, the man’s hand had grabbed the front of my shirt while his other hand found my arm, and I was yanked over the counter. I heard a cry go up behind me, along with the hum of the forcefield popping into place. Then my back hit the nearby wall hard, and I caught a glimpse of a knife coming right for my face. At the last instant, I managed to jerk my head out of the way before the blade was driven through the wall.

They really weren’t kidding about making this look real. With a grunt, I drove my knee into the man’s chest, then rolled out of the way as he took a swing with a knife in his other hand. I went up to one knee, staff in my hand as I swing it at the man. Before it could hit him, however, he twitched a finger and the staff went clattering out of the way.

I threw a ball of noxious gel at the man, but he created some kind of bubble in the air in front of him to catch it. I had no idea if that was a real power of his or something that Jophiel and Elisabet did themselves. But either way, it would help explain why I went for possessing him when it hadn’t exactly been my go-to move.

In the background, I could see Dare, Avalon, and the others at the glowing blue forcefield. They were having a bit of trouble trying to take it down. Which made sense, considering they were dealing with a Committee-level power. I just hoped Jophiel and Elisabet were smart enough to not make it quite that strong.

Either they were, or Wyatt was even better than I thought he was. Because he showed up next, while I was throwing myself backward away from the next swipe from my ‘attacker’ and almost immediately had the shield practically down. I saw it weaken considerably from the first thing he did, flickering a bit. It was enough that the man attacking me actually took a second to glance over his shoulder with clear incredulousness.

Right, had to do this now, or our little plan wasn’t going to work. Wyatt was dealing with the forcefield faster than the Seosten-Committee bonded pair expected, to the point that it actually surprised them. And in that moment, I couldn’t help but be proud of my big brother, even if it did rush our plan a little bit.

But hey, that gave me the perfect opening (which come to think of it, might have been at least part of the point of turning in the first place) to make my move. Which I did, scrambling that way. The knife whipped around and I sidestepped before catching the extended wrist. Tabbris and I both focused on my possession power, as we imagined throwing ourself into the man through the grip on his wrist.

It worked. Suddenly I was seeing the space where I had been. And it must have been just in time, too, because there was a pop as the shield broke and then there was the sound of rushing footsteps. I heard Dare call out a warning, just before a glowing energy blade was suddenly thrust through the man’s back and out his front. I could see it sticking a foot or two out in front of ‘my’ chest. Avalon. Avalon had been going after him too fast to react to the fact that I had already possessed him.

I turned off all our connections to his pain and other things, Tabbris hurriedly put in, just as the man’s body fell. We stayed standing, my body glowing for a moment before going back to normal.

Th-thanks, I managed, the shock of possessing the man an instant before he died making it hard to think straight. I hadn’t actually felt him die, thanks to Tabbris’s quick thinking. But still, that was… a lot.

Was it enough time? I quickly put in, even as Avalon took me by the arm to turn me around, demanding to know if I was okay. The others were all right there too, Dare moving to check the body on the ground.

Yes, yes, Tabbris replied, sounding just as shaken as I felt. It was enough time, it’s okay.

Sure enough, I heard the voice of Elisabet in my head. Good enough, we don’t have to teleport him after all. And it explains why you only got a little bit from him. We’ll tell you what to say.

“Flick!” Avalon’s voice finally penetrated, and I focused on her. “What–”

“We need to go.” That was Dare, glancing around the mall. Deveron was nearby, holding his hand up. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it apparently was keeping all the (literal) bystanders from noticing what had just happened, because no one was reacting to it. They were just walking by, or sitting there with their meals.

“There’ll be more,” Dare announced, looking to Wyatt. “Any other traps?”

His head shook, but he seemed just as focused on me as Avalon was. “Not yet, but we should leave, now. Right now. Are you okay?” The last bit was clearly directed my way.

“Wait, wait,” I started. “There’s something–”

But we were gone. Dare reached down to grab the body, then teleported us out of there. The world spun, and we were suddenly standing in a park we’d passed up the street before coming into the mall. The people around us, naturally, didn’t even notice our unnatural arrival. They just sidestepped and kept walking, one of the guys making a comment about not standing in the middle of the path.

“Flick?” That was Shiori. She had joined Avalon right in front of me. “Flick are you okay? You’re not–”

“I’m okay,” I finally managed. “I’m okay, but we’re not. Our plan isn’t. The vault isn’t!” My eyes snapped around as I pointedly spoke those words.

Well, that got everyone’s attention. They were finally focused on me instead of talking about how we’d been attacked. Dare took a step my way, frowning. “What?”

In the background, I saw Doug and Sean exchanging glances, while Columbus met my gaze intently, worry written across his face. He knew as well as anyone what the Seosten were capable of, and had probably been afraid that something would screw up our plan from the start.

“I saw it in his head,” I started while trying not to hate myself for lying. “He works for Kushiel and they’re going through some back way to get into the vault. They’re like three, maybe four hours from being able to get in there as we speak.”

Good, I heard in my head as Jophiel and Elisabet apparently caught up. Tell them that the Alter hotel is called the Auberge.

The others were all speaking at the same time, and it was hard enough to keep up with just what was being said out loud even before the voice in my head that wasn’t Tabbris was added in. But I had a pretty good idea of what the gist of everyone’s ranting was.

“It’s some Alter hotel called the Auberge,” I supplied while trying very hard to push the image of myself as a puppet out of my head. “Liesje set up some kind of back door into the vault so that she wouldn’t have to go through Crossroads. That’s what they’re using. Apparently they’ve been working on it for a couple weeks. Now they’re just a few hours away.”

“I guess that means the vacation’s over, huh?” Doug muttered before giving a shrug. “It was good while it lasted. I just wish I had time to finish with my pen before they decided to get all ambitious.”

Deveron opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Wyatt abruptly put in, “Why attack you? I mean right now. Why attack you right now? If they’re only a few hours from getting into the vault, why draw attention right this second? It sounds like a trap. Maybe they’re nowhere near getting into the vault and they just made that man think they were so that you would read his mind and we’d all go charging off into their clutches.”

Shit. He had a point. I had to convince them that the information was right, without giving too much away. Which was going to be hard enough with Wyatt to begin with. He had a very good reason to be paranoid, and he wasn’t exactly wrong with his instinct that something was off about all that. What was I supposed to do?

Deveron spoke up while Tabbris and I were both thinking. “Wyatt’s got a point. But we can’t ignore it either. I’ve heard of this Auberge. It’s an Alter hotel that specifically promises to keep its paying guests safe from all threats. That includes Heretics. It jumps around like the Pathmaker, sort of.”

Dare nodded. “I’ve heard of it too. If Liesje was going to have a back entrance, that would make a good place for it. They’ve been around basically forever. It’s a safe, neutral place that Heretics wouldn’t be able to get into without one hell of a fight.”

Shiori grimaced. “So what do we do? If that’s real, we can’t just sit here and let them get into the vault while we twiddle our thumbs.”

“We need to know if they’re actually at the hotel,” Columbus announced. “You know, like spies that can get inside and find out if that part’s true. And maybe distract them until we have time to go in the front.”

Doug looked to him. “But who’s going to be able to do that, let alone willing? Like they said, no Heretics, and I’m pretty sure they can tell.”

Coughing once, Sean pointed out, “I already kind of hate myself for saying this, but there’s Roxa’s pack. She can’t do it herself, because like you said, Heretic. But the rest of her pack have spent basically every day since she disappeared the first time wanting to have a way to help. I promised I’d let them know if there was anything.”

Sands looked to him. “Sending a pack of werewolves in to stake out the hotel place and let us know if Kushiel and her lackeys are there?”

“We’ve done that kind of thing before,” Deveron quietly put in. “In the old rebellion, I mean. You use what you’ve got, and werewolves don’t set off the ‘that’s a Heretic’ alert Alters get when they look at one of us. They’ve also got really good senses. If anyone can find that bitch in a confined space, it’s a werewolf.”

Scout spoke up then. “But they’re all werewolves.”

Sands was nodding. “She means if they get cornered, they don’t have extra tricks like Heretics do. If they’re ready to deal with one werewolf, they can deal with all of them. I mean, not a whole horde or anything, but you know what I mean. They could get in trouble really fast.”

Shiori raised her hand. “What if they’re not alone?” As everyone looked to her, the girl went on. “They’ve been visiting the camp lately. Roxa took them. They went so that the Seosten could practice with them.”

I blinked once. “You mean send the werewolves in there with Seosten possessors to be back up.”

She shrugged. “We were planning on doing basically the same thing with the actual trip to the vault, so why not use it now?”

Dare grimaced. “This is all academic. We don’t even know that they will agree to go in there.”

“Trust me,” Sean insisted, “I know them. They’ll agree. In fact, they might just eat me if I don’t give them the chance.”

“And we don’t have time to come up with anything else,” I pointed out. “We only have a few hours to deal with this. Is that even enough time to get them here? Or, you know, there? Wherever the hotel is now. Which is another thing we need to work out.”

Dare nodded. “With Berlin it is. If they agreed to it, we can pair them with Seosten and send them in.”

“Senny too.” That was Shiori, of course. She was looking up from her phone. “She’s with them right now. Her and her little group, I mean. Oh, and uhh, something happened with Theia and Abigail and Miranda and all that, but they said they’ll tell you about it later. The point is, they’re in.”

“As are my people.” The new voice came from Athena, as the woman appeared with Gaia at her side. Dare had obviously been communicating with the latter this whole time. “We can help find Kushiel and hit her from behind while she is focused on getting through to that vault.”

Doug looked a little hesitant to speak up, but finally asked, “What about all the security magic they’ll have in there? Both the hotel and Kushiel, I mean. Can your people break through it if they have to?”

“I can.” Wyatt’s voice was as calm and centered as I had ever heard him. He straightened up as much as he could. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a little as he continued. “I can go in with them and help get through the security magic.”

“Uh,” Columbus started, “What about that whole ‘them noticing that you’re a Heretic’ problem?”

Wyatt scoffed at him. “As if one of the first things I did wasn’t finding a way to disable that obvious weakness. If I don’t want them to know that I’m a Heretic, they won’t. And if I don’t want them to recognize me, they won’t do that either.”

It was my turn to speak up then. Which Gaia seemed to be expecting, considering the fact that she was already looking at me. “He’s not the only one who can say that.”

That made both Avalon and Shiori round on me, each blurting, “No!”

Wincing, I held up both hands. “Guys, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Look at everything I’ve gotten this year. I don’t ping as a Heretic unless I use my powers. I can shapeshift my face and hair, so they won’t recognize me. Jaq and Gus, even Marian, can all spy on places I can’t get to. I can turn into a lion and keep up with the actual weres. It’s a building, do you have any idea how fast I can travel through the wood in it? I can hit hard, and they won’t know who or what they’re dealing with until it’s too late.”

I looked toward Shiori, then Deveron. “I can help Asenath, and Wyatt.”

Finally, I looked to Avalon. “ I can help you. We can hit them from behind and distract them enough for you guys to get in through the front.”

“And she won’t be alone,” Deveron put in. “I can hide what I am too.” Pausing, he added. “And I’m not letting my son and step-daughter go in that place without me.”

“Magic?” That was Sean, wincing. “You might be able to shapeshift, but they probably have spells to check for that sort of thing. I mean, if they’re supposed to be this competent.”

Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder. “They have magic to detect it. I have better magic to hide it.”

“See guys?” I looked to my girls apologetically. “This is the best play. I can do more good behind the lines, at the back door in the hotel, than at the front door vault with you. All these powers, being able to hide being a Heretic, shapeshifting, having a brother who can beat their security? This is the right thing for me to be doing right now. It’s where I should be.”

Avalon looked like she was still going to argue, but Gaia spoke up first. “She is right. The Auberge is where she can help the most. They will need her. They will need everything they can get. Just as we will need to hurry if we are going to be ready in time to get into the vault several days ahead of schedule.”

Avalon cringed, stepping over to take me into a tight hug. Her voice was soft. “I don’t care how much sense it makes, I hate this.”

Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”

I hugged them both, making them promise to stay together and watch each other’s backs. They spoke directly to Tabbris, making both of us promise to stay as safe as possible and not to do anything too stupid.

The real problem was, there wasn’t time to argue. There wasn’t time to come up with a better plan, or even to really appreciate how dangerous this is going to be. We all had to keep moving, no matter how much we hated the idea of splitting up. This was the best that we had, the best we could do.

It was all coming down to this. We’d expected to have a few more days, but honestly, the Seosten screwing that up with their own plans pretty much went exactly with the rest of the year, didn’t it?

Either way, this was it. Everything that had been going on with Avalon this whole year, even her entire life and stretching back beyond that, came down to these next few hours. Either we would get into that vault and win.

Or we would lose.

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Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor. “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon, including a trip through the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

“What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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Mini-Interlude 72 – Elisabet

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“Are you sure that you’ll be okay here alone for the whole day, Sianame?” Jophiel tenderly asked her beloved partner, the woman she had grown to adore above all others over the past five hundred years. At the same time, she gently touched her face with one soft, immaculate hand. For a being who was thousands of years old, the true Jophiel looked even younger than her host and partner in all things, who was not even a sixth of that age.

Smiling a little at the pet name, a word borrowed from a race called the Beventreist meaning, essentially, soul mate, Elisabet gave the Seosten woman a nod. “Trust me, I’ll be just fine. You focus on preparing the training grounds for our estudiantes, hmm? They’ll need a proper place to run the drills we have in mind, and the sooner it’s ready, the sooner we can really get started.”

They had taken it easy on training as far as Felicity, Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan were concerned. Mostly because the two of them knew that they were treading on thin ice with those four. The group was already dealing with so many problems that pushing them just a little too far would cause the entire house of cards that was their situation to collapse. Giving them space and aid now and then was important. In time, however, they would need to push things just a bit further. They would need to insist on stricter training, particularly while Crossroads was out for the summer. That would, with any luck, be a slower time in their pupils’ lives.

That training, when it happened, would involve many things, including intense combat and magical tests in multiple environments and situations. They would pit their young students against as many harsh opponents as possible within a contained and controlled area. They would teach them to survive, and to thrive. More than that, they would teach them to work together. In the case of Felicity and Tabbris, they would show the pair how well they could do if they were fully in synch. Having each of them control half of the body (sometimes each controlling one arm and one leg and sometimes one controlling the legs while the other controlled the arms) and learning to fight that way. Or having Tabbris fully control the body while Felicity worked on supporting her with various powers. There were many things to teach them.

As for Vanessa and Tristan, they would teach them how to fight like full Seosten, how to use their possession powers to turn the enemy’s advantages into weaknesses. They would teach them not to shy away from their potential, but to use it to its full extent. They would teach all four of them to actually impress the Seosten leadership.  

But all of those lofty goals meant nothing if Jophiel and Elisabet weren’t ready to actually engage in that advanced training. Hence getting the facility ready. Unfortunately, that was something only they could properly do without risking any of their secrets. And they were not someone who could simply disappear for an extended time to get that work done. Between the Committee and the other Seosten, something always either needed to be done, or would come up to interrupt at the most inopportune moment.

So, only one of them could go and do the work. And it had to be a real one, as given the intensity of the spells required to prepare the training center, simply creating a duplicate wouldn’t have been enough. They were already having one person (with Committee level power or not) doing the work of what should have been an entire crew. Splitting that power up even further would have delayed the completion of the project until deep summer, which was unacceptable.

Thus, Jophiel would go and do the work whenever a slower time, such as now, presented itself. Elisabet, meanwhile, would stay and be their public face. With, of course, the ability to secretly send a message for Jophiel to rejoin her at any point in the event that something went wrong. The two didn’t enjoy separating like this, but it was sometimes necessary that they be in more than one place at the same time without the benefit of sending a duplicate to do the work.

After a bit more delay as the two stalled from the inevitability of separating, Jophiel set off to do her work in their (under construction) training center. Which left Elisabet standing alone in their office in Point Center (the Crossroads Committee’s main building, hidden away from the world on J Street beneath Washington DC). The office was rather small and cozy considering their position, consisting mostly of a thoroughly polished desk, computer, and chair, a couch in the opposite corner next to a small yet well-stocked bar, and walls that were completely taken up by shelves full of books, scrolls, and the occasional artifact.

Her thoughts, as always when this happened, felt somehow wrong not being shared with her partner. After spending five hundred years as part of a pair, she felt like only half of herself when Jophiel was gone.

In this case, however, she was only alone for a handful of seconds before the sound of a book dramatically closing filled the air, making the woman actually jump a bit. Given every power she had at her disposal (to say nothing of the danger they would be in if anyone were to overhear their secret conversations), the idea of a person being in the room to slam a book shut was utterly inconceivable.

And yet… turning to the sound revealed a figure lounging on the leather couch across the office. The figure sat with one leg draped over the end of the couch while her other foot was planted on the leather. She held a now-closed book in one hand, eyeing the other woman over the top of a pair of glasses with a slightly bemused expression. “Honestly, you two are so damn dramatic.”

Oh, and the other tiny detail of the woman there. Aside from her clothing and glasses (which basically made her look like a librarian), she was Elisabet. Or rather, a younger version of her. Literally, she looked exactly like the other woman had looked years earlier. And to make matters even more confusing, she still wasn’t registering on any extrasensory power.

“I don’t know who you think you are,” Elisabet announced while already raising her hand to create a forcefield cage around the woman who had stolen her (younger) appearance, “but you’re not–”

She had to stop in mid-sentence, because the figure on the couch simply stood up and out of the force cage as though it wasn’t even there. Which should have been impossible. Even the strongest of beings would have needed to at least destroy the forcefield, not just step through it.

No, the stranger with her face hadn’t stepped through the cage as if it wasn’t there. She had stepped through it as if…

“You’re not here,” Elisabet noted. “You’re an illusion.” While speaking, she was already mentally sending a call toward Jophiel to let her know that they had a very big problem.

In response, the other figure smirked before tossing the book she was holding straight at her. Elisabet didn’t blink as it passed harmlessly through her face.

“Good job,” the illusion remarked casually. “You got that quicker than last time, that’s for sure. Maybe I was more obvious with the whole shield thing. I used to play along a bit more. Oh, and um, that’s not going to work, for the record. Calling her, I mean. You can’t call out right now.”

“I don’t know where you’re projecting from,” Elisabet spoke in a hard voice. “Or why you’re creating an image of me to do it. But when I find you, I will turn your body inside out.”

Inside, the woman was reeling. Whoever this person was, they were telling the truth. Or at least part of it. She couldn’t contact Jophiel. Which itself had… dire implications. There were very few beings on Earth that should have been capable of blocking Elisabet from contacting Jophiel. At most another Committee member could fight her for control. And if one of them had found out the truth about her, about them… things were very bad.

But this wasn’t even a fight. Whoever was blocking her from reaching Jophiel appeared to be doing so without any effort. It was like their connection wasn’t even there. And that was enough to make even Elisabet a little afraid. Not that she would show that to this intruder.

Despite her threat, the younger her just smiled for a moment. Except it didn’t seem to be a mocking smile, like she might have expected. Rather, it appeared to be one of… fondness. Or pride. “Good,” the figure spoke softly, “you haven’t completely lost yourself. You still have your own fire. Which, I suppose, means you passed the first test.” That last bit was added with a wink.

While Elisabet was still trying to cope with the idea that she could still be surprised and confused after all this time, the illusion continued. “Okay, I’ll stop having fun at your expense. Or our expense. Not sure what it would be considered right now, given… eh. Never mind. Look, I’m not a threat. No one knows about Jophiel, or your situation. No one except you.”

She had begun approaching by then, stopping directly in front of Elisabet. “Let me spell it out for you. I am you. Or at least, part of you. Just reach back, find the base of your neck. Turn your hand intangible and slip it just a little bit inside until you find the spine.”

That was… confusing enough on top of everything else that Elisabet found herself following the strange instructions before she had even truly thought about it. And as her hand found her spine beneath all the skin and muscle, she also felt something else, something foreign. It was a small object that had seemingly been surgically implanted in the base of her neck. It felt warm and metallic, humming with power both technological and magical.

“What the–” Eyes widening, the woman started to grab hold of the thing. Except that as soon as she did, her hand reflexively snapped out of her own neck.

“Uh uh,” the younger her put in while shaking her head. “Sorry, you can’t endanger me. Same way you can’t notice me while she’s around. You both completely forget about that little implant any time you notice it. Think of it as our own little personal Bystander Effect.  It’s for all of our safety. Those are the rules that you–that both of us made up. With his help, of course.”

“What are you talking about?” Elisabet demanded. “Who are you? What are you?”

The image of herself sighed. “I really wish we didn’t have to go through this every time. But I suppose it’s the only way to make sure the memories can’t be found later. Okay, the short version it is. Do you remember when you and Jophiel first realized you actually cared about each other? When you first realized that you were falling for her, and she for you?”

Swallowing a little, Elisabet found herself nodding slowly. “Of course I do. She took me onto an Alter ship to find more powerful abilities. It was drifting in the middle of nowhere with some stong life signs. But something went wrong. It was long before we were part of the Committee, so we had a lot less power. And we got into trouble. We were locked onto the ship somehow. My body was trapped there, some kind of magical anchor, and the life support was running out. Jophiel could have left me there, could have just abandoned me. But she didn’t. She said she’d get help. She left, she left me, but she came back. She saved me.”

“Yes,” the younger her prompted, “she came back two days later. But what did you do for that two days?”

Elisabet’s mouth opened and shut. “What did I do? It’s been a long time.”

“Tell me about it,” the illusion muttered. “But fine, I’ll tell you what you did. You encountered the artificial intelligence running the ship. The artificial intelligence who was trying to free you from the Seosten. That ship was part of some alien–Alter group that fought the Seosten for a long time. Its computer recognized that you were possessed and worked to free you by making your body useless to the Seosten inside you. The plan was that it would wait until the Seosten abandoned you to save herself, then turn the life support back on and work with you. That’s what it did. Except it didn’t count on one thing.”

“I was in love with Jophiel,” Elisabet murmured under her breath, taking all that in.

Her younger self pointed. “Exactly. You and the computer had a big long fight about that too, let me tell you. And the computer–we called him Maestro, only agreed to let you go back to her on one main condition. That you allow him to install a device into the base of your neck which would do a few things. First, it created me, a copy of your original self to run in the back of your mind. Any time Jophiel left you alone, I’m supposed to pop out, talk to you, and make sure that you’re still you. You know, run you through some personality tests. Who better to know if my personality is being suppressed or changed against my will than me? I am you. I’m just… you without Jophiel.”

“What…” If she had been reeling before, now Elisabet was almost ready to fall over. She reached out a hand to brush through the intangible image of herself. “What else?”

The illusion answered simply. “A failsafe. If Jophiel ever forces control of you, of us, if she ever tries to enslave you against your will again, the failsafe triggers. When it does, she’ll be kicked out of our body and knocked unconscious. Maestro said killed, you negotiated him down to knocked out. If anything goes wrong with your relationship, if you change your mind, or Jophiel… changes, if she ever tries to enslave us again… it won’t work for her.”

“And… and all of this is erased from my mind every time we’re not speaking,” Elisabet realized. “You’re in my head. You erase everything every time we have this conversation.”

The illusion nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. Like I said, it gets old, but we have to erase it because if we just suppress it, there’s a chance she might find it. That’s part of the rules from Maestro.”

“Rules?” Elisabet echoed sharply, “what other rules are there?”

“Well, one of them was made by you,” the implant-projection replied, “though we already fulfilled that one. Create a descendant. You wanted children when you were young, and you didn’t want to forget that. So you made it a rule, one that I was supposed to… nudge you toward when an appropriate person was… available. You wanted your family line to continue, for your madre’s sake.”

“Alejandro,” Elisabet murmured softly with realization. “You pushed me toward a relationship with Alejandro?” The father of her children, the old Heretic had passed on many years earlier. Both she and Jophiel had been sorry to see him go. They didn’t love him quite the way that they did each other, but they did genuinely both care for the man. Just as they loved their children, and grandchildren, and so on.

“Well… I didn’t exactly force you into it,” her illusional copy corrected. “Every time we spoke up to that point, I asked you about prospects. He was the one you were finally interested in. So yes, I nudged you that way, but only after you told me he was the one. Oh, and for the record, you can stop thinking of me as ‘the illusion’ or ‘your copy’. I’ve had a few names over the years, but usually you end up calling me Gemini. You know, as your twin. Though, we’ve gotten a bit less identical over time.”

“So… Gemini, what now?” Elisabet resisted the urge to reach for the implant in her neck. “You’ve made sure I can still think for myself, so we’re done?”

Gemini smiled faintly. “Not quite that simple. The best way to make sure–to pass the tests the way Maestro insisted we do, is to have a little… discussion about current events. I need to know what you think by yourself, not what Jophiel thinks. Then I’ll be convinced.”

Elisabet didn’t respond to that for a moment. It was too much to take in, too much to deal with. Finally, she sighed. “Si, so what do you want to know?”

“Well,” Gemini began, “let’s start with something simple. Why did you agree to blackmail these kids by holding their mother’s safety hostage against them promising to work with you? Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, they would have done anything to save their mother. And Felicity would do anything for Tabbris. Especially when it came to saving anyone’s mother. The two of you used that against them. Why would you agree to that? That seems… let’s call it not not-evil.”

The question, especially literally coming from a version of herself, made Elisabet rock backwards a bit. “I… I want to say that we would have given them the code anyway and let them pass, maybe only erased their memories of us and let them go even if they didn’t agree. I want to say that. But I don’t know. I… it’s what I want to say now. In that moment…”

“You used their mother’s safety against them.” Gemini’s voice was accusing. “That doesn’t sound like the me I remember. And I should know.”

“Maybe it wasn’t,” Elisabet admitted, her voice a little sharp. “Or maybe it just didn’t used to be. I–people change. And not only because someone’s controlling them. It’s been so long. I–it’s been five hundred years. Maybe I just… I saw a chance for us to finally move on and reach what we’ve been hoping for for so long. A Seosten and human partnership. I’ve wanted that, we’ve wanted that… it was the first real step toward that. Those two were untainted by the Seosten military. Felicity was working with her. I saw that, I saw the opportunity and I couldn’t just let it go. I couldn’t let that disappear. I had to try. We had to try. And yes, we played hard ball. Maybe–definitely too hard. I just… five hundred years. Five hundred years and this was the first real step to maybe, maybe not having to hide all the time.”

Gemini regarded her thoughtfully. “You’re tired of being quiet, of hiding who you are.”

“Yes,” Elisabet snapped despite herself. “Yes, okay? It’s been five hundred years, I’m tired of it. I want to be myself. I want to be with the woman I love and have everyone know it. I want to brag about her. I want to go on a date, a real date. I want to be separate people sometimes, not because I want to get away from her, but because I want to be with her. Really with her. And yes, I want to be myself just to be myself. I love her. I love Jophiel with everything I have, but I’m still me. And sometimes… sometimes I want to be just me. I’m tired of keeping everything secret. I’m tired of being so afraid that someone will find out about us.

“So yes, when I saw this chance, I grabbed onto it. I grabbed it too hard and I… I let those children think that they had to agree to save their mother. I’m not…” Her voice shook a little before she got herself under control. “I’m not proud of it. I’ve done a lot of very shameful things, agreed to a lot of terrible things that I… I don’t like. I was wrong. No matter how much I want to end this, no matter how much I want to be with Jophiel, putting their mother’s safety and freedom up as collateral was wrong. But I can’t promise that I wouldn’t do it again if I could go back. I can’t promise that. I want to say that I wouldn’t, but I can’t. That probably makes me a monster.”

“I’d say I’m not here to judge,” Gemini remarked, “but that’s exactly why I’m here. And speaking of judging, how many different spells are on those kids now?”

“A lot,” Elisabet quietly admitted. “There’s several layers of spells just focused on stopping them from talking about us. And warning us if anyone starts trying to get through those spells, or even notices them. Hell, there’s an entire network of magic just to hide the spells. We can track where they are at all times, and in an emergency, see them.”

Gemini’s head tilted a little, obviously already knowing the answer. “But not hear them?”

“No… no, not unless we have to,” Elisabet murmured. “That’s a last resort, if we need them to tell us where they are in case everything else is blocked, or communicate with us for some other reason. Other than that, we don’t… we don’t want to violate their privacy that much.”

“You mean you don’t,” Gemini pointed out. “That was your input.” She let that sit for a moment before moving on. “So tell me what you think of them. Not what they can do for you. Tell me what you think of the children themselves.”

“Think of them?” Elisabet echoed. “Well, Felicity is… a crusader. She has to fix things that are wrong. Not surprising, given both her mother and her father. She makes very loyal friends easily, and she’s just as loyal to them. But she pushed people away for years after her mother and then her friend Miranda left her. She expressed herself through her father and that newspaper. Other than that, she didn’t let anyone get close. Except perhaps for that… deputy boy.”

Gemini gave her a faint smile. “That is a very accurate, but very clinical assessment. Now tell me what you think of her. Stop thinking about it and just tell me the first thing that comes to mind, now.”

“I think she’s going to get herself killed,” Elisabet immediately answered, blinking twice at her own words. “I… I think she’s going to try to change too much, get in over her head, and get herself killed. I don’t want that to happen. Not just because of what she can do, but because I don’t want her to die. I don’t want any of them to die.”

That slight smile returned to Gemini. “Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, what do you think of them? Do you care if they live?”

“I told you, I don’t want any of them to die,” Elisabet snapped. “I don’t, okay? I really think that we can help them. Even if we have to be harsh. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. And yes, they can still help us too. It’s give and take but that doesn’t mean I only want to take. Those three… Vanessa has been so focused on saving her family for so long that I don’t think she knows how to be herself yet. Maybe that makes her more like me than either of us think. Same for Tabbris. That girl barely knows how to express herself. She’s brave, and self-sacrificing, but she doesn’t really know who she is. Tristan–he knows exactly how to express himself. Sometimes too much. He’s so much like Lucifer that I’m still not entirely convinced there’s no actual blood relation.”

Finishing all of that, the woman slowly looked to her intangible younger doppelganger. Gemini was simply watching her in what looked like expectant silence. “… can you adjust your programming to add another safety feature?”

Arching an eyebrow, Gemini prompted, “Such as?”

For a moment, Elisabet didn’t speak. She took the time to collect herself before beginning. “If we get out of control, if we endanger the children too much unnecessarily, or try to enslave them, or… or go too far, really too far, I want you to take over. Teleport them away somewhere safe and knock us out. I can’t promise I won’t get desperate or crazy again as this goes on, especially once I stop remembering you. But those kids–maybe it’s more you than me talking. I don’t know. Just change your programming to help them if we go too far. Can you do that?”

The response was a wink. “I already did it. It’s what Maestro would want. And it also means that you passed another test. You seem to be yourself so far. A harsher, more desperate you. But still you.”

“Great,” Elisabet sighed. “So are we done?”

“Done?” Gemini echoed before laughing. “Please, we still have a lot more to talk about. Maestro was pretty specific when it came to rules about making sure you stay yourself in there. So you might as well make yourself comfortable. Summon a drink or some lunch for us.

“Because this is going to be a long afternoon.”  

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Day After Day 39-06

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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.”

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Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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Convalescence 38-03

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As Professor Dare led me through the hallways to the elevator, I asked, “Are necromancer powers really that rare? I mean, if Percival felt like he needed to warn me about their reaction…”

There was a brief pause before the woman answered, “No, they’re not exactly unheard of or anything. But Crossroads Heretics don’t really use them. They have something of a negative connotation. And given the experience that so many of those who started Crossroads had with Fossor, let’s just say that necromancy in general is pretty much avoided as much as possible.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I blurted bluntly. “Avoiding something just because a bad guy uses it is kind of idiotic. I mean I get the whole not using dead people thing. Trust me, I totally get that. But staying away from it and hiding from it just because one necromancer screwed them over so badly? Wouldn’t actually investigating it and practicing with it be a better way of dealing with things? I mean, if nothing else, it would let you learn how to counter it more effectively.”

Was it weird that I had been one hundred percent against the idea of using the necromancy I had inherited right up until the second that I’d found out that Ruthers didn’t want me to use it? And now suddenly I had an argument about why it shouldn’t be avoided. That was probably weird.

Pausing there in the hallway, Professor Dare reached out to take my shoulder. “You’re right, people can be very irrational when it comes to emotional events. And the Black Death was a very emotional event.” She hesitated before continuing. “And there are others who felt like that. They pursue necromantic powers to learn more about how to counter them. Or even just to use them for good. But people like Ruthers don’t accept that. He, well, he gets kind of angry when it’s brought up.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, “because what I really needed was for Ruthers to have even more reason to hate me. Hey, maybe if he gets ticked off enough every time he sees my face, he’ll be so angry he’ll forget how to talk.”

Squeezing my shoulder once more, the woman assured me, “You won’t be alone in there. Percival and the others won’t let it get too out of hand. Just tell them as much of the truth as you can. And if they try to trap you on something, just say that you’re tired. God knows you’ve been up long enough. Just tell them that it’s been a long night and you’re not thinking straight. If it happens enough, Gaia will pull you out. Okay?”

I nodded, and we continued into the elevator. Silently, we headed up. When the doors opened, I saw two familiar faces waiting for us: Patrick and October. The two of them looked a bit tired after everything that had happened (and like they had been in the middle of some pretty intense fighting themselves), but they were definitely alert. And they even looked a little bit happy to see me there for some reason.

“Miss Chambers,” Patrick started, “I am glad that you’re…” He paused, clearly considering his words before going with a quiet, “Well, let’s just say I’m glad you’re not in any worse shape.”

I coughed at that. “Thanks for being tactful and honest at the same time.”

With October on one side of me, Patrick on the other, and Dare bringing up the rear, I was escorted back to the office where everything had happened. The two men stopped outside of it and gave me a pair of encouraging nods while taking up station on either side of the door. Professor Dare, however, followed me all the way in.

And then we were there. We were in the same penthouse office where the confrontation with Manakel had happened. They’d cleaned things up, of course. But still. We were where Avalon— where all of us had nearly died. Where we had first seen Rudolph’s body. My throat caught a little bit before I even looked at anyone, and I felt Professor Dare’s hand on my back bracingly. It helped a bit, but I still didn’t really want to be here. Which sounded kind of dumb put like that, yet I couldn’t help the feeling.

Taking a breath, I finally looked up to see who else was there. Ruthers, of course, along with Percival and Calafia as I had already known. Gaia was there too. Then there was Davis, Sigmund, Litonya, Teach, Oliver, Sophronia, and Jue. In other words, everyone except Elisabet and Geta. Which, considering the former was the one in charge of security for all of Crossroads, I was pretty sure that her not being here during the current situation didn’t exactly look good. I wondered what her excuse was going to be.

Davis was the first to speak, clearing his throat before starting with, “Miss Chambers, thank you for joining us here. We understand that it has been a very long night and that you have been through a lot. So we’ll do our best to make this as quick as possible. We just need a few answers while the situation is clear in your head. And, hopefully the things we have to say will help put your mind at ease.”

Teach spoke then before I could question what the man meant by that. “Some of us even understand that this might be the wrong place to do this. So if you want to go somewhere else, anywhere else, you just go ahead and say so. Back to the school or to some neutral place, we can do that.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Ruthers interrupted. “Stop coddling her,” he snapped with a brief glare at the others. “She’s not a child.” To me, he spoke bluntly. “They say that you were the one who raised the body of Rudolph Parsons.” As expected, the man’s gaze was hard, his expression openly suspicious. As I had known and been warned of, my demonstrating any necromantic power only made the man distrust me even more.

Pushing down about a dozen sarcastic answers with some effort, I gave a single nod. “Yes,” I announced simply. “Apparently I inherited the same necromantic power that the man who killed him had. I didn’t ask for it. Because you guys, of all people, should know, if there was a way to ask for what power you wanted to get, this stuff wouldn’t be nearly as random. Not to mention the fact that we’d be better at knowing what we got without tripping over it.”

I saw Oliver, of all people, smother a smile with his hand before nodding. “Indeed,” the portly man agreed. “but there is something different about these particular necromancer abilities which makes them somewhat more worrying than usual.”

Sophronia nodded. “Specifically, when a couple of our people attempted to halt Mr. Parsons’ body, he simply turned intangible and passed through them.”

“That,” Litonya snapped, “is impossible. Strangers and Heretics are alike in that fact. They do not retain their powers after death. Their strength as zombies is in their numbers, and sometimes skill, but never powers. It doesn’t happen.”

Somehow I restrained myself from pointing out how stupid it was for her to say that, considering she had just seen it happen with Rudolph. As tempting as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn’t help my case.

I also could have informed her and the rest of the Committee that there were also a lot of other ways that Heretics and Alters were alike, but I figured this was also the wrong time for that.

Instead, I shrugged a little bit while slowly looking around the room to meet all of their intense gazes. “Yeah, maybe now you guys understand why he was so dangerous, why all of his people are so dangerous. Look at what they did with this place.” I gestured around the room. “Look at this whole hospital. They took over this whole hospital. They are using it as their own personal base, their own place to snatch whoever they wanted. Who knows how many people you thought died and ended up with them instead? I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s obviously been going on for decades, at least. There were hundreds of dead bodies in here hidden away for him to play with.”

Gaia finally spoke up then. “Miss Chambers is, of course, correct. You know as well as I do that some of the bodies found when the necromancer was killed have been dead or missing for well over eighty years. They were preserved somehow, and hidden away. I do hope you’re not suggesting that she could possibly have had anything to do with that. She is quite good for her age, we are all well aware of that, but time travel?”

Sigmund shook his head, grunting out an annoyed, “Of course not. We’re just trying to find out everything she does know. Sometimes people know more than they think they do. You just have to ask the right questions to tease it out. Not that it matters that much now, but still.”

Or people knew more than they were willing to say. I knew that was the unspoken part of his statement, and the other thing that they were doing. And what the hell did he mean it didn’t matter much now?

Taking a breath, I started with, “I have a couple questions myself. Starting with, isn’t there supposed to be more of you?” I gestured to the empty spot near Litonya. “Where is, um, was it Elisabet? And that Geta guy.”

Yeah, I already knew where the former was, better than these guys did. But it made sense for me to ask. Plus, I was still curious about what her excuse was.

All of them exchange glances, and from the look on some of their faces, they weren’t exactly accustomed to someone openly questioning them in a situation like this. They were far more used to someone ducking their head and answering everything they asked.

In the end, it was Teach who answered. “Unfortunately, Miss Elisabet and Geta have been unavoidably detained with another matter. They’ll, ahhh, be here as soon as possible.”

I probably shouldn’t have said the next thing. I definitely shouldn’t have said it. But I did. Straightening up a little, I nodded. “Okay, so where were the rest of you while this was going on? I mean, this was your main hospital being completely taken over. That’s got to be a big deal, right? But you only sent two of you to deal with it? What else was going on?”

“Miss Chambers,“ Ruthers snapped, “we do not explain our actions or reasoning to you. You are—”

It look like he was winding himself up into a very impressive rant, but Sophronia interrupted.

“Enough, Gabriel. The girl has earned straight answers.” To me, she explained, “There were other attacks. Heretic-on-Heretic attacks. At least fifteen counts of long-time Heretics attacking their allies, their friends. And then going on sprees attacking everything in sight. Destroying long-held Heretic structures, burning down supplies, doing as much damage as they could.”

My eyes widened at that. “Now that they know that you know they can possess people and that they’re organized, they’re not hiding it as much. They’re showing you what they can do. And they were distracting you away from this place.”

Sigmund gave a low chuckle. “Yes, they’ve shown what they are capable of. And we have contained the situation. They took their shot, and it wasn’t enough. That is what we were doing tonight: ending this threat. We hunted down every last compromised Heretic. When cornered, the creatures inside tried to flee before being destroyed, down to the last of them. We’ve stopped them.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of me, “Don’t be an idiot.”

As soon as I said, my eyes widened and my heart seemed to stop. I saw similar surprised looks on everyone’s face, especially Sigmund himself. The man looked as though I had just spontaneously transformed into a unicorn singing show tunes with his mother’s voice. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” I quickly held up both hands in surrender. “It’s just been a long night, a long… well, everything. What I’m saying is that obviously wasn’t their best shot. They wouldn’t blow it like that. That was a tiny hint of what they’re capable of. It was a distraction, not a full assault.“

Jue spoke then, her voice brittle. “Given what you have been through, your fear of them is completely understandable, as is your outburst. It will not be forgiven so easily a second time, mind, but one strike should be overlooked at this point.”

She continued before I could say anything. “That said, we assure you, the threat posed by this group has been largely dismantled now. We have spent most of this evening interrogating those involved and investigating the bases that they directed us to. We found the arena where you and the others were being held.”

Well, that took me aback. I blinked twice before stammering, “You did?”

Ruthers nodded. “It was exactly as you described it, actually. We found several prisoners still there. None of your fellow students, unfortunately. Not just yet. But we did find imprisoned Heretics who confirmed your story. They even remember seeing you there.“

My mouth opened and shut, and I felt my head spin. Was I in the twilight zone? How could the Committee find an arena that didn’t exist? How could they find witnesses to corroborate our story when our story was bogus? At least those specifics of it. How…

“Correct.” The voice came from the doorway and I saw Elisabet and Geta there. The woman herself gave me a brief look before continuing. “Apologies, following the leads provided by your former fellow prisoners took longer than expected.”

“Indeed,” Geta confirmed. “But we can safely say that we have dealt with the largest part of the conspiracy and infiltration. The necromancer was clearly their leader, and without the head, the rest fell apart. They tried to enact their primary attack, but they weren’t ready yet. It fell apart too soon. They did a lot of damage, and far too many people died because of our failing. But it’s been contained.”

That was it, I realized. That was how the Seosten were going to spin this, how they were going to deal with the news about their existence getting out. That was why they hadn’t bothered to keep things quiet in the hospital and why they’d had a bunch of their assets reveal themselves in those seemingly pointless and failed attacks. Because they wanted it to look like they’d been flushed out. They couldn’t make the whole Committee forget everything they knew (not easily anyway), so they went the other way: open and eventually failed attack. That way, the Committee would do exactly what they were doing now (with a little helpful nudge from Elisabet, of course): decide that the main threat was over. It was a feint, of sorts, just enough of an attack to make Crossroads think that they had successfully repelled a major invasion and put a stop to the conspiracy they had uncovered.

The Seosten had probably rewritten several Heretics’ memories, faked the deaths of some of their people, probably even allowed the deaths of as many non-Seosten as they could spare. I imagined some of those Seosten who had ‘been destroyed’ had really played up their death scenes to make it look good. Maybe they’d even gone as far as supplying some real Seosten bodies or something to make it look even more real. I didn’t know, but they probably had plenty given all the fighting they did. Elisabet had even managed to convince Geta of what he was seeing. Or they had just possessed him with someone else, though I wasn’t sure on that point since possessing a ready and alert Committee member should have been pretty damn hard to pull off.

Either way, the point was, they’d released a few of their prisoners with rewritten memories to match the story that I had told. The Seosten had actually used the story that we made up to explain our absence as a way of taking the heat off themselves with a fake failed assault. An assault that was apparently big enough to require the Committee to intervene, which of course would convince them that it was authentic. But in the end, it had been designed to fail.

The Seosten sacrificed a relatively small force (though the non-Jophiel ones clearly hadn’t been expecting to lose Manakel) in exchange for making Crossroads think that they’d successfully driven out the infiltrators. And they did it using the story that we had made up. And worse, the Committee was never going to believe if I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They’d just think that I was paranoid after everything I’d been through. Because of course they would. They’d even think that they were doing the right thing by calming me down.

Plus, there was the fact that I couldn’t really argue with them, because this was a plan that Jophiel had obviously had something to do with and she was right there. She wouldn’t want me to go against the plan she’d set up to put the Seosten back under cover.

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

“For that matter,” Davis put in, “we even found and took care of the monsters who took the infants from the nursery here. The children have all been rescued and are being reunited with their families as we speak. Along with most of the actual patients. Those who survived, anyway. These… creatures were trying to smuggle them in a train. Our people spotted them, alerted us, and we dealt with the situation. Exactly as planned.”

Oh, it was exactly as planned, alright. I agreed with that wholeheartedly. The disagreement came in our respective ideas of whose plan it was.

While coming to terms with all that, I saw Dare start to speak up, only to stop just as suddenly. Her eyes glanced toward Gaia. The headmistress hadn’t moved or made any indication of communication, but I was certain that she’d somehow told Dare (probably telepathically) not to challenge the story. She either wanted the Committee to believe that they’d dealt with the threat, or didn’t think challenging it was worth the trouble it would cause.

By that point, Elisabet and Geta had moved to join the rest of the Committee. The latter cleared his throat before speaking. “Now then, I suppose that since Miss Chambers’ story has been proven correct, some of us should probably apologize for doubting her.”

That was the other side of Jophiel and Elisabet’s plan with all this, I realized. Making me look like I was telling the truth didn’t just take the heat off of the Seosten. It also worked to convince at least more of the Committee to get off my case, leaving them breathing room to work with me, with us. In one move, they had sacrificed a few pawns in order to keep the full extent of Seosten power a secret and keep me in a position beneficial to them.

Ruthers looked like someone made him swallow a frog. Grimacing, he grunted out, “Let’s see how the rest of this story holds up before we go handing out pats on the back.” To me, he demanded, “Let’s hear the whole story, Chambers. Tell us what happened tonight, everything that led up to you taking on the powers of a necromancer whose raised zombies, against everything we know, retain their abilities.”

I saw Elisabet pause briefly, only for an instant. I was positive that she already knew that Manakel was dead, of course. But the fact that I had inherited his necromancy powers did seem to somewhat surprise her. Which clearly meant that it surprised both her and Jophiel. Her eyes moved from Ruthers to me, a thoughtful look touching her gaze. “Mmm, it seems we may have missed more than we thought, Geta.”

“Indeed,” the man agreed. “Suddenly I’m far more interested in hearing this story.”

“Right,” I murmured quietly before straightening as I reached into my pocket. “Okay, well, it’s a long story. But I guess the gist of it is that Herbie saved the day.”

Yeah, I immediately had to backtrack and give the actual explanation. But honestly, after what I’d just had to listen to, I didn’t care. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces as I stood there proudly holding up my rock for their collective bewildered inspection.

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Desperate Times 36-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You needed help.”

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

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

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

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

“Do not disappoint us.”

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

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

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

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

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