A thousand things were running through Shiori Porter’s mind just then. Things like, how does Aylen know that Flick is going to die? Or since when are you two that close? And even can we just win for one goddamn minute without another aspect of our lives catching on fire?
But only one question made it to her lips, as she and Avalon stood there with the fighting going on around them. “How?! How do we get to her?!”
Without warning, Seller abruptly appeared next to them. His hand went up, creating some kind of fire burst that incinerated one of the troops who was coming for them. “Get to who?” he asked tensely, even as his other hand threw a handful of what looked like metal pellets. Instead of hitting any of their enemies, each of the pellets struck one of his weird flesh golems. Instantly, all of the damage that had been done to them was healed, and the golems were encased in a metal armor that made them look like almost comically overweight knights.
“Flick,” Avalon quickly snapped, her eyes wide with fear, uncertainty, and worry. “Flick. We have to get to–” She cut herself off, clearly at a loss for how to explain what was going on in only a few words before finally settling on, “She’s going to die, Seller. She’s going to die unless we get to this grocery store parking lot within the hour! Please, please, we have to get to her. We have to get there, we–”
Seller cut her off, holding up a hand quickly. He didn’t question how Avalon knew that, or how she could be so certain. All he said was, “You’ll get there, kid. Don’t you worry. Take this.” He handed the other girl a different cell phone from the one she already had. From the brief glimpse that Shiori had, there seemed to be a number already dialed into it. “Hit send, tell her what you need. And kid, get your girl out of there.”
Taking the phone, Avalon started, “I–”
“Go,” Seller urged, giving them both a brief smile. “We’ll clean up here and get everyone out. Better to get the book clear of this place anyway.”
“Columbus!” Shiori hurriedly blurted, fear for Flick’s situation also making her think about her brother’s safety through all of this. She didn’t know how everything upstairs with the zombies had gone, or what the rumbling earlier had been.
“I’ll get him out,” Seller promised. “Him and all the others. You focus on Chambers.”
With that, the man moved to help Sands, Dries, and his own golems. In the background, Shiori could see Kohaku suddenly arrive as well, throwing her weight into dealing with what was left of Paschar’s troops.
Avalon already had the phone to her ear. Shiori could hear it ringing, even as she kept her own eyes moving back and forth to cover the other girl, just in case one of the Seosten’s soldiers made it all the way to them. It would’ve been pretty bad to be stopped from saving Flick just because she or Avalon happened to be stabbed by a lucky hit.
It only rang twice, before a familiar voice answered. “What’s wrong?”
“Athena?” Avalon blurted, eyes widening. “When did–” Cutting herself off from what were obviously a lot of questions, she gave a blurted explanation, that they had the book, but now knew for a fact that Flick would die in less than an hour at a grocery store parking lot.
Like Seller, Athena didn’t question the girl’s words. Instead, she snapped, “Hit the red button on the back of the phone and hold it down. Have anyone you’re bringing hold onto you.”
Quickly doing so, Avalon glanced over to Shiori, who put a hand on her shoulder. Both girls exchanged an uncertain and worried look, while the fighting continued on the other side of the room. Despite the fact that Aylen had said they still had time, every second that passed felt like an hour.
Only three of those seconds passed, while Avalon held the button down, before Shiori felt a wave of nausea wash over her. The room spun right along with her stomach, and she found herself staggering with a yelp, falling to her knees on what turned out to be dirt. The dirt road. They were on the dirt road that had led to the bank.
A moment later, a portal appeared beside the two of them, while they were still orienting themselves. Through it emerged Athena herself, looking a bit worn, with a cut along her cheek and another bit of blood visible on her shoulder.
Eyes widening, Shiori found herself blurting, “Did you warn Flick?! Did you–”
Athena held a hand up. “First, the book. You have it?” When the girls nodded, she went on. “Good. And no, I did not talk to her. This is future information, seer-words, correct?” She looked to Avalon, who nodded hesitantly. “As I thought. I’ve found that trying to change the future like that is… difficult. We could end up creating the very situation that leads to Felicity’s death, if we warn her. The best thing to do is to go to that parking lot and wait for the actual situation to present itself. We can stop it then.”
“Are you okay?” Shiori quickly asked, gesturing to the blood.
Glancing that way, Athena nodded. “Penalties of cutting a fight with my old shipmate short to handle this situation. I’ll be fine. Now what was that location?”
Avalon gave it to her, and the woman produced her special portal-creating knife. After a moment of thought and focus, she seemed to stab the knife into midair, ‘cutting’ out a door-shaped opening before gesturing. “Go.”
Shiori went first, quickly throwing herself through the portal. She ended up coming out on a sidewalk, right in front of a group of teenagers, who nearly walked into her. One of them blurted for her to watch where she was going, another calling out an apology while the rest snickered for some reason. All of them glanced back as Avalon appeared right beside her. None noticed the portal, nor the fact that both girls had come out of nowhere. The Bystander Effect doing its work.
“Avalon!” Aylen was there, jogging across the nearby parking lot to join them. “Shiori! You–” She stopped short, suddenly taking a step back as Athena appeared. “Who–”
“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed the girl, looking to Shiori and Athena herself before adding, “On both counts. The point is, she’s on our side.”
Shiori took a moment to silently admire how well that single sentence worked to respond to both Aylen and Athena about the other, while Avalon pressed, “What’s happening right now?”
Aylen’s head shook. “Nothing. There’s not–”
“Quiet,” Athena interrupted, suddenly moving to them while holding up a small metal stick with a spell scrawled on it. She muttered the activation word, and Shiori felt a tingling sensation on her skin. In the next second, a pair of dark vans suddenly turned off the road, pulling into the lot. As Shiori looked that way, she could see a young Relukun behind the wheel of the rear van. She also caught a glimpse of his passenger, an Orc whose tusks reminded her of Choo.
She was glad the little guy was safe from this whole thing, spending the day with the refugee Seosten children at the Atherby camp.
“Well,” Athena murmured while staring at the two vans as they parked in the lot with a space between them, “at least we know we’re in the right place after all.” She gave Aylen a curious look then before adding, “If we’re going to stop this, it has to be quietly. They can’t have a chance to warn anyone else that they’ve been compromised. Here.”
Shiori looked down to see the woman extending a different metal rod to her while explaining, “Take that with you. The three of you deal with the soldiers in the left van. I’ll take the right. As long as you keep that rod, they won’t see you or be able to send any messages. And girls,” she added with quick look to them, “quickly and quietly.”
They moved. Aylen and Avalon stayed close, while Shiori held the rod. Together, the three jogged across the lot toward the left van. They could see the occupants in the front, the Relukun and the Orc, chatting with someone in the back. They looked relaxed, which made sense. None of them had any reason to expect trouble here, in the middle of nowhere well away from any of the fighting.
Why would Flick end up here? What were these guys doing? What was going on? How did Aylen know the future? All that and more kept running through Shiori’s mind, even as she tried to shove the thoughts away. Focus, she told herself. Focus on the only important part right now: making sure Flick didn’t die.
They reached the van without incident. Having no idea what Athena was doing with the other one, the trio made a brief plan, then spread out. Shiori moved to the driver’s side, while Aylen set herself up near the passenger door, and Avalon moved to the back. Together, the three of them waited for each other to be ready, glancing back and forth while listening to the conversation going on in the van. It was Latin, so Shiori had no idea what was being said. But they seemed calm enough.
That calm wouldn’t last. By mutual agreement, Shiori and Aylen waited for Avalon to make her move. Which the other girl did by yanking the back of the van open. Shiori heard a yelp from that way, followed by the hum of her gauntlets coming to life.
The Relukun in the driver’s seat was already turning to look behind them, his Orc partner doing the same. Neither had any time to react before Shiori and Aylen each yanked their respective doors open. With one of her discs in hand, Shiori slammed it into the Relukun’s face, triggering the energy blade on it with a quick flick of her finger. He was dead before he even knew what was happening, as a brief rush of pleasure raced its way through her.
Aylen had dealt with the Orc just as efficiently, having produced some kind of curved dagger to slit his throat. Together, the two looked at one another, then leaned in to peer into the back, where Avalon crouched over a pair of bodies of her own.
“Good.” That was Athena, suddenly standing just outside the van, her own targets apparently already dealt with. “That was quick and quiet. Excellent work, all… three of you.” Again, she gave Aylen a curious look before turning back to the subject at hand. “Now the situation is secure, and we have… time before Felicity Chambers’ apparent demise?”
Aylen, who was being stared at by all three of them, swallowed and gave a hesitant nod. “I–I think so. I mean, the feeling is a lot stronger now, but… maybe twenty minutes?”
“Twenty minutes,” Athena echoed. “Yes. I believe that is long enough to come up with a plan. And,” she added pointedly, “for you to explain just how you know this?”
“She’s a hybrid,” Avalon answered for the other girl, after the two exchanged looks and Aylen nodded faintly. “A hybrid of a–”
“Reaper,” Athena finished, sounding like she’d already known that and only needed it confirmed. “The hybrid daughter of a reaper…”
“Not daughter,” Aylen corrected. “Granddaughter. It’s–it’s a long story.” She murmured the last bit, glancing away.
“It answers enough for now,” Athena agreed. “I believe you’re right about the twenty minutes. So with that time, let’s decide how to handle it when Felicity and what are clearly going to be her captors do show up.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a decent plan,” Shiori pointed out.
“I mean, we’ve got the goddess of tactics on our side.”
The plan that they’d eventually came up with worked. Flick was saved from what ended up being Radueriel and Abaddon, as both of the Seosten bastards were sent through the portal that Avalon had created with Athena’s knife, with a little ‘help’ from the woman herself as she hopped out of Shiori (after using Excalibur to allow the hybrid girl to be possessed in the first place) to take them by surprise.
In the end, they were gone, and Flick was… well, not okay. She’d clearly been injured heavily enough that it wasn’t healing very quick. But she was alive. She was alive.
And… curious, obviously, about what was going on. The blonde girl’s eyes were wide as she stammered a confused response to Avalon asking if she was alright. “I… I… I don’t know. What the hell happened?”
Joining the other two, Shiori replied, “With the vault, or right now? Because the former’s a long story. And the latter…” Turning a bit, she looked toward Aylen, who perched on a lamppost where she had served as lookout and warning for when the bad guys had arrived. Without Shiori needing to say anything, Aylen flew down and resumed her… well, not human shape. She resumed her human-ish shape, her Reaper-like features revealed.
“Well,” Shiori continued while gesturing toward the girl. “The latter’s a long story too.”
Before she could say anything else, however, a new light suddenly appeared in the form of Tabbris popping into view. Her form settled, the light fading even as the little girl spun to embrace Flick so tightly that it drew a gasp from her. She was crying, clinging, and seemed to not care about Aylen’s presence whatsoever.
Shiori couldn’t blame her for that, after what they had just witnessed.
“Hey, hey,” Flick murmured, hugging Tabbris to herself. “See, we’re okay. We’re… we’re safe, partner.” She held the little girl tight, before looking up to Aylen. “I guess we’ve both got secrets.”
Aylen, for her part, hesitated before extending a hand. “I guess we do. I’m… glad you’re okay, Flick.”
“She’s how we found you guys,” Shiori explained as the two shook hands. “She could sense that you were going to die here, so she called Avalon and… well, we came to help.”
“That’s why you disappeared,” Flick realized then, looking over to Athena. “That’s why you weren’t fighting Abaddon anymore.”
Athena gave a slight nod. “Averting catastrophes in the future is dangerous. But this was worth it. That said,” she added then, giving a quick glance around, “we should leave, now. We don’t know if anyone else was meant to meet them here.”
“Yeah,” Shiori agreed, “or if they’ll just send reinforcements themselves.” She blinked to the other woman then. “Where did you set the knife to send them, anyway?”
With a slight smile, Athena replied, “Let’s just say I promised Lucifer that I’d send them somewhere special that he and Sariel set up. They’ll be busy for quite awhile. But yes, we need to go.”
“Yeah,” another voice spoke up, snapping Shiori’s attention that way, “going is probably good.”
It was an almost ethereally pretty (and thus probably Seosten) brunette girl who stood next to Pace. Who–wait.
“Theia?” Shiori found herself blurting, eyes blinking back and forth between them. “And Pace? Wait–wait, you guys…”
“Another long story,” Pace replied with a nod. “But… yeah, we’re separate. It’s…” She looked up, her eyes moving not to Shiori, but to Athena. “She’s dead. Kushiel, I mean. Kushiel is… is…” She looked over to Theia.
“I killed her,” Theia confirmed. “I killed Momma.”
Looking taken aback, Athena took a moment to respond. “A… a long story indeed. And one we will need to hear, once we leave this place.”
Together, Shiori and Avalon helped the injured Flick up. The girl couldn’t walk very well, leaning on both Shiori and Avalon. Which, honestly, Shiori wasn’t going to object to at all. Tabbris was right there too, as they went through the portal that Athena created, which led them back to a spot near the Atherby camp, with the lake visible in the distance.
And now that they were out of immediate danger, Shiori could focus enough to see the book that Tabbris held clutched against her stomach.
“You’ve got it,” Avalon breathed, seeing it at the same time. “You got the other book.”
“Does that mean you’ve got the–” Flick started, before stopping short as the girl held it up. “You’ve–we’ve… we… we did it.” Her voice sounded awed. “We actually got both of the books. We’ve…” Then her face fell.
“Flick, what’s wrong?” Shiori asked, confused by the reaction.
“Shiori…” Flick started. “I… we… I have to tell you something. I have to tell you… about… about Seth…”
“They’re going to have a memorial,” Asenath quietly murmured a couple hours later, as she and Shiori stood on the edge of the lake. Up near the cabins nearby, Gaia and Gabriel Prosser were debriefing everyone who had been involved in the assaults and the distractions, thanking them for everything they did to help, and informing them that while they had taken losses, the missions were successful. They had the spell, though it would take time for Dries and the others to work it into what they wanted.
Shiori felt a hard lump in her throat as she closed her eyes while whispering, “For Seth?”
Asenath nodded. “Well, for everyone who was… who died. They lost a couple in Prosser’s group when they stopped the Seosten reinforcements from attacking Gaia’s group at the bank. They’re going to put their names on a memorial that they have here at the camp. It’s where they list the names of everyone who was killed in the service of stopping the Seosten. Or just evil in general.”
“He belongs there,” Shiori started to say, before the words choked themselves into a knot in her throat. “I mean… I mean he belongs here. He belongs here. I know he–he was–” Everything she had been trying to say came out jumbled, and she found her eyes suddenly flooding with tears.
Asenath took her, hugging Shiori to her with a murmured, “I know. I know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t–that I didn’t… that he…” She too had to stop talking for a moment until she collected herself. “We didn’t always get along, but… but he was always there when I really… I thought he would always be there.”
Together, Shiori and Asenath stood with the soft waves of the lake gently lapping against their feet. They were silent for several minutes, barely hearing the words of Gaia in the background.
“Did she say something about Crossroads earlier?” Asenath finally asked.
“Yeah,” Shiori confirmed. “They’re sending everyone–I mean the students–back to Crossroads early, stopping the field trip because of the… you know, the ‘attack’.”
Asenath nodded. “So it worked? They managed to make it look like the Seosten were responsible for the thing at the bank?”
“Technically, they were responsible,” Shiori pointed out with a tiny, almost humorless smile. “But yeah. Sariel, Apollo, and the other Seosten did a run-through and rewrote memories, and Gaia messed with the security recordings. Now everyone in charge over there thinks that it was another attack by the bodysnatchers. Which kind of screws over the party line that they were all beaten.”
“Boo hoo,” Asenath replied dryly. “Maybe they’ll actually do something about it now.”
Nodding, Shiori replied, “I just kinda want to see the Seosten scramble to fix this again. Especially now that they lost the spell completely, and Kushiel’s dead.”
“Clearly a great loss to the universe,” Asenath snorted while putting both hands on Shiori’s shoulders. “So you’ll come back in a couple days for the memorial?”
“Yes, of course,” Shiori agreed, moving to embrace her half-sister. “Do you think…”
“I think Mom will be here too, yes.” Asenath returned the hug. “But right now, I think what everyone needs is rest.”
Caught in mid-yawn, Shiori blushed. “I… yeah, I guess it’s been a pretty long day, huh?”
“You can say that again,” Asenath replied.
“You know, if you can do it before you fall asleep.”
Obviously, neither Shiori nor Avalon were in any mood to leave Flick alone, after the injury she’d sustained and what had almost happened. She’d nearly died. Literally. If it hadn’t been for Aylen, she would have. She would have been gone, and none of them were going to forget that any time soon.
So, they slept together that night, literally. Shiori, Avalon, and Flick stayed in the room belonging to the latter two, dragging blankets and pillows down onto the floor between both beds to form a sort of nest before the three cuddled up together. They burrowed deep under the covers, falling asleep almost immediately after the long day that they’d all had. None of them had energy to spare, not even Flick with her Amarok-derived stamina. They were beat. But hey, at least they had the books. And Professor Dare had given Flick something that was supposed to help her sleep so that her legs would completely heal.
For her part, even without being drugged, Shiori felt as though she could have slept for days after everything that happened. As it was, hours seemed to pass in an instant from the time her head found its way to the pillow beside Flick before her eyes finally opened once more.
When she finally did wake up, it was dark. Not that being dark meant that much given her senses, but still. Everything was slightly dim, and it took Shiori a disorienting second or two to even understand why she was awake.
Then it came to her in a sudden rush. There was someone else in the room, someone else crouched right near them, directly beside Shiori. A figure knelt there, with a knife in one hand, its blade glinting in the slight moonlight that came in through the nearby window. She had no idea who it was, because their face was covered by a dark, featureless mask.
Shiori immediately started to shout while trying to sit up, her hand moving to grab the knife. But the figure’s own hand snapped down to cover her mouth, and she felt some kind of invisible force catch hold of the rest of her body. She couldn’t move, couldn’t even make a sound, or kick out to wake up Flick beside her. She was completely frozen. Even her attempt to yank the knife away from the figure with her metal-control power accomplished nothing.
As it turned out, however, she didn’t need to move any more than that. Flick was already sitting up, with Avalon right behind her. Both other girls were moving so quickly that Shiori wondered if they had already been awake, silently planning on what to do about their intruder.
Flick moved. Avalon moved. And the masked stranger moved as well, blade flicking through the air. Yet, even as Shiori strained in vain to use her metal-control power to yank the blade off-course, that course turned out to not take the knife anywhere near any of them. Instead, the intruder threw the knife across the room, to where another intruder had in that instant stepped through the closed door like it wasn’t even there.
The second figure was clearly intangible. Yet the knife didn’t care, embedding itself in their shoulder anyway a second before there was a sudden spark of what looked like electricity. They jerked in place, giving a soft yelp of surprise before collapsing.
It was enough to make Flick and Avalon both come up short, the girls freezing just as completely as if they too had been caught by the same power that held Shiori motionless.
Or had held her. It disappeared then, leaving the girl to jerk in place, while the figure stood quickly, turning to face them.
“Get up,” the intruder spoke in a voice that was at once familiar and also completely foreign in its tone. “We have to go.”
“Who the hell–” Flick started, her own senses not quite advanced to the point of picking out the voice. Not that knowing who it belonged to help explain anything in Shiori’s mind.
“We have to go,” the figure repeated, before reaching up to take the mask off, revealing, sure enough, Harper Hayes.
“Listen to me very carefully. Fossor is making his move. He just used Flick’s mother as a distraction to kill one of the Committee members, and blamed it on Gaia. They arrested her, and now they’re coming for the rest of you.”