Gabriel Prosser

Patreon Snippets 4

The following is the fourth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

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Michael and Gwen many years ago.

With a loud shriek, the goblin creature took two running steps forward before leaping, his makeshift spear raised with both hands as he lunged toward the thirteen-year-old girl in front of him. The girl herself was only slightly taller than the goblin, her feet automatically shifting apart in the dirt as she set herself for the creature’s leap.

Nearby stood the ancient Seosten who had, throughout his history on this planet, referred to himself as both Quirinus and Romulus. Now, however, in the wake of abandoning his people to live free on this world, he went by his true name of Michael.

Michael. In the Seosten language, it was pronounced ‘Mick-Ai-El’. But he had, in recent years, found himself answering more to the pronunciation of simply ‘Mike-el’ due to his adopted human daughter’s inability to pronounce the name properly as a young child.

It was that same adopted child, whom he had raised from before she could properly walk, who stood facing down the lunge of that goblin. And in that moment, Michael had to force himself not to instantly incinerate the creature to ash for daring to threaten the girl who meant so much to him. No. He had to stop himself. Had to let her fight. He had promised to let her fight this battle.

And yet… it was hard. When he looked at her in that instant, the goblin throwing itself at her slender, tiny form, Michael couldn’t help but think of the time not so long ago when she had been even smaller…

Guinevere. His little Gwen. She was small enough to fit in a bag that he carried across his back. As he ran through the woods, she laughed and squealed, hands reaching up from the bag to hug his neck as she cheered for him to go faster, faster, faster. Her laughter alerting the birds to their approach, driving them to flee from their trees even as the man raced onward, the delight of his newfound child driving him to greater heights and speeds than any previous experience.

Another flash of memory. Years after that moment, in woods similar to but quite far from the ones they had been in then. Michael stood in a clearing next to a small cabin, working his way through his own personal training regimen. His sword cut through the air in an intricate ballet of steel as he shuffled and danced back and forth through the dirt, facing invisible opponents from all sides. The whistle of his blade was audible as it flicked through complicated motions.

From the corner of his eye, he could see his Gwen. Now old enough to stand on her own, the little girl toddled her way from the porch of the cabin where she had been playing with a doll he’d made for her. The doll was still clutched in one hand, even as the girl bent to pick up a small stick from the ground. Experimentally, she flicked the stick back and forth a few times, before giving a slight yelp as it found its way up to smack her own lip.

She tried to throw the offending stick away from herself, only for Michael to catch it. He was there, taking a knee beside the girl. As she whimpered and held her injured lip, the man gave her a gentle smile and put the stick back in her trembling hand. With one hand on her back and the other on her wrist, he slowly began to guide her through the first motion of swinging it. One swipe, then another, he showed the tiny girl how to use the stick without hurting herself.

More flashes of memory came in a rush. The girl swinging the stick on her own, clumsily at first but gaining skill and confidence each time. The crack of a larger stick as the girl, several years older than she had been then, struck it against a tree. The crack of sticks against one another as, even older than that, she tested herself against Michael for a few swings before ending up flat on her back as he tripped her.

The clack of wood on wood turned to the clang of steel on steel as Gwen, not too much younger than she was now, parried a playful thrust from Michael himself, each armed with a real sword. He moved to trip her again, but she sidestepped the move and snapped her blade up to his chest, only to have it smacked aside by Michael’s counter. Father and daughter grinned at one another.

Memories faded then, turning back to reality as the goblin lashed out with that sword. Gwen saw it coming, having set herself for the leap. At the last instant, she pivoted, catching the extended spear with one hand to yank the goblin forward even as her small blade flicked out. There was a shriek and a spray of blood before the creature fell to its back, bleeding from the cut in its throat.

Sword in one hand and makeshift spear in the other, Gwen finished the goblin off by driving its own weapon down through its throat. Standing there with the spear embedded deep in the now-dead creature, she grinned lopsidedly at her adopted father.

“See, Papa? I told you I could do it.”

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

“So, do you think we can help her, Grandmother?” The boy who spoke while walking alongside the brunette woman he referred to as ‘Grandmother’ was tall and handsome, his toned and tanned form a common source of excitement for the girls around him. In most cases, he was casual and laid back almost to a fault. But here, in this situation, he was careful to keep his tone as respectful and proper as possible.

The shorter, dark-haired woman he was addressing as ‘Grandmother’ despite the fact that she only appeared to be in her late thirties, offered her grandson a thin smile. To others, she was known as Ikita, the Hausan (mostly spoken by people from Nigeria) word for doctor. This, because of a very early experience during the formation of Garden itself wherein she had been responsible for saving the lives of several Nigerian explorers. The name had stuck.

“Noble. Are you asking me to extend the power of our tribe to protect this… Abigail from any inter-Garden conflict?”

“Uhh…” The boy thought about it for a moment before nodding. “Yup. She’s close to Miranda, Grandmother. I don’t want to see Randi get hurt, which means we need to make people know that Abigail is with us.”

The two of them stopped outside of a room within the giant skyscraper-sized tree of  Eden’s Garden. Ikita offered her grandson a slight nod. “As you wish. I will see what can be done to… urge others to leave the woman alone.”

The boy thanked her and ran off, Ikita watching him for a moment before turning to enter her chambers. As she did so, the smile vanished from her face, her identity as ‘Ikita’ fading away to the back of her mind.

Because ‘Ikita’ was actually, truthfully known as Cahethal. Earlier in her time on this planet, she had also been called Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. For centuries now, she had possessed this single woman (then a young girl when she had first taken her). It was she, while possessing this girl, who had saved those Nigerians and earned the name of Ikita. The true Ikita, whose real name of Lydia Smallwood had been almost completely forgotten to history, had spent most of the past few hundred years barely interacting with the outside world. Cahethal allowed her time with herself when they were alone, or even time within a constructed memory-magic virtual reality so that she could live a facsimile of a real life of her own.

She didn’t do these things solely out of some affection for her host (though there was at least some of that). Mostly she did so because it was the easiest way to maintain easy control without distraction. So long as her host was rewarded with these things for keeping herself quiet, Cahethal could continue her work uninterrupted. And after more than two centuries, the two had an easy rhythm. There was no need for Cahethal to punish or discipline her host when that host was lost in a virtual reality world which kept her quite thoroughly occupied in a ‘life’ of her own.

It did mean that she had spent many years with… what basically amounted to peace with her host. Peace of sorts, anyway. She’d even grown somewhat fond of her ‘family’, like Noble. Fond enough, at least, that she took the care to block any attempt to have them taken to Seosten space to fight on the Fomorian front. She told herself it was only to keep her host happy, but a part of Cahethal knew it was more than that. She didn’t… love the humans. That would have been ridiculous. But they were… something more than worthless. Favored pets, perhaps? Either way, she didn’t necessarily want to see them thrown away in that endless conflict.

In the room, she walked to where her scientific equipment had been set up. Flicking a hand to activate the spell that would make it impossible to be eavesdropped on through any means, she only then let her gaze move to the nearby window. A bluebird (sialia currucoides) perched there on the sill, watching her.

“Are you ready to report?” she asked the bird, waiting until it trilled a soft song before nodding. “Come here then.”

The bird flew in, landing on her palm. Cahethal reached up, gently petting its beak while cooing gently to it. Then her fingers wrapped around the bird’s neck and she gave a sharp twist, breaking it in a single motion.

As the bird’s body collapsed, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the woman. It resolved into the form of a small, thin man, whose long dirty-blonde hair fell all the way past his shoulders. He stretched, cracking his own neck a couple times before fixing his gaze on her. “I want a cat next next time. I like cats.”

“Report, November,” Cahethal reminded him. November. He was a Lie, of course. One of twelve she had in her employ at the moment, each of them named after a different month in the Gregorian calendar. She found it both easier to tell her Lie informants apart when they were given some other identifier like that, and also that it made them feel better inclined toward her for giving them such a name.

She’d also found that it was easier to allow them to engage in their very useful spying activities by having them possess small animals that could go unnoticed than for them to possess actual people, thus locking them into that form unless the person were to die, which often raised questions. Possessing animals meant that her spies could come and go as they pleased.

“Right, right.” Stretching a bit more and shaking himself off, November carefully began to recite everything he’d heard while spying on Abigail Fellows. He told her about the woman bonding with both Miranda and with the Lie that had run away from that idiot, Manakel. He hadn’t been able to get close enough to hear full details in their private conversations, but he had learned enough to know that Abigail had taken this other Lie under her protection (though given her inexperience, it was far more likely the other way around) and guidance.

“Keep watching them,” she instructed. “Bring in July and April. They need new jobs, and it will spread the work around. Let me know how things proceed. Beyond that, make no move against them. I want to… see how this goes.”

Because this entire situation was interesting. Seeing how Joselyn’s eldest daughter acted with this other Lie, seeing how that entire situation unfolded and how the woman herself shook things up here at Garden, it was… worth allowing to proceed, at least for the time being.

She dismissed him, allowing the man to go into the backroom where dozens of animal cages were kept so that he could pick out his next host. While he was busy with that, the woman turned her mind toward Felicity Chambers, the girl who was supposed to have been Cahethal’s new host as of several years earlier. But when she had gone to the girl’s room, she had found herself incapable of possessing her. Incapable of possessing what should have been an ordinary human child.

It should have angered her. And in a way, it had. But far more than that, it had intrigued Cahethal. She wanted to know the truth. She wanted to know what could possibly have caused that. So she had backed off. She had waited and pitched her request that Felicity be brought to Eden’s Garden so that a closer eye could be kept on her. That request, unfortunately, had been denied. Felicity was slated to go to Crossroads instead, thanks to effort put forth by Gaia Sinclaire. Effort which Cahethal couldn’t push too much against without drawing attention to herself.

That, far more than her inability to possess the girl, had annoyed Cahethal. She wanted to research the girl, wanted to dig into her and really find out what was so special that allowed her to resist possession. That being denied upset her more than the initial failure itself. The failure was interesting. It merited research, investigation, maybe even direct contact to determine the cause. The opportunity for that being declined was what had truly set her off.

And now look at the girl. She had somehow killed Manakel. Had killed Manakel, a being many thousands of years older and more powerful than she, simply because he had underestimating her. Worse, thanks to that, all the Seosten were being told to leave the girl alone, to back off entirely.

Which denied Cahethal the opportunity to investigate and examine the interesting girl even more.

Idiot Manakel. She was glad his mistake had cost him his life.

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

“So I’m… I’m really sorry, but I… I guess you made a mistake.” Each word that came from Marina’s mouth felt as though she was pushing it past a slump of steel that had solidified in her throat. Her eyes were wet, the overwhelming sense of failure and despair a crushing weight on her shoulders. But she didn’t look away. She didn’t lower her gaze. She stood straight, facing the woman she had failed, no matter how much shame she felt. Gaia deserved that much.

The headmistress herself sat behind a desk in her beautiful, spacious office. She watched the girl silently for a few long seconds before speaking quietly. “I’m afraid I may be a bit lost, Marina. What mistake have I made?”

Incredulously, Marina forgot the lump in her throat to blurt, “Everyone I’m supposed to take care of disappears or dies! Paul’s dead, Rudolph’s dead, Roxa left a long time ago and probably isn’t coming back, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon disappeared. Doug is the only, the only one of my original group that hasn’t had something horrible happen to him–oh wait, he has because those were all his friends! I’m not a good mentor. I’m–” Now her tears were back, her voice choking itself off to the point of barely being understandable. “I wanted to be, but I’m not. I’m not.”

She took a breath then, forcing herself to calm down enough to speak. “They don’t trust me. Chambers, your daughter, Scout, even Doug now. I know they don’t trust me. They’ll be talking and then stop whenever I get close to them. They– I don’t blame them. I’m supposed to protect them and I didn’t. I haven’t. Deveron–he screwed up at the start of the year, but they trust him. They’ll talk to him. And–and the fact is, they don’t need two mentors. They need one that they can trust, and… and it’s him. They don’t need me. They don’t trust me.”

Gaia’s expression was unreadable in that moment. She sat there, watching Marina in silence before pushing herself to her feet. Only when she had stepped around the desk so that it was no longer between them did the woman finally speak. “Before you… retire your badge of mentor, would you mind coming with me?”

“Um. I…” This was not how Marina expected this to go. Biting her lip, she gave a hesitant nod. “O-of course, Headmistress.”

As the two of them walked from the office together, Gaia quietly asked, “Do you remember what you said to me last year, when I asked you if you were certain about being a mentor?”

The lump was back. It took Marina a few seconds to find her voice, and even then it cracked. “I said that… that I wanted it more than anything in the world. I thought I could do it. I thought I was ready.”

“You showed me a journal,” Gaia reminded her while leading the way down the hall. “An entire notebook full of ideas, plans, thoughts, all focused on the things you would do for the younger students. You showed me the games you wanted to play, the tests you wanted to do. You wanted to teach them. You showed me an entire book of ideas you wrote down because you wanted to teach them.” She glanced sidelong at the girl while stopping in front of a door. “Has that changed?”

“W-well… no, I mean…  I mean, I’m not any good at it,” Marina protested weakly. “I thought I was–I thought I could do it. But I can’t. All I wanted to do was show them how… how wonderful and amazing this world can be, how we can help people. I wanted… I wanted to show them that our world is about more than just killing things. Because our people forget that sometimes. They make it about power and about how many monsters they’ve killed. But there’s magic out there. Magic and… and a whole universe of… of wonder. I just… I just wanted to help one little group see that. I just wanted to help a few people see some of the amazing things in this world besides all of the killing.

“And  instead, the only thing I’ve managed to do is get them killed.”

In the wake of Marina’s words, Gaia slowly reached out a hand to rest on her shoulder. “My girl… if there is one thing above everything else, one truth above all others that you must, must understand, it’s that you have done nothing wrong. There are times in all of our lives, when bad things will happen. They will happen no matter how hard to try to prevent them. And they don’t happen because we failed. They happen despite our successes, despite everything we do right. That is the nature of life. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.”

Before Marina could respond to that, Gaia opened the door and gestured for her to go through. “Come.”

The girl took a step that way before blinking up in confusion. Her gaze turned to take in exactly where they were “Err, wait, was this door here before? I don’t remember it.”

With a smile, Gaia ushered her gently, yet firmly through with a hand on her back. “Many do not. It’s not a door that exists for everyone.”

That brought many questions to Marina’s mind. But they all vanished as soon as she moved through the doorway. She felt a slight tingling sensation, before finding herself somewhere else, somewhere that, like the door they had just come through, she had never seen before.

“What the…” Blinking a couple times, the girl slowly looked around. They were in another hallway. Straight ahead of them was another door, with an attached window. Through that window, Marina could see what looked like a classroom. It was filled with desks facing a chalkboard, except it wasn’t part of the school, because the students in those desks were only about ten years old. They were all laughing, clearly engaged in whatever the teacher, a young woman the girl didn’t recognize, was saying while she read from some book.

There were more doors up and down the hall, Marina realized quickly. Through each was another group of children, none of them older than twelve or thirteen, and many as young as three or four. They were learning, playing, or just napping.

“I… I don’t understand.” Turning to Gaia, she asked, “What is this place?”

The headmistress gave her a somewhat sad smile. “This… this is part school, part daycare, part… orphanage. It is a place for all those who are too young to be on their own, yet have no place to go. It is for those whose parents are on a long mission, a long recovery, or… or who will never come back. It is for those whose only guardians have died, while they have no one else.”

Covering her mouth briefly, Marina made a noise of distress before looking up and down at all the rooms she could see. “All these kids… their parents are gone? I mean–dead?”

“Many–most, yes,” Gaia confirmed quietly. “You see… Marina, I believe you. I believe in you. It may be difficult for you to believe in yourself, but I do. I believe that you wish to teach, that you want to show people the beauty in this world. And more than that, I believe that what you need is not to give up, but to have someone who needs you. These children, they need you. They need people who will come here and spend time with them, people who will take the time to teach them, to prepare them for when they are eventually old enough to join the school proper.

“I know that it is a lot to ask of you, given everything that you have already been through. But can you be that person? Instead of surrendering your mentorship entirely, would you come here and help these children? I’m afraid that it is not a glamorous job. You will not be taking them on grand hunts, or–”

“Yes,” Marina blurted. The word came before she even knew what she was going to say, even as her eyes blurred from the tears. “Yes. Yes. I–I–” Eyes closing, she took three quick steps forward and threw her arms around the much older woman. Clinging tightly to the headmistress, she felt her own shoulders shake violently as the tears came. “Yes. I will. I will. I’ll–I won’t mess up. I won’t mess up, I promise. I’ll help them. I’ll teach them. I’ll–I’ll be there for them. I swear, I swear.”

Gaia returned the embrace tenderly, moving one hand up to brush through her hair. “I know, Marina. I know, sweet girl.”

Tightening her grip despite herself, the embarrassment at her presumption not quite able to surpass her intense gratitude, the girl murmured the only words that she could think in that moment. “Thank you, Miss Sinclaire.

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

For years, Scout had hated that name, because of the memories it brought, memories of her mother’s voice desperately calling for her. Not her true mother, but the monster using her voice to torment her, to torture her into revealing herself. The sound of her mother’s desperate pleading, asking why Sarah wouldn’t come to her, why she didn’t love her anymore, why she was abandoning her… it was enough that the name itself became a symbol of that horrific day.

And yet, all of that vanished in a single instant, the vile memories the name brought up fading into nothingness like so much vapor. Faded because of the same thing that had brought them on in the first place: her mother’s voice.

Her true mother. There. Not only there, but holding her. Scout’s arms clung to the woman as tightly as she could, while her mother held on just as tight. She was whispering Scout’s name–Sarah’s name, kissing her head and nuzzling her as she tightened her grip. “Sarah, my Sarah. My sweet Sarah. My beautiful, brave, incredible little girl.”

“Mommy. Mommy.” Tears fell freely from Sarah’s face as she desperately held onto the woman as though she might never let go. “Mommy, I love you. I love you, Mommy.”

She didn’t care who else was there. She didn’t care who saw or who heard. Her mother was there. Her mother was there, right there, right here. She was back, she was alive. The entire school could have been burning down in that moment and Sarah would not have given the slightest thought to it.

Because her mother was there, and everything would be okay.

Feeling Sands slip in close to them, Sarah opened her arm. Then they were all embracing, the three of them. For the first time in… in many years, they were together. And Sarah felt the kind of… hope and joy that she had almost forgotten. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Not her confusion and anger with her father, not the many, many other things that needed to be done. Not all the enemies that wanted to hurt or kill them. Just this moment right here with her mother and sister. Everything else could wait.

Leaning back a bit after a moment, Larissa gazed down at Sarah and Sands. “My girls. Oh, my brave, beautiful girls. I missed you both for so long. Sarah. My Sarah.” Moving a trembling hand to cup the side of the girl’s face, she whispered. “I missed you. I love you.”

“Mommy. Mommy. I love you. I love you.” The words choked their way out of Sarah’s mouth as she dove right back into hugging the woman, unable to stand letting go for even a second longer.

With a soft smile, Larissa held both of her daughters. “We have a lot to talk about. We’ll do it in private, later, okay?”

Both girls murmured their agreement, before Sarah abruptly looked up. “But one thing? If… if we’re going to talk in private…

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

“You know,” Lincoln Chambers started conversationally, “we have a holiday that’s all about painting eggs too. But uh, they’re not usually this… big.” In demonstration, he reached out to lay his hand against the object in question, which was a solid three feet in height.

On the opposite side of the egg, Sariel raised an eyebrow, a smile twitching at her lips. “Maybe you just didn’t have big enough eggs to pull it off.”

She was clearly teasing, as the egg between them wasn’t actually real. Lincoln wasn’t entirely sure what it was made of, but it seemed to be some kind of plastic. It certainly looked real though, and even felt pretty real when he put his hand against it.

The two of them were standing near the lake with their enormous fake egg. And they weren’t the only ones. More of the freed Seosten were with other eggs. Four in particular had been set up with one of the young toddlers at each, with their actual parents guiding them through the decoration. But even beyond those four, there were other children. All of the kids in the camp, of any number of species, were painting eggs. All those children, gleefully laughing as they dipped  their hands into paint buckets that had been set up and rubbing them over the eggs to color them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the adults, including the Seosten, were carefully painting their own, using brushes of all sizes to create some truly wondrous effects in some cases. Their own results might have looked more professional than the results of toddler finger (and hand… and in some cases toe) painting, but Lincoln could see the beauty in both. And there was just something fun about seeing the kids squealing with delight as they spread their colorful designs over their own giant eggs.

“I’m just going to guess this isn’t actually the Seosten Easter?” he put in then after giving the giant eggs another curious once-over.

Chuckling a little, Sariel shook her head. “There might be some similarities in the whole egg thing and other parts, but no, not really. It’s… I’ll explain more as we go, but it’s basically our ‘winter-end festival.’ It’s a celebration… a holiday that comes from the very, very old days, back when we still lived in huts or stone houses, long before… before everything. Before Cronus. Back when we were basically primitive humans. The winters on Elohim were particularly dangerous. Well, what you would call winter. Elohim has six seasons. Our year is six hundred and fifty-five days long.”

“What about your days?” Lincoln thought to ask. “How long are they?”

“Roughly equivalent, actually,” Sariel replied. “We’re not sure if that’s a coincidence or something about humans learning to function in Seosten society by being put on a planet with similar day lengths. But either, there’s not an appreciable difference. Anyway, six hundred and fifty-five days split into six seasons. High Sun lasts for sixty of those days and is when the land is the hottest. We reach what you would call triple digits fahrenheit on those days. The middle, at the hottest time of the year, is when our calendar marks the new year. High Sun is followed by Low Sun, which is still warm, but more around what you would call the… seventies. That lasts for about a hundred and fifty days. Then we have Fallen Sun, which is our… well, fall or autumn. Things begin to die, it gets a bit cold. That’s another hundred and fifty days. But then the weather warms up again. Back up to Low Sun temperatures for about sixty more days in a time that we call Last Sun. After that, it gets cold. Very cold. We call it No Sun, and it lasts for a hundred and twenty days. At the worst of No Sun, things get… or used to get, unbelievably cold. Before we had all the technology and command of magic that we had now, many people used to die during No Sun. Everything would freeze.

“But that led into our final season, ‘New Sun’. That’s our equivalent of spring, and it lasts for the remaining one hundred and fifteen days. And at the height of it, as we can see the new plants and new life growing out of the old, we celebrate with what you would basically call… ahh… Light Day, I suppose. Or maybe Warmth Day. It’s kind of the same thing. Light and warmth. That’s what this celebration is about. It’s about surviving the coldest days… and remembering those who didn’t.”

A moment later, they were joined by Haiden and Tabbris, as the two hurried up while carrying more paint buckets. Haiden held a handful of cans atop a metal sheet that floated along beside him like a tray, while Tabbris lugged one by herself with both hands, clearly having insisted on helping. Finally, they reached the others and set the color-filled buckets down.

“Mama,” Tabbris chirped while quickly opening her arms, “they’re making the clearing really pretty!”

Smiling openly, Sariel knelt and embraced her daughter tightly. “Are they? You just had to sneak a peek, huh?” she teased the girl with a wink

Blushing, Tabbris squirmed there on her feet, returning the hug before leaning back. “I had to ask Vanessa and Tristan what colors they like, so I can put them on the egg! They’re helping Mister Gabriel and the others set up. You should see all the lights they’ve got! It’s almost like Christmas!”

After giving her daughter another tight hug, Sariel straightened up. “I take it you know how you’d like to paint your egg then?” When the girl gave a quick nod, she gestured. “Alright then, it’s all yours.”

Despite her words, Tabbris immediately asked Lincoln for help getting the paint right. He agreed, and the two of them opened a couple of the buckets, found brushes, and set to work on their chosen design.

For a moment, Sariel simply looked around the area at all the colorful eggs, delighted children, and focused (but still quite happy) adults. Her gaze found her husband, and she reached out to take his hand. His hand. After all their time apart, she could finally hold his hand. That very fact by itself was almost enough to leave her knees weak.

“The kids are okay then?” she asked softly, barely able to speak.

Tugging her to him to gently kiss her, Haiden nodded. “Mmmm. They’re fine. Vanessa’s lecturing Tristan on the history of egg painting at Easter, while he’s trapped on the ladder tying the streamers in the trees.”

Sariel chuckled. “At least she knows how to take advantage of a captive audience.”

Some time later, the now fully decorated eggs had been moved to the equally decorated clearing on the other side of the camp. The clearing itself was filled with colorful streamers and Christmas-like lights, which came on as the sun began to go down. The lights, some of them solid while others blinked on and off in patterns, covered the trees as well as the ground. Their glow illuminated the painted eggs that had been arranged throughout the clearing.

A series of benches had been set up against the trees as well, surrounding the open space. Seosten and non-Seosten alike filled those benches, chatting loudly and excitedly with one another. From where Lincoln was sitting in one of the center rows, he could hear plenty of discussion about what was going on, how this whole celebration worked, and what it meant.

Turning to his left, he focused on Sariel, who sat there with Haiden on the other side of her. Vanessa and Tristan were just beyond the other man. “Okay, I’m sort of half-hearing explanations about what all this means, but you think you could start at the beginning? I know it’s Light or Warmth Day, but what about the eggs?”

It was Vanessa who quickly answered, turning and leaning over to see him. “The eggs symbolize animals giving birth after the long winter. They’re supposed to be about new life, about new beginnings and chances. They’re about survival.”

“Okay,” Lincoln murmured curiously before pointing off to the side of the clearing. “So why is Gabriel wearing a Santa hat?”

Both of the twins laughed, snickering to themselves while Sariel coughed. “It’s not a–okay, yes, it is a Santa hat, basically. But it’s also a hat that belongs to what we call Father Time. He’s our Warmth Day figure. Father Time comes and chases away winter with his flying chariot made of fire and pulled by flaming horses. Then he goes around and touches all of the eggs to wake them up so they hatch.”

Haiden was smiling. “They asked Gabriel if he’d play the role for the festival. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”

“He would’ve done it anyway,” Tristan informed them confidently. “Look at him. He loves it.”

“Well, the rest of the Seosten certainly seem to be enjoying this whole thing,” Lincoln noted. “And so do the rest of the Atherby people.”

Some of the adults were taking pictures of the eggs that had been set up in the clearing. Each of those eggs was brightly colored, seeming to alternate between the more professionally painted ones from the adults, and the gloriously crazy results of the children’s finger painting efforts. Between those colors and the bright lights, the results were almost psychedelic. Lincoln had to take a few pictures of as well with his phone.

His attention was drawn to his other side then, as Felicity found her way up the benches and took a seat beside him with a quick hug. “Hey, I didn’t miss anything important, did I?”

Lincoln was just starting to shake his head when the main spotlights that had been set up went out. The audience area was left mostly dark, while the clearing was lit even more by those sparkling holiday lights. It made the psychedelic effect even stronger.

A few Seosten off to the edge of the clearing began to play some kind of song with borrowed instruments, while others started to sing. Lincoln had no chance of understanding the words that were being said, but it was beautiful. Sitting there, he watched as more of the people moved between the eggs, performing a wonderful little dance routine that they had clearly been working hard on. They all wore clothes that were adjusted and fashioned to make them look somewhat like various animals that he also didn’t recognize. Yet even not following all of what was going on, what was being sung, or what animals they were portraying, he could appreciate how beautiful it looked and sounded.

On his other side, Sariel nudged him a little. “You might want to get your phone ready again,” she whispered. “It’s almost time for the kids.”  

Promptly doing so, Lincoln held his phone up in recording mode, just as the song seemed to be winding down. The costume-clad performers slipped out of the clearing, while Gabriel in his Santa–err, Father Time hat moved in. The man seemed to have been thoroughly versed in what to do, because he immediately moved to the nearest large egg and ran a hand over it. As he did so, lights at the base of the egg suddenly lit up, casting even more colors into the sky. The man moved from egg to egg, touching each to make them light up.

As the last egg was lit, the small band began to play once more. But this was a much more… lively and upbeat tune, something closer to a children’s song than the almost-religious hymn that had been played before. Yet again, he couldn’t follow the words that were being sung (both by the Seosten chorus and some of those in the audience), but it sounded fun and lively.

The moment the new song started, the now-lit up eggs began to shake back and forth. Here and there, a hole appeared as the children, who were inside the eggs that they had decorated, began to break their way out.

Lincoln had asked about the potential problem with leaving little kids within a very enclosed space, only to find out that each egg was, for most of the time, bigger on the inside. It was only when the lights came on at the end that they shrank to what they should be (and each parent made sure their child was going to be okay in that space first). And more than that, the youngest, including the Seosten toddlers, were each in with an older child who could help.

Tabbris, for example, was in her egg with Sahveniah. The little Seosten toddler had painted her own egg, but had wanted to actually be in one with Tabbris.

One by one, the kids (including Tabbris and Savvy) broke out of their own personal eggs. Seosten and other species alike, all of the children of the camp who wanted to participate broke through the egg, scrambling out in their own little animal costumes.

Freed of their eggs, as the jaunty song continued, each of the children scrambled to where Gabriel stood at the head of the clearing. They formed a line, bouncing and chattering with each other even as the sound-magnification spell set near the Atherby leader himself picked up his voice when he recited something in Latin to the first child in line. The child responded with something else, speaking quickly.

“He’s asking what good they bring to the year,” Sariel whispered. “Father Time asks each newly ‘born’ creature what they bring. The children are supposed to answer with something good they did in the past year. Usually it’s something silly or mundane, like helping with chores or doing all their homework. Then they get… well, see?” She gestured to the sight of Gabriel handing the first child a wrapped present. The little kid gave a loud, gleeful cheer before moving out of the way for the next one.

On and on it went. Each child took their turn with ‘Father Time’, saying something good or nice they had done that year, and received a present in return.

Felicity, who had cheered loudly when Tabbris and Savvy got their presents, asked, “There’s more games and stuff after this, isn’t there?”

Nodding, Sariel replied, “There are many more games and songs, yes. The celebration continues until midnight.”

“Good,” the blonde girl remarked with a broad smile. “I’m tired of all the bad Seosten things. It’s about time we focused on something good for awhile, like this.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Sariel nodded. “Yes,” she agreed softly. “My… my people have a lot to make up for. We have a lot of work to do. But sometimes it’s good just to remember that we are about more than slavery and war. That’s why we wanted to do this now, to celebrate our rebirth, and think about where we come from, where we truly come from. Then the true work will begin.”

Haiden took her hand once more, squeezing tightly. “Work that you won’t have to do alone. You have your family, and your people.”

Squeezing back, Sariel failed to stop the tears that came then. Though they came not of sadness or despair, but from something far better. Happiness. Seeing her family here. Seeing her children, her people celebrating this important holiday, and doing so right alongside people of other species, it was… it was more than she could have hoped for not so long ago.

“Yes,” she whispered under her breath. “Not alone. I am not alone.”

And that, quite honestly, was the best Warmth Day gift she could ever have imagined.

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Patreon Snippets 3

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The following is the third volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

Through the pitch black night, three figures picked their way along a winding mountain trail. Trees lined both sides of the path, branches often sticking out in their way. Yet despite that, and despite the winding nature of the path that often seemed terribly random, none of the three ever missed a step. Through the complete darkness that came from the stars and moon being hidden behind clouds and the nearest city lights being many miles away, they nonetheless avoided every branch, stepped over every loose rock and random hole, hiking the trail as though it was illuminated by the bright light of noon.

Shiori, Columbus, and Jiao. Shiori and her mother had been spending a few days… or nights rather, each month meeting for things like these hikes, so that they could get to know each other. And this time, with her mother’s blessing, Shiori had invited her brother along, feeling that he really needed to get out. Manakel was now as dead as Charmiene. Avalon had been rescued and was recuperating at the Atherby camp. Things had… for the most part, settled down at least for the time being.

“Do you ever, umm, miss it?” Columbus, whose goggles really did allow him to see everything as if it was daytime, asked hesitantly while looking toward the taller of his two companions.

Jiao, whose vampiric gifts included the vision that allowed her to function perfectly in darkness, paused very briefly before guessing what he was referring to. “You mean the sun.”

Shiori paused as well, glancing over her shoulder at her mother. Though she wasn’t an actual vampire, she was a dhampyr, a hybrid. Which meant that her own night vision was good enough that she was no more inconvenienced by the darkness than either of the others. When she spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?”

“Two hundred and twenty-seven years,” the woman confirmed, her always soft voice even more so as she turned her head to look up at the dark, cloud-covered sky. “And yes, in some ways, I do miss it. It’s different now, with motion pictures. But back then, being away from the sun for so long was… sometimes very hard. All I had was my memories, and paintings. Over the years, I’ve seen more of it. Pictures, silent movies, when color came to the motion pictures, I was… I spent a long time watching them, because they allowed me to see the sun in real time.

“I–” Wincing, Columbus offered a weak, “I didn’t mean to make you sad or… or anything.”

Meeting his gaze, the Asian woman gave a slight shake of her head. “You didn’t make me sad, Columbus. At least, not in the way that you think. Yes, being a vampire means that I cannot function in daylight. But it also means that I am alive. If I had never met Tiras, if he had never shared his blood with me, I would have died in that hospital. I didn’t lose two hundred and twenty-seven years of sunlight. I gained two hundred and twenty-seven years of moonlight. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of seeing the world grow, of seeing society develop. I was sick, I was dying. I did not lose anything. I gained. I gained two incredible men that I love very much, along with two beautiful, amazing daughters whom I would not trade for any amount of sun.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” Shiori pointed out hesitantly. “You haven’t seen Tiras in… over two hundred years, almost as long as you haven’t seen the sun. And then you fell in love with… with my dad… with Liang, and you haven’t seen him for years either.”

Jiao gave the slightest nod. “You’re right. And I miss them both terribly. I still believe that I will see them again, that I will find them, or they will find me. But if we don’t… if I live a thousand years and never see them again, that won’t erase the reason that I love them, or the time that we did spend together. There are so many bad things in this world, and so many good things. If you spend all your time dwelling on the bad, like the years that you spend apart from someone you love, you’ll forget about the good, like the reason you miss them to begin with.”

Her golden-amber eyes remained locked on Columbus’s. “The trick is to remember that no matter what’s wrong… whether you feel lost, confused, alone… frightened… angry… betrayed, that they are your feelings. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way.”

“I–” Columbus spoke that single word before his voice cracked, breaking right there as he gave a sharp shudder. His eyes closed behind those goggles, his voice a whisper that barely carried over the soft breeze. “I’m afraid.”

The admission was accompanied by a sag of his shoulders, his entire body slumping a bit. “I’m afraid. She’s dead. She’s gone. He’s dead too. They’re dead. I have protection. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I’m afraid. I don’t…” Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, along with his fists, the boy shook his head. “I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be afraid.”

He felt arms wrap around him then, recognizing his sister as she embraced him tightly. “It’s okay to be afraid, Columbus. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

His mouth opened and shut before he managed to protest, “They’re dead. They’re gone. She’s dead.”

“Oh, my boy.” Reaching past her daughter, Jiao put one gentle, soft hand against the side of his face. “The hurt and fear that someone leaves behind after they’re gone doesn’t simply disappear when they do. Bad things can last for quite awhile. But so do good things, if you let them. You want to know how to fight this, how to move on? Make new memories, better memories. Be with your family, with your friends. Do things that you enjoy.

“The pain that your demons inflicted on you doesn’t fade when they die. It fades when you live.”

Columbus couldn’t speak for another few seconds, the lump in his throat taking his voice while he simply clung to Shiori. Finally, he managed to move one arm, opening it while Shiori did the same. His own voice returned, just enough for the boy to whisper, “Thank you.”

Jiao took one step closer, letting both of her arms wrap around the two. She embraced them, brother and sister, her daughter…

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

The tiny blonde girl, face still adorned by fox paint, staggered through the portal that had been opened to lead her back to the Atherby camp. Two steps through, and she was there, standing on the grass next to the lake. Standing, that was, for all of a brief second. Then her legs buckled and the girl began to collapse.

She didn’t fall far, however, before a pair of strong arms caught her. Lincoln Chambers, taking a quick knee to grab onto the girl, lifted her up smoothly while rising. “Whoa, hey there.”

Starting a bit, Tabbris belatedly realized where she was, blinking up at the man who held her in his arms. A slight tremble came to the girl, before she turned a bit to hug onto him as tightly as she could manage. “M.. Mr… Mr… I… I mean… Dad. Dad. Avalon… Avalon–”

“She’s okay,” Lincoln promised. “They’re taking care of her right now. You kept her alive, Tabbris. Brave, brave girl. You kept her alive. You saved her.”

“Columbus too,” she murmured, not relaxing her grip at all. “He’s… he’s…” She could barely speak. The exhaustion from everything she had done, even with Columbus’s help, had left her entirely too far gone. She needed to sleep. But first, she needed to know that things were okay.

“He’s okay too,” Lincoln assured the girl. “And Flick. She’ll be okay.”

“R-Rudolph won’t,” Tabbris whispered, tears suddenly filling her eyes as she shuddered. “Rudolph. Rudolph’s–”

“I know.” His own voice cracking as well, Lincoln hugged the girl tight against himself. He couldn’t say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t. Not anytime soon. A boy had been murdered by a monster, and Tabbris had seen his body. She had seen… too much. She’d seen entirely too much. Not just that night, but throughout her life. She never had a real chance to be a little kid. Even when she had been hiding inside Felicity, the girl had still needed to worry about intruders, about monsters trying to enslave or abduct her charge. And she had had no one to help her.

But she would never lack for that now. Never again. Lincoln vowed that to himself. Tabbris would never have to feel that alone again.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, holding the exhausted girl close. “Flick is safe. It’s over, my little fox-girl. It’s done. You saved Avalon. You beat them.”

Her eyes blinked up at him then, still wet from tears even as she clung desperately, both to him and to consciousness itself. “Dad,” she whispered softly. “Daddy. Please don’t go away.”

Heart aching, Lincoln shook his head. “I promise, baby girl. I promise, I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone. I’m right here. My girl. My beautiful, brave little girl.”

Tears returning, Tabbris closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t find the words. And the thought of opening her eyes now that they had closed seemed an impossibly daunting task.

So she didn’t. Eyes closed, the girl turned her head a little to rest it against her father’s chest. Just for a moment, just to catch her breath. Just to feel, for a second or two, the unconditional paternal love and acceptance that she had been so starved for through so much of her life.

It would be hours before her eyes opened again. And true to his word, Lincoln stayed with her through all of it.

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

They were in the forest of Eden’s Garden. Pace with her fellow werewolves Valentine and the pack leader Lemuel. Facing them was the blonde girl that Doxer wanted to play with, that Felicity Chambers. Somewhere in the distance came the sound of the other girl, the one that Lemuel had turned into a werewolf. That one was currently going through her first change, and from the sound of things, it was not going well.

Pace, or Lies in that moment, had just shared her secret with the Felicity-girl, had just revealed the hilarious truth that she was both werewolf and Heretic.

Werewolf, Heretic, and Seosten Lie, but the girl didn’t need to know that part. That was an even bigger secret. Couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t let her ruin it.

Aloud, she announced, “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

Technically, she was referring to the secret about her be a werewolf. But she also meant the secret about her being a Seosten. The secret that Felicity didn’t know yet. Sometimes Lies got herself confused about what people did and didn’t know. It was all so exhausting, keeping those secrets.

See? that voice in the back of her mind, the true Pace, who still refused to just be quiet and stop talking, put in. You keep pretending you don’t know her name. You call her Present to her face. But you think of her as Felicity. She’s a person. They’re all people. Roxa’s a person. Roxa. That’s her name. That’s the name of the person you let Lemuel put through hell. Felicity. That’s this girl’s name. You know her name.

The girl, Felic–Present was babbling. She was saying something, but then Rox–the new wolfie girl was very, very rude and interrupted with a scream of agony. So whatever Present was about to say had been forgotten, as she blurted the other girl’s name and moved as though to go to her.

Well, that was just rude. Growling deep in her throat at the sheer audacity, Lies quickly put herself back in front of the other girl. Her arms snapped up, her hands found both of Present’s shoulders, and she forcefully shoved her back a step. “No!” she blurted, “Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

Lies. Lies, look. Look. Focus. Look!

In mid-rant, the words of her host penetrated, and Lies found herself slowly lowering her gaze slightly, from Present’s face to a spot a bit lower. She saw then, what she had been too distracted by her anger to see before. She saw what her host had immediately seen, even in that brief split second when they had shoved Present.

She saw the other girl. She saw the child… the child inside of Felicity Chambers.

Seosten. A Seosten child. There was a Seosten child inside of Felicity Chambers. That was why she was immune to being possessed. All the manpower, all the time, all the arguments over what Joselyn Atherby had done to render her daughter immune to possession, all the ranting from Cahethal about the problem… and the answer had been that simple.

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

Chambers was saying something else, something about them making Roxa into a werewolf as that realization dawned on her.

“Isn’t it funny?!” Lies blurted with a loud, crazed cackle of laughter. She wasn’t talking about the Roxa girl. Who cared about the Roxa girl? She knew why Chambers couldn’t be possessed. She knew another secret.

But the others didn’t. No one knew what she knew. She had to cover. So she let them think she was talking about the Roxa girl, babbling on something ridiculous about not giving the girl her toy.

She brought up the choker, even flicking a finger against it, while keeping half an eye on the Seosten child. Was she a Lie too? Was she controlling this Felicity this whole time?

No. Felicity moved without the girl moving the same way. The girl wasn’t controlling her, she was just… standing there, so to speak. She was possessing her, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. She was just there… protecting the girl from being possessed.

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

So distracted was she, that Lies didn’t see the attack coming. She was caught flat footed as Felicity moved suddenly, lashing out with that staff of hers while triggering a kinetic blast that sent Pace flying off to hit a tree.

She recovered instantly, of course. But still, the girl sat there, thinking.

What are you going to do? The voice, fearful, came from the real Pace once more. You know the truth. So what are you going to do with it?

We could make Manakel love us forever, Lies pointed out. Manakel would love us. Cahethal would love us. Even Charmiene would be happy. They would tell Mama that we did good. Maybe–

You don’t believe that. The voice was soft, far different from the tone that had come before. Pace had seen as much of her mind as Lies had seen of hers. But you’re right about Manakel and the others. They’d be really happy. They’d reward you. All you have to do is tell them about that girl. All you’d have to do is tell them about the girl.

Chambers had sent herself through the trees, reappearing directly behind Lies as the girl picked herself up. Before that staff she had could reach her head, Lies had already reacted. She spun, ducking as she moved before lashing out with a punch.

The girl. The child. She needed to activate the choker again so that she could see the child.

The punch did the trick. As did grabbing hold of Felicity’s bicep to keep it active. Lies yanked too hard, breaking the girl’s arm as she threw her to the ground.

She could see her again. The child, right there in plain view. She was so… innocent, so young.

But they’ll take that away, Pace reminded her. You can make yourself the Seosten hero. All you have to do is sentence that girl to whatever Manakel and the others… like your mother, would put her through. Torture. Pain. Loss. They’ll take Felicity away from her. They’ll take that girl back to Seosten space and they will get answers out of her. But you’ll win. You’ll be the hero.

So again, what are you going to do?

In answer, Lies lashed out, kicking Chambers repeatedly while calling her a bad present.

Our secret, she informed her host. No one else’s. Ours. Maybe we’ll get the girl out later. Protect her. Have a friend. We could do that. That… that might be nice. But we don’t tell anyone. We don’t… do that to her. We make this look good. But we keep the secret.

She didn’t know this girl, didn’t know anything about her or why she was there. Or how she’d gotten there, for that matter. But she did know one thing. If it was the choice of  being the Seosten hero and subjecting this girl to the same kind of things she had gone through as a child, or keeping it secret… she would keep it secret.

Because what was the point of making Manakel and the others happy and finally winning the approval that she had so desperately wanted for so long… if she couldn’t live with herself?

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

“Mr. Gabriel, that train is pretty big. Are you sure you can stop it?”

The question from Tabbris came as the young girl waited a little bit away from the man himself. Gabriel, meanwhile, stood in the middle of a set of the road tracks, watching the incoming freight train as it bore down on him while seeming to pick up speed with each passing second. It was no ordinary freight train, but one that had been heavily reinforced, armored by both technology and magic. The train projected a force field around itself, had heavy plating mounted to it, and there were even turrets attached to the top all along its length, one to each car.

Meanwhile, the tall, yet unassuming black man stood in its path. One hand rested lightly on the handle of his ever-present shovel, which had been pushed into the ground a bit.

In answer to the girl’s question, he gave a slight nod. “It’s quite alright, thank you. Just stay there, and no one will see you.” He had put up half a dozen protection and cloaking fields around the girl.

He could have simply send her home through a portal, of course. They had been out looking at tropical fish near an island that he had wanted to show the girl when the call came in about a train carrying prisoners and slave labor toward a Seosten transport ship had come in. He could have sent the girl home then, but she had asked to stay and watch. He would still send her away the instant anything went wrong, but for the time being, he let her stay.

The train closed on him and the first few turrets spun toward the front to take aim. The ones behind the front each rose a bit more on platforms to shoot over the others. Leaving nothing to chance, as many as possible opened fire, while the train itself picked up speed, doubling in an instant, even as the force field around the front grew even brighter and stronger.

As dozens of blasts of powerful, pulverizing energy that could have punched their way through armored tanks shot toward him, Gabriel held up his free hand. The blasts were drawn toward it, narrowing into a single dazzlingly bright beam before disappearing into the man’s palm with no more apparent effect than a flashlight.

With all that power summarily absorbed, Gabriel immediately released it once more in the form of dozens of bright blades of energy, which appeared near each turret and instantly sliced through them, leaving the guns useless.

The train itself was still bearing down. As it neared him, in the bare couple of seconds before he would have been left as a smear on the tracks, Gabriel narrowed his eyes. At a thought, two things happened. First, a pair of portals appeared directly in front of him and a bit further back, just further apart than the length of the train itself.

Second, the train’s momentum was taken away. It immediately began to slow down, passing repeatedly between the two portals as it did so. He didn’t want to instantly stop the train, to avoid injuring those on board. So, he simply gradually stole its momentum while repeatedly sending it back and forth through those two portals. From the outside, the train appeared to stay almost in one place, repeatedly running over the same path of track, while from the train’s perspective, it was still covering lots of ground.

Within a few seconds, the train was safely stopped, unable to move no matter what it drivers tried. Almost as quickly, dozens of armored soldiers appeared, dropping off of the train or scrambling up on its roof to surround the man who had stop them. Their weapons were raised and ready. Before long, fifty troops of various shapes and sizes were there.

In response to all of this, as their weapons were leveled and the troops awaited the order to attack, Gabriel spoke three simple words.

“You may surrender.“

They didn’t, of course. But he had to offer. Instead, as their leader shouted a single word, the soldiers all opened fire, or used whatever ranged power they happened to have. Whatever it took, they would destroy him. Dozens of energy blasts, fireballs, jets of ice, hyper-accelerated metal balls, contained explosions, and more collided with the man in a terrifying display of power.

Then it was over. The dust cleared, and Gabriel Prosser stood entirely unaffected. Not a single attack had managed to so much as ruffle his shirt.

“Okay,” he said then, even as the troops prepared to attack again. With that simple word, Gabriel lifted his shovel from the dirt and drove it down hard once more.

As the blade of the shovel was driven through the dirt, dozens of copies of it appeared simultaneously. They shot up out of the ground, out of thin air, or out of the side or roof of the train itself. The duplicated shovel blades instantly grew to several times their normal size while glowing with unbelievable power. Each was positioned perfectly to slice straight through one of the soldiers. No armor or protection could save them. The troops, to a man, were instantly cut in half from every direction by that single thrust.

Throughout all of this, Gabriel had only moved twice. Once to raise his hand, and the second time to lift his shovel and drive it down once more. Now the train was stopped, its mounted weaponry destroyed, and its troops eliminated.

“Okay,” the man announced simply, turning to where Tabbris was.

“Let’s see how our new friends on board are doing.”

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

“And then Trierarch Bayest drew his gun, pointed at the Fomorian on the ground, and said, ‘You didn’t leave one survivor, you’ve left two.’  And then he pulled the trigger and blew the Fomorian’s whole head into splatter dust like fwoomsh!

With the end of her pronouncement, the young Chayyiel suddenly threw her arms wide open, going as far as jumping into the air to demonstrate the explosive nature of the aforementioned head explosion. She added in her best approximation of gooey noises as well right at the end, as if demonstrating the resulting gore dripping from the walls.

The first of her two-member audience who had been listening to the girl’s story gave her a broad smile. Abaddon, his enormous figure completely dwarfing the child’s as they stood on one of the Olympus’s space observation decks, raised his hand. His thumb was lightly pressed against the side of his index finger, while the other three fingers were tucked down against his palm. Millennia in the future and far away, the human equivalent of that gesture would be a thumbs up.

“That’s right, aucellus,” he announced, using his favored nickname for the child. “That’s exactly how that went down. I should know, I was the other survivor. And Bayest was one of the most badass trierarchs I ever had the pleasure of serving under.”

The other occupant of the observation deck grunted in disbelief. Cahethal, her incredibly, distractingly green eyes focused on the man, disbelievingly asked, “Are you quite certain that you’re not exaggerating even a little bit? I find it difficult to believe that one man, no matter how talented he may be, was capable of single-handedly wiping out an entire Fomorian strike force, no matter how motivated he may have been.”

Grunting, Abaddon thumped a fist against his chest. “You believe what you want, science girl. I know what I saw. Bayest is the biggest damn hero of the Seosten that I’ve ever met. And there ain’t never going to be another one like him.”

“You just said—” In mid-sentence, Cahethal visibly gave up and shook her head with a sigh. “Never mind.”

She focused on Chayyiel then. “Come, you know that you are here for more than simply listening to totally exaggerated war stories.”

Obediently, Chayyiel moved over to stand next to the woman who had, over the past year or so since the ship had launched, taken up a role as one of her teachers.

Once the girl was there, Cahethal asked, “You asked to work on your experiment here on the observation deck so you could watch the stars. Are you sure you won’t be too distracted? And did you bring your materials?”

Quickly nodding, the girl promised, “I’ll work on it. I have my things right over there.” She pointed to a couple of cloth bags sitting near the entrance. “Thank you, praeceptor. It’s so boring in the test lab.”

Grunting a little, Cahethal simply gave a single nod. “Just be sure that you do not make me regret this allowance. I will return in one hour and I hope to see some definite progress.”

As the girl fervently promised to get her work done, Cahethal and Abaddon stepped out, leaving her alone for the time being. On his way, the large man glanced back and winked at her. “Biggest badass of the Seosten, kid. You remember that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and meet him one day.”

Once they were gone, Chayyiel move to the nearest wall and used the screen there to call up an exterior view of the ship. She stood there, smiling giddily at the projected image.

“Oh Olympus,” the girl murmured while running her hands through the holographic shape, “you’re the most amazing ship in the universe.”

Bias aside, the girl wasn’t that far off. Though their crew was somewhat limited only to those who had passed through the Summus Proelium Project, it was early state of the art. The latest in technology and magic lay at their fingertips. The Olympus was truly remarkable in every conceivable way.

The main central body of the ship was made up of an orb exactly five hundred meters in diameter. This was where the living and science facilities, as well as the primary slide-drive that allowed the ship to enter what amounted to hyperspace, were. Attached to that orb in three separate places (the top and both sides) were three long structures that extended about twenty meters behind the orb, continued along the outside of the orb and ahead past it another one hundred. Each of the three structures was shaped roughly like part of a cylinder, curved inward so that they lay almost flat against the surface of the orb itself. They were wide enough that with one on top and the two equidistant apart on the bottom left and bottom right of the orb, each nearly touched one of the others. The far end of each of these half-cylinder structures narrowed into sharp points, forming a jagged end.

At an order from the ship’s captain, each of those three (or fewer if needed) could separate from the main orb. As it did so, that half-cylinder would extend its sides, opening wing-like structures so that it could function as a separate combat-capable ship. When all four of its pieces were locked in place, the Olympus was a terrifyingly powerful vessel for its size, precisely because it was essentially three gunships mounted against a very well shielded central core. It could fight like that, as one, or separate itself into the three distinct combat ships and one command orb that could stay to direct the battle, or flee with all of their intact leadership and resources if need be. The separate, incredibly heavily armed combat ships had their own slide-drives just in case, but they were only rated for a much slower jump, used for emergencies. The vast majority of their power and available space was given to shields and weapons. There was no doubt about their intended purpose.

As the girl stood there admiring the hologram, the nearby door slid open, admitting Amitiel to the observation room. “Hey, kid,” he started with a wave. “Thought you might like some company.“

Immediately smiling, Chayyiel nodded. “Hi, Uncle Amitiel.”  She paused, turning to look both ways before taking a bit of metal from her pocket. Her thumb pressed against it and she murmured a spell that she had picked up from a few of the adults. After a second of that, she nodded. “It’s okay, nobody’s watching.”

With that established, she then asked, “Did you think about what we were talking about? The bit about you having your own name, I mean.”

Shaking his head, the being who had once been known as a Lie before taking the body of the true Amitiel replied, “It might’ve been over a year, but I’m still getting accustomed to answering to his name. Besides, what’s the point of having a name that only you or I know about?”

Shrugging, Chayyiel answered, “Other people might know someday. You can trust Sariel and Lucifer, you know.”

Rather than directly respond to that, Amitiel asked, “How are you doing with them still being gone on that mission? You alright?”

Looking back that way, Chayyiel hesitated, biting her lip before honestly answering, “I miss them. I know we have to maintain radio silence and everything, but we don’t even know if they’re okay.”

“Don’t you worry,” Amitiel assured her. “You know how good those two are. Kushiel may have pushed for them to go that first time just to get rid of them, but they showed her, didn’t they?”

The girl swallowed at that memory before giving a short nod. “Why does Kushiel hate them so much?”

The question made him sigh, hanging his head before shaking it. “Why does Kushiel do anything? She pretty much hates everyone she can’t control, and you know how Lucifer is about people trying to control him or his partner.”

Frowning, Chayyiel folded her arms across her chest while her brow knitted. “Kushiel isn’t very nice. But Uncle Puriel is… usually. Except when he listens to her.” She paused briefly before amending, “Okay, sometimes he’s nice. But she’s never nice. So how come he likes her so much?”

Amitiel opened his mouth, before pausing to shake his head. “You know what kid, I think you just stumbled across one of the great mysteries of the universe. I mean, sure, she’s pretty and all, but…” He paused again, then shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

Changing the subject then, the man asked, “So what kind of project are you doing for the old microscope?”

Giggling despite herself, Chayyiel chastised, “You shouldn’t call her that. Just because she’s short and has special eyes…”

“Still makes you laugh though,” Amitiel pointed out with a wink. “So about this project, you wanna show me?”

Brightening, the girl asked, “Do you want to help me with it? The stuff is right there.” She pointed to the bags next to him.

Amitiel glanced down before grabbing the bags to walk that way. “Sure, why not. Let’s see what we’re working with.

“And while we work, you can tell me what outrageous story Abaddon’s filled your head with this week.”

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

Alone in the room that she shared with Koren Fellows, Aylen Tamaya stood at the window, gazing down at the grassy field where her fellow students walked, sat, or even ran. They studied and worked there, enjoying the always-beautiful afternoon on the magical island.

The Native American girl’s eyes found their way to one group in particular. Sitting there on the grass, engrossed in another of their deeply private conversations, were Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Douglas Frey, and Scout Mason. Avalon wasn’t there, because she had been hurt, taken by monsters and terribly hurt in some way before being rescued by her team, and by Gaia. She was recovering now, apparently, off in some secret place with people the Crossroads headmistress trusted.

Aylen hoped that the girl was okay. Avalon had… had helped her when she really needed it. Without her, Aylen’s… secret would have gotten out. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it. She owed her life to the other girl, and so much more. If there was anything she could have done to help Avalon, she would have, without a second thought.

But the others, the rest of Avalon’s team, didn’t trust her. And she didn’t blame them. Why wouldn’t they keep secrets? After all, she was keeping a very big one. One that she had even convinced Avalon herself to keep for her. A secret from everyone, except for Avalon, now.

Whatever problems Avalon’s team was going through, Aylen wished that she could help. But that would mean revealing herself, revealing the truth about what she was. And that was… that was too much. She wanted to help, but exposing herself like that, revealing herself was… she couldn’t do that. Not yet. No matter what Avalon had said about how they could be trusted.

She’d promised to think about it, and she would, she had, quite a lot. More than once, Aylen had stood outside either Felicity or Scout’s door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and tried to work up the courage to knock. She wanted, so badly, to tell them everything.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Not only from a lack of trust, or an overabundance of fear. But also because whatever they were going through, it would be so much worse if they had to deal with her problems too. And that wasn’t fair to them. Felicity and the others had far too much to deal with as it was without Aylen piling onto the secrets they were keeping.

With a sigh, the girl gave the group one last look before turning away from the window. She walked from there to the wall, where a mirror had been mounted. Standing there, she faced the mirror and examined herself, seeing what others saw when they looked at her.

Dark hair that fell to her shoulders. Dusky skin. High cheekbones. Dark eyes. As she examined herself from each angle, Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, made a noise from where was perched on his wooden stand. The nest that he slept in was on top of Aylen’s dresser nearby.

“I know, Sovereign,” the girl assured her partner. “We’ll leave soon, I promise. I just have to see.”

From her pocket, she withdrew a small comb. The comb had been a gift. Running a thumb over the runes etched in it, the girl slowly touched it to the side of her face, and whispered the activation spell.

In an instant, she changed. And Aylen saw her true form. Her skin was still dark, testament to her true Native American roots. Or at least, those of her mother. Or at least… one of her mothers. What the comb revealed was the genetic contributions of her other mother.

Her first mother’s contribution to the child made possible by the being known as Grandfather was her Native American appearance. Sonoma had also passed along her werecrow gifts. Aylen had kept them secret ever since she had come to this school, though she had gifted herself a few private flights with Sovereign whenever she needed to clear her head.

But as the magical comb revealed her true self, Aylen saw the parts of her that she had inherited from her other mother.

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

Hair that was much the same. Blue. The blue of the cloudless sky.

The blue of the Reapers. Or a half-reaper, like her second mother, Bastet.  

Bastet and Sonoma, her mothers. And with any luck at all, Aylen would soon be able to save her grandfather.

No, not that one. Her other grandfather. Bastet’s father.

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Convalescence 38-08

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Eventually, Shiori (who had very quickly been protected by the dibs spell, of course) and I managed to extricate ourselves and Sahveniah from the room so that Avalon could get some sleep. She put on a brave face and was, of course, incredibly stubborn about it. But I could tell that even just sitting there eating food with us had taken a lot out of her. It was going to take some time for her to recover. Which was made abundantly clear by the fact that she didn’t really argue that much about it.

The three of us stepped outside of the cabin in time to see that the others had apparently already met the remaining kids. The three Seosten toddlers, Tabbris, and Theia were all there with Columbus, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Koren.

Of course, my very first thought was that if one of these guys got possessed, even accidentally, by one of the toddlers, it could be pretty bad. But even as my mouth opened to call out to them, Tabbris saw me and waved to show that everything was okay. She mimed writing a spell, and I realized she had apparently copied the dibs protection onto these guys as well.  

I should’ve known that my little sister wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Hell, I’d done the same thing with Shiori back in the room, just to make sure little Savvy didn’t end up… well, just to make sure very bad things didn’t happen. And now that my reflexive worry was dealt with, I could actually focus on what the others were doing.

Because I apparently had not yet had my fill of weaponized adorableness, Grisiniel, the brown-haired boy, was currently hanging from Sean’s outstretched arm, making squealing sound as the boy raised and lowered it. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the red-haired Penemue was doing pretty much the same thing with Scout and Koren as they kept raising and lowering him by his hands, bouncing him up in the air and then down again.

And to put the cherry on top of the cute sundae, the other girl, Kemetiel, was sitting on Vulcan’s back. She was actually riding him around in a circle as if he was a horse.

I almost would have believed that this entire thing had been some big elaborate plot to kill me, because I seriously almost died just standing there watching that for a couple of seconds.

It was made even worse (read: better) a second later, as Savvy squirmed out of my arms and to the ground. With a happy squeal, the girl ran off to her friends, joining Kemetiel on Vulcan’s back. For his part, the cyberform dog proudly held his head high while trotting around in a circle with both of his riders.

I could see some of the camp inhabitants watching with curiosity. I had wondered if they would be afraid of the Seosten children. But while most did seem to at least be cautiously keeping their distance for the time being, I couldn’t see any outright hostility. Which made sense, considering they hadn’t been outright hostile to me, and the Alters on this world likely had more experience being hunted down and killed by Heretics rather than Seosten.

Besides, I couldn’t see how anyone could look at these kids for longer than three seconds and think that they were some kind of monsters.

As if in agreement with that, Columbus, who had been standing up away from the others, moved next to his sister. Lifting his chin, the boy murmured, “Well, they sure don’t look evil.”

“Right?” Looking over to the boy with that, I asked, “Did you get any sleep at all? We didn’t leave you that long ago.”

The boy’s response was a grunt before he shook his head. “I’ll sleep later. Right now, every time I close my eyes, I just see…”

He trailed off, but I knew. “Rudolph.” Saying the boy’s name, I sighed and lowered my head. “Yeah. I keep thinking about things we could have done differently, other choices that we could have made.”

“I should’ve been there.” Columbus’s voice was a bit hollow, showing me how much he had been dwelling on it. “I should have been the one who stayed behind to hold the zombies off. I could have done it without Sean, and if Manakel had still shown up, there would’ve been just me to put in that tube. He wouldn’t have had an extra to kill. Then all of us would still be alive right now.”

Shiori spoke up before I could say anything. “Or he just would have killed you anyway. We don’t know. Besides, Sean or I would’ve insisted on staying with you. Then one of us would’ve died.“

“I–” Columbus started before stopping. He sighed, lowering his head just look at the ground while murmuring, “I just didn’t want anyone to die.”

Before either Shiori or I could find anything to say to that, as if there was anything we could say that would matter, Theia approached along with Doug. Tabbris waved again and looked uncertain for a moment, but once I returned it and let her know I was fine, she stayed over with Scout, Sean, and Koren to keep entertaining the little ones.

“Good,” Theia started, “you’re here. Pace-I thought we should wait for you to test these Whisper spells.”

“Yeah,” the boy with her drawled, “and Doug-I agreed that waiting was a good idea.”

Briefly, I wondered how much of that was him wanting the rest of us have to see how well it worked, and how much with him being afraid that if it did work, Theia would run off with his favorite hat if he didn’t have someone around to stop her.

Either way, they were here now, and I nodded. “Well, I guess the easiest way to do it is just to put the hat on her head and see what happens?”

Making a face as if he couldn’t believe he was bringing it up, Columbus asked, “You don’t think it’ll just erase her or something, do you? I mean, we don’t know exactly how would the whole Lie thing works. If it shuts her out, but she can’t leave the body…”

Grimacing at that, I hesitated before shaking my head. “It didn’t do that to me when I possessed Scout before. It just let both of us control her body at the same time. Like one of those cars with steering wheel and pedals on both sides.”

“Yeah.” Columbus coughed. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve been a little more scientific and careful about that one to begin with.”

In the end, we left it up to Theia, and she chose to try it. So, Doug handed her his hat, though he looked a bit reluctant to let go of it. “If it works,” he started firmly, “we’re making you a different one. You don’t get to keep it.” He only let go of the hat once the girl nodded.

Still, she didn’t put it on yet. Instead, she stood there staring down at it and her hands before her head shook. “Not yet,” she announced firmly. “We want to wait for Miss Abigail. She should be here.”

Without turning around, I gestured behind myself. “Well, you’re in luck, because here she comes. With…” Turning to make sure, I nodded. “With Scott.”

Yeah, Scott and Abigail were approaching. The two had clearly been deep in conversation, but they stopped once they were close enough.

“I didn’t know there were children in that prison transport,” Abigail announced, nodding past us to where the kids were.

“None of us did,” I assured her. “Trust me, it was a surprise to everyone. Gaia and the others are working out which adults they can let out of the pods so we can try to get some answers about it.”

“They’re children.” I could hear the horror and revulsion in Abigail’s voice. “What could that… creature have meant to do with them at her lab here? What could she possibly–” She stopped herself then, unable or unwilling to continue that thought.

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath, “Kushiel being a monster isn’t exactly front-page news at this point.”

In what was obviously an effort to tear her thoughts away from that dark pit of despair, Abigail looked to Theia. “What’s this?”

So we explained, giving the quickest rundown we could. And once Abigail had some idea of what might be about to happen… Theia put the hat on.

For a second, I thought nothing had happened. The girl’s head simply tilted a little, and then she looked down at her hand. She stared at the hand for a moment before her mouth opened.

“I… I can… talk. My… hand. My my my my hah-hah-handuh. My hand. My mouth. Talk. Talk!”

Suddenly, she sprang over to wrap both arms around Doug, hugging the younger boy tightly while he gave a strangled yelp.

“Well,” I started with a little smile, “I guess that makes you Pace. The real Pace, I mean.”

Apparently my speaking up then meant that it was my turn for a hug, since Pace threw herself at me next. That was followed by a hug for Shiori and Columbus as well. The latter even managed to avoid pushing her away, though he did stiffen a bit.

Then it was Abigail’s turn. She received the longest, tightest hug of all. I saw Pace’s (and this time, it really was Pace) shoulders shake visibly as she clung to the woman who clearly meant so much to both Pace and the Seosten possessing her.

Giving a broad smile as she finally leaned back, the Hispanic girl announced, “It’s me.”

Immediately, her face shifted just a tiny bit. It was almost entirely unnoticeable unless you were really looking for it. “And Theia-me. We are both here. Share and share alike.”

“Oh…” Gasping in clear awe, Abigial put both hands on the side of Pace-Theia’s face. “My God. You can talk. You can… you can… it’s really you. Both of you.”

Shiori was staring. “Wow. Well, it’s good to finally meet you? This is kind of weird.”

“You’re telling me!” Pace blurted. “I haven’t been been able to talk, or raise my hand, or sneeze, or—wait.”

In mid-sentence, the girl turned away from us. She took a breath, then move three quick stops over before her hand snapped up to hold onto the hat. With that, she proceeded to do a quick, perfect one-handed cartwheel, followed by a side-flip. Finally, Pace simply jumped up and down, releasing the hat so that she could pump her arms in the air while squealing. She clearly didn’t care about attracting attention or looking ridiculous. Which… yeah, at that point, I wouldn’t have either. She’d been unable to control herself for so long, who cared if people were staring?

That was apparently the cue for the four Seosten toddlers, who all scrambled over to start jumping up and down together with Pace, even though they had no idea what was going on. That didn’t seem to affect their excitement one bit, as they continued jumping up and down while pumping their arms just like she was. To say it was adorable would have been beating a dead horse by that point, but still. It was.

Reaching down to pick up Kemetiel as she finally stopped jumping, Pace grinned. “You have no idea how good this feels right now. It’s amazing. It’s like being locked up for year and just now being able to stretch my legs. I can move, I can talk, I can turn my head because I want to turn my head! I can blink! See? Blink, blink, blink.”

Nearby, Columbus murmured, “I can imagine.” He paused then as if deciding how to broach the subject before asking, “Does this mean that you and… Theia are actually…”

“Working together now, yeah.” The girl confirmed it with a nod before her face shifted a little.

“We are partners,” Theia put in, before clearly relinquishing control back to Pace again.

Koren approached with the others, her eyebrow raised. “We leave you alone for five minutes, and you show up again with a herd of chibi Seosten?”

Scott spoke up then. “You think that’s bad, you should’ve seen what she got into when she was six and I left her alone in the bathroom for three minutes. There was–”

My hand snapped down, covering his mouth as I growled, “Not another word, you.”

There was confusion written across Koren’s face (and she wasn’t the only one) at that. But before we could explain anything, I blinked around with realization. The rest of the camp, the ones who had been watching carefully, had withdrawn a bit more. There were less faces, like they were even more nervous than they had been a minute earlier. It couldn’t have been the Seosten toddlers. They weren’t doing anything wrong. So what–

And then I realize the truth. The people weren’t keeping their distance from the kids. They were staying back from the portal nearby where Gaia, Sariel, Larees, and Gabriel had all just shown up, flanked by a half dozen adult Seosten. There were four males and two females. All seemed a bit dazed and taken aback by everything. They wore the same clingy jumpsuit thing that the toddlers and Tabbris wore, and were looking around in a vague state of confusion and uncertainty while they were led through the camp, toward where we were.

The tallest of the men, standing about three inches over six feet, looked like a more handsome version of Schwarzenegger as of the first Terminator movie. His body looked like it had been sculpted from steel, with incredibly defined muscles that were visible through that bodysuit. His short, dark-blonde hair and chiseled face were capped by these piercing blue eyes.

Yeah, Seosten were unbelievably gorgeous. That wasn’t exactly news. But still, this guy was something else.

Not that the others with him were exactly slouches. The other three men were less overtly muscular (two were more handsome in that boy band, androgynous sort of way), but still eye-catchingly attractive. As were the two females. One of the pair was my height, with short brown hair shaped into a crew cut, while the other was slightly taller than Avalon with very long blonde hair that was tied into a very tight braid that made me want to call her Rapunzel in my head.

The kids stopped laughing and jumping around when they saw the adults approaching. For a second, all four of them stayed completely still, just staring that way as they clustered together. I saw uncertainty written across their faces in that moment, as if they weren’t sure what was going on.

“It’s okay,” I heard Sariel announce to the other Seosten adults. “You can pick them up. You have my word, the spell will protect you from accidental possession. They’re your children.”

The reassurance was apparently all they needed. The Seosten moved to the toddlers. That big guy reached down, picking up Kemetiel with a look of wonder written across his face while she regarded him curiously. Beside him, the taller woman stepped up, raising a hand that shook nervously before she laid it against the girl’s hair.

Nearby, Penemue, the red-haired boy, was picked up by one of the other males who (of course) also had red hair. Next to him, the smaller woman had picked up Grisiniel, while one of the other males, who had the same sandy-brown hair as that boy, reached out to touch his shoulder and back in obvious disbelief that all of this was real.

Sahveniah, meanwhile, was approached and picked up to be held tightly by the remaining man. He was the shortest of all the males, though he still stood just a tiny bit under six feet. His skin and hair were as dark as hers, and he trembled a little before pulling her to himself.

Sariel had stopped near the rest of us, watching that reunion. Quietly, she nodded to the big guy and the taller woman. “Micah and Disetiel. Kemetiel is their daughter, though they’ve never met. None of them have ever actually met, actually, aside from perhaps passing in the hallway between cells and… well…”

She shook her head, moving on by looking toward the red-haired man with Penemu. “Forsenti. And the woman with Grisiniel is Xenaphiel. She is the mother of both boys there.”

“I take it the guy there with Sahveniah is her father,” I started with a nod that way. “But where’s her mother?”

“His name is Zadriek. And as to her mother…” Sariel paused before continuing. “If the records that we were able to dig up are to be believed, her mother is complicated.”

“Complicated?” Shiori echoed before I could say anything. “What kind of complicated?”

“The kind of complicated,” the woman answered, “where she was technically carried and birthed by an unidentified woman in Kushiel’s lab. But she was a surrogate. The actual mother, from whom the egg came… was Aletheia.”

Well, that made everyone’s eyes snap around. Especially Pace-Theia’s. She… or possibly they, as I could see both agreeing with that particular action, blurted, “What?”

“Not you,” Sariel started, “the original Aletheia. Somehow, Kushiel was able to obtain at least one of her… eggs, fertilized it, and placed it inside of the unidentified woman. Sahveniah, for all intents and purposes, is the original Aletheia’s daughter.”

“Wow…” I murmured the word under my breath, trailing off as I stared that way. “Wow.”

That same sentiment was basically shared by everyone, as we stood there, staring at the Seosten children and adults being reunited. Or, I supposed, just plain ‘united’, since they had never actually met before.

The dibs spell. This was because of the dibs spell. It was thanks to Sariel right here that these parents and kids could even be with each other like this. As far as I knew, most Seosten parents never had this kind of relationship with their children. They were shipped off to be raised by other dedicated schools, orphanages essentially, to avoid any kind of accidental possession problems. But now they could be with their kids. Because of that spell.

Wow. Just… wow. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

My mouth opened to say something else, when I noticed Scout. The girl was staring not at the kids, but at Sariel. She was staring in what looked like open wonder, while Sariel herself looked away with an expression of barely held regret and shame.

And then I remembered. Sariel was the one who had saved Scout from that Fomorian as a child, back on the boat. She had saved Scout. But in so doing, she had also taken Scout’s mother out of there. And, well, just how much the Fomorian being there in the first place was probably up to debate between everyone who felt guilty about it.

Complicated. That whole thing was complicated, and judging from the looks between both Scout and Sariel, they were going to need some privacy to talk it through.

But it wasn’t my business, so I looked to Gaia nearby. “What about the rest of the prisoners?”

The headmistress answered. “It will take time to go through them. But many will be able to be released, hopefully to stay here in the camp. Having so many Seosten to help bolster defenses and knowledge of the Empire itself will be invaluable in countless ways.”

She was right, of course. The kind of help that adding a bunch of loyal Seosten to the Atherby clan and having them actually work together would be incredible. But as Gaia had said, it would have to be done slowly and carefully. Because it was also something that could go wrong very easily.

“I see that you’ve tested it, then?” My attention was pulled away from those thoughts then, toward where Sariel was nodding toward the hat that Theia-Pace was still wearing. “And it…”

“Works,” they confirmed with a quick nod, before giving a broad smile. Pace, because it was clearly her, added, “I can talk. I can move. We have to share, but I can move. I can…” She shivered noticeably, before Theia took over.

“We must give it back. We will have our own as soon as possible. But we promised to give it back.”

“Uhhh…” Doug hesitated, looking torn before his head shook. “I can’t–damn it, you know what? Why don’t you keep it for now. Just for now. You uhh, you need it more than I do. Just until Grandpa Sulan gets here for the–” He stopped, clearly not wanting to finish that sentence. “Just until he gets here. Then he can help make something else, something just for you, okay? I can make them, but they’re temporary, not like… not like the hat. He’ll make you something you can have. And then I’ll want the hat back.”

For their part, Theia-Pace stared at the boy for a moment before giving a smile that was, again, clearly from both of them.

“Thank you, Douglas,” the two said in a voice that was singular, yet also somehow plural.

“I–” The boy flushed, shaking his head as he looked away. “Just don’t lose it.”

Everyone looked back to the rest of the Seosten then. By that point, some of the camp inhabitants had started to emerge, bolstered both by the sight of the parents with their children, and by the fact that Gabriel was there. They came closer, and I heard a few start to ask questions.

“You really don’t hold back, do you?” That was Scott, staring at me with those too-old eyes. “Look at all this. You’re just like your mom. Changing the world.”

My mouth opened, and then I paused. I thought about everything that was happening, everything that would happen.

I had no doubt that the Seosten would continue their efforts to either break into the vault themselves or use Avalon to do it. But this was the Atherby camp. She would be safe here, so that she could recover. The Seosten wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in this place.

She had time to rest. Time in which, with any luck, Larissa and the others would manage to make their way back to Earth. Because Dries would be with them, and if anyone could change the spell that his wife had stored in that vault, it was him. Especially with all the help he would have. With Dries and Avalon, we would get into the vault and find Liesje’s spell.

“Change the world?” I echoed, giving Scott a wink.

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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Convalescence 38-07

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Children.” The single, breathed word came from Sariel, as the woman stood there along with the rest of us as we stared down into that now-open pod. “Kushiel did have children in this group. There is no overt mention of them in the files that I skimmed through. They were… they were kept quiet somehow.” She sounded awed, unable to stop smiling as she looked at them.

In the background, I heard Larees muttering extensive Latin curses under her breath.

“I don’t know why,” I murmured under my breath, “but I never really put a lot of thought into that crazy bitch having access to little kids until this exact moment. And now I’m pretty horrified.”

“Trust me, puella,” Larees muttered somewhere behind me, “you don’t know the half of it. And you don’t want to.”

Gaia seemed just has taken aback as the rest of us. She stared for a moment before quietly announcing, “I do not care to imagine what that creature may have had in mind for these children, but I count myself relieved beyond measure that she will not have that opportunity.”

She would, and had, of course, have access to other children. But at least she didn’t have these ones. I was taking that as a win, and trying very hard not to dwell at all on the other part.

Tabbris turned then, looking around at the other pods. “Are their Mamas and Daddas in here?”

Gabriel was the first to respond, slowly nodding. “If the children were included in the transport as part of some kind of project, it would make sense to have the parents along as well.”

“Well,” I started then, “if they are, we should probably find out who they are, right?”  As I spoke, one of the kids, a boy with sandy brown hair, shifted a little. His mouth opened, and he made a soft sound that was half-yawn and half-squeak before his arm moved over one of the others. Seeing it made my heart flip over and it was all I could do not to instantly start cooing.

“They’ll wake up soon,” Theia observed quietly, clearly having seen the same thing I did. “And when they do, they might be scared. Confused. Lost.” There was something in her voice as she spoke, a sort of… tenderness that seemed alien compared to what I’d seen from her before. Seeing her like that, I kind of understood why Abigail was so protective of her.

Shaking that off, I looked over to the adults. “She’s right, you know. They’re about to wake up and have no idea where they are. We don’t even know what Kushiel told them, or… or how she treated them.” Even saying it, just bringing that up, made me feel sick to my stomach.

With a slightly shaking hand, Sariel reached out. Her fingers brushed through the hair of one of the sleeping kids, and she gave a faint nod. “Yes,” the woman murmured quietly while giving an absent smile. “They might be afraid and confused. But they will also be safe.”

“Safe.” Gaia echoed the word, giving a slight nod. “Yes. Yes, they will absolutely be safe. But we need to speak with the adults without the children first. We need to sort through everyone here, find out who can be let out and who should stay.”

Larees folded her arms against her stomach, looking a little sick as she agreed, “They shouldn’t be in here anyway. This whole place looks… screwed up.” She cast a glance around at the other pods then. “It’ll scare the shit out of them if you make them sit around watching while you open these things.”

Gaia nodded slowly, her eyes moving to me then. “I had intended for you to be a part of that opening process, Felicity. But perhaps, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Kid-wrangling?” I shrugged. “Sure, I can do that. I mean, we can.” I nodded toward Tabbris. “What do you say? You wanna help babysit some Seosten munchkins for awhile?”

She was already nodding even as Theia spoke up. “We will help with the children too,” she announced firmly with a single finger pointed to herself. She paused then, considering that before adding a second finger, still pointing at herself. Or rather, herself and the real Pace. “We.”

I wasn’t exactly sure how I should feel about someone of Theia’s… proclivities being around kids. But then again, she seemed different around kids. And I was reminded about the fact that she hadn’t given away Tabbris, even though she easily could have. She kept Tabbris secret, even though she could have used that bit of knowledge to help herself with Manakel. So yeah, maybe her being around kids wasn’t a bad idea after all. Besides, if I was judged just by the worst things that I did or only by the people I fought, they probably wouldn’t want me around children either. So maybe I should just put away the judgy for a little while.

From the silent looks the adults were exchanging, they seemed to be going through much the same process amongst themselves before coming to the same conclusion. Sariel nodded, still gently stroking the little girl’s pitch-black hair. “Yes, Theia. I think that’s a good idea.”

Larees seemed to want to stay away from the kids. For what reason, I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling it had something to do with her own being taken away. She moved over to the holographic terminal, busying herself reading through it.

The kids were squirming a little more by that point. The girl whose hair Sariel was stroking gave a wide yawn before leaning into the touch as her eyes blinked open sleepily. Beside her, the boy who had yawn-squeaked earlier shifted his backside a bit, bumping up against the other boy, one with curly reddish hair. That made the second boy sit up a bit, blinking around. A moment later, those three were all sitting up, which left only one, the smallest girl (whose skin and hair were both dark), still asleep. I could see the confusion written across all three of their faces as they took in their new surroundings and all the strangers that were around them.

Sariel took a knee, speaking quietly, in a gentle voice. It was a single word. “Salve.” Which, I knew from my lessons with both Tabbris and Athena, wasn’t her offering them some kind of medical treatment or something. Salve meant hello, basically.

The three kids shrank back a bit, before that sandy-haired boy offered a somewhat shaky, “S-salve.” Even as he spoke, the boy (who couldn’t have been older than three), squirmed around to put himself in front of the others. He said something else then, a series of words that came too fast and too shakily for me to follow all of. His vocabulary clearly wasn’t huge, but it was better than mine. I followed about every third or fourth word. From what I could tell, he was asking if they were in ‘the new place.’ And there was something about Mistress Kushiel in there. Which… eeesh. Even just the confirmation that these kids had been around Kushiel enough to know her name was enough to make my skin crawl horribly. I wanted a shower just from that.

Sariel responded, apparently assuring the boy and the others that they were safe. I, again, couldn’t catch all of it. Or even most of it. But it sounded like she was telling them that the mean lady was gone, promising all of them that they wouldn’t see her again.

And that was apparently all it took. The three were clambering out of the pod before any of us realized what they were doing. The boy managed to get himself up on the side, falling forward into Sariel’s arms with a loud laugh of delight. Meanwhile, the red-haired boy and the girl (whose hair was about the same as the first boy’s, that sandy-brown color), slipped over and out, dropping to the floor before giving a pair of loud squeals as they ran straight to where Gabriel was. Together, the two suddenly stopped short, blinking up at the tall man before making identical sounds of awe as they clasped hands together, their tiny figures dwarfed by him.

All three were making so much noise, babbling excitedly, that I couldn’t follow what they were saying at all. And I barely noticed that the fourth kid, the little black girl, had finally woken up. That was, I didn’t notice until I heard both Tabbris and Theia’s voices, and blinked that way to find the two of them crouched in front of the pod, holding a conversation with the girl in question.

Stepping that way, I moved beside my sister with a little smile as my hand found her shoulder. “And how’s this little one doing?” I asked as gently as I could, trying not to startle her. Still, her eyes darted to me, and she shrank back a little bit before blurting what sounded like a question.

Theia was the one who answered her, a short burst of words that sounded like she was reassuring the girl, promising that no one was going to hurt her. There was more to it, but that’s as much as I could keep up with. And Tabbris didn’t seem put off by what she said, so it couldn’t have been anything bad. As she heard it, the little girl seemed to calm down a bit. Her look of fear turned to one of curiosity, and she said something else, part of which sounded like ‘name’.

“This is Sahveniah,” Tabbris informed me before looking back to the girl while saying something else that sounded like an introduction, ending with ‘Flick’. She pointed to me, repeating, “Flick.”

The girl, Sahveniah, apparently, looked at me solemnly for a moment before her mouth widened into a gap-toothed smile that made my heart melt. “Fick!” she blurted, pointing to me. “Fick!”

Tabbris tried to correct her that it was Flick with an L, but the girl just kept giggling while repeating, “Fick, Fick!” She had gotten over her fear by then, squirming over to the edge of the pod to see what the other three were doing. Upon spotting them, she held both hands up. “Fick!”

“Up?” I asked with a tiny smile, making a gesture as though I was picking her off the pod. “Up?”

She blinked at me, then nodded. “Fick! Up! Up Fick! Up? Up?” She was dancing a bit eagerly back and forth, holding onto the edge of the pod for balance while giggling. “Up Fick. Quaeso?”

I knew that word. Please. So, I smiled. But before accepting her, I paused long enough to activate the dibs protection spell once more, just in case. There was no sense in having any accidents, after all. I didn’t know how good these kids were at controlling their powers yet.

Once I was suitably protected from any problems, I reached out and picked the little girl up from the pod. She clung to me as I held her, wrapping her arms around my neck as she gave me another gap-toothed smile. “Salve, Fick! Gratias, Fick.”

“You’re welcome,” I started, before considering. “Umm, it was… Nihil est?” I’d learned that one after a few days with Athena. It basically meant ‘it’s nothing’ and was the closest I knew.

She babbled something else that I didn’t follow, but quickly seemed to actually realize that I didn’t understand. Instead of continuing, the girl tilted her head thoughtfully. Her eyes examined me before she started again, a bit slower. That time, I understood a few words.

“Where are we?” I guessed, giving a quick look toward Theia and Tabbris. Getting a confirming nod from both of them, I looked back to Sahveniah. “Earth,” I started (though I didn’t know for certain that’s where this cave was, it still felt like the right answer). “Err, wait, it was… Rysthael?”

The dark-skinned girl made a noise of surprise, mouth falling open. God, it was adorable. Then again, by that point I was starting to think that this kid could’ve stood there reading the want ads from the paper and it would’ve been the single cutest thing ever.

After staring at me like that for a couple of seconds, Sahveniah repeated, “Rysthael?” When I nodded, she said it louder. “Rysthael!” She was bouncing up and down in my arms, chanting it.

Then the others started up. The boy in Sariel’s arms chanted it along with Sahveniah. And he was quickly followed by the other two. Both of them had clambered up Gabriel. The red-haired boy hung from the man’s arm, while the girl had climbed up onto his opposite shoulder and half-hung from it while tugging lightly at his ear with a look of curiosity. Both took up the chant.

Okay, apparently they knew what Rysthael was. I wondered how, or why. And why they seemed so excited by the prospect of being here. It was like having a bunch of kids in the car and telling them they were going to Disney World.

Gabriel, who seemed to be taking kids climbing all over him very much in stride, gestured with the arm that the boy was hanging off of. A portal appeared, shimmering in the air. “Ah, why don’t you and the others go ahead and take the little ones back to the camp, Felicity? They’ll be safe there, while we sort out the adults and decide what’s going on.”

Shifting Sahveniah in my arms, I nodded to the portal and asked, “Rysthael?”

“Rysthael!” she and the other three blurted.

That was enough for us. Sariel passed the sandy-haired boy to Theia, who took him solemnly. The other two were set down, each taking one of Tabbris’s hands. Then we went through the portal together, after getting a promise from Gaia and the others that they’d let us know what was going on once they had a better idea themselves. Together, we took our four charges back to the Atherby camp. I saw Larees glancing away from the terminal to look at us for a moment right as we passed through the portal. Then she turned back to what she was doing, a slight look of pain disappearing, replaced by anger in the second before we were gone.

******

As it turned out, the red-haired boy was the one named Penemue. The other boy was Grisiniel, and the second girl was Kemetiel. We’d managed to get that much out of them on the way through the camp, while the four kids looked around in absolute wonder. Every little thing they saw, they pointed at and babbled questions for. Questions that Theia and Tabbris answered as best as they could.

It was obvious that these kids hadn’t been outside of that horrible lab basically at all. Before we’d walked very far through the camp, all four of them wanted to get down, squirming and babbling. We let them, and they immediately dropped down to the dirt. As we watched, the kids ran their hands through it, scooping some up. Penemue tasted a bit, then made a face before tasting more.

“Oh, no, no.” Taking a knee there, I gently took the boy’s hands while shaking my head. “Uhh, non. Non.” Making a face as he looked at me, I mimed spitting out the dirt, shuddering. He giggled, so I played it up even more. That got all four of them laughing, and made them forget the dirt.

They didn’t forget everything else, however. As we walked through the camp, they had to pick up every little rock, every stick, every bit of grass. They were fascinated by everything, and carried on a continuous stream of comments that Tabbris and Theia responded to.

And then they saw the first of the camp inhabitants. At that particular moment, there weren’t many out. It was still early in the morning, right around the point where most of the people who were up at night had gone to bed or were on their way there, and before most of those who were awake during the day had gotten up.

But there were a few. And as soon as our little entourage saw them, they stopped short. Grisinel, the sandy-brown-haired boy, pointed toward one of the bird-like Lavinsi standing beside one of those enormous, incredibly corpulent beings that I had seen back on the Meregan world and subsequently learned was called a Guhlben.

As the boy stammered his way through a question about the two, he was just as quickly distracted by the sight of a centaur out for a morning jog. And then by something else. All of them were totally overwhelmed, heads whipping this way and that as they blurted questions excitedly, unable to contain themselves.

They were just so… curious about everything. And that did mean everything. The kids seemed equally interested in and fascinated by the trees, rocks, and nearby lake as they were by the people they saw. Their attention jumped back and forth.

“Hey guys,” I finally interrupted with a little smile, “I think maybe some food would be good? Food, umm…”

“Cibus,” Theia supplied, which Tabbris immediately nodded to.

“Cibus,” I repeated, getting the kids’ attention. “Cibus? Food?”

Well, they were excited about that. Immediately, the four toddlers started jumping up and down, repeating the word before launching into a long series that sounded like pleading about how hungry they were.

“Well,” I murmured, “I guess that answers that. Come on then. Let’s go see what we can find.” I started to step that way, only for Sahveniah to raise her arms in front of me. “Fick!” She blurted with that adorable smile. “Up, Fick?”

“Ohhh, what do you say?” I prompted, realizing that she didn’t understand me, but still playing it up. “Up? Can you say please? Umm, what was the… quaeso? Please? Quaeso?”

“Quaeso!” The girl eagerly repeated, head bobbing. “Up, Fick, Quaeso? Fick… Pease? Pease Quaeso Up? Pease Fick?”

Unable to help the laugh of delight that came then, I reached down to pick the girl up. She cheered, latching onto me tightly. And together, we walked to the large cabin that served as a mess hall.

The second we got inside to where the long, wide tables and benches were, the kids immediately reacted to the food they could smell. I heard Sahveniah’s stomach growl, and the others seemed just as hungry. I’d guessed right, apparently.

We got the four of them settled onto the bench at one of the tables, and I went to get food from the kitchen while the other two entertained them. We didn’t know what they’d like, but I figured the best idea would be to get a wide assortment of things and let them try a bit of everything.

And honestly, I kind of couldn’t wait to see how they reacted to pancakes.

******

The answer, as it turned out, was that they loved them. Pancakes, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast, juice, milk, and so on. Everything we put in front of the kids, they pretty much devoured. And they shared everything. It was adorable, the way they would pass food back and forth, chattering to each other about it. I couldn’t follow much of what they were saying, but it was obvious that the four (along with Theia and Tabbris) were carrying on a very intricate conversation about the food.

Oh, and Tabbris was pretty much the most popular girl ever. The younger kids kept bombarding her with questions throughout the meal, which she did her best to answer. I couldn’t follow everything they were talking about, but it was pretty obvious that they wanted to know all about her.

Eventually, once things had settled down a bit, I fixed up a plate for Avalon. She would probably be waking up soon, if she hadn’t already. Excusing myself for a moment after making sure that Tabbris and Theia would be okay with the kids, I headed for the door.

I didn’t get far, however, before feeling a tug on my leg. Sahveniah was there, gazing up at me with puppy eyes. “Fick?”

“Aww.” Smiling, I put my hand out. “You wanna come?” She took my hand eagerly, and we walked out together. More people were up by that point, and the girl kept chattering away, asking me questions that I barely followed part of. She did seem to know that I couldn’t really understand her, however, and when she really wanted to know something, she took the time to ask in very simple words, or just pointed and gestured until I understood.

Reaching Avalon’s cabin, we stepped inside to find the girl herself, sure enough, sitting up. She blinked at me, then at the girl holding my hand, then back to me.

“Chambers,” she started slowly, “if you tell me that it turns out you had another Seosten kid hanging out inside of you somehow…”

Coughing, I shook my head. “Uh, no, turns out there were a few little ones mixed into the batch of prisoners that we took from the transport. The other three are finishing up breakfast, so we thought we’d bring you some. This,” I nodded to the girl at my side, “is Sahveniah.”

“Savvy!” the girl herself chirped, pointing to herself, then at me. “Fick! Savvy. Fick.”

Avalon started to introduce herself, then paused and settled for, “Valley.” She repeated it, pointing to herself a little shakily. It was obvious that she wasn’t anywhere near full strength. Her face was still pale, and she was moving slowly.

“Vah-vah-lee. Valley,” Sahveniah, or Savvy apparently, repeated before giving a bright smile. “Voh-lee. Vah-Lee. Valley!” She moved closer, letting go of my hand before stopping at the side of Avalon’s bed. For a second, the girl started to go into a long bit neither of us understood, before stopping. Her head tilted as she considered her words very carefully, before pointing to Avalon and saying a word that kind of sounded like ‘ouch’.

“Ouch?” I echoed, moving next to her. “Valley hurt? Ouch?”

“Ouchuh,” she over-enunciated, her face solemn as she carefully asked. “Ouch?”

With a tiny, faint smile, Avalon shifted over on the bed. “I’m okay. Uggnn…”

Trying not to overreact, I carefully handed her the plate, then picked up Savvy and set her next to the older girl. “Well, I think someone wants to help you with your breakfast.”

“Bakefast!” Sahveniah chirped, before starting to point to things on the plate. “Toast. Toast. Egg. Puncake.”

“Pancake. Not puncake, pancake,” I corrected with a little smile. “Though I think you may have accidentally invented Shiori’s new favorite food.”  

Avalon took a bite, then looked to Savvy as the girl opened her mouth like a baby bird until the other girl put a forkful of pancake (or puncake) into it.

Sitting on the other side of the bed, I laughed at the sounds of delight that Sahveniah made while chewing the puncake. She looked up then, pointing at me. “Fick. Fick bakefast.”

“Oh, her too? Okay.” Avalon smirked a little, then took a forkful of food, offering it to me until I took it. For some reason, that made Savvy laugh, and she said something that I took as ‘do it again.’

So we did. I took another bite. We sat there, the three of us, sharing Avalon’s breakfast. We went through a few bites like that before my sense told me about someone approaching the door. From the items they had, I was pretty confident of who it was.

Sure enough, after knocking on the door and opening it when we called out for them to do so, Shiori was the one who stood on the other side. She stepped in, pausing briefly at the sight in front of her.

“Um. Did I miss something?” she asked curiously.

The three of us looked at each other, then I turned back that way while shaking my head. “Nope, you’re actually just in time for puncakes.”

Shiori pulled up a chair beside the bed. She introduced herself to Sahveniah, learning the other girl’s name in return. Together, we ate from Avalon’s plate (it was a good thing I’d had the foresight to put a lot on there), while listening to the little Seosten girl chatter away as she asked questions about… basically everything. She was so incredibly curious, wanting to know the words for every bit of food and everything else she could see.

I didn’t mind. And from what I could tell, neither did Shiori or Avalon. We answered the girl as well as we could, keeping her entertained through all of that. Honestly, as bad as things had been (especially with Rudolph’s death) and as bad as they still were in many ways… this? This wasn’t terrible.

Actually, it was pretty damn good.

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Convalescence 38-06

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“Yes, Theia, I am one hundred percent positive that Doug doesn’t want to be woken up at dawn after the night we all just had.” As I spoke those words, I was staring intently at the girl in question. “Believe me. The last thing he wants right now is for one of us to shake him awake demanding to borrow his hat and asking him questions about the magic spells on it.”

I had just given the girl a brief rundown about the runes on Doug’s hat, and how they had reacted when I possessed Scout while she was wearing it. After giving her the ten second explanation of where they’d come from, she had very nearly turned back the way we’d come to make a beeline straight for the boy in question before I’d quickly stopped her.

“You don’t know what kind of dreams he has for his fun time,” Theia informed me primly while folding her arms across her stomach. “Maybe that would tick off a few of his boxes.”

I started to retort, then caught myself. “I–okay gross. And let me put it this way, we can’t wake him up right now. I know you wanna see how that spell works with you and Pace, and I don’t blame you. Not one bit. But we can’t do it right now. I swear, as soon as it gets a bit later, we will. Okay? Cross my heart, I’m not going to forget our deal. That’s why I told you about it.”

Tabbris, who was still being careful to keep me between herself and Theia, piped up then. “I can show you what the symbols look like. But I dunno what order they’re drawn in or anything else, so we can’t use that to cast them. Only Doug knows how to do that.”

“Only Doug knows how to do what?” The voice came from Sariel, as the woman approached us. In the distance at the very end of the lake, I could see Gaia and Gabriel still standing there, having some kind of private conversation. Probably about those Seosten prisoners.

“Mama!” Tabbris bounded that way, leaping up to her mother’s arms before clinging as Sariel lifted her up into a tight hug. I could see a brief flash of euphoria cross the woman’s face as she held her daughter tight, nuzzling her hair briefly while murmuring something to her quietly.

That look, seeing mother and daughter embracing like that, just made me feel even worse about what had happened inside the hospital. I felt a brief flash of shame run through me again, as a hard lump formed in my throat. I couldn’t find my voice. How could I possibly say anything?

Forcing myself to look away, I ended up glancing toward Theia. She was staring at Sariel and Tabbris, an unreadable expression on her face. I had no idea what she was thinking, exactly, but it was obvious that she had some pretty strong feelings about what she was looking at.

“Felicity?” Sariel was looking at me, her expression curious while she held her daughter up, with Tabbris’s legs wrapped around her waist. “You were saying something about Doug?”

That brought me back around, and I coughed before nodding. “Right, Doug’s hat.” Briefly, I explained everything to her, telling the woman what he’d told us about where those symbols came from, as well as what had happened when we used them. It was basically the same thing I’d just told Theia a minute earlier, but with maybe a couple more details.

When I was done, Sariel continued to stare at me for a few long seconds as she wrapped her mind around it. “Whispers,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Beings trapped between universes that control people by talking to them… And those spells that Douglas Frey and his great-great-grandfather found allow them to be both seen, and stops their whispering.”

“And probably other things too,” I confirmed with a shrug. “Doug can tell you more about it, I just know the bullet points. But like I was telling Theia over there, we can’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Or, you know, I won’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Not after everything that just happened. Not after Rudolph–” Stopping myself then, I winced before finishing with a lame, “Doug’s earned a rest. I’m not disturbing him right now when it’s not an emergency.”

Sariel gave a slight nod at that. “Of course not,” she agreed readily. “We can wait for that. Let the boy sleep. Still, I am… curious about these so-called Whispers. And about these spells.”

“Do you think they could be other Seosten?” I asked, curiously. “I mean, Seosten from another universe. Or some kind of evolutionary split. Or… huh, there’s kind of a lot of options.”

Tabbris’s head bobbed quickly as she slipped down to stand beside her mother. “Uh huh,” she put in. “Um, maybe Cronus made them? Before he did… whatever he did with the Fomorians.”   

Right, we’d learned about the ancient pre-possession ability Seosten who had experimented on making a clone for his dying son and ended up creating Cronus. After that, things just got worse.

“Felicity is correct,” Sariel murmured softly, her voice sounding absent, as if her mind was mostly elsewhere. “These so-called Whispers could be many different things. They could come from Cronus, or something else… Perhaps they were–” She cut herself off abruptly, head giving a firm shake. “But we can think about that later. There are other things to focus on now.”  

The woman started to say something else, before blinking at Theia. She paused, visibly scanning the girl up and down before speaking quietly. “Well, hello, there. You’re… Theia, yes? Things were very busy before. We didn’t have much of a chance to actually meet.”

For Theia’s part, she was busy chewing on her fist so hard I could actually see blood. It was almost like she was trying to cram it into her mouth. The fist itself was clenched tight enough that the knuckles had turned white, and her arm visibly shook before she got it under control. Her voice, when she spoke, cracked just a little bit. “Yes, Theia-I am…” She paused briefly, as if just realizing that her speech-pattern had made answering the question redundant. “… Yes.”

“Theia.” Saying that name, Sariel paused before lifting her chin as she watched the girl’s reaction to her next words closely. “Abigail said that name was actually short for another.”

Theia nodded once. “Yes, Miss Abigail thought that the name Aletheia would be good. We thought it was too long, and would stand out as Seosten. Theia is shorter. And less obvious.”

Sariel raised an eyebrow at that. “Stand out as Seosten… does that mean that you don’t know who the original Aletheia was? When Abigail told me about your reaction to the name, I assumed that you rejected the full version out of some… loyalty to your mother.”

In that moment, Theia looked just as confused and curious as Tabbris and I did. All three of us were just staring at the woman. “Loyalty?” the girl in question echoed. “What would Kushiel have to do with this Aletheia? Theia-I have never heard of her. Miss Abigail said only that Apollo’s stories say she is the daughter of Zeus, devoted to truth. Theia-I was called a Lie. Miss Abigail thought the name of another daughter of Zeus, a name that meant truth, was… better.”

Kushiel, I noticed. She’d called the woman Kushiel, not ‘Mother’ or any derivative. That was interesting. I wondered briefly how long she’d been doing that, even just in her head.

She also wasn’t laughing and carrying on nearly as much as I was accustomed to. It was like being around Sariel had completely sobered her, as if she was in… awe or something. Or maybe it was seeing the way the woman interacted with her daughter. Either way, she was very clearly affected by it. And by the attention that Sariel was devoting to her right then. Although, to be fair, she had also seemed different from the moment that I’d seen her after she’d been taken in by Abigail. But still, this was something even more obvious than that.

For her part, Sariel took that in before slowly shaking her head with a darkly muttered, “Of course she wouldn’t tell you anything about that. She wouldn’t want you to know.”

“Wouldn’t want her to know what, Mama?” Tabbris was just as curious as Theia and I clearly were. Her eyes darted back and forth between the other girl and her mother.

Pausing briefly to collect her thoughts, Sariel began with, “Aletheia was a real person, a crew member on the Olympus.” A beat passed, before, “And she was Puriel’s lover.”

Okay, if I had been drinking anything just then, I would’ve spit it out. “His lover? His–what–but she’s his daughter in the myths. And yeah, I know ancient Greeks and Romans could be pretty screwed up. But–but–what? That doesn’t even–why would they–what?”

In response to that utterly incoherent rambling, Theia pointed to me. “What she said.”

Before responding, Sariel glanced back as if to see if Gaia and Gabriel were ready. Satisfied that we weren’t making them wait, she explained, “First, yes, she was a real person. And in her case, Aletheia was her real name, not one adopted solely for our time on Earth. She was written to be Puriel–or Zeus’s daughter at Kushiel’s rather firm insistence.”

I whistled low. “You know these are the same myths that don’t exactly show Hera or Zeus in a very good light? I mean, the things they show Zeus getting up to… sexually… uhh, if Kushiel didn’t step in then, but did step in to make sure this Aletheia person was depicted as his daughter? That’s just–I mean–wow. She really must’ve hated her. But I thought that–I mean I assumed that–I mean… I didn’t think that Seosten really went all for total monogamy. Which is kind of a weird assumption I guess, since I don’t have any examples otherwise. But plenty of Heretics don’t, and I guess I assumed it came from the Seosten.”

“Some do, some don’t, just like Heretics,” Sariel informed me. “But in any case, that was not the source of Kushiel’s hatred of Aletheia. She did not rightly care who or how many beings Puriel might have had intercourse with. No, in her eyes, Aletheia’s far greater sin was in the fact that Puriel listened to her. He heeded her words, her advice. And that was something that Kushiel could not abide.”

“Kushiel didn’t hate Aletheia because the woman had sex with her husband,” I started slowly. “That part was fine. She hated her because Puriel took her advice and listened to her?” My mouth opened and shut twice, three times, as no sound emerged. Finally, I managed, “Wow.”  

“That,” Sariel confirmed, “is the gist of it. Puriel listened to Aletheia. I believe he may even have loved her. He certainly respected her opinion. Kushiel loathed that fact. It was actually the source of a lot of their arguments. She tried to have… well, let’s just say Aletheia probably would have been in much worse shape if Puriel hadn’t put his foot down. The fights they had about her…” Slowly shaking her head, the woman seemed lost in her memories for a moment before focusing. “In any case, Kushiel insisted that Aletheia be depicted as Zeus’s daughter.”

“And he turned around and made her represent truth,” I murmured, shaking my head in wonder at Apollo’s audacity even back then. “That must’ve pissed Kushiel off pretty bad too.”

“Oh, it did,” Sariel confirmed. “But it also fit. Aletheia was very good at her job. She worked as Puriel’s assistant, and she was one of the most organized and bureaucratically-capable people I have ever met. Even for a Seosten, her memory and quick recall was extraordinary. She was obsessed with working within the system, with following rules and keeping everything clean. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. As Puriel’s assistant, Aletheia worked twenty hours a day for awhile just to run all of the behind-the-scenes things on the ship. She held a lot of influence, both through paperwork and through contacts that she had. Not only with Puriel, but with every department on the ship. And off the ship. She was the one who most of our station resuppliers talked to if they weren’t dealing with Kushiel herself.”

“They talked to Kushiel about supplying the ship?” I couldn’t help but put in. “Those poor guys.”

The woman nodded. “Kushiel’s position on the ship was to track supplies, fuel, ammunition, and so forth. She was our logistics expert. Which means that she should have worked closely with Aletheia. But… well, she found ways around that. And when she couldn’t, things tended to get… bad. Puriel learned not to let them work together, putting them on different projects. He had to stop Aletheia from doing everything she wanted to do to help the ship because Kushiel refused to work with her.”

“I wish I could say her being that petty surprised me,” I muttered, “but it really doesn’t. Actually, the only surprising part about that story is that Puriel stood up for this Aletheia.”

Theia herself, who had been quiet for a bit with a thoughtful look, finally spoke up. “Theia-I was…given a name that Kushiel would hate, wasn’t I?”

“Oh lords yes,” Sariel confirmed emphatically. “If and when she discovers that you have taken up that name, Kushiel will be indescribably furious. She may literally discover the power to spontaneously combust. She will be…” Trailing off, the woman considered her words. “She will be angrier, perhaps, than we have ever seen her.”

For a moment, Theia was quiet. She seemed to be chewing that over in her mind (maybe with Pace’s help), before looking up once more. Her eyes met Sariel’s, and she gave a firm nod.

“Good.”

****

“So do you know where she is now? Or what happened to her?”

It was a few minutes later, and I was walking through the ridiculously photogenic crystal cave that Gaia had apparently sent the Seosten prototype transport to back when the Committee had shown up at the desert. So much had happened between then and now that it felt like weeks had passed since then, rather than only a couple of days. Sariel, Gaia, Theia, Gabriel, and Tabbris were there with me, though it was the first one I had directed that question to.

Sariel paused, looking to me. “The original Aletheia? The last that I knew for certain when I was still… loyal, she had been banished by Kushiel to a remote, backwater colony on the edge of known space. Though I did hear… rumors from other prisoners in the past few years that she was taken from there and recruited by Chayyiel to run her day-to-day dealings.”

“Chayyiel,” I murmured under my breath. “She’s the ‘oh fuck run it’s not really an innocent little kid’ Seosten, right?”

A tiny smile crossed the woman’s face then, before her head dipped in a slight nod. “That… sums things up fairly well, yes. Though running would–never mind. Yes. Aletheia may be working for Chayyiel, if those rumors are true. I never saw it for myself, but then, the people who said it were very insistent that she had made it into the promised Choir.”

That made me blink. “The promised Choir?” From the corner of my eye, I saw Gaia also paying attention, her gaze moving to Sariel as she interrupted her ongoing silent conversation with Gabriel.

“The Libero Choir, it has been called in more recent days,” Sariel replied. “A Choir where all are treated equally, Seosten or not. A Choir where merit is found in actions and work, not in birth. From the rumors that were spread through the prison, the Libero Choir, Chayyiel’s Choir, is one where Seosten must treat their hosts with dignity, where they work together.”

We’d reached the transport itself by then, but I stopped walking, staring at her. “But– but if that was true, why would–”

I had to stop myself there, because I’d almost asked why Jophiel and Elisabet would be working to prove humans and Seosten could be partners if Chayyiel had a whole Choir acting that way. Luckily, I had a way of covering that worked just as well.

“Why would Athena need to have a whole underground rebel group devoted to that kind of thing if there’s already an actual Choir that does it?”

It was actually Gabriel who spoke up then, his voice contemplative. “It seems to me that the Seosten Empire is quite expansive.”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “Think of Chayyiel’s Choir as… a single city here on Earth, compared to every city in the world. Not even a leading one like New York or London or  Shanghai. A smaller city. Something closer to Akron, Ohio. Population of roughly two-hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand people out of a total world population of  seven and a half billion. Two hundred thousand are not going to be able to influence very much, no matter how free they are. Chayyiel’s Choir is much the same. Athena is attempting to change everything, not simply one Choir. And no matter how useful she is, if Chayyiel was seen to be consorting with her group, she would be removed from her position and her Choir would be… put back to the way it was.”

That made sense. And it also helped explain why Jophiel couldn’t work with her, conveniently enough.

The ramp of the tube-shaped transport slid open, and I again saw all those cryogenic pods inside. Sariel led the way up, with the rest of us following along behind. Theia was last, slowly trailing after the rest of us. When I glanced that way, I could see a look of hesitation, like she wasn’t sure she wanted to be here.

I had to imagine that being around a bunch of people that her mother had systematically tortured and repeatedly impregnated on what amounted to a rape farm had to be pretty uncomfortable. Especially given what little I knew about how said mother had treated her.

Still, she came. And she was quiet, still clearly working to behave herself. I wondered how much of that was Theia, and how much was Pace coaching her.

We reached the back of the transport, where Sariel brought up the computer with the listing of all prisoners. “We were looking at this one earlier…” As she spoke, a light came on over one particular stasis pod. “Larees, of the Tleken Choir.”

She explained how this particular Seosten had been arrested fifteen years earlier after she had assaulted a superior officer who ordered her to have an entire city razed after it had fallen into the hands of local rebels. Apparently this Larees had spent seven years in a military brig before being transferred to Kushiel’s custody, where she had been impregnated fifty-seven times in the past eight years, six of which had been carried all the way to delivery.

It was pretty fucked up, but that was just par for the course by that point.

In any case, this Larees was Sariel’s first choice to release and talk to, and I couldn’t blame her for that. The woman had been imprisoned for fifteen years because she refused to wholescale massacre a bunch of innocent people just to stop a rebellion. And more than that, she hadn’t just refused, she had assaulted her superior officers over it. If she didn’t deserve to be pulled out of stasis and hopefully freed, no one in this group did.

So, with a gesture, Gaia made the pod start its unlocking and opening sequence. While that was happening, she observed, “The security for these pods is quite extensive. It’s lucky that you and the Moon children were able to find a way to open Sariel’s so easily.”

Oh boy. I’d been expecting this question. I had no idea when it would come, but I’d known it would eventually. And… well, quite frankly, lying right now made me feel like shit. Worse than shit. But… what else could I do? We were incapable of telling the truth about our deal with Jophiel and Elisabet, and there wasn’t any way of explaining it without mentioning them.

So, I just shrugged and kept my attention on the opening pod. “Yeah,” I replied, “good thing that woman back in the lab had the codes for us to get out of her.”

There. That was… about as close to the truth as we could get. There was no reason for me to get specific about it unless they pressed, at which point I would say that I’d possessed her to find out what the codes were. But at this point, all I had said was that we’d gotten the codes out of a woman in the lab. That was the absolute truth.

It felt like someone might have asked something else about it, but by that point, the pod had finished opening, and I saw a female figure inside. But before I could make out any details, the figure abruptly moved. And by moved, I mean she was suddenly on her feet, out of the pod, and had her fist flying at the nearest figure.

Unfortunately for her, that figure happened to be Sariel. I saw the blonde woman’s head jerk back before she caught the extended arm, turning to guide the other figure around in a quick circle that took her momentum away before stopping short, still holding her arm.

“Larees!” Sariel blurted. “Conquieso.” She immediately released the woman while taking a step back, hands raised as she said more in Latin, clearly trying to calm her down.

I got my first good look at the other Seosten then. She was short. Shorter than me, actually. I estimated her height around Sands and Scout’s, which meant she was a flat five feet. Her hair was cut short and spiky, and was mostly black with dark blue tips, both of which contrasted with her pale skin. But what stood out the most about her was that she had a tattoo of what looked like a blue-green phoenix taking up half her face. Or at least the head and part of the body of one. It was the side profile of the bird’s head, taking up basically all of the left side of her face. The head was positioned and angled just right so that the woman’s left eye appeared to be the bird’s eye. Its beak went down just under her other eye.

It was distracting, to say the least. I had to tear my attention away from it as the woman launched into a long bit of Latin that I didn’t have a prayer of following. She was staring at Sariel, briefly glancing to the rest of us now and then, but mostly focusing on the woman in front of her. I heard ‘Sariel’ a few times in there, along with a tone of disbelief and confusion that I could make out very well despite not understanding her actual words.

“Well,” Theia announced nearby, “someone’s a potty mouth.”

Finally, Sariel managed to get more than a couple words in edgewise. She kept her hands raised, speaking just as quickly as the other woman. Again, I couldn’t follow along. At least until she switched to English. “See? It’s okay. You are okay, Larees of Tleken.”

“You expect me to believe that you are truly the Sariel and that this is not some trick?” Apparently Sariel had either asked her to switch to English as well, or the woman had taken her doing it as a guide. Either way, I could understand her now. And she didn’t seem very happy. Not very happy at all.

“Your tricks are wearing thin, Kushiel bitch. Futue te ipsum, obscenus scortum.”

“Told you she had a potty mouth,” Theia calmly observed.  

“Hey!” That was Tabbris, lunging into view to take her mother’s arm. “Don’t talk to my mama like that!”

I was pretty sure there was nothing in existence that could have derailed this Larees woman’s tirade more effectively than that. She blinked at Tabbris, eyes widening in shock before she stammered a confused, “Child. A… you are… what?” Her eyes returned to Sariel, to find the woman holding a field-engraver out to her.

“Go ahead,” Sariel announced softly. “Test.”

For a moment, Larees didn’t move at all. She just stared, before slowly reaching out to take the field-engraver. As Sariel offered her arm, the woman hesitated, then moved to draw a quick spell there. Gaia and Gabriel both looked interested, but neither moved to stop this.

“What…?” I started, glancing to Theia in confusion.

“Signature spell,” the girl replied without looking at me. “Every person ever has a unique signature aura, part of their magic, see? Three parts. Two parts their parents. One for mother, one for father. Third part them. New, unique, only theirs. Impossible to fake, impossible to change. Proves who their parents are and who they are. Makes things safe from imposters, shapeshifters… Fomorian creations…”

Sure enough, as we watched, three holographic shapes appeared in the air just above Sariel’s arm. The first looked like a backwards C with an equals sign through the middle of it, a diagonal curved line above it, and a sideways number two just underneath. The second symbol was a teepee (or an A without the line in the middle) and then another one on its side just a bit to the right, with an oval in the space between them. And the third symbol looked like a circle broken in half, with each side pulled a bit away from each other. In the space between them was an infinity symbol, and there was a thick line across the top of the whole thing, from one end of the broken circle half to the other end.

It was enough, apparently. Larees stared at the holographic symbols, mouthing a word under her breath before her gaze snapped to the woman herself. “You are… but you…” Her head dropped then, as she stammered, “Ap-apologies, Lady Sariel. I was–” She stopped then, slowly looking up once more. Her eyes looked to the rest of us, then at the pods around her before she focused on Sariel once more. “… I don’t understand.”

So, Sariel explained, with some help from Gaia and Gabriel. She told the woman that we were on Earth, that she had been rescued and we were working on letting out as many of the Seosten prisoners as we could. She explained that we had to start with people who could be trusted, and that that was why she’d gone with Larees first. It was a long explanation, and she barely touched the surface. Through it all, the other woman just stood there and stared.

Finally, Sariel finished (at least that very minor, surface-level explanation), ending with, “Understand that Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser here, human Heretics, are both able to tell if you are untruthful. Do you wish to help us? It will mean hurting our own people, fighting our own people. They–”

Larees held up a hand to stop her. Grunting something under her breath, she turned back to the pod she had been kept in, using the field-engraver to start scrawling something. Sariel leaned over, taking a quick glance before giving the rest of us a shake of her head to show that it was okay. Once the spell was done, the woman reached out to it, and her hand disappeared into thin air.

“Pocket vault spell,” Theia informed me. “Make the spell, put something in it, then take it out later.”  

Well, that sounded useful. And interesting. But what was the woman reaching for, a weapon, something that could protect her, information to use against Kushiel?

Alcohol. She was reaching for alcohol. Her hand came back out with a clear bottle full of bright, neon green liquid, which she popped the top of of with a practiced flick of her finger before downing three-quarters of the bottle in one long pull.

Sighing with relief, Larees cracked her neck and gave a slow smile. “You have no idea how long I’ve needed that.” She finished the bottle with another quick pull before tossing it casually over her shoulder. It disappeared back through the invisible portal and into her pocket vault. “You want to know if I want to fight our own people, our whole civilization?”

Sariel met her gaze. “Not all of them. There are other groups–”

“The Aelaestiam,” Larees finished for her. “Yeah. Heard about them in prison. Auriel’s people. She… we talked about joining up with her for awhile. Made an attempt to get out. That’s what got me transferred to Kushiel’s tender fucking mercies.”

Something flickered behind the woman’s gaze, and she reached back through her portal without looking, taking a fresh bottle. Opening it with the same finger-flick, she took a smaller drink that time, savoring it more. With a sigh, she continued. “Our people locked me in regular prison for seven years, then sent me to be experimented on and repeatedly impregnated like some kind of feusten for another eight. I have six children out there that I will probably never see again. And why?” She took another drink, a longer one that time before answering her own question. “Because I thought slaughtering two hundred and seventeen thousand living beings who made the mistake of not wanting to be enslaved might have been going a little too far.” With each subsequent word, the woman’s voice turned darker, before she took yet another drink.

“So you want to know if I want to change things, if I’m willing to fight our own people? I say fuck yes, I’m ready. Something has to change. If that means working with these… these humans? Whatever. We need as much help as we can get anyway. And I guarantee you, a lot of the people here are going to feel the same way. Not all of them, but a lot.

“I am on Team Fuck The Establishment. Any person, group, or Cronus-damned species who wants to climb aboard that train?” Her fist suddenly lashed out, punching the pod she had been kept in. “The more the fucking merrier.”

That all said, she pointed with the bottle toward Tabbris. “She was born in there, wasn’t she? You got her out. You found a way to get her out.”

“That… yes, it is a long story,” Sariel informed her. “I will tell you about it. But first, introductions. As I said, this is one of my daughters, Tabbris. That is Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser.”

“Heard of you both, actually,” Larees informed them idly. “More the former than the latter, but yeah. Names are familiar. You’re supposed to be bad news. So uhh, good to meet you.”

“This,” Sariel continued with a gesture toward me, “is Felicity Chambers, a… student, a young Heretic. She was part of the group who rescued us, along with my two hybrid children. My–”

“What?” Larees’s gaze had snapped that way, eyes widening. “Did you say… are you saying that you had… that you’ve… procreated with… with…”

“She’s married!” The defiant announcement came from Tabbris, as the girl stared hard up at the woman. “Mama married Mr. Moon.”

“Haiden,” Sariel explained. “And yes, he is human. He’s… trapped in our space right now, with others. We’ve had two children, Tristan and Vanessa. They’re Felicity’s age.”

“And they’re actually–I mean they actually… nothing went…” It looked like Larees couldn’t decide how to finish that sentence, before she finally gave up and took another pull of her drink. Heaving a sigh, she muttered, “That’s supposed to be impossible.”

“I assure you,” Sariel replied, “they are quite real. And Haiden is my husband.”

It looked like both her and Tabbris were ready for the woman to question or insult that. But Larees just stood there, staring down at her half-empty bottle for a few seconds before giving a languid shrug. “You know what, fuck it. If it works, it works. Now what about this one?” She used that bottle to point toward Theia.

“This…” Sariel paused before stepping that way. “This is Pace. She’s being possessed by Aletheia.”

“Aletheia?” Larees immediately blurted, “As in–”

“Not that Aletheia,” Sariel corrected. “She is…” She looked to the girl in question, waiting for her to nod before continuing. “She is Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter.”

That made Larees spit up the bit of her drink she’d just taken. “I’m sorry, what?” she blurted out loud. “Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter? That–what–well fuck I can see why anyone spawned from that bitch would turn against her, but they don’t have a daughter last time I checked.”

“They did, they do.” Sariel glanced to Theia once more. “They’re just ashamed of her.”

“Ashamed–why would–” Larees stopped then, her eyes moving back to Theia as well. “… a Lie. They had a Lie. The great Kushiel and Puriel… gave birth to a Lie. Their own child is a Lie, a–”

“Stop that!” It was Tabbris. The girl had put herself in front of Theia, eyes blazing. “Stop saying it like that! Stop calling her that! She didn’t do anything wrong–I mean, for that. How’d you like it if everyone hated you because of how you were born? What if every other Seosten had brown eyes and they all hated you because your eyes aren’t brown? What if they all called you a freak and a monster because of what color your eyes were?”

“Eyes that aren’t brown wouldn’t be one step closer to Cronus,” Larees informed her in a flat voice before taking another sip of her drink. “But… yeah. Yeah, maybe.” She looked a little troubled by that, frowning to herself before shaking her head as she looked toward Sariel. “Your daughter’s pretty fierce.”

“Yes…” Sariel agreed with a little smile. “She is.”

More introductions went around then. Larees didn’t call Theia a Lie again, but I could tell that she didn’t trust her very much, if at all. She spoke with Gaia and Gabriel together, a brief conversation happening between them before Sariel drew everyone’s focus back to the pods.

“We need to go over some of these names,” she announced, “I’d like to know who you recognize.”

With that, Sariel brought up the list in question once more. “I looked through it before,” she started slowly, “and there is one pod that confuses me.” She sent the holographic display skimming until she found the right one, then brought it up to show us. Floating there in the air were the words, ‘Kemetiel, Sahveniah, Penemue, Grisiniel.’ That was followed by what looked like weird symbols that might have been numbers.

“Roughly fifty-four kilograms,” Sariel translated, “or one hundred and twenty pounds. So it must be a single person. But all these names, I thought they may be aliases. And unlike the other entries, there is no other information.”

“Sounds like a secret prisoner,” Larees put in with a shrug. “Multiple aliases, maybe? Or a code for a project.”

“But why would they go by multiple names?” Tabbris piped up then. “Wouldn’t that make them stand out more?”

“It is not multiple names.” That was Theia. She was already standing over by the pod in question. “It is multiple people.”

“But that’s impossible,” I pointed out while shaking my head. “Four names? That’s four people. Four Seosten who only weigh a hundred and twenty pounds all together and fit in tha-oh.”

“Indeed,” Gaia murmured, clearly having realized before I did. “Oh.” She reached out a hand toward the pod,and it came to life. The door slid open with a hiss and a few quiet beeps. And then we could see what we already knew was there. The reason there were four names, yet  only enough weight for one adult.

It was because there wasn’t one adult in that pod. Instead, strapped in there together were four much smaller, much younger figures. I would have guessed their ages at around two or three, maybe. We didn’t just have a bunch of Seosten prisoners of war or whatever.

We also had Seosten toddlers.

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Convalescence 38-04

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The second I set foot on the Atherby campground again, my father was already sweeping me up into his arms. He had clearly been told ahead of time where to wait for us, because I was already off the ground and being crushed against him by the time the feeling of being teleported away from the Crossroads hospital had faded. And that grip only got tighter after a moment.

Making a brief, strangled noise, I quickly returned the embrace. My own voice was soft, tired, and worn out. “Hey, Dad,” I murmured. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“What’ve I been up–” Dad’s voice was choked with disbelief before he set me down, putting his hands on my shoulders to push me back so he could look down at me. “Do you have any idea how–what I was–how many–the kind of–” He kept trying to talk, but clearly couldn’t put actual words to it. He just kept repeating the same few syllables over and over for the next few seconds before giving up. At that point, he just yanked me back against him for another hug.

“Yeah,” I murmured quietly, enjoying the sensation. “I’m glad to see you too. Even if it does feel like we just did this.” The words were a weak attempt at teasing.

“We did,” he teased me right back. “See what I mean when I say you need to stop getting in trouble? We’re repeating ourselves now. Broken record already. Except, ahh, you brought new friends this time.”

He was right, the others were all behind me, having been sent along by Gaia once all of our meetings with the Committee were over (at least for the time being). There was still a hell of a lot more to sort out and get through, like how they were going to deal with the Kohaku situation. But for the moment, our part of it was over. So I had insisted on coming here to be with Avalon (not to mention Tabbris and my father). Shiori had also insisted on staying with me, and everyone else came with as well. Which meant that Sean, Columbus, Scout, and Doug were seeing the camp for the first time. It wasn’t Koren’s first time, but she was there too. And Deveron… well, I wasn’t sure how often he’d been here beyond the time just a day earlier. For all I knew, this whole place was new since he’d been around regularly. I had heard that the camp itself tended to move around a lot, just to keep things safe. Gabriel Prosser was Gabriel Prosser, but there was still no need to take unnecessary risks.

In any case, turning back that way, I nodded. “Uh, yeah. Guys, this is Gabriel. Gabriel, guys.”

Doug was doing a whole gaping fish routine, his mouth opening and shutting repeatedly. Slowly, he lifted his hand to point at Gabriel as if indicating him to everyone else. Gradually, a quiet whine escaped the boy, as his head tilted. That whine turned to a faint, “Y-you… you…”

Looking equally impressed, Scout gave a quick nod, her head bobbing up and down. “You,” she agreed, voice squeaking just a little while she clutched Sean’s arm tightly.

For his part, Sean also looked like he felt a little faint. I saw him swallow a few times, shifting his weight while using one hand on top of Vulcan’s head to steady himself. “It’s–it’s um, it’s good to–uh.” Swallowing yet again, he finally managed, “It’s good to meet you, s-sir.”

Clearly Gabriel was completely accustomed to that kind of reaction, because he just smiled a little bit before waving them off. “The pleasure is mine. Given everything you’ve managed to deal with in such a short time, I am more honored than you know to meet face to face. And I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to meet back in the hospital. There were pressing issues to deal with.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “like you getting to leave without dealing with the Committee. Lucky duck.”  

The man was clearly about to say something to that, before he stopped, looking toward Deveron. Something passed between the two men then, silent communication (which was probably literally silent communication considering I knew Deveron had telepathy and had no doubt that Gabriel did as well). They stood like that, meeting each other’s gazes for an almost uncomfortable amount of time before I cleared my throat. “Um, you guys know we can tell you’re talking about us, right? Or about me. Or whatever. We can tell.”

Clearing his throat at that, Gabriel gave a little smile that somehow looked both guilty and charming. The man still radiated power, and I could tell why the others all looked stunned into silence at his very presence.

Somehow I doubted that Doug would appreciate hearing that one of my first reactions upon meeting Gabriel Prosser for the first time had been to hit him.

“Yes, well,” the man himself was saying, “there is a lot to talk about, and even more to think about. But I would imagine that most of you are very tired. Your headmistress has said that you should stay here for the evening. Unless there are any objections?”

For a second, Doug seemed to forget who he was talking to. Looking away, he muttered a dark, “Yeah, sleep. Can’t wait to see what new and exciting nightmares come out this time.”

A look of sympathy and understanding crossed the man’s face, and he took a step forward before kneeling in front of Doug. “It’s been a rough year, hasn’t it?” He murmured the words.

I saw Doug’s mouth open and shut twice before he gave a tiny nod, clearly not trusting his voice. There was a lot of pain in his eyes as he met Gabriel’s gaze, fists clenching visibly.

Reaching up, the man rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “I’m very sorry about your friend, Douglas. What happened to him was unfair, and it shouldn’t have happened. He was a good person, a strong and brave person. Believe me, I looked into him when Felicity there was being tutored by him, and when all of… when all of that went down. Everything I saw convinced me that Rudolph Parsons was a remarkable friend, and would have been an incredible man if he had not been murdered. I will always count his death as a loss for humanity at large, and myself personally for not having had the honor of meeting him directly.”

Doug was clearly struggling for words there for a few long seconds, before he gave a visible shudder while managing a weak, “No offense, sir. But Rudolph would have liked to hear that. And that’s the problem.”

Gabriel’s head shook easily. “No offense taken. I would have liked him to hear it as well.”

He straightened then, keeping his hand on Doug’s shoulder. “What we can do is try to make as few people go through what you have, what he did, as possible. That’s all we can do. But for now, all of you have done quite enough. Fancy and Oscar will show you where you can sleep.”

“Avalon?” I quickly spoke up. I wasn’t going anywhere except to where Valley was. Not after everything we had just been through.

Nodding at that, Gabriel replied simply, “We’ll take you to her, while Oscar and Fancy show the others to a cabin.”

The little smartly dressed Kobold himself had shown up by that point, grinning as he tipped that top hat of his to the assembled group. “Roighteo,” he announced in that clearly put-upon accent he’d taken from cartoons or something. “We roight love playin’ poisenal tour guide t’buncha wee ones, don’t we, buddy?”

Beside him, the enormous eight-foot tall warthog-faced Orc lumbered up into view before giving a broad smile. “Sure ‘nuff. ‘ey there. Pleased t’meetcha.”

“You’re… Fancy and Oscar?” Columbus managed, staring at the rather mismatched pair.

“Betcha can’t guess which one’s which,” Oscar drawled with a wink.

It was Shiori who piped up then, “They started calling him Oscar after Sesame Street got really big.”

Looking confused at that, Columbus pointed out, “But he doesn’t have a trash can. And he’s not furry.”

“Yeah,” Oscar himself agreed with a slow, lazy shrug. “Ah don’t get it either, tell ya truth.”

Swallowing hard, I looked to the others. “Get some sleep, guys. You… you deserve it after everything that just happened. I mean, you deserve a–” My voice cracked. “You deserve a lot more than that. But I don’t–I can’t…”

Sean shook his head. “It’s okay, Flick. We know. This’ll all be here later. Dunno what we’ll do with it, but it’ll be there. Right now, I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

They headed off then, except for Koren, who was staying to meet up with her mother, and Shiori, who lagged behind. Choo was beside her, sitting back on his haunches while looking eagerly back and forth between us like an excited puppy. He, thank God, didn’t seem to have any actual injuries from being kicked across the room. And he seemed pretty proud of the collar that Percival had given him. He kept trying to show it off to anyone who looked at him twice, tilting his head back and doing this thing where he wiggled back and forth to draw attention to it.

“You’ll be okay?” Shiori asked a bit pensively, watching me before looking back toward her brother.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised, gesturing. “Go with Columbus. I’ll talk to you in the morning, I promise. Get some rest.”

We hugged briefly. Or at least, it started brief. I started to let go, but for a second I couldn’t do it. I had to hold onto her a bit tighter. Swallowing, I waited to catch the girl’s gaze before kissing her. She returned it, and there was a yearning there that I had to pull myself back from.

“Love you,” I whispered, nuzzling her briefly. “Go. Sleep.”

“Stay with Avalon,” she replied, giving me a little smile. “It’s her turn.”

Then she started off, jogging to catch up with the others. Which left me standing there with Koren, Gabriel, and my dad. As soon as I saw all of them looking at me, my face went red.

“Fliiick and Shiori, sitting in a tree–” Koren started in a sing-song voice that was interrupted as I stuck my hand through a portal and swatted her lightly upside the head. “Ow!”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and don’t forget that I can push that tree over on you if I want to.”

She made a face at me before immediately paling, a sick look overtaking her. “I–I’m sorry, I…”

“It’s okay,” I replied quietly. “It’s easy to just… forget about everything that’s going on. Too easy sometimes. I feel guilty about it too. I feel guilty about… a lot of things.”

We exchanged brief looks then, before Koren gestured. “My mom’s gonna be here soon. She texted.” Idly waving her phone, she added, “If you want to wait and see her–”

“I’m sure she wants to talk to you first,” I assured her. “I’ll see her soon enough. Make sure she knows I’m okay and that if she wants to come find me, she can, okay?” When the other girl nodded, I hesitated before adding, “What about the pixie? The one that told you about Manakel being part of security. We owe her a big thanks too.”

“She’s in Gaia’s office,” the girl informed me. “Pretty sure she’ll still be there whenever we get back.”

With that settled, Dad and Gabriel walked with me toward the other end of the campground. On the way, my father looked to me. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but kept hesitating, like he wasn’t sure of himself. Finally, he settled on, “They let us know everything that happened–well, as much as they could put together. Sariel filled me in with… with how it ended. He’s dead. The bad guy–”

“One of the bad guys,” I corrected. “One of them is dead.”

“One of them,” he agreed, looking a bit sick briefly before visibly forcing himself to move on. “But they also said that… that you–”

“I got his necromancy.” As I spoke, I couldn’t look at him. “I brought Rudolph back. I mean, I made him come to the room where we wer–” Turning, I fell to my knees right there by the side of the walking path and threw up again. My stomach heaved, and I lost… well, there wasn’t a lot left in there to be honest, so it was mostly dry heaving. Tears had started flowing again.

Dad knelt there with me. I had been trying to hold it together, but then… then I just lost it. He embraced me, and we just sat there like that for a little bit. I babbled explanations, rambling about everything from how I’d figured out that Avalon was there, to all the fighting we had done, to seeing Tabbris in the fox facepaint and how guilty that made me feel, to bringing Rudolph to the room and feeling even more guilty, and onward. And not even in that order. It was random rambling that couldn’t possibly have made any sense. But Dad still knelt there, holding me while he let me talk until I was done.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, clinging to him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I didn’t even know who exactly I was saying it to. Him? Avalon? Rudolph? Everyone I had failed or not done the exact right thing at the exact right time for?

Either way, Dad just held onto me, murmuring soft reassurances until I was ready to stand up. Once I did, I felt even more embarrassed at the sight of Gabriel waiting a few feet away. “I… sorry.” Repeating myself, but at least that time I knew what I was apologizing for.

“It’s quite alright,” he assured me, shaking his head while nodding to my father. “Would you like some more time alone?”

“I… I want to see Valley,” I murmured despite myself, taking a moment to embrace my dad even tighter. “Can we talk in the morning? I promise to be more… coherent.”

With a tiny smile, Dad nodded, gesturing. “Go with Gabriel. And Flick? Get some sleep. You still need it.”

I went the rest of the way with Gabriel. The large man walked with me, waiting until we were close to the cabin he had been leading me to before he spoke again. “I have someone who can help teach you about your new ability.”

My mouth opened, but then I stopped myself from saying what impulsively came to my mind. I wanted to say that I didn’t want training with it. I wanted to never use it again. But that was stupid. I knew that. It was emotional. It was… I needed to wait. I needed to let my head clear.

So, instead, I just gave a tiny nod. “We’ll see. I… is she in there?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “She’s mostly just relegated to bed rest. Which means not leaving that bed for any longer than it takes to use the restroom or clean up. There are spells on it that speed up the healing process. So don’t let her leave there, okay?” With a wink, he added, “It’s your job to make sure she stays in bed.”

Returning the smile hesitantly, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll take that seriously.”

With that, I walked into the cabin. The front door opened into a small hallway. There was a dark bedroom to the left, a kitchen straight ahead, and then to the right there was a short walk before it opened up into a larger room. That was where Avalon was. The bed was in the middle of that room, with a television in the corner, the fireplace a bit to her right, and a big dining table a bit behind her. It looked like there had been a couch where the bed was, but it had been moved.

There were also lots of spellforms drawn around and on the bed itself.

And there was Valley. She looked… better than she had in that office, but was still clearly hurt and weak. Except when she saw me, then a bit of color came back to her face as she reflexively smiled.

“Felicity…”

I wanted to cry. I wanted to plead with her never to get hurt again. I wanted to… do a lot of things. But I also wanted to make things better. I wanted to be there with her in the now, not spend all our time weeping about the past.

So, I made myself tease her instead. Because that’s what we did.

“If you don’t stop getting beat up,” I informed the beautiful, amazing girl lying in that bed, “I’m gonna change your nickname to Crashtest Dummy.”

“Call me a dummy again, Chambers,” she retorted with a sniff, “and see where it gets you.”

Slowly smiling, I leaned in closer while whispering softly, “Okay… where does it get me now?”

Avalon gave me a tiny smile then, seemingly making the room just a little bit brighter in the process. Her voice was even softer than mine had been. “You wanna know where it gets you?” She almost purred the words, making my knees shake as my heart did a few jumping jacks.

Instinctively, I leaned closer. Though whether it was to hear her gentle whisper better, or to kiss her, I really wasn’t sure. Either way, I found my own lips only a few short inches from hers. I saw the soft, wonderful smile cross Avalon’s face… just before there was a slight pain in my hand. My pain tolerance power took care of most of it, but I still felt it, gasping as I looked down to see the other girl’s hand in mine, two of her fingers shoving into a pressure point in my palm.

“Ow,” I remarked. “That is not where I thought that was going.”

“Told you,” Avalon sniffed while releasing me with a wink. “That’s what it gets you.”

Making a show of rubbing my hand and pouting at her, I asked, “What do I get if I don’t call you a dummy?”

That beautiful smile that made my knees weak came back, along with a hint of a mischievous glint in her eyes as she reached up with her hand to take my ‘injured’ one once more. Slowly, she drew it to her lips, giving the palm a gentle, tender kiss that drew a weak whimper from me.

“O-oh…” I murmured softly once the kiss faded, as Avalon drew her lips from my hand. “I think… um…” I swallowed hard, trying to think straight. “I think I might like that one better.”

“Is that right?” Avalon’s whisper came then, as she used her grip on my hand to give me a slight tug closer. Weak as I felt, it was easy. I found myself inches from her once more, before the girl added a tender, “Maybe you’ll like this even more.”

Then she kissed me. Really kissed me. And my thoughts vanished. Vanished, that was, save for one thing that I really needed to say, the only thing in my mind then.

“I love you, Valley.”

“I love you too, Felicity.”  

******

Eventually, we both fell asleep together like that. I woke up after a couple of hours, raising my head just enough to look through the nearby window. I could see a tiny sliver of light over the lake in the distance as dawn approached. Everything looked so peaceful and serene.

For awhile, I just laid there with my arms around the sleeping Avalon, enjoying the moment. I liked being here like this with her more than I could describe. It felt… right.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to wake her up or disturb her rest. She really needed rest. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that much, after everything that she had been through. I was kind of hoping that she’d sleep most of the day. Seeing her the way she’d looked up in that hospital office… I never wanted to see her like that again. It had scared me more than I could admit.

Carefully, as I tried not to wake up the girl beside me, I slipped out of the bed. For a moment, I just stood there, gazing down at the beautiful vision lying there. Even weak and clearly beat to hell, Avalon looked so absurdly amazing that it made my heart start to do somersaults. I couldn’t resist very gently reaching out to brush my finger ever so softly over her cheek. She shifted a little, and I lifted my hand before stepping back. Time to go before I accidentally woke her up.

Making my way out of the cabin as quietly as possible, I slipped my shoes on before gingerly closing the door behind me. For a few seconds, I just stood there, looking out at the lake while listening to people running around in the distance. I took that in, letting the very early morning breeze brush over me. It felt nice. Not as nice as being with Valley. But still nice.

Rudolph. The thought of him, the memory of his dead face, all of that blood flooding his shirt, hit me like a bucket of cold water. I saw him back in that room with Manakel. And I saw him standing there after all of it was over, when I had accidentally summoned him.

The thought of Doug’s suddenly happy voice as he cried out the boy’s name, only for that to be just as quickly dashed made my head drop with shame. A much colder chill that had nothing to do with the breeze hit me then, and I closed my eyes tightly. Rudolph. Damn it. Damn it. It kept hitting me. Just like Professor Katarin. They were dead, and I would never… never really see them again. Never talk to them again. They had been murdered by monsters. Even if one of those monsters was dead, even if Manakel would never hurt anyone again, that didn’t bring Rudolph back. Even if Isaac never broke out of Athena’s prison, that didn’t bring Katarin back.

Maybe I had necromancer powers. But I didn’t know how to use them. And even if I did, that wouldn’t change things. Zombies, ghosts, whatever, none of it actually brought the person back to life. Death was permanent.There was nothing anyone could do about that. And it sucked.

“Hey, Flick. Your dad thought we should talk.”

The familiar… yet not familiar voice made me start a little, as it came just as the sense of someone moving within range of my power reached me. I turned, blinking away the tears in my eyes briefly before looking at the figure who stood there at the other end of the patio, watching me with an understanding that belied his apparent youth.

Apparent, because despite the fact that the boy who stood there looked as though he couldn’t possibly have been older than about nine or so, I knew the truth. I knew that he was much older than that. Just like I knew that we had a lot to talk about.

“Oh my God.” The words left me in a rush even as I found myself moving that way, every other thought dropping out of my head.

“Scott!”

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Interlude 36C – Percival and Gaia

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1670

“Gaia, is it? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days?”

As the red-haired woman entered the house and heard the voice, she paused. Without turning around, she replied, “It is better than some alternatives.”

Percival, of those legendary knights trained and empowered by her half-brother, spoke up once more while stepping out of the shadows of the alcove he had been waiting in. “You are very right. There are a lot of things those who knew you back then could call you which would be worse than Gaia Sinclaire. Or even Scáthach. I heard you took that name for a while.”

Finally, the woman turned to face him. Her voice was soft. “You may believe this or not, but it is good to see you.” She paused then before adding, “It is good to see anyone from then. It has been quite some time.”

“I wish I could say it was good to see you in return,” the man informed her in an even voice. “Because that would mean, well, a lot of things that happened didn’t happen. And if they hadn’t happened… maybe things would be very different now.”

Gaia met his gaze without flinching. “You mean to say that had I not betrayed my brother, he might still be… with us. Arthur could still be king and the world itself would be much better off than it is now in our current circumstances.”

Percival’s voice was flat. “That is what I mean to say, yes. You weren’t the cause of all of our problems. Not even close. But if you had stayed on our side, if you had been a true ally and friend, things could have turned out very differently than they did.”

There was silence for a few, long seconds before Gaia slowly nodded. “You are correct. I had so much rage toward what I saw as injustice and oppression that I inflicted it myself in my zeal to eradicate it. I hurt people who did not deserve to be hurt. I killed those who did not deserve to die. I betrayed my brother because I did not feel he went far enough for my own sense of justice.”

She swallowed hard then before continuing in a softer voice. “I think about that day a lot, you know. The day when Arthur and I finally broke. When he refused to execute the men for burning the village… for everything they did before setting the flames… I could not let it stand. I could not walk away from it. They had to die.”

“They had already surrendered,” Percival put in then. “They had thrown down their arms and were on their knees. Arthur accepted their surrender because he was a man of honor. It wasn’t about whether they deserved eventual execution or not. They would have faced judgment. But not in that second. Not after they surrendered. Especially not when there were those in their number who may not have been involved.”

Swallowing once more, Gaia gave a very slight nod. It was a point she had argued against for a long time. But not right now. “Perhaps. But I couldn’t wait. I wouldn’t wait. You were there, Percival. You saw the village, what they did. You saw the people they burned, the women they raped. You saw the carnage. You heard the children crying. I could not let it go.”

Percival’s voice was as soft as hers. “So you killed them yourself, while they sat in cages waiting for judgment. You judged them yourself. You told Arthur you would back off. Then you doused all of the men in oil and set them ablaze while they were helpless. You broke Arthur’s word for him. He promised those men a fair trial and judgment, The chance to speak in their own defense. They had families too, and he promised those people their fathers would be given a fair trial. Some of them may not have been directly involved. We didn’t know the whole story. The ones who claimed innocence, who claimed their comrades had gone off without them, they may have been truthful. It could have come out with a proper investigation and trial. But you killed all of them, even after promising Arthur you would leave it alone. You gave him your word. He asked you to swear you would leave it alone, and you agreed. Then you killed them anyway.

“And that was the problem. Because if Arthur could not trust his own sister, if his own sister could betray him and pursue her own justice against his orders, what were the odds of others respecting his word? The things you did that day and afterward hurt Arthur’s ability to lead. Because they knew. The people knew you were out there, knew you were playing your own games. You created your own army, pursued your own sense of justice. Arthur needed loyalty. He needed the people to trust him. He needed his sister to trust him.”

He sighed then, slowly shaking his head. “To be quite honest, we moved on to bigger threats after you were gone. We were so… young back then, so incredibly new to things. You were only a threat for a few years, maybe twenty at the most. A blink of an eye, really. You were with us for a little while, then you were against us for a little while. Then you were gone. Arthur mourned for you. He even looked for you, for a long time. It distracted him, searching for you.”

Gaia flinched a little, her hands tightening and loosening once. “He truly should not have bothered.”

“It’s who he was,” Percival replied, “who he is. Even after everything that happened, he still wanted to forgive you. He still wanted to bring you back, wanted to bring his sister back. And that’s kind of the point. Arthur trusted you. He needed you. More than almost any of us aside from Gwen, he needed you. If none of it had happened, if you had still been there, had still been loyal and everything hadn’t gone wrong…”

Again there was silence before the woman quietly replied, “I am well aware of my own sins. And all of those which came after that moment. It was the breaking point. But it was hardly my worst action once the flint had been struck. I did a great many terrible things in the name and pursuit of what I saw as justice. Some of them I would stand by today. Many I would not. Especially…” She stopped then, emotion flickering into her eyes as her arms reflexively closed around her stomach.

For the first time, the man’s gaze softened noticeably as he spoke for her. “Mordred, your son.”

Even after all the time which had passed since that terrible day, the name brought tears to her eyes. The woman shuddered and then spoke in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible, and cracked with emotion. “He died because of me. Because of my actions. I lost my son. My little boy. Not so little at the time, but still. Always my little boy. Always and forever. He’s gone forever because of me. I can never undo the things I did, the mistakes I made. Just as I can never see my son again. I would have done anything to save him, anything to change what happened. I would have sacrificed myself a thousand times over if it would have saved him. But I could not. Just as I cannot change my other mistakes. All I can do is be a better person now than I was then. Maybe it will never be enough for any kind of redemption. I truly doubt it will. But it is all I have, all I can do. Be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I am today. I have nothing else.”

Slowly stepping forward, Percival extended a hand to rest on the woman’s shoulder. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you this then, but I am very sorry about your son. I know you loved him. And he truly loved you. What happened to him was a tragedy.” He paused then before adding, “Some of us thought you might have ended yourself after that. You disappeared for a long time. Then you just showed up again after hundreds of years, and it turns out you time traveled. The rest of us, we took the long way around. But you found a shortcut.”

There was the tiniest hint of a smile on Gaia’s face. “I wondered how long it would take you to ask about that. It is a very long story. And I did not come alone.”

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The Green Knight, I am well aware. He was with you when you were turned the first time, wasn’t he? He took the being’s nature-based gifts, while you gained the control over machines and inventions that made the people of our time call you a sorceress.”

The woman nodded once more. “He was with me then, yes. We have been acquainted for quite some time, off and on. I would not call us friends, but we do seem to be bound to one another in some way. I could not say why. Perhaps the future will reveal why we are so connected.”

Her head a shake then. “But he is not the only companion I had in that trip. Though perhaps the only one closest to an ally.”

Percival nodded. “Yes, I know about the creatures you brought through with you. Believe me, if I hadn’t convinced myself it was not your intention, we would have had this conversation much earlier. And it would not have been nearly as pleasant.”

“Yes,” Gaia murmured, “it was most certainly not intentional. I did my best to contain them, and stopped them from killing a boy in the village where I arrived, though not before he had already been bonded to it.” She glanced to the man then. “I am told that boy became one of yours. One of theirs, rather. Ruthers, I believe, was his name.”

Percival winced a little. “Gabriel Ruthers, yes. He used to be a lot different than he is now, a lot more optimistic. He was the one who pushed to make a deal with the necromancer. And we saw how that turned out.”

She looked to him then. “They don’t understand, you realize. This hatred of everything not human. They are pushing it too far. Arthur would not agree with it.”

There was a slight flinch from the man at that, before he gave a faint nod. “He would not. There’s something else to it, something…” He paused before settling on, “I have a purpose for being here. But it may take quite some time to come to fruition.”

The two of them stood there together in silence for some time, both contemplating all of that before Gaia looked to him. “As we have quite firmly established, my trip through time was long ago. I have been in this time, so to speak, for quite some time now. Far longer than I spent an our original time. It must have been over five hundred years by this point. Five hundred years. If what you wanted was answers, or even justice for my past, you could have sought me out then, at any point. You have had quite a long time to do so. I am sure it did not take you long to understand who I was. You could have come while I was with the Sinclairs. I would hardly have been in any shape to stop you. Yet you wait until now. After all this time, I would say you were openly avoiding me.”

“You’re right,” Percival agreed. “I could have come to find you before. I almost did. But I wanted to give you time to show what your intentions were. Arthur would have wanted me to give you time. He would have given you a chance to prove yourself again.”

“Is that why you’re here now?” she asked him then. “Because you’ve come to a decision?”

“I am here now,” the man replied easily, “because they recruited you. They brought you into this, made you part of their new group. So I had to come see if I could actually trust you.”

Rather than follow on that immediately, Gaia asked, “Are you here with these people because of your own choices, or because of something Arthur asked you to do? Is your presence a coincidence, or a mission?”

He met her eyes. “That is something I could only explain to someone I trust.”

“And do you trust me?”

In response, the man was silent for a few seconds. Then he looked back up and squared his shoulders. “Truthfully, I haven’t decided yet. Mostly because I don’t know what’s going to happen the next time you get angry. You may have the best of intentions now, and then lose your mind and all sense of proportion later. But, you know what? The fact that I haven’t decided I don’t trust you is a significant step up.”

The woman gave a slight nod of agreement. “Given our past, yes, it is. But where do we go from here? How do we move forward?”

Rather than immediately answering, Percival asked, “What about your apprentice, the girl who travels with you. Where is she today?”

Smiling just a little at the question, Gaia replied, “Virginia is pursuing one of her own interests. I don’t expect to see her again until quite late.”

“In that case,” the man put in, “perhaps we could take a walk somewhere private, and you could tell me more about how you and the Green Knight traveled in time. You could tell me a bit more about all of that. And by tell me more, of course, I mean tell me anything at all.”

Gaia chuckled very softly. “A walk in the woods then, and a bit of conversation to sate your curiosity?”

Percival moved to open the door. “We shall see how much of my curiosity is sated by how much you deign to tell me. I warn you however, my curiosity has a voracious appetite. Particularly when it comes to this issue.”

With a slight smile, the woman moved after him. “Then I do hope it is a long walk.

“Because it is a very long story.”

*******

Present Day

As the red-haired woman strode across the seemingly barren Wyoming field, a small army of men rushed to stop her. More than a two dozen strong, the men might as well have been wheat to the thresher. With a single wave of her hand, Gaia Sinclaire encased all of the men in cocoons made of dirt drawn from the ground. The cocoons turned to metal, before being flooded with heat as intense as any drawn from the furnace of a crematorium. All of the men were instantly incinerated, and Gaia kept walking without even breaking stride as her own aura briefly flared.

She was slowed, however, as Percival appeared in front of her. “Gaia,” the man announced with one raised hand, “stop.”

“Stop?” The woman echoed incredulously. “You know what’s going on down there, what they’re probably doing. They have Joselyn’s daughter. They have my daughter. We know that’s where she is. They’ve got my daughter, Percival.” She pointed to the ground where, two hundred feet below, the roof of the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies lay. “If they think that the shield they have erected around it will keep me out, they are sorely mistaken. I will rip up this entire field and tear the building apart.”

“I know who is down there,” the man confirmed. “And I know what they’ve done. Probably better than you do. But you can’t rip up the field, Gaia. You have to stop.” As the woman opened her mouth to argue, he continued. “They’ve tied that shield into the life forces of every innocent person inside. Hostages, Gaia. They have hostages. If you go slamming your way through to save the people you care about, everyone else in there whom other people care about will die in the process. You don’t want that. I know you don’t want that.”

His words made the woman pause, taking in a long breath before letting it out again as her face tightened. “They could be killing her in there,” she snapped. “We don’t know how soon the protective spells will wear off. They could be killing her right now. They could kill Felicity, or any of the other students. They could be killing them now, while we stand here.”

Swallowing slightly, the man gave a faint nod. “I know,” he replied softly. “We will get inside, I promise. But we have to do it carefully. We have to find a safe way to break through, not just by force. If you break through by force, you are condemning all of those other people to death.”

There was silence for a few seconds then, before Gaia met his gaze. “The Seosten. You know about them.”

“For a long time,” the man confirmed. “Let’s just say Arthur and the rest of us have a unique and extensive history with them. He was about to bring you in on that when, well, when you proved untrustworthy.”

Again, Gaia was silent for a moment before straightening up. “Is our privacy ensured here?”

“Yes.” The voice came not from Percival, but from Calafia, as the beautiful, dark-skinned woman appeared nearby. “Our colleagues are involved elsewhere. We have privacy now.”

For a moment, Gaia exchanged a look with the man nearby. As Percival gave her a slight nod of confirmation, she turned back to Calafia. “We obviously have much to talk about soon. But for now, our enemies are clear.”

“The Seosten,” Calafia confirmed. “We handle this situation and then we can talk about everything that needs to be discussed.”

“We can provide a lot of raw power,” Percival put in then. “But safely breaking through the shield is going to require more than that. Their magic is intricate, hard to understand. We don’t have time to learn enough about it.”

After another brief pause, Gaia replied, “We don’t have to. We already have someone.”

With those words, a glowing figure stepped out of the other woman before turning solid. As she turned to the two Committee members, both tensed before easing slightly.

“Artemis,” Percival announced flatly.

“Sariel now,” she corrected him quietly. “And you were trained by Auriel.”

“Nimue to me,” the man returned. “And now I have a great deal more questions.”

“To be answered later.” Once again, the voice came from someone new, as Gabriel Prosser stepped up to the group. “For now, we have the raw power to handle the Seosten magic. And,” he added with a glance toward Sariel, “the expertise to deal with it safely.

“So let’s rescue those kids.”

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