Gaia Sinclaire

Before The Vault 41-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”

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

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

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

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

Or we would lose.

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Before The Vault 41-02

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Please note, if you missed it, that the first chapter of this arc was posted on Wednesday. In the event that you have not read it yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above to avoid any confusion. 

“So,” I asked Avalon a bit later, “you anxious to meet your ancestor or what?”

We were standing in the middle of Gaia’s beautiful crystal cavern place. The prototype transport was nearby, but our focus was on the empty area in front of us, where the others would soon be arriving from their entirely too long sojourn in deep Seosten space.

The place was actually pretty crowded right then. Avalon and I were there, along with Dare (I was absolutely not going to allow myself to think of her too much as Grandma because that would be a good way of screwing up out loud), Gaia, Doug, Sean, Roxa, Sariel, Tabbris, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, and, of all people, Theia. She had asked to come and I’d seen no reason to say no, so I’d passed the request to Gaia.

Theia had apparently been pretty pissed off to find out that Abigail had been abducted. Before we managed to make it back and let her know that everything was okay, she had pretty much gone into some kind of berserker rage. Meanwhile, Fossor had apparently sent a group of his minions to kill Miranda at the motel room that the two of them had been staying in.

From what we’ve gotten out of the single survivor later, Fossor had wanted Miranda dead not only because she had been becoming close with both Abigail and Koren, but also because she was my best friend. He probably considered it a two birds with one stone sort of thing.

Unfortunately for him and all the men he had sent, no one had anticipated a quite thoroughly pissed-off Theia. That single survivor? He was one of the twenty who had been sent.

So yeah, she had saved Miranda’s life. I had no problem with her being here.

In response to my question, Avalon gave a slight shrug. “Leaning closer to what,” she admitted. “I don’t do well with actual family. I haven’t exactly had a good record with them so far.”

Wincing at the reminder, I reached out to put a hand on the girl’s back. “Trust me, Dries is different. Uh, very different, in a lot of ways. But he cares about you, even if he doesn’t actually know you. He wants to. He asked a lot about you while I was out there. He’s… definitely a unique guy. A unique guy who has been through a lot. And one of the few times that I actually saw him look happy and hopeful was when we were talking about you. So trust me, he is nothing like your father.”

Even though we were standing a bit away from the others and whispering, Gaia still glanced our way and gave me a brief smile and nod of encouragement. She had heard all of that. Actually, they had probably pretty much all heard it, even if they were being polite about it. The acoustics in this place were pretty good even before you added in super powers.

There were a few people missing from our little group, obviously. First of all, we were missing a couple members of our team. A couple twin members, to be exact. Sands and Scout weren’t even at the school at the moment. Larissa had announced that she was taking them on a brief holiday to celebrate her return from the dead. The three of them were off on some adventure.

Yeah, three of them. I still didn’t know exactly what happened during Larissa’s reunion with her husband, but I did know that he didn’t go with them. And the twins had been staying with her in a different apartment than his, even before they left on this little trip. I kind of felt bad for Liam, wherever he was, but… kind of not. It was his fault, after all, that the first rebellion had been exposed and forced into full scale war in the first place. Even if he did think he was doing the right thing.

And yet, these were his daughters and his wife. As angry as I felt at what he had done, I still… yeah, still kind of felt bad about it. Not to mention the fact that if he hadn’t done what he did, there was a fair chance that I wouldn’t even exist. Things still could have turned out similarly once they did eventually get out into the open, yes, but… even that much could have changed everything. Hell, if he hadn’t done what he did, Abigail and Wyatt might not exist. Butterflies.

The point was, it was complicated. I had no idea how to feel about Liam, aside from a whole mess of emotions and thoughts that often outright contradicted one another.

All of those thoughts swirled their way through my very confused mind before a sudden light caught my attention. Looking that way quickly right along with the others, we all saw a glowing white portal appear, almost like a movie theater screen right in the middle of the cave. A moment later, Jazz and Gordon appeared, hopping through to land in front of us.

“You made it!” I blurted, moving to embrace Jazz first. After all, knowing why Gordon didn’t like to be touched didn’t make it okay to just ignore that and grab him. In fact, it would’ve made it pretty damn stupid, given his reasons.

“Yup.” Smirking a little, Jazz returned the hug before stepping back. “Sorry it took awhile, we didn’t get to take a shortcut like you guys.” She nodded toward Tristan and Vanessa before Roxa found her way to the girl for her own hug.

Gordon, meanwhile, actually embraced Doug. The two of them hugged tightly for just a moment before releasing one another, each taking a couple steps back while looking embarrassed. Somehow, I managed to avoid rolling my eyes at them. Boys.  

“Mr. Kuhn, Miss Rhodes,” Gaia started with a fond smile. “It’s a relief to see that you are safe.”

“Oh, uhh,” Jazz hesitated before giving the woman a quick nod. “Yeah, it’s good to see you too, Headmistress.” She seemed a little awkward, and I realized that for all that Jazz had been through, she had never really interacted with Gaia as anything more than the head of the school. It probably made her feel a little weird, especially since, unlike me, she had actually grown up knowing about Gaia Sinclaire.

There would have been a lot more talking right then, but it was cut off by the arrival of someone else. Jokai. The chameleon-like Alter stepped through the portal, gaining a lot of attention from pretty much everyone. Including Jazz, who stepped over to him quickly, putting herself next to the man before speaking up. “Uh, guys, this is Jokai. Jokai, this is…” She trailed off then, and I realized she was looking at Theia with obvious confusion. Right, she knew everyone else.

It was Tristan who moved first. “Right,” he started, stepping that way. “Jokai, that’s Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire, Professor Dare, Sean, Doug, and err, Sariel. Vanessa’s and my mother. And our little sister, Tabbris.” He looked to the girl in question then. “And uhh, this is Theia. And Pace.”  

A wide smile spread itself across the Hispanic girl’s face then, as she waved. “Hello! It’s been a long time since I saw a Eulsen.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, the smile somehow looking different, slightly more normal and polite. Her voice too, was a little more subdued. “And I’ve never met one.”

The latter was Pace, of course. The girl was speaking for herself thanks to the ring that she wore on one hand. The ring was like Doug’s hat, allowing both of them to control the body in turns. From what I understood, Theia still did most of the day to day interaction because it was somewhat tiring for Pace to control her own body through the ring. But she could interact now, which was pretty damn amazing given the whole situation. We hadn’t yet fulfilled the promise to find a way to separate them, but this was at least a good step along the way.

Jokai and Jazz both looked appropriately confused, and I would have started to explain. But before I could do more than open my mouth, a glowing figure stepped out of Jazz. Which gave me a very brief heart attack, until I saw who it was, and felt simultaneously relieved and dumb.

Athena. It was Athena. As the glow faded to reveal the woman, she focused first on Theia/Pace. “The–” It looked like she was about to say Lie, but stopped herself, instead finishing with, “Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter, if the messages we’ve received are right?”

Theia, for her part, looked a little anxious before collecting herself. “Yes, yes, they are Theia-my parents. But don’t tell bad-Mummy that. She gets needle-stabby annoyed.” The girl demonstrated by pantomiming poking things with her fingers. “Does not like being called that.”

“Your mother is an evil psychopath with no morals or empathy for any creature other than herself, who deserves to be thrown into the deepest pits of the darkest hell that exists in this universe,” Athena stated flatly.

Theia brightened. “So you have met her!”

Athena started to nod, then stopped. Her gaze had moved past Theia, to focus on one single figure who clearly stood out from the others. Sariel. For a moment, I almost felt like every other person in the cavern (including myself) had disappeared, and that it was only the two Seosten women standing there alone, as they met each other’s gaze.

It was Athena who found her voice first, taking a single step that way. “Sariel. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’ve been released. Or… or how sorry I am that it lasted for so long. I…” She hesitated then, swallowing audibly. “If we could have found you sooner, if we–”

“No.” That was Sariel, shaking her head a little as she too took a step toward the other woman, both still stopping well away from each other. “No, you don’t have to apologize. No. After everything you did for… for my family, for my children and my husband… you of all people have nothing to apologize for, Auri–Athena. You prefer Athena now.”

The woman nodded once. “I do. I am Athena, not Auriel. Auriel was… Auriel was unhappy. Athena is who I want to be, someone to live up to. And still, I am sorry, for everything you–”

“Stop,” Sariel blurted, her voice cracking noticeably. “Stop, just–just stop. Stop apologizing. You–you were in prison out there too, and I didn’t save you. You were in prison and then you came back. You came back here and you tried to change things with Arthur.”

“You didn’t know that,” Athena quietly reminded her. “You didn’t know that I was Nimue.”

Swallowing hard, Sariel shook her head a little. “That doesn’t make things any better. I was on the wrong side. I helped the wrong side. I thought I was doing the right thing, that I could make things better from within the–” She stopped herself, eyes closing. “No excuses.”

“No excuses,” Athena agreed, “and no apologies. We both did wrong things. We both stuck around far longer than we should have. We made mistakes. We move on.”

They stared at one another for another moment before Sariel gave a tiny nod of agreement. “We move on,” she murmured under her breath. “Move forward.”

There was another very brief pause, the silence carrying on before Sariel took the last couple of steps that way. Then the two of them embraced, and I let out a soft sigh before sneaking a look toward Tabbris. The little girl was standing next to Tristan and Vanessa, all of them beaming.

“Shouldn’t there be more?” That was Theia, who stared at the portal uncertainly. “There’s still people missing.”

Athena glanced to her. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Apollo is helping Dries at the moment. The two of them are… having a short discussion.”

“Dries is nervous,” I realized aloud, “isn’t he?”

It was Gordon who spoke. “Yeah. He’s been having a little bit of an issue with coming here. To Earth, I mean. He wants to, but he’s got this…” He trailed off, sighing. “After everything the Seosten did to him, he’s still kind of messed up. He’s afraid that something bad is going to happen. Even though he knows it won’t, even though he knows it’s just something that the Seosten did to him… it doesn’t really help.”

“Apollo is helping,” Athena put in firmly. “They just need a little time without an audience.”

Glancing toward Avalon beside me, I whispered, “The Seosten did things to him, they made him afraid of… of a lot of things. His head is kind of messed up, but he’s trying to get past it. And he really does want to meet you. Trust me, meeting you is one of his favorite things to talk about. Not that he talks that much to begin with, but… yeah.”

For her part, Avalon just took a breath and let it out again, her voice soft, yet dark. “Just another thing the Seosten have done to my family.”

Before I could say anything to that, the portal hummed once more as someone else came through. Sure enough, glancing that way revealed Dries himself. The man had filled out a little bit in the intervening time, so he wasn’t quite as bone-thin as he’d been before. But not that much. And he still wasn’t a very imposing figure, being only a couple inches taller than me. He’d trimmed his beard a bit and his dirty blonde hair with its gray-and-brown flecks had been cut a few inches so that it only fell to just above his shoulders, currently tied into a ponytail.

He also almost looked like he was hyperventilating. His arms were crossed tightly against his chest as he sort-of shuffle stepped through the portal. It was like he half-expected the thing to actually send him back to some Seosten prison, or worse. Clearly while his pep talk with Apollo had been enough to get him through, he still wasn’t exactly happy or enthusiastic about it.

But he did make it through. And once he had, the man let out a low breath, clearly shuddering a little before he looked up. His eyes scanned the cave with obvious nervousness, all the people in sight apparently not doing wonders for his issues, before finally settling on me. There was a flicker of recognition, a hesitant smile playing at his lips, before he looked to the girl beside me.

Then he froze, aside from his eyes widening fractionally as he stared. There was no doubt in my mind. He knew. He knew who Avalon was, probably from the descriptions that I’d given. Or maybe through magic. Or… well, any number of reasons. The point was, he knew her.

Sariel and Athena had stepped over to the former’s family, that little group having a quiet conversation of their own. But for the most part, the cave was quiet enough that everyone heard when Dries murmured a quiet, “Liesje.” His voice cracked a little, a single tear appearing before he blinked it away. “You… you look like Liesje. Taller. Darker hair. But I…” He opened and shut his mouth a few times, unable to push out the words. “… I see her in you.”

Avalon didn’t look like she had any idea of what to say to that. She hesitated, looking a little taken aback and maybe even nervous before giving a little shrug. “I’ve never seen any pictures,” the girl muttered, “so I wouldn’t know.” She looked back up then, focusing on him. “You’re my… something great-grandfather, huh? I haven’t been very clear on how many generations are between us.”

“I don’t know either,” Dries admitted before shaking his head. “But you do l-” In mid-sentence, he stopped, twitching a bit before collecting himself. “You do look like her. You–you definitely do.” Clearly feeling awkward, the man shoved his hands into his pants, then took them out again, fidgeting while his mouth opened and shut. It was like he wanted to talk, but didn’t know what to say. And I was pretty sure all the rest of us being around wasn’t helping either.

“Mr. Aken,” Gaia spoke up, drawing his clearly nervous and twitchy attention. “It is truly an honor to meet you. If you and Avalon would like some private space to talk, that can be arranged.”

“No,” Avalon said quickly. I saw Dries recoil a bit, flinching from the apparent rejection before the girl went on. “I mean…  not alone. I…” She glanced to me, biting her lip like she wasn’t sure how to say it.

“I can go with them,” I offered quickly. I knew Valley was more comfortable with me around, and I already had history with Dries. Maybe I could help make their first interaction not quite as awkward, then sort of… back off a little once they were actually talking.

Both Avalon and Dries looked a little relieved by that, and Gaia nodded. “Of course.” Raising a hand, she gestured toward the nearest wall, making a doorway appear. “The three of you can have all the time you need.”

We started that way, but partway there I noticed that the portal had shut down. Blinking at that, I stopped and looked back. “What about Apollo? He’s not here yet. I mean, is he still…”

“He’ll be here,” Athena confirmed. “Only a few beings could use the transport even with its new charge. That’s why I possessed Jasmine here to make the trip. Apollo will be using his connection to Jasmine to transport himself, but that takes a little time.” Her eyes shifted toward Sariel then before she quietly added, “If there are no other issues, he should be able to make the jump in roughly one hour.”

I saw a lot of emotions cross Sariel’s face then. She was clearly feeling a lot about the prospect of coming face to face with Apollo again. Conflicted feelings that I couldn’t even begin to understand. When the man did arrive, I had the feeling he and Sariel were going to need their own private room, probably for awhile.

But for now, it was time to focus on Avalon and Dries. The two of them were waiting by the doorway that Gaia had created, standing awkwardly a bit away from each other. Looking that way, I could see the similarities between them. They both wanted to have a relationship with each other, but neither really trusted… well, anything really. They were alike in a lot of ways, despite all their differences.

And I needed to be the one who helped them interact. So, with a little smile of encouragement, I walked that way to join them. Then we moved through the doorway together, the three of us heading into the private area. And as we arrived in what turned out to be a smaller chamber similar to the place we had just been, I knew one thing for sure.

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Interlude 40A – A Funeral

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The light of the moon shone brilliantly across the dark waters of the ocean, the ripples across the surface seeming to glow at the height of each soft wave before fading to black as they sank once more. A gentle wind rustled the leaves of the nearby jungle, while its inhabitants made their presence known through their calls of food, of danger, and of the hunt.

“Thanks for coming, you guys,” I spoke softly. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you didn’t.”

The people with me as I stood on the beach, damp sand from the waves under my feet, were my team, and others. Sean, Columbus, Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were there. So were Wyatt, Koren… and Abigail and Miranda. Yeah. The latter two were here on the Crossroads beach, thanks to Gaia. It wouldn’t be a long visit, but they wanted to be here for this. They needed to be here for this. And since the Committee along with basically everyone else was busy trying to find out what the hell had happened even a day after it went down… well, it gave us this opening.

Tabbris was there too, possessing me for the time being so that she could be here for this.

In the background, a short distance away from where we were, Dare and Gaia stood together. They were staying out of the way, while also making sure nothing went wrong or interrupted.

Vulcan moved to nudge up against me, making a soft whining sound. Sean, meanwhile, nodded. “He’s right. We know why you need to do this, Flick. It’s important.”

The others murmured agreement, and I took a breath before slowly lowering my gaze to look at the object at the edge of the beach in front of us, right next to the water. It was a canoe. And in that canoe lay a small body wrapped in sheets.

He looks kind of sad like that, Tabbris’ voice in my head whispered. But he was still an evil, murderous jackdonkey.

Jackdonkey? I sent back. That’s a new one. And yeah… he does look kind of sad, just a bundle like that. I… I wish someone could have helped him. Undone what Fossor did to him, I mean.

Ammon. The body in the boat was Ammon, his head wrapped in with it. Even though I couldn’t actually see it, just looking at the sheet covering his dead form was enough to bring bile to my throat. This shouldn’t have happened. None of it should have happened. The whole situation was… it was horrific. I couldn’t even begin to think about what Dare was going through. Especially since she didn’t have nearly the amount of people to talk through it with as Koren and I did. She had the two of us and Gaia. That was it. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that Koren and I were any good at making her feel better. Ammon was her grandson, and she’d killed him. She’d had no choice, and he was, as Tabbris said, ‘a murderous jackdonkey.’ But still, she had killed him. That had to weigh on her.

Not that she was any stranger to things weighing on her. Sacrificing not only her husband, but her entire history with both him and his people… that was clearly worse than I could imagine. She’d had to let her husband, the man she loved, die. And afterward, rather than being able to grieve with their family, with the people who knew him the most… she’d been alone. None of them had remembered her. She lost the man she loved, and at the same time, had been erased from the minds of everyone whom she should have been able to grieve with.

And she had done it all, willingly, to save the world from the Fomorians. I didn’t even have the capacity to fully comprehend that kind of sacrifice. Never mind the fact that she hadn’t only lost them once. It wasn’t like they died. They were still there. All those people, aside from her husband, were still there. She had to pretend she didn’t know them. She had to stay away from them, had to stay away from her own daughter. The child that she had made with her husband, the truest and most pure symbol of their love and union… and Virginia Dare had to stay away from her. Every single day, every hour in the decades that followed, she had to choose to put the world over her own wants and happiness. The world was free of Fomorian invasion purely and only because of Virginia Dare’s sacrifice, in every meaning of the word.

My mother was a hero whom I would probably never live up to. But my grandmother… she was a legend that the entire world, and likely far more beyond that, could never repay.

Shaking those thoughts off (at least as much as I could, anyway), I let out a soft sigh. “You’re right, it’s important.” My eyes closed briefly as I gathered myself before speaking again, a little bit louder. “You guys know that… we’re not here to mourn the monster that was killed yesterday. We’re not here to grieve for the person who murdered or tortured so many people. That was a creature created by Fossor.”

“We’re here,” a new voice spoke from the direction of Gaia and Dare, “to mourn the boy he used to be.”

It was Asenath, along with Deveron. I’d hoped she would come, and Gaia had said she would try to bring her. Apparently that was where Deveron had been. All he’d said was that he had to do something first and that he’d meet us here.

However Asenath had gotten here, it was nice to see the girl, and I stepped that way to embrace her tightly. “You made it.”

She returned it, smiling a little. “I did. It’s been awhile since we’ve been face to face, Flick.”

I nodded at that. “Too long. I… I guess that job of yours is finished now. The one who killed Denise is dead.” Denise, whose death at the gas station Ammon had visited had first spurred Asenath toward my life to begin with when the girl’s mother called for her help.

Asenath, however, shook her head. “Ammon’s dead, but the one responsible for Denise’s death is still out there. I’m not stopping just because the weapon is gone. I want the one who made that weapon and put it in that situation.”

I thought briefly before raising an eyebrow. “Fossor?”

“Fossor,” she confirmed, face set with a hard look. “He’s the one responsible for Denise’s death. And more others than we can count, but still. Denise was murdered, and I’m going to make sure the person ultimately responsible for that pays, any way that I can. Even if it means all I get to do is contribute a fraction of a percent to what finally brings him down. That fraction of a percent belongs to Denise, and I’m going to make damn sure she gets it.”

Clearing my throat then, I gestured to the others. “Uh, guys, this is Asenath. She’s–”

“My sister,” Shiori put in, moving to get her own hug from the girl.

Brief introductions went around then, Doug actually seeming a bit… smitten, honestly. It was almost funny to watch, aside from the actual situation. The boy was clearly nervous about meeting a vampire like that, but got over it pretty quick before moving on to clearly wanting to know everything about her. He kept asking questions, until Asenath promised to talk to him some more after all of this was over.

Tristan and Vanessa took a moment with her as well, the Seosten-hybrids seeming to be pretty curious about Asenath, though for different reasons. Tristan had met her once before, on the Meregan world (which to him had been several years ago, when he was still a kid) but they hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. Now, he wanted to hear about the adventures she’d had through the years. Meanwhile, Vanessa wanted to hear about the people she’d met. Asenath promised to talk to them some more later as well.

“If I’d known I’d be this popular on the Crossroads beach,” she announced, “I might’ve come sooner.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Probably a bad idea. Gaia can’t stand ten feet away and shield us all the time, after all.”

Abigail and Miranda were there then, the former introducing herself to Asenath and thanking her for everything she’d done.

“Good to see you again,” Randi put in when it was her turn. “Guess things have changed a lot.”

“You’re not wrong,” Asenath confirmed with a cough. “But things have a way of doing that. Especially if you live long enough.”

Randi smirked back at her. “Here’s hoping the rest of us get a chance to experience that firsthand.”  

That, of course, brought everyone’s attention to the boat, and the bundle inside of it. Realizing what she had said, Miranda grimaced. “Shit. I…”

It was Abigail who spoke. “We know what you mean. It’s… it’s okay. Ammon…” She sighed softly. “We can be glad that Fossor won’t be able to use him anymore, that…  that he’s not suffering, and that he won’t be able to inflict suffering on anyone else.”

It was hard for her. I knew that. Everything she’d been through, and even knowing what she knew about Ammon, it was still hard to accept that killing him had been the right choice. I was pretty sure she’d never fully accept it. And that was okay, because we all had at least a little doubt, a… wish that things had gone differently and that we could have found a way to save him. It was possible to be sad that it happened, while also being relieved that it happened, as contradictory as that might have seemed.

With that in mind, it was probably time to get on with it. Everyone was looking at the boat again anyway.

“Okay, umm,” I started slowly, “before we do this, I think we should talk about Ammon. He was a…” I took a breath. “Fossor turned him into a monster. He destroyed an innocent little boy just to play his sick games. I know it… it can be hard to see it, hard to accept it, but Ammon was just as much a victim as any of the people he hurt. He wasn’t born a psychopath, Fossor deliberately made him into one. So like I said before, this isn’t about mourning Ammon the monster. It’s about mourning Ammon the little boy. My little–” I had to stop, something catching in my throat until I swallowed hard and pushed on. “My little brother. He deserved better than he got.”

“All of Fossor’s victims deserve better than they get.” That was Avalon, her voice dark as she stood near me, looking out over the water. “And whatever Ammon might’ve been, or whatever he was before Fossor got to him, he was a monster and had to be put down. Yes, it’s sad that it was done to him. But it’s not sad that he was stopped before he could kill any more people. Don’t lose sight of that in your hurry to grieve for the person you wish he still was. You never met that person.”

I nodded to that. “You’re right, I know. Like I said, we’re not mourning Ammon the monster. We’re…” Pausing, I thought of the best way of putting it. “We’re mourning the little boy that he was before the monster. Think of this as a funeral taking place years after the Ammon we’re actually mourning was killed by whatever Fossor made take his place.”

My voice cracked a little then. “I probably wouldn’t have been that different from him if Mom hadn’t taken my place when Fossor tried to grab me in the first place. This–all of it, it’s Fossor’s doing. He’s a piece of shit, and he’s the one who needs to be stopped.”

Sands spoke up. “He will be. He’s got a lot of people gunning for him.” Her eyes shifted over to me before she added, “And he’s been picking fights that he’ll end up regretting.”

Moving to the boat, Abigail knelt, putting her hand on the side of it. “I wish I could have known the real Ammon, before Fossor destroyed him. I wish he’d had a chance to…  I wish he’d had a chance.”

Wyatt moved next to her then, giving me a brief look before he somewhat awkwardly knelt beside his long-lost twin. It was easy to see the resemblance when they were right next to each other like that, and I felt another pang at the reminder that they’d barely spent any time together, thanks to Ruthers.

For a moment, I wondered if Liam ever felt bad about the fact that his betrayal had helped tear twins apart from both each other and their own parents. Did he ever think about that when looking at his own twins? Did he think about it when Larissa had disappeared? Did it sink in then at all?

At least no one here had to be confused about what Wyatt and Abigail had to do with the situation. Thanks to a little help from Sariel and her command of memory magic, everyone was on the same page about that whole situation. Though it might’ve been at least a little interesting to see how the spell that had erased their identities dealt with something like this.

Slowly, I moved over to the opposite side of the canoe, taking a knee there while Koren joined me. The four of us, two on each side, all stared at the sheet-wrapped bundle within. I almost wanted to reach out and touch it, but stopped myself.

“Whatever the closest place to actual hell is,” Koren muttered under her breath in a voice that sounded as though she could barely speak, “Fossor belongs there.”

It was a sentiment we all agreed with, though none of us spoke. Neither did the others. They stood back, watching while the four of us knelt there. It was… paying our respects, basically. Not praying, exactly. Just… taking a quiet moment to kneel beside Ammon’s body. He deserved that much, deserved to have his family there with him before the end. Or most of his family, anyway.

How was Mom doing? What did Fossor tell her about it? How much did he even know? Dare had apparently made sure there were no observation spells that could have transmitted the events, so all he could know was that Ammon was dead. But I doubted that would stop him from embellishing if he felt like it. Or ranting.

Did he care about Ammon’s death? I genuinely didn’t know. Probably only as far as it affected his plans, but still. I… kind of didn’t want to follow my thoughts down that snake hole.

We’ll tell her what happened, Tabbris promised me. You know, as soon as we find her.

Smiling just a little inwardly, I tried to ignore the flash of pain. Because she was wrong. I couldn’t tell Mom about what had really happened, just like I couldn’t tell Tabbris herself. Every thought I had about that, including keeping it secret, was hidden from her. All she knew was that Dare had arrived and supposedly killed Ammon before he could control her. That was what everyone aside from Koren, Gaia, and I believed. It was what they had to believe.

Yeah, I sent back to my little partner, we’ll make sure she knows what happened.

With that in mind, I glanced back to the others, toward Professor Dare. Even now, she couldn’t show how much this affected her. Looking close, I could see Gaia holding her hand. Which was something, at least. But she couldn’t be here by the boat with us. She couldn’t let any of the others know that she hadn’t just killed a little boy, she had killed her own grandson.

Yeah, it was a good thing the spell took care of keeping thoughts like that away from Tabbris, or I would’ve blown the secret within about three seconds of her possessing me.

Deveron joined us after that first quiet moment. Taking a knee at the back of the canoe, he spoke softly. “He was Fossor’s monster. But he was also Joselyn’s son. I know her. She might not be here, but… but she knows we’re doing this. She’s ready for it. Even if she can’t see it, she… wherever she is, she’s thinking about this.”

He was right, I knew. Mom was about as close to here as she could possibly be. She knew we’d be doing this, she knew where, and she knew when. I could almost feel her, could almost imagine that she was standing right behind me.

Closing my eyes tightly for just a moment, I nodded. “She knows. And she’s waiting, so let’s do it.”

Slowly, the five of us lifted the canoe. I could have lifted it by myself, of course. As could several of the others. But that wasn’t the point. We lifted it together before taking a few steps out into the water. As it rose to my knees, we set the boat down. I gave the bundle inside one last look, before we all gave it a push, sending the canoe out onto the ocean.

Normally, the waves would have just pushed it back. But at the moment that we let it go, a small rune on the side of the boat glowed, an activated spell which slowly propelled it further away.

Once the boat was far enough away, a second spell activated on it and flames began to spread. They started small, but soon the entire canoe was engulfed, a floating bonfire there on the ocean.

We watched it together in silence as the boat, and Ammon’s body, burned. It was symbolic, of course. But it was also practical. Fossor was a freaking necromancer. Of course we were burning the body. We (or rather, Dare and Gaia) had also set up several spells on said body that would prevent his ghost from being pulled back.

More thoughts than I could articulate ran through my mind in those minutes. But the one that stood out above the others was that we all deserved better than this. Everyone deserved better than this.

We stood there the whole time, until there was no more boat that could burn. The flames themselves had been magical, capable of completely destroying the body while leaving nothing behind. It was over. Ammon was officially laid to rest, and wouldn’t bother anyone else again.

And yet, all I could think in that moment was that I wished I could say the same thing about Fossor. The fact that he was alive and had actually succeeded in his plot to take that rope made me sick to my stomach. God, I wanted that monster to die more than basically anything. But his time would come.

I just hoped that it would come before he had a chance to do whatever he wanted the rope for.

“Goodbye, Ammon,” I whispered, my voice barely carrying to the others around me. “I know it makes me a horrible person to say it, but I’m glad… I’m glad you’re gone. I’m glad you can never hurt or kill anyone again. I…” My eyes squeezed shut, a hard stone of guilt settling in my chest. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save you, but I’m glad you’ll never be able to hurt another person.”

The lump stayed, and I made myself open my eyes, staring once more at where the burning boat had been. “I’m sorry that I never got a chance to actually know you. I’m sorry for what Fossor did, and that we couldn’t help you. I’m sorry for everything you went through. I’m sorry for that part of you that was trying so hard to understand why it was wrong. For everything you went through, for everything that Fossor put you through, for what he turned you into, and… most importantly, for all of your victims that we couldn’t save…

“I’m sorry.”

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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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Family Day 40-06

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I didn’t realize that I’d spoken aloud until Koren repeated the word, looking to me then over to Professor Dare. Her mouth was open, the girl gaping pretty much like how I assumed I was.

For her part, Professor Dare was staring down at the body that lay at her feet. She was silent and motionless. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine the expression on it.

My mind was reeling. Explanations for so much that had happened over the year and even before that were flooding into my brain.

Mom… her parents had sacrificed themselves, each in different ways. Her father, my grandfather, had sacrificed his life. Meanwhile, my grandmother had sacrificed her identity, everyone’s memories of her. Everyone had forgotten who she was, her life erased in a way that was very different than her husband, yet still just as potent.

Dare knew Prosser. She’d said things about him that couldn’t come from just a casual acquaintance.

She’d even said that she missed my mother. She said she missed her as a student. But, as the realization thundered its way into my head right then, she hadn’t been a teacher when Mom was a student. Gaia had brought her in as a teacher after she became headmistress, which happened after Mom already left the school. How could Dare possibly miss her as a student?

She had been the one to come and pick me up at the start of the school year. She had showed over and over again that she cared about me. The things she had been so close to saying, but had repeatedly stopped herself from. I had thought that she was simply trying to maintain a teacher-student distance, but it was more than that. So much more.

It made sense. It made sense in a way that I should have figured out before. Was I just blind to it, or had the memory spell been making it hard to put those pieces together until it was made patently obvious?

My mouth opened, and the ground suddenly shook beneath me. It was an earthquake, yet somehow more than that. I felt the rough shaking, and I also felt something else. It was like magic itself was protesting violently. There was a dizziness in my head that made me stumble. Beside me, Koren fell to her knees with a yelp. Bright colors appeared in the sky above us, and a stickiness on my face made me realize that my nose was bleeding. So were the others.

There were clouds in the sky, only they weren’t normal clouds. They were thicker, more full and solid. They looked almost like gigantic, misshapen… body organs. They looked like a twisted, demented versions of a heart, or lungs, pulsating right there in the air above us, beating as though they were alive. Yellowish orange lightning streaked across the sky, cutting through the odd colors while the ground continued to shake. There were fires between the clouds, but it was more than fire, the flames seeming to burn the sky itself away to reveal visions beyond that my brain refused to acknowledge. Horrors lurked through those wounds in the sky, horrors that would have brought tears to the eyes of even the bravest amongst us had they been forced to see them for more than a few seconds. Living terror peeked through those cuts. Peeked through… and saw us. It met our gaze, its hunger… its amusement… its power swelling.  

And then it stopped. The sky faded back to its regular color. The ground went still once more. The lightning stopped, and those weird organ clouds disappeared. Everything was still and quiet once more.

“It didn’t break.” There was relief in Dare’s voice, and I saw her slump just a little bit. “It didn’t break. The spell held. They’re not coming back.”

The Fomorians. That was what all of that was. It was the spell that had banished them from the world reacting to us finding out the truth about her. It had been damaged, it had nearly shaken itself apart, nearly failed. But not permanently. It held, though by what strand I had no idea. There was no way of knowing just how close we had just come to the Fomorians having a new open invitation to invade the planet.

No way of knowing just how close we had come to complete destruction, except too close. Entirely too close. If that was the spell’s reaction to just Koren and me learning the truth, I had no questions about why Dare had kept it secret for so long. If the Fomorians made it back here, if they managed to invade again… it would basically end society as we knew it.

And then I realized exactly what the position Dare had been in right then. She could either press the button to kill innocent people as well as Vanessa, Avalon, and one of her own grandchildren, or risk the spell breaking and thus condemn a lot more people to death. No wonder she had sounded so tortured, so broken when she made her decision.

But it was even more than that. Not only did she risk the spell breaking, to do so, she had to kill another one of her grandchildren. Ammon may have been a psychotic creep, but he was still her grandson. And the way he had been was forced on him by Fossor. That was why I had been so hesitant to just straight up kill him. For everything he’d done, he was still a kid that could maybe have been fixed if we could just stop him long enough. But now… now…

“I had no choice.” Dare’s voice still sounded empty, hollow. “He had so much protection, so many other ways to escape. And it was the only way to be sure it would end his orders to the people in the stadium. If he survived and figured out the truth…”

Koren spoke up then. “It would be three people figuring out the truth of who you were. Four, if he got back to Fossor.”

Dare nodded silently before looking up to us. There were tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

My head shook quickly. “No, don’t apologize. You don’t have anything to apologize for. We get it.” Glancing to the girl beside me for confirmation, I waited until she nodded and then repeated, “We get it. We both get it. If that’s how the spell reacted to adjust to that… You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Koren nodded. “Do… do you need to erase our memories? To protect the spell.”

Dare looked taken aback, her mouth opening and shutting briefly. “You… you would both…” Then she took a few quick steps, her arms moving out to grab onto Koren and me, pulling us into a tight embrace. I was pretty sure that she had been waiting to do that for a very, very long time.

We hugged her back, while the woman whispered both of our names. Then she shook her head. “No. The damage to the spell has been done now, and it held. There’s no reason to be erase it from your memories.” Pausing, she looked to us seriously. “But—”

“We can’t tell anyone, or it’ll damage the spell even more.” Even as I said those words, my eyes widened. “Wait, what about Tabbris? The next time she possesses me…”

Dare shook her head. “She will not know. She won’t be able to read your thoughts on the subject. Or it will just replace those… specific ones. That’s the way the spell works. The information can’t be involuntarily pulled from your head like that. Not even through possession.”

I really couldn’t tell Tabbris, or anyone, I realized. If the spell had reacted that badly to the two of us finding out, the risk of anyone else knowing, even my little sister were… no. I couldn’t endanger everything like that. When the time came, if it came and Tabbris or any of the others found out that I had kept that secret, I had to believe that they would forgive me for it. They would understand. In this particular case, lying really was the best thing to do. As much as I might’ve loathed doing so to Tabbris, my father, or any of the other people I cared about… I had to.

Koren swallowed hard before speaking my own thoughts aloud. “Then we’ll keep it secret. We won’t tell anyone. We’re not going to risk…” She trailed off then, going silent as her eyes moved to the body on the ground. “Oh my God. That means that… that he was…”

My eyes followed hers. Ammon. Ammon was dead. The shock of realizing who Professor Dare really was had completely overshadowed that fact. But it was true. The threat who had been lurking in the background of my thoughts for so long was… was dead. Just like that. My own half-brother, raised by a monster who in turn had made the boy into one as well. He was… he was dead. It didn’t seem real. But it was. His body was there. His body was… was… there.

Staring down at him for a second, I felt bile rise up in my throat. Mom… Mom, what was I going to tell her? What would Fossor tell her? Oh God. His body was… was practically dismembered. He looked almost like a… victim that way, like… the little kid he was supposed to be. A little kid whose head had been… had been…

I turned, falling to my knees to throw up there on the ground. It felt like I was heaving my entire stomach out, as tears stung my eyes. Nearby, I could hear Koren in basically the same position.

Dare moved to kneel between us, putting a hand on each of our backs, repeating herself from earlier. “I couldn’t… risk him realizing the truth. If he did, and he told Fossor…” Her fingers tightened against my back almost painfully, and I heard her make a noise that sounded like a barely restrained, choked sob. As hard as it was for me to see that, she was the one who’d had to actually do it. She’d been the one to make that awful, impossible choice to kill her own grandson. Evil or not, psychotic or not, he was still her grandson. And a part of me would always wonder if he could have been saved.

Just as, I was sure, she herself would wonder the same thing.

We knelt there like that, the three of us turned away from the terrible, disgusting sight behind us. I was just trying to get myself under control when Koren abruptly jerked upward, blurting, “Mom!”

Oh God, oh fuck. Right, the distraction of everything we had just learned vanished in an instant. Both of us scrambled to our feet, while Dare quietly informed us, “The fighting inside is over. Ammon’s control disappeared the moment he–the crowd stopped fighting. The others are alive, but… confused. We should go to them.” She paused then, picking herself up before looking to us. “I know you have a lot of questions. Now that… that you know, I can answer them. But it will have to be later, okay? We need to get out of here. And you can’t… you can’t act differently in front of others.”

The two of us nodded. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to say. But at the moment, making sure that Avalon, Vanessa, and Abigail were okay was all I could really focus on, all I wanted to focus on. So we promised to keep acting as normal as possible (given the situation), before Dare gestured to create a portal that would take us back to the baseball field.

On the way to the portal, I hesitantly asked, “What about everyone else? Fossor, he was—“

“Controlling Escalan,” Dare finished for me. “Yeah. And we didn’t know you weren’t part of any group until I went around and checked them.”

Pausing at the portal, I asked, “How did you find us to begin with? I know he had this whole place blocked off from communication and monitoring spells.”

It was her turn to be quiet for a moment before shaking her head. “Honestly, I don’t know. I just heard a whisper by my ear that told me your latitude and longitude and that you were in danger. I don’t know who it was, or how they knew where you were. It sounded like a girl’s voice, and… familiar. But other than that…”

Great, more mysteries. Then again, if they had sent Dare to save us, maybe they weren’t so bad. Or maybe it was Jophiel? I could see that.

Either way, we passed through the portal and I immediately saw Avalon, Abigail, and Vanessa. The other two girls had just finished helping my sister out of the contraption holding her down. When we appeared, they spun toward us. Avalon and Vanessa had their weapons up before stopping short. Disabling her gauntlets, Avalon rushed to me, arms going around me tightly as she basically lifted me off the ground. She didn’t say anything, but then again, she didn’t need to.

“You saved her,” I murmured while returning the hug as tightly as I could. “You saved my sister.”

Looking around, I saw a lot of unconscious and injured civilians, along with others who were awake and incredibly confused. I had no idea what the Bystander Effect would convince them had happened, but it was probably going to be a doozy of a story.

Seeing all those people and thinking about what Ammon had said, I had no doubt that it had taken everything Vanessa and Avalon had to save Abigail without killing any of them. If they hadn’t been there… My body shuddered fully at the thought and I hugged Avalon even tighter. Then I hugged Vanessa and thanked her as well before moving to look to Abigail. Koren was still hugging her and didn’t look like she was going to let go anytime soon.

So I simply met her gaze and nodded to her with a very slight, kind of sad smile. “I’m glad you’re okay.” Boy was that ever an understatement.

Dare’s head was tilted, as if she was listening to something. Then she straightened a little and nodded. “We’re going back to the school. They’re sending people in to deal with the bombs here and to get the civilians home. They’ll be okay.”

She paused then before adding, “Gaia has someone collecting the body.”

So she created another portal, and we passed through it together. Avalon and Vanessa were both giving me and Koren confused looks about what had happened, but it wasn’t until we were back on what turned out to be the school grounds outside of the main building that they finally spoke.

“Where’s Ammon?” Vanessa asked. “What happened? What bombs? What body?”

Answering the last question first, I swallowed before looking toward Abigail as I quietly explained, “Ammon, he… he’s dead.” Even saying it out loud didn’t make it seem real. I felt hollow inside. The idea that the psychotic little boy who had been my little brother and a threat lurking in the background of my mind for so much of the year was just dead now didn’t really compute.

All three of the others look taken aback by that, eyes widening as their mouths fell open. It was Abigail who found her voice first. “What? Dead? But he was… he was just… it wasn’t…”

“There was no choice.” That was Dare. There was guilt, resignation, and sadness in her voice, all for reasons beyond what Abigail could possibly have understood in that moment. I had far more of the story and even I wasn’t sure I actually comprehended the things that the woman was feeling right then.  

She continued, telling them about how Koren and I had been fighting to stop him from detonating those bombs and that she had shown up right at the end. She told them that there had been no other choice when he had started to order her to detonate the bombs. We wouldn’t have been able to stop her, and she’d had no idea exactly what would knock him unconscious or not with all his powers. The only choice she’d had was to kill him to save them and everyone in that stadium.

Glancing around while listening to that, I could see pockets of people here and there already popping in all over the grounds, appearing either through portals or coming out of the Pathmaker. More and more kept arriving, bloodied, injured Heretics trying to understand what they had just been through. It was pretty much total confusion. From what snippets of conversation I could pick up here in there as people moved past, no one knew exactly what happened. And it didn’t seem like anyone was looking our way.

Abigail looked torn, her face ashen as she shook her head back and forth. “There was supposed to be a way to save him, to change him. He was just a little boy. Just–”

“A boy whose soul Fossor destroyed,” I pointed out softly, wincing at the look on Dare’s face. Yeah, I definitely couldn’t imagine the guilt she was going through. “I have to think that the boy Ammon could have been would have rather died than let you and all those other people die in his place. Maybe that’s childish and naïve, but it’s the best I’ve got right now. It’s the best any of us have got.”

Before any of us could say anything else, the others all started to arrive. The rest of the team, Deveron, Tristan, Haiden (with Sariel still possessing him), Larissa, even Gaia. The latter looked harried, but just as relieved as everyone else when she saw us (especially Avalon in her case) with her own eyes.

As we all took turns exchanging embraces and greetings, Sands blurted, “What the hell happened? Are you guys okay? What was that? What—”

Gaia interrupted. “Perhaps it would be best to have this conversation somewhere more private and comfortable.

“I have a feeling it will be a long one.”

******

“Does Gaia know?”

It was hours later, as I sat out on the beach watching the ocean. Next to me was Professor Dare.

For once, I actually wasn’t the center of the Committee’s focus. They apparently had no idea, as a group, what had happened. They didn’t know Fossor was the one behind it, just as they didn’t know that I hadn’t been transported along with everyone else. I wasn’t a suspect, and I was kind of glad about that. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t have dealt with another Committee interrogation right then. As far as they were concerned I had just been part of another group that was transported somewhere and had to be rescued. Which, to be fair, was kind of the truth in some ways.

They did know that the rope had been stolen, and several Heretics killed in the process. But they didn’t know who was responsible for it, since no one who had seen anything had survived to give an explanation. All they knew was that all of this had been a huge distraction so that whoever was behind it could steal that rope.

I’d heard a few people trying to blame Eden’s Garden for it, which I really hope it was a theory that wouldn’t gain too much traction. All we needed right now was war with them. Fossor would probably find it hilarious.

Fossor. The thought of him made me think of my mother. How was she doing with the news about Ammon? Yet again, I desperately wanted to talk to her. I wanted to be there with her. Not there, come to think of it. I wanted her to be here with me. I wanted us to be somewhere safe. I wanted to be able to hug her. How was she dealing with Ammon’s death?

Dare had been quiet for a moment after my question about Gaia. Finally, she spoke up. “Does she know that I am Joselyn’s mother? Yes. She learned it shortly before she brought me to the school. She’s the only one. Her, and now you two.” She looked to me then, face softening. “I know this must be very confusing.”

“Actually, it answers a lot of questions,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Err, except one really. You were Grandma Atherby, so you should’ve known about the Seosten. And if Gaia knew about you… why…”

Dare winced. “Simple answer? I forgot.”

I stared at her. “You… forgot…? Wait, you mean it was a–”

“Memory spell, yes.” She nodded. “Or rather, part of the same memory spell that erased my identity. The… Seosten who helped us with it didn’t want someone who was going to be completely erased from all of their memories to be running around with all that information about them. So part of the deal for their help with it was that I would allow all knowledge about them to be erased from my mind. And it was, until we found out about the Seosten without any help from me. After that, it started coming back. And I told Gaia what I could.”

That made sense, I supposed. And it also confirmed that the Seosten were definitely helping during the Fomorian invasion, though I did wonder what kind of nerve they had to be setting terms when they’d wanted the Fomorians gone as much as everyone else did.

There was a lot I wanted to get to on that subject. But another one came to mind right then. “The prophecy that said your blood would destroy the world or whatever it was. Could they have been talking about Mom and her revolution? That’s kind of destroying the world if you think about it.“

Dare nodded slowly. “Trust me, I’ve thought about that a lot. It could be. I don’t know, but it might be that. Or it could be something that Fossor does.”

Biting my lip, I admitted, “I don’t really want to think about that right now. Could you… Could you maybe tell me a little about you? And about my grandfather… and my mother when she was little.” By the end of that, my voice was a whisper.

Dare gave me a soft smile. “Yes,” she murmured, “It has been quite a while since I was able to talk about it with anyone other than Gaia. But I think I would like that very much.”

She started to talk then, and I tried to shut out all of the other thoughts that were swirling in my head. Ammon was dead. But Fossor had still gotten his hands on the Hangman’s rope. What was he planning to do with it? Something that powerful, that important, it had to be pretty bad. Especially given the lengths to which he’d gone to get it. And I had the feeling we were going to find out just how bad at the worst possible time.

But there was nothing I could do about it right then. Nothing I could change immediately.

Later, there would be time to deal with everything else. But for that moment, I simply listened to Dare telling stories. Honestly, I had the feeling that she needed it as much as I did.

I couldn’t help my mother yet. I couldn’t go to her, I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me.

But for the first time… I could be there for my grandmother. Not answer anything, not solve anything, but just be there.

And sometimes… being there was enough.

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Family Day 40-02

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The sound that emerged from Scout in that moment was as loud as I had ever heard the other girl be. She instantly threw herself that way. There was no hesitation at all before she was embracing her sister tightly. The twins clung to each other, making me realize once more just how much they had missed one another. That went on for a couple of seconds before I saw Scout’s head turn a little. Her eyes settled on Larissa, and she froze. Still clinging to her sister, her mouth open and shut a couple of times before she managed a weak, barely audible, “Mommy…”

The trembling hand that she was pressing against her own mouth did nothing to hide the broad, glorious smile on Larissa’s face. In a shaky voice, she replied, “Hello, Sarah.”

Then Scout was there. With a noise of joy and relief that was almost a sob, she lunged at her mother and grabbed on tight. Scout hugged her tightly, clinging for dear life while openly crying.

Feeling like I was intruding, I moved my wet eyes to look around the rest of the office. Gaia was there, along with Roxa. But I didn’t see the others. Biting my lip, I stepped that way and embraced the other girl. “You made it back.”

Roxa nodded, returning my hug. “Yep. Some of us anyway. Haiden’s at that Atherby camp having a reunion with his wife and kids as we speak.”

“And the others?” I asked quickly.

“They’re okay,” she assured me. “We used the Meregan transport thing, and apparently it was an earlier version of the one that you guys used before. A prototype. So it has to recharge after every few transports. Jazz and Gordon stayed with Dries, Jokai, Athena, and Apollo so we could come back. They’ll probably show up tomorrow. I was going to stay too, but they insisted I should come with. Especially after we found out… you know, about Rudolph.”

Her voice had gone quiet by the end, and she glanced past me. That was the reminder I needed that the rest of the team was here too, including Doug.

Turning that way, I saw the boy himself standing there staring with his mouth open. His voice was a whisper. “You’re alive. I mean, I knew you were alive. But still… you’re alive.”

Roxa’s face softened a bit and she stepped that way to embrace him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. So are Jazz and Gordon. We… we should’ve been here to help. We wanted to help with all of it.”

Doug’s head shook. “You guys had your own problems, your own… things to deal with.”

Sean took his turn for a hug with the girl then, while Gidget and Vulcan greeted each other by rubbing their heads together affectionately. And once more, I felt like I was intruding on something. When I glanced toward the twins and their mother, I saw that they were deep in conversation about something. Yeah, I definitely didn’t want to interrupt any of that. Instead, I looked toward Columbus, Avalon, and Doug. “Boy, when they advertised this as a day for family reunions, they weren’t exaggerating, were they?”

Honestly, and maybe a little strangely, I couldn’t even feel bad about the fact that I wouldn’t see my own mother that day. It felt too good to see Scout and Sands with theirs and to think about Vanessa and Tristan being reunited with both of their parents. Even seeing Sean and Doug with Roxa felt really good. As far as I was concerned, this was already a pretty great day.

We’ll get your mom back too, Tabbris assured me quickly. This just means we’ve got more help to do it.

Smiling inwardly, I agreed, Right, and we’ll definitely need the help. I guess all of this works pretty well as a recruitment drive, huh?

Avalon moved next to her adopted mother then, speaking a bit suspiciously. “Are you sure you didn’t find a way to deliberately time it like this? Because them showing up today of all days is pretty coincidental.”

Gaia chuckled low, shaking her head a little. “I assure you, I had nothing to do with the timing. And I sincerely doubt they would have waited just for this. Sometimes a coincidence is simply a coincidence. You will see a lot more of them as you get older.”

Roxa stepped back over to me then, her expression curious. “Do you still have, um, you know, your little friend?”

My hair turned pink then as Tabbris made my head nod, piping up, “I’m here. I’m glad you made it back!”

“Just a little signal we worked out,” I informed Roxa then while gesturing to my hair. “White or pink and it’s her talking. Same for my eyes. Better than trying to find a private place for her to pop out every time she wants to speak for herself.”

Rubbing my head then, I added out loud but to my partner, “That said, I know we planned on you staying here for the day, but if Haiden’s back and they’re all having some big reunion at the camp…”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, also speaking out loud by using my own mouth. “I’ll let them have some time, you know? I’ll go back later to see Mama and Papa Haiden.”

Papa Haiden, I noticed immediately. I had wondered what the other girl would refer to him as once they got back, given that she saw our father as, well, father.

That made another thought pop into my head, and I abruptly pointed to the nearby woman, blurting, “Larissa.”

Blinking once, she nodded. “Yes, that is my name.” She stepped over then to embrace me briefly. “I’m glad you made it back, Flick. Thank you for helping Sariel.”

I shrugged at that. “Trust me, she’s helped us just as much.” Then I added, “But you’re here. I mean you’re here, so does that mean you’re going to actually be here?” Realizing how confusing that might sound, I clarified, “I mean, are you going to officially be back?”

The woman grimaced a little before confirming, “Yes, I will officially be back from the dead. Which actually happens more than you might think around here. But still, Sands and I are going to have to go talk to the Committee. Gaia and Vanessa have already told us the story that’s going around, so we will make ours match that. I suppose I’ll be the Heretic who was stolen years ago so they could find a way to make their infiltration work. The guinea pig, if you will.”

She paused then, letting out a slow breath. “And then I will have to speak with Liam.” Her eyes got distant for a second as she gazed out at nothing before shaking herself. “Let’s just say it’s going to be a very eventful Family Day. But we will most certainly be back in time for the feast later.”

I wondered what was going to happen with her husband, and whether she would stay with him, or what. It was obvious that there were a lot of complicated feelings there, most of which were none of my business, despite my curiosity.

She was definitely right about one thing, however. This was absolutely going to be a long and interesting day.

*******

Most of that, of course, happened far away from me. I spent the day with Avalon, Columbus, Sean, and Doug as we went through what turned out to be a pretty fun event. There were parents and siblings everywhere, all over the school no matter where you looked. My fellow students were showing off things they made or had learned, taking their family members to various classrooms or to meet different teachers. Or, in many cases, to reunite with those teachers, given that some of them had taught not only their parents, but their parents’ parents and so on.

I ended up getting more than my share of long looks from those family members too, though I didn’t know how much of that was because they knew my actual history and how much was just from things they had heard this year. To be honest, there was plenty of ammunition for them to be curious about me just from the latter.

Either way, it was still a very fun day. We presented some projects, and even did a little bit of exhibition fighting to prepare for the main tournament that night.

I felt a little bad that my father couldn’t be there, of course. But Abigail showed up and found time to talk with me. She was, obviously, a subject of a lot of interest herself. I could see Ruthers’ stooge, Peterson Neal, lurking in the background to watch her now and then. I wondered just how much he knew about the situation, or if he was just blindly reporting back to Ruthers.

A little bit after lunch, I was taking a break with the others, sitting against a tree on the grounds while watching the crowds all over the place. “Well,” I remarked, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I kind of like Family Day. It’s fun.” While speaking, I reached out to rub Vulcan’s head. “I wonder how Roxa’s doing.”

The other girl had been spending the time reuniting with her own ‘family’, her pack. They had apparently missed Roxa a lot, since I had heard that they were having some huge party to celebrate her return. It was going to be going on all day and night, and we had been invited to drop by later after things were done here.

Sean chuckled at that, holding up his phone. “Well, if her texts are anything to go by, they’re basically throwing the party of the century. They’ve got a whole bunch of other weres and they’re throwing the bash in some old airplane hanger in the middle of nowhere. Makes it so they don’t have to worry about offending any neighbors and can really cut loose.”

With a very slight smile, Columbus remarked, “You sure we should go over there later? All those weres might object to a few Heretics showing up to ruin their fun. I’d hate to turn a party into a fight just out of some misunderstandings.”

“Mateo and Roxa said they’ve got things under control on that front,” Sean assured us.

“Hey,” I started, “speaking of which, what about your family?” As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I regretted it.

Sean shrugged. “Uncle Sebastian should be back soon. He just wanted to go help Mateo get their thing started. As for Mom and Dad, or Ian, ahhh, let’s just say if they showed up here I would suggest we put them through all the possession tests we’ve got.”

I winced inwardly, but couldn’t think of what to say to that. Sean rarely, if ever talked about his parents or brother. I didn’t know what their deal was, or why they tended to completely ignore him to the point of not even showing up to this thing. But I did kind of want to go find them and shake all three as hard as I could. Sean deserved better than that.

Avalon nudged me with her foot, a thoughtful frown knitting her brow. “How do you think things are going with the Masons?”

Biting my lip, I shrugged. “I wish I knew,” I admitted. “Do you think Larissa will stay with Liam, or not?”

“Boy,” Sean muttered, “class is gonna be really awkward if she doesn’t.” Belatedly, he added a quick, “Not that she should, or anything. I’m just saying. It’s… you know what, never mind. I’m just going to sit over here and enjoy the taste of sneaker.”

Snickering, I use two fingers to poke the boy in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re all really familiar with the taste. And we get what you mean.”

Deveron strolled up then, grunting as he took a seat on the grass. “Well,” he started, “this whole thing hasn’t changed much since I was here the first time.”

“Really?” I teased, “In that case, it must’ve been really confusing to see so many cell phones back in 1918.”

He made a face at me before chuckling. “Okay, okay, maybe some things have changed.” His expression sobered then. “But not enough of the right things.”

“Gaia’s working on it,” I reminded him. “Actually, we’re all kind of working on it. Just a little at a time.”

Deveron looked like he was going to say something else to that, but thought better of it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod. “Yeah, we’re working it.

“But just for the record, conservative estimate, there’s about twenty people here that I really want to punch in the face.”

******

Later that evening, we were all sitting outside at one of the tables that had been set up. With all the families here, it would’ve been entirely too crowded in the cafeteria. So everybody was out here, with tables that were stretched across the whole grounds.

I could see so many people. Zeke was there with his mom, of course. I saw Erin with a man who was apparently her father, Doug over at a table with Sulan, Sean with his uncle, or even some students who had both parents and siblings there. Nearby, I saw Shiori’s roommate Rebecca with both of her parents and a small, brown-haired woman named Lillian Patters, who was apparently her grandmother.

She was also someone that I desperately wanted to talk to. Because as soon as she had shown up, Deveron took me aside and told me that Lillian Patters had been on the same team back in school as him and Mom. More, she had been Mom’s best friend in school and her roommate. Which explained why Lillian was my middle name. Felicity Lillian Chambers. Somehow, in the same way that Abigail had retained enough of her birth name of Koren to give it to her own daughter, Mom had remembered the name of her best friend and gave it to me.

But Lillian didn’t remember. I saw it in her eyes when she glanced our way, lingering only for a brief moment before moving on. She was curious about me, but clearly only from what she’d heard. They’d wiped her memory just like so many others. Another thing that they had erased and thrown away in their zeal to end the rebellion against their genocidal campaign.

That was a problem for later though. Right now, it was all about families. Even Sands and Scout were at a table with their mom, which… boy howdy had that ever brought a lot of questions from basically everybody. Their table was almost completely surrounded by people who wanted to know what was going on, and where Larissa had been.

Liam wasn’t there. I actually hadn’t seen him all day. Which made me all kinds of curious, but I didn’t have a prayer of getting near them to ask what was going on. I was just going to have to wait until later for answers.

And speaking of those who were attracting attention, the other twins, Vanessa and Tristan, were there with their dad. Haiden had apparently given an explanation similar to Larissa’s about how he was taken years back. He was still considered an Eden’s Garden Heretic, but was there as Gaia’s guest for his kids. And Sariel was there too, possessing her husband. That was an idea that had been given to them by Tabbris before the girl had gone back to the Atherby camp.

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t here at the moment. I’d told her that she should stay with our dad that night. I’d have her with me all day, and I knew he felt bad about not being able to come to this. So I asked her to stick around at the camp and keep him company. It has felt like the least I could do.

In all, it had been a very busy and complicated day. But still fun. And it was pretty appropriate that all these reunions were happening on this particular day. Even if a lot of it was happening away from me, which was murder on my curiosity. I really wanted to know what was going on with the Masons.

But, eh, I was just going to have to wait. Maybe I’d get a chance to talk with them and catch up while the big tournament was going on.

Professor Dare also wasn’t there. She’d decided to spend the evening with Tangle and Kohaku somewhere else. Tangle wasn’t ready to face people yet, and Kohaku didn’t want to be around the school either. So Dare was keeping them company.

People who had family members were eating in one area while those of us who didn’t sat together with our teams. Which basically left me sitting with Columbus and Avalon, though Shiori had joined us and was sitting between Columbus and me. We were all enjoying dinner. Or rather… everyone else was.

Making a face, I announced, “I think Chef Escalan might be a little overwhelmed right now.”

Avalon looked to me, raising an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?” She asked the question while pointedly ignoring all the people who were staring at her, both other students and adults. If anything, having all these people around who had never met the girl had only increased the number of stares she was getting. I had thought that people might be too busy and distracted once the day got underway, but well, apparently not.

“Well,” I started before turning my plate around to show her, “mostly because my chicken looks raw. I don’t think it even made it to the stove.”

Shiori made a face, poking the raw chicken with her napkin. “Remind me not to share with you tonight. It looks like that chicken forgot it was fry-day.”

“Oh lord,” Avalon groaned. “You gave her an excuse to make chicken puns.”

Grinning, the other girl solemnly replied, “You should tell one of the teachers about it. After all, I’m sure you’re feeling pretty peckish.”

Throwing a napkin at her for that one, I picked myself up. “That was bad. It’s okay. I’ll just go trade it in. I’m sure it was a mistake. I mean look at all these people, he’s got to be overworked right now.”

Columbus shrugged then. “Maybe his age is just catching up with him, you know? From what Scout was saying before, his food was even better when they were little.”

“If his food used to be even better than it is now,” I pointed out, “I almost wish I came here years ago.”

Giving first Shiori, then Avalon each a quick kiss, I promised to be right back and headed in with my plate.

As loud and busy as the outside was, the actual cafeteria was pretty quiet. The tables still had some supplies on them from reports and exhibitions that been going on earlier, but for the most part, the place was emptier than I usually saw it during the day.

Holding my plate in one hand, I hesitantly stepped through the open doorway into the kitchen, giving a short knock against the door jam. “Hey,” I spoke up. “Um, Chef, sir? I know you’re really busy, and I don’t want to complain, but my food is kind of… not cooked?”

I had been in the kitchen a couple of times that year, but only very rarely, as it really felt like an off-limits place. Even more so than some of the places that really should have been off-limits, really. Chef Escalan guarded his domain like a king protecting his treasury.

The place was pretty big, like a restaurant kitchen. I knew that Escalan had assistants, though I’d rarely seen them. And none of them were there now. Which was weird, considering how much work this dinner was supposed to be. A few steps in, and I stopped to blink around the empty, mostly stainless steel interior. Everything was super clean, with cooking implements laid out over the counters, and ingredients ready to go. But nobody was there. The place was quiet.

“Ah, there you are.”

The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find the chef himself standing there by the door that I had just come through. He had his apron tucked under his arm. “I was almost afraid that you might have been silly enough to try to eat that raw chicken anyway. And wouldn’t that be egg on my face?” His words were light, but there was something about the way he said it, and the way he was looking at me, that made me take a reflexive step back as a strange chill ran through me. Wait… I might not have spoken to the chef directly that much, but I knew he had an accent. A heavy accent.

“You mean you didn’t cook it on purpose?” Even as I spoke, my hand was dipping into my pocket to hit the emergency alert on my phone that would call Tabbris, as well as let everyone know that something was wrong.

Escalan gave me a brief look as if I had insulted him. “Please. Your communications were blocked the moment you came in here. And yes, I did what I could to ensure that you did not eat any of the food.”

He gave me a slight smile then, a smile that renewed the chill that had run down my spine. “Because we can’t have you eating any of that very special feast. After all, I did promise that I would cause no harm to come to you.”

And then I knew the truth. I knew that there was nothing I could do for Chef Escalan. There with nothing I could do for him, because he was already dead, and likely had been for quite a while. He was dead, and someone else was controlling him, speaking through him. The dread and horror that I felt then was audible in my voice as I spoke a single word.

“Fossor.”

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Day After Day 39-02

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So Larees was with me as I walked across that cobblestone path, making my way with the Seosten woman around all the beautiful statues and fountains before reaching the building itself. Up close it was even more intimidating. The entire width of the front of the building was taken up by a wide flight of about twenty stairs to reach the midway point. There was a sort-of landing there with more gardens to look through that seemed to stretch all the way around the building before another twenty steps continued up, narrowing the whole way before reaching the enormous, fifteen-foot high double doors. Those were open already, while a couple Heretics stood on either side of them to let people in.

I didn’t recognize either of the doormen, which wasn’t exactly surprising. They each held enormous weapons. One was a sword that looked bigger than my entire body. Correction, it looked bigger than my dad’s entire body. The guy who held it was almost seven feet tall, and was holding the blade against the ground with his hand resting on the hilt. He gave me a brief nod as we approached, exchanging a brief look with his partner (who was only a few inches shorter than him and held an equally large axe) before turning his attention back to us. “Names, please.”

“Um, Felicity Chambers,” I replied before nodding toward the woman next to me. “This is Lara Rheese.”

“Guest of Gaia Sinclaire,” she clarified after taking a slow, deliberate drink from her flask.

The two men actually seemed to react more to my name than Larees’s. They barely acknowledged her at all. But in my case, they visibly rocked backward somewhat, giving me a much more thorough inspection before the bigger guy cleared his throat. “You can both go in.”

Once we had passed through the doors and made our way into what turned out to be a circular lobby area with twin staircases leading up either side to a landing and about a dozen doors scattered around both levels, Larees glanced to me. She produced something that I had to believe was a privacy spell of some kind before speaking. “Is it me, or were you a bigger deal to those guys than some woman they’ve never heard of that’s only here on their school headmistress’s say-so?”

“Yeah,” I muttered after glancing around at the small pockets of quietly murmuring people spread throughout the room, “I’m starting to wonder just how many people kept their memories of my mother. Or if I just have that much of a reputation already. It could be about my mom, or it could just be my own stuff.” Belatedly, I added, “And I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.”

Taking another swig, Larees offered me the flask. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure those big guys were intimidated by you. So I’d say whatever it is, you’re getting some kind of reputation.”

“Uh.” Pausing, I shook my head while waving the flask off. “No thanks. I’m not exactly a big drinker. And I have no idea what something that could affect a Seosten would do to to a human. Though the whole regeneration thing would probably–no, thanks. If nothing else, now’s just probably not the best time for experimenting.”

As Larees shrugged before taking a sip for herself, the others approached from the other side of the room where they had been waiting. Sean was first, and I had a second to appreciate how handsome he was with his hair slicked back. Like the rest of us, he was wearing his school uniform, while Vulcan, trotting alongside him, had a neat little bowtie.

“Hey, Flick,” Sean started before seeing exactly who was with me. “Who’s your–holy shit!” The last bit came out in a burst even as the boy’s own hand snapped up too late to cover his mouth. He stared, letting the others catch up before hissing, “Uhh, you’re–but you’re a–what–”

“He wants to know what you’re doing here.” That was Columbus, translating flatly while staying well away from Larees. His tone wasn’t exactly openly suspicious or anything, but it was clear that he had… let’s call it mixed feelings about the woman’s presence.

Quickly, I explained, “She’s here to speak to Doug’s grandfather Sulan. Sariel was going to come, but she doesn’t want Vanessa and Tristan’s mother returning to overshadow Rudolph’s funeral. So Larees came as Gaia’s guest.”

“Natural Heretic,” Scout quietly guessed after looking the woman up and down briefly.

“That’s the story,” Larees confirmed. “So don’t blow my cover or anything, okay? If could get pretty awkward if I have to fight my way out of here in the middle of a funeral. Oh, and uhh…” Belatedly, she looked toward Doug. “I heard you were close to him. So, I’m sorry for your loss.” Her tone had changed by that point, turning sincere as she offered her condolences. “And I want you to know that I didn’t come to make light of his death. I’ve seen too fucking much of it as it is. But I did want to look around and see what we’re dealing with, and beyond meeting with this Sulan guy, this was a… a decent way to see a lot of Heretics in one place.”

“It’s okay,” Doug informed her. “Most of these people didn’t really know Rudolph at all anyway, so what’s one more person? You–” He stopped, visibly flinching. “That sounded worse than I meant. I just–”

“Don’t worry about it.” Larees insisted. “You don’t have to explain anything. But I do want you to know that if you want me to leave and just meet Sulan somewhere else, you just say the word. This, this right here? It’s about your friend, about his life. And I don’t plan on being the one who fucks that up.”

There was a brief pause then before Doug shook his head. “Like I said, there’s plenty of people here who didn’t know Rudolph. Besides, if letting you get a look at the people around here, and meeting with Grandpa Sulan helps… well, Rudolph would’ve wanted it that way. He would have wanted his funeral to mean something, he’d want it to be worth something more than… this. Not just a bunch of people standing around making speeches about him when they never–”

He looked away then, choking up a little while reflexively reaching up toward his head. Only there was no hat there, so he just sort of awkwardly rubbed his hair.

I didn’t blame Doug for his reaction to all of this. The Heretics were mostly using Rudolph as a sort of… not quite a prop, but they were essentially saying that he was the last death from the infiltrators. There had been funerals for those who had died in that ‘final’ assault all week long, with Rudolph being the final and apparently grandest one. They were making a big deal out of it not because of who Rudolph was or anything he had done, but as ‘the final victim’ of the infiltrators that they believed they had destroyed. In a way, it was almost as much a celebration as it was a funeral.

So yeah, I really didn’t blame Doug one bit for his reaction. In fact, I was kind of surprised that he hadn’t hit anyone yet.

Professor Dare approached then, crossing the circular lobby to join us. If she was the least bit surprised by Larees’s presence, which I doubted to begin with, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad you all made it through,” she started softly before stepping back to gesture with an arm. “Come, I’ll show you where to sit. Douglas, your grandfather would like you to sit with him, but he said if you’d rather stay with your teammates until after–”

“It’s okay,” Doug replied simply. “I want to see him too. And–” He gave Larees a brief glance. “And I guess we should make introductions anyway.”

Dare nodded before leading us across the room. “We’ll take the others to their seats, then I’ll show you where Sulan’s box is.”

Box? I had a moment to wonder about that just before we went through one of the doors on the lower level. What we came into didn’t look like the meeting room part of a church. It looked more like… like the theater or an opera hall. There was a stage far below, with rows upon rows of comfortable-looking seats rising up toward the back where we were. Above, I could see the privacy booths or box seats or whatever they were that Dare had been referring to. There were a dozen of them, small balcony areas where important people could sit away from the crowd.

Jeez, what was this place being used for when there wasn’t a funeral to do? Was this an actual theater? Were there Heretic… performers? That made sense, but I was still a bit surprised. And it reminded me that there was still an awful lot about Crossroads as a society that I didn’t know.

Showing the rest of us to seats about halfway down, near the right-hand railing, Professor Dare asked, “Do you guys need anything else right now? It should be starting in about ten minutes.”

We shook our heads, and she went with Doug and Larees to show them to the balcony room where Sulan apparently was. I kind of wished that I was there for that conversation, but I supposed I’d just have to wait and hear about it later.

Which left me sitting there with Scout to my left, Columbus to my right, and Sean on the other side of him. Vulcan was sitting at attention on the floor right next to Sean, between his seat and the wall. We were only alone in that area for a minute or two, before Marina joined us, sitting beside Scout. A moment later, Shiori and Koren showed up with their team, escorted by their mentor, Andrew Bruhn. Both my niece and my girlfriend gave me brief looks before I nodded to show that I was alright.

Aylen was there too, her presence reminding me of that weird conversation we’d had before everything happened at the hospital. I still didn’t know what happened between her and Avalon. I was really going to have to ask about that eventually.

Leaning forward to see past Scout, I looked to Marina while whispering, “Do you know where Deveron is?”

Her head shook a little. “He said he was still helping Mr. Rendell. Do you… do you want me to text him and let him know you need him?”

She sounded a little hurt, and I knew why. Marina had to have figured out that we trusted Deveron more than her, that he knew more than she did. And she probably thought that it had something to do with what happened to the team that she was mentoring. There was no way she could understand that it wasn’t her fault, that no one blamed her for what had absolutely not been her fault. Unfortunately, there was no way I could explain that, no way I could make her understand without telling her too much. I didn’t know the girl enough to make that leap. I didn’t know anything about her or how she would react.

Still, seeing that look, I wanted to trust her. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. It was too much. But I didn’t have to add to it, so I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. He’ll get here when he gets here. I was just wondering.”

Sitting back, I reached into my pocket to touch my cell phone. My thumb found the power button, which I pressed quickly three times. As soon as I did that, the phone would send an alert to the phone that Gaia had given Tabbris. In normal cases, that would tell my partner that I suddenly needed her for something. But in this case, she was expecting it.

I felt her presence a moment later. As usual, it made me feel more complete, more of myself, just to have her there. Hey, partner.

We conversed for a minute while, outwardly, I simply sat there watching people file into their seats. I told her about Elizabet and Jophiel approaching me, and she was just as upset as I had been. She thought, just like I did, that the two of them could have saved Rudolph if they had stepped in instead of playing the middle ground.

I talked a little with the others as well, whispering back and forth until the main lights dimmed, and the lights on the stage came up. There were a bunch of people up there. I saw the entire Committee, a bunch of people that were either Parsons family members or their close friends, and other important figures.

And then the memorial began. There were talks from several people, speeches or eulogies or whatever one would call them. Some came from the people who were Rudolph’s family members. Doctor Therasis spoke for awhile, and my feeling of guilt just kept getting worse every time I thought of how confused and lost the man had to be feeling. He didn’t know what happened. He didn’t know the truth, why his grandson had really died. He knew… about as close as we could actually tell him, but that wasn’t enough.

He missed Rudolph. He missed his grandson. And the fact that we couldn’t tell him the whole truth about why the boy was dead just made me want to scream right there in the middle of the funeral. Seeing his sad eyes, seeing his grief, it… it was awful. It was all awful. Just sitting there, thinking about how much Rudolph’s family would miss him, it… it was a kind of pain that I couldn’t describe.

Then there were the people who clearly didn’t know anything about Rudolph. The political-type speeches that were all focused on how we should feel triumphant, because the threat against our society had been defeated, about how the intruders had failed just like every threat against Crossroads would fail. Those talks had nothing to do with Rudolph himself, and I couldn’t decide if that offended me more, or if it was the fact that they were wrong. The threat was still out there, and the more they talked about how it was over, the more I wanted to scream that they were idiots, because the threat was all around us, the threat was built into Crossroads at its core.

But that wouldn’t have gone over very well, so I just sat in silence and watched.

Then it was Gaia’s turn. The headmistress spoke toward the very end of the memorial. She moved to the front of the stage, standing there with her hands clasped behind her back. No microphone because she didn’t need it. Her words would reach everyone, no matter how quietly she spoke.

At first, the woman said nothing. She simply waited, silence slowly settling upon the entire room until you could have heard a pin drop. And then she started.

“Rudolph Parsons.”

Gaia paused, gaze moving slowly over the entire audience. It felt as though she made eye contact with every single person in the room. Then she said it again, loudly and clearly.

“Rudolph Parsons. I have come here to speak not of his death, but of his immortality.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and the woman allowed their reactions to continue for a few seconds before saying his name once more.

“Rudolph Parsons. I would like you all to remember the name. Because time and again, someone will ask you, or you will ask yourselves, why we devote our lives, often quite literally, to fighting monsters. And when that happens, remember the name of Rudolph Parsons. He died. But before he did that, he chose to stand by his classmates, his friends. He chose to stay with them, despite all the risks, because it was the right thing to do.

“He stayed. And he fought. And he died. But in so doing, Rudolph showed the kind of bravery and humanity that many of us should rightly stand in awe of. He faced a threat beyond what any student should ever be put before. But Rudolph Parsons did not run. He did not hide. It’s quite easy to be brave when you hold the kind of power and experience that many of us do. But it’s quite another thing to be brave when the thing that you are facing is exponentially stronger than you could ever truly imagine.

“Think for a moment. Think of being that boy. Be Rudolph Parsons. You are a child before a malevolent mountain. And you choose to stand against that mountain. You choose to climb it. And maybe you fail. Maybe you fall. But in so doing, you help others. You push others up that mountain. They climb it. They reach the top and triumph because you stayed, because you helped. You gave your life because it was the right thing to do. Could you do that? Could you stand against such a threat and surrender your life purely to help others?”

Gaia let the question stand for a moment, allowing the silence to make her point more clearly than any words could, before lifting her chin. “We teach our youth to fight. We turn children into soldiers because if we did not, those who come from the shadows to destroy us would find only children. But it would do us well to remember that they are children. And yet they choose to stand, often against threats far greater than they. They choose to stand, as Rudolph did.

“Rudolph Parsons was a child. And yet, he was brave. He was loyal. He was kind. Our world is worse for having lost him. But perhaps in so losing, it could also gain. If we remember him. If we strive to emulate his bravery and kindness, if we keep him alive in our deeds and our hearts… perhaps a part of him will live on.

“When you see someone suffering, when you see a threat, or a problem, or a danger and you wonder if it is your place to stop it, let Rudolph Parsons live on. When you see someone who needs help, even if they mean nothing to you, let him live on. When you see one who has fallen, friend or stranger, let him live on. Let him live through your actions, through the way you treat those around you. Let him live through your kindness and your bravery. Let him live on, and tell those who would ask why we devote our lives to slaying monsters that it is because Rudolph Parsons stood when he could have run. His immortality will be in your words, in your actions, in your hearts and in your choices. He will live forever if we remember him. Choose to remember him. Choose to remember Rudolph Parsons.

“Thank you all. And thank you, Rudolph. I, for one, will remember you.”

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