Gaia Sinclaire

Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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Interlude 35 – Gaia, Sariel, Lincoln, and Tabbris

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“This place is incredible.”

The voice of Lincoln Chambers, subdued through awe and reverence, echoed a little bit throughout the cavern that he now stood within alongside Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire and the Seosten known as Sariel Moon and her daughter, Tabbris. The cave-like chamber itself seemed to be made of a combination of polished white marble and silver-gold crystal, with a few veins of violet ore of some kind mixed throughout. The few stalactites and stalagmites strewn here and there were mostly the same purple color, though there were a few white and gold ones mixed in.

The chamber was about twice the size of the Seosten transport that sat directly in the middle of it, right where Gaia had sent the thing so that it wouldn’t be found by the Crossroads Committee.

Sariel was nodding. “It is very beautiful,” she announced quietly, while holding her daughter.

For her part, Tabbris gazed around in obvious awe. “What is this place?” she asked in a somewhat trembling voice, as if she was afraid of speaking too loudly and disturbing the atmosphere.

Gaia offered a small smile, that clearly had some pain hidden behind it. Pain and regret. “It was created to be a sanctuary. A place to rest, reflect… and plan. It will work well for this. It is safe.”

Lincoln watched her for a moment, before clearing his throat. “So,” he began, “how do we do this? How do we figure out who to let out and how?” Pausing, he added, “And for that matter, why am I even here? I’m pretty sure you could all do this yourselves without my help.”

Chuckling, Gaia bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Perhaps, but you should not sell yourself short. You are a very intelligent and perceptive man. And you are quite good at analyzing information. Better than many that I have worked with. There is no mystery as to why Joselyn would be attracted to you, Mr. Chambers. So we will be quite grateful for your assistance.”

Tabbris nodded her head quickly up and down. “Yeah, Mis— umm mist… I mean, umm… D-Dad.” Saying the word made the girl blush subconsciously, squirming on her feet before she found her resolve and met his gaze with another firm nod. “You’re really good at this.”

The sheer joy that Sariel clearly felt at her daughter actually finding someone to call her father, someone who accepted the title, was written across her face as she gave the little girl a nudge forward.

Tabbris quickly stepped that way, embracing the man tightly. It was a hug that Lincoln easily returned, his own smile broad as he stooped to pick her up. “Alright then,” he announced, “I guess the rest of the question remains, though. What are we supposed to do now? I mean, I assume we can’t just release all of them at once? They might be war prisoners, but we should still have an idea of which ones should be sent somewhere else and which ones might make for good allies.” It never entered his mind that any of them would be kept on ice indefinitely.  

Sariel started toward the transport then, before Lincoln raised a hand to stop her. “Actually,” the man started while setting Tabbris down for a moment, “could I… talk to you for a minute?” He gestured over toward the corner of the chamber where they might have a little privacy. Not that it mattered in Gaia’s case, as they could have been miles away and she could have heard them if she was of a mind to. But still. Habits were hard to break.

Biting her lip, the woman gave a slight nod, brushing her daughter’s hair before whispering for her to stay with Gaia. Then she walked over to the corner with the man.

Once they were far enough away, Lincoln turned to her. “First, I just want to thank you, again. If you hadn’t sent Tabbris to us, to my daughter, Flick would be a Seosten slave right now. You…” he swallowed hard. “You saved her from that. So thank you, so much. I can’t… I can’t tell you what it means to me that you made sure that I had my little girl, and that she was really my little girl.” His voice cracked just a little bit, and the man blinked away stubborn tears. “Thank you.”

Cringing a little at his gratitude, Sariel shook her head slightly. “I could not…” She choked, catching herself. “I could not let another of Joselyn’s children be taken. Not after–” Her eyes closed and she gave a brief shudder. “Not after what I was already responsible for.”

“Yeah…” Lincoln replied quietly, “that’s sort of the other thing I wanted to talk about, before we got too involved with all this other stuff. You need to do something for me.”

“Do something?” Sariel slowly looked up once more, frowning slightly. “There’s nothing I could do to make up for what happened, for what I helped bring to pass.”

“Make up for it?” Lincoln paused before shaking his head. “That’s not really something I can say, one way or another. It’s not up to me. But that’s not what I mean, anyway. I’m not talking about making up for it. I’m talking about moving on. I’m talking about being a better person now than you were before. And being a better person means being a healthier person.

“You,” he announced then, meeting her gaze, “need to talk to someone. I don’t know how the Seosten feel about therapy and all that, but believe me, as someone who thought his wife abandoned him and their daughter for a decade, it helps. It really helps.”

Sariel was staring at the man. “Therapy? I… I’m not–I don’t–”

“Yes, you are,” Lincoln interrupted. “And yes, you do. I know it might not feel like it. You might not feel like you’re worth the time and effort. But you are. And even if you don’t think so, you have a husband and three children who need you. This–everything you’ve been through, all that guilt you’ve been dragging around with you… you need to talk to someone about it.

“So promise me that you’ll go with me to talk to Gabriel, and let us find someone you can talk to, someone who actually has some idea of how to deal with this. If I know that man at all, I am absolutely positive that he’ll have someone in mind. Former Crossroads Heretics might not have all the same guilt that you do, but they’ll definitely have regrets about things they did in the past. Regrets that they’ll have needed to talk to someone about. That’s what I need from you. Before we go on with this, you promise that you’ll let him find you someone to at least try to help with everything you’re feeling.”

“I…” Sariel thought of her children, her beautiful, wonderful children. And she thought of Haiden. Slowly, the woman bowed her head in a nod. “Yes,” she agreed faintly. “I will… speak with someone.”

With that agreement made, the two of them returned to where Gaia was. Lincoln picked up Tabbris once more, before exchanging a brief look with the headmistress. For her part, Gaia simply smiled and gave him a slight nod of agreement with his actions.

By that point, Sariel was already walking up to the transport, ascending the ramp as it opened for her at a silent command from Gaia. “There is a prisoner manifest in the computer,” she announced. “It will tell us everything we need to know about the people inside and how safe it will be to release them.” Though her words were clinical, there was emotion in her voice at the thought of being able to free and interact with other people of her own species. People who, if they had been imprisoned by Kushiel, might actually feel the same way about Seosten methods as she did.

Gaia and Lincoln followed the woman up onto the transport. By that point, she had already moved back to the console at the rear. Her fingers danced over the controls, until a glowing holographic record sprang up in front of them. “Okay,” she announced then, “here it is.”

Shifting Tabbris a bit in his arms, Lincoln asked, “Actually, here’s a thought. How do we know we can trust what the computer says about them? I mean, if I was Kushiel, and thank God I’m not, I’d put fake information into that thing. Or just mix their data around. It’d make it harder to keep track of them, and much harder for someone to do… exactly what we’re doing right now.”  

“If it was just Kushiel, yes,” Sariel quietly confirmed. “But she had superiors to report to. Superiors who would have wanted to know where very specific prisoners were at any given time. She was sent war criminals and dissenters from all over the multiverse, and the people in charge of those prisoners could have, at any point, demanded an update on their progress.”

She glanced back to him then, her voice even quieter. “Plus, she needed to keep track of which treatments worked for which prisoners. She wanted to solve our pregnancy problems. Hard to do that if you keep mixing up who each prisoner is and what treatments they’re getting.”

Grimacing a little at that, Lincoln nodded. “Fair point. But it brings up another question.” His mouth opened again, before stopping as the man hesitated. His eyes glanced toward the girl in his arms as he tried to decide how to delicately ask what he needed to know.

“Are you pregnant, Mama?” Tabbris immediately asked for him. “That’s what Mi–D… Dad wants to know. Right?” She added the last bit with a curious glance toward the man.

Coughing, Lincoln nodded. “Err, yeah. Basically. If they were keeping you all pregnant, are you right now? Should we be making you sit down and take it easy? Actually, how many of the other prisoners here are currently, ah, expecting? Are we about to have a few Seosten babies too?”

For a moment, Sariel didn’t answer. She glanced away, her gaze on the floor as she took a deep breath before looking back to them. “No,” the woman replied quietly, her voice barely audible. “Very few of us are pregnant now. In preparation for the trip, Kushiel did not… our pregnancies were not restored after each of our most recent losses. Any that still are were simply those who happened to be actively pregnant earlier than the past couple of months and still maintained them.”

Lincoln was staring at her. “You mean… you mean you could all have been pregnant two months ago, and the ones who managed to keep the pregnancy longer than that is just a handful?” The horror in his voice was audible, and he clutched Tabbris to himself a little tighter.

Sariel’s voice was flat. “There is a reason that the Seosten are in the middle of population crisis, despite all of our technology and magic. No matter what we do, our developing children have a good chance of recalling to their closest genetic match and disappearing. Even cloning has been a failure, for the same reason. Birthing our children in artificial wombs does not stop them from recalling to their genetic parent. And as you have seen, it is very difficult to prevent that recall from happening in the best of cases. To stop a child from recalling to their parent is impossible. Hence all of our problems, and Kushiel’s decision to combat the population crisis through sheer numbers, impregnating other Seosten over and over again, constantly, for years.”

Horrified by that announcement, Lincoln opened and shut his mouth a couple times as he fought for something, anything to say to that. Then he stepped over, extending Tabbris, who opened her arms as Sariel accepted her. For a moment, mother and daughter simply stood there, together. Sariel’s eyes closed and she made a contented sound while her child clung to her.

Finally letting out a long breath as she opened her eyes, the Seosten woman gave a slight nod. “In any case, we need to know who is here, who we can trust enough to release now and work with. I’m afraid that… after everything that most of them have been through, it will be some time before they are able to help as much as you might hope for.”

Gaia interrupted then before the woman could continue with that thought. “Gabriel has already said that is people are prepared to take care of as many Seosten as can be safely released,” she promised. “He understands, as do his people, that all of you will need time to adjust.” She stressed the point of including Sariel in that, making it clear that she knew quite well that the woman wasn’t nearly as well as she had been trying to make herself seem through all of this.

Clearly flushing a little at that, Sariel turned back to the holographic display, setting Tabbris down in front of herself. “Here,” she announced softly, while touching one of the controls. As she did so, a light appeared over one of the nearby stasis pods, and the hologram in front of her switched to a long display of text. Clearly the record of the person within that particular pod.

“Her name,” Sariel began then while reading from the display, “is Larees of the Tleken Choir. She was arrested fifteen years ago for assaulting a superior officer on the planet of Divinstre, in defiance of orders to raze a city that had fallen into the control of local rebels. She spent seven years in a military brig, before being transferred to Kushiel’s care, where she’s been ever since. Fifty-seven attempted pregnancies in that time, six successes.”

Lincoln did a quick doubletake at that, mouth dropping open. His voice was choked. “Fif-fifty-seven… they impregnated her fifty-seven times in eight years and only six were carried all the way to birth?” If the man had been horrified before, this particular news almost destroyed him.

Sariel’s own voice cracked a little bit, despite her obvious attempt to keep herself calm and measured. “I… I’m afraid to say that is fairly average, though maybe slightly on the low end of successes. My own… stay with Kushiel was interrupted. After I rendered Larissa immune to possession in the wake of the Fomorian attack on her boat, I was transferred to Manakel’s custody and… care as he attempted to determine precisely how I had… done so.” The recollection of her time there made the blonde woman flinch a little bit, before she swallowed hard, clearly repressing it. “I… I spent several years there before being sent back to Kushiel to resume my previous imprisonment when Manakel was transferred to Earth to engage with his new mission.”

“Actually,” Lincoln began slowly then, “that’s a good question. How did you do that? I mean, if it’s something the rest of the Seosten can’t figure out, what the hell did you actually do? You said that it doesn’t depend on you not using your possession power on anyone else, right?”

Biting her lip then, the woman carefully replied, “It was mostly an accident, when it happened. The Fomorian would have killed Larissa, and I could not let that happen. So I yanked her back with me, through Seosten space. But it was a very long trip, and I… I could not hold onto her throughout it. I tried. I tried very hard to keep hold of her, but it was impossible. Yet… as I… well, mentally clung to her, something happened. My… my mental doppleganger, the one that I had created within my little girl, to teach and take care of her while she was too young to care for herself… there was a sort-of… echo or copy of it within my own head. Seosten memories are perfect, so everything that I put into my baby’s mind was still there in my own. And as I struggled to keep myself as attached as possible to Larissa, that echo was… deposited in my place. Essentially, I did the same thing to Larissa as I had done to Tabbris: I put a virtual, memory-based duplicate of myself in her mind.

“It was meant for Tabbris, of course. So the echo never… never fully awakened. It was never called on to teach or raise her, because it was in Larissa’s mind instead. As I realized what was happening, that I was pushing the virtual copy of myself into her mind, I gave it one instruction: to use a small portion of Larissa’s own magic whenever a Seosten attempts to possess her, to push itself into their mind just long enough to stop the possession. It happens over the course of nanoseconds. When a possession is attempted, my mental duplicate empowers itself with Larissa’s own magic, pushes itself into the attempted possessor’s mind, and commands them to stop trying to possess her. Mental magic.”

For a moment after that explanation, Lincoln just stared at her. “The weird part is,” he slowly announced, “I think I mostly understood that. I mean, it sounds like you got really lucky.”

“I did,” Sariel confirmed. “We all did. I did not expect that to happen, and as I said before, it required a lot to fall into place. I would have to create another new echo of my mind every time I wanted to do something like that, and I would have to have spent enough time possessing the person in question to actually know their body and their magic well enough to allow my echo to use it in that manner.”

“Indeed,” Gaia started then, “it was very lucky for everyone involved, particularly Mrs. Mason, that you were able to do that, even by accident. But for now, since that particular curiosity has been sated, I believe that we should return to our–”

In mid-sentence, the red-haired woman abruptly stopped short. Her gaze snapped up and to the side, mouth falling open as she blurted, “Oh no. No, no. Something is wrong.”

“Wrong?” Lincoln blinked at that, staring in confusion at the woman. “What happened? What do you mean? Is Felicity alright? What–”

At those words, Tabbris scrunched up her nose, clearly focusing on her own connection with the girl. As she did so, a horrified sound escaped her before she blurted, “Avalon! Manakel has Avalon!”

With that, the girl vanished. Whether it was a conscious or subconscious act on her part, she had instantly recalled to Flick, leaving the adults alone in that chamber to stare at each other.

Lincoln caught the Crossroads headmistress by the arm then. “What does that mean?” he asked quickly. “What happened?” he demanded.

Gaia, far from the powerful and untouched woman she normally appeared to be, looked as though she had been struck. Her voice cracked with emotion and fear that seemed foreign to the way she typically held herself. The very thought of losing the girl that she had adopted as her own tore through every last bit of emotional armor the woman had developed over her long life. “It means,” she began almost brokenly, “that we have to find her. We have to find her before the protection spell runs out.

“Because if we can’t… if we don’t… there will be nothing left to save her from Manakel.

“And she will die.”

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Mini-Interlude 63 – Son Of The Bogeyman

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Two Years Ago.

“What do you mean, he was expelled?! Do you know how much it cost to send that boy to that school?”

Sixteen-year-old Miles Cleary lay on his bed. The lanky, olive-skinned boy with shaggy black hair stared up at the ceiling of his room while he listened to his adopted parents ‘discussing’ his expulsion. Having been taken in by the two around ten years earlier when he was six, Miles still remembered being terrified every time either of them got a little bit upset that they would throw him back into the foster system that he had been a part of ever since his actual parents had up and disappeared when he had been only three.

Now, of course, the boy knew better. He knew his adopted parents, while they may not have been biologically related to him, still loved him nonetheless. They wouldn’t get rid of him just because they were upset. Which was what actually made this whole situation even harder, because he hated disappointing either of them.

He’d lost control, he knew that. Ronney Swank had deserved a good pop in the face for the way he had been bragging about manipulating Tracey Burge, a ninth grader, into a lot more physical of a relationship than she had been ready for, and then dumping the girl as soon as he’d gotten what he wanted. There was no question about it. He’d deserved to be hit. Miles didn’t feel bad about that part.

But somehow, he had done more damage than he had intended to. Even though he’d only hit the boy once, Ronney had been thrown backward into the lockers, which themselves had dented inward. The boy’s nose and jaw had been broken by that single punch, and he had damage to his back and arm from the impact against the lockers. He was going to be in the hospital for a while.

Needless to say, the school had expelled Miles immediately, and there was talk of their family being sued by the Swanks. Which was just… fantastic. Just really fucking fantastic.

With a long, heavy sigh as he stared at the ceiling, the boy muttered mostly under his breath, “The worst part is, I’m pretty sure I’d still hit him if I had the chance to do it all over again.”

“Being willing to stand up for those who are being mistreated should never be considered the ‘worst part’ of anything, Mr. Cleary.”

The sudden, unexpected voice made Miles jerk upright with a yelp. He spun on his backside, staring at the figure who stood in his doorway. There was a tall, beautiful red-haired woman there, who wore a pristine black suit. Her eyes were kind and soft as she regarded him.

“Wh-what–who–?” Scrambling to his feet, Miles quickly brushed himself off. “Who… who are you, a cop? Where’s my mom and dad? I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here talking to me without them. Mom?” At the last, he raised his voice to call past the woman. “Dad?”

Holding up one hand, the woman gave a slight shake of her head. “It’s alright, Mr. Cleary. I am not a police officer. My name is Gaia Sinclaire, of Crossroads Academy. And… it is best that we speak privately right now. Because what I have to say involves your birth parents. And an opportunity that is solely yours to choose whether to accept or not.”

Blinking once at that, Miles squinted at the woman in confusion. “My birth parents? What do you know about– Crossroads Academy? Another private school? Oh boy, are you ever barking up the wrong tree. Trust me, miss, you definitely don’t want anything to do with me. Besides, my parents aren’t gonna pay for another private school after– wait, how did you even get in here? My… they wouldn’t let you up here without being right with you. And what do you mean, an opportunity? What’s going on?”

Offering him a small smile, the woman–Gaia Sinclaire, started with, “I assure you, I am most certainly not ‘barking up the wrong tree’. And you may wish to sit down for the rest of this, Mr. Cleary.

“Because it it quite a story.”

*******

One Year Ago

“Aight, Miles, we’re all here.” Standing on the beach of Crossroads Island about as far from the actual school as they could possibly get, Kaleigh Ruffin spread both arms out while staring at him, the green-trimmed uniform shirt slipping a bit to show her pale, freckled arms. “What was the big emergency that we had to come all the way out here for?”

For a moment, Miles regarded the girl, as well as the rest of his team here at Crossroads. They had been a group like this for almost a year by this point, and had been through quite a lot.

There was Kaleigh, of course. The red-haired, feisty little girl had an incredible temper that was matched only by her generous heart. Then there was her quieter African-American roommate in a white-lined security uniform, Emily Perry; Miles’ own roommate, the Heretic-born Slavic-looking blond boy Royce Jacoby in his purple-lined uniform; and finally, Jason Trips and Chas Mena, wearing red and blue accented uniforms respectively. The last two were not related at all (as was easily noted by Chas’s heavily Hispanic features as opposed to Jason’s tanned, yet definitely white ethnicity), though they might as well have been. Within the first day of being made roommates, the two had practically been finishing each other’s sentences.

Miles himself, in his own red-trimmed uniform, completed the group. And now his five teammates were standing in a semicircle, waiting for the boy to explain why he’d made them come all the way out here. But instead of speaking right away, he took a long, deep breath. This was hard. Even harder than he’d thought it would be, and he’d been trying to plan out how to have this exact conversation for… a long time. Even knowing that he had an out if it didn’t go well, that Gaia wouldn’t let things get out of control didn’t really help that much. Yes, if they reacted badly to what he was going to say, it wouldn’t endanger everyone else who was in his position.

But he would still know that it had gone wrong. And if it did, if Gaia had to step in and undo this conversation so that they wouldn’t remember it, would he ever be able to look at these guys the same way again?

“Dude?” That was Chas, the boy frowning at him as he reached out to poke Miles. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Jason agreed, “you look like you’re about to tell us that you’re a time-traveler from the future, sent back to stop the world from ending and–wait, you’re not, right? Because the further that sentence went on in my head, the more I realized that it’s not exactly completely impossible in this place. And if you are a time-traveler, please tell me indestructible robots are not involved.”

Smiling despite himself, Miles promised, “I am not a time-traveler, and as far as I know, there’s no apocalyptic future or indestructible Austrian robots.”

“Too bad,” Royce lamented with a low sigh as the blonde boy shook his head. “Arnie was hot in those first couple of movies. Those biceps, mreow.”

Despite himself, Miles forced himself to speak up before they could all get too offtrack. The truth was, he would very much have rathered just have an innocent, goofy conversation about nothing important. They were all good at that.

But his team deserved to know the truth about him, about his past. They deserved a chance. And he’d been putting this all off for too long as it was.

So, before they could all get distracted once more, he announced, “I know who my parents are.”

That got their attention. Blinking at him, Emily was actually the first to speak (which just showed how surprised her much more boisterous roommate was). “What… you mean your real parents? You found out who they are?”

Grimacing at the reminder of his months-long lie, Miles weakly admitted, “Actually, I’ve… sort of known who they were, who my father was, since before school started. Since Headmistress Sinclaire came to recruit me, actually.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Kaleigh was shaking her head. “What do you mean, Gaia came to recruit you? The headmistress herself? What’d you do to merit such an important recruiter? What, was your dad some secret Heretic hero or something?”

“Yeah, man, why would you say you didn’t know who they were?” Jason asked, frowning in confusion. “What’s the big deal? And what does that have to do with making us come all the way out here? You didn’t make us come out here just so you could tell us that you’re embarrassed about your real parents being dicks or something, did you?”

“No, no, I–” Miles sighed then, folding his arms tight against his chest while trying to remind himself to just push on. Tell them the truth. He had to tell them the truth. “Okay, look, I’m gonna tell you guys. But you have to promise to just stand here and listen, alright? You have to let me get through it. You remember our secret from a couple weeks ago, at the–”

“The thing that we all swore we weren’t going to talk about?” Royce suddenly cut in. He was frowning at the boy. “Remember, we said we’d never bring it up, never talk about it, never discuss what we did.”

“Yeah, well…” Wincing, Miles took a second to look over each of their curious gazes before announcing, “We have to talk about it after all. Sorry, we just do.”

Chas pointed a finger at him. “Look man, she was pregnant. I don’t care what’s going on, I ain’t killing a pregnant woman, you understand? I didn’t think this was gonna be a thing with you or what it has to do with your real parents or whatever, but they shoulda done a little more research before they sent us out to kill a Stranger that happened to be pregnant.”

“I’m not upset that we didn’t kill the pregnant woman!” Miles denied quickly. “Damn it, I just don’t know how to–”

Kaleigh was making a face as she put in, “Was that weird? I mean, whatever… offspring or whatever she has are gonna be evil when they grow up anyway, right? I mean… I mean…” She trailed off, gesturing vaguely with a confused look.

“Then let ‘em grow up and be evil so that someone can kill them,” Chas retorted. “Like I said, I ain’t killing no pregnant woman, and I ain’t killing no kids. That’s like… Eden’s Garden stuff.”

“But if the offspring kills someone else in the meantime,” Jason questioned, “does that make it our fault? I mean, we could’ve stopped it before anything bad happened.”

“I’d say killing a kid is pretty bad,” Royce pointed out. “And that’s getting really deep into the ‘would you kill Hitler in his crib’ stuff, except we don’t know…. I mean, we do know that they’re evil because they’re monsters. But–I mean…” He, like Kaleigh, trailed off with a confused look.

It was a look that Miles knew well. He’d seen it on all of his team’s faces since the moment that they had all decided, together, to spare the pregnant Stranger that had been one of the last targets of their most recent hunt. They had let her escape, standing at the edge of the building to watch her flee. Any single one of them could have put a stop to it, could have killed her. They’d had plenty of time, and her back had been to them. For those twenty seconds or so as the woman fled over the lot and through the field, they could have ended it and killed her.

They didn’t. And that had been what had convinced Miles to tell his team the truth. Except it was proving harder to get the words out than he had anticipated, and the rest of the team was already deep in conversation about the woman they had released. Apparently despite their initial promise to never talk about it, they had all been thinking about it a lot. And he had opened up the floodgates.

Still, he had to get through this. There wasn’t going to be a better time, because if he lost his nerve again, he might never regain it. But every time he opened his mouth to say what he needed to say, someone else would speak and the whole group would jump to another tangent. That continued for another minute or so until the pressure boiling up inside of Miles grew to be too much and… popped.

“My dad is the Bogeyman!”

Well, that got their attention. The other five members of his team all went completely silent, staring at him in confusion. Finally, it was Royce who managed, “I… what?”

Tilting his head back to stare at the sky, Miles let out a long breath through pursed in a half-whistle before returning his gaze to his team… his friends. “Okay, here’s the short version. When my mom, my real mom, was a kid, she thought there was a monster in her room at night. You know, under the bed, in the closet, hiding in the corner, the usual. She was a kid, like, maybe nine or ten? So she’d call in her dad and he’d do the rounds, but never find anything.”

“Considering where we are and what we do,” Jason put in then, “why do I doubt that there wasn’t anything to find?”

Grimacing, Miles gave a slight nod. “While that was going on, Mom met this kid around her age in the back field behind their house. They were pretty isolated, without very many neighbors. She had to take the bus to get to school. So she didn’t meet a lot of kids her age near the house. His name was Caleb, and he said that his family was some kind of weird religious isolationist sect that lived way back in the woods.

“So, Mom and this kid started playing together every day after school. Meanwhile, at night, she would be convinced there was a monster in the room and her dad had to check it all the time. But, again, he never found anything. That went on for a few months.”

Seeing that he had his teammates’ rapt attention, Miles bit his lip and hesitated slightly before pushing on. “One night, Mom woke up. It was about two in the morning or so, and there was this figure standing over the bed. He was a big guy. Even bigger than her dad. Mom screamed, but the big guy put his hand down against her mouth. It was so big, it almost covered her entire head.

“It took a minute, but Mom recognized him finally. He was this farmhand guy that her family gave some work to a few months earlier. His name was Grant, and all Mom knew was that he had suddenly stop working at the house. She didn’t know at the time that it was because he had been looking at her the way he shouldn’t look at a kid, and her dad had caught him and fired him on the spot.”

Emily was the one who found her voice first. “He should’ve killed the piece of shit.”

Miles nodded. “No kidding. But now the guy was there, he had his hand over her mouth and he started to tell her… Well, point is, he started to tell her the bad things he wanted to do. And then… well, he screamed.”

Kaleigh blinked. “He screamed?”

“Yuuuup,” Miles confirmed. “Mostly because there was this furry little half-human, half-monkey figure wrapped around his leg with his teeth digging into the guy’s thigh while the claws on his left paw were buried in the his crotch.

“So they stumbled around a bit, and this guy kept trying to kick the monkey thing off his leg. Then Mom screamed too and jumped on the guy’s back. They thrashed around a bunch, and then hit the big mirror that was up against the wall. There was blood everywhere, and the guy finally got free and took off. A second later, the monkey thing went after him and Mom was alone again.”

“Where the hell were her parents in all this?” Chas demanded.

“Tied up, it turned out,” Miles replied before adding, “Mom had to call 911 because she couldn’t get the ropes off by herself. It was this whole big thing, and the cops didn’t believe her about the little monkey thing.

“Anyway, a few nights later, she got that same feeling about something being under her bed. Only this time, she didn’t call for her dad. She leaned down and looked for herself.”

Royce lifted his chin, his voice confident. “It was that kid. Caleb. He was the monkey thing.”

Miles nodded. “Yeah. Turned out he was a Stranger. Specifically, he was something called a Kejjerfiet. Or, as a lot of people know them…”

“Bogeymen,” Kaleigh finished for him.

“Exactly,” Miles confirmed. “Except the bogeymen, or at least the Kejjerfiet version of them, aren’t there to eat or hurt the kids.”

“Excuse me?” Jason was staring at him, as were the others.

“It’s true,” Miles quickly insisted. “Kejjerfiet actually see themselves as sort of… bodyguards to human children. I’m not sure why, but they do. The homes that they stay in are basically places where they believe that bad things are going to happen without them. I think it has something to do with sensing evil intentions in an area or whatever.”

“No, no, no, no.” Jason’s head was shaking. “No, we can’t listen to this. This is fucked up, Miles. You can’t be serious. We can’t stand here and listen to him trying to say this shit!”

Kaleigh snapped, “We already let the pregnant woman go, Jace. I think we’re way beyond just accepting exactly what they tell us. We’re too far in this to say he’s the crazy one. So just… listen to him, I guess.”

Giving the girl a grateful nod, Miles continued. “The point is, they hide out in a room until the evil thing shows itself, then they kill it. Or at least stop it. Usually without the kid remembering that anything happened. Except in this case…”

“Blood,” Emily realized. “She was turned into a Natural.”

Once again, Miles nodded. “Yeah, so Caleb told her the truth. He told her all about Strangers and humans, and about how his parents had been killed. He’d been wandering, trying to find a place to go when he came across her family‘s house, and he sensed the evil inside. So he had set himself up. Because it’s what his parents would’ve wanted him to do, even though he was too little to really do what he should’ve been able to.

“Point is, he tried. And now he was there to help teach Mom how to use her powers. He showed her how to change forms into that furry, clawed thing, how to blend into even the smallest amount of shadow to turn almost invisible, how to teleport small distances through shadows, and more. They basically taught each other.

“Oh. Oh my God,” Kaleigh blurted. “When you said that your dad was the Bogeyman, you were really—”

“Really serious, yeah,” Miles interrupted with a quick nod. “They grew up together. They spent a bunch of time learning from and teaching each other. And when they were old enough, they fell in love. Eventually, they had me.”

Everyone seemed enraptured by the story. As he trailed off, Royce quickly blurted, “Well shit, then what happened?”

Miles shook his head. “That’s the thing, I don’t know. See, a lot of that I got from Gaia when she came to recruit me. And the specifics about that night I got from my Edge vision. But after a certain point, Gaia didn’t know what happened. She never found out. My parents just disappeared and I ended up in foster care.”

Jason was shaking his head. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, great story, but it can’t be true. First of all, Strangers are monsters, not daddies. Second of all, they don’t protect little kids. They eat them. Third of all, even if you were half Stranger, you couldn’t be a Heretic. It just doesn’t work like that.”

“Gaia changed it. I don’t know how,” Miles informed them, “but she did. She changed the Edge so that it would let people like me become Heretics. Because she wants people like you to understand that they’re not all evil. We are not all evil.”

His team was staring at him, open-mouthed. None of them could find their voices for several long, torturous seconds. Miles was terrified that he had guessed wrong, that they would react badly. He wouldn’t have blamed them, really. Not after the things they had been told about Strangers.

Royce eventually raised both hands. “This is insane. I’m sorry, it just–it’s insane! You want us to believe that, what, you’re part monster, only monsters aren’t always monsters? Sometimes they’re good? That’s just–just… fucked up, dude.”

Emily interrupted. “Like Kaleigh said, we let the pregnant woman go.”

“But that’s different!” Royce insisted. “I mean, she was… the kid was–it’s just… it’s different. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” He sounded far more like he was pleading than actually stating a fact.

Miles met his gaze for a moment before slowly moving his eyes over all of them. “You tell me,” he replied. “Is it different? Am I a monster because my dad wasn’t human? Or was the monster the person, the human being, that my dad saved my mom from? Is that piece of shit better just because he’s human, than the person who saved an innocent child from the evil shit he would’ve done to her? If there can be evil humans, humans who do… who do that to innocent children, then who’s to say there can’t be good Strangers? I mean, if humans were all judged by the worst of our species, maybe there’d be a whole species out there dedicated to wiping us out too.”

For a few long seconds, he didn’t know how they would end up taking that. The rest of his team just looked at each other, their expressions impossible to read. He saw some doubt, some confusion, even some anger. And more. There were so many emotions there that he couldn’t hope to keep track of or identify them all.

Finally, it was Jason who spoke up. “Dude, you… you sort of lied to us for most of a year. But I uhh… I guess I understand why.”

“But what do we do now?” That was Chas, shaking his head quickly. “I mean… you want us to believe that–I mean, maybe your dad was–Damn it, I don’t know. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, we let that woman go and everything got so goddamn confusing. Now there’s this? I mean, you already said that Gaia knows what’s going on, but shouldn’t we tell… I dunno, somebody?”

“Tell them what?” Emily put in. “You know what most of the others would do if they found out about him. I can’t do that. We can’t do that.”

The group exchanged brief looks once more, before nodding. “We won’t tell anyone,” Kaleigh announced for the group as a whole. “I dunno about this whole… everything you’re saying, but we owe you that much at least. You’re… you’re one of us.”

“She’s right,” Royce agreed. “I don’t know how I feel about it either, but… you’re not a monster, man. So maybe…” He hesitated, clearly torn for a few seconds before settling on, “Maybe we just stay quiet about the whole thing, at least until we find out more.”

“Find out more?” Miles asked, frowning a little.

“Sure,” Chas confirmed. “You said you didn’t know what happened to your parents, right? So let’s find out. Let’s try to find out what happened to them. And while we’re at it… maybe we’ll find out more about these… not-evil Strangers. You say it’s true, I… I dunno. But after that pregnant woman and what you said… maybe we could at least investigate it. We could find out more.

“Because quite frankly, if you’re right, then this school is the most fucked up place on the planet.”

*****

Present Day

 

The reptilian man lunged toward Miles with a deep-throated snarl, showing deadly teeth while raking at him with a handful of wicked claws. Claws which, if they had connected, would have left the boy paralyzed just long enough to experience every agonizing moment of being eaten alive.

Fortunately, Miles had no intention of allowing that to happen. Flashing a brief, toothy smile of his own, the boy waited a half second for the reptile to fully commit himself, before abruptly sidestepping as his right arm snapped out. As he did so, the metallic gauntlet on that arm seemed to disintegrate, breaking apart into hundreds of separate, tiny parts. In that brief instant, the broken-up parts of the gauntlet were identifiable as tiny robotic bees, their mechanical wings flapping furiously to create a high-pitched buzzing sound. In that same second, however, the separated bees rejoined once more. This time, however, instead of forming a gauntlet, they became a long, curved sword. The same honeycomb-like hexagon patterns that had been built into the gauntlet were present within the blade itself, which was soon stained by the dark green blood of the reptile-man as he beheaded himself with his own lunge.

That was Miles’ weapon: a cyberform that was actually an entire swarm of tiny robot bees, which could shape themselves into various weapons and tools for him to use. They were controlled through the ‘queen bee’, which was attached to his ear similarly to a Bluetooth device that essentially read his mind and sent his commands to the rest of the swarm.

Staggering a little with a gasp of pleasure as his kill-aura sprang to life, the eighteen-year-old boy barely managed to catch the sound of footsteps rushing up behind him. They were coming too quickly for him to turn, the figure already almost right on top of him.

Thankfully, he didn’t need to. A simple thought made the armor that covered his left arm and back break apart into a swarm of tiny flying insects as well. Rather than immediately forming together into something else, however, this swarm all turned their (literal) collective attention to the incoming threat. Each fired a tiny, yet painful jolt of energy. Taken apart, it would have been almost nothing. The ‘sting’ from one of the bees was enough to be painful for a child, yet easily ignored by anyone of any actual strength.

But together, the combined sting shot from the entire group caught Miles’ would-be attacker straight in the chest and knocked them to the ground, twitching and moaning as their body’s muscles alternately spasmed and froze. It kept them busy long enough for the boy to turn and see another of those lizard-men. This one had been holding a spear, which he grabbed for a second before Miles put his own sword through the figure’s chest, ceasing both his attacker’s random twitchy spasms, and his attempt to swing that spear up.

Once more, that aura sprang up, but Miles didn’t actually care about the distant pleasurable feeling. He was too busy cursing repeatedly.

“What?” Royce, jogging up to him from across the warehouse where they had been fighting, blurted. “What happened? Wh–aww shit, they’re dead too? Damn it. Tell me we got something out of them, man. Two months just tracking down this one lead about what happened to your parents, tell me it wasn’t all for nothing.”

“It wasn’t for nothing,” Miles confirmed, while his sword and the swarm of individual bees all reformed back into their default form of his armor. “But it wasn’t enough. I got a name. That’s it, just one name.”

“A name?” Kaleigh asked as she and the others, all worn from the fight they had just been through, asked. “What do you mean? What name?”

“The name of the monster that has my parents. Or had them, I dunno.” Miles frowned thoughtfully. “It wasn’t clear. The point is, he’s the next step to finding them. There was something about a… a fight club or an arena or something, I’m not sure.”

“A arena for Alters and Heretics?” Chas demanded. “Who the hell is this guy, Michael Vick?”  

“Worse,” Miles replied softly, giving a long, low sigh. “He’s a necromancer.

“A necromancer named Fossor.”

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Homecoming 35-06

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For a few long, agonizing seconds, no one said anything. I was pretty sure most of us weren’t even breathing. A pin could have dropped and I was pretty sure that even those of us without enhanced hearing would have noticed.

It was Deveron who finally made the first move. But he still didn’t say anything. Instead, he straightened up a bit, opened his mouth as if he was going to speak, but stopped. His face twisted, and I saw anger there. I saw rage. The kind of rage that had been building for half a century. His hands closed into fists, and I saw that pitch black obsidian armor extend over them. It didn’t cover his face, however. His face continued to show that anger.

He took one step. One step forward. I wasn’t sure what he was planning to do. He probably wasn’t planning anything. But he took the step. Then I was there. I put myself in his way. I saw his mouth open, then he stopped. For almost ten full, long seconds, the two of us stood in silence.

Or at least, we stood in outward silence. There was a hell of a lot of silent communication going on between us. He was angry, and he had every right to be. But he couldn’t take that anger out on Sariel, no matter how at fault she had been. She had already paid enough for her sins.

Through those long seconds, neither of us spoke. And neither did anyone else. Heavy silence prevailed as he stared at me, and I stared right back at him.

And then he walked away. Literally, turning on his heel, Deveron walked away. I could tell that each step was an effort for him. His children had been taken from him. That had led to his wife being taken from him. Even if Sariel hadn’t meant for it to happen, that probably didn’t matter so much to him right in that particular second.

But it mattered enough for him to walk away. That was probably the only reason that he walked away. That was the only thing that stopped him from literally flying into a blind rage and throwing himself at the woman, whether I was there or not. And even then, I was pretty sure that it took everything he had, all of his willpower, just to keep walking.

Abigail and Wyatt hesitated. The two of them glanced to one another, and then looked back to Sariel. Lots of emotions crossed both of their faces, mostly Wyatt’s. Sariel, accidentally or not, had been at least partially responsible for the way he had been raised. The things that he had gone through, the pain of his childhood and all that had led to his incredible level of paranoia was partially the fault of the woman in front of him.

Abigail, meanwhile, had led a more normal and less terrible life. She had at least been given to a nice family in the regular, Bystander world. But even then, it meant that she had never known her real parents. The person she might have been, the family that she might’ve had, was taken away. And again, it had been, to at least some small extent, the fault of Sariel Moon.

Then, also without speaking, the two of them turned and moved to follow their father. They walked away, just like he had.

Theia looked torn, as if she almost kept saying something and then stopping. I somehow had the feeling that Pace was actually talking her out of speaking up. Strangely enough, it was actually that moment, the realization that she was actually listening at least somewhat to the girl that she had possessed, that convinced me she was being truthful about her claims.

Having moved beside me once more at some point in all of that, Miranda slowly breathed out. Her hand squeezed my arm, and I felt her tension. Or maybe it was just my own, since I had a lot of it to go around.

Throughout those tense few moments, Sariel had simply stood there as if she was ready to accept any retaliation that they chose. She made no move to protect herself or flinch away. Once the three of them had finally settled on simply walking away, her shoulders slumped a little, and her eyes closed. I saw her mouth the words, I’m sorry, though no sound emerged.

It was Gaia who finally spoke, though I hadn’t even seen her arrive. “Our actions,” the headmistress began in a quiet voice, “very often have unpredicted consequences.”

“I should have predicted that,” Sariel insisted. Her voice was flat, though I could see the pain in her eyes as she opened them to look that way. “I should have predicted what would happen, what he’d do. I should have known. I was blind. Because I would never have put such young children in that kind of situation, I didn’t entertain the idea that he would. For me, it was a mistake. For them…” Her eyes moved to where Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail had been, and she visibly cringed once more. “For them, it destroyed everything.”

God, what could I say to that? What could anyone say to that? The whole situation was just so terrible. She clearly hadn’t meant what happened. Ruthers had taken her whispers in his ear completely the wrong way, far beyond what she intended. At least, and this was an awful thought in and of itself, but at least with Deveron, she had been targeting a combatant. Not children. But that didn’t make it any better for the people that her suggestion had affected. Hell, it could have been argued that her suggestion had led to the capture of my mother, which itself led to the continuation of the Heretic efforts to genocide every Alter species on Earth. What could possibly be said to make that any better, for anyone involved?

Nothing. The truth was that anything I could possibly have said would have sounded like meaningless prattle. Empty words with empty sentiment. There was no easy answer to this, no simple good guy or bad guy. Sariel hadn’t intended what happened, and she had more than paid for any unintended consequences. And yet, Deveron and the others had every right to be angry. They had every right to not forgive her. Fuck. This was… complicated.

Vanessa and Tristan had moved to stand next to their mother, as did Tabbris. My dad stepped up behind me, putting one hand on my shoulder and one hand on Miranda’s. From a glance toward his face, it didn’t look like he had any idea what to say about this either. I didn’t even know exactly how much he understood about the situation. But given what I knew of my father and how long he had been here, I was willing to bet that he had a pretty firm grasp of it.

“Sometimes,” Gabriel, who had appeared with Gaia, started, “the only thing that you can do, is give people time. And they might never forgive even unintended consequences. That’s their right.”

Sariel’s voice was barely audible. “I know,” she whispered, before kneeling. Wrapping both arms around all three of her children, she pulled them close, hugging them tightly. I saw her whisper something to them, but couldn’t make it out. I didn’t really want to. Whatever she was saying, it was meant for them, not for me. And the brief glimpse I had of the confusion on all three of their faces made it clear that… well, they needed to hear something from their mother.

Partway through that, Gaia and Gabriel moved to speak with them. Which meant that they were probably going to be busy for a few minutes, at least. Swallowing hard, I looked over to Miranda. The other girl was staring at me, biting her lip. When our gazes met, she asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I started, before shaking my head. “No.” I sighed then. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.” Glancing to my father, I asked, “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?”

“To be honest,” he replied simply, “I don’t know. Sorry, kid. It’s just… sometimes there is no villain. Just a bunch of heroes running headlong into each other on their way to opposite goals.”

I started to say something to that, but movement caught my eye. Theia was approaching me of all people. Or, wait, maybe she was approaching Miranda, since she’d actually apparently spent time with her. Yeah, that made more sense.

For a moment, she didn’t say anything, though it looked like she wanted to. Instead, the girl seemed to be having some kind of internal debate with her host that carried on for almost a minute before she carefully asked, “Pace-I would like to know… if the Roxanne girl is alive.”

“Alive?” I nodded. “Yeah, she’s alive. She’s doing–uh, pretty well, actually. I swear, if she stacks one more survivability power, she–wait, why are you asking?” For a second, I’d forgotten who I was talking to, and now I squinted at her a bit uncertainly.

Her response was a small shrug. “We have been talking, and after Pace-I’s words, Theia-I feels… responsible for what was done. It was… maybe not very… Pace-I says it was bad. Abigail said it was bad.” She smiled then, that feral, dangerous and unhinged smile. “Abigail is smart. She knows many things. Right and wrong things.”  

For a moment, I just stared at her, unsure of what to say to that. Pace and Abigail had told her it was bad? I–it was like she was a little kid who didn’t know a thing about actual morals or ethics or anything, and was learning all of them from scratch. Learning, apparently through a combination of actually listening to what her host said, and from my older sister.

And yet, she still wouldn’t tell us who Manakel was possessing. She wouldn’t tell us what we really needed to know. Instead, she was holding that back until she got what she wanted. Which, I supposed, made sense in her mind. Given what I knew about Kushiel, being her daughter, particularly as a Lie, had probably been really hard. I kind of doubted that Theia had had any actual role model or anything while growing up. Having something important that someone else really needed and holding onto it until she got something she really needed in return clearly made perfect sense to her. Manakel’s identity was her bargaining chip, and she would obviously cling to that with her dying breath until she got what she wanted.

This whole situation was just plain screwed up, to be honest. Totally screwed up. I couldn’t follow my half-siblings and their father because I had no idea what to say to them. I couldn’t go to comfort my new adopted sister, her mother, and her half-siblings because I had no idea what to say to them. And now I had a more-than-half crazy Seosten girl who was cooperating with her own host (whom she happened to be trapped inside of) trying to talk to me, and I had no idea what to say to her either.

Finally, I just settled on, “Whenever she gets back here, you two should talk.”

Behind me, Dad cleared his throat. “I take it,” he started slowly, “you’re one of the… people who have been trying to kill my daughter and one of her girlfriends all year long.”

“Yup!” Showing utterly no shame, Theia beamed at my father instead, giving him two thumbs up. “Your daughter’s pretty resilient. You should be proud. Theia-I am very good at killing people.”

Dad seemed completely disarmed and confused by that response, clearly having no idea what to say to it. His mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out.

“I know.” Miranda was nodding at both of us. “That’s my reaction to a lot of what she does too. But she’s serious about helping. I mean, she won’t tell us what she knows about Manakel and all that, but she’s still be useful to have around. And, you know, better to be with us than against us.”

Theia was nodding right along with that, brightly chiming in, “That’s true, we are a very annoying enemy to have. We wouldn’t want to fight us.” Her eyes crossed briefly as if she was trying to follow the logic in her own head before she gave a slight nod of satisfaction. “Definitely not.”

Giving up on knowing what to say to her, or them, or whatever, I instead turned to Miranda. “What was going on that made it take so long for you to get here? And why didn’t Seller come with you? Abigail said you guys were dealing with something, and that Wyatt left to help you handle it so you could finish up sooner.”

Grimacing, Randi shook her head. “Just a little enchantment problem that was faster with Wyatt’s help. We’ve been looking for solutions to Theia and Pace’s situation, which sort of… requires breaking into a few places that we’re not supposed to be anywhere near. Secure locations that are magically locked. We sorta… tripped a security measure in this guy’s vault and needed Wyatt to help deal with the situation. Seller’s finishing up with that. Plus I don’t think he feels all that comfortable coming here for some reason.”

Blinking at that, I tilted my head to squint at the other girl. “Are you saying you have adventures and a whole life when I’m not there to see it? I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Randi stuck her tongue out at me. “Oh, so sorry. You’re totally right. We’ll make sure not to let anything important happen unless you’re there next time.”

Giving her a firm nod, I replied, “Good. Make sure you remember that.” Then I just hugged her tight. Because as complicated and hard to deal with as things might have been, she was still my friend, and interacting with Randi had a way of making everything better.

As we separated, Theia looked between both of us, then asked conversationally, “Are you going to kiss?”

“What?!” The high-pitched squeak burst from me, while I heard it in stereo from the girl beside me. Giving Miranda a brief glance, I turned back to the strange Seosten. “What the hell–why do you–why would we–what?”

“You are sexually attracted to females, like Pace-I am,” Theia innocently replied. “And apparently males, though we have seen little evidence of that. You already have more than one female that you are romantically involved with, and you are very close to Miranda.” After summing that much up, her head tilted. “What part of the question was confusing?”

My mouth opened and shut at that, as a noise escaped me. Luckily, I was saved from having to respond by my father, who cleared his throat. “Relationships don’t really work like that. Miranda and Felicity are friends. Yes, they’re close, but that doesn’t mean they’re–” He paused, seeming to consider his words for a moment before just settling on a simple, “They’re just friends.”

I barely had a chance to mumble a thank you to him before Gaia approached. “On the other hand,” she began, “Miss Chambers does have friends and girlfriends who are very eagerly waiting to see her back at Crossroads. And I’m afraid that I can only justify delaying so long before taking our wayward students there, lest our Committee representatives and the ears that they whisper into start to wonder too much about what we could have been doing.”

Grimacing a little at that, I gave a slight nod before glancing toward Tabbris and the others. “Um, give me just a minute?” With that, I slowly walked that way. They had already stood up and were waiting with Gabriel, who had a hand on Sariel’s shoulder. The woman herself looked shaken, and a bit lost. Yeah, it was… going to take a lot to get her through that.

Actually, I was kind of surprised that Gabriel hadn’t reacted worse to the whole thing. Though, come to think of it, as controlled as he was, maybe I shouldn’t have been. But still, Sariel’s actions had affected him a lot too, and the rest of the Atherby camp.

Then again, I supposed they were accustomed to accepting people that had done or at least been partially responsible for terrible things in their past.

“Time to go back?” That was Tristan, giving me a faint smile as he stood between and slightly behind both of his sisters. “Does that mean our vacation is over?”

Snorting, I retorted, “Some vacation. I wanna fire my travel agent.”

Then I sobered a bit, looking to Tabbris. “You gonna be okay here with Dad and your mom for a little bit?”

She looked scared at that prospect, quickly lunging forward to wrap her arms around me. “What if you need me?” the girl protested. “And we made up that whole system about communicating.”

“Hey,” I replied while hugging her back, “we’ll still use the system, don’t you worry. Trust me, we’ll have plenty of time together. But you need to get to know your mom, and let both your mom and our dad get to know you. I’ve got the dibs spell still, so I’ll be safe from anyone trying to trespass on your turf.”

“And,” Gabriel put in, “you’ve already been promised a bit of an education on how to protect your charge.”

It took Sariel a moment to respond to that little prompting. She was looking away, a slight frown on her face while clearly lost in thought. Finally, the woman seemed to realize what had been said, and gave a quick nod. Her lost, vacant look was replaced by a smile that was meant to reassure her daughter that everything was alright. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I will teach you how to place your own possession claim upon Felicity, so that she will be protected even if you aren’t right there. It will… take a few days.” Her voice was soft, cracking just a little with restrained emotion that she was clearly holding back to avoid upsetting her children with.

Sariel Moon needed a therapist. Like… really badly. Thankfully, I was pretty sure that plenty of other people had already noticed that fact. Like my dad, and Gaia, and Gabriel. They would do something about it. Especially since she and Gaia had clearly shared a conversation while Sariel possessed the headmistress.

Actually, that brought up a point. “Hey, I thought Larissa was protected because her body thought you were possessing her even though you weren’t,” I put in. “Did possessing Gaia screw that up?”

The woman shook her head. “No,” she replied quietly. “It is not… “ She coughed then. “I will explain how it works when the time comes. Suffice to say, though there is a… time-based limit to how many could be protected the way that I have protected Larissa, it does not require me to never possess anyone else.”

Well, that was confusing. Now I really had no idea how that whole thing worked. I really hoped that I could get some clarification on that soon, because as it was, I had a lot of questions.

Vanessa was hugging her mother then. “I can’t believe we have to walk away from you already,” the other girl lamented. “It took so long to find you, and now we’re already leaving?”

“You can come back.” That was Gaia, standing nearby once more. “We’ll set up a system to allow you to travel back and forth safely so that you can visit. And, thankfully, we already know that Crossroads is… uniquely and specifically prevented from noticing or tracking the presence of Seosten on the island. So your mother will be able to visit there as well.”

It was better than nothing, but I could still tell that they were reluctant to separate. The whole family embraced once more.

No. Not the whole family. Just the ones who were there. They were still missing Haiden. Even after everything that had happened, not everyone had made it back to Earth yet. Like Sands and Larissa. I was going to have to talk to Scout about how her sister and mother weren’t here.

Clearly, I still had a lot of emotional conversations ahead of me.

Speaking of which, I looked back to Gaia. “Are Deveron and the others going to be okay?”

“They will be,” the woman assured me simply. “Give them time. I will come back to check on them after taking the three of you back to Crossroads.” She nodded toward the twins and me. “Then Sariel and I will go over the Seosten prisoners and see what can be done about them.”

With a nod, I started, “What about Professor… umm… Professor…” Slowly, I turned, realizing that Dare hadn’t actually been around for a bit. Actually, when was the last time I’d seen her?

There she was. The blonde woman was standing a bit away from everyone, looking at a tall, reddish tree on the edge of the camp. Frowning, I stepped that way. “Professor?”

“Hello, Felicity,” she answered without looking back. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I think we are. I mean…” Pausing, I asked, “Are you okay?”

Turning back to me finally, the woman smiled just a little. “Yes. Sorry, I was just… thinking. And answering Scout.” Holding up her phone, she explained, “She called for help getting back to the school awhile ago, so I sent Nevada to get her. She’s with the others, and apparently very eager to talk to you.”

Wincing at that, I sighed. “She probably wants to know why I made it back, but Sands and Larissa didn’t.”

“Hey.” Dare stepped over, putting both hands on my shoulders. “They will make it back. Give them time.” With a wink, she added, “Now you’re stuck in the same position we were while you were gone: waiting.”

“Yeah, it sucks,” I retorted. “But,  you know, speaking of waiting, I guess we’ve made them do it long enough.”

So, I did the rounds one more time, hugging my dad and Tabbris, and thanked Gabriel for letting them stay. I thought about walking after Deveron, Abigail, and Wyatt. But in the end, I decided they still needed a little space and privacy together. I could always talk to them in a little bit.

Finally, it was time. Gaia opened a portal, gesturing. “Your friends are waiting.”

Friends. Sean, Scout, Columbus, even Koren… and more than friends. Shiori and Avalon. I would finally, after two months, get to see them all again. I felt nervous. And excited. And a little sick, sort of. Finally. Finally, I was going to be reunited with the others. I could explain everything that had happened. Maybe Tabbris not possessing me at the time would even help me convince them that I wasn’t being manipulated by her into accepting the possession.

Either way, it was a conversation that had to happen, and a reunion that was long-past due. So, with a deep breath, I moved to the portal along with Tristan and Vanessa.

Then the three of us passed through it, and, for the first time since late February, set foot on Crossroads island.

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Homecoming 35-04

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As Tabbris stepped closer into view, reaching up with both of her hands to grab onto one of mine while staring up with those wide, innocent and openly fearful eyes, Dad had what was probably the reaction that I had least been expecting. After an initial blink or two of quiet confusion (which was expected), his mouth opened and he blurted a surprised, “Wait a second, I know you.”

It was my turn to blink in confusion, before I started to correct him. “Err, no, Dad, see this is–”

“You were in my bed.” Dad‘s voice it was quiet, calm, and contemplative as he watched Tabbris. Slowly, he tilted his head. “You slept beside me. I thought it was a dream. I thought it was a recurring dream,” he amended then. “I’d wake up, and you would be laying there pressed up against me. I just thought it was a dream about…” Trailing off a little, Dad shook his head. “I thought it was the dream about having another kid after Joselyn disappeared. I thought I just really wanted another little girl. I wanted Felicity to have a sister. I dreamed about having another little girl. So I… I saw you and you were… you were there.”

He was silent again for several long seconds. I had no idea what to say to that, and it was obvious that no one else did either. Slowly, Dad took a couple steps forward before going down on one knee right in front of Tabbris. “It wasn’t a dream, was it?” His voice was soft, yet absolutely certain as he met her wide-eyed gaze.

Tears of shame and regret flooded the other girl’s eyes then, and her lower lip quivered a little before she replied weakly, “I’m s-sorry.” Her voice hitched and cracked. “I’m s-so sorry. You were Flick’s daddy and I was scared and I didn’t know where Miss Larissa was and I didn’t know where anyone was and I was just by myself. I was by myself and I didn’t know what to do and you were there and I just wanted to pretend for a little bit. You hugged me and it felt re-really good but I shouldn’t have done it because you were Flick’s daddy not my daddy and I’m sorry.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sariel start to take a step toward her daughter with her hands out to pull the girl back to her. But Gaia, a look of understanding on her face, put a hand up to gently stop her. She leaned in, whispering something to the other woman. I wasn’t sure what she said, exactly, but it made Sariel hesitate, watching to see what happened next.  

And what happened next was that my father put both hands out, cupping either side of Tabbris’s face. His expression softened, as he gently made her look up at him through those tear-filled eyes. “You can’t cry,” he informed her, his voice as soft and tender as I had ever heard it. Gently, he wiped his thumbs over her damp cheeks. “It makes me want to hurt the person who made it happen. And I already get into enough trouble without literally beating myself up.”

Sniffling a little, Tabbris whimpered. “B-but, you were trying to hug Flick, and… and I… I stole–”

“You listen to me,” Dad interrupted with a shake of his head. “Love is a muscle, not some kind of limited resource. You make more of it by using it. You make it better by using it. You didn’t steal a damn thing from me, kid. I was just as lost as you were. You needed someone to hold onto, and so did I. Those nights, dreaming about you–thinking that I was dreaming about you, they were some of the best nights. The only bad part was when I would wake up and you’d be gone.”

Slowly, Tabbris lifted her shaking hands, resting them against Dad’s wrists while his own hands stayed pressed lightly against her face, cupping it. I saw her give a full-body shiver while her mouth opened and shut, a sort of keening sound escaping the girl as she fought to find words.

“I didn’t… want you to… hate me.” That tiny, almost inaudible voice broke the silence, each word cracking just a little bit more until what she was actually saying was almost only understandable through context. Her hands clung to his wrists a little more tightly through that admission, like she was terrified that he would actually pull away, repulsed by her after all.  

“Hate you?” Dad’s own voice cracked then, as if the very idea that he could be capable of that was the most horrific thought that she could have entertained. “My girl, I could never hate you.”

His words, those words, made Tabbris give a little gasp. Her eyes widened slightly, and she abruptly broke. Those tears came back, but they were different this time. Her hands left his wrists, and the girl threw her arms around Dad’s neck, grabbing on tight while her sobs returned.

Dad stood, lifting Tabbris with him as he held the girl tight to him. As Tabbris buried her face against his neck and shook, he held onto her in a way that silently said he wouldn’t let her go until she wanted him to. His eyes found mine while he held her, and we exchanged smiles.

I wasn’t jealous. Yes, I had been away from my Dad for a couple months. I’d been waiting to be with him for that long. But Tabbris had been waiting years for him to know her, for him to accept her. She had waited her entire life for Dad to hold her like that knowingly and willingly.

After a few long moments of that, Sariel hesitantly stepped forward. She gave her daughter a wistful, tender look, and I could see the pain in her eyes. She wanted to have been there for Tabbris. She wanted to have been there for all of her children. But in the end, all she had been able to do for her youngest daughter was send her away, into a potentially hostile situation.

“I… should explain,” the woman started slowly, looking up to my father. “I should explain why I… sent my daughter to yours.”

But Dad surprised me again. His head shook as he easily replied, “I’m pretty sure I’ve got the idea. Let me make an educated guess. You’re Vanessa and Tristan’s mother too. The Seosten have been trying to fix their population problems and, as a prisoner, they weren’t too concerned with your rights. I doubt they have anything like a Geneva Convention or the eighth amendment of the constitution. So, experiments result in this pretty little bundle right here. Somehow, you got her out of that prison and sent her to Earth. Whoever you sent her to thought that she’d be safe with Joselyn, but Joselyn was gone so they put her in Flick since they didn’t have anywhere else that she’d be safe. She grew up protecting Flick from being possessed, since she was already possessed. I’m not sure how what had to be a toddler at most learned everything she’d need to know or kept quiet about her existence for so long, but I’m willing to bet that some kind of magic was involved. Maybe psychic tutoring or something, but that’s mostly a guess.”

With that, it was Dad’s turn to have everyone staring at him open-mouthed. I fought for several long seconds, but only a slight croaking noise from deep in my throat escaped. In the end, it was Gaia who found her voice first, and even she sounded a bit surprised. “Mr. Chambers,” she started slowly, “I admit, you continue to surprise me in many remarkable ways.”

“Yes,” Sariel agreed. “While you were not… exactly right on every point, you were incredibly close in many ways. I chose to send my daughter to yours from the start, after learning that your wife had been taken, because I knew that my people as well as other threats would be after her. It was the only thing I could think of that might protect her from them. And… and I knew that any mate Joselyn Atherby chose would be a wonderful father figure for my daughter to see. I… I don’t know who the father is. Kushiel never found that particular information relevant enough to share with her prisoners. I’m afraid that there is no way to know now. But I knew that my girl would have a good example in you.”

“You’re really, really not mad?” That was Tabbris herself, leaning back just a bit as she stared with wonder into Dad’s eyes while still clinging to him. Her voice was plaintive, still fearful of eventual rejection. It said a lot about how much terror she’d built up in her own head about being hated and pushed away for what she was. It wasn’t something that would just disappear so easily, just through a few reassurances. But I had a feeling that this moment was helping a lot.

“Mad?” Dad blinked. Reaching up, he took the black LA Times hat that he’d had from back when he worked there from his head and dropped it onto Tabbris’s. The hat was big enough that it instantly fell to cover her eyes. “Kid, the only thing I’m mad about is that I didn’t know you before. I–actually, there’s a lot of things I’m mad about. Beginning with you having to be in that situation to begin with. But as far as you’re concerned? No. You protected my daughter. If it wasn’t for you, she’d be a Seosten slave right now, wouldn’t she?”

“I…” Tabbris pushed the brim of the hat up with one, trembling hand as she glanced to me before swallowing. “They tried,” she admitted. “They kept trying.”

“Perhaps,” Gaia offered gently, “Mr. Chambers would like to have an opportunity to learn everything that happened while Felicity and the others were… away. Over a meal, of course. I’m certain you could all use something warm and filling to eat.” From the way she glanced toward Sariel with that, I was pretty sure that the headmistress was mostly referring to her. Which made sense. I doubted that providing good things to eat had been on Kushiel’s priority list.

“Eat?” Tristan sounded eager for that much, at least. Giving a hungry look around, he blurted, “What are we supposed to eat? Wait…” Frowning at the lake nearby, the boy demanded, “Is this gonna be one of those ‘teach a man to fish’ things like in the Bible?”

“That wasn’t in the Bible,” Vanessa corrected him in what sounded like it was automatic and unthinking. “Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie wrote the closest English version of that in 1885, but the exact original source is a little unclear. Definitely not from the Bible, though.”

“Don’t mind her,” Tristan informed the rest of us. “Now that I can’t forget things, Nessa’s using every excuse to try and shove as much useless information in my head as she can.”

An offended (and kind of hilarious) squeaking-gasp of indignation escaped the girl in question, as she gave a cute little stomp of her foot. “It is not useless! Having the correct factual information is never useless, you… you.. doddypoll!”

Blinking twice at that, Tristan gave his sister a bewildered look. “The hell is a doddypoll? You just made that word up.”

“Did not,” Vanessa retorted. “And see, if you had the factual information about it, you’d know what I was calling you. Doddypoll.” With that, she stuck her tongue out at him.

Gaia, who I was pretty sure knew exactly what a doddypoll was, smiled with what looked like genuine amusement. “In any case,” she announced, “it is not a ‘teach a man to fish’ moment, though you really should learn how to fish if you don’t already know, Mr. Moon. No, in this case, Gabriel has prepared a nice meal for all of you. If you are ready to walk over there? We can discuss more of this there. I’m certain that Gabriel will want to be involved in the discussion.”

Wyatt shook his head, however. “Abigail,” he put in. “I need to call Abigail,” the man announced firmly. “She should be here. It’s… it’s a family thing, isn’t it? She’s family. She should be here. And she should bring Miranda and Theia.”

The sudden joy I felt at the idea of seeing my sister and Miranda again was partially tempered by confusion. “Theia?” I asked. “Who’s Theia? I mean, I know I’ve met a lot of people this year. Too many to keep track of, sometimes. But I’m pretty sure there was no Theia.”

Wyatt started to answer that, but Deveron spoke over him. “It’s a long story. One that we should probably tell when they get here. It’s… yeah, let Abigail tell it.”

For her part, Gaia simply nodded. “Call them,” she agreed. “I assume Abigail still has the bone she was given that would bring her to this camp. Have them meet us here.”

Wyatt nodded, giving me a brief, goofy smile before stepping away while taking a phone from his pocket. As he started to call the others, I felt a brief pang. Avalon and Shiori. I wanted to talk to them too. I needed them to know that I was here, that I was safe. It was almost all I could do not to beg Gaia to bring them in.

But I knew why she wasn’t. There would be no way that I’d be able to pay attention enough to tell the whole story anymore if Valley and Shiori were here. I would instantly lose all ability to focus on relaying the stuff that they needed to know.

Still… “What about the others?” I managed to make myself ask while remaining as calm as possible about it.

From her brief smile, Gaia knew exactly what I had been referring to, and how hard it was for me not to demand their presence. “I have sent word to Avalon and the others,” she assured me. “They are aware that you are here and that you will meet them as soon as possible. I’ve told my daughter that you are safe, and physically well. She wishes to see you, very much.”

Swallowing hard, I gave a tiny nod. My voice was soft. “I wanna see her too.”

Dare’s hand found my shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “You will,” the woman promised. “You’re back on Earth now, Felicity. As soon as we get done here, we’ll get you back to them.”

“Speaking of getting back,” Sariel quickly put in, while I was slowly nodding. “My people who were on the transport, the prisoners–”

“They will not be harmed,” Gaia promised. “They are still frozen, still safe. I promise you. We can eat now, and then go over what should be done with them. You said something about a prisoner manifest back on the transport. Once we are done here, we can go over that together and find which people are safe to be released. Perhaps they will even choose to stay here, with the Atherby camp. It would do much to bolster their numbers on both sides.”

I could tell that Sariel wasn’t too opposed to that idea, while we left Gaia’s privacy/illusion bubble and made our way back through the camp. Our little group got a few stares from the people there, and Dad was greeted by name. Hell, so was I. They called out that they were glad I’d made it back, that it was good to see me. It was… it felt… strange, but in a good way.

Dad set Tabbris down partway there, letting her go back to her mother, who took her daughter’s hand tightly. Their little family walked together, whispering now and then as they carried on their own private discussion. About what, I didn’t know. It wasn’t any of my business.

In any case, Gaia was right, of course. Gabriel Prosser was waiting in one of the cabins for us, and he had a table full of food waiting. After greeting us, and introducing himself directly to Sariel (with a moment of brief, silent communication between the two that made me think that it wasn’t the first time they’d met in some way or another), he and Gaia stepped out of the cabin to have a conversation of their own. They said that they would bring Wyatt, Abigail, and ‘the others’ here to meet up with us as soon as they arrived.  

And with that, the rest of us all dug in. Because Gaia had also been right about something else: we were starving. As soon as my stomach noticed the meal laid out for us, it wouldn’t let me focus on anything else until I’d put away a full plate and a half.

Finally, however, I could think straight enough to start telling my dad the story about what had happened. I’d told it to Gaia and the others already, of course. But I was pretty sure I’d have to tell it several more times before this was all over. Especially to Valley and the others.

By the time I finished, again with a little help from the twins here and there, Dad was shaking his head in amazement. And more than a little worry. “I can’t believe everything you’ve been through this year,” he announced quietly. “Everything… I haven’t been there for you at all.”

“Yes, you have been,” I corrected him. “You’re my dad. Everything you taught me my whole life, that’s why I am who I am. That’s why I’ve been able to survive this. Don’t say you haven’t been with me, because you have. You’ll always be with me.”

Dad’s hand reached across the table, finding mine and squeezing it while he blinked moisture out of his eyes. A moment of silent understanding passed between the two of us, and for just a second, it felt like we were by ourselves again. Just the two of us, sitting at our kitchen table.

“She’s right,” Tabbris piped up then, pushing the hat off her eyes once more. “She… she thinks about you a lot, Mr… um… Mr… Chambers. All the time.”

For a second, Dad opened his mouth like he was going to say one thing. But he hesitated, settling on scooting his chair back a bit while gesturing. “C’mere, kid.”

Tabbris looked a little confused, but she gave her mother a brief look before sliding out of her seat. Slowly, she made her way around the table, taking the hat off her head and offering it to him.

Dad took it, but instead of keeping it, he carefully adjusted the size on the band, then put it back on her head so that it fit reasonably well. Then he took her hands. “You,” he started, “are just as incredible as Flick there, you know that? Everything you did, the things you had to deal with all by yourself… You’re an amazing kid.”

“She shouldn’t have had to.” That was Sariel. Her voice was pained, the loss in it audible enough that both Vanessa and Tristan were giving her worried looks. “I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t send her to your daughter, if I didn’t send her here, they would have made her into a–they would have ruined her. I… I had to send her away.”

“You did what you had to do,” Dare quietly replied, “to protect your family.”

“She’s right,” Dad agreed. “You were in an impossible position, and you made the best choice that you could. You saved her, even if it was hard. But…” He looked up then, gazing across the table toward Sariel with the tiniest hint of a smile. “You were wrong about what you said earlier.”  

The Seosten woman blinked once, head tilting slightly as she replied, “Wrong? About what?”

Reaching down, Dad lifted Tabbris off the ground once more, setting her on his lap. “You said that there’s no way to know who her father is.” Slowly, he shifted the girl so that she could hold tightly to his neck, leaning in to gently kiss her cheek while she giggled from the touch of his beard against her face.

“That’s what you were wrong about,” Dad informed Sariel in a quiet voice while letting Tabbris cling to him. “Because we may never find out who contributed the paternal DNA that made her.

“But we know exactly who her father is.”

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Homecoming 35-03

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Just a quick note, the winner of our favorite joke tag contest will be announced in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter. Make sure you check that out! 

So, I began from where Professor Dare last knew, when Charmiene had knocked her out of the cab while abducting me. Gradually, I summarized the events of the past couple of months for my enraptured audience. Vanessa and Tristan filled in where they could once the story got around to them, but mostly it was me. I told them about being sent to that space station, and how we had escaped. I explained about the little rebellion we had started when we met Jokai, and I continued on through meeting up with Larissa and Haiden and all of that.

I told them the whole story of what had happened to Professor Katarin. It hurt. Saying the words like that, seeing their expressions as I told them what Isaac had done, it was one of the hardest parts. It had been bad enough telling the edited version of the story in front of Ruthers and the other Committee members, but this was even worse. I had to confirm that the worst parts of what I’d said before were actually true. Katarin was dead, and it was because of Isaac.

Pushing on from that, I told them the rest. I explained about how we had tracked down and captured Isaac, how I had ended up with Athena, and all that training.

Partway through the story, Tabbris hopped out of me and moved to her mother. The two stood close, Sariel holding her youngest girl against herself while her other two children stood on either side of her with their hands against her sides as though to stop her from disappearing again. Eventually, once I reached the point of getting ready to rescue Sariel. Vanessa and Tristan were able to chip in a lot more, and we told that part of it together. But for the most part, I told the story myself. Partly because they were thoroughly distracted with their family reunion. They helped out where they could, and we explained how the actual mission had gone.

Of course, we left out anything to do with Jophiel and Elisabet. Which… damn, had it really only been… less than an hour since our little conversation with those two? Because it felt more like entire weeks had passed. Everything that had happened in just the past couple of hours since the Sunstrider had arrived at Kushiel’s base, it was more than I could really grasp.

In any case, as much as I wanted to explain what had happened with Jophiel and Elisabet, as much as I wanted to have Gaia, Dare, Wyatt, and Deveron help us deal that that situation, we couldn’t. With the combination of the spells that the two had put on us along with the threats of what would happen if they found out that we had tried to break them, there was no conceivable way for us spill that secret. Not at the moment, anyway. As much as it sucked, as much as it made me want to scream and rant, I couldn’t. We had to keep our end of the deal.

For now.

Wyatt had summoned up a few glasses of ice water partway through and had handed them out to us so that we could keep talking. By the time it was over, I’d downed almost two full cups by myself. As I took one last sip off the water to finish it off, I let out a breath. “And then we found out that we were on Earth, and you guys showed up. Which, for the record, I’m really glad you did before Ruthers and the others. That whole… mess with the ship might’ve been a bit hard to explain.”

For a few long seconds, they just stared at me. I saw Dare open and close her mouth a couple times as she fought to find words. In the end, however, it was Gaia who found her voice first. “Miss Chambers,” she began slowly, “I have long since come to accept the fact that many of our students experience a great deal of… adventure while attending Crossroads, and experience more danger than we can hope to protect them from entirely. That said… please learn to pace yourself. You have three full years left at this school. Cramming so much chaos into your first couple of semesters is hardly necessary.”

Flushing deeply despite myself, I protested, “It’s not like I’m doing it on purpose.”

“Of course not,” Deveron agreed, shaking his head. “You’re just your mother’s daughter.” He then took his turn to embrace me once more. His hug was even tighter than Wyatt’s had been before I had started my story, and he added in a quieter voice, “I’m glad you made it back.”

For a moment after he released me, I thought that Professor Dare would take a turn. She looked a bit indecisive about it before finally settling on simply agreeing. “Yes, we’re all glad that you made it back.” To Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And very glad that you two were not taken by the Seosten, as was feared for some time.”

“Sorry,” Vanessa weakly replied, looking embarrassed as she shifted a little on her feet. “It’s like I said, we didn’t mean for it to happen right then. I didn’t think it’d be that… um, easy to transport all the way out there like that. It was like… tipping just a little too far and then falling over.”

“It’s a good thing that you were there,” Gaia noted thoughtfully. “Otherwise, it sounds as though this rescue mission may not have ended successfully.” From the way she paused, slowing as she looked to me, I had the strangest feeling that she knew we were leaving out something important. Which, to be fair, wasn’t actually all that strange because… well, Gaia. But she didn’t push things. Instead, the woman simply looked to Tabbris then, while adding,  “And speaking of things that could have gone quite worse if not for outside aid, it seems that we owe you a great deal of thanks for everything you’ve done for Miss Chambers in her life. Even if we were unaware of it for so long.”

For her part, Tabbris blushed deeply. She clung to one of her mother’s arms, staring at Gaia with wide, saucer-like eyes. “I… I just wanted to help,” she announced quietly. “I’m sorry I hid for so long, and that I didn’t–”

Taking a knee in front of her, Gaia’s head shook. “Tabbris,” she started quietly as she made a clear point of using the girl’s name directly, “I meant no reprimand. You are, quite honestly, one of the bravest children I have ever had the great pleasure of meeting. And I assure you, I have met quite a few. The idea that you have worked so long and so hard to protect Miss Chambers, despite having every expectation that you would be hated and feared if you were discovered… it is extraordinary. You are extraordinary. And I count myself privileged to have met you now.”

Wyatt, looking fit to burst by that point, nodded his head rapidly while blurting, “Yes! Yes, very extraordinary. I have so many questions. How did you avoid detection by your own people? What spells did you use to protect Felicity? Did the necromancer show his face while you were watching over her? How many times did other Seosten try to possess her? How often did you leave her body? Did anyone ever see you out as yourself? Did other Heretics ever try to interrogate her to find out where our mother was? How many–”

“Easy, Wyatt.” Deveron smiled, shaking his head as he took his son’s arm and squeezed a little. “Let’s let the poor girl breathe a little bit. This is probably just as crazy for her as it is for us.”

Dare was nodding. “He’s right. But…” Her gaze moved from Tabbris, to her mother. “Are you alright?” Her voice was soft, and understanding. “You just came out of a… very long imprisonment. And being separated from your children, from your family, for so long under what must have been terrible conditions… “ she looked the woman up and down briefly, biting her lip before adding a quiet, “What can we do for you?”

From the look on Sariel’s face, Dare might as well have accused her of horrific crimes and threatened to make her pay for it. She dropped her gaze, smelling Tabbris’s hair and pulling all three of her children closer as though to steady herself so that she could find the strength to respond. “I… I don’t…” For a second, I thought her next word was going to be deserve. It seemed to be right on the tip of her tongue. In the end, however, the woman just finished with a weak, “I’ll be fine. I just… wish Haiden was here.”

“As do we,” Gaia assured her. “Though I’m certain that our wish does not come near equaling your own. But it is too bad that everyone has not yet made it back here. From the sound of things, Seosten space has not been entirely welcoming or safe.”

I started to say something then, but Tristan suddenly blurted, “Hey, that’s right. With all the blowhards back there, we totally forgot to ask.” His attention was on his sister. “Nessa, what happened with Dad and the others? You told them where we are?”

Quickly nodding, Vanessa explained what had happened when she had projected her mind to their father. She told us that the others seemed safe, and that they were going to find the rest of those banishment orb shards with the help of Apollo, Athena, and the rest of the Aelaestiam.

Once she finished, Sariel hugged her closer, her voice quiet. “Lucifer and Auriel… with Haiden…” She sounded dazed, like she was still trying to wrap her mind around that concept. Which was fair, since I was still trying to wrap my mind around the concept that she was actually there, that we had actually succeeded at rescuing her (as rocky as that particular road had been).

“They’ll make it, Mom.” That was Tristan, giving his mother a firm hug as he nodded encouragingly. “They’ll make it back here.”

“Speaking of making it back here.” That was Dare, a curious frown knitted across her brow as she looked to Sariel. “If you don’t mind the question, how did you get Tabbris to Earth? And how did you hide her from that witch long enough to do so? It doesn’t seem as though… as though the situation you were in would be conducive to hiding a child from your jailer.”

Sariel was quiet for a moment, while everyone’s eyes (including her children’s) turned to her. Finally, the woman let out a breath. “Hiding my brave girl was both simple and… complicated. I…” She looked away, clearly gazing into the past while explaining. “I knew that she was close to being born. In a few days, she would have come and… and they would have taken her away from me.” From the way the woman’s voice shook, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t have been the first, or the last, time that had happened.

“They would have taken her from me,” Sariel continued in that somewhat cracked, almost broken voice. “But I had a plan. A plan to get her out, at least. And it revolved around my cellmate.”

Vanessa blinked at that. “You had a cellmate?”

“Of sorts,” her mother confirmed. “Beauthrek was a Disidien, a species that gives off a sort-of… passive calming aura that is especially effective with children. They tend to work well as nursemaids or teachers. It was part of Kushiel’s attempts at countering the terror and emotional turmoil of being imprisoned, which tended to make pregnancies fail more often than they already do normally. Beauthrek was kept in a constant state of unconsciousness, what amounted to a medically-induced coma. After all, Kushiel didn’t need her for any action she could take. She only needed her passive aura.”

“Just when I think I couldn’t hate that bitch any more than I already do,” I muttered under my breath, “she finds a way to surpass herself.”   

From the look on Sariel’s face, she felt about the same. Continuing, the woman explained, “We would be left alone in the room for hours at a time, particularly in the middle of the night. Just the two of us. Three with my little, growing baby. So, that night, a few days before she would have been born… I possessed my own child.”

What?!” Belatedly realizing that the outburst had come from myself, I shook my head. “You–you what? I thought she was… I mean I thought you were… I thought–”

“She was inside of me, yes,” Sariel confirmed. “Which meant that we were in physical contact. I believed that, as Seosten infants are capable of possessing their parents, the entire reason that the population of our race is in such dire straits to begin with, the situation would also work in reverse. And I was correct. I was able to possess my own unborn child. Our… physical connection through the umbilical cord was severed, and I was possessing my own baby.”

My mouth hung open, as I stared along with everyone else. Someone, maybe me, mumbled, “This is really fucked up.”

“Normally,” Sariel continued, “a literally just-born infant would not be able to do anything of use. But I was an Olympian. My ability to boost is very strong. Boosting my own infant child would not have allowed her to fight in any meaningful way, of course. Even that could only do so much for her undeveloped muscles. But it did provide enough strength that I was able to pick her body up from the bed that I had been strapped to for the evening and eventually, over the course of an hour or so, traverse the distance to the other bed on the opposite side of the room. I took my baby up onto the bed, and made her possess Beauthrek. Once we were there, I used my own… experience with memory-alteration to… essentially program my baby. She would lay still and silent in her host. Once every twenty-four hours, provided the room was empty aside from Beauthrek and myself, she would rise from the bed, walk to where I was strapped down, undo the straps, lay down, and then come out of her host.

“Each night, as I was freed, I would play with my daughter for a couple of hours there in the dark room. I did everything I could to help and teach her, including long hours spent possessing her myself in order to instill what became my… virtual self, the memory manipulation that would aid and teach her everything that I wanted her to know once the time came that she was sent away from me.”

Kissing the top of her little girl’s head, the woman concluded with, “When the time came to send her to Earth, I possessed her long enough to instill a mental command for her to possess me for a very brief time before stopping. While she was possessing me, I maintained control and projected myself physically to Larissa. Once the time limit was up and she stopped possessing me, I gave her to Larissa, and she took her to you.” The last bit was added with a nod toward me.

Except, shouldn’t the fact that she had possessed her own child have sort of… eliminated Sariel’s connection to Larissa? It hadn’t, since she clearly used it after that. I already knew that much. But… how? How had she have possessed Tabbris, yet still held onto that connection with Larissa? Was it an Olympian trick, or one specific to the woman herself?

Now probably wasn’t the right time to ask. Still, I really wanted to know.

For a long few seconds, no one said anything. Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. The idea that Sariel had possessed her own child while she was in her womb, had essentially given birth that way, and then had done all of that just to keep her child out of Kushiel’s hands was… was… holy shit.

“Holy shit.” Deveron echoed my own thoughts, mouth open as he stared at the Seosten woman. “That was, um, resourceful.”

“Resourceful?” Tristan echoed, sounding as shocked as the rest of us. “That’s not just resourceful, that’s… that’s… Nessa, what’s a good word for–”

“Fucked up,” was his genius sister’s simple, blunt response. “Really, really fucked up. And kind of super-amazing.”  

“One does what one must for our children,” Sariel murmured, hugging all three of them closer to her. “No matter what that is.”

“Indeed, we do,” Gaia confirmed, clearly making a point of changing the subject (probably to give the overwhelmed-looking Sariel a break). “And now that we have satisfied some of our curiosity,” she announced with a little smile toward me, “… or enough for the time being, I believe there is someone else who is owed just as much of an explanation and a reunion, and who has been waiting incredibly patiently given the situation.”

With that, the woman waved her hand, and we were suddenly transported somewhere else. Instead of that beautiful forest, we were by a familiar lake, with a familiar man standing there, pacing back and forth anxiously until the second I came into view. Once I was there, he spun, eyes widening before he sprinted those few steps as a wordless cry of joy escaped him.

My own arms opened just in time, before my father swept me off the ground and pulled me close to him.

Dad. I was in Dad’s arms. After two months away, two months of not knowing when or if I would ever see him again, I was in my father’s arms.

“Felicity!” Dad bellowed, holding me as tight as he could. “You’re back! You’re–you’re safe. I mean… you’re…” He pulled back a little, staring at me. “Are you… really…?”

He knew. Like the others, he knew that I had been possessed. In his initial delight at seeing me, he’d forgotten for a moment. But now he wasn’t sure what was going on. If I wanted to have a real reunion with him, I needed to show him the truth. He needed to understand.

“It’s me, Dad,” I assured him. “It’s really me. It’s always been me.” Glancing to the others, I squirmed free, taking both of his hands. “Dad, I need to tell you something, okay?”

His face tensed. “What? What happened?”

“Dad, calm down.” Squeezing his hands, I shook my head. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I just… I need you to meet someone. Someone very important. But you have to be calm.” Glancing over to Gaia, I asked, “Is it safe to explain?”

The woman gave me a slight smile once more, nodding in confirmation. “Gabriel is aware of our presence, but for the others, we are covered by an illusion,” she assured me, gesturing to where everyone else in the Atherby camp, which was about a hundred yards or so away,  was going about their business. “It is safe here.”

“Safe for what?” Dad was shaking his head. “I got a message to come stand out here and wait, that you were back and that you’d be here as soon as you could. What are we hiding? Who do you want me to meet?”

Stepping back slowly, I gave a slight nod, repeating, “It’s okay. I’m okay. Everything is okay.” Looking behind me, I extended a hand to the little girl who was clinging to her mother.

“Tabbris… come on. I think it’s time for you to officially meet Dad.”

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Homecoming 35-02

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Gaia’s voice was the first to break the brief silence that followed Ruthers’ announcement. “Why Gabriel,” she began in a flat voice, “I am pleased to see that you take the disappearance of several students so seriously, but I am a bit surprised to see it taken quite this seriously. A couple of those students reappear and half of the Committee is suddenly involved? Are you very certain that none of you had anything more important to attend to?”

Meanwhile, I was busy glancing over every Committee member that was there, and noting that Elisabet wasn’t among them. Because, of course, she was a billion light years away, dealing with all that. I did wonder where these guys all thought she was. But there really didn’t seem to be any way to bring it up naturally, like, ‘Hey, where’s that Spanish woman? I really liked her. She’s so on top of things, it’s like there’s two of her.’ Yeah, real subtle.

Litonya, the Native-American woman with the face lined with some serious wrinkles spoke then. “It is about far more than a few disappearances, Sinclaire, as you are well aware. It is about the fact that the same people who abducted Miss Chambers and her peers were able to mount a country-wide assault, and even attack the school itself, as a distraction to allow that abduction.”

Geta, the black guy who had been some kind of Roman emperor, gave a firm nod. “Not only that,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “but they also somehow took two more students weeks later.” His head nodded toward Vanessa and Tristan. “And took them straight from the school grounds itself without security being able to detect it happening.”

Teach, old Blackbeard himself, added, “The point is, it’s a pretty big deal. Probably not quite big enough for all six of us, but, you know, we were curious.”

Reading between the lines there, I was pretty sure that Ruthers had been coming out here with just people that he could trust to be on his side of things, but Teach had come to make sure that things stayed fair. And I was incredibly grateful for that. After everything we had been through, the last thing that we needed was for things to go nuclear right now.

Ruthers spoke then. “Either way, we are here now. And there is a far more important subject then the question of why we chose to come.” He looked toward Tristan and me then, and I could have sworn that his bulldog expression actually softened just a little bit. “Miss Chambers,” he started, “Mr. Moon, are you all right? What is wrong with Miss Moon?”

”Uh,” Tristan started while glancing down at his sister in his arms, “she’s fine. She’s just exhausted. It’s been a long trip.”

It was Sophronia, Zeke’s mother, who jumped on that. “What exactly was this trip, as you say? Where have you all been, and how did you escape? Where are the others? Are they still alive? As you can see,” she finished with a slightly thoughtful look, “we have a great many questions.”

Before anyone else could say anything, I finally managed to get a word in. “We were taken by a bunch of bad guys who wanted to find a way to use Heretic students against Crossroads. That’s why they went through all that effort to make a distraction. They wanted to get us young because we’d be easier to handle. They’ve been training us, making us fight in this arena thing since they took us. They thought they could turn us into their soldiers.”

Yeah, I may have done a little thinking ahead of time about how to explain our disappearance. And this would help to cover the fact that we had new powers and skills that we shouldn’t have had it all we were doing was sitting in a cell or something. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But we didn’t need perfect. We just needed something believable enough.

Ruthers was watching me, his hard expression also curious. “And the others,” he began, “are they dead?”

He’s worried, Tabbris piped up with obvious surprise. He’s worried about the others. He’s afraid that they really are dead. He cares about them.

It wasn’t quite a complete surprise. After all, I had been telling the truth back when I told the man that I could sympathize with the position he had been in before. The man could be an asshole, and I blamed him for a lot of things. Kidnapping my older brother and sister was at the top of the unforgivable list. But I also didn’t think that he was a completely irredeemable bastard with absolutely no good points. I could believe that he thought he was doing the right thing, even if it made him come off as a piece of shit. And I definitely believed that he could be worried about the fate of several students, since he had run the school for many years before moving up to the Committee.

I shook my head at that. “No,” I answered, “they’re not dead. At least…” I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat suddenly quite real. This part I hadn’t even had time to tell Gaia, Dare, and Deveron.

Speaking of the latter, he had been standing somewhat behind me with his hand on the back of my shoulder. Every time Ruthers spoke, I felt his nails digging into the muscle of my back a little bit, as if he was very, very close to throwing himself at the man, damn the consequences. Which, of course, would have been a very bad idea.

Dare had noticed my expression. “What? What happened?”

Right, this was hard. I took a breath and let it out again before starting. “It’s Professor Katarin. H-he… he’s…” Again, I had to swallow. “He’s… gone. He’s dead.” My voice sounded hollow to my own ears. Saying the words that flatly, with that kind of finality, it brought back the same feelings that I’ve had right after it had happened. I felt sick, like I wanted to throw up again. There was a cold, empty pit in my stomach. And it only got worse when I saw the shock in Professor Dare’s eyes. Of all the things that she had been expecting me to say, that was probably pretty low on the list.

Gaia too seemed taken aback, her eyes widening just a little bit before she spoke a single word, ”How?”

“Yes,” Ruthers, who looked just as surprised, agreed. “How? Are you… quite sure?”

Biting my lip almost hard enough to make it bleed, I gave a slight nod at that. It was so hard to talk through the lump in my throat. But I forced myself to. “He was… betrayed. He didn’t see it coming. But he… he died a hero. He died protecting innocent people. There was a chance. He… he could have survived. But a bunch of other people would have died, so he stayed. And because he stayed, because he chose to stay, he couldn’t protect himself. So he died.” The words sounded empty, and I didn’t really recognize my own voice. But I said them anyway. They needed to know. Later, I would tell Gaia and the others the full story. But right now, even the Committee needed to know that Ulysses Katarin had died a hero.

“What monster was responsible for it?” The flat question came from Sophronia, as the auburn-haired woman met my gaze. I didn’t know how, but I had the feeling that the she suspected that the answer was more complicated than it just being a normal Stranger.

So, I answered. “It was Isaac.” My voice was as flat and hard as I could make it with those words. Maybe I couldn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened out there, not yet anyway. But I could at least make sure that everyone knew about what a complete piece of shit that son of a bitch was. I could make sure that they all knew he was an utter psychopath.

“What?” That was Geta, frowning heavily. “You mean Ulysses died saving Isaac Acosta?”

Resisting the urge to snarl my answer, I shook my head. “No, I mean Isaac killed him.” In response to the surprised looks, I explained, “He was a traitor. He’s the one that sold us out and helped those people abduct the rest of us. He killed Paul Calburn before all that happened, probably weeks earlier, and helped them replace him with that Fetch. He probably helped them abduct Professor Katarin back when he first disappeared too. Katarin tried to help us, and Isaac took advantage of that. He used one of their cannons. If Katarin had moved, it would have killed a lot more people. But he took the hit himself instead. That’s why he’s dead. Because he let himself get hit so that other people wouldn’t.” By the end, despite my attempt to sound as clinical and detached as possible, there were tears in my eyes and I could barely speak.   

In the background, I could see Deveron and Professor Dare reacting. Both looked like they had been punched hard. Dare’s mouth opened and shut, the horrible agony barely hidden behind her eyes making me desperately wish that I could have told them in private. Even Gaia still looked hurt.

Litonya was the first to find her voice. “Is it possible that you misunderstood, and that the boy was actually replaced as well? If there was one Fetch, or another of those… creatures that is capable of taking over and controlling the body of–”

“No,” I quickly snapped despite myself. I didn’t want Isaac getting off from something like that. “Believe me, it was him. I don’t know how they turned him, or what they did. But he’s a traitor.”

“If they… these people who abducted you, managed to go as far as to turn a human against his own…” Ruthers looked like he wanted to believe that I was lying, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. “If they could do that, they must be a hell of a lot more advanced than most of the Strangers on this planet. This is a coordinated, planned effort.”

“Of course it was coordinated.” The words came from Calafia, who had already moved to stand over some of the dead soldiers. The woman, whose rescue of my father from the werewolves (to say nothing of her efforts in removing the Bystander Effect from him) I still didn’t fully understand, frowned while looking down at them. “These are very advanced armor and weapons,” the woman noted. “And very uniform. This is not a ragtag force. This looks like a proper military. So yes, we are dealing with a coordinated threat, a genuine assault on our world. And it is probably one that has been in the makings for quite some time.”

“You.” Geta was looking at Tristan. “How did you and your sister get wrapped up into things? You didn’t disappear with the others. You disappeared later, and from the school itself, no less.”

Tristan’s answer came without a second thought. “Nessa and me, we were trying to figure out what happened to our friends. So we ended up looking through all their rooms, just in case there was something to find. Anyway, eventually we got to Isaac’s. There was this kind of… roundish metal thing under his bed that opened and closed. You know, sorta like a clamshell? Anyway, it must’ve been some kind of teleporter, because we opened it and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a bunch of those soldier guys on some random moon. And they were not happy to see us, I can tell you that. They took us down to where Flick and the others were.”

Wow. Okay, apparently Tristan had been working out what to tell people too. That or he had come up with that off the top of his head. Either way, it was pretty impressive.

The Committee members all exchanged brief glances with one another, seeming to communicate silently before looking back to us. Ruthers was the one who spoke once more. “How, precisely, did you escape from these people? And where are the others?” His eyes drop down a little bit to the girl in Tristan’s arms. “And what exactly is wrong with Miss Moon?”

“N-nothing.” That was Vanessa herself. She shifted a little, opening her eyes. “I… I’m okay.”

“She was–” Tristan started, while carefully letting the girl down onto her own feet.

“Miss Moon?” Litonya interrupted, clearly wanting to see what Vanessa would say without prompting or help from her brother about what had already been said. “What happened?”

Fortunately, if the Committee thought they were going to catch us in a lie, they would have to try harder. Because Vanessa simply answered, “The three of us were supposed to fight in one of those arenas again. But we saw one of those clamshell teleporters on a table. I saw them use the thing before, and I remembered what they did. So… we went for it. We managed to lock the door and I used it. I… guess it took a lot out of me though. I—” She gave a long, loud yawn before shuddering. “It was hard.”

Either she had been awake for a lot longer than we thought she was, or maybe one of the others like Deveron had telepathically fed the answers to her. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, the answer fit everything that Tristan and I had said so far. But I couldn’t tell if Ruthers was happy or annoyed about that fact. His face was fairly unreadable.

Geta, however, openly scowled while indicating the dead bodies on the ground. “And how did these get here?” he demanded. “Are we to assume that you killed them when they followed you here?”

“No.” That was a Professor Dare. “We did.” She nodded to the rest of us. “When the tracking spell that Headmistress Sinclaire placed on Miss Chambers after her previous… experiences let us know that she was back, we came immediately and arrived just in time to stop these… soldiers from taking the children back.”

“Unfortunately,” Gaia herself added then, “there were a few who escaped. And they seem to have taken the teleportation devices with them.”  

“And,” Teach noted, “as all of these men are dead, we won’t be getting any answers out of them.”

Calafia shook her head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even corpses can hold a wealth of information. My people can autopsy them, and find out more than you would think.”

“Fair enough,” Teach agreed. “And my people can take the armor and weapons and see what we can find out about how it was made. Maybe there’s a recall function, or a map in one of their pants.”

“Keep me updated on what you find out,” Geta instructed. “I’ll talk to Oliver, compare notes with him about all the worlds we know about.” To Vanessa, Tristan, and I, he added, “We’re going to need you to describe everything you can about this… moon that you were on. We’ll compare it to our records, and see if we can work out where you were.”

That was right. From what I remembered, Geta was the Committee member in charge of colonizing and exploring newly discovered worlds, while Oliver was the one who worked with colonies that were already established. The two of them worked together a lot.

“Unless,” Litonya put in then, “you believe that the others would have been killed already, after your escape.” The old woman’s gaze met mine intensely, like she was trying to see right through me. “I can’t imagine what kind of guilt that thought might make you feel.”

I met her hard gaze without blinking. “They’re alive,” I replied flatly. “Those guys went through a lot of effort to catch us. And they put even more effort into training us to fight for them. They’re not gonna just throw all that away, especially when they don’t think that we can tell you anything important. They’re arrogant pieces of shit. Believe me, they will never believe that we could find them again.”

“Well,” Ruthers announced, “we’ll just have to teach those creatures how wrong they are.” He looked to the three of us then. “But right now, you look exhausted.” Belatedly, the man added, “And your classmates would probably like to know that you are well. I know that Liam would like an update about his daughter. Unless…” His eyes narrowed a little. “… there’s anything else you’d like to tell us right now?”

I knew what he was doing. Ruthers had probably been all-but convinced that my mother had had something to do with us disappearing. He probably thought that I had recruited the others or something. But now that we were here with a bunch of heavily armored soldiers that looked like they had come from some sci fi movie, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Or how he was somehow justifying it to still be Mom’s fault. Maybe he thought she’d been spending all these years raising an actual military or something. It wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, he was very obviously trying to see what he could get out of me.

“Honestly, it’s a jumble right now,” I replied. “I still can’t believe we actually got away, and that you guys all got here so fast. I’ll probably think of something else to tell you in an hour, or a day, or a week. It’s all just… it’s a mess in my head right now.”

Calafia was already nodding to that. “Perfectly understandable. I will send my Runners to speak with you soon. Try to sort out your thoughts. Anything that you can tell us, anything at all, might lead to the other students. Particularly if it can be put together with anything that’s found during the autopsies or the inspection of their equipment.”

Tristan nodded quickly along with me, while Vanessa responded. “Don’t worry, we want to find our friends as much as you want to find the people who did this.”

“And with that,” Gaia cut in before any of the Committee members could say anything, “I believe it is time to take Miss Chambers and the Moons back to the school.”

“We will be in touch,” Ruthers assured us, while I heard Calafia in the background calling in a squad to pick up the bodies. “One way or another.”  

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Gaia gestured, creating a portal for us to move through. As I started to follow the others, however, Ruthers stepped over to take my arm. “Oh, Miss Chambers…”

For just a second, I thought Deveron was going to take a swing at him. I heard him grunt behind me, his entire body tensing before he stopped. Mostly because Professor Dare had put her hand on his opposite arm.

Looking at Ruthers’ hand, then his face, I schooled my expression to be as even as possible. “Yes, Counselor?”

Those eyes tried to bore straight into my soul. “If there is anything else that you think about, anything you want to tell me… I will listen.”

“Thank you, sir,” I carefully replied, restraining every smartass remark that popped into my head right then. “I will.” Then I added, “And my father, sir? I was told you guys would try to find him.”

His gaze narrowed just a little bit, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I’m afraid we have no more information than we did before.”

“Oh.” Swallowing hard, while pretending to be upset (it wasn’t hard to pretend, since I had plenty of other things to be upset about), I nodded slightly. “If you do find anything…”

“We will tell you,” he promised.

Thanking him in a mumble, I pulled away and joined the others in moving through the portal to go back to Crossroads.

Except we weren’t at Crossroads. Instead, the portal had taken us to a clearing in some kind of forest somewhere. It looked pretty, with the setting sun just visible through the branches above, which made the multi-colored leaves glow beautifully.

“Where–” I started, looking back to the others, just in time to find myself hauled up into a tight hug by Wyatt. The man was stronger than he looked, strong enough to make me gasp.

“It’s alright,” Gaia announced with a tiny smile as Sariel stepped out of her. The two women exchanged brief glances, and I was absolutely certain that they’d had a long, private conversation while all that had been going on. I wasn’t sure how much the Seosten had been able to tell Gaia, but it was probably quite a bit.

Though not enough, apparently, as the headmistress looked to us, to me. “Now we have some privacy and time so that you may explain exactly what happened while you were away. I know that you are eager to see your friends, and we will make that happen as soon as possible. But we also need to know what we are dealing with, before there are any other interruptions.

“So please, start at the beginning, and tell us what happened out there.”

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