Gaia Sinclaire

Day After Day 39-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rudolph Parsons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Convalescence 38-08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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Convalescence 38-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rysthael!” she and the other three blurted.

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, it was pretty damn good.

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Convalescence 38-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We also had Seosten toddlers.

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Convalescence 38-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scout and Tristan

“Hey, I’m sorry.“

Scout started a little bit at the unexpected voice. Not only was she not actively using her enhanced hearing, she had also been lost in thought while sitting out on the grass of the school grounds. It was the same night that Flick and the others had gotten back, and they would be visiting the hospital the next day.

It was Tristan. As Scout blinked up at the boy, he settled down onto his knees nearby, wincing a little bit. “And now I’m sorry again, for surprising you that time.”

Hesitating slightly, Scout offered him a small shrug, “What for? The first time,” she asked quietly.

“I’m sorry we didn’t bring Sands back with us,” the boy clarified. “That’s what you were thinking about, right?”

Now she blushed, looking down a bit guiltily before murmuring, “I’m glad you’re all safe.”

Immediately giving her one of his charming smiles, Tristan winked. “Well of course you are, we are pretty useful to have around.” His expression sobered then, as he added, “But we’re not your sister. Trust me, I get that. I get it more than a lot of people. Plus, your mom’s out there. Your mom and your sister. So yeah, I’m sorry we didn’t bring them back with us. But hey, they’re out there. And they’re coming.”

He was right, of course. Scout had been obsessively thinking about how much she wished her mother and sister had made it back. It seemed selfish, but she wanted them to be there. She didn’t want to wait for them anymore, especially with everything that was going on with her dad. She needed Sands and their mom. Needed them more than she could explain, even to herself.

Giving a tiny nod then, she whispered, “You would have brought them if you could.”

“Damn straight we would have,” Tristan assured her. Meeting her gaze, he added, “And believe me, they want to see you as much as you want to see them. Especially your mom.”

When Scout smiled that time, it wasn’t forced at all. “I’m glad you got to save your mom.”

Okay, that time when he smiled it was less about being deliberately charming and more genuine happiness when he thought about his mother. His smile always had an effect on Scout, just like it affected most girls. But seeing that particular smile right then made her stomach do funny things.

Maybe it was the fact that she missed her mother and her sister so much. Maybe it was the fact that Avalon had been taken. Maybe it was a lot of different things. But seeing that genuine smile right then made the girl realize how much she liked seeing it. And how much she wanted to see more of it. Not his cocky grin that he used all the time, but the real smile, the private smile.

“You have a really nice smile, you know that?“

That wasn’t her. It was Tristan, saying it to her. Taken aback, the girl blinked up at him before blushing even more. Shifting her weight a little, she offered a weak, “Thank you.”

After a brief pause, Scout reached to the box tucked in her lap before offering the open end of it to him. “Cookie?”

“Oooh.” Taking one, the boy grinned. “You sure know how to treat a guy.“

You have a nice smile too.

She didn’t say that. She thought about it, and almost did. But in the end, she couldn’t bring herself to actually say it out loud. She was too confused and uncertain about things. And nervous, definitely nervous.

But maybe someday she would.

Maybe.

 

******

 

Miles Cleary (Son of the Bogeyman)

 

“You’re sure it was them?”

As he murmured the question, Miles glanced to the Hispanic boy next to him. The two of them were sitting in the cafeteria, poking a bit at the food on their plates while listening to a slight commotion from the other side of the room.

Chas Mena, Miles’ teammate, gave a short nod without looking up from his own plate of french toast. “It was them, dude. Trust me, I talked to Jiorge, who talked to Connor, who talked to Dana. She saw it with her own eyes. They were the ones with that book.”

Frowning a little, Miles looked down at the piece of paper with names scribbled on it.

Vanessa Moon, Koren Fellows, Rudolph Parsons, and Felicity Chambers.

Still frowning, the boy glanced toward the source of the commotion that had only somewhat quieted with the arrival of one of the security guys. Even before that glance, he knew what had happened. That Scout girl had punched one of the first year boys for harassing her or her friends. Zeke, he was pretty sure the guy’s name was.

Lowering his voice despite the privacy spells that he and Chas both had running, Miles murmured, “Hang on a second, let me think…”  

He had spent most of the year scouring every inch of the library for books that mention the guy who had his parents. Every inch of it. And somehow, somehow, it turned out that months earlier, there had been a few first year students looking at a book that mentioned Fossor. A book that, from the description given, he’d never seen before. Never seen. Ever. And those first year students had just picked it up in the exactly same library that he’d searched a dozen times.

Oh, and to make matters even more confusing, the first year students who were using it happened to be that Felicity Chambers girl, who kept disappearing and getting in weird trouble; Rudolph Parsons, who was part of the new team that formed when half of hers and half of his up and vanished; Vanessa Moon, who also disappeared for awhile and whose twin brother miraculously appeared earlier that year; and Koren Fellows, who had some weird thing going on with Chambers too that no one seemed to have a straight answer about.

With all of that in mind, Miles looked over to Chas. “There’s something really fucked up going on around here. I mean, there’s always fucked up things going on, but that Chambers girl seems to have more than her fair share, you know?” After another pause, he asked, “What did Dana hear them say, again?”

“Chambers got really interested as soon as that Koren chick mentioned the name Fossor,” the other boy replied. “Grabbed the book right out of her hand. The book was talking about how the old Heretics back in the day made an alliance with Fossor and he betrayed them to make the Black Death. And, uhh, there’s something else. The guy who made the alliance was Gabriel Ruthers.”

Doing a quick doubletake at that, Miles blurted, “The old headmaster? What—” Opening and shutting his mouth, he finally sighed. “And now that Chambers girl and the Moon twins just showed up again, without the others.”

“She knows about Fossor, that’s for sure,” Chas pointed out quietly. “Maybe he’s involved with whatever’s going on with that group? Doesn’t someone keep attacking Headmistress Sinclaire’s hot new Eden’s Garden daughter? You think they went outside Crossroads for help with that and ended up getting in bed with Fossor just like Ruthers and the old Heretics did? Err, and by in bed, I mean metaphorically because eeeuuugghhh.”

Shaking his head, Miles sighed. “I dunno. We need to find out more.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Chas asked.

Looking back to the boy, Miles replied, “We need to talk to Royce. He’s the investigator.

“And we need to investigate Felicity Chambers, Vanessa Moon, Koren Fellows, and Rudolph Parsons.”

 

******

Dylan Averty

 

“It’s the eggs.”

Blinking at the statement, a tall, heavy-set, dark-skinned man with graying hair glanced to the figure beside him. Both were as different as night and day. Where he was dark, tall, overweight, and old, she was young, pale, thin to the point of near anorexia, and had hair that was incredibly dark. The only similarity between the two were the dark blue uniform shirts they wore with the name of the store they both worked at and were currently standing in stenciled across the front.

“What’s the eggs?” Hubert Longs carefully asked, knowing he would likely regret doing so.

“They’re spies,” came the answer that proved his suspicion correct, as the young brunette narrowed her gaze across the back end of the store, glaring at the cartons in question as though she could intimidate them into confession.

Slowly, Hubert looked from the girl, to the egg cartons in the distance, then back again. “They’re eggs,” he spoke in a voice that made it clear he felt ridiculous even needing to point that out. “Dylan, eggs can’t be spies.”

The girl, Dylan Averty, snapped her gaze to him. “Can’t they? Who would suspect them?”

Letting out a long breath, Hubert shook his head. “Look, kid, I was with you for most of this, right? I helped you put those weird symbols on all the grocery carts and in the baskets. I even went on the roof and the petals from those weird flowers you brought in, and I still have a rash from that. I helped you make those creepy dolls of all our coworkers because I thought you had some weird prank or something in mind. Then I remembered it’s almost May. You missed April Fools completely and it’s months before Halloween.”

“I told you,” Dylan insisted, “If one of our coworkers turns evil or gets possessed, you’re going to be glad that we have voodoo dolls to handle it. It’s called being prepared. And I don’t see your point.”  

“My point,” Hubert informed her, “is that I’ve gone along with all that. And more. But eggs? They can’t be spying on us. They don’t even have eyes. You’re thinking of potatoes.” He tried to joke at the last bit, smiling at her.

She wasn’t smiling. “Not anymore, they don’t,” the girl informed him while holding up a paring knife in one hand with a chunk of potato still stuck to it. “You think I’d leave that kind of security risk like some kind of amateur?”

Doing a quick doubletake at that, Hubert caught himself. “Err, you–okay, look, the point is that I’ve gone along with most of this because I know it makes you feel better after… after what you went through. All this weird stuff, I know it’s your way of coping. But eggs? What do you want us to do with all the eggs?”

“Throw them out,” Dylan announced immediately. “They’re spying on us. Or me. Or you. Or someone. I don’t know, but they are. Someone put a spell on them. Or maybe on the cartons. Or…” She sighed then, squirming as she admitted, “I don’t know, not exactly. But I feel funny when I walk past them. Funny in my stomach. There’s a spell on them. I can feel it.”

“A spell… on the eggs, turning them into spies, so you want to throw all of them away?” Hubert concluded, staring at the girl. “You want to throw out hundreds of dollars worth of eggs, because you get a funny feeling when you walk past them.”

“Oh good,” Dylan announced then. “So we’re on the same page. You start on that end, I’ll start on this one.” She started for the eggs.

“Leeeeeeeeeet’s not,” Hubert corrected, reaching out to catch the girl’s shoulder in mid-step. “Look, is there another… uhh, ‘spell’ we can use to stop the eggs from spying on anyone?”

Frowning, Dylan shrugged. “Uhh, maybe? I dunno. It’d be easier just to break them.”

“That depends on your definition of easy,” Hubert retorted. “If it’d make you feel better, we can volunteer for clean-up duty tonight and I’ll help you use whatever magic spell you want to, okay? Whatever makes you feel better.  But we’re not breaking all those cartons-worth of eggs.”

“Not even if I say that it’s the best way to keep Galazien the Iron-Souled off of our plane of existence?” Dylan asked, while batting her eyelashes at him with a forlorn puppy look.

Hubert’s head shook at that. “Sorry, the Iron-Soul scares me less than getting fired. Or you getting fired, kid.”

Huffing, Dylan folded her arms, muttering, “That’s just because you haven’t seen his fire-breathing skeleton horses. But fine, I guess we can use a spell instead.”

“Great,” Hubert replied with relief. “But in the meantime, let’s go see about stocking the soda in aisle four before Perry has a conniption fit.”

As the two walked that way, they distantly heard a voice crying out from the direction of the produce and vegetable aisles.

“Who the hell stabbed all the potatoes!?”  

 

******

Sariel and Gaia

 

Do you know how many planets the leaders of my people would sacrifice to have someone loyal to them where I am right now?

In response to Sariel’s mental voice, Gaia paused briefly before responding simply, Somehow, I do not think that ‘reunited with your children’ is what you mean by that.

There was silence for a moment then, before Sariel replied, Hold on a second. I think I can…

Abruptly, the Seosten woman appeared, standing in the middle of a vast white emptiness. A second later, Gaia appeared in front of her.

It wasn’t really them, of course. Or at least, it wasn’t their physical bodies. Gaia was still standing in that desert, talking to the Committee. And Sariel was still possessing her. These were simply manifestations of the two created within a mental landscape.

“There,” Sariel’s mental construct spoke. “This might be an easier way for us to talk. Unless you find it too distracting.”

Focusing on her after glancing around briefly, Gaia’s mental projection shook her head. “Trust me, I have learned to multitask quite well over the centuries. But you…” She paused, looking the other woman up and down. “Even in a construct created entirely by your own mind, you look exhausted, Mrs. Moon. And please, do not say that you will be fine. That may work on your children, but it has been quite some time since I was a child.”

Opening her mouth and then shutting it at the repudiation, Sariel finally nodded. “You’re right, I’m barely holding it together. I have been tortured, broken, raped, treated as breeding stock, and had children taken away from me to be put through Cronus knows what. For the past decade, my life has been–” Cutting herself off, the woman shook a bit with emotion before swallowing hard. “And it’s my fault. Puriel found us because I went looking for Joselyn. I was trying to help her and all I ended up doing was leading them right back to our home so that they could rip my own family apart.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied quietly, “sometimes even our best intentions may end poorly. Though some would say that you have had more than your fair share of bad luck in that regard. There are those who might guess that you were cursed somehow.”

“Cursed…” Muttering the word under her breath, Sariel snorted before looking up again. “I know what you’re planning to do. Those things that you sent the two vampires, the Pooka, and the pixie to collect. I know what you’re going to do with them. I can hear the thoughts, the plans, right there on the surface of your thoughts. But then, you knew that I’d know. You knew that I’d hear those thoughts, that you couldn’t keep them from me. And you still let me in your head.”

“I need an expert,” Gaia informed her. “Someone who can tell me what I’ve missed, and how to do it properly. Because there will be no second chances.”

Sariel hesitated, squinting at her. “And you believe that I can help you with it? More to the point, you said yourself that I seem to be cursed. So what makes you believe that I would be a safe partner to have with something as important as that? Like you said, there will only be one chance. My people won’t see it coming, but if you try and fail… that’s it.”

Nodding once, Gaia pointedly replied, “Precisely why I need your help, Mrs. Moon. You are perhaps one of the only people on this planet who could help with something like this. And I do not believe you are cursed. You have enemies, and a tragic lack of self-confidence or sense of self-worth. But I do not believe that you are magically cursed.”

The Seosten woman was silent for a few seconds, looking away before she turned her attention back to Gaia. “Every time I try to help, something goes wrong. How can you say that I’m not cursed? How can you say that you want to risk that, given what you’re trying to do? You know that the enormity of that task will not allow for mistakes.”

“It must be perfect,” Gaia agreed. “And you can help with that. This is a very complicated bit of magic. There are a million tiny ways it could go wrong. One incorrect syllable, one component placed one millimeter out of line, one thing done anything less than perfect, and it will all be for naught. You have a perfect memory. You understand what I am doing, and why.”

“Not to mention,” Sariel put in then, “that focusing on that will take a couple weeks. And between that and spending time with my children, I won’t have time to get into any other trouble.”

“It will keep your mind occupied,” the other woman confirmed. “And it will take more than a couple of weeks. I believe it will take at least a month, if not more. Because I expect you to spend most of your time with your people, with the other Seosten once we awaken them, and with your children. And, in time, with your husband. That has priority. But when you have a free moment, yes, your skills as a… proofreader, if you will, of this spell would be most welcome.”

Sariel smiled just a little at that. “You really do want to keep me busy. Caring for my people and spending time with my family… you want me to use the time that I would otherwise spend brooding or obsessing over my captivity on this spell.”

“I find keeping oneself occupied is quite useful at those times,” Gaia informed her with a small smile in return. “And I believe that you are the very best possible person for this job. Everything that has happened to you, good and bad, has led you to have the children that you do. And it has led you here. Your skills, your expertise, they are what is needed to finish this project. Will you help?”

For the briefest of moments, Sariel was quiet. Then she straightened a bit, giving the other woman a slight nod. “Of course.

“If nothing else, I can’t wait to see the look on my people’s faces when you pull it off.”

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Desperate Measures 37-08

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Manakel would have killed us, all three of us (plus the others who were already unconscious) within the next second if he’d had the chance. I was certain of that much. When he had clearly been winning, he had been just arrogant enough to let it keep going. But now, once Tabbris spoke that single word to activate the spell that would take his protective shield down for one brief instant, he didn’t have the time to spare. He would end this immediately, and we were in no shape to stop him. Hell, we wouldn’t have been in the shape to stop him at the best of times, let alone now.

And he started with Tabbris. His arms jerked up and out, sending Avalon and me flying in opposite directions. I crashed down with a yelp, in time to see the man lunging that way. His sword was out of Avalon, blood dripping from it as he drove the weapon for the young girl’s back, even as I shouted. Warning, threat, plea? Probably all of the above.

In that instant, however, as the sword was driven down, there was a sudden crack in the air. And the blade was caught by a whip that stretched across the room.

Gaia. She was there. Her whip caught the blade a nanosecond before it would have gone into Tabbris’s back, before she gave a sharp yank that sent the weapon flying away from the man to clatter against the far wall. An instant later, the whip was cracking through the air once more, toward his face.

But it was more than that, I realized in that moment. As the whip snapped that way, I caught the slightest glimpse of something else. Around the edges of the whip was a view of somewhere else. It was hard to describe, but it was like… like there was some kind of very narrow portal or something extended just a couple inches out from the whip itself. That… tear of sorts in space would stay for a moment or two after the whip passed before shifting back to normal.

Then I understood. Gaia’s whip created a very minor portal around itself so that it would cut through basically anything. Any defense or shield that was put up to block it, that one or two inch portal would cut it out of the way so that the whip itself could reach its target. Gaia must have been able to control exactly what the portal affected, or when it was actually active. Or something. The point was, the portal-edge of it let the weapon pass through anything. And, I was sure, pretty much kill almost anything. Whipping a portal into someone had to be pretty damn hazardous for their health, after all. Between that and the fact that the whip could extend to fairly ludicrous lengths, yeah, I could see why Gaia’s weapon was so dangerous.

Manakel reacted just as quickly.. He vanished, disappearing from that spot just before the whip would have hit him. Then Kohaku, who had been on the ground after her forcefield collapsed, was on her feet. Recall, he’d recalled into her.

“Gaia!” I blurted while shoving myself up a bit, “It’s Kohaku! It–”

But the headmistress was already reacting. As the Manakel-possessed Kohaku made it to her feet, the other woman held her free hand out, starting to conjure some kind of golden forcefield orb around her. There were strange, green glowing runes on the sides of the forcefield. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I had the feeling it would contain the woman. And maybe even Manakel himself.

Before it could fully manifest, however, the dead Rudolph was up on his feet. His body threw itself at Gaia, who had to turn her attention ever so briefly toward him with a gesture that sent the boy flying out of the way. I could tell she was trying to be gentle with it, even as vines sprouted from the wood of the wall and held Rudolph’s body close.

Just as quickly, Gaia’s attention snapped back to Manakel, who had used that moment to move for the teleportation jammer. As Kohaku’s hand reached toward it, however, a smaller glowing forcefield appeared around the thing to stop him from disabling it.

“Leaving so soon?” Gaia’s voice was hard then, as she added, “I think I would prefer if you stayed.” With those words, she gestured, and the stasis fields that were trapping Koren, Dare, and the others all switched off. The now-former hostages all collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

“She thought you would save her, you know.” There was twisted venom behind Manakel’s words as he spoke through Kohaku. “She thought you’d realize the truth. For awhile, at least. I’m not sure when she gave up. Honestly, I’d stopped listening to her by that point.”

If his attempt to guilt Gaia worked, the woman didn’t show it. Her face remained impassive, as she met the possessed woman’s eyes. “I will give you one chance to release her.”

Giving a tiny, almost imperceptible smile, Manakel-through-Kohaku replied simply, “I understand your confidence. After all, you brought two Committee members in with you. And the mighty Prosser himself. Quite impressive. But I’m afraid that they’re running into problems of their own. You see, a lot of quite powerful beings, Heretic and Stranger alike, have died in this hospital, or had their bodies brought here. It makes for quite an emergency army, should one have nothing else to lose and no need to even play at subtlety. You are on your own, Headmistress.”

Gaia’s expression never faltered, never changed at all. “I am as alone as you, Manakel.”

Something happened then between the two of them. It was like they had an entire battle without ever moving an inch. I saw their eyes flicker, judging the distance between them, the powers that they could bring to bear, the people that could get in the way. They each saw what the other could have done, and how they themselves would react. They both saw all of it, the openings and the retaliations. There were dozens of battles taking place in those few seconds, all fought purely in their minds and through their eyes as they watched and judged one another.

Through it all, I didn’t dare move. Every part of me screamed to go for Avalon, who had become entirely too quiet. But I couldn’t. Moving from where I was would have made me a potential obstacle, or a hostage to use against Gaia. I had to stay put, and completely still. It was, I was sure, the same reason that Tabbris hadn’t moved. We didn’t dare interrupt. Not this. Not now.

But in the end, one of them had to move first. And given the condition Avalon was in, it had to be Gaia. With absolutely no warning or gesture, the woman made her move. And that move was to make the unconscious Columbus’s goggles shoot at Manakel-Kohaku from the side. At the exact same time, Vulcan (still in his gun form) fired as well. As did Scout’s gun. Even my own fallen staff fired off a concussive blast from one end. In an instant, the Seosten bastard was being attacked from all sides.

Manakel solved the problem the same way I figured most necromancers solved most of their problems: with dead bodies. In that same instant, a handful of them simply appeared around him. Two wore hospital gowns while the third was a doctor. But all of them were very clearly dead even before they were struck by the attacks meant for their master.

The first, one of the patients, suddenly disappeared into a blur of motion that went straight for Gaia. At the same time, the doctor zombie extended a hand and fired a bright blue laser at her, while the other dead patient somehow summoned what looked like dozens of tiny knives in midair before sending them flying that way.

Distractions, all of them. Gaia dealt with them in short order, her whip lashing out to create a portal that the knives went into, while she simply absorbed the energy from the laser. As for the guy who was using superspeed to rush straight for her, the woman’s hand snapped out. She caught him by the throat, stopping him in mid-blur. Then Gaia spoke a single word, and all three bodies instantly turned to ash.

Manakel-Kohaku, by that point, had summoned a massive spear of ice. The thing was a good nine feet long and two feet thick along the shaft. With a grunt, he sent it flying at the headmistress.

Gaia didn’t move. I saw a weird hazy effect appear in front of her, like a very intense, very concentrated spot of heat shaped in a wedge around the woman. As the ice-spear reached that spot, it instantly melted, before just as instantly evaporating. The water from the ice didn’t even have a chance to touch anything else before it was gone.

Without giving Manakel another chance to attack, Gaia summoned some sort of chains made of bright light, which flew at the possessed woman across from her.

Whatever those chains were, apparently Manakel didn’t want them touching his host, because her hand snapped up to create a metal wall between them. The chains bounced off, creating a brief, blinding flash of light that made me flinch. And in that same instant, as I flinched, I felt a strong hand yank me off the floor.

Manakel had me. Using Kohaku’s body, he hauled me up, putting my body between him (or her) and Gaia. His other hand produced a knife from his belt. “Now, really,” he addressed the woman while holding his arm around my neck in an iron grip, “you’re already about to lose one girl you practically see as a child.” His head nodded toward the bleeding, horribly pale Avalon. “Do you really want to make it two in one night, Headmistress?”

Before Gaia could speak, I found myself snarling, “Hey, Manakel…” As I spoke, my hand snapped up to his arm.

I couldn’t possess him. Even I wasn’t that stupid. It would have been suicide in that moment. The man was several thousand years old, and I was just a teenager. Even with Charmiene’s power, he’d utterly erase me the second I tried it.

But there was something else that I could do, a power that I had just picked up. Tabbris had told me that I could instantly draw symbols, pictures, letters, whatever onto solid surfaces by touching them. I’d thought about how well that would work for spells. It would have to be spells that I knew perfectly, however. Even the slightest wrongly curved line here or there would ruin the spell. And without a perfect memory like the Seosten had, the spells that I could create instantly just like that without looking them up or taking my time to let muscle memory help with the brush strokes were limited. But there was one spell that I knew incredibly well, one spell that I had memorized perfectly. One spell that I could have drawn blindfolded, on any surface.

It was, of course, the spell that I had learned from Gabriel Prosser, the spell that would drive any Seosten out of the host it was drawn onto. And as my hand closed around Kohaku’s exposed wrist, I used my new power to instantly draw that spell into her skin, shoving all the power that I could into it while blurting, “Get out of my teacher!”

It was an instantaneous thing. I heard a cry of pain escape both Kohaku, and Manakel himself as the man stumbled out of his host. Kohaku’s grip around my throat relaxed, as the woman herself collapsed to the floor in a heap.

I spun, just as Gaia reached me. But both of us were too late. Manakel, now hostless but recovering almost instantly from the pain of that spell, touched some kind of spell on his cufflink. In a brief flash of blue light, he vanished.

“He’s running.” Gaia’s voice was flat as she stood beside me. “Still in the building, but he’s running.” While she spoke, the woman briefly touched my shoulder, concern written in her eyes before she glanced toward Avalon. Pain wrote itself across her face, as she announced, “His blade is poisoned. It’s blocking her power.”

That was why Avalon was so pale. The wound itself didn’t help, of course. But her regeneration wasn’t working. She wasn’t getting any better, because of that poison. Of course. Of course that fucking piece of shit would have a poisoned blade, just in case.  

“He’ll have the cure on him.” The words came from the glowing figure who appeared next to Gaia, before resolving into Sariel. She’d been possessing the headmistress. “And if I know Manakel, it’ll be the only cure you can get to in time.”

“Mama!” Tabbris had picked herself off the floor, flinging herself at her mother to cling onto her. And in that moment, I caught my first glimpse of the girl’s face, the first time that I had seen her since this terrible night had begun.

Facepaint. Her face was painted to look like a fox. It was… simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking. The things that she’d had to do, the things that she’d had to help with… and she looked like that? It reinforced that she was just a little kid, who should have been able to do little kid things. I wanted to hug her, but I also felt ashamed, and sick to my stomach.

Still, the idea that Manakel had essentially been beaten here by a tiny girl in fox-face paint was… kind of appropriate. Horrified as I was by the whole situation, some part of me also appreciated that.

For her part, Avalon was shaking her head, mumbling deliriously about how she was fine and to do something about the others. I wasn’t sure she even knew what was going on or where she was, to be honest. Seeing her like that, after turning my gaze away from Tabbris, didn’t help. Manakel had done all this. Manakel was, in no uncertain terms, a fucking monster.

My eyes glanced briefly around the room at that thought. Rudolph… Rudolph was dead. Scout, Columbus, Shiori, Choo, and Doug were unconscious. So were Sean, Vulcan (if he could be unconscious), Deveron, Koren, Nevada, and Professor Dare. And, of course, Professor Kohaku was still down, right there in the middle of the room.

“Gaia.” I spoke without thinking, pain and desperation in my voice as I fell to my knees on the other side of Avalon. “Please. You have to stop him. He’ll have another way out. I know you think he’s trapped in here, but he’ll find a way. He’ll get away and we’ll lose Valley. Please, stop him.”

“Yes,” the woman agreed, already starting to the door. She paused, glancing back to where Sariel and Tabbris were. “Can…”

“I have magic that will stabilize her,” Sariel confirmed. “Go. I’ll keep her alive until you bring back the cure from Manakel. But you should hurry. He will avoid the Committee members and Gabriel, which will slow him down. But he will have another way out.”

Without another word, Gaia left, chasing after Manakel before the man found his way to whatever secret escape hole he’d set up. All I could do was pray that she made it to him in time. Please, please let her make it to him in time.

I couldn’t lose Avalon. I just… I just couldn’t. Kneeling there, staring at the girl that I had grown to adore over all these months, I fought the tears that flooded my eyes.

She looked broken, in so many ways. Bones poking through limbs, blood literally covering her shirt, face pale and eyes unseeing as she mumbled incoherently. We were losing her. We were losing her so fast.

Sariel moved then, one hand producing a field-engraver, which she used to quickly draw several spells around the floor beside Avalon, as well as on the girl herself. Nearby, I saw Tabbris doing the same, helping her mother with her own quick spellwork. The two of them drew so quickly I could barely follow what they were doing, as the runes around and on Avalon grew more and more complicated.

“We can keep her alive,” Sariel announced quietly as she glanced to me, “but we can’t fix her. We can stop the poison from making things even worse.”  

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I admitted, blinking tears of frustration and helpless terror out of my eyes. “Gaia, Gaia and the others have to find him. They have to get the cure. They–”

“Stop… stop… him.” The voice was weak, and I glanced quickly back to see Kohaku. The woman’s eyes were barely open, as she stared at me. She was clearly fighting to stay conscious, and losing that fight. “Escape…” she continued even more softly. “He’ll escape… Hatch. Hatch in… in nursery. Hatch in nursery.”

She collapsed once more then, eyes falling shut as her body slumped. It had been all she could do to pass that message along. The nursery, that son of a bitch was going to escape through some kind of hatch in the nursery.

My gaze snapped back around, just in time to see Sariel with her own eyes closed. She opened them after a second, head shaking. “Gaia knows,” she informed us, “but she won’t make it in time. She and the others are… occupied. Manakel wasn’t lying about the threats he could produce. They must have been hiding dead bodies here for decades, at least. Between that and the forces he already had, it’s… taking time.”

“We don’t have time!” I blurted then. “Valley doesn’t have time! We–” I was on my feet then, starting to move. “We have to slow him down.”

“I have to keep the spell going,” Sariel informed me. “Or Avalon won’t make it long enough for that cure to matter. And you can’t face him alone.”

“She won’t be alone, Mama,” Tabbris corrected her, moving to stand next to me. “We can’t beat him, but maybe we can slow him down, just enough?”

My mouth opened, then shut, as a light clicked on in my mind.

“Actually… maybe we can beat him.”

******

He better still be there, I directed inwardly while sprinting down the hall a few minutes later. I had made my way through the hospital as quickly as I could. There had been basically nothing in my way, since every possible threat was busy throwing itself at Gaia and the other much more powerful people. We can’t be too late, we can’t be!

He’ll be there, my Seosten partner assured me. We’ll make it.

She was right. I skidded my way into the nursery, just in time to see the man himself. He was there, on the opposite side of the room as he strode toward some door, already raising his hand.

The hatch. It had to be the hatch, his escape portal. He was going for it.

My voice filled the room then, and I heard the loathing within it. “Manakel.

Two steps from his exit, the man spun to me. I saw the toll that his trip through the hospital had taken on him. The strain of all the zombies he had raised and was using to keep the others busy was visible right there on his face. He was sweating, fighting to keep himself moving.

And yet, even then, I had absolutely no doubt that he could easily kill me if we were to fight one on one. He could have been half-dead and he’d still put me down before I could blink.

“Miss Chambers,” the man grunted, “I must say, you are very… persistent. And resilient. How is Miss Sinclaire, hmm?”

Narrowing my eyes at him, I replied simply, “I just figured you might not want to leave without finishing what you started. After all, I’m right here. And I did pretty much just kick your ass up there.”

The man chuckled low and dangerously at that. “Child, I know where the headmistress and the other members of your cavalry are. I know where everything in this hospital is. And let me assure you, if your plan was to delay me long enough to ensure their arrival, you have made a grave tactical error.”

There was a blur of motion then, before the man slammed into me so hard the wind was knocked from my lungs, before my back hit the wall, Manakel was there, shoving me up against that wall with a growled, “A very… grave… error.”

Using one hand to hold me against the wall, the Seosten man moved his other hand to my throat. I felt it close, instantly cutting off my air. All the man had to do was squeeze for another second, and I would be dead. Gone. Erased.

But I moved first. My hand caught his wrist, and our eyes met.

“Oh, Miss Chambers,” Manakel murmured with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. “I have been alive for millennia. If you believe that you stand the slightest prayer of surviving a possession attempt, you are far more deluded than I believed. Even with whatever Seosten child you have dragged along on this endeavor, you will both fail.”

“Oh, I dunno,” I replied in a flat voice, “I’m a scrappy one.”

With those words, I used my power. I possessed Manakel.

Instantly, I felt the weight of his willpower, his power, period. I felt how much he dwarfed me. Can you feel it, Miss Chambers? I heard him speak into my mind while pressing just a tiny bit of his power down on me, like a boy barely touching his thumb to a bug to pin it down. Can you feel just how lost you are? You chose this. Remember that, in whatever tiny part of your shattered consciousness exists after this. Remember that you chose to pursue your own destruction when you could easily have left this confrontation to your betters. What comes next can be blamed only on yourself.

Yes. I had brought this on myself. I had come here. I had tracked him down. I had possessed him, already knowing everything that he said was true. He was right about all of it. I couldn’t beat him. Even with the power I had taken from Charmiene, I was nothing. I was a speck of dust under the kind of mental strength that the man who had been Hades could bring to bear. He would easily, pathetically easily swat my entire mind aside like an annoying fly. My personality, my mind, everything I was, would vanish in the blink of an eye. I would be nothing to him. Tabbris couldn’t help. She was eight. He, meanwhile, was approaching the double digits of millennia. As wonderful and amazing as my little sister, my partner, was, she wouldn’t be able to help me here. Not this time. Not against someone as powerful as Manakel was.

So… it was a good thing that she wasn’t the one possessing me.

Manakel.

Once more, that single word was spoken. Just as it had been a minute earlier when it had first gained the man’s attention. And now, as then, it wasn’t actually me speaking.

There was a brief pause, and I felt the man’s confusion. I felt his sudden uncertainty, which slowly turned to disbelief, then denial, and finally… it was there.

Fear.

Sariel.

Yes. Sariel. That was my plan. That was the last thing I’d said before leaving that office, that Sariel and Tabbris should switch places, that Tabbris should use her own magic to keep Avalon alive while Sariel came with me. Because Manakel had been right, Tabbris stood no chance at beating him in a possession contest. She and I both would have been completely crushed. But Sariel was different. Sariel was far, far stronger. Especially when her power was combined with Charmiene’s. Strong enough that, despite the fact that I could feel the man straining to turn back to his escape hatch, his feet remained firmly planted to the floor.
He was trapped.

Hello, Manakel, the woman’s voice spoke silently within his own head. Do you remember what you said to me all those years ago, on the ship whenever one of us was sent on a mission?

There was a brief pause, before the man’s response came. I told you only to say goodbye when you know that you’ll never see the person again.

Again, silence reigned for a moment, before…

Goodbye, Manakel.

I heard his voice start to speak. I heard his sudden panic, his denial, his rage. I felt him struggle to take back control. All of it in vain, as his hand snapped down to draw a dagger from his own belt, gripping it tightly despite his desperate attempts to throw it away, to release it, to let go. His hand held that dagger in a grip that was so tight, it was almost painful.

Then his own hand, gripping that dagger, stabbed it deep, all the way to the hilt… through his own eye and into his brain.

And the indescribable, blinding rush of pleasure that I felt in that moment? Well, let’s just say that only part of it came from being a Heretic.

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