Gordon Kuhn

Summer Epilogue 13 (Heretical Edge)

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At four-thirty in the morning, the rural bus station in southern Ohio wasn’t exactly hopping. A few figures dotted the seats around the waiting area, most of them curled up asleep with coats and bags acting as blankets and pillows respectively. One grizzled old man in an army jacket sat at a metal table eating a sandwich from the nearby vending machine.

Sitting at a table on the opposite side of the room was a group of what appeared to be ordinary teenagers, four girls and one boy, on a trip. Given the bags and jackets they wore advertising a certain university a couple hundred miles away, they seemed to be just-graduated high schoolers out for a tour of the campus.

Which was exactly what they were supposed to look like. They had even bought tickets for a later bus heading that way, and spoke in front of the clerk about how much fun it was going to be.

At the moment, the five of them were quietly playing poker. To any outside observer, their conversation would appear to be centered around their upcoming university tour. But that was an illusion maintained by the magic coin lying on the table in front of the single male. Their true conversation was much different.

“Lobby’s still clear,” Gordon Kuhn announced, his finger idly brushing the coin in front of him as his eyes scanned the room. “We checked everyone here. As far as we can tell, they’re all ordinary Bystanders.”

“Good,” Risa Kohaku replied through the communication badges they all wore. “Keep your eyes open. With any luck this will be a simple pick-up. We’ve got no reason to think Crossroads or Garden know anything about it, but there is no reason to get sloppy.”

Across from Gordon, the smallest member of their group raised a hand, clearing her throat. “Can I just say,” Rebecca Jameson started, “talking about Crossroads like they’re the enemy is still really weird.” Quickly, she amended, “I mean, I know they are. It’s just…”

Sitting next to her, Jazz Rhodes nodded. “It’s weird. Yeah, don’t worry, we get it.” She sighed then, rubbing her hand over her hair, which had recently been shortened down to only a couple inches long, and dyed a bright neon green. She wore sunglasses with matching coloration to her hair. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

The final two girls, identical twins Sands and Scout, glanced to one another before nodding. The former spoke up. “Yeah, don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone. We’ve had a lot longer to deal with it. Considering you only found out about this stuff like… under a month ago, you’re doing really good.”

“Well,” Scout corrected her sister idly before looking to Rebecca with a small smile. “And it’ll be a month tomorrow.”

The small girl grimaced a little at that. “A month,” she echoed. “All that stuff at Crossroads happened a month ago, and we still don’t know where my parents are.” After a brief pause, she added in a softer voice, “Or what side they’re on.”

Wincing, Sands assured her, “We’ll find them, I promise. Things are really confusing right now. You’re not the only one who doesn’t know what side the rest of their family is on.” Biting her lip, she then offered, “At least your grandmother should be with this group, right?”

Making herself smile despite the worry that she felt, Rebecca gave a quick nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “hopefully. As long as they haven’t gotten separated. Last I heard, Grandma’s group had to go through some place that was full of Garden patrols. I… I just hope she made it. I hope they all made it.”

Jazz put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder. “She’ll be here. Just don’t let this whole reunion thing make you forget that you promised you’d come to mine next month.” Despite her light, teasing words, it was clear that there was a deep underlying tension and nervousness there.

Rebecca started to say something hopefully reassuring back to the girl, but she was interrupted by Scout. “There.”

The rest of them turned to look. Sure enough, a bus had pulled into the depot. The number on the front and side read forty-six. Bus forty-six, the one they had been waiting for.

Immediately, the five of them stood up. But they didn’t all walk toward the doors. Instead, they followed the plan. Gordon and Rebecca moved to the vending machine close to that entrance and proceeded to casually discuss what to get. The twins, meanwhile, went to the restroom. And Jazz moved to the street-side entrance, pretending to read a flyer there while scanning the sidewalk and street beyond, watching for intruders. Kohaku would already be keeping a close eye on things from her own elevated position on top of a building across the street, but every little bit helped.

The bus had come to a stop then, as the passengers began to disembark. Watching them come through, Rebecca turned from the vending machine and raised a hand in a lazy two finger salute. “Howdy,” she greeted the first arrivals. “Long trip, huh?”

It was code, of course. If she had said nothing, it would have meant that the place was compromised and they all needed to scatter. If she had welcomed them home, it would have meant that their exit point was outside. And if she had said anything about food, it would have directed them to the nearest restaurant for extraction.

Her actual words, about how long the trip had been, would point them to the restroom. Those who knew what was going on, anyway. Bystanders would be clueless.

More passengers entered, as she and Gordon took turns greeting them with some variation of discussing the length of the trip. Through it all, Jazz watched the other doors, tense as she waited to see if there would be any interruption.

But there wasn’t. One by one, the arriving Heretics made their way to the restroom and the waiting extraction point. Sands and Scout were there, pointing them to the portal that had been set up. The portal that would take them to the (for now) final leg of their long journey, the Atherby camp.

Unfortunately, as smooth as the extraction seemed to be going, there was still no sign of Rebecca‘s grandmother. With each passing person and lack of recognition, the girl felt herself deflate a little bit more. She tried not to show it, but she had been really looking forward to seeing the woman again and finally being reunited with a family member. Even though she tried to tell herself that was selfish given what everyone was dealing with, it didn’t really help.

She had just resigned herself to the fact that she would half to wait for another group, when the doors opened one last time and the driver came in. He was accompanied by two other figures. One was a certain incredibly handsome dark-haired young man with very slightly Asian features. Deveron Adams. Seeing Rebecca there, he gave a brief, broad smile before looking to his companion.

There beside him stood  a certain small, brunette woman whose family resemblance to the waiting girl would have been fairly evident even without any other help.

Seeing Grandma Lillian, Rebecca’s eyes lit up. It was all she could do not to fling herself at the woman. And, given the look her grandmother gave her in return when she was spotted, the feeling was mutual.

They still had to play this cool. Until they were through that portal, anything could go wrong. Out here in the open, exposed like this, loyalist Heretics from either organization could show up any second.

Clearing her throat while fighting to keep the broad, giddy smile from her face, Rebecca intoned, “Long trip?”

The driver, clueless as to the code, gave her a brief, wary nod while muttering, “You don’t know the half of it.” He headed off to get coffee from the nearby machine then, while Lillian winked at Rebecca and moved toward the restroom.

The girl physically ached to run after her. But that wasn’t the plan. They had to make sure everyone made it through. This wasn’t the only bus carrying Heretic refugees, and the second one had already pulled in.

In the meantime, Deveron held the door open, allowing one more figure to come through. Asenath gave Rebecca a tiny nod before walking right past. She and Deveron and casually made their way across the lobby before heading for the restroom.

It took what seemed like forever, a torturous twenty minutes to make sure everyone got through the portal. But finally, it was done. There had been no interruption, no attack. The last of the arriving groups had passed through the portal in the restroom without incident.

“That’s it,” Kohaku finally announced. “You’re clear. Take the exit and head home. I’ll do clean up.”

Clean up, in this case, was part of the reason for why they couldn’t simply instantly teleport everyone home. There were spells and certain abilities that could track such transports. Anyone on the loyalists’ side who figured out the general area where a transport had happened could potentially track the destination. That would lead them to the Atherby camp. The solution was this subterfuge, as well as leaving someone behind (Kohaku in this case) to magically wipe the traces of transport so that they couldn’t be followed.

“Good work, guys,” the former Crossroads security chief added, “and thanks.”

That was all the invitation Rebecca needed. Joined by Gordon and Jazz, she all but ran to the restroom. The twins were there, along with Deveron and Asenath. When Sands saw her enter, she gave Rebecca a thumbs up. “She’s through,” the girl assured her. “We’re all good.”

Without missing a beat, Rebecca all but hurled herself at Asenath. Hugging the vampire would have been utterly horrific and terrifying a month earlier. Now, she didn’t care. She held tight while blurting,”You found her! You actually found her!”

“We said we would,” Asenath reminded her with a small smile, returning the embrace. “Though hugs are pretty good payment, I’ve gotta say. I could use more of those.”

Blushing, Rebecca took a moment to embrace Deveron as well. “Thank you,” she murmured, “Thank you for finding my grandma.”

“It really wasn’t that hard,” the man admitted. “She was helping a group of glasswalkers and they… well, let’s just say they were in good shape with her.” Stepping back, he gestured. “But enough of us. Why don’t you head through? She’s waiting for you. And let me tell you, she is one proud grandmother.”

“Yup,” Asenath agreed. “Nine hour bus ride just to make sure no one can track us back to the camp, and she hasn’t stopped talking about you once.”

The thought of that made Rebecca blush, squirming on her feet before looking over to the exit point. The portal looked like a glowing blue square on the wall. Smiling even while trying to contain her overwhelming excitement and giddiness, Rebecca stepped through. She braced herself for the brief feeling of this disorientation and slight nausea that would come from the sudden transport.

The moment cleared, and she was standing on the waiting patch of grass about fifty yards from the nearest cabin, the glistening lake visible to her right.

An instant later, she found herself suddenly grabbed in an embrace that nearly took the wind from her. “Weasel!” her ‘captor’ blurted.

“Grandma!” Rebecca clutched onto the other woman, who was no taller than she. Both quickly stepped away from the portal to avoid the others while still clinging to one another. Rebecca felt like crying, clutching her grandmother even tighter. “Grandma, you made it, you made it!”

In a soft, fond tone, Lillian Patters replied,  “Well of course I did, Weasel. Did you really think I’d leave you out here to camp without me?”

Squeezing the woman as tightly as she could for a moment while fighting to control the tears that were trying to pour down her face, Rebecca tried to get a hold of herself. Finally, she managed a weak, “Mom and Dad?”

There was a brief pause, before Lillian leaned back to look at her granddaughter. Her voice was quiet. “I haven’t heard,” she admitted. “Have you…”

Rebecca‘s head shook. “Nothing. I don’t know if they’re out in one of the groups that haven’t come in yet, or if they’re prisoners, or…” She trailed off, face screwing up a bit.

“We’ll find out,” Grandma Lillian promised while squeezing her tighter. “If they need help escaping, we’ll get them out. And if they need a little help waking up still… Well, we’ll handle that too.”

Choking back the tiny sob of relief she felt just by her grandmother’s presence, Rebecca managed a somewhat teary smile. “I’m glad you’re here, Grandma.”

“Oh Weasel,” Lillian murmured, moving a hand to cup the side of the girl’s face. “I’m glad you’re here too. I am so proud of you making it this far.”

Blushing, Rebecca shook her head. “I haven’t really done much,” she admitted. “I’ve been pretty clueless all year.”

Hesitating briefly, she peeked at the woman. “Is it really true that you were part of the very first rebellion? Right from the beginning, I mean. With Deveron and Flick’s mom.”

“Deveron…” Smiling to herself, Lillian gave a quick nod. “Yup. I knew him back before he killed that Incubus thing, when he still looked all goofy. Jos liked him even then, you know. They were…” She went quiet for a moment, looking away while lost in her memories. “They were always a thing. Even before they knew it. We knew. The rest of the…” Swallowing hard, the woman looked back to her granddaughter. “Your middle name–”

“Joselyn,” Rebecca confirmed, head bobbing quickly. “You remembered her. Sort of, I mean.”

“Sort of,” Lillian agreed. “Somewhere in the back of my mind. I…” She straightened, taking her granddaughter by both sides of the face before leaning in to kiss her forehead. “You are amazing, Weasel. You really are.”

“She is.” That was Deveron, who had come through the portal with the others. He stood there, watching the two of them with a broad smile. “You know, if you stood on each other’s shoulders, you both might reach the height of a normal human b–oww!” He grunted, stepping back as Lillian put her fist in his side.

“Same old Deveron,” the woman muttered, squinting at him. “You still don’t know when to stop talking.”

Grinning at her, the man retorted, “Worth it.”

Despite her words, Lillian was smiling as well, her hand moving to grab onto her granddaughter’s. “Your children and Joselyn’s other daughter, they’re…”

“They’re here,” Rebecca put in, squeezing the woman’s hand. “Wyatt and Abigail and… and Flick. Do… do you want to meet them?”

With a little nod, Lillian agreed, “I’d like that very much. The last time I saw… Zedekiah and Koren together, they were… well, they were still Zedekiah and Koren. And babies.”

“Go ahead,” Deveron urged the pair, glancing back over to the camp. “They’re… over that way, by the lake. Looks like all three of them are there. With the actual Koren.”

Heading that way with her grandmother, Rebecca hesitantly asked, “They said you were helping some Glasswalkers? What happened?”

So, the woman told her about how her memory had come back, and that she had helped the group of Alters escape. “They’re okay now,” she informed the girl. “They made it to another group that was going to take them to Wonderland. That’s–”

“I’ve heard of it,” Rebecca quickly informed her. “The others told me about that place. It’s like a Stranger ha–I mean Alter haven, right?”

Nodding, Lillian looked to the much younger girl. “You’ve learned a lot over the past month, haven’t you?”

“Not enough,” Rebecca admitted. “I’ve been trying to catch up, but… but it’s a lot.” She swallowed hard. “I feel stupid for going along with Crossroads for so long. I mean, they… they hurt and kill a lot of innocent creatures… I mean… people, or… or…”

“I know what you mean,” Lillian quietly assured her. “It’s okay, Weasel. Lots of people fell for their propaganda. Until Joselyn came along that first time, I did.”

“Joselyn… she was pretty special, huh?” Rebecca hesitantly offered, glancing to her grandmother.

Lillian’s smile was both incredibly fond, and incredibly sad at how much they had lost. Particularly time. “Yes. Yes, she is. She’s my best friend, Rebecca. She was my best friend for… for so long. Not since we met. We kind of… fought at first, when we were put together. We argued so much for about the first month or so. Then things changed. She saved my life on a hunt and from there… well, we were almost inseparable. I would have followed her right into a volcano. Actually, I think I did a couple times.” She laughed to herself a little before looking over to the girl. “Joselyn has a way of inspiring people to do ridiculous things.”

Her smile fell a bit then. “And now… now she’s been in this… she needed me and I wasn’t there. I couldn’t help save her twins, and then I couldn’t… I couldn’t stop Fossor from taking her. I forgot her.” Her voice was hollow, eyes filled with regret.

“You didn’t know,” Rebecca quickly put in, hating to see her grandmother like that. “It was magic, they… they erased your memory. You couldn’t have been there.” She squeezed the woman’s hand, staring up at her as their gradual walk slowed.

Breathing in, then out, Lillian gave a slight nod. “I know. But that doesn’t really help very much. Jos needed me and I wasn’t there. I haven’t been there for so long. The things Crossroads did–the things they made me do after they knew how I felt, what I chose… the…” She stopped talking then, blinking rapidly before forcing herself to focus on her granddaughter. For a moment, she just pulled the girl into a hug, needing that connection.

For Rebecca’s part, she certainly wasn’t objecting. Returning the hug tightly, she murmured, “It’s okay, Grandma. The spell’s gone. You… you remember now. And we’re gonna find Flick’s mom, before…”

Hearing the girl trail off, Lillian blinked. “Before what?” she asked with a frown.

“I…” Swallowing, Rebecca gestured toward the lake where the others would be waiting. “Flick’s birthday. Something…”

“Fossor,” Lillian guessed, eyes darkening. “He wants to take her on her birthday, doesn’t he?” Seeing her granddaughter’s hesitant nod, she cursed under her breath. “Over my dead–” Stopping herself, the woman met the younger girl’s gaze. “We’ll see about that. Now come on. I really need to see how my tiny twin tykes grew up. And if their cheeks are just as pinchable as they used to be.”

“Uh, I know you’re a real badass, Grandma,” Rebecca offered, “but you probably shouldn’t try to pinch Wyatt’s cheek.

“That just seems like a really bad idea.”

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Summer Epilogue 2B (Heretical Edge)

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“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”

As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.

With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”

“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.

Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”

Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”

Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”

Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”

“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.

“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”

Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”

Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”

It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong

If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.

“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”

It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.

******

Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.

“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”

“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.

“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”

“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”

The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”

Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”

The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”

Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.

“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”

Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.

Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”

That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”

Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”

All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”

“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.

Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”

“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”

“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”

“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.

Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”

That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”

While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”

In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”

They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.

“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.

The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”

“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”

The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.

They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.

“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”

Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”

If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.

Biting her lip, Marissa hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”

“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marissa once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”

“Next mee–” Marissa started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.

“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”

Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”

“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”

Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”

That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”

“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”

“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”

“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”

Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”

“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”

Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”

“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.

Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the sword at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little.  “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”

“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”

“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”

Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.

She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.

“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”

Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”

“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.

The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”

That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.

Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.

“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.

“You just needed the right students.”

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Exodus 44-06

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Please note that there is an important opinion question in my first comment after this chapter regarding where the new upcoming second story that will be written side-by-side with the second year of this one will be posted. Anyone who has a chance and a preference, it would be great if you could take a look and let me know what you think. Thank you. 

We started running. Dozens of us, by that point. There was me, Avalon, Aylen, Shiori, Columbus, and a bunch of hybrid students, each of whom had friends or teammates who were coming along.

Well, they started running. I took a few steps before stumbling a little bit. When I did, everyone looked at each other before Columbus of all people held a hand out. “It’s okay,” he said quietly, “I… trust you.” Despite his words, there was tension in his voice that told me, as if I hadn’t already known how big this was.

I met his gaze for a moment, then took his hand and possessed the boy. I made a point of staying out of his thoughts. Still, I could tell even from surface impressions that he was nervous. Not that I personally would do anything, but just… the idea of having anyone who could take control of him. He didn’t like it, and even though he trusted me, he wanted me out as soon as possible.

We were all following Harper. Or… or… Lancelot. Lancelot. We were following Harper, who was actually Lancelot. Yeah, that was taking awhile to sink in. Even with Tabbris having a complete ranting fangirl moment in my head, going on about how awesome that was, complete with her own mental sound effects.

There were others following. Some of the teachers and other students were trailing behind, blurting out confused words or demands about what was going on or about where we were going. But after what had just happened with Ruthers, not even any of the staff were willing to get in the newly-transformed Harper’s way. Which meant they weren’t willing to get in our way. So instead, they just followed along with a bunch of other students who had no idea what was going on.

And it wasn’t like there was time to explain it. Because Harper, or Lancelot, or whoever she happened to be was right. The rest of the Committee would be on its way. We had to leave.

Running beside Columbus, Shiori blurted, “Do you think the shield’ll be down before we get there?”

Before anyone could say answer that, Deveron was suddenly there. “It’s down,” he informed her, and the rest of us. “Where’s–”

“In me,” Columbus put in. “Easier to run.”

Deveron gave a quick nod then, briefly looking around as we ran before his gaze fell on the new Harper at the head of the pack. “We can get… Who–what…” He paused, as though realizing that he’d missed something enormous.  “…. What just happened?”

“Dude…” Shiori managed, “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”

“She’s right,” Columbus put in while Vulcan gave a low bark to the side. “You really wouldn’t.”

“Short version,” Avalon announced. “Harper is Lancelot. Yeah, that one. She just beat Ruthers and made him retreat. But he’ll probably be back with more help. We’re leaving.”

“Wait, wait, back up to the part about beating Ruthers,” Deveron started. “Because I really–”

Shiori shook her head quickly, interrupting. “Sorry, we super don’t have time for you to get popcorn for the play-by-play. You said the shield was down?”

Koren joined us then, nodding quickly. “It’s down, we’re–wait, are we taking the whole school?”

I felt Columbus open his mouth to respond to that, but someone else spoke first. It was Nevada. She appeared in front of us just as we reached the beach, looking briefly taken aback by the size of the group  before nodding over her shoulder. “Go, guys! If you’re leaving, get to the boat out there.”

“Yeah, guys,” Sands piped up. She and Scout were there next to Nevada, along with their mother and Doug. “Let’s get on the boat and get the hell out of here.”

“No, just stop!” That was Reid Rucker, the acting head of security with Kohaku on her recovery vacation, previously her second-in-command. The man came out of nowhere, panting briefly as he straightened up with a shotgun in one hand and a shield in the other. His eyes scanned the group. The hybrids, their friends, and my people were all clustered together, with the rest of the students and older teachers back a bit. Everyone had skidded to a halt when Nevada appeared. Now they looked to Rucker, some anxiously, some angrily, and some with relief.

“I don’t know who you are,” Rucker announced, his eyes on Harp–Lancelot (seriously, what the fuck) as he continued. “But no one is going anywhere. This is all just one big misunderstanding, okay? There’s no evacuation order. There’s no Strangers overrunning the school. It’s all going to be straightened out. Everyone just calm down and back up.”

It was Deveron who spoke then, before anyone else could. “Sorry, man. We’re leaving. So can anyone who wants to come with.”

Some of the students who didn’t know what was going on started to all talk over each other, asking why anyone would want to leave. They were interrupted by one of the older teachers, who spoke up. “Rucker’s right. I don’t know what exactly is happening here, but no one needs to leave. Let’s all take a breath and remember that we’re on the same side.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Or the right thing. Because it prompted Shiori to blurt, “Are we?!”

That brought everyone’s, and I do mean everyone’s attention to her. They were staring, as the Asian girl flushed a little, shrinking back reflexively before stopping herself. She straightened, glancing to the other obvious Hybrids. Then she looked back to the teacher who had spoken, and the rest of the students who had followed us this far. “Are we really on the same side?” she began, her voice cracking briefly. “Because… because…”

Stepping out of Columbus (taking Rucker by surprise, by his reaction), I reached out, putting a hand on Shiori’s shoulder. Columbus himself did the same, his voice soft. “It’s okay.”

It was enough. Shiori spoke more clearly then. “Because I’m not human. Not completely.”

She pushed on while the confused murmuring started, ignoring all of it. “They’re going to tell you lies. They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters, that our parents were monsters. They’re going to tell you anything they can to avoid admitting the truth, that we’re people. We’re just people. My father is human. My mother… isn’t. My sister isn’t. I’m half-human. I’m a Hybrid.”

“So am I.” That was one of the second-year students, a lanky boy with dark, shaggy hair. He was surrounded by what looked like his entire team, all of whom were right at his side and looked like they already knew all of this. “I’m a Hybrid. My father isn’t human either. And he’s not a monster. Neither am I.”

“That’s right,” a red-haired, freckled girl that was clearly part of his team put in. “Miles isn’t a monster, you dickheads.”

There were a few more agreements with that, while the teachers and all the students who hadn’t known what was going on looked at them with a wide assortment of reactions. I saw confusion, betrayal, understanding, relief, anger, pity, and more all spread throughout everyone who was seeing and hearing these words.

Shiori continued. “They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters because we’re not completely human! They’re going to tell you that it’s a lie, that we were always monsters and that Gaia just shoved human DNA in us to let us become Heretics. They’re the ones who are lying!

Another voice spoke up then. Rebecca Jameson blurted at her roommate, “Sh-Shiori? What… what are you talking about? What’s going on? Aylen, Koren? What are you guys doing? What–are… are you really…”

“We’re not monsters,” Aylen said in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet and yet audible to everyone. “We’re just people. Our parents aren’t evil.”

“Speak for yourself,” one of the other Hybrids muttered before flushing with a mumbled apology.

“That’s the point!” Avalon suddenly cut in. “Some are evil, some aren’t! This isn’t rocket science! Good people, bad people, good Strangers, bad Strangers! It’s not advanced ethics, it’s fucking kindergarten!”

“What are you talking about?” That was one of the third-year students who had no clue what was happening. She moved forward out of the crowd, shaking her head. “You guys aren’t related to Strangers. That’s ridiculous. You’re… you’re just…”

“Just people?” Dare finished for her. She was there, coming through the crowd with Hisao right at her side. I felt an immediate rush of relief at the sight of her. She and Hisao had clearly been through… well, a lot. Both of them looked worn and ragged. And wet. Really wet. They were both soaked through for some reason, neither apparently taking the time to dry themselves even with powers or magic. They moved together, Dare continuing to address the student who had spoken. “Yes, they’re just people, Theresa. That’s the point. No one is born a monster. You choose to be one, or you don’t.”

That caused even more murmuring, everyone trying to talk over one another. There were small arguments breaking out throughout the crowd of onlooking students and teachers. I saw some staff members trying to quiet them, and, unfortunately, I even saw a couple small shoving fights break out in the crowd. A few people shouted about how we were lying, others about how their hybrid class and teammates were monsters. That started even more arguments, and the whole thing looked like it was going to turn into an all-out brawl.  

“Stop, stop!” That was Reid Rucker again, his voice shaking just a little as he pointed to us. “No more. I don’t what’s going on here, but this… this joke has gone far enough. You’re done now.”

“Quite right, Mr. Rucker,” a new voice spoke up. “That is enough.”

It was Litonya. She was there, along with a recovered Ruthers, the Asian woman Jue, and the big black guy, Geta. Four Committee members, none of them friendly. They stood facing us down, looking pretty much as though they would like nothing more than an excuse to end this whole thing permanently and without mercy. Worse, they were joined very quickly by more of their people, more loyal Committee lackeys who looked as though they were spoiling for an excuse to fight. Their presence also quieted all the arguments that had started throughout the crowd, as everyone snapped basically to attention, staring that way.

Litonya continued. “There will be no leaving the island. We have indulged far too much nonsense this year, and leading up to it. Everything will be put back to its proper place now.”

“Proper place?” Gordon started then, as he came into view from the beach. Jazz was with him, along with Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, Larees, Misty, her brother Duncan, Enguerrand, and a few others. And Gabriel Prosser, he was there too. That was enough to make a few people start whispering again, their wide eyes locked on the man who had become a legend even amongst Crossroads despite not being part of them.

Gordon continued, while everyone who didn’t know what was going on reacted to his sudden appearance. “You mean in the ground for me and everyone like me? Or cages, like Eden’s Garden has done with my father? That’s what you mean by proper place, right? Are you better because you kill us rather than enslave us?”

More people appeared. More of Prosser’s people from the Atherby camp. They faced down the Committee and their people, the tension high enough that it seemed to make an almost audible buzzing sound. There was a war brewing, one that had been building up for a long time and was now right on the cusp of breaking out.

“Jazz!?” Travis Colby blurted, sounding more shocked by her appearance than by anything else. “You’re okay!? You’re–you’re… what the fuck?”

That last bit was because Jazz had been joined by Jokai. Yeah. He was there, standing beside her as Jazz took his hand. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Hey, guys. Guess what, I have a boyfriend.”

Your degenerate filth is not welcome here!” The shout came from Jue, the handsome Asian woman practically screaming it, spittle flying from her lips as she threw her hand out, sending a bolt of orange fire that way.

It was caught by Prosser, who held a hand up to make a brief energy shield to stop the fire. “Raise a hand to those under my protection again, any of you,” he advised, “and I promise you will regret it.”

Litonya seemed to be analyzing the situation, her eyes snapping back and forth between the crowd of supporters behind them, the confused students and teachers who didn’t know what to do, our group, and Gabriel Prosser and his people. Finally, she snapped, “Enough. This has gone on for far too long. We end it now, beginning with Headmistress Sinclaire admitting what she did, what she has been doing.”

Her fingers snapped, and Gaia herself appeared between Geta and Jue. Her wrists were shackled with what were clearly magical chains, yet she appeared just as regal and in control as ever.

As the rest of the students blurted the headmistress’s name, or started shouting questions, Avalon said something very different. Taking a step that way, her mouth opened and she spoke a single word that cut through everything else.  

“Mom.”

It was quiet, plaintive, and desperate. It was a single word, a word full of yearning, apologies, and need. Avalon said it, and with it, she said a whole lot more.

Everyone else had stopped with that word, and the tone and meaning behind it. For a few long seconds, Gaia and Avalon simply met gazes, before the woman gave a soft smile. “It’s okay, Valley,” she said quietly. “It’s going to be okay.”

Litonya was pointing to her. “No, it really won’t. Not for you, or for any of your conspirators. You never should have been given this position, witch. And you will never hold it again. You will confess your part in all of this. You will tell everyone that you murdered Oliver because of what he discovered about your activities. You will tell everyone just how much you have perverted our institution for your own ends. You will confess all of it.”

Gaia, however, wasn’t looking at her. Her eyes were on the new Harper. On Lancelot. She stared, head tilting a little. “You… you’re… you were…” Then she gave a single, soft little laugh, a chuckle. “Take care of them, please, until I can come back.”

“Yes,” Harper agreed in a voice that made it clear that there was a lot more behind what they were saying to each other than any of us had a chance of following. “I will. I have.”

Litonya opened her mouth to say something else then, but Gaia interrupted. “Miss Chambers,” she started, looking to me of all people. “It’s time for a revelation.”

I heard the others saying something. I heard demands being flung around, words of confusion from other teachers, threats from the Committee, all of it. I heard it, but I didn’t care.

Because I finally remembered.

******

Several months ago, in January

 

“So I really won’t remember anything about this?” I hesitantly asked Gaia while standing in her office beside a table that she had conjured up. My eyes were focused on the two items laying in the middle of that table.

The headmistress gave a slight nod. “That is the easiest, safest way of doing this.” Her eyes softened a bit then as she watched me. “This is very dangerous, Miss… Felicity. What we are doing, what we want to do, it is not something to be undertaken lightly. If anyone learns what we intend before we are ready, it will be… dangerous, for everyone involved. You will do what you need to do, but you will not know why. You will not remember why it is that important.”

I swallowed. “I understand. You have to keep everyone safe. You have to keep the secret safe.”

“You are very good at keeping secrets, Felicity,” Gaia assured me. “But this one… it is better if you don’t have to think about it until it’s time. Until I tell you that it is time for a revelation. That will be the signal for the spell blocking your memory of this to fade, the signal that it is time to use the spell that we have created.”

Stepping over to the table then, I reached out, hesitating slightly before setting my hands almost reverently against the items that rested there. “So I’ll just stop looking for these?”

“You will move on to other things,” Gaia assured me with a slight smile. “I trust you will not run out of items and mysteries to occupy your time.”

Shrugging at that, I nodded. “I guess so. But you really think I can just write in a notebook for months without knowing why I’m doing it? Hell, not just write it in it. You’re talking about me powering it with magic for months without knowing why I’m doing it, about me protecting it and keeping it secret. And in all that time, I won’t know why?”

Gaia chuckled. “Part of you will, I’m sure. It’s just that your conscious mind will not. That’s the safest way. Unless you disagree. If you would prefer not to do this–”

“No,” I interrupted quickly. “No, I want to. I… I want to do it.” Looking to her, I bit my lip before adding, “Whatever it takes. Block my memories, hide it from me, I don’t care. It’s worth it. If… if it does what you say it will, it’s worth anything.”

For a few silent seconds then, our gazes met. Gaia watched me with a soft, almost sad smile. “You’re right, of course,” she murmured under her breath. “This is worth it. We will begin the spell and block it from your memory.”

“And you’re really sure I won’t remember?” I had to ask once more. “I won’t remember our plan, or what I’m really doing, or… or anything about it? It won’t even bother me that I don’t remember?”

Gaia winked at me. “You won’t even remember that I’ve already teased you about your rather important conversation with Avalon and Shiori about your relationships when I do so again, after your memory is blocked.”

I started to nod to that. “Right, I won’t rememb–wait, what?”

*****

“A revelation?” That was Ruthers, gaze snapping back and forth between us. “No. Stop her. Stop them. Something’s wrong. Something is wrong, they’ve planned. She has a weapon of some kind, a–”

It was too late. I had my notebook, the one I’d been writing in ever since that meeting at Gaia’s office, the one that I had taken care of and kept on me every chance I had even though I didn’t really know why I was doing so. The one that Tabbris had clearly known, but kept silent about. I held it, while everyone stared at me.

“That is not a weapon,” Jue observed, her tone dismissive as she gave a quick look at it.

“You’re wrong about that,” I informed her simply. “This is the most dangerous weapon in the world, the one that terrifies you guys beyond everything else. This? This is knowledge. It’s news. And you know what I was before you people brought me here?

“I was a reporter.”  

With those words, I extended my other hand and spoke the word that Gaia had told me about months earlier, the word that summoned one of the items that had been on her table.

Mom’s Hunga Munga. That was what had been there that day. One of them appeared in my hand, and seeing it drove all four Committee members to action. They tried to stop me, tried to stop what was about to happen. But between Gabriel, Harper, and the rest of the Atherby’s, even four Committee members couldn’t get to me in time.

I dropped the notebook I had written in all year, and hurled the throwing axe through the middle of it.

The notebook burst into flames and disintegrated as the spell came to life. The spell connected itself to the Hunga Munga. And through that, to its partner, the other Hunga Munga, which I knew from our conversation months ago would be seated in the middle of the ritual table in a secret, hidden area of Gaia’s private rooms. The second throwing axe, partner to this one, would be tied by a bit of rope from the Crossroads’ Reaper’s hangman rope that Gaia had sent Asenath to retrieve. The rope, a bit of dragon bone, and other pieces of the ritual, secretly prepared over the past few months for this exact moment.

No one could stop it now. The spell came to life. And in an instant, everything that I had written in the notebook was sent through the minds of every single person connected to the Heretical Edge, to the Reaper whose rope had been used for this.

Two things. I’d written two things in that notebook. First, I’d written down everything I’d learned about my mother. Who she was, what she’d done, everything she had accomplished. Everything about the rebellion, about how Ruthers had stopped it, about Wyatt and Abigail being abducted and held hostage. About Mom being taken by Fossor after spending years in Laramie Falls. Everything. All of it. Everything I knew about my mother and her rebellion against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden.

The other thing I had written in that notebook was the spell that Gaia had told me to add to the very end. The spell that would, apparently, undo the memory eraser that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden had done to finally end the rebellion. It was a spell she always could have done, but it would only work on one person at a time. There was no way to hit everyone.

Until now. Until they had something that connected everyone. Like that piece of the Hangman’s rope. Because all of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were connected to that. All of them were connected to him. Everyone was connected to the Heretical Edge.

In that single motion, with the spell that Gaia had spent decades preparing before I even came along, and the past few months finalizing, we erased the spell that had ended the rebellion. But we did more than that. Because it wasn’t just old Heretics, those who had known the rebellion and chosen a side at the time, who remembered. It was everyone. Every single Heretic who had ever come through Crossroads or Eden’s Garden suddenly knew the truth.

They knew my mother. They knew what she had done, what she had stood for. They knew who she was.

The rebellion wasn’t erased anymore.

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Before The Vault 41-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theia brightened. “So you have met her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Bonus Interlude – Team Stranded

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“All the planets in the universe,” Sands Mason announced, “and it turns out that the last piece of the banishment orb thing that we need to fix what was done to Mr. Moon happens to be on the first real alien world that my team went to?”

It was true. She, along with Jazz, Roxa, Gordon, Haiden, and Larissa, were standing on one of the many sandy dunes across the Meregan homeworld.

“It’s not too surprising,” Haiden pointed out. “Tristan was brought here, after all. So of course one of the bits of the broken orb is here too.”

Larissa nodded. “And we’ve got all the others. This is the last one. Once we get it… we can go home.”

Their search had been immeasurably hastened with the aid of Athena. With the woman and her people, they had very quickly tracked down all the other remaining pieces, a process which, without that aid, very likely could have taken at least another year. With Athena and the Aelaestiam, it had taken only a couple of weeks.

Most of that time, honestly, had been spent getting back to the Aelaestiam base. And once they were there, they had gotten the somewhat disturbing news that there had been a visit from Chayyiel, who had simply walked into the top secret base with what was apparently the sole purpose of killing Isaac.

Isaac was dead. Just like that. It was still a strange thought for the students to get used to. As big of a piece of shit as he had turned out to be, it was still… still hard to think that he was just dead like that. Not hard from grief, really. More hard from… disbelief was one word for it. It didn’t seem real.

Beyond just freaking out about Chayyiel (though mostly before that had happened), Athena’s people had been working to find the rest of the shards, to the point that they’d either had direct portals set up to the area the shards were in, or actually had the shards themselves. All except for a couple, of which this was the last one.

Athena herself was busy with a certain other matter at that moment, along with Apollo. But they had both promised to meet them as soon as possible. And Dries had chosen to stay on the ship with Jokai. Which left the rest of the small group to find this final piece.

Roxa spoke up then. “So, we’re in a giant sandbox, and we’ve got to find a little shard about the size of my pinky finger. Not to mention the magic radiation crap Fossor left all over the place we need to search. Good thing we’ve got ways of cheating or this might be kind of hard.”

Haiden started walking then. “We’ll go to the… affected area, as close as we can get to where the scans narrowed it down to. Then we’ll send our little friends out from there.”

No one was surprised by the man’s eagerness to get started. After all, his entire family was back on Earth waiting for him to finally get there. He’d been waiting long enough.

As they all moved that way, Gordon looked to Sands, quietly asking, “So the Meregan, they all left with Nicholas Petan after you guys woke them up and settled the misunderstanding?”

“The ones who were left from the scouting ship after Fossor got done with the rest of their population,” the girl confirmed. “Most of them did anyway. I asked Tristan about it before, and he said there was a group who stayed here to try and rebuild something. But I’m not sure where they are right now. The odds that we’d happen to run into them with this entire planet to work with are… not huge.”

Roxa shook her head. “That’s still confusing. Tristan was frozen for a few years so he was still a little kid when you guys first met him. Then he went off and spent years with his great-whatever grandpa Nick to get up to the age we all are before being sent back in time to meet Flick and the others.” She paused, then shook her head. “Time travel always overcomplicates things. It’s annoying.”

Larissa smiled faintly. “Just be glad that there aren’t clones involved yet.”

They walked for another few minutes. Now they weren’t simply moving through featureless rolling sand dunes. There were ruins around them, the skeletal remains of structures that had been long-since destroyed. They could see single walls here or there, or even large, partly-intact pieces of buildings. It was an entire city that had been utterly destroyed many, many years earlier.

Haiden held up his hand. He held a sheet of paper in the other, his brow furrowed as he watched it. “That‘s it,” the man announced. “Dries’ spell says that we’re right at the edge. The shard is somewhere ahead of us, in that area about one square mile across.”

Jazz spoke up then. “So all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack the length of seventeen football fields. No big deal.”

Reaching out, Roxa patted the other girl on the back. “That’s why we’ve got our little helpers, remember?” Pausing, she amended, “Not so little in some of our cases.”

“Yeah,” Sands muttered, “and the fact that whatever Fossor did to this place before means it’s still poisoned even now.”

That, more than anything, was why they were not going to be able to go inside of that area with their human bodies. The magical radiation-like poison covering the land would have killed them entirely too quickly, powers be damned. Still, they had other options.

“Everyone get comfortable,” Larissa instructed. She had already produced a couple of blankets and laid them out for the group to sit on. “It shouldn’t take too long to find the shard, but still. We’ve got water and food. Keep your strength up and don’t try to act tough about it. If you need a break, take it.”

They all sat, arranging themselves before each took out a bit of wood that had already been prepared with the theriangelos spell.

It was the same spell that Flick used to summon her fox. Athena, Larissa, and Haiden had taught it to the kids over the past couple of weeks. Taught it to them, that was, with a bit of an upgrade. With the addition to the spell, the animals that were summoned would be able to track the first object they touched, or things related to it. In this case, they had brought along a piece of the broken orb with them. When the animals touched that piece, they would be able to sense the other piece if they were close enough.

Larissa finished first, a testament to how experienced she was in using this particular spell. At that moment, as she tossed it in the air, the enchanted bit of wood transformed into a small hummingbird. Its belly, bits around its eyes, and its beak were pink, the same aura color as her daughters. Meanwhile, the rest of its body was the standard red that existed on all of these summoned animals.

Haiden was the next to finish. His own stick grew much larger and shifted before becoming a red and bronze jaguar.

Almost directly after that, Gordon finished his own casting. His stick, like Larissa‘s, grew into a bird. His, however, was a great horned owl with a green body, while the underside of its wings, as well as its talons and beak, were red.  

Sands was next. Where the others had only grown a bit, with Haiden’s jaguar being the largest, hers exploded in size. It suddenly become an enormous rhinoceros, with a red main body and pink horn, face, and underside.

Jazz’s own animal grew large as well. Not as much as the rhino, but still big. Hers was a horse, its main body the white of her aura, while its hooves, mane, and tail were red.

Finally, there was Roxa. Her animal was… unique. At first glance, it appeared to be a wild cat, similar to Haiden’s jaguar though much smaller at only about twenty pounds. It was larger than a housecat, yet much smaller than a leopard or a cheetah. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be an odd combination between a cat and a weasel of some kind, along with a long tail similar to a monkey. The tail itself was about as long as the rest of the animal.

Despite its apparent similarity to a cat, the animal was not a feline. It was more closely related to a mongoose. The thing was quick and agile, able to rush through the trees and keep its balance with its semi retractable claws and that long tail.

Then there was its name, the name which had convinced all of the kids that Haiden and Larissa were messing with them somehow and had made Roxa spit out the water she had been drinking when they’d said it.

Fossa. The animal was called a fossa. Which was a name that was so close to a certain other name that everyone had misheard them the first time and thought they were saying that Roxa’s animal was somehow related to a psychotic necromancer. It was, however, apparently an animal native only to Madagascar. How that ended up being her animal Roxa would probably never understand.

The fossa was a rich mixture of bronze and red, her aura matching both Haiden and Tristan. When she and Tristan had first discovered their auras were identical, Tristan had joked that maybe he had another long lost relative. Roxa had snickered at the time, but now she was seriously leaning toward demanding a DNA test, given everything else that seemed to be happening.

That was their rather eclectic collection of animals, the menagerie they would use to search this area of desert. They had a jaguar, a hummingbird, an owl, a horse, a rhino, and a fossa.

It was still extremely disconcerting to experience the world through two different sets of senses in two different locations, so they all shut their human eyes and tried to ignore that side of themselves as much as possible. Instead, they focused their attention through their animals and began to spread out from there. They would work in pairs, in case one of them missed something. Haiden’s jaguar would search with Larissa’s hummingbird, Sands’ rhino with Jazz’s horse, and Roxa’s fossa with Gordon’s owl.

The other upgrade that they had received to the spell and worked into it, thanks to Athena in that case, was the ability to communicate through their animals. Each of the summoned and controlled creatures was capable of silent, essentially telepathic communication. Not that it was specifically needed when their human selves were sitting right next to one another, but it was still a nice thing to have. And having the communication be at the site of the animals instead of their human bodies would make it easier to avoid confusion about who was talking to who.

Did you talk to Jokai? As Sands’ rhino lumbered along through the sand, she addressed the horse beside her. About the um, the plan.

There was a moment of silence from the other girl briefly before she confirmed, He’s coming back to Earth with us. We’re going to help with whatever we can and all that. She paused once more before finishing with, And then when Athena leaves to come back out here, we’re coming with her. There was a firm note of finality to her words. I am not staying on Earth and I’m not going back to Crossroads.

Feeling a pang deep in her stomach (which was an odd sensation for it happening so far away from where they were having the actual discussion), Sands replied, I understand. I think we’ll all understand. But we’ll still miss you, you know.

Having her horse bump up against the other animal affectionately, Jazz injected a bit of brightness into her silent voice. Don’t worry so much. If Athena‘s plan about fixing up that prototype ship works, we’ll be able to go back and forth and visit whenever we want. So it’s not like it’ll be the last time we see each other or anything.

Sighing then, she added, I just can’t stay there, you know? I can’t go back to Crossroads and deal with all their lies. I can’t be a part of hunting Strangers when I’m in love with one of them. I love Jokai. I’m not going to pretend or hide that part of myself anymore than I absolutely have to. I’m just not going to.

It was Sands’ turn to make her rhino bump up against the horse. Like I said, we understand. Believe me, we get it. No one blames you, and I’m pretty sure everyone basically saw it coming.

Still, we’re going to have to throw a huge party before you leave again.

Meanwhile, Roxa and Gordon’s animals were moving through the ruined desert city faster than their heavier, larger counterparts. Leaping from the sand up to a half broken wall, Roxa’s fossa turned its head to look up as the boy’s owl glided by overhead. You should talk to Flick’s friend Miranda, you know. Or even to that Seller guy. If anyone can help you find out where your dad is or what’s going on with him, it’s people who live at Eden’s Garden.

Alighting on top of the jagged remains of a pillar, Gordon replied, You know, I was about to deny having any idea what you were talking about? I suppose I might have been keeping it secret for a bit too long. It’s reflex. He paused briefly then before agreeing, And yeah, I guess there are people I can ask for help.

Believe me, Roxa assured him, it’s a pretty new sensation for me too. But hey, when we get back, I’ll find out if any of the wolves my pack is friends with know anything about Garden’s prisoners. Sure, it’s a longshot. But every little bit could help. And before you say anything, I’ll keep your name out of it.

Gordon flew ahead a bit while she trailed along beneath him, nimbly jumping from wall to wall. After a minute of that, he asked, So you’re not going back to Crossroads either, huh? Like Jazz. I mean, technically you have the choker. It’s your choice.

Roxa’s answer was firm. My pack was loyal to me and accepted me even when they knew I was a Heretic. I like Gaia and my friends at the school, but I’m not going to live in a place that would kill me if they knew the truth. I’m not abandoning my pack. Not for people like that.

So yes, I guess Jazz and I are both leaving Crossroads for good.

In the third search area, the bronze and red jaguar trotted through a ruined building while the hummingbird flitted back and forth seemingly wildly in the air above.

We are getting pretty close to going home, you know, Haiden noted. I am pretty sure the others are already talking about what they’re going to do. But what about you?

There was a brief moment of silence before Larissa let him hear her sigh a little bit. I’ve been working for so long, trying to get back to my girls… I’ve put off thinking about what to do about Liam. There was pain and regret in her voice. Part of me still loves him, still wants him. But it’s been so long and everything he did is still in my head. It would be one thing if he seemed guilty about it, but I don’t think he does. I think he still believes he did the right thing. Which means I can’t trust him. What would he do to me or our girls in the name of toeing the Crossroads line, if he turn on his friends like that? Maybe nothing. I want to say nothing. But what if? And that what if is going to destroy our marriage.

Haiden started to respond that he and his family would be there for her and her girls no matter what happened. Before he could say more than a couple words, however, a voice back at their bodies spoke up.

“Hey,” Sands announced, “Jazz and me, we’ve got something. It’s either the shard or this tracking spell is screwing up. We think it’s in this building here.”

The other animals converged on the building that the horse and rhino were waiting outside of. Sure enough, as they got closer, each of the summoned creatures felt a tug toward the building. The shard they were looking for was definitely inside.

So, they searched. Jazz had her horse trot around the outside of the building to narrow down where the sense was the strongest. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino knocked down walls and cleared rubble inside as the rest did the actual searching.

Roxa found it, in the end, though she had Larissa’s hummingbird pick it up in her tiny beak and fly it to their bodies. Eventually, they were all back to themselves, their creatures dismissed as they stood and stretched.

“This is it,” Larissa announced while staring down at the tiny sliver in her hand. “That’s the last one. We can undo the banishment now.”

“Good to know.” The reply came from Apollo, as he and Athena appeared and approached. The man grinned. “And pretty good timing too, since we’ve got a way to send everyone back to Earth.”

Eyes widening, Jazz blurted, “You do? Even without waiting for enough communication from Vanessa to talk Gaia through fixing the prototype thing?”

Athena gave a slight nod. “The Meregan still on this planet, we…” She paused, looking to her fellow Seosten. “We offered them aid in their rebuilding efforts. In exchange, they are going to allow us to use their transport device.”

She looked toward Sands then. “It is an earlier, less refined and advanced version of what you experienced before. As such, it will only allow a few transports at a time before it must recharge for several days. So we will not all be able to go through at once.“

“Hey, that’s okay,” Sands replied. “It’s still sooner than we thought it would be.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed quietly.

“And I’m pretty sure we all know who should go first.”

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Mini-Interlude 66 – Gordon

Please note, this interlude was originally written later, and has been moved back to this spot for chronological and pacing reasons. Hence the numbering. Thanks!

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For what was the very first time in his life up to that point, Gordon Kuhn was no longer hiding the powers that he had been born with. His father’s heritage, the gift that he had spent every moment of his existence for as long as he could remember restraining and suppressing… was finally allowed to be unleashed.

“Gordon, four o’clock!”

The sound of Roxa’s blurted warning, as the two of them (along with Sands and Jazz) worked to stop the small army of Seosten reinforcements from chasing after Tristan, Vanessa, and Flick, made Gordon’s head snap around the way she had indicated. One of those burly frog-like Menmeran people was almost right on top of him, the massive, six-foot long polearm that he carried already swinging up toward his stomach.

His own weapon was still in its tommygun form, rather than its separated sword and shield. But Gordon didn’t need his shield. As the hooked blade polearm was driven at him, the boy’s hand snapped up. An immediate fog-like wave of intense cold radiated off of his palm. It washed over the incoming weapon, before solidifying at a thought into what looked essentially like a very large (and upside down) icicle, a frozen stalagmite rising from the ground with the shaft of the pike trapped within.

Unfortunately for the Menmeran, his momentum didn’t stop just because his weapon’s did. The man lost his grip on his weapon, stumbling in surprise as it was captured by the ice stalagmite. Reflexively, he reached out to stop his own fall. Which he managed to do… by catching onto Gordon. His flailing hands found the boy’s shoulders, and Gordon met his gaze briefly.

Briefly, because in the next second, the Menmeran was frozen solid. His entire body turned to ice, which subsequently shattered as Gordon took a step back (staggering just a little as the wave of kill-pleasure washed over him) and allowed it to fall. Chunks of the frozen body were scattered along the floor at his feet.

Turning back to the others, Gordon split his weapon apart. Sword in one hand and shield over his other arm, the boy raced directly for the thickest group of enemies that were threatening to roll right over the tiny group meant to stop them. As he ran, more ice appeared. First on his chest, before expanding quickly. Over the course of a couple of seconds, what amounted to an entire suit of armor, made of incredibly dense ice, covered his body from head to toe. Only a slight opening was left for his eyes.

With his protective armor in place, Gordon threw himself directly into the middle of that densest group of enemies. As weapons ricocheted off of his ice, the boy let more of that freezing mist radiate away from his body in every direction. His skin, and the ice covering it, was so cold that anything within a foot or so was almost immediately frozen. Meanwhile, the mist solidified here and there, catching enemies’ legs, arms, weapons, and more. Some were caught, others yanked their frozen limbs back, only to have them shatter.

For the first time, Gordon allowed his inborn power to actively help him. No one could get within melee distance of the boy without being frozen by the mist that surrounded him, and his ice armor protected from a lot of other things that they could throw at him.

It still wasn’t simple, by any means. The fight was hard, and it took a lot out of him. By the time Mr. Moon and Mrs. Mason showed up to help, Gordon didn’t know if he could have kept going much longer.

But it was him. For the first time in his life, Gordon had truly, genuinely been fighting as himself, not hiding his actual power and potential.

And that? Well, honestly, that felt pretty damn good.

******

“So, it’s your dad?”

Hours had passed since the moment when the Seosten man had tried to possess Gordon, and his hybrid-status had been revealed. Flick and the twins had disappeared along with the experimental transport carrying Sariel and the other imprisoned Seosten (apparently carrying them back to Earth), and those left behind had taken as much out of Kushiel’s lab as they could, including whatever prisoners weren’t on the transport.

Now, they were heading back to the Aelaestiam base on board the Sunstrider, alongside the rest of the fleet (or as much of it as had survived the extended space battle). It would take time to get there and figure out their next move as far as getting themselves back to Earth, which would give everyone involved time to decompress after everything that had happened.

Or, in this case, time for Jazz, Roxa, and Sands to talk to Gordon about that little revelation. The four of them were sitting in the ship’s private cafeteria at one of the tables, plates of half-eaten food arranged between them while most of their focus remained on the conversation.

Looking over briefly to Jazz, who had just spoken, Gordon gave a faint nod. “He’s something called a Hrimthur, or–”

“Ice giant?” That was Sands, speaking up as she peeled a fruit that looked like a blue orange. “That’s what Hrimthurs are, right?”

Actually answering questions like this felt strange, after everything he had done to hide the truth from everyone for so long. It took Gordon a moment to remember that he could answer before he finally confirmed, “Yes, ice giants.”

Roxa, sitting on the chair with her legs folded beneath her, blinked at that. “So your dad’s a giant?”

Knowing what she was trying to maneuver her way around to asking about the actual mechanics of that, Gordon met her gaze. “Not an actual giant. The Hrimthur were called giants because of the ice armor they created with their power. Like the armor I made back in that fight, only… only I’m not that good at it. Real Hrimthur make their ice armor so large that they look like giants while they’re using it.”

“Whoa.” Eyes widening at that, Jazz blurted, “You mean like mechs? Living ice mechs or something. That’s–dude, that’s awesome. You mean you’ll be able to do that?”

Wincing a little, Gordon offered a small shrug. “I don’t know,” he replied quietly. “Maybe. I haven’t really practiced with it very much. You know, because of the whole… keeping it secret thing.”

“Right,” Sands started, “we should probably talk about that a little bit.“

Jasmine nodded. “Yeah, like, we know why you kept it secret, obviously. I mean, duh. But why did you keep it secret even after we were obviously okay with the whole Alter thing? I mean, I am literally dating one right now. You didn’t think we’d still hate you or something, did you?”

Gordon‘s head shook quickly at that before he positive consider his words. “No, it’s just…Okay, maybe part of me was still a little afraid of how you would react. I mean, it’s still a hard step to take. There was part of it that was just me not wanting to add to all of the problems. There was a lot going on and I don’t want to be anyone’s special project. And part of it was habit. I… I’ve been keeping that secret my whole life. My mother basically drilled it into me since I can remember. She taught me not to open up to other people like that. She taught me to be careful, because if anyone found out what my father was…”

The other three exchanged brief glances, and Roxa swallowed hard before speaking. “Yeah, it would’ve sucked. Totally get that.”

Blinking with sudden realization, Jazz asked, “Is that why you don’t like being touched?”

Once again, the boy nodded. Briefly, he explained about his body temperature, how it tended to become very cold if he wasn’t paying attention. So cold that he could freeze people who touched him unexpectedly. “And if I had to explain why someone’s arm froze because they grabbed my wrist… well, it could lead to a lot more questions than I could answer.”

Jazz frowned at that as a thought came to her. “Wait, you said your mom taught you to be careful. But your dad is the ice giant. So, what…” Abruptly, the girl trailed off as realization struck her and she looked horrified at the subject she had brought up. “I mean, never—”

“He’s not dead,” Gordon informed all of them flatly. “He’s… he’s being held prisoner, enslaved by Eden’s Garden. He’s been a slave since I was a baby. I’ve never actually met him. Not that I remember.”

Looking like it was the last thing she wanted to ask, Jazz nonetheless spoke up. “Are you sure he’s alive? I mean, that’s a long time to be enslaved by people who don’t care if you die.” Even as she spoke, the girl looked sick to her stomach and apologetic for even saying it.

“He’s alive,” Gordon insisted. “Mom has this snowflake. Not a normal snowflake, a big one. As big as my hand. Dad made it before he was taken. It’ll only last as long as he’s alive. And the last time I checked, it was still there. So like I said, he’s alive.”

“Wow,” Roxa remarked, “that’s really cool. And really Disney movie-esque.”

Jazz cleared her throat. “Right, so when we get back to Earth, that’s something we need to do. Find Gordon‘s dad.”

The boy open his mouth to object, but Roxa nodded. “We know what you said, Gordon. You don’t want to be a special project. But this isn’t about anything like that. You’re our friend. You’re our teammate. Your dad is missing, and you need help. That’s all there is to it.“

“Yeah,” Sands agreed. “I mean, you’re not technically my teammate as far as Crossroads is concerned, but you still kinda are in every way that counts. You need help finding your dad, I’m right there with you. Hell, look what you just did to help Tristan and Vanessa find their mom. You think we’re not going to have your back with this?”

Opening and shutting his mouth a couple of times, Gordon finally out of his head before speaking quietly. “Thank you.” He didn’t trust his voice to say anything further than that. He had spent so long, including most of his time at Crossroads thus far, worrying about what would happen if anyone found out his secret. He’d spent his entire life worrying about it. And now that it was out and they were not just accepting of it, but actually going out of their way to try and help? He didn’t know how to deal with that. He has spent his life closing himself off and preparing for rejection and attack from the people who were supposed to be on his side. It was more than he could handle.

“Normally,” Roxa spoke up, “this would be where I’d put my hand on your shoulder. But, you know. So, I’ll just say it’s okay, instead.” She looked to the boy, meeting his gaze pointedly. “We’re with you, got it? And when we get back, the others will be too. Hell, even Rudolph and Doug. From what Vanessa and Tristan were saying, it won’t be long before they’re right there too.”

Swallowing past the thick lump in his throat, the boy gave the tiniest, almost imperceptible nod. “Okay,” he all but whispered.

“Great,” Jazz started then, “so let’s talk about how we’re going to get Daddy Hrimthur. And I know just where to start.”

“You do?” Gordon asked, with a blink.

Jazz nodded. “Sure, we start with Mr. Moon. He used to be part of that group, remember? He can probably tell us a lot about them. It’s a place to start, anyway.”

It was a good point, Gordon realized. And one that wouldn’t have occurred to him after all the time he spent keeping everything secret.

Yeah, maybe having people around to help him would end up being pretty cool after all.

Heh. Cool.

And people thought he didn’t make jokes.

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Interlude 34C – Haiden Moon

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“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrggggggggh!!!”

With that earth-shattering (if they had been anywhere near Earth) roar, an ogre’s massive and meaty fist, blood dripping from the knuckles, swung through the air with enough force to pulverize the side of a cement mixer. The impact would have turned almost any normal being into little more than dust, scattered around the ground where the poor fool had been standing.

It was stopped, in turn, by a much smaller hand. Haiden Moon stood with one arm outstretched, his long coat flapping behind him a bit from his own motion in stepping forward to meet the ogre. His hand, dwarfed by his opponent’s, completely stopped it cold. He grunted from the impact, his arm rocking backward just a little bit as if from the force of firing a rifle. But the reaction on the ogre’s side was far more dramatic, as the energy from that punch that had suddenly stopped almost cold had to go somewhere. In that case, it manifested in the form of the ogre’s arm breaking in multiple places. Bits of bone all along the arm tore through muscle to poke visibly out of the skin, like dozens of tiny grayish-red stalagmites popping out of the ground.

In the face of the ogre’s utterly bewildered expression, unable to comprehend the agony of its shattered arm, Haiden gave a humorless smile. “Hi there,” the man announced. “Normally I’d have a great joke right now. But I’m right in the middle of trying to save my wife, and you’re in my way. So–” With his other hand, he flipped his shotgun around and up, putting the barrels against the ogre’s neck before pulling the trigger. “Consider that my punchline.”

Turning away from the falling, decapitated body, the man cast a quick glance around him. He and Larissa had finished with the soldiers in the ship before making their way down into the tower where they had sent the kids. There, they had found Sands, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz (with Gidget, of course) fighting to stop more reinforcements from following Flick and the twins through the tunnel into the lab. But now there were no more soldiers. At least none that were standing and ready to fight. Most of their bodies littered the floor, some of them having been killed by the kids while the rest he and Larissa had finished off.

Satisfied that there were no more threats, the man stored his weapon and strode purposefully to the tunnel. No more delays. He was going to catch up with his kids, and find his wife, right now.

“Mr. Moon,” Sands called while quickly putting herself in front of the man. “Wait!” She had both hands up. “You can’t go through that tunnel yet.” Quickly, the girl explained about the traps that the other soldier had told them about, and about the badges that were needed to get through safely. Once she got her point across, Larissa cast a glance toward the fallen soldiers and flicked her hand. A second later, a handful of the appropriate badges came flying to them.

“Everyone okay?” the woman asked while quickly passing them out. “Jasmine?”

The black girl rubbed her shoulder while taking the offered badge, grimacing a little in pain that she was clearly trying to hide. Blood was visible on her temple, as well as along the front of her shirt from a blow that had put her on the ground for a while before her healing had caught up with it. “I’ll be fine,” she muttered under her breath. “Don’t slow down on my account.”

“We should hurry,” Gordon announced while ducking under the outstretched arm of the large, frozen-solid figure who had made the mistake of grabbing the boy. It looked like a statue, intricately carved from ice down to the smallest detail. It wasn’t simply a block of ice encompassing the figure. It was as though the attacker had been completely turned into ice. Roxa, breathing heavily and liberally soaked through with blood (most of which came from other people) to the point that it looked like she had gone swimming through a pool of it, gave a sharp nod then. “He’s right, we need to go. We’ve gotta catch up with Flick and the others.”

They had a point, there was no time to waste. And the adults didn’t dare leave the kids behind again. There was no telling what other troops might come out of the woodwork. So they had to stay together. With that in mind, Larissa and Haiden quickly made their way through the tunnel and up through the lab itself at a swift jog. They saw the damage that had been done, following it onward while picking off a few more stray soldiers on the way. There was no stopping, or even slowing down. The two adult Heretics mercilessly picked off every figure that made the mistake of trying to stand in their way.

Eventually, they made their way to the observation room above another chamber. They arrived just in time to see Athena and Apollo below, facing off with Kushiel in an otherwise empty room, a moment before another figure, covered in an identity-obscuring cloak, appeared. The new figure caught hold of Kushiel, and the pair vanished. Clearly, the figure had been some kind of stooge that the psycho bitch had employed to extract her from a dangerous situation.

Rather than bothering to waste time taking the nearby stairs, Haiden raised a hand and disabled the power running into the forcefield ‘window’ in front of them. As it flickered out, the man hopped through, his coat billing behind him as he dropped down into the chamber below, landing easily. Behind him, he heard the others following suit, while he focused on the two Olympians. “Where is she?” he demanded. “Where’s my wife and kids? Where are the others?”

Apollo, for his part, looked pained as he quietly explained what had happened. At least the part that he knew about. Apparently, Felicity, Vanessa, and Tristan (with Tabbris, of course), had made their way into the strange transport that had been parked in the now-empty middle of the chamber. A moment later, the doors had closed and the transport had disappeared.

He’d barely finished before Haiden was in his face. The Heretic caught the Seosten by the collar, shoving him back against the nearby wall. “What?!” he demanded, outraged. “What the hell do you mean!? You let them go?! They’re gone! We were this close to finding Sariel, this fucking close, and now you’re telling me that not only do the Seosten still have her, they’ve got my kids too?! And not only that, they’ve also got Flick, which means they’ve got Tabbris! What the hell were you doing?! How could you let that happen?! How the fuck did you let that happen!?” Even as he shouted, a part of Haiden knew and recognized that he was being irrational. After all, what was Apollo supposed to do, not engage with Kushiel? She would have killed them all. He knew that. But in the moment, the thought that he’d lost his entire family just when he’d been so close to actually bringing it back together was too much. And Apollo was a handy target for the emotional rage that spilled up and out right then.

it was Larissa who stopped him, which was probably a good thing, as she was one of the few that he would’ve listened to in that moment. Putting her hand on his shoulder, the woman gave him a tug backward. “Haiden, stop,” she urged. “Wait, we might be able to figure out where they went. We’ve still got all these computers. We can look through them and figure out where that thing was aimed. But we need to hurry, before–”

Dad?

The voice in his head made Haiden jump. Reflexively, he spun around. But of course, there was no one there. Or at least no one that hadn’t been there before.

Then it came again. Dad! Dad, I’m here. I’m–

“Vanessa!” the man abruptly blurted, interrupting the others, who all looked at him. “Vanessa, are you okay?”

Then she appeared in front of him, his beautiful, wonderful, brilliant, amazing little girl. For a second, the man nearly tried to grab her. But he realized quickly that she wasn’t really there. She was visible and audible, yes, but none of his other senses detected her. She was mentally projecting herself to him from where that transport had taken her.

“I’m okay!” the girl’s head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We’re okay. We–Dad, we’ve got Mom!” The sheer, unbridled and unrestrained joy in the girl’s voice made Haiden want to embrace her even more. To say nothing of what the actual words did for him. “We’ve got her, she’s awake, she’s out, she’s safe! She saved us! Dad, Mom’s awake, she’s out!”

“Oh my God.” Despite all his strength and power, Haiden had to slump back. He grabbed the wall, catching himself as his mind raced. In the background, he saw some of the others cringe, clearly misinterpreting his reaction since they couldn’t hear Vanessa’s side of things.

So he found his voice. “She’s out,” he managed weakly, the shock and tumultuous series of emotions taking their toll. “Sariel, they have her. She’s awake. She helped them. She’s out. She’s… she’s…” Swallowing hard, he shook that off while doing his best to ignore the burst of enthusiastic relief and cheers that came from the others. “Where?” the man quickly asked his daughter. “Where are you? Is Kushiel there? We’ll come get you. We’ll get you right now, I swear.” With each word, his voice grew louder and faster. He had to get to his family. He had to put them back together. It had been too long. No more. They couldn’t wait any longer. Sariel. The thought of having her back in his arms, of being with her after all the time that had passed, it made him physically ache. He needed his wife. He needed his children, his family. And now they were so close. “Tell me where you are, sweetie. We’ll come to you.”

“Um.” Vanessa shifted on one foot, visibly blushing. “You might not believe this, but we’re, uhh… we’re on Earth, Dad.”

Of all the hundreds, or maybe even thousands of locations that Haiden might have guessed that his daughter would give as to where they were, that was pretty much the absolute last one on the list. He stared at her once the words came, mouth opening and shutting before he finally shook his head. “You’re where?” He needed to hear it again, needed to know that he hadn’t misheard somehow.

Sure enough, Vanessa confirmed with a knowing nod. “Earth, Dad. That transport sent us and the rest of the prisoners to Earth. We don’t know why yet. But we’re safe, for now. Mom’s okay. We’re all together, and we’ll figure out how to contact Gaia. What about you? How will you–”

“We’ll get there, baby,” Haiden promised his daughter firmly. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, I promise. We’ll have to find the rest of those shards, or… something. We’ll get there, okay? You stay with your Mom and brother, and your little sister. You hear me? You stay with them and keep each other safe. We will find a way to get back to Earth as soon as possible.”

Earth. How the hell were they on Earth? What had Kushiel been planning? Despite his joy that the Sariel was awake and with their children, Haiden still felt a little apprehension about why that psychopathic bitch had been taking her prisoners to Earth of all places.

His beloved little girl gave a quick nod. “Yes, Dad. I promise. We’ll stay together. Dad, it’s Mom. She’s okay. She’s alive. She’s… she’s…” Tears were streaming down her face, just as the same filled Haiden’s own eyes.

“I know, baby,” he murmured, aching to take his daughter in his arms. But he also didn’t want to. Because that would mean that she had projected herself to him, which would also yank Tristan along with her. And as much as he may have wanted to hug his children, the last thing he wanted to do right then was take them away from their mother.

So no, they would stay there on Earth. And as Haiden had promised, he and the others would make their way to them. His family would be together again. They were so close now. And Sariel… Sariel was there. She was awake and with their twins, and with Tabbris.

“Dad,” Vanessa was talking again. “I’m gonna go back. I don’t want–” She hesitated, clearly feeling guilty about what she had been about to say: that she didn’t want to accidentally project herself physically to where he was and away from her mother.

“It’s okay, Nessabird,” he promised. “You stay with your mom, alright? Keep each other safe. Like I said, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Check in when you can, but you stay there. Mom needs you guys more than I do right now.”

Head bobbing, Vanessa sniffled a little. She clearly didn’t like the idea of leaving her father, even if it was to be with her mother. She wanted the whole family back together as much as Haiden did. “Okay, Dad. Be careful! And hurry, okay? I love you. We love you.”

“I love you guys too,” the man assured her. “And I’ll be there as soon as possible. We’ve got help now. Check in when you can, and take care of your mom.”

He could feel the connection already starting to fade. Vanessa couldn’t hold it for long, especially when she was trying to avoid being physically drawn to him. Resisting the urge to push for her to try and stay longer, he simply repeated, “I love you, Nessabird. Take care of your mom. Be safe!”

She promised once more, repeating her own love for him before the connection broke apart and the image of his brilliant little girl vanished. Once it did, the man slumped a bit. “They’re on Earth,” he muttered under his breath. “They made it to Earth and Sariel’s awake. They’re safe, for now. But…”

Earth?” That was Sands, who was standing there open-mouthed. “How? Why?! What the hell was that crazy cunt planning to do on Earth?!”

“I wouldn’t say was,” Larissa noted quietly. “I doubt this will make her change her mind about it.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. I don’t know what Kushiel wants with Earth, but I guarantee she hasn’t changed her mind just because of this setback. And whatever it is, it won’t be good for humanity. We need to get you back there.”

“But to do that,” Athena put in, “we need the rest of the shards from that banishment orb. Which should be easier to find with the data from the computers here. If Kushiel doesn’t either know where all the shards are or have good leads on them, I’ll eat every sock in the Aelaestiam fleet.”

“Right.” Haiden cleared his throat, focusing on moving forward, rather than dwelling on how close he had been to being with his entire family together. “So we take everything we can from their computers and get the hell out of here.”

“You could go back right now, couldn’t you?” Gordon was the one speaking, his eyes on Apollo. “I’d be shocked,” the eternally calm boy announced, “if you didn’t have a way back to Earth, even without Jazz.”

“I may have a trick or two for that,” the Seosten man confirmed before shaking his head. “But I’m not using them. Not yet. You think I’d leave Sariel’s husband stranded out here? To say nothing of my chosen champion.” His hand gestured toward Jazz with a wink at the girl. “No, I’ll be right here helping you get home.”

“As will I,” Athena added, her brow furrowed in thought. “Whatever purpose Kushiel has in setting up a lab on Earth, it cannot be good. We will look for data about that new project in the computers here, but either way… a field trip may be in order. Once, of course, we have ensured your ability to reach the planet yourselves.”

“We find the shard and put the orb back together,” Apollo promised, “and we can get you back there.”

Haiden’s head gave a sharp nod. “Then let’s get a move on. Whatever Kushiel’s up to, I’ll tell you one thing she’ll be doing: trying to get Sariel back. So I’m not just gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs while she hunts down my family.”

“Of course.” With those words, Athena turned and used her own communicator to call up to the Aelaestiam fleet. In a few brief orders, the woman called for a series of retrieval teams to be sent down in order to strip everything usable out of the facility, and to take as many prisoners as possible. They would take everyone as prisoners to start, working their way through them to see who could be released, who could be recruited, and who would need to remain imprisoned. As tempting as it was to take all of the Seosten’s enslaved troops and free them in one mass release, they had to be a little smarter about it and know who they were dealing with in each instance. That would take time. Beyond that, there could (and likely would) be actual Seosten hiding inside any of the other troops or slaves, which would also take time to sort out.

Once that was underway, a portal was created to take the group back to the Sunstrider, where Jokai and Dries waited. As they arrived, Jazz moved to her Eulsen boyfriend, embracing him tightly while Jokai returned it with a noise of approval and relief at her safety.

Dries, meanwhile, started by shaking his head with a frown. “No new Seosten woman?” he asked before doing a quick doubletake. That frown grew deeper, and he blurted, “Felicity, and the half-Seosten. Where are they? Where are they?” The repeated question was louder, becoming a demand as he took a step forward. For all of his issues and aversion to conflict, the man actually looked ready to hit someone if they didn’t tell him where Felicity and the other two were.

Quickly, Sands and Roxa explained the situation, telling the man that Flick and the others were on Earth, and that they were going to find a way back there as soon as possible. With, of course, the aid of the Aelaestiam. Which would ensure that it wouldn’t take nearly as long to find the remaining pieces as it had taken Haiden and Larissa to find what they had by themselves.

Once they finished, the man slumped back a little. His expression was uncertain. “Earth. They are… they made it home.”

“And so will we,” Larissa assured him. “All of us, okay? You’re going home, Dries. You’ll meet Avalon, I promise. We just need to work a little bit longer.”

The man met her gaze for a moment before giving a little nod. “Yes,” he murmured then, “find the shards, fix the orb, and get home.”

Turning away from that scene, Haiden gazed at the nearby viewscreen, taking in the sight of the damaged and destroyed ships all around them. The rest of the Seosten fleet had fled, but they would be back with reinforcements. Hopefully after the Aelaestiam retrieved what they needed and they all managed to leave.

Either way, the battle, for the moment, was over. Sariel and their children were back on Earth. It may not have been the reunion he had been hoping for, but it was something. He couldn’t be upset about the fact that his wife and children were together, no matter how much he wanted to be there himself.

And he would be. He would find his way back to them. Soon. He would be with his family once more.

No matter how many fucking armies he had to tear to the ground to make that happen.

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