Guinevere/Lancelot

Interlude 40B – Dosina Banning

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“Oh God, it wasn’t mud in my hair, it wasn’t mud!”

The yelped words came from Dosina Banning. Having graduated from Crossroads almost six years earlier, the dark-skinned girl had very likely not picked up a weapon since that time. Never having been much focused on or interested in her actual training even while a student, Dosina was good with a certain kind of archival magic, spells focused on sorting and categorizing things. Such magic was quite good for administrative work, but not so much on the front lines of a fight. Which was fine, in most cases. There was very much a place for such work in the offices of the Crossroads Heretical administration. An army wouldn’t be worth much if everyone was a frontline soldier, after all. Dosina might not have been much of a fighter, but her work was still needed and appreciated in the proper place.

Unfortunately, this… was not the proper place. In many ways, actually. Only a minute earlier, Dosina had been having dinner at Crossroads Academy with her little sister, Summer and the rest of Summer’s team. She was one of three adults at the table, along with the boy Eiji’s uncle named Banri, and the father of Shiloh, another of Summer’s teammates. The three adults had been eating with their student relatives, and the other three team members: Russell, Freya, and Harper.

The key word was had. They had been having dinner. A feast, actually. But now… now something had happened. The last thing Dosina knew, a few of the kids around them had been complaining about not feeling well. Then there was a twisting sensation, and she had abruptly found herself… elsewhere. A dark elsewhere. A dark, muddy, and wet elsewhere. It was a swamp of some kind, one filled with nasty smells and creepy, crawly things. Dosina had already kicked a couple of entirely-too-large centipedes off her shoes before looking around. It was too dark to see further than ten feet or so. Those ten feet basically showed her muddy water, spots of land like where she was standing that weren’t exactly dry but at least made the water only rise to her ankles, twisted trees, and shapes that could have been logs or… or worse.

She had just taken a step back from one probably-not-a-log in particular when a glop of what she had thought was mud had fallen into her hair. The discovery that it was, in fact, something worse than mud had prompted her outburst. Now, she shook her hand off desperately, raising her voice. “Hello? Is anyone else out there? I said, hel–”

A hand covered her mouth. Dosina instantly focused on one of her powers. She wasn’t a frontline fighter, but nor was she a Bystander. Her teeth instantly turned to metal and became sharp enough to bite through steel, as she went to chomp down on the hand keeping her silent.

The hand released her at the last second, a hand turning her around. Dosina saw scraggly brown hair, mismatched blue and brown eyes, and a lined face. Then she recognized the man there, his face illuminated by a magical or ability-fueled light floating beside him. Garrison Lexx, Shiloh’s father. He gestured for her to be quiet, then nodded back the way he had apparently come.

Dosina followed him quickly, relieved beyond belief that she wasn’t alone out here in this swamp. Within a few steps, they passed around a large tree, and she saw that half of it was hollowed out and open. Her sister, and the rest of the people who had been at the table, were there. Summer, Russell, Freya, and Shiloh were all lying on the ‘floor’ of the tree’s hollowed out interior. None of them looked very good.

Seeing Summer, Dosina immediately moved to drop to her knees by the girl. Technically, they were what the Bystanders would call ‘half-sisters’ given the fact that they had different mothers. Both of whom were still very involved with their father. But those kind of polyamorous relationships were so common among Heretics that most simply stuck with referring to each other as full siblings unless an actual bloodline was important to the conversation.

“Oh, God, are you okay? Are you…” She touched her sister’s face, wincing at the heat and moisture she felt. “She’s burning up.”

‘They all have a fever,” Eiji’s uncle Banri, an Asian man even taller than his already quite large nephew, announced. “Whatever sent us here, it also made them sick. Most likely we were all poisoned. But we’ve stacked enough regeneration and other protections that it wasn’t enough to even notice. They… weren’t so lucky. All of them except Eiji and Harper there.” He nodded to the pair, who stood nearby, the former wearing his cyberform partner in its backpack form. “Our bloodline is very… resistant to magical poison. That’s why my nephew was unaffected. As for Harper–”

“I wasn’t hungry,” the pink-haired girl put in, sounding somewhat down from her usual incredibly chipper self. She was watching her teammates anxiously while standing quite close to Eiji as if instinctively seeking protection. “I uhh, sorta filled up on cupcakes before dinner.”

“So the spell–whatever brought us here, it was attached to the food?” Dosina frowned. “But if they’ve been poisoned–”

Garrison had already moved to kneel next to his daughter, touching Shiloh’s face. “They’ll be okay, with time. Mostly it’s draining their energy, keeping them too weak to do much. But we need to get out of here. Because if someone went through the trouble of poisoning us and sending us out here, it won’t be the end of it. There’ll be something worse coming. And there’s some kind of anchor spell in the area, keeping us here.”

Banri was frowning worriedly. “Stay here with them,” he instructed Dosina. “If anything happens, let us know. We’ll clear a path and see if anything’s on its way. Do not leave them alone.” He gave her a firm look, making the twenty-six year old feel as though she was back in school again until she nodded. Then he and Garrison moved out slowly and cautiously into the swamp.

“Guys, come here,” Dosina quickly ordered, looking toward Harper and Eiji until the two moved closer. As she started to turn her attention back to the swamp nervously, Summer’s hand found hers. The girl was shivering, face flushed as she murmured, “Dossier, you made it too.”

Ignoring the teasing nickname, Dosina jerked her attention to the girl. “Summer, you’re awake! You– wait.” Leaning back, she gave her little sister a very briefly suspicious look. “This isn’t some prank gone wrong, is it?” It would be just like Summer to think that sending her to a gross swamp would be hilarious. The girl was as attracted to disgusting things as Dosina was repulsed by them. And it also wouldn’t be the first time that a prank had backfired on her.

Summer’s head shook quickly. “N-no, definitely not a … a prank. Don’t be dumb.” She was clearly trying to be indignant, but lacked the energy. “I couldn’t pull all these people here. And I wouldn’t interrupt Family Day. I mean, maybe turning your room into a swamp, sure. But this?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dosina muttered. “I was just hoping for a minute, because then we wouldn’t really be in trouble. But I think–huh?!” Her head jerked upward, focusing on a sudden blur of motion above them.

A creature was there. Dosina barely had time to register its entirely-too-rapid arrival as it fell through her line of sight before the thing suddenly landed nearby.

No, it didn’t land. It splatted. The thing crashed into the ground way too fast, basically exploding into a spray of goo that made her jerk backward with a yelp of surprise, and then one of disgust. “Ohhhh gross! It’s a… spider… thing.” Frowning, she hesitantly kicked the thing with a foot.

“It’s dead.” That was Summer. Still clearly barely able to move, her younger sister was staring at the body. “Or it was, before it fell…” Her voice was soft, whatever poison was affecting her and most of her teammates clearly making her too tired to even adequately react to what was happening.

Eiji was there, taking a knee by the gross, splattered body. The thing was an arachnid the size of a small deer. And now it was just sort of… all over. “The bit where the web comes out,” he murmured, “It… looks like it was… cut?”

“Cut?” Dosina echoed. ‘You mean like it was hanging up there to ambush us and then something else cut its spinneret and made it fall and splatter like that?”

“I guess,” the boy quietly confirmed before turning his head to look back up into the dark trees. “But who… or what would do that? If it’s… a person that wants to help, wouldn’t they announce themselves?”

“I bet they’re just shy,” Harper announced then before cupping her hands to her mouth to call out. She had just taken a breath, a sound starting to leave her lips before Eiji stopped her. “Harper, what are you doing?”

She blinked at him. “I was just gonna say hi and let them know that we want to be friends.

“We’re trying to be quiet, Harper,” Dosina reminded the girl. “As in not attract the attention of all the things out there that really do not want to be our friends.” She was trying very hard not to upchuck at the sight of the splattered spider still visible out of the corner of her eye. Dosina had never been very good with creepy crawly things of the normal variety, let alone big ones. And despite having done her share of fighting while at school, it had been six years since then. Six years where she hadn’t so much as thrown a punch. She’d never liked killing or any of that.

Still, she was the oldest person here with the other two adults gone for the moment. Her sister and several of her teammates were sick. If push came to shove, she would protect them. Even if it was gross spider things that liked to splatter disgusting guts all over the–

Don’t ralph. Do not ralph. Not only would Summer never let her live it down if she did, doing so probably wouldn’t make any of the kids feel any safer. She had to pretend to be in control, pretend that she wasn’t totally freaking out. Pretend that–

A rustling in the bushes nearby made her head jerk that way, even as a ball of fire appeared in her palm. Fire. She could do fire. Burn it. Burn whatever was going to try and hurt her sister. Her eyes focused on that rustling, and she thought there were eyes… malevolent ones… staring at her. The thing out there in the swamp, it was getting ready to lunge. And Dosina, terrified though she might have been, was going to meet it with as much fire as she could hurl in its general direction. But not yet. Wait, she told herself. Wait for it to show itself. Wait for it to lunge.

It was about to come. She sensed it, she could feel it. The thing was ready, and so was she. Any instant. Any instant it would show itself, leaping from the bushes with–

A yelp filled the air. It was short, but very distinct. And it clearly came from that same bush. Dosina thought she caught the briefest glimpse of movement, the bushes giving a single shake. Then there was silence. The malevolent presence was gone. Whatever had been staring at them had… left? Fought something else?

Behind her, she heard Eiji blurt, “Harper?”

Tearing her attention away from the now-silent and apparently empty bush, Dosina looked that way quickly, only to find the girl in question poking her head out from behind the large Asian boy. “Right here!” she chirped. “What’s wrong?”

Eiji blinked. “I thought you–err… never mind. This place is creepy.”

Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly, pink pigtails bouncing. “Really creepy! What about the… the thing out there?” Her trembling hand pointed past Dosina, to the bush. “Should I uhh, throw one of my bombs at it? I mean, I know you said don’t attract attention, but if we’re about to be attacked and–uh, shouldn’t someone be watching it?”

“It’s gone,” Dosina informed her. “Maybe… it left, or… got scared? Or maybe something else–never mind. I don’t know, but it’s not there.”

“Ooh, maybe our new friend killed it,” Harper blurted with a broad, eager smile. “You know, the same one that killed the spider.”

“That’s not necessarily a friend,” Eiji quietly pointed out. “It could just be something or someone who wants us for themselves.”

Before Dosina could respond to that, a shape swept by the tree. It was moving fast, but was also very large… and very long. Despite its speed, she could see the shape continue passing by in the shadows for several long, terrible seconds.

“Um. Was that a snake?” The question came from Freya Sullivan, who was sitting up and staring that way. The red-haired girl looked tired, but she was at least awake. Barely. She only stayed that way for a moment before slumping once more. She, and the others, were drifting in and out.

“Guys, back away from the opening,” Dosina quickly ordered Harper and Eiji. “Just… just keep your eyes open. And stay back. If something’s out there, I can burn it.” To demonstrate, she conjured more flame to her hands, sending a burst of fire out through the opening of the hollow tree to light up the swamp beyond. There was no reaction, but she still sent a couple more bursts of fire that way. With any luck, it’d scare off whatever was lurking out there.

Eiji moved beside her, backpack in one hand. With a grunt, the large boy tossed it on the ground ahead of them. “Raphael?”

The bag responded by growing and shifting, legs sprouting from it. Within a few seconds, the ‘backpack’ had grown into a full-sized rhinoceros. The thing grunted and tossed its head back and forth a couple of times as though checking out its surroundings, before looking toward its owner with a worried huffing sound.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Eiji assured the cyberform rhino, rubbing its back. “You ready to protect the others?” When it gave another huffing sound, this time of agreement, the boy looked to Dosina. “Raphael’s immune to fire. And… well, a lot of other things. So, something comes after us…”

He gave a short, low whistle then. As he did so, the rhino stood up on its hind legs, like a person. It shrank a bit, head shifting down even as its back opened up. After a moment, the thing looked like an anthropomorphic rhino suit. Eiji stepped inside, and the suit closed up after him.

The thing had gone from being a backpack, to being a full-sized rhino, to being humanoid rhino-shaped power armor. And Dosina knew it had a fourth function, though she was pretty sure the thing’s motorcycle form wouldn’t be nearly as useful out here in this swamp.

“We’ll hold it,” Eiji finished his earlier statement. “It comes through, we’ll hold it, you burn it.”

“Err, right.” Dosina straightened. “Harper? Can you–”

“On it!” When the older girl looked that way, she saw Harper crouched by the rest of her teammates, giving her a thumbs up. “If anything sneaks past you, I’ll scream loud enough that you’d think we were all screaming.”

“Good, good.” Trying to suppress her own nervousness still, Dosina focused on that opening. If that… that thing came back again, it was going to get a big surprise. “Eiji, if you see anything come through…”

The boy nodded, the rhino-suit making him look even bigger than he already was. With it on, he was almost eight feet tall. “I can hold it,” he assured her. “And I can take any fire you can dish out. Just focus on pouring on the flames.”

They waited. Dosina and Eiji kept their eyes focused on the tree opening, waiting for the snake to show itself again. She was afraid to look away, worried that if she took her eyes off it for one second, the creature would know and use that to launch itself into the tree. Fear of being responsible for anyone’s death very nearly kept her from even blinking. First spiders, then snakes? She hated swamps. Hated, hated, hated them.

So tense was she, in that moment, that when Garrison and Banri appeared abruptly, she nearly fricasseed them both in a wild spray of fire before catching herself. “Don’t do that!” the girl blurted, before belatedly realizing that both men were staggering a little. Eyes widening, she moved that way to check on them.

“It’s okay,” Eiji’s uncle assured both her and the armored boy himself. “We’ll be fine. Just a lot of things out here like using poison. We dealt with most of it, but there’s a tribe of things I’m pretty sure we don’t want to meet heading this way. Best if we just avoid them completely.”

Garrison nodded. “There’s a clear path north. We’ll see if we can get away from the anchor spell that’s stopping us from teleporting out of here with you kids. Just move fast and stay together. We–Harper?”

The girl blinked that way. “Huh?”

“Are you okay?” The man looked worriedly to the girl. “It’s okay if you’re scared. We’ll get you through this. You… looked like you were spacing out there. What were you muttering? It sounded like… something degrees? Latitude and longitude?”

Harper turned a bit pink to match her hair. “O-oh, no, sir. I was just reciting baking recipes. You know, cooking temperatures. It um, it calms me down.”

Smiling just a little, Banri nodded to her reassuringly. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry, we’re not going to let you get hurt. We do need to get going though. And fast, so… Enji?”

The boy had already stepped out of his armor, letting Raphael shift back to his rhino form. Together, he and his uncle picked up Summer, Shiloh, Freya, and  Russell, draping their barely conscious forms over the large animal’s back so that he could carry them.

Then they set out. Banri and Garrison led the way, with Harper and Eiji walking behind and in front of the lumbering Raphael, respectively. Dosina brought up the rear a bit back from Harper. It scared her more than she would admit, but she did it anyway. A small ball of fire conjured in each hand, she kept her eyes mostly focused behind them, barely paying attention ahead except to keep herself with the group as they moved through the murky, dark, terrifying swamp.

“Would asking where the giant snake went count as jinxing us?” Eidi asked aloud in a hushed tone.

“Giant snake?” Banri echoed. “We saw the body of one about thirty meters or so from the tree. But it was dead.”

“Maybe the same thing that killed the spider killed the snake,” Harper put in cheerfully. “Told you we had a friend.”

“Wait.” Garrison turned back, looking past all of them to Dosina. “I thought that was you.”

Her head shook quickly. “N-no, not me. I didn’t ki–” Her words were interrupted by a loud, sharp yipping sound from off to their right. It sounded like it was coming from far away, but not nearly far enough.

“Company,” Banri muttered. “We’ll talk about that later. Keep moving.”

So, they continued, Dosina trying not to think about what kind of things were probably watching their every movement, just waiting to pick off a straggler. And also trying not to think about the fact that staying at the rear and covering the others made her very much look like one.

A chittering sound to her right made the girl’s head snap that way. She saw what she could have sworn looked like the tip of a spear. Then it was gone. The bushes rustled, and the chittering stopped.

To her left and behind them, right there! It was a snout, appearing from the gloom before a mouth opened in a toothy smile that made Dosina’s heart stop. Her hand snapped up, a cry on her lips, just before the thing’s smile suddenly vanished along with the snout itself. It looked like it was yanked back out of sight, disappearing into the bushes with what she could have sworn was a yelp of surprise.

“Dosina?” The voice came from Garrison, and the girl realized belatedly that they had stopped when she did. Turning back that way, she saw Harper step back from the tree that had briefly hidden her. All of them were looking to Dosina with obvious concern.

“I–it’s okay,” she claimed, though she wasn’t sure it was. “There’s just a lot of… things out here.”

“Yeah,” Banri agreed. “There are. So let’s get away from them.”

She kept watching, kept waiting for another attack. Yet as they kept moving through that swamp, Dosina only saw signs of creatures about to attack and then… changing their mind, or disappearing. Whatever was happening, the things weren’t following through. She had to send a burst of flame here and there to scare a few things off, but for the most part, they seemed to vanish on their own. Maybe something out there had decided that ambushing the would-be ambushers made for a better meal than trying to attack the Heretics.

Whatever it was, Dosina was just going to be glad when they were out of there. She wanted to be in civilization again.

Forty minutes. It took them forty minutes of hiking through that gross swamp, feet constantly slipping in the ankle-to-knee length water, mud (and worse) working its way into their shoes and clothes, bugs flying around their faces, and… bigger things stalking them constantly, before they finally reached somewhat dryer land. Picking their way out of that swamp and up into the heavily forested area beyond, the group gathered together once more.

“Everyone okay?” Garrison asked while helping his daughter down off of Raphael. She and the rest of the team had woken up for good toward the end of their little hike. Now, all of them were looking around.

“Where are we?” Shiloh asked her father.

“I’m not entirely sure,” the man admitted. “But we’re away from the worst of the things in that swamp. And we’re pretty sure we know what’s stopping us from teleporting out. It’s you guys.” Briefly, he explained that whatever they had eaten hadn’t just made them sick and transported them, it was also anchoring them to the spot.

“So uhh, what’re we supposed to do to get rid of it?” Blanching at his own question, Russell guessed, “Throw up?”

“Wouldn’t do much good right now,” Banri thankfully replied with a shake of his head. “It’s settled in. We need a countering agent, which–err… Harper?”

The girl in question blinked up from the little bouquet she was poring over. “Hmm? Oh, uh, it’s just flowers. I like picking up pretty things when I’m, um, nervous. They’re not poisonous or anything, if that’s what you–”

“These.” Banri stepped that way, plucking collection of plants from her with one hand before separating out a few gray and white flowers in particular. “These should do the trick.” Unceremoniously, the man plucked the blossoms. “Everyone chew and swallow a handful.” He began to pass out the petals then, watching as everyone, including Dosina, chewed up the rather nasty tasting flowers and swallowed them.

They may have tasted bad, but the results were immediate. Dosina instantly felt stronger. Not that she had felt that weak to begin with, but the effects were still noticeable. And the others were showing more life too. Russell in particular was holding a hand up in front of his face, peering off into the darkness. “Wow, you guys must’ve been really busy protecting us.”

“Not really,” Garrison replied with a shake of his head. “It was mostly quiet on the way out. Why?”

“Mostly quiet?” Russell echoed. “Uh, you know that power I was telling you about at dinner? The necromancy-vision thing?”

“The one that highlights dead things?” That was Banri, the man nodding. “Yeah, why?”

“Uhh, well…” Shifting from foot to foot, Russell finally just held his hand up. A beam of blue light shone out from it, which he swept back and forth for a few seconds. Every dead thing the light touched, it made glow.

And there were a lot of things glowing. The beam didn’t reach all the way back along their path, only a couple hundred yards through the swamp. Yet even in that distance, several dozen dead bodies could be seen. They glowed brightly after being touched by the blue beam, dozens and dozens of bodies literally covering both sides of their path.

“What… the hell?” Garrison stepped that way, staring at the lit-up bodies. “What killed those things, and why didn’t we see or hear any of it?”

“I think we can address that later,” Banri replied, head shaking as he turned back to the others. “Once these kids are safe. Okay, let’s see if this works this time.” That said, he raised his hand and clearly focused. There was a few flickering sparks in the air, before an actual, genuine portal appeared. Dosina almost fainted in relief.

“Good. Right, let’s go.” Banri waved for the others to go ahead. “This’ll take us back to the school. We can figure out more from there.”

They started through, the kids who had been affected the most going first, while the adults covered them. One by one, they all went through the portal. All, that was, except for…

“Errr, Harper?” Dosina looked at the girl, who was placing a large chocolate muffin on a stump. “What are you doing?”

“Leaving a treat for whoever our nice mister guardian angel was,” Harper replied with a bright smile. “Because if they don’t eat the monsters out there, I bet they’re really hungry after spending all that time protecting us.

“I know I am!”  

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Patreon Snippets 4

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

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Michael and Gwen many years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 39C – Gwen

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Felicity Chambers was working with the Seosten. That was the first thing that had popped into Gwen’s mind as she sat there at the library table, pretending that she was frozen in time along with everyone else.

Well, technically it was the second thing. The first thing that had popped into her mind on the subject was that the girl had somehow been possessed the whole time (which seemed impossible), or had ended up being possessed before they came back. But listening to the conversation further made that obviously wrong.

She was possessed, but not all the time. There was no other way to parse what happened with the phone and the way the girl subsequently announced that they were all there. She had sent a message and her Seosten ‘partner’ had recalled back to her. Which meant that she wasn’t possessed at that time and had willingly chosen to be possessed again.

She was working with her possessor, apparently. And also working with Elisabet… who was possessed by the Seosten named Jophiel.

At least Gwen now knew who the Seosten-possessed Committee member was. That was something she could use.  

As to why Felicity was working with her, it very soon became clear that the alliance wasn’t exactly the girl’s first choice. She was about as close to openly hostile to them over the death of Rudolph Parsons as she could possibly be, without being incinerated.

From what little Gwen was able to piece together on this situation, it seemed that Felicity being possessed was something separate from her deal with this Jophiel. She was possessed and the two were willingly working together to the point that the one possessing her could leave for extended periods and keep Felicity‘s memories intact. Somehow, Jophiel had learned about that partnership, and had a similar relationship with her own host. They were now using that to convince Felicity to work with them so they could show the Seosten leaders the virtues of an alliance with humanity rather than subjugation.

Boy, would Michael ever be interested in hearing about this.

And speaking of things he would be interested in knowing, Sariel had children. Tristan and Vanessa Moon were half-Seosten, which… answered almost as many questions as it created.

In any case, the Moon twins were Sariel’s, and Felicity was willingly possessed by a Seosten whom she was at least friendly with, from the sound of things. The four of them had apparently been co-opted by Jophiel and Elisabet to try and convince the Seosten leadership to change their strategy for dealing with humanity.

Yes, Michael was going to want to know about all of this. And there were a lot more questions that needed to be answered. How long had Felicity been possessed? What made her work willingly with her possessor? How close were they? Another romantic connection of some kind? His name was Tabbris, which given the history that Michael had told her about the historical Tabbris who had ‘betrayed’ the Seosten and stolen a planet out from under them, said a lot about whoever had named him. Unless he’d adopted the name for himself at some point…

And what made Felicity not tell her friends about the situation with this Jophiel? Because it was pretty clear that all this was very secret even from her own team.

On and on the questions went. Gwen had learned an astounding amount in a very short time simply from pretending to be frozen. But she hadn’t learned enough. She had to find out more. And that meant doing some work.

The instant the time stop was dropped, after the group passed through the portal that had been created, Gwen was on her feet and heading for the door. She could still smell the very faint odor of the memory clouding smoke, but that was the extent of its effects on her. She had been learning to protect herself from such effects almost since the time that she learned to walk. The Seosten loved their memory powers and spells, depending on them almost to the point of it becoming a crutch. Even beyond, some would say.

“Hey, Harper!” Shiloh Lexx met her in the doorway of the library. “You done with that thing already? Because they’ve got a soccer game starting up and everyone wanted to know if you were in.”

For a decent portion of her life, Gwen had pretended to be more than one person. Throughout her life in Camelot with her beloved Arthur, she had been both Queen Guinevere and her husband’s closest knight, the swordsman known as Lancelot. For quite some time, all save for their closest friends had believed them to be separate people, thinking that Lancelot was a man.

That was an arrangement which had ended up backfiring rather hilariously when she had been observed secretly leaving or entering her own room through the window multiple times as Lancelot, leading to the speculation that the two of them were having an affair. That had been an interesting situation to deal with.

Lancelot wasn’t the only other fake identity, both male and female, that she had taken up over the intervening years either. All of which meant that Gwen was very experienced in compartmentalizing her thoughts and personality, adopting new ones and shifting through them very quickly and easily.

So, despite the fact that she had about a thousand very serious thoughts and questions running through her head right then, there was almost no hesitation before a quick, broad smile broke across her face at the other girl’s words.

“Oh man,” she chirped brightly. “I hope so! But we’re not done yet. Flick just had to use the bathroom. We’ve still got work to do, so you tell them that I’ll be there if I can, okay? And play hard, because I’ll bring cookies for the winner.” She held that for just a second before giggling. “Okay, okay, I’ll bring cookies for everybody. But still!”

Shiloh still wanted to chat, and it took Gwen about a minute to extricate herself without being rude or making the other girl suspicious. Which meant that she had between six and nine minutes before Felicity would be returning. Much longer from that girl’s point of view, apparently. But still, between six and nine minutes for Gwen. It was time that she would put to good use.

To that end, she went for the female dormitory. The good part about the personality that she had established for Harper was that skipping and such didn’t look at all out of place for her, and it was actually a fairly fast way to move around. Hell, as energetic and enthused as she generally was, no one really batted an eye to see her even jogging through the halls. Or dancing, though that wasn’t exactly fast.

Reaching the room that Felicity shared with Avalon, Gwen took two minutes to temporarily clear all the security measures on the room. It would have taken a lot longer if she hadn’t done it before, and actually had that first time. She’d been at it for literally hours, carefully undoing security measure upon security measure while avoiding tripping any of the myriad of alerts. It had been pretty absurd, the level of protection put on that one room. She expected to get in within the hour at the time, and it had ended up taking almost three hours of off and on work to make sure she made it without throwing up a dozen alarms, either obvious or secret.

But the work had been worth it, since it meant that she now had a much quicker back way through all the spells, which only took her two minutes to manage. Two minutes still in a room that she was prepared for and had been in already, when she could easily get through basically any other room in this dormitory in about three seconds. Whether it was Gaia or someone else putting these spells on Avalon and Felicity‘s room, they clearly knew what they were doing. Gwen was impressed, even if it was almost annoying for her own purposes.

She made it in, however, with about two to five minutes to spare. She was going to assume that they would use as much time as possible, but still. Better safe than sorry. She didn’t have to be sitting right there when Felicity got back. But if she wasn’t, the girl will probably go look for her at the bathroom, thinking that Harper had gone to find her or something. She’d meet her partway in that case. For now, all that meant was that she had a couple of minutes to do this.

Closing the door behind her, Gwen immediately turned to face it. She stood for a moment, focusing before a single tear fell from her eye. As it did so, she reached up, using one finger to take the tear from her cheek and brushed it against the door knob.

For about three seconds, the knob glowed bright green before the glow faded.

The tear was not really one of sadness. Nor was it a normal tear at all. It was actually a power she had sought out, that of a Yletseit, wolf-like creatures who cried over their offspring and packmates to mark them. They did the same with prey, to the point that early beings who had encountered them thought that the creatures were crying about killing their food. There were some poems about that. But in truth, it was a hunting method. A Yletsiet could track and find any creature marked by their tears for about twenty-four hours.

The tear would sit on the doorknob until Felicity touched it. But just to be safe, Gwen took a moment to put a quick spell on the knob itself, which would put a very light shield around it, basically an invisible and undetectable sleeve. The spell would stop anyone else from touching the tear if they happened to come in, and was set to dissipate the moment Felicity was reaching for it.

That would hopefully do the trick. When Felicity went to exit the room, her hand would touch the knob and the tear would be absorbed by her skin. Then Gwen would be able to track her perfectly for the next twenty-four hours.

She possibly could have just put the tear on her hand and then shook Felicity’s, or patted her back or something, of course. But with something like this and all the attention that was on the other girl, it felt best to do it as far out of sight as possible. Let Felicity be somewhere she felt safe, here in her dorm room where she might be less likely to notice anything and where there weren’t a lot of other eyes paying attention. Besides, if the girl did find out about the tear, Gwen didn’t want her to remember Harper deliberately touching her wherever it was found. Safety and subtlety, that was far and away more important than convenience. It might’ve been overly paranoid, but she hadn’t gotten to where she was by being careless or rushing things.

She wanted to do a lot more than that, including putting spells on the girl that would let her hear what was going on. But that felt too dangerous, with all the extra magic she’d found all over this room and the girl herself. Plus, from what she had heard and put together, Jophiel obviously had ways of blocking those tracking spells anyway. This was the best way that Gwen could at least follow when Felicity and the others were eventually sent on the mission that had been mentioned. This, at least, wasn’t a spell. It was the best she could do under the circumstances.

And whatever it took, Gwen was going to follow them that evening. She had had no way of tracking the group to wherever they’d gone a few minutes earlier, but this she could do. Above all else, she needed more information. She needed to know what Jophiel was having them do, exactly, and work from there.

Besides, it was very possible that Felicity and the Moon twins could get in over their heads with this, and they deserve to have someone watching their backs, even if they didn’t know about it.

That very simple, yet incredibly important bit of business done, Gwen made sure the hallway was clear, then used an intangibility power to quickly step through the door so that she didn’t have to touch the knob, before setting the alarm spells back to normal. Out of time, she turned, heading to the exit and for the library to meet up with Felicity once more.

Whatever happened later that evening, Gwen was going to be there. And she was going to get some more answers.

******

Tristan Moon was very perceptive. Gwen had to give him that much. He had noticed her shadow on the ground as she knelt above the group in the top of one of the apple trees, listening to their conversation. Her teleportation power was entirely too fast for him (fast enough that she had been able to use it to escape from the dormitory back when that mind controlling boy had tried to tell everyone to attack Felicity, sending herself far away out of earshot before he could finish his sentence), but still. The fact that he’d noticed at all in the instant her shadow had been visible was testament to his ability.

Not that she would have been recognized if he had seen her. She had not only slipped on a different enchanted bracelet that changed her appearance to be different from both that of Harper and of her true self, but also wore what amounted to a white and gold ninja outfit, complete with a mask that covered all of her face save for her eyes. Layer upon layer of security. Even if she somehow lost the mask and was seen, the face she was wearing in that moment would tie back neither to her true self nor to her identity at Crossroads.

Gwen had been able to stay close enough to listen to a good bit of the conversation, though she had missed some of it, words here and there. She learned a lot more than she already knew while the group waited for their target to arrive. They talked a lot, which was helped along by the spell that Gwen herself introduced which subtly pushed them to bring up certain subjects. It was all very illuminating.

She found a bit more about the being possessing Felicity, the one called Tabbris. From the sound of things, he had been possessing the girl for awhile, even before the girl had known of him. Which made Gwen assume that he must have been sent by the Empire to possess the girl, and then… grown fond of her. Fond enough to eventually become romantic? That was the impression she was getting.

Either way, he was a full Seosten who was staying at the Atherby camp along with Sariel herself, who had been rescued from some prison lab pregnancy factory run by none other than Kushiel. And apparently those two were not the only Seosten there either. From the sound of things, the Atherbys had more former prisoners who had been rescued from the same prison.

The Atherbys. Arthur-By, as it had originally been. Gwen had disagreed with that group from the beginning, though it was not an entirely unfriendly disagreement. She knew why they set up to do things the way that they had. Their goal had been to openly oppose and delay the Seosten wherever possible.

Gwen, meanwhile, had believed that the best way to do things was to go completely underground. They needed to act in complete secrecy for many years, preparing for when Arthur would return. He would need a support network and as much information as possible. And he needed people to focus on bringing him back in the first place. That’s what she and the people who had been with her had been doing over the centuries. They and their descendants, that was. They had gone completely dark, putting themselves out of sight and out of mind for so many years simply to convince the Seosten that they were completely gone. It was the only way that they would be able to work to bring Arthur back when the time came.

But Gwen bore no ill will toward the Atherbys. She knew why they had chosen differently, and knew that Arthur would have respected that decision as well. In truth, both of their groups were likely needed. The Seosten would never believe that the remnants of Camelot had simply completely disappeared. Having the Atherbys around helped with that. Especially after she faked Lancelot’s death, as he would have been high on their priority list.

Still, even if she held no grudge against the other group, Gwen wasn’t going to go spilling everything she had found out to them already. For one thing, she didn’t know how good their operational security was at this point, so there was no way of knowing if it would get back to the Seosten. Besides, there was still a lot more she was going to need to look into before she would feel that talking to the other group was advisable. Especially as it sounded like there were actually other Seosten there, which was… very curious.

And just maybe she was a little hesitant to even anonymously leave Gaia any information. Anything that might even vaguely possibly make her look at Harper anymore than she did was a bad idea. Gwen wasn’t ready to have an actual discussion with the woman who had been Morgan Le Fay just yet. So she would keep the secret, for now at least. She would keep the secret, and look into it for herself.

Crouching unseen in the field, she watched as the group of students attacked the bus that was obviously a Seosten transport. She hadn’t been able to find out what they were after aside from the fact that it was ingredients for some kind of spell. What spell exactly, she had no idea. Probably because they didn’t either.

Speaking of spells, she had noticed something else while observing the children. They clearly weren’t aware of it, but Jophiel and Elisabet seemed to have put some other kind of spell on them. The magic made it so that anyone observing them would quickly forget specific details about them. Hair color, height, eye color, things they said, how they acted. All of that would be reduced to to very general knowledge almost immediately after it happened. It was obvious that the Committee member and the Seosten woman were protecting the group’s identities even more than the students were aware.

Gwen watched while they attacked that bus, noting their strategy and skill. They were already far and away beyond what a normal first year student should have been capable of. It was impressive. But then again, if they were being instructed by all the different tutors they seemed to be, that made sense.

When they finished, the group took a crate of some kind from the bus, using an enchanted something or other that Jophiel had provided which created a brief portal for them to disappear through. They also left several of the guards alive to escape, which was somewhat questionable. The humane part of Gwen applauded their mercy, even as the practical part of her worried about their leaving witnesses who might have identified them if it were not for the identity-concealing spells that Felicity and the others clearly didn’t know about.

It was a hard question, compounded by the whole Seosten slavery issue. Some of their troops worked with them willingly or because that was all they had ever known, while others were more firmly oppressed and held under the boot of authority. It was always difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the person you were fighting deserved to die or not. Far too often, the answer was the latter.

So she absolutely understood why Felicity and the twins had left as many alive as possible. Though she did wonder if it was any point of contention with that Tabbris. If the Seosten had been assigned to possess Felicity Chambers, he was probably quite experienced at doing the hard thing. Still, maybe he respected that they were trying to retain their humanity even while being put in these impossible situations. Gwen certainly respected it.

But she also needed information. And she didn’t want her presence to get back to Jophiel, even if her identity was concealed. She didn’t want to risk that.

So, she would interrogate the survivors. She would determine what they knew about the ingredients that had been taken from the bus, and see if she could figure out what spell was being prepared. Then she would get to know the people themselves. She would determine which were too dangerous to really trust to release and which could be freed. Those the latter would be taken to Michael, who would ensure that they didn’t remember any specifics before sending them somewhere at least somewhat safe to start new lives. As far as the Seosten in general would be concerned, the group would have simply disappeared. With luck they would attribute it to them either been killed or running away while they had the chance.

Jophiel would be more confused, of course. But she would hopefully also believe that the survivors had taken the opportunity to disappear rather than face judgment and punishment for their failure.

It was the best plan that she could come up with in that time, the best that didn’t involve simply killing all of them, which she was loathe to do.

The group of surviving guards had run almost two hundred yards from the sight of their broken bus when Gwen made her presence known. Appearing in front of them in her costumed, masked form, she looked up to meet their startled gazes.

“I know you’ve had a very bad day,” she announced quietly. “It can either get better now, or worse. You each have to decide which.

“But for the record, you won’t get to change your mind.”

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Day After Day 39-06

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The portal, as it turned out, led to the front porch of a cabin in the middle of the woods. The place looked cozy, almost storybook-like. The porch wrapped all the way around the small building, and there were a couple rocking chairs sitting next to the door. Those chairs were occupied when we arrived, by Vanessa and Tristan.

Both of them jumped up at our appearance, the latter giving a rueful smile. “Hey Flick,” he started, “and Tabs, I assume. Fancy meeting you guys here.”

“Nah,” I replied with a straight face, “he’s still back at the camp.”

Giggling clearly despite herself, Vanessa moved her eyes to look at Elisabet. “So we’re all here, what did you want from us? I mean besides to turn us into your perfect little examples of human-Seosten cooperation.”

“That is the end goal of all of this,” the woman replied simply with a nod. “But at this precise moment, we have brought you here to plan and train for a very important mission later today.”

“Mission,” Tristan echoed, “does that make us your angels?” He snickered at his own words before tilting his head at them. “Which one of you is Charlie and which one is Bosley?”

“Elisabet’s Bosley,” I pointed out then. “Because you never see Charlie, remember?”

Tabbris turned my hair pink before speaking up through me. “You guys are weird.”

Elisabet or Jophiel immediately jumped on that. Coming forward, they looked at me curiously while murmuring, “Very interesting. We assume this is a signal you have worked out already?”

Vanessa answered for us. “When she changes her hair or eyes white or pink, that’s Tabbris talking.”

When I nodded, my hair shifting back to normal, Elisabet smiled. “Very good. That is an excellent plan. We shall do much the same. When I am speaking, my hair shall remain dark. When Jophiel is speaking, it shall turn blonde.”

Sure enough, her hair immediately lightened so that Jophiel could say, “We are very glad to see you working together already.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “we’re just great at the teamwork thing. So why are we here, exactly? You said something about a mission?”

I was tempted to say something more, thoughts of Rudolph’s funeral moving through my head, but managed to hold my tongue. There was no need to get overly antagonistic right now. Besides, part of me did acknowledge that without the two of them helping in the first place, I never would’ve saved Avalon the way I did. In some ways I was being irrational. But at least I was cognizant enough to know that and catch myself somewhat.

In answer, Jophiel (their hair was still light) gestured to make the door of the cabin open before heading that way. “Come,” she instructed, “we shall discuss it inside.”

So, we all followed her into what turned out to be a nice, cozy-looking interior. Basically all I could see was a small living room with a couch and a couple chairs in front of the fireplace, a small television, and an attached kitchenette. There was also a set of stairs leading up to what looked like a bedroom. I had been expecting something huge and elaborate, same old bigger on the inside thing. Instead, the cabin looked much the same inside as it did outside. Which, to be honest, was pretty surprising.

After letting us look around for a few seconds, Elisabet started, “Now, as we said, there is a mission to prepare for. But first, we would like to know if you have any specific questions for us.”

“Actually yeah,” I realized then while turning quickly to them. “Did you two know that Kushiel had little kids in that transport that Sariel was in?”

From the look on the woman’s face, I might as well have just announced that my father was marrying Jon Bon Jovi. Either they were both incredibly good actresses, which wouldn’t have been surprising, or they knew absolutely nothing about what I just said.

“What,” Jophiel demanded, “are you talking about?“

Vanessa answered for me. “Little kids. Toddlers. Seosten toddlers.  There were four of them in one transport pod.” She explained about how we had found them, what their names were, and what else we knew.

“Alatheia’s child, even by proxy,” Jophiel murmured under her breath. “That is a new low, even for Kushiel.”  She shook her head then, focusing on me. “No, we did not know about it. You may choose to believe that or not, as you wish. But as far as we were aware, all viable offspring were immediately shipped elsewhere. None should have stayed with Kushiel for longer than a week, let alone a couple of years. There are very few who are not aware that leaving that woman in charge of young, impressionable children would be a terrible idea. Think what you will of us, but we care for our children.“

Without missing a beat, I stared right back at her. “Unless their possession power is broken. Then you call them a lie and treat them worse than garbage. But yeah, you’re great family role models.”

That must have gotten through, because the woman flinched and walked away for a moment. I thought she might say something in defense of it, but when she straightened once more, the woman’s hair darkened to show that Elisabet was speaking. “We will look into this incident with the children remaining with Kushiel. And we will find out if it is an isolated incident or not. But for the time being, there is still a mission to perform.”

Tristan shrugged. “Okay then, Bosley. What are we doing?”

Elisabet explained. “There is a bus traveling along a back road in the middle of what you call Iowa. It is carrying a crate of special supplies. We would like you to take that crate and bring it here.”

Raising her hand, I shook my head quickly. “Wait, wait, wait. If you think we’re just going to do some dirty work for you and attack some innocent—”

Elisabet gave me a sharp look. “It is a Seosten supply transport, operating under the radar to avoid attention. The crate contains very rare magical supplies that are being delivered to our counterpart in Eden’s Garden.”

“Which means you can’t just grab them yourself,” I noted. “But why do you need the supplies in particular?”

It was Jophiel who answered. “As we said, they are very rare. And, as it happens, some of them are useful for a spell that we wish to help the two of you perform.” She nodded toward me and, I supposed, Tabbris. “It is a spell that you will find very useful, we assure you. But, it is one that requires very specific ingredients. Ingredients which are heavily monitored. We need you to steal them from that bus.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “Are you sure we can deal with the guards on that bus?”

Jophiel looked to her seriously. “If you can’t, we will have chosen our students rather poorly indeed.”

Her hair changed then to show that Elisabet was talking. “If we believed that the defending forces would be too much for you, we would not send you. We have no desire to have you killed in your first mission, I promise you that. And should things go wrong, we will find a way to influence it, even if that is simply to extract you. We will be monitoring the situation. But do not expect us to solve the problem for you. This is very much much a test. One that, should you succeed as we expect, will, as we said, provide the materials for a very useful spell.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by a spell that we would find useful. But it was pretty clear that they weren’t going to tell us anything more about it at the moment. So, I just sighed and looked to the twins. “In that case,” I announced, “I guess we should start planning out how we’re gonna do this.”

******

A few hours later, after going back to school to work with Harper and finish up that project, Tabbris and I were in position with Tristan and Vanessa.

The road was paved, but that was about all you could say about it. It led through what basically looked like an empty field that stretched on in every direction. There were a few houses here and there, but most seemed like they hadn’t been lived in for a long time, and were incredibly far apart. The road itself was cracked and potholed to death, looking as though it hadn’t been maintained in years, if not a decade.

Which probably wasn’t that big of a deal, since I doubted more than a few cars a day passed down this particular road. We were probably lucky that it wasn’t dirt.

The three of us, four with Tabbris counted, were crouched in a small grove of apple trees set just a bit back from the road. From this position, we would be able to see our quarry coming from as far away as possible. We would have plenty of time to prepare ourselves from the moment it appeared on the horizon. And with Vanessa’s telescopic vision, there would be no way to mistake what vehicle it was. Not that I expected to see any others before the bus, but still.

“You guys sure you’re ready for this?” I asked that before looking to the twins, biting my lip. “This is kind of a big deal. We don’t have any back-up or anything. I mean, we do, since I really think they’re telling the truth about not letting us get killed. But still. You know.”

Tristan nodded, glancing to his sister before replying, “We’re ready.” He looked to me then. “Actually, I was just thinking about how many times your mom probably did something like this while she was running the rebellion. You know, a quiet mission to ambush some transport or something along a back road, it seems like something she would’ve done a lot.”

Despite myself, I smiled just a little bit. “Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. I mean, I doubt she was doing it for the same reasons, but there’s… there’s definitely something there.”

Tabbris spoke up through me then. “We’ll get her back. That’s part of why we’re learning all this. We get better and better, and then save your mama.”

Vanessa nodded firmly at me. “She’s right, you helped us get our mom. We’ll help you get yours. Whatever it takes.”

“Damn straight,” Tristan agreed, “We’ve got your back. I’m pretty sure we–what the?” Interrupting himself, the boy abruptly jerked around, looking up into the trees.

“What?” I blurted, looking the same way. There was nothing there. The trees were empty.

“I…” Tristan frowned, looking over the branches. “I swear I thought I saw a… a shadow.”

“A shadow?” Vanessa echoed.

He nodded. “I mean the shadow of a person. I thought I saw a person’s shadow, from right above us. Right there.” He pointed into the tree, at a particularly large branch.

“Right there?” I blinked at that. “Someone that close, who didn’t set off any of our senses and who disappeared that quick? Who would that be? I mean, it wouldn’t be Elisabet and Jophiel. They wouldn’t be hiding.”

“I don’t–” Tristan started, before pointing. “Wait, there’s the bus.”

Sure enough, a shape had appeared at the far end of the road, off in the distance. Vanessa turned that way along with me, clearly focusing her vision for a moment before giving a quick nod. “That’s them, unless there’s some other red bus that fits the exact same description coming along the same road at this exact time.” Looking to rest of us she shrugged. “Hey, it could happen.”

Smiling just a little, I replied, “Let’s operate under the assumption that it’s the right one. You guys ready for your part?”

In answer, Tristan immediately shrank down dramatically. Suddenly, he was only about a foot tall. That was one of the powers he had picked up while we had been fighting to save Sariel back at Kushiel’s lab. He could shrink down to about one foot in height, or grow to a whole ten feet.

Doing so made him shrink out of his clothes, but revealed a previously invisible blue Seosten jumpsuit. Vanessa had one too, gifts from their mother to protect her children’s privacy when they shapeshifted. If anyone back at the school asked, they had been made by Nevada.

At the same time, Vanessa’s form changed as well, shrinking out of her own clothes while her jumpsuit appeared. But she wasn’t simply shrinking, the girl was turning into her raven form.

When she was totally transformed a few seconds later, the girl flapped a few times and flew over to pick up her shrunken brother by the arms. With a soft caw, she took off up into the air, flying low at first to stay away from the side of the road before climbing rapidly. As Tabbris and I watched, the two went high into the air, banking around to head back for the road.

“Okay,” I murmured, “almost our turn.”

As we watched, the bus got closer and closer. I could see a man of some kind crouched on top of the bus holding what looked like a rifle or something. He apparently hadn’t noticed Vanessa and Tristan high above, his attention focused on the road ahead or at the fields around them. It was a mistake that would cost him, and the rest of his group.

The bus was just about to pass the grove where I was crouched. It was close enough by then that I could see through the windshield to the driver. It looked like an Orc of some kind, complete with tasks. His big green hand was on the steering wheel as he bellowed something I couldn’t hear. Maybe he was singing.

Either way, he was about to have a very bad day. First I focused on creating a portal. One end appeared just in front of me, while the other appeared right in front of the man’s face. With that, I reared back. My hand immediately secreted a thick, gooey liquid that would make whoever it touched nauseous. Like Tristan‘s size changing, it was a power I’d gained back at the lab. Tabbris told me about it in the hospital, and I had practiced a little bit since that night.

Then I used another power I had gained to turn the liquid into a soft orb, before pitching it forward through that portal. The Orc barely had time to see the portal appear, before he was suddenly splashed in the face by a semi-solid ball that exploded into liquid which immediately made him violently nauseous.

The reaction was instantaneous, the bus careening off the road and into the field while the Orc hurled his lunch and dropped the wheel.

At the same time, the Vanessa raven dove toward the bus. She shot through an open window at the back, before shooting out the other side. I could no longer see Tristan in her talons. She’d dropped him off inside the bus.

Lunging  to my feet, I bought my staff to my hands and used it to launch myself forward and up. That made me a perfect target for the guy on the roof, who snapped his rifle my way. But before he could actually pull the trigger, Vanessa was there. She had flown up and around, to put herself back on top of the bus. Her talons raked the guys face, and he jerked backward before shooting his rifle off into the distance.

Landing on the hood of the bus in a crouch, I saw inside to where a now back-to-normal-size Tristan was busy ruining the day of the guys at the back. They were just starting to turn on him, reacting to the threat. Well, except for the driver, who was still on his knees puking his guts out. That nausea inducing stuff was apparently pretty strong.

I couldn’t leave Tristan alone in there, so I lashed out with my staff, triggering a short explosive burst that shattered the windshield. I was through immediately, hopping over the poor driver to put myself right at the front of the bus, and behind the guys who had been moving for Tristan.

Above, on top of the bus, I could hear a roar just before the roof caved in part way. Vanessa had turned into her bear and was dealing with the guy there. I almost felt sorry for him.

The guards on the bus froze at the sound as the roof crumpled slightly. Their eyes snapped from that, back to Tristan, and then to me.

“Sorry, guys,” I apologized while lifting my staff. “We kind of need this cargo more than you do.”

Apparently they disagreed, because the guards suddenly threw themselves into a desperate attack.

Well, no one said this little trip was supposed to be easy. Grimacing, I brought my staff up and met their charge.

******

“You allowed some to escape,” Jophiel noted a short while later. We were back at that cabin once more, with the crate that they had wanted.

“Everyone who tried to,” I confirmed. “If we could knock them out, we did. If they tried to escape, we let them go. Believe it or not, we don’t exactly want to kill everybody that you point out. Is that going to be a problem?”

There was a brief pause then as the two obviously conferred before shaking their head. Elisabet answered, “Unless it prevents you from completing the mission that we assign you, no. We were simply making an observation.”

Jophiel spoke then. “You actually did quite well. We were impressed by the plan you devised and your execution of it. You are all already quite beyond the normal skill of your age group.”

Tristan shrugged. “Just call us overachievers,” he murmured before using his foot to lightly nudge the crate. “So what’s in this thing that’s so important. What was that spell you were talking about?”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s got some kind of magical super lock on it. Are you sure you can get into it?”

With a slight smile, Jophiel replied, ”Yes, we are quite certain we will be able to open it. As for what is inside, they are very rare ingredients, as we said. A few of them are quite necessary for a spell that we will teach you.” She looked to me at the end of that.

“Yeah,” I replied, “you said it would be a very useful spell for us to learn. How useful?”

Elisabet smiled even more then. “It is a spell that we performed many centuries ago for ourselves. It will allow Tabbris to access any of your powers even while she is not possessing you.”

My eyes widened at that, both from my own reaction and my partner’s. “Use the powers even apart from me?” I blurted in surprise.

“Yes,” Jophiel confirmed. “So long as you are not actively using them yourself, she will be able to use them as well. This will allow you to act even more as partners. But as we said, it is a complicated spell with very rare ingredients. We will need to have you practice it for quite a while before you were ready to use the actual components. We wouldn’t want you to… ahh, mess up, after all.”

“Holy shit, Flick,” Tristan muttered, “that sounds amazing.”

All I could do was nod silently, taking in the implications of just such an ability. They were right, if Tabbris could actually use my powers separate from me, that would make us even more effective. Not to mention how much it would allow the other girl to protect herself. I had no idea how or if we’d be able to explain such a thing later if we needed to, but still…

In some ways, maybe learning from these two wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially if they managed to get me more prepared to deal with Fossor when the time came.

******

“Hey, Flick!” the cheerful, peppy voice called a short time later, as I was walking across the school grounds.

“Oh, hey, Harper.” Waving to her as she approached, I asked, “What’s up?”

Grinning at me, the pink-haired hyperactive girl replied, “I just thought I’d let you know that I showed what we did to Professor Vandel, and he says it’s an A project.” She gave me a thumbs up. “So we did good.”

Her smile was infectious, and I couldn’t help but return it, even if my school grades were kind of the least of my concerns right then. “Oh, right, cool. Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Sure you could!” Harper insisted. “I think you can do a lot of things if you put your mind to them.  But we do deserve a reward, so…” She produced something in one hand, tossing it to me. “Reward apple!”

Catching it, I blinked. Sure enough, it was an apple. “This looks fresh.”

Her head bobbed. “It is! My mom sends me a care package from our backyard orchard sometimes. I use most of the fruit for baking, but uhh, something told me you might like that one by itself. I’ve got other fruit too if you want that instead.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Thanks.” Shrugging, I took a bite of the apple. She was right, it was good. And definitely fresh.

It was funny. Not so long ago, I had been hiding in a grove of apple trees while waiting for that bus to appear. And now, I was eating an apple.

“Sure you’re not a serpent?” I asked then, while taking another bite.

She blinked at that. “A serpent?”

“Sure,” I replied while gesturing. “You know. Apple. Serpent?”

Getting it, she giggled. “Wouldn’t we need to be at Eden’s Garden then?”

“Good point,” I agreed. “I guess you’re not a serpent then.”

“Nope,” she chirped easily, “definitely not a serpent.

“Just plain old Harper.”

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Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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Day After Day 39-03

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“I mean seriously, dude, this thing was freaking huge! It was the Godzilla of Gajasimhas!”

The girl currently excitedly babbling on across from me as I sat at a table in the library back at Crossroads was Harper Hayes. It was April 30th, Monday. The weekend had passed since Rudolph’s funeral, and I was back at school once more. Harper and I had been assigned a project to work on together by Professor Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. We were supposed to pick one of the lost cities, places that had supposedly once been real and full of humans before they were overrun and destroyed by those evil Strangers. There were quite a lot of them, according to our books, places where thousands of humans were wiped out back when Heretics had been much fewer and further between, before they could be manufactured by Crossroads.

Somehow, I had stopped myself from asking how society had continued to exist and develop for thousands of years before Bosch had come along if their Heretics were so limited and every single non-human out there was a genocidal lunatic. But it was a close thing, and I deserved a medal for my restraint. I’d settled for a piece of pie.

Now the two of us were in the library after classes were over, and Harper was telling me all about the creature that she and her team had killed for their last hunt. Apparently a Gajasimhas was a huge monster, fifteen feet tall at the shoulders on average, with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant, complete with tusks. It sounded pretty nasty, even before listening to Harper’s rendition of the story as she excitedly babbled on. She tended to repeat details, embellishing them further every time, and sometimes got so excited about what she was saying that she tripped over the words and got tongue-tied. It was kind of cute and endearing, almost making me want to protect the girl or something.

“You know, you’re really lucky,” Harper abruptly informed me. “I mean, in some ways. Not in every way, obviously. Lots of bad stuff happens around you, but still… lucky.”

“Lucky in that I’ve never fought a Gajasimhas?” I asked, confused by the shift in subject.

Her head shook quickly at that. “What? No, that’s totally unlucky. Those things are awesome. You’re lucky because you don’t just have a girlfriend, you have two. I mean, you’re dating super-hot warrior princess and super-cute Asian gamer babe. Seriously?” She held a hand up to me, gesturing to it. “Seriously, dude. Dude. Say what you want about all the trouble you get into, but as far as that goes, you pretty much hit triple sevens twice in a row.”

Well, when she put it like that, I couldn’t help but give the girl the high five she was looking for. But we also really needed to work. So right after that, I put a hand on one of the books we had found. “This one’s about places in Africa. You wanna look in that one and I’ll look at… what’s this one?” My other hand tilted up another book to read the spine. “Camelot: Facts In The Fiction?”

“Meh.” Harper shrugged at me. “The King Arthur stuff is a little overdone. Eiji says everyone wants to do a project on that. We should do something new. Besides,” she added sagely, leaning closer across the table, “I’m pretty sure most of these stuffy old professors wouldn’t know what Camelot was really like if it fell on top of them.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I teased, “Maybe they should consult you on the subject. Or me. I’m sure a couple of Bystander-kin know more about Camelot than people who might’ve been alive back then. Or at least had a father or grandfather who was. Actually…” Pausing, I pursed my lips thoughtfully. “That Percival guy on the Committee was part of the whole Camelot thing. I wonder if they consulted him for this book. It might be more accurate than you think.”

The other girl met my gaze for a moment before abruptly laughing. “Okay, maybe you have a point. I mean, if you want to do it on that…” Trailing off, she looked to me expectantly.

I thought about it for a few seconds then, letting my head tilt from one side to the other indecisively. “Hmmm…” In the end, however, I shook my head. “Nah, you’re right. Lots of people are gonna do Camelot. And they’ll definitely expect it from a couple Bystander-Kin. Probably lots of Camelot and Atlantis projects. Let’s look at one of the lesser used ones. Like in that Africa book.” I gestured to the one I had indicated earlier. “Gotta be something interesting there.”

She agreed, and we started poring through it together to find something we could both agree on. The hard part was actually settling on one. There was, utterly unsurprisingly, a lot of magical history in Africa. Lots of human settlements that, according to Crossroads history, had been wiped out in one way or another. A lot of that was probably pretty accurate as far as being attacked by evil Strangers went, though I had a few questions (that would probably go unanswered) about how much of the population in those ancient cities had been fully human.

Unfortunately, before we could finally pick one in particular and run with it, I felt someone approach our table from the back of the library even as a new (and unwelcome) voice spoke up.

“Careful Harper,” Zeke warned with a smirk that he had to have practiced in the mirror to look that annoying, “you don’t want to end up like other people that Chambers here works with. You know what happens to them.” As he spoke, the boy stopped to fold his arms loosely.

“No, Zeke.” The response didn’t come from Harper or myself. It came from the nearby bookshelf, where Doug was standing with his finger on one of the volumes there. His attention, however, was focused solely on the boy by our table, voice soft. “Why don’t you tell us what happens to people who work with Flick? I’m sure your perspective on it will be very illuminating.”

“Wh–” Zeke glanced that way, and for just a second I thought he would completely back off. He actually held a hand up in surrender, head shaking. “Look, I didn’t even–I shouldn’t have…” But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just completely let it go, no matter how much he obviously knew that he should have. “I just think it’s a little… you know, surprising that you’re okay with this.”

Slowly lowering his hand from the book, Doug turned to face him fully. His voice had gone even softer. “Surprising that I’m okay with what, Zeke?”

“This, her.” Zeke was gesturing to me, of course. “She brought Rudolph back and puppeted him through the halls of the hospital in front of everyone there, man! And you’re just completely cool with still being on a team with her? You don’t have a problem with that? Seriously?”

Right, the story of what had happened to reveal my newly inherited necromancer abilities had made the rounds well before Gaia or anyone else could do anything to stop it. Rudolph’s moving body had been seen by too many people, and the rumors had spread out quickly from there. So now the people around school had even more reasons to stare at me. Especially since the fact that Rudolph’s body had done the impossible thing of actually using his powers post-death.

For a moment after Zeke said those words, Doug was quiet. He just stood there, silently watching the other boy before looking to me with eyes that very briefly revealed just how lost the boy actually felt right then. Then he looked back to Zeke. “Yeah, I have a problem with it. I have a pretty god damn big problem with Flick bringing Rudolph’s dead body back and making it walk around. Specifically the part where my friend is dead. That’s the part I have issues with. Or did you just sort of skip past that in your rush to grab onto something else you could blame her for? Tell me something, Zeke, did you get necromancer powers too? Because I’m pretty sure you’re using Rudolph as even more of a prop than she did.”

Before Zeke could actually say anything to that, Harper was on her feet. “Okay!” she chirped, clearly uncomfortable with things getting serious at all. “I think that’s enough drama for one day. You wanna look through the book tonight and lemme know what you think we should focus on at breakfast?” she asked me then, smiling brightly. “I still think Amina of Zaria would be a great subject! But, you know, if you find a better one…”

“She sounds pretty cool,” I agreed. “And the ahhh… real story of Zaria could be a good project. Definitely lesser known than Camelot. But I’ll… uhh, I’ll take a look and let you know.” Even as I spoke, from the corner of my eye I could see Zeke. The boy clearly wasn’t accustomed to being ignored like this, particularly right after being put down the way Doug had. He looked like he kept wanting to either say something or walk away. But he couldn’t work out what to say, and walking away probably felt like he was retreating. So he stood there awkwardly.

Giving me a bright smile and nod that made her bright-pink pigtails bounce, Harper looked to Zeke. “C’mon! I made some raspberry chocolate chip cookies, you’ve gotta try one! Or two.”

With that, the girl basically dragged him away, while he made token noises of protest. Which… yeah, Harper clearly did all that specifically to avoid any more conflict, defusing the situation through offering baked goods. As far as that kind of thing went, it was nicely done. Except for the part where Zeke got cookies.

That left me standing there with Doug. Glancing to the boy, I hesitated. Boy, he looked different without his hat. Which he would hopefully be getting back soon, since his Grandpa Sulan had been working with Sariel, Theia, and the others at the Atherby camp for the past couple of days, ever since Larees had met with him at the funeral. Apparently not only had it not taken much to get him on-side, he actually was already pretty much read in on most things by Percival. Ever since he’d been banished from the old colony world, Sulan had been working as a sort of ‘fixer’ or assistant for Percival, doing things that the Committee member couldn’t focus on doing himself.

Which was all super useful for us, since it meant he was already onboard with what needed to happen. So he’d been at the camp teaching them how to use the anti-Whisper spell.

There had also apparently been a bit of a… conversation between Doug and Sulan over just how much Sulan had known about and not talked over with him. From what little I’d heard about it, Sulan had said that he wanted to wait until Doug was older instead of forcing him into making a choice while he was still a first-year student.

I obviously had questions about how much they knew about the Whisper spells if Percival had been so close to Sulan. But it was going to have to wait, since Sulan had been busy and Percival wasn’t exactly someone I had ready access to.

For the moment, however, Doug was still without his hat. Which looked weird, but I shook myself and focused. “Anyway, uh, I’m sorry he brought up–I mean…”

“It’s not your fault when someone else brings up painful subjects, Flick,” the boy tiredly reminded me. “And another thing.” Looking straight to me, he narrowed his eyes. “Weren’t you going to start learning about that necromancy thing from Gabriel Prosser’s friend?”

“Right, yeah…” Flushing a little guiltily, I nodded. “He said it’d take a bit to get his friend around, whoever they are. So I sort of told him to take his time. I’m not exactly in a rush to use it.”

Doug shook his head at that, sighing. “Look, don’t avoid using that new power of his just because it creeps you out, or because of what idiot jackasses like that think. It’s a useful power. If you handicap yourself by avoiding it, you’ll just be making things harder for everyone. Maybe it’s creepy and lots of bad guys use it. But so what? Bad guys use lots of things. It’s a tool. And you’re a tool if you don’t use everything you’ve got. You’re dealing with a fucking necromancer as like… an archenemy, Flick. Why would you avoid practicing with the same power he’s got? There is no scenario in which that’s not at least slightly useful.”

Once he finished, I opened and shut my mouth a couple of times before hesitantly nodding. “Yeah, I um… yeah, point. I’ll tell Gabriel I’m ready to practice with it, whenever his friend is available.

“I just hope practicing necromancy doesn’t require a wardrobe change, because I do not have enough black clothes and eyeliner.”

******

So, to that end (the learning necromancy part, not the needing more eyeliner part), I told Gabriel that night as I was visiting the camp to see Avalon, my father, and Tabbris that I was ready to meet the person he had in mind to teach me. He’d smiled faintly and said that they had just been waiting for me say the word because they didn’t want to rush me. My new teacher would be ready to meet me down by the lake after I took some time with the others.

So, I sat with Avalon for awhile (she was practically bouncing off the walls waiting to get out of bed), and had a snack with Tabbris and my dad. We also played a game of Clue at the table in Dad’s cabin. Tabs told me all about learning more of the anti-Whisper spell from ‘Mr. Sulan’ earlier. Apparently they were pretty sure they’d be able to cast the spell themselves within the next day or so. Which was fast for such powerful and unique magic, but then again, Seosten tended to have a leg-up on the whole magic thing with their perfect memories.

When I was done there, I gradually made my way through the camp, greeting people who greeted me in turn until I reached the edge of the lake and looked around. “Okay,” I murmured, “how am I supposed to know when my necromancy teacher is coming? And why do I feel like asking that out loud is the cue for them to be right behind me?” Turning with those words, I looked expectantly… only to find no one there. “Huh. Guess I was–”

“Wrong?” A voice spoke up from what had been in front of me a moment earlier before I turned. “Nope, I’m just one step ahead.”

Turning back, I found myself staring at a man in a dark blue coat that reached all the way to his ankles. It was open, revealing white pants, a thick brown belt with a golden buckle, button-up white shirt with frills, and a bolo tie. His body was big and burly, like one of those stereotypical rugby players or British football fans. I wasn’t exactly sure why that was the comparison that immediately leapt to mind, but it was.

Oh, and he didn’t have a head. Or rather, the head he had was held under one arm rather than being attached to his neck where it should have been.

“Get it?” the head asked with a wide grin. “One step ahead?”

Okay, even given everything I’d experienced that year, this one still threw me. I stumbled back with a surprised yelp, eyes widening. “Oh shi–” Catching myself at the last second, I stared wide-eyed. “You–what–what?”

Aside from the obvious fact that it wasn’t connected to his body, the head that I was staring at looked fairly normal. Actually, in some ways it reminded me of Ruthers. He had the same sort of bulldog appearance with the heavyset, stubborn face and a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. He looked, as Ruthers did, like a heavyweight boxer or, as my first impression had said, like a rowdy soccer hooligan who got drunk in the pub a lot. His dark blond hair was a bit long, and fashioned into a ponytail that I immediately pictured as a handle.

“Sorry.” The head had the sense to look admonished. “That’s my fault. Part of the deal with ol’ Gabe. I made him promise to let me meet you on my terms. I like to see people’s reactions. Always did like pranks… often a little too much, some might say…” His voice trailed off then, eyes looking out toward some distant memory before he focused.

“Ahem, sorry about that. Err, pleasure to meet you, Miss Felicity Chamber–Flick, they said you like Flick. Flick Chambers, was it?” The hand that wasn’t busy holding onto his head extended toward me. “It’s alright,” he assured me, “it won’t bite. It’s this end you’ve gotta watch.” His other hand waved his head demonstrably.

Right. Yeah, I guess I’d seen weirder. This had surprised me, but… well, he seemed friendly enough. And Gabriel had vouched for him. So I shook his hand briefly, “Yup, I’m Flick. And you’re… you’re…” I hesitated before wincing. “Um. I’m trying not to stare, but you’re supposed to look at people’s eyes when you’re talking to them. So I’m not sure what the etiquette is.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. If I was self-conscious, I’d find a better way than lugging this thing around in a hand,” the man informed me. “I do, sometimes. Got myself suits that can hold my head right in place where it’s supposed to be. But I wanted to meet you as ahhh… naturally as possible, you might say.”

His shoulders rose in a shrug before he offered, “Anyway, name’s Abraham Van Brunt, but I’ve always been partial to Brom Bones. Though these days, most people just know me as–”

“The Headless Horseman?!” I blurted out loud, eyes widening even more than before. “Like, the whole Ichabod Crane Headless Horseman?”

“You know,” the man pointed out, “that was intentionally left vague in the story. Me being the Horseman, I mean.”

“But you are headless,” I reminded him, feeling a bit silly. “I mean, not headless because it’s right there. But…” Trailing off, I hesitated before raising a hand. “You know, I’m getting a little dizzy trying to talk to you when you’re… umm…”

“What? Oh.” The man, who had been juggling his head, tossing it back and forth and in circles between his hands, finally stopped. “Sorry, habit. You’re right though, I’m the Headless Horseman. One and the same. Only the story wasn’t quite accurate. Let’s see… the short version is that Katrina was a witch, and ol’ Ichabod was a Heretic there to find her. Err, not that he knew she was the one he was looking for, specifically. Katrina wasn’t even her real name, just some pseudonym she used.”

“And the whole Headless Horseman story?” I prompted, fascinated by this.

He winced. “Yeah, that was me. I made it up. I was an even bigger idiot back then, you see. I was smitten by Katrina, and when Ichabod started investigating her, I thought he was courting her. So I made up the story to chase him out of town.”

A brief look of shame crossed his eyes then as the man muttered, “Ended up playing right into Katrina’s hands. Distracted Ichabod at the worst time, and she… well… she took him. I saw it from my disguise and tried to get away, but she took me too. Said she liked my ideas, so she used an old dark ritual and… well, here I am.” He gestured to himself.

“Wait, wait, you were born human and changed into this by magic?” I blurted, staring at him. “That’s–I didn’t know that was… I mean…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed easily. “Trust me, kid, you’ve still got a lot left to learn. And speaking of which, we should get started on those lessons. It’s gonna be a long night. So uhh.” He then proceeded to literally toss his head to me.

“Let’s get a head start.”

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Tristan and Vanessa

“See, Nessa, the real question isn’t ‘Can I name every Roman Emperor in order and list their birth and death dates as well as the year that they took power.’ The real question is, ‘Why would anyone in the world ever need to do that?’ And making the answer be ‘for a trivia contest’ is cheating.”

As he finished speaking, Tristan grinned across the long, hollow log that he and his sister were sitting on opposite ends of. The log itself sat a short distance into the jungle from the beach, and was large enough that he almost could have laid across the width of it. Not nearly as big as the trees at Eden’s Garden, of course. But still respectable.

Squinting at him, Vanessa sniffed the words, “For Heretics, that kind of information actually could be useful, Tristan. What if you run into a magical trap that says something like, ‘I was the first Roman Emperor to use the cognomen Germanicus instead of Caesar, move these floor tiles into the correct spelling of my name to turn off that poison gas’? What would you do then?”

“Well,” the boy replied dryly, “first, I’d congratulate Spielberg and Lucas for making their Indiana Jones movies a far more accurate depiction of ancient booby traps than I thought they were.” Pausing then, he stared off into the distance, smiling to himself while his mouth twitched.

Vanessa sighed. “You’re trying not to laugh because you said booby, aren’t you?”

“Technically,” Tristan answered easily, “now I’m trying not to laugh because you said booby.”

A tiny, reluctant smile played at the girl’s mouth even as her face pinked a little bit. “Come on,” she pressed, “we’re supposed to be testing your memory. And I thought you’d like the historical stuff more than the math stuff. Plus, you never know when any kind of information might be useful. It’s not like you’ve got limited storage space in that brain, you know.”

“Hey, if you knew how many baseball stats, X-Men comics, and movie quotes I’ve got locked up in here,” her brother retorted, “you might change your mind about that ‘unlimited storage space’ thing. Ooh, and Guitar Hero songs. Do you have any idea how easy that game is when you can watch a song once and then play it perfectly without even looking at the screen the entire time?”

In response to that, Vanessa stuck her tongue out at her brother before offering, “Make you a deal?”

Tristan was intrigued, raising an eyebrow. “A deal, the devil says?”

“Don’t call me the devil,” she shot back. “I’m the devil’s niece. Get it right. Anyway, yes, a deal. You take my thing seriously and memorize this stuff, and then you can teach me the stuff that you’re interested in. You know, the X-Men and baseball stuff.”

Blinking, the boy quickly asked, “You’re serious? You really wanna know that stuff?”

Vanessa nodded without any hesitation. “Of course I do. I mean, you’re interested in it, and I want to have more things that we can talk about. If it gets you to pay attention to the stuff you’re not really interested in, that’s just a second bird for the stone.”

Tristan grinned then, head shaking. “You know, Nessa, it’s a good thing I’ve got this perfect memory now.

“Maybe it’ll help me stop forgetting how great it is to have a sister like you.”

 

————–

Tabbris

 

A handful of fish scattered in various directions as the water was suddenly and violently disturbed by a small head covered in blonde hair abruptly shoving its way through the lake surface and into the space where they had just been swimming. Bright green eyes popped open then, as Tabbris, from her upside down position, tried to apologize for disturbing the fleeing creatures.

Of course, since her head was currently in the lake and she had not used any kind of spell to compensate, what came out of her mouth was water-muffled gurgling. Which was a mistake that the girl realized quickly, lifting her head out of the lake long enough to fumble at the pockets of her jumpsuit (Seosten technology meant that even skin-tight jumpsuits could have pockets of considerable size) until she found what appeared to be a keychain with a large number of small wooden discs, about the size of quarters, all of varying colors. There were some red ones, some blue ones, white ones, green ones, and so on.

Shifting straight to the blue ones, the young girl quickly flipped through them until she found the one she wanted. A quick tug yanked it from the keychain, and she whispered the activation word for the spell attached to it. Within another second, a faint glowing bubble-like forcefield appeared around the girl’s head. It wouldn’t actually stop anything that hit it with any force. But it would act as… well, an air bubble.

Suitably prepared then, she poked her head back down and looked for the fish she had frightened. “Sorry!” the girl called, hoping that some of them might hear. And even if they didn’t (not that they’d understand if they did), apologizing when you scared or hurt someone was just the right thing to do.

She heard footsteps behind her, slowly approaching along the wooden dock that she was hanging off of. The footsteps stopped, and the girl lifted her head from the water to find the very old-looking, knightly man in literal chainmail. “Miss Tabbris,” the man politely spoke, “are you alright?”

“Oh! Um, yeah. Hi, Mr… uh, Enguerrand,” Tabbris quickly replied while shaking her wet hair out a bit. She was blushing. “I’m okay. I–oh.” Reaching up, she poked the bubble while dismissing the spell, making it pop. “I just wanted to look at the fish for a minute.”

The man smiled a little at that. “Am I to take it that you like fish, Miss Tabbris?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh! I like fish a lot. I wasn’t sure before because I–I didn’t want to accidentally make Flick like something she didn’t, so I was trying not to think about things that I like very much, except when I couldn’t help it. But I think I really like fish.”

That kind smile broadened a little, and the elderly man (who had been around long enough to have diapered and babysat Flick’s mother’s father) slowly sank down to sit on the edge of the dock beside her. “Well, my dear, at the risk of straying from my chivalrous stereotype into one more befitting a far more modern gangster, would you like to, ahh, swim with the fish?”

“Uh huh!” Again, Tabbris nodded as fast as possible, her wet, blonde hair shaking with each motion. Then she stopped. “Oh. But um. I can’t swim.”  

“That’s quite alright,” Enguerrand assured her. “We’ll simply start there, and teach you to swim.”

“You–you’d do that?” the girl asked in an awed voice. “You’re not too busy or… or anything?”

The man shook his head. “Miss Tabbris, I assure you… as someone who has witnessed the birth, growth, and loss of so many people whom I called my friends and family, these are the moments that are remembered. Not the training or the battles. These moments right here. I try to make those memories whenever possible. So please, do believe my sincerity when I say that I would very much love to teach you how to swim.”

Finally smiling back at him, Tabbris chirped, “Okay, Mr. Enguerrand.

“Where do we start?”

 

—————

 

Apollo and Kushiel

 

Deep in the heart of Kushiel’s prison facility, two figures stood facing one another. One was held locked in rigid stasis that was enforced by the yellow light surrounding her. A yellow light which was projected from a ring worn by the other figure, who held his hand up that way. Bodies of those who had tried to interrupt the pair lay scattered along the floor around them.

“You know,” Apollo remarked in a tone of faux-casualness underlied by extreme tension and effort, “if I had it to do over again, I’d probably make the light green instead of yellow. Much rather be Hal than Sinestro, you know?”

Straining to free herself, the Seosten woman snarled an annoyed, “You are prattling nonsense, as you always have. One would think that you would have matured some small amount in the millennia proceeding your banishment. But then, perhaps that is hopeless optimism.”

Despite the fact that this was a struggle that was far more centered around magical strength than physical, sweat still poured from both Apollo and Kushiel from the effort of holding or breaking the paralysis respectively. Each was calling upon vast reserves of energy and stamina, their duel essentially stalemated. Kushiel could not free herself from the power of the ring, but Apollo couldn’t manage anything that would actually end the problem. The slightest slip at that point would have allowed her to move and therefore escape. Or worse.

Grimacing a little before turning that into a small, tight smile, the man retorted, “I see you’re still creatively reinterpreting my telling you all to go fuck yourselves. I’ve got news for you, sweetheart. When the guy packs his stuff, moves to a new country, changes his name, and files a restraining order, you didn’t break up with him.

“Ah,” Kushiel spat with a dark smirk, “but you didn’t choose to go by yourself, now did you? No, no, you wouldn’t have. You were counting on the one that you thought you could trust. You were expecting dear, dear, would-be sister to go with you. How much did it hurt when she refused? How hard did you take that betrayal, hmm? Everything we did to your name, every action we took to destroy that reputation and turn you into humanity’s worst villain, and none of it was as bad as what she did. You asked for her help, for her to join you, and she stabbed you in the back.” Near the end of that, the magically paralyzed woman was chuckling.

Shaking his head a little at that, Apollo quietly replied, “Betrayed? Kushy, does Sevesensiel ring a bell? Little code that those kids used to fuck with Radueriel? I gave it to Sariel when I left, just in case she ever needed it. Did she ever tell any of you about it in the.. Oh… two thousand years she had? Did she ever tell you about any of my plans? Did she even tell you that she knew I was leaving? Not much of a betrayal, then. Hell, she even told her kids about it, and it looks like they were smart enough to tell their friends.”

That wasn’t how Felicity had ended up with the code, of course. But there was no need to give Kushiel any reason to think otherwise.

“Sure, I was disappointed that she didn’t come with me,” he continued then. “But betrayed? Don’t be so dramatic. I know my sister. I knew she’d get there eventually. But she had her own path to take, and it wasn’t my place to force it. I wanted her company, I wanted to spare her some of the guilt that I knew she’d end up feeling. I wanted her to come with me. But even when she didn’t, I knew she would eventually. I just had to give her time. And if there’s one thing people like us have a lot of, it’s time.”

Straining even more against the spell that held her rigid, Kushiel gave a low snarl. “It’s too bad then, that you will have to wait even longer for that reunion that you have wanted for so long. Or did it escape you that the transport holding all of those prisoners, including the other traitor you care for so much, has disappeared? And with her twin children aboard as well. What an added treat that will be.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Apollo informed her, his expression unchanging. “But you know what? I noticed something else too. You were pissed off. When that thing disappeared, you weren’t giddy. You weren’t happy about it. You were mad, which tells me that it’s not gonna be that simple for you to go after them. So we’ve got time. And until we find them, I’ve got a good feeling that those kids can handle themselves. Besides, if you think Sariel is going to be a prisoner for much longer, then you’ve actually gotten dumber than I thought. And let me tell you, ‘torture everyone that hates me into having more babies’ was already pretty dumb.”

The anger and frustration in Kushiel’s voice was audible as she snarled, “I am going to make you cry, Lucifer. I will make you plead and beg for me to just kill you to end your pain. I will take away everything that you care about, make you watch your loved ones suffer and burn in your stead.”

“Even your threats are growing old, Kushiel.”

The retort came not from Apollo, but from Athena. The brunette Olympian had entered the room, moving to stand beside Apollo himself, while holding Excalibur loosely in one hand. “You’ve had over a thousand years to find something more creative,” she informed the other woman flatly, “and you’re still relying on the same old tired cliches.”

“You,” Kushiel growled the word, straining even harder against the paralysis.

“Me,” Athena confirmed. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Radueriel and Abaddon will show up whenever they finish licking their wounds. In the meantime, it may not be very chivalrous or knightly to kill a helpless opponent. But in this case…” That sword rose. “I think we can make an exception.”

Unfortunately, in the next instant, a figure in a dark cloak that obscured their identity, magical darkness of some kind enveloping the face under that hood, appeared between them. A gesture from the cloaked figure dispelled the yellow light around Kushiel, freeing her from that paralysis.

Apollo and Athena both moved, but the other figure was faster. Their hand snapped out, catching hold of Kushiel. Then they were gone, leaving the other two to explain to the just-arriving Haiden where his wife and children were.

 

————-

 

Harper/Guinevere/Lancelot

Boston, on the far side of midnight yet still hours from dawn. A dark alley, barely illuminated by a struggling streetlight on the corner whose flickering glow did little more than cast imposing shadows for half a dozen figures who needed no such help.

Six of them. Each a were of a different kind. Two wolves, one bear, a single coyote, a raven, and a snake. All were in their mostly-human phase, their forms just changed enough to grant them monstrous features as they loomed over their target: a slim, gray-haired man in a business suit whose wire-rim glasses had just been snatched from his face by one of the two wolf-men.

“P-pl-please, please, I have money,” the man stammered. “I have money. You don’t have to hurt me. Please.” His lip quivered.

“Hurt you, old man?” The mangy-haired werewolf gave a chuckle that was more growl. “Oh, the boys and I have been aching for a real hunt. But I suppose you’ll have to do for an… appetizer. Now the cops that show up to investigate once we make you scream…” He crushed the glasses in his hand, mangling them. “… maybe they’ll be more fun.”

“Father.”

The voice came from further down the alley, toward what should have been a dead-end. Yet a girl stood there, a girl whose bubblegum-pink hair and pigtails were at odds with the serious expression on her face.

To those at Crossroads, she was known as Harper Hayes. Yet to others, she had a different name.

“Gwen?” The old man, his once quivering voice turned to curiosity, tilted his head. “What are you doing here?”  

“Father? Oh. Oh this is rich.” The werewolf who was clearly in charge of his ragtag pack laughed, joined by the others (the coyote’s laugh was more of a high pitched yip that carried on far too long). “Never mind that bit about the cops. I think our evening’s entertainment just arrived,” the man noted while smiling broadly at the girl who was seemingly surrounded by the pack of weres. He stopped short of literally licking his lips, but it was a near thing.

“Father,” Guinevere quietly and firmly spoke, ignoring the supposed threats. “Stop playing with the children, please. I need to speak with you.”

“Okay,” the wolf-man cut in, sounding annoyed as he lifted the hand with their first ‘victim’s’ broken glasses still clutched in it. “I’m feeling a touch ignored and belittled here, and I–”

Night turned to day as light flooded the alley as fully as if the sun itself had risen to its noon position in that intervening second. The pack of weres spun as one, expecting to see the floodlights from several trucks centered on them.

Instead, they saw the same man they had just been terrorizing. He stood on the opposite side of them from where he had been an instant earlier. And from his back extended the source of that unnatural light. Wings, beautiful, ethereal, and seemingly consisting of pure, blazing light. They unfurled, expanding to fill the width of the alley while glowing even brighter, to the point of being nearly too much to look at. The collection of weres were left staggering backward, hands raised to block some of the light.

“Very well,” the winged-man announced easily. “I suppose we can cut to the good part.”

The weres ran. Or tried to. Spinning, each scattered, trying to flee toward the dead end, toward the girl, toward anywhere but that spot. One fled in the opposite direction, skidding right past the glowing figure on his way to the street.

It did them no good. Staying where he was, the man lashed out with both of those brightly-glowing wings. The energy-constructs extended, stretching to cut between the fleeing figures before abruptly slamming outward.  Of the five weres who fled further into the alley, three were caught by the left wing, while the other two were caught by the right wing.

They were killed instantly. The wings burned straight through them, cutting through every defense, every bit of strength or power they had. Their bodies were literally disintegrated, as surely as if they had been tissue carelessly tossed into a crematorium.

The remaining were, the snake, had just reached the street as the man turned his way. Rather than give chase, he simply angled his wing. A beam of light, as deadly as any ship-mounted laser, shot from the wing to envelop the fleeing figure. In a moment, all that remained was dark ash floating through the air.

“Now then.” The wings vanished, returning the alley to its previous darkened stated, as the man turned to face Guinevere.

“What can I do for you, Duckling?”

*******

“And now she’s gone.”

Some time later, as Guinevere sat on a bench in a nearby park with the man who had adopted her as a child and raised her as his own, she finished relaying the story of what had happened to Avalon Sinclaire.

“I promised myself that I would protect her. But I couldn’t be on top of her every moment. I thought she would be safe enough. I told myself she would be safe enough while I searched for the pieces for Arthur. But the Seosten took her. I let my guard down and they… they took her.”

She turned slightly, squinting at the man beside her. “Your people are very persistent.”

Not truly his people, of course. The man who had adopted her had left his own race far behind long before he’d ever met her, long before he had taken the scraggly, orphaned child under his (literal) wing and taught her everything she needed to know to one day become both the queen of Camelot and Lancelot, one of its staunchest defenders.

Once, he had been known to his own people and to the humans he first presented himself to as Quirinus. Later, the humans had known him as Romulus, a founder and first king of Rome. Later still, he had taken the name he was most known for in the modern age, a name he still used to the present day, millennia after abandoning his own people.

Michael. Michael the archangel, whose glowing wings were a result of his own genetic enhancements from a different experiment than the one that had created the Olympians. Those same wings, despite being present only within very, very few like Michael himself, had somehow become synonymous with all Seosten. Or angels, as they were known to the humans. Several more Seosten had taken to using magic to create wings that carried on that symbolism, simulating the power that belonged to Michael and that handful of others who were like him. But their magical wings were nothing even close to the real thing, a simple parlor trick.

“My people,” Michael replied then, “have been fighting this war for a very long time, and tend to react poorly to anything that might challenge their supposed superiority.” His head turned a little then. “But tell me more of the others, these children who oppose them. Tell me more of Joselyn Chambers’ daughter, and her friends. I have heard some from Gabriel already. But what do you make of them?”

Guinevere was silent for a few seconds, several thoughts working their way through her mind before she began. “Felicity is very intelligent and talented, particularly for her age. She is insightful, learns quickly, and adapts even faster than that. But she is still young, and very much in over her head. I believe that she could grow to be just influential and important as her mother, if not more so.

“But if she loses Avalon Sinclaire at this early stage, if the girl is ripped away from her like this… it will do more damage. She lost her mother, and spent a good part of her life thus far hating her for that supposed abandonment. To lose Avalon now would be… very bad for her development.”

“That was a very clinical and likely accurate assessment,” Michael announced then, nodding before his eyes met hers. “Now how do you feel about her, Duckling?”

Flushing a little, Guinevere glanced away a bit guiltily. She had been keeping her assessment as detached as possible. Now, she sighed. “I like her. She reminds me of myself at her age, except possibly not as hot-headed and impulsive. She could do a lot of good for this world, Father, and for more beyond it. But not if she loses herself here. That is why I want to help her, why I will help her. So much has been taken from that girl as it is. I’m afraid that a loss like this, if Avalon Sinclaire is truly killed, the grief of it may destroy what fire Felicity has. Or awaken it too early, into a flash-burn that exhausts itself and fades to nothing. A flame like hers must be carefully nurtured.”

“Speaking of those who are nurturing the Chambers girl,” Michael carefully asked then. “The headmistress.. What do you think of her now?”

There was no answer for a moment. No answer until Guinevere slowly lifted her gaze from the ground to look at him. “She seems to have changed. Perhaps she has. I believe she is trying, after all she has done in these past few centuries to make up for those dark times. I would be a fool to discount her efforts in that regard. But I will not extend more trust to her than I must. Not yet.

“It will take more to convince me that Morgan le Fay has truly redeemed herself.”

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