Guinevere/Lancelot

Patreon Snippets 14 (Heretical Edge)

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Every month, anyone who donates 10 dollars or more receives 500 words they can devote to a snippet of their choice, either one of their own or adding onto someone else’s. Here is the next edition of those snippets, and thanks to all donators who help keep these stories going. 

Gwen and Galahad

“You know, as a parent, sometimes you… you set a lot of high standards for your child. And while… yeah, you may really hope they meet those standards, in your heart you know you’ll be happy with anything they become, as long as they try. You know that you’ll love them no matter what happens, because you know they have to be their own person, not the person you want them to be. But right now, I just have to say that all the parents… all the parents in the entire universe who have ever lived… can fucking suck it, because my son is Optimus God Damn Prime!” 

With that declaration, as she stood in the parking lot of the Capital One Arena in front of the silver and blue semi, Guinevere spread both arms wide as though to hug the truck tightly. A wide grin stretched across her face, showing her gleaming teeth as she sniffed a little as though near joyous tears. “I’m so proud of you.” 

Snorting audibly (a deliberate sound given he lacked any actual nose), Galahad promptly transformed from his semi mode into the full robot form. The former Seosten-human hybrid, who had been adopted as a child by Gwen after his true father’s people attempted to exterminate him, sat down in front of the woman so that he wouldn’t tower over her quite as much (given his thirty-foot height, even sitting made him much taller, but it was an improvement). “See, Harrison thought you might be upset about all… this.” He gestured with one large metal hand toward his body. “I told him he really didn’t know you that well.” 

“Hand up.” Gwen ordered, raising her own until her adopted son had done the same. Then she pressed her palm to one tiny part of his. It was an old ritual, though one they had most recently done while his hand was much closer to hers in size. Her voice had sobered somewhat, staring intently at their hands. “I am very sorry about… about what happened to you, my little polecat. But you are alive.” The joy and relief she felt about that fact clearly outweighed her regret about his condition, as she raised her other hand to press next to the first. “You are alive. My… son is alive.” Saying that, Gwen stepped in to embrace the raised metal arm. 

“Someday, we’ll find the magic needed to return your real body,” she assured him. Turning her gaze up, the former queen of Camelot met his robotic stare. “Whatever it takes. I have spent a thousand years preparing to bring Arthur back. I will spend however many more to restore your body.” 

“Eh, guess me being a robot means I can wait that long,” Galahad replied, before bringing his other hand in. Large as it was, he put it flat on the ground, waiting for his mother to step onto it before picking himself up to a standing position. Keeping her level with his gaze, he added, “I missed you, Mother.” 

“My boy.” Those two words were filled with such fondness, such joy in the simple fact of his existence, that they were all Gwen had to say. Floating away from his hand, she hovered over directly in front of his robotic face. Her palms moved to touch it, and he felt no disgust or regret, only love. Love and confidence that they would find a way to return his body someday. But in the meantime, she would not allow his current condition to dictate how she treated him. 

“It occurs to me,” Gwen finally continued after remaining like that for a long moment, “that you used to love going and listening to the stories from the talespinners, then watching plays, and eventually movies. Ahhh, you and movies. But you and I haven’t gone to one of those in a long time.” 

“A movie?” Galahad echoed. “I do like movies.” 

“Oh, I know you do.” Smiling, Gwen added, “I still remember going to see the Lumiere brothers little film. There wasn’t even a story but you were enthralled. It reminded me of the first time we watched a play together. You remember what it was?” 

“The play or that first movie?” Galahad countered. “Because the film was just a short bit about two guys leaving a factory. Plus some other things like that. And the play was–” He stopped belatedly. “Ah! You’re trying to trick me!” The lights of his ‘eyes’ shrank a bit as though narrowing. “You want me to say it was the Castle of Perseverance, but we saw Fulgens and Lucrece first. Because I snuck in to watch it with you and you weren’t supposed to know. But you did.” 

“I did,” Gwen confirmed with a fond chuckle. “Fulgens and Lucrece was better anyway. Less hoity toity. And who doesn’t like a good fourth wall breaking joke? The way Servants A and B seem to start outside the play and end up being part of it? I mean, come on. It was very unique for the time. They really need to put it on again. Oooh, maybe we can talk the kids at Fusion School into doing something with it.” 

“Something tells me they’ll be putting that play on soon, if you have anything to say about it,” Galahad noted. “Even if they don’t technically have a theater department.” 

“I’ll let Nimue know that I have a brilliant idea,” Gwen confirmed with a wink. “But in the meantime, you and I are going to see a movie or three. And given all the times I let you ride on my shoulders as a kid, it’ll be good to let you give me a lift into the movie.” 

“You know, I can just switch to my smaller body,” Galahad pointed out. “I know you’re cool with it, but the other people at the movies might object to me crashing through the place like this.” 

Scoffing, Gwen shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. 

“We’re totally going to a drive-in theater.” 

 

******

Maria Chambers

 

Maria Chambers had been born in 1945. Though, of course, she hadn’t been a Chambers at that point. She had originally been Maria Oscars. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she had been… different from others. Her father had died in the last days of the second world war, leaving her mother to raise Maria and her two-years-older brother, Ronald, alone. Maria had repaid her mother’s hard work by being first a rebellious child and then a true terror as a teenager. She partied hard through high school, drinking heavily and generally causing her mother and much more straight-laced older brother no end of problems. She ran with a gang, took more than her fair share of alcohol and drugs, and generally made it her life’s goal to be a wild banshee and never care about the future.

Then came August 4th, 1962. The month before Maria’s final year in high school. On that day, Maria’s life changed forever. Because that was the day that Marilyn Monroe, beautiful, perfect, glamorous party girl of the ages, was found dead of an intentional overdose. 

The revelation that someone as… as perfect and rich and famous as Marilyn Monroe had so many problems that she had actually killed herself was… eye-opening for the seventeen-year-old Maria Oscars. She had spent that month doing a lot of soul searching, and entered her final year of high school a changed, more driven young woman. She abandoned (most of) her partying, graduated high school, went to nursing school (partly out of a desire to know more about exactly how her one-time idol Marilyn had died), and eventually served as an actual nurse. That was where she met Arthur Chambers, fixing him up after a brawl at a nearby bar. The two of them had fallen in love, and…

Well, then a whole bunch of years had passed all in what seemed like a flash. The next thing Maria Chambers knew, she was an old woman, sitting in a cabin in Alaska with her husband of nearly fifty-two years. Over half a century, she had been married to that lovable oaf now. 

“And I’ve kicked your bippy at pool the whole way here,” she announced pointedly, squinting across the dinner table at her lifelong companion. 

“Maria, dear,” Arthur asked, “were you doing that thing where you have an entire thought process in your head and only include one of us at the end when we have no Earthly idea what you’re talking about again?” 

Huffing a bit, the seventy-five-year-old woman carefully took a sip of her iced tea before pointedly replying, “All that matters is you’re terrible at pool.” 

“Well, maybe I’m just distracted whenever I play against a beautiful woman.” Arthur countered. 

Maria’s voice was dry. “I’ve seen you play old Thomas down at the rec center. He’ll be very interested to find out you think he’s such a pretty lady.” 

Before Arthur could find a retort for that, she added, “And that’s why I’ll be teaching Felicity how to hustle at the bars, thank you very much.”

With a chuckle, her husband pointed out, “You know, almost any other grandmother would be trying to steer their only grandchild away from that sort of thing.” 

“Our family’s never been ‘any other’ anything, and you know it,” Maria retorted, before adding, with a fond smile, “And Felicity exemplifies that…” With a sigh, she sat back in her chair. “Do you think Lincoln will bring her up for Thanksgiving this year? She must get so lonely in that stuffy old private school. Torn away from her father? How does Lincoln survive? That girl is his world, after…” She trailed off, forcibly directing her thoughts away from that woman

“That girl will thrive wherever she is,” Arthur reminded her, before exhaling long and low. “But I do hope Lincoln brings her for Thanksgiving. We… we all need it.” 

He was right, Maria knew. Felicity was… was so much like Lincoln. She wanted to be a reporter, just like him. She was stubborn and bullheaded, so intent on tracking down the truth. When she was in middle school, Lincoln used to send his parents weekly updates about what sort of injustice or mystery the girl was dealing with that time. She was a regular Encyclopedia Brown, her and that nice friend of hers who had eventually moved away. 

That was what worried Maria. Between losing her mother and then her best friend, she was afraid that poor Felicity would think everyone left her. She was afraid her beautiful, brilliant granddaughter would stop trusting people, stop opening up to them. And that would be such a tragedy. That was why Maria wanted Lincoln to move back to Los Angeles, so Felicity could be near them. Not only because she wanted to see her granddaughter, but because… because Felicity needed a fresh start, a big change to really, truly grow into the wonderful, brilliant woman Maria knew her granddaughter could be. A place like Los Angeles, where she could really spread her wings and her mind and be that amazing reporter she was meant to be, not stuck in a small town in Wyoming. Maria’s granddaughter deserved so much more than that. 

While she was lost in those thoughts, the door of the cabin opened and their old friend, Al, stepped inside with an armful of grocery bags. Maria quickly tried to get up with Arthur to help, but Al made it to the table first. Setting the bags down, he insisted that they stay in their seats, while reaching in to take out several beers and a couple mason jars with a strange dark green liquid in them.

“Some kind of local moonshine?” Arthur asked, eyeing the jars. He sounded quite willing to give the brew a shot. 

“More like… a chance to share the truth,” Al replied thoughtfully, his voice a bit distracted before he shook whatever it was off. “Been waiting a long time for this, and… well, now it’s time.” 

“Time for what?” Maria pressed. “And what exactly is in these jars?” 

“Like I said,” Al repeated, “the truth. But I need both of you to trust me. Can you do that?” 

“You’re being very strange, Al,” Maria informed him. “But of course we trust you. We’ve trusted you for decades, why on Earth would you need to ask now?” 

“Because now is the big moment,” came the quiet response. “Drink, and I’ll tell you absolutely everything you need to know.” 

Maria and Arthur exchanged looks. But the fact was both of them trusted Al as much as they trusted each other. He had been their very closest friend for such a long time. If he was acting odd now, there was clearly a good reason. As one, they each unscrewed the lid of their respective mason jar, popped off the top, and picked them up. 

“Well,” Arthur started while holding his jar out. “Here’s to having the slightest clue what you’re talking about in a minute.” 

“Here’s to that,” Maria agreed, tapping her jar against the other before taking first a cautious sip, then a deeper gulp of the liquid. “This… tastes funny. What did you put in it?” 

“Yes, Alcaeus,” a new voice put in, “what did you put in it?” The question came from a man who had simply… appeared in front of the door, as if he had stepped right through it. He was an enormous figure, even by the standards of the men in the room, standing an inch taller than Al did at an even seven feet. He had long jet black hair streaked with a bit of white and gray, and a bushy mustache, but no beard. 

Jerking to his feet, Arthur took a step that way. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded while Maria quickly found her feet as well. “And how the hell did you–”

But Al stepped in front of both of them, facing the strange man. “Antaeus,” he snapped in a low voice. “You shouldn’t be here.” 

Baffled, and more than a little annoyed, Maria poked her head out from behind her large husband and even larger friend. “I’m calling the police,” she announced firmly, already moving to pick up the phone. 

“Oh, I’d stop her from doing that before I do it myself,” the man… Antaeus, warned. “See, this isn’t going to go like any of our other contests.” 

With that, he pointed a hand, and… and a beam of what looked like silver light… blasted from his palm. It blew apart the entire… half of the cabin that Maria had been moving toward. Instantly, all of it was just… gone. It was gone. Chairs, furniture, the walls, even a dozen trees that had been on the other side of the wall were annihilated. Half of the cabin was simply not there anymore. 

In the second that Maria stared at that uncomprehendingly, Al had shoved her husband next to Maria and leapt to engage their intruder. And just as quickly, he was sent flying away to land hard on his side next to the two of them. 

The intruder laughed. “Oh, that’s so much better. You see how easy that was? You see how much faster, how much stronger, how much better than you I am now? Even without using any other tricks.” 

In… in over seventy years of life, Maria had never seen anything like this. She couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t even fathom what this was. It simply did not make sense. It was a dream, a nightmare. None of this was real. None of it could be real. She had no frame of reference for this, and her heart… her heart couldn’t…

Shoving himself to his feet, Al stood in front of Maria and Arthur. “The Committee. They put you on the Committee.” 

“What committee?!” Arthur demanded. “What–how did–what the hell is going on?!” 

“They want those two,” Antaeus announced, staring at Maria and her husband. “That means I get to go through you to get to them. And… well, that’s just the icing on the–” 

On the nothing. Because they weren’t… there… anymore? 

At first, Maria thought the entire cabin had somehow vanished. But no… no, they were somewhere else. They were on grass, on an…. an island? Hand against her chest, the elderly woman looked around, mouth open as she took in the view around them. An island. They were standing on an island and… 

“What happened?” Al demanded, his voice suspicious as he made it clear that he was just as confused as the other two. “Where–” 

“Apparently, you were in mortal danger and moments from death, with no escape and no chance.” Another new voice, this one from a man who appeared to be about Maria and Arthur’s age, gray-haired with a neatly trimmed beard and thick eyebrows who stood before them wearing a brown suit and tie. “That, after all, is the condition I put in the spell that I etched into your bones when you were a child, that it would bring you to me when you were in true mortal peril from which there would be no way out.” He paused then before adding thoughtfully, “It seems you have brought friends as well.” 

“Who–who? What? Wher–What is happening?!” Arthur demanded, grabbing his wife’s arm and looking wildly back and forth between the men. 

“Well,” Al murmured, “good thing I had you drink that potion now, I suppose.” Straightening, he gestured. “Arthur, Maria… I want you to meet my old… mentor.

“Zeus.” 

 

*******

Amanirenas

Over A Thousand Years Ago, At The Fall Of Camelot

The battlefield was a wasteland. Over fifty miles of once-lush forest turned to a burned crater where little, if anything, would grow for years. All of this damage caused not by the clashing of many armies, but of a single army attacking one man. A man who was quite possibly one of the strongest beings in existence, such that the one who had finally defeated him was none other than Zeus himself. Puriel, as the Seosten called him. He who possessed such vast power to manipulate lightning, fire, even pure magic itself. And still, even he had only come out the victor of this struggle through treachery, through betraying the trust of one who saw him as a grandfather, and through bringing forth several ships-worth of armament to bombard his opponent. 

Even that may not have been enough to defeat the one called Arthur Pendragon had Puriel not been possessing the necromancy-reanimated body of the man’s own nephew. Blood magics prevented Arthur from putting his full strength against those of his family. They had weakened him, all together barely enough, to put the man down. 

Now weakened and only just capable of remaining upright through his exhaustion, the body of Mordred lying abandoned in the mud, Puriel stood over the fallen king. A Seosten shuttle was maneuvering to land, while the old captain gave orders into his communication device. “Bring the prepared container. I want the remains stored and under constant supervision on the way back to Elohim. The man may be as close to dead as he can be, but he’s a damned dragon-bonded. If I catch anyone being lax in–” 

At that precise moment, as a group of soldiers jogged toward that spot with what amounted to an enchanted sarcophagus floating in front of them, a sudden blast of pure white light lanced past Puriel to strike the fallen body of Arthur. In an instant, the body had vanished. 

A disbelieving bellowed curse burst from the old Seosten, his eyes snapping first down to the ground where the body had been, then to the source of that blast. Despite his weariness, lightning formed at his fingers, ready to lash out that way before he abruptly stopped. Nearby, the squad of sarcophagus-bearers had spun as well, their own weapons raised before seeing a single figure waiting there. 

“You…” Puriel muttered that single word, disbelief filling his voice as he stared. “What did you do?” 

The woman before him stood tall, as proud and strong as she had been a millennia earlier. She was dark-skinned, her body heavily muscled. The sword she held was as large as she was, its blade resting in the ground while she leaned on the hilt. Her one remaining eye glared at the figure in front of her with a hatred that burned as the fires of a thousand hells. The other eye had been long-since sacrificed in a ritual to empower a spell that had enabled her people to temporarily overwhelm and occupy three Roman/Seosten-held cities in Egypt. The woman who, through sheer force of will and battle acumen, had forced the Seosten-controlled Romans to allow her country to self-govern. The warrior queen who had fought enough to force a peace agreement with the Romans, preventing their further expansion for hundreds of years. 

“Amanirenas,” Puriel snarled the name while holding a hand out to stop his troops from advancing or firing. “I will ask you once more before burning you where you stand. What did you do?” 

Letting her enormous sword fall, the woman took a few steps closer, ignoring the other troops to focus solely on the subject of her hate. “I told you… long ago, that your people murdered my husband, the king of our people. You answered that by having your people kill my son.” 

“We were at war,” Puriel reminded her. “You, your son, and your people attacked our cities. We retaliated.” 

“We attacked to prevent you from invading, as you were intending!” Amanirenas snapped. “Had we not struck the first blow, your people would have destroyed us and continued your expansion. Your people began this.” Her smile was humorless, the barely-constrained fury radiating outward from her almost visibly. “Do you know what your people took from me? Do you have any idea? I sacrificed far more than my eye to give my people the strength to stand against yours. I sacrificed all other lives within me. I gave any opportunity for any future children to that spell, to give my people the strength to hold against your incursions.” 

Cracking her neck, she came even closer, her feet touching the edge of the ground where Arthur’s body had been. “It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, because I had my children. One a full man, given by my late husband. The other a child, an infant given to me by the one who replaced Teriteqas in my heart, who taught me the magic needed to see your kind burn. Your people stole both from me. Your people killed my son in battle, and trampled my infant daughter beneath their feet. The only children I could ever have were taken by your filth.” Her hateful words melted into a brief chuckle. “But I told you I would have my revenge, did I not?”

Hand snapping out to send quick bolts of energy into the ground, Puriel watched as tendrils of earth reached out, catching hold of the woman and yanking her bodily to the ground. His power overwhelmed her defensive shields, punching through her magic as though it was made of paper. She didn’t seem to mind, barely reacting as she was hauled down onto her back. 

“Tell me… what you did,” the man snapped, standing over the woman. “Or I will simply discover it for myself.” That was added while he reached down for her. 

“Your people have killed many kings, oh great and powerful god of gods,” Amanirenas snarled. “And you have never feared any of their return. Until now. And fear you should. Because the one called Arthur of the dragons will rise again. He will rise and he will destroy your kind. In time. When he is brought together once more.” 

Lowering his gaze and inhaling, Puriel murmured in realization. “You scattered the body. Do you really think that will be enough? I will reach into your mind and take the knowledge of where every piece has gone. Then all of this will be for naught.”

Amanirenas, held motionless against the ground, simply smiled. “Were that an option, do you truly believe I would have tarried here so long? I gave my first husband, my eye, my children both living and unborn, all to put a stop to your people. I make one more sacrifice to ensure your eventual destruction.” 

Those were the last words spoken by the warrior queen of Kush, who had brought the Roman expansion into her lands to a halt. She had poisoned herself before the confrontation, using the last of her power, the last of her life, to scatter the fallen body of Arthur across the world. And in that moment, she passed away. Peacefully, on her own terms, while giving one last look with her remaining eye at the man who represented the people she hated so thoroughly. At the same time, the spell she had inscribed into her own skin dissolved her body and disintegrated the remains, destroying any chance of the Seosten using their necromancer to draw her back and taking with her the knowledge of where the pieces of Arthur had been sent.

In her death, Amanirenas also carried with her the secret of what had first drawn her to Arthur, what had first led her to this place. Her second husband had sensed the man’s imminent death, and its location. It was he who had told her of what would happen, he whose words had led to this decision, even if he had not known what would happen at the time.

The Reaper who had once met Arthur as a child, shortly before his ascension as a dragon-bonded, had met Amanirenas many centuries earlier. They had borne a child together, after her son was grown. Their daughter, a half-Reaper, had been stolen from them and trampled beneath the enemy army before they could even name her. 

Or so they believed. 

Now, with her dying breath, the warrior queen had set in motion events that would eventually lead the Seosten and Arthur’s own wife, the Queen Guinevere, to desperately search out the one person capable of bringing the once and future king back to life. 

Aylen Tamaya, daughter of Bastet. Granddaughter of Amanirenas.

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Learning Days Daze 2-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The silence following that particular announcement seemed to last for days. We all just stared at the kindly old Fomorian like he was… well, a kindly old Fomorian. There wasn’t really a more absurd example that sprang to mind. Yet, somehow, he had managed to make the situation even more insane. Which took some doing. 

“Grandfather,” Sonoma chided, “we said we were going to ease them into that whole thing. Gently, remember?”

An expression of confusion crossed his alien features, as he looked back and forth between our shocked looks and the Native American woman. “I did, didn’t I? I said we’ll talk about it later. How could—oh! Oh, oh yes.” 

Suddenly becoming completely distracted and clearly forgetting what he had just been talking about, the old Fomorian took a step toward Dare before catching himself. “Ah, pardon me. Not to startle you into any violent reactions, Miss Dare. But would you mind if I approach?”

Dare paused. For good reason, I knew. Not only did she have a lot of bad experiences with his people, but there was a lot riding on people not realizing exactly who she was. But, either she decided there wasn’t that much of a risk, or that refusing would be even more of a potential problem. Either way, she gave a slight nod while watching him carefully.

With a broad, disarming smile, the Fomorian quickly moved forward. I had the impression he could have moved even faster, but had deliberately slowed himself to avoid upsetting people. He was right there in front of Dare, gingerly taking hold of her wrist between two of his long fingers before staring at her arm. More specifically, at the bare part of skin between her wrist and the sleeve of her shirt. He made several curious hmmm noises while turning her arm this way and that before laughing with delight. “Yes, yes, I knew it! I knew this line was important when I saw it before. Didn’t I, little buddy? Yes, you. Who’s adorable? You’re adorable! Yes, that’s a good little trooper.” 

“Um.” Beside me, Rebecca asked quietly, “is he talking to her arm like it’s a puppy?”

My head shook. “I think he’s talking to her DNA like it’s a puppy.” Which was even weirder, but still.

After making another couple cooing noises of pride and delight, the Fomorian abruptly snapped his head around. It turned a full one-eighty to look straight at me. Which didn’t do anything to make me feel less freaked out. “Oh, but of course, of course. You have been forced to stay apart for such a long time, haven’t you?”

Wait, did… did he know… my eyes glanced up toward Dare, who looked almost physically stricken, mouth opening though it was clear that she wasn’t exactly sure what to say. But she had to say something, before this guy blurted out the wrong thing and—

“Yes, you certainly have,” the Fomorian concluded with a sage nod as he released Dare, his gaze still on me. “You’ve been separated from your mother for years now.” He stepped closer, going down on one knee again in front of me. His voice, while still cheerful, had taken on a note of somberness. “I’m sorry to hear of your family’s ills and trials. They’ve been through quite a lot. And have sacrificed much.” 

He knew. I was certain of that just from his words as I stared into his eyes. He knew exactly what the relationship between Dare and me was, and why it was so important that no one else find out. Had he known the whole time, or did he figure it out just by looking at us? If he had figured it out just by looking at us, had that hurt the spell? I found myself looking upward, almost anticipating some kind of cataclysmic sign of Fomorian ships like had happened back when Koren and I found out. 

But there was nothing like that, and the figure in front of me seemed to follow my gaze upward before assuring me in a casual tone, “It’s alright. I have great trust in the abilities of all of you.” 

He stood back up then, his infectiously cheerful voice continuing. “You’ve all done such amazing things. Removing that nasty memory spell. Building the Hoover dam. Bringing down that woolly mammoth in Broken Fang canyon. Defending your dens from the coyote pack near Moon Crescent Lake.” Pausing belatedly, his head tilted before he amended, “Wait, I was thinking of ancient tigers and modern beavers for those last two. But still!”

Of all of us, it was actually Vanessa who suddenly blurted, “What were you saying about my mom making a new universe?!” Her arms were raised in total bafflement as she stared at the figure. “What was all that about?“

Tabbris’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Mom can’t make universes! I mean—” she cut herself off, shooting a quick, apologetic look to Sariel as though feeling guilty about saying there was anything her mom couldn’t do. “I mean, she didn’t make a new universe.”

Clearly chuckling despite herself, Sariel ruffled both of her daughters’ hair before nodding. “What they said.”

Grandfather looked to her, seeming to consider for a moment before he responded. “You’re right, of course. You didn’t create a new universe. Not at all. No, your work with Tartarus did that.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if that should explain everything. Which… well, given what we knew of that place, it probably did help at least a little bit. But still… not really. 

Bastet exhaled, gesturing. “Everyone sit down. We’ll explain the full situation, I promise. It does involve your work to reopen a way to the Tartarus universe, but there’s a lot more to the whole thing. A… lot.” 

“She’s not kidding,” Sonoma assured us. “That’s where we’ve been for the past few months. Though it wasn’t that long for us. It’s– complicated. Really complicated. So let’s all sit down, get comfortable, and we’ll try to get through all of it.” 

Somehow, we arranged ourselves at the tables. Though it was clear that the only thing anyone was interested in was hearing this story. I sat between Avalon and Rebecca, the three of us exchanging glances. Tabbris was by her mother and brother. Everyone was looking toward Grandfather. As for the Fomorian himself, he seemed to be considering his words carefully before straightening up, cracking his knuckles. Despite everything, I saw every single adult we had brought with us stiffen reflexively for a moment.

But Grandfather simply started to talk. “Right then.” He looked to Sariel. “You created an orb to re-open a path into the Tartarus universe. To do so, you summoned latent energy from that universe and brought it here to Earth from all over this universe, yes?” When she simply nodded, he continued. “When you brought that energy to this world, it… I suppose the best word is absorbed. It absorbed information about the Earth. All of the information about this world was imprinted upon it. Like pushing silly putty against a newspaper. That’s fun! Have you ever—”

Stopping himself, the figure shook his head and pushed on. “Ahem, in any case, the energy from Tartarus is not stable in time. It fluctuates, often very dramatically. So when it was absorbing information, it didn’t only take that data from the moment the energy was here, it did so across the planet’s entire history from conception to… well, to the moment it was drawn to. One single bit of that energy bounced back in time all the way to when the dinosaurs roamed the planet and absorbed all of the information about them. Every last detail about every dinosaur imprinted all of it into a that little spark. And the same thing happened throughout all of this planet’s history. Isn’t it glorious?” 

Tristan frowned. “I don’t get it. This weird energy stuff was making records of the world?”

Grandfather’s head bobbed quickly, eagerly. “Yes, yes! But not just normal records. No, that’s not what it was doing. It was copying entire living beings, you see? All that data about how many legs and arms something something is supposed to have, how many heads, how many teeth, or eyes, or how long their intestines should be. It was copying all of it. Physical data and mental data. Historical record and a sort of… what’s the word?”

“Photograph,” Bastet supplied. She was looking to the rest of us. “The energy was brought here to this world. It carried itself across space and time, recording all the information it could about Earth. But even for something as absurd as Tartarus energy, it can only record so much. So as far as keeping physical records, it focused on what it saw as native inhabitants. Animals native to this world, including humans.”

Gwen spoke then. “So if I have this right, this energy was called here and experienced all of human history. Somehow, for some reason, it was recording all of this. Not just the basic information but… like… physical structures of what it considered to be native animals. And plants, I assume. It was, what, taking pictures of people?”

“Oh, more than that,” Grandfather insisted, “so much more than that. It wasn’t just making pictures, it was making copies. Copies of every flora and fauna it saw as native to this world, across its entire history.”

“That’s impossible,” Vanessa blurted. “That’s over a hundred billion humans alone, let alone all the plants and animals and… do you have any idea how many different animals and people that is? Do you have any idea how many plants that is?”

Grandfather nodded excitedly. “Yes, it’s rather amazing, isn’t it? All that information locked into those tiny sparks of energy and then put in the sphere that Mrs. Moon here and her adopted brother created.”

Sariel sank back in her seat. “We sent the orb back to our people. What did we do…?”

“Very good things!” Grandfather insisted. “You remember the siphon?”

“You haven’t told them that part yet,” Sonoma gently noted. 

Finally unable to help myself, I quickly put in. “This is about the place Harrison Fredericks went, isn’t it? Columbus was telling us about that. Fredericks said he showed up in a world that was like ours, only they had… like… superheroes. Normal people with superpowers and costumes and everything. Superpowers they got from some orb that said Summus Proelium in their heads or something.”

Sariel gave a slight nod. “The orb ended up in an alternate Earth somehow. We knew that.”

Grandfather, however, shook his head quickly. “Not just an alternate Earth. One created by the orb itself. When your people activated it and sent it through to Tartarus, the safeguards that you put on the orb against danger activated. Tartarus is nothing but danger. So the orb attempted to escape. Your protection magic made it try to get out of Tartarus, out of its own home. It did so the only way that it could, by creating a new universe and popping itself out into it.”

Avalon’s voice was dull with disbelief. “The orb created an entire universe?”

It was Bastet who answered. “Not by itself. The orb was smart. Well, smart in a way, thanks to the magic put on it. It absorbed all the Tartarus energy it could and used that to both break out of there, and to create this new universe. Not a full copy, of course. It had records of where all the planets and stars and everything else were supposed to be, for the most part. But the only information about living beings it had was what it recorded on Earth.”

Sonoma took over for a moment. “The orb created an empty universe. Empty except for Earth. On that Earth, it bounced across billions of years, creating every living being in its memory. It literally created copies of every person, animal, plant, everything. It copied everything including the history. It made everything exactly the same. Only it didn’t copy Alters. Or Heretics. Because the energy saw Heretics as not being native to Earth. It copied their basic information, but not enough to create physical bodies.”

Grandfather spoke again. “This wonderful, loyal orb was trying to get home. Home to, well, its mother. But it was confused. A very brave and smart little magic orb, but not exactly perfect in its reasoning. It’s like a child, you see. It thought it could create home. So it made that Earth with everything being completely identical. It created new physical bodies of every human being it had recorded, filled them with their own memories and personalities, faked things where it needed to in order to force the history to go the way it was supposed to even without Alter influence, and generally tried its best to make what was supposed to be home.”

Avalon slowly exhaled. “You’re saying it made the history of this alternate world exactly the same as ours, even when Heretics and Alters didn’t exist, just by… forcing things to happen?” 

Again, Grandfather’s head bobbed. “Precisely! Brilliant, isn’t it? In its own way, at least. It thought it could create the perfect situation to make the world it was creating be the home that it left.” 

“But it couldn’t.” That was Bastet. “It couldn’t really make that place the way it wanted, because something was missing. It was still trying to find its mother.” She looked to Sariel. “Think of the orb as an AI. It’s been trying to find its creator and get back to you. When making this whole new world didn’t work, it had to try something else. So it created another world. It bounced back into Tartarus, absorbed more energy, then popped out again and created another Earth just like the first one it made. This time it changed a few things here and there. But you still weren’t there. So it did it again, and again, and again. It was trying to find the iteration of the world where you existed.”

It was Grandfather’s turn again, while all of us sat there stunned into silence. “The poor, loyal orb couldn’t find you anywhere, no matter how many different Earths it made. So it tried something else. I suppose it thought maybe the humans it made could find you, or become you, or help it understand what it did wrong. Maybe all of the above. The point is, it began taking Tartarus energy and using it the way it remembered from you.”

“Powers,” I realized aloud. “It started using the energy to give people powers. That’s what Fredericks saw. The orb created all these Earths and then just started turning the humans into superheroes because it was trying to find Sariel?”

“Superheroes on some worlds,” Sonoma confirmed. “Different things on others. One Earth became more of a… fantasy world of magic and monsters as the orb delivered specific Tartarus gifts unlocking the ability to use magic in the previously non-magical humans, while transforming others into approximations of what it remembered of various Alters from human memories. Other Earths it left completely alone with no interference. We believe it sees those worlds as a control group.” 

“And what was that you said about a siphon?” Koren put in, sounding just as stunned as I felt. 

“Oh yes!” Grandfather explained with infectious childlike eagerness. “Tartarus is fast and incredibly powerful. But it is not entirely without limits. This wonderful, wonderful little orb had been creating entire galaxies over and over again, and filling them with people. That takes a lot of power. Power it was draining from Tartarus, you see? It was a part of Tartarus itself, so the place couldn’t expel or stop it. But it was different, thanks to the magic placed on it. In trying to get home or create home, in trying to find its creator, it drained more and more energy from Tartarus. It’s still draining power from Tartarus. That wonderful orb is acting as a siphon, drawing power and weakening it so it can’t wake them up.”

Gabriel, who had been silent up to this point, asked, “Wake who up?”

It was Sariel who answered. “The monsters who nearly destroyed the universe before. My people developed our space flight based on technology we got from a crashed ship belonging to a race known as the Suelesk. Their entire civilization and most of the universe at the time were almost entirely wiped out by these giant monsters. Four of them. They were from Tartarus, weren’t they?”

Bastet nodded. “And it has been trying to wake them up, or find them, or retrieve them, or something. We’re not sure. Either way, it’s been using energy to try to bring them back. And it seemed like it might have been getting close. But that little orb you made keeps taking all the excess energy and stealing it. Stealing energy for its own little project, and Tartarus itself is incapable of doing anything about it.”

Vanessa spoke up quickly. “It’s like the orb infected Tartarus. Like… Tartarus knows something’s wrong, but it can’t detect the orb as an intruder because it’s all made up of its own energy.”

With clear delight on his widely smiling face, Grandfather pointed to her. “Yes! Yes, exactly! Brilliant girl. I knew your line was destined for something special the moment they used mud as a cooling agent.  Brilliant.”

Tristan patted his sister on the back. “Yeah, that’s our Nessa, always cooling off with mud.”

While Sariel sat there looking completely stunned into silence, Dare cleared her throat. “So, let’s sum up what you’re saying. The orb that was made to give the Seosten access to Tartarus again has managed to gain some vague form of pseudo-sapience. Now it’s looking for its mother, only it’s confused and thinks it can just make a new world and she’ll be on it. So it keeps making different variations of Earth based on all the information it absorbed about this place. Only on those Earths, humans are the only species who exist? Does that mean that if your people find these other universes they could have all the humans they could ever want?”

Bastet answered. “That’s part of the reason we went over there to check. No. The orb copied the physical form of humans, but it either didn’t or couldn’t replicate their bonding ability. They’re identical to humans from this Earth in almost every other respect aside from that. Even their history is basically the same all the way up to around the year two thousand. Anytime great historical events were influenced by supernatural forces on this world, the orb just faked it to try and make things as similar as possible.”

Sonoma added, “It’s been trying to throw in different variations to figure out why it can’t find its creator. So, as we said, in some worlds it introduces powers earlier than others, sometimes it introduces them in a different way or changes things, and in some it doesn’t introduce them at all.”

Remembering what Columbus had said once more, I asked, “What about the voice? It says Summus Proelium in a female voice.”

“Mrs. Moon’s voice,” Grandfather informed us. “The orb is trying to find its maker, so it uses those words to embed her voice into their minds. If they hear her voice, it will know and come to them.”

Sariel finally spoke up. “If this— If the orb is trying so hard to find me, I should go to it. It’s been creating entire universes trying to find me.” She sounded understandably dazed by the whole prospect. “It… I need to talk to it.”

Bastet replied, “The orb is bouncing wildly through time and universes. Sometimes more than one iteration of itself show up right next to each other. It seems to ignore most known rules of time travel, probably because it’s the one that created these universes. Either way, if you go there, you will probably end up drawing a lot of different iterations of it to you at the same time. It could end up causing more problems than it solves. Better to stay here and use magic to lock onto a specific version of it, pull that version to you and work things out from there.”

Sonoma added, “Besides, as they said, the orb is drawing energy that Tartarus would use to wake up universe-destroying abominations.”

Shifting up in my seat, I slowly spoke. “Sariel and Apollo accidentally created a sapient magic orb that’s saving the universe by draining power from the dimension of ultimate evil and destruction to create lots of different Earths so it can try to find its mother. Yup, that makes perfect sense to me.”

Raising her hand, Rebecca spoke up weakly. “You know, Grandma has been telling me some really crazy stories about when she and Mrs. Chambers were young. 

“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win the next storytime.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As far as walking into potentially dangerous situations went, it couldn’t get much better than doing so with Sariel, Gabriel Prosser, Gwen, and Professor Dare surrounding us. That assortment of incredibly powerful, skilled people went a long way toward making the idea of walking into dinner with a Fomorian somewhat less terrifying. Aylen’s assurances that ‘Grandfather’ would never hurt us and her explanation of why that was so helped a lot too, but still. I’m not sure I would’ve felt great about going to this whole thing without all the protection. I probably still would’ve done it thanks to everything she said, but I would’ve been a lot more nervous. 

The point was, with all four adults, the rest of us felt better about the whole thing. I wasn’t sure how they felt about it given they had actually fought the Fomorians for a lot longer than we had (a lot longer in Sariel’s case), but still. They were staying quiet as we walked through what turned out to be a wide open grassy field with a cottage sitting next to a small lake. There were several long tables set up behind the cottage, covered in tablecloths and stacks of dishes.

Aylen was out front, by her own insistence. Avalon, Koren, Tabbris, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I were walking together, with the four adults spread out around us. Gabriel brought up the rear, Dare walked to the left, Sariel to the right, and Gwen was right up front, just behind Aylen. As a group, we made our way across the field, approaching that pleasant-looking little cottage. 

A figure appeared there, between two of the tables as we got closer. One second there was nothing there, then there was. It wasn’t the Fomorian, probably purposefully. Intead, the figure was a woman. She stood there in a dark blue cloak that drifted loosely in the soft breeze, the hood leaving most of her face cast in shadows save for the soft azure glow from her eyes.  

If any of the adults were taken aback by the woman’s sudden appearance ahead of us, they didn’t show it at all. The four simply stopped walking, followed belatedly by the rest of us. 

“Mother,” Aylen chided while continuing on that way. “Stop trying to intimidate my friends.” 

The voice that came from the woman was quiet, yet reached all of us easily.  “I wasn’t trying to intimidate them. I was making it clear that we would not be intimidated. There is a difference.” 

“Sorry!” That voice came from the doorway of the cottage, as another female figure came rushing out. She was Native American, a fairly small and fragile-looking woman with long dark hair framing a soft, welcoming face. She was carrying a tray full of various crackers, meats, and cheeses, hurrying over to one of the tables to put it down before brushing off her simple jeans and red flannel shirt. “I told her to be nice.” To the first woman, she reiterated, “I said be nice.” 

“I was being nice,” the cloaked figure murmured. “I didn’t say anything wrong.” Her gaze turned to us then. Or me, specifically. The two of us locked eyes, as I stared into those softly glowing blue orbs. There was an incredible amount of power and knowledge there. As well as something deeper. Pain, loss, a very real sense of… worry. Somehow, looking at her, I knew she was… afraid of how this would go. She was as nervous as any of the rest of us, afraid this whole thing would go wrong and that Aylen would have to leave us. She was afraid that this would ruin her daughter’s relationship with us, with her friends. And despite all the reassurances Aylen had given her about how we could be trusted, she was still wary of potentially having to defend herself, her wife, and the Fomorian who had cared for her for so long when no others would. 

Wait. With a jolt, I blinked rapidly and broke the connection. How… how had I gotten all that just by looking in her eyes? What the hell? I didn’t have any kind of empathic powers as far as I knew. I couldn’t read people’s emotions like that. And it had never happened that way in the past in any case. So how had I just looked into this woman’s eyes and suddenly understood all that? Was she projecting her feelings to me? But that didn’t make any sense. There was no reason for her to do that, and I had the impression that she wouldn’t have wanted me to know that much about her own personal feelings and worries anyway. So what the living hell? 

The conversation between the adults who had come with us and Aylen’s other mother had continued, as she stepped over and extended a hand toward Gwen with a voice that was clearly pushing for cheerfulness to cover the tension and uncertainty that everyone very obviously felt. “Hi, good evening. My name is Sonoma.” 

Apparently Gwen was the right person on our side to break the tension, because she immediately shook the offered hand, her smile bright and genuine. “Well hiya! I’ve gotta say, meeting you and… well, hearing about your little family has done a hell of a lot to answer some questions I’ve had for a long time.” Her words were cheerful, as she shook the hand enthusiastically. This was real, I knew. She wasn’t putting on an act or anything. It was the Harper part of her, the part of Harper that had been the real Gwen. She was open, enthusiastic, cheerful, kind of goofy… that was Guinevere, wife of King Arthur and secretly the real Lancelot. She was a bit of a dork (like me, honestly) and absolutely the right person to speak first. 

Clearly taken a bit by surprise, Sonoma smiled reflexively while returning the handshake. “Oh. Well, yeah, I suppose we probably have left a few mysteries lying around over the years.” 

“Speaking of mysteries we’ve left lying around,” the hooded woman put in, “apparently you’ve picked up my wife’s ring, though it’s a choker now.” 

While I was blinking in surprise at that, Gabriel spoke up. “The Ring of Anuk-Ite.” His gaze was on Sonoma. “You were the old chief’s daughter, the one who searched out a shaman to help… ahhh, cure his child when she was turned into an Alter.” 

“Wait, yeah, I remember this,” Rebecca blurted. “You guys were telling us about it over the summer. Old shaman couldn’t turn her human again, but she enchanted a ring for the girl that would hide her from the Heretic sense, right? But… the legends said another creature killed her and took the ring.” 

“Took the ring,” Sonoma confirmed. “Not so much with the death thing. And that much wasn’t so bad. It’s how I ended up meeting Bastet again.” Her gaze turned slightly to the hooded figure with the same kind of smile that I often found myself giving Shiori and Avalon. “She and Grandfather were the ones who made the ring in the first place. My father and I found them. Or they found us. When the ring was taken, Bastet… helped me. We’ve been together ever since.” 

Bastet. Wait a second, Bastet and Grandfather. Why did that sound so familiar when put that wa–

“Bastet and Grandfather!” That was Avalon, not me. She blurted it out loud, eyes widening. “I know you. I mean, my–Liesje Aken, my ancestor, she knew you. When I saw her–I mean when she… she recorded a memory, a ghost, sort of. Her memory-ghost told me that Grandfather and Bastet helped her create the anti-possession spell that’s been protecting her descendants. The same one that Dries, Sariel, and the others have been fixing to protect everyone back at the school.” 

Right, right, that was how I knew the name. Avalon had told me all about that. Why hadn’t the name ‘Grandfather’ tickled anything in our memories before now? Maybe it was just that generic. But still. 

Bastet had finally reached up to take the hood down, revealing a Reaper-pale face and long azure hair that matched her eyes. Her voice was slightly warmer. “I remember Liesje. I liked her. She found us without any real nudges, essentially on her own. That was… impressive.”

“Liesje found you and this Grandfather guy all on her own?” I blinked, looking over at Avalon. “Damn, your ancestor was a badass.” 

“Like we didn’t know that already,” she retorted dryly before blinking. “The story. Right. The story said that the Ring of Anuk-Ite was made by a being who lived on Earth since the first wind touched the first dust.” 

“Grandfather,” Aylen supplied. “And he hasn’t been on Earth that long, but poetic license. Like I told you, he brought ancient humans here, so he’s been around since we’ve existed, basically.”

This was all making a lot more sense. Holes in what I understood were being filled in really quickly over these past few hours. 

Another long-standing mystery was filled in a moment later as something clicked in my head. “Wait a second.” My eyes snapped over to Bastet, who was watching me with a curious expression. “You. Your aura’s gold, isn’t it? Because your father is the–the reaper back at Crossroads. He’s your father and his aura is gold, like Gaia’s and mine. And my Mom’s. We’re connected to the Reaper in the lighthouse and he’s your father so your aura is probably gold.” When the woman slowly nodded, I snapped my fingers. “You were the one who killed those eleven Heretics awhile back! The one who jumped in to stop them from massacring those Alters and killed eleven of the twelve Heretics who were there. The Committee thought it was my mother, but it was you.” 

Her head gave a slight bow. “You picked up on that quite easily. Yes, Grandfather and I have spent generation after generation working in the shadows. Sometimes I choose to be… a little more open about things. It was not my intention to cast the blame to your mother. Apparently the Heretic I left alive did a terrible job of providing a description of her attacker.” 

“Or they just weren’t listening after she said ‘gold aura’ and my mother’s name popped into all their heads,” I pointed out with a shrug. “Still, that explains it. I’ve seriously been wondering about that for months.” 

Looking back over to me, Gwen pointed out, “Now multiply that by a thousand years or so with little mysteries piling up. Yeah, this whole thing answers a lot.” She glanced to Sonoma and Bastet then while adding, “We really need to sit down at some point and talk all that out. But it can wait until after we’re all a little more comfortable with each other.” Her expression brightened. “Which, hey, is what this whole dinner is about, right?” 

Tabbris, who had been sticking pretty close to her mother as well as Tristan and Vanessa through this, spoke up. “Do we get to meet this Grandfather guy now?” 

Her mother laid a hand on the girl’s head with a nod. “Yes, I believe we are all quite interested in that prospect. Even if we are also nervous about it.” That admission came with a small smile, obviously attempting to make light of what was probably a very tense situation for someone like her. The Seosten had been fighting the Fomorians for hundreds of thousands of years and had apparently never encountered a single good version. Maybe that was because only the bad ones went out conquering galaxies, but still. The fact that she had spent so long like that meant that being willing to accept that there could be a good one even through Tartarus shenanigans was pretty big. 

There was a brief pause as Sonoma and Bastet looked at one another, exchanging some kind of silent communication before the latter turned back to us with a slight nod. “Yes. Before we eat, it’s best if you all meet him.” Her eyes narrowed, however, as she slowly looked over our entire assembled group. “But let me make something clear. I understand–we understand– that this will be a tense situation and that you have never met anyone like him. With that in mind, if anyone makes a hostile move toward any of us, including Grandfather, you will not like how this meeting proceeds.” 

“Bastet,” Sonoma spoke carefully, taking a step that way before looking to us. “You have to understand, we aren’t exactly accustomed to reaching out like this… at all. Grandfather keeps himself secret for a reason. Not only because of how people could react, but also to stay away from his other half. Opening up like this is dangerous. But we… we thought it was the right time, after everything you’ve done. Everything that’s happening, it’s… time for us to open up a little bit.” 

It was Gabriel who responded to that first. “I believe we all completely understand why you would be hesitant to trust in your situation. Just as I believe you can understand why the idea of someone like this Grandfather is very… odd. But you’re right, given how things are progressing, we need to work together. Which means trusting one another at least enough to actually meet.” 

“Great,” Koren blurted, sounding maybe just a little hysterical. “Now that we all totally understand each other, can we get on with it?”  

“You, I like,” Bastet informed her before nodding. “Yes, now that we’re on the same page.” She turned, speaking in just as normal a voice as ever without raising it at all. “Grandfather, it’s safe.”

And with that, a figure emerged from the cottage. Everyone stood there, very much trying to remind ourselves not to freak out. It was the Fomorian alright. He was tall, with the same angular features, gray skin, and big eyes as the one we’d met at Thanksgiving. He looked kind of like one of those stereotypical ‘gray aliens’ from so many sci fi and alien abduction stories. Which made sense, given how ingrained these guys (and this one in particular) had to be in the human consciousness. Seeing him raised the hair on the back of my neck, even though I had been repeatedly assured about how safe and good he actually was. 

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected this ‘good Fomorian’ to be like, honestly. I didn’t know how I thought he would act or talk. But whatever I had expected, it was obviously way off. Because the first thing this Fomorian did, as soon as we had a chance to see him, was clap his hands. His voice was bright and cheerful, totally at odds with his appearance. 

Also at odds with his appearance? His appearance. Specifically, the apron he wore. Yeah. Despite my private assertion earlier, the Fomorian was wearing an apron. It was white, with words on the front, a mixture of handwritten and carefully printed. In printed letters at the top, it read ‘We–’ followed by the word ‘Grandfather’ in neat handwriting and ‘Aylen’ in the sloppy print of a child. Next to each was a handprint, the many-fingered Fomorian to the left of ‘Grandfather’ and a small human child’s print to the right of ‘Aylen’. 

Underneath their names and handprints were the neatly printed words, ‘Cooking Buddies! Together, we can make–’ And under that was what had at one point been a lot of blank space. But almost all of that blank space was taken up by scrawled words clearly written by the young Aylen, a list of the dozens and dozens of things she’d cooked with Grandfather over the years. Just glancing at it, I could see her handwriting getting better as the list went on and she grew older. That and the things they made grew more complicated.  

While we were taking all that in, the Fomorian known as Grandfather blurted a delighted, “Yes! Yes, excellent! You’re all here! Oooh, you’re all here, wonderful! Ohhh you all look so amazing! So much hair, so much color! Your eyes! Your little fingers! Ohhh my, oh my, oh my! Beautiful, and so handsome. So very handsome. We must get pictures. Yes, yes we must have pictures for the album. Our album is so very lacking in people other than us. And one with dark skin! Wonderful, so wonderful! I think I met your original progenitor once, dear boy. I have a picture somewhere. You have his eyes. Gabriel, yes? Yes, such a wonderful name. Such wonderful people! Children, children everywhere!” He was practically crying with happiness, arms extended wide as if to literally hug all of us. At the same time, he was bouncing back and forth from foot to foot, obviously far too excited to stand still. 

Yeah, this… this was not at all what I had expected. In the background, I could see Aylen watching us all with an expression that was clearly a mixture of nervous and amused. Amused to see how we would react, and also nervous about how we would react. 

Dare was stiff, but motionless. I could see the intense emotions playing out behind her eyes. Of course, considering she’d literally sacrificed her entire identity and her husband to kick the Fomorians off Earth, this would affect her. She kept it under control, eyes flicking towards me before giving a subtle nod. She would be okay. Gwen and Gabriel were taking it in stride, the former looking more curious than anything, while Sariel… Sariel looked… relieved? Not in a ‘oh good it wasn’t a trap’ way, but more… it was deeper than that. I had a strange feeling that some part of the Seosten woman had almost been desperate for this to be real, for a living ‘good Fomorian’ to exist. 

Meanwhile, beside me, Koren made a sound deep in her throat. Quickly looking that way, I saw her eyes widen, tears starting to leak from them. She wasn’t even looking at his disarming apron. She wasn’t ready. She was back there, back almost a year ago at Thanksgiving, in the house where her real father had been murdered and the Hiding Man had forced her to stick her hands inside her mother to keep her heart pumping. 

Grandfather’s bright, cheerful expression dropped a bit when he looked at Koren. Immediately, he went down to one knee. His voice, when he spoke, was much different than I expected. He sounded… well, like a grandfather, really. He sounded old and kind and knowledgeable. He sounded wise. 

“Dearest far-child,” he said quietly, his voice much more serious and gentle than his previous loud and cheerful words. “Excited as I am to see how much you have grown from your ancestors… I remember your progenitor too. I remember the look in the eyes of your ancient ancestor, the first of your line to look upon the sky. I remember watching him take up his first rock, hold it in his hand, and scrape his name upon the wall of the cave. I was so proud of him, so proud of all of them, all of you. You are all my most tremendous, remarkable creations, who have so far exceeded any of my dreams. 

“But in my excitement, I do sometimes forget that my appearance carries its own burdens. I am so very sorry for the losses you have experienced. It was not my intention to cause you grief or fear. I care for all of you. I would never wish to bring misery or harm to you. You are all the greatest achievement I shall ever experience.” He seemed to hesitate then before softly adding, “I would… ask that you please not be afraid of me. But should my presence inspire too much ache, I will step away and not intrude again, you need only give the word.” 

With a deep gulp, Koren glanced to me before very slowly stepping closer. “You’re… you’re not like the others.” 

“No,” he promised, giving a slight shake of his head. “I’m very glad to say that I’m not.” 

There was another brief pause, before Koren exhaled, her voice quivering just a little. “I think it’s okay if you stay.” 

The smile came back, a smile that somehow seemed to light up the whole area despite the fact that we were standing in daylight. Grandfather straightened slowly, clearly making a point not to move too quickly in front of us. “Thank you, far-child,” he murmured before turning to look toward Sariel. “And you,” he asked simply. “Honorable Seosten… and your children. Are you quite alright?” 

Sariel gave a single nod. “Yes, I believe I am.” 

“Excellent, excellent, very good.” That childlike enthusiasm and happiness was back, as he clapped his hands once. “In that case, shall we eat? I’m quite eager to share all this food we’ve been making!

“And then, perhaps I can tell you about the alternate universe that your experiments into what you call Tartarus has created.” 

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Learning Days Daze 2-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, a Fomorian. We were about to go to dinner with a Fomorian. After everything I’d learned (and actually seen) about those monsters last year, the very idea of actually sitting down to a meal with one of them felt more like a threat of torture than anything else. Despite everything Aylen had said, along with everything we’d all been saying about how every species could be good, it was still pretty hard to just stop being nervous about it.  

That, more than anything else had in the past, gave me a bit of insight into how hard it was for other people who had grown up under the Bosch way of thinking to accept that their entire society had been wrong for so long. This wasn’t even my entire world view being challenged and changed. This was just accepting that, through extraordinary circumstances, one single member of an otherwise totally evil race was good. And I was still somewhat suspicious. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t quite as hard to imagine why people would stick to what they had been taught for so long. 

I shoved it down, knowing it was wrong, but that didn’t stop the hair on the back of my neck from standing up at the very thought of going to this dinner. At the very least, I definitely wasn’t going to be able to relax anytime soon. 

Lost in thought after explaining everything to a just-recalled Tabbris, I barely noticed as she turned my hair pink and looked over toward Professor Dare. We were still in the park area, aside from Aylen, who was still gone to give us all a chance to talk about what she’d said. 

“I want Mama to come,” my mouth said, before Tabbris stepped out of me. She drew herself up, looking at Dare and Gwen. “I think Aylen’s right, and telling the truth and everything, but I still want Mama to come.”

Vanessa and Tristan both nodded together, the former speaking up. “Yeah, our mom should come. She knows a lot about Fomorians. And about magical science. Which, for the record, is still a term that makes me twitch when I say it. Either way, Mom should be there.”

Dare paused before nodding. “That’s not a bad idea. If this…” She breathed in and then out, clearly having issues with the concept. “If this Fomorian is on the level, he won’t object to us having as much reinforcement as possible, within reason. And your mother is definitely within reason. But we need to keep this close and quiet. There are a lot of people who would never understand having any kind of discussion with a Fomorian, all explanations be damned. And this entire alliance is on shaky ground as it is. Until we find out more, don’t go telling anybody else about it, okay?”

Koren raised a hand. “What about my mom?”

Dare nodded to that. “You and I can go talk to her before any of this happens. Obviously, there are exceptions. I just mean in general, keep it quiet. I know this is a new year and a new school and everything. But let’s not push our luck for how much people will accept very quickly.”

She was right, and we all agreed to keep it as quiet as possible, at least until after this dinner when we would have a better idea of how on the level the whole thing was. 

We separated for the time being, Tabbris and I walking with Avalon. On the way out of the park, I looked over at the dark-haired girl beside me. “You think the Fomorian thing might have something to do with Aylen being the Merlin Key that’s supposed to wake up Arthur?”

She paused, head tilting slightly before offering me a shrug. “Could be related. Or maybe it’s still just the Reaper thing. Either way, she’s really different from most people.”

Tabbris looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and I nodded her way before speaking toward Avalon. “You kinda like her, huh?”

For once, the normally perfectly poised and graceful young woman missed a step, almost stumbling as she looked at me. “I haven’t— I mean, I wouldn’t—”

With a smile, I stepped around in front of her, putting both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “Valley, listen to me. Do you know how they said that a million Earths could fit in the sun when they were talking about how hard it would be to find this place?”

“One point three million,” Avalon corrected, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Imagine the biggest hypocrite who has ever existed in the history of the universe is the size of the Earth,” I explained. “If I actually had a problem with you liking somebody else, I would be the sun to that Earth. You could fit one point three million record breaking hypocrites in the hypocrite that I would be at that point. I have Shiori, remember? I have her and you. And you, just you by yourself…” Swallowing, I reached up and laid my hand against her cheek. “You’re more than I ever thought I could have. I don’t mind if you like somebody else too. It doesn’t mean we don’t still love each other.  You share love, you don’t hoard it. So trust me when I say that it’s okay if you like Aylen.” 

That all said, I leaned in and gently touched my lips to hers before leaning back to smile at her. “Okay?”

She exhaled, hands moving up to settle on my shoulders, squeezing a bit before murmuring a quiet, “Okay. You’re a pretty good girlfriend, Chambers.”

Showing my teeth in a cheesy grin, I replied airily, “It’s all thanks to Herbie. He offers excellent relationship advice.”

That all taken care of, I looked over to Tabbris. “Speaking of your mom, how’s that whole multiple recall points thing going? Wasn’t she teaching you how to work with that?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s really hard, though. It has to do with taking a little bit of the first person’s magical energy with you. But every time you take energy out of someone like that, it tries to fall out from being shaped like them to being shapeless. You have to try to keep it in the right shape the whole time until you get to somebody else and then leave it in them. Then you can trick your recall into thinking the bit of the first person that you left in the second person is actually the first person.” Her head tilted a bit and she worked through that in her head before nodding with satisfaction. “Like I said, it’s really hard. Mama does it really easily. She can take a little bit out of one person and copy it into other people. It’s crazy.”  Even as she said it, the girl was grinning broadly, unable to keep just how proud she was of her mother out of her face. 

Avalon raised an eyebrow. “That sounds pretty useful. Even just the copying someone’s magical signature part. There’s a lot you could do with that besides creating a duplicate recall point. Magical signatures are important all on their own for a lot of other things.”

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Tabbris quickly agreed. “She said we have to be really careful when we do it, because bad things can happen if it’s wrong.“

“Being careful sounds like good advice in general,” I murmured. “Especially when it comes to possession and borrowing someone’s magical energy. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that not doing that willy nilly without practice is a good idea. No wonder your mom’s being careful about who she shares that with.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the other two before I straightened. “Now, speaking of things we’re going to have to be careful with, let’s go with Vanessa and Tristan and see about getting your mom involved in this insanity. Because in a dinner party that already involves a good Fomorian, an ancient Native American werecrow, and the half-Reaper daughter of the being who literally powers the Heretical Edge, we’d be crazy not to throw Artemis into the mix too.”

********

Eventually, after hours of worrying about it and obsessing over how this was going to go, it was time. As a group, including Sariel, we met Aylen in one of the transport rooms. They were  essentially large open metal chambers with spellwork all over them that was supposed to make it impossible, or as close as it could be to impossible, for anyone to backtrace a transport from here down to Earth. Or wherever else we went. A dozen of the best magic users we had, including Wyatt, had worked for over a month to ensure it was all as safe as possible. We knew that trying to get into this place would be one of the top priorities of the loyalists. So making sure that was as close to impossible as we could was one of our top priorities. 

Pffft, we and our. Like I had actually done anything. I’d seen some of what they were planning at the time, when Wyatt showed me his notes, and it was as far above my head as my new calculus classes would have been to a third grader. I’d say it was Greek to me, but I actually understood a little Greek. 

What it came down to was that the transport rooms were safe, and they were supposed to be the only place we transported from if there was any choice at all. It had been drilled into our heads repeatedly that just because we weren’t planning on facing any loyalists didn’t mean that they wouldn’t eventually find the spot we had transported down to, where they could possibly use residual energy to trace back to where we had come from if we didn’t use these rooms. 

Aylen was standing nearby, fidgeting with uncharacteristic nervousness as she watched everyone gather. I saw her eyes stray over toward Sariel now and then, before she finally spoke up. “Okay, um, there’s something you all should know about Grandfather before we go anywhere.”

Standing off by herself, Rebecca offered a weak, “You already told us he’s a Fomorian, what else could there be? Don’t say he’s a Yankees fan too. Hold on, wait, is that how they win all the time? Cuz that would explain a lot.

Stepping over by the tiny girl, I asked, “Your grandmother get you into Bystander sports?”

Her head bobbed. “I’m pretty sure she and Sands and Sarah’s mom tried to set up some kind of league for it awhile ago. You know, something fun that wasn’t combat training. They couldn’t get enough people interested.”

“Maybe they should try again up here,” I offered before looking to Aylen. “What did you want to warn us about?”

After a brief moment of hesitation, she explained, “Grandfather is very enthusiastic. He’s eccentric and friendly and maybe a little too forward, and very enthusiastic. He doesn’t tend to get to talk to a lot of people, for obvious reasons, so when he does, sometimes he goes overboard. Like I said, he’ll never hurt you. But he might get a bit… curious and touch you. It’s just something he does. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s eccentric, and really nice.”

Sariel, standing with all three of her children around her, lifted her chin to watch the girl for a moment while speaking. “You must have grown up in a very curious household, Aylen. I would be very interested in hearing stories about it later, if you are willing to share.”

It was kind of weird. Out of all of us, Sariel actually seemed the most at ease with the idea of meeting a good Fomorian. I didn’t know if she was just better at hiding her feelings, or if knowing them as well as she did made this easier to believe somehow, or what. Maybe seeing all the evil her own people had done made all this easier to go with. Regardless, after getting the situation explained, she’d barely batted an eye before apparently being completely on board with it.

Abigail, on the other hand, had wanted to come. She also wanted to forbid both Koren and me from going. But Dare had promised her we would be okay, and that her going was a bad idea. Not only was she not exactly huge in combat, but she was also very important as a symbol here in the school. If she left, it would raise a lot of questions from everyone here. We wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet for long. She’d had put herself in that kind of spotlight and couldn’t easily step out of it. 

So, somewhat reluctantly, Abigail had agreed. We would go down to this dinner and let her know about everything that happened during it.

Gwen stepped forward. She had been standing back with Gabriel Prosser, who had transported up here to leave with us. The two of them had been holding a long, magically quiet conversation. Whatever they had been talking about had been pretty intense, just by judging from the outside. 

Now, Gwen looked to Aylen. “I know this was probably one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, given how we could’ve reacted. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a really important secret that you’re keeping from people you care about.” Offering the much younger girl a wry smile, she added, “It must’ve been hard not knowing how it would go. Or still not knowing how it’ll go. It’s okay. Whatever happens, we’ll all try to be as diplomatic as possible. And hey, thanks for trusting us enough to even try this.”

The words were enough to draw a small smile out of Aylen, as she admitted, “Mother had me wear magic on my shoes that would have taken me out of here if you reacted badly.” She shrugged, casting a somewhat guilty look over toward Avalon. “Sorry, no offense. Our family’s just really accustomed to being careful.”

With a light chuckle, Gwen shook her head. “Believe me when I say, none taken. Isn’t that right, Gabriel?“

The large, dark-skinned man gave a single nod. “We do know something about needing to take care when reaching out to trust someone potentially dangerous.”

“And yet,” Dare pointed out, “we also know a bit about needing to take a leap of faith at times. You say this grandfather of yours is a good Fomorian? I have to admit, that’s pretty hard for me to accept, after everything I’ve seen. But, I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I didn’t at least give it a chance.”

“Earths in the sun kind of hypocrite, huh?” I couldn’t help but put in, with a wink toward Avalon. 

Dare gave me a brief, curious look before nodding. “Indeed. Earths in the sun level hypocrisy. So believe me, Aylen, we’re going to give this a shot, no matter how uncomfortable it may make some of us.” She exhaled, adding, “I just hope your family understands if things are a little bit tense for a while.”

“Oh, they’re ready for it,” Aylen assured her (and the rest of us). “Grandfather’s been so nervous that he was baking all week long.”

Baking. Wow. That just filled my head with the image of a big gray Fomorian with bulbous eyes bustling around a kitchen wearing a frilly apron and one of those fluffy white hats, making little cakes and cookies. Which, of course, was just silly. He might’ve been eccentric, as Aylen said, but there was no way he would go around like that. 

Tristan interrupted my mental image by piping up then with, “So, are we gonna do this, or what? Because I don’t know about you guys, but I’m famished. And we already know it’s gonna take forever once we meet this Grandfather dude before everyone will be satisfied enough to actually eat. Let’s get this show on the road already.”

Smiling, Vanessa clapped him on the back. “My brother, cutting through any and all diplomatic issues at warp speed because he’s hungry.”

Tristan gave a firm nod. “Damn straight. Get done with all that and move onto the important stuff, like the first course. Come on, I’m giving up Chef Gisby’s stuff here, remember? Now that’s a sacrifice that should be written about in one of those old Iliads things. Which, for the record, are total bullshit anyway. I don’t remember there being one single mindflayer in that whole story.”

Vanessa made a disgruntled noise in the back of her throat while twitching a bit, looking like she wanted to say something to her brother, who was just smirking knowingly at her. He knew exactly how to push her buttons, and delighted in doing so at any given time. Even now, when we were about to go see what was possibly the only decent Fomorian in existence. 

In the end, the blonde girl couldn’t stop herself from rising to the bait, blurting, “That’s Illithid, not Iliad!”

Snickering despite myself at her inability to resist correcting him, I put in, “The boy’s got a point. You can go on about what a biological genius this special Grandfather of yours is, Aylen, but how is he with dinner, really? Hell, how’s the rest of your family? I mean, when it was my dad and me, we didn’t exactly go all out. Our idea of a big dinner with company that Dad wanted to impress was ordering Boston Market instead of KFC or pizza. So, are we talking microwavable stuff here, or…”

While Tristan made put-on horrified sounds and faces in the background (clearly playing it up a bit when he made Tabbris giggle), Aylen simply replied, “I told you, he’s been baking all week, trying to get everything just perfect. He really wants to impress you guys. Whether he’s any good at it or not…” She shrugged, clearly content to tease us at this point. “You’ll just have to come and find out. 

“Let’s just say, my family may be new to entertaining, but they’ve had a lot of practice when it comes to food.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, after we were done eating that afternoon, Avalon, Koren, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I met with Aylen at the park. The rest of us were sitting on the grass, watching as the part-Reaper girl paced back-and-forth in front of us, looking more frazzled and unsure of herself than I had ever seen her. 

I wasn’t sure why she was so nervous about us meeting her family. Did it have anything to do with the fact that she still chose to hide her true heritage? Most hybrids around here felt safe enough by now to reveal what they were. But Aylen was still posing as a normal Heretic student, despite the fact that she wasn’t actually a Heretic at all. Her power-gain abilities came from the Reaper side of her genetics, much as her crow form came from the other side. But we knew all that, so what would she be nervous about when it came to us meeting her family?

Avalon spoke up carefully. “Aylen, you know that we all have personal issues and traumatic secrets in our families. Whatever it is, no one’s going to hate you.”

I saw a brief smile cross the noble-looking girl’s face, as she raised her gaze to watch Sovereign glide across the top area of the domed environment. “Still, you’ll understand why I’m a bit… apprehensive once I tell you. Which I’ll do, just as soon as they get here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, but the other girl’s timing was pretty perfect, as two figures came into view just then, approaching us.

“Professor Dare?” Vanessa started, “and… umm, Guinevere?”

“Just Gwen is fine,” the woman who had posed as Harper through almost all of last year replied. It was still seriously weird to look at her. She was still Harper, just older, a woman who appeared to be in her twenties rather than a teen girl. The pigtails I had always associated with her were now a pair of tight braids that fell down her back. The hair that had been dyed pink was now almost fully brownish-blonde, with just a little hint of pink in the braids that helped me see more of Harper. 

Dare was looking curiously to Aylen. “Gabriel is a bit busy right now, but he said he will meet us tonight.”

I blinked at that. “Wait, as in Gabriel Prosser? Okay, what’s going on? Now you want Professor Dare, Gwen, and Prosser to come with us to this dinner?”

Tristan’s head bobbed quickly as he rubbed the head of Bobbi-Bobbi, who was draped over his shoulders. “Yeah, what’s with bringing the army along? Are your moms really that terrifying to guests?”

The two women looked just as curious, even if they didn’t say anything. I had the feeling they wanted to know what the deal was as much as the rest of us. Which made me wonder what she’d said to them in the first place about coming to this thing. 

For a moment, Aylen didn’t say anything. She just took in a breath before looking to the adults. “Could we get a privacy bubble, please? I mean a really good one. It’s important.”

Whatever doubts they may or may not have had, Dare and Gwen didn’t hesitate to take her seriously. Both formed layered privacy spells, which I had no doubt would be basically impossible for anyone to eavesdrop through. Between the two of them, that was a hell of a lot of power put to making certain that whatever Aylen was about to say stayed between us. 

Still, she didn’t speak right away. The girl stood there, hands clenching and unclenching a couple times. She stared at the ground, as though working herself up to this. No one moved or tried to rush her. We all wanted to know what was going on, but it had to come out in her own time, even if I couldn’t stop my mind from racing about what she could be about to tell us. I had a lot of wild thoughts. What if one of her mothers was related to Fossor? What if she was a clone of Litonya? What if she knew where Arthur was? What if she was Arthur? 

Now I was just getting silly. But my mind wouldn’t stop racing with various wild thoughts about what this might be about. After the year that we had just been through, this really could have been absolutely anything. 

Finally, Aylen let out a long breath and spoke. “What I’m about to tell you is a really, really big secret. And when I tell you, you’re probably going to freak out a little bit. Or a lot. But I really need you to keep listening, please. I need you to hear all of it before you start losing your minds too much. I just need you to know that my family and I would never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it. My grandfather, he’s… different, and you’re going to have to let me explain that.”

Dare took a few steps that way, her voice gentle. “I know you’re nervous, Aylen. But it’s okay, we’re going to listen, I promise.”

As if she was ripping off a particularly stubborn and painful Band-Aid, Aylen looked up to meet Dare’s gaze, the words popping out in a way that seemed to surprise even her. “My grandfather is a Fomorian.”

Well, that bomb went off and physically rocked everyone. I saw Dare actually take a reflexive step back, while everyone else gave soft gasps. Well, most of us anyway. Beside me, Avalon quietly murmured, “That’s what I thought.” Seeing the incredulous looks the rest of us gave her, she offered a one shoulder shrug. “After everything that happened last year and what she already knows, there were only so many possibilities. A connection to the Fomorians was my best guess.”

Rebecca spoke up then. “Wait, wait, wait. I don’t understand. You can’t be… I mean you’re not Fomorian. You’re not. You’re part Reaper and part werecrow. There’s no Fomorian in there. Wha-what?” She sounded like she was pretty close to hyperventilating. Which, given she had grown up knowing about everything those monsters had done, was fair. 

And speaking of people with plenty of reason to freak out, Koren was on her feet. It looked like she didn’t know what she was doing there, whether she wanted to run away or at Aylen. Her voice trembled. “What are you talking about? You can’t be related to them. They’re all evil. I mean, I know what this whole school is about and everything, but still. It’s the Fomorians. Their whole thing is being evil monsters. You can’t have some kind of connection to them. Do you know the things they do? Do you know how many civilizations they’ve completely wiped out? Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of genocides they’re responsible for? They’ve wiped out half the universe!” She was getting louder with each word. 

Tristan spoke then, gesturing between himself and his sister. “And our mom’s species has enslaved the other half, you know. She’s different. Tabbris is different. So is Uncle Apollo, and a bunch of others. If there can be enough good Seosten to be an entire section of their populous, then why not one Fomorian who is different?”

Koren shook her head at him. “You don’t understand.”

The boy slowly stood, head tilting. “I don’t? I spent years with Grandpa Nick, traveling all over the universe on his ship. We saw world after world after world that was hit by the Fomorians. When I was fourteen, I tried to help a little girl with purple skin and these glowing white braids. She was so scared and I told her we were there and she was going to be okay, and do you know what happened? She exploded because of a genetic bomb that the Fomorians planted in her. She exploded when she was hugging me. She blew up and I spent three weeks in the infirmary dealing with the infection that almost killed me. They saved me from the infection, but they couldn’t save me from that memory, and I still have dreams about it.

“So don’t tell me that I don’t understand. Because I do. I know exactly what they’re like. I saw world after world of examples of what they’re like. I know them better than almost anyone here.

“But I also know that the entire point of everything we’re doing here is that not everyone has to be evil just because others like them are. The entire point we’ve been trying to say this entire time is that people should be judged by their actions, not the species they come from. But if we’re just going to say that it’s completely impossible for a Fomorian to be good, before even listening to Aylen? Then we might as well just pack this whole thing up and go back to Crossroads. Because we don’t really believe it.”

Vanessa had moved to stand behind her brother, putting a hand on his back as his voice grew more emotional throughout that. He finally quieted, while Dare cleared her throat, glancing toward Gwen briefly before nodding at Aylen. “I believe he summed it up better than I could,” she said in a soft voice with clear emotion behind it that I was sure only Koren and I had any real inkling of the reasoning behind. “It’s okay. Keep going. We’re listening.”

Aylen did so, biting her lip before pushing on. “Nothing I told you before was a lie. One of my mothers is a werecrow, and the other is a half-Reaper. Her father is the Reaper that Crossroads uses to power the Heretical Edge. But he didn’t raise her. Neither did her mother. We don’t actually know what happened or why she was alone, but she was. She was on her own as a tiny little girl, until Grandfather found her. 

“We all call him Grandfather. I don’t think he has any other name, at least not one that we can pronounce. He’s a very old Fomorian, like… really old. And he’s not like them. He’s not like them at all. He’s the one who stole humans from the rest of his people to begin with. He’s the one who brought human ancestors here to Earth to begin with. He sabotaged their whole project, make sure they couldn’t make any more humans, and set up this whole world to try to keep us safe. I know that’s really hard to believe, but—”

“The traitor!” The words came from both Koren and me. The two of us glanced to each other before I quickly pushed on. “The Hiding Man, the Fomorian who… who killed Koren’s dad. He told us about this guy! He told us about a Fomorian who betrayed his entire species and stole the human project to bring it here. They hate him. They loathe him. He’s like the Benedict Arnold for their entire species.”

Beside me, Avalon murmured a quiet, “Victor Benedict probably wouldn’t like that comparison.” 

Aylen gave a faint smile. “That’s Grandfather alright. He sort of… made me. He took samples of both my moms and put them together. and he did some other stuff too. The point is, I’m both their kid and sort of a combined clone or whatever? With some other bells and whistles that even I don’t know everything about. Grandfather likes to tinker.”

Finally speaking up as she lifted her chin, Gwen asked, “And now he wants to meet, after spending the entirety of human history in the shadows?”

“Stuff is happening,” Aylen replied. “With all this that’s going on, and… other things, Grandfather says that you should meet and talk. He can warn you about some things, and explain some other things.”

Dare’s voice was careful and measured. “What makes him so different? Do you know why he’s not like the rest of his people? What could possibly make him turn against them. Because if this is true, he’s the only one I’ve ever heard of like that.”

Gwen nodded. “Same here. I’m pretty curious too. I mean, I am in for meeting this guy anyway, because… a good Fomorian? This I’ve got to see. But still, what do you know?” Coming from her, it managed to sound less like a demanding interrogation and more open curiosity. 

Finding my way to my feet, I put in, “Yeah, Aylen. I think you’ve got us all convinced enough to at least go through the meeting, even if some of us are going to be pretty freaked out the whole time, but if there’s anything else you could tell us so we could maybe understand a little more?” Rebecca, in particular, still looked really uncertain about this. Koren was more mixed ever since she and I had simultaneously realized that the girl was talking about the Fomorian traitor. She still looked torn, but not exactly like it was completely abhorrent. 

Aylen, in turn, nodded. “I can. It has to do with the place the Seosten call Tartarus.”

Vanessa blurted, “The empty universe with that energy that gave Mom and the other Olympians their powers?”

“Yes,” Aylen confirmed. “A long time before the Seosten ever found it, the Fomorians did. They found a way into it and they sent one of their best scientists inside along with a collection of minions, genetically engineered creatures that were basically like guard dogs. These creatures barely had any intelligence of their own, and the energies in Tartarus messed with them first. It made them stronger, meaner, gave them powers and took them out of the Fomorian’s control.”

She took a breath then, and I had the feeling this was the first time she’d ever told the story herself. But she had clearly heard it plenty. “The mutated guard dogs attacked the Fomorian. They destroyed the thing he was using to tether himself to his own world and left him stranded there. He managed to kill them, but he was really badly injured in the process. One of the minions managed to rip part of his head off. Literally, it took off a big chunk of his skull and brain. And not just that. It went all the way down through a third of his head and into his neck and then out under his shoulder. All of that was just cut off, including his arm. But Fomorians are tough enough that he survived.”

Rebecca managed a weak, “He survived having a third of his head, part of his neck, and his arm ripped off in one big wound?”

“Like I said,” Aylen replied, “Fomorians are tough. Plus he had a little help. That energy in Tartarus started regenerating them. Both of them.”

I blinked. “Both? Wait, you mean the three quarters of his body that was still intact and the one-quarter that was on the ground?”

She nodded. “Exactly. The part that was standing up realized that his other part was regenerating too. He freaked out and tried to stop it, but the one on the ground, that was mostly just an arm and part of his head, fought back. It was regenerating the whole time, so there was this little barely forming body while they were fighting. They fought and they got separated. Geographically, I mean. The other Fomorians found the one that was rebuilt from just part of the head and the arm. His body had completely re-grown by then, so they didn’t know the difference. They went in to find out what he discovered, and he escaped.”

“The one you call Grandfather,” Dare murmured, sounding completely taken aback by all of this. 

“Yeah.” Aylen hesitated then, before continuing. “When he regenerated, something changed. He doesn’t know if it was just because he only had a third of his brain left or what, but he didn’t think the way they did anymore. He felt things like remorse, and pity, and… and love. He loves his creations. Us, I mean. Humans. His original self was one of the lead scientists on that project and suddenly, this version of him actually cared about what happened to us. 

“First, he knew that Tartarus was dangerous, so he destroyed everything they knew about how to reach it. He wiped it all out so they could never get there again. I don’t know exactly what he did, but he’s pretty confident they can never open the portal to get there. Then he stole all the samples for humans and all the other regular animals here on Earth.”

“Wait,” I put in, “all the other animals?”

“Well, a lot of them.” She looked to me. “That’s why there’s so many Alters all over the universe who kind of or really look like animals here on Earth. They started out as Fomorian experiments based on those species. It’s also why humans don’t Heretic bond with Earth-native animals, because they’re Fomorian experiments. Or they started that way. They were the ancient ancestors of the animals we know now. Grandfather mixed them in with the animals that were already here. And from that point, they’ve intermixed so much over the millennia that the genetic lines are indistinguishable. There’s so much of the Fomorian-creations in them that humans can’t bond with them, just like they can’t bond with Fomorians themselves.”

“But we can still get powers from most of their creations,” Dare pointed out. “Not from the the Fomorians themselves, but from the things they send after us. Trust me on that one.”

“Yeah,” Aylen confirmed. “It’s the specific creatures from that lab. Humans were designed to be incompatible with them from the start, and the Fomorians can’t make new creatures that are incompatible with humans because Grandfather destroyed all their human research and samples. He also sabotaged any attempt they could ever make at resuming the process.”

My mouth was opening and shutting. It was all I could do to keep this straight. “So he destroyed their experiments, stole all the samples, and came here? And now he’s been here on Earth just watching us this whole time? That’s… that’s…”

Avalon spoke up. “He’s hiding for a reason, isn’t he? His other self.”

With an audible swallow, Aylen confirmed, “His other self got out at some point. We don’t know what happened or how long he’s been around. But he’s been trying to find Grandfather because he wants to re-combine with him. Believe me, that can never happen. It would be apocalyptic bad. Grandfather basically has all the cheat codes for the human genetic line. If his other half manages to join with him and take over, he could basically control all humanity. All of it. Everyone with even part human blood would be under his control. Everyone in the universe.”

To the side, Gwen quietly remarked, “Well, as long as it’s nothing too serious. Here I thought learning about the only good Fomorian would be cupcakes and rainbows.”

Aylen’s voice was somber. “Grandfather said that if it would save his creations and the universe, he’d destroy himself to make sure that never happened. But he and his other half have matching Tartarus Energy in them. He says that if he dies, everything in his brain will go to his other half. So destroying himself isn’t an option. Because that would just give the other him everything it wants anyway.

“But now he’s afraid that things have happened, that the other him is making moves. So he wants to meet you guys, because there might be a time in the future when he has to ask for help.” 

Clearly finished, Aylen shrugged. “I… know this is a lot. Really. A lot lot. So… I’m just going to step away and let you guys talk for a minute. You probably have things to discuss. Just let me know when you’re ready to go.” With that, she stepped out of the privacy bubble, leaving the rest of us to look at each other. 

Which was the exact moment I felt a sudden familiar presence in my mind. Hi! Tabbris blurted happily. 

What’d I miss? 

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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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“Oh damn it, I liked you as a teacher!”

The outburst came from Tristan, as the boy put the heels of both hands against his forehead, fingers pressed against his scalp. “Seriously, dude, you’re possessed too?”

Wyatt, meanwhile, had a hand against his own forehead as well. In his case, however, the man was repeatedly slapping himself. “No! No, should’ve known. I did it wrong. I knew I did it wrong. Had to test. I had to test and it was supposed to work. What did I do wrong?”

There was a brief pause as the man in the doorway blinked at her, before stepping fully inside. “First, Mr. Moon,” he began simply, “I promise, the man you enjoyed having as an instructor is basically the exact same guy you always knew. My, ahhh… influence runs pretty much the same way as Sariel there. You know, I act as subtly as possible, and only taking direct control when I absolutely have to. For the most part, all the teaching you experienced was from Benji himself.”

Flick was pointing at him. “You–that–we tested you! I tested you! I swear, I used the choker thing and you didn’t show up as Seosten. And Wyatt! He’s right! Wyatt used the ejection rune thing on everyone who came in here. Why wouldn’t it work on you? Why didn’t you show up as Seosten before? What?”

Holding up both hands for peace, the Seosten-possessed-man carefully replied, “There’s a reason for both of those not working. My old friends here, they already know.”

“Amitiel,” Sariel herself announced neutrally, already having moved to step in front of the man.  

“He prefers Mercury,” Apollo reminded her as he put himself beside his pseudo-sibling. “Right?”

The man wearing Benji Carfried gave a very slight swallow before his head bowed. “Yup. That’s right. Mercury’s my name. Just like Apollo is yours. Do you want to explain why their tests didn’t work?”

“It’s Mercury’s Olympian power,” Apollo murmured, glancing to the others. “It allows him to extend, delay, or quicken the effects of any magic that’s used on him. When you tested him with the choker, or the expulsion rune, he just delayed the effect long enough to convince you it didn’t work, then got out of sight before letting it happen.”

Wyatt, cursing rapidly under his breath, yanked a well-worn notebook from his pocket once more and set about rapidly scrawling in it. He tore three pages out, looked around briefly as though looking for somewhere to throw them, then simply shoved the paper into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before setting out to scribble even faster.

“Errr, right,” Mercury murmured at that before shaking his head. “But before we get too far with this, I ahh, I’d kind of like to speak to you guys directly. Without my host, I mean. Do you have a place for him to rest for the time being? He and I… we need to have a conversation about where we’re going from here, if he’s up for it. But that can wait. This seemed more pressing.”

“So you’re not going to try to possess him against his will again?” Flick put in, staring intently at the man. She too had enjoyed Carfried as a teacher and didn’t know what all this meant for that, despite Mercury’s words. “You’re not just gonna make some deal about jumping back in?”

The man offered her a brief, genuine smile. “You know, I’m pretty sure the days of that are almost gone as it is,” he pointed out. “After all, Liesje’s spell must be pretty close to being ready to go. So I would’ve revealed myself eventually regardless.”

He heaved a slow sigh. “No, I’ve no intention of forcing control of Benji again, after this. I’d… ahhh, kind of like it if somebody else would sorta… talk to him and explain the situation. Tell him that, if he wants, we can have a face-to-face conversation any way he wants. Or I can leave him alone. His choice. Either way, it’d  be best if he hears it from someone other than me, at first.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “You really don’t take much control of your vict–host?” She was squinting suspiciously at him.

Clearing Carfried’s throat, Mercury quietly pointed out, “Yeah, I get your doubts, trust me. All I can say is that you’ll see for yourself when you talk to him enough after I’m gone. You’ll know it’s him. He’s your teacher and he always was. I took control only when I had to for my mission. Or to protect some other Seosten secret. For the vast majority of my time with Benji, I was a passive observer.”

“He definitely sounds different,” Flick pointed out. “I can’t explain it, but he’s not really talking like Carfried does. If I didn’t know about Seosten or anything, I’d almost say they were twins.”

From the corner where she was still standing, Gwen agreed, “She’s right. This guy may look like Benji Carfried, but you can tell the difference. He’s not trying to blend in. I can’t say if that means that he wasn’t acting different before, or that it proves what he’s claiming about not taking control. But he is different now.” As she spoke, the woman continued to look the man up and down with a hard, yet thoughtful expression, still deciding exactly what she thought of him.

“I’m sorry,” Abigail suddenly put in, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole ‘Flick, Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris have been co-opted by Aphrodite to convince an intergalactic evil empire to completely change everything about itself in order to win a war against another intergalactic evil empire full of even worse monsters, and they have a year to do it’… thing. Now this guy’s another Seosten?” She paused, taking a breath before exhaling long and hard while muttering, “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss law school.”

“Don’t worry,” Flick assured her sister with a hand on her shoulder, “we’ll let you learn Seosten law so you can help convince the Seraphs not to kill all of us.” As Abigail lifted her head to squint at her, the girl raised her hand to give a thumbs up. “You got this.”

Lincoln finally spoke, standing up. “Well, Mr… ahh, Mercury. Whatever’s going on, I guess you can put your… host over in the bedroom here.” He waved for the man to follow while heading that way. “He can sleep on the bed, and we’ll explain things to him later.” Pausing, he added, “I should probably make sure there’s alcohol nearby at the time.”

While the two went to do that, Gwen took a breath before quietly asking, “Are you sure we can trust him to tell us the truth about the Merlin Key?” Her eyes were on Sariel and Apollo.

The ‘twins’ exchanged glances before Sariel spoke. “He has no real reason to lie right now. It’s in the best interest of everyone who stays on Earth that Arthur be awake before the year is up. The Seraphim are much more likely to listen to alliance suggestions if we make them from a position of strength.”

Apollo nodded. “Kinda hard to get any stronger than a natural Dragon-Heretic. If you guys say that Jophiel sent him, I don’t see why he’d lie about anything here. He has to know that that would be a bad idea for the trust they’re trying to foster.”

“And,” Sariel added, “he’s the one who first convinced us to… to save Chayyiel. He begged us to find a way to get her out of Tartarus. He was willing to risk everything, willing to do anything, to save her.” She paused briefly, before finishing with, “I’d say we can trust him for that, if nothing else. Besides, as we said, he has no tactical reason to lie right now.”

Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s arm, asked, “Does he really possess people like you did?”

“As far as we know, he does,” Apollo confirmed. “Mercury was always getting in trouble for not taking more control, for not having a… firm hold on his hosts. If he says he’s barely been doing anything with Carfried, I’d believe him.”

“Thanks.” That voice, unknown to most of them until now, came from the doorway where Lincoln stood with the actual Mercury. He was shorter than the man beside him, yet taller than his host, standing just over six feet. His hair, dark red to the point of nearly being black, was worn long, with a tight ponytail, and his skin was very tanned, with firm, lean muscles. He looked like a lightweight boxer, with eyes that were bright green.

“I’d like to say it’s nice to meet all of you face to face,” the Seosten observed. “Honestly, I would’ve preferred to do it without all this tension, but I suppose that was pretty inevitable.” Taking a breath, he stepped forward and extended a hand toward them. “Let’s start this again. You can call me Mercury.”

Haiden was the first to step that way, taking the man’s hand firmly as he looked him straight in the eyes. “I hope my wife and brother-in-law are right about trusting you with this.”

“Yes,” a new voice announced from the entrance into the cabin. Athena stood there, watching the other Seosten as she let the door close after her. “So do I.” Glancing to Flick and the others, she added, “Guinevere has brought me up to date about what happened. I…” She paused to consider, then finished with, “I’m sorry you were put in that kind of position.”

Vanessa offered her a weak shrug. “We’ve been in worse. I mean, Jophiel isn’t that bad.”

With a small smile, Athena agreed, “Yes, there were certainly worse people who could have discovered Tabbris at the lab that day.”

She and Gwen exchanged brief looks and a silent conversation passed between the two before Athena turned back to the others, her gaze finding Mercury once more. “As tense as it may be for some of us, for this alliance to ever work, we are going to have to trust each other.”

“In the… interest of that,” Mercury began slowly, “there’s something that Chayyiel was trying to convince me to do a long time ago. I resisted. But it’s probably time, if it’ll help with trust.” While the rest of the room looked uncertain, he focused on Flick. “The Anuk-Ite choker, do you have access to it?”

Of all the things he could have said right then, that was probably one of the most surprising. Blinking at him, Flick hesitated before looking over toward Athena. Only when the woman nodded to her, did she hold her hand out. “Tabs?” Tabbris, in turn, produced the necklace and passed it over.

“Go ahead,” Mercury urged gently while putting his hand out, palm down. “Test me.”

“But you’re–” Stopping herself, Flick put the choker on, adjusting it. Giving one last look to the others, she shrugged before putting her hand on his. Her eyes had just begun to squint that way when she jumped, stumbling backward a step. “What–the–but you’re–”

“SPS,” Abigail murmured. “You’re an SPS-Seosten, like Theia, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure what that stands for,” Mercury replied, “but I am what my people call a Lie, yes.”

Sariel was staring at him. “You… you’ve been like this the whole time. Back in the lab, you were supposed to have disappeared, run off with some supplies or something. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“And that’s why Chayyiel trusted you,” Apollo added. “Why you were so intent on saving her. And why you prefer the name Mercury instead of Amitiel. Because you’re not really Amitiel.”

“She kept my secret,” Mercury confirmed, swallowing visibly. “She… she was my friend, in the lab. The original Amitiel saw me in her room when I went to visit her, and jumped to conclusions. We fought. He was gonna…” He grimaced, looking away. “He was going to kill me and tell them that I was doing things to Chayyiel. She was my friend. I would never–” Cutting himself off, he sighed. “I possessed him. We… struggled. I won. I was going to turn myself in, but Chayyiel convinced me not to. So it’s been a secret. Our secret. Until now.”

Flick, who had been staring at the man that whole time, swallowed hard. “That… you’ve been keeping that kind of secret for that long?”

“Yeah,” the man murmured, “saying it out loud like this is pretty… pretty hard.”

It was Tabbris who moved to him then. Stepping in front of Flick, the young girl squinted before speaking softly. “It must’ve been really scary to hide for so long, around so many people that would’ve hated you.”

Meeting her eyes, Mercury slowly sank to one knee. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I kinda got used to it. Mostly, anyway. But I never forgot that I didn’t belong there.”

After a very brief hesitation, Tabbris reached out to embrace the man. “It’s okay,” she informed him. “You can belong here, if you want to.”

Flick glanced to her younger sister and partner before nodding. “Yeah,” she murmured, “she’s right. If you’re open about things now. Which means telling us everything about this… Merlin Key.”  

Taking that as her opening, Gwen stepped forward with a nod. “Yes. Everything.”

Glancing up to her, Mercury offered a slight smile. “Honestly, I’m kind of glad to have good news for you, your majesty. And not just because I’d rather not have to face you when you’re angry.”

He straightened then, standing up to face the woman. “I should probably explain first. You see, Chayyiel… she wants to bring back Arthur too. She had me track down and keep an eye on the Merlin Key, to make sure they’re safe.” Pausing, he amended, “Well, technically my official orders from Metatron were to make sure the Merlin Key didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, and that no one found them.”

Raising his hand, Tristan asked, “Not that I’m objecting, but they didn’t tell you to just… kill this Merlin Key?”

The man shook his head. “No one exactly knows how the Key is supposed to wake up Arthur. They’re worried that if the person is put in too much danger, that could be what wakes him up. The rules were to keep an eye on them and keep anyone else from interfering or doing anything that might set things off. Chayyiel wanted me to watch for the right moment and… help things along.” His gaze moved to Gwen. “When I saw you, as you, that’s when I figured it must be about time. At least… time to tell you all the truth about it.”

“Yeah,” Abigail put in, “I’ve kind of noticed that you’ve been really careful to not even give away the gender of this Merlin Key while you’re talking. It’s all ‘they’ and other such words.”

With a slight chuckle, Mercury bowed his head to acknowledge that. “True. I ahh, sorry, product of spending a long time keeping secrets. I’m a little too accustomed to being careful.”

“Okay,” Haiden acknowledged. “So who is this Merlin Key? Are they here at the camp?”

Holding up a hand, the Seosten man murmured, “First, yes, they are here at the camp. But before we get into the who, we need to make something clear.” His eyes moved over everyone in the room slowly, his voice firm. “This is the one chance to bring Arthur back. One. If we fuck this up, he’s gone forever. And here’s the thing, even the Imperium doesn’t actually know what might make him return. We know who is supposed to bring him back, but not how. Putting that person in danger might be the thing that triggers it. Or that might stop it. No one knows. But we do know that if Metatron and the other Seraphim find out that you know who it is, let alone that you’re trying to make it happen, they might just panic. The last thing we need is panicking hostile Seraphim in the middle of a truce. So everything we talk about here, everything, has to stay secret. I mean it cannot leave this room. At all. I don’t care how much you trust someone else, things have a way of getting out there.”

Abigail’s mouth opened to respond to that, but Athena spoke first. “He’s right. We won’t get another chance to bring Arthur back. If this goes wrong, that’s it. So we have to make it perfect. Which means not letting the information out of this room. If anyone here isn’t okay with that, you’re free to leave.”

Apollo nodded, arms folding across his chest. “Believe us, if the Seosten Empire can stop Arthur from returning, they will. Too many of them will always see him as too much of a threat to their power, instead of as the ally against the Fomorians that he could be. So we’re gonna have to play this perfectly. Which is gonna mean keeping secrets. For now.”

“We can do that.” That was Vanessa, her voice soft and reflective. “If it’s a chance to bring Arthur back to life, I think you’re probably right about keeping it secret.”

“But if the Imperium already knows who it is,” Flick put in, “what if they get jumpy and order something done about them?”

“I’ll be the one they ask,” Mercury pointed out. “And I’ll give you the heads up. That’s another reason for why we have to keep it secret. If they find out I’m talking to you, this whole thing blows up.”  

Slowly, and with various degrees of reluctance, everyone in the room agreed to keep the identity of the Merlin Key secret, until the time was right. Once they had all done so, Tristan offered, “You know, this might be a bad time to ask, but are we keeping the whole Merlin Key thing secret from… well, them? The person themselves, I mean. Cuz that could be a pretty big conversation all by itself.”

“It’s okay,” Mercury informed him simply, “that’s not a conversation you have to have. Mostly because I already had it. I’ve revealed myself to the Merlin Key and I’ve been talking them through it for the past few days. It felt like something they should know ahead of time. I’ve been helping them deal with it.”

“You have?” Tristan blurted, snapping his fingers. “Oh. Well, I was kind of thinking it’d be Avalon. You know, the name Avalon and all. It seemed appropriate.” He frowned then. “Except they were trying pretty hard to kill her before… huh. Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s no one in this room,” Mercury assured him with a slight smile. “Though I have asked them to come here. Now that we’ve talked it out this far, they should be–”

Once again, the people in the cabin were interrupted by a knock at the door. As everyone else looked that way, Lincoln stepped over, glanced to the others, and then opened it.

Everyone watched then as the person destined to bring back the Once and Future King stepped hesitantly into the room, the door closing behind them.

“Uhhh… hi. I umm, I guess back when Arthur was still… right before his village was attacked, right before he… before he became a Dragon-Heretic, my grandfather was the Reaper who met him.

“Which I guess means,” Aylen Tamaya continued, “I’m the one who has to wake him up.”

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Summer Epilogue 9 (Heretical Edge)

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“Well, guys… you’ve assembled quite a little group here.” As he spoke, Haiden Moon glanced around at the other occupants of this small cabin. Sariel was there beside him, as were Apollo, Lincoln, Abigail, and Wyatt. They were arranged around a table, their eyes on the other side of the room where Vanessa and Tristan stood with Flick and Tabbris. Guinevere stood in the corner of the room, watching the proceedings.

“Yeah, you have,” Abigail agreed. Her gaze was focused intently on the quartet who had asked all of them to come. “I was even planning on going with Koren and the others on that hike that Klassin’s running until you asked to meet up here.”

“Don’t worry,” Tristan assured her, “there’ll be other hikes. But this is a lot bigger.”

“Why?” Abigail pressed. “What’s going on? Did… something else happen?”

Apollo, who had been watching them closely, spoke up. “I’m pretty sure something happened a couple weeks ago. Something that let them know what was going on with Sean.”

Instead of answering immediately, Flick and the other three exchanged glances. Finally, Vanessa was the first to speak. “Something did happen. But it happened awhile ago. We… umm, we couldn’t… exactly talk about it before…” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable while shifting from foot to foot.

“Hey, Nessabird,” Haiden started while frowning a little at his daughter’s nervousness. “It’s okay. You know you guys can tell us anything. No one here is gonna get mad at you, whatever it is.”

Lincoln nodded slowly, his own gaze centered on Flick and Tabbris. “Girls? Something’s been off with you lately. Especially today. But if something’s wrong, something that’s got you this… out of it, even after everything else that’s happened…”

Apollo, whose gaze had been more on Gwen than the children, spoke quietly. “Oh yeah, something’s definitely been off. But for longer than that. It’s been off since around–”

“We don’t like lying to you,” Flick abruptly blurted. “We hate it. We… hated it. But we had to.”

Raising an eyebrow, Sariel echoed in a slow, soft voice, “You… had to lie?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, only curious, as her eyes moved from Flick to her own children. She said nothing else to prompt or push them, content even now to let the story come in their own time.

Tabbris, who was half-hiding behind Flick while clinging to the girl’s waist, nodded. “We had to. Magic ‘had to.’ It was part of the deal.”

Before Sariel or any of the others could question that, Tristan spoke up. “We should really start from the beginning instead of skipping around so much. It’d be a lot less confusing. So um, it started back on that prison lab, the one… the one Kushiel was running, when we were…” He hesitated, glancing toward Sariel. “When we were saving Mom.”

Haiden leaned forward, glancing to his wife before turning his attention back to the group that had called them all here. “That’s right, you four were off on your own at the end of that, weren’t you? You made it to the room just before Apollo showed up to help.”

“We made it a little sooner than that,” Tristan muttered. “We made it in time to hit that security field that knocked Tabs out of Flick.”

Eyes widening just a bit, Abigail blurted, “I’m sorry, what? There was some kind of anti-possession field and you walked into it with Tabbris?”

Wincing a little, Flick nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t know about that until it was too late. We walked into the room just outside the place where that transport ship thing was and suddenly she was… outside me.”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Tabbris added, “Uh huh. It felt funny. And then Miss Jophiel showed up.”

For as simply as she stated those words, the girl might as well have thrown a bomb into the middle of the room. Two different chairs hit the floor as both Sariel and Lincoln jolted to their feet. Several people spoke at once, all talking over each other.

Finally, Apollo cleared his throat. “Ahem. Maybe it’d be easier to get the answers you’re all looking for if you let them keep talking.”

His words made Sariel flush a little, but she remained standing, her gaze fixed on her children. “What… do you mean, Jophiel was there?” Her voice was careful and deliberate, but it was very clearly a shell covering her true fear at the revelation that the other Seosten had seen Tabbris.

It was apparently Vanessa’s turn to speak, drawing her mother’s (and everyone else’s) attention with, “She came in her host.” A brief pause, then, “Elisabet, from the Committee.”

Again, there was a flurry of reactions. Lincoln was staring at Flick. While most of the others were talking, he met her gaze and silently mouthed, ‘Are you okay?’ Getting a quick nod from the girl, he relaxed just a little. It helped.

Wyatt, meanwhile, was on his feet, though he said nothing. For once, he wasn’t blurting out conspiracy theories or accusations. Instead, the man drew a notebook from his pants and proceeded to scribble in it quickly. He crossed out several entries, added a few words to others, and even seemed to draw a picture. Meanwhile, everyone else kept talking, until Sariel stepped around the table and moved to where the children were. “She… did she…”

“They didn’t hurt us,” Tabbris promised her mother, hesitating slightly before moving to embrace her tightly. “We’re sorry, Mama. We’re sorry we didn’t tell you, but we couldn’t.”

“Magic.” Of all people, it was Abigail who realized that first. “They used magic to make sure you couldn’t tell anyone about them seeing you, didn’t they?”

“That figures,” Apollo muttered, adding a few words in Latin that was clearly a curse of some kind.

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “But it’s–it’s not like they wanted to hurt us or anything. They weren’t setting up a trap or… you know, they could’ve told the Empire about Tabbris way back then. They could’ve captured us. They–right, gotta tell it in order.” He looked to his sister for help explaining.

“We freaked out,” Vanessa supplied dryly. “Especially when Jophiel, umm… revealed herself. It was scary. I mean, they knew about Tabbris, and we couldn’t exactly… fight her. We couldn’t fight either of them. But it’s like Tristan said, they didn’t want to hurt us or anything.”

“You keep saying ‘they,’” Haiden observed, trying to keep his mind from spinning out. “But it sounds like it was just Jophiel and her host. Are you saying that…”

“They’re a couple,” Flick confirmed, clearly watching everyone’s reaction to that. “Jophiel and Elisabet. I mean, even when she’s not possessed, Elisabet is head over heels for Jophiel. Still.”

Apollo coughed. “I don’t know how much I’d trust that. Jophiel’s got ways of manipulating people’s feelings. Supernatural ways.”

“Yeah, she checked that.” Flick gestured to the corner of the room where Gwen stood, the woman nodding once in acknowledgment. “She used something to block Jophiel’s Olympian power and it didn’t change how Elisabet felt. They’re in love. They’ve been in love for a long time. But that’s not the point. I mean, it really is a huge part of the point, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Vanessa nodded in agreement. “Yeah, totally getting ahead of ourselves. Jophiel and Elisabet showed up, but they didn’t want to turn us in. They… they wanted our help.”

“Your help?” Apollo echoed, glancing toward Sariel as the woman held Tabbris close. “Help with what, exactly?”

Tristan took that one. “They don’t want to dominate humans anymore. I mean they didn’t want to, even before we got the spell from that vault.”

“Jophiel’s in love with Elisabet,” Flick added. “So she wants humans and Seosten to work together. You know, sort of… combine forces.”

Vanessa quickly pushed on while everyone stared. “They said the best way to make an alliance with the humans is to prove to the Seraphim that humans and Seosten working together willingly is better than their other system. The umm, constant enslavement and manipulation of our entire society, I mean. And the way to do that–”

Lincoln realized what she was going to say first, supplying, “–was to show them human-Seosten hybrids and a human-Seosten possession pairing worked together willingly instead of with slavery. They wanted Flick and Tabbris to show their leaders how effective a willing, cooperative partnership could be.” Pausing then, he added with a frown, “Because apparently those same leaders haven’t heard it enough times from Athena’s rebels, or that Chayyiel girl’s people. Or basic common sense. Remind me, how did they get to be your people’s leaders again?”

“Trust me, it takes a lot to convince the Seraphim of anything,” Apollo informed him in a flat voice. “It kind of needs to be hammered home a lot. And sometimes I’d really like to do that with an actual hammer.”

Looking a bit troubled, her forehead wrinkling thoughtfully, Flick put in, “Anyway, they’ve kind of adjusted a lot of the plan now, especially the timeframe, considering the whole ‘one year to prove they shouldn’t invade’ thing. But the deal we made back then was that they would teach us what they knew, that they’d… you know, train us to impress the Seraphim so we could convince them that an alliance is better than slavery.”

“And God forbid they use themselves as the example,” Abigail muttered darkly, “instead of using children. After magically forcing them to keep it a secret from their families.”

“Wait, just… wait.” Flick’s head shook. “That’s not really fair. I mean, yes, they strong-armed us into keeping it secret, but they were just protecting themselves. It’s a really big secret. Like Vanessa and Tristan said, they could have completely destroyed us if they wanted to. They could have taken us in, exposed Tabbris, kept Sariel imprisoned… they didn’t. And their plan, the one about teaching us to be an example for the Seraphim, that… like it or not, it’s a better plan than anything else we’ve got. The Seosten leaders obviously aren’t going to listen to people they see as rebels or traitors. Jophiel staying in power long enough to train us and then using us as the example might sound crazy or like they’re taking advantage of us, but they’re kind of just working with the hand they were dealt. Maybe they’re not perfect, like with the whole… being okay with enslaving other races just because they think it’s the best way to beat the Fomorians thing. But they’re not that bad.”

Vanessa was nodding. “Yeah, and really… they would be putting themselves at risk. As they pointed out already, the Seraphim aren’t stupid. They’d figure out that Elisabet and Jophiel weren’t exactly a normal Seosten-slave host relationship pretty quick once they started talking up the benefits of being partners. Like Flick said, maybe they’ve done some shady stuff, but they’ve also got the best chance of actually convincing the Seraphim of changing things. Bright wishes and hopes just aren’t going to do it. Maybe their plan can.”

“Still,” Abigail insisted, “They just had to terrorize a handful of minors into doing what they… what they…” She trailed off then, her eyes widening as something occurred to her. “Those… God… damn…” Abruptly, the woman jerked upright, staring at Flick. “They made rescuing Sariel a condition, didn’t they? They made rescuing their mother a condition.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan while her voice cracked audibly. “If you guys wanted to free her, you had to agree to their plan.”

Hearing that was enough to make Sariel drop to one knee, wrapping both arms around Tabbris tightly. “You–oh. You’re right. They–she would… Jophiel would do that.” She sounded stricken upon the realization that her own imprisonment and subsequent freedom had been used to essentially blackmail her children into obeying Jophiel and Elisabet.

Swallowing hard, Flick managed, “Yes. But we would’ve agreed to a lot more than that. All they wanted was for us to meet with them for training any time they wanted so they could use us to prove their point to the Seraphim, and to keep the truth about their own relationship secret. I mean, we had to keep all of it secret. They used magic to make sure we couldn’t talk about it.”

“I knew it!” That was Wyatt, suddenly blurting out loud as he pointed at Flick. “I knew you had a different spell on you! I could smell it. I could taste it. But I couldn’t see it. They hid it really well. But I knew. Iiiii knew it. Thought I was being paranoid, huh? No! You were spelled. I tried to find the spell, but I couldn’t. I thought it was Gaia’s spell, the one she broke to let you bring back the rebellion. That was a secret spell too. So I thought the secret spell I sensed on you was that one. But it wasn’t! I mean, it wasn’t just that. You had that one and this one, and–”

He paused then, frowning at Flick. “Has it occurred to you that you get a lot of secret magic put on you?”

With a tiny smile, the blonde girl nodded to him. “It, uhhh, crossed my mind a few times, yeah.”

Haiden had moved by then to take a knee by the twins, holding one of each of their hands. “They said you had to take this secrecy spell thing to save your mom, and you went for it?”

Blinking away tears rapidly, Vanessa stammered, “W-we had to. It was Mom. It was our chance to get her back. They said that… they said they’d give us the passcode to unlock her stasis chamber.”

“That’s how you had that,” Sariel breathed, rising to step that way while pulling Tabbris with her. She embraced all three of her children, and her husband, together. “I thought there was… something about it that you weren’t telling. But I didn’t know it was anything like this.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Flick carefully explained. “They really do seem like they want humans and Seosten to work together.”

“And other species?” Abigail prompted pointedly. “How do they feel about stopping all enslavement?” Seeing the expression on her younger sister’s face, she nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. And I don’t see them speaking up to stop the mistreatment of SPS Seosten either.”

Finally speaking up for the first time, Gwen asked from her spot in the corner, “SPS?”  

“Sticky-Possession-Syndrome,” Flick supplied. “Miranda made it up. It’s better than calling them Lies.”

“Huh,” Gwen murmured thoughtfully. “Yes, I imagine it is.” She went quiet once more, allowing the group to continue their story.

Tristan was shaking his head at Abigail. “Yeah, they’re not exactly all-in on ‘everyone is equal’ yet. It’s more of a human and Seosten thing. But hey, it’s a start. It’s probably easier to go from ‘humans and Seosten should totally be allies’ to ‘all the non-assholes band together against the assholes’ than to get there from ‘everyone who isn’t Seosten is worthless.’”

Muttering something under her breath about how that should be self-evident, Abigail continued to bristle for a moment before sighing audibly. “Fine, it’s a start. But they made you lie to everyone.”

Tabbris’ head bobbed up and down while she clung to her mother. Her voice was quiet. “W-we’re sorry. We had to take the spells so we could save Mama.”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Lincoln assured her. He exchanged a brief look with Sariel before reaching out to pick the young girl up, holding her to him. “No one’s mad at you.”

“I can think of a few choice words I have for those two, though,” Haiden put in, his eyes cloudy as he stared at the nearby wall as though imagining having a chance to confront the pair.

Looking over to Sariel, Lincoln asked, “What do you know about this… Jophiel?”

There was a brief pause from the Seosten woman before her head shook. “It’s been a long time since I had much to do with her. If she’s really in love with a human… then she’s changed a lot.”

“She is,” Gwen put in. “I put them both through enough tests to be sure of it. Elisabet’s feelings for her are real. And as far as I can tell, so are Jophiel’s toward Elisabet. It makes sense given what they’ve done. Jophiel wants to prove humans are okay to ally with so that she can be open about her relationship with Elisabet. But they want to use these kids to prove it. Which means getting them ready.”

“So they’ve been… training you?” Sariel asked carefully, her voice bristling with what was clearly tightly controlled anger.

The group exchanged glances before Vanessa nodded. “Teaching us how to use our Seosten gifts, how to fight, and… everything else they could think of that could be impressive. And they were teaching Flick and Tabbris how to work together.”

“Basically like what Athena started,” Flick put in, “but more intensive. Plus, they’ve worked together for so long, they have a lot of tips.”

“That’s just fantastic,” Haiden dryly remarked, “but how about they do it the right way, instead of sneaking around behind all our backs and magically forcing our kids to lie to us for months?” His words were followed by a collection of tight nods, as the adults tried not to let their kids see just how upset they were with the whole situation.

“What changed?” That was Wyatt, who spoke up while the others were all silent as they took in everything that the group had told them. “They had magic spells to keep you quiet. Why can you tell us now?”

Straightening a bit while still holding Tabbris, Lincoln looked toward Gwen. “That’s a good question. And I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with you.”

Flick nodded. “Yup. She umm, sort of accidentally found out part of the truth while she was posing as Harper, and I guess she followed us to find out more. She’s been keeping an eye on us.”

“And when all this went down,” the woman herself added, “there was no point to keeping my involvement secret. So we arranged a meeting a couple weeks ago and… made an arrangement for the secrecy spells to be removed. There’s little point to them. We have a year to prove to the Seraphim that invading this planet is a bad idea. Which they have their way of doing, and I have mine.”

That drew Sariel’s attention. The woman looked to her, blinked once, then realized. “Arthur. You want to bring Arthur back.”

“Having him would tend to push the Seosten toward cooperation, yes,” Gwen confirmed. “Not that I don’t like the idea of happy alliances against the bigger threat, but with people like the Seosten, it’s a good idea to extend one open hand while holding a really big gun with the other.” Pausing, she added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Apollo and Sariel both replied simultaneously. The two exchanged looks of their own that said just how much was going through their minds, before Apollo added by himself, “We need to talk to Jophiel. About this and a lot of other things.”

“She said you’d say that,” Tristan informed them. “And they said they’ll meet with you later, once they can get away. Plus, we have this other meeting first.”

“Other meeting?” Lincoln echoed, frowning.

Gwen took over once more. “To bring Arthur back, we need to identify the Merlin Key, the prophesied figure who will wake him up. That person is supposed to be one of the students at Crossroads.”

“And Jophiel knows who?” Apollo quickly asked, his eyes widening. “I couldn’t get that much, even with what was, let me tell you, an awful lot of work.”

“She knows someone who probably knows who,” Flick informed them, biting her lip then before adding a quiet, “Mercury.”

That made the two Seosten look at each other once more, their eyes meeting before Sariel snapped, “Mercury is here too?”

The teens started to respond to that, only to stop as there was a knock at the door. Gwen, standing next to it, glanced to the door, looked it up and down before whistling softly as she reached out to tug it open, revealing a figure standing there.

“Good evening,” the man who appeared to be Benji Carfried announced. “May I come in?

“I’m told we have things to discuss.”

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Summer Epilogue 5B (Heretical Edge)

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Neither Jophiel nor Elisabet responded outwardly to Gwen’s words at first. Instead, they simply glanced to one another for a brief moment, communicating silently. After a few seconds of that, the Seosten woman plucked her glass up daintily, taking a slow sip from it as though savoring the taste. Only then, once she had thoroughly enjoyed that single sip and set the glass back down, did she finally speak.

“You believe that something needs to be changed about our arrangement with the children, Queen Knight of Camelot?” Her tone was a mix of vague challenge and more curiosity.

Meeting her gaze, Gwen replied evenly, “I believe that you took advantage of your position of power over these children, and their desperation, to make an arrangement that suits you far more than it does them. More to the point, I believe you are forcing them to repeatedly and consistently lie to the people they care about, which is an odd thing to do for someone who is supposedly trying to advocate trust and alliance amongst humans and Seosten.”

It was Elisabet’s turn to speak then. “You’re right, it’s not ideal. But it’s for our safety. If word of our intentions with Miss Chambers or Sariel’s children were to get out, we would be expelled from our position and likely hunted down by Jophiel’s own people.” She paused briefly before adding, “And I would be hunted by my own people. Our position is rather tenuous.”

Tabbris abruptly put in. “Oh boy, a secret that could really hurt someone if it got out. Yeah, you better use magic to keep us quiet, cuz we’ve never had anything to do with something like that.”

Clearing her throat, Jophiel gave the young girl a brief squint before speaking again. “Experienced or not, we were and are not willing to put our lives in the hands of children. Look at what happened with Manakel possessing Miss Kohaku. Gaia Sinclaire had no clue. Even if we did wish to tell you which people we know are possessed currently or recently, we are not aware of all of them, particularly those who move often. The odds of our secrets getting out rise exponentially with every person who knows them. Given the amount of friends and family close to these four… that is an unacceptable risk.”

Tristan shook his head with a blurted, “That’s bullshit.” As everyone looked to him, the boy flushed a little but pushed on. “Yeah, sure, it’s a risk. But everything we do is a risk. Besides, we know how to check for possession now. We know how to guard against it. There’s about to be a spell that makes it impossible for any Heretic to be possessed without permission! We’re taking care of things on our end. And you’re still making us lie to everyone we care about. Like Tabs said, we’ve had secrets to keep all year long. It’s not just yours.”

With a little nod, Flick agreed, “I don’t like lying to my friends, or my dad. Actually, I hate it. You want to teach us how to have an alliance with your people, how to trust your people and work with them? But you’re not willing to take a risk yourselves. You might be a lot more powerful than we are, but you’re both so paranoid about someone you know finding out who and what you really are that you might as well be helpless. You’d rather we risk destroying our relationships with the people we care about, than you risk other Seosten finding out you love each other. Yeah, that wasn’t hard to figure out, for the record. You want to prove Seosten and humans can work together? Then stop making us lie to the people we’re supposed to trust.”

“Like I said,” Gwen announced, “we’re going to renegotiate this little agreement from a more equitable point of view. Yes, being cautious is understandable. You are taking a risk. But so are these kids. And there’s plenty of ways to make sure the people they’re talking to aren’t possessed. But first thing first, they couldn’t exactly tell me the whole story. So why don’t you two tell me instead? I want to hear the entire arrangement and plan, not just what I’ve inferred or gotten through eavesdropping. All of it. Then we can talk about how to make it more fair for everyone.”

Again, Jophiel and Elisabet exchanged glances. The latter opened her mouth to speak, but Gwen held a hand up to interrupt. “Wait. Actually, you put this on first.” With a flick of her wrist, she produced a bracelet, tossing it to the Seosten woman. “You know what it is?”

Catching the bracelet, Jophiel frowned at the small reddish-gold gemstone in the middle. “… Jaresh stone.” Her eyes snapped up to stare at Gwen. “You want to block my Tartarus power.”

“Tartarus power?” Flick echoed, blinking back and forth between the women. “You mean the other-dimension Olympian thing? That stone can do that?”

“Yes, it can,” Gwen confirmed. “As you might imagine, it’s very rare. And the power of the gem is drained relatively quickly.” Her eyes moved back to Jophiel. “Yes, I want you to put it on before Elisabet speaks. You know, just to make sure this entire… relationship you both have is actually her choice and not your little ‘shift the emotions someone feels about someone else to me’ power. If you two really trust each other, if your feelings are genuine, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Mmm,” Jophiel murmured, “of course not. And yet, you are asking me to put myself at a disadvantage. Should you have ill intentions–”

“I’m sure you’ll be just fine,” Gwen interrupted. “After all, if Elisabet’s feelings for you are real, she’ll protect you. So you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Let’s just call this practice, for you actually risking yourself a little bit instead of risking everyone else.”  

Pausing for a moment before heaving a slow, soft sigh, Jophiel nodded. “Fair enough,” she muttered before slipping the bracelet on. The stone flared brightly for a second before fading once more to a dim glow. “There,” she announced while holding her wrist out for inspection. “I cannot use my Olympian power. Everything my Sianame feels is her true, real feelings.”

Gwen took a moment, looking the bracelet over to make sure Jophiel hadn’t pulled a fast one somehow. Nodding in satisfaction, she looked to Elisabet. “First, why don’t you tell us how you feel about Jophiel here?”

The answer came immediately. “She is my Sianame, my partner. I love her more than anyone in the universe. I would do anything for her, and she’d do anything for me. That’s why we wouldn’t let the children tell anyone about our arrangement, because we won’t risk each other. We…” She paused, swallowing. “We want to fix things between our species, but we didn’t know how. But with Vanessa and Tristan there, our species can produce viable offspring together. That has to mean something. We have to convince the Seosten to work with humanity. The only way we knew of how to do that was to train them, so they could show the Seraphim how much better things could be with an alliance.”

“I seem to recall another of your members suggesting an alliance with my husband,” Gwen pointed out. “In fact, she convinced him enough to bring him to a vulnerable location for a ‘chat’. That turned out to be a trap. Why should we believe that this is anything different?”

It was Jophiel who spoke. “That was Chayyiel. And she did not betray Arthur. Puriel betrayed her by attacking their meeting point against her request. A betrayal which Chayyiel did not take kindly to, considering her promise to kill Puriel should he ever attempt to give her one more order.”

Showing no outward reaction to that, Gwen watched the Seosten woman for a moment before speaking again. “As I understand it, she has already negotiated your leadership into a potential alliance with humanity, in response to the impending Liesje spell.”

“An alliance,” Jophiel confirmed, “or invasion. They have not decided which. We have one year to prove that an alliance would be preferable to full enslavement. Which is why we must step up our training endeavors.”

“Does she know about what we’re doing here?” Vanessa put in. “Chayyiel, I mean.”

Jophiel started to respond that before pausing. “I… would say no, but it is Chayyiel. Who knows what that girl is aware of. She learned from the Apocalypse Twins, and has only improved on their teachings in many ways. That said, I do not believe so.”

From there, Elisabet and Jophiel explained the full original agreement to Gwen, who waited through all of it with only a few questions and clarifications. Finally, the former (and many would say current) queen of Camelot announced, “Yes, we’re changing that deal. You’ll get everything you wanted. The children can still agree to train with you. But you are going to remove the requirement that they not tell anyone about it. Yes, it puts you in danger. Just as they are in danger every time they interact with you. Just as they have been in danger for so long. If you want some measure of trust to be extended to you, then you will extend some as well.”

“We’re not gonna go blabbing it everywhere,” Tabbris piped up. “But making us always lie about it is wrong. How’re you gonna convince Mama and the others that you really want to be friends if you’re making us lie to them all the time? I mean… you do know that you’d eventually have to explain all this to them? If your plan works, I mean. If it works, and Seosten become allies with humans, you’d have to explain to Mama what you did.”

Vanessa stepped forward, hesitating slightly before putting herself in front of Elisabet. “When you guys pretended to be Mrs. Reibach while I was in the foster system, you were nice to me. You took me out for ice cream and helped me. You helped me feel like I wasn’t just crazy. I thought you were the only person there who cared about me.”

Swallowing, the Spanish woman lowered her head briefly before raising her gaze once more to meet Vanessa’s. “I did care about you, Vanessa. I do. We do. We care about you very much. We had… several discussions about possibly taking you in ourselves. But that would have been too dangerous. Not only for us, but for you as well. The best we could do was ensure that Kushiel did not take you.”

“You protected me,” Vanessa murmured. “I’m… I was free because you and Jophiel made sure the other Seosten didn’t take me in. Kushiel… she… she would’ve done bad things. You guys stopped her. You protected me. I never really had a chance to thank you for that.” Lifting her chin, she stared into the woman’s eyes. “I wouldn’t betray you. I won’t go telling everyone about you and Jophiel. I know it has to be a secret. We all know that. Please. Don’t make us hurt our families anymore. Don’t make us lie to them just to protect yourselves.”

On the heels of those words, Flick quietly added, “Just think about how you two would feel if you were put under a magic spell to lie to each other all the time, about anything, let alone something this important. This isn’t just something like lying about who ate the last cookie. We are working with the Seosten possessing one of the Crossroads Committee members, and we can’t tell anyone. You’re making us lie to the people we love, because you don’t want to put the person you love at risk. Isn’t that fucked up for people who want to make an alliance?”

Tristan nodded. “Seriously. Come on, let’s work together by working together. Like Nessa said, we’re not about to go blabbing everything all over the place. We’re smarter than that. You wanna be allies, let’s be allies by trusting each other. I mean, from what you said, we’ve only got a year to work all this out. We’re never gonna get there if you’re making us lie all the time. Yeah, it’s a risk. Everything’s a risk.”

Finally, Flick finished with, “What it comes down to is a choice, I guess. If you want to be perfectly safe, you guys could ignore us. Hell, you’re strong enough, I bet you could go off by yourselves and be just fine. If all you care about is each other, you could probably be just fine without anyone’s help. I’m pretty sure no one could track you down if you put your mind to disappearing. So you could do that.

“But I don’t think you want that. I think you want to make this alliance work. I think you really want humans and Seosten to work together. And the only way we’re gonna do that in one year is with some risks, and some trust. From both sides.”

In the end, it was Jophiel who sighed and looked to Elisabet. “I suppose they have a point.”

“But it’s still a risk,” the other woman pointed out quietly. She looked to Gwen and the others. “Give us a moment?” Receiving a nod, she and Jophiel stepped over to the other side of the clearing, using a spell or ability to mask their conversation as they spoke quietly and intently.

“Thanks for coming,” Vanessa softly said toward Gwen. “Even though everything we said would be true without you, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be as quick to listen.”

Gwen, in turn, smiled easily. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I don’t mind playing muscle sometimes. Besides, like you said, it’s all true. It’s not fair that you have to lie to everyone you care about. That’s not how you foster an alliance. And they took advantage of your desperation to save your mother to make you agree to it. Whether their overall intentions are noble or not, that’s what they did. And it’s wrong. If they want a true alliance, they’ll do it from closer to even ground.”  

“You’re all correct.” That was Jophiel, who had moved back to them with Elisabet at her side. She still wore the faintly glowing bracelet. “We have discussed it, and in the interest of ensuring a lasting, true alliance between our people, we will agree to remove the prohibition against discussing it with anyone.” Even as she said those words, the woman’s voice seemed to tremble just a little. It was obvious that she was truly afraid of what might happen.

“However,” Elisabet added, “we would request time first. Before you begin discussing our arrangement with anyone, we would ask for two weeks. We’re not saying you are incapable of keeping secrets. But the Seosten are incredibly good at ferreting those secrets out at the worst possible time, regardless of your intentions or how careful you are. We would like to use those two weeks to prepare potential countermeasures and… escape plans in case things go wrong. We have things we can do to prepare for being exposed and to provide some advance warning should worse come to worst.”

“We know this is a lot to ask,” Jophiel informed them. “Particularly after you have made such compelling points about not lying to your loved ones. But we hope you will understand our own precaution. The Imperium is not forgiving. Should word of our relationship escape and we not know about it, there is a chance that… that they will take her from me.” She swallowed hard then, looking from Gwen to Flick and meeting the girl’s gaze. “Please. We will undo the spell and allow you to tell your loved ones, if you give us two weeks to prepare.”

Felicity and the rest all looked to one another before Vanessa spoke up. “I don’t see why we couldn’t do that. It’s an alliance, right? That means compromise. We can keep quiet for two more weeks while you get ready in case something goes wrong.”

“Yeah,” Flick agreed, “we’re not gonna be assholes about it. Deal, we’ll wait a couple weeks for you to set up your countermeasures and escape plan or whatever.”

Clearing her throat, Gwen gave a very faint smile. “It seems that you have come to an agreement. So let me make my own promise. Should either of you prove untrustworthy or should I believe for a second that you are putting these children at greater risk, I will end the arrangement as… thoroughly and permanently as needed.”

She stared intently at Jophiel. “I don’t know if I trust you. But I do know that the Fomorians are worse than anything your people might do to this world and everyone on it. So you’re right, we need an alliance. We need to work together. Just don’t give me a reason to think you’re playing us, or that either of you are a threat to these guys.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment of that, Jophiel watched the woman carefully. Her tone was soft. “If I might ask, your purpose at Crossroads, was it to seek the Merlin Key or something else?”

“We are far from any point in our relationship where I might answer that question with anything truthful,” Gwen pointed out in a flat voice. “Suffice to say, I am not done at Crossroads. Not by a long shot.”

“Merlin Key?” Tabbris piped up. “What’s–”

“The Key of Merlin,” Elisabet informed them, “is a person who will help to wake Arthur from… who will bring him back to life. It was a prophecy given by fifteen different seers across the world at the exact second of his… pseudo-death. Fifteen seers that we know of, anyway. At the exact second of his fall, these fifteen unrelated, unconnected seers announced that a child known as the Key of Merlin would awaken Arthur.”

Staring at her, Flick managed, “And you guys think that it’s someone at Crossroads?”

“I know they are,” Gwen confirmed. “But I do not know who, exactly. I was making progress, until… well, until all of this happened. Perhaps they are still at the school, or perhaps they fled. Unless…” She looked to Jophiel and Elisabet.

“We do not know either,” Elisabet replied. “You may believe that or not, but it is the truth. However, we may know someone who does.”

Eyes snapping to the woman then, Gwen spoke in a sharp tone. “Do not toy with me.”

“Arthur was amenable to an alliance with Chayyiel,” Jophiel pointed out. “We would not exactly be against his return, in that regard. Again, give us two weeks to prepare, and we will tell you what we know.”

For a moment, it looked as though Gwen might argue with that. Her desperation to finally be reunited with her husband was so great that it took a physical effort for the woman to contain herself. She took in a long, deep breath before letting it out, her voice soft. “Very well. You can have two weeks to prepare for everything going wrong. After that, you will break the secrecy spell to allow these guys to tell the truth to their loved ones. And you will tell me everything you know about bringing back mine.”

“We can agree to that,” Elisabet murmured thoughtfully, nodding. “And as a show of good faith, there is something you should be aware of, concerning your… friend who was taken.”

Blinking once, Flick asked, “You mean Sean? What about him? I mean… wait, he’s okay, right? Dare said they wouldn’t really hurt him, just lock him up. But if they–”

“He is physically well,” Elisabet assured her. “But their methods of changing his mind, of… of breaking him of this loyalty to you are barbaric. And risk destroying his mind if something is not done.”

She explained what was happening then, that Sean had been put in a cell that accelerated time. For every day that passed in the outside world, weeks and months would pass in there. Weeks and months where he was left alone, with only the occasional visit from Crossroads loyalists to wear him down.

“Oh my God, Sean…” Putting a hand against her mouth, Flick gasped before cursing. “Ruthers. It’s Ruthers. It’s his plan, isn’t it? He’s the one who–”

“Litonya, actually,” Jophiel interrupted. “This is her doing. She is the one pulling the strings of this particular endeavor.”

“Then get him out!” That was Vanessa, her eyes wide. “We thought we could get ready and get him out of there in like a month or two. But–but two months? That’s years in there! He can’t stay in there that long. He’ll be–they’ll make him–they… get him out!”

“As I said,” Jophiel replied shortly, “The prison is being run by Litonya. We have no authority there. Or at least none that would not be run by her first. We cannot extract him without exposing ourselves. If we are exposed to Crossroads, we will be exposed to all of our people. That will be the end of any authority we might have. We understand your loyalty to your friend. But this is not something we can risk.”

Tristan started to open his mouth to argue, but Flick held up a hand. “What if there was something you could do? Not taking him out of there, but a way you could help him without completely exposing yourselves?”

Meeting her gaze, Jophiel asked, “What do you have in mind?”

“You might not be able to break him out without Litonya and everyone else finding out,” Flick replied, “But you’d know what kind of security measures are on him. I mean, maybe you can’t march in there and order him released, but you know what they’ve got to stop that from happening.”

Elisabet glanced to her partner before squinting at the blonde girl. “If you think you have a way of taking that boy out of that cell just because we give you the security details–”

“No.” Flick’s head shook. “I don’t know how to get him out, not yet. But I think I know how to help him.

“Or rather, who can help him.”

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Summer Epilogue 5 (Heretical Edge)

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“Let me guess,” Felicity Chambers announced while staring a wall packed full of dozens of various mounted animal heads and other such trophies, “this cabin belongs to a devout vegetarian.”

Behind her, three more figures stood, also staring at the trophies. They were Vanessa and Tristan Moon, and the younger sister of all three of them, Tabbris. All four were here in this hunting cabin together, far from the Atherby camp. The smallest of the group was standing between her two half-siblings, her eyes wide as she stared almost face-to-face with an enormous boar head. “I hope whoever lives here never meets Choo!” she squeaked out.

“Pfft,” Tristan retorted, “Trust me, li’l dipper, that lightning pig would wipe the floor with whoever set all this up.” He glanced toward the majestic-looking elk head that served as the display’s centerpiece, grimacing a little at the look of the thing. “And let’s not let Salten into this place any time soon. I’m pretty sure he’d tear the whole place down pretty damn quick.”

“Cornelius there put up a wonderful fight,” a voice from the nearby cabin doorway. As the four turned that way, they found themselves looking at a man with dark hair cut short along both sides and artfully tousled on top. He wore dark green army camo pants and a black turtleneck, with sunglasses. On one hip was a pistol, while a knife was attached to his opposite leg. He also wore heavy boots on his feet, as well as an easy smile that was somehow charming and disarming despite how on edge the group obviously was.

“Hi there,” the man announced. “Sorry if I startled you guys. I’d say it was unintentional, but I did kind of want to see if I could still get away with it. But it was probably rude. I’m sorry for it.”

“I didn’t sense you at all,” Flick murmured, her eyes watching the man intently. “Who are you?”

“And what are you doing here?” That was Vanessa, as she leaned up on her toes as though to look past him, searching for the person the four of them were actually waiting at this cabin for.

“Shit, sorry. Yeah, you’re probably confused and a bit lost right now,” the man realized. “Okay, introductions. First of all, Jophiel sent me. I’m supposed to make sure things are copacetic here. I guess you could call me the acceptable loss if there’s a problem. But that’s okay, I’m pretty used to being in that position.” He extended a hand to them. “The name’s Orion.”

That made everyone in the group do a sudden double-take. Tabbris was the first to blurt, “Orion?! Like… like… Mama’s Orion? But–but… but…”

With an easy smile, the man, Orion apparently, nodded to her. “Yup, that Orion. And yeah, Sariel and I were… friends. Pretty good friends, actually. At least for a little while. I liked her. Still do, from what I’ve heard. She’s a good woman. Strong woman. And it looks like she had some really good kids.”

Biting her lip with a glance toward her siblings and friend, Vanessa then looked back to the man. “You said… friends. So you guys–I mean, the myths said… and Uncle Apollo…”

Orion’s head shook. “Nope, we weren’t like that. Just friends. Maybe with a few–ahh, never mind. It’s personal. But the point is, Sariel and I were good friends for awhile. What happened between us at the end of that was… kind of personal. You should ask your mom if you want to know about it, it’s probably not my story to tell. Not without her permission, anyway.”

“But why are you here?” Tristan finally managed. “I mean, why are you working with Jophiel?”

“Now that’s a good question,” Orion confirmed. “I’m not… really working with her so much as working for her. See, I’m kind of a mercenary. Jophiel hired me because she thought my history with Sariel and Apollo would make this whole thing a little bit easier. Like I said, Sariel was my friend. I still consider her one. Her and Apollo both, even if we haven’t really… even if we haven’t exactly been close for a long time. Jophiel hired me because she knew I’d never do anything to hurt Sariel’s kids, or even be a part of anything that did. That’s why I’m here.”

“And yet,” Vanessa murmured, “you’re still okay with working for Jophiel.”

The man met her gaze. “I’ve worked for a lot worse than her, believe me. Don’t get me wrong, I have my lines I won’t cross. No children, no innocent civilians, that kind of thing. But there’s a hell of a lot of gray area between that and being a paladin of righteousness. And Jophiel’s closer to the light side of that line than you might think. Closer than plenty of others, anyway. So yeah, I’m working for her. Because her money’s good. And because I want to make sure whatever meeting you guys have goes smoothly, for Sariel and Apollo.”

“Sounds like she didn’t tell you much,” Flick noted thoughtfully, looking the man up and down.

“I didn’t ask her much,” Orion corrected. “Because I don’t need to know. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure this meeting goes smoothly, and that it’s not a trap.”

Looking over her shoulder at the elk trophy, Vanessa curiously asked, “You called that thing Cornelius. Does that mean this is your cabin? She just sent us that whistle and told us to blow it while we were all touching to come here.”

He nodded. “This is one of my places, yeah. And for the record, I put up trophies of my hunts that were the strongest, the smartest, the most impressive. I honor the creatures who have earned a place on that wall, or any of my walls. Because I want them to be remembered. Cornelius… I hunted him seventeen times. He kept getting away. That last time, I… I had him. I had him and I almost let him go. I almost let him escape again. But that would have been an insult. It would have tarnished his memory. His place of honor there, in the center, is because I respected him. His meat went to feed a hungry family. He did not die in vain, or for simple glory. But his glory will be remembered nonetheless. I will not forget him.”

The man let that settle for a few seconds before he spoke again. “And in any case, I was told to come here and meet with five people, not four. Actually, the fifth one is the reason this meeting is happening. I’m assuming you would’ve already told me if there was that big of a change, so they must be–”

It was his turn to be taken by surprise, as Gwen spoke from behind the man. “They were also making sure this wasn’t a trap.” She waited for him to turn to face her before raising an eyebrow. “It’s been a long time, Orion.“

“You guys know each other?” Flick put in before amending, “I mean, that’s not really all that surprising, I guess. But still, you know each other?”

A small smirk touched Gwen’s face. “You could say that. Arthur and his knights fought with and against him a few times. Depending on who was paying his salary at the time.” Her chin rose then. “Arthur always said that he respected you in a lot of ways. Even if there were times that he didn’t really like you. He knew you were a man of principle.”

“That’s funny,” Orion remarked with a curious look. “She said I was meeting with a woman who claimed to be the mysterious and always masked Lancelot. But here before me I see a woman who looks very much like the good king’s lovely wife, Guinevere. It does raise a few questions.”

“Questions are fun things to have,” Gwen replied easily. “But right now, all you need to know is that you can call me Lancelot. My friends may call me other things. And you can also tell us where Jophiel is. This meeting was to be with her, not someone she hired to stand in the way.”

Orion nodded at that. “I’m supposed to take you to her, just as soon as I’m convinced that you’re not a threat. Not that she’s afraid of you, per se, but… well, let’s just say everyone wants to avoid any misunderstandings.”

“Yeah,” Tristan agreed, “misunderstandings suck. So would screwing all this up. So just… what do we need to do? We brought her like Jophiel agreed to, and we’re all here. Bring her in and we’ll talk this whole thing out, huh?”

“Actually,” Orion corrected, “I’m going to be taking you guys to another place, where she’ll meet us. Or more to the point, we’re going for a walk and she’ll join in whenever she feels comfortable. So, ahhh…” Turning a bit, he gestured to the door that Gwen/Lancelot was standing in front of. “Shall we go? Up to you how you’d like to do this… Sir Lancelot.”

Giving a slight bow before stepping back through the doorway, Gwen replied simply, “After you.”

With a soft chuckle, the man stepped past her. The rest of the group followed then, as he led them out of the cabin, down the short flight of steps, and to a nearby path. The cabin was surrounded by a mountain on one side and trees on every other, aside from that single, narrow path. It was only wide enough to travel single-file, which they did with Flick first after Orion, then Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan, with Gwen at the back of the group. They walked quietly through the dark, thick forest for a few minutes, each left with only their own thoughts. Their way was lit only by the moon and stars, and even that was only what made it through the thick canopy of leaves and branches that hung above their heads. The sounds of animals making their way through the night filled the air, though none strayed close to their path.

Finally, Flick broke the silence. “So, Orion, are you actually a… you know…”

“Am I Seosten?” the man finished for her without breaking stride or looking back to the girl. “No. I’m not. I… well, it’s a long story. Let’s just say there are a lot of very powerful, dangerous things out there that you kids don’t really have any experience with yet. Primordial things that ancient people thought of as gods. The kind of gods that were sacrificed for. A few of which would terrify even the strongest of you Heretics now. Monsters in every meaning of the word. I was an ordinary man until one of those primordial things possessed me. It made me do some pretty terrible things. Sariel and Apollo helped save me from that. I lost most of the power that being connected to it gave, but kept enough. I’m stronger, faster, I heal from almost anything, and have a few other bells and whistles. I’m not connected to a god anymore, but just the bare shadow remnants of the power it left in me is more than enough to keep me going all this time.”

He paused briefly then before adding in a somewhat softer voice, “And a bit of the hunting instinct. It’s why I have those trophies, why I’m always looking for something bigger and better to track. Because hunting, winning, that keeps the remnants of that thing content. It helps keep me… me. More me than I ever was since it possessed me, anyway.”

“Possessed you?” Tabbris piped up. “Like a Seosten?”

“Nope,” he replied. “More like… you guys read comic books? It was more like–”

“Venom,” Tristan finished for him. “It was more like Venom, wasn’t it? The Symbiote thing.”

The man nodded to that, again without looking back to them. “Gooey stuff that climbed my arm and poured itself down my throat, yeah. Fun times, let me tell you.”

“Wow, do I ever really want to hear more about that,” Flick noted with a little grimace. “You know, at some point. But now, what I’m really interested in is…” She paused, looking around expectantly for a moment before coughing. “Ah. I uhh, kind of expected Jophiel to interrupt me right there.”

“That does seem to have been a thing today,” Orion agreed casually. “But no, not yet.” Still walking, he turned his head to look over his shoulder at them. “I don’t know what kind of deal you guys have set up here, but a word of advice to the children of a woman I consider a friend… be careful. Jophiel is better than a lot of the snakes out there, but even the kindest snake is still a snake. They have instincts, and if they feel trapped… just watch yourself.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Gwen informed the man from the back of their line. “Jophiel has an arrangement with them. I’m just going to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of.”

“And I’m sure they couldn’t ask for a better mediator on their behalf,” Orion replied. “Or a guardian, if it comes down to it. I heard about your little tussle with Gabriel Ruthers. It sounds like you gave him a bit of a wake-up call about the invulnerability of the Committee.” There was a slight smile on the man’s face then, barely visible through the deep shadows they were walking in as he glanced back once more. “Reminds me of that time with the Rougarou in Paris. What year was that?”

“Seven oh three,” the woman replied. “And trust me, the look on Ruthers’ face was even better than the one that was on Albinet’s.”

Raising his hand, Tristan announced, “I hope you guys know that I have a perfect memory now, so I am not going to forget to demand that someone tell us the whole story about all this stuff you’re talking about.”

They kept walking after that, continuing on in relative silence for another five minutes before a series of flickering purple candles appeared along either side of the path, leading off into the distance.

“That’s the signal,” Orion informed them. “If I turn the candles one color, it means she should stay away. If I turn them a different color, it means the meeting is safe.” He paused then, looking straight at Gwen. “I have a professional reputation to uphold.”

“I have no intention of harming that woman,” Gwen assured him in a flat tone. “Unless she gives me a reason to believe she intends harm to these children. We’re here to negotiate.”

Considering that briefly, Orion finally nodded and leaned down to touch one of the candles. He spoke a word under his breath, and the color of the flame changed from purple to blue. A second later, its opposite on the other side of the path changed color as well, followed by the two ahead of them, and on down the line. Soon, the path was lit by blue candles.

At a wave from the man, they started walking again. Gwen took a moment to look at one of the candles herself, murmuring a soft spell to enchant a bit of glass she was holding in front of one eye. Whatever she saw assured the woman enough to let Flick and the others keep walking.

The path curved gradually, a faint blue fog filling the air to ensure that everyone present knew that it was not a natural event. Their destination appeared in front of them in the form of a clearing with a series of plush, comfortable chairs arranged in a circle, and a beautiful Seosten woman who sat at one of those chairs, sipping wine from a crystal wine glass while she watched them approach.

“Thank you for your service, Orion,” Jophiel began as soon as they had all filed into the clearing. It was lit by several glowing white balls that hung in the air, making the place as bright as a lit stadium field. “I assume there were no complications.” When the man nodded, she snapped her fingers, causing a bag of what sounded like jingling coins to appear in the hand that wasn’t holding a wine glass. A simple toss sent it into Orion’s waiting hand, before the woman spoke again. “You can leave now.”

“Here, kid.” The man passed a piece of paper to Vanessa. “You can reach me at that phone number. You know, if you ever want to talk.” With a nod to the others, he turned and walked back the way they had come. Gradually, Orion disappeared from sight.

Once he was gone, Gwen spoke up. “Hello, Jophiel.”

“Hello, Guinevere,” came the reply. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet with you, but that remains to be seen. Let’s revisit that at the end of this little tête-à-tête, shall we?” As she spoke, the woman stood, taking another brief sip from her glass.

“Of course,” Gwen agreed, her eyes watching the other woman like a hawk. “But first, why don’t we all come to this meeting? After all, you’re only one half of your party. And I’d like to speak with both of you.”

It was Jophiel’s turn to squint very slightly, clearly undecided about how all of this was going to go. The two women stared at one another in silence while Flick and the others simply stood and waited, almost forgotten. Whatever would happen next had much to do with them, but they could do little to affect it.

Finally, Jophiel relented. Setting the wine glass down on a glass table that appeared from nowhere, she gave a single nod. “Yes, we should all speak.” Turning her head, she added in the direction of the trees at the edge of the clearing, “It’s okay.”

At her words, Elisabet appeared, stepping through the trees to enter the clearing. The Spanish woman looked first to Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris, taking in the three of them before her eyes moved briefly to Flick. Once she saw that the four were there, she moved to Jophiel’s side. “Guinevere. We never had the pleasure of meeting.”

“Yes, we did,” Gwen replied simply. “You just didn’t know it.” With those words, she looked back to Jophiel. “Okay. We’re all here. And we all know the deal that you made with these kids.

“Now let’s talk about how we’re going to change it.”

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Patreon Snippets 7 (Heretical Edge)

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The following is the seventh 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. 

Theia and Gwen – Night After The Exodus

Standing in the middle of the forest, several hundred yards away from the Atherby camp, Guinevere watched the stars with her head tilted back. She had been there, motionless, for several minutes, her attention seemingly focused far away. Then, her voice cut through the silence. “You know, I’m told that technology has improved so much lately, you could take a picture and stare at that forever if you’d like. It’s pretty nifty.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation before Theia came forward out of the trees. “Theia-I knew you would notice… me. But w—I did not want to force you to acknowledge it. It… we… I can go.” She seemed nervous, fidgeting from foot to foot while her hand reached out to hold a nearby tree as though for balance and support.

Gwen blinked once at the girl, head tilting slightly. “Go? Why would I want you to go?“

Theia answered promptly. “Because you are thinking about your husband, the one who has been gone for so long.” Pausing, she added with a faint tone of uncertainty, “Aren’t you?”

With a slight smile, Gwen nodded. “Yes, but I don’t need to be alone to do that. Part of me is always thinking about him.” She beckoned with her hand then. “Hey, why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you what I was looking at.” She offered the girl a smile. “It’s okay, really.”

After another brief hesitation, Theia did so. She shuffled her way closer, stopping in front of the woman while staring at her with somewhat widened eyes and a look of almost puppy-like adoration.

Gwen started to raise her hand to point, before stopping to look at the girl curiously. “Are you okay?”

Theia’s head bobbed up and down as she nodded rapidly. “Uh huh, uh huh! Yes, yes. It’s just that… you… you’re good. You’re very good. You’re amazing, I have read about you. I heard about you. I took memory-spheres about your fighting as Lancelot. You–you are…” She stumbled over her own words, face flushed as she stammered.

Giggling despite herself, Gwen shook her head. “Hey, it’s okay. Pace yourself.” The last bit was said with a wink.

“You–” Theia stopped, head tilting. “Pace myself. You did that on purpose.” When her words were met with a silent smile, the girl started to return it, before stopping as her face fell a bit. “Pace is good. You… you are good. You are good, and Theia-I… I… am not good. I have done bad things.”  

Giving a soft sigh, Gwen reached out to carefully take the girl’s hand, using that to turn her to face the same direction before pointing up to the sky. Finally, she spoke. “You say you’ve done bad things? How do you know they were bad?”

Theia was quiet briefly before she answered. “Pace. Pace and Miss Abigail and Miranda. They showed me. They helped me. I don’t want to hurt them. They are my fr-friends.” Her voice cracked at that word, as though just saying it made her terrified that her deceased mother would somehow come back and take those friends away.

“They are more than friends. They are my…” And then she stopped talking. Because if saying friends was difficult for the girl to get out, the word that had sprung to her mind just then was impossible. Because they could not possibly be that word, because that word had always rejected her. That word had sent her away, had tortured her, had destroyed her in so many ways.

If she used it here, if she tried to claim these people as… as… that and it was rejected, she might never recover. A fear of that rejection deep in her heart stopped her from using the word even now, away from them.

Gwen spoke softly. “They helped you see right from wrong, good from bad. They help you see that you’ve done bad things. And now that you know that, you regret those things? You feel bad about them?“

Theia nodded, and Gwen smiled. “Good. Remember that feeling. Use it to be a better person. Because you are better, Theia. Don’t let your mother or your father or your people or even your condition dictate what kind of person you are. Don’t let anyone turn you into something you don’t want to be. You feel bad about the things that you did? Good, make up for them. Do good things. But do them because you want to. Do them because you want to be a better person.”

After the two stood there in silence for a few seconds, Theia murmured a soft, “I thought you would want to kill me, for being one of them. A bad one.”

Head shaking, Gwen replied, “I don’t need to kill the girl who did those things, Theia. It sounds to me like your friends already did that.”

They stood there like that in silence for a few seconds before Gwen lifted her hand. “Now look right up here, I’ll show you the constellation that Arthur made up.

“He named it Chadwick and Chickee.”

******

Bastet, Aylen, and Sonoma – One Year Ago

 

“And of course we have extensive contacts in over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada,” the man who had introduced himself as Tyson Larrington announced to the slender, diminutive Native American woman and her daughter, both of whom sat on the couch opposite the chair he had been invited to use. All three were in a pleasantly and warmly decorated living room, pictures on the nearby television and mantle showing times throughout the young girl’s life from being a baby to her current age of sixteen. Some of the pictures also showed the woman who sat beside her, while others had a different woman, with pale skin and hair that was so light it was almost white.

It was that woman who entered the room then. And from the looks of her, she very well might have come through a time warp. The pale woman wore an old green house dress and an apron, looking as though she was coming straight from the 1950s. She even carried a tray of delicious-smelling cookies.

“Well now,” Bastet replied to the man pleasantly while holding that tray of cookies, “that does sound very interesting, Mr. Larrington. This… ahhh… dear me, I’m just being as forgetful as an old rooster on Easter. What did you say the name of this school that you want to take our Aylen to was?”

“Crossroads Academy,” the Heretic promptly answered. “And I assure you, should you allow your daughter to come to our school, she will be in the best of hands. Our faculty and equipment are top of the line.”

Head bobbing easily, Bastet replied, “Oh, I’m sure everything there is cutting edge. Cookie?” she offered with a bright, winsome smile that could have come from a catalogue during the Eisenhower administration. 

“Thank you, ahhh, Mrs. Tamaya.” Larrington took the offered treat from the tray, turned it over in his hands, and then took a bite. That he managed to swallow the whole thing without betraying a reaction when, contrary to its amazing scent, the thing tasted almost exactly like dirty tree bark was quite a testament to his poker face.

Bastet smiled broadly. “Oh, it’s just Bess, Mr. Larrington. Sonoma here, she’s Mrs. Tamaya. I took her name when we… ah, broke Adam‘s covenant to be together instead of with a man.” She spoke the last bit in a stage-whisper, as though it was positively scandalous.

Sonoma cleared her throat, speaking up for the first time in the past few minutes. “Sorry, Bess has these little sayings and… ahem… whatnot because she grew up in a small, isolated religious…”

“Cult,” Bastet supplied cheerfully. “Yes, it was an extremist doomsday cult. Very dark. So much gloom and ranting. Boy, I could tell you stories about those people. And I don’t mean just the normal Bible thumping. They went all the way, yessir. It was just scary, you know what I mean? They were right off the deep end. Believed everyone who wasn’t exactly like them was evil and had to be killed. That’s right, killed. If you didn’t look and think exactly like them…” She drew a line across her throat with a finger and made a dramatic cutting sound. “You didn’t deserve to live. Crazy racist psychopaths.”

Letting that sit for a brief moment, she plastered another broad smile on her face. “Oh, but do tell us more about this wonderful school of yours. It sounds just delightful.” Her hands lifted the tray toward him. “Another cookie?”

Quickly demurring as politely as possible, Larrington cleared his throat. “Aylen, we like to get an idea of how the prospective student feels before bringing them in. I know this is a lot to ask, to be away from your mothers for so long when you seem so close. Does this sound like something you would be interested in?”

Shifting on the couch next to Sonoma, Aylen nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. From everything you said before, and today, I think Crossroads sounds great. I’d really like to go there.” She and the Heretic exchanged brief knowing looks, the two women clearly entirely clueless as to what their daughter could possibly be referring to.

Bastet spoke up then, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Oh, but your teachers, they’re open minded, yes?” She gestured back and forth between herself and her wife. “As you might have guessed, we are kind of accustomed to a bit of ahhh, unpleasantness from certain sects. And not just my own family either. If she goes to your school, we want to be sure they’re not going to teach her to be hateful and prejudiced. I mean, these are teenagers, with such moldable minds. Can you imagine if the wrong people got a hold of them and started teaching them such awful, violent things?” She gave a visible shudder then, shaking her head. “No, I’m afraid we will definitely need assurances that your school is open minded about all life choices.”

If he made any connection between the truth of what his school was and her words, the man gave no indication. He simply smiled and nodded. “I promise you, Miss— ahh, Bess, Crossroads accepts students from all lifestyles, and does not discriminate based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything of the sort.”

Clearing her throat, Sonoma glanced to her wife. “Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does,” Bastet agreed amicably. “Almost too good to be true. But then, we were talking about finding a good private school…” She appeared to consider it for a moment, before glancing toward Aylen. “You’ll e-mail every day, and call as much as you can. And pick up when we call you?” Her words were firm, brooking no argument.

Giving a quick nod at that, the girl replied, “Yes, Mother. Every day.”

Sonoma smiled, putting a hand on her daughter’s before squeezing it slightly. “You better, we don’t want Bess to have to come up there if you get busy and stop talking to us.”

“Oh, I’d make a huge mess of things there,” Bastet agreed with an easy laugh. “I’d take three steps into that school and before you’d know it, the whole place would be on fire or something.”

Chuckling as well, Larrington offered them a nod. “Well, we’ll just have to be sure that your daughter stays in contact. We wouldn’t want to have to rebuild the school. I’m actually part of the second year faculty, but I can promise you that my colleagues on the year one staff will be right on top of things. I’ll make sure you have the numbers for several of them before I leave here, in case you have any more questions at any point. But ahh, I don’t want to push you too much today. Would you like me to come back later in the week to discuss this further?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Bastet assured him, winking. “We’d be foolish as a lead kite if we let you walk out of here without making sure our girl’s got her seat in that school.”

Looking just a little surprised, the man blinked once before recovering. “Ahh, yes, of course. I can grab the paperwork from my bag if you’re certain you don’t need to talk about it more. We don’t want to rush you into an important decision like this.”

“Oh, we’re not rushing at all, Mr. Larrington,” Bastet informed the man.

“We’ve been talking about doing something like this for a long time.”  

**********

 

Virginia Dare – Day After the Exodus

 

They had prepared for this. Virginia knew that. For years, they had prepared for… well, something like this, at least. Gaia had warned her that things would probably happen to take her out of commission, either for a time or…

For a time. In this case, it was for a time. She would be back. Maybe it would take awhile to recover from the drain that casting that spell had put on her and to get out of whatever deep, dark hole the Committee goons threw her into. But she would be back. In the meantime, Virginia had to help hold things together. She couldn’t think about what would happen if Gaia didn’t wake up, or if…

She couldn’t think about that. Any of it. People were counting on her to hold it together, to hold herself together. Gaia most of all. And Virginia had no intention of letting them, or her, down.

“And this is the inner ward line,” Misty, the young (relatively) Ogre Heretic announced while gesturing to a spot of seemingly empty dirt and weeds. “See that tree over there with the gnarled roots coming up? That’s one of the signs of it if you get lost. Of course, there’s six other ward lines. This is the closest one to the camp, like I said. By the time anything gets through all seven, it’ll basically be an all hands on deck situation. Kaste and Rain redo the spells once every few days just to be sure. They’ve got some kind of system for it that everyone pays energy into. So, you know, if all you guys are staying, either everyone’ll pay a lot less or the wards are gonna be a lot stronger. Probably the second one, since there’s even more to protect.”

Misty went on to explain more about the wards, and Virginia listened with half an ear. She heard everything the girl said. But she didn’t need to. Because while specifics had changed and updated with the times, the general idea of how security for the camp worked had been the same since… since she was a part of it.

The camp had moved several times since those days. But there were only so many safe locations. And it was easier to move to a spot that they knew well enough to ward properly. So, while the camp didn’t always stay in the same place, there were about six or seven possible locations that they cycled through at random, using whichever seemed best at the time of the current move. After the location was freshly vetted, of course.

But Virginia knew this location for more than just that. She knew the location because she was the one who had given it to Joshua, and through him to his father Lyell, all those years ago. Because this… this lake, was where her family had lived, where the missing Roanoke colonists had eventually settled after leaving their original landing spot. And where they had all died when the Great Evil that so desperately wanted Virginia, the first English child born on the continent. This valley, where this lake and forest lay, had been the first home that Virginia ever knew. Until that home was destroyed, her family murdered, and she herself was made an Amarok Heretic.

It was also the place where Joshua had, centuries later, proposed to her. So maybe being here now was for the best. Maybe… it was somehow right that everything that had happened would lead to her being in this place once more. Especially as it had brought most of her surviving family with it.

Her family… her beautiful, brilliant, incredibly brave daughter. Her Joselyn. Her baby girl was still locked up by that monster. But the others… her three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter were here at the camp. Even if only Felicity and Koren knew who she was, they were here. They were in the place where Virginia had grown up. And, after they’d had a bit of time to adjust to the situation and take it in, she could actually tell at least the two of them about that fact. And that knowledge, the realization that she could actually talk to Felicity and Koren about this place, had stunned her beyond understanding.

Of course, thinking about the three grandchildren she had here at the camp reminded Virginia of the one who was not there. The one who would never be there, because she had…

No choice. She’d had no choice. Except that was a lie, because she did have a choice. She could have allowed Ammon to fulfill his plan. She could have sacrificed her oldest granddaughter, as well as Avalon, Vanessa Moon, and the other people in the stadium in order to ensure that no one found out she was related to him. That would have been the coldest thing to do. But it also would have been the thing that best protected the world at large from Fomorian invasion. It was what some would have chosen. Risking that again by allowing Felicity and Koren to learn her identity had been… selfish in some ways. She couldn’t actually say that her actions weren’t at least somewhat motivated by wanting someone in her family to know her. And the idea of letting Abigail and the others die to keep that secret had felt impossible.

It was a choice she stood by, and would have made again. But it had been so dangerous. And now they were here at the camp. At the village of her childhood, her first real home. How dangerous was that, and for how many reasons?

But Virginia had experience in keeping such things to herself. Her eyes, her expression, revealed none of those thoughts. Just as they betrayed none of her familiarity as Misty led her onward through the tour of a place that she had known like the back of her hand a hundred years before the girl’s great-grandparents had likely even been born. She feigned cluelessness as she was led through the camp, passing so many landmarks from her past. Some good. Many bad. All evoking thoughts and emotions that stayed deeply buried.

Much had happened in such a short time. Gaia was imprisoned. The revolution was back on. People were remembering many things they had been forced to forget. The war would soon be in full swing once more. But through it all, something else had also happened.

Virginia Dare was home.

******

Sean – Several Months Ago

 

Standing just outside his room at Crossroads Academy, Sean Gerardo closed his eyes and put a hand on the head of his constant companion. Vulcan made a soft noise in the back of his throat that was half-whine and half-question.

“I know, buddy,” Sean murmured. But he didn’t move. How could he do this? How could he just… just sleep in the same room as Columbus when he knew that that Seosten bitch was puppeting him? The thought of it, the thought that his friend was being toyed with, was being enslaved by that… that…

Calm down. He had to calm down. Luckily, he didn’t have to do that by himself. Reaching into a pocket, the boy retrieved a small silver coin. With a whispered word, he pressed the coin to his own arm to activate the spell that had been inscribed into it.

The effect was instantaneous, and Sean felt himself calming. His emotions settled a bit. According to Nevada, who had enchanted it, the spell would help settle him, dulling his emotions somewhat. And beyond simply dulling them, it would also help to mask the emotions he was giving off for anyone who was sensitive to that kind of thing. That way, there was less chance of the Seosten inside of Columbus noticing that something was wrong.

Even then, the boy had to take a few more deep breaths to prepare himself before setting his shoulders. Cracking his neck, he strode that way with Vulcan at his side and pushed the door open to step into the room he shared with his best friend.

And with the monster who had taken over his body and was enslaving him, apparently.

Columbus was in the room already, sitting at his desk doing some kind of homework. Or rather, the monster that was–

He had to stop thinking about that, it was just going to make him angry again, spell or no spell.

“Hey, dude,” Columbus idly waved with a pencil while focusing on the paper in front of him. “Sup?”

Speaking past the thick lump in his throat, Sean forced out, “Nada.” Jerking a thumb to his own bed, he added, “Gonna crash. You wanna hit the gym first thing?”

“Yeah, sure, wake me up,” Not-Columbus replied with what sounded like vague disinterest, ‘his’ attention already mostly focused on his paper once more.

Good enough. Turning back to his bed, Sean walked that way, patting the side of it until Vulcan hopped up to take his place at the foot. With one last glance toward his enslaved friend, Sean hit the button to plunge his side of the room into darkness as the privacy shield rose around him. Only then did he slump, falling onto the bed before muffling a scream against the pillow. Not that it would have mattered. With the privacy shield up, he could bellow at the top of his lungs and Columbus wouldn’t hear him.

He lay there on his bed, staring at the ceiling, for a few minutes. Sleep. He was supposed to sleep now. Even with his emotions dulled and masked, how could he do that? And for how long? How long was he supposed to sleep in the same room with… with that thing in his best friend in this place?

He had to. He had to keep the ruse going, for as long as it took. If he didn’t, if he changed rooms, if he did anything to let on that he knew, it could ruin everything. And then he might never get Columbus back at all.

Honestly, Sean was really starting to hate the Seosten Empire.

******

Croc – Night of the Exodus

 

As his enormous hand closed around the face of the screaming, cursing man who had come charging into the center of the tree, the Unset known as Croc heaved the man up and backward with barely a thought and less of an effort. The intruder, a Heretic from the Remnant Guardians tribe, continued his violent swearing until the back of his head collided with the wall. Then he slumped, his unconscious body dropping as Croc let it go.

“Whose side was he on?” The question came from another of the Unset. Counting Croc himself, there were eleven of the tribeless ones here, guarding the way up to where the Victors lived. All held their assortment of weapons or readied powers. And most looked as though they didn’t know whether to point those weapons to any potential intruders… or to each other. Glares of suspicion, dislike, and open hostility had replaced the camaraderie and trust that had been there only an hour earlier.

An hour earlier… before the spell that had revealed the truth to everyone.

“It doesn’t matter whose side he was on,” Croc replied flatly, his eyes snapping from one group of five to the second group of five. Was it fate that he had ended up with groups of equal size right here, right now? Five who had been part of the rebellion or at least agreed and sympathized with it in the case of the two who were too young to have been involved, and five who had and did not agree with it. Equal groups, both separated to either side of the stairway they were all supposed to be guarding.

“Doesn’t it?” That was Sabie, one of the loyalist group. The muscular dark-skinned woman squinted at Croc. “You were one of the traitors back in the day.”

Threefold, the short Asian man who appeared to speak for those on the other side, snapped, “You mean he wasn’t a fascist piece of shit who wanted to kill everyone who wasn’t human. And who–oh, by the way, supported a group that wanted to use a blood curse to enslave everyone who didn’t agree with them.”

Stop.” It was a simple word, but Croc put power into it. Literally, in this case. Power that knocked both groups back a step. His eyes moved from one set of five to the other before he spoke again. “All of you listen to me. It’s chaos out there. We can all hear it. We can see it. We can sense it. Everyone is fighting. It’s a war over the whole tree. Tribes are fighting tribes, fighting themselves, fighting… brother against brother. Families, friends, people who have lived together for decades are at each other’s throats. And everyone is caught in this.”

“What’s your point?” Sabie demanded. “It’s just your people causing shit again when they should have left well enough alone.”

One of the other group behind Threefold tried to snap a retort, but Croc spoke first. “The point is that both sides have things to lose. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what side you’re on. Do you want this war to happen right now, right here? Do you want it to happen in the tree, with all the civilians and students around? Agree with them or not, they are your family, your friends, your fellow people. Stop throwing punches and insults and look at each other. You know each other. Whatever decisions were made back then, they weren’t made by us. We have worked with each other for decades. You’ve trusted each other. You’ve trusted me. And I trust you. All of you. But I swear to the roots, if any of you raise a hand to each other until after we deal with this situation, I will throw you off the goddamn tree. Is that understood?”

There was a brief pause before Threefold asked, “… Until we deal with it?”

Croc gave a slight nod. “Yes. Because that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to work together. We are going to get the other Unset, and we are going to calm things down. The Victors can take care of themselves. We are going to protect the tree, and everyone on it, by putting a stop to the fighting. We will make our way from branch to branch. We will separate everyone, and those who choose to leave will be allowed to do so uncontested. Later, both groups can debate, argue, fight, whatever they want. Both groups can kick each other’s asses to their hearts content… later. But they will not do it now, and they will not do it here. We will drag them apart and let the ones who want to leave do just that.

“We do not pick sides. If you want to choose a side after today, you can feel free. But right now, we are Unset. We protect the tree and everyone on it. No matter their side, no matter their choices, no matter what they have done in the past or may do in the future. We protect them. We drag them off each other, stop the fighting, and let them leave if they choose to. Now does anyone have a problem with that?

“No? Good. Then let’s get busy.”

*******

Gavin And Stephen – Night of the Exodus

 

“They’re gone, man,” Stephen muttered while sitting on his bed in the room that he shared with his teammate. The only teammate he had left in fact, the only one who hadn’t left. He and Gavin, along with the rest of the student body, had been ordered to stay in their rooms until told otherwise. He was pretty sure there were extra locks on the door, and spells to keep them there.

Gavin nodded. The tall boy, his height and relative thinness at odds with Stephen’s own short stockiness, ran his hands back through his hair while muttering several curses. “I know, man. They all left. They all left. What the hell?”

Grabbing his nearby pillow before throwing it angrily against the nearest wall, Stephen blurted, “You really think Shiori’s one of them? A… a monster?”

Gavin open his mouth to retort before stopping. He made a noise deep in his throat before shaking his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s all so screwed up. I mean, she’s not, right? I mean she’s not a monster. It’s just Shiori. She can’t be a monster.”

“She’s got a human parent, right?” Stephen offered. “Maybe that makes it so she’s not evil? That could work, could not? Being half human. If having a monster parent could make someone evil, then having a human parent could make them good just as easily. Isn’t that how it should work?”

Once more, Gavin groaned. “I don’t know. What about this whole rebellion thing? It’s like… they’re trying to protect monsters? They’re trying to work with them? I don’t get it. Why would they work with things that eat people?”

Putting his head in his hands, Stephen was quiet for a moment. “It’s not just Shiori. Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca left too. They’re gone. Did they join the bad guys? Are we the bad guys? We’re not the bad guys, right?” His tone was pleading as he walked toward his roommate and friend.

Gavin’s voice was soft. “They wanted to make a blood plague to enslave everyone on the other side. I’m pretty sure whatever side we’re on, it’s not the one with the angels on it. But I mean, the other side can’t be exactly right either, right? Working with things that eat people. How do they know that those things can just stop doing that? How do they know…” He trailed off, shaking his head helplessly. “Fuck, man, I don’t know.”

Stephen sighed before straightening. “Okay, how about this. We know our team, right? We know them. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. And we know Shiori’s not a monster. Whatever else is going on, we know she’s not evil. So we try to talk to them. We get them to understand that this whole rebellion thing isn’t going to work. We can change things here. Maybe there’s people like Shiori who shouldn’t be lumped in with the evil ones. I don’t know. But this rebellion thing, that’s just going to screw everything up. So we talk to them. We get them to understand that.”

“What about the people on this side who wanted to use a blood curse?” Gavin asked. “That sounds pretty unequivocally evil to me.”

Stephen nodded. “Yeah, and that’s why we have to change things here. You have to get into the leadership. You have to work in the structure. Everyone who isn’t hardcore kill everything just pissing off to go join the rebellion only leaves the people who are. And then both sides are just going to fight until they kill each other.”

“So what do we do?” Gavin asked.

Stephen met his gaze. “I dunno. I… fuck, I don’t know.

“But I’m pretty sure, whatever we do, a lot of people are going to get hurt.”

*******

Erin Redcliffe – Night of the Exodus

 

Erin was hurt. Physically and emotionally, in fact. Emotionally because she had woken up from a deep sleep only to be bombarded by a tsunami of information magically shoved into her head that completely turned her entire worldview upside down. And the people who had shoved that information in there, the people who were responsible for changing everything she thought she knew about the world, were already gone.

She had left her room upon taking in all that life-changing information, only to find that anyone she could have talk to about it had left. Vanessa, her roommate, was gone. They left her here asleep.

That was another reason for her emotional pain, being left behind like that. And as for her physical pain, that came from the fact that she had punched the wall hard enough to put a hole in it after being basically shoved back into her room by a passing teacher and told her to stay there. Like a prisoner. They were treating everyone who was left like prisoners.

The fact that she was alone in this room only reminded the girl that she had been left behind. It reminded her that she had been roommates with Vanessa for almost an entire year and had never been talked to about any of this. No one had trusted her, had even thought about her, enough to broach the subject at all.

That wasn’t fair. She knew that. It would’ve been dangerous to do something like that. But knowing things logically didn’t get rid of her feelings. Especially when she had nobody to talk to.

What was she supposed to do now? With everything that had been shoved into her head, did she really believe what she’d been taught her whole life? And even if she didn’t, what could she do about it? She didn’t know where Vanessa, Professor Dare, and all those other people had gone. She wouldn’t have the first clue of how to find them.

Her dad. She needed to talk to her dad. He had been around when that rebellion from Flick’s mother was going on. Had he been a part of it? Had he been opposed to it? And how would she feel either way? Whatever, it hardly mattered now. She had tried to call him, as well as Vanessa. Neither call went anywhere. They were being jammed, communications with the outside world blocked.

If her father was part of the rebellion, was he again now that his memories were back? Wait, what were the Crossroads people going to do about students whose families were suddenly part of the rebellion again? What if her dad was part of the rebellion and now they wouldn’t let him come get her?

She was trapped here, trapped in this room where she had no chance to talk to anyone, or to understand anything. No one would say anything to her. They just shoved her in here, locked the door, and let her pace around punching walls while wondering what she was supposed to believe now.

She would have gone with them. Erin knew that. Whatever she believed, she would have gone with Vanessa and the others if she had been there. But she wasn’t. She was asleep. And now she was trapped here.

Gripping her short blue hair with both hands, Erin groaned while nearly ripping it out in frustration. She had to get out of here. She had to find the others, talk to her dad, and figure out what was going on. But most of all, she couldn’t stay here anymore. Not with what she had learned, with the information that had been shoved into her head. She couldn’t stay here. She didn’t believe in Crossroads anymore.

And what was going to happen when the people here figured that out?

******

Jessica Trent – Night of the Exodus

 

“Excuse me?” An elderly woman, speaking hesitantly as she stepped out of the small, almost cottage-like house set on the corner of a small, unassuming street in a town somewhere in Falls Church, Virginia, stared at the figure who had been standing in front of her house for the past thirty minutes.

If the figure had been a man, she might have called the police. She was still thinking about it. But looking out her window to see this woman in what appeared to be her early twenties staring at her house for so long without moving had made her more curious than frightened.

The woman had deeply tanned skin, as if she spent most of her time outside in the sun. Her hair was black and cut mostly short with one longer part on the left side that formed a braid. Her eyes were dark blue, to the point of almost being black, and a single jagged scar across her left cheek from her jawline up just under her eye and across her nose marred an otherwise stunningly beautiful face.

After hesitating just a moment upon getting a good look at that scar in the streetlight, the older woman approach. She walked carefully down her front sidewalk, her voice gentle. “Sweetie, do you need something? Would you like me to call somebody? Are you okay?” The lost, broken look in the woman’s eyes had raised every maternal instinct that Bethany Sweetwalker had.

Finally meeting her gaze, the scarred woman quickly shook her head. Though she tried to keep her voice light, it was obvious that she was barely holding it together. “No, no, I’m fine. I just… I’m sorry. My name is Jessica Trent. I… I used to live here.”

Blinking at that, Bethany replied, “Well, you must have been quite young at the time. You don’t look a day over twenty-one, and I’ve lived here for twenty years.”

Jessica gave her a soft, genuine smile that the scar did nothing to diminish. “I am older than I look,” she replied simply. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry. I was just hoping that, if it’s not too much of an imposition, I might look around for a minute? I could pay you for the trouble.”

Bethany’s head shook. “Oh nonsense. If you’d like to see your old childhood home, who am I to stand in the way? You come right on inside, and take all the time you need. I warn you, it’s a little bit of a mess. I don’t get visitors very much since the grandchildren moved to Idaho.”

Jessica followed the woman inside, stepping into the small living room. The second she did so, more of the memories that had already been flooding her mind for hours came rushing in.

She saw him, the man with incredibly fine blue and white tiger-striped fur, and large eyes as green as the forest. She saw him, and knew his name.

Xhan. The man she loved. The man she had devoted her life to for over thirty years. The man whose child she had eventually borne.

Moving through the living room and into the nearby kitchen, before glancing through the two small bedrooms and single bathroom, Jessica remembered all the years spent here in this house with her husband and their son, Sergei. Everywhere she looked, in every corner of every room, another memory of their life here together made itself known. They had been happy here, a tiny family living together in this small house. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for them. It was all they needed.

And then it had been taken away, in a way none of them could have protected themselves from. The spell that erased Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion had erased all of Jessica‘s memories of her family. Her husband and son were ripped from her mind entirely. For decades, she had been back at Crossroads, helping to fight and kill people like her husband and child because her mind had been violated.

For the Crossroads Committee, it had not been enough to make her stop fighting them. They had ripped her choices away, had ripped her family away and completely erased them. They had turned her into a murderer against her will. They erased her choices and destroyed everything she had built.

She had no idea where Xhan and Sergei were, or if they were even alive. And they would not remember her any more than she had remembered them until this moment, until the spell came that restored all of it to her. The spell had only restored her own memories, not theirs. They had no reason to come find her, because they had no idea who she was. If they were alive, she had no idea where to find them, or even how to look. They could be anywhere in the world, or on any world. It was a search that could very well be utterly doomed on the face of it. They had decades worth of a head start, and no reason to know she was looking.

They were gone, and she had no idea how to find them.

She stood there, fists clenched as tears fell freely down her face. Eventually, Bethany quietly asked, “Sweetie, are you sure you don’t want me to call somebody?”

“No,” Jessica replied in a flat voice. Her eyes opened and she looked to the kind, elderly woman who was actually probably several decades younger than her. “Thank you, but this was a mistake. There’s nothing here for me. I’ll leave you alone.”

After a brief hesitation, Bethany reached out to touch her arm. “I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“So do I,” Jessica agreed. “But I’m afraid it might be gone forever.”

“Oh dear,” Bethany urged, “You have to keep hope. If you don’t have hope, what’s left?”

Jessica answered without looking at the woman. Her gaze was focused on the corner of the living room where she could see her husband and son comparing their height marks on the wall. Her response was a single, definitive word that filled her body and soul. It was an answer, but also a promise, a solemn vow.

“Revenge.”

******

 

Marina Dupont – Night of the Exodus

 

“Marina, would you go get the Bluejay group and bring them to the main room?”

For a moment, Marina Dupont stared at the woman who was speaking. The older Heretic, a woman named Kelly, was the only adult besides Marina (herself only technically an adult by being nineteen) who was still here in what was called the Nest. That was the word used for the daycare/school/orphanage where all the young children from toddlers all the way up to twelve years old stayed while their parents were busy… or gone permanently.

“The Bluejays?” Marina echoed. That was the nickname of the six year olds. Every age group had bird names, up to the twelve-year-olds, who were called Owls. “You want me to go get the kids? What about everything that just happened? What about everything that just popped into our heads? You know what it means?”

A rebellion. There had been a full-scale rebellion against Crossroads, against the idea of killing all beings who weren’t human. People believed that there were good Strangers. They actually believed that. They believed it to the point of going to war about it, until that rebellion had been erased.

And it was Flick’s group who restored those memories, or instilled them in those who were too young, like Marina herself. Everything that had happened over the year, all the students whom Marina was supposed to mentor that had disappeared or died, this had something to do with that. She knew it. She didn’t know how, but it had to be related in some way. All those secrets they had been keeping, it was about this. They believed that Strangers weren’t all evil, and they were afraid of how she would react to that idea. That was why they were so secretive around her. They didn’t hate her. They were just being careful. For good reason.

Kelly, a woman who would have appeared to be in her late forties as a Bystander, interrupted Marina’s thoughts. “Yes, I know what it means. It means that we are going to have a lot of parents coming to grab their children. We need to get everyone into the meeting room so we can work out which ones are safe to release.”

Blinking in confusion, Marina asked, “What do you mean, safe to release? If their parents come to get them, shouldn’t we just let them go? I mean, they’re their parents.”

Kelly’s head shook. “Only once they’ve been cleared by the Committee as not being traitors. Listen to me, we are not going to send impressionable, innocent children home with parents or other family members who are traitors. Besides, having their children means they’ll come and talk. It might head off a big part of any violence if they can be told to surrender for their kids, okay?” When Marina slowly nodded in understanding, the woman gave her a smile. “Good, now go get the Bluejays, I’m going to make sure—”

In mid-sentence as she turned to look down the hall, the woman was suddenly cut off by the feel of Marina’s hand against her neck, a coin clutched between her fingers. She tried to react, but Marina spoke the incantation first, sending a powerful sleep spell into Kelly that dropped her to the floor.

She wouldn’t be out long, maybe ten minutes. That was the best that Marina could hope for. Quickly, the girl went down to one knee and searched through the woman’s pocket until she found a large blue key. The field trip key, as people here in the Nest called it. It worked on a single door that would transport them to any of several dozen locations across the world.

Clutching the key in one hand, Marina jumped up and ran to the Bluejay hall.  Over the next minute or so, she gathered each of the ten children who fell into that category and ushered them with her to the main room where everyone else was already waiting. There were over sixty kids in there, most of them sitting around chattering about the coolness of being up in the middle of the night, or sleeping on the floor or in chairs. A few looked confused or even scared. All of them looked up as she entered with the other group, some blurting some variation of, “Miss Marina! What’s going on?”

Taking a breath, Marina held up the key. “Everyone get your buddy. We’re going on a trip.”

Danny, a young boy just over nine, raised his hand. “A trip? But we’re supposed to be sleeping. Where’s Miss Kelly? What’s going on?”

Forcing a smile on to her face, Marina put a finger to her lips. “Shh. It’s a surprise. Come on guys, you’ll like it, I promise. We’re going to have an adventure.”

She turned then, leading them to the field trip door. She had no idea where she was going to take them. But she knew one thing, she was not going to let either side of this war use children against each other. Every child’s parent, no matter what side they were on, would be able to come pick them up from wherever she took them. She was not going to be party to that kind of evil. Rebel or loyalist, they could all claim their offspring, siblings, or whatever.

There would be consequences, of course. She knew that. She’d known it from the moment she made the decision to knock Kelly out. She would probably be labeled a traitor herself for doing that. But Marina didn’t care. She didn’t care how anyone saw her, or what they did to her for it. All she cared about was stopping these kids from being turned into pawns for this war.

No one was going to use children as hostages. Not this time.

Not if she had anything to say about it.

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