Haiden Moon

Interim Incursion 43-01 (Columbus)

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To be honest, Columbus was pretty sick of the Seosten Empire at this point.

Everything he learned about them, everything he heard from others about their monstrous actions in their war against the Fomorians, all the lows they were willing or eager to sink to, all of it just made him want to find the people in charge of their society and beat them until he couldn’t swing his fists anymore.

But that was the problem. He couldn’t do that, or it just wouldn’t accomplish anything. They were so far outside his league that he might as well have been a fly dreaming about upper cutting a human being. Their leadership, the ones actually responsible for all of this, were untouchable.

At least… directly. But he could screw with their plans. He could be a fly that buzzed in their ear at the right moment and ruined what they were trying to do. Even if he couldn’t take them on directly, he could hurt them. He could help fuck over those sadistic, enslaving bastards with every breath he had.

That was why he had to be a part of this. A mission that would stop the Seosten from enslaving Heretics here on Earth? Yes. Yes, he was all over that. If the headmistress or other adults had tried to keep them out of it… he didn’t know what he would have done, but he definitely would not have sat out and done nothing. The Seosten had been fucking with him and people he cared about for too long, to say nothing of how long they had been fucking with the human race in general. Columbus was going to help kick them in the collective balls, come hell or high water.

“Hey.” Shiori’s voice pulled him out of his introspection. “You okay?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around. They were sitting in the back of a van. They, in this case, referred to himself, his sister, and Avalon, Doug, Sean, Sands, and Scout. The rest of his team aside from Flick. In the front of the van, Larissa was driving, with Haiden beside her.

“Am I okay?” he echoed while turning his gaze back to Shiori. “It’s a chance to fuck over the Seosten. Yeah, I’m good.”

Sean, sitting in the seat behind them, leaned up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Damn straight. We’re going to teach these caremondas that their puppets don’t like having their strings pulled anymore.”

From his place beside Sean, Doug murmured, “I just hope we get there soon. I really can’t take much more of this waiting.”

They had to drive to the vault’s location because Crossroads did not allow any special transportation anywhere near it. No teleportation, no superspeed, no portals, nothing. They had the whole place locked down tight. Not only that, there was some kind of special spatial affect around it that made traveling to the vault physically several times longer than it should be. That allowed the people inside plenty of time to see who was coming and prepare if there was trouble. They had to travel along a deceptively simple looking dirt road for miles and miles just to get there.

From the driver’s seat, Larissa apparently heard Doug, because she called back, “Five minutes, guys. We’re almost there.”

Five minutes. They would be there in five minutes. Taking a breath, Columbus turned to look behind them. The second van was coming along right on their heels. Gaia and Dare sat in the front of that one, the latter driving. Sariel was in the back, along with Apollo, Dries Aken, and a handful of the freed Seosten who had agreed to come with and help.

Dries hadn’t been any more comfortable being around all those Seosten than Columbus would have been. But he was still working with Apollo and Sariel to discuss various things they might be able to do to change Liesje’s spell once they got hold of it. If they got hold of it. As well as discussing what defenses she might have put on it in addition to what was provided by the vault. Given their dramatically shortened timetable thanks to the Seosten making their move early, everyone was scrambling to be ready.

The rear van would also appear to be much emptier than it actually was, as far as the vault’s security was concerned. Apparently, just like Crossroads itself, the automated part of the security, the spells and technology that let the staff know who and how many were approaching, were blind to Seosten unless they chose to be seen. It was the same weakness, built into their society from the ground up, that had allowed Charmiene to wander freely through the school grounds without alerting anything.

They wouldn’t be invisible to actual people once they left the van, but that wouldn’t be a problem by that point.

Looking toward Avalon then, he saw the distracted look on her face. She was clearly busy worrying about what was going on with Flick. Just like Shiori, who was occupying herself by asking how he was doing.

“Hey,” Columbus spoke up toward Avalon, “you ready to see what your ancestor left for you?” An incredibly blatant and obvious attempted to draw her attention away from worrying about her girlfriend, of course. But obvious was all Columbus had at that point.

The girl took a moment, letting out a long breath while pushing a strand of dark hair back behind her ear with a thumb. “I just want to get this over with. Those assholes have been hunting my family for literally generations. They killed my mother. They… this needs to end.” Her voice was strained, making it perfectly clear just how much this was affecting her. As if it hadn’t been just from the look in her eyes.

“It will.” That was Scout, speaking up quietly from her place beside her sister. “We’re ending it.”

Sands nodded. “And Flick’ll be okay. She’s with Athena, remember?”

“Actually,” Columbus put in, “that reminds me, at what point do the Seosten leaders ask themselves why both the Olympian who embodies strategy and tactics and the one most associated with seeing the future decided the best way to beat the Fomorians was to change their entire society through civil war?”

Doug muttered, “I’m pretty sure if the Seosten leaders were capable of asking themselves introspective questions like that, Earth would’ve been cordially invited to join the Seosten Interstellar Alliance of Planets two and a half thousand years ago.”

The van pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a simple farm. But from the extensive briefings they’d been given, Columbus knew better. The farmhouse itself was where the lobby and offices of the vaults were. They had to go there first to check in and be taken through security procedures to ensure that they were who they said they were. The nearby barn held all the heavy duty equipment that would be brought out if anyone tried to take the vaults by force. Not every vault under their control was a blood vault. Those were extremely specialized and rare. There were many items under their protection that relied on ‘normal’ security measures.

As Columbus understood it, most of the vaults, blood or otherwise, weren’t even actually located anywhere near this place. It was just that the only entrances to get to them, through continually active portals of sorts, were kept here. The vaults themselves could be anywhere in the world, normally heavily buried and protected by a myriad of spells. Or even in their own little pocket dimension.

The way to those vault entrances was through the grain silo. It was an elevator of sorts, according to Gaia and Larissa. Once they were cleared by the staff in the house, they would be taken to the silo.

The other van pulled in behind them, and Columbus started to get out with the others. He glanced over to Shiori, hesitating. Even just glancing at her now, months after he had been freed, the boy couldn’t get Charmiene’s threats out of his head. Everything she had promised to do to hurt his sister. Everything she would have done given half an excuse, still haunted him. He couldn’t stop hearing her voice. He woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and had to get up just to prove to himself that he could. Sean had woken up more than once to find Columbus slapping himself, using the pain and the motion of his arm to convince himself that he was still in control.

Talking to Klassin Roe helped, but the nightmares were nowhere near going away. Maybe this right here would help. Maybe fucking over the Seosten this much would give him some kind of closure.

Shiori had clearly noticed him looking, because if she met his gaze and managed a slight smile despite her obvious worry. “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing right now?”

“Hiking,” Columbus immediately replied. “They’re definitely hiking. And Mom is taking pictures while Dad complains that she’s already got hundreds of them. Mom will see some bird or something that she wants that perfect picture of, so they’ll  go wandering off the trail. But it’s okay because they’ve been all over that place so much they know it better than the rangers. They’ll wander out there. Dad’ll complain but he’ll go anyway because he can never really tell her no. He’ll make a big show of it and pretend to be lost. But then he’ll lead her to some picnic spot he set up ahead of time.”

He paused then, head tilting. “Mom and Dad are kind of dorks, aren’t they?“

Snorting, Shiori retorted, “Duh, have you met us?”

Her smile was more genuine then. “I helped him set up picnics sometimes.”

Columbus grinned back at her despite himself. “I helped Mom decide what exotic bird she’d pretend to see as an excuse to go off the trail. I’m pretty sure Dad caught on when we started using South American birds.”

The others had climbed out by that point. Everyone from their van was stretching in the parking lot. But from the other van, only Gaia and Dare emerged. The Seosten, still invisible to any detection magic, stayed in the vehicle. And Apollo had ensured that no one glancing that way from outside the van would see anything amiss.

Cracking her knuckles, Professor Dare waved a hand, calling, “Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road.”

Rather than immediately start in with the others, Columbus hesitated a moment, scanning their faces. He wanted to see if he could notice when it happened. Because those words had been a signal for the Seosten in the van. Immediately, they would have recalled to Gaia, Dare, Doug, Sands, Scout, and Sean, having possessed them earlier just to make this possible.

Shiori and Avalon could not be possessed, and Columbus, for obvious reasons, had chosen not to. So it was simply those four who now had an extra passenger.

They could have simply been possessing them the entire time, of course. But for obvious reasons, everyone was more comfortable being possessed for as short of a time as possible. Besides, though it was mainly a Dries/Sariel/Apollo project, the other Seosten still wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to fix the spell when they found it. After all, it affected their people.

But even knowing it was about to happen, and watching for it, he still couldn’t tell exactly when his teammates were possessed. Which somehow made him feel even worse about the whole situation even though the obvious point was that they weren’t actually exerting any control, thus there was nothing to see.

With a soft sigh then, he followed the others toward the house. Dries would be waiting in the van while using some kind of magic to make himself as invisible to detection spells as the latter. Between that and Apollo’s magic on the van itself to thwart anyone glancing through the windows, they would be safe there until things went down.

Two elderly men, guards apparently, sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. As the group approached, one of the men spoke up. “Headmistress.”

“Chauncey,” Gaia greeted him with a smile. “How are Emma and Diane?”

The man shrugged. “Emma’s chomping at the bit to head to your school next year. And Diane’s preparing a dissertation on how she should be allowed to attend too, because she’s totally at least three years more advanced for her age.” Eying the woman, he added a sly, “What do you say? You want a precocious and motivated fourteen-year-old next year to shake things up?”

Chuckling softly, Gaia informed the man that things were already quite shaken enough without help. The man expressed mock disappointment before saying something to his partner. Then he stood up and moved to the door. “Come on,” he started easily, “I’ll take you through. Using a little student help to clear out one of your old vaults? Extra credit project?”

On the way, Columbus couldn’t help but wonder what Flick was doing right then. Was she in that hotel yet? How long would they have to wait? And just how long would they be able to stop the group there from breaking into the vault through the supposed back door? Would they be enough? All those questions and more kept rebounding through his mind. And a glance toward the others made it pretty clear that they were in the same position.

The door into the ‘farmhouse’ didn’t lead into anything resembling what it appeared to from the outside. Instead, Columbus and the others found themselves standing in what actually looked like a fairly modern bank lobby. The floor was marble, while the room itself stretched out several times larger than the entire building should have been. There were various pillars leading to a wide domed roof with stained glass windows, a security station straight ahead with a handful of armed and armored soldier-like figures standing beside what looked like metal detectors, and a wider area beyond where the bank personnel were all working with various clients at desks separated by privacy shields. At the far end of the wide open room was an alcove that reached all the way to the ceiling, with an enormous statue of Hieronymus Bosch.

Yeah, Columbus was pretty sure it was a good thing Dries had stayed out in the van. Even now, every adult Heretic likely knew what the man who killed Bosch looked like. And they might object to him coming into their bank.

The ‘farmer’ who walked them in stopped by the security checkpoint desk, as he and the guards there took a minute to chat casually with Gaia. One of them even recognized Larissa and came around to embrace her tightly, going on about how much she’d helped his son back when she’d had Peterson Neal’s current job as Head of Student Affairs. The man made her promise to visit that son and his new wife at some point before turning back to the rest of them.

“Okay, let’s get you all on through here. Everyone needs to move through the checkpoint. I hope you don’t have any weapons or unauthorized magic on you, because that’ll set off the machine. It’s going to give us a list of every bit of active magic. So no weapons, no unnecessary spells, no extradimensional containers that might have weapons on them…”

“It’s quite alright,” Gaia assured the man, stepping through the machine and out the other side first with no apparent issue. “They are all well prepared for this step.”

It was true. Everyone moved through the detector without setting it off. Even Sean didn’t have Vulcan with him for once. Nor did Avalon have her new little lizard, Porthos. Columbus wasn’t even allowed to wear his goggles into the building. But all of them were… well, close.

Once they passed through the detectors, a man in an extremely old-fashioned suit with ancient-looking bifocals and an actual white powdered wig approached. “Headmistress,” he began in a voice that sounded like he was literally talking through his nose, “So very good to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’ll begin the procedure to grant access to your vaults.”

With a smile, Gaia simply replied, “I’m afraid it’s not my vaults we’ll be visiting today, Fenwick. We’ll need to access my daughter’s vault.”

Blinking twice, the man turned his head that way. “Daughter’s vault? I wasn’t aware that Miss–ahh… that your daughter had a vault with us.”

“Liesje Aken’s vault,” Gaia informed him, like she was just giving him the name of a soup brand.

That made Fenwick do a quick double-take, mouth opening. “Ah, I’m sorry? I mean… I’d heard the rumors of course, but I– if you’re saying the girl is truly… if…” He paused, clearly taking a moment to find the right words. “It will all need to be verified, of course.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied dryly, “fortunately, our blood vaults come with a very simple method of identity verification which should make that quite simple.”

Giving a soft cough, the man bowed his head. “Of course. Let us see what–” In mid-sentence, he was interrupted by an annoying buzzer. It blared loudly, followed by a series of loud clanging sounds as a series of thick metal shields descended across every door in the room, as well as the stained glass windows above. In seconds, the entire room was cut off. The rest of the staff and customers were looking around in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, their mutterings getting louder.

Fenwick cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with the security system lately. It keeps triggering the lockdown. We thought we had it fixed, but… well, I’m afraid we might be here for a little while until they sort out the new problem.”

From where he was standing by Larissa, Haiden remarked, “Sounds like you need some new engineers.”

Gaia, meanwhile, calmly asked, “Would you like some help with that?”

“Well, sure,” Fenwick quickly answered. “Of course, you probably won’t be able to do anything. The shields are spelled to be protected, and the control boxes for them are secreted in random pocket dimensions, far outside the reach of any kind of tech manipulation. Not to mention the spells and shields protecting them from influence. I’m afraid it’s quite impossi–”

That was as far as the man got before all the shields over the doors and windows abruptly retracted at once.

“I took the liberty of permanently disabling them,” Gaia informed the man casually. “That seemed the most prudent course, until you’re able to send people in to diagnose the problem.” She gave a very slight smile then. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, we should.” The answer came not from Fenwick in front of them, but from behind them, near the security station. As Columbus and the others turned, they found that Chauncey guy, the ‘farmer’ from the front porch who had walked them in. Now, the man was standing with some kind of massive harpoon gun leveled at them. Beside him, every security officer they’d passed was doing the same with their own weapons.

Almost in unison, everyone else in the bank leveled weapons at the group. Fenwick, the other employees, even the supposed customers. All of them, without fail or hesitation, drew arms and moved to surround them.

“You just couldn’t wait one more day, could you?” Chauncey complained. “One more day and then we all could’ve moved on from these hosts and no one would’ve been hurt.”

Seosten. All of them were possessed. Every last person in the bank, each a Heretic, was being puppeted. The whole thing was a trap.

Boy, if that had been a surprise, it probably would’ve been a bad one.

A forcefield appeared around them. Not part of the trap. It was Larissa, projecting the shield in a dome.

“Let me tell you how this is gonna go,” Chauncey, or the Seosten controlling him, continued. “First.” He snapped his fingers, and Columbus’s attention was instantly drawn to the nearby wall, where some kind of turret or cannon appeared. The thing sighted in at them with a threatening high-pitched whine of power, before just as quickly falling silent.

An instant later, it disappeared, only to be replaced by a different cannon that appeared at a different part of the wall. It too powered up to shoot before going quiet. Then three appeared at once, in different parts of the room. Then a single one directly above them. Then four together.

“Yeah, that’s gonna keep going,” Chauncey informed them. “Gaia there, she’s disabling these things the second they appear. But here’s the trick. They’re gonna keep coming. Every second or two, sometimes more than one. Maybe a dozen at once. Maybe just one. But they’ll keep transporting in, and if you give them even an instant to get a shot off, well… then you’ll be leaving with less people than you came in with, I’ll tell you that much. Those are capital ship-tier cannons, which will treat that cute little forcefield like tissue paper. If the headmistress lets herself get distracted even for a moment to do anything other than disabling those things…” He made a face. “It won’t be pretty.

“So, she’s a little busy right now. Which leaves all of you…” He looked to Columbus, Shiori, Scout, Sands, Sean, Doug, Avalon, Haiden, and Larissa. Then he looked around the room at the much larger group surrounding them. “And all of us. While you don’t even have your weapons. Such a pity.”

To Gaia, the possessed man slyly remarked, “See, you shouldn’t have come in here with a bunch of students. I mean, you’re a bit busy right now to be doing anything else, and we’ll get through that forcefield in a few seconds. Or we can just wait for you to miss one of the turrets. Really, what were you thinking?”

Disabling seven turrets at once as they transported in, Gaia answered the man absently, “I am a teacher at heart. I like to think of everyone as my students. For example, consider this a lesson.”

A being of energy appeared beside the woman, resolving into Sariel. That was followed immediately by the appearance of Apollo, who stepped out of Sean. The man was holding a bag, which he opened up to allow Vulcan to hop out and join his partner. Four more Seosten were right behind him, emerging from Dare, Doug, Scout, and Sands. Each held the weapons that belonged to their respective host, and handed them over as soon as they appeared.

From Haiden and Larissa respectively, Tristan and Vanessa appeared. Both of them held their respective host’s weapons, which they passed along as well. Vanessa followed that up by tossing Columbus’ goggles to him, while Tristan produced Avalon’s gauntlets and Porthos for the girl.

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Then they were all just as armed as the ones who surrounded them, while having added considerably to their numbers.

“Man,” Doug put in, “you guys are not used to people using your own tricks against you.”

Apollo snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”

“It… it doesn’t matter,” Chauncey retorted, though he seemed somewhat shaken. “You think this is the only people we brought to deal with you, witch? We brought an entire army. Hundreds, just to turn you people into so many smears on the ground.” His hand touched the communication badge on his pocket, and he announced, “Send in the rest of the troops. We’re ending this.”

There was a brief, expectant pause. Then, “What do you mean busy? What attack? Who–Gabriel Prosser’s–”

He stopped talking then, slowly lifting his gaze to look at Gaia.

“That,” the headmistress informed him while disabling another six turrets that popped into existence, “is another lesson.”

“You know,” Apollo remarked, “we will respect any one of you who wants to surrender right now.”

Instead, Chauncey leveled that harpoon gun. “Raise turret generation speed by five hundred percent.”

Instantly, the cannons began appearing much faster and with more at once. Dozens were popping into existence all over the room, generating as fast as Gaia could disable them. Each capable of punching a hole through a starship, and each only prevented from doing so by Gaia’s power.

“She’ll lose track,” Chauncey all-but snarled. “She’ll miss one. In the meantime, the rest of you… open fire,” he snapped. “Break the shield and kill them.

“Hope you guys are ready!” Haiden called, even as the gunfire started.

“Cuz here we go.”

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Mini-Interlude 71 – Tabbris and Haiden

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The following takes place out in Seosten space shortly after Isaac’s betrayal. 

Haiden Moon sensed the girl approach, but said nothing. He didn’t want to startle her, not with as skittish as Larissa had said she was. To that end, he kept his focus on the sheet of metal on the table in front of him, running his hand along it to make the metal shape itself properly. Once it was done, it would be yet another in the line of repairs that had to be done to the cargo bay to fix the place after what had happened with Isaac.

She stood in the doorway of the workshop, both hands on the edge of the hatch while pensively watching him. More than anything, Haiden wanted to turn and take the girl into his arms. She was a piece of his wife. But he couldn’t do that, not yet. It would scare her if he moved too fast. She was so sensitive, so prepared to be rejected and hated that he was almost afraid to do anything. He had to let her make the first move.

For a minute, they continued like that. Each knew that the other knew they were there, but neither said anything. Haiden was giving a girl a chance to speak for herself, while she was working up the nerve to do so. The best he could hope for was that she understood why he wasn’t making the first move and that it wasn’t a rejection of her. It was a fine line to walk.

Finally, he felt and heard her take a step further into the room, seeming to definitively come to a decision. Sure enough, moments later, the girl spoke very tentatively and softly. “M-Mister Moon?”

Moving his hand away from the metal he had been shaping, Haiden turned to her. Gods, just looking at her like that, he saw his wife. He saw the woman he loved. She was absolutely Sariel’s daughter, and a lump immediately formed in his throat at the sight.

“I—I can come back later, if… if y-you’re busy,” the little girl stammered with obvious fear as she squirmed from foot to foot. She was still half-clinging to the hatchway, as if afraid that if she let go, she would fall. Her eyes were wide. “Or I can just leave you alone. I-I me-mean… I’m not trying—”

“Tabbris.” Interrupting her with that, Haiden took a single step that way. “Your name is Tabbris, right?”

Biting her lip, the girl slowly nodded. “Yes, sir. That’s the name my… my mama gave me.”

Haiden smiled a little. “Sariel was always good with names. Somehow I think yours probably means something pretty important.” Slowly, the man lowered himself to one knee before asking, “Do you mind if I tell you a secret, Tabbris?”

She still looked nervous, but a little better now that he hadn’t snapped at her. Slowly, the girl gave a curious nod. “Oh, um, okay.”

Lowering his voice a bit to sound more private, Haiden informed her, “I miss Sariel so much it hurts sometimes.”

Her mouth opened and shut a couple of times before the young girl managed a somewhat weak, “Me too.” It was an understatement, he could tell. She missed her mother with every fiber of her being, and was desperate to find and save her. But she also saw that as selfish, so she was afraid to express it too much. Or maybe part of it was fear of getting her hopes up. Either way, it wasn’t good for her. And it was another thing that he saw her having in common with his wife. Something that he really wanted to nip in the bud.

“Hey,” he started, holding a hand out that way, “come here, please?”

She obeyed, releasing the hatch to slowly make her way over to him. He could sense her hesitation and nervousness about the whole situation, that little heart in her chest beating wildly as she approached.

Once she was close enough, Haiden gently put his hand over hers, squeezing it a little bit while meeting the girl’s gaze. “We both miss your mama, right?” When she tentatively nodded, he smiled slightly. “Well, that’s good.”

The words made the girl blink in confusion. “It’s good that we miss Mama?”

“Good that we haven’t stopped missing her,” he clarified. “How long do you think it’d take you to stop missing your mother?”

That prompted the biggest reaction he’d gotten from the girl, as her head shook back and forth fiercely, her voice rising a little bit. “I’ll never stop missing Mama, not until we…” she hesitated then, her fear of voicing the help driving her to silence.

He finished for her. “Not until we save her.” Squeezing her little, soft hand, Haiden met her gaze unflinchingly. “We will. I promise you, we will save her. I’ve been working on saving her for ten years, before I could even remember her properly. Now I do remember her, and I’m not giving up anytime soon. Do you understand? We are going to save her. No matter what it takes. We will save your mother, Tabbris. And when we do, she is going to be so proud of her children. So proud of her son… and her daughters.”

He emphasized the last bit, seeing her eyes widen a bit, lower lip trembling somewhat. Her voice was weak. “I… I didn’t want t-to… make you think that I wanted to take her for myself. I was afraid that you might… might see me and think about… about Mama being in that place. I was afraid you might look at me and see all the bad things. Mama didn’t choose to have me. She didn’t choose anything about me.”

For a moment, Haiden said nothing. He simply knelt there with one hand on hers, watching the girl. Then he took a deep breath and spoke firmly. “Now you listen to me. I have spent a lot longer with Sariel than you have, and I will tell you this. Your mother loves you with everything she’s got, okay? She may not have chosen exactly what happened to create you, but she would never, ever trade it for anything. She would never trade you for anything. You are a brilliant, beautiful little girl and your mother loves you. We don’t always get to choose situations that lead to the people we care the most about. I certainly didn’t choose what happened to put me in Sariel’s life. I didn’t choose what happened to put me out here for ten years. But knowing everything that I do now, knowing that it would lead to two wonderful children of my own and a little girl as special as you, I wouldn’t change it. You are Sariel’s daughter. Which means that you are a part of our family. And you always will be, do you understand?”

He saw the tears forming in the girl’s eyes while her head gave a quick little nod. It took her a moment to trust her voice, and even then, it cracked noticeably. “Y-yes, sir.”

“Please, it’s—” He paused, not wanting to push her too far too fast. “It’s Haiden, okay? You can call me Haiden. You can call me that, or uncle, or…  or anything you want to. But you don’t need to call me sir or mister or anything like that.” He smiled at her then, reminding her, “Family, remember? Family doesn’t call each other mister.”

Giving a tentative smile, the girl quietly replied, “You’d be pretty weird if you called me Mister. That’s not my name.”

Giving the girl a broad smile at that, Haiden replied, “Yeah, I guess I would, huh?” After winking at her, the man sobered up a little bit. “I just wanted you to know… I want you to understand, that I don’t care how you came about, okay? You are wonderful. You are a brilliant little girl. You are a gift. No matter how it happened, no matter what was… no matter what was attached to it, no matter what the intention was, you are a gift. I think so. Larissa thinks so. And I know with every part of me that loves her that your mom thinks so. None of us will ever, ever regret that you exist.”

Tabbris looked like she was about to cry, and he felt the same way. With a little smile, he gave her a slight tug by the hand, pulling her up against himself. His arms went around the girl, as he hugged her to his chest. Her face went against his shoulder and he felt a shudder run through her before her own small arms went around his back. She clung to him like that, and Haiden slowly stood while picking her up to hold the girl tightly.

For a silent minute, the two stood there like that. Each held on to the other while thinking about Sariel, how much they wanted to have the woman with them again. Both loved and missed her more than they could say. Yet no further words needed to be exchanged. They each understood.

But there was still clearly something bothering the girl, which she made apparent by leaning back in his arms to bite her lip pensively. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t figure out what Isaac was doing. I was… I was distracted. I should’ve noticed what he was working on. I should’ve seen there was something wrong. I should’ve—”

Haiden stopped her then, interrupting. “Hey, no.” His head shook then. “If there was ever any doubt that you were Sariel’s daughter, that definitely clinched it. Blaming yourself for everything, taking entirely too much responsibility on your shoulders, thinking that it’s up to you to fix things no matter what it costs you. You are absolutely your mother’s daughter.”

Shifting one arm under the girl to hold her up, he put his other hand against her cheek gently. “Don’t you do that. What Isaac did is what he did. Everyone he hurt, everyone he killed, that’s on him. Not on you. Never on you. Ulysses—” His voice cracked a little bit and he had to blink a couple times. “Ulysses would never want that. Do you understand? He would never ever want you to blame yourself. No one would ever blame you for that.”

They were still tears welling in the girl’s eyes, as she whispered a weak, “But I still feel bad.”

“Tell you another secret?” Haiden offered. When the girl hesitantly nodded, he whispered, “So do I. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to give advice than it is to take it. I feel like I should’ve noticed there was something wrong with that kid, like I shouldn’t have been fooled by his bullshit. I feel like I should’ve been there with Ulysses, or something. It’s stupid, but it’s the way I feel. Feelings are hard. And they don’t always listen to logic or reason. But you know, sometimes we mistake wishing we had done something for guilt that we didn’t. Or vice versa. You can wish for anything. That’s fine. It’s healthy to want to change things or do things better. But taking guilt and blame onto yourself for something that you aren’t responsible for? That’s not.”

The girl seemed to consider that for a moment, sitting on his arm as he held her up. Finally, she swallowed. “Y-you’re right, advice is harder to take than it is to give.”

Smiling just a little at that, Haiden nodded. “It really is. But hey, how about we focus on keeping Ulysses’ memory alive, huh? And I’ve got a pretty good idea of how we can do that.”

Tabbris blinked, shifting in his arms. “You do?”

He explained. “I know when his birthday was. How about, when that day comes, you and I, and whoever else wants to, go out and find people to help? Feed the needy, work on a shelter, visit kids in the hospital, things like that. And if they ask, we can tell them that it’s Katarin Day. Which is the day when you go out and do nice things for other people. And even if nobody else ever does it but us, for even just those few people that we get to help, they’ll remember Katarin Day.”

They agreed to talk a bit more about that plan later, and he walked over to the table where he had been working on the metal plating. “So, you wanna help me with this?”

Shifting a little in his arms, Tabbris asked, “Help? Real help or ‘boy you sure are helping by holding onto that screwdriver I’m never going to need and beating it against that piece of wood I’ll throw away after you get bored?’”

Snickering despite himself, the man set her down. “Real help, I promise. You’ll be making this a lot easier for me. Usually I would say you’re too little, but Larissa says you’re good with magic.”

She beamed at that. “Mama taught me! I mean, sort of. Most of it. Aunt Larissa was supposed to be there to help when I woke up, but…” She paled then, giving a quick headshake. “I mean, I don’t blame her or anything, it wasn’t her fault after everything that happened, it’s just that…”

“You were scared, confused, and lonely.” Finishing that for her, Haiden put both hands on each of her small shoulders. You don’t have to be lonely again, okay? You need to talk, or just spend time with someone outside of work, you do it. I’m right here. And Larissa will be there too. So will the others. You’ll never have to feel that alone again.”

He knew how incredibly guilty Larissa felt about not being there when the girl had woken up the first time. She had worried for so long about what Tabbris was doing, if she had been caught or had shown herself, and if she found anyone else to help her. The thought of that little girl being left completely on her own had haunted the woman’s thoughts both day and night for quite a while.

With a little blush, Tabbris asked, “You wanted me to help with something here?”

Letting the poor, embarrassed girl change the subject, Haiden nodded. “Yeah, you see these metal sheets? We need to reshape them to fit very specific spots. I can do that with my power, but if we want them to retain all of their strength, we need to put a spell on them to make the sheets temporarily malleable. That’s where you come in. If I teach you how to do that spell, you can start on those sheets over there and then I’ll reshape them and we can get done in half the time.” Pausing, he added with a raised eyebrow, “Of course, you could always go do something fun instead. I really wouldn’t blame you.”

Tabbris shook her head. “I want to help. Besides, I like learning new magic.”

So, he taught her the spell, and the two of them fixed the metal together. Even with both of them, the work took quite a while to get just right, since the sheets needed to be perfect. By the time they were done, it was late enough that Tabbris yawned widely and loudly.

Seeing that, it was all that Haiden could do not to scoop the girl up in his arms and hug her to death. But that clearly would have embarrassed her even more, so he simply chuckled. “Sounds like somebody’s had a long day.”

Tabbris blushed deeply, her voice a quiet murmur. “I’m, um, I’m not very used to being… you know… out like this for a long time.”

Her words, and the meaning of them, made Haiden sober a bit. “Right, well, as a thank you for all your help, why don’t we go get some of that ice cream that Larissa and I have been stashing away? Then you can… you can take a break.”

The thought of ice cream made the girl’s face brighten, and she gave an eager nod. The two of them gave their work one more quick look before heading out.

Once they had their treats and were settled into the small kitchen area, Tabbris asked, “ The banishment orb, it affected your memories before, right? Like it affected Mama’s.”

He nodded, swallowing. “Yes, for a pretty damn long time I couldn’t remember much about my family. When Vanessa contacted me, when she jumped into my head, it fixed that. A lot of it anyway. Now I keep remembering more and more, and retaining it. I guess the orb breaking meant the memory suppression was weak enough that having Vanessa in my head could break it.” He shrugged. “That’s the explanation we’re going with, anyway. Your mom could probably explain it better.”

Shifting a little in her seat before taking a bite of her ice cream, Tabbris offered, “I could tell you about them. I could tell you about how Flick met them, about things we saw them do. I could tell you stories if you want.”

Yet again, it was almost impossible for Haiden to resist the urge to pull the girl into an embarrassingly tight embrace. He swallowed hard, meeting her gaze. “I’d like that a lot. You… you’re an incredibly bright, compassionate girl, you know that?” Just the thought of hearing stories about his children, the children had missed for so long, made his heart ache. He wanted to see them, wanted to touch them. He wanted his family back together. The thought of hearing stories told through Tabbris’s perfect Seosten memory almost too much.

Blushing even more at the praise, Tabbris wiggled in her seat before looking up at him. Her face was bright as she repeated her earlier words. “Mama taught me.”

Haiden, however, took her free hand, squeezing it. His voice was gentle. “Your mother definitely got you started.

“But at this point, I am pretty sure that you’re the one teaching the rest of us.”

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Before The Vault 41-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theia brightened. “So you have met her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Patreon Snippets 4

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

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Michael and Gwen many years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus Interlude – Team Stranded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed quietly.

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

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Interlude 39B – Haiden

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Please note that the scenes between Haiden and Sariel depicted later in this chapter are the same scenes as depicted from Sariel’s point of view in Interlude 13A

March 18th, 1986

As Haiden Holt stood at the glass door that was the back entrance into the apartment building that he had been calling home for the past couple of months, he heard a noise behind him. Instantly, the man’s hand found its way into his long coat to touch the handle of his sword. At the same time, he looked into the vague reflection in the door, summoning the power which allowed him to perfectly see and magnify anything that was seen by the glass itself. The power worked for up to thirty feet worth of glass, generally allowing him to view anything that could have been reflected within it.

The form coming up behind him, however, was not any kind of threat after all. Relaxing slightly, Haiden released his grip on the weapon before turning a bit with a smile. “Good evening, Mrs. Wen, you’re out late tonight.”

The tiny, yet ancient looking Asian woman returned his smile, tightly gripping her cane while leaning on it. “Oh yes,” she agreed, “I had to visit my granddaughter for her birthday. Do you know what film we had to go and see? Something called the, umm, High something. Lander, that was it. The Highlander. I couldn’t follow that nonsense at all. Can you believe it? A little girl wanting to go see something like that. Men with swords cutting each other, being immortal or some such.”

Restraining the urge to smile too much, Haiden gave a slight bow of his head. “Yes,” he managed, “it does seem like something of a stretch.”

“And a proper young girl wanting to see it?” The woman huffed a bit, head shaking. “It just seems wrong.” She blinked then, before waving it off with her free hand. ”Oh, but I just rant. I am glad she had a good time. Even if I don’t understand it.”

Agreeing that that was what was important, Haiden used his key to unlock the apartment building door and pushed it open before gesturing for the woman to go ahead. Together, they walked to the elevator and rode it up to the floor that they shared. As they reached her apartment, the woman wished him a pleasant good night and stepped inside, leaving Haiden to head for his own door.

Though he was part of Eden’s Garden, Haiden had been operating on his own in the city for the past few months. He preferred it that way, simply checking in whenever he needed to while chasing his own leads to find monsters before they could do any more harm.

Flipping the light switch on as he entered, the man headed straight for the kitchen. He took down a glass before starting to fill it with water from the sink.

As the water poured, it abruptly stopped filling the glass. Instead, the stream shot over beside him, forming into what looked like a water statue of a human being.

As soon as it started, Haiden jerked backward, pulling his sword from his coat before realizing what was happening. “Dammit, Lucy, what did I say about taking me by surprise?”

Lucy was the only name he had for the strange Heretic who had repeatedly contacted him for the past several years to point Haiden in the right direction. He had no idea why the man called himself Lucy, but he always seemed amused by it. Neither did he know why this ‘Lucy’ almost never appeared in person but almost always through some form of elemental communication spell, such as appearing in a bonfire or, as now, as a figure made of water.

Either way, from what Lucy had said, he wasn’t much of a fighter himself, and didn’t want to get involved in things. But when he knew something, he would appear and point Haiden the right way to stop something bad from happening. Apparently, he had his own contacts that fed him information in turn.

“Sorry, Haiden,” the man apologized through his water-messenger spell before speaking again. “But this one is important. It couldn’t wait. Comes straight from old Nicholas himself.”

Nicholas. Haiden didn’t know a lot about him, except that he was Lucy’s most reliable and yet seldom used contact. Every bit of information that Nicholas had provided before had led to stop incredibly dangerous monsters from an enacting horrific plans. Whoever this Nicholas was, he had provided enough information in the past to stop multiple wholesale slaughters from happening. He didn’t send along information often, but when he did, it was a big deal.

The news that whatever this information was came from him was enough to make Haiden relax slightly. “Okay, what’s happening?”

Running a hand through the water that comprised his hair, Lucy replied, “There’s this girl. Little kid apparently. She’s about to run into these gangsters or something, and there’s going to be a Stranger there. You need to save her.”

Haiden blinked at that. “A little girl needs to be saved from gangsters and some Stranger? If it means saving a kid, I’m on it, no doubt. But are you sure that was the whole message?”

Lucy shrugged. “He just said that she needs you more than anyone has ever needed you, and that when the gun is fired, if you don’t save her, a good person will die.”

Haiden frowned a little. “That’s oddly… specific. But I guess he’s been right too many times before to question it now.” Pausing, he looked to the man. “Don’t suppose you can tell me anymore about him yet?”

“Hey, man,” Lucy objected, “you know my rules for passing info.”

“Anonymous, always anonymous and with all the privacy you want.” Haiden waved a hand. “Right, right. Okay, so give me the location and time.

“I guess I’m saving a little kid from a monster.”

******

 

March 20th, 1986

 

In his hawk form, Haiden glided on the air currents above the forested area that his contact had pointed him toward. Scanning the trees below with a mixture of his hawk vision and other powers, Haiden searched for the right spot.

The sound of gunshots in the distance suddenly caught his attention, and Haiden abruptly wheeled around in the air, heading that way as fast as possible. He continued to scan for his target, asking himself if he was already too late.

There. The gunshots had stopped, and Haiden saw the figure of a young girl who had obviously been shot, stumbling to her knees. A feeling of despair and failure rose up in him just before he saw something else. A fully grown woman, appearing from inside the girl. The woman picked the girl up and started to carry her.

Stranger. It was the Stranger. She was taking the girl. Haiden might’ve been too late to stop her from being shot, but he was still going to save her. He wasn’t going to let some horrific ritual or whatever this stranger had in mind happen.

Something didn’t make sense. Nicholas‘s information had always been very specific and useful. He’d always given Haiden enough time to find his target before. What was different this time? Why had he sent Haiden somewhere without enough time to actually find the girl before she was shot? What happened?

And why wasn’t this woman setting off his Stranger sense? She had to be the Stranger that had been referred to, since he just seen her stop possessing the kid. Yet she didn’t set off his sense. That in and of itself wasn’t completely unheard of, of course. But it just added to all of his confusion.

Either way, Haiden wasn’t about to give up on saving the child. He dove for the woman, cutting her off before reforming into his human shape.

Drawing his sword while feeling a pang of remorse at the sight of the injured girl that was a reminder of his failure, he snapped at the woman, “I don’t know what you are or where you think you’re going with that girl. But I’m not gonna let you take her.”

Why he even said that much to her, he had no idea. The woman said something in response, but all Haiden could think about was saving that kid and rectifying his failure. He threw himself into an attack, wanting to end this as quickly as possible. He had to be careful to avoid hitting the kid, which slowed him slightly and stopped him from using any of his more dramatic area of effect powers.

Suddenly, the woman stopped dodging and knelt to put the girl on the ground. Why? Was she freeing her hands for something? Trying to make him focus on the kid while she escaped? He’d take that if that was what she was—

“Kill me then. But take the girl to the hospital after you do. Save her.”

At those words, Haiden flipped his sword around while his mind reeled. What the hell was going on? What kind of game was she trying to play with this?

Slowly, he replied, “I don’t know what kind of trick you–”

The Stranger interrupted. “It’s not a trick! Look, just–” Suddenly, a pistol appeared in her hand. Even as Haiden moved to react that, she blurted, “Save the girl.”

Then she pointed the gun not at him, and not at the kid. Instead, she pointed at her own head and began to pull the trigger.

Nicholas’s passed-along message was suddenly in Haiden’s mind. When the gun was fired, if he didn’t save her, a good person would die.

He had been sent here too late. He’d never had a chance to get to the girl before she’d been shot. That made no sense. Nicholas‘s information always gave them enough time. There was no way that he could have gotten to that spot before the gun fired. No way that he could have saved her like that. No way to stop it.

Unless that wasn’t the shot that Nicholas had been talking about. Unless the girl wasn’t the person he had been referring to. He’d said that when the gun was fired, if Haiden didn’t stop it, a good person would die. A good person.

The words that he hadn’t really been listening to before filled Haiden‘s mind even as the woman’s finger tightened on the trigger. Save her. She had said that she was trying to save the girl, and he hadn’t listened. Why would he listen to a Stranger rambling excuses?

Save her. Save her. Save the good person.

He moved. Lunging forward at the last possible instant, Haiden lashed out with his sword, interposing it between the gun and the woman’s head so that the bullet ricocheted off of it.

She looked just as surprised as he felt in that moment, staring at him in shock.

“Why would you do that?” As he voiced the question, Haiden had no idea he was talking to the woman… or to himself. Why would he make that choice right then? Why would he stop a Stranger from killing herself? Why had she been trying to kill herself? What was going on? Had Nicholas really sent him to save her instead of the girl?

The woman interrupted his thoughts. “The girl. Please. She’s dying.”

That was enough to stop Haiden‘s other thoughts. He quickly grabbed the woman by the arm, not willing to let her out of his sight until he figured out what was going on. Sheathing his sword, he pulled her over next to the injured girl and knelt to put a hand on her. Focusing on another power, he transported all three of them to the nearest hospital that he knew about.

They appeared in the middle of the entrance of the emergency room, and he quickly passed the girl to the nurses there while letting the Bystander Effect take care of any confusion about their sudden appearance.

As the girl was taken away by the medical professionals, Haiden saw the woman start to take a step after them. Before she could, he put a hand on her shoulder. Something made him speak reassuringly. “She’ll be okay. They’ve got it.”

Why? Why had she tried to save the girl to begin with? What happened back there? How on Earth was he supposed to explain this even to himself?

The woman looked to him with what looked like peaceful resignation, speaking hesitantly. “I… Thank you for letting me see that she was being saved. You… you can kill me now if you want to, if that’s your price.”

Now Haiden was even more confused than before. He had half expected her to use helping to save the girl as a trade for letting her go. Or maybe she would have used the innocents nearby as cover to escape. But she wasn’t. She was just standing there, waiting.

“If that’s my…” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, Haiden grimaced and took a second before coming to a decision. Looking back to the woman, he gestured to summon his teleportation power once more, sending the two of them back into the woods where they had just been. It was as good a place as any for this. He needed answers, and he needed them now.

Taking a few quick steps back from the woman to put space between them, he stared at her while demanding, “You’re not evil. You were really trying to save that girl. Why?”

Because that was the most important question of all. Why would a Stranger, a Stranger try to save a human child? It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. Not her actions, not his own decisions, and not the original message from Nicholas. What the hell was happening?

The woman was beautiful. He recognized that now that he was allowing himself to see it, now that there was time to process. She was blonde and gorgeous, an ethereal, almost angelic beauty that somehow made his knees feel weak when he looked at her. Where was the revulsion? She was supposed to be a monster, so… where was the monster? Looking into her eyes, he saw no evil. Instead, what he saw… was loneliness. He saw so much loneliness and emptiness that he wanted to embrace her.

It was insane. It went against everything he had ever been taught or known. But he wanted more than anything to put his arms around her and tell her that everything would be okay.

The woman spoke softly then. “It’s a long story. But I never wanted to hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it. She didn’t.”

His mind was still reeling from all of this. She didn’t want to hurt the girl? She didn’t want to hurt anyone? But… But she was supposed to be a monster. Even as he looked at her, even as he saw no monster in her, Haiden was still confused, still lost. Why had he been sent to her? What did Nicholas want him to do? Save her. He’d said that saving her would save a good person. Did he really mean her and not the little girl? Did he mean both of them? Everything was so… so confusing.

But right then, he did know one thing. Whatever the full truth, whatever the whole story behind all of this was, this woman was not evil. He couldn’t kill her. He couldn’t hurt her. She was lost, and what she needed right then was someone to be there for her. He didn’t know why he’d been sent, or what would come about this. But he did know that he could be that person right then. Whatever else happened, he could help the loneliness that he saw in her eyes.

“I think we have a lot to talk about,” he announced slowly while extending a hand to her. “What’s your name?”

As confused as he felt by all of this, that was a good place to start, at least. A name. He never really cared about the names of the Strangers he killed before, unless they were terrible enough for him to need to track them down by their identity. But this one? This one was different. No one, Stranger or human had ever made him feel the way he felt when he looked at her.

The woman answered while accepting his extended hand. “Sariel. What… what’s yours?”

If anything felt more weird than asking a Stranger what her name was, it was giving his own to her. Haiden took a moment, collecting himself as a million thoughts ran through his head.

This felt like his last chance to change his mind. If this was a trick, if it was some kind of strange trap, he would be walking right into it. He could have been damning himself right then to whatever terrible fate awaited those who mistakenly trusted monsters.

And yet, it didn’t feel like a trap. It didn’t feel like anything bad. Looking to the woman, Haiden felt more alive in that moment then he could ever remember feeling. This wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t bad. There was something happening here, something he couldn’t explain. Yet it felt like… it felt like this was quite possibly the single most important moment of his life. More important than becoming a Heretic, more important even than losing his sister during training had been, as terrible as that was. Something was here that would forever change his life. And he felt not fear in that moment, but excitement.

He came to a decision. He would be honest. Looking back up to her, he quietly replied, “Haiden.”

The woman repeated his name, and he repeated hers. Haiden and Sariel. Heretic and Stranger.

Then they started to talk, really talk. For quite awhile, actually. The woman had been right when she had said that it was a long story. It was a very long story, One that went on for quite a while and left him reeling even more than before as it shook the foundations of what he had ever understood about Strangers and about humanity.

And Haiden had been right as well. That moment changed his life forever. And in the future, he would come to realize that when he gave the woman who became his wife a chance, he had not simply been saving her.

He had been saving his own soul as well.

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Mini-Interlude 64 – Haiden And Sariel

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Monday, March 14th, 1988

“Mmm, are you sure you have to go?” Haiden Moon murmured while his hand gently brushed through the blonde locks of the woman who had become his wife almost a year and a half earlier, after a brief, six month courtship that had partially involved them running away from their respective groups (a much bigger deal on her side than his). His fingers found the soft skin of her neck, and he rubbed in gentle circles. “Losing you for a week every year is going to get old fast.”

Laying with her head against the man’s shoulder while her own hand gently ran over his broad chest, Sariel gave a soft, sad little smile. “For both of us, I promise you that. This week away from you will be more painful than I can say. But it is… necessary. I will be back as soon as possible.”

Haiden gave a reluctant sigh at that, though the man was still smiling as he leaned down to gently kiss the top of her head. “If you insist. But I’m going to insist on a date day when you get back. You hear me? A whole day where we do nothing but spend time with each other.”

“Only a day?” Sariel teased, winking up at him. “I’m looking forward to a whole month.”

That made his smile turn a little more genuine, as the man pulled her back against him a little tighter. “That sounds like a good tradition to me. You leave for a week, then we have our month.”

Eventually, the two separated. Sariel promised to call whenever she could, and that she would be careful. Under her husband’s ministrations, she very nearly caved and agreed to stay. But this was too important. The things that she had to do, the things that she had to make up for, were too much for her to simply dismiss them. It had already been a year by that point, and the skeletons in her closet were banging against the door of her mind entirely too loudly to be dismissed.

So, after another (entirely too brief) lovely and energizing delay while the two made it clear just how much they were going to miss each other, Sariel used the spell to transport herself away from their cozy little shared apartment.

The place that she reappeared within was actually closer than Haiden thought. Far closer, in fact. Sariel hadn’t actually left the city at all. She was in the middle of an apartment not even three blocks away from her husband. She’d actually thought about renting out an apartment in the same building, but thought that would be pushing things a little too much. Besides, she didn’t want what she had to do here to somehow taint her wonderful life with the man she loved.

It wasn’t a very large place, being only a studio apartment. But then, the place didn’t need to be very large for her purposes. What mattered were the spellforms that had been inscribed over all of the walls. As Sariel glanced around, she assured herself that they were all there and intact. Good. The spells would perform several functions, including blocking her from any tracking spells. The home she shared with Haiden had much of the same features, of course, as did most of their clothing. But this was even more extensive. As she wouldn’t exactly be in a state to take care of herself before too long, making absolutely certain that she couldn’t be found was essential.

And, of more immediate importance, the spells would also ensure that no sound escaped the room.

After assuring herself the spells were intact, Sariel first stripped herself of all of her clothing, stepping out of everything until she was entirely bare. Then she made her way to one of the only two furnishings within the small studio apartment: a wooden dresser. Pulling open the top drawer, the woman extracted a pair of metal bracelets, with spellwork etched into the sides. Carefully, she attached them to her wrists. Next came a metal choker, which was attached to her throat with equal care. Those were followed by a pair of goggles that barely allowed her to see through the dark lenses. Still, she was able to root through the doors and find shoes that also appear to be made of metal, chainmail gloves, and a cap with spellwork drawn on the inside.

It made an eclectic outfit of sorts when all of those pieces were worn. But then, the point wasn’t to be fashionable, as she wouldn’t be stepping out of the apartment with them. Instead, once Sariel had each piece on, she moved to the room’s other bit of furniture: a small bed. It lay directly in the center of the apartment, surrounded by more intricately drawn spellwork.

Slowly, the Seosten woman lay on the bed, shifting onto her back. She stayed like that for a few long seconds, simply breathing in and out as she stared up at the ceiling through the dark lens of the goggles, in no hurry to get on with what she had to do. Yet despite her reluctance, the woman wouldn’t just walk away. She couldn’t allow herself to. Without this week, she would never be able to enjoy the rest of her time with Haiden. She needed this. They needed this.

They. The names and faces filled her mind then. They were always there, always just under the surface of her memory. They were the people she had hurt, the people whose lives had been harmed or ruined by her actions. Sariel heard them, remembered them, knew them. She knew who she had killed, who she had betrayed, who she had used and abused for the advancement of the Seosten Empire. The things she had done, even if she had thought it was the right thing at the time… she knew. She knew that she had done wrong, that she had ruined lives. And now, for the next week, she would pay a small bit of her debt for that. A small price to at least temporarily quiet the voices clamoring for attention within her vast memory.

One more long, slow breath to steady and prepare herself for what was about to come, and then Sariel activated the extensive spells covering everything she had just put on.

Pain. Agony beyond description flooded the woman’s body. The goggles made her eyes feel as if they were burning. The hat that she wore made her believe that her skull was being crushed while her hair was simultaneously ripped from her scalp. The bones in her wrists, hands, and arms felt as though they were snapping one by one, turning to powder before returning only to be broken once more thanks to the wristbands and gloves. The same was true of her feet and legs through the metal shoes that she wore. The choker around the woman’s neck cut off her air, crushing her windpipe and turning her resulting screams into desperate, choked gasps.

It only lasted for a few seconds before relenting, little more than a warm-up to give Sariel a chance to work her way into what was to come. Eventually, the pain would continue for minutes at a time rather than only a handful of seconds. In the moments of reprieve between those times, she would recover mentally while the spells surrounding the bed healed any physical damage that had been done. The spells there also ensure that she would not throw herself off the bed itself, holding her in place while the pain spells were active. Which also served the function of preventing her from closing her mouth while they were active, ensuring that she would not bite her own tongue off or crack her teeth together. She was, for all intents and purposes, completely frozen in place. Which was another good reason that the apartment had to stay hidden.

She was given a warning before the pain returned, a count of three slow beeps. The warning would come every time, as the amount of rest she was given between ‘sessions’ was randomized. As the beeps came, Sariel breathed out once more, unable to stop herself from tensing up.

Then the pain came, and her screams returned to fill the magically soundproofed room. Those same screams would continue throughout the week, while she would be given brief breaks to catch her breath, and slightly longer breaks for sleep, meals, and to clean herself up. But all in all, the majority of Sariel’s time throughout that week would be spent on the bed, being put through bouts of incredible agony. Agony that she could stop at any time, but never would. After all, the people she had hurt and ruined throughout her career in the Seosten military couldn’t simply undo that, now could they?

No, she would take the pain. She would suffer it for this week, in order to quiet those feelings of guilt that would otherwise overwhelm her throughout the rest of the year. One week of pain in exchange for one year of peace. She could live with that. That was the best way of handling the memories of what she had done, of the people and lives that she had destroyed.

One week of torture for one year of love. That was a fair trade, wasn’t it?

******

One Year Later

 

“A fair trade?” The disbelief, shock, and horror within Haiden Moon’s voice filled the small room as he stood there, staring at his wife. “You… are you…  do you really…” Realizing then just how serious the woman had been as she explained the truth of what she did every time she left for a week, the man felt hot bile rise up in his throat.

He had felt, had sensed her wife’s reluctance every time she went out for these trips, though she insisted they were necessary. Finally, this time, he had convinced her to share with him, to trust him enough to show him what the trips themselves were about. He’d had an idea that it was something bad, but this? Without seeing it himself, he never would have believed that Sariel was the type to torture herself. She was too good at bottling up the incredible guilt that she clearly felt. Apparently at least part of that was because of this. She would almost kill herself with pain for a full week, just so that the guilt over the things she had done in her previous life didn’t completely crush her for the rest of the year.

Seeing his reaction, Sariel cringed, her gaze dropping guiltily. “I’m sorry,” the woman murmured softly. “I know it’s stupid and wrong, but it helps. I just… if I put up with it for that long, if I can just deal with the pain for the week, I can live with the good things for the rest of the year.”

She chanced a tiny smile at him then, offering, “You are a very good thing, Haiden. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. But… but I couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t accept you, or our life, without a tradeoff. I have to pay for the things that I’ve done. The people that I’ve hurt and killed, my love, I can’t… I can’t be happy knowing those things. Some of my people, when they feel this guilt, they erase it from their memories. But I can’t do that–I won’t do that. I can’t erase it, so I have to pay for it. And… and the thought of being happy, of allowing myself to be happy with you while those memories are in my head, it’s… “ Her head shook quickly. “I have to give my penance. One week of pain for one year of freedom and happiness. It’s worth it, to me.”

Haiden listened through all of that. Despite his disgust with the entire situation and urge to simply grab Sariel and shake her until she understood that this was wrong, he stood still, listening to her words. He heard the pain and regret in her voice, the doubts that plagued her. He could feel her turmoil even more than usual. In showing him this, she had opened herself up to him even more than she already had. That wasn’t something he could just dismiss or throw away. He had to try and understand her. She had been alive for much longer than he had, had seen and done very bad things. Things that had convinced her that this was a good idea.

In that moment, Haiden did the only thing that he could do, the only thing that he could think of. Slowly, he stepped forward and embraced the woman that he loved. Now wasn’t the time for recrimations or incredulity. What she needed was understanding, as much as he could give her.

She resisted very slightly at first, her guilt and embarrassment over the situation making the woman stiffen up. But as he pulled her to him, she relented a little. He heard a tiny whimper escape Sariel as his arms wrapped around her, hugging her up against himself firmly.

“My love, my wife, my partner…” the man murmured gently as he kissed the top her head. “I love you. I adore you. But you couldn’t possibly be more wrong about this. But that isn’t your fault. As advanced as the Seosten might be about a lot of other things, they are pants on head stupid when it comes to mental health.”

Coughing once at that, the woman squinted slightly. “We are… pants on head stupid about a great many things, I’m afraid. But… I don’t know what you mean. I… I can’t just forget the things that I’ve done, Haiden. How could I let myself be happy with you when the people I’ve killed, the lives I’ve ruined… everything I’ve done is still there? I can’t ignore that, I won’t.”

Shaking his head at that while holding the woman to him, Haiden replied, “I wouldn’t ask you to. That’s not the point. I–” He stopped, considering his next words before stepping back while keeping his hands on Sariel’s shoulders. Meeting her gaze, he murmured, “Trust me for a minute, okay?”

“I trust you for every minute,” was her immediate response, as her hands moved up to rest on his.

With a brief smile at that, Haiden moved one hand to his pocket, producing a scrap of plastic with a spell on it that, when activated, summoned a pair of comfortable chairs. Once they were in place, he directed his wife to sit down in one while he took the other, directly across from her.

“Now,” the man started, “would you… consider trying something new, something different than… this?” With one hand, he gestured to the bed where the (not to put too fine of a point on it) torture devices had been laid out.

Biting her lip at that, the blonde woman met his gaze a little guiltily. “Something different? I… what is it?”

Several snarky, sarcastic responses sprang to the man’s mind and tongue right then. But he swallowed them back. Now wasn’t the time for it. His wife needed gentleness right now. She had opened herself up to him, had shown him what was probably her greatest secret: her guilt and how she tried to cope with it.

Instead, Haiden carefully answered, “You were handling this wrong. The guilt, I mean. You were dealing with it wrong. By which I mean you weren’t dealing with it at all. I love you, but torturing yourself isn’t how you deal with that kind of guilt.”

His words made Sariel shake her head in obvious confusion. “I told you, I can’t just erase the memories.”

“That’s not how you deal with it either,” the man retorted. “I… look, I don’t know exactly how it works in the Seosten Empire and all that, but clearly the answer is ‘not that well’ if erasing memories or torturing yourself are the top two options that come to mind.”

She still looked lost, as Haiden reached across to take her hands. With a gentle squeeze, he met the woman’s gaze once more. “Tell me,” he started quietly. “Tell me about the first thing that comes to your mind, the first thing that you feel guilty about. It doesn’t have to be the worst thing that you’ve done, or even the first thing that you think was wrong. Just… the first thing that you can think of.”

The suggestion made her flinch a little, glancing down before slowly lifting her eyes once more as he squeezed her hands tighter. “Tell you?” she echoed with obvious reluctance at the very thought.

He nodded then. “Yes, love. Because that’s how you deal with this guilt. You talk about it. You want to deal with the fact that you’ve killed people, that you’ve ruined lives? You don’t pay for that by torturing yourself once a year. You deal with it by keeping them alive, by keeping their memories alive. That’s the problem with those Seosten you mentioned who erase the memories. They’re doing the opposite of what they should be doing. If you want to help things, if you want to pay for what you did, you keep those memories alive. You share them, talk about them. That’s how you process that guilt, you talk about it. Maybe you can’t bring them back to life, but you can share their stories. You can share their lives. And, quite frankly, talking about things is a good way of getting the thoughts out of your head. At least for a little while.

“So please, whatever comes to mind, whoever you’re thinking about right now… just talk to me about them. Share them with me. I’m here for you, Sariel. I’m always here for you.”

Slowly, the woman stood up from the chair. At first, Haiden thought that she might be objecting. Instead, however, she simply stepped over to his chair and perched herself on his lap. Slowly, Sariel lay against him, head against his shoulder. As his arms wrapped around her, the woman let out a soft, relieved sigh.

And then she began to talk. The stories came, stories that continued not only for that one week, but every time throughout their lives that Sariel needed to talk, about her past, about the people she had killed or those that had been left behind. When she needed it, when the memories and guilt became too much, they would take the time to themselves so that she could talk about them. Because part of being married wasn’t just sharing the good times. It was also sharing the bad times, the terrible memories of guilt and remorse. It was him being there for her, to listen when she needed him to. Not to fix her problems, just to be there, to hear them.

That, after all, was what actually loving someone was about. And Haiden loved Sariel. He always would, and whatever came next in their lives, he would always be there for her. And she for him. They were partners, partners who would face things together.

Always and forever, come what may.  

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