Haiden Moon

Before The Vault 41-02

Previous Chapter

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 outloud), 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 swirling 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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Interlude 34C – Haiden Moon

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“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrggggggggh!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-02

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As the intense display of firepower erupted on the screen in front of us, no one spoke for a few seconds. It was Tristan who finally found his voice, sounding as awed as a little kid seeing fireworks for the first time. “Oh, my God. I mean, I saw some big fights with Granddad Nick, but nothing like… like this.”

On either side of the boy, I saw Vanessa and Tabbris each take one of his hands. The latter looked back toward me, her nervousness showing before I gave her a reassuring thumbs up. I’d noticed, as much as she had gotten better about spending time on her own, Tabbris still liked to know where I was at any given time. She clearly loved her older siblings (and they loved her), but I was a safe retreat for her when things were overwhelming, and I’d felt her fear that I might disappear somehow. Any time she possessed anyone else in training, she always went right back to possessing me again before we did anything else, because she wanted to have that safety net so that she could jump back into my body whenever she needed to.

Athena gave a nod of satisfaction then, dragging my attention back to the situation at hand. “The fleets will remain occupied for the time being.”

“You’re not worried about not being in control and giving orders yourself?” I asked. “I mean, those are your people out there.”

Her eyes met mine. “Yes,” she confirmed. “And I have trained them for this kind of action for many years. Praetor Kulls was handpicked for this command, and the men and women under him all know their duty. Interjecting myself now would show a lack of faith in them that would hurt far more than it helped. If the time comes that they require my aid, I will be there for them. But for now, my faith and trust is in their ability.”

It was easy to see what she meant. As I watched through the viewscreen, the battle unfolding right in front of us was indescribably chaotic. The largest of the capital ships were spacing themselves out, exchanging staggering firepower in a nasty slugging match, while the moderately sized ships engaged in more maneuvers around one another, both sides working to create an opening for their fighters and shuttle-sized craft to hit the weak points of the giant ships.

That was, at a glance and after several conversations with Athena, my best estimate of how these kind of battles went. There were the one or two person fighters, the ‘medium’ ships that could hold anywhere between a fifty to a few thousand crew members, and the capital ships that held tens to even hundreds of thousands of crew.

Very broadly and generally speaking, it kind of worked almost like a paper, rock, scissors situation. The fighters were effective against the much larger ships (in enough numbers) specifically because it was hard to target them and they could swarm over weak points. But fighters failed against the medium sized ships because they had enough armor to withstand hits while also being quick enough to target and shoot down the smaller ships more effectively than their larger, slower brethren. Meanwhile, the medium ships may have had the armor to protect themselves from the little fighters, but the capital ships could blow them away easily, and they didn’t have the fighters’ maneuverability. So little ship beat big ship, medium ship beat little ship, and big ship beat medium ship. And they all essentially tied against each other in equal numbers. There were obviously exceptions to all of this, but that was a general understanding of it.

And, of course, there were more than just regular old lasers and that kind of weaponry involved. Even as I watched for those few seconds, I saw portals opening up here and there, bits of ships being partially torn away by some kind of metal-manipulation or telekinetic power before being repaired by the same from the opposite side, random forcefields that popped up, giant spears of ice or stone forming and being thrown back and forth, figures made of fire flying through space, and more. So much more. Everywhere I looked, there was a scene that would have required millions of dollars in special effects shots to pull off in a movie. It was completely batshit insane just to look at, let alone to try to make any sense of.

Beside me, Roxa seemed to have the same impression. The werewolf-Heretic gave a low whistle, head shaking. “Fuck, I wouldn’t wanna be the guy who has to try to make some kind of sense out of all of that chaos. I mean, keeping track of a battle on this scale is bad enough, but add in magic?”

Apollo nodded. “Something this scale, they probably have thousands of mages on both sides, purely focused on working to counter the other side’s spells. What you’re seeing is just the bits that slip through, the… leaks in the dam. If either side slipped too much, you’d see entire ships go down in seconds. Magic,” he added quietly, “can be pretty scary.”

Gordon spoke for all of us then as he flatly and quietly noted, “Then I hope our side doesn’t slip.”

“They will not,” Athena assured us. “As I said, they have been trained for this, and have all of the experience necessary. They will do their duty. We must simply do ours. And to do that, we need an appropriate… there.”  

Lifting a hand, she pointed at the screen, toward one of the enemy ships. It looked almost like a giant tuning fork, honestly. There was one somewhat shorter (I estimated it at about four hundred meters) boxy end that was like the handle. I saw a bulge near the top that looked like the bridge, with four separate heavy cannons surrounding it. Splitting off from the front of that long, boxy part were two sections that were the ‘tines’ of the tuning fork. They were about twice as long as the first section, and along the outside, bottom, and top of each were more guns than I had ever laid eyes on at one time. Seriously, there were cannons packed into what amounted to every square inch of space along those extended ‘tines’ of the ship, facing in every direction.

Meanwhile, there were no cannons in the middle, between the tines. But that space wasn’t empty, by any means. Instead, I saw what looked like a bunch of radar dishes, all facing slightly outward, toward the end of the tines. There were about eighteen of them, nine on each side.

As we watched, each of those ‘radar dishes’ began to glow. The ones on the left gave off a blue light, while the ones on the right were red. That glowing energy grew brighter and more distinct, out of the radar dishes to meet in the middle into a column of destructive purple light, which grew stronger and stronger before finally erupting from the end of the ‘tines’, tearing its way through space, and literally blew through one of the Aelaestiam ships like it wasn’t even there.

I staggered a bit, my eyes widening. Around me, the others did much of the same. The thought that… that there had been people on that ship, people who had come solely to help us save Sariel and the other prisoners, and that they were now… dead, was a lot to suddenly be hit with.

Athena’s expression was stoic, though there was a certain tightness to her eyes that told me she would be expressing her emotions later, likely in private when there wasn’t a mission on the line. “That’s the one. That will be our target. If it can be taken out, the fleet will be in much better shape.”

“You want us to get closer to that thing?” Sands asked, her eyes wide as she stared at it through the screen. “Not to insult the goddess of tactics and strategy or whatever, but do you, um, really think that’s a good idea?”

“It will be alright,” the Seosten woman assured her (and the rest of us). “Lefeunsiek ships are capable of doing extraodinary damage, as you have seen. But they require time to build that energy back up.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. That big gun it’s got can only fire once every few minutes. That’s why it’s got all those smaller weapons around it. Which are, you know, still dangerous.”

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “Dangerous indeed. But not to this ship. The shields and armor of this ship will protect it through a single pass. And that pass will be enough. Provided, of course,” she added then, “that Lord Dries has completed his work.”

“I have.” The voice came from the doorway, as Dries stepped into view. He was quite pointedly not looking toward Athena or Apollo. Actually, he wasn’t really looking at anyone, his attention remaining on the floor as he carefully came in. His hands kept squeezing and then loosening repeatedly as he moved against the wall and made his way to the left side of the bridge, staying as far away from Athena and Tabbris as he could. Finally, the man knelt down and placed a couple of metal objects he had already prepared with spells on the floor. At a touch and a word from him as he glanced toward the ship on the screen, the two objects projected a single portal into the air between them. He had prepared the spell on our way here, using what Athena had told him (or rather, what I had told him that Athena had said to me, since the man really didn’t want to talk to her directly) about the Seosten security spells and monitoring systems.

“There.” Dries moved to the nearest console to where he had set up the portal. His hands moved over the controls, and a moment later, a glowing red circle appeared in the middle of empty space a relatively short distance in front of the Sunstrider.

That was the other end of the portal that he had just set up. According to Athena, Kushiel’s people would be ready for the kind of portals that Yup used. Their security would block anything like that. But this one was something special. During his centuries-long imprisonment, Dries had worked on many different escape plans. He’d cobbled together various spells, both those that he’d learned himself and those that had somehow appeared in his head after he’d killed Hieronymus, likely through that man’s own connection to the original Crossroads Reaper.

Either way, he had taken his own expertise and an understanding of magic that came through his connection to the Reaper and used it to put together some new spells of his own. None of them had freed him (though one in particular had ended up doing much the same, as it summoned the shard of the banishment orb that had led Haiden and the others to him, eventually leading to his rescue in the long run).

And this portal was the result of that extensive, single-minded research and planning combined with the Reaper-knowledge. It was a portal that was mobile. Specifically, when the portal on our end moved, the portal on the opposite end would move to stay exactly the same distance and relative position away from it. Beyond that, that end of the portal was invisible, to avoid giving away its presence. Plus, it would bypass most defenses against teleportation, even if it was limited to a relatively short distance.

Once that was up, Athena moved to a different console, hitting a few buttons there. Immediately, the image on the main screen was split in two. Half was taken up by the view of the space in front of the ship like before. The other half, meanwhile, showed what looked like a blueprint of the tuning-fork ship (Lefeunsiek ship, apparently), along with some of the space around it. At the far corner, there was a red dot.

“The dot,” Athena explained, “is the portal.” She touched another part of the console, and several areas of the ship blueprints turned blue. “These areas are where there should be very minimal crew presence during a battle like this. Position the portal anywhere within those areas, and we should be safe to make the jump over without attracting much attention.”

“Okay, Jokai,” Larissa urged. “You heard her. Take us in.”

That was all the chameleon-man needed to hear. His hands moved to the controls once more, and we were on our way. The Sunstrider slipped past other warring ships, shielded by a squadron of fighters that came up on our side to ensure that we made it.

It wasn’t a smooth approach by any means. There were more of those invisible turrets, more fighters, and even a very persistent enemy ship that was essentially a mobile missile platform. But with our fighter escort, as well as a little help from Larissa and Haiden exercising a couple of their more impressive powers (including creating a forcefield directly over the launching ports for that aforementioned ship’s missile launchers that made them blow up inside the ship they were launching from), we finally made it close to our target ship while sending just enough shots at the thing to make them think that this was a legitimate attack run so that they wouldn’t start wondering why we were getting that close.

“One of minutes,” the man announced as the ship approached. “Can only… keep within area for ten seconds. You… must be through in that time. Fifty of seconds.”

Right, in fifty seconds, we’d have ten seconds to go through the portal. We, in this case, was Athena, Apollo, Larissa, and myself (with Tabbris, of course). We had a specific job to do over there that had to happen before any of us would have a chance of getting into the actual base.

Larissa nodded to me, and I started toward the portal, while Jokai counted down. Tabbris met me partway, her hand catching mine.

Her expression was scared, yet determined. Squeezing her hand, I asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” she replied, and a second later, she was inside me once more, settling into her spot. I felt the familiar comfort of her presence. Whatever happened, we would do this together.

I extended my staff, holding it down for Jaq and Gus to come running up and climb on. Then I moved to the portal. Before I got there, however, another hand caught my arm. That time, it was Dries. The man had come faster than I had ever seen him move, catching me. His eyes were on mine, actually meeting my gaze as he spoke in a quick, beseeching tone. “Be careful,” the man pleaded. “You must come back. You–you must come back to my descendant with me. To Hannah. To Avalon. You must come back.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave the man a short nod. “I’ll be back. I’ll come back. We’re gonna save Sariel, and get out of here.”

Dries kept hold of my arm for another second, before finally releasing me as he stepped back. He looked nervous, or even ashamed of his interjection, like he thought he’d done the wrong thing or wasn’t sure of himself anymore. “Yes,” he said quietly, “save and get out. Save and come back.”

I wanted to say something to him. I wanted to reassure the man, wanted to… do a lot of things. But I had no idea what to say. He desperately wanted to meet Avalon, and he wanted me to be there with him when he did. He wanted to have some kind of relationship with his descendant. I wanted to tell him that everything would be alright, that we would get back to Earth and see Valley together. But I didn’t want to risk anything by saying the words aloud. So, I just started, “Hey, Dries?” When he looked at me, I continued, “Be ready when we get back. Because I’m gonna make you teach me some of that magic you’re so good with.”

“Mom, Flick!” Sands looked visibly distraught that she wasn’t coming over with us. “Be… be careful, guys.”

The same sentiment was echoed by the others. Haiden had his kids pulled right up against him as they all watched. Everyone looked pretty upset that they weren’t coming on this part. But the fact was, aside from Haiden, none of them could have. Because the others didn’t have the ability to possess people.

I did, as did Athena, Apollo, and Larissa. Haiden had the same ability, but it had been universally decided that one of the two should stay with the others, and Larissa had won their game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Why did we need only people who could possess others? That was the whole plan. We would take the portal over there and possess the people in charge. In mine and Larissa’s cases, we could actually possess Seosten, which as I had seen back on the slave planet, they were absolutely not accustomed to dealing with.

We would work our way quietly through the ship, eventually making our way to more important people. Once we did… well, once we did, it would be time for the next step. Those steps would lead directly toward our being able to create a portal that led past all of Kushiel’s security and into that facility, a portal that the others could use to join us down there.  

So the others weren’t being left out completely, not in the least. Their turn would come soon enough. We just had to do our part first.

“Hey, don’t act like we’re leaving you out of all the danger, guys.” Giving them all a nod and salute as I reminded them of that fact, I added, “Remember, this is just phase one. You’ll be there for the rest of the phases.”

“Ten,” Jokai got down to then. “Nine… eight…”

Looking to Athena and Apollo together on one side of me and Larissa on the other, I offered, “So, uh, I guess this is it.”

Larissa put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. “It’s alright,” she promised, “we’ll take care of–”

“Go!” the call came from Jokai, interrupting her. “One… two… three….”

Right, right, ten seconds. Time for reassurance later. Or not, since we’d be right in the middle of things. I took a breath, watching as Athena went through the portal, followed by Apollo, and then Larissa. The adults went through first, with me bringing up the rear.

Alright, partner, I thought to Tabbris, let’s go get your mom.

A second later, I was through the portal, emerging into a room that looked like some kind of maintenance bay, full of broken down tank-like vehicles, a couple of those hovercycle things (V-Carrus, I remembered), and more that I didn’t recognize. There were two huge floor to ceiling (which was about twenty feet up) doors straight ahead of us that were probably used to let the tanks and hovercycles either leave the ship or go into a larger bay where the rest of the vehicles were, as well as a few smaller ones dotted around the room that clearly led elsewhere inside the ship itself.

There were also a handful of already-broken and smoldering robots, as well a couple of apparently unconscious figures lying here and there throughout the room. Clearly, the adults had been busy in the couple of seconds before Tabbris and I arrived.

“We must move quickly,” Athena started the second I appeared, “The defenders were dispatched before they could set off any alarm, and the ongoing battle will mean that the crew is thoroughly distracted. But the longer we dally, the higher our chances of being discovered. And,” she added pointedly, her voice flat, “the higher our casualties in the battle.”

“Right.” Larissa was already moving to one of the unconscious bodies on the floor. Reaching down, she caught hold of him before disappearing.

I did the same, heading for another of the bodies. This one was a short, squat figure that looked like Mike from Monsters Inc, only covered in fine, silky smooth white fur instead of green skin. Alright, partner, I sent to Tabbris, Let’s see if I can do this one myself.

It took longer than if I had let the other girl do it for me. I had much less experience than she did. But I had to get better at it, and we’d been practicing over the time that we’d spent with Athena and the Aelaestiam. So, after a brief delay where I had to try a couple times, I finally managed to possess him.

Err. Right, I realized, I guess I got that part, but  I think you’re gonna have to poke him awake.

Okay! Tabbris chirped. Then I felt her carefully working the man’s adrenaline (or whatever his species’ equivalent was), coaxing him out of unconsciousness. He snapped awake, big eye opening, and I felt his overwhelming fear.

It’s okay! I sent to him quickly. Listen, just hold on. Look–hey, I know how this looks, but I’m not a Seosten, okay? I–oh man, believe me, this is too hard to get into right now. But I’m not going to hurt you. I swear. We’re not here to hurt you. I just need to borrow your body for a little bit. And yeah, I know how that sounds, but it’s literally life and death. Lots of lives and deaths, actually. So… just sit back and I promise I’ll try to get us all through this.

Yeah, I wasn’t sure that actually worked. He was still afraid, terrified really. And I didn’t have time to actually convince him that I wasn’t there to hurt him. We had to keep moving.

Taking control of his hands, I pushed us up, managing a grunt. “Ugh.” My voice sounded rough, like I was gargling concrete. “I really don’t like this part of Seosten powers.”

By that point, the others had all possessed bodies of their own, and the four of us moved to the nearest door. Athena, possessing a tall, pitch-black figure with a flat, gorilla-like face put his hand against the panel there, then ushered us through as the door slid open.

We went. Apollo first, possessing a matty-furred Rakshasa. I followed after him, with Larissa in the body of a frog-like Menmeran right behind me. Athena came after us. Together, the four of us, possessing other bodies, began to make our way through the Seosten warship in the middle of the most intense battle I had ever seen.

Phase one had officially begun.

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