“You mean nobody recognized him? Not even Athena?”
It was a couple of days later, after all the partying and recovery had basically run their course. I was jogging along the exterior of the housing area, with Shiori on one side of me and Jazz on the other, as the three of us got a bit of morning exercise in while chatting. We’d started out talking in the kitchen at breakfast, but when Jazz had mentioned needing to stretch her legs, it quickly turned into this.
“Nope,” I confirmed in response to Shiori’s words. “Sariel took a copy of my memory of the mystery guy back on the ship, but nobody she’s shown it to has had any idea who he is. Which, I mean, he could be in disguise or something. Shapeshifting magic isn’t exactly super-rare. But that seems weird. Actually, the whole thing is weird. How come I could see him that nobody else did? And why didn’t I sense him with any other power besides just seeing him? Was he just projecting his way into my head or something? I wish Tabbris had been there right then so we could see if she got anything else from seeing him in real time. And so we could see for sure if he was in my mind or in my eyes.”
Jazz spoke up as we went around the next corner. “It’s pretty obvious that he’s the one who took care of the traps that Whisper bitch was talking about, right? It sure wasn’t any of you guys, and you said she was surprised you made it so fast. So he was on your side. Our side. Whatever. He helped save the universe from those evil fucks.”
Grimacing, I shook my head. “The thing is, I’m not sure. Just because he was against them doesn’t mean he’s for us. He might’ve just wanted to stop them from letting out those monsters, you know? Not wanting the universe to be destroyed doesn’t make someone a fantastic person. It just means they live here and would prefer to keep living here. There’s levels to that whole thing. Hell, he might still want to destroy the universe but on his terms.” Having said that, I sighed. “I just wish we knew more about him. Being able to hide himself from everyone who was there, that’s… uh, kind of intimidating.” Boy was that an understatement. Just the thought that this guy could eliminate all the traps the Whispers had placed while being invisible to everyone else, including the Whispers themselves, was just… terrifying, honestly. We had to find out more about him. Or rather, anything about him. Because right now, we had absolutely nothing.
Jazz thought about that for a second as we continued to jog before nodding. “Sure, I get it. The enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend. Especially when you get into how big the universe is and how many assholes are out there with their own agendas. Still, it’s a good thing he was there right then.”
“Good thing,” I echoed in agreement, picking up the pace a little bit. “And it’ll be an even better thing if we can find someone who actually knows who he is, so we can talk to him and find out what he really wants. I’d rather not get blindsided by some brand new threat. You know, again.”
“That does have a tendency to happen,” Shiori murmured, shaking her head. “But hey, at least you guys made it out of there with everyone. You saved your grandparents and the others and stopped the whole universe from being overrun by giant monsters. Yay Team Continued Survival.” She gave a heavy sigh then. “I can’t believe I slept through the whole thing in Senny’s apartment.”
“Sorry,” I replied with a wince. “We were sort of on the clock, and–” Cutting myself off, I hesitated before settling on a simple, “Trust me, you’ve been there plenty of times. And you’ll be there in the future.” My eyes darted to Jazz. “Both of you will.”
“Got that damn straight,” Jazz immediately confirmed. “If those Whisper things show up again, Doug’s gonna want to be involved. And if he’s involved, so am I.” She reached over, punching me lightly in the shoulder. “You’re not leaving us out of that, you hear? Or you’ll regret it.” She squinted then. “I guess I sort of just threatened you with–never mind. The point is, give us a chance to help.”
“I’ll do my best,” I promised. “But hey, if it comes down to it, maybe you’ll be the ones who have to call me in, you know? Let’s just promise we’ll keep each other involved.” After a brief hesitation, I added, “And you’re right about Doug. The second he heard what was going on, he uhh, he was ready to go. More than ready. I’m pretty sure he’s been practicing those anti-Whisper runes since I left his room. Someone might have to go check on him and make sure he eats something.”
Jazz snorted. “Gordon and me are on top of it.” Right after she said that, there was a brief moment where she visibly flinched. Probably because it struck home yet again just what had happened to her whole team the year before. Rudolph and Paul were dead, Isaac… well, he was dead and an evil murdering piece of shit. And Roxa split her time between being up here on the station and with her werewolf pack.
The point was, they really had gone through a lot in the past year and a half. We all had, but not all of us had lost half our team for various reasons. So it was no wonder that Jazz, Doug, Gordon, and even Roxa felt a pretty tight bond. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if half of my teammates had died or turned out to be psychopaths. What if we had lost… what if we’d lost anyone like that? As it was, the closest we’ve gotten to losing someone from the team was Sean, and he was still alive, at least. I couldn’t even think about how I would react to someone like Columbus or Sands dying. It would rip everyone apart. I– god damn it, I had to stop thinking so morbidly.
Shoving all of that out of my head, I glanced around, realizing we had continued to jog. Now we were approaching the park where I had sat with Senny the night before. Seeing that brought the other situation to mind, so I spoke up with, “Speaking of Gordon, you guys think you’re up for this rescue thing we’re supposed to get involved in?”
“Name the time and place, dude,” Jazz shot back without a second of hesitation. “If there’s a chance of finding Gordon’s dad, or even just getting an idea of where he might be, we’re there.”
“Yeah, it’d be nice to kill two birds with one stone like that,” Shiori agreed, her voice bright and cheerful at the very thought. “Man, can you imagine if we save Gordon’s dad and Senny’s at the same camp? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
“The awesomest,” I murmured thoughtfully, slowing as we passed the park before coming to a stop. Taking the water bottle from my belt, I gulped some down, then tossed it to Jazz. “And yeah, even if we don’t find Sindri, I bet someone there will have heard of him. They might know where he is, where to look next, what–they might know something.”
“It’ll be a start, anyway,” Jazz announced after gulping some of the water. “And speaking of a start, you guys realize it’s almost January, right? We’re over halfway through the one year truce. Do you think we’re actually going to be able to finish this situation with the loyalists so the Seosten don’t invade the planet en masse? Cuz I don’t know about you guys, but going from quiet infiltration and manipulation to an all-out war doesn’t strike me as an upgrade. There’s this guy in my trig class who was talking about these old books where some kids turned into animals to fight alien brain-slugs or something, and they were trying to avoid a full invasion too. Actually, come to think of it, there’s a lot of similarities between our whole situation and those books. Except our body-snatchers aren’t slugs. Except in spirit, sometimes.”
“I’ll have to read them sometime and find out how they end,” I replied with a very slight smile as my gaze glanced toward Shiori. “But as far as the truce goes, we don’t actually have to finish this war before it’s over.”
That made both other girls blink, Shiori hesitantly speaking up. “We don’t?”
My head shook. “I mean, sure, it’d be a nice bonus. But I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. We just have to convince the Seosten that it’s better to work with us than against us. And pulling off Liesje’s spell is a pretty good step in that direction.”
Giving a double-take at that, Jazz tossed the water bottle to Shiori. “Wait, you think making that spell work so they can’t possess any of us is actually gonna make them more likely to work with us? I mean, instead of just invading the whole planet and putting a stop to the situation before we can spread it to everyone. Could you, uhh, explain that?” She sounded understandably dubious.
“They could invade because of it,” I agreed tentatively before continuing. “But yeah, I think it’s more likely that they work with us. One of their big things is their whole population problem, right? They lose so many babies because they accidentally recall into the parent and just… vanish before they’re old enough to not be accidentally brain-crushed.” Saying it out loud and matter-of-fact like that made me grimace. It was such a horrific concept. No wonder the Seosten had parenting issues, considering how long that had been going on. Still, I pushed forward. “But right now, any Seosten who was pregnant could come here and get the protection spell put on them if they wanted. I mean, both parents and maybe any other close relatives that the kid could–it’d be a whole thing, sure. It probably wouldn’t help stop absolutely every situation unless we managed to put the entire species under the spell. And that would take more power than I think any of us have ever heard of. But it could cut down on the amount of children they lose that way just by blocking possession of the mother and father. That could revolutionize their entire reproductive situation, you know? And if there can be a lot more Seosten, they might have a better chance against the Fomorians. That was one of the biggest things holding them back before.”
Thinking about that for a moment, Jazz slowly nodded. “Sure, I guess I see what you mean. But, you know, the problem is convincing them of that. Or at least convincing enough of the right ones. It doesn’t seem like they’re really quick to change their minds about stuff. Actually, kind of the opposite. They’re reeeeeeeally slow about changing their minds.”
“Yeah, humans and Seosten have that in common, at least,” I muttered while shaking my head. “But we’ve got time anyway. Hopefully we can settle at least a couple more of these other situations before that comes up.”
“At least you don’t have Fossor hanging over your head anymore,” Shiori pointed out with a bright smile, hand reaching over to grab mine. “And I don’t think he’ll be coming back as a ghost.”
The mere suggestion made me grimace, bile rising in my throat even as I squeezed her hand and tugged the other girl closer. Having her right there helped put thoughts of Fossor out of my mind. “God, don’t even say that. Don’t give the universe any ideas. It’s already got plenty of them and doesn’t need any extra help.”
Wincing, Shiori murmured an apology, just before leaning up to kiss me. Then she gave a slight smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll be here to help deal with anyone who thinks coming after you is a good idea. Right, Jazz?”
“Sure,” the other girl confirmed. “I mean, not quite as close as you are, but I’ll definitely be there.” Her eyes glanced to me before she added, “And in the meantime, we made the full circuit around this whole place. You know what that means.”
Shiori brightened, pulling back a bit to wink at me. “You did promise.”
Glancing between both of them, I played up exhaling while waving both hands. As I did so, the two rings shot off my wrists and grew up to their full size, just large enough to hop through. “Sure, sure. Let’s take it again, all the way around.
“And this time, we’ll use the speed boost rings.”
A couple hours later, the loud and distinct sound of my staff clacking against another filled the air. Sweat poured down my face as I quickly snapped my weapon up to intercept a falling blow. It struck my staff with enough force to nearly make my legs buckle, even as a hearty laugh erupted from my opponent. “Good!” Uncle Al called while spinning the staff over his head lazily as he stepped back to give me a second to catch my breath. “You kept your feet under you. Maybe next time I’ll use a little more oomph.”
His words made me squint. The two of us were standing in one of the training rooms. To one side, some other people were working out on the machines, but I could tell more of their attention was on us. Or rather, on him. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch the one-and-only Hercules, even if he was practicing against some tiny blonde nobody?
Okay, practicing was probably a bit generous. He clearly wasn’t getting anything out of this. He just wanted to see what I was capable of, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t disappoint him too much. I had been putting enough effort into it that I was panting and sweating despite my incredibly-enhanced endurance. And yet he barely looked like he’d been doing anything at all. I was pretty sure a normal person would have been more winded by a light jog across the street than my Uncle Al was by ten minutes of me throwing everything I could at him.
After catching my breath enough to actually speak, I demanded, “Exactly what percentage of your strength were you using right then? Please tell me it was more than an average person would use to stop a toddler from waving their hand around.”
Al, however, simply smiled a bit at me. “That’s not really important. What is important is that you’re one tough little cookie. Trust me, you’re pretty far along considering how recently you started doing this. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, kid. But uhh, I recognize some of those moves. You’ve been learning from Sariel and Athena, haven’t you?”
Coughing, I gestured. “Among others. They all wanted me to know how to take care of myself. It uhh, I’ve been doing my best to keep up with training. Avalon helps with that a lot too.”
Showing his teeth with a sly grin, Al gave a short nod. “In that case, I wouldn’t mind jumping onto that list myself. Considering the sort of trouble I’ve heard you keep getting into, you could use all the extra training you can get.”
Swallowing hard at that, I stared at him. “I am definitely not gonna object to Hercules training me. Heracles, Alcaeus, whatever.”
“Uncle Al’s just fine,” he assured me. “But if you agree to this, don’t think I’ll take it easy on you just because we’re practically family. I’ll be working you to the bone.”
“Oh, well in that case I better invite Avalon and the others,” I replied. “I mean, if Avalon finds out you’re putting me through real training and I didn’t invite her, she might never forgive me.” After a brief hesitation, I added, “If that’s okay, that is.”
“The more the merrier!” Uncle Al informed me with a cheerful grin. “It’s been a long time since I had the chance to whip a few young upstarts into shape. You’ve put some good work into it, I’ll give you that. Solid base to work off of so we don’t have to start from scratch. But you give me some real time with you all and we’ll find out what you’re actually capable of.” After a brief pause, he added, “As long as it doesn’t make you ignore your other training. Give me a few hours a day, but you work on that whole necromancy thing too, you hear me? Especially with these Whisper things and the Seosten ghosts making themselves an issue, we’re gonna need you to be on top of that.”
My head bobbed quickly. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m still getting lessons from Brom Bones, plus Rahanvael and Persephone both said they could teach me some more stuff too. We’re definitely not gonna slack on that. Not that it’ll be an instant help or anything.” That last bit came in a mutter as I sighed. “I’m still not going to be strong enough to just snap my fingers and make them go away.”
Uncle Al’s hand settled on my shoulder and squeezed firmly. “You listen to me. No one who matters expects you to be able to do that. Just do the best you can. Help buy everyone else time, so we can kick those ghost-asses, alright? You don’t have to handle the whole situation by yourself. And believe me, I know how that sounds coming from me. I’m not exactly the poster boy for working nicely with others. But you don’t need to be like me. You’ve got all these other people, and you haven’t fucked up your relationship with them. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Learn how to use your power to help deal with the ghosts. Emphasis on help.”
Reaching up, I put my hand over his and offered the much-older man a hesitant smile. “Thanks, Uncle Al. I guess having so many people who can teach me how to do this stuff is my repayment for the fact that I have so much shit to deal with in the first place. Lots of problems, but lots of solutions too.”
With a chuckle, he cuffed the side of my head lightly. “Now that makes sense to me. You’ve got a lot of shit being flung at you, but uhh, lots of people who can teach you how to dodge that shit too.” He grimaced then. “That metaphor sort of crashed and burned before it even got off the ground. Anyway, the point is, just keep learning and training, kid. You’ll get there. You’ve got all the resources you need. Just gotta use them. I know how easy it can be to feel… overwhelmed, trust me on that. But you’ll be okay. You’ve got these people behind you, and you’re one tough kid as it is.”
“People like you behind me?” I offered with a raised eyebrow.
That broad grin came back as he yanked me closer, put me in a headlock, and gave me a noogie. “Damn straight, people like me. You just point me at anyone giving you shit and I’ll redirect a river to drown them.”
Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind the next time I run into any assholes who happen to be near a convenient river.”
“Or lake, or ocean, or reservoir,” Al put in. “I’m not picky on the exact body of water I use to drown assholes. Might even get creative and use a tank of maple syrup, like this one time that–” Cutting himself off, he reconsidered. “You know what, maybe I’ll tell you that story later.” With that, he stepped back, pointing his staff at me. “First, let’s see you go another round.”
“What–you mean I have to throw myself at you again before you’ll tell me the syrup story?” I demanded, huffing a little.
“That’s right,” he confirmed, showing me his teeth once more. “I mean, come on, I’ve gotta hold some good things back. Just trust me, it’s a fantastic story. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of syrup, me, and a whole bunch of these five foot tall gremlin things.” Having said that, the man snapped his fingers. “Oh, and your old pal Hisao was there too.”
My eyes widened a bit. “Hisao as in Professor Dare’s boyfriend?”
“Well sure, he’s probably one of the few men alive who might be stronger than me,” Al pointed out. “Without cheating and stacking a bunch of other powers, that is.”
“Hisao might be stronger than–” I cut myself off and exhaled. “Okay, now I really have to hear the rest of this story.”
“Well, you know how to do it,” came the casual response as Al slapped the end of his staff into his palm hard enough to make the loud pop fill the room around us. “Bring it.
“Show me what you can really do.”