Tabbris, if you can take control of my bodily functions, please make sure I don’t pee myself.
After sending my (extremely) close companion that urgent private message, I managed a weak gulp while staring openly at the beautiful brown-haired woman. “Ah-uh-uh… y-you know my name.” Dumb, probably, but it was the only thing I could think to say in that particular moment.
To my surprise, the woman chuckled. Her voice was soft. “Yes,” she agreed. “I suppose I do. As to how, that will come soon. But for now, we must leave. Radueriel will have reinforcements on the way. He did not come with enough to handle me. When he returns, that will be different.”
Right. Now that Radueriel knew she was here, he’d come back with a hell of a lot more firepower. I didn’t want to think about how much it would take to deal with someone who could do what I had just seen this woman do. But I did know that if we were still in the area, I’d probably end up like a bug against a windshield. Not being here was a very good idea.
“S-so, um, can you teleport us up to my friends?” I started hesitantly. “They’re on a ship with-”
“I am quite aware they are, Lady Felicity,” she interrupted, holding a hand up to stop me. “Unfortunately, we have no way of getting to them right now. They had to pull back to avoid losing the ship to Radueriel’s armada.” As she spoke, the woman produced a small, fairly odd-looking dagger. The blade was about five inches long, and made of what looked like some kind of yellow glass. Its handle looked like a simple piece of wood with red cord wrapped tightly around it almost to the bottom. Right at the end, the wooden handle had a tiny humanoid skull carved into it in intricate detail.
“I can break through the shield that Radueriel has up,” the woman continued while turning to the nearby wall. “But only to locations that I’ve prepared ahead of time. That ship, unfortunately, is not one of them.” She drove the strange amber blade into the wall with a quick thrust, adding, “But I promise, you will see them again. Right now, our priority is simply in leaving this place.”
With that, the woman twisted the handle of the knife that was stuck into the wall. There was a brief grinding noise before a doorway-sized and shaped section of the wall suddenly began to glow yellow, just like the the blade itself. Pulling the knife back out, she gestured. “Go through, my lady.”
For a second, I hesitated. Opening my mouth before shutting it, I inwardly asked, Tabbris?
Mom liked her, she sent back. She went rogue a long time ago, but Mom didn’t know much about it. Or she didn’t tell me, I dunno. I… I never heard anything about the Nimue stuff.
From the way the woman was scanning the room behind me, and her posture, I knew that she was anxious to get out of there. But she didn’t rush me, didn’t insist that I hurry. She was willing, even in that moment, to give me a few seconds to think. Which, I supposed made sense. One generally didn’t become the embodiment of wisdom by being against thinking things through.
Still, I didn’t want to push that any further than I had to. The woman had come in and put down all of Radueriel’s men right when he had me dead to rights. She was obviously no fan of his. Even if this took me further away from the rest of Sands, Larissa, and the others for the moment, there wasn’t really a choice. It was get out of here with Auriel, or stay and wait for Raduriel to show up again so that he could strap me down in a lab and find out about Tabbris.
With that thought, I immediately moved. Walking quickly up to the glowing amber doorway that the woman had created, I put a hand up to it. My fingers went right through, giving a tingling sensation that continued all the way up my arm to my shoulder. It made me shiver, and I took a breath before stepping through the obvious portal. That funny tingle extended through my whole body while my vision went briefly yellow, and I felt a brief spinning sensation in my stomach.
When the light faded and I could see again, there was gravel under my feet. Blinking around, I found myself standing… in the middle of a driveway in what looked like an ordinary suburb. There was a small peach-colored house behind me, with a chain link fence around it and a wraparound wooden porch. A simple wooden swing hanging from a tree in the yard creaked in the light breeze. More houses, each equally mundane-looking, filled the street in both directions.
“Wh–” Spinning in a circle as my eyes widened with shock, I blurted, “We’re back on Earth?!” I felt like flailing wildly, and it was all I could do to hold myself back from just completely losing it.
Appearing beside me, the Seosten woman spoke simply, her voice vaguely amused. “Look up.”
So, I did. Tilting my head back, I stared toward the sky… that wasn’t a sky. There was a simple metal ceiling a few hundred feet up. “That–that’s not a… we…” I cut myself off, frowning slightly.
“Please, take your time,” the woman advised patiently. She stood, hands held loosely behind her back as she watched me with a curious expression. If she was in any kind of rush, she didn’t show it at all. It was like she was getting to know me just by observing when I was deep in thought. She could have just told me everything, but she chose to wait and watch me work it out.
“I–we’re on some kind of ship or something with a recreation of suburban Earth in the middle of it?” Opening my mouth and then shutting it, I considered. “Probably for people… people you’ve got here who would be more comfortable in that situation instead of a blank spaceship because they have to be here for a long time, and you don’t want them to be scared or… or whatever.”
I saw a faint, yet recognizable smile play at the woman’s mouth briefly. “Very good,” she replied, “and very close, save for a few particular details. For one, we are on a station, not a spaceship. An understandable mistake, which you only could have guessed properly through luck, really.”
Her eyes focused on me then, as she added in a slightly curious tone, “In any case, I imagine that you probably have more than a few questions now that we are actually relatively safe, Lady Felicity?”
I was staring at her as she finished, barely hearing her actual words. All I could think about was the way I’d seen her move when fighting–no, when slaughtering all of Radueriel’s men back there. It had been as amazing to watch as it was terrifying to think of just how deadly this woman actually was and what she could do. For a moment, all I could do was stand there with my mouth opening and shutting as I searched for the right thing, or anything at all, to say.
Finally, all I could settle on was a weak, “Y-you’re… I mean you’re really–but he called you… does… does that mean that you were actually…? He–Arthur and all that and you were really-”
“Yes.” Her answer came softly, and I could actually hear a bit of regret and sadness behind her words. It was obvious that there was a lot of pain associated with her memories of that time.
She continued, chin lifting just a little. “I was born with the name of Auriel, though I have also been called Uriel at times. On Earth, I was known as Athena. And also, for a time, as Nimue.”
It was true, then. She was both Athena and Nimue, the so-called ‘Lady of the Lake.’ “But… but does that mean you gave Excalibur to Arthur and all that? You’re Nimue? But why would you have– I don’t understand.” That was all I could say, because I really didn’t understand, at all.
“Come,” she urged, turning to start walking down the ordinary-looking sidewalk. “I will explain as much as I can at the moment. Suffice to say, it is a very long story. And there is some that is not mine to tell.” She glanced sidelong at me then, waiting until I had started to walk beside her.
Together, we moved while the woman spoke. “I disagreed with the creation of the Bystander Effect. I disagreed with… a great many things, though that was the last dust in the neulik pile. Or-” She looked to see my bewildered expression, chuckling slightly. “I suppose someone like you would say that it was… ah, the straw that broke the camel’s back? The last event before I decided that changing things from within, through compromise and discussion, would not work.”
Stopping at what looked like a small park at the corner of the street, the woman stared at a tall tree that was growing there. She laid a hand against it, her voice softening. “When we first came to your planet, I loathed your species. I saw you as… as mockeries of the Seosten, and as weapons for your creators.” Pausing then, she added with a brief look, “You are aware that–”
“I know about the Fomorians,” I assured her quickly. “I know that they–I know all of that.”
“You are very well informed,” she noted with a raised eyebrow before continuing. “But yes, I hated you. I believed that you were nothing more than weapons that would be used by the Fomorians to destroy us, and that anything we did to turn you against them, to use you, was acceptable. I was very angry, very… lost. The Fomorians murdered my family, my husband, my… my son. He was an infant at the time, and it is so very hard to…” She trailed off, looking away. Her shoulders stiffened, and it took the Seosten woman a second to collect herself.
“Suffice to say,” she finally continued, “I was very angry. And anything even remotely associated with those creatures, I saw as just as monstrous as they were. So I didn’t care about manipulating you. I didn’t care about any of that. I wanted justice. I wanted revenge. And turning the Fomorians’ own creations against them, that was… that felt like very good revenge.”
Swallowing hard at that, I hesitated before speaking up. “But you changed your mind?”
Turning away from the tree, the woman started to walk again. She led me up a steep hill at the end of the neighborhood, her voice quiet. “The ancient world that you read about in your human history books, and the world that I knew at that time were very different. Before the Bystander Effect, humans and what you call Alters often lived together knowingly. There were wars, yes, and humans were often killed in those wars. The world was much more like the myths than your history. Up until the creation of the Bystander Effect, some humans were hunted by monsters while others worked and lived right alongside them. Magic was commonly used. Your species, your entire civilization was built around it, in many ways.
“But we were more powerful. You had magic, but we had stronger magic and technology that you couldn’t possibly keep up with or hope to understand. We forced your obedience by taking the roles of gods. As strong as you were, we were stronger. And we knew how to manipulate enough of you you into worshipping us. Until…” She paused there, standing near the top of the hill while looking toward me. “Until it was decided that you were growing too quickly. It was thought that you would be able to challenge us sooner than we had expected. And the thought of having to fight humans instead of having you as our… tools was too much for many to bear. There was even talk of simply destroying your planet and being done with it entirely.”
Swallowing hard at that as the woman paused to look at me, I offered a weak, “I, uh, I guess I’m really glad you guys didn’t go with that one after all. Given the choice between the two, I mean.”
“Yes.” She frowned a little, looking away from me as she continued in a soft voice. “There was a city that was named for me, a city that took its name from my Greek identity, that is.”
“Athens,” I confirmed with a quick nod. “I remember. You and Poseidon were supposed to have like… competed over it or something, before it was named? You gave them the first olive tree and he gave them their first horses. Uh, no offense, but I’m not sure why olives won over horses. Don’t get me wrong, olives are fine and all, but horses seem a lot more useful.”
That time, she did smile. “The myths have become slightly… different from what actually happened. As part of proving our power, we were supposed to show off a little bit. Sachael, the one you know as Poseidon, and I did have a competition to this effect. But it wasn’t olive trees and horses that we brought to them. Sachael brought them an alliance with a herd of centaurs to protect their city. The horses came with, but the centaurs were a larger part of his offering. He forced the centaurs to obey, then gave them to the then-unnamed city for protection and aid.
“And in my case, I did give them the olive tree, in a way. But it’s how I gave it to them that is important. I taught the people of the city a spell that would cause their crops to grow fresh and healthy even in weak soil. I taught them magic to ensure fine harvests. It was simply that the example that I used during the demonstration was on an olive tree.”
“That makes sense,” I agreed before biting my lip. “But I don’t understand what all that has to do with what you were saying before, about how you guys had to decide between creating the Bystander Effect and destroying the entire world like a kid who doesn’t want to play the game anymore because they’re not winning, so they just flip the whole damn table over.”
She gave me a brief look then, seeming to smile a little despite herself. “An apt comparison in some ways. As for its relevance… I did not care about the city of Athens at first. For quite some time, actually. I made my appearances as needed to continue our deception and played my part. But it was simply a… a job. I saw humans as… as less than us. I saw every race as less than us. When the time came for the Bystander Effect to come into play, I barely thought about what it would mean.”
I found myself frowning a little at how she had phrased that. “What it would mean?”
“The consequences,” she spoke simply, her voice sounding a little rough before she pushed on. “The initial spell was centered there, on my city. It was a test, to make sure it worked. We… we cast it there, and…” She didn’t continue for a few seconds. When I looked to the woman, her eyes were closed. She breathed in and out, then went on. “I saw what happened when they forgot, when the Bystander Effect removed their memories and their knowledge of magic. The entire city was built around using magic. Humans and other species all lived together. But when the Bystander Effect was cast, they had no warning. Families, friends, they were all suddenly torn apart. Humans and nonhumans didn’t remember each other. And worse, the humans didn’t understand what they were looking at when they did see magic and… and non-humans.
“The Bystander Effect wasn’t perfect at first. It erased their memories of magic and non-humans, but it didn’t erase their ability to see it. We had to take a lot more time to… refine it further. But that first casting, it was… bad. Athens was nearly destroyed overnight. One day the city was full of perfectly happy, normal families, and the next… the entire city was at war. Thousands died, on both sides. The non-humans were just… confused, and terrified. Say there were two brothers and one was a werewolf while the other was human, the human would completely forget his brother, and when he saw the man in his wolf form, it… it made him attack. Picture that, but all over the city. The Bystander Effect erased memories, erased magic, and erased entire families.”
I stared at the woman. “And… you said the city was built on magic. They used it all the time, so if they didn’t know how to use it later…”
Her head bowed a little. “Yes. Many more died from the lack of magic, and they didn’t understand what was happening. A part of them knew something was missing, but it was as if…” She paused. “Imagine the people of present day New York waking up one morning to find that electricity no longer worked. And more than that, they didn’t remember anything about it, didn’t know how to use it, or that it even existed. Athens was a bloodbath until the non-humans either figured out how to hide, or simply left the city. And after that, things got even worse because of the lack of magic in a city that had depended on it so much.
“I saw families ripped apart. I saw every non-human fight for survival against those who should have been their friends, their relatives. Husbands completely forgot about their wives, and vice versa. Children died who didn’t have to simply because they didn’t know how to use magic anymore. Or they were forgotten by their entirely human parents. Or… any number of things. I was there for a month, to report on how the test went. In that month, I saw more than three quarters of the city’s population either die, or flee.”
“And you cared,” I spoke softly, staring at the woman. “We mattered to you.”
“It took that much,” she replied, her voice cracking slightly. “I didn’t think that I did, but seeing that, watching it… I realized that you were… Athens… Athens was mine. Athens was my city. They were my people. They were my people and I let that happen to them. I never cared about them, not really. Not until it was too late. I volunteered them for the test. I let that happen. I brought it upon them. I did that to them. I was responsible for what happened to them. They needed me. They needed me and I let that happen. I allowed them to–” She stopped talking for a moment, jaw clenching as she looked away, shame washing over her features for a moment.
“After that, I… I tried to convince my people not to go through with the full implementation. They said I had gone native, like Apollo. He had just… recently turned rogue. So when they saw me saying some of the same things, they didn’t react well. I was taken back here to Seosten space to be… evaluated and put on enforced vacation, of sorts. That lasted for a few hundred Earth years before I managed to escape.”
“You were basically imprisoned for a few hundred years?” I gasped out loud, working my mouth.
“They didn’t call it prison,” she replied with a little shrug. “They called it retirement. But… essentially, yes. I was given all kinds of honors, but I couldn’t leave. Until I did. And once I did, I returned to Earth. I found that the Bystander Effect still wasn’t perfect. They were still working on it. Which gave me time to find a way to break it, before the Effect solidified. But I needed someone powerful. I couldn’t do it by myself. Academically, I knew it could be done. But without either someone of unimaginable power, or an entire army, it was impossible, even then.”
“That’s where Arthur comes in?” I asked, a little hesitantly.
“In a way,” she confirmed. “There are certain… powerful and rare spells that can… if not predict the future, at least… provide a hint. They provide a direction in where to go for what you seek. I spent most of a decade preparing to cast it. I wanted it to be as clear as possible. When I did, the spell directed me to a village, in what would eventually be known as England. There, I found a human boy who had just been… bonded to the dragon that destroyed his village. Dragons are… beyond any measure of power. Why this one spent time destroying that particular village, I have no idea. But the boy was bonded to it. He had the potential to be… like a god, by far the most powerful of what you call Heretics.
“He could, in time, have broken the Bystander Effect. So I trained him. I taught him under the guise of Nimue. The name means teacher in one of the Seosten dialects. I taught Arthur, helped him raise his Knights of the Round Table. In time, they would have worked together to erase the Bystander Effect entirely. Until… until Arthur was ambushed, and his power was broken, at least for the time being.”
“Broken?” I shook my head quickly at that. “I don’t understand, what–”
“Later,” she promised. “We will discuss more of it later. You have my word, Lady Felicity. Right now, there is more you should see.” She beckoned for me to follow her up the last few steps of the hill.
Following, I asked, “Um, how come you keep calling me Lady Felicity?”
A small smile played at the woman’s face. “Apologies. I have spoken with humans who were more from your time, humans we freed from captivity and brought here. They are the ones who designed the… Earth neighborhood you see below. So yes, I am aware of how much has changed. But I am still… drawn to the older customs. I am old, and at times adapting with such changes can be difficult. We try, as best as we are able, to make our allies… comfortable.”
To demonstrate that fact, the woman gestured outward, and I looked the way she was pointing. The hill we were on was like the center of a wheel, with half a dozen more ‘neighborhoods’ spaced out around it like the spokes of that wheel. Except each of them was very different. The modern Earth one was behind us. Next to it, hidden by raised ground to either side, were areas for what was clearly very different species. The area to the left of the modern Earth one was mostly cliff-dwellings, with a lot of strange gooey stuff all over the place, and a pool of what looked like snot in the middle of their space. I saw giant insects that looked like mosquitos with human faces flying around, as well as several other bug-type Alters.
Meanwhile, the area to the right was volcanic, full of lava and ash, with dark red canine-humanoids wandering around. And more beyond that, every section was catered toward a different set of Alters. I could even see a couple that looked like Earth in different time periods, clearly designed so that humans who had originated in those times would feel at home rather than forcing them to live in only the modern version.
“You gave them areas they could feel comfortable in?” I asked after taking all that in.
“We’ve tried to do that, yes,” she confirmed. “As I said, there is a lot that we need to talk about. But before we go on, you should know that you are perfectly safe here.”
“After what you did to Radueriel’s men and all that?” I gave a quick nod. “I believe you.”
She watched me for a brief second, bowing her head. “I am glad for that… but you were not the one I was speaking to.”
“Uh.” I stiffened reflexively, squinting at the woman despite myself. “What do you mean? I’m the only one here.”
For a moment, the woman said nothing. She watched me in silence that stretched on before finally starting with, “You cannot be possessed. You somehow were able to defeat magic placed on you before ever becoming a Heretic. Both of these things should be impossible. Manakel and the others believe that your mother taught you some impressive magic, that she somehow used her power to ensure that you could use spells before being a Heretic. They’re wrong, of course. They’re looking for an incredibly complicated answer, while completely ignoring the simple one. The reason that you cannot be possessed, and why you are able to cast such powerful magic… is that you are already possessed, and you are not the one casting it.”
Despite how completely pathetic the action was, given what I’d already seen, I took an immediate step back while snapping my staff up defensively. “S-stay back,” I blurted. “I won’t let you hurt her.”
“Hurt her?” I saw the way the woman’s face softened. “No. Oh no, never. Lady Felicity, I told you, you are safe here. You are both safe here, I promise you. I did not… mean to frighten you, either of you. But it is very important that I speak with her directly. Because if I am right, then she is not just any Seosten. She is Sariel’s child.”
“Why… why is that important?” I asked, feeling Tabbris’s own confusion and uncertainty mixing with my own.
“Because,” she replied simply, “if she is Sariel’s child, it means that she carries her mother’s blood. Which means that then we can do what I have been trying to do for these past ten years.
“We can find Sariel, and save her. Along with every other person that Kushiel has locked up in her torture lab.”