Jaq

Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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Exodus 44-01

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Something really fucked up was going on.

That sentence basically could have opened almost any story from my life this past year. But this time it was particularly apt. Harper Hayes was in my dorm room where I had been sleeping with Avalon and Shiori, and she had just apparently knocked out another intruder with some kind of electrified knife before informing us that we had to go because Fossor just killed one of the Committee members and got Gaia arrested for it.

So yeah, with extreme emphasis, something really fucked up was going on.

Avalon was already on her feet, Harper’s words (if it was really Harper at all) bringing her up quickly. She grabbed the girl’s arm, giving her a quick shove up against the wall while hissing, “What the hell are you talking about? Who are you?”

“Valley,” I quickly blurted, tossing a pen to the girl. “Check her.” She caught it with her free hand while still holding Harper against the wall with her other.

Harper, for her part, gave a very soft sigh before extending her arm to the side, using her other hand to tug the sleeve down, exposing her skin. “Fine, do it. But quick, they’re already sending more to take your friends.”

Even as Valley scrawled the anti-possession rune on the girl, I was grabbing two things. First, a small coin that Wyatt had given me. My thumb brushed over it as I quickly activated the thing to let him know something was wrong. With my other hand, I grabbed my phone and pressed the button that would let Tabbris know that I needed her to check in. Wyatt and Tabbris, they were first.

Once the messages were sent, I pushed myself to my feet, trying not to wince. My legs still hurt. They weren’t crippled or anything, but they were definitely sore. Just putting my own weight on them after laying down for hours made a short, sharp pain shoot through me. Ow. Seriously ow. I wasn’t going to be jumping around anytime soon. Just the thought of launching myself with my staff and landing on them made me shudder.

One night. Could we not have one single night where we got to win without things going wrong?

In the meantime, Shiori had moved to check the guy on the floor. Glancing that way finally showed me who it was. October Atrean, one of the guys who had been sent by the Committee to keep an eye on things. Checking him, Shiori looked to me, whispering, “He’s breathing.”

Avalon finished with the rune then, stepping back a bit while we all stared. But nothing happened. There was no Seosten possessing her. Which meant… what, exactly? One of Fossor’s zombies? The thought of the chipper, perky girl I’d gotten to know a bit over that year being a zombie filled me with dread.

But no. I could tell she wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead, and she wasn’t possessed, so…?

“What are you?” Avalon snapped. “Who are you? What–shapeshifter, magic, what?”

“There’s a lot to tell you,” Harper agreed. “But now isn’t the time. Like I said, they’re coming for you. They already arrested Gaia. And by they, I mean more Committee members. They weren’t taking a chance with her, not after–” She stopped herself then, head shaking. “Explanations later. Right now, you want to get out of here without everyone you care about being thrown in Crossroads prison? Then we need to get off this island right now.

“Why should we trust you?” I demanded. “You could be working for… or with, any of like a dozen different people that want to get us out from Gaia’s protection. We have no reason to believe that you–”

Harper spoke then. Not words. Numbers. At first I thought she was listing temperatures, then time limits or something. Then I realized the truth.

“Latitude and longitude?” Shiori blurted. “What’s that supposed–”

“The baseball stadium,” I interrupted, staring at Harper. “That’s the coordinates for the baseball stadium that we fought Ammon at. You… you’re the one who sent that telepathic whisper to Professor Dare, the one who told her we were in trouble and where to find us.”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” Harper spoke quietly, yet urgently. “And I really want to answer them. But there’s not time. We have to leave, now.”

Avalon spun on her heel, starting to the door. “If Gaia’s in trouble, I–”

Shiori and I were both there, grabbing either of her arms. I spoke quickly. “Valley, stop. If she’s right–I don’t know who she is or what’s going on with her, but if she’s right, we don’t stand a chance. It’s the Committee, and if they have Gaia–if it’s something Gaia can’t handle…”

I felt Tabbris’ presence then. Not fully. She hadn’t recalled to me completely. Rather, she projected herself mentally, checking to see what was going on. I silently filled her in, letting her take in everything from my mind while urging her to stay at the Atherby camp to tell them. For a brief second, I felt a little more relief despite the insanity of the situation, just knowing that Tabbris was getting help.

“What do you want me to do, Chambers?!” Avalon snapped meanwhile, looking to me sharply. “Just abandon her? I can’t do that. I can’t just let her–if they’re going to–” She half-flailed helplessly, her eyes wide.

“Leave now,” Harper put in before I could respond. “Get off the island, regroup with others, and go from there. You won’t accomplish anything by getting yourself arrested. Nothing except turning yourself into leverage that can be used against her.”

Tabbris had everything by then. She was just as confused as I was, clearly. But she promised to tell everyone at the camp, and to get help. Then I felt her presence withdraw.

Spinning back to Harper in that time, Avalon started to blurt, “And who the hell–” Stopping herself as I quickly put a hand on her shoulder, she took a breath before staring intently at Harper. “We’re going to have a really long discussion after this.”

“Yes,” the other girl agreed. “We are.” She lifted her chin a bit. “But for now–” Suddenly and without warning, she threw her hand out. An invisible force caught Shiori, Avalon, and me, throwing all three of us out of the way. I fell over my bed with a yelp, while the other two hit a nearby wall.

An instant later, a new figure literally dropped in from the ceiling, phasing through just like October had. I immediately recognized him as the other man’s partner, Patrick. His fists were glowing with a violet energy, and the second he landed, the man was already swinging at Harper. In the span of about a second, as long as it would have taken me to blink, he’d already lashed out three times, twice with his right fist and once with his left. It was so fast, so ridiculously fast, that none of us had a prayer of reacting in time.

None of us, that was, aside from Harper herself. She ducked once to avoid the first swing, turned slightly to let the second go past her face, then rocked herself backwards just a hair so that the third would miss as well. Then her hand snapped up, as she slapped two fingers, just two fingers, against the side of the man’s neck.

He dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut, collapsing to the floor where he lay unconscious. It was that simple, that quick. Harper had barely moved. Now, she looked to the three of us, just as we finished picking ourselves up.

“They’ll send more. We need to go, right now.”

“We–” Forcing myself to focus despite the several thousand fucking questions I had, I snapped, “We have to get the others. Sands, Scout, Doug, Columbus, Sean, Koren…” My mind was going a million miles an hour. Vanessa and Tristan weren’t here, spending the evening at the Atherby camp with their parents. But the others, we had to get to the others.

“And Aylen,” Avalon put in sharply. “She’s Koren’s roommate, so it’s not out of the way. And even if it was, we’re not leaving her behind, not after what she did for us. If things are going wrong…”

“Yes,” Harper agreed. “You were the first targets because you were seen as the most… important to contain. But they’re already sending others for your friends.”

Everything the girl said and did made me want to call a time-out and interrogate her for several hours. But there wasn’t time. As much as I wanted to get actual answers from her (especially about how the living hell she had suddenly become such a badass), we had to get moving.

Wyatt hadn’t done anything yet. Or even responded. The thought of what could be keeping him made me cringe inwardly, but I forced myself to say, “We get the girls first, then grab the boys.. And after that…”

“After that,” Harper put in while moving to the door, “we get off the school grounds. I have a way off the island, but we need to be out from under their security system first. For now, get dressed.” She stopped at the door, seeming to listen for a moment before adding, “And grab anything you don’t want to leave behind.”  

Filing that right along with the list of all the other baffling things about the girl, I gave the other two a brief glance before running to my dresser. Hurriedly, I started to dress, shoving a few special things into my pockets and an extra-dimensional bag I’d been given earlier.

“Let’s go, guys,” I announced, kneeling by the box where Jaq and Gus were resting with their new roommate, Porthos. The two mice and the lizard all looked up at me as I extended my hands down, before the three of them hurriedly crawled up to my shoulders.

“Chambers,” Avalon started, and I glanced up to see the other girl by the windowsill where Herbie had been sitting (I’d gotten him back from Larees earlier). She tossed him to me, and I quickly put the little guy in my pocket before returning the favor by tossing Porthos to her.

Finally, I grabbed my notebook. Giving it a quick glance to make sure everything was in order, I shoved it away inside my bag before straightening. “Shiori?”

“Choo’s still with Savvy and the other kids,” she replied, having already slid into the same clothes she’d been wearing the night before. “I didn’t want to wake the little guy up when we got back. Guess that’s a good thing now. I’m good. Well, not good, but you know.”

We were ready. Which was a good thing, because as I looked to the doorway, I saw that Harper had disappeared.

The three of us quickly moved that way, Avalon going first. She hesitated, then slowly turned the knob and opened the door to poke her head out. I heard her make a noise of disbelief before opening it the rest of the way to step through.

Shiori and I glanced to one another, then slipped out as well. There, we found three Crossroads security people on the floor, soundly unconscious. Harper was there as well, just straightening from lowering a fourth to the floor next to Sands and Scout’s room. “Hurry,” she said quickly. “They’ll be coming in force now.”

The three of us exchanged quick looks. I pointed. “Valley, get Koren and Aylen, I’ve got the twins.” Then I started to the door Harper was next to, leaving Avalon to go the other way. I tried to sprint, but my legs protested too much, so I just sort of quick-hobbled my way there like some kind of old woman with hip and knee problems.

As a group, we had long-since passed each other copies of the keys that let us access each other’s rooms. Since I had the one for the twins’ dorm in my pocket, the door opened as soon as I turned the knob. Letting myself in, I fumbled for the light switch briefly before flicking it on.

The good news was that Sands was there, already sitting up and staring at me in confusion while her hand grabbed for her mace reflexively.

The bad news, because of course we needed more of that, was that the other bed was empty.

“Where’s Scout?” I blurted. “We have to go!” As if for emphasis, Jaq and Gus both chittered at her from either shoulder.

She stared at me in confusion, already picking herself off the bed. “Go? Where are we–”

“No time! Get dressed, grab anything you need. I–” Hesitating, I looked to her. “Fossor. It’s Fossor. He… he killed one of the Committee members, somehow.” While Sands gaped at me, I continued. “He killed one of them and blamed it on Gaia. They’re taking her in now, and coming after us. We have to go. Where’s Scout?”

To her credit, Sands had started getting dressed before I was even halfway through that. She hurriedly pulled on clothes, shrugging into her jacket before grabbing a backpack. “She probably went for a walk,” she informed me. “She does that sometimes, out on the far end of the grounds, near the edge of the shield where the jungle starts.” As she spoke, the girl grabbed a second backpack and tossed it to me, adding, “We, uhh, prepped for something like this.”

Catching what was obviously Scout’s bag, I blinked twice before nodding. “We’ll get her, come on, guys first.”

The two of us moved back to the hall, where Sands stopped short upon seeing the unconscious guards and Harper. “Wha–”

“It’s a long story,” I informed her. “And we’ve only heard like… five percent of it. She’s on our side, she’s helping us get out of here. The rest can wait.”

“Wait for what?” That was Koren, coming out of the other room with Avalon and Aylen right behind her. The latter had Sovereign perched on one arm, who looked as confused as his partner. Which was impressive for a hawk to begin with, let alone a mechanical one.

Both Aylen and Koren stopped short at the sight of Harper, looking just as confused as… well, everyone else except Harper herself. But before they could say anything, Shiori, who was standing by the door at the end of the hall, turned back to us and came sprinting. “They’re coming,” she hissed. “Four more security guys, plus Peterson Neal!”

“That guy is seriously annoying,” Harper muttered, sounding for a moment like the simple teen girl she was supposed to be. Then she waved us to the stairs. “Move, go. We’ll go up to the roof. Go, go, go.”

No one else questioned it. We all turned, rushing for the stairs. Sovereign hopped off Aylen’s arm to fly ahead, smart enough not to call out. Glancing back, I saw Harper touch something to the floor to activate a spell before she followed us, waving the group on. “Hurry,” she snapped, just as some kind of black cloud started to fill the hallway behind us. “It’ll take them a minute to get through that, but you need to move, now.”

Even as she said that, we were already moving up the stairs as fast as we could go. Shiori had moved to help me, putting one arm around my back so I could lean on her. Flashing the girl a grateful smile, I caught the railing with my other hand and kept heaving myself up that way. Sands, meanwhile, activated one of the privacy coins, as did Avalon, just to be on the safe side.

Around and up we went, running up those stairs while the sound of the door opening below reached us. They were right behind us. If Harper was right, the dark cloud would slow them down. But not for long. We had to get the others and get the hell out of here.

The speed with which Crossroads had gone from a place of safety to one of intense danger was kind of terrifying. I’d seen this place as… well, not completely safe, of course. That would have been blindingly naive, after everything that had happened. But now it was so much worse. The news that Gaia had been… had been arrested (was that even possible?!) and that they were all after us had turned everything on its end. The Committee had lost one of their own, and they were sending their goons to take us in.

Goons who, I had to remind myself, probably mostly thought they were doing the right thing. This wasn’t like fighting the Seosten. The vast majority of the people who were being sent to collect us were almost definitely good guys, at least in their own minds. They didn’t know what was really going on. How would they? Everything was set up for them not to know, and Fossor had taken advantage of that. Just like he’d taken advantage of the fact that everyone was exhausted after everything that had happened before making his move.

How he knew what happened, how he knew anything about it, I didn’t know. Escalan’s… body was long gone, and Gaia had done a thorough sweep of every other faculty member to make sure they were… well, alive. But somehow, Fossor knew enough to make his move right then, and I was positive that wasn’t a coincidence.

Passing every other floor (and a few confused older students who were milling around the halls looking around to see what was going on), we reached the top, where a ladder at the end of the hall led upward. Quickly, the seven of us climbed up, emerging on the roof, where we stayed low as the sound of voices outside calling back and forth reached us.

A sound caught my attention, and we all spun back to see one of the security guys floating up to land on the roof. He saw us at the same time, his mouth opening to shout something.

Then Harper was behind him. Her arm covered his mouth, as she did something with her other hand that made the man’s eyes roll back in his head. She let him fall gently, lowering him down before looking back to us. “Now,” she said sharply, “we have to go.”

“Go?” Aylen started. “Where are we going?”

“We have to get off the island,” I informed her. “It’s too dangerous here right now. If they’re taking Gaia… we have no idea how much they know, or what they’ll find out.”

“What?” the other girl snapped suddenly, eyes widening. “No, no, I’m not going–I’m not leaving the island. I can’t.”

“Aylen,” I started, “if they’re taking Gaia away, we don’t know if… if it’ll be safe for people like you and Shiori. Hybrids. We don’t–”

“We’ll come back for him,” Avalon cut in, watching Aylen. “You can’t free him right now, Aylen. Not with the Committee’s people all over the place.”

Realizing just what they were talking about, my eyes widened as I looked over toward the lighthouse. Aylen was part-Reaper. Actually, she’d said that she was a Reaper’s granddaughter. Did that mean that… Holy shit.

“But I–” Looking distressed, Aylen squirmed on her feet before swallowing. “Okay…” She didn’t look happy about it, but she wasn’t arguing. From the spot where he had perched nearby, Sovereign looked just as upset.

“Right,” Shiori started, “so we grab the boys and… uh oh.”

Looking the way she was, I muttered a curse. Because down below, the boys were right there. Right there being escorted out the back door of the dorm by several armed figures who weren’t dressed as Crossroads security.

“Committee lackeys,” Sands muttered, staring that way alongside us. “How do we get them and get to Scout?”

“Carefully,” I replied, just as a shout went up from below that ‘the girls’ weren’t in their rooms and to spread out to look for us.

“Very goddamn carefully.”

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Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor, since  “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon before stopping the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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Before The Vault 41-05

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Please note, there was a special bonus chapter posted yesterday focusing on Joselyn’s two Edge visions. If you haven’t read that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

After getting settled in, we were released in our teams and allowed to explore the underground tunnel that made up J Street. We couldn’t go up into the main city just yet (well, the older students could, the first years like us were the only ones who couldn’t), but we could walk around down here and sightsee a little bit before the special dinner that Gaia had apparently arranged.

Freshmen like us were the only ones staying at Mrs. Brickswell’s inn. The older grades had other arrangements. Still, even though there were only about a hundred of us there instead of three or four times that number, the lobby was pretty crowded as Columbus, Scout, Sands, Avalon, Doug, Sean, and I made our way out.

The seven of us were one too many for a regular team, but it was close enough. Gordon and Jazz were staying at the Atherby camp for the time being, neither wanting to advertise their return for Crossroads just yet (if ever, I still wasn’t sure how that was going to go). And Roxa had refused to use the choker to hide who she was so that she could come back to Crossroads, choosing instead to stick with her pack. Which I couldn’t honestly blame her for.

Which left the seven of us to be a team finishing out the year. I hoped it stayed seven by the end. And that was a thought that I’d immediately wanted to drive a stake into my brain (a weirdly violent thought in and of itself) for having. You’d think I’d learn at some point.

Stepping out of that deceptively small-looking building was like emerging into another world. The street was even busier now, with people rushing back and forth in every direction. And not just walking either. I saw some floating or flying, and others who were literally running through the crowd, apparently using intangibility powers. Or others who were shrinking down to get through it. I even saw one guy using a flying hoverboard like Gidget’s alternate form to go over people, and another who surrounded herself with some kind of blue bubble, sank into the ground, then popped back up on the far side of a particularly crowded spot before dismissing the bubble.

“Claustrophobic, Miss?” The voice caught my attention, and I blinked over before looking down as my eyes finally found a young boy. He looked to be about nine or so, with brown hair and these big eyes. In his hands, the kid was holding a box full of what looked like sunglasses.

“If any of you are claustrophobic,” the boy continued, “my mom’s glasses can help! Only six enners each, an’ she makes them herself! Go ahead, try one!”

He was so enthusiastic about it, I kind of wanted to see what he was talking about. Still, I looked to the others first. What do you think, partner?

Sands, Scout, and Sean all gave me encouraging nods, so I picked up one of the sunglasses. There was a design on the rims, and I squinted at it.

I think it’s safe, Tabbris hesitantly assured me. It’s just a vision spell, um, as far as I can tell. And look, there’s other people wearing them.

So, I shrugged before slipping the sunglasses on. As I did so, the boy advised, “Activation word’s Trolley.”

“Okay, uh, trolley?” I started. As I said the word, nothing happened.

Sands laughed. “No, Flick. Put your hand on the glasses and say the word while you give it a little oomph. Like any other enchanted item. Most of the spell’s been done already, you just need to turn it on.”

That made a lot more sense, and I blushed a little while following her instructions. With my finger against the rim of the glasses, I spoke the word again while pushing a little energy into it.

The second I did so, the tunnel suddenly looked different. Actually, it didn’t look like a tunnel. The rock walls and ceiling disappeared, leaving open sky above. There were even birds up there. And as for the walls, they were replaced with what looked like an entire cityscape. Buildings rose in every direction. Everything looked so open.

Gasping, I took the glasses off. Back to a rock tunnel. Then I put them on again. Entire city.

“Oh, that’s cool. Makes it look like we’re above ground.” Handing them off to the others to try, I looked to the boy. “Your mom makes those?”

“Like I said,” the kid confirmed, “it’s for the claustrophobic ones. Mom’s really good with the vision spells like that. She sells other ones, but these are for the tourists. Six enners, an’ if you need a recharge after they’re out, it’s just one per.”

“Well, see, I don’t exactly know what–” I started to say that I didn’t know what an enner was, but Sands stepped past me. “I’ve got it,” she promised. “I don’t think we need them, but they still might be a cool toy.”

I had a lot of questions, including what she was giving him. But even as my mouth opened to ask, something else caught my eye. Just across the street there was a man with several cyberforms around him. One was a monkey sitting on his left shoulder with its metal tail curled around his arm, while his other shoulder was occupied by another that was some kind of cat. At his feet were three more cyberforms: a Saint Bernard, a raccoon, and a lizard that was skittering around the other two.

“He’s got a lot of little friends,” I pointed out while reaching into my pocket to take out Jaq and Gus so they could see. “What do you think, guys, builder or collector?”

Avalon, who had stepped up beside me to see what I was looking at, remarked, “Builder. Definitely a builder. Or someone he knows is. Either way, he’s probably selling them.”

My mouth opened to ask something else, but the man had spotted us watching him. Pointing, he came closer while giving us a broad smile. As he approached, I took a second to examine him more than all his distracting metallic animals. The guy was just under six feet tall, with long clearly dyed red hair that had been tied into a bunch of braids. His skin was very dark, and he wore a gray trench coat over a black shirt and cargo pants. His eyes, I noticed, were very bright, almost neon blue. Clearly unnatural, but I didn’t know if it was a power, a spell, or just contacts.

“I knew it,” the man announced as he neared us. “I knew it, knew it, knew it. I always recognize my own work. Doesn’t matter if it’s two inches away or a mile, I can always spot my stuff.” Looking up to me then, he added, “Name’s Broker. Least that’s what they call me. See it’s funny, cuz I make things not broke. And then I sell them.”

Jaq and Gus were chittering, dancing around on my hand and arm. They didn’t seem upset or worried, though. Instead, the pair were clearly excited.

“Err, you built these guys?” I asked curiously, my eyes shifting toward the other cyberforms. The monkey on the man’s shoulder was watching me closely, its intelligent eyes almost unnerving. On the other hand, after what happened with my mother, I kind of had a thing for trusting monkeys.

“Built them?” the man echoed, shaking his head. “Nope, sorry. I just fixed them up. Found them after a battle all smashed to pieces, so I put them back together again. Took a good long while and we really got to know each other. Didn’t we, Bill?” As he spoke, the guy put a hand out close to Jaq so that the little mouse could sniff it.

“Bill?” Belatedly, I understood. “Let me guess, that one was Ted.”

With a grin, Broker nodded. “Righteo. You probably call them something else. But then… you weren’t the one I sold them to. Least not unless you went all in on a shapeshifting power.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “Nope, that–err, here.” Extending my hand, I urged my little mice friends, “Go ahead and see him, guys.” As they hopped over and ran up Broker’s arm to chitter at him, I went on. “The guy you sold them to, was his name Doxxer?”

“Doxxer? Nah.” Broker shook his head while offering the mice a few small bits of metal that they happily gobbled up. “But that sounds like a Garden name, and I did sell them to one of their guys. Them and a few others.”

By that point, Sean and Vulcan had come closer, the latter moving to sniff the Saint Bernard, which sniffed him back. The two cyberform canines circled each other curiously, before each gave a happy bark. Vulcan lowered his head and the lizard scrambled up onto him. Then he snapped his head up again, sending the lizard flying to land on the other dog’s back. The lizard moved up to the Saint Bernard’s head then, which lowered itself down a bit before snapping up to send it flying back over to Vulcan. They continued in that vein.

“So, what do you call them?” Broker asked idly while scratching under their noses.

“This is Jaq,” I started, “and that’s Gus.”

“Ooh, went with Cinderella, huh?” He grinned at me, showing a full mouth of glittering golden teeth. “Nice choice, they’re even actual mice.”

Impressed by the fact that he actually gotten that reference, as well as the one about Bill and Ted that he made earlier, I remarked, “Were you actually born into the Heretics? Because you seemed pretty pop culture savvy.”

“You should see my Spongebob collection,” Broker teased with a wink. “But no, I was born and raised a Heretic. I just happen to really like keeping my head in the Bystander world. But not so much that I don’t need to make a living in the Heretic way. So, what do you say I give you a little upgrade for these guys? Since you’re so nice to them, I’ll even throw in a discount. Won’t cost you nearly as many enners as it would if you took them into a shop.”

My mouth open to questions that term again, but Columbus beat me to the punch. “The kid over there said that word too, what’s an enner?”

Sands, who had returned from buying the glasses, answered that one. “Enner. Short for energy. It’s how Heretics out in the real world barter for goods or services. We needed a currency that actually mattered to us, you know? So they made up enners. Basically, they are these blank cards that you put your energy into for spells. It’s not a spell by itself, but you put the power into it and the card holds it. When someone else takes the card they can use that energy to power their own spells. It’s effort and energy from yourself that you put into a card. That’s why they have value, because people like to use them for magic that they don’t want to spend the effort on themselves. Or for things that require ongoing power or recharging.”

Okay, that made sense. Still, I had to shake my head. “Sorry, as you could probably guessed from that, I’ve never even heard of these things before. So I definitely don’t have any.”

But it does sound like stuff that you’d be really good at making, I pointed out inwardly, sensing Tabbris’s embarrassment.

Sands shrugged. “Mom was showing Scout and me how to make them while we were on our trip, so I’ve got a few still, but probably not enough to get cyberform upgrades.”

“I’ll take care of it.” The announcement came from behind us, as Deveron approached. He gave me a wink. “Consider it an end-of-year mentor gift. So what kind of upgrade are we talking about here?”

Broker gave Deveron a broad, literally golden smile. “Oh, I think I have something perfect in mind. I see you’ve already had someone do some work on them,” he added to me. “Looks like Nevada’s work, right? I heard they brought her on to take up Zedekiah’s old job.”

Expression sobering then, he quietly lamented, “Too bad about him. He was a good guy. Taught me a lot. I uhh–” He swallowed hard, seeming to get lost in memories for a moment before shaking himself. “Err, right. Improvements. I imagine you don’t want to lose them for even a few days?”

Biting my lip, I nodded. “I kinda need my little buddies. And considering how often things seem to blow up, not having them for a few days out here is… probably a bad idea.”

“Ah,” Broker replied dryly, “you’re one of the busy students, huh? Yeah, that tracks. I do have something though. It’s more of a programming update and a new toy for you. See this–ahh, where the hell did I…” Patting down his pockets, the man paused before snapping his fingers as he looked toward where the monkey had joined Vulcan and the others. “CG, run back and fetch the case, would you?”

Briefly saluting with his tail, the mechanical monkey launched himself up straight from the ground to Broker’s arm before leaping from there to a passing man’s shoulder, making his way over and through the crowd quickly.

While waiting for him to get back, I looked over to the others. Doug had picked up the lizard, which ran all the way up his arm before leaping over to where Avalon was. For her part, the girl reacted by picking him off her arm by his tail. She held him up close enough for me to get a good look. I wasn’t an expert in lizards or anything, but he basically looked like a silver gecko.

And then his tail broke off. As Avalon was holding him up by it, the tail abruptly snapped right off, letting the rest of the little lizard fall to land on her other arm.

No, it didn’t break, see?

Tabbris was right, I realized. The tail, like a normal gecko’s, had popped off by design. In this case, however, it was slightly different. Mainly because as the lizard landed on Avalon’s arm, he popped up onto his two back legs before snatching his tail from her hand. The tail itself had flattened in that time, sharp metal edges appearing along the sides.

The way the lizard held his suddenly sharpened tail, it was like–

“It’s a sword!” That was Doug, blurting out loud. “His tail pops off and turns into a sword?”

As if to confirm that, the lizard danced back and forth on Avalon’s arm, swiping his tail-blade like a swashbuckler while making a challenging noise.

“Yup,” Broker confirmed, “Porthos is a bit of a show-off. Here, I’ll put him away.” He started to reach for the lizard.

“I’ll take him!” Avalon’s words came in a blurted rush, apparently before she even knew she was going to say it. She reflexively drew back from the man’s reaching arm, already flushing a bit. “I mean… what do you want for him?”

“Oh, kid, uh…” The man looked a little uncertain. “Full Cyberforms are pretty expensive, even little ones. I’d give you the best deal I can, but I couldn’t let him go for less than a thousand. Even that’s just a little over covering time spent fixing him up.” He genuinely looked regretful that he couldn’t just give her the cyberform, which I understood completely. Granted, she was my girlfriend, but still. Seeing the way she was actually interested in the little guy made me want to buy him for her myself, and I still didn’t have any of the so-called ‘enner’ that they used.

I saw the other girl warring with herself a bit, but even as her mouth opened, Deveron spoke up. “Don’t worry, I’ve got that one too. Still your mentor too, right?”

“I don’t want you buying things for me,” Avalon reflexively snapped, though she seemed torn.

Deveron, for his part, clearly understood. “You’re not. You know what the money is. Make some, save them up, pay me back when you can. But it’s stupid to wait until you have it, then try to track him down again and hope he’s still got this specific one. I’ll put down the money now, you work it out when you can.”

She still looked conflicted, but let it go as she stared at the lizard on her arm. Porthos, as he was apparently called, had reattached his tail and fallen back onto all fours to look back and forth between Avalon and Broker while making a soft noise that sounded like a curious chirp.

“Pretty loaded for a student yourself there, Mr….?” Broker prompted curiously.

“Adams,” came the response. “Deveron Adams. And let’s just say I know how to do favors for people.”

“Hey, works for me.” Shrugging, the cyberform salesman and repair guy looked to Avalon. “I’ll take you through the bonding process and show you how to convert him to his handgun form. If you want to change his name, we can do that too. And for you…” His eyes moved to me then. “Here.”

Reaching down to the case that the monkey had brought back by that point, Broker produced some kind of metal bracelet. “Here’s the deal. I install a programming update to your little friends there. Then you put this thing on. See how it’s got a red button on this side and a blue button on the other? You press the red button while saying one or both of their names, and it’ll take them from wherever they are and instantly transport them to your hand. Which is kind of neat, but kind of a parlor trick. The real treat is the other half of it. That blue button, you press that and say one of their names and it’ll transport you to where they are. You know, provided it’s within about a mile. Sorry, the range is a bit limited that way.”

My eyes had widened by that point. “You mean… I could send them into a place I couldn’t get through, then transport myself to them?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Broker confirmed. “Actually, that’s the other part. You hold both buttons down together and say one of their names and you’ll be able to see through their eyes and hear what they hear. You know, so you know what you’re getting into. You can give them orders that way too.”

“Wow, that’s… wow.” My mouth opened and shut. “Yeah, that does sound useful.”

“I thought it might,” the man replied with a wink. “Okay, so that’s one update for you, and Porthos here for you. Anyone else? Should we see how much of a dent we can throw into Mr. Adams’ wallet if he’s so accommodating?”

Douglas and Columbus both raised their hands, the former speaking first. “I don’t–uhh, I don’t think I need Deveron’s help. Not buying a cyberform or anything. Actually, I was going to ask if you’d help me with an idea I had for my construct-pen. I had a few ideas, I’m just not sure how to go about it. I could pay you for your time.”

“Hey, you got it, kid.” Broker gave him a thumbs up. “We’ll see what we can do. And you?”

“I’m not actually… buying anything either,” Columbus replied carefully. “I was… you know Harrison Fredericks, right? I was wondering if you could… introduce me. I just… I’d kind of like to talk to him sometime. On his schedule. If–if there’s anything you could do.”

“Huh.” Broker looked hesitant. “Let’s… tell you what, I’ll go ahead and pass the message along. Fredericks and I don’t exactly spend a lot of time together anymore, but I can talk to him. I’ll see if he’s got any time to meet with you while you’re here and let you know.”

I had no idea why Columbus wanted to talk to Harrison Fredericks. Still, I wasn’t going to question him about it right there. I could tell, however, that the others were just as curious.

“Right, if that’s all settled,” Broker gestured. “Why don’t we step back over here to my shop and we’ll get you sorted out. I’ll fix up the lovely ladies with their new toys, and then we’ll see what we can do for… ahh…”

“Doug,” the first boy in question supplied for him. “My name’s Doug.”

“And Columbus,” the other added.  

“Doug! Doug and Columbus.” Broker snapped his fingers, blinking over at Vulcan. “And this one?” Looking to Sean, he added, “Are we sure we don’t want any kind of update? Eh, come on, we’ll talk about it on the way. We’ve got a few options, I’ll show you around the shop and you can decide. Some of the big ones might take a bit, but they’ll be worth it.”

Sean looked uncertain, resting his hand on his dog’s head. But in the end, he shrugged and joined us as we followed the man.

“You know,” I started with a glance toward Avalon and her new little lizard friend, who was riding on her shoulder. “If you’re gonna rename him, you should really go with Ahhh!”

“Ahhh?” she echoed, frowning before a look of realization crossed her face. “Oh, no.”

“Because then,” I continued with a grin, “when I introduce both my girlfriends’ pets–”

“Don’t say it,” she warned.

“People’ll think they need to bless me–” I pressed on.

“I’m warning you.”

“Because I’ll say–”

“One more word–”

“Ahhh-choo!”

“…. God damn it, Chambers.”

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Before The Vault 41-04

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“Come along, please. Keep up, let’s get through this with as little dawdling as possible, please.” Professor Ross, our elderly Amazonian professor who focused on teaching Heretical History, led me and about thirty other students along the sidewalk in the middle of Washington DC itself. The woman cast a glance back to us from the front of the group. “I know it’s quite interesting, and I promise you’ll have a chance to spread out and explore later. But right now, we have a very tight schedule to keep.”

Now it was the eighteenth of May, which meant it was time for the end of the year field trip. It had almost been cancelled due to everything that had happened back on Family Day a couple weeks earlier (particularly given the fact that they still had no idea who was responsible or what they planned to do with the noose), but in the end, we were allowed to come after all. Someone had made the argument that it made no sense to have all the students cower at the school since we’d been attacked there to begin with. And also, of course, that if the students had been an actual target, we would’ve been hit a lot harder than we were. It was clear that putting the students in danger had been a distraction so that ‘whoever it was’ could steal the noose.

Actually, I’d been told by Professor Dare (I still didn’t know what else to think of her as) that the fact that students and children were put in danger was one of the main reasons that Mom wasn’t being immediately thrown in as a suspect. Even Ruthers didn’t think she’d intentionally poison children.  

Either way, we were allowed to go on our trip to see the US capital. Other students were being escorted/guided through the city by different teachers, since while tour groups full of kids and teenagers weren’t exactly rare in DC, we still wanted to stick with smaller groups. At least for our arrival. Apparently, we were supposed to be meeting up at some big Heretic place in the city.

“Professor Ross?” the diminutive Rebecca piped up with a raised hand then as we hustled along. “The National Building Museum, that’s near here, isn’t it?”

“National Building Museum?” Shiloh Lexx echoed, looking up from the wrist-mounted computer that served as her weapon. “Is that a real place? I mean, it sounds pretty generic. I mean really? Do we have a ‘National Animal Museum’?

“Those are called ‘zoos’, Miss Lexx,” Ross replied dryly. “Or perhaps the Museum of Natural History. So yes, in either case.” To Rebecca, she added, “And the National Building Museum is about three blocks south of our destination, near what the Bystanders currently call the Capital One Arena. Which, for those of you in the Development track who have been paying much attention, is where…” She waited expectantly then, pausing our hurried hike to watch us.

Columbus raised his hand. “It’s where Harrison Fredericks lives and works, right? I mean, in the sub-sub-sub basement with all his protection to keep everyone away from him.”

“Fredericks,” I echoed curiously. “He’s that guy who went to the alternate reality and killed that super inventor guy to take his power, right? He’s the one who first came up with the cyberforms.” As I spoke, my hand moved into one of my uniform jacket pockets to rub Jaq and Gus where they were nestled. The two of them had wanted to stay out of their private space and stick with me so they could poke their heads out to watch where we were going.

“Correct, Miss Chambers,” Professor Ross confirmed. “Which is why it is a very good idea to stay away from that place as much as possible. While Harrison Fredericks is not one to blatantly attack students, he does very much value his privacy and security. His creations wander the grounds around the arena, and are quite capable of recognizing Heretics. At best, they will report to their master that someone is intruding on his agreed-upon territory without permission, and there will be explanations to give.”

That was right, I remembered. Fredericks sold his designs and creations to people from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. And probably other customers as well. He was decidedly neutral in everything, which the other Heretics let him get away with because his creations were so useful. Others could make them (mostly after he or one of his direct students taught them how), but the best cyberforms came from the man himself. No one was going to risk losing his aid. So I could definitely see why we were being warned to give him space.

We’d reached a small green area by then, something that was probably rather optimistically referred to as a park, despite the fact that it was pretty tiny, only about a block long, and rather narrow to boot. A nearby sign informed me that I was correct, as the place was called Chinatown park.

“Ooh, hey,” Travis Colby started, pointing across the street. “This great Heretic place we’re going to, is it the Hampton over there? Because I could go for that.”

Professor Ross gave him a look for that. “Sorry, Mr. Colby. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do without. Our destination is J street.”

“Err.” Vanessa had her hand up then. She looked a bit uncomfortable while correcting the woman, but did so anyway. “There isn’t a J street in Washington DC. Uh, is there?”

“Hey, that’s right.” Something had tickled the back of my mind, and I spoke up with her. “Wasn’t it a whole thing about how the guy who designed this place hated the letter J or had some kind of beef with someone with the letter J in their name or something?”

“John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanessa informed me. “Some people think L’Enfant, the guy who designed the city, had a grudge against him for negotiating a treaty that favored Britain over France.  But that’s just a myth. L’Enfant was taken off the project before the treaty ever happened. The real reason there’s no J street is because the letters J and I used to look and be treated almost exactly the same, so there was no reason to have both.”

Smiling faintly, Professor Ross nodded. “You may make a fine teacher someday, Miss Moon. Yes, that is the story that Bystanders believe. But in truth, there is a J street in Washington DC. It’s just one that they can’t reach.”

“Oh, my God,” Shiori blurted from beside me, “is it Diagon Alley? Are we going to Diagon Alley?”

Ross just blinked at her in utter bafflement. “Are we going diagonally to what?”

While those of us who understood snickered a little bit, the professor ended up just shaking her head. “In any case, come with me.” She led us through the small park to one tree in particular, gesturing. “Step up one at a time, put your hand against the tree and state your full name as it is known to Crossroads.”

Everyone started doing just that. Tristan went first, putting his hand against the tree. Then he paused, frowning until Vanessa leaned up and whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a brief look, then shrugged and stated his name as Tristan Loxias Moon.

The tree apparently accepted that, since as soon as the boy finished saying it, he disappeared. And it really said something for what had been going on this year that all of us, as one, looked toward Professor Ross for confirmation that that was what was supposed to happen.

Vanessa went next, right behind her brother. Putting her hand against the tree, the girl announced her own name as Vanessa Lares Moon, promptly disappearing as well.

Well those are some funny names, I whispered silently to Tabbris, who was coming along for this.

Loxias is one of Uncle Satan’s names, she informed me. I mean, Apollo. And Lares were household gods or spirits, protectors of the hearth. You know, hearth like Hestia. Plus it sounds kind of like Larissa, so that’s probably part of it too, you know?

Oh. I supposed it made sense then. Sariel had given her children middle names for Apollo and Chayyiel. I wasn’t sure how close she’d been with the latter, but apparently fairly close if she’d at least partly named her daughter after her. Even if it was in a fairly vague way. And as Tabbris had noted, she’d even managed to make Vanessa’s name also sound a bit like Larissa’s at the same time.

I let the others go ahead of me, in no real rush. As we moved our way forward, my eyes found Avalon, and I smiled at the other girl. “Think we can get through an entire field trip without something blowing up?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that we were the ones planning to go off-script for this little trip with our eventual visit to the blood vault.

“I’m not holding my breath, Chambers,” Avalon replied flatly. “But at least we’re used to the explosions by now.”

Summer Banning spoke up then. “I don’t wanna bandwagon on so much of the stuff this year being your fault, you guys, but if you are doing something to attract trouble, could you maybe not for awhile? My sister was really freaked out by Family Day, and she graduated from Crossroads. If she finds out something bad happened to me again this soon…”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll do our best not to drag you guys into any trouble.”

Because they shouldn’t be around when we go visit the vault, Tabbris put in.

Exactly, I confirmed with a mental wink at my partner. But they don’t need to know that. And unless things go very–actually, you know what, I’m not going to finish that thought. At all.

Good call, she agreed.

“Trust us,” Sands put in then from where she and Scout were standing together, “there’s been crazy things happening all year every year Crossroads has existed. And you guys haven’t been here that long. Unless you’re reincarnating every four years just to hau–never mind. That’s probably not off the wall enough to be completely impossible.”

“Yes,” I shot back, “we reincarnate every four years just to haunt Crossroads and make things go wrong. Gotta keep life exciting for all the students out there. Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”  

The twins–err, the Mason twins–gave me a pair of thumbs up. They had both seemed more alive and… happy with life ever since they’d come back from their trip with Larissa. They were also apparently living with her in one of the staff apartments, while Liam had taken a leave of absence for the time being. One of the teachers of the older years, Professor Dancing, had been filling in for him.

Yeah, I’d asked the twins what happened with that. According to Sands and Scout, their mother had basically just told their dad that over the course of the years they’d been separated, she had basically… drifted apart from him. She didn’t tell him all the other stuff she knew about, because duh. She just kind of left it at the idea that they were different people.

Liam, apparently, had not taken that very well. Mostly because he’d seen Haiden right after that and immediately jumped on the idea that he was the person Larissa had been drifting toward. What started out as a fairly innocuous conversation had very quickly become a confrontation that Larissa had to step in on and… yeah, that was why Professor Mason was taking a break.

By that point, my attention was drawn to the tree once more as Rebecca moved up to it. Placing her hand against the bark, the small girl announced, “Rebecca Josie Jameson.”

Josie. Her middle name was Josie. That was very close to Joselyn. Just like Mom had made my middle name Lillian, after her old best friend, Rebecca’s grandmother. Somewhere in there, the original Lillian clearly (at least subconsciously) remembered her roommate and passed that on to her daughter and then to her granddaughter.

I must’ve been staring pretty intently then, because Shiori nudged me with her foot, whispering, “Are you okay?”

Shaking that off, I nodded to the girl, whispering back, “Talk about it later.”

Columbus went then, followed by Sean. Shiori was right behind them, and I followed her to the tree. Laying my hand against it, I spoke my full name clearly as, “Felicity Lillian Chambers.”

Instantly, the world spun, as I was transported elsewhere. It felt like… well, like falling. It felt like I was dropping through a long dive on a roller coaster, my stomach jumping up into my chest briefly.

As it turned out, feeling like I was falling was pretty appropriate. Because when the sensation faded, I found myself in what was clearly an underground tunnel. Of sorts. Actually, it looked like a street similar to the one above. I, and everyone else who had gone through the tree so far, were standing on a road with buildings to either side. But beyond those buildings and above them was the rocky, dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Yeah, we were in an enormous underground cavern of some kind.

“Hiya, guys!” That was Nevada, standing on the sidewalk where she’d already directed some of the others. “Welcome to J Street, home of the Crossroads Capital and a lot of other important things.”

We moved over to join the others, while Nevada happily explained (apparently not for the first time) that J Street had been planned from the beginning of DC’s creation to be the center of Crossroads business in North America. Everything went through here. The Committee’s primary residences and business offices were centered on J Street, as were plenty of other things. Like the Bow Street Runners offices that weren’t in the Pathmaker Building. Basically, what was in the Pathmaker were field offices, while these were the ‘home offices’.

Before long, the rest of our group joined us. Professor Ross came last, making sure everyone had made it before announcing that we should follow Nevada. We did so, and our Stranger Truths teacher led us down the street.

The place looked… eclectic. That was the best word I had for it. The buildings looked like they had each been plucked from a very different time period before being tossed down next to one another. There was a very modern looking tall glass office structure right next to what looked like an old west saloon. Beside that there was a building with a bunch of pillars out front and one of those naked statues that the Romans and Greeks liked so much. I even caught sight of a long log house like there would have been on the American frontier. Every type of building was represented somewhere along this enormous, twisting tunnel.

And the people. Oh God, the people. I had thought that Crossroads personnel looked pretty modern, given how long a lot of them had lived. But this place more than made up for it. I saw people of every possible type of clothing style. There were cowboys, samurai, Victorian-dressed people, a few with clothes out of the 1920’s, 50’s, and even the 80’s, and more. Everywhere I looked, there were people that looked different. It was like… it was like there were a whole bunch of movies being filmed somewhere nearby, and all the extras had wandered off set.

There was a lot to see, to put it mildly. I almost tripped over one of the others more than once from craning my neck to look at everything as we were led down the street, and I wasn’t the only one. Even those who had grown up in the knowledge, like Sands and Scout, were pretty taken by the place. I guessed they hadn’t been here much, if at all.

Eventually, we were led to what looked like a homey little cottage. Seriously, it looked like it had come straight out of a storybook. There was a stone path leading up to the front door, the building itself was all rounded shapes and colorful designs. There was a chimney steadily puffing out smoke that smelled like apple pie. It was freaking adorable.

Following Nevada up to the front door of the cottage before passing through as she opened it, we found ourselves in, of course, a place that was much bigger on the inside. Instead of the tiny room that the exterior made the place look like, we were actually standing in a large foyer. The floor and walls were made of wood, with a rounded desk straight ahead of us, and two hallways leading off to either side. Behind the desk was a wall full of pictures of various people (I saw several Committee members as well as Gaia), and a closed door with a needlework of a cat on it.

The woman who had been sitting behind the desk when we entered quickly hopped right up. And that was a literal hop. She was about as small as Rebecca was, and wide enough to basically be considered round. Her face was lined with wrinkles, which were magnified by her broad smile.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Hurrying around her desk, the small, elderly woman called happily while extending her arms as if she just wanted to hug all of us at once. “Oh, it’s so good to see you all. Freshmen, yes? Yes, I know freshmen when I see them. Mostly cuz I don’t recognize you.”

Laughing, she clapped her hands together. “Now then, my name is Mrs. Brickswell. You’re the first group to arrive, so it looks like you have your pick of the rooms.”

Rooms. Right, this was the motel that we’d be staying in while we were visiting DC. Apparently Crossroads wanted us to stay in a Heretic inn rather than risking putting us up somewhere in the Bystander parts of the city. Which I really, really couldn’t blame them for by that point.

Mrs. Brickswell continued then. “Our rooms are made for four people each, so everybody go ahead and pick three friends, of the same gender, mind, and come on back to get a key. It sounds like we’ve got a lot more on the way, so let’s hustle on through, okay?”

Well, four of us. That was me, Avalon, Sands, and Scout. As the others moved that way, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and glanced to her. “You gonna be okay? I don’t want to abandon the twins.”

She nodded easily. “Sure, I’ll room with Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca. Don’t worry, Flick, we’re gonna have fun here.”

Returning her infectious smile, I gave the girl a thumbs up before leaning in to give her a very quick (and then slightly less quick, but still) kiss. “You’re right. Fun. And informative, if Vanessa has anything to say about it.”

The two of us snickered before moving to our respective groups. We’d get our rooms and go from there. Nevada was already talking about how we were all going to go to dinner somewhere special that night.

So yes, this was going to be a fun few days. We’d go out, see the town and go on the tours. We’d see all the special things we could, of both the Heretic and Bystander variety. Apparently Shiori and Columbus’s parents were supposed to show up at some point, which would be interesting. We’d do all that for those few days. And then, eventually, we’d make our move for the vault.

I just hoped that with all our planning and the help we were bringing, we were actually ready for the… ‘fun’ that was going to bring.

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Desperate Measures 37-01

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She was there. Avalon. I’d found Avalon. She was unconscious, but I’d found her. I found her! It was thanks in large part to Jophiel and Elisabet puppeting Doctor Therasis to keep me here long enough that I could figure it out. And I was still confused by why they would do that when they couldn’t want us to open the vault any more than any of the other Seosten leaders did. But whatever their reasoning was, whatever they expected from me later, was for later. Right now, only one thing mattered: Avalon.

She was there. She was there. This is where Manakel was hiding her, right here in the hospital. The Mesches she was surrounded by stopped any magical search from finding her while also making her protection spells end sooner. At the same time, the nearby Tabilten, with the help of the wind spell that sent their purification power through the vent, cleansed the poison out of the air so she didn’t die.

That’s what I had been thinking of back when we had gone into Manakel’s cabin and found the Mesches’ cages. When I’d found out about the poison aura, my brain had been trying to remind me about the Tabilten’s purification ability, and the fact that a hospital would be one of the most perfect places to keep someone. Particularly if some of the staff of said hospital were on your side, either through possession or other means.

The point was, Avalon was there. Right there. But now the lights had gone out, which I knew had to mean that someone, probably Manakel, knew we had found her. And I seriously doubted he would be very happy about that. He’d move her, fast. Which meant we had to get into that room even faster.   

Almost as soon as the main lights had gone out, other lights came back on. But these were different, dimmer and clearly running off some emergency power or something. Maybe they’d cut this place off from the outside world and that was a side effect? Whatever, the point was, the lights were very dim, casting a kind of eerie glow over everything, while still leaving a lot in shadows. The whole thing was creepy.

Shiori was still asking where Therasis had come from, even as I blurted, “Avalon’s in there.” I turned back to the grate, drawing back my fist before punching it. The thing didn’t budge. I hit it again, before shifting around to switch to my foot. But before I could kick the thing more than once, Shiori blurted from behind me, “Company!”

Sure enough, when I glanced that way, I found the girl in question in the middle of a fight with two men right in the doorway. They were dressed in orderly uniforms, but from the weapons they carried, these were no ordinary hospital workers. 

Shiori ducked the swing of one man’s sword, then lashed out with a kick into his chest as the blade embedded itself in the doorjamb. As the guy staggered backward, the other one backhanded her in the face, making her stumble back toward me. He followed it up by snapping a pistol into position, taking aim. I had to help. I couldn’t save Avalon, only to lose Shiori. I had to move. I had to move now!

My weapon had already found its way into my hands and transformed into its bow form when I had first seen Shiori fighting. As the second man brought his pistol up, I launched a hasty energy arrow, which exploded right against the man’s hand to knock it backwards and up just as he pulled the trigger. Shiori had recovered by then, and pivoted into a sidekick that sent the man stumbling into his partner.

But there were more coming. Footsteps were approaching at a run from both sides of the corridor. Worse, I could feel people coming into the room behind me, where Avalon was. We were so close. I couldn’t let them just disappear with her again.

“Shy!” I blurted then, pointing to the vent behind me. “Sand!”

Thankfully, that was enough. The other girl got to the point, instantly transforming into her sand form. At that point, the air spell blew her through with the vent and into the other room where Avalon was. I could have done it myself of course, but I let the wind do it for me. My focus was on the guys in the doorway and their arriving reinforcements.

I was trusting Shiori to stop the guys in the other room from disappearing with Avalon. Which made me twitch a little. Not because it was hard to trust her. I did. But because the thought that I would suddenly lose both of them was horrific, and very nearly paralyzed me.

But now I had to focus. I had to deal with these guys. Because getting into the other room to help Avalon and Shiori would do no good if we just had these guys right behind us.

My first action, however, wasn’t to rush into the fight. Instead, I focused on taking half a second to disable the dibs spell that had temporarily been protecting me from being possessed (absent my little partner, that was). Because if I knew Wyatt, even if he couldn’t get to me, he was perfectly aware I was in danger. And if I knew Tabbris, she would react to that news, the instant she got it, by jumping straight back to me. So yeah, disabling the dibs spell before she ended up popping up right outside of me in the line of fire felt like a good idea.

The initial two guys had recovered by that point, the first one back in the doorway. But I was already right there, my weapon shifted back into its staff form as I drove the end of it into his stomach, doubling him over before I spun it up and around to smack him across the face with it.

The momentum from that put me right in the doorway, where I could see the second man already raising his pistol once more, while four more came rushing towards the room, two from each side of the hall. Six guys. Six. If they were planning on keeping me away from Avalon, they should have brought sixty.

Snapping my staff up, I triggered a blast from the end of it, which took the man with the gun in the chest and knocked him back once more. Almost simultaneously, I pivoted to snap my weapon down, smacking it across the back of the first man’s knee while he was still recovering from being hit across the face a moment earlier. The blow knocked the man onto his back with a cry.

“Guys,” I blurted then, while continuing my pivot to face the two men who were coming from the left side of the hall. “Time to fight!”

I wasn’t talking to my opponents. Rather, I was calling for Jaq and Gus. The two mice cyberforms appeared at their spot on the staff even as I shifted it briefly to bow-form to fire a shot that exploded right in the faces of the pair of men who were coming from the left. Quickly, I shifted the weapon back to a staff while my two little buddies assumed their spots, turning the staff into its bladed form.

Turning on my heel to face the guys coming from the right, I extended my staff and triggered the button that launched the grapple. It flew at the nearest guy, tearing through his armor to pierce his chest. While he was reacting with a cry, I triggered the concussive burst on that end of the staff, releasing it. The blast sent the staff sailing down the hall to the left before it impaled one of the guys there, who were both still recovering from the concussive energy arrow I had sent into them.

Meanwhile, the guy who had been grappled through with the chest was brought careening down the hall toward me, dragged by the line attached to the moving staff. Just as he reached me, I leapt and spun into a kick that took him in the face, knocking him off the grapple and sending him flying into his partner, who had been running up behind.

While I was spinning in the air from the kick, my hand slapped down toward the grapple as it went flying past me. My fingers barely brushed the end of it, but that single touch was enough for me to use my item movement power to put the entire staff back into my hands. Which was just in time too, since as I landed in a crouch with the weapon, the man with the pistol fired a shot that narrowly missed. Seriously, the laser sailed past my cheek so close that it burned a little bit. He adjusted his pistol and was about fire again when I smacked the staff across his hand to make him drop his gun. A quick burst from the other end of my staff sent me out of my crouch and up to plant both feet into his chest, once more knocking him into the nearby wall.

That time, before he could recover, I spun and brought my stuff up and around. The bladed end cut straight through the man’s throat, while I continued the motion into a full three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn which sent the blade through his neck yet again, this time completely separating his head from his body.

As the head went bouncing along the floor, I was filled with a rush of pleasure. It wasn’t anywhere near the strongest I’d ever felt, but it was still more than a bit distracting. Which was a bad thing, since the second man who had been coming from the right had disentangled himself from his partner (the one who had taken the grapple through his chest before I kicked him in the face as he was yanked toward me), and launched himself my way while bringing an energy-sword straight for my face.

My head jerked out of the way just in time, while my foot lashed out to kick the man. Neither of which I was responsible for.

I’m here! Tabbris blurted, immediately dampening the pleasure rush so I could focus. It was mostly gone by that point anyway, but still. Every millisecond counted.

I wasn’t going to ask how she’d known to come. That much was pretty obvious. Nor was I going to explain what was going on. She could read my thoughts to work out for herself. Instead, I focused on the fight at hand.

To that end, my gaze focused sharply on the first man, the one who had been knocked onto his back by my staff. He was rolling back into a kneeling position, snapping some kind of futuristic looking rifle off his back to point at me. Right before he could actually pull the trigger, however, I thumbed the other button on my staff, sending a cloud of sand right into his face while I rolled sideways. The shot from his gun took out part of the wall where I had just been, while the man himself staggered and flailed as my sand worked its way through the cracks in his mask to reach his mouth and eyes.

The man who had come from the right with the energy sword had recovered from Tabbris making me kick him by that point, rushing up from behind me. I felt his approach and knew exactly where his blade was. Which meant I knew right when to pivot out of the way, letting his blade slash through the empty air where I had just been right before I spun my own weapon upward, severing his extended wrist.

Weapon and hand alike clattered to the floor. But before he could even understand what had just happened, I was already pivoting to put myself right beside him while my foot lashed out. The kick collided with the back of the man’s knee, and as he fell, I brought my staff up in both hands, driving the bladed end down through his chest. Another rush of pleasure would have filled me then, but Tabbris was already on the job, dampening it.

Two of the six were dead. Which became three a second later as I took advantage of the opening that the first man provided while clawing and flailing at the sand scouring his eyes and choking him. The blade of my staff went straight through the man, reducing the soldiers to half the number they had come with. And I was nowhere near done. All of the anger, the frustration, the rage, the feelings of impotence and fear that had been weighing on me since the moment that Manakel had taunted me about abducting Avalon had all come bursting out. Now I had a chance to do something about it. Now I could actually help my girl.

No one was going to stop me from doing that. No one.

Three guys left. One of whom hardly counted since he was already on the ground from being grappled through the chest, yanked down the hall, and then kicked in the face. Which left the two who had been running in from the left, the ones I had blasted in the face with the energy arrow before one of them had also been impaled with my staff.

Yeah, that one wasn’t doing so hot either. Better than the guy on the floor, but not by much. He had recovered enough to bring his pistol up, firing off a couple shots. But I trusted Tabbris, flinging myself that way just as my partner activated my energy-absorption power. The shots hit, and I snapped my staff up, empowering it with the same energy in time to intercept the laser sword that the second man had just been swinging at me.

A quick flurry of blows followed then, before I managed to slam the blade of my staff down through the man’s foot, impaling it all the way through and embedding the weapon into the floor. Letting go so my staff stayed in that vertical position, I spun on one foot to put myself behind the now-pinned man. My foot kicked the back of his other leg, collapsing it just as I brought my hands down on the back of his head. The combined effort knocked him forward and down, shoving his face onto the bladed grapple.

Four down, while the fifth and sixth guys were clutching the wounds in their chests. The nearest one, the only one still standing, took aim again and fired off several more shots.

I absorbed them all. Then my hand snapped up and I released the gathered energy right into the man’s face. He dropped, collapsing to the floor without much of a face left.

Without pausing, I snapped my gaze to the last man. He was groaning, rolling over while clutching the wound in his chest. I was pretty sure he was crying behind that helmet.

“Can you teleport out?” I demanded while already moving, my voice flat.

There was a pause before the injured man nodded.

“Then do it,” I ordered, not even breaking stride. “And think about this next time you’re supposed to come after me or the people I care about.”

Again, there was a brief pause. Then the man’s hand moved to his waist, and he was gone. I let him go. Maybe he’d get medical attention and survive. Maybe he would end up dying. Maybe he would change and decide not to come after me anymore. Maybe he would come after me even harder. Either way, whatever happened, I’d deal with it later. He wasn’t a threat right now. That was what mattered.

Threats neutralized, I started to run. Tab, Wyatt, right?

Uh huh! she blurted then. He felt all the danger you were in through the spells. He’s been telling everyone, but there’s some kind of shield around the hospital. They’re working on taking it down, but it’s gonna take time. I… I couldn’t just leave you alone like that.

Smiling a little despite myself, I nodded inwardly. Thanks, partner.

I was focused on finding the room where Avalon and Shiori were. Sprinting around the corner, I let the Blemmye power to find any location that I knew about keep me going the right way. Before long, I could feel Shiori and Avalon both, so they were definitely close. There were also a handful of bodies lying motionless, as well as one very close to Shiori. The two kept merging and falling back in my senses, clearly indicating that they were fighting. I had to get in there.

But how?  Where?

There! Wait! Tabbris blurted in my head, bringing me to a stop. Before I could say or ask anything, she brought my hand up with the field-engraver, scrawling some kind of quick counter-spell before triggering it.

There. There was a door right there. A spell of some sort had been hiding it, but thanks to Tabbris, I could now see it. The door was open, and I caught a glimpse of Shiori as the girl impaled her opponent through the chest with what was apparently his own sword before letting him fall.

“Shy!’ I threw myself that way, giving a quick glance around at the four bodies that littered the floor. “Are you okay?”

She was panting, but nodded. “Y-yeah. But Avalon…” She looked that way, toward the unconscious girl.

“We’ll get her out of here,” I promised. “Fast, before more of those guys come.” Still out loud, I added, “Tabbris.” Shiori gave me a brief look at that, but quickly understood as I continued with, “Any defensive spells?”

Uh huh. The answer came, and then I was on my knees, hurriedly scrawling counter spells to disable the magic that was keeping Avalon unconscious and imprisoned. Thank God I had Tabbris here, because there was no way I would have known enough about how to disable all those spells.

She moved quickly, and soon the last of the spells were disabled, freeing Avalon (though she was still unconscious). In that moment, I wanted almost nothing more than to grab the girl, pull her up, and hold onto her as tightly as I could.

Instead, I focused on taking an already-prepared bit of wood from my pocket, speaking aloud for Shiori’s benefit. “Tabs, use Marian. Get to the others and warn them. Tell them to get up, because the Seosten will be after them by now too. Go, go!”

My hands moved out of my own control, activating the theriangelos spell and turning the magicked bit of wood into my fox. For a second, I had the familiar moment of disorientation as I could see and hear through the fox as well. Then Tabbris shut down that part of my perception, taking it over for herself.

The fox went running out of the room, off to warn the others. Which left Shiori and me to get to Avalon. The two of us moved that way quickly, and again, it was all I could do not to get too distracted. Avalon. Valley. She was right there. Really her this time. I wanted to hold her even more than before.

I did hold her. In that case, however, it meant picking her limp form up and off the floor. “We need to go,” I told Shiori in a somewhat shaky voice. Focus, Flick. Focus on keeping Valley alive, and on getting the hell out of this hospital.

I held the unconscious Avalon tight against my chest, and together, we sprinted back into hallway. Unfortunately, we got there just in time to find out more guards had arrived. A hell of a lot of more guards. There were well over a dozen coming down the whole corridor at us from one direction. Immediately, we spun the other way and started running. I could hear them shouting, and a few shots went sailing past or around us.

We ran. With guards hot on our heels, the two (or three… or four, all depending on how you counted) of us booked it, running fast and hard for the end of the hall, where a pair of elevators stood. Shiori extended a hand as we moved, using her metal-manipulation power to force the doors open. There was no elevator there. But we didn’t have time to wait for it. Not with these guys right behind us.

Instead, with a brief glance toward one another, Shiori and I both went right for the open elevator shaft. Together, with Avalon held tight to my chest, we leapt through the open doors.

Shots flooded the area around us, ricocheting off every surface above while we plummeted down through the dark shaft.

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-09

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Two dozen heavily armed and armored soldiers instantly forgot that the rest of us existed, turning their weapons instead toward the newly freed Olympian who had just made her presence known. And Sariel met them in turn, taking a few running steps forward. As the first guns began to fire, chewing up the metal around her, the woman suddenly leapt high into the air.

Shot after shot sailed around and past the woman as the soldiers tried to correct their aim, while Sariel herself flipped over, putting herself upside down. Her arms snapped out, and I saw two of the soldiers’ sidearms abruptly disappear, only to reappear in the woman’s waiting hands.

She fired six shots then, three from each pistol, all while still upside down in midair. Each bullet found a different target. And more than that, each of those targets happened to be the eye-slots of the helmets that the soldiers wore. Six shots, upside down and in midair, put through six narrow slots the size of an eye, two at a time in three consecutive double-shots.

Six soldiers down, just like that. They dropped like puppets whose strings had been cut.

Sariel, meanwhile, finished her full-body flip in time to land feet first against the chest of one of the other men. The force of the impact knocked the man to the ground, while the woman, still standing on his chest, snapped the gun in her right hand down to shoot him through the eye-slot as well. At the other time, her left hand snapped out to shoot yet another man, in the knee this time. The impact made the man cry out, dropping his gun as he stumbled.  

At first, I wondered why someone who could clearly hit any target whatsoever would aim for someone’s leg rather than something vital. But the answer became clear a second later, while simultaneously helping to redefine the term bullshit. Because as the man’s gun fell from his hand with the barrel facing more or less toward her, Sariel fired another shot from the gun in her left hand. That bullet struck the trigger of the falling gun, making that weapon fire an actual laser that struck a big guy that had been coming up behind Sariel right in the middle of his forehead.

In other words, Sariel wasn’t just capable of headshotting every single one of these guys at will. She was capable of literally shooting the trigger of a different gun on the other side of the field and making that one still headshot a target. How, I ask. Fucking how?

Like I said, redefining bullshit. And I had a really high bullshit tolerance level by that point.

While I was still reacting to just how fucking ridiculous that was, Sariel was throwing one of those pistols into the face of another man who had been coming for her. He recoiled, while she pivoted to shoot yet another man. One shot, one kill. She took a quick step backward, putting herself close to the man who was recoiling. In the same motion, the woman caught the pistol that she had thrown into his face as it rebounded backward. Arms folding together across her chest so that the guns were pointed in opposite directions, she fired twice more from each gun, taking four more guys down.

By that point, her backward movement had put her directly beside the staggering man. Before he knew what was happening, Sariel trapped his raised gun arm with both of hers, so that all three of their pistols were aimed in the same direction with the man’s caught between hers. As Sariel moved her arms, the man was forced to move his as well, caught the way that he was. And move them she did, pulling the trigger on one of her guns, followed almost immediately by the other. An instant later, she gave the man’s arm just enough of a jerk that he reflexively pulled his own trigger as well while the position of his weapon was moved just a bit, apparently to where the woman wanted it. While the guns that Sariel had were using actual bullets, his fired a blue laser that shot through the air.

The two bullets that the woman had fired first struck their targets in rapid succession. The first hit a charging soldier right in his left eye, knocking his head back while the enormous metal sword that he had been holding dropped from his hands. As it fell, the second shot knocked the sword up and back a bit.

Then that laser that Sariel had forced the other soldier to fire struck the sword at its new angle, rebounding off of the metal surface to cut through three other guys who had all been lined up to take their shots.

I had no words. None. Seeing that, realizing that this woman had managed to shoot a man in the face with one gun, shoot his sword into the exact position she wanted it to be in with the other, and use a third gun (one that she was forcing another guy to aim and fire by trapping his arm between hers) to shoot a laser that rebounded off of that aforementioned sword to hit three other targets? I… I had nothing. There were literally no words.

The enemies, however, apparently did have a word for it. And that word was retreat. Even as Sariel snapped the arm of the man she had caught, throwing him over her shoulder to shoot through his helmet as he fell on the ground, the rest of the soldiers were scattering. They fled in every direction, some throwing down their weapons while others didn’t bother taking that much time. Either way, they booked it, running across the desert ground as if they were literally on fire.

Sariel let them go, standing there in the total silence that followed that mass retreat while she breathed in, then out a couple of times. The rest of us stood as well, just as silent as we stared at the woman we had been trying to save for so long. In my head, Tabbris had gone quiet as well. I could feel her shock, her disbelief that this could possibly be real, along with fear that if she said anything, if she moved at all, she would destroy this beautiful dream and it would be gone forever. Seeing her mother standing there, live and in the flesh after all this time, she didn’t know how to react. There was this great swell of emotion, a joy that had risen far beyond what I could possibly imagine, and which just kept growing with no particular end in sight.

All of that indescribable happiness had to go somewhere, and it finally exploded, almost literally, as Tabbris threw herself out of me. She appeared in a glowing energy form before resolving into her physical body. Sprinting that way at full speed, the girl cried out with a single word that filled the air, a single word that fully encompassed all of that euphoric jubilation that I had felt in her.

“Mama!!!”

The pistols that Sariel had commandeered from the now-dead soldiers dropped from her hands, as the woman pivoted our way with an audible gasp. She immediately took to one knee, arms managing to open wide just in time for Tabbris to physically throw herself those last few feet, literally launching into her mother’s arms, which closed around her and held on tightly.  

Tristan and Vanessa weren’t far behind. Seconds after Sariel’s arms closed around her youngest daughter, the other two made it to her. Both blurted something that sounded like it was midway between the word ‘mom’ and an incoherent noise, as they threw themselves that way.

And, like with Tabbris, Sariel met her twins with open arms. She pulled them all to her, all three of her children, and held them as tightly as she could. 

Someone was sobbing. Then they all were. Half-kneeling on the ground and half-laying against one another, the four clung to each other tightly. Several times, one or another tried to speak. But it always dissolved back into wordless sobbing as the four simply held on, clinging to their family like a man clinging to a life raft through a hurricane. This time, however, no force would pull them apart.

They also weren’t the only ones who were crying. Standing where I was, I felt a hard lump in my throat before swallowing it away. Wet, hot tears flooded my eyes. But they were glorious tears. Tears that I welcomed. Tears that I wanted to count, name, and enshrine, just because of how important this single moment actually was. Blinking my way through them, just so that I could watch this reunion without that watery veil obscuring my vision, I stood in silence.

They deserved this. They deserved it so much. Their family had suffered, had been separated and put through hell just to claw their way back this far. The things that Sariel alone had gone through… the thought was almost enough to drive away the joy that I felt now.

But not quite. Because nothing could ruin this moment. This, watching Sariel finally, finally reunite with her children, was the single happiest scene I could ever remember witnessing. Hearing her choked voice as she repeatedly murmured their names, telling them how much she loved them, shattered any emotional wall I might have had. 

The only thing that possibly could have made it even better would have been if Haiden had been there too. His absence, and the fact that I wasn’t sure how we were going to get back to link up with them again, let alone how long it would take, was the only dark spot on the moment.

“Babies,” Sariel choked out while leaning back to stare at her children. Her fingers wandered through their hair, down their faces, and back again while she whispered each of their names in turn. “Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris. Oh, my babies. My beautiful, beautiful babies. You’re here, you’re here, you’re alive. Oh, you’re alive. You’re safe. She lied, she lied. I knew she lied. You’re safe. You’re safe. She lied.”

Her shoulders were shaking violently by that point, while her voice cracked. The revelation of how Kushiel had clearly been messing with her head just to hurt her shook me to my core. For a moment, I whispered a silent prayer that Apollo had actually managed to end that bitch somehow while we were gone.

Sariel and the kids all started talking then. Tristan had clearly passed some information about what was going on to his mother when he had managed to recall to her. But now they began to really talk, and explain what had happened and why we were there. Or at least, as much as they could get into it in a very short time.

It was also very emotional, and I didn’t want to interrupt or eavesdrop too much. So, the first thing I did was make my way back onto that transport, both to retrieve my staff and to make sure there weren’t any other surprises waiting for us. Picking up my weapon, I smiled down at the blade and grapple on the ends. “Okay guys,” I whispered, “I think the fight’s over.”

Jaq and Gus resumed their mice forms and moved to each of my shoulders, while I walked back off the transport. Taking a seat on a small boulder, I took Herbie from my pocket and held him up in both of my hands, cupped in my palms.

“Hey buddy,” I murmured under my breath, “what do you think?”

What did he think? I didn’t even know what I thought. We had made that deal with Jophiel and Elisabet because there hadn’t been any other choice. But at what cost? How involved were the two of them in what was going on with Avalon? Could I have managed to talk them into giving that up somehow in exchange for what they wanted? No, obviously not. They already knew that the bargain with saving Sariel already gave them the upper hand. Why would they have agreed to anything else? Still it was a thought that pressed at me. What if they used this, or tried to use it to help those efforts?

I wouldn’t let them. I would die before I let this deal hurt Avalon like that. They had to know that, right? They weren’t stupid. They had to know that there were buttons that they wouldn’t get away with pressing.

And yet, despite all my efforts otherwise, I had still somehow ended up being forced into keeping really bad secrets from everyone that I should have been open with. The thought made me want to throw up, even as I pressed one fist to my forehead.

Jaq nuzzled at my ear, making a quiet, questioning squeak. With a little smile, I retrieved a couple of little metal washers from my pocket and third one to each of them. “You guys did great,” I assured them. “Trust me, you’re totally the MVPs of this team.”

Winking at Herbie, I reminded him, “Gotta let your brothers win sometimes.”

Sitting there on one rock, with a much better, and more handsome rock in my hand, I turned my head to look out over the desert. What planet did we we just get sent to? I wondered. And how hard is it going to be to contact the others?

Well, it actually wouldn’t be that hard, come to think of it. If nothing else, Vanessa could cast her mind to her father, or completely recall to him, and let him know where we were. As soon as we figured out where here actually was, at least.

Somewhere around five minutes passed, and I was pretty sure it would’ve been even longer if there hadn’t been the fear of a bigger force showing up. But I eventually heard my name being called, and belatedly realized that in trying to avoid eavesdropping, I had missed them saying it a couple times before that.

So, I slowly picked myself up and walked that way while tucking Herbie back into my pocket. The others were all sitting there watching me as I approached. Sariel had her arms around them, holding tightly as she gave me a soft smile.

She looked, despite the situation, like she was still right on the edge. Her face was paler than seemed healthy, and her eyes had a hard, haunted look. As a tumbleweed went drifting by in the slight breeze, I saw her gaze snap that way, every muscle in her body suddenly stiffening, as if she was ready for another fight.

It passed almost as soon as it had come, and she returned her eyes to me. “Felicity Chambers.” Her voice was soft, if a bit hoarse, and her eyes, though still haunted, took on a kind look. “I must say, I was not expecting this to be how we met.” As she spoke, the woman pulled Tabbris closer to her, while the girl herself nuzzled up against her mother’s arm.

Flushing a little bit, I coughed. “To tell you the truth, ma’am, I wasn’t really expecting to meet like like this either.” Without thinking, I added, “Even when I dreamt about meeting Artemis when I was little, it wasn’t really like this.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Sariel’s smile grew from obvious curiosity. “You dreamt about meeting a Greek mythological figure?”

My blush deepened, as I mumbled, “I was reading this book series and–never mind. You, um. You’re….” Stopping myself, I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I guess I just never really expected to get this far. I don’t know what to say.”

“I know what to say to you,” Sariel replied then. “Thank you.” Her gaze met mine pointedly. “Thank you for accepting my daughter once you found out about her. Thank you for everything you’ve done to help her. There are… many who would not have done the same in your situation. You have been put through a lot, and you have reacted… admirably.”

My head shook quickly at that. “Trust me, she’s done a lot more for me than I’ve done for her.” After pausing briefly, I added, “I guess we just make good partners.”

The woman sighed a little bit. “There is so much more that we need to talk about,” she muttered under her breath, “so much more that I want to say. But that will come in time. Right now, we must find out where we are and get a message to… to Haiden before the soldiers return in actual force. There will be coordinates listed on the transport.” When she said her husband’s name, there was an aching in both her voice and gaze that gave me a faint idea of how much she missed the man. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “And as soon as we know where they are, I can let Dad, Uncle Apollo, Aunt Larissa, and Athena know.”

I thought that Sariel sucked in a little breath at that, her gaze dropping a bit with a look of guilt. “Apollo… Larissa…” She swallowed slightly, clearly a lot more troubled than she was actually letting her kids (who were mostly blinded by the joy of actually being with their mother) see. “Yes, yes, we… we need to re… um, regroup.”

There was obviously a lot of complicated feelings there. Feelings that we, as usual, didn’t have time to get into. Instead, together (very together in the others’ cases, since it didn’t seem like Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris wanted to get very far away from their mother any time soon), we moved quickly back to the transport. I was really hoping that we could get Athena’s people here quickly enough to move all these pods so that we could free everyone in them before too many of Kushiel’s people (or other Seosten forces) showed up. Either way, we needed to hurry.

Thankfully, Sariel knew where she was going. The woman stepped right up to a console at one end of the transport tube. Her fingers danced over it, and she seemed to be putting in some kind of override passcode. I caught a glimpse of the woman inputting not her own name, but Puriel’s.

Before I could ask how she’d managed that, the woman spoke quietly. “The transport was a one-way trip. There’s no way to send it back or go through again. But where…” She started a bit then, eyes widening. “That… can’t be right.” Quickly, she input the same thing, staring the words on the screen for a moment before trying for a third time. “No, that has to be wrong.”

“What is it, Mama?” Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s waist, blinked up at her. “Are we in a bad place?”

Tristan’s head bobbed at that. “Yeah, just how deep in Seosten space are we?”

“We’re not,” Sariel answered, shock still filling her voice. “We’re not deep in Seosten space.”

Frowning, Vanessa asked, “What do you mean? If we’re not deep in Seosten space, where are we?”

Turning away from the console, Sariel answered her children. “Earth.

“We’re on Earth.”

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