Jokai

Fusion 1-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Once it was time to go to dinner after visiting a bit with the others, I headed up. Tabbris was with me, along with Miranda, Sands, Sco–Sarah, and Koren. Avalon had gone up earlier, and Shiori was stopping by the house to take a quick shower after an… incident with some mud. They and the rest would catch up. Meanwhile, the six of us were talking about an old show Randi and I used to like, explaining the details to Sands and Sarah while stepping up onto the spot of the hill where the elevator was. The forcefield walls and floor formed around us, and we began to rise. 

“Wait,” Sands blurted on the way up (thankfully, the elevator had been set to move at a normal pace instead of the incredibly slow version they’d been using earlier to get us all down here), “So the dog is a genie? Like, the full on granting wishes kind? And he can talk.” 

Miranda nodded. “He didn’t start off as a dog, and the dog didn’t start as a genie. But when the kid found him, he was lonely. His only friend was his dog. So when he found the genie and said, ‘I wish you were my best friend’, it literally turned the genie into his best friend. His dog.” 

Sands and Sarah looked at one another before speaking a single word together. “Weird.” Sands looked to us then and followed that up by herself with a flat, “Bystanders are so weird.” 

“Hey,” Koren objected with a raised hand. “That show was the bomb, don’t go dissing it. I begged my mom to get a Samoyed for months because of that show, until she caved.” 

“She let you get a dog like the one on the show?” I asked. “How was he?” 

A slightly sad smile touched her face. “I named him Whim, just like the show. He was the best dog ever. Kinda dumb, but… but he was my dog.” She swallowed hard. “Then he got hit by a car. Mom said I could get a new dog, but… but I didn’t want a new dog. I–wait.” She paused, head tilting a little as her eyes widened. “No… did he get hit by a car? I found him… I think I found him in my room. Why would he be in my room when he was… oh. Oh…” Suddenly, she turned away from us, arms folded tightly over her stomach as her face turned green. 

“The Fomorian,” I murmured, feeling a cold chill go over me. “You think it was the Fomorian.” The one who had been stalking her for such a long time, hiding around her for years. The one who had eventually shown himself, killed her father, erased him from their memories, and replaced him for a bit. The one from Thanksgiving last year, who had thankfully been killed.  

We reached the top of the dome then, passing through it while Koren nodded. “My memories are all fuzzy and messed up. When I focus on it, I can remember finding him in the street, but I can also remember finding them in my room. It gets all blurry. What else would it be?” She cringed, bowing her head. “He was around for a long time. Of course he’d fuck with me like that. He probably thought it was funny. Or he wanted to see what I’d do. Or Whim noticed him or… or something. I dunno. But he killed my father, it’s not exactly a stretch that he’d kill my dog.” 

Wincing, I hesitated before stepping over to embrace the other girl, my niece. She returned the hug after a brief hesitation, and we stood there on the elevator for a few seconds like that. It had been so easy to forget about just how long the Fomorian monster had been hiding in her house. So easy to stop thinking about him stalking Koren as a little girl. Mostly because thinking about it made me want to throw up, or scream, or both. It was too horrific and terrifying to focus on. 

After a moment of that, the two of us released each other and stepped off the elevator with the others. Only then did I look around. The station had sure been changed a lot since the last time I was here back in Seosten space. They’d done a lot of work over the summer, moving around parts of the interior and changing things up, probably remodeling as much with magic as with tech. I assumed the point was to make the place easier for all of us to navigate properly through the areas we were supposed to be around, and probably also to accommodate the larger number of students the place had now that it was (mostly) a dedicated school. 

Specifically, the area at the top of the elevator was a large circular room. The various elevators all ended up in this general area, so the floor had wide circular ‘holes’ covered by forcefields for each of them. Labeled doors were spaced relatively equally around the room. The metal plates beside each door had words in several languages stenciled into them, letting people know where each doorway led. There were seven doors from here. One was labeled ‘School and Auditorium’, another ‘Cafeteria, Kitchen, and Snackbar’, a third ‘Theater and Main Rec’, the fourth ‘Gym, Training Center, and Workshop’, the fifth ‘Spell and Power Testing’, and the sixth was ‘Transport.’ 

There was also a seventh door that was mostly unlabeled between the gym and spell testing doors. The plate there simply said, ‘Faculty And Authorized Personnel Only.’ There were several magical runes displayed openly on the door that I was sure weren’t the only protections it had. 

Tabbris went first, heading for the cafeteria door as she spoke hesitantly to Koren. “I’m pretty sure my… my Mama can probably help you get your memories about that… back, if you want? I mean, the real memories, so you’re not confused about what was real and what wasn’t. If you… if you want to know exactly what happened without the Fomorian’s tampering.” She sounded like she wasn’t sure she should say anything about it, eyes darting to me briefly through that.

Koren, however, managed a very slight smile. “Thanks, Tabbris. That sounds…” She paused, carefully choosing her words. “It sounds horrifying as far as actually remembering exactly what happened goes, but also… good. I want my own real memories, not this jumbled bullshit. Sorry.”

Sarah spoke up then, her voice a quiet murmur. “Real memories are better than fake ones.” Lifting her fake arm, the one with the solid-light hologram, she seemed to study it briefly before looking to the rest of us. “Even if they hurt.” Belatedly, she amended, “Especially if they hurt.” 

“She’s right.” That was Vanessa, as she and Tristan arrived on another elevator with Jazz. “Bad memories hurt. But they make you grow too. Ignoring them, erasing them, that doesn’t help.” 

“She says,” Tristan teased, “having never forgotten anything in her entire life.” 

Together, we headed for the cafeteria. First, we passed through the doorway and began to walk through the connecting tube. Like before, the ‘glass’ of the tube showed scenes from other parts space, though these particular ones had been changed to show a view of our own solar system from what looked like the moon. It was like we were on a station hovering above that instead of one buried deep inside the sun itself. Tabbris and I had fun explaining that to the rest. 

Others joined us on the way as we continued on, a small crowd making our way through the tube to the cafeteria station. Eventually, we all emerged into another wide circular room. We were essentially at the six o’clock position. Straight ahead across the room at the twelve o’clock spot were two wide double doors big enough to let a full sized troll pass through. Above the doors was a metal plate announcing the room as ‘Main Cafeteria.’ The doors were open and we could see tables through them. At the nine o’clock position were another set of doors labeled ‘Kitchen – Staff Only’ and at the three o’clock spot were doors labeled ‘Snackbar and Lounge.’ 

Avalon was waiting by the doors into the main cafeteria, and we met up with her while heading in. My hand found hers, squeezing briefly before I asked, “So, did the big gym meet your high standards?” She had gone up to check the place out, making sure the training center was up to the kind of workouts she wanted to put all of us through. Sure, there was one down in the living habitat, but when we really wanted to go through our paces, we’d need the main one up here.

Offering me a small smile and shrug, Valley replied, “It’s good enough for now. I’m sure we’ll find ways to improve it over the year. Plenty of time.” Her hand squeezed mine a little more firmly before she added, “There’s a lot of work to do in general, but it’s a pretty good start.” 

“I’ll tell my Mom you said that,” Koren informed her dryly, stepping aside to let others pass. “Hearing ‘pretty good start’ from Avalon Sinclaire is basically a five star review. She’ll take it.” 

Snorting at that, I looked around. The cafeteria they had set up was… similar to the one at Crossroads, but still different. The room was essentially rectangular, and set into three descending levels. The area we came in on was the highest level. To the left and straight across was the L-shaped serving counter where food could be ordered and picked up. A mixture of long rectangular and smaller circular tables filled the rest of the space. At the edge of that area to the right were stairs leading down to the middle level, where more tables were arranged. There was another set of stairs to the right of that leading down to the third and final level. There were a few tables down there, but most of the space was taken up by lounge chairs and more casual seating. There was a stage just past that where people could stand and talk, along with a screen on the far right wall, taking up the entire thing. Currently, an old Roadrunner cartoon was playing on the screen, while a bunch of people watched and laughed along with it. Some were human, some not. Regardless of species, they were all thoroughly engrossed in the video. Which kind of said something about the universal appeal of Warner Brothers cartoons. 

Heading with the others over to the counter, we found small, individual white boards attached to the counter itself, all down the line. There were markers attached to the boards, along with a metal plate below them with an explanation. You were supposed to write what you wanted, include any details if it was a special order like how you liked the steak or what dietary restrictions you had, or even detail what something was if it happened to be something unique or rare. You just wrote it down, then the writing would disappear. When it disappeared, that meant the order was received. A tray would then appear, which you took to your seat, and the food would eventually be sent to that tray. Easy enough. 

We each spread out, wrote down what we wanted for dinner, took the trays that appeared, and then went for one of the long tables on the second level, near the wall opposite the entrance. I sat next to Avalon, with Tabbris across from me and an empty seat for Shiori on the other side. 

Vanessa, who sat next to Tabbris, put her tray down with a quiet, “Being in school feels weird.” 

“Whelp, that’s it,” Tristan announced, standing right back up from his seat he had just taken next to his twin and dusting himself off. “Nessa thinking that being in school is weird is basically the final sign of the apocalypse. Our entire universe should be wiped out aaaany second now.”

Rolling her eyes, Vanessa primly informed him, “I meant that it feels weird to be in school again after what happened at Crossroads. Not to mention all this fighting that’s going on. It feels… funny sitting here, getting ready to go to classes tomorrow. Not wrong or bad. School never feels bad. Just… funny.” She shrugged a bit helplessly. “You know what I mean.” 

“Sure do,” Jazz agreed after looking up from her phone. “But you know what’s really weird?” 

Jokai finished for her, the chameleon-man appearing in time to take the seat next to his girlfriend. “Having… telephone connection inside sun.” His English had gotten better over the months since we met him, even if he still had to take the time to think through what he was saying. He was understandable. Especially when he was around Jazz. Those two were ridiculous together. Which, to be fair, was probably what people thought about me with Avalon or Shiori. 

Speaking of Shiori, she slipped into the seat beside me, with Columbus joining her. “Yeah,” the girl was already saying, “having phone service inside the sun is weird. But you know what’s weirder in that sentence? The ‘inside the sun’ part. Like, we’re literally living inside the sun. I mean, in a space station habitat thing within the sun, sure. But still! In the sun!” 

“Portals for phone service,” Avalon pointed out simply. “And forcefields protect us from damage within the sun. Forcefields that are constantly supplied with power from the sun itself.” 

Hisao arrived. The former Eden’s Garden Vigile (and Crossroads substitute teacher) stopped at the end of the table, his hand finding Miranda’s shoulder. “Hey there, you guys get settled in okay?” 

We all agreed that we had, before Miranda looked up at her former mentor. “You’re definitely gonna be one of our teachers, right?” 

“One of, yes,” he confirmed. “We’re sort of playing it by ear and taking turns with classes. You’ll have a main teacher, but also several back-ups who can teach specific subjects within that class, or take over if the main teacher is indisposed or just busy.” 

“Busy fighting the war, you mean,” I clarified, looking at the man. “They don’t want to tie up all useful people with classes, so it’s just ‘whoever’s good with that subject and not busy can teach that day.’” 

“A little more structured than that, hopefully,” he replied, “but essentially, yeah. We’re doing the best we can here. Just gotta go with it. Speaking of which, you guys know how this works, right?” He nodded to the big video screen. When we all just looked at him blankly, the man chuckled before explaining. “Right, see, you go up to that little glowing table over there and put your cell phone on it. Once you do, it’ll download a new app. You use the app to look at a list of what’s available to watch here on the screen and submit your suggestion. While a show or movie is on, there’s a list of currently submitted suggestions for the next thing. You can add your own, like I said, or add a vote to one that’s already there. Once the current thing ends, the next thing with the most votes will go on. You can only vote inside the room, and if you’re not in the room when the votes are tallied, yours won’t be counted. So you only get to use it if you’re here.” With a shrug, he added, “They’ve got the same kind of system in the rec room.” 

“Entertainment by democracy,” Columbus noted. “I guess there are much worse systems.” 

It wasn’t long after that before our food arrived, and we were basically finished eating when the video on the screen (it had been voted over to the old Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie from the seventies) paused. Abigail came over to the stage, along with a couple Eden’s Garden people and a man who was apparently an Alter from the way he made my Heretic sense shout at me. Yeah, I really hoped they found a way to do something about that, because it had been low-key going off every time I stopped looking at Alters for awhile, then did again.

Speaking up after magnifying her voice, Abigail began with, “Okay, first of all, welcome to the cafeteria. I see you all managed to find it.”  She offered a slight smile then before adding, “I did hear a few people asking about the younger students. So I’ll go ahead and tell you that their cafeteria is on the opposite side of the school area. You go through your section of the school to reach their section, and on the far side of that you’ll reach their cafeteria, then their dorms. I’m sure you’ll be able to explore all of that soon. Or just take one of the maps that will be handed out at the door. Those same maps are available for your phones if you set it on any of the pedestals you see around this place with the map icon on them.

“Your phones will also receive a copy of your schedule for the week, and a paper copy will be delivered to your mailbox each Sunday. We’re going with a weekly schedule at least for now, while we sort things out. Your classes can and will change from week to week, depending on what and who is available. But you will receive a full and balanced education. Or, as much of one as we can reasonably provide.” 

Gesturing to the Edens Garden people, as well as one of the Crossroads teachers who had been responsible for an older grade, Abigail continued. “My new friends here are going to help answer any questions you have. I’m sure there are a lot. But in the meantime, now that we’ve all moved our stuff in and had time for it to sink in, allow me to be the first to officially say…

“Welcome to the Joselyn Atherby Fusion School.” 

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Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Exodus 44-06

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Please note that there is an important opinion question in my first comment after this chapter regarding where the new upcoming second story that will be written side-by-side with the second year of this one will be posted. Anyone who has a chance and a preference, it would be great if you could take a look and let me know what you think. Thank you. 

We started running. Dozens of us, by that point. There was me, Avalon, Aylen, Shiori, Columbus, and a bunch of hybrid students, each of whom had friends or teammates who were coming along.

Well, they started running. I took a few steps before stumbling a little bit. When I did, everyone looked at each other before Columbus of all people held a hand out. “It’s okay,” he said quietly, “I… trust you.” Despite his words, there was tension in his voice that told me, as if I hadn’t already known how big this was.

I met his gaze for a moment, then took his hand and possessed the boy. I made a point of staying out of his thoughts. Still, I could tell even from surface impressions that he was nervous. Not that I personally would do anything, but just… the idea of having anyone who could take control of him. He didn’t like it, and even though he trusted me, he wanted me out as soon as possible.

We were all following Harper. Or… or… Lancelot. Lancelot. We were following Harper, who was actually Lancelot. Yeah, that was taking awhile to sink in. Even with Tabbris having a complete ranting fangirl moment in my head, going on about how awesome that was, complete with her own mental sound effects.

There were others following. Some of the teachers and other students were trailing behind, blurting out confused words or demands about what was going on or about where we were going. But after what had just happened with Ruthers, not even any of the staff were willing to get in the newly-transformed Harper’s way. Which meant they weren’t willing to get in our way. So instead, they just followed along with a bunch of other students who had no idea what was going on.

And it wasn’t like there was time to explain it. Because Harper, or Lancelot, or whoever she happened to be was right. The rest of the Committee would be on its way. We had to leave.

Running beside Columbus, Shiori blurted, “Do you think the shield’ll be down before we get there?”

Before anyone could say answer that, Deveron was suddenly there. “It’s down,” he informed her, and the rest of us. “Where’s–”

“In me,” Columbus put in. “Easier to run.”

Deveron gave a quick nod then, briefly looking around as we ran before his gaze fell on the new Harper at the head of the pack. “We can get… Who–what…” He paused, as though realizing that he’d missed something enormous.  “…. What just happened?”

“Dude…” Shiori managed, “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”

“She’s right,” Columbus put in while Vulcan gave a low bark to the side. “You really wouldn’t.”

“Short version,” Avalon announced. “Harper is Lancelot. Yeah, that one. She just beat Ruthers and made him retreat. But he’ll probably be back with more help. We’re leaving.”

“Wait, wait, back up to the part about beating Ruthers,” Deveron started. “Because I really–”

Shiori shook her head quickly, interrupting. “Sorry, we super don’t have time for you to get popcorn for the play-by-play. You said the shield was down?”

Koren joined us then, nodding quickly. “It’s down, we’re–wait, are we taking the whole school?”

I felt Columbus open his mouth to respond to that, but someone else spoke first. It was Nevada. She appeared in front of us just as we reached the beach, looking briefly taken aback by the size of the group  before nodding over her shoulder. “Go, guys! If you’re leaving, get to the boat out there.”

“Yeah, guys,” Sands piped up. She and Scout were there next to Nevada, along with their mother and Doug. “Let’s get on the boat and get the hell out of here.”

“No, just stop!” That was Reid Rucker, the acting head of security with Kohaku on her recovery vacation, previously her second-in-command. The man came out of nowhere, panting briefly as he straightened up with a shotgun in one hand and a shield in the other. His eyes scanned the group. The hybrids, their friends, and my people were all clustered together, with the rest of the students and older teachers back a bit. Everyone had skidded to a halt when Nevada appeared. Now they looked to Rucker, some anxiously, some angrily, and some with relief.

“I don’t know who you are,” Rucker announced, his eyes on Harp–Lancelot (seriously, what the fuck) as he continued. “But no one is going anywhere. This is all just one big misunderstanding, okay? There’s no evacuation order. There’s no Strangers overrunning the school. It’s all going to be straightened out. Everyone just calm down and back up.”

It was Deveron who spoke then, before anyone else could. “Sorry, man. We’re leaving. So can anyone who wants to come with.”

Some of the students who didn’t know what was going on started to all talk over each other, asking why anyone would want to leave. They were interrupted by one of the older teachers, who spoke up. “Rucker’s right. I don’t know what exactly is happening here, but no one needs to leave. Let’s all take a breath and remember that we’re on the same side.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Or the right thing. Because it prompted Shiori to blurt, “Are we?!”

That brought everyone’s, and I do mean everyone’s attention to her. They were staring, as the Asian girl flushed a little, shrinking back reflexively before stopping herself. She straightened, glancing to the other obvious Hybrids. Then she looked back to the teacher who had spoken, and the rest of the students who had followed us this far. “Are we really on the same side?” she began, her voice cracking briefly. “Because… because…”

Stepping out of Columbus (taking Rucker by surprise, by his reaction), I reached out, putting a hand on Shiori’s shoulder. Columbus himself did the same, his voice soft. “It’s okay.”

It was enough. Shiori spoke more clearly then. “Because I’m not human. Not completely.”

She pushed on while the confused murmuring started, ignoring all of it. “They’re going to tell you lies. They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters, that our parents were monsters. They’re going to tell you anything they can to avoid admitting the truth, that we’re people. We’re just people. My father is human. My mother… isn’t. My sister isn’t. I’m half-human. I’m a Hybrid.”

“So am I.” That was one of the second-year students, a lanky boy with dark, shaggy hair. He was surrounded by what looked like his entire team, all of whom were right at his side and looked like they already knew all of this. “I’m a Hybrid. My father isn’t human either. And he’s not a monster. Neither am I.”

“That’s right,” a red-haired, freckled girl that was clearly part of his team put in. “Miles isn’t a monster, you dickheads.”

There were a few more agreements with that, while the teachers and all the students who hadn’t known what was going on looked at them with a wide assortment of reactions. I saw confusion, betrayal, understanding, relief, anger, pity, and more all spread throughout everyone who was seeing and hearing these words.

Shiori continued. “They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters because we’re not completely human! They’re going to tell you that it’s a lie, that we were always monsters and that Gaia just shoved human DNA in us to let us become Heretics. They’re the ones who are lying!

Another voice spoke up then. Rebecca Jameson blurted at her roommate, “Sh-Shiori? What… what are you talking about? What’s going on? Aylen, Koren? What are you guys doing? What–are… are you really…”

“We’re not monsters,” Aylen said in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet and yet audible to everyone. “We’re just people. Our parents aren’t evil.”

“Speak for yourself,” one of the other Hybrids muttered before flushing with a mumbled apology.

“That’s the point!” Avalon suddenly cut in. “Some are evil, some aren’t! This isn’t rocket science! Good people, bad people, good Strangers, bad Strangers! It’s not advanced ethics, it’s fucking kindergarten!”

“What are you talking about?” That was one of the third-year students who had no clue what was happening. She moved forward out of the crowd, shaking her head. “You guys aren’t related to Strangers. That’s ridiculous. You’re… you’re just…”

“Just people?” Dare finished for her. She was there, coming through the crowd with Hisao right at her side. I felt an immediate rush of relief at the sight of her. She and Hisao had clearly been through… well, a lot. Both of them looked worn and ragged. And wet. Really wet. They were both soaked through for some reason, neither apparently taking the time to dry themselves even with powers or magic. They moved together, Dare continuing to address the student who had spoken. “Yes, they’re just people, Theresa. That’s the point. No one is born a monster. You choose to be one, or you don’t.”

That caused even more murmuring, everyone trying to talk over one another. There were small arguments breaking out throughout the crowd of onlooking students and teachers. I saw some staff members trying to quiet them, and, unfortunately, I even saw a couple small shoving fights break out in the crowd. A few people shouted about how we were lying, others about how their hybrid class and teammates were monsters. That started even more arguments, and the whole thing looked like it was going to turn into an all-out brawl.  

“Stop, stop!” That was Reid Rucker again, his voice shaking just a little as he pointed to us. “No more. I don’t what’s going on here, but this… this joke has gone far enough. You’re done now.”

“Quite right, Mr. Rucker,” a new voice spoke up. “That is enough.”

It was Litonya. She was there, along with a recovered Ruthers, the Asian woman Jue, and the big black guy, Geta. Four Committee members, none of them friendly. They stood facing us down, looking pretty much as though they would like nothing more than an excuse to end this whole thing permanently and without mercy. Worse, they were joined very quickly by more of their people, more loyal Committee lackeys who looked as though they were spoiling for an excuse to fight. Their presence also quieted all the arguments that had started throughout the crowd, as everyone snapped basically to attention, staring that way.

Litonya continued. “There will be no leaving the island. We have indulged far too much nonsense this year, and leading up to it. Everything will be put back to its proper place now.”

“Proper place?” Gordon started then, as he came into view from the beach. Jazz was with him, along with Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, Larees, Misty, her brother Duncan, Enguerrand, and a few others. And Gabriel Prosser, he was there too. That was enough to make a few people start whispering again, their wide eyes locked on the man who had become a legend even amongst Crossroads despite not being part of them.

Gordon continued, while everyone who didn’t know what was going on reacted to his sudden appearance. “You mean in the ground for me and everyone like me? Or cages, like Eden’s Garden has done with my father? That’s what you mean by proper place, right? Are you better because you kill us rather than enslave us?”

More people appeared. More of Prosser’s people from the Atherby camp. They faced down the Committee and their people, the tension high enough that it seemed to make an almost audible buzzing sound. There was a war brewing, one that had been building up for a long time and was now right on the cusp of breaking out.

“Jazz!?” Travis Colby blurted, sounding more shocked by her appearance than by anything else. “You’re okay!? You’re–you’re… what the fuck?”

That last bit was because Jazz had been joined by Jokai. Yeah. He was there, standing beside her as Jazz took his hand. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Hey, guys. Guess what, I have a boyfriend.”

Your degenerate filth is not welcome here!” The shout came from Jue, the handsome Asian woman practically screaming it, spittle flying from her lips as she threw her hand out, sending a bolt of orange fire that way.

It was caught by Prosser, who held a hand up to make a brief energy shield to stop the fire. “Raise a hand to those under my protection again, any of you,” he advised, “and I promise you will regret it.”

Litonya seemed to be analyzing the situation, her eyes snapping back and forth between the crowd of supporters behind them, the confused students and teachers who didn’t know what to do, our group, and Gabriel Prosser and his people. Finally, she snapped, “Enough. This has gone on for far too long. We end it now, beginning with Headmistress Sinclaire admitting what she did, what she has been doing.”

Her fingers snapped, and Gaia herself appeared between Geta and Jue. Her wrists were shackled with what were clearly magical chains, yet she appeared just as regal and in control as ever.

As the rest of the students blurted the headmistress’s name, or started shouting questions, Avalon said something very different. Taking a step that way, her mouth opened and she spoke a single word that cut through everything else.  

“Mom.”

It was quiet, plaintive, and desperate. It was a single word, a word full of yearning, apologies, and need. Avalon said it, and with it, she said a whole lot more.

Everyone else had stopped with that word, and the tone and meaning behind it. For a few long seconds, Gaia and Avalon simply met gazes, before the woman gave a soft smile. “It’s okay, Valley,” she said quietly. “It’s going to be okay.”

Litonya was pointing to her. “No, it really won’t. Not for you, or for any of your conspirators. You never should have been given this position, witch. And you will never hold it again. You will confess your part in all of this. You will tell everyone that you murdered Oliver because of what he discovered about your activities. You will tell everyone just how much you have perverted our institution for your own ends. You will confess all of it.”

Gaia, however, wasn’t looking at her. Her eyes were on the new Harper. On Lancelot. She stared, head tilting a little. “You… you’re… you were…” Then she gave a single, soft little laugh, a chuckle. “Take care of them, please, until I can come back.”

“Yes,” Harper agreed in a voice that made it clear that there was a lot more behind what they were saying to each other than any of us had a chance of following. “I will. I have.”

Litonya opened her mouth to say something else then, but Gaia interrupted. “Miss Chambers,” she started, looking to me of all people. “It’s time for a revelation.”

I heard the others saying something. I heard demands being flung around, words of confusion from other teachers, threats from the Committee, all of it. I heard it, but I didn’t care.

Because I finally remembered.

******

Several months ago, in January

 

“So I really won’t remember anything about this?” I hesitantly asked Gaia while standing in her office beside a table that she had conjured up. My eyes were focused on the two items laying in the middle of that table.

The headmistress gave a slight nod. “That is the easiest, safest way of doing this.” Her eyes softened a bit then as she watched me. “This is very dangerous, Miss… Felicity. What we are doing, what we want to do, it is not something to be undertaken lightly. If anyone learns what we intend before we are ready, it will be… dangerous, for everyone involved. You will do what you need to do, but you will not know why. You will not remember why it is that important.”

I swallowed. “I understand. You have to keep everyone safe. You have to keep the secret safe.”

“You are very good at keeping secrets, Felicity,” Gaia assured me. “But this one… it is better if you don’t have to think about it until it’s time. Until I tell you that it is time for a revelation. That will be the signal for the spell blocking your memory of this to fade, the signal that it is time to use the spell that we have created.”

Stepping over to the table then, I reached out, hesitating slightly before setting my hands almost reverently against the items that rested there. “So I’ll just stop looking for these?”

“You will move on to other things,” Gaia assured me with a slight smile. “I trust you will not run out of items and mysteries to occupy your time.”

Shrugging at that, I nodded. “I guess so. But you really think I can just write in a notebook for months without knowing why I’m doing it? Hell, not just write it in it. You’re talking about me powering it with magic for months without knowing why I’m doing it, about me protecting it and keeping it secret. And in all that time, I won’t know why?”

Gaia chuckled. “Part of you will, I’m sure. It’s just that your conscious mind will not. That’s the safest way. Unless you disagree. If you would prefer not to do this–”

“No,” I interrupted quickly. “No, I want to. I… I want to do it.” Looking to her, I bit my lip before adding, “Whatever it takes. Block my memories, hide it from me, I don’t care. It’s worth it. If… if it does what you say it will, it’s worth anything.”

For a few silent seconds then, our gazes met. Gaia watched me with a soft, almost sad smile. “You’re right, of course,” she murmured under her breath. “This is worth it. We will begin the spell and block it from your memory.”

“And you’re really sure I won’t remember?” I had to ask once more. “I won’t remember our plan, or what I’m really doing, or… or anything about it? It won’t even bother me that I don’t remember?”

Gaia winked at me. “You won’t even remember that I’ve already teased you about your rather important conversation with Avalon and Shiori about your relationships when I do so again, after your memory is blocked.”

I started to nod to that. “Right, I won’t rememb–wait, what?”

*****

“A revelation?” That was Ruthers, gaze snapping back and forth between us. “No. Stop her. Stop them. Something’s wrong. Something is wrong, they’ve planned. She has a weapon of some kind, a–”

It was too late. I had my notebook, the one I’d been writing in ever since that meeting at Gaia’s office, the one that I had taken care of and kept on me every chance I had even though I didn’t really know why I was doing so. The one that Tabbris had clearly known, but kept silent about. I held it, while everyone stared at me.

“That is not a weapon,” Jue observed, her tone dismissive as she gave a quick look at it.

“You’re wrong about that,” I informed her simply. “This is the most dangerous weapon in the world, the one that terrifies you guys beyond everything else. This? This is knowledge. It’s news. And you know what I was before you people brought me here?

“I was a reporter.”  

With those words, I extended my other hand and spoke the word that Gaia had told me about months earlier, the word that summoned one of the items that had been on her table.

Mom’s Hunga Munga. That was what had been there that day. One of them appeared in my hand, and seeing it drove all four Committee members to action. They tried to stop me, tried to stop what was about to happen. But between Gabriel, Harper, and the rest of the Atherby’s, even four Committee members couldn’t get to me in time.

I dropped the notebook I had written in all year, and hurled the throwing axe through the middle of it.

The notebook burst into flames and disintegrated as the spell came to life. The spell connected itself to the Hunga Munga. And through that, to its partner, the other Hunga Munga, which I knew from our conversation months ago would be seated in the middle of the ritual table in a secret, hidden area of Gaia’s private rooms. The second throwing axe, partner to this one, would be tied by a bit of rope from the Crossroads’ Reaper’s hangman rope that Gaia had sent Asenath to retrieve. The rope, a bit of dragon bone, and other pieces of the ritual, secretly prepared over the past few months for this exact moment.

No one could stop it now. The spell came to life. And in an instant, everything that I had written in the notebook was sent through the minds of every single person connected to the Heretical Edge, to the Reaper whose rope had been used for this.

Two things. I’d written two things in that notebook. First, I’d written down everything I’d learned about my mother. Who she was, what she’d done, everything she had accomplished. Everything about the rebellion, about how Ruthers had stopped it, about Wyatt and Abigail being abducted and held hostage. About Mom being taken by Fossor after spending years in Laramie Falls. Everything. All of it. Everything I knew about my mother and her rebellion against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden.

The other thing I had written in that notebook was the spell that Gaia had told me to add to the very end. The spell that would, apparently, undo the memory eraser that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden had done to finally end the rebellion. It was a spell she always could have done, but it would only work on one person at a time. There was no way to hit everyone.

Until now. Until they had something that connected everyone. Like that piece of the Hangman’s rope. Because all of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were connected to that. All of them were connected to him. Everyone was connected to the Heretical Edge.

In that single motion, with the spell that Gaia had spent decades preparing before I even came along, and the past few months finalizing, we erased the spell that had ended the rebellion. But we did more than that. Because it wasn’t just old Heretics, those who had known the rebellion and chosen a side at the time, who remembered. It was everyone. Every single Heretic who had ever come through Crossroads or Eden’s Garden suddenly knew the truth.

They knew my mother. They knew what she had done, what she had stood for. They knew who she was.

The rebellion wasn’t erased anymore.

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Before The Vault 41-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theia brightened. “So you have met her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Interlude 34C – Haiden Moon

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“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrggggggggh!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phase one had officially begun.

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Hoc Est Bellum – 34-01

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“Okay, seriously, now that we have time, you’ve gotta tell me what the deal with Arthur is.”

About three days into our little trip toward what was probably going to be the closest thing to hell that I could possibly imagine, I was standing in the small kitchen area, watching Athena bake a cake. No, seriously, she had an apron and everything. It was incredibly surreal. I’d asked her about the point of the apron and she had said that demonstrating proper safety and etiquette measures was important as a teacher, even if she personally didn’t really need them.

I saw the slight smile cross the woman’s face as she remained quiet for a few seconds, sliding a pan into the oven before straightening up to look back at me curiously. “The ‘deal’ with Arthur?”

“You know what I mean.” Folding my arms across my stomach, I pressed, “Where is he? You said you trained him to help break the Bystander Effect, but he was ambushed and his power was broken. That’s what you said. You didn’t say he was killed, you didn’t say he was dead. You said his power was broken ‘for the time being’. What does that mean? And where is he now?”

I had tried to bring this up before, but it was always the wrong time, or we would get interrupted. Now, we were on the ship and I couldn’t think of a better time to get some actual answers.

For a moment, Athena regarded me in contemplative silence, like she was deciding exactly how much she should tell me. Then the woman gave a faint nod. “I have told you of Chayyiel.”

“The Olympian who was a kid when the experiments happened,” I remembered from the discussion that had happened on the station. “She was Hestia on Earth. The one who still looks like a kid even though it was like a million years ago because it froze your aging processes.”

“Precisely,” Athena confirmed. “As I said before, Chayyiel was the daughter of the program’s director. There is much more to that, but that can come later. For the moment, all you really need to know for this story is that she has a highly developed sense of honor and fair play.”

Blinking, I shook my head. “She’s still on the Seosten’s side and she has a sense of honor?”

“She also has a highly developed sense of loyalty,” the woman informed me. “Chayyiel does not always, or even often, agree with a lot of the measures that are taken. But she believes in the Seosten society in the long run. She believes that any changes must be made from within, and that the Seosten are still the preferable winners over the Fomorians. When she encounters open abuse or anything she deems too dishonorable, she puts a stop to it. Those under her direct employ are some of the most well-treated subjects within the Seosten Empire. But she cannot change everything overnight, and despite her power and the respect she commands, particularly since becoming a member of the Seraphim, there is only so much she can do.”

“A member of the Seraphim,” I echoed, “which is part of the ruling caste, your senate or whatever.”

Athena’s head dipped once in confirmation then. “Just so. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. You wished to know what happened to Arthur. Chayyiel is a large part of that.”

“Her… power, she could have all his skill and see any weaknesses he had,” I murmured quietly.

“Which,” Athena pointed out, “were not many. But they fought several times, always to an essential stand-still. Neither could entirely best the other, and Chayyiel’s sense of honor meant that she refused to have others brought in to assist her. Arthur was one of her strongest challengers, and if she was going to win, she wanted to do so herself. That, and I also believe that she was considering…” She trailed off then, biting her lip in brief silence.

“She was considering what?” I asked, even more curious now.

“She was considering,” a voice that definitely wasn’t Athena’s spoke up from the nearby doorway, “making him her new primary host.”

Spinning a bit at that, since I hadn’t sensed anyone coming (not even my item sense had gone off, despite the fact that the intruder was definitely close enough to have triggered it), I found myself staring at a man standing there who looked like Westley from The Princess Bride.

Aside from that apt comparison, the guy wasn’t familiar at all. Which, considering we were on a spaceship in mid-transit, was clearly a problem. But the much bigger problem? He was holding Tabbris in both arms.

Earlier, my little partner had shown me how she had used the power to move items around my body to affect individual objects within something else that was touching me, like a bag. Or, in this case, the container for my staff. Now, a thought instantly transferred it into my hand at the sight of the intruder holding Tabbris, and I started to blurt a threat.

“Stop.” Athena’s hand found my shoulder, bringing me up short. That was all she said at first, that single word while she held me back from the man. When I glanced that way in confusion, she was staring at him. Her gaze was utterly unreadable, as she remained silent.

“Thanks.” The man gave a roguish smile, winking at us while he set Tabbris on the floor. “Wouldn’t wanna have to fend off your protege, Auriel. She seems fierce.”

“It’s Athena, Lucifer,” she informed him in a flat voice. “I don’t go by Auriel anymore.”

Well, that was something. My head snapped around, whipping back and forth between the two as I sputtered a bit in total incomprehension, even as Tabbris darted over to me. She caught my hand, holding tight even as I returned the squeeze before pulling the girl up against myself protectively.

“Funny,” the man replied, “I don’t go by Lucifer anymore either. The name’s lost something of its appeal.”

More silence then, and more stillness. That stretched on for another handful of seconds before Athena abruptly moved. Her hand left my shoulder, and she was past me before I knew what was happening. In a blur of motion, the Seosten woman was suddenly right in front of the intruder.

And then she embraced him. Her arms went around the man, and the two were hugging incredibly tightly. It wasn’t a romantic hug, as far as I could tell. They weren’t lost lovers or anything. It was the embrace of long, long-lost friends, of family. I could see some kind of tension fade out of both of their postures as they all-but collapsed into one another. Each held the other up, their own strength entirely devoted to keeping each other on their feet. And each clearly trusted the other enough not to let them fall in the process.

It was one of the first times I had ever seen her get emotional, or seem… well, for lack of a better word, human. Seeing this guy, it clearly deeply affected her.

“I am sorry.” That was the first thing that Athena said, the first words that finally came from her mouth after a long few moments like that. “Lucifer, I am so very sorry about what happened to you, about what they have done.”

“They’ve done just as much to you,” the man… Apollo… reminded her. “You’ve lost plenty, Athena. And I told you, it’s not Lucifer.”

Leaning back a bit, the Seosten woman regarded him without letting go. “Apologies. I… refused to stop using that name, because I did not want to allow them to destroy it entirely. Lucifer is not what they have turned your name into. You are my… you are my friend. You have been my friend for so very long, and they… Puriel and his…” Her face twisted in anger, and she shook her head. “You are not that.”

“I dunno,” the man replied with a shrug, “they got a few things right. I do like apples and snakes.”

“Umm.” I couldn’t stop myself from speaking up then. “Hi? What–how did you…”

“Sorry.” The voice came just as several people came within range of my item-sense. Apollo and Athena stepped in opposite directions, allowing Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan, to come in. Haiden was the one talking. “He insisted on surprising you. Something about wanting to see your faces.”

“Her face, mostly,” Apollo corrected, jerking a thumb toward Athena. “It’s been awhile, I really wanted to see what she’d do.”

“That,” Athena replied flatly, “is why he does most things. To see how people react.”

Vanessa spoke up then, as she and Tristan moved beside Tabbris and me. “Uncle Apollo came to help get Mom out of Kushiel’s lab. He came to help us save her.”

Bewildered, I asked, “But how did you get here? You were back on Earth, right? How did you get all the way out here? Not that I should really be surprised by this point, honestly. But still.”

“Eh,” the man replied, “it wasn’t too hard. I have a connection to every member of my organization. It wasn’t enough to project myself through the magical shield that they’ve been using to block Earth. But between that and the spell I put on the twins here so that I could get to them if they were in trouble, it did the trick. Let’s just say I needed all three of them to be in the same general area to make it work.”

Jolting beside me, Vanessa suddenly put in, “That’s right, you said that you had a connection to someone out here, one of the… the other students?”

“Oh my God,” I blurted, “Torchbearers.”

The others all blinked at me, while Apollo himself gave me a broad smile. “The reports were right,” he remarked, “she is a bright one. Wish she was one of mine.”

“Jazz’s people, the Torchbearers,” I repeated, my gaze meeting his. “You’re the one that created them, aren’t you? I mean, Lucifer, lightbringer, Torchbearer.”

Apollo gave a brief bow. “You see? Very bright. Yes, they were a group that I created and had a bit of a hand in through their history. As I said, I have a connection to all of them. It was enough to let me know exactly where she was, but not enough to teleport to her. Not until the twins were out here too.”

Tristan nudged me. “See, now we’ve got two full Seosten on our side. This is gonna be a great rescue.”

I felt like telling him not to jinx it, but pointing that out probably would have made it worse. So, I just shook my head while focusing on Apollo himself. “Where’s Jazz? Does she know you’re here? Does she know anything about you?”

“Nope,” he replied. “Not yet. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a little chat with her myself. There’s a few things that she and I need to talk about.”

I wanted to ask more about that, but that felt like prying. So I quashed my curiosity for the moment.

Athena was the one who spoke next. Her voice was almost as calm as ever, but I did detect a bit of emotion in it. Which gave a slight hint of just how much emotion she was actually feeling. “I’m glad you’re here. You should be here. It’s time to get Sariel away from them.”

There was no joviality in Apollo‘s voice as he replied, “Oh, it is long past time to get her away from them. They’ll pay for everything they did to my sister.

“They wanna cast me as the devil? I’ll show them just how hot my hell burns.”

*******

It was about four days later, and a week since we had set off from the Aelaestiam base. A week of travel to get to Kushiel’s secret lab. During that time, Vanessa and Tristan had spent most of it with their dad, while the rest of us made sure we were as ready as possible (physically and mentally) for what was about to happen. Not that the twins were spared any of Athena’s training in that time. She made sure to put all of us through our paces too. As did Apollo. They both worked us to the bone to make sure we were as ready as we could possibly be.

Also, there were the stories. Apollo had so many stories. And he loved to tell them. Some involved him directly, while a lot actually didn’t. They were just stories he’d picked up over the millennia. He’d been making a point of telling us a few of the funny ones, clearly trying to take our minds off what was about to happen. One of those more recent stories was about some guy named Lars, who had become a Natural Heretic bonded with something called an Eki, which were protective guardian figures who gained power from the sun and had a lot to do with fire and heat powers.

This Lars guy had no idea what was going on in the world. No one ever explained the whole Bystander/Alter/Heretic thing to him, so he had to figure out as much as he could on his own, including the fact that everyone he knew would always forget anything supernatural that he did. But he still wanted to help, so the guy did what came natural. He dressed up as a superhero and went out to fight bad guys. Yeah, that sometimes happened with Natural Heretics, apparently. As far as the Bystanders were concerned, they were just those kooky people who dress up in costumes, call themselves superheroes, and go around stopping petty crime. They never remembered the crazy things he accomplished. But he kept right doing them, even if no one remembered and everyone thought he was silly, at best. Which was pretty admirable, really. So-Lars was a real hero.

Yeah. Lars’ the solar-powered superhero’s name was So-Lars. Whenever I managed to tell Shiori about that, she might end up with a new favorite superhero, all other qualifications be damned.

The point was, everyone liked listening to Apollo’s stories. Well, everyone except Dries, that was. Yeah, with Apollo and Athena, we had two adult Seosten on the ship with us the whole time. Which meant that Dries wasn’t all that happy. He understood, but he wasn’t very happy. I had talked to him a bit, and he told me that he appreciated and accepted that they (and Tabbris) weren’t the same as the Seosten who had imprisoned and tortured him. But knowing something and feeling it were two different things. Their presence made him uncomfortable, even more uncomfortable than he normally was around people. It sucked, but I understood where he was coming from. So, the man spent most of his time locked up in his room, avoiding everyone as much as he could.

Now, the rest of us were on the bridge. In this case, ‘the rest of us’ meant Larissa, Haiden, Athena, Apollo, Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Vanessa, Tristan, Jokai, Tabbris, and me. And our cyberforms, of course. The metal animals were off to the side, seemingly deep in conversation.

“One last jump. Is everyone ready?”

Larissa was the one who had spoken, looking our way as she stood beside the pilot’s seat. “Once Jokai pulls that lever, it’ll only take a few seconds to get there.”

Athena nodded. “Once this ship arrives, we can activate the beacon, and the rest of the Aelaestiam fleet will jump in. We have our own disruption ships that will block any portals into or out of the facility, so they won’t be able to take the prisoners and run. But they will know that we’re there, and they will have their own fleet to act in defense. Not to mention the ships that will come very quickly as soon as they receive the alert. Ships which drastically outnumber ours.”

“Which means we have to be fast,” Haiden put in. “Athena’s fleet can do some damage and stop them from getting away for awhile. But we’ll be on the clock the entire time. We jump in, get their attention on us, and follow the plan. You all know it backwards and forwards by now. If all goes the way it’s supposed to, we should end up down in the facility.”

“Which,” Apollo put in, “is a bit like having step one of your master plan involve finding a way to break into hell to kick the devil in the shin.”

Turning promptly at that, I put my foot out to tap against his leg before giving a shrug. “Eh. Not as thrilling as you might think.”

“Well, you’re a cheeky one, ain’t ya?” the man retorted, grinning back at me the whole time.

Larissa took over then. “From there, we free all the prisoners that we can, while the fleet does its job. Then we get back here with the prisoners, and jump away again. Hopefully before Seosten reinforcements show up. But we have to be quick. In and out as fast as possible.”

From the pilot’s seat, Jokai made a noise of approval. “We have… the teeth now.”

By teeth, he meant weapons. While the Sunstrider had been completely defenseless before, aside from its heavy armor and shields, Athena’s people had taken care of that little problem. Some of those ‘special supplies’ that she and the others had been working on were the parts for weapons. Weapons for the ship itself. And during the week we’d been on our way, some of her people had been hard at work installing them on the ship itself, and wiring the controls up into the bridge.

Which meant that the ship could finally fight back. Or, as Jokai had put it… we had teeth now. And the ship’s already heavy armor and shields combined with having actual weapons meant that it was pretty damn tough for what had amounted to a mining ship so recently. It still wasn’t quite as battle-ready as an actual combat ship, since, among other things, it didn’t have near the crew that one of those had. Whatever damage it took would be a lot harder to deal with than it would have been with a full crew complement, and it just couldn’t pack the kind of punch that those ships could. But still, we had weapons, and Jokai was pretty happy about that.

“Yes,” Larissa agreed with a little smile, putting a hand on the man’s shoulder. “We most certainly have teeth. And Kushiel is going to find out just how hard we can bite.”

Athena nodded. “She will. But she will learn it from Apollo and myself.” Pointedly, she added, “The rest of you will focus on retrieving Sariel and the other prisoners, as many as possible. Leave Kushiel to us.”

“Scary angel lady and scary angel uncle versus scary angel lady?” Tristan’s head bobbed up and down. “Sounds like a good match to me.”

“Everyone got it?” Larissa asked. “No one has any questions?”

Gordon spoke up then, his voice even. “Let you guys do your thing until you open the way down to the station. Once we’re there, free the prisoners, get back to the ship. Avoid Kushiel. Understood.” He gave what I swore was almost a smile. “And when everything goes wrong… improvise.”

“Exactly.” Haiden gave him a thumbs up. “And most importantly, stick together. Everyone stick together. No one goes off on their own. Got that? Right. Let’s do it.”

He nodded to Jokai, who reached out to the nearby lever, his hand grasping it briefly before yanking the thing down. The stars jumped around us, as the ship launched forward.

As promised, that last trip only took a few seconds before we were suddenly there.  The view on the screen at the front of the bridge resolved into the image of an orange gas giant with one rocky moon about a third the size of Earth floating nearby, and a second, ice-covered moon a short distance away from it. From what we had been told, the two moons revolved around one another while also revolving around the planet itself. The gas giant, designated Novem-Tres-Tres-Zeta-Kappa-Duo (the planet had never been important enough to be given more than a alphanumeric designation) had been surveyed and deemed unworthy of being mined. And that had been the end of it. The universe was big enough that one gas giant wasn’t worth paying much attention to.

That, apparently, had been the point. We weren’t sure exactly when Kushiel had set up her lab there. But I had a feeling that she had been behind it being written off in the first place. She had probably started getting her secret torture prison/lab and defenses installed almost immediately.

And she had apparently done a very thorough job, at least on the defenses part. Because the ship came under immediate fire the very second that we arrived. Barely an instant had passed as the view resolved in front of us before a handful of enormous, bright green lasers shot straight at us from what looked like seemingly empty space. The ship rocked under the first couple shots before Jokai snapped us to the side, letting the remaining few pass under the ship.

“Ghost turrets,” Athena announced flatly. “Invisible and intangible automated weapons platforms that become solid just long enough to fire once, then return to their intangible state while teleporting somewhere else within their line of sight to fire again. They are only vulnerable within the split second while they are firing.” To Jokai, she added, “They will attempt to surround the ship to catch it within an inescapable crossfire, as they do not have to worry about hitting one another. Their systems will coordinate their teleportation to never end up in each other’s line of fire.”  

“Etiam,” Jokai muttered, hands dancing over the controls. The Sunstrider spun into a quick barrel roll as two more shots came. One missed, while the other glanced off the shields.

More shots came in rapidly, starting to fill the screen from all sides. Just as Athena had said, the ghost turrets were starting to encircle us, firing repeatedly. But through it all, as the ship rocked, Jokai didn’t move again. He had stopped actively dodging the incoming fire. His eyes watched the screen, mouth moving soundlessly as he seemed to mutter to himself. The ship shook twice, then three times. The shields were holding so far, but it wouldn’t take much longer before they would completely fail. And yet, Jokai still remained motionless save for his eyes and mouth.  

“Jokai,” Haiden started quietly, his voice breaking the silence (aside from the sound of the ship shuddering under being shot by those turrets repeatedly). “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, dude,” Tristan put in, “are we gonna shoot back, or wh–”

“Sileo!” Jokai’s retort was sharp, sharper than I had heard him before. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the screen, which was showing various incoming shots from all sides. “Sileo,” he repeated then, quieter and more thoughtful. His hands stayed where they were, motionless as he watched through two more full barrages, still without any attempt to move or avoid them.

Then it happened. Just as I honestly started to get a little worried at that point, Jokai abruptly snapped into action. His hands jumped back to the controls, and the ship suddenly spun out of the way as more lasers went past. Even as he avoided those shots, Jokai’s hand caught hold of the targeting control for one of the new turrets that Athena’s people had installed near the front of the ship. He gave it a quick adjustment before hitting the trigger to send a pair of our own blue lasers out into what looked like the middle of empty space. Without wasting another second, he adjusted his aim three more times, shooting more of those lasers from a couple other turrets in rapid succession, all seemingly aimed at absolutely nothing.

Then there was a sudden, incredibly bright explosion. Followed by a second one, and a third, and then a fourth that all came one right after the other. Each of Jokai’s supposedly blind shots had struck one of the invisible turrets in the instant that it became tangible right before firing.  

“What–how–wha?” Sands blurted out what we were probably all thinking in that moment.

Apollo was the one who spoke up, smiling a little. “It’s the pattern,” he explained. “A lot of Eulson people have an innate understanding of seemingly random patterns. It’s reflexive. He watched the platforms for a few seconds to understand their size, speed, and other factors in relation to their target, us, and then worked out the next part of their movement pattern to know where they’d go.”  

Unable to hold back her grin, Jazz quickly put in then, “That’s how he escaped from the prison camp in the first place. And why they made him a pilot before. Because he’s really good at recognizing patterns and using them.” I could hear the (understandable) pride in her voice.

Smiling a little, Larissa nodded. “Very good, Jokai. But we’ve still got problems.” She raised her hand to point to the screen, where lights had appeared on both the rocky and ice-covered moons. Lights that quickly resolved into small ships, fighter-sized, launching toward us. At the same time, several much, much larger ships, of the capital variety, emerged from behind the gas giant. Jokai may have destroyed the initial defenses, but the Seosten fleet had woken up.

“Those are not automated,” Athena announced, before adding, “Fortunately, neither are ours.”

With that, the Seosten woman pressed something in her hand. A second later, a new ship appeared on screen, directly to our left. Or port, I supposed. It was joined by two more, then another two our right, one below us, and so on. The Aelaestiam fleet had arrived, summoned by the beacon that Athena had just activated.

“Hoc est bellum,” Apollo murmured as the lasers and missiles began to fly from both sides, the space in front of us lighting up like the Fourth of July.

“This is war.”

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