Right, so Jophiel and Elisabet had something incredibly important to tell Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, Sariel, Athena, Sachael, Mom, and me. For a moment as we walked through the ship corridors, I wondered what it could be. Was it about the way Jophiel had been poisoned, or–no. No, it had to be about how and why Elisabet had ended up on the Meregan world to begin with, right? It had to be about how she was cut off from the Committee. Everyone had wondered how that was even possible. That had to be what this was about. It was the only thing that made sense. Elisabet had been focused solely on making sure Jophiel made it through being poisoned, and now that the Seosten woman seemed to be pulling out of it (thanks to help from the Roenier), the time had come to finally tell us what the hell happened.
Which was both exciting and terrifying, honestly. Because while I really wanted to know what could’ve stripped Elisabet’s Committee link and blocked Jophiel, at the same time I really didn’t. There was little chance that the answer was going to be anything even remotely positive. No, it was going to be terrifying and awful and I was going to regret finding out the truth. And yet, I couldn’t just ignore it either. That never worked out.
Tabbris, walking right beside me, caught my hand and whispered, “Do you think it’s something new? I thought it was Fossor for awhile, but it couldn’t’ve been him that did it, right?”
Grimacing, I shook my head while squeezing my sister’s hand. “Yeah, sorry. I don’t think we’re lucky enough to have the problem be something that we already dealt with. This is something new. Something new and bad enough to separate someone from the Committee, which…” I trailed off, not wanting to finish that sentence. It was bad, that was the point. Really bad.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Tristan was saying as he pivoted to walk backwards so he could face us. “We dunno what happened. It could’ve been a one-time thing, or some other kind of specialized situation. Personally, I wouldn’t put it past that Litonya bitch to be behind it. She’s been on the Committee for a long time, right? She could probably figure out how to kick someone off it if she really put her black-hearted, psychotic little vindictive mind to it.”
“I don’t believe even she could do that,” Sariel informed her son. A moment later, she amended, “Given the chance, I believe she would do such a thing to the right people, but this seems beyond even her actual capability. Beyond which, why target Elisabet with it rather than one of the people she knows to be a rebellion sympathizer? Elisabet was acting under cover, there was no reason for Litonya to believe she would be a good target for this sort of attack, even if she was capable of it.”
“Besides,” I put in, “I don’t think Litonya’s the type to keep quiet about what she did. Come on, she killed her own brother and people know about it. If she found out anything incriminating about Elisabet and pulled some kind of super-move to cut her out of the Committee, how quiet would she be? Especially if she could point at people like Teach and Percival and tell them to behave, or they could be next. I mean, it really seems like the sort of thing she’d use as leverage if she had it. She just–she doesn’t strike me as the type to be subtle, you know?”
“Yes,” Mom muttered under her breath in a dark tone. “Subtle is something Litonya is not.”
Yeah, I had a feeling my mother wanted to go a few rounds with the bitch for being the one who suggested killing Abigail and Wyatt. That wasn’t going to be something she just let go. Mom obviously still had issues with Sariel, yet her whole thing hadn’t actually been intentional. She’d suggested to Ruthers that he abduct Deveron, yes. But at least Deveron was a combatant, and Sariel’s whole intention had been to stop the war from escalating to the point that her people stepped in directly before she managed to finish fixing the spell to open the Tartarus universe again. Sariel had always wanted to use that as a bargaining chip to make her people back off, or at least negotiate, and it would’ve been much harder to do that if Mom’s rebellion had gotten to the point that the Seosten were sending troops to deal with the situation. Her efforts to delay the rebellion hadn’t been intended to stop it entirely, only to manipulate it into slowing down long enough that she could put her own game-changer into play without anyone else knowing what she was doing ahead of time.
Yes, her actions had backfired, but she’d had decent intentions at least. And Mom knew that, even if she still harbored completely understandable anger at Sariel for it, which would take her quite awhile to get over. If she ever did fully. Litonya on the other hand had no such excuse. Given the opportunity, I was almost certain that Mom would, to put it mildly, cut a bitch.
But all those thoughts were pushed aside thoroughly as we reached the secondary medical area where Jophiel had apparently been moved once she was out of immediate danger. They were still keeping an eye on her to be certain that the poison wouldn’t get worse again, but at the moment the combination of the healing that Elisabet had done to her and the Roenier’s efforts were apparently keeping it pretty thoroughly at bay. Enough, at least, that it was okay for her to have visitors.
Our Roenier guide stayed outside, while the rest of us moved in through the doors into… well, the hospital room, I supposed. Though it was different from most I had seen. There was no visible bed. Instead, Jophiel was sort of floating in the middle of a tube-like forcefield in the middle of the room. She wore some kind of skintight hospital clothes similar to a Seosten bodysuit, but clearly fashioned on this ship given the way it had a dozen cords leading out of it, through holes in in the forcefield and into various machines that appeared to be monitoring her. She was conscious though, and apparently deep in conversation with Elisabet, who stood beside the tube with one hand on it. As soon as we all stepped inside, they waited for the doors to close before the (former?) Committee woman beckoned us closer with an urgent look. “Come here, all of you,” she quickly insisted.
Yeah, it was definitely serious. Glancing briefly toward my mother and getting a nod in return, I went with her and the others over to the tube. As soon as we were there, Elisabet began activating more privacy spells than I had ever seen in one place. It was obvious that she’d been preparing them for a long time. Just one after another. In the end, the air was practically vibrating from the overlapping bits of magic that were working together to make sure no one overheard.
Mom was the first to speak, her voice quiet (though sort of echoey, which I assumed was also a result of all the privacy spells). “Elisabet, I’m starting to suspect you don’t want anyone to know what you’re about to say to us right now. If you cast any more of those spells, you might not hear it yourself.”
As if seeing her for the first time when she started to respond to that, Elisabet gave a brief double-take. “Joselyn Atherby,” she breathed. “You are quite–” She cut herself off, glancing toward me and offering a very faint smile. “All other things aside, I’m glad your daughter managed to rescue you from the Necromancer. Jophiel tells me he met a rather satisfying end.”
I was pretty sure there was a lot Mom wanted to say to that, starting with the fact that Elisabet and Jophiel had been instrumental in having her imprisoned and erased the first time, as well as everything else that had been done to stop the Rebellion from making things right. But she set all that aside, visibly swallowing them back before simply replying, “Yes, Fossor did meet his end, finally. An end that was a long-time coming. And I hear you have been busy instructing my daughter, her sister, and her other siblings in a great many things, which you believe will help in the long run?”
“Yes…” Looking thoughtful for a moment, Elisabet eventually shook that off. “But that is of lesser concern right now.”
“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “I do have one question. When you were dying, why didn’t you just possess Elisabet and take the free healing that usually comes with it? We were all sort of lost in the moment at the time, but seriously, couldn’t you have just done that? And even if it didn’t heal you, at least it should have paused the poison’s effect on you while you were possessing her.”
It was Elisabet who answered. “She refused, because the Fomorians… trap their poisons that affect Seosten.”
With a nod, Sariel added in a grave voice that made me think she was speaking from experience, “When we possess other beings while poisoned, it transfers the poison to our new host and spreads that way. The result is… bad. Any poison powerful enough to incapacitate a Seosten will do horrific damage to most hosts, including humans. Particularly, while the poison primarily affects the Seosten’s body, during possession it initially targets the brain for a host.”
“It drives the host mad,” Sachael put in. He also sounded as though he had personal experience with what they were talking about. “Irrevocably. It… creates a level of paranoia and terror that we can’t do anything to fix, making the host see all friends as nightmares and turning them homicidal. It makes them forget who they are, makes them go so far as to tear their own eyes out to avoid seeing the things the mind-poison is making them witness.”
“Wha–but–but–that’s ridiculous!” Vanessa looked personally offended by that explanation. “How could a poison that affects the Seosten’s body also affect the mind of someone they possess?! How does the biological element even–how–what?” She continued to sputter for a moment, clearly personally offended by the idea.
“Truly, it is a question for the ages,” Elisabet agreed. “However, at this particular moment, the thing we need to discuss is Maestro.”
The way she said the name, with that dark intonation, made all of us look at one another as if we expected someone else to have some idea. But other than Jophiel within the forcefield, everyone seemed equally clueless. Finally, it was Sariel who spoke up. “Who, or what, is this Maestro?”
So, over the next few minutes, Elisabet began to explain what had really happened to her. And boy was it a doozy of a story. Apparently, waaaaaay back when she and Jophiel had first been getting close, they were stranded on some lost alien ship. Jophiel had gone to get help while Elisabet was trapped there. But she wasn’t alone. There was a… a creature there with her, a being who called himself Maestro, who had chased the trapped Elisabet through the ship. She had known he was too powerful for her, and that he would fuck with her memories. So she created some kind of failsafe system to restore those memories and block out the artificial intelligence he was planning on inserting into her. Basically, she used spells on herself that were cued to go off when this Maestro guy was close to his goal and when the inserted AI was projecting itself out of her mind. And then she not only erased her own memory of having performed those spells, she erased her memory of ever knowing them in the first place just so that the implant wouldn’t have any warning at all. Not only that, but apparently whatever spell she’d used had been enough to stop Jophiel from noticing that anything was different about what magic she knew.
No wonder the Seosten woman had been attracted to Elisabet from early on. Young Elisabet was a badass.
Mom was shaking her head once Elisabet got that far. “But I don’t understand something. What exactly is this Maestro’s goal, and how did he get close enough to it for your spell to trigger? And what happened to make you end up trapped on Aiken’te’vel with no link to the Committee?”
“That’s where the whole thing gets more complicated, and more terrifying,” Elisabet replied simply after she and Jophiel exchanged a brief, yet very intense look. A look that made me realize I definitely didn’t want to hear what else they were going to say. Actually, what I really wanted to do in that exact moment was turn around and walk out the door. Would it be that bad if I just left right then and let other people deal with whatever the real problem was? Seriously, hadn’t I done enough? Actually, I could grab my mom and my sister and just–
And just what, exactly? Leave Tabbris’s siblings (and my friends) and mother to solve the problem? Refuse to be involved even if it got Sariel and the twins hurt or killed? What was my endgame with that plan? Oh, and how did I expect Tabbris to go along with it and not have any opinion of her own? Or was I just going to abandon her too?
No, much as I hated it, I had to stand here and listen to whatever horrific information was about to come out of Elisabet’s mouth. Because I couldn’t leave the people I cared about to deal with something that was bad enough to make her and Jophiel openly worry. I just couldn’t.
Instead, I stood there and listened, knowing that this would be something we would have to deal with. But at least it was something I could deal with alongside my mother. That–that was what had made this entire rescue mission so different, honestly. My mother was there, and even when she wasn’t right beside me, I knew she was close. I was fighting near my mother, the mother who had been torn away from me (and the rest of her family) for so long. My mom was here on this mission with me, and that made all the difference in the world. I could handle whatever this was. And really, how ba–
Nope, nope, nope. Abort. Launching that thought through the torpedo tube and into the sun. You hear me, universe? I did not finish that thought. I did not finish that thought!
Once everyone had made it clear we were as ready as we would ever be to hear what they had to say, Elisabet continued. “This Maestro, he’s a… a hybrid of sorts, but not like your children, Sariel. He’s an unnatural hybrid, an abomination. He was once two distinct beings who were fused together somehow, I don’t…” She grimaced, shaking her head. “One of his halves was one of your archangels, one of the Dyeusai.”
That made both Sariel and Sachael do a sharp double-take, almost completely in sync. Their mouths opened, but Jophiel interrupted. “Yes, it’s who you think. It’s Zadkiel.”
Sachael looked like he had been physically shoved, reeling backward a step. Seldom had I seen a Seosten look so thoroughly stunned. Sariel, meanwhile, also looked surprised, but recovered faster. She spoke aloud, explaining to the rest of us. “Zadkiel was the first of our people to enter Tartarus, long before the Summus Proelium project. He–his power as one of the Dyeusai meant that it was believed he would be as safe as possible, that he could handle any threat that presented itself. But he was–he was left in there. They lost contact and he was cut off.” Swallowing, she added, “They tried to find him. They did everything they could to pull him out. Believe me, I–we… Apollo and I researched everything they did back when we had to get Chayyiel out of there. We pored over everything they tried, and they tried everything. But it was like–it was like Tartarus refused to give him back. Like it had a hold of him and wouldn’t let them find him.”
There was a brief pause as she glanced away, clearly reliving some very emotional moments from the days when they had been focused on saving Chayyiel. How could that have made them feel, to have ideas about saving her, then read through the notes to find out that their idea had already been tried and failed? Then to have that happen over and over again, knowing that there was an innocent little girl lost out there that time rather than a battle-hardened archangel?
“It tried to do the same with Chayyiel, but we got her out,” Sariel was saying. “And now–now you’re saying Zadkiel made it?”
“No.” That was Jophiel, head shaking. “No, he’s not Zadkiel anymore. He’s nothing like–he’s worse. Like she said, he’s been fused with another being. Probably while he was inside Tartarus. He was fused with–”
My eyes widened, as I blurted, “A Fomorian. He was fused with a Fomorian.”
The outburst made Jophiel, Elisabet, Sachael, and my mother twist to look at me. Not the others though. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and their mother had already gotten it, and were exchanging looks of their own.
Meanwhile, I continued. “There was a damaged Fomorian there already, one that… that had been in there for a long time. For hundreds of thousands of years by then, probably. Or whatever was left of him by then. He must’ve come across this Zadkiel and that place… fused them together.”
Elisabet, who was staring at me intently, slowly continued. “You’re right. The Fomorian that was in there was split in half. One of his halves escaped and the other was left behind, until he met Zadkiel and they fused. This twisted hybrid, he doesn’t just call himself Maestro. He goes by other names too. Names like Godfather. He likes that one because his other half, his brother–”
“Goes by Grandfather,” I finished for her. “His other half calls himself Grandfather.”
“Felicity,” my mother was saying, “how do you know all this?”
Biting my lip, I glanced to Sariel and the others before exhaling. “Right.
“I guess we really do have a lot to talk about.”