Jophiel

Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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Day After Day 39-02

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So Larees was with me as I walked across that cobblestone path, making my way with the Seosten woman around all the beautiful statues and fountains before reaching the building itself. Up close it was even more intimidating. The entire width of the front of the building was taken up by a wide flight of about twenty stairs to reach the midway point. There was a sort-of landing there with more gardens to look through that seemed to stretch all the way around the building before another twenty steps continued up, narrowing the whole way before reaching the enormous, fifteen-foot high double doors. Those were open already, while a couple Heretics stood on either side of them to let people in.

I didn’t recognize either of the doormen, which wasn’t exactly surprising. They each held enormous weapons. One was a sword that looked bigger than my entire body. Correction, it looked bigger than my dad’s entire body. The guy who held it was almost seven feet tall, and was holding the blade against the ground with his hand resting on the hilt. He gave me a brief nod as we approached, exchanging a brief look with his partner (who was only a few inches shorter than him and held an equally large axe) before turning his attention back to us. “Names, please.”

“Um, Felicity Chambers,” I replied before nodding toward the woman next to me. “This is Lara Rheese.”

“Guest of Gaia Sinclaire,” she clarified after taking a slow, deliberate drink from her flask.

The two men actually seemed to react more to my name than Larees’s. They barely acknowledged her at all. But in my case, they visibly rocked backward somewhat, giving me a much more thorough inspection before the bigger guy cleared his throat. “You can both go in.”

Once we had passed through the doors and made our way into what turned out to be a circular lobby area with twin staircases leading up either side to a landing and about a dozen doors scattered around both levels, Larees glanced to me. She produced something that I had to believe was a privacy spell of some kind before speaking. “Is it me, or were you a bigger deal to those guys than some woman they’ve never heard of that’s only here on their school headmistress’s say-so?”

“Yeah,” I muttered after glancing around at the small pockets of quietly murmuring people spread throughout the room, “I’m starting to wonder just how many people kept their memories of my mother. Or if I just have that much of a reputation already. It could be about my mom, or it could just be my own stuff.” Belatedly, I added, “And I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.”

Taking another swig, Larees offered me the flask. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure those big guys were intimidated by you. So I’d say whatever it is, you’re getting some kind of reputation.”

“Uh.” Pausing, I shook my head while waving the flask off. “No thanks. I’m not exactly a big drinker. And I have no idea what something that could affect a Seosten would do to to a human. Though the whole regeneration thing would probably–no, thanks. If nothing else, now’s just probably not the best time for experimenting.”

As Larees shrugged before taking a sip for herself, the others approached from the other side of the room where they had been waiting. Sean was first, and I had a second to appreciate how handsome he was with his hair slicked back. Like the rest of us, he was wearing his school uniform, while Vulcan, trotting alongside him, had a neat little bowtie.

“Hey, Flick,” Sean started before seeing exactly who was with me. “Who’s your–holy shit!” The last bit came out in a burst even as the boy’s own hand snapped up too late to cover his mouth. He stared, letting the others catch up before hissing, “Uhh, you’re–but you’re a–what–”

“He wants to know what you’re doing here.” That was Columbus, translating flatly while staying well away from Larees. His tone wasn’t exactly openly suspicious or anything, but it was clear that he had… let’s call it mixed feelings about the woman’s presence.

Quickly, I explained, “She’s here to speak to Doug’s grandfather Sulan. Sariel was going to come, but she doesn’t want Vanessa and Tristan’s mother returning to overshadow Rudolph’s funeral. So Larees came as Gaia’s guest.”

“Natural Heretic,” Scout quietly guessed after looking the woman up and down briefly.

“That’s the story,” Larees confirmed. “So don’t blow my cover or anything, okay? If could get pretty awkward if I have to fight my way out of here in the middle of a funeral. Oh, and uhh…” Belatedly, she looked toward Doug. “I heard you were close to him. So, I’m sorry for your loss.” Her tone had changed by that point, turning sincere as she offered her condolences. “And I want you to know that I didn’t come to make light of his death. I’ve seen too fucking much of it as it is. But I did want to look around and see what we’re dealing with, and beyond meeting with this Sulan guy, this was a… a decent way to see a lot of Heretics in one place.”

“It’s okay,” Doug informed her. “Most of these people didn’t really know Rudolph at all anyway, so what’s one more person? You–” He stopped, visibly flinching. “That sounded worse than I meant. I just–”

“Don’t worry about it.” Larees insisted. “You don’t have to explain anything. But I do want you to know that if you want me to leave and just meet Sulan somewhere else, you just say the word. This, this right here? It’s about your friend, about his life. And I don’t plan on being the one who fucks that up.”

There was a brief pause then before Doug shook his head. “Like I said, there’s plenty of people here who didn’t know Rudolph. Besides, if letting you get a look at the people around here, and meeting with Grandpa Sulan helps… well, Rudolph would’ve wanted it that way. He would have wanted his funeral to mean something, he’d want it to be worth something more than… this. Not just a bunch of people standing around making speeches about him when they never–”

He looked away then, choking up a little while reflexively reaching up toward his head. Only there was no hat there, so he just sort of awkwardly rubbed his hair.

I didn’t blame Doug for his reaction to all of this. The Heretics were mostly using Rudolph as a sort of… not quite a prop, but they were essentially saying that he was the last death from the infiltrators. There had been funerals for those who had died in that ‘final’ assault all week long, with Rudolph being the final and apparently grandest one. They were making a big deal out of it not because of who Rudolph was or anything he had done, but as ‘the final victim’ of the infiltrators that they believed they had destroyed. In a way, it was almost as much a celebration as it was a funeral.

So yeah, I really didn’t blame Doug one bit for his reaction. In fact, I was kind of surprised that he hadn’t hit anyone yet.

Professor Dare approached then, crossing the circular lobby to join us. If she was the least bit surprised by Larees’s presence, which I doubted to begin with, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad you all made it through,” she started softly before stepping back to gesture with an arm. “Come, I’ll show you where to sit. Douglas, your grandfather would like you to sit with him, but he said if you’d rather stay with your teammates until after–”

“It’s okay,” Doug replied simply. “I want to see him too. And–” He gave Larees a brief glance. “And I guess we should make introductions anyway.”

Dare nodded before leading us across the room. “We’ll take the others to their seats, then I’ll show you where Sulan’s box is.”

Box? I had a moment to wonder about that just before we went through one of the doors on the lower level. What we came into didn’t look like the meeting room part of a church. It looked more like… like the theater or an opera hall. There was a stage far below, with rows upon rows of comfortable-looking seats rising up toward the back where we were. Above, I could see the privacy booths or box seats or whatever they were that Dare had been referring to. There were a dozen of them, small balcony areas where important people could sit away from the crowd.

Jeez, what was this place being used for when there wasn’t a funeral to do? Was this an actual theater? Were there Heretic… performers? That made sense, but I was still a bit surprised. And it reminded me that there was still an awful lot about Crossroads as a society that I didn’t know.

Showing the rest of us to seats about halfway down, near the right-hand railing, Professor Dare asked, “Do you guys need anything else right now? It should be starting in about ten minutes.”

We shook our heads, and she went with Doug and Larees to show them to the balcony room where Sulan apparently was. I kind of wished that I was there for that conversation, but I supposed I’d just have to wait and hear about it later.

Which left me sitting there with Scout to my left, Columbus to my right, and Sean on the other side of him. Vulcan was sitting at attention on the floor right next to Sean, between his seat and the wall. We were only alone in that area for a minute or two, before Marina joined us, sitting beside Scout. A moment later, Shiori and Koren showed up with their team, escorted by their mentor, Andrew Bruhn. Both my niece and my girlfriend gave me brief looks before I nodded to show that I was alright.

Aylen was there too, her presence reminding me of that weird conversation we’d had before everything happened at the hospital. I still didn’t know what happened between her and Avalon. I was really going to have to ask about that eventually.

Leaning forward to see past Scout, I looked to Marina while whispering, “Do you know where Deveron is?”

Her head shook a little. “He said he was still helping Mr. Rendell. Do you… do you want me to text him and let him know you need him?”

She sounded a little hurt, and I knew why. Marina had to have figured out that we trusted Deveron more than her, that he knew more than she did. And she probably thought that it had something to do with what happened to the team that she was mentoring. There was no way she could understand that it wasn’t her fault, that no one blamed her for what had absolutely not been her fault. Unfortunately, there was no way I could explain that, no way I could make her understand without telling her too much. I didn’t know the girl enough to make that leap. I didn’t know anything about her or how she would react.

Still, seeing that look, I wanted to trust her. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. It was too much. But I didn’t have to add to it, so I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. He’ll get here when he gets here. I was just wondering.”

Sitting back, I reached into my pocket to touch my cell phone. My thumb found the power button, which I pressed quickly three times. As soon as I did that, the phone would send an alert to the phone that Gaia had given Tabbris. In normal cases, that would tell my partner that I suddenly needed her for something. But in this case, she was expecting it.

I felt her presence a moment later. As usual, it made me feel more complete, more of myself, just to have her there. Hey, partner.

We conversed for a minute while, outwardly, I simply sat there watching people file into their seats. I told her about Elizabet and Jophiel approaching me, and she was just as upset as I had been. She thought, just like I did, that the two of them could have saved Rudolph if they had stepped in instead of playing the middle ground.

I talked a little with the others as well, whispering back and forth until the main lights dimmed, and the lights on the stage came up. There were a bunch of people up there. I saw the entire Committee, a bunch of people that were either Parsons family members or their close friends, and other important figures.

And then the memorial began. There were talks from several people, speeches or eulogies or whatever one would call them. Some came from the people who were Rudolph’s family members. Doctor Therasis spoke for awhile, and my feeling of guilt just kept getting worse every time I thought of how confused and lost the man had to be feeling. He didn’t know what happened. He didn’t know the truth, why his grandson had really died. He knew… about as close as we could actually tell him, but that wasn’t enough.

He missed Rudolph. He missed his grandson. And the fact that we couldn’t tell him the whole truth about why the boy was dead just made me want to scream right there in the middle of the funeral. Seeing his sad eyes, seeing his grief, it… it was awful. It was all awful. Just sitting there, thinking about how much Rudolph’s family would miss him, it… it was a kind of pain that I couldn’t describe.

Then there were the people who clearly didn’t know anything about Rudolph. The political-type speeches that were all focused on how we should feel triumphant, because the threat against our society had been defeated, about how the intruders had failed just like every threat against Crossroads would fail. Those talks had nothing to do with Rudolph himself, and I couldn’t decide if that offended me more, or if it was the fact that they were wrong. The threat was still out there, and the more they talked about how it was over, the more I wanted to scream that they were idiots, because the threat was all around us, the threat was built into Crossroads at its core.

But that wouldn’t have gone over very well, so I just sat in silence and watched.

Then it was Gaia’s turn. The headmistress spoke toward the very end of the memorial. She moved to the front of the stage, standing there with her hands clasped behind her back. No microphone because she didn’t need it. Her words would reach everyone, no matter how quietly she spoke.

At first, the woman said nothing. She simply waited, silence slowly settling upon the entire room until you could have heard a pin drop. And then she started.

“Rudolph Parsons.”

Gaia paused, gaze moving slowly over the entire audience. It felt as though she made eye contact with every single person in the room. Then she said it again, loudly and clearly.

“Rudolph Parsons. I have come here to speak not of his death, but of his immortality.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and the woman allowed their reactions to continue for a few seconds before saying his name once more.

“Rudolph Parsons. I would like you all to remember the name. Because time and again, someone will ask you, or you will ask yourselves, why we devote our lives, often quite literally, to fighting monsters. And when that happens, remember the name of Rudolph Parsons. He died. But before he did that, he chose to stand by his classmates, his friends. He chose to stay with them, despite all the risks, because it was the right thing to do.

“He stayed. And he fought. And he died. But in so doing, Rudolph showed the kind of bravery and humanity that many of us should rightly stand in awe of. He faced a threat beyond what any student should ever be put before. But Rudolph Parsons did not run. He did not hide. It’s quite easy to be brave when you hold the kind of power and experience that many of us do. But it’s quite another thing to be brave when the thing that you are facing is exponentially stronger than you could ever truly imagine.

“Think for a moment. Think of being that boy. Be Rudolph Parsons. You are a child before a malevolent mountain. And you choose to stand against that mountain. You choose to climb it. And maybe you fail. Maybe you fall. But in so doing, you help others. You push others up that mountain. They climb it. They reach the top and triumph because you stayed, because you helped. You gave your life because it was the right thing to do. Could you do that? Could you stand against such a threat and surrender your life purely to help others?”

Gaia let the question stand for a moment, allowing the silence to make her point more clearly than any words could, before lifting her chin. “We teach our youth to fight. We turn children into soldiers because if we did not, those who come from the shadows to destroy us would find only children. But it would do us well to remember that they are children. And yet they choose to stand, often against threats far greater than they. They choose to stand, as Rudolph did.

“Rudolph Parsons was a child. And yet, he was brave. He was loyal. He was kind. Our world is worse for having lost him. But perhaps in so losing, it could also gain. If we remember him. If we strive to emulate his bravery and kindness, if we keep him alive in our deeds and our hearts… perhaps a part of him will live on.

“When you see someone suffering, when you see a threat, or a problem, or a danger and you wonder if it is your place to stop it, let Rudolph Parsons live on. When you see someone who needs help, even if they mean nothing to you, let him live on. When you see one who has fallen, friend or stranger, let him live on. Let him live through your actions, through the way you treat those around you. Let him live through your kindness and your bravery. Let him live on, and tell those who would ask why we devote our lives to slaying monsters that it is because Rudolph Parsons stood when he could have run. His immortality will be in your words, in your actions, in your hearts and in your choices. He will live forever if we remember him. Choose to remember him. Choose to remember Rudolph Parsons.

“Thank you all. And thank you, Rudolph. I, for one, will remember you.”

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Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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Several Thousand Years Ago

Three figures, one much smaller than the others, stood in front of the great transparent wall of the space station Aquilari’s observation deck. Before them lay the vastness of space, filled with innumerable stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond comprehension or belief. The universe, itself to the larger multiverse as this single station was to the galaxy it lay within.

“Are we really gonna see it all, Uncle Lucifer?” The soft, reverent voice came from the child, as she stood between her older companions. Chayyiel, only ten years old, could not hope to comprehend the scale of what lay before them. Despite all the incredible power that had been thrust onto her, despite the accident that had made her into what could become one of the most powerful Seosten in existence, she was still a child. She was still innocent.

With a slight smile at that, Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel. She, in turn, returned the smile. Which was nice, considering he was one of the few people she seemed comfortable enough to smile with. Shy and withdrawn, his female partner didn’t tend to do much talking. She let him do that. And he was good with the arrangement, since he loved to talk.

Even before his own enhancement. An enhancement that had been just as accidental as both Sariel’s and Chayyiel’s. All three of them, accidents.

Well, mostly accidents. Chayyiel’s father had intended to expose her to the physics-defying energies of the other-world. But only for a short time, just long enough to… to help her. Unfortunately, it had gone wrong. The man had been distracted and taken away from his work at the worst possible time. Which resulted in Chayyiel being abandoned in that other-world and assumed lost forever. At least until Sariel and Lucifer, his lab assistants, had saved her with the help of one of the actual project subjects, a man named Amitiel. He had been the one who came to the two in the first place, pleading with them to do something to save the girl. He had begged them to go beyond all safety measures, pleaded for them to not just bend the rules, but shatter them in order to open the portal again and get the girl out.

They had done so, at the cost of destroying the Seosten’s only method of accessing that other-world.

For some time, there had been talk of locking Lucifer and Sariel up, of containing them to some prison lab, of… doing any number of things that angry people talked about doing when something as bad as losing access to the ability to create ageless super soldiers happened. But in the end, higher powers had decided that since their numbers of project successes were limited, throwing away any of them wasn’t viable. The two had instead been assigned to the same exploratory ship as the rest of the products of that project. Though they were currently given no real assignment, being relegated to caring for and watching over Chayyiel herself.

Lucifer didn’t mind that either, any more than he minded being the ‘face’ of his partnership with the shy Sariel. Chayyiel was a good kid, and smart as hell even before she had been upgraded.

“We’re gonna try,” he replied to the girl’s question, giving her a wink. “It’s a pretty big universe though. It’ll take a long time.”

“Very long,” Sariel quietly agreed. Her hand moved to Chayyiel’s shoulder, squeezing it. She had been the one to come up with the solution that allowed herself and Lucifer to extract Chayyiel. It was a solution that had ended up destroying the project itself, even as it saved one child’s life. Lucifer had tried to take that blame for himself, but it was one time where Sariel had not meekly and quietly allowed him to take the lead. He’d wanted to spare her from being the focus of so much anger, yet she had done so anyway, confessing that it was her plan.

Seeing her small, fragile figure hunched in on herself while being bombarded with so much vitriol from the investigative committee had been the one and only time in his life to that point that Lucifer had been tempted to murder other Seosten. And not just one of them, but each and every figure who had been hounding, insulting, and belittling the woman beside him.

Not deterred in the least, Chayyiel’s head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh, but we’ve got time, right?” She looked first toward Sariel, then to Lucifer, eyes shining with curiosity and innocence as she firmly declared, “We’ve got lots of time to see everything out there.”

Chuckling, the man put his hand on the opposite shoulder from where Sariel’s still was. Both of them stood there with their hands on their young charge. “You’re not wrong about that,” he admitted while turning his gaze back to the stars. “We do have a lot of time.” Curiously, he asked, “So, how long do you think it would take to see everything there is to see out there? Every star, every world, every moon, everything. How long would it take us to see  all of it?”

Chayyiel blinked at that, face scrunching up with thought for a few seconds before guessing, “Ten thousand years?”

“Longer than that.” That was Sariel, her voice quiet, yet firm. “Much longer.”

“She’s right,” Lucifer agreed. “You want to see everything, you better settle in for the long haul. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And,” he added, “a lot of danger. Not just Fomorians. Other things too. A whole universe worth of monsters and problems.”

“We can handle it.” Chayyiel’s voice was assured, arms folded across her stomach as she gazed out at that starfield, determination written across her face. “We’re gonna see it all. And we’re gonna end the war with the Fomorians. We’re gonna fix everything.”

Again, Sariel and Lucifer exchanged brief glances. That time, it was Sariel who spoke up first. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome… aboard the Olympus.”

Pride filled the voice of the man who made that announcement. The figure, who was just barely under six feet in height, with black hair that was lined at the temple and along the sides with silver, smiled. It was a smile that spoke of adventure, of daring, and of battles yet to come.

His name was Puriel, and this was his ship. He stood directly in the middle of the bridge, surrounded on all sides by the consoles that his people, his people would use to direct the ship along their journey, through their missions. This pristine, almost perfectly white with hints of gold room was the command center, the brain of one of the most technologically and magically advanced ships in the entire Seosten fleet. Entire planets had worked to put this single ship through its theoretical, testing, and practical phases. And now it was real. It was complete.

And it was theirs. The products of the Summus Proelium Project, the experimental upgrading process created by Director Aysien, who had been granted an endless lifespan as their aging was frozen, along with other enhancements and unique, individual gifts, had all been gathered onto this single ship. A single ship with a single mission: to explore the vast, unending reaches of space and find some advantage that would allow the Seosten to finally finish the forever war. It was a war that had been raging for hundreds of thousands of years. Literally dozens of generations of the Seosten, whose members lived roughly ten thousand years by themselves, had come and gone without ever experiencing anything except this war against Cronus’s children, the Fomorians.

And now, Puriel’s people, his people, would have a chance to find a way of ending that war, of ending the threat that the Fomorians posed to the entire universe, once and for all. Yes, he felt pride at that fact. Yes, he felt immeasurable happiness at the very thought that his children might, might grow up in a universe where they would be safe.

That thought made his gaze move to the console near the very back of the bridge, next to the main door. And to the beautiful figure who sat there, looking back at him from across the room. Tall and regal, with a beauty that was matched only by her sharp wit and sharper tongue for those who had failed her, Kushiel still took his breath away. To have a child with her, to give that child a chance to live in a universe free of the Fomorian threat… he still held to that hope, to that dream. Old as he was even now, that was a dream worth working for.

And he could live to see it. His age, like all of the crew of the Olympus, had been frozen. Unless killed by some outside means, they would never die. They could, conceivably, actually live to see the end of this war, and whatever would come next.

But the others were watching. As much as he felt that he could lose himself in the gaze of his wife forever, this was too important of a day. So, Puriel pulled himself back, clearing his throat. “Logistics,” he used Kushiel’s position rather than her name. Must stay professional. “Report.”

Granting him one of her rare, yet beautiful smiles before it vanished behind a mask of professionalism, Kushiel gave one slight nod, her voice crisp. “Yes, Trierarch. All supplies are in the green. Fuel stores are reporting maximum capacity. Weapons are pristine. We are clear for six months of regular rations and travel before restock and refuel will be required.”

“Good to know how long we’ve got ahead of us,” Puriel replied with a broad smile. He couldn’t help it. He was professional, not dead. Still, he cleared his throat before his gaze moved slightly to the next station. “Engineering?”

Radueriel returned his brief smile, giving a hand gesture that was part wave and part salute. “Believe me, Trierarch, we are just fine down in the engine room. The boys and I have spent the past week going over every millimeter of that beauty down there. She’ll get us where we need to go, and give a little kick to anyone that tries to stop us from getting there.”

“Given the things we’ll be running into,” Puriel replied, “it better be a big kick.” He turned his attention to the next console over then. “Tactical?”

Auriel stood at rigid attention beside her station, hands clasped behind her back. “Sir,” she began crisply, “All weapons are online and at full capacity.” And yet, even the always professional woman (to the point that many had joked when they thought neither she nor Puriel could hear them about the enormous stick that must have been lodged deep in her backside) could not entirely contain the excitement of what was about to happen. There was the faintest of smiles that briefly flickered across her expression. “It will be a very big kick, sir.”

Puriel smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Security, Crew Liaison, any issues getting everyone settled in?”

From opposite sides of the bridge, Abaddon, as ship’s security chief, and Jophiel, as the crew liaison, both reported negative. The former continued with, “We all did a bit of partying last night, but we’re good for departure.”

It was technically against the rules, as military crews that were about to set off were supposed to remain ‘dry’ for a full day before departure. And Abaddon definitely wasn’t supposed to outright tell the ship’s trierarch about it. But what the hell. It was a special occasion. And everyone knew that no one paid attention to that rule.

Though, from the dirty look that Auriel was shooting Abaddon, if she had her way, it definitely would have been an issue. It was good for him then, that Puriel was far more easygoing. Well, as far as that kind of thing went, anyway.

Next, Puriel turned his attention to the woman who stood near the door, clearly waiting to be dismissed as soon as this launch procedure was over.  “Research and Development?”

The small woman who met his gaze had startlingly green eyes, the result of an earlier enhancement after losing the ones she had been born with. They allowed her to see into many different spectrums, and enhance down to the microscopic level. Her name was Cahethal, and she was also one of the members of his crew that Puriel knew the least about, aside from the late-comers. And they… well, they were a different situation entirely.  

She was also clearly anxious to get back to work, since her response was a simple, “We’d be doing a lot better if I wasn’t wasting my time up here. I have a whole roster of bright-eyed know-it-alls that I need to whip into shape before they run an experiment that blows up this entire ship.”

“Well,” Puriel replied easily, “I guess we’ll have to let you get back there as soon as possible to avoid that, won’t we? Let’s finish up then.” His attention moved to the man next to her. “Medical?”

The man there, Manakel, had been working with Puriel for the past five hundred years. The two knew each other quite well, and exchanged brief smiles. Neither could believe they were finally here, commanding their own ship. And not only that, but one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. It was a dream come true, for both of them, in many different ways.

“The crew checks out,” the medical chief reported crisply. “We are ready to go.”

“Indeed we are,” Puriel agreed before looking at last toward the nearest console to his own seat. “Unless my executive officer has any problems to raise?”

The man there, Sachael, was almost as tall as the giant Abaddon, though he also looked to be much older. His long, pure white hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match, along with eyes that were pale blue, like a pair of frozen ponds set against the snow of his hair. He had also worked with Puriel even longer than Manakel had. Which meant that Puriel was pretty certain Sachael had been the one to convince the crew to go out for drinks the night before.

On-duty, Sachael was the consummate professional. He did his job, and he did it very well. Perfectly, in fact. He was the best first mate that Puriel could have asked for. But off-duty, the man was another story. He was fanatical about separating his two lives, to the point of almost seeming to be two entirely different people. He valued his freedom and fun. That was why he worked so hard while on-duty, so that he could turn it all off and let loose when he wasn’t. And woe be to the person who made him work when he considered himself done.

In this case, the man nodded crisply. “All departments and systems seem to be green.”

Puriel turned to the front then, his mouth opening to address the helmsman, when the door at the back of the room, near Kushiel, Manakel, and Cahethal, slid open. Three figures entered then, one much smaller than the other two.

Lucifer and Sariel, both of them barely past their mid-fifties in age. Barely more than children, really. Neither had actually been selected by their Choirs to be a part of Summus Proelium, or this ship. No, they had been simple lab techs back at the project itself, little more than assistants to Aysien himself until… well, until things had changed. Mostly due to the other figure they had entered with: Chayyiel. The director’s daughter, whose accidentally extended excursion into the other-world where they had drawn their extraordinary gifts from had resulted in the ending of that project.

Or, more specifically, whose unprepared retrieval from that excursion had ended the project, along with any way of actually accessing that other-world, possibly forever.

It was that fact that likely fueled the audible annoyance in Auriel’s voice, as the woman snapped, “What are they doing here?” It looked like she was about to order them off, but stopped herself with a look to Puriel.

Heedless of the reaction (most of the bridge crew looked no less annoyed or outright angry than Auriel herself did) that their presence was creating, Chayyiel all-but sprinted across the bridge, letting out a whoop as she saw the starfield ahead of them. “Are we really leaving, Uncle Puriel?!” She blurted while stopping beside him. Her hands grabbed his arm and she gazed up adoringly. “Really really leaving?”

Kushiel’s own tone was even darker than Auriel’s. “If the girl’s babysitters cannot even perform that duty adequately–”

“We’re sorry. Sorry.” Lucifer hurriedly put in, head shaking quickly as he moved with Sariel right on his heels. The blonde woman was slightly younger than her constant companion, and she was also much more shy. Puriel wasn’t sure he’d heard the woman speak more than a few words that she didn’t absolutely have to speak in the whole time that he’d known her. She relied on her research partner to do that talking for her so much that the rest of the lab, and now the crew here, had begun referring to them as ‘twins.’

“We tried to keep her in the mess hall,” Lucifer was explaining, “so she could watch the launch from there. But she kept insisting that–”

“Ahem.” Manakel raised a hand, drawing Puriel’s attention. “I’m afraid I did indeed extend an invitation to the young miss to bring her guardians with her to see the launch from the bridge. I thought it would be something she would enjoy. Who wants to see the first launch of a ship like this from the mess or the observation deck when you can see it from the bridge?”

Pausing briefly, Puriel looked down to the girl, whose eyes were shining with hope as she stared right back up at him, batting her eyelashes like some kind of innocent bifestel.

“Well,” the man finally replied, “how can I argue with that? Over there.” He nodded to a nearby couple of seats set against the wall near Abaddon. “Strap yourselves in, okay?”

That earned him a hug from the girl herself, before she and her two caretakers (who would have to be given some other job at some point, but Puriel wasn’t sure what that would be just yet, particularly if Cahethal continued to insist that she didn’t want them) moved to the seats.

With that interruption settled, Puriel finally looked to the front. “Helm and Navigation?”

The man there, Amitiel, gave a short nod. He had been looking briefly toward the three newcomers, his attention apparently caught by a wave from Chayyiel herself before belatedly realizing that he had been addressed.

“Ah, ready, sir,” he replied carefully.

Puriel didn’t know Amitiel that well, but he had noticed that whatever else the procedure that changed them all had done, it also seemed to have made him quieter than before. Less boastful of his skill and more… calm than he’d been in those first few weeks. Which was a good thing, as far as Puriel was concerned. Having a calm, professional helmsman would help the ship get through its shakedown voyage without too many problems. Hopefully.

“Very good,” he announced then, realizing that everyone’s eyes were on him. His command crew. His people. They were watching him, waiting for his word to launch. Waiting for him to give the command that would begin their great journey.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began then, turning his attention to the stars.

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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Desperate Times 36-06

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We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But what was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Interlude 34A – Kushiel, Radueriel, Abaddon, and Jophiel

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Please note a couple of important things. First, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Tabbris posted a couple days ago. If you missed it, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. And second, there are two very important notes in my first comment at the bottom of the chapter, concerning the start of voting for the joke tag contest (with all nominees listed), and big updates to the Patreon to add actual rewards (including access to chapters a day early!) for you wonderful patrons!. Thank you all very much, and you can find all that information, again, in my first post in the comments. 

“It seems that you somehow neglected to mention that your little emergency escape hatch was pointed directly at Earth,” Jophiel, back inside of Elisabet, noted in a voice that made her displeasure at that fact clear. Though whether the bulk of her annoyance was because she hadn’t been informed of it, or because of the information itself, was a little more ambiguous.

They sat, arranged around a table in the spacious and exquisitely decorated dining room deep within one of several castle-like mansions that Kushiel and Puriel owned on the Seosten homeworld of Elohim. The four of them, including Radueriel and his lover, Abaddon, had come here after abandoning the remains of the research lab to Athena’s forces (and in some cases, after being magically healed from their injuries). Not that Athena’s forces had been able to stay there for long before they in turn had been forced to flee when the Seosten reinforcement fleet had finally arrived.

“Hmm?” Making a show of thinking about what Jophiel had said, Kushiel pursed her lips slightly, wine glass held close while she gazed into the ruby liquid as if answers to her put-on uncertainty would be found deep within. “Earth… Ah, you mean the human name for Rysthael. Honestly, why bother to use the vulgar human term when the planet’s true name is so much more elegant and descriptive? Hidden. That is a much better name for that world. Don’t you agree, gentlemen?”

Radueriel spoke first, his tone casual. “Setting aside the fact that my husband has never been described as gentle by anyone who has had any proper experience with him, I do prefer our name for the planet, yes. Rysthael suits it.”

Grinning at his lover’s words, Abaddon put an arm around the other man and tugged him closer. “Yeah, well, I like Earth. It’s simple. Easy. And Urrr is a good sound. Urrr-thuh. Good, strong sounds.”

They’re changing the subject, Elisabet noted, her own annoyance at the revelation that had been brought up making the thought-words come through as a slight growl.

“You’re changing the subject,” Jophiel announced aloud, agreeing with the other woman. “Although that was a very well choreographed attempt, I will admit. But please, do tell me why you were set to flee to the planet that is my responsibility.”

Partly your responsibility,” Kushiel stressed, in a voice that failed to sound quite as offhand or uncaring she clearly intended. “After all, your authority begins and ends with events involving the… what was the name for that school, again?”

“Crossroads,” Radueriel supplied, after taking a sip of his own wine. Of course the man would remember that. He had, after all, been responsible for the creation of the Heretical Edge itself, the partially-living construct which gave Heretics their Reaper-derived power.  

Kushiel gave a slight nod then. “Ah, yes, Crossroads. Your authority begins and ends with events involving Crossroads, I believe. We mustn’t ignore poor Cahethal in the Garden of Ethan. She holds as much authority as you, after all. And then, of course, there is Metatron. I do believe that the old man might object somewhat to you claiming that the human planet is your responsibility.”

“Eden,” Jophiel corrected. “Garden of Eden. Eden’s Garden, actually. While you are trying not to ignore Cahethal, you should get that right. And the loss of your lab, subjects, and failure in the face of Lucifer and Auriel must have thoroughly shaken you,” the woman noted that part in a flat tone that she allowed only a hint of amusement to creep into. “You are not usually quite so transparently obvious in your attempt to distract from an uncomfortable subject.”

Kushiel’s glare was priceless, and worth it. “I did not see you actively participating in the effort to repel them,” she noted through tightly gritted teeth. “What, precisely, was your contribution?”

Resisting the morbidly tempting instinct to tell the woman exactly what she had been doing, Jophiel instead gave a little shrug. “I was not willing to risk my identity being exposed by contributing to your attempt at a trap. Perhaps if I had been told ahead of time, I could have prepared myself. And I did retrieve you from the… situation before any permanent damage was done.”

The other woman’s scowl only darkened. “You certainly waited long enough. If you had given Lucifer and Auriel any longer…”

“My apologies, of course,” Jophiel replied in that syrupy-sweet tone that implied no such thing. “I assumed that you would be annoyed if I interrupted your confrontation with the two traitors so soon. Given your status, I was quite certain that you had the situation well in hand.”

Radueriel interrupted before the harshly glaring woman could snap back with whatever she had been about to say. “Now now, I believe the human phrase is no use crying over spilled juice and all that. Let us assess the current situation and determine where we now stand.”

“Most of the prisoners are gone,” Abaddon grunted while reaching out to pick up a thick roll full of meat from the table. Taking a heavy bite from it, the man continued without bothering to swallow. “Including Sariel. She’s out.”

Radueriel gave a faint nod at that. “Indeed,” he confirmed. “What was the last count, something like ninety percent of your subjects were just stolen? And are now completely missing, according to the scouts who were sent to check on the other end of that transport. They’re gone, possibly gallivanting around somewhere on Earth. Perhaps together, or perhaps not. They may well have scattered by this point. More than that, the transport itself is gone, with no sign of its location. And multiple members of the… ahem, Crossroads Committee, none of whom are under our direct control, have taken several of our dead soldiers. They have the bodies, and their equipment. They know more than they should, and have the potential to learn entirely too much.”

“I will handle that,” Jophiel informed the man as well as the other two. “Accidents will happen. Reports will be adjusted. We will allow them to gather some information, but only that which points them in a useful direction.”

Taking another bite of his meat roll, Abaddon demanded, “Why the hell was the transport pointed at some empty spot in the desert instead of some secure place like a prison or something?”

Kushiel bristled slightly at that, clearly annoyed. “The final destination was a secure facility that was prepared ahead of time. The trouble was that the transport had not finished aiming at that facility before it was prematurely activated. The targeting was only off by a very small number of degrees, but that itself was enough to make them end up thousands of miles away from the intended destination. Even then, the force that was able to transport out to meet them would have been enough to contain the situation and hold the children there as long as necessary for reinforcements to arrive, if…”

“If Sariel had not woken up,” Jophiel finished for her, mostly resisting the urge to smirk at the woman’s failure, particularly given her own contribution to that. “It seems that despite her extensive imprisonment, her intervention was too much for your security force to handle.”

Kushiel’s glare returned to her. “She should not have been able to wake up at all,” she snapped. “The only way that Sariel could’ve been released from that pod is if those children somehow had the security code. That is what I do not understand. How did they extract the code? And, for that matter, why would Eulfe have started the transport to begin with? We have seen the security recordings taken from before the transport set off. There was no reason for him to do so. None. He had the situation perfectly in hand, and would have known better.”

The answer, in both cases, was sitting right across from her. Not only had Jophiel and Elisabet provided the children with the code to open Sariel’s pod, but it had also been a simple matter to convince Kushiel’s powerful telekinetic underling that activating the transport right at that moment was the right move to make.

Oh, to be able to see the look on her face if you actually told her the truth, Elisabet lamented with a soft, inward sigh. It would almost be worth the trouble that it would cause.

Almost, Jophiel agreed before giving the woman in question a little shrug. “Lucifer has ways of obtaining far more information than he should have. It was clearly his doing.” Her eyes narrowed then. “My question is… why, precisely was your transport aimed toward Earth in the first place? What were you planning on doing with your test subjects there?”

“First of all,” Kushiel began, “What better place would there have been to keep Sariel away from those attempting to liberate her than the one planet that we knew they could not get to? The banishment was removed from her in preparation for the trip, but it should still be affecting her mate. Not to mention the fact that it would be the last place they would naturally look, and would be beyond or shielded from any tracking spells they might have attempted.”

“And secondly,” the woman continued with a tiny smirk, “the question is what am I planning on doing. Which, I should think that would be patently obvious. It has, after all, become very clear that Sariel’s offspring are viable. Particularly now, as the assault on the lab fully demonstrated, their Seosten genetics are enough that the two of them have been developing our gifts. Slowly, of course, but they have been developing. This is very… interesting. Yet, you have made it clear that you will not allow full experimentation to done on them. Thus, the next solution is to go straight to the source.”

Jophiel stiffened slightly at that. “Surely even you are not so desperate that you would see human-Seosten hybrids as a viable solution to our population issues. The Seraphim would never allow that. They would not accept the dilution of our race to that extent.”

Jophiel herself, of course, had less of a personal problem with that. But she also knew that there had to be more to it than that. Kushiel, after all, was not the type to accept that the only path forward for the Seosten as a race was to combine themselves with another. Her arrogance, which Jophiel had to accept that she also had more than her own fair amount of, was too much to allow that.

“Of course not,” Kushiel confirmed with a quick shake of her head. “But just as the humans have proven useful in other ways, so they may also be useful in this way. With the right human test subjects, it may be possible to add just enough of their genetics to a developing fetus to slow the development of the possession power long enough for the baby to be born and develop a little bit before it emerges. Of course, that will require a great amount of trial and error. We will lose a great many before the true solution is found. But then, they are only human after all. There are plenty more where they will have come from.”

Elisabet was the first to react, her thought-voice full of horror. She doesn’t want to make a human-Seosten alliance. She wants to use the humans as simple genetic stock to be pulled from to allow a Seosten to be born. We would be nothing but a pile of DNA for her to use just to slow the possession power.

Radueriel spoke up then, his tone curious as the man watched her. “Is something wrong, Jophiel? After all, you were the one who pushed the idea that humans and Seosten were genetically compatible. This solution would not have presented itself without those arguments.”

Resisting the strong urge to put her former crewmate on the floor, Jophiel shook her head slightly. “That solution was not my intention,” she replied flatly before returning her gaze to Kushiel. “And you say this is still your plan? Even with so many of your subjects missing?”

Kushiel smiled humorlessly. “A few of the subjects were already moved to the lab via other methods before the transport was arranged, while the new facility was being created. Between those and the subjects I will be able to acquire on the planet itself, it will be enough for a start. Not as much as I would have preferred with the rest of my patients, but enough.

“And in any case,” the woman continued pointedly, “Sariel is on that planet now. And I will not rest until she is back under my care. She is a traitor and deserter, and will not be allowed to roam free.”

“Speaking of which,” Radueriel put in then, “What became of her human mate, and the others back in the facility?”

It was Jophiel’s turn to answer. “At the request of Metatron, once Athena forced the two of you to withdraw and made her way to the transport room, I extracted Kushiel from the situation before it could deteriorate any further.”

If only the old man hadn’t been paying  so much attention to the situation that it was impossible for Jophiel to get away with allowing Kushiel to fall, or at least be captured. But with his eyes on what had been going on, she had been forced to rescue the woman or risk her cover.

From the look on her face, Kushiel was none too pleased with that fact either. The idea that she had been rescued by Jophiel clearly annoyed the woman even more than she would say. Instead, she pointed out, “And yet, you could not find it within yourself to take a couple of them prisoner as well, while you were at it? Don’t tell me that you were afraid of taking a few human children along with us. They would have made excellent hostages to force the future compliance of Sariel and the others.”

Meeting the other woman’s hard glare, Jophiel replied simply, “My instructions were to ensure your survival and escape. To do anything else might have risked that.”

“And as a consequence of that,” Kushiel snapped, “they have all escaped. The Aelaestiam forces managed to rescue and extract any subjects who were not sent on the main transport itself, as well as a great deal of research data from those computers before it could be scrubbed. They also took weapons and supplies, before leaving the area ahead of our reinforcements. This has been a completely unmitigated disaster.”

With a completely straight face, Jophiel noted, “It’s almost as if attempting to plot a successful trap against the so-called goddess of wisdom and warfare is a fool’s errand.”

Kushiel glared at that. “Do not use Lucifer’s foolish terms. Those days are long over, and his scribblings are not relevant.”

It was Abaddon who voiced his disagreement with that. “Actually,” the large man noted, “they seem pretty relevant. You wanna catch him, you gotta know how he thinks.”

“Indeed,” Raduriel agreed. “And under Metatron’s new orders, it is our job to locate both Sariel and her pseudo-sibling, and bring them to the new facility on Rysthael.”

Somehow keeping her rising annoyance out of her voice, Jophiel looked to the two men. “That means you’ll be coming to Earth as well.”

Abaddon grinned at that, giving her a nod. “That’s right, Metatron figures going after Auriel and those others would be a waste of time. Sariel’s the real prize. Her and Lucifer. He says that guy’s been given too much time to run around. So we’re going there to drag those two into Kushiel’s new lab, one way or another.”

Raduriel gave a nod of agreement. “After all,” he noted, “we wouldn’t want to distract you from the missions that you are already involved with. You are quite busy as it is. It will be our job to locate Sariel and Lucifer and return them to their proper place, while Kushiel works to acquire other new subjects.”

Jophiel didn’t like it. She really didn’t like it. After all, the last place she wanted these three to be was on Earth, where they could cause more problems for her projects, which were in sensitive enough situations as it was. But there was also nothing she could do about it now that things had been set in motion. Metatron outranked her by far too much for her to put a stop to this.

So, she simply gave a small, tight-lipped smile while looking toward the two men. “You say that Lucifer is one of your targets for… acquisition. Yet as far as we know, he is still here in our space, not anywhere near Earth.”

Radueriel offered a slight shrug at that. “Knowing him, he will have a way to return there soon. Better to get ahead of him since we know what his final destination will be, than to stay behind in some pointless attempt at tracking him. As was the case with the prison facility, we know where they will be going. Thus, we move ahead and prepare for his arrival. While, of course, searching for Sariel herself.”

Unfortunately, he had a point. One that Jophiel couldn’t pick apart. Instead, she looked toward Kushiel. “It has been quite some time since you set foot on Earth, has it not?”

“Not nearly long enough,” the other woman retorted. “And I look forward to this unfortunately necessary time there being as short as possible before I may leave that place once and for all.”

That makes three of us, Jophiel noted inwardly toward her beloved before simply nodding. “Well, we will have to do everything within our power to ensure that you don’t have to stay for long.”

The two women stared at one another for a moment, their mutual dislike written across their faces. They tolerated one another out of little more than necessity, but had never been friendly. Not that Kushiel ever had many friends. There was a reason, after all, that Lucifer had not attempted to cast her as a loving and kindly figure within his stories.

Abaddon grunted then, interrupted the long and silent glare between the women as he pushed himself to his feet while taking one more meat roll. “Are we going or what? I don’t feel like sitting around anymore. Been awhile since I’ve been to Earth too, and there’s a few things I’ve been meaning to check out. Humans may not be Seosten, but from what I’ve heard, they’ve come up with a few good ideas here and there. After all,” he added with a toothy grin, “any species that makes a whole sport around building the biggest, baddest vehicles and using them to crush smaller vehicles can’t be all bad.”

Patting his lover’s arm, Radueriel nodded while standing up as well. “Yes, we will be joining you on your trip back. After all, there is no sense in all of us going separately.”

Except that if I have to spend much more time around the three of you, I may kill at least one, Jophiel muttered inside her own mind for no one but Elisabet to hear. Aloud, she simply replied, “Of course. Except…” To Kushiel, she asked, “Are you quite certain that you wish to leave your husband for that long? I highly doubt he will be coming with you.”

The woman had a flash of what looked like annoyance on her face before masking it. “Puriel will be fine. He has his healers and minders to ensure that he does not do anything too… foolish. I will visit him as necessary. While,” she added then, “also working toward a cure for his affliction, of course.”

His affliction. Jophiel resisted the urge to laugh in the woman’s face. Puriel did have many problems, conditions that weakened the man and left him unable to perform his duties. But his main ‘affliction’, as Kushiel had put it, was one that no amount of medicine or tests would fix. The man had been fundamentally changed by his experiences following the destruction of the banishment orb.

Instead of saying that, however, Jophiel simply stepped away from the table. “In that case,” she began, “the men are absolutely correct. We should go. After all, it’s going to be a long trip back to Earth.

“And I’m sure you can’t wait to get started.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-07

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Over the past half of a year, I had been in a lot of extremely dangerous and seemingly inescapable situations. More than my fair share, I would argue.

But this, standing here with my pseudo-little sister exposed and revealed in front of what I quickly realized it was probably the most powerful Seosten infiltrator on Earth… My mind just stopped. It was Elisabet. It was one of the Committee members. She was standing in front of me, possessed by one of our enemies, our main enemy, probably, and she had seen Tabbris. She knew that Tabbris had been possessing me.

She knew.

I was not really the type of person who prayed, even before I had found out about all of the supernatural stuff. It just wasn’t the kind of person I was, it wasn’t something I believe in. And I was even less likely to beg.

For Tabbris, I would have done either. For the one in a trillion or so chance that the woman in front of me would listen to a desperate plea, I would beg. For the one in several trillion chance that there was something out there that could hear and care if I prayed for help, I would drop to my knees and do it. For Tabbris.

“Y… you….” Vanessa and I stammered almost together, our voices shaking to the point of almost being incomprehensible.

Tristan, meanwhile, blinked back and forth between us and the woman in question. His voice was utterly clueless. “Who?”

That was enough to make the boy’s twin jerk her gaze to him, blurting, “Elisabet?! One of the Committee members? You were supposed to memorize them for Professor Ross!”

“Well, good news!” Tristan shot back while pointing at the woman. “I’m definitely not gonna forget who she is now!”

“You never pay attention to the homework that you’re supposed to b–” In mid-sentence, Vanessa abandoned her apparently totally put-on argument, spinning around behind her brother while Tristan himself lifted his arm cannon and began loosing a handful of the most powerful shots I had ever seen him fire. Bobbi-Bobbi had apparently been charging up that entire time (probably in preparation for Kushiel), because Tristan fired three or four shots that nearly filled the entire small corridor that we were in.

Vanessa, meanwhile, was already frantically calling for help over the comm badge. Using her brother as cover, she blurted out our situation and that we needed someone there now.

The possessed woman didn’t dodge a single shot. Nor did she block them, or stop them in any way. She simply stood there, allowing the powerful lasers to slam into her repeatedly, and do… nothing. There was absolutely no sign that the woman had even been touched. There was no forcefield, nothing. The room-leveling lasers hit her straight on and didn’t leave so much as a mark.

Her voice, as she spoke, was calm and soft once the shots faded. It almost sounded sympathetic. “I’m afraid that your calls will go unheeded,” she announced. “I have surrounded this facility in a bubble of frozen time. This way, we may have a private conversation without being, shall we say, interrupted.”

That was how little Tristan’s most powerful shots had affected the woman. She didn’t acknowledge it whatsoever. It was like she hadn’t even noticed it at all. She didn’t get mad about being shot, she utterly and completely ignored it. I would have said that he might as well have been chucking pebbles at a tank, but there was a greater chance of damaging the tank. This was a leadership-level Seosten, several thousand years old at least, possessing one of the Crossroads leadership Committee. By themselves, each would have been counted within the top most powerful beings on any planet they were on. Together like this, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how completely and utterly fucked we were.

And speaking of completely and utterly fucked, what the fuck did she mean, she put a time-stop bubble over the entire facility? And was acting like it wasn’t really any strain at all. I hadn’t even been able to tell that she was doing anything like that. Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.

The woman then added, after clearly seeing my hand reaching out toward Tabbris, “And she will not be able to possess you for a short time. When the expulsion effect hits,” she gestured around the room, “it prevents those who were expelled from using their possession ability for a short window. Not too unlike the spell that you were taught by Gabriel Prosser, and that his group, in turn, was taught by Auriel, actually.”

Taking a different tact in that case, I stepped in front of the younger girl, with my staff up. “I know this doesn’t mean anything,” I announced. “I know that I’m a little bug and you’re a truck. But I just want to let you know, that you will have to kill me to take her. J-just so we’re on the same page.” With those last few words, my voice shook audibly. It was a lie, really. She could freeze us and take Tabbris whenever she wanted. If she even cared about not killing us. Still, I said it. Not so much for her, really. I said it for Tabbris. I wanted her to know that, impossible situation or not, I would never choose to abandon her.

“She’s right.” That was Tristan, as the boy stepped beside me. “You’ll have to kill all of us first.”

“Stop it!” Tabbris blurted, her voice panicked and terrified. “Don’t listen to them! Don’t hurt them! I’ll go with you, I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt them, please!” There were tears in her eyes, and she clung to my arm from behind me.

Vanessa shook her head then, stepping up beside her brother. “No,” she said quietly to her little sister, “They’re right. She’s not taking you unless she goes through us first to do it.”

“Take her?” the woman echoed, her voice actually sounding just a little bit surprised. “You believe I wish to…” Trailing off, she gave a slight nod. “Yes, of course. You would think that, wouldn’t you?”

It was Vanessa who spoke up then, her voice shaking as much as mine had. “Y-you’re saying you d-don’t want to take her?”

“And you’re part of the Crossroads Committee?” Tristan put in. “I mean, your host is. You, you’re one of the Seosten leaders. Manakel?”

The woman gave him a sharp look at that. “My boy,” she announced, “you may do a lot of things throughout this conversation. Some may be intelligent, others decidedly not. But the single most unintelligent and dangerous thing you could possibly do is to mistake me for that man again.”

Despite myself, I gave a little shrug at that. “Manakel or not, what’s the difference? You’re possessing one of the Committee members, so you must be pretty important. You’re probably the one in charge on Earth. Just another powerful person justifying enslaving your host.”

“Enslaving?” As she finished echoing that, a glowing figure stepped out of the woman. The glow faded, and I saw what was quite possibly the single most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. Tall, with long, cascading brown hair, she reminded me of Avalon, though my girl’s hair was darker.

It was the real Elisabet who spoke up first, her expression never changing. “I,” she informed us, “am not a slave.” The Spanish woman raised a hand to point to me. “I am no more a slave to her than you are a slave to that one.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris.

“I don’t understand.” Vanessa put words to my own thoughts, her expression just as confused as I felt. “You’re… you’re…”

“Working together?” Tristan finished his sister’s words for her, sounding incredulous. “You….you’re helping her do all this? Why? Why would you sell out humanity to this—“

Before he could continue that sentence, the Seosten woman interrupted. “Perhaps,” she started, “I should introduce myself to start. My name is Jophiel. On your planet, I was once known as—”

It was my turn to interrupt. “Aphrodite. Athena told us about you. She also told us that you could make us feel any emotion for you that we feel for anybody else.”

“Yes,” The woman confirmed simply. “And yet, I am not doing so, and will not do so. Because I wish to have a civil conversation with you. A civil conversation,” she corrected, “with all of you. I have not come here to fight or hurt you. And I have certainly not come to take her.” Her head nodded toward Tabbris. “If you will be silent for a moment, I will explain. Your grand gestures are very inspiring, truly. But they are not accomplishing anything. While it is not so difficult for me to hold this time-stop, I would truly rather not do so forever. Now, you may either continue to waste time, such as it were, or stop and listen.”

For a moment, the four of us exchanged brief, helpless looks. Finally, I lifted my chin to look at the two women. “What do you want?” I asked, trying to keep as much of the tremble out of my voice as I could and failing pretty much miserably.

It was Elisabet who spoke. “As I said, I am not her slave. We are… partners, in every way. It is our belief that the only way that humans or Seosten, or the rest of the civilized universe for that matter, will survive the Fomorian threat, is through working together.”

My arms flailed at that despite myself. “You want humans and Seosten to be partners?! Then why aren’t you working with Athena? Why the hell are you helping to enslave all of humanity under your thumb? That doesn’t sound like partnership to me. And you’re on the Committee. You could help make them back off of all that killing every Alter they see thing. A lot of them are innocent, and you know it!”

Jophiel inclined her head slightly. “You misunderstand. I do believe that humans and Seosten should be together. I believe that the place of both of our species is at the tip of the spear to defeat the Fomorians. But I also believe that our place, together as partners, is in leading this universe. Our place is to control and protect every species. We are the parents, and they are the children. And while I will readily admit that our people have gone too far in some cases, or even many cases, that does not change that fact. We are the strong hand that will put things to right. The only hand that can stay the knife of the Fomorian monsters.”

Elisabet spoke. “The Seosten have done some bad things. But the Fomorians do, and will do, much worse. They will annihilate every species in the universe that is not them, or their monstrous creations. They will kill everything, and the Seosten are the only people with the slightest prayer of stopping them. You may disagree with their methods, but the fact remains that at least species under Seosten control continue to exist.”

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “But you haven’t beaten them,” I pointed out while looking to Jophiel. “You’ve had hundreds of thousands of years, and you still haven’t beaten them. Actually, I’m kind of getting the impression that you guys are gradually losing.”

If she was offended that, the Seosten woman didn’t show it. She simply inclined her head in a slight nod. “Correct,” she replied softly. “That is precisely why we need to change things. And the key to that change lies in the four of you.”

Before we could ask what she meant, Elisabet took over, her eyes on Vanessa and Tristan. “You are living, breathing proof that our species is fully compatible with the Seosten. This partnership, this joining of our species that we wish to facilitate, is exemplified partly within you.”

“And partly,” Jophiel put in with a gesture to Tabbris and me, “within you. Vanessa and Tristan demonstrate our species’ genetic compatibility. You two are the other side of that equation, the key that we have been looking for for so very long. You are the proof that our peoples’ working together as partners in full cooperation, would be a far more effective weapon against the Fomorians than our current model.”

Elisabet nodded once. “We have been looking for a very, very long time for a way to illustrate our point and convince the Seraphim that the key to moving forward is with the Seosten as partners with the humans. We will be able to save this universe from the Fomorians, but only once our people are truly united.”

Before I could say anything to that, Vanessa spoke up once more. “So, we’re just supposed to believe that you don’t want to hurt us? We’re just supposed to take your word that it isn’t some kind of trick?”

Jophiel’s response to that was to give the other girl what honestly looked like a genuine smile. “My dear, brilliant girl, we have been waiting so very long to speak with you directly.”

“Or at least,” Elisabet corrected, “we’ve been waiting to speak to you like this. As opposed to speaking to you like…” As she trailed off, the Spanish woman’s face and body began to change dramatically. She grew a few inches, her hair shortened into a gray bun, while wrinkles appeared on her face. She took on a matronly grandmother appearance, like Dorothy from the Golden Girls.

Vanessa’s reaction to that was immediate. The blonde girl’s eyes went wide, and she blurted, “Mrs. Reibach?!”

That made Tristan’s head snap around. “The woman who was working with you in the foster system? The one who gave you those tests and took you to get ice cream every week?”

“She came to talk to me in the… the hospital,” Vanessa murmured, not taking her eyes off the woman. “She was nice to me.”

It was Jophiel who spoke, while Elisabet resumed her own appearance. “We have never meant you or your brother any harm. Why do you think you were never taken by the other Seosten? The half-human daughter of none other than Sariel herself? If nothing else, Kushiel would have given quite a lot to get her hands on you. In fact, she made quite the push for it over the years.”

Elisabet nodded. “That is precisely why we came here. When the two of you disappeared, we feared that she had gone behind our backs and acquired you herself. We came to ensure that was not the case. And to rectify it if it was.”

“Finding the other half of our answer,” added Jophiel with a gesture toward Tabbris and me, “was rather surprising. May we possibly have your name, little one?”

I saw no sense in trying to hide it or anything, so when the girl looked to me questioningly, I gave her a very slight nod. She looked back to the women and tentatively answered, “T-Tabbris.”

That brought a smile to Jophiel’s face. “That is a fine name for one such as you. You are a beautiful girl, and you look quite a bit like your mother.”

Of course they had put that much together, I realized. It wasn’t that hard.

Elisabet was nodding. “As she said, learning of your existence and situation here was an accident. But a useful one.”

My head shook a little. “Look, I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’m jumpy about anyone calling me useful, let alone my partner. So I don’t know what kind of torture plan you’ve got cooked up here, but…”

“Torture?” Jophiel echoed. “Dear Felicity, we have no desire to torture you. We do not even wish to hurt you. We wish to train you. Both of you. All four of you, to be quite honest.”

Elisabet nodded. “And when you are fully trained, when you are ready, we will take you to the Seraphim and show them that a humanity partnered with the Seosten is far more effective at defeating the Fomorians than a humanity enslaved by the Seosten.”

Vanessa spoke then. “But you’re not just working with Athena because you still think that the Seosten are better than other species. You just think that humans can be up there too. You’ve extended the pedestal to fit two species instead of one.”

Jophiel’s head shook. “Given time and opportunity, it is quite likely that many other species could reach the level of the Seosten. But, the Fomorians will not be giving them that time nor opportunity. They will kill them all. The only chance in stopping those creatures lies in the power of the Seosten. But to do that, we must become as strong as possible. Amends may be made once the threat has been dealt with.”

Coughing, I muttered, “I feel like people have been using that last line to justify atrocities since beginning of time. There will always be another threat to beat, and there will always be an excuse to be an asshole. And quite frankly, I don’t think that your kind of training is exactly what I’m looking for. And I really don’t have any desire to go see these Seraphim at any point. Which is kind of a shame, because I’m pretty sure that if I get one more powerful adult mentor, I win a free cookie.”

The two women simply smiled a little bit at that before Jophiel spoke up. “And yet, you have not heard our offer. You see, the bargain that we bring involves…” She turned slightly to point at the door behind her. “… Sariel.”

“Mama?!” Tabbris blurted while taking a step that way, putting herself between Tristan and me. The twins looked just as interested in that announcement.

Jophiel nodded. “Indeed,” she replied. “you see, we would like to strike a bargain with the four of you. First, you will submit to a spell which will render you incapable of knowingly speaking about or otherwise communicating our situation or anything else about us that should be kept private. The spell will also ensure that no one can pull that information from your mind any other way. Our secrets will be safe. As will yours, as long as the deal is honored.”

Elisabet spoke then. “The four of you will also come to regular training sessions with us. You will perform the actions we deem necessary to ensure your readiness for an eventual meeting with the Seraphim. This will require years before you will be fully prepared. And I warn you, you will not always agree with our methods or our requirements. But you will come, and you will be prepared to learn and follow instructions.”

Before any of us could say anything to that, Jophiel took over once more. “In exchange, we will provide an opportunity to save Sariel. You see, as it stands, you will fail. Through that door is not an ordinary ship. It is more akin to the so-called Pathmaker, though a prototype, which at this point, has only one use. Once it is activated, they will be gone. And barring interruptions, it will be activated in five seconds. At his present course of action, Apollo will arrive in six seconds. One second too late.”

Elisabet spoke. “If you agree to this deal, we will ensure that he arrives sooner. Soon enough to interrupt the proceeding and allow you the opportunity to rescue her.”

“It is your choice,” added Jophiel. “Agree to our arrangement, agree to follow our instructions and allow us to prove our point, and we will give you the opportunity to save Sariel. Refuse, and we will leave to find more ways to motivate you once your failure here is complete.”

Again, we exchanged looks. But I knew what we were going to say. It was what we had to say. Because this was their mom. This was Tabbris, Tristan, and Vanessa’s mother. And I knew what I would’ve said if it was about my own.

“Okay,” I announced, echoed by the others.

“You’ve got a deal.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-06

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Please note two things. First, there was a mini-interlude posted  yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. And we also have a contest running for selecting the best joke tag, along with a prize. For details, see my first/top comment at the bottom of that chapter. 

Running through the wide open shuttle bay doors led the eight of us (counting Gidget) into the smoldering remains of what had once been the defense tower. The defense tower whose anti-teleportation effect we had taken out by crashing on entire freaking ship into it.

Gordon was a hybrid. A hybrid. My mind was racing, going a million miles an hour. Even with all that was already going on, I couldn’t just dismiss that from my thoughts. He was part Alter, like Shiori, or the twins. Why hadn’t he told us? Sure, he’d told us why, to avoid adding to all the drama and all that. But seriously? I wanted to shake him. If this wasn’t literally a life and death situation (actually, many lives and many deaths), I probably would have. Sure, it was totally his choice and up to him to share with us, and I wasn’t really mad at him about it or anything. After all, that was a really personal thing. But… but still.

I was discombobulated about it.

The place, or at least this part of it, was in complete ruins. Fires burned everywhere. I could see a few bodies lying here and there, while holes in the walls and ceiling revealed the sky beyond, which allowed the cold arctic wind to come through. Meanwhile, a sick, warbling alarm that sounded like it had seen much better days droned in and out in the background. Red and white lights flickered here and there, valiantly struggling to illuminate what the fires weren’t.

Partway through, the giant bear that was Vanessa began to rapidly shrink. Reflexively, I started to look away as her appearance grew closer to human, but there was no need. A silver necklace that I hadn’t noticed before (it had apparently grown with her and been hidden under all that fur) began to give off a soft white glow for a second. By the time she was in any shape where embarrassment would have been an issue, her clothes somehow magically appeared right back on her body where they had been before.

“Uncle Apollo,” she muttered by way of explanation when she noticed all of us staring.

“I definitely need one of those,” Roxa announced, giving a firm nod. “Mine just holds clothes, it doesn’t automatically put them on me.”  

“As soon as we get out of here with Mom, I’m pretty sure he’ll make anything you want,” the other girl replied. Face half-cast in shadow, she raised a hand to point. “And he said that the entrance to the tunnel should be that way.” I could tell that she was trying very hard not to think about the sounds of fighting that we could still hear from behind us. The thought of anything happening to her father while she was busy saving her mother had to be weighing heavily on the girl.

The tunnel that she had mentioned was supposed to lead from the defense tower where we were, all the way into the lab itself. It was one of very few actual bits of information that Apollo had been able to conjure up out of whatever prophetic future seeing sources he had access to. I still hadn’t been able to get a straight answer out of the Olympian about all that, but I was pretty sure he just enjoyed being mysterious. Either way, he had been confident about the location and usefulness of the tunnel.

Together, we started to move that way, only for Roxa to suddenly stop while snapping her arm up. Her head tilted a little, and I saw her ears twitch slightly. “Wait,” the girl murmured, “there’s something…”

Abruptly, she began to stride off into the darkness, with Gidget trotting behind her. The rest of us looked at one another in confusion for moment before following after them. Eventually, Roxa led us to a pile of rubble that had fallen from a collapsed ceiling above.

“Hey,” Tristan started a bit tentatively, “we really, really need to get into that lab, like, as soon as possible. So-“

Giving a sharp shake of her head, Roxa gestured at the pile. “There’s someone under there,” she declared. “They’re begging for help, can’t you hear them?”

Gordon had his hand up, peering through his thumb and fingers in a circle like a telescope as he nodded. “She’s right,” the boy announced, “there’s someone trapped under there. It’s one of those soldiers. The pile is basically crushing him.”

“If we were fighting him,” Sands pointed out, “we’d kill him anyway. He’s a soldier, one of Kushiel’s. And we’re kind of busy. Every second we waste here is another second that they might get out of here with Sariel.”

It was Vanessa who spoke up then. “So we have to hurry and get him out.” Her face was set. “Yes, I want to get to my mom. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who could just leave someone here to suffer like this to do it. I could never forget that.”

Right, she could never forget anything at all. And associating the rescue of her mother with abandoning someone else to suffer and die like this… Yeah, I could see why she couldn’t do it. When it came time to save my own mother, I wouldn’t want it to be tainted by something like that either, if I had the choice.

“Besides,” Roxa informed us, “the last thing Apollo said to me before we started all this was to not ignore what I hear. I don’t know where he’s pulling these little prophecy things from or why they have to be so vague and scattershot, but ‘don’t ignore what you hear’ seems pretty straight forward right now, doesn’t it?”

“She’s got a point,” I agreed with a shrug. “Ignoring it sounds like a bad idea. Especially when she puts it like that.”

Jazz was already holding her hands out to create a couple of those gravity balls above the rubble. She grimaced then as the pile shifted just a little. “I can make it lighter,” the girl announced, “but it’s too heavy to pull off him entirely.”

“You make it lighter,” I agreed, before looking to Sands. “If you get on that side and use your mace to start building a little wall under the lip of the rubble there out of the same material that it’s made from, you could start making the wall higher to push it up out of the way. The rest of us can take the other side and pull it up there. Except Gordon. You use your x-ray vision to keep an eye on the guy and be ready. The second the rubble is up far enough, reach in and pull him out. You might do damage to him, but they’ve got healing. All that matters is that he survives.”

Gordon met my gaze for a moment. I could tell he wanted to know what I was thinking about that little revelation, his eyes twitching just a little before he looked away with a little nod, his voice quiet. “Got it.”

The others nodded, and we moved up to do just that. Jazz focused on making the gravity orbs and pushing them up to pull the rubble as much as she could. Meanwhile, Sands put a wall under the one side, while Roxa, Vanessa, Tristan, and I heaved up on the other side. Gordon crouched, one hand in front of his face as he watched through the rubble with his other hand ready to grab the guy.

It took some effort. This chunk of broken ceiling was really heavy, and really big. No wonder we hadn’t been able to hear the guy from under it. Aside from Roxa, anyway.

But eventually, we managed it.  The rubble shifted a little, and Gordon made a noise as he reached in to catch hold of the guy. I heard feet scrambling and then a cry of pain as the boy hauled out the armored, uniformed soldier. He kept pulling until they were a couple feet away from the rubble so that we could let it drop. Which it did, with a loud, almost deafening clang.

The soldier lay there panting and groaning. One of his legs was clearly heavily broken, and I could see where the rubble had been crushing him. But we didn’t have time to worry about that. We’d gotten him out of there, and now we had to go.

“Come on,” I urged the others, “We’ve gotta get to that tunnel. Sariel needs help too.”

“Wait.” It was the injured soldier. He held a hand up, his body trembling a little. “You… ugh, you saved my life,” he pointed out a bit painfully. “I’ve got to tell you, that tunnel is trapped. Kushiel, she knew someone would use it, so she’s got all these spells on it. You walk through there like that, and you’ll be disintegrated before you even get halfway through it.” Shifting a little with another grunt of pain, the man dug in the pocket of his uniform and withdrew three little crystals, which he held out to us. “Take these, anyone holding one can get through the tunnel. But I’ve only got the three. I… I owe you that much.” I couldn’t see the man’s face through the helmet that he wore, but he sounded like he was barely conscious.

“Do we believe him?” Sands asked flatly.

I shrugged at that, while taking the three crystals from the man. “We don’t really have much of a choice. I’d rather not be disintegrated.” And I kind of doubted that the man just happened to be carryng around a handful of crystals like this that would make our situation worse.

After I had taken the crystals from the man, he slumped a little more. I could see his chest rise and fall a bit, but he seemed to be unconscious. Briefly, I hoped that he would be okay. Yeah, he was an enemy, but he had also helped us. Be it out of a sense of obligation or whatever, he’d still done it. So I hoped that he didn’t die.

I hoped that… I wished that none of them had had to die. Even the ones back on the ship. Fighting… in the middle of it, I had killed without much thought. It was kill or be killed. But now, afterward, when the adrenaline had faded just a little bit… They were slaves of the Seosten. Sure, there would be those who were eager to fight and kill, but still… there would also be those who weren’t. There would be those who–

“Only three of them,” Jazz noted then, snapping me out of my distraction. “What do we do with just three?”

“It gets worse,” Gordon quietly put in. The boy was holding his hands up to his face once more, looking off toward one of the walls. “In a few seconds, there’s gonna be more soldiers pouring in here. They’ll be right on top of us.”

“You guys go.” That was Roxa, and she was looking at Tristan, Vanessa, and me. “You go through the tunnel with those crystals, while we hold off the soldiers. We’ll keep them from hitting you from behind.”

Sands nodded. “Like Haiden said, all that matters is getting someone to where Sariel is to call in the big guns. Go, we’ve got this. We’ll see if we can get more of those crystals off these guys and follow you as soon as we can. Be careful, and go save Sariel.”

I wanted to argue with that. I wanted to stay and help them fight these guys.  But the truth was that there just wasn’t time. We had no idea how long it would take Kushiel to find a way to move her prisoners despite the portal blockers that had come in with the fleet. And if we lost this chance, I didn’t know how we’d ever get another one.

So, we went. Now down to Tristan, Vanessa, and myself, the three of us took off toward the tunnel. Each of us held one of those crystals that the rescued soldier had given us. In the background, I heard more fighting start up as the pursuing guards made it into that chamber. Silently, I wished Jazz, Gordon, Roxa, Gidget, and Sands luck. But I didn’t dare look back. If I had, I might not have been able to convince myself to keep going.

Together, the three of us reached the large doorway leading to the ramp, which descended down into the tunnel that would lead to the lab. For a second, we glanced at each other. Vanessa spoke in a slightly trembling voice as she held her crystal in one hand. “Let’s go save Mom.”

My head gave a little nod, Tabbris taking my voice briefly to quietly say, “Save Mama.”

With that, we sprinted together down that ramp and into the tunnel. The crystals in our hands glowed a bit, but at least we didn’t disintegrate. Which was a good thing. The tunnel itself was wide enough for a couple of trucks to drive through, and pretty much completely barren. Our footsteps echoed as we raced along it.

After a minute or so of running like that, Vanessa abruptly caught my arm to yank me out of the way a second before a barrage of shots sailed through the air where I had just been. She’d clearly seen the attack coming with her enhanced vision. “Soldiers,” the girl gasped out while pointing down the long tunnel, far beyond where I could see. “There’s a big cluster of them right by the exit.”

Tristan was grinning. “A big cluster, you say?” He lifted his arm with Bobbi-Bobbi and her cannon form. “Great, let’s see if we can break it up a bit, shall we?”

There was a rapidly rising hum of power, and then the boy shot an enormous laser from his snake-cannon. The beam was a solid two feet across as it tore down that straight tunnel, and Tristan move his arm a bit from side to side and up-and-down to cover as much of the tunnel as possible. After a couple of seconds, he suddenly gave a sharp gasp and shuddered with pleasure as I saw his bronze-colored aura flare up. He’d gotten at least one kill from that. Meanwhile, the beam fizzled and he finally dropped his arm. “That’s it, gotta let her recharge.”

Vanessa was already running again, as she announced, “You killed two of them. The rest hit the ground.”

A few more steps bought us close enough that Tristan and I could see what she meant. There was a pile of soldiers who were just starting to pick themselves up from the floor. But I had been charging my staff this entire time, and I was ready. With another step, I shifted my weapon into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow with all the power that I had stored up. A second later, I loosed the arrow and it soared in to explode right in the middle of the collected soldiers. They were all sent flying into opposite walls, one even hitting the ceiling before crashing back to the ground.

We were there then, the three of us sprinting straight through the crumpled pile of guards before they could collect themselves. Ignoring them entirely, we just kept going. There wasn’t time to stop and handle them. Every second counted, especially now. If we didn’t have to waste time fighting, we weren’t going to.

That put us into what looked like a loading bay of some kind. All around us were these clear tubes of all different shapes and sizes. They were clearly meant to house living beings, with displays on the side to show their vitals and things like that. Some of them were tipped on their side, while others were upright. None of them had anyone in them, which I supposed meant that they were used for transporting.

Or maybe these ones were in maintenance or something, I wasn’t sure. The point was, there was a door ahead of us that lead into what looked like a futuristic hospital. Everything through there seemed pristine and sterile from what little I could see.

“The lab,” Vanessa gasped out with wide eyes. “We’re here. We made it.”

“We might be at the lab,” Tristan corrected flatly, “but we haven’t gotten to Mom yet. Come on. We’re so close. We can’t trip now.”

There were still soldiers in the lab itself, of course. They weren’t going to make it that easy for us, even then. But those soldiers were spread out, trying to cover a large space with too few of them, as most were busy helping Radueriel and Abbadon, or fighting Haiden and Larissa, or even trying to deal with Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz. We may have been gradually spread out throughout this effort, but so had Kushiel’s forces. She only had so many left in the lab itself, and the most dangerous ones were thoroughly occupied.

So, we fought our way through, killing several more of the guards on the way to find Sariel. Nothing was going to stand in our way at that point, after everything we’d gone through to get that far. Especially not these soldiers. Through empty room after empty room, hallway after hallway, we kept fighting. The place, aside from the guard trying to stop us, was practically a ghost town. But it was also clear that the prisoners had been moved in a big hurry. We still had time to get wherever they were being taken, I hoped.

Eventually, our paths led us to what at first looked like an observation room, with a large window all along one wall. But as we went closer, I saw that there wasn’t any kind of operating room or anything below. Instead, the window overlooked a docking bay built into the side of the lab. Below, we could see more of those tubes. These ones, however, had figures in them. Prisoners. And there were soldiers working to load them onto some kind of… I was guessing that it was a spaceship, but it looked more like a long tube with a ramp leading up into it. I couldn’t see where any thrusters or weapons or anything were. Standing right at the base of that ramp, directing them, was a tall, regal-looking woman with dark hair tied into a single, tight braid. The very sight of her made my skin crawl, as a cold lump settled into my stomach. Kushiel. That had to be Kushiel.

But it wasn’t her that the others were focused on. Tabbris suddenly made my eyes snap down a bit, at the tube that sat beside the woman. A tube with a pretty blonde figure frozen within.

“Mama!” my mouth abruptly blurted, even as Tristan and Vanessa made their own sounds to the same effect.  

“We have to get down there,” Tristan blurted then, looking back to me wildly. “We have to get down there before—“

He stopped, as Kushiel looked up right at us through the window. I saw a small, cold smile cross the woman’s face before she said something to the soldier near her. That guy moved to grab the tube holding Sariel, pushing it up the ramp to the ship.

Bellowing out, Tristan suddenly took aim at the window with his cannon and opened fire. Unfortunately, the laser didn’t so much as scorch what turned out to be a force field rather than glass. It just sort of fizzled.  Breaking through it like that was going to take a lot more time than we actually had. That ship would be gone soon, along with any hope of saving Sariel.

Vanessa and I both had our badges in our hands, activating them as fast as we could. The other girl looked to me, her eyes wide. “What if they don’t get here in time? They’re in the middle of a fight. They might not be able to get away.”

She was right, every second counted. Looking around wildly, I pointed to a small door to one side. “There,” I blurted, already moving that way. Sure enough, as we tore the door open, we found a set of stairs leading downward. The stairs took us to a small, empty corridor, at the end of which there was a door that clearly lead into the hangar bay that we had just been looking at.

As we sprinted that way, however, a blue light suddenly sprang to life and passed over us. I felt a tingle, and then heard a gasp as Tabbris stumbled out of me. My hand snapped out to catch the other girl before she could fall. “What the—?”

“Safety measure,” Vanessa instantly deduced. “They must use it to make sure there aren’t any Seosten prisoners hitching a ride to get out of here.”

Flinching a little, I nodded. “Right, come on and—”

“Now this,” a new, yet vaguely familiar voice suddenly interrupted, “is quite interesting.”

A woman was there, blocking our path to the door. She stepped forward, and I recognized her. It made no sense to me for a second, but it was definitely her, one of the members of the Crossroads Committee. Elisabet. Elisabet was there, staring at Tabbris, then at me while realization and full comprehension dawned across her expression at a speed that was matched only by the horrified sinking feeling that had fallen into my own stomach like a crater.

“Quite interesting indeed.”

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Interlude 33E – Jophiel and Elisabet

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In the middle of a mostly empty warehouse, seven strange figures sat around a large table. The dim lighting from a standing lamp set near the table revealed poker chips and cards scattered across the surface, along with ashtrays, drinks, and the remnants of food. Loud, boisterous taunting and jokes filled the air as the figures continued their intense game.

None of the figures were human, and all but two appeared to be very different species from each other. The largest was an enormous, nine-foot tall Minotaur, who dwarfed even the specially-made large chair that he lounged in at the head of the table.

Continuing around the table clockwise sat a dark-furred Rakshasa; a figure that looked like a Tolkien elf with high pointed ears and and an aristocratic bearing; another who was quite similar to that, save for possessing red skin; a shark-like humanoid who was almost as large as the Minotaur; and a figure who might have been mistaken for a vampire from any who did not know him to be one of their progenitor species, an Akharu.

Finally, on the other side of the Minotaur, opposite the Rakshasa, was a small figure who technically stood only about two feet tall. With its large eyes, enormous ears, and wide mouth that stretched across its entire face, the figure looked quite similar to the Disney character of Stitch. Except, of course, for the long, flowing, cape-like appendage that was attached to his shoulders. The ‘cape’ had razor-sharp talons lining the entirety of the far end. Talons that held a incredibly deadly, paralytic poison. It was three times as long as the creature’s main body, and strong enough to hold it fully upright so that the creature could be eye-to-eye with a six-foot tall man. The cape-appendage could be used to glide long distances, and to protect the creature itself, as it was both bulletproof, and resistant to most kinds of magic.

Though they were often referred to as ‘caped-gremlins’, the creature was actually called a Larikeken. Their use of their cape-like appendages to stand taller than they actually were had led to long confusion about whether they were actually one or two species. And more than one group of Larikeken had ambushed unsuspecting enemies by hiding several of their number under one cape.

In the midst of a particularly raucous series of betting, the heavily reinforced and magically protected door at the entrance of the warehouse abruptly crumpled inward, bending almost entirely in half before it flew off to loudly clatter its way across the floor.

The Spanish woman who walked through the opening then brought the stunned poker players to their feet even faster than the crashing door already would have.

“Heretic!” the Minotaur bellowed loudly while grabbing an enormous axe that had been laid nearby. Around him, the rest of the figures all moved to attack the intruder.

It was an assault that ended exactly as soon as it had begun. With one hand, the woman snapped her fingers. At that command, a trio of three foot thick, concrete tentacles with spikes on the end erupted from the cement floor of the warehouse. Before the figures knew what was happening, the Minotaur, Rakshasa, and shark-man were fully impaled by the cement tentacles, leaving their suddenly lifeless bodies hanging there.

At the same time, the woman waved her other hand, and a wall of intense fire, tall enough to reach the ceiling, rose up before rolling across the opposite half of the room. The remaining four Alters were caught by the flames, and their screams briefly filled the air before going silent.

A dark blue, almost black aura rose around the Spanish woman, though she didn’t even break stride as she followed her own rolling flame. As the fire faded, it left behind scorched and melted concrete, a few ashes and crumbling bones from the bodies it had picked completely clean… and two distinctly glowing shapes. While both elf-like figures had been entirely incinerated, the smaller Larikeken and the Akharu were trapped within glowing blue, semi-translucent crystals. The crystals had protected them from the fire that turned their companions to ashes, yet held them prisoner. Their own screams were rendered mute against their crystal prisons.

Would you like to take the next part? Elisabet silently inquired of her Seosten partner and lover.

Yes I believe I will, the other woman replied. Seamlessly, she took over. To the outside world, there would be no change at all. The two were so perfectly in sync with each other that one could pass control to the other in mid-step and show no delay or hesitation whatsoever.

“Now then,” Jophiel used her partner’s mouth to announce while stopping directly in front of the two trapped figures. “Let’s play a game.” With those words, their fingers snapped once more, and the crystals shattered. The two figures that had been trapped within fell to the floor.

The Akharu was back on his feet in an instant, his incredible speed turning him into a blur of motion that would have been impossible for most beings of the planet to even hope to track.

Most beings, however, did not include a Crossroads Committee-level Seosten-Heretic pairing. Jophiel and Elisabet could have read an entire book in the time it took the man to lunge at them. Even as his feet pushed off and his fist swung wildly for their throat, Jophiel raised a single finger, holding their arm outstretched while remaining perfectly still. The incoming fist slammed into that single finger, and a shockwave of force reverberated throughout the room. The finger remained entirely motionless, as if nothing at all had happened. Meanwhile, the Akharu’s fist crumpled under the impact like a car slamming into a wall during a failed safety test. From the point of collision and spreading out to encompass the entire arm over the span of milliseconds, skin, muscle, and bone all turned to stone, which in turn crumbled to dust.

It would have required a dramatically slowed replay to actually see. Or, of course, the incredible reflexes and speed of the Akharu who experienced it. In the time that it would have taken most to register that their fist had been not just blocked, but broken by a single finger, his entire arm up to the shoulder had turned to stone and completely shattered. The remains lay scattered along the floor at their feet while he stared down incredulously, the pain drawing a belated scream.

“I said,” Jophiel started once more, her voice remaining perfectly even, “let’s play a game.” Lifting both hands, she summoned a handful of much smaller concrete coils from the floor to wrap around the now one-armed Akharu and his gremlin-like companion. The coils yanked both down and held them in place against their struggles while Jophiel stepped between them. The woman stood there, looking first to one, then the other, as though deciding which to start with.

She settled on the smaller figure. Lifting a foot, the woman settled it against his throat. “This is a very simple game. I will ask you a question. Lie to me, and you will suffer. For example…” She made a sharp gesture with one hand. In response, one of the caped-gremlin’s finger bones was torn from its socket. The bone ripped its way free, tearing through muscle and skin as it was ripped out, flying into the woman’s waiting hand.

Crushing the finger bone between two fingers while the figure literally under her boot screamed and howled, Jophiel gave him just a moment of that before pressing her foot down enough to cut off his wails so that she could speak over the sound of the resulting gurgling.

“You have many more bones to go before I would need to get… creative. So I suggest you answer my questions. And do recall that I will know if you are lying.”

With her point firmly established, she began with, “You and your… companions work for a man you know as Hades. You will tell me everything that you have done for him for the past year.”

Her foot lowered a bit more, making her point even clearer as she added, “Be… thorough.”

******

That may have been cathartic, Elisabet noted as they strode out of the warehouse some time later, but it was not all that informative as far as our actual problem goes.

You’re right, Jophiel agreed. But at the very least, we know more about some of Manakel’s side-projects. If need be, we have ammunition that can be used against him should he make a fuss or hold anything back during our upcoming personal discussion.

With that, the woman gestured. A portal appeared in the air, and they stepped through, leaving the warehouse, and the planet itself, behind.

The portal carried the joined pair to a small, tropical island. Ignoring the beauty around them, Jophiel focused instead on the cabin that, aside from the dock built along the shore, was the only bit of construction visible on the island.

Upon their arrival, Jophiel and Elisabet were met by a cough. Manakel, wearing his own currently most-used host, stepped into view. “You know,” the old Seosten announced flatly with his host’s voice, “that group was rather useful to me. They were no Seosten, of course. But they were punctual and dependable. Then you had to go throw your temper tantrum and–”

That was as far as he got before Elisabet crossed the distance between them. Her hand snapped out to lock around the throat of Manakel’s host, hoisting them from the ground before slamming the host’s back against the wall of the cabin hard enough to make it rattle from the force. “You were told,” she began in a voice that shook the air like thunder, “to leave the Moon children out of your schemes.

That was why Jophiel and Elisabet were furious beyond measure. The idea, the thought, that Manakel had disregarded Jophiel’s orders to keep his hands away from the children of Sariel, enraged both of them to the point that it required actual effort not to burn him and his host to the ground right where they stood. The time and work that the two of them had put into maintaining Vanessa Moon’s safety, in preventing her from ending up out in Kushiel’s torture lab, only for the girl and her brother to disappear without a trace? It positively stank of Manakel’s doing.

“And,” Manakel announced in his own voice then, having stepped out of his host after taking the time to leave the figure in question unconscious, “I’ve done precisely that. I had nothing to do with Sariel’s spawn going wherever it is that they went. A fact that I could have told you without your unnecessary… visit to my employees.”

“Why,” Elisabet asked for the two of them, “should we believe a word that comes from your mouth on this subject? You already tried to go behind my back once when I denied your petition to take the boy when he first reappeared.” She released Manakel’s slumbering host, letting the figure drop to the ground. “An insult, I remind you, that I have not forgotten. Nor will it go unanswered in its time, I assure you.”  

Briefly, Jophiel pondered how the proud Seosten would react to the knowledge that it was Elisabet, the human, and not her who was currently threatening him. It was, she had to admit, a rather amusing thought.

“Jophiel,” Manakel started with his trademark faux joviality and camaraderie. “Please. I’ve already admitted that that was a… an overzealous mistake. Please. Listen, I know we have had our… disagreements, of late. But I promise you, I know nothing about the disappearances of Sariel’s hybrid children. Now, I won’t pretend that I don’t still want them. But in this case, I’m as in the dark as you. A fact that you in particular could have ascertained even from my employees without using such violent means. Good help is hard enough to find without my own allies killing them. Especially an ally whose gift makes such permanent measures entirely unnecessary.”

He was referring, of course, to Jophiel’s Olympian gift, the power that she had gained from her own enhancements. In her case, that allowed her to look at anyone she could see and apply any particular emotional feeling they felt for any other person to herself. She could make a person love her as much as they loved their own wife, or their mother. It made acquiring information much easier at times.

But in this case, the disappearance of the twins had left both of them as angry as they had ever been. They had not been in the mood to make things easy.

Allow me, Jophiel gently advised her partner.  Stepping away from the man’s host, she gave the figure a pointed look before returning her gaze to him. “Somehow, I think you may know more than you’re saying. The twins did, after all, disappear from Crossroads grounds.”

“And yet,” Manakel easily replied, “what I said holds true. You know everything that I do about what happened to those children. Unless Sinclaire is holding her cards particularly close to her chest, everyone there is equally clueless. It seems that no one on either side has the faintest idea where Sariel’s spawn have scampered off to. It–” He chuckled a little. “It’s really almost amusing, if you stop and think about it. Here we’ve all been fighting over the two of them almost since their existence was revealed, and now… poof. They’ve disappeared.”

“I’m not laughing,” Jophiel informed the man flatly. “If what you’re saying is true… then who took them? That implies that some other force has the ability to pluck people straight from Crossroads without our being able to either stop them, or find any trace afterward. Speaking plainly, I would prefer that it be you stepping out of line.”

Accepting that with a faint nod, Manakel offered, “Have you tried speaking with Amitiel on the subject? He could know more.”

Despite the situation, Jophiel found herself giving the man a tight-lipped smile. “This wouldn’t be your way of sniffing for clues to Amitiel’s current host or mission, would it?”

Amitiel, known to the ancient Greek humans as Hermes, and to the Romans as Mercury, was one of the most stealth-minded Seosten among all of the Olympians. His ability to remain undetected despite intensive efforts to locate him surpassed even Sariel when she had been loyal, and he often engaged in long-term undercover assignments that could take him out of contact for years, or even decades in certain situations.

Jophiel and Elisabet knew who he was, as part of the Seosten woman’s position as head of Crossroads operations. As did her counterpart who had been embedded in Eden’s Garden, Cahethal/Demeter. Yet, Jophiel was fairly certain that they were the only ones on Earth who were aware of his current host and what he was doing. And that list didn’t get much longer even when the rest of the universe was brought in.

Manakel’s smile was unabashed. “You can hardly blame me for trying, can you? He is, after all, insufferable about his little secrets. It would be nice to put one over on him for once.”

“You’ll have to play your games on your own time,” Jophiel informed him. “Or, you could find out where Sariel’s children are so that I don’t rip your heart from your chest and force you to use it as your next culinary experiment.”

“I assure you,” Manakel replied, “if I come across any information as to their whereabouts, I will be very certain to inform you immediately.”

“See that you do.” Pausing after that, Jophiel looked to the man. “And as far as Kushiel and Puriel’s child goes, have you found her yet?”

Manakel’s head shook once, the annoyance that he had to answer that in the negative as well clear in his expression before he masked it. “No. And you know that they hate it when you call her that.”

“She does,” Jophiel corrected him. “Puriel is the only reason the girl isn’t still in one of her mother’s labs. Or that her existence is known to us at all.”

Manakel chuckled, his voice dark. “You’re not suggesting that the old captain actually cares for a Lie?”

“I am suggesting,” Jophiel retorted, “no more or less than I have outright stated. Without Puriel’s personal intervention, the Lie would not have been made available for this mission. And speaking of this mission, you seem to be presenting more problems than you are solutions since your arrival. Your spy, the Isaac monster, has gone dark. You lost the pixie. You lost the Lie. And now Sariel’s children have vanished. Tell me, Lord of the Underworld, what have you accomplished here, precisely? Do feel free to embellish. I’d like a reason not to spend my afternoon explaining to Metatron why it was necessary to remove you from your position.”

“You want to know everything I’ve been doing,” Manakel guessed, lifting his chin. “That’s why you went to one of my mercenary groups, to double-check what I’m about to tell you.”

Jophiel gave him a humorless smile. “The only thing you’re wrong about is the assumption that I only went to one of your mercenary bands. News of the others simply hasn’t reached you yet. And, it won’t. I’d prefer you not know which lies are safe to keep and which I already know about.”

With a simple wave, she summoned two comfortable chairs, perching herself in one before reaching down. By the time her hand was low enough, there was already a small table there with a glass of iced tea waiting.

“So please, start at the beginning. Perhaps we’ll find out if any of your manipulations could have led to the Moon children disappearing.”

She continued in a tone that was no less dangerous than it had been upon on her arrival, her disdain for the man patently obvious. “And if I might offer you the same advice I gave to one of your people back there…

“Be thorough.”

******

And that was no more helpful than anything else we’ve done today, Jophiel noted later, as the joined pair stood at the edge of a waterfall somewhere deep in the middle of the Crossroads Island jungle. Their fist tightened. If something happened to those children…

It wasn’t just about their long-running, subtle efforts to convince their leadership of the benefits behind a true Seosten-Human partnership. They had also grown to genuinely care for Vanessa Moon in the time that they had been secretly protecting her from being abducted for testing, even if the girl herself remained completely unaware of their existence. They were proud of her accomplishments, despite the fact that she would have seen them as enemies of her and her family. The thought that she and her twin might be under the ‘care’ of that unhinged…

Elisabet interrupted her thoughts. You know what we must check next, my beautiful sianame.

Groaning inwardly, Jophiel lamented, I have no desire to see that place again.

You and I both, Elisabet agreed. But if she has ignored higher orders and taken them anyway…

With a sigh, Jophiel agreed. Turning their hand intangible, she reached into their body to retrieve the key from its place on their rib cage. With a wave of their hand, she created a simple door there in front of them. Activating the key, she used it and they stepped through.

*******

Even for someone as powerful and connected as Jophiel was, gaining access to Kushiel’s lab was no simple matter. There were politics involved, and layers of secrets as to its location. Days came and went while she and Elisabet alternated between Earth and Seosten space working their way through everything necessary for them to get there for what she called an inspection. And each day that went by convinced them more and more that Kushiel had somehow bypassed the chain of command to take those children.

Finally, after Jophiel and Elisabet had long-since passed the point of patience, their request was granted. Going through a series of at least seven portals and various security measures, they eventually  found themselves standing in a banquet room with three figures waiting.

“Kushiel,” Jophiel started while focusing on the lone female figure, who sat at the head of the table. “Was there a reunion that I was not invited to?“

Kushiel’s companions both looked to one another. Radueriel, who had been Hephaestus on Earth, stood. His voice was amicable. “Reunion is perhaps a most apt word for it, my lovely fake wife.”

“Yup,” Abbadon/Ares confirmed. Radueriel’s own true lover, despite Lucifer’s stories, rose alongside his husband. The tallest and most physically imposing of the Olympians, Abbadon stood a solid seven feet, two inches tall. His body was solid muscle that would have made the most roided up bodybuilder back on Earth weep from inadequacy. “One great big reunion.”

Watching the three of them carefully, Jophiel asked, “What, precisely, does that mean?”

Even as she asked that, an alarm began to blare from nearby, while a voice from an intercom spoke of arriving unknown spaceships. In response to that, a shark-like smile spread across Kushiel’s face.

“It means, my dear, that you should stick around for awhile.

“Our company has arrived.”

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Mini-Interlude 50 – Jophiel And Elisabet

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Well, that would be one complete and utter waste of time out of the way, Elisabet silently announced while leaving the room where she and the other Crossroads Committee members had just finished yet another discussion. Just in time for the next one.

The ‘discussion’, such as it was, had been three hours of arguing over what they could possibly do about the disappearance of Felicity Chambers and the other students, and everything else that stemmed from that. Mostly it had amounted to little more than talking in circles. As usual.

Jophiel, the Seosten once called Aphrodite in the days of the Olympians, chuckled in equal silence, her amusement audible only to herself and her beloved human, her sianame.

Sianame. Pronounced See-Aw-Naw-May, it wasn’t a Seosten word. Nor was it a human word. In truth, the term originated from a race known as the Beventreist, who had been conquered by the Seosten over five thousand years earlier, back when Jophiel had been barely a new recruit. The Beventreist had believed in reincarnation, and sianame were two souls who were bonded for all eternity. In some lifetimes they would be lovers, in others they would be parent and child, best friends, business partners through world-changing endeavors, or even, in some cases, mortal enemies. Generation after generation, sianame would be brought together in various ways, often the most important part of each other’s lives, for good or for ill.

Jophiel didn’t believe in reincarnation, save for the Pooka or similar variety. But she did appreciate a good romantic story. And, as far as she was concerned, Elisabet was her sianame. Her soulmate, in Earth terms.

Yes, she replied easily, but if nothing else, at least our next appointment is an excuse to visit home.

She felt Elisabet’s agreement. The two of them had been connected for so long that their minds almost ran concurrently in many cases. At times it was almost difficult to separate out which of them was responsible for which thought.

Sí, her human partner replied. We do not have such opportunities nearly enough, lately.

There was no actual discussion between the two of them about when Elisabet would stop controlling her own body and when Jophiel would take over. There was no need for such a discussion. They simply knew each other so well that the moment the two of them were halfway down the hall away from the Committee’s meeting room, Elisabet stopped walking and Jophiel started, all in the course of the same step. No one watching would have been able to pinpoint the moment that it happened, regardless of how closely they were watching.

Taking over in mid-step while allowing her host to slip into that comfortable, familiar position in the back of her own mind, Jophiel cast their shared senses out. The odds of them being followed or observed were miniscule, but it was best to make absolutely certain.

Nothing. She could sense no one, even with more than a two dozen powers meant to ferret out anyone who might be invisible or remotely observing them somehow. They were not being watched.

Satisfied, Jophiel turned to a nearby door. The room on the other side didn’t matter. The door was simply the means to an end. Facing it, she held up one of Elisabet’s hands and focused on it until the hand turned semi-translucent, like that of a ghost. Carefully, she then reached into their own chest, using their ghost-like hand to go right through flesh, muscle, and bone without causing any actual damage.

Carefully, the Seosten woman found a small object secured to the side of one of their ribs. At a touch and thought, the object itself turned insubstantial as well, allowing her to take hold of it. A moment later, she withdrew their hand, revealing the object clutched between two fingers: a key.

Returning their hand and the key to solid form, Jophiel ran two fingers over the small metal object. It looked so simple, like an ordinary brass key that had been used on Earth hundreds of years earlier. Yet, it was so much more. As her fingers ran over it, the key read her DNA signature. Small runes began to glow red on it, and a single word of power made the rusty old brass metal gleam a bright blue.

Without another word, Jophiel pushed the key toward the door. As it approached the much smaller lock, meant for one of the tiny, far more modern versions, the key itself shrank and shifted its end so that it would fit easily.

Slipping the key into the lock, the Seosten woman uttered one more command phrase before turning it. There was a musical chime, and as she withdrew the key and opened the door, an almost blindingly bright white light had replaced whatever had normally been on the other side of it.

She stepped through. Instantly, the two of them felt the effect of the light. Combination magic and technology, it scanned their every single molecule. Every atom of their body and of everything they were bringing with them was given a thorough examination. They were checked for anything that could be a threat, knowing or not. Any magical effect, any bit of Fomorian biological trickery, anything out of the ordinary.

Once it was over, the light faded and they were standing, as expected, in a simple metal room that was only slightly bigger than an ordinary prison cell. All along the ceiling and floor were were dozens of tiny red crystals which, if they had been any kind of threat, would have immediately detonated with force roughly equivalent to the so-called Tsar Bomba, a fifty megaton nuclear weapon that had been detonated by the Soviets on Earth. All of it concentrated within a single room barely sixteen feet wide by twelve feet long.

That wasn’t the only safety measure. After the detonation, this particular room would have been vented into space and immediately shunted through a portal into the middle of a star several months journey away.

Luckily, none of that happened. Unfortunately, it was also far from the only security measure. It took another twenty minutes before the requirements were satisfied. Finally, however, they emerged from the room into a long, tube-shaped corridor. The walls, made of a clear material similar to but much stronger than glass, revealed the open starfield beyond. They had come to a space station, one of many that orbited the world below.

As she stepped into the tube, Jophiel glanced that way, to the planet visible through the clear wall. Her eyes took in the splendor that was her home. Her true home. Elohim. The cradle of the Seosten civilization.

A combination of eleven oceans and innumerable lakes and rivers covered almost seventy-five percent of the planet’s surface. But that was pretty much where the superficial similarities with Earth ended. While humanity’s home held seven major continents, the largest landmass on Elohim was only about as large as Earth’s Australia. The vast majority of the Seosten homeworld’s landmass was taken up by intricate island chains. There were thousands of them, islands which ranged from small enough to throw a rock across, to islands that were almost a thousand miles across. Most of those islands formed a sort of spiral through the ocean, surrounding that single Australia-sized continent.

They had been one single continent at one point, the only one on the planet, surrounded by ocean. Then the cataclysm had happened. Cronus had happened. By the time he was gone, the bulk of the continent had been broken up into these islands, and it had been this way for the past several hundred thousand years.

The majority of the islands were physically connected in various ways, mostly through underwater tubes allowing rapid transit, but also through above-water bridges. Entire cities that would make Earth’s largest metropolises look tiny had been made to take up many islands to the point that it was sometimes hard to tell that they were separate islands, through all the buildings that had been constructed between them.

It was, in the end, home. And Jophiel loved seeing it every time. Coming back roughly once a year wasn’t enough. She wanted the war to be over. She wanted… a lot of things. Mostly she wanted the Fomorian threat to be ended so that the Seosten could move on and become true partners with humanity and the other races. Once the threat of extinction had been eliminated, true growth could happen. But not until then.

The world was also protected by one of the largest fleets in the Seosten armada. First, there were six Letum-class destroyers. Each was just under fifteen kilometers long, and individually held enough firepower to level most worlds, an army of over fifty thousand ground troops of various species, and almost three hundred fighter-sized spacecraft.

Backing them up were ten Cunae-class carriers, each of which held another hundred starfighters, and two dozen more ships of mixed varieties ranging from simple patrol craft that were barely larger than an Earth passenger airliner, up to the three Diruo-class ships. Those were only a few kilometers shorter than their Letum-class older brothers, and packed even more firepower at the expense of not carrying any fighter craft and only a token force of ground troops. At their core, the Diruo were essentially giant metal circles with a bridge and a few other compartments in the center, surrounded by hundreds of cannons and other guns that pointed in every direction. Engines at each primary compass point and in the top and bottom ensured that the Diruo ships could travel in every direction as needed.   

In all, the Elohim fleet would demolish anything that got near to the Seosten home planet. Not that such a thing was at all likely, considering the amount of other defenses surrounding the entire system. But still, where the Fomorians were concerned, it was best to be prepared.

“Jophiel.” The voice came from the end of the tube corridor, drawing her attention toward the two figures there. One, the speaker appeared to be an elderly man of what would be considered Caucasian ethnicity on Earth. His face lined with wrinkles and the majority of his hair had long-since fallen out. He was old, very old, even by Seosten standards.

Beside the old man stood a figure who could have been mistaken as his granddaughter. She appeared to be, at most, nine or ten years old, with short black hair cut into a pixie style and innocent blue eyes. Neither were in host bodies. These were their personal, true forms.

“Metatron,” Jophiel greeted the man first, giving him a bow of respect before turning her attention to his diminutive companion, bowing to her as well. “Chayyiel.”

She bowed to both, because each were her superior, in many ways. They were members of the Seraphim, the Seosten version of what humans would think of as a senate. While Metatron had never actually been to Earth as far as she was aware, he had been the Seraphim in charge of it from this end of the Seosten Empire since they had found the planet in the first place.

Chayyiel, on the other hand… she had been on Earth for quite some time before coming back here to join the Seraphim. Her apparent young age was even more deceptive than most of the Seosten, as though she was the youngest of the Olympians, she was still multiple thousands of years old. 

On Earth, Chayyiel had portrayed the Olympian known as Hestia. She was also the single strongest warrior that Jophiel had ever personally seen, and was within the top ten strongest Seosten who had ever lived. Jophiel had only seen one being who was capable of besting Chayyiel in single combat: the so-called once and future king, Arthur Pendragon.

It had been Puriel’s betrayal of Chayyiel’s trust, when he had interfered with her latest duel with the natural dragon-Heretic, that had made her leave Earth. What had been intended as a personal battle, meant for only the two of them, had turned into a full-scale assault. Puriel had dropped a literal army on top of Arthur, and in the end… in the end Arthur was no longer a threat.

Chayyiel, however, had taken the hit against her honor personally, and swore that if Puriel ever tried to give her another order, she would kill him. Leaving Earth, she had returned to Seosten-controlled space, quickly making her way to the ranks of the Seraphim.

Thankfully, she seemed to bear Jophiel herself no ill will. Now, she simply returned the other woman’s bow without speaking.

“Would you care to leave your host and stretch your legs?” Metatron asked, as he always did, even though her answer was always the same.

“I’m fine,” Jophiel replied. There was no way that she would ever abandon her Elisabet here. Despite protocol, there was entirely too high of a chance that her sianame would be possessed by another Seosten, and that… that was something she couldn’t allow to happen.

“Very well,” the elderly Seosten announced with a simple nod before turning on his heel. “Come then, we need to discuss what exactly happened down there that could have led to Charmiene’s death. Many of the Seraph are calling for the Earth experiment to be ended, and for us to take a more… direct role in their lives, as we do with every other race.”

“What led to Charmiene’s death was Charmiene’s stupidity,” Jophiel informed him flatly while starting to follow. “She died because she had to show off, and gave the humans time to get in a lucky shot. She indulged herself, and paid for her arrogance. And those are the same Seraph who try to end our work with the humans every time someone sneezes funny.”

“Still,” Chayyiel finally spoke as she took up the rear, walking behind Jophiel and Metatron, “we must provide answers to them. Answers that will not offend Charmiene’s Choir, or their allies.”

Inwardly, Jophiel sighed. This is going to be incredibly long and boring. I don’t suppose you might want to take over again so I can take another nap?

Elisabet’s only response was a deliberate snoring noise.

******

Literal hours later, Jophiel finally emerged from the shuttle that had brought her down to the planet’s surface. It had to be a shuttle, as no teleportation was allowed to penetrate the shields that surrounded Elohim’s atmosphere.

Quietly, she descended the platform where the shuttle had landed. The city that they were in was called Parestai. It was, in many respects, quite similar to the city of Venice on Earth. Situated over a half dozen small islands, with so many buildings and bridges connecting them that it was difficult to tell at a glance that they were separate islands, Parestai was beautiful. Its architecture, like most Seosten, was decidedly Earth Roman, with lots of pillars, arches, and marble. Gondola-like boats roamed the waterways, and there were more visible animal mounts and carts than there were motorized vehicles. Parestai was a simple, quiet city, a place for personal reflection and meditation.

Walking the short distance to a narrow alleyway between buildings, Jophiel moved about halfway down the alley before reaching what appeared to be a blank adobe wall. Setting her hand against it, she murmured the passcode.

Immediately, a previously-invisible door appeared, swinging open to allow them admittance to Jophiel’s private home.

Some of the former Olympians preferred far more elaborate affairs for their homes. Puriel and Kushiel had an entire island to themselves, an enormous mansion full of servants. Not that the former Hera spent much time there. Kushiel had her experiments and prisoners to focus on. Puriel however… well, he had never been the same after the mishap with that banishment orb. Jophiel would be surprised if the man ever left his home.

In all, most of the Seosten known as the Olympians had massive, grand homes fit for kings, spread throughout the Empire. But Jophiel didn’t care about that. This small, hidden apartment on the island that she loved so much was enough. Because it was a place where she and Elisabet could be themselves, without worrying about pretenses or being seen.

As the door closed behind them, Jophiel finally stepped out of the body she had been inhabiting. Emerging and stretching out there in what humans would call the foyer of her home, she turned toward Elisabet. Smiling at the Spanish woman, Jophiel stepped in to kiss her tenderly.

The two stood together, embracing while sharing that kiss for several long, beautiful seconds. Eventually, they separated, and Jophiel gestured. “That could have been worse. At least we have a couple days here before we have to go back.”

Elisabet chuckled, nodding. “It could have been much worse, yes. Though…” Pausing, she sighed. “You know that some of them aren’t going to stop pushing for the full, violent take-over of Earth. They think that all humans should be treated the way they treat Heretics out here.”

Jophiel winced, reaching out to touch her beloved’s face. “We don’t all treat you that way, even out here.”

Elisabet reached up, tenderly touching the Seosten woman’s hand to hold it there against her own cheek. “Enough do,” she replied. “They don’t see us as partners. They see us as… clothes, suits of armor and weapons to be worn and discarded as needed.”

She wasn’t wrong, Jophiel knew. There weren’t many here at the heart of the Seosten Empire, of course. But out on the actual Fomorian frontlines, Heretic bodies were used the same way humans on Earth used tanks and other weapons of war. Particularly powerful Heretic bodies were given to high ranking Seosten, while even younger, newer Heretics were given to those who had proven themselves in some way. Hell, a lot of Heretic bodies were used interchangeably, passed back and forth between multiple Seosten in a garrison. Still others were essentially sold or at least rented in what amounted to a marketplace, where their Seosten owners would detail what the Heretics were capable of and allow their potential buyers to take them out for a ‘test drive’.

They were a commodity to many, no more important than a car, or, as Elisabet had said, a suit of armor.

“You know what the best way of stopping that is,” Jophiel reminded the other woman.

“Yes,” Elisabet replied simply, “ending the Bystander Effect.”

Ending the Bystander Effect. It was a goal that both of them longed for, but one that seemed almost impossible to achieve safely given the current climate. Sure, there were many who were in favor of its elimination. But those same proponents also wanted to do that simply so that the Seosten could take over completely and openly, which would just lead to all humans being treated the same way that so many of the abducted Heretics were treated out on the war front.

No, they needed to end it, but in a way that convinced enough of the Seraphim that humanity and the Seosten should be partners in this war. If they could just make them understand that the key to beating the Fomorians was a true human-Seosten alliance, where they were equal partners…

Unfortunately, that particular goal seemed to be a long way off. It was, however, part of the reason that Jophiel had made certain that her people did nothing about the Hybrid offspring of Sariel and Haiden Moon. Once she had found out about them, she had worked to keep Vanessa Moon’s existence as quiet as possible, and had convinced her superiors to adopt a hands-off policy, to see what happened. She had been forced to call in favors, make threats, and outright bluff to keep the girl out of Kushiel’s hands. But in the end, her own authority had been respected, and Vanessa had been left alone to grow up.

After that moment of contemplative silence, Elisabet asked, “Do you think Radueriel will find Chambers and the others?”

“Find? Yes,” Jophiel replied. “Capture… that might be more difficult. Especially now that they have joined up with Sariel’s mate and her former host. And quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure who I should be rooting for in that particular confrontation.”

Elisabet gave a soft chuckle at that. “The more power the Chambers girl gains out here, the more likely she will be able to free her mother from the necromancer. And if Joselyn Atherby is freed, she may be returned to power. Which would–”

“–Restart the rebellion,” Jophiel finished. Then she smiled. “Precisely. Which is another opportunity to convince the Seraphim that humanity’s true potential is in being partners with the Seosten, not slaves to them.”

“What we really need,” Elisabet reminded her, “is an example, something we can point to and show that human-Seosten partnerships are possible. We–”

“I can’t tell them about us, Lissy,” Jophiel interrupted, shaking her head. “I won’t risk it. I won’t risk losing you. But… if Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion returns, maybe… maybe we can point the Aelaestiam toward them this time, the way we planned before.”

The Aelaestiam were, essentially, a Seosten version of the Atherby rebellion. They were a small group of Seosten who believed that hosts should be treated fairly, that the Seosten Empire was wrong, that the ends did not justify the means. Jophiel and Elisabet disagreed with them on that last point, but they could still be useful in many ways. They also would have been wiped out long ago, if it wasn’t for their leader. Auriel, the woman who had portrayed Athena on Earth. She had taken up their cause, and it was her tactical prowess that kept the Aelaestiam from being completely erased, and had even led to certain key victories. Not enough to be a true threat to the Empire, of course. But enough to remain a relevant nuisance.

Jophiel and Elisabet had planned on linking Auriel’s Aelaestiam and Atherby’s rebellion while Joselyn was still a major threat, providing the tragically outnumbered Seosten underground with potentially incredibly powerful Heretic host bodies.

Done the right way, with a delicate touch, it could have shown the Seraphim that Seosten-Heretic partnerships would be vastly stronger than an enslaved Heretic. Unfortunately, Joselyn had been captured before that was possible, and there had been too many eyes on what was going on for Jophiel to risk making any kind of move. Now, however, if Felicity could free her mother and restart that rebellion… it was worth considering.

“Come, my love,” Jophiel finally announced, shaking off those thoughts while while taking the other woman’s hand. “Let’s eat, and watch the sunset. There will be time to worry about all this later. Right now, all I want to do is be with you.”

Returning her smile, Elisabet started to nod, only to stop as a beep from the nearby wall terminal interrupted them.

Jophiel seriously considered not answering. But in the end, her sense of duty was too strong. Sighing, she squeezed her partner’s hand lightly before possessing her once more. It wouldn’t do for whoever was on the other side of the call to see them separated.

Hitting the button on the wall terminal to accept the connection, she watched as Chayyiel’s seemingly eternally child-like face appeared.

“You’re needed,” she announced flatly. “Manakel’s human spy has made contact.” Her distaste at the word ‘spy’ was readily apparent. “As you happen to be here rather than on Earth, Radueriel has requested your presence.”

“Made contact?” Jophiel raised one of Elisabet’s eyebrows at that. “You mean the one called Isaac, of course. He left his companions then?”

“No,” Chayyiel replied, “but he says that they have a way of erasing the spell that protects the identity of Manakel’s host. He has been instructed to prevent that from happening, at all costs. Whether he succeeds or not, Radueriel has asked that you speak with him in person. He would like to know everything you know about these humans, as his attempts to capture them have been… unfruitful.”

Once more, Jophiel had to resist the urge to sigh heavily. “Very well,” she replied, with an inward apology to her love. This was too important to brush off.

“Send the shuttle.”

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