Larees

Interlude 39A -Doug, Larees, and Sulan

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As Professor Dare escorted him with the Seosten named Larees up toward the private booth where his Great-Great Grandfather Sulan was, Douglas Frey stole a glance at the woman beside him. He still didn’t know what to make of her, or the… good Seosten in general.

Actually, he was still honestly coming to terms with the fact that there could be good Strangers at all. Growing up the way that he had, it seemed pretty unthinkable. Especially after he’d seen the things that the Whispers made his family and friends do. He knew it wasn’t fair, since there were plenty of examples of evil humans, but still. He’d had very little experience with good Strangers, and his entire life had been built around them being evil.

It was a lot to take in and adapt to, basically.

Noticing him looking at her, Larees gave him a sidelong glance. “You okay, kid?” There was the faintest note of a challenge in her voice, but it seemed more like habit than anything else. Doug had to figure that growing up in the kind of society she apparently had, and then spending a bunch of years in a prison torture lab pretty much guaranteed that she’d be a little touchy about being stared at.

He nodded quickly, rubbing his hand over his hair with the now familiar naked sensation of missing his hat. “Yeah, yeah. I was just wondering if you and Sulan’ll be able to figure out anything about those Whisper things.”

They were on the stairs leading up to the private booths, and the woman stopped briefly. “I hope so. Because I’ve got to tell you, from what you’ve said, there’s something really fucking weird going on there.”

Professor Dare, who had stopped just a bit about them, smiled faintly. “Very weird indeed. But I’m sure that Sulan would like to be part of this conversation.”

So, they continued, heading up to an unmarked door before their escort knocked twice. There was the sound of a lock being disengaged, and then it was opened.

The man standing on the other side was instantly familiar to Doug. He was decidedly not a tall or muscular man, standing only at five foot eight with a rather thin body type. The hair on his head and the neatly trimmed full beard on his face were both silver-gray, while his eyes were a pale blue that still sparkled with kindness.

Those same eyes lit up when he saw his great-great grandson, and the man immediately embraced him tightly, his thin form belying his true strength.

Immediately returning the hug, Doug held on tight, resisting the urge to whimper at the familiar feeling of love and protection. “Hey, Grandpa Sulan.”

“Hey yourself, Commando,” Sulan teased Doug with the nickname he had given him as a very small child who liked to run around with toy guns. “Heard you’ve been pretty busy this year.”

His voice lowered then, as his face sobered. “Sorry about your friend. That… that shouldn’t have happened.”

Flinching, Doug nodded. His voice was quiet. “Yeah, it shouldn’t have. But hey, at least it gave them a great excuse for this party.” His hand gestured forward, past his grandfather and to the main room where this whole circus was taking place.

Everyone winced, and Professor Dare was the first to respond. “It may seem incredibly gauche and wrong, but for the most part, they at least believe they’re doing something good here. They want to remember Rudolph as—”

“They didn’t even know him,” Douglas snapped despite himself. His hand was clenched. “Most of them never met him and now they’re going to stand up there and talk about how his death is a tragedy but hey, at least we beat the bad guys? We didn’t beat the bad guys. Not really. The bad guys are still there. The bad guys are everywhere. The bad guys are probably some of the people up there talking about how great it was that we beat them when we didn’t!

“The problem isn’t just that they didn’t know Rudolph. The problem isn’t just that they’re celebrating when there’s nothing to celebrate. The problem is that there are people up there who are pretending to be on our side when they’re not. The problem is that Rudolph was murdered and some of the people responsible for him dying are probably up on that stage pretending they give a shit!”

Wow, that had kind of come out of nowhere. Realizing that he had actually said all that out loud, Doug finally snapped his mouth shut and flushed a little while holding his arms across his stomach. He was very glad in that moment that the booths were privacy protected. And, of course, beyond that, he knew that Dare at least had privacy spells running.

Sulan spoke quietly then. “You’re right. It’s a really shitty situation. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t. Sometimes you just have to accept that there’s shit and keep going. And trust me, with the Seosten involved, you end up dealing with a lot of shit.” He paused then, eyes moving up to Larees. “No offense to you in particular. But, you know… a lot of your people can be pretty bad.”

Doug thought he saw a tiny smirk on the woman’s face briefly before she inclined her head. “You’ll get no argument from me on that.” Her flask came out again, and she took a gulp before offering it to the man.

Sulan took it, and just as Doug started to warn him, took a drink from it. The boy started to wince, but his grandfather showed no ill effects. He paused, looking down at the flask in his hand before swallowing fully. Tilting his head curiously, Sulan took another brief swig before handing it back. “Good stuff,” was his only comment.

Grinning, Larees replied, “I knew I was gonna like you.”

They exchanged greetings and introductions finally, before moving into the booth to sit down. Dare excused herself for the time being, leaving the three of them to talk.

Doug only looked toward the stage for a few seconds before turning away. “I don’t need to see this,” he muttered before adding, “Can we do something productive instead?”

Nodding once, Larees addressed Sulan. “Your descendent already told us some of what happened back then, all of what he can remember anyway. But he was young and it was traumatic. Maybe you could… ehh, start at the beginning and explain things from your point of view?”

So Sulan did so. He explained how the two of them had been exploring the tombs on their colony world when they had accidentally released the invisible, mostly intangible entities that they came to call the Whispers, and how those beings had taken to literally whispering in the ears of their victims to drive them crazy and somehow control their actions so that they would do horrific things.

Larees shook her head, frowning a little. “They weren’t actually possessing people. So what were they doing? Mind control? Maybe something about their whispering lowers the target’s mental defenses to create an opening that the creature can then exploit.”

Sulan agreed. “That’s about the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with. Make sense given what we’ve seen of them. Not that we’ve seen them outside that world. Believe me, it’s under pretty heavy quarantine to make sure those things, whatever they are, don’t get out.”

“Not to mention,” Doug pointed out, “certain people probably don’t want the spells that block out the Whispers and also happen to block possession getting out there. I can see sorta see the Seosten having a bit of a vested interest in keeping that quiet, you know?”

Larees idly noted, “Which raises the question of why you were able to come here knowing everything you do. Something like that, our people would have definitely known at least something about it. And they would’ve tested it. I’m surprised they didn’t just annihilate the entire world to keep those spells from getting out, or at least…” Realizing what she was saying, the woman coughed. “Sorry.”

“Or at least killed everyone who was there,” Sulan finished for her. “Yeah, you can thank Counselor Percival for that, actually. He was something of an old friend even then. I called him when it happened, and he showed up with the cavalry. He also made damn sure that they couldn’t hush it up. He already knew about the Seosten. Not how ingrained they were, or that they were behind Crossroads from the start. But enough that he knew there were people he couldn’t trust. And enough to know that they’d be trying to silence and erase something like that. So he made sure they couldn’t, involved too many people, made it too much of a big deal. And he got me banished.”

Starting a bit, Doug blinked at that. “Got you banished?”

Sulan shrugged. “Yeah, well, I would’ve been a pretty big target for possession at that point. I am the one, the actual Heretic, who released those things and who knew the most about them. They would’ve come right after me. And if I was in one place with what was left of my family, they would’ve gone after you guys.”

Larees understood. “So this Percival had you disgraced and banished from your world in order to protect you and your family. They had no one they could use to get close to you, and you had reason to always keep moving. You had no world tying you down. And since you were disgraced and a laughing stock, they didn’t have to worry about you exposing them if you knew anything. No one would believe you.”

Doug’s mouth open and shut a couple of times as he looked back and forth between them. “He ruined your name and got you banished from us to protect you?”

Sulan nodded. “And to protect you, and your brother, and your mother. The three of you were all I had left after all that. And those bastards would have used you to get to me. Dragging my name in the trash and getting me exiled, that was the best way to keep everyone safe, and it was something the Seosten wouldn’t object to. Actually, I kinda wonder if they thought it was their idea, to be honest.”

Larees snorted at that, taking another drink from her flask before passing it to the man. “I guarantee you that one of us somewhere took credit for it.”

Doug was slowly shaking his head. “But that means that you knew a lot more about this for a long time. You knew that there were good Strangers, didn’t you? You knew that this whole place is full of shit. That Percival guy, you’ve been working with him. You knew all this already. But you still let me come here.”

Sulan nodded once more, putting the flask to his lips to take a brief pull before handing it back to Larees. “Yeah, I didn’t exactly want to thrust all this on you in your first year here. I kinda wanted you to just be a student and learn how to fight for a while before you had to know all of this. Maybe that was stupid. But I didn’t want you to have this shoved down on you this quick. After everything that happened when you were a kid… maybe I just wanted to let you be about as normal of a student as this place allows. Besides, Percy knew that Sinclair would be there for you.”

The man sighed softly. “And, like I said, we didn’t know that Crossroads was this infiltrated until somewhat recently. We didn’t know it was dirty from the very beginning. We knew there were some Seosten in there, they wouldn’t be able to resist. But the whole thing being started by them? That was news, let me tell you.”

Doug was quiet for minute. He looked to the front, his eyes facing one of the boring, worthless congratulatory speeches, but he wasn’t listening. His mind wandered, thinking through everything that had happened.

Finally, he sighed and looked back that way. “I know you were trying to protect me. And what happened this year wasn’t your fault. Mom and Jerek still don’t know?”

“No,” Sulan confirmed. “I didn’t want to involve them in this. Your mom is fine with just being a vet, and Jerek doesn’t really have the temperament for it either. Let them just keep being who they are. There’s no need to put a target on their backs.”

Doug couldn’t exactly disagree with that, so he bit his lip before nodding. “Yeah. They’re okay where they are. It’s not like the Seosten are going to be taking over a lot of people on some backwater world, I guess. Just enough to make sure the spells stay quiet. And that would just be the leadership, probably.”

Smiling, Sulan reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “You’re a smart kid, you know that?”

Looking over to him, Doug replied, “Smart enough to notice that you didn’t really answer the question about how I got chosen to come to the school and all that.”

With a tiny, guilty smile, Sulan nodded. “I might’ve had something to do with getting Percy to pull a couple strings for that,” he admitted. Sobering then, the man looked to his great-great grandson seriously. “I am sorry about your friend. I can’t tell you how much I wish I was there. How much I wish anyone was there who could’ve stopped it.”

Doug took his hand and squeezed it, unable to trust his voice. He missed Rudolph. He was glad Sulan was there and that he’d gotten a few answers. But he still messed his friend and teammate. He just wanted Rudolph to be alive. Or failing that, he wanted to get away from all this bullshit from people who didn’t know the first thing about the boy they were supposed to be memorializing.

Finally, he spoke up again, unable to stand listening to any more of the speeches. “You’re going to teach them how to use the spells, right? Larees and Sariel and… um, Theia.”

The man nodded. “I’m going to do a lot more than that, actually. I haven’t just been sitting on my hands or running errands for Percival these past few years. I’ve been researching those ruins we found, looking for others like them, worlds that might have some connections to them. It’s hard to really look that deep into it, since I don’t know how close attention the Seosten are paying attention to me. But I’ve learned a bit and found a couple promising leads. With their help, maybe we can turn that into something.”

Larees spoke up then. “Believe me, if there’s any information we can share that will end up fucking over the Empire, you’ve got it. I don’t know how much we’ll be able to figure out, but we’ll give it a shot. And we’ll stick a knife in those bastards while we’re at it. But just so you know, it’s probably going to be Sariel who does most of the research stuff with you. That’s not really my thing. When you have somebody that I can go and hit or, you know, immolate, that’s my thing.”

“I’ll go back to the camp with you when all this is over,” Sulan promised. “I’d like to meet this Sariel.” He paused then before adding, “I’d like to meet her kids too, actually. They sound pretty interesting.”

The words made Doug pause, a realization coming to him as he looked over to Larees. “Hey, from everything that they’ve said, or what I’ve heard anyway, Vanessa and Tristan were kind of a big surprise. Like your people didn’t know that they could have hybrid kids with humans.”

The woman nodded. “That’s very much news to me, and I guarantee it’s news to most others. That’s not something they could keep secret or quiet if it got out to too many people.” Realizing the obviousness of what she had just said, she coughed with a gesture. “You know what I mean. If any of them know about it, it’s not very many.”

“But isn’t that weird?” Doug persisted. “I mean, you guys have been here for a few thousand years now, and Sariel is the first and only one who’s had a kid with a human?” He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling awkward. It was a sensitive subject, he knew. Especially given everything that Larees had been through in that lab. Still, he had to say it.

“I mean, it just seems implausible that it hasn’t come up before now. And if it came up before now, like you said, it would’ve gotten out. It kind of seems like the only way your people would keep thinking that humans couldn’t breed with you is if…”

Larees’ voice was flat and cold. “Is if someone made sure those pregnancies failed and the only reason Sariel’s didn’t is because she wasn’t with the Empire at the time.”

All three of them were silent then, none of them really knowing what to say to that. It was a silence of mounting horror at the implications. And Doug felt sick to his stomach, almost wishing then that he hadn’t said anything at all. Yet he knew that given the choice again, he would still bring it up. Because truths, no matter how uncomfortable, were how things got fixed. Ignoring things just because they made you feel bad was stupid, and it was how terrible things stayed terrible.

Sulan was the first to find his voice. “Maybe we should watch the next speaker here.”

“What?” Doug blinked. “But they’re all just saying stupid bullshit.” Yet when he looked to the stage, he saw not some random person who didn’t know or care one bit about the real Rudolph, but Gaia herself. The woman paused there on the stage and seemed to look directly toward Doug for a moment.

“Trust me, Commando,” Sulan murmured.

“This one you’re going to want to hear.”

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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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Interlude 38B – Larees

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Larees, of the Tleken Choir, born on the fifth moon of Quoleinis, stared in awe and reverence at the item cradled in both of her hands. “This,” she announced firmly,  “is definitely your species’ greatest achievement, the pinnacle of your entire civilization’s growth out of the mud caves.”

“That,” Lincoln Chambers informed her with a raised eyebrow, “is a taco. With atomic fire sauce. Which you have… drenched said taco with. Are you sure you’re okay like that?”

The two of them were standing out by the lake as they watched Tabbris, Kaste, and a couple of the Seosten former prisoners playing with the toddlers in the water nearby.

In answer to the question, the Seosten woman took an enormous bite from the thick taco. A rumble of intense pleasure started in the back of her throat while she chewed rapidly. “Mmmph. Taco. That’s good. Just a little kick.” She took another bite, making equally pleased noises.

Lincoln shook his head in amusement, glancing from her to the kids splashing around under that close supervision. “Clearly we need to find you some spicier sauce.”

“Yes,” Larees agreed. “It could be hotter. I like it when my food fights back sometimes. Make eating a challenge.” She was  grinning as she said it, finishing the taco with the next bite.

She still seemed hungry, so Lincoln handed her the one he had been holding, along with the bottle of sauce. The woman proceeded to drench that one as well, quickly scarfing it down. Once she was finished with the second taco, Larees took a metal flask from her belt, twisting the top off before downing a long pull. “Ahhhh.” She made a soft sound of contentment while rocking back on her heels slightly. “Now that’s good shit.” She offered him the flask then.

Lincoln started to wave it off, before pausing. After considering briefly, he took the flask and gave it a brief, curious sniff. “The more I talk to you, the less surprised I am by the idea that you took a swing at your commanding officer for trying to make you slaughter a city of innocents.”

“Took a swing at, my ass,” Larees retorted. “I kicked that pompous shit-brain up and down the hallway. They had to pull me off of him. Why the hell would I stop at just taking a swing at him? They’d call it treason either way, so go big or go home. If I was going to be thrown into prison, I was damn well going in for breaking that irrumator’s arm, nose, and whatever the fuck else I could get my hands on. Took a swing at? Yeah, and fucking connected too.”

Lincoln shook his head in wonder. “I guess it’s like they say, might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. And yeah, absolutely not surprised by any of that.” As he spoke, the man took another sniff of the flask before tentatively sipping just a little bit. Instantly, he started coughing, eyes widening a bit as he sputtered at how strong the alcohol was.

Grinning, Larees gave him a couple hard slaps on the back. “There, see? That’s a real drink. Have another, it’ll wake you up and make you see colors that you didn’t even know existed.”

“I think one was enough,” Lincoln demurred while coughing another couple of times, head shaking in wonder. “Tell you one thing though, if I had hay fever that would’ve knocked it right out of me. Wow. I’m surprised you can stand up right now,  you’ve been drinking that all day.”

Smirking, the woman took the flask back from him and took another sip from it, smacking her lips a couple times. “Just gotta get used to it, build up a tolerance over a few hundred years.”

Lincoln started to say that he’d get right on that, when the pair were interrupted by Berlin, the young-looking portal-creating man with red hair and bright orange eyes. His species, the Abeonas, created the so-called ‘foldjump’ spots that allowed rapid travel all over the continent. Berlin had apparently worked for a group of not-particularly-nice smugglers before Joselyn had killed all of them except for him, sparing Berlin because he had been unaware that what they were smuggling had been child slaves. After dealing with all that, Jos had convinced him to turn over a new leaf to help people.

“Okay, okay,” the man started as soon as he was close enough for them to hear, “tell me you know where Gabriel is, or Misty and her brother. Or Enguerrand. Or–”

“What’s going on?” Lincoln immediately asked. “Gabriel had some kind of errand to run. Misty and Duncan are getting supplies. Enguerrand’s not back from wherever he’s been for the past week and a half.”

“Fils de pute,” Berlin muttered. “I’ll have to grab one of the combat teachers, or see if–”

“What?” Larees was frowning, clearly confused. “Is the camp in some kind of danger? Are the-”

“We’re fine,” the Abeonas man assured her, distractedly. “But one of the refugee groups I was supposed to grab and bring back here ran into trouble. I managed to grab most of them. They’re being debriefed and everything back there.” His hand waved vaguely over his shoulder. “But there’s a couple that ran into an old junkyard. They’re hiding, but there’s Heretics in there. Pretty sure I can’t get them out without help. But you know, who the hell around here is going to be crazy enough to volunteer to distract a couple full-power Bosch Heretics like that? You’d have to…”

He trailed off at the look on Larees’ face, a slow cheshire smile that was accompanied by a slow, deliberate chuckle, her words equal parts soft and yet dangerous.

“Distract? Oh… I think I can manage a distraction.”

*******

“Spread out!” Three Heretics stood at the entrance into the junkyard. Two males, one female. The first male and female had waited, watching the garbage-filled lot beyond until their commander, the other male, arrived to give that order. “They’re still in here somewhere. Find the monsters, put them down. We do a full sweep today, you understand? Nothing gets out to terrorize any more innocent people.”

“Now that… that’s funny.” Stepping around a large pile of broken appliances, Larees put herself into plain view in front of the three Heretics, turning her head from one side to the other to crack her neck as she regarded them. Her hands were empty save for the metal flask, which she took a sip from. “See, I didn’t expect you to say something I could agree with like that. But here we are. Nothing gets out of here to terrorize any more innocent people?  Yeah, sounds good to me.”

The trio of Heretics looked to one another briefly before spreading out from one another. Each produced a weapon. The female held a tri-barreled shotgun, her male partner a trident, and their commander held a thin rapier in one hand and a chain with a blade on the end in the other.

“Crossroads?” the female asked, watching Larees carefully. “What do you want?”

“She’s not Crossroads,” their leader informed the others tersely. “Never heard of anyone over there with that kind of tattoo. Maybe a Natural, or an Undocs. Either way, she’s hostile.”

Larees, meanwhile, simply stood there in plain sight. She watched them, taking a brief swig from her flask before announcing, “I made a promise to someone before I came here. I said I’d give you one chance to run away like the cowards you are. Tuck your tails and flee and I’ll let you live. Which is a hell of a lot more of a chance than you would have given your victims.”

“Ignore her,” the leader announced. “She’s a distraction. Put her down and move on. Same thing stands. Nothing gets out of here. We kill the threat, no matter what it looks or sounds like.”

“Fuck it.” Shrugging, Larees let the flask fall back into its spot at her belt. “I did my part, gave you a chance. You want to keep going, that’s your funeral.” Cracking her knuckles, the woman asked, “You wanna do this one at a time, or all at–”

Her answer came instantly, as all three of the Heretics came for her. The woman took two quick steps forward before lifting that shotgun. At the same time, both males went to either side before rushing to fill the spots that Larees would have to move to in order to avoid being shot. As the shotgun snapped into place, a deafening roar filled the air, even as an enormous ball of fire in the shape of a dragon’s head emerged from the barrels. The fireball flew at Larees, expanding to a solid eight feet in diameter, the roar of the gun sounding like that of the dragon that the enormous burning orb had taken the shape of.

Meanwhile, the male Heretic on her left flicked a hand up, summoning a wall of earth out of the ground. At the same time, the other male Heretic created a powerful glowing forcefield to take up the space on that side. Together, they trapped Larees so that she had nowhere to go, leaving an opening just large enough for that ball of dragon-fire to incinerate her.

The fire roared and spun within the confines of the shields that had been erected, growing stronger and more violent, a miniature sun that the Heretics had to shield their eyes from. They were leaving nothing to chance. Whatever that woman was, she would be destroyed by the purging flames, with nothing more than ashes left where she had stood.

Or so they expected. So it should have been. But it was not to be. As the flames began to fade, the heat and blinding light dissipating to reveal the interior of that forcefield and rock prison. And there, standing in the middle of the scorched and blackened earth, was the woman, unharmed.

She stood there, one hand touching the strange phoenix tattoo that adorned her face. The tattoo itself was glowing, the blue-green light illuminating her face like a small flame.

“Good,” Larees spoke flatly, “now it’s my turn.”

“Take her down!” the lead Heretic blurted, already sending his bladed chain that way. It extended to much longer than it should have been, a greenish gas cloud seeping out of it. At the same time, the female thrust an arm out, sending a powerful blast of energy from her palm. And on the other side of Larees, the remaining male Heretic broke the rock wall he had summoned from the ground into a dozen balls. Metal spikes grew from those balls as he flung them at her.

The glow of that blue-green tattoo suddenly grew much brighter, as the image on the woman’s face seemed to emerge, forming not only the head, but a complete, fully three-dimensional glowing creature directly in front of her. In an instant, the fiery phoenix grew half as large as the woman herself, giving a powerful shriek as its wings snapping outward to send blue-ish flames in every direction. The force of its powerful wing-thrust knocked the incoming chain to one side, while the flying spike-balls were sent back the way they had come.

The energy blast from the woman, meanwhile, was simply absorbed by the creature. It seemed to suddenly glow brighter, eyes blazing with fury as it sent the same blast it had absorbed back out once more in a beam from its eyes that took the Heretic woman in the chest and sent her flying backward with a cry.

While the woman was knocked backward, Larees spun toward the leader of this little group. Even as the man yanked his chain back, she was already running toward him. Meanwhile, the fiery bird that had been her tattoo (it had disappeared from her face to assume the solid form it had now) focused on the second man, flying at him with a loud, challenging cry.

The Heretic leader reacted instantly, as Larees ran for him. He suddenly grew to twice his normal size, his skin covering itself in metal. At the same time, the thin rapier that he held transformed into a much larger weapon, the blade growing and extending itself as he swung it at her with enough force to cleave through solid steel.

At the last possible instant, Larees spun sideways to let the blade careen past her, missing by only an inch before it slammed into the ground. A foot deep, eight foot long and eight inch wide crevasse stretched out along the dirt where the sword had impacted, even as a cloud of dirt was sent into the air.

Then the woman simply stopped. She skidded to a halt and stood there, eyes glancing toward the blade in the ground so close to her. Raising one eyebrow, she lifted the flask from her belt, taking a sip while asking, “That the best you got?”

In the background, the Heretic leader could see his female companion slowly picking herself off the ground, her clothes and face burned but healing. Meanwhile, his other partner was having problems dealing with that firebird she had somehow created, stumbling back and forth while the creature filled the air with flames that somehow seemed dangerous despite the heat and fire resistance that all of them possessed. Magical flames.

He needed to finish this, now. To that end, the man summoned another of his powers, sending an intensely blue beam straight out of his eyes. The beam would freeze anything it touched. If this… whatever she was wanted to play with fire, he would counter her with cold.

Except she wasn’t there. One instant, the woman had been standing right there. But in the next, even as the freezing blast from his eyes turned the ground where their attacker had been into a solid sheet of ice, she was gone. Superspeed of some kind, obviously.

“You know what?” She was talking again, from where she had stopped barely a couple feet away. “I’m just going to say it.” That flask was at her lips again, as she took a swig before smacking her lips. “I’m not really impressed so far. I mean, are you just not used to someone who fights back? Would you like it better if I was a defenseless little girl so you could feel like a big strong hero when you murder me? Is that the problem?”

With a growl of anger, the man snapped his chain back, intent on making the bladed end cut straight into her back. But again, Larees was too fast. She ducked just before the chain would have struck her, letting it pass over her back before abruptly straightening up with the flask pressed to her mouth once again.

“Whooo!” the woman declared, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of the dark blue shirt that she wore. “Now that is refreshing. But uhh, you know…” She blinked rapidly a few times. “I’ve got a really good tolerance to this stuff, but it’s pretty strong.” Pointing at him with the flask, she blurted, “Hey, I know. How’s about you let me finish this off. If I drink enough of it, maybe I’ll pass out. I bet you could win a fight with me then!”

Belatedly, she seemed to reconsider, making a hmm-ing noise in the back of her throat while indecisively moving her head back and forth. “Ehhhh… fifty-fifty shot. With unconscious me.”

At that exact second, the female Heretic arrived. She had split her shotgun apart and folded the pieces out into two blades, which she drove at the woman’s back… only for Larees to easily twist out of the way once more.

She stood there, turned sideways to see both of her opponents. “Well,” the woman murmured while dropping the flask back to its spot on her belt, “maybe this could be interesting after all.”

Both Heretics came at her then, full-strength. They were in perfect unison, their weapons singing through the air like a symphony. They had practiced working together like this thousands of times, and the evidence was in their cooperation.

More than once, only Larees’ Seosten boost saved her life. Yet, even that wasn’t enough to avoid everything. She dodged and avoided the absolute worst of their attacks, but a few got through. She took a deep cut across one arm, another in her leg. Finally, a lucky blow to her side put her in just the right position for the metal-armored man to backhand her with his solid-steel fist. Larees reacted quickly enough to snap her head back away from most, but not all of it. And even the glancing hit was enough to make her see stars as she was flung sidelong to crash into the dirt. That was quickly followed up by a kick from the female Heretic that spun her up and over, falling once more, even harder that time.

“Okay,” the Seosten grunted while spitting blood, “maybe a seventy percent chance you could beat unconscious me.”

“Enough!” The bellowed word came from the metal-covered man, who strode forward while summoning a forcefield to cover Larees. She was forced down once more, flat on her stomach against the ground with only a small opening right at the small of her back that was just large enough for the man to drive that sword of his straight down through her.

He was right there, weapon raised to do just that as the woman abruptly whistled sharply. The sound filled the air, and both Heretics abruptly remembered their companion… and his own enemy.

Their eyes snapped that way, in time to see their badly burned partner stumble to one knee. His right arm had been entirely severed, and lay in a charred heap nearby. But they didn’t have time to help him, because the blue-green phoenix was right there. Its rage-filled scream briefly deafened the pair, even as the heat and light from its flames forced them to stumble backward, shielding their eyes.

It faded quickly, but by that point, the firebird had destroyed the forcefield that was holding Larees against the ground. As the Heretics focused once more, blinking through the fading blaze of light, they saw the fiery creature hover beside the now-standing woman.

Then it merged with her. Attaching itself to Larees’ back, the bird’s body sank into her, until only its wings remained. They were hers then, enormous flaming wings that stretched out to either side before tucking themselves in against her back.

“Kill her now!” the metal-man bellowed, already suiting action to words as he went at her with all the speed and strength he could muster. His body was a blur of motion, the sword cleaving the air as he sought to finally end this problem.

But Larees was fast too. Even more so now when she was merged with her firebird. Her boost was stronger and lasted longer. She launched herself off the ground like a bolt of lightning, flames trailing around her as she shot at the man.

At the last instant, the Seosten twisted up and over so that she passed just above the lunging man’s head. Her hand snapped down to brush against his shoulder.

And then she was inside him. She felt his confusion as she brought his body to a halt, instantly crushing his resistance, standing right there.

“Verdediger?” the woman, standing there with confusion, asked. She had stopped short upon seeing their opponent disappear, and now looked uncertain.

Slowly, Larees made her new host look up at his companion. At a thought, his memories were hers to read. She saw his bloodlust. She saw the innocents he had killed, all while believing himself to be doing the right thing. These three had the blood of hundreds on their hands between them. She saw no chance of reasoning with them, no chance that they would stop what they had been doing.

She had promised Lincoln Chambers that she would try. And she had. But this was a lost cause. They were too devoted, too taken by their own power. The three could have let those that had fled into this junkyard escape, yet they would not. They enjoyed the hunt, enjoyed their targets,  be they actual threats or… fleeing, frightened civilians.

They did not believe civilians existed. To these three, there could only ever be monsters. And nothing that Larees saw in this mind gave her any idea that it could ever change.

“Okay,” she said with this man, Verdediger’s mouth, “I gave it a shot.”

The second man, still missing his arm, had picked himself up by then. He and the female Heretic stood there, confusion written across their features.

That confusion turned to shock, as Larees summoned her wings once more. They grew from her host’s back, extending to their full, fiery length. The steel-man floated up from the ground with a single flap of those burning wings, hovering with sword in hand.

“Now I guess we’ll just end this.”

******

“God damn.” A short time later, Berlin stood there, right in the entrance to the junkyard. He was surveying the resulting carnage, orange eyes skimming over the trio of bodies. “When you deal with a situation, you don’t play around.”

Larees, back in her own body, shook her head while taking a gulp from her flask. Sighing in satisfaction, she looked toward her phoenix, which had separated from her to hover there nearby. “Okay, Ustrina. Time to sleep.”

Obediently, the bird flew closer. Shrinking down as it approached, the phoenix turned back into its simple head-shape before merging with Larees. A moment later, the tattoo of the firebird’s head was back on her face, as if it had never left.

Blinking twice as that was done, the woman finally focused on Berlin. “The civilians? You get them out?”

“Y-yeah, yeah, they’re good,” he confirmed. “Ready to take you home now. Hey, that… thing, how’d you get that? The fire… tattoo… thing. That’s a weird power.”

“It’s magic,” she informed him. “Rare magic. Hard magic. Only those who are part of a certain… group are allowed to learn it. You learn the spell, and the animal that you tattoo to yourself becomes your partner. It becomes a piece of yourself. You give it life, and it will aid you. Ustrina has been a part of me for… a long time.”

“Gotta be part of the club, huh?” Berlin lamented. “Guess that means you won’t teach me.”

With a little smirk, Larees shrugged. “You never know. I can tell you a little more about it, at least. In exchange for…”

“For?” Perking up a bit, the man raised an eyebrow curiously.

“You can take us to many places, yes?” When Berlin nodded to that, Larees’ smile grew, and she walked to the man to put one arm around his shoulder. “Eximious. I will tell you more of this magic, and you can take us to where they make the best.”

“The best what?” Berlin, blinking a couple times as the woman led him out of the junkyard, asked.

“Tacos, amicus bonus meus,” Larees answered with a broad grin.

“Take me to the tacos.”

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Convalescence 38-08

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Eventually, Shiori (who had very quickly been protected by the dibs spell, of course) and I managed to extricate ourselves and Sahveniah from the room so that Avalon could get some sleep. She put on a brave face and was, of course, incredibly stubborn about it. But I could tell that even just sitting there eating food with us had taken a lot out of her. It was going to take some time for her to recover. Which was made abundantly clear by the fact that she didn’t really argue that much about it.

The three of us stepped outside of the cabin in time to see that the others had apparently already met the remaining kids. The three Seosten toddlers, Tabbris, and Theia were all there with Columbus, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Koren.

Of course, my very first thought was that if one of these guys got possessed, even accidentally, by one of the toddlers, it could be pretty bad. But even as my mouth opened to call out to them, Tabbris saw me and waved to show that everything was okay. She mimed writing a spell, and I realized she had apparently copied the dibs protection onto these guys as well.  

I should’ve known that my little sister wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Hell, I’d done the same thing with Shiori back in the room, just to make sure little Savvy didn’t end up… well, just to make sure very bad things didn’t happen. And now that my reflexive worry was dealt with, I could actually focus on what the others were doing.

Because I apparently had not yet had my fill of weaponized adorableness, Grisiniel, the brown-haired boy, was currently hanging from Sean’s outstretched arm, making squealing sound as the boy raised and lowered it. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the red-haired Penemue was doing pretty much the same thing with Scout and Koren as they kept raising and lowering him by his hands, bouncing him up in the air and then down again.

And to put the cherry on top of the cute sundae, the other girl, Kemetiel, was sitting on Vulcan’s back. She was actually riding him around in a circle as if he was a horse.

I almost would have believed that this entire thing had been some big elaborate plot to kill me, because I seriously almost died just standing there watching that for a couple of seconds.

It was made even worse (read: better) a second later, as Savvy squirmed out of my arms and to the ground. With a happy squeal, the girl ran off to her friends, joining Kemetiel on Vulcan’s back. For his part, the cyberform dog proudly held his head high while trotting around in a circle with both of his riders.

I could see some of the camp inhabitants watching with curiosity. I had wondered if they would be afraid of the Seosten children. But while most did seem to at least be cautiously keeping their distance for the time being, I couldn’t see any outright hostility. Which made sense, considering they hadn’t been outright hostile to me, and the Alters on this world likely had more experience being hunted down and killed by Heretics rather than Seosten.

Besides, I couldn’t see how anyone could look at these kids for longer than three seconds and think that they were some kind of monsters.

As if in agreement with that, Columbus, who had been standing up away from the others, moved next to his sister. Lifting his chin, the boy murmured, “Well, they sure don’t look evil.”

“Right?” Looking over to the boy with that, I asked, “Did you get any sleep at all? We didn’t leave you that long ago.”

The boy’s response was a grunt before he shook his head. “I’ll sleep later. Right now, every time I close my eyes, I just see…”

He trailed off, but I knew. “Rudolph.” Saying the boy’s name, I sighed and lowered my head. “Yeah. I keep thinking about things we could have done differently, other choices that we could have made.”

“I should’ve been there.” Columbus’s voice was a bit hollow, showing me how much he had been dwelling on it. “I should have been the one who stayed behind to hold the zombies off. I could have done it without Sean, and if Manakel had still shown up, there would’ve been just me to put in that tube. He wouldn’t have had an extra to kill. Then all of us would still be alive right now.”

Shiori spoke up before I could say anything. “Or he just would have killed you anyway. We don’t know. Besides, Sean or I would’ve insisted on staying with you. Then one of us would’ve died.“

“I–” Columbus started before stopping. He sighed, lowering his head just look at the ground while murmuring, “I just didn’t want anyone to die.”

Before either Shiori or I could find anything to say to that, as if there was anything we could say that would matter, Theia approached along with Doug. Tabbris waved again and looked uncertain for a moment, but once I returned it and let her know I was fine, she stayed over with Scout, Sean, and Koren to keep entertaining the little ones.

“Good,” Theia started, “you’re here. Pace-I thought we should wait for you to test these Whisper spells.”

“Yeah,” the boy with her drawled, “and Doug-I agreed that waiting was a good idea.”

Briefly, I wondered how much of that was him wanting the rest of us have to see how well it worked, and how much with him being afraid that if it did work, Theia would run off with his favorite hat if he didn’t have someone around to stop her.

Either way, they were here now, and I nodded. “Well, I guess the easiest way to do it is just to put the hat on her head and see what happens?”

Making a face as if he couldn’t believe he was bringing it up, Columbus asked, “You don’t think it’ll just erase her or something, do you? I mean, we don’t know exactly how would the whole Lie thing works. If it shuts her out, but she can’t leave the body…”

Grimacing at that, I hesitated before shaking my head. “It didn’t do that to me when I possessed Scout before. It just let both of us control her body at the same time. Like one of those cars with steering wheel and pedals on both sides.”

“Yeah.” Columbus coughed. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve been a little more scientific and careful about that one to begin with.”

In the end, we left it up to Theia, and she chose to try it. So, Doug handed her his hat, though he looked a bit reluctant to let go of it. “If it works,” he started firmly, “we’re making you a different one. You don’t get to keep it.” He only let go of the hat once the girl nodded.

Still, she didn’t put it on yet. Instead, she stood there staring down at it and her hands before her head shook. “Not yet,” she announced firmly. “We want to wait for Miss Abigail. She should be here.”

Without turning around, I gestured behind myself. “Well, you’re in luck, because here she comes. With…” Turning to make sure, I nodded. “With Scott.”

Yeah, Scott and Abigail were approaching. The two had clearly been deep in conversation, but they stopped once they were close enough.

“I didn’t know there were children in that prison transport,” Abigail announced, nodding past us to where the kids were.

“None of us did,” I assured her. “Trust me, it was a surprise to everyone. Gaia and the others are working out which adults they can let out of the pods so we can try to get some answers about it.”

“They’re children.” I could hear the horror and revulsion in Abigail’s voice. “What could that… creature have meant to do with them at her lab here? What could she possibly–” She stopped herself then, unable or unwilling to continue that thought.

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath, “Kushiel being a monster isn’t exactly front-page news at this point.”

In what was obviously an effort to tear her thoughts away from that dark pit of despair, Abigail looked to Theia. “What’s this?”

So we explained, giving the quickest rundown we could. And once Abigail had some idea of what might be about to happen… Theia put the hat on.

For a second, I thought nothing had happened. The girl’s head simply tilted a little, and then she looked down at her hand. She stared at the hand for a moment before her mouth opened.

“I… I can… talk. My… hand. My my my my hah-hah-handuh. My hand. My mouth. Talk. Talk!”

Suddenly, she sprang over to wrap both arms around Doug, hugging the younger boy tightly while he gave a strangled yelp.

“Well,” I started with a little smile, “I guess that makes you Pace. The real Pace, I mean.”

Apparently my speaking up then meant that it was my turn for a hug, since Pace threw herself at me next. That was followed by a hug for Shiori and Columbus as well. The latter even managed to avoid pushing her away, though he did stiffen a bit.

Then it was Abigail’s turn. She received the longest, tightest hug of all. I saw Pace’s (and this time, it really was Pace) shoulders shake visibly as she clung to the woman who clearly meant so much to both Pace and the Seosten possessing her.

Giving a broad smile as she finally leaned back, the Hispanic girl announced, “It’s me.”

Immediately, her face shifted just a tiny bit. It was almost entirely unnoticeable unless you were really looking for it. “And Theia-me. We are both here. Share and share alike.”

“Oh…” Gasping in clear awe, Abigial put both hands on the side of Pace-Theia’s face. “My God. You can talk. You can… you can… it’s really you. Both of you.”

Shiori was staring. “Wow. Well, it’s good to finally meet you? This is kind of weird.”

“You’re telling me!” Pace blurted. “I haven’t been been able to talk, or raise my hand, or sneeze, or—wait.”

In mid-sentence, the girl turned away from us. She took a breath, then move three quick stops over before her hand snapped up to hold onto the hat. With that, she proceeded to do a quick, perfect one-handed cartwheel, followed by a side-flip. Finally, Pace simply jumped up and down, releasing the hat so that she could pump her arms in the air while squealing. She clearly didn’t care about attracting attention or looking ridiculous. Which… yeah, at that point, I wouldn’t have either. She’d been unable to control herself for so long, who cared if people were staring?

That was apparently the cue for the four Seosten toddlers, who all scrambled over to start jumping up and down together with Pace, even though they had no idea what was going on. That didn’t seem to affect their excitement one bit, as they continued jumping up and down while pumping their arms just like she was. To say it was adorable would have been beating a dead horse by that point, but still. It was.

Reaching down to pick up Kemetiel as she finally stopped jumping, Pace grinned. “You have no idea how good this feels right now. It’s amazing. It’s like being locked up for year and just now being able to stretch my legs. I can move, I can talk, I can turn my head because I want to turn my head! I can blink! See? Blink, blink, blink.”

Nearby, Columbus murmured, “I can imagine.” He paused then as if deciding how to broach the subject before asking, “Does this mean that you and… Theia are actually…”

“Working together now, yeah.” The girl confirmed it with a nod before her face shifted a little.

“We are partners,” Theia put in, before clearly relinquishing control back to Pace again.

Koren approached with the others, her eyebrow raised. “We leave you alone for five minutes, and you show up again with a herd of chibi Seosten?”

Scott spoke up then. “You think that’s bad, you should’ve seen what she got into when she was six and I left her alone in the bathroom for three minutes. There was–”

My hand snapped down, covering his mouth as I growled, “Not another word, you.”

There was confusion written across Koren’s face (and she wasn’t the only one) at that. But before we could explain anything, I blinked around with realization. The rest of the camp, the ones who had been watching carefully, had withdrawn a bit more. There were less faces, like they were even more nervous than they had been a minute earlier. It couldn’t have been the Seosten toddlers. They weren’t doing anything wrong. So what–

And then I realize the truth. The people weren’t keeping their distance from the kids. They were staying back from the portal nearby where Gaia, Sariel, Larees, and Gabriel had all just shown up, flanked by a half dozen adult Seosten. There were four males and two females. All seemed a bit dazed and taken aback by everything. They wore the same clingy jumpsuit thing that the toddlers and Tabbris wore, and were looking around in a vague state of confusion and uncertainty while they were led through the camp, toward where we were.

The tallest of the men, standing about three inches over six feet, looked like a more handsome version of Schwarzenegger as of the first Terminator movie. His body looked like it had been sculpted from steel, with incredibly defined muscles that were visible through that bodysuit. His short, dark-blonde hair and chiseled face were capped by these piercing blue eyes.

Yeah, Seosten were unbelievably gorgeous. That wasn’t exactly news. But still, this guy was something else.

Not that the others with him were exactly slouches. The other three men were less overtly muscular (two were more handsome in that boy band, androgynous sort of way), but still eye-catchingly attractive. As were the two females. One of the pair was my height, with short brown hair shaped into a crew cut, while the other was slightly taller than Avalon with very long blonde hair that was tied into a very tight braid that made me want to call her Rapunzel in my head.

The kids stopped laughing and jumping around when they saw the adults approaching. For a second, all four of them stayed completely still, just staring that way as they clustered together. I saw uncertainty written across their faces in that moment, as if they weren’t sure what was going on.

“It’s okay,” I heard Sariel announce to the other Seosten adults. “You can pick them up. You have my word, the spell will protect you from accidental possession. They’re your children.”

The reassurance was apparently all they needed. The Seosten moved to the toddlers. That big guy reached down, picking up Kemetiel with a look of wonder written across his face while she regarded him curiously. Beside him, the taller woman stepped up, raising a hand that shook nervously before she laid it against the girl’s hair.

Nearby, Penemue, the red-haired boy, was picked up by one of the other males who (of course) also had red hair. Next to him, the smaller woman had picked up Grisiniel, while one of the other males, who had the same sandy-brown hair as that boy, reached out to touch his shoulder and back in obvious disbelief that all of this was real.

Sahveniah, meanwhile, was approached and picked up to be held tightly by the remaining man. He was the shortest of all the males, though he still stood just a tiny bit under six feet. His skin and hair were as dark as hers, and he trembled a little before pulling her to himself.

Sariel had stopped near the rest of us, watching that reunion. Quietly, she nodded to the big guy and the taller woman. “Micah and Disetiel. Kemetiel is their daughter, though they’ve never met. None of them have ever actually met, actually, aside from perhaps passing in the hallway between cells and… well…”

She shook her head, moving on by looking toward the red-haired man with Penemu. “Forsenti. And the woman with Grisiniel is Xenaphiel. She is the mother of both boys there.”

“I take it the guy there with Sahveniah is her father,” I started with a nod that way. “But where’s her mother?”

“His name is Zadriek. And as to her mother…” Sariel paused before continuing. “If the records that we were able to dig up are to be believed, her mother is complicated.”

“Complicated?” Shiori echoed before I could say anything. “What kind of complicated?”

“The kind of complicated,” the woman answered, “where she was technically carried and birthed by an unidentified woman in Kushiel’s lab. But she was a surrogate. The actual mother, from whom the egg came… was Aletheia.”

Well, that made everyone’s eyes snap around. Especially Pace-Theia’s. She… or possibly they, as I could see both agreeing with that particular action, blurted, “What?”

“Not you,” Sariel started, “the original Aletheia. Somehow, Kushiel was able to obtain at least one of her… eggs, fertilized it, and placed it inside of the unidentified woman. Sahveniah, for all intents and purposes, is the original Aletheia’s daughter.”

“Wow…” I murmured the word under my breath, trailing off as I stared that way. “Wow.”

That same sentiment was basically shared by everyone, as we stood there, staring at the Seosten children and adults being reunited. Or, I supposed, just plain ‘united’, since they had never actually met before.

The dibs spell. This was because of the dibs spell. It was thanks to Sariel right here that these parents and kids could even be with each other like this. As far as I knew, most Seosten parents never had this kind of relationship with their children. They were shipped off to be raised by other dedicated schools, orphanages essentially, to avoid any kind of accidental possession problems. But now they could be with their kids. Because of that spell.

Wow. Just… wow. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

My mouth opened to say something else, when I noticed Scout. The girl was staring not at the kids, but at Sariel. She was staring in what looked like open wonder, while Sariel herself looked away with an expression of barely held regret and shame.

And then I remembered. Sariel was the one who had saved Scout from that Fomorian as a child, back on the boat. She had saved Scout. But in so doing, she had also taken Scout’s mother out of there. And, well, just how much the Fomorian being there in the first place was probably up to debate between everyone who felt guilty about it.

Complicated. That whole thing was complicated, and judging from the looks between both Scout and Sariel, they were going to need some privacy to talk it through.

But it wasn’t my business, so I looked to Gaia nearby. “What about the rest of the prisoners?”

The headmistress answered. “It will take time to go through them. But many will be able to be released, hopefully to stay here in the camp. Having so many Seosten to help bolster defenses and knowledge of the Empire itself will be invaluable in countless ways.”

She was right, of course. The kind of help that adding a bunch of loyal Seosten to the Atherby clan and having them actually work together would be incredible. But as Gaia had said, it would have to be done slowly and carefully. Because it was also something that could go wrong very easily.

“I see that you’ve tested it, then?” My attention was pulled away from those thoughts then, toward where Sariel was nodding toward the hat that Theia-Pace was still wearing. “And it…”

“Works,” they confirmed with a quick nod, before giving a broad smile. Pace, because it was clearly her, added, “I can talk. I can move. We have to share, but I can move. I can…” She shivered noticeably, before Theia took over.

“We must give it back. We will have our own as soon as possible. But we promised to give it back.”

“Uhhh…” Doug hesitated, looking torn before his head shook. “I can’t–damn it, you know what? Why don’t you keep it for now. Just for now. You uhh, you need it more than I do. Just until Grandpa Sulan gets here for the–” He stopped, clearly not wanting to finish that sentence. “Just until he gets here. Then he can help make something else, something just for you, okay? I can make them, but they’re temporary, not like… not like the hat. He’ll make you something you can have. And then I’ll want the hat back.”

For their part, Theia-Pace stared at the boy for a moment before giving a smile that was, again, clearly from both of them.

“Thank you, Douglas,” the two said in a voice that was singular, yet also somehow plural.

“I–” The boy flushed, shaking his head as he looked away. “Just don’t lose it.”

Everyone looked back to the rest of the Seosten then. By that point, some of the camp inhabitants had started to emerge, bolstered both by the sight of the parents with their children, and by the fact that Gabriel was there. They came closer, and I heard a few start to ask questions.

“You really don’t hold back, do you?” That was Scott, staring at me with those too-old eyes. “Look at all this. You’re just like your mom. Changing the world.”

My mouth opened, and then I paused. I thought about everything that was happening, everything that would happen.

I had no doubt that the Seosten would continue their efforts to either break into the vault themselves or use Avalon to do it. But this was the Atherby camp. She would be safe here, so that she could recover. The Seosten wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in this place.

She had time to rest. Time in which, with any luck, Larissa and the others would manage to make their way back to Earth. Because Dries would be with them, and if anyone could change the spell that his wife had stored in that vault, it was him. Especially with all the help he would have. With Dries and Avalon, we would get into the vault and find Liesje’s spell.

“Change the world?” I echoed, giving Scott a wink.

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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Convalescence 38-07

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Children.” The single, breathed word came from Sariel, as the woman stood there along with the rest of us as we stared down into that now-open pod. “Kushiel did have children in this group. There is no overt mention of them in the files that I skimmed through. They were… they were kept quiet somehow.” She sounded awed, unable to stop smiling as she looked at them.

In the background, I heard Larees muttering extensive Latin curses under her breath.

“I don’t know why,” I murmured under my breath, “but I never really put a lot of thought into that crazy bitch having access to little kids until this exact moment. And now I’m pretty horrified.”

“Trust me, puella,” Larees muttered somewhere behind me, “you don’t know the half of it. And you don’t want to.”

Gaia seemed just has taken aback as the rest of us. She stared for a moment before quietly announcing, “I do not care to imagine what that creature may have had in mind for these children, but I count myself relieved beyond measure that she will not have that opportunity.”

She would, and had, of course, have access to other children. But at least she didn’t have these ones. I was taking that as a win, and trying very hard not to dwell at all on the other part.

Tabbris turned then, looking around at the other pods. “Are their Mamas and Daddas in here?”

Gabriel was the first to respond, slowly nodding. “If the children were included in the transport as part of some kind of project, it would make sense to have the parents along as well.”

“Well,” I started then, “if they are, we should probably find out who they are, right?”  As I spoke, one of the kids, a boy with sandy brown hair, shifted a little. His mouth opened, and he made a soft sound that was half-yawn and half-squeak before his arm moved over one of the others. Seeing it made my heart flip over and it was all I could do not to instantly start cooing.

“They’ll wake up soon,” Theia observed quietly, clearly having seen the same thing I did. “And when they do, they might be scared. Confused. Lost.” There was something in her voice as she spoke, a sort of… tenderness that seemed alien compared to what I’d seen from her before. Seeing her like that, I kind of understood why Abigail was so protective of her.

Shaking that off, I looked over to the adults. “She’s right, you know. They’re about to wake up and have no idea where they are. We don’t even know what Kushiel told them, or… or how she treated them.” Even saying it, just bringing that up, made me feel sick to my stomach.

With a slightly shaking hand, Sariel reached out. Her fingers brushed through the hair of one of the sleeping kids, and she gave a faint nod. “Yes,” the woman murmured quietly while giving an absent smile. “They might be afraid and confused. But they will also be safe.”

“Safe.” Gaia echoed the word, giving a slight nod. “Yes. Yes, they will absolutely be safe. But we need to speak with the adults without the children first. We need to sort through everyone here, find out who can be let out and who should stay.”

Larees folded her arms against her stomach, looking a little sick as she agreed, “They shouldn’t be in here anyway. This whole place looks… screwed up.” She cast a glance around at the other pods then. “It’ll scare the shit out of them if you make them sit around watching while you open these things.”

Gaia nodded slowly, her eyes moving to me then. “I had intended for you to be a part of that opening process, Felicity. But perhaps, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Kid-wrangling?” I shrugged. “Sure, I can do that. I mean, we can.” I nodded toward Tabbris. “What do you say? You wanna help babysit some Seosten munchkins for awhile?”

She was already nodding even as Theia spoke up. “We will help with the children too,” she announced firmly with a single finger pointed to herself. She paused then, considering that before adding a second finger, still pointing at herself. Or rather, herself and the real Pace. “We.”

I wasn’t exactly sure how I should feel about someone of Theia’s… proclivities being around kids. But then again, she seemed different around kids. And I was reminded about the fact that she hadn’t given away Tabbris, even though she easily could have. She kept Tabbris secret, even though she could have used that bit of knowledge to help herself with Manakel. So yeah, maybe her being around kids wasn’t a bad idea after all. Besides, if I was judged just by the worst things that I did or only by the people I fought, they probably wouldn’t want me around children either. So maybe I should just put away the judgy for a little while.

From the silent looks the adults were exchanging, they seemed to be going through much the same process amongst themselves before coming to the same conclusion. Sariel nodded, still gently stroking the little girl’s pitch-black hair. “Yes, Theia. I think that’s a good idea.”

Larees seemed to want to stay away from the kids. For what reason, I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling it had something to do with her own being taken away. She moved over to the holographic terminal, busying herself reading through it.

The kids were squirming a little more by that point. The girl whose hair Sariel was stroking gave a wide yawn before leaning into the touch as her eyes blinked open sleepily. Beside her, the boy who had yawn-squeaked earlier shifted his backside a bit, bumping up against the other boy, one with curly reddish hair. That made the second boy sit up a bit, blinking around. A moment later, those three were all sitting up, which left only one, the smallest girl (whose skin and hair were both dark), still asleep. I could see the confusion written across all three of their faces as they took in their new surroundings and all the strangers that were around them.

Sariel took a knee, speaking quietly, in a gentle voice. It was a single word. “Salve.” Which, I knew from my lessons with both Tabbris and Athena, wasn’t her offering them some kind of medical treatment or something. Salve meant hello, basically.

The three kids shrank back a bit, before that sandy-haired boy offered a somewhat shaky, “S-salve.” Even as he spoke, the boy (who couldn’t have been older than three), squirmed around to put himself in front of the others. He said something else then, a series of words that came too fast and too shakily for me to follow all of. His vocabulary clearly wasn’t huge, but it was better than mine. I followed about every third or fourth word. From what I could tell, he was asking if they were in ‘the new place.’ And there was something about Mistress Kushiel in there. Which… eeesh. Even just the confirmation that these kids had been around Kushiel enough to know her name was enough to make my skin crawl horribly. I wanted a shower just from that.

Sariel responded, apparently assuring the boy and the others that they were safe. I, again, couldn’t catch all of it. Or even most of it. But it sounded like she was telling them that the mean lady was gone, promising all of them that they wouldn’t see her again.

And that was apparently all it took. The three were clambering out of the pod before any of us realized what they were doing. The boy managed to get himself up on the side, falling forward into Sariel’s arms with a loud laugh of delight. Meanwhile, the red-haired boy and the girl (whose hair was about the same as the first boy’s, that sandy-brown color), slipped over and out, dropping to the floor before giving a pair of loud squeals as they ran straight to where Gabriel was. Together, the two suddenly stopped short, blinking up at the tall man before making identical sounds of awe as they clasped hands together, their tiny figures dwarfed by him.

All three were making so much noise, babbling excitedly, that I couldn’t follow what they were saying at all. And I barely noticed that the fourth kid, the little black girl, had finally woken up. That was, I didn’t notice until I heard both Tabbris and Theia’s voices, and blinked that way to find the two of them crouched in front of the pod, holding a conversation with the girl in question.

Stepping that way, I moved beside my sister with a little smile as my hand found her shoulder. “And how’s this little one doing?” I asked as gently as I could, trying not to startle her. Still, her eyes darted to me, and she shrank back a little bit before blurting what sounded like a question.

Theia was the one who answered her, a short burst of words that sounded like she was reassuring the girl, promising that no one was going to hurt her. There was more to it, but that’s as much as I could keep up with. And Tabbris didn’t seem put off by what she said, so it couldn’t have been anything bad. As she heard it, the little girl seemed to calm down a bit. Her look of fear turned to one of curiosity, and she said something else, part of which sounded like ‘name’.

“This is Sahveniah,” Tabbris informed me before looking back to the girl while saying something else that sounded like an introduction, ending with ‘Flick’. She pointed to me, repeating, “Flick.”

The girl, Sahveniah, apparently, looked at me solemnly for a moment before her mouth widened into a gap-toothed smile that made my heart melt. “Fick!” she blurted, pointing to me. “Fick!”

Tabbris tried to correct her that it was Flick with an L, but the girl just kept giggling while repeating, “Fick, Fick!” She had gotten over her fear by then, squirming over to the edge of the pod to see what the other three were doing. Upon spotting them, she held both hands up. “Fick!”

“Up?” I asked with a tiny smile, making a gesture as though I was picking her off the pod. “Up?”

She blinked at me, then nodded. “Fick! Up! Up Fick! Up? Up?” She was dancing a bit eagerly back and forth, holding onto the edge of the pod for balance while giggling. “Up Fick. Quaeso?”

I knew that word. Please. So, I smiled. But before accepting her, I paused long enough to activate the dibs protection spell once more, just in case. There was no sense in having any accidents, after all. I didn’t know how good these kids were at controlling their powers yet.

Once I was suitably protected from any problems, I reached out and picked the little girl up from the pod. She clung to me as I held her, wrapping her arms around my neck as she gave me another gap-toothed smile. “Salve, Fick! Gratias, Fick.”

“You’re welcome,” I started, before considering. “Umm, it was… Nihil est?” I’d learned that one after a few days with Athena. It basically meant ‘it’s nothing’ and was the closest I knew.

She babbled something else that I didn’t follow, but quickly seemed to actually realize that I didn’t understand. Instead of continuing, the girl tilted her head thoughtfully. Her eyes examined me before she started again, a bit slower. That time, I understood a few words.

“Where are we?” I guessed, giving a quick look toward Theia and Tabbris. Getting a confirming nod from both of them, I looked back to Sahveniah. “Earth,” I started (though I didn’t know for certain that’s where this cave was, it still felt like the right answer). “Err, wait, it was… Rysthael?”

The dark-skinned girl made a noise of surprise, mouth falling open. God, it was adorable. Then again, by that point I was starting to think that this kid could’ve stood there reading the want ads from the paper and it would’ve been the single cutest thing ever.

After staring at me like that for a couple of seconds, Sahveniah repeated, “Rysthael?” When I nodded, she said it louder. “Rysthael!” She was bouncing up and down in my arms, chanting it.

Then the others started up. The boy in Sariel’s arms chanted it along with Sahveniah. And he was quickly followed by the other two. Both of them had clambered up Gabriel. The red-haired boy hung from the man’s arm, while the girl had climbed up onto his opposite shoulder and half-hung from it while tugging lightly at his ear with a look of curiosity. Both took up the chant.

Okay, apparently they knew what Rysthael was. I wondered how, or why. And why they seemed so excited by the prospect of being here. It was like having a bunch of kids in the car and telling them they were going to Disney World.

Gabriel, who seemed to be taking kids climbing all over him very much in stride, gestured with the arm that the boy was hanging off of. A portal appeared, shimmering in the air. “Ah, why don’t you and the others go ahead and take the little ones back to the camp, Felicity? They’ll be safe there, while we sort out the adults and decide what’s going on.”

Shifting Sahveniah in my arms, I nodded to the portal and asked, “Rysthael?”

“Rysthael!” she and the other three blurted.

That was enough for us. Sariel passed the sandy-haired boy to Theia, who took him solemnly. The other two were set down, each taking one of Tabbris’s hands. Then we went through the portal together, after getting a promise from Gaia and the others that they’d let us know what was going on once they had a better idea themselves. Together, we took our four charges back to the Atherby camp. I saw Larees glancing away from the terminal to look at us for a moment right as we passed through the portal. Then she turned back to what she was doing, a slight look of pain disappearing, replaced by anger in the second before we were gone.

******

As it turned out, the red-haired boy was the one named Penemue. The other boy was Grisiniel, and the second girl was Kemetiel. We’d managed to get that much out of them on the way through the camp, while the four kids looked around in absolute wonder. Every little thing they saw, they pointed at and babbled questions for. Questions that Theia and Tabbris answered as best as they could.

It was obvious that these kids hadn’t been outside of that horrible lab basically at all. Before we’d walked very far through the camp, all four of them wanted to get down, squirming and babbling. We let them, and they immediately dropped down to the dirt. As we watched, the kids ran their hands through it, scooping some up. Penemue tasted a bit, then made a face before tasting more.

“Oh, no, no.” Taking a knee there, I gently took the boy’s hands while shaking my head. “Uhh, non. Non.” Making a face as he looked at me, I mimed spitting out the dirt, shuddering. He giggled, so I played it up even more. That got all four of them laughing, and made them forget the dirt.

They didn’t forget everything else, however. As we walked through the camp, they had to pick up every little rock, every stick, every bit of grass. They were fascinated by everything, and carried on a continuous stream of comments that Tabbris and Theia responded to.

And then they saw the first of the camp inhabitants. At that particular moment, there weren’t many out. It was still early in the morning, right around the point where most of the people who were up at night had gone to bed or were on their way there, and before most of those who were awake during the day had gotten up.

But there were a few. And as soon as our little entourage saw them, they stopped short. Grisinel, the sandy-brown-haired boy, pointed toward one of the bird-like Lavinsi standing beside one of those enormous, incredibly corpulent beings that I had seen back on the Meregan world and subsequently learned was called a Guhlben.

As the boy stammered his way through a question about the two, he was just as quickly distracted by the sight of a centaur out for a morning jog. And then by something else. All of them were totally overwhelmed, heads whipping this way and that as they blurted questions excitedly, unable to contain themselves.

They were just so… curious about everything. And that did mean everything. The kids seemed equally interested in and fascinated by the trees, rocks, and nearby lake as they were by the people they saw. Their attention jumped back and forth.

“Hey guys,” I finally interrupted with a little smile, “I think maybe some food would be good? Food, umm…”

“Cibus,” Theia supplied, which Tabbris immediately nodded to.

“Cibus,” I repeated, getting the kids’ attention. “Cibus? Food?”

Well, they were excited about that. Immediately, the four toddlers started jumping up and down, repeating the word before launching into a long series that sounded like pleading about how hungry they were.

“Well,” I murmured, “I guess that answers that. Come on then. Let’s go see what we can find.” I started to step that way, only for Sahveniah to raise her arms in front of me. “Fick!” She blurted with that adorable smile. “Up, Fick?”

“Ohhh, what do you say?” I prompted, realizing that she didn’t understand me, but still playing it up. “Up? Can you say please? Umm, what was the… quaeso? Please? Quaeso?”

“Quaeso!” The girl eagerly repeated, head bobbing. “Up, Fick, Quaeso? Fick… Pease? Pease Quaeso Up? Pease Fick?”

Unable to help the laugh of delight that came then, I reached down to pick the girl up. She cheered, latching onto me tightly. And together, we walked to the large cabin that served as a mess hall.

The second we got inside to where the long, wide tables and benches were, the kids immediately reacted to the food they could smell. I heard Sahveniah’s stomach growl, and the others seemed just as hungry. I’d guessed right, apparently.

We got the four of them settled onto the bench at one of the tables, and I went to get food from the kitchen while the other two entertained them. We didn’t know what they’d like, but I figured the best idea would be to get a wide assortment of things and let them try a bit of everything.

And honestly, I kind of couldn’t wait to see how they reacted to pancakes.

******

The answer, as it turned out, was that they loved them. Pancakes, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast, juice, milk, and so on. Everything we put in front of the kids, they pretty much devoured. And they shared everything. It was adorable, the way they would pass food back and forth, chattering to each other about it. I couldn’t follow much of what they were saying, but it was obvious that the four (along with Theia and Tabbris) were carrying on a very intricate conversation about the food.

Oh, and Tabbris was pretty much the most popular girl ever. The younger kids kept bombarding her with questions throughout the meal, which she did her best to answer. I couldn’t follow everything they were talking about, but it was pretty obvious that they wanted to know all about her.

Eventually, once things had settled down a bit, I fixed up a plate for Avalon. She would probably be waking up soon, if she hadn’t already. Excusing myself for a moment after making sure that Tabbris and Theia would be okay with the kids, I headed for the door.

I didn’t get far, however, before feeling a tug on my leg. Sahveniah was there, gazing up at me with puppy eyes. “Fick?”

“Aww.” Smiling, I put my hand out. “You wanna come?” She took my hand eagerly, and we walked out together. More people were up by that point, and the girl kept chattering away, asking me questions that I barely followed part of. She did seem to know that I couldn’t really understand her, however, and when she really wanted to know something, she took the time to ask in very simple words, or just pointed and gestured until I understood.

Reaching Avalon’s cabin, we stepped inside to find the girl herself, sure enough, sitting up. She blinked at me, then at the girl holding my hand, then back to me.

“Chambers,” she started slowly, “if you tell me that it turns out you had another Seosten kid hanging out inside of you somehow…”

Coughing, I shook my head. “Uh, no, turns out there were a few little ones mixed into the batch of prisoners that we took from the transport. The other three are finishing up breakfast, so we thought we’d bring you some. This,” I nodded to the girl at my side, “is Sahveniah.”

“Savvy!” the girl herself chirped, pointing to herself, then at me. “Fick! Savvy. Fick.”

Avalon started to introduce herself, then paused and settled for, “Valley.” She repeated it, pointing to herself a little shakily. It was obvious that she wasn’t anywhere near full strength. Her face was still pale, and she was moving slowly.

“Vah-vah-lee. Valley,” Sahveniah, or Savvy apparently, repeated before giving a bright smile. “Voh-lee. Vah-Lee. Valley!” She moved closer, letting go of my hand before stopping at the side of Avalon’s bed. For a second, the girl started to go into a long bit neither of us understood, before stopping. Her head tilted as she considered her words very carefully, before pointing to Avalon and saying a word that kind of sounded like ‘ouch’.

“Ouch?” I echoed, moving next to her. “Valley hurt? Ouch?”

“Ouchuh,” she over-enunciated, her face solemn as she carefully asked. “Ouch?”

With a tiny, faint smile, Avalon shifted over on the bed. “I’m okay. Uggnn…”

Trying not to overreact, I carefully handed her the plate, then picked up Savvy and set her next to the older girl. “Well, I think someone wants to help you with your breakfast.”

“Bakefast!” Sahveniah chirped, before starting to point to things on the plate. “Toast. Toast. Egg. Puncake.”

“Pancake. Not puncake, pancake,” I corrected with a little smile. “Though I think you may have accidentally invented Shiori’s new favorite food.”  

Avalon took a bite, then looked to Savvy as the girl opened her mouth like a baby bird until the other girl put a forkful of pancake (or puncake) into it.

Sitting on the other side of the bed, I laughed at the sounds of delight that Sahveniah made while chewing the puncake. She looked up then, pointing at me. “Fick. Fick bakefast.”

“Oh, her too? Okay.” Avalon smirked a little, then took a forkful of food, offering it to me until I took it. For some reason, that made Savvy laugh, and she said something that I took as ‘do it again.’

So we did. I took another bite. We sat there, the three of us, sharing Avalon’s breakfast. We went through a few bites like that before my sense told me about someone approaching the door. From the items they had, I was pretty confident of who it was.

Sure enough, after knocking on the door and opening it when we called out for them to do so, Shiori was the one who stood on the other side. She stepped in, pausing briefly at the sight in front of her.

“Um. Did I miss something?” she asked curiously.

The three of us looked at each other, then I turned back that way while shaking my head. “Nope, you’re actually just in time for puncakes.”

Shiori pulled up a chair beside the bed. She introduced herself to Sahveniah, learning the other girl’s name in return. Together, we ate from Avalon’s plate (it was a good thing I’d had the foresight to put a lot on there), while listening to the little Seosten girl chatter away as she asked questions about… basically everything. She was so incredibly curious, wanting to know the words for every bit of food and everything else she could see.

I didn’t mind. And from what I could tell, neither did Shiori or Avalon. We answered the girl as well as we could, keeping her entertained through all of that. Honestly, as bad as things had been (especially with Rudolph’s death) and as bad as they still were in many ways… this? This wasn’t terrible.

Actually, it was pretty damn good.

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Convalescence 38-06

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“Yes, Theia, I am one hundred percent positive that Doug doesn’t want to be woken up at dawn after the night we all just had.” As I spoke those words, I was staring intently at the girl in question. “Believe me. The last thing he wants right now is for one of us to shake him awake demanding to borrow his hat and asking him questions about the magic spells on it.”

I had just given the girl a brief rundown about the runes on Doug’s hat, and how they had reacted when I possessed Scout while she was wearing it. After giving her the ten second explanation of where they’d come from, she had very nearly turned back the way we’d come to make a beeline straight for the boy in question before I’d quickly stopped her.

“You don’t know what kind of dreams he has for his fun time,” Theia informed me primly while folding her arms across her stomach. “Maybe that would tick off a few of his boxes.”

I started to retort, then caught myself. “I–okay gross. And let me put it this way, we can’t wake him up right now. I know you wanna see how that spell works with you and Pace, and I don’t blame you. Not one bit. But we can’t do it right now. I swear, as soon as it gets a bit later, we will. Okay? Cross my heart, I’m not going to forget our deal. That’s why I told you about it.”

Tabbris, who was still being careful to keep me between herself and Theia, piped up then. “I can show you what the symbols look like. But I dunno what order they’re drawn in or anything else, so we can’t use that to cast them. Only Doug knows how to do that.”

“Only Doug knows how to do what?” The voice came from Sariel, as the woman approached us. In the distance at the very end of the lake, I could see Gaia and Gabriel still standing there, having some kind of private conversation. Probably about those Seosten prisoners.

“Mama!” Tabbris bounded that way, leaping up to her mother’s arms before clinging as Sariel lifted her up into a tight hug. I could see a brief flash of euphoria cross the woman’s face as she held her daughter tight, nuzzling her hair briefly while murmuring something to her quietly.

That look, seeing mother and daughter embracing like that, just made me feel even worse about what had happened inside the hospital. I felt a brief flash of shame run through me again, as a hard lump formed in my throat. I couldn’t find my voice. How could I possibly say anything?

Forcing myself to look away, I ended up glancing toward Theia. She was staring at Sariel and Tabbris, an unreadable expression on her face. I had no idea what she was thinking, exactly, but it was obvious that she had some pretty strong feelings about what she was looking at.

“Felicity?” Sariel was looking at me, her expression curious while she held her daughter up, with Tabbris’s legs wrapped around her waist. “You were saying something about Doug?”

That brought me back around, and I coughed before nodding. “Right, Doug’s hat.” Briefly, I explained everything to her, telling the woman what he’d told us about where those symbols came from, as well as what had happened when we used them. It was basically the same thing I’d just told Theia a minute earlier, but with maybe a couple more details.

When I was done, Sariel continued to stare at me for a few long seconds as she wrapped her mind around it. “Whispers,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Beings trapped between universes that control people by talking to them… And those spells that Douglas Frey and his great-great-grandfather found allow them to be both seen, and stops their whispering.”

“And probably other things too,” I confirmed with a shrug. “Doug can tell you more about it, I just know the bullet points. But like I was telling Theia over there, we can’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Or, you know, I won’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Not after everything that just happened. Not after Rudolph–” Stopping myself then, I winced before finishing with a lame, “Doug’s earned a rest. I’m not disturbing him right now when it’s not an emergency.”

Sariel gave a slight nod at that. “Of course not,” she agreed readily. “We can wait for that. Let the boy sleep. Still, I am… curious about these so-called Whispers. And about these spells.”

“Do you think they could be other Seosten?” I asked, curiously. “I mean, Seosten from another universe. Or some kind of evolutionary split. Or… huh, there’s kind of a lot of options.”

Tabbris’s head bobbed quickly as she slipped down to stand beside her mother. “Uh huh,” she put in. “Um, maybe Cronus made them? Before he did… whatever he did with the Fomorians.”   

Right, we’d learned about the ancient pre-possession ability Seosten who had experimented on making a clone for his dying son and ended up creating Cronus. After that, things just got worse.

“Felicity is correct,” Sariel murmured softly, her voice sounding absent, as if her mind was mostly elsewhere. “These so-called Whispers could be many different things. They could come from Cronus, or something else… Perhaps they were–” She cut herself off abruptly, head giving a firm shake. “But we can think about that later. There are other things to focus on now.”  

The woman started to say something else, before blinking at Theia. She paused, visibly scanning the girl up and down before speaking quietly. “Well, hello, there. You’re… Theia, yes? Things were very busy before. We didn’t have much of a chance to actually meet.”

For Theia’s part, she was busy chewing on her fist so hard I could actually see blood. It was almost like she was trying to cram it into her mouth. The fist itself was clenched tight enough that the knuckles had turned white, and her arm visibly shook before she got it under control. Her voice, when she spoke, cracked just a little bit. “Yes, Theia-I am…” She paused briefly, as if just realizing that her speech-pattern had made answering the question redundant. “… Yes.”

“Theia.” Saying that name, Sariel paused before lifting her chin as she watched the girl’s reaction to her next words closely. “Abigail said that name was actually short for another.”

Theia nodded once. “Yes, Miss Abigail thought that the name Aletheia would be good. We thought it was too long, and would stand out as Seosten. Theia is shorter. And less obvious.”

Sariel raised an eyebrow at that. “Stand out as Seosten… does that mean that you don’t know who the original Aletheia was? When Abigail told me about your reaction to the name, I assumed that you rejected the full version out of some… loyalty to your mother.”

In that moment, Theia looked just as confused and curious as Tabbris and I did. All three of us were just staring at the woman. “Loyalty?” the girl in question echoed. “What would Kushiel have to do with this Aletheia? Theia-I have never heard of her. Miss Abigail said only that Apollo’s stories say she is the daughter of Zeus, devoted to truth. Theia-I was called a Lie. Miss Abigail thought the name of another daughter of Zeus, a name that meant truth, was… better.”

Kushiel, I noticed. She’d called the woman Kushiel, not ‘Mother’ or any derivative. That was interesting. I wondered briefly how long she’d been doing that, even just in her head.

She also wasn’t laughing and carrying on nearly as much as I was accustomed to. It was like being around Sariel had completely sobered her, as if she was in… awe or something. Or maybe it was seeing the way the woman interacted with her daughter. Either way, she was very clearly affected by it. And by the attention that Sariel was devoting to her right then. Although, to be fair, she had also seemed different from the moment that I’d seen her after she’d been taken in by Abigail. But still, this was something even more obvious than that.

For her part, Sariel took that in before slowly shaking her head with a darkly muttered, “Of course she wouldn’t tell you anything about that. She wouldn’t want you to know.”

“Wouldn’t want her to know what, Mama?” Tabbris was just as curious as Theia and I clearly were. Her eyes darted back and forth between the other girl and her mother.

Pausing briefly to collect her thoughts, Sariel began with, “Aletheia was a real person, a crew member on the Olympus.” A beat passed, before, “And she was Puriel’s lover.”

Okay, if I had been drinking anything just then, I would’ve spit it out. “His lover? His–what–but she’s his daughter in the myths. And yeah, I know ancient Greeks and Romans could be pretty screwed up. But–but–what? That doesn’t even–why would they–what?”

In response to that utterly incoherent rambling, Theia pointed to me. “What she said.”

Before responding, Sariel glanced back as if to see if Gaia and Gabriel were ready. Satisfied that we weren’t making them wait, she explained, “First, yes, she was a real person. And in her case, Aletheia was her real name, not one adopted solely for our time on Earth. She was written to be Puriel–or Zeus’s daughter at Kushiel’s rather firm insistence.”

I whistled low. “You know these are the same myths that don’t exactly show Hera or Zeus in a very good light? I mean, the things they show Zeus getting up to… sexually… uhh, if Kushiel didn’t step in then, but did step in to make sure this Aletheia person was depicted as his daughter? That’s just–I mean–wow. She really must’ve hated her. But I thought that–I mean I assumed that–I mean… I didn’t think that Seosten really went all for total monogamy. Which is kind of a weird assumption I guess, since I don’t have any examples otherwise. But plenty of Heretics don’t, and I guess I assumed it came from the Seosten.”

“Some do, some don’t, just like Heretics,” Sariel informed me. “But in any case, that was not the source of Kushiel’s hatred of Aletheia. She did not rightly care who or how many beings Puriel might have had intercourse with. No, in her eyes, Aletheia’s far greater sin was in the fact that Puriel listened to her. He heeded her words, her advice. And that was something that Kushiel could not abide.”

“Kushiel didn’t hate Aletheia because the woman had sex with her husband,” I started slowly. “That part was fine. She hated her because Puriel took her advice and listened to her?” My mouth opened and shut twice, three times, as no sound emerged. Finally, I managed, “Wow.”  

“That,” Sariel confirmed, “is the gist of it. Puriel listened to Aletheia. I believe he may even have loved her. He certainly respected her opinion. Kushiel loathed that fact. It was actually the source of a lot of their arguments. She tried to have… well, let’s just say Aletheia probably would have been in much worse shape if Puriel hadn’t put his foot down. The fights they had about her…” Slowly shaking her head, the woman seemed lost in her memories for a moment before focusing. “In any case, Kushiel insisted that Aletheia be depicted as Zeus’s daughter.”

“And he turned around and made her represent truth,” I murmured, shaking my head in wonder at Apollo’s audacity even back then. “That must’ve pissed Kushiel off pretty bad too.”

“Oh, it did,” Sariel confirmed. “But it also fit. Aletheia was very good at her job. She worked as Puriel’s assistant, and she was one of the most organized and bureaucratically-capable people I have ever met. Even for a Seosten, her memory and quick recall was extraordinary. She was obsessed with working within the system, with following rules and keeping everything clean. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. As Puriel’s assistant, Aletheia worked twenty hours a day for awhile just to run all of the behind-the-scenes things on the ship. She held a lot of influence, both through paperwork and through contacts that she had. Not only with Puriel, but with every department on the ship. And off the ship. She was the one who most of our station resuppliers talked to if they weren’t dealing with Kushiel herself.”

“They talked to Kushiel about supplying the ship?” I couldn’t help but put in. “Those poor guys.”

The woman nodded. “Kushiel’s position on the ship was to track supplies, fuel, ammunition, and so forth. She was our logistics expert. Which means that she should have worked closely with Aletheia. But… well, she found ways around that. And when she couldn’t, things tended to get… bad. Puriel learned not to let them work together, putting them on different projects. He had to stop Aletheia from doing everything she wanted to do to help the ship because Kushiel refused to work with her.”

“I wish I could say her being that petty surprised me,” I muttered, “but it really doesn’t. Actually, the only surprising part about that story is that Puriel stood up for this Aletheia.”

Theia herself, who had been quiet for a bit with a thoughtful look, finally spoke up. “Theia-I was…given a name that Kushiel would hate, wasn’t I?”

“Oh lords yes,” Sariel confirmed emphatically. “If and when she discovers that you have taken up that name, Kushiel will be indescribably furious. She may literally discover the power to spontaneously combust. She will be…” Trailing off, the woman considered her words. “She will be angrier, perhaps, than we have ever seen her.”

For a moment, Theia was quiet. She seemed to be chewing that over in her mind (maybe with Pace’s help), before looking up once more. Her eyes met Sariel’s, and she gave a firm nod.

“Good.”

****

“So do you know where she is now? Or what happened to her?”

It was a few minutes later, and I was walking through the ridiculously photogenic crystal cave that Gaia had apparently sent the Seosten prototype transport to back when the Committee had shown up at the desert. So much had happened between then and now that it felt like weeks had passed since then, rather than only a couple of days. Sariel, Gaia, Theia, Gabriel, and Tabbris were there with me, though it was the first one I had directed that question to.

Sariel paused, looking to me. “The original Aletheia? The last that I knew for certain when I was still… loyal, she had been banished by Kushiel to a remote, backwater colony on the edge of known space. Though I did hear… rumors from other prisoners in the past few years that she was taken from there and recruited by Chayyiel to run her day-to-day dealings.”

“Chayyiel,” I murmured under my breath. “She’s the ‘oh fuck run it’s not really an innocent little kid’ Seosten, right?”

A tiny smile crossed the woman’s face then, before her head dipped in a slight nod. “That… sums things up fairly well, yes. Though running would–never mind. Yes. Aletheia may be working for Chayyiel, if those rumors are true. I never saw it for myself, but then, the people who said it were very insistent that she had made it into the promised Choir.”

That made me blink. “The promised Choir?” From the corner of my eye, I saw Gaia also paying attention, her gaze moving to Sariel as she interrupted her ongoing silent conversation with Gabriel.

“The Libero Choir, it has been called in more recent days,” Sariel replied. “A Choir where all are treated equally, Seosten or not. A Choir where merit is found in actions and work, not in birth. From the rumors that were spread through the prison, the Libero Choir, Chayyiel’s Choir, is one where Seosten must treat their hosts with dignity, where they work together.”

We’d reached the transport itself by then, but I stopped walking, staring at her. “But– but if that was true, why would–”

I had to stop myself there, because I’d almost asked why Jophiel and Elisabet would be working to prove humans and Seosten could be partners if Chayyiel had a whole Choir acting that way. Luckily, I had a way of covering that worked just as well.

“Why would Athena need to have a whole underground rebel group devoted to that kind of thing if there’s already an actual Choir that does it?”

It was actually Gabriel who spoke up then, his voice contemplative. “It seems to me that the Seosten Empire is quite expansive.”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “Think of Chayyiel’s Choir as… a single city here on Earth, compared to every city in the world. Not even a leading one like New York or London or  Shanghai. A smaller city. Something closer to Akron, Ohio. Population of roughly two-hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand people out of a total world population of  seven and a half billion. Two hundred thousand are not going to be able to influence very much, no matter how free they are. Chayyiel’s Choir is much the same. Athena is attempting to change everything, not simply one Choir. And no matter how useful she is, if Chayyiel was seen to be consorting with her group, she would be removed from her position and her Choir would be… put back to the way it was.”

That made sense. And it also helped explain why Jophiel couldn’t work with her, conveniently enough.

The ramp of the tube-shaped transport slid open, and I again saw all those cryogenic pods inside. Sariel led the way up, with the rest of us following along behind. Theia was last, slowly trailing after the rest of us. When I glanced that way, I could see a look of hesitation, like she wasn’t sure she wanted to be here.

I had to imagine that being around a bunch of people that her mother had systematically tortured and repeatedly impregnated on what amounted to a rape farm had to be pretty uncomfortable. Especially given what little I knew about how said mother had treated her.

Still, she came. And she was quiet, still clearly working to behave herself. I wondered how much of that was Theia, and how much was Pace coaching her.

We reached the back of the transport, where Sariel brought up the computer with the listing of all prisoners. “We were looking at this one earlier…” As she spoke, a light came on over one particular stasis pod. “Larees, of the Tleken Choir.”

She explained how this particular Seosten had been arrested fifteen years earlier after she had assaulted a superior officer who ordered her to have an entire city razed after it had fallen into the hands of local rebels. Apparently this Larees had spent seven years in a military brig before being transferred to Kushiel’s custody, where she had been impregnated fifty-seven times in the past eight years, six of which had been carried all the way to delivery.

It was pretty fucked up, but that was just par for the course by that point.

In any case, this Larees was Sariel’s first choice to release and talk to, and I couldn’t blame her for that. The woman had been imprisoned for fifteen years because she refused to wholescale massacre a bunch of innocent people just to stop a rebellion. And more than that, she hadn’t just refused, she had assaulted her superior officers over it. If she didn’t deserve to be pulled out of stasis and hopefully freed, no one in this group did.

So, with a gesture, Gaia made the pod start its unlocking and opening sequence. While that was happening, she observed, “The security for these pods is quite extensive. It’s lucky that you and the Moon children were able to find a way to open Sariel’s so easily.”

Oh boy. I’d been expecting this question. I had no idea when it would come, but I’d known it would eventually. And… well, quite frankly, lying right now made me feel like shit. Worse than shit. But… what else could I do? We were incapable of telling the truth about our deal with Jophiel and Elisabet, and there wasn’t any way of explaining it without mentioning them.

So, I just shrugged and kept my attention on the opening pod. “Yeah,” I replied, “good thing that woman back in the lab had the codes for us to get out of her.”

There. That was… about as close to the truth as we could get. There was no reason for me to get specific about it unless they pressed, at which point I would say that I’d possessed her to find out what the codes were. But at this point, all I had said was that we’d gotten the codes out of a woman in the lab. That was the absolute truth.

It felt like someone might have asked something else about it, but by that point, the pod had finished opening, and I saw a female figure inside. But before I could make out any details, the figure abruptly moved. And by moved, I mean she was suddenly on her feet, out of the pod, and had her fist flying at the nearest figure.

Unfortunately for her, that figure happened to be Sariel. I saw the blonde woman’s head jerk back before she caught the extended arm, turning to guide the other figure around in a quick circle that took her momentum away before stopping short, still holding her arm.

“Larees!” Sariel blurted. “Conquieso.” She immediately released the woman while taking a step back, hands raised as she said more in Latin, clearly trying to calm her down.

I got my first good look at the other Seosten then. She was short. Shorter than me, actually. I estimated her height around Sands and Scout’s, which meant she was a flat five feet. Her hair was cut short and spiky, and was mostly black with dark blue tips, both of which contrasted with her pale skin. But what stood out the most about her was that she had a tattoo of what looked like a blue-green phoenix taking up half her face. Or at least the head and part of the body of one. It was the side profile of the bird’s head, taking up basically all of the left side of her face. The head was positioned and angled just right so that the woman’s left eye appeared to be the bird’s eye. Its beak went down just under her other eye.

It was distracting, to say the least. I had to tear my attention away from it as the woman launched into a long bit of Latin that I didn’t have a prayer of following. She was staring at Sariel, briefly glancing to the rest of us now and then, but mostly focusing on the woman in front of her. I heard ‘Sariel’ a few times in there, along with a tone of disbelief and confusion that I could make out very well despite not understanding her actual words.

“Well,” Theia announced nearby, “someone’s a potty mouth.”

Finally, Sariel managed to get more than a couple words in edgewise. She kept her hands raised, speaking just as quickly as the other woman. Again, I couldn’t follow along. At least until she switched to English. “See? It’s okay. You are okay, Larees of Tleken.”

“You expect me to believe that you are truly the Sariel and that this is not some trick?” Apparently Sariel had either asked her to switch to English as well, or the woman had taken her doing it as a guide. Either way, I could understand her now. And she didn’t seem very happy. Not very happy at all.

“Your tricks are wearing thin, Kushiel bitch. Futue te ipsum, obscenus scortum.”

“Told you she had a potty mouth,” Theia calmly observed.  

“Hey!” That was Tabbris, lunging into view to take her mother’s arm. “Don’t talk to my mama like that!”

I was pretty sure there was nothing in existence that could have derailed this Larees woman’s tirade more effectively than that. She blinked at Tabbris, eyes widening in shock before she stammered a confused, “Child. A… you are… what?” Her eyes returned to Sariel, to find the woman holding a field-engraver out to her.

“Go ahead,” Sariel announced softly. “Test.”

For a moment, Larees didn’t move at all. She just stared, before slowly reaching out to take the field-engraver. As Sariel offered her arm, the woman hesitated, then moved to draw a quick spell there. Gaia and Gabriel both looked interested, but neither moved to stop this.

“What…?” I started, glancing to Theia in confusion.

“Signature spell,” the girl replied without looking at me. “Every person ever has a unique signature aura, part of their magic, see? Three parts. Two parts their parents. One for mother, one for father. Third part them. New, unique, only theirs. Impossible to fake, impossible to change. Proves who their parents are and who they are. Makes things safe from imposters, shapeshifters… Fomorian creations…”

Sure enough, as we watched, three holographic shapes appeared in the air just above Sariel’s arm. The first looked like a backwards C with an equals sign through the middle of it, a diagonal curved line above it, and a sideways number two just underneath. The second symbol was a teepee (or an A without the line in the middle) and then another one on its side just a bit to the right, with an oval in the space between them. And the third symbol looked like a circle broken in half, with each side pulled a bit away from each other. In the space between them was an infinity symbol, and there was a thick line across the top of the whole thing, from one end of the broken circle half to the other end.

It was enough, apparently. Larees stared at the holographic symbols, mouthing a word under her breath before her gaze snapped to the woman herself. “You are… but you…” Her head dropped then, as she stammered, “Ap-apologies, Lady Sariel. I was–” She stopped then, slowly looking up once more. Her eyes looked to the rest of us, then at the pods around her before she focused on Sariel once more. “… I don’t understand.”

So, Sariel explained, with some help from Gaia and Gabriel. She told the woman that we were on Earth, that she had been rescued and we were working on letting out as many of the Seosten prisoners as we could. She explained that we had to start with people who could be trusted, and that that was why she’d gone with Larees first. It was a long explanation, and she barely touched the surface. Through it all, the other woman just stood there and stared.

Finally, Sariel finished (at least that very minor, surface-level explanation), ending with, “Understand that Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser here, human Heretics, are both able to tell if you are untruthful. Do you wish to help us? It will mean hurting our own people, fighting our own people. They–”

Larees held up a hand to stop her. Grunting something under her breath, she turned back to the pod she had been kept in, using the field-engraver to start scrawling something. Sariel leaned over, taking a quick glance before giving the rest of us a shake of her head to show that it was okay. Once the spell was done, the woman reached out to it, and her hand disappeared into thin air.

“Pocket vault spell,” Theia informed me. “Make the spell, put something in it, then take it out later.”  

Well, that sounded useful. And interesting. But what was the woman reaching for, a weapon, something that could protect her, information to use against Kushiel?

Alcohol. She was reaching for alcohol. Her hand came back out with a clear bottle full of bright, neon green liquid, which she popped the top of of with a practiced flick of her finger before downing three-quarters of the bottle in one long pull.

Sighing with relief, Larees cracked her neck and gave a slow smile. “You have no idea how long I’ve needed that.” She finished the bottle with another quick pull before tossing it casually over her shoulder. It disappeared back through the invisible portal and into her pocket vault. “You want to know if I want to fight our own people, our whole civilization?”

Sariel met her gaze. “Not all of them. There are other groups–”

“The Aelaestiam,” Larees finished for her. “Yeah. Heard about them in prison. Auriel’s people. She… we talked about joining up with her for awhile. Made an attempt to get out. That’s what got me transferred to Kushiel’s tender fucking mercies.”

Something flickered behind the woman’s gaze, and she reached back through her portal without looking, taking a fresh bottle. Opening it with the same finger-flick, she took a smaller drink that time, savoring it more. With a sigh, she continued. “Our people locked me in regular prison for seven years, then sent me to be experimented on and repeatedly impregnated like some kind of feusten for another eight. I have six children out there that I will probably never see again. And why?” She took another drink, a longer one that time before answering her own question. “Because I thought slaughtering two hundred and seventeen thousand living beings who made the mistake of not wanting to be enslaved might have been going a little too far.” With each subsequent word, the woman’s voice turned darker, before she took yet another drink.

“So you want to know if I want to change things, if I’m willing to fight our own people? I say fuck yes, I’m ready. Something has to change. If that means working with these… these humans? Whatever. We need as much help as we can get anyway. And I guarantee you, a lot of the people here are going to feel the same way. Not all of them, but a lot.

“I am on Team Fuck The Establishment. Any person, group, or Cronus-damned species who wants to climb aboard that train?” Her fist suddenly lashed out, punching the pod she had been kept in. “The more the fucking merrier.”

That all said, she pointed with the bottle toward Tabbris. “She was born in there, wasn’t she? You got her out. You found a way to get her out.”

“That… yes, it is a long story,” Sariel informed her. “I will tell you about it. But first, introductions. As I said, this is one of my daughters, Tabbris. That is Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser.”

“Heard of you both, actually,” Larees informed them idly. “More the former than the latter, but yeah. Names are familiar. You’re supposed to be bad news. So uhh, good to meet you.”

“This,” Sariel continued with a gesture toward me, “is Felicity Chambers, a… student, a young Heretic. She was part of the group who rescued us, along with my two hybrid children. My–”

“What?” Larees’s gaze had snapped that way, eyes widening. “Did you say… are you saying that you had… that you’ve… procreated with… with…”

“She’s married!” The defiant announcement came from Tabbris, as the girl stared hard up at the woman. “Mama married Mr. Moon.”

“Haiden,” Sariel explained. “And yes, he is human. He’s… trapped in our space right now, with others. We’ve had two children, Tristan and Vanessa. They’re Felicity’s age.”

“And they’re actually–I mean they actually… nothing went…” It looked like Larees couldn’t decide how to finish that sentence, before she finally gave up and took another pull of her drink. Heaving a sigh, she muttered, “That’s supposed to be impossible.”

“I assure you,” Sariel replied, “they are quite real. And Haiden is my husband.”

It looked like both her and Tabbris were ready for the woman to question or insult that. But Larees just stood there, staring down at her half-empty bottle for a few seconds before giving a languid shrug. “You know what, fuck it. If it works, it works. Now what about this one?” She used that bottle to point toward Theia.

“This…” Sariel paused before stepping that way. “This is Pace. She’s being possessed by Aletheia.”

“Aletheia?” Larees immediately blurted, “As in–”

“Not that Aletheia,” Sariel corrected. “She is…” She looked to the girl in question, waiting for her to nod before continuing. “She is Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter.”

That made Larees spit up the bit of her drink she’d just taken. “I’m sorry, what?” she blurted out loud. “Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter? That–what–well fuck I can see why anyone spawned from that bitch would turn against her, but they don’t have a daughter last time I checked.”

“They did, they do.” Sariel glanced to Theia once more. “They’re just ashamed of her.”

“Ashamed–why would–” Larees stopped then, her eyes moving back to Theia as well. “… a Lie. They had a Lie. The great Kushiel and Puriel… gave birth to a Lie. Their own child is a Lie, a–”

“Stop that!” It was Tabbris. The girl had put herself in front of Theia, eyes blazing. “Stop saying it like that! Stop calling her that! She didn’t do anything wrong–I mean, for that. How’d you like it if everyone hated you because of how you were born? What if every other Seosten had brown eyes and they all hated you because your eyes aren’t brown? What if they all called you a freak and a monster because of what color your eyes were?”

“Eyes that aren’t brown wouldn’t be one step closer to Cronus,” Larees informed her in a flat voice before taking another sip of her drink. “But… yeah. Yeah, maybe.” She looked a little troubled by that, frowning to herself before shaking her head as she looked toward Sariel. “Your daughter’s pretty fierce.”

“Yes…” Sariel agreed with a little smile. “She is.”

More introductions went around then. Larees didn’t call Theia a Lie again, but I could tell that she didn’t trust her very much, if at all. She spoke with Gaia and Gabriel together, a brief conversation happening between them before Sariel drew everyone’s focus back to the pods.

“We need to go over some of these names,” she announced, “I’d like to know who you recognize.”

With that, Sariel brought up the list in question once more. “I looked through it before,” she started slowly, “and there is one pod that confuses me.” She sent the holographic display skimming until she found the right one, then brought it up to show us. Floating there in the air were the words, ‘Kemetiel, Sahveniah, Penemue, Grisiniel.’ That was followed by what looked like weird symbols that might have been numbers.

“Roughly fifty-four kilograms,” Sariel translated, “or one hundred and twenty pounds. So it must be a single person. But all these names, I thought they may be aliases. And unlike the other entries, there is no other information.”

“Sounds like a secret prisoner,” Larees put in with a shrug. “Multiple aliases, maybe? Or a code for a project.”

“But why would they go by multiple names?” Tabbris piped up then. “Wouldn’t that make them stand out more?”

“It is not multiple names.” That was Theia. She was already standing over by the pod in question. “It is multiple people.”

“But that’s impossible,” I pointed out while shaking my head. “Four names? That’s four people. Four Seosten who only weigh a hundred and twenty pounds all together and fit in tha-oh.”

“Indeed,” Gaia murmured, clearly having realized before I did. “Oh.” She reached out a hand toward the pod,and it came to life. The door slid open with a hiss and a few quiet beeps. And then we could see what we already knew was there. The reason there were four names, yet  only enough weight for one adult.

It was because there wasn’t one adult in that pod. Instead, strapped in there together were four much smaller, much younger figures. I would have guessed their ages at around two or three, maybe. We didn’t just have a bunch of Seosten prisoners of war or whatever.

We also had Seosten toddlers.

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