Larissa Mason

Summer Epilogue 1B (Heretical Edge)

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In the end, the group (consisting of Dare, Kohaku, Gabriel Prosser, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Larees, Haiden, Larissa, Theia, Metatron, Raphael, Chayyiel, Jophiel, and Cahethal) traveled through six different portals before finally reaching their destination. While the lab was located on Earth and would have been ordinarily reachable through a single portal, it was protected in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was a particular spell which functioned as a combination lock of sorts. If the person entering did not first go through each of the previous five locations just before entering the lab, all of the contents within it would disappear.

Once they were finally there, the group as a whole looked around. They had arrived in a perfectly white room just large enough to hold them. Every surface was pristine, without a single smudge or fleck of dust. The immaculate white walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to pulse a bit with power for a few seconds after their arrival.

Cahethal spoke for the first time as the pulsing glow faded. “A sterilization spell, to remove any exterior contaminants that might be brought in. And unless I miss my guess…”

Sariel confirmed, “A version of the expulsion magic, to ensure that no one enters carrying one of our people unknowingly.”

Metatron gave a dark look at that. “That spell technology is not allowed anywhere near this world. It is heavily regulated. You should not even have been taught how to use it.”

Apollo cheerily replied, “She wasn’t. She reversed engineered it after spending so much time in old Kushiel’s place.” Though his words were light, there was an underlying hardness to his tone as he stared intently at the old man while bringing up what his adopted sister had gone through.

Cahethal gave the woman a curious look at that, several different thoughts clearly playing out in her mind while she remained silent.

Metatron, however, wasn’t nearly so reserved. He gave both of the ‘twins’ a disbelieving look. “Even if that were true, which I have many reservations about, allowing power like that to be here on this planet, even in a controlled environment, is absurdly risky. If it were to accidentally find its way to anyone else—”

Apollo interrupted. “Oh, it’s finding its way to other people. Like Gabriel here. You can be damn sure that his people are going to have these things set up around their homes. So if you or any of your colleagues might have been thinking about any infiltration, they should reconsider.”

Giving them another incredulous look, Metatron snapped, “You would provide such dangerous magic to another species? Do you have any idea what you risk with such insanity?”

It was Chayyiel who spoke. “For someone who has ranted at such lengths on what sort of traitors Lucifer and Sariel are, you seem oddly surprised that they do not consider themselves loyal to our side.”

Her words were met by a brief look from the man, and a simple, vaguely disbelieving, “Our side?”

Before anyone else could respond to that, Raphael spoke up while cracking his neck. “As much fun as this banter is, it’s somewhat crowded in here, and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. When that happens, my wings tend to come out. Which, in a place like this, could be dangerous for everyone else. What do you say we move on?”

Haiden nodded. “I’m with David Lee Roth over there. We’re not going to get along, so let’s just get this over with.”

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed quietly. “Some of us have other matters to attend to once this business is finished.”

From where she was standing, Larissa observed, “Like getting ready to leave the host you’ve been enslaving for so long once Liesje’s spell is fixed?”

Jophiel offered her a smile. “Fortunately, that is not a problem I have to contend with. The Committee’s connection to one another should be enough to dilute your little spell. At least enough for me to retain control. So I do hope that any of your future plans did not rely solely on us losing influence over Crossroads.”

While the others exchanged glances, Sariel and Apollo moved to the nearest wall and began to run through several unlocking spells together to open the way forward. it took over a minute of rapid incantation before a single doorway appeared nearby. It was a simple arch, revealing a much larger room beyond.

As a group, they moved one by one through the archway and into the lab itself. The place was as wide as a basketball court and as long as two of them. Dozens of tables were set up all around the room, with bits of equipment, half-formed spell runes, notebooks, computers, and more all over the place. In the very center of the room was a pedestal with a softly glowing blue orb slightly larger than a softball sitting on it. Patterns of white runic symbols danced across the surface of the orb, the spell that kept its contents contained, among other things. Stacks of paper as tall as a person surrounded the pedestal, while another had been knocked over so that its contents were spread all around the foot of it. There were notes sprawled on the floor, as well as on the pedestal itself. Notes which seemed to flip back and forth between Latin and English seemingly at random, as though the person taking them was absently flipping back and forth themselves.

Cahethal observed, “I see neither of you have yet mastered the art of a clean and organized workspace that I spent so long trying to instill in you. It is good to know that some things will never change.”

With a grin, Apollo agreed, “Yeah, like the way we’re still finishing the work you couldn’t get done.”

Raising a finger to point at the man, Cahethal started to retort before pausing. Then she lowered her hand and carefully replied, “The time will come, Lucifer, when we are no longer in a truce. You would do well to remember that.”

Before he could respond, Larees spoke up. “So hey, I’ve gotta ask…” She took a quick sip from her flask before continuing. “Exactly how many days or weeks do you think you devoted to trying to figure out why you couldn’t possess that Chambers girl? Is there a ream of notes with all your hypotheses about it? Ooh, or holo recordings. Because I would pay good–”

“Stop it,” Sariel snapped before adding a simple, “It’s easy to overlook the obvious answer to a problem. She’s the one who helped teach us that.”

With those words, the woman moved to the pedestal. “Come on. We’ll show you how to do this and then you can leave Earth.”

“Finally,” Metatron announced while they followed her, “you say something that I can fully and completely agree with. Being away from this planet and rid of responsibility for it, even if only for one of its years before your experiment inevitably fails, sounds quite pleasant right now.”

“If everyone is finished sniping at one another, maybe we should get on with it,” Chayyiel announced.

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed in a doubtful tone, “show us what you have done that is so different than what hundreds of our best scientists have been able to do with thousands of years of work.”

Apollo began to explain while Sariel did something with the orb. “See, your problem was that you’ve all been trying to open a new portal into Tartarus.”

A disbelieving came over Cahethal. “Yes, that is our entire purpose here. Have you misunderstood this completely?”

Sariel spoke then while rising from where she had been making one last adjustment to the pedestal. “He doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want a portal to exist. He means it’s wrong for us to try to open it. We can’t.”

Before any more exasperated demands could be made, she continued while picking up the orb. “This can. You see, thousands of years ago, long before we came anywhere near that spot of space, something came out of it. Something made that hole from Tartarus to our universe. Whatever it was punched a hole between realities. When it did, it left behind a trail of the same energy from that reality that we use to empower ourselves. Think of it as stepping out of a lake and walking on dry ground while leaving puddles behind you. It carried that energy with it when it came here. Energy which, I will remind you, can never be completely destroyed.”

“That’s what you have in that orb,” Jophiel observed.

Sariel nodded. “Yes. Over all those years, the energy trail drifted apart through the entire universe. We—” She indicated herself and Apollo. “— have been using magic to pull bits of it here for a long time. And this orb is what we have.”

Apollo clarified, “What she means is that we set it up to pull in that energy thousands of years ago and she’s been quietly working on it off and on all this time. She just needed a little help right at the end to get it fully contained and sealed up in that nice little package for you.”

Metatron raised an eyebrow. “So what you are saying is that you have worked thousands of years and have managed to collect just enough energy to empower perhaps one person. Somehow this is not the solution I believe the rest of the Seraphim were hoping for. And it is certainly not what you promised.”

Apollo just shook his head. “What you do with the orb when we give it to you is up to you. You can use it to empower one person. Or, you can be smart with it.”

Cahethal spoke then, understanding. “We can use it to get back into Tartarus. If we flood it with enough power to jumpstart it while those specific spells on that orb are active, the residual Tartarus energy will attempt to return home. We don’t have to make another portal. They will leave a hole when they pass through. A hole which we can catch before it closes and stabilize.”

Raphael gave a low whistle. “That simple, hmm?”

Chayyiel shook her head. “There’s nothing simple about it. But, yes. It should work exactly the way they say. We will be able to open the way to Tartarus once more. Or, as he said, empower a single individual.”

“I suggest you go with the first option,” Apollo put in with a smirk. “But, you know, you do you.”

“I would point out here,” Metatron noted, “that this entire situation has grown beyond your initial demand. First, you say that it is to create a deal where we will leave your family alone. And now, it is tied into the truce agreement with this planet.”

Sariel nodded. “Let’s just say our changing situation necessitated a more thorough agreement. Not that it changes anything. The Seraphim have already voted to give Earth one year to prove ourselves. And you already know that you’re agreeing to leave my family alone. We’re just putting the bow on both deals together.”

It was Raphael who agreed. “She’s right, it doesn’t change the agreement. If anything, it gives us an out. Because if this orb doesn’t do what they say it well, that provides you an excuse to break the entire deal. Or at least bring it up for review with the rest of the Seraphim. And I can pretty much guarantee that if this promise is broken, there will be enough votes to nullify the truce.”

The man let that hang for a moment before snapping his gaze to Apollo and the others. “So, I really hope that it works the way you’re saying it will. Because I kinda like this place and I’d really prefer not to go all full scale invasion and war on it. It’s a great planet to come vacation once in a while. You know, when you just need to get away from everything. It would just rip me apart to have to come here and… rip it apart.”

“It will work.” That was Kohaku. “You all sign the magical agreement to leave her family alone for good, and to uphold the truce agreement here for one year, to enact no substantial efforts against this world for that time. Then you can take that orb back to your space and play all the super soldier games you want. Go bowling with it for all we care. But take it and go.”

Raphael observed her briefly, his tone curious. “You were the one Manakel took as a host, right? I, um… I’m sorry you didn’t know him before. He used to be a lot more fun than he ended up becoming.” After a brief pause, the man took in a breath and then let it out in a sigh. “I know it means basically nothing. But I do wish you could have known him then. He would have been appalled and destroyed by what he became. And the Manakel I knew would have wanted you to have this.” Extending his hand, the man held out a simple necklace of sorts. It was a small clear crystal dangling from a leather cord.

“It’s okay. You can have all your magic experts look over it as much as you want. It’s not a trap.”

Rather than take it, Kohaku simply stared. “What the hell is it?”

It was Theia who spoke up. “Dead seer.”

Raphael nodded to her. “Exactly. See, back when Manakel was still new to his gift and exploring the art of necromancy, he created this. It doesn’t summon any ghosts or zombies or anything. Instead, when a person looks deep into the crystal, they will see an image from the life of someone they’ve lost. It’s sort of a window into the past. You can’t interact with them, you can’t bring them back, you can’t do anything except look. It’s like one of your human video tapes. Just look into it and think about who you want to see. Anyone you knew who passed away.”

Kohaku’s hand moved to close around the cord, but she didn’t take it. Her eyes bore into the ancient, powerful figure’s. “You expect me to believe that you’re just handing this over with no strings attached and no tricks. Forgive me, but I’m not exactly inclined to think the best of your people.”

Chayyiel spoke. “Manakel was his descendent, his great-great grandson, and his protégé of sorts. Raphael helped raise and protect him.”

The man himself gave a short nod. “As I said, I knew him a long time ago, and I know what he would want. He didn’t always make the right choice. And he got a lot worse over time. But he’d want you to have that. If you want to throw it away, that’s up to you. Take it, and do what you’d like with it.”

As the woman silently accepted it with a conflicted look, Metatron cleared his throat. His expression was annoyed. “If we are quite finished playing nursemaids to the humans and the traitors, perhaps we can complete this arrangement. We still need proof that the orb will work as described before we sign any deal.”

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed. “Unfortunately, we cannot risk breaching that orb to test the energy within without releasing all of it. Which would tend to defeat the purpose of taking it back with us.”

Sariel reached behind the pedestal to remove a much smaller orb, this one about the size of a marble. “That’s why we have this.” She tossed it to the woman, sending the marble perfectly into her palm. “It’s the same stuff from the orb. You can take it to the containment area there.” She pointed to where a series of protection spells had been drawn around a circle in the corner. “Do whatever tests you want until you’re satisfied.”

Apollo then added, “Though I would like to point out that it’s not exactly hard for you people to come back here if you get out to your space and find out we lied. That would be breaking the agreement. And, you know, it would also be pretty damn stupid. I mean, what are we gonna do, move the whole planet?”

After he finished that bit, it was Chayyiel who looked to him. “Our space?”

The man shrugged. “Something tells me that it doesn’t matter what kind of truce or peace agreement we set up, I am never actually going to be welcome out there. Call me crazy.”

Metatron snapped, “No one forced any of you to betray your people.” He gave Sariel, then Athena each a dark look in turn. “Or to lay with creatures far beneath us. Or tutor a man whose power could have threatened our entire civilization as a whole. You all chose that, and you will receive no pity for the repercussions.”

Waving a hand dismissively, Cahethal muttered in an uncaring and distracted voice, “Yes yes, they are such terrible people, of course. Now come here. I need your help to verify this.” Marble in hand, she moved to the containment area, with Metatron following after giving them all one more disgusted look.

As the two of them moved away, Jophiel turned her attention to Athena. “Speaking of your misguided efforts all those centuries ago, you must have been quite relieved during the… situation at Crossroads to see that your protégé’s top knight has somehow managed to survive all these years. Although, from the memories that I’ve seen, she looks more like his consort than his knight. Isn’t that funny? Because, as far as I knew, the two were secret lovers, not twins.”

From where she was standing, Theia offered, “I can go rent a backhoe if you’d like to keep digging.”

Offering the younger girl a brief smile at that, Athena nodded simply to Jophiel. “Yes, it was quite a relief to be reunited with… her. We had much to talk about.”

For a moment, it looked as though Jophiel might question what exactly they had talked about. But in the end, she simply looked away.

After a minute of silence, Raphael looked over toward Larissa and Haiden. “You know, if we’re speaking freely at the moment, I will say that I was fairly impressed by your antics in our space. Not that it would have stopped me from killing you, but still, given how isolated you were, you actually did fairly well.”

Haiden met his gaze. “Yeah, well, let’s just say you gave us plenty of incentive to get creative. Hell, if you’d just left my family alone to begin with, we never would have been out there.”

Sariel spoke up. “That doesn’t matter right now. We make this deal and our family does get left alone.”

“And you all leave,” Larissa added.

Raphael shrugged. “Well, most of us do. I’ll be sticking around for a little bit.” At the quick looks from the group he held up a hand. “Not to worry, I have no intention of violating the truce, I promise. My interest lies in reconnecting with an old friend, as I said.”

Before he could be asked for any information about that ‘old friend’, Cahethal stepped out of the containment area. A wisp of blue-black smoke was drifting around inside of it. “It’s real,” she reported. “They’ve contained the energy, and from what I can tell, it will work the way they claim. There should be enough in that orb to open the way to Tartarus once more.”

“Thank the Void,” Metatron muttered. “Then we sign the agreement and leave. I, for one, I am looking forward to not thinking about this dirt ball until the apes who live here have torn each other apart.”

“Aww,” Haiden put in, “we love you too.” He accepted the offered flask from Larees and took a swig. “Believe me, speaking for the apes, we’ll be just as glad to see you go.”

For the next two hours, the agreement was drawn up and several dozen spells were attached to it to bind all parties to the terms. If any knowingly violated those terms, there would be harsh consequences. Not only politically and monetarily, but also physically and magically. They would quite literally be putting their power and lives on the line to knowingly violate the contract.

Then it was done. All present signed the contract. Earth would be left relatively alone for one year. And Sariel and Apollo’s family would not be purposefully hunted or harmed so long as they did not initiate first attack.

Chayyiel, glancing back and forth between both groups once it was done, announced, “Good. Now those of us who wish to leave may do so. And those of us who have a little more business to take care of first can focus on that.”

Metatron gave her a look. “You have been quite thoroughly informed that your place is not here on this world,” he reminded her. “It is not your territory. An exception may have been made for this, but as I have told you many times,  I will not have you wandering this planet so long as it is under my control,.”

Chayyiel smiled slightly. “You’re right. But as you have repeatedly expressed with much gratitude and pleasure, this world is none of our responsibility after this agreement. During the truce period you are no longer responsible for it. Which means your permission for visitation to the world is not required during that time.”

As the man stared at her, barely able to keep his mouth from falling open as the trap was revealed, she continued. “Many, many years ago, you informed me that I lacked any subtlety or patience. You said that you would see through any childish plans I set toward ever coming back here. And you said that so long as this world was in your hands, I would not set foot on it.”

She let that hang in the air for a moment before taking a single step forward. In that motion, she stepped out of her shoe, placing one bare foot pointedly on the floor in front of it. Her voice was soft.

“I believe your ride is waiting.”

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Summer Epilogue 1A (Heretical Edge)

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They came in force. Three ships, each capable of carrying a hundred troops and their assorted weaponry, along with a dozen armored vehicles, all full to the brim, landed in an almost entirely empty field in the middle of Wyoming.

It was fitting that it was Wyoming, of course. Fitting that this meeting take place near the home of the girl who had helped contribute so much to this moment. Even if she was nowhere near this meeting, it helped contribute to the feeling that she was connected to it in some way.

Each ship was shaped like a letter D, the cockpit near the top or front where the curved and straight parts met. In normal flight, the ship flew like that, while in battle it would turn, the cockpit rotating to face the same direction as the flat side where dozens of cannons and launchers would emerge to create a weapons platform.

As the trio of ships landed equidistant apart, twin gang planks at both ends of each ship lowered and troops began to disembark quickly. They were followed by the tanks, all of them spreading out to take up a perimeter.

They did this in full view of their welcoming committee, which consisted of ten of the most dangerous beings to the Seosten Empire currently on Earth: Apollo, Sariel, Athena, Larees, Gabriel Prosser, Virginia Dare, Risa Kohaku, Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and the ‘Lie’ known to those here as Theia. Ten people who, though wildly varying in power, had managed to strike or contribute to very telling blows.

The offer that Apollo and Sariel had first extended to the Seosten Empire had been accepted, and the two groups had agreed to meet here this day. With a bit of an amendment, in that the promise to leave Sariel and Apollo’s family alone would be tied to the agreement to also leave Earth in peace for one year without bringing forces to take control of the planet by force. Both promises would be tied to the same binding magical contract.

Watching the troops spreading out, Haiden remarked, “You don’t think they’re stupid enough to try anything right now, do you? I mean, this has got to look like a pretty attractive target.” He gestured around at their assembled group.

Sariel shook her head. Her hand rose to point at the glowing blue symbol on the side of each ship. It looked like three interconnected circles with a triangle in the middle where all three overlapped. “They came under the sign of Pax, a woman from our far history who helped to unite disparate tribes and led us to perhaps the last true and lasting peace our people ever knew. If it were to get out that they broke a truce under that sign, they would face widespread riots and condemnation across the universe, from our own people.”

“As would we, for the same,” Athena noted. “We would lose all sympathy and potential allies. So no one makes a move against them unless they force it. There may be very tempting targets on their side as well. Do not take them. We need this truce now, even if it is temporary.”

Without being looked at, Theia chimed in, “We will not throw rocks first, no matter how many they deserve to be hit with.” Under her breath, the girl added, “Maybe because there aren’t enough rocks on this planet.”

She was more than a little uncomfortable right now. Not only because of the actual meeting, but also through the fact that Pace was not here. Though the two were physically separated, she still felt connected to her most recent host, and really did not like to be that far from her. She felt awkward and alone even when surrounded by many others.

Larees raised a hand as though to put it on the girl’s shoulder, then froze partway there. Her old and deeply ingrained hesitation to touch or have anything to do with a Seosten Lie was hard to shake. Finally, though she looked a little uncomfortable, the woman made a point of following through with the motion, putting her hand firmly on Theia’s shoulder. Even then, it took her a moment to speak while she kept her hand in place, refusing to allow her reflexive prejudice to control her actions. Her voice was a bit stiff, though she tried to force herself to relax a little.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to run out of people who deserve to have rocks thrown at them anytime soon.”

Virginia Dare spoke up then, her eyes fixed on the troops. “She’s right, we have enough problems already living here as it is. I’d prefer these guys just get what they need and leave.”

Larissa glanced to her, speaking a single name. “Fossor.”

The other woman gave a slight nod, her expression darkening. “We need to focus on dealing with the necromancer before he finishes whatever plan he has for that rope. We don’t even have Gaia around right now, we—” She stopped, voice faltering a little.

“We’ll get her back,” Risa assured her. “And we’ll handle Fossor too. We’ll get Joselyn away from him. We don’t have to beat around the bush or be so quiet about it anymore. The cat’s out of the bag, so we might as well take advantage of that.”

Speaking for the first time, Gabriel Prosser announced, ”We have reinforcements coming in already, people from the old rebellion who remembered our contact channels. Some of them are bringing friends or family. We’re working on setting up new ones and verifying their intentions.” He glanced to Athena then. “Your people are handy for that. It saves Enguerrand a lot of work.”

The woman gave a very slight smile at that. “It is good for our people to contribute, and to see how well an alliance can work. Though it may be seen as unfair to some, to have their thoughts pried into.”

Risa shook her head. “They’re told what’s happening, and that it’s a condition of bringing them aboard. We have to be certain that they’re not double agents or spies. Besides, it’s good for them to see what your people are capable of. So they don’t underestimate them. Especially since we’re using that time to tell them exactly what your people have been up to and what they’re responsible for.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed. “The Seosten won’t be a secret anymore. Everyone who joins us is going to know they exist and what they’ve been doing.”

The arriving troops had settled by that point. Only a relative few were actual Seosten, of course. Most were various other species, though almost all stared at the assembled group with varying levels of disgust or distrust, particularly toward the four Seosten ‘traitors.’ Clearly the majority of this honor guard were deeply loyal soldiers, which only made sense.

There was, however, another group, located to one side and consisting of about a fifth of the assembled unit that did not look disgusted. Instead, they appeared curious, or even intrigued. A few looked as though they might come closer to talk to the group, but were prevented by decorum. Beyond that, they wore armor that seemed more individualized. Instead of the plain, uniform black, theirs were decorated with various colors and designs, some quite well drawn.

Dare started to ask why that group was different. But before she could do more than open her mouth, the rest of the soldiers all turned as one and stepped back to create a corridor. Through that corridor approached three figures. One was an elderly man, the second a young girl, and the third a tall, lanky-looking man who appeared to be almost all elbows and knees. His hair was worn long, almost to the middle of his back, and was a mix of gray and blonde. His face had a very slightly lined look that made so that if he had been human, his age could’ve been estimated anywhere between his late thirties and early fifties.

“Metatron,” Sariel whispered to the others with a nod to the elderly man. Then her eyes fell on the seemingly young girl, breath catching a bit before she added a soft, “Chayyiel.” Finally, she looked to the lanky man, who stood just over six and a half feet tall. “And—”

Before she could finish, the man himself stepped forward, tilted his head back and spread his arms wide while loudly declaring in what was essentially a shout to the heavens. “I’m home!”

Turning in a wide circle, with his arms still outstretched, the man continued while sounding almost like a rock star greeting a wild audience. “Hello, my people! Hello my beautiful, beautiful world! How are we doing today?!” He paused then, sniffing once, before doing so again. “Hmm. Bit more pollution.”

Athena spoke then, her words both a greeting and explanation to the others. “Raphael. We weren’t expecting you to come.”

“Raphael,” Larissa whispered softly. “He’s—”

Sariel nodded. “You would consider him an archangel. One of seven who were part of an earlier super soldier test like the Olympus program.”

“You’d also consider him a shit-scary motherfucker,” Larees added pointedly. “If it wasn’t clear already, don’t start anything. Like, double-don’t start anything.”

Raphael himself by that point actually came forward, his voice just as loud and carefree. “Auriel, it’s so good to see you… and not have to kill you.” The latter was added thoughtfully as he looked the woman up and down briefly. There was a hint of amusement and teasing to his voice that made it relatively unclear just how serious he was being.

Clearing his throat, Metatron stepped forward as well. “Our fellow Seraphim insisted on accompanying us for this brief visit.” His eyes narrowed at Athena. “And it will be brief. I have no wish to stay on this planet any longer than absolutely necessary to complete our… transaction.”

Giving the man a disdainful look, Athena coolly replied, “Of course. Why would you wish to spend any time on a world of such importance, which you are personally responsible for? This is your first visit ever, isn’t it? The first in thousands of years.”

The old man clearly restrained a snapped retort, settling on simply saying, “It shall cease being my responsibility for at least one of its years when we are through here. And, Void willing that your failure through that year is thorough enough, we will then exercise a far more permanent solution to the entire situation.”

“He means good luck.” The words came from Chayyiel as the girl passed Metatron. She also moved past Athena, though her hand very briefly touched the woman’s arm and squeezed. Instead, she moved straight to where Sariel and Apollo were. Stopping there, she looked calmly from one to the other, as though appraising them.

Then, without warning, she stepped forward and tightly embraced Apollo. Her arms went around the man to hug him firmly before she did the same with Sariel, hugging the woman tightly. For the latter, the girl leaned up and whispered something very quietly in her ear. It was a private, secret message that went on for several long seconds and caused Sariel’s eyes to widen a bit. Both she and Apollo belatedly returned the embrace once they recovered from the surprise of it, though whatever Chayyiel had whispered to Sariel made the woman freeze up briefly.

With a look of clear disapproval, Metatron made a noise in the back of his throat, glaring at the girl. “Have you forgotten which side you are on?” he asked in a somewhat dangerous tone.

In response to that, Chayyiel replied simply, “No, I haven’t.” She turned slightly, giving him a somewhat cheeky smile. “It’s called a truce, Metatron.  I don’t have to be enemies with anyone here right now. I can hug anyone I want to.”

As if to prove that, the girl moved to embrace Larees then, also whispering something to that woman that made her give a surprised double-take.

“Aww what the hell, she’s got a point.” That was Raphael, who abruptly and unexpectedly pulled Athena into a hug as well, while the woman made a surprised sound. “I like this human custom.”

With a clearly audible sigh, Metatron announced through gritted teeth. “We are here to complete this arrangement. Rysthael will be left to its own devices for one of its years while you find a way to prove this alliance possible. But only in exchange for what you have already promised. If you were not lying.”

Athena simply gestured then. “You have greeted us, Metatron. Of a sort. But you have said nothing to those who truly speak for this world.” She gestured then. “Humans. I’m certain you’ve heard of them.”

Taking that as his cue, Prosser stepped that way and extended a hand. As he did so, every weapon on the field was suddenly pointed his way. If he noticed, the man gave no indication. “Good afternoon, Seraphim. I am Gabriel Prosser.”

Metatron gave him a dismissive glance. “I am well aware of who you are, and how much trouble you have caused. You should count yourself lucky that we are not meeting under different circumstances.”

In response to the clear threat, Gabriel simply replied, “When I was a young child, I allowed slave owners to intimidate me. It has been a very long time since I was a child.”

He smiled then, showing a bit of his teeth while lowering his hand without shaking Metatron’s. “But as your hosts to our world, we will extend you every available courtesy.”

Bowing her head a bit, Chayyiel spoke up. “We thank you for your hospitality, Sir Gabriel. Once our field leaders to this world have arrived, we will be ready to begin.”

Field leaders. Dare and the others exchanged brief glances. They knew what that meant. They were waiting for the Seosten who had been put in charge of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden groups. Most likely they were possessing a Committee member and Victor, respectfully. Not that they would show up in their hosts. They weren’t that stupid. Still, it might possibly lead to some hint in the future.

Metatron looked reluctant to agree with Chayyiel, But protocol and decorum forced him to give a slight nod. “Yes, for a backward dust ball of a world, I have certainly seen wo—”

In mid-sentence, the man stopped. His eyes had been casually roaming over the assembled group until he saw Theia. “You.” That single word showed more disgust and anger than an entire diatribe could have. He glowered at her, his hands slowly closing into fists. “What is that doing here?” The demand came in a brittle voice.

Theia, for her part, raised a hand to wave at the man. “Hi, Grandpa,” the girl all-but chirped.

That made several dozen eyes snap to the girl, while Metatron himself simply tightened his fists. His gaze moved to Gabriel as he spoke sharply. “I know that you are unaware of our people’s customs. But we do not invite Mendacia to delicate negotiations. Particularly Mendacia who murder their own mother.”

“Lies,” Athena translated. “He means Lies.”

Nodding, Gabriel murmured, “I picked that up.” He looked to Metatron for a moment as though choosing his words carefully. Finally he spoke. “While I offer my reserved sympathies for your loss, the girl stays. I assure you, if we were to refuse conversation with everyone whom we found morally, socially, and in every other way repugnant, this negotiation would not be happening.”

Raphael, who had been observing this quietly, spoke up then. “He’s got a point. It’s their world, their people. You don’t have to like the girl, but they don’t have to get rid of her.”

For a moment, it looked as though Metatron might actually snap at the much more powerful man. But in the end he stopped himself, taking in a breath and letting it out before pointedly turning his gaze and body away from his granddaughter. “No matter. All of them are traitors. I should expect no less for its company.”

“You know,” Haiden suddenly spoke up. “Maybe the fact that you refer to a girl, let alone your own grandchild, as ‘it’ might say something about why your civilization is so fucked up.” He started to continue, but Larissa silenced him with a hand on his arm.

Metatron, meanwhile, gave the man an unimpressed look. “You should measure your tone. You, who would defile one of ours, disgust me no less than the murdering Mendacia.”

Before anyone else could say anything, a pair of portals opened nearby and two figures emerged. Both were female, one a tall, beautiful brunette, while the other was a smaller woman with light hair and incredibly green eyes.

“Jophiel,” Chayyiel greeted the former, then the latter. “And Cahethal. Nice of you both to make it.” Belatedly, she added, “Or do you prefer Aphrodite and Demeter while still on Earth?”

“Our Seosten names are fine,” Cahethal replied. “We are no longer playing make-believe gods.”

Both newcomers were subsequently deeply and thoroughly examined by all of the Earth group. These two were obviously the ones who were possessing the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden leadership. However unlikely it was that they would betray anything that gave away their host’s identities, there was always the chance.

Jophiel, in turn, seemed to study them right back. Her eyes moved over the group curiously for a moment before she spoke. “I don’t see the representative from Camelot. Is she not a part of this?“

Her words made the assembled group exchange glances before Athena replied, “Lady Lancelot is… occupied at the moment.”

“Pity,” Jophiel remarked. “I am certain we all have a great many questions for her. Particularly given her long absence.” Pausing, she added thoughtfully, “And the fact that she is a ‘her’ at all. Is she the true Lancelot, a descendant, something else?”

“Good questions,” Raphael agreed. “But they fall beyond the scope of this meeting. I believe what we should be discussing now is the main thrust of the negotiations.” He looked toward Sariel and Apollo. “The Summus Proelium Project.”

Metatron nodded. His own tone was fairly dismissive. “You claim that you can bring it back, re-open our way into that place. That is the sole reason these negotiations are happening, and I assure you, if you do not follow through, we will not hesitate to—”

Apollo interrupted. “We’ll follow through on our end, old man. Don’t worry about that. But we can’t do it here.”

Sariel clarified, “If you wish to see our work, you need to come with us. It’s not something that can be duplicated right here in some random field.”

Idly, Apollo added, “And it’s not a place that will fit all your friends here, let alone their toys.” He gestured to the gathered tanks.

Metatron gave both of the ‘twins’ a brief look, his expression barely less than a disgusted glare at their very presence. Particularly Sariel, whom his annoyed and disgusted gaze lingered on the longest. It was clear that he was deeply offended by her mere existence.

Raphael, however, spoke casually. “I assume all of even your more overzealous people understand that our entire trip here calls under the sign of Pax.”

That earned a nod from Athena. “No one will do anything untoward, Seraphims. This truce is best for all of our peoples, and they will not jeopardize that.”

The three Seosten leaders exchanged looks with each other as well as with Jophiel and the completely silent Cahethal, who had yet to so much as greet anyone. Then Metatron spoke. “Very well, the five of us shall accompany you while the honor guard stay here. But you should be well aware that should anything happen, they will be but the very tip of a full invasion.”

“But we shouldn’t have to worry about that,” Raphael insisted. “I’m sure they get the point. Now let’s do this thing before I get bored and wander off to find my old friend Michael.” He pronounced it the old way, ‘mick-aye-el’, with a full I sound in the middle.

The name made Sariel and Apollo glance briefly at one another before nodding.

“Okay,” Apollo announced.

“Then come with us, and we’ll show you how to bring back the Summus Proelium project.”

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Exodus 44-08 (End Of Year One)

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Eventually, we arrived in the lake, the one by the Atherby camp. It actually took a couple jumps. First we were in one of the Earth oceans, then another lake, and another, before we finally made it to the right one. It took a lot of juice to move something this size with this many people on it, so Nevada had to send it through a few hops before getting to our destination.

Through it all, hundreds of questions were being hurled in every direction. No one knew what was going on. All the people we had picked up were caught between realizing just what they had just done, and all the newfound knowledge about the rebellion that was still fresh in their minds. It was a lot to cope with, and the ones who weren’t blurting questions were sitting down wherever they could, staring off into the distance. The latter was mostly the older people, the ones who had probably been a part of the rebellion before and were now coming to terms with everything that had happened, everything they’d done, over the past couple of decades.

Dare, Kohaku, and a couple others were fielding as many questions as they could, telling people where we were going and that we would figure out what to do once we were there. Gabriel spoke up at one point, promising that there would be a meeting with everyone to get people on the same page, if they would just be a little patient right now. It helped, but there were still a lot of questions being thrown out. Especially from the students who had left without their parents.

It was going to take a long time to get people situated, to say the least. I tried to tune most of it out, looking toward the Atherby camp once we arrived in the middle of the lake and started heading closer to shore. There were already people there waiting, and I was pretty sure one of them was my dad.

He’s there, Tabbris assured me. Everyone else has been telling him what just happened.

Speaking of which, I thought back to her. You knew the whole time what I was using that notebook for, didn’t you? You knew what was going on and you kept quiet about it.

There was a brief pause before she hesitantly confirmed, Uh huh. I… you agreed to having it umm… erased, so I didn’t think I should un-erase it. Miss Gaia, when we… when she talked to me about it, she said that it was okay and that you would understand.

She was right, I assured her quickly. You did well, Tabs. You did really well.

I was distracted then, as the yacht got close to shore, by Avalon. She looked over, meeting my gaze before raising an eyebrow. “You really did it now, Chambers.” Her voice was soft.

Wincing, I started to reply before blinking slightly to the left. From his place on her shoulder, Porthos was busy staring over at the new Harper while making twitterpated sighing sounds as he pressed both hands where his heart would be. He was practically fluttering into the air.

“Err…” Shaking myself, I focused. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I… I guess I agreed to keep that secret from everyone, even you. It was a really big deal and I didn’t even say anything to you about it before agreeing to keep it secret. So–”

“It’s okay,” Avalon interrupted. She started to say something else before stopping herself to swallow hard. “It’s… it was about your mom. It was your secret to agree to. Besides,” she added with a shrug, “the more people who knew about it, like me, the harder it would’ve been to erase it. I get it. I’m just…” The next bit was clearly hard for her to admit, the vulnerability too much.

“You’re worried about Gaia,” I supplied, waiting until she nodded before hugging her. “We’ll get her back, Valley. They’re not going to do anything that bad to her. We’ll find her. We’ve got a lot more people on our side now, people who know what’s going on and can help.”

“Your mother is okay.” That was Sariel, who had stepped over to join us while speaking quietly. She looked to Avalon, continuing with, “I just checked in on her. She’s… unconscious. Too far down for me to reach. The spell she did took a lot out of her. She was prepared for it, but it’s still going to take a long time for her to wake up.” A brief pause then before, “Maybe weeks. Or even months. I’m not sure, exactly. Not yet. But we were ready. She knew it’d drain her, so I helped set it up.”

“You helped with that?” Tristan blurted from nearby. “But you never said anything to us!”

Shaking her head at that, Sariel reached out to pull her son over by the arm. “Yes,” she confirmed while mussing his hair a little bit, “because it was a secret.”

Turning away from the railing she had been leaning on, Scout nodded to me. “A big secret.”

“I’m sorry your dad didn’t listen, guys,” I told her and Sands. “I guess I was kinda hoping he’d change his mind and… and join us if you and your mom were…” Trailing off, I sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Larissa appeared nearby, putting her hand on my arm briefly. “Liam made his choice, more than once. Maybe he’ll change his mind, but…” She hesitated before exhaling. “I’m not basing my happiness on what he does.” The woman moved beside her daughters then, putting an arm around both of them with an added, “We will… figure it out.”

“Yeah, Flick,” Sands put in while leaning against her mother. “We’ll work with our own family. Pretty sure you’ve got enough to deal with right now anyway.” After a brief pause, she added, “But for the record, that was really cool. Especially seeing the looks on their faces.”

The two of us exchanged brief grins before Nevada called out for everyone to head off. She had done something to summon the energy bridge once more, attaching it to the end of the dock at the dock. People were already heading off, chattering with a mixture of confusion, worry, and awe as they started across the bridge. Some, of course, were more eager than others. A few stayed back, staring apprehensively at either me, one of the other adults, or the camp.

“Uh.” An awkward voice drew my attention, and I blinked over to see that boy from before, the hybrid who had spoken up and brought his whole team with him. Miles. That’s what the red-haired girl had called him when she’d called the Committee dickheads.

“Oh, uhh, hi?” I gave a little wave, feeling somewhat awkward. “Miles, right?”

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “It’s Miles Cleary. You’re–” He looked like he was going to say one thing, before settling on another. “That thing about the necromancer, about… Fossor. He really has your mom?” When I nodded, he breathed out. “Right, I–later. I need to talk to you later. It can wait until after the rest of this gets… figured out.” His hand waved around vaguely. With another brief apology, he moved back to where his team was waiting and started off the ship.

“What do you think that was all about?” Vanessa asked from nearby, watching the boy leave.

I shook my head. “I’m not sure, but we’ll find out before long.” Shaking off the uncertainty, I gestured to the others. “Come on, we better head into the camp before Dad charges in here to find me.”

Joining the crowd heading off the boat, we made our way over the bridge. I could see Dad in the distance, watching until he saw us. Abigail was next to him, along with Savvy, who was sitting on Choo. Miranda and Theia were behind the electric-pig and his Seosten toddler rider.

Seeing them, particularly my dad, made me walk faster. I moved across the bridge, hopping off once we were close enough that the water only came up to my knees. Landing hurt a good bit, but I didn’t care. Dad was already coming around the side, and I rushed the last few steps to hug him tightly. Tears that I hadn’t known were coming sprang into my eyes.

“I told them about her, Dad. I told them about Mom. They know. Everyone knows who she is.

“They can’t erase her anymore.”

*******

“I’m sorry we had to leave without your grandfather.”

My words were directed to Aylen, as the two of us stood together near one of the campfires.

It was awhile later. Late enough that the sun would be coming up soon. Everything was still getting organized, as people were assigned at least temporary cabins. The Kitsune, Busy, was… well… busy setting up brand new cabins (apparently he had dozens of them in storage that could be put up with less trouble or effort than most people put up a tent) for them. Gabriel had made it clear that no one had to stay. But they would be welcome for as long as they wanted to. Plus, there would be more coming. People who now remembered the rebellion, or who were learning about it for the first time. They would be looking for a place to stay.

It was a good thing Busy had a lot of those collapsible cabins, because I was pretty sure we would need them.

Also importantly, Wyatt had brought my sharks with us. Apparently he’d taken the time to carefully implant an emergency teleport beacon into each of them, triggering it as we left. Now they were safely swimming around in their new home, the lake. Which normally would have been a problem, being that it was a freshwater lake. But Wyatt had taken care of that too. Something about injecting them with a concoction he and Koren had put together once every few days until their bodies adjusted.

In any case, they were here in the lake. Which meant that, uhh, yeah, we were probably going to have to make sure there was a bigger supply of fish for them, pronto.

Aylen, for her part, was staring down into the fire. She smiled faintly without looking at me. “It’s okay, he’s not going anywhere.” Glancing up then, the girl added, “They need him too much.”

“Still,” I replied with a shrug, “I know you were looking forward to getting him out of there.”

“I am,” she confirmed, making a point of stressing the present tense. “And I will.”

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “We will. Mom–my mom… she had a bond with him too. She’d want us to get him out of there.”

That earned me a new little smile. “You know, I think I need to introduce you to my own mothers soon.” She paused slightly before adding, with an emphasis I didn’t understand, “And my other grandfather. He’s gonna love you so much.”

Her eyes unfocused then, a sign I had quickly figured out meant she was seeing through Sovereign’s eyes. At the moment, her cyberform hawk was perched on the roof of a nearby cabin.

“Professor,” she greeted without needing to turn around. “I’m glad you escaped.”

Dare, freshly changed into new clothes (a pair of khakis and a dark blue button up shirt), nodded to her with a brief smile. “Thank you, Aylen. I’m glad you made it too. Especially after what you did for Miss Chambers here.”

Flushing just a little, Aylen shook her head. “It was just–I couldn’t let her die. You…” She looked up then, hesitating before offering a slight shrug. “I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed, adding a wink, “but I’ve been told I have a habit of throwing myself into danger a few times. I’m glad you called for help instead of trying to handle it on your own.”

Looking back and forth between us, Aylen coughed. “I think I’m going to see if I’ve got a cabin yet. I… I’ll talk to you later, Flick.” She waved and headed off, leaving me alone with Dare.

“How many?” I asked, watching Sovereign fly down to join his partner.

“Eighty-four students came with us, beyond your group,” Dare answered. “It’s about half and half between Bystander-kin and Heretic-born. Which means a bigger percentage of the Bystander-kin came, considering they’re a smaller part of the school overall. But still. And there will be others, those who change their mind after sleeping on it, or who couldn’t get away at first. Or even those who slept through it.”

“And there might be those here who change their minds and want to go back to Crossroads,” I pointed out.

She nodded. “Yes, there may well be. We’ll have to deal with that. Beyond the students, we also have eleven teachers. There’s me, Risa, Nevada, and Benji Carfried from your year, as well as two from the second year, three from the third year, and one from the fourth year. And Hisao, of course.”

Grinning at her despite myself, I couldn’t help but tease, “I’m glad Hisao got out too.”

I was rewarded with a slight blush. “Yes,” Dare murmured, “well, without him, it would have been a lot more complicated for me to get out of there.”

There was a brief moment of silence then before I offered, “I know I never knew him, but… I think Grandpa Joshua would be… glad that you found someone else who makes you happy.”

That earned a smile, as Dare looked to me. Her gaze was a bit longing, but also happy. Happy to be here with me. Happy to share at least this little bit of herself with someone. “I think he would too.”

We stood there quietly together for a few seconds, each contemplating that until I looked over and cleared my throat. “I… I saw some of the security members fighting each other, and a few of the Committee’s people,” I mused. “They came with?”

“Some of them,” she confirmed. “That’s another eight adults, with more that couldn’t get away. Plus Larissa and Haiden, who should count for a few adults separately.”

“And whoever else comes in eventually,” I mused quietly, shaking my head in wonder. “We really blew up Crossroads, huh? Err, metaphorically speaking.”

She chuckled lightly. “Yes, metaphorically speaking, you blew the hell out of Crossroads.”

“It’s funny,” I murmured quietly, “Ruthers didn’t want me there because he thought I’d destroy your society. I guess he was closer to being right than anyone thought.”

Dare shook her head. “You didn’t destroy anything, Felicity. You helped bring things back to where they should be. This was a war that needed to start again. We need to make things right.”

“We need to find Mom,” I stressed. “And find out why Fossor wanted to kill a Committee member. Not to mention how he did it.”  

“There’s a lot to work out,” Dare confirmed. “Which we will. And we’ll find Joselyn.”

“Mom and Gaia,” I added. “And Sean. And… anyone else that we need to.” I coughed, shaking my head. “It’s gonna be a busy summer.”

She gave me a brief smile. “Yes. But at least we’ll have help. Including Lancelot, of all people.” A slight grimace came then. “I can’t believe we had no idea who she was.”

“To be fair,” I put in, “she did a really good job of pretending to b–” I stopped talking then.

“Felicity?” Dare blinked at me. “Are you okay?”

“I… yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I was just thinking about how I really have to thank her for everything she did tonight. Everything she’s been doing… for awhile, apparently.”

******

“You weren’t frozen.”

I’d found Harper, in her adult form, standing near the woods. It was like she was waiting for me, watching the busy campgrounds with everyone running around, trying to get things set up for the new arrivals. When I approached, she simply stood there, waiting for me to start.

“At the library, when… when they came. You weren’t frozen.”

The woman watched me with a hint of a smile, and I had a good chance to look at her face finally. She looked… well, enough like Harper that I could see the resemblance, though there were differences. Besides obviously being older, her own face was slightly thinner where Harper’s had been more rounded. Not in an unhealthy or anorexic way, just… thin. It made her cheekbones more pronounced. Her eyes, like Harper’s, seemed almost too big for her face. It made them incredibly expressive. Especially now, as her amusement at my announcement was obvious. “No,” she finally replied, “I was not. And by now, your… other teachers have realized that as well. They will be contacting you as soon as they can get away.”

“You… you’ve known–you were there!” I blurted out loud. “You were there that day, when we ambushed that bus. You were in the trees. Tristan almost saw you.”

Coughing, she waved a hand. “Yes, well, he is very perceptive. More so than he will admit, in some cases.” Sobering then, she watched me. “You are wondering the same thing they will be, whether I will tell anyone what I heard. Before I answer that, I would like to speak to your boyfriend.”

Well. Of all the things she could have said right then, that was one that I never would have expected. I blinked a couple times. “Errr, my what?”

Harper chuckled. “It’s alright. I… I know you’ve been possessed by a Seosten for a long time, and that he kind of… fell for you. I’d like to have a discussion between the three of us. You, me, and this Tabbris.”

For a moment, all I could do was stare. My mouth opened, shut, then opened again. There was essentially static playing inside my head. When I finally found my voice, it cracked. “Y-you… you… you think that… you… oh… oh my… God…”

Then I laughed. A lot. Doubling over, I clutched my stomach and laughed until I almost peed. It was all I could do to catch myself. “Oh, my God. You think that I have a–that Tabbris is a–is my–” Then I had to stop talking, I was laughing too much. It probably wasn’t that funny, but after everything that had happened, my emotions were pretty high-strung and I needed it.

Finally getting hold of myself while Harper just stared in confusion, I took my phone and texted Tabbris to recall to me as soon as she had a chance. “Okay, um, I’m sorry, but there’s a little thing you’re mistaken about.”

What’s going on? The girl herself appeared in me a moment later, reading my thoughts briefly before she too started to laugh inwardly. In between making disgusted noises. “Gross, gross! Yuck! Eww!”

“Ah, something I’m mistaken about?” Harper prompted, frowning in clear confusion. “Are you saying he’s not your boyfriend?”

“Umm, well…” I drawled before gesturing. “Come on out, Tabs.”

She did so, appearing in front of me with a grand, “Ta da!”

That lasted for about three seconds before she suddenly blurted, “Oh gosh, you are so freaking cool! That thing you did with the swords and the blocking and the ‘yah, you’re dumb, Ruthers, hiiii yah!’ Parry, parry, fire, block, your timestop does nothing to me, parry!  And then you said you were Darkwing Duck, and he was like, ‘buh?’ and you were like, ‘fwoosh, I’m behind you, dummy who doesn’t know like the best cartoons, have at you!’ Kwoosh, skewer, aaaaaahh! Wiff, punch, haha, and you smell bad too. Kick!”

All of this was accompanied by dramatic hand gestures or full on physical reenactments as Tabbris bounced around, spinning in circles, kicking empty air, and pantomiming a sword duel. At the end, as she spun back, the girl nearly fell over before my hands quickly caught her shoulders. She was panting, and gave a final, exhilarated, “Can I have your autograph?”

If this had been a cartoon, Harper’s mouth would have been on the ground. It was wide open already, as she pointed and gaped, making weak noises of confusion.

“Harper, Lancelot, whatever… this is Tabbris,” I gestured to her. “My… Seosten little sister.” Briefly, I explained what had happened, and where she came from.

“Of course… I… that… makes sense.” Shaking that off, the woman took a knee in front of Tabbris. “You know, I’ve met a lot of brave people in my life. But you might just be one of the bravest.”

Blushing deeply, Tabbris hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re really Lancelot?”

“Let you in on a little secret?” the woman asked. When Tabbris gave an eager nod, she made a point of looking around before quietly informing us, “I’m also Guinevere.” As both Tabbris and I made noises of surprise, she added, “You can call me Gwen.”

That raised a lot of questions. I was going to have to get the full story about that eventually. Later, once there was more time. For the moment, I just said, “You know I… can’t really tell you the whole story about… about what you saw.” It was impossible. Jophiel and Elisabet had made sure of that. “None of us can.”

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on getting it from you,” the woman assured me. “I’ll get it from them. For now, I’ll keep quiet. Until I find out the whole story, at least. And when I do, we’re going to be making a few adjustments to whatever deal you made with them. Starting with you not being forced to lie to your friends and family. There’s been enough of that.

“But we can work out the rest of that later. Right now, you just… let me know when they contact you, okay? You can do that without violating the spell?”

I paused before nodding. “I mean, I guess so. I can’t tell you about our deal, or anything about… them. But I don’t see why I can’t let you know when they make contact.”

“Good,” Harper–errr, Gwen smiled. “Do that. All of us need to have a nice long conversation, so we can get on the same page.”

She sighed then. “In the meantime, I better go talk to Shiloh and Eiji. See how much of this I can explain.” Taking a step, the woman paused before looking at me. “Are you going to be okay?”

I took a breath before answering, letting the question float in my head for a moment before looking to my little sister. “Yeah,” I confirmed while laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine.”

******

Walking toward the lake a few minute later with Tabbris at my side, I saw a small group waiting for me. Seller was there, with Miranda, Theia, Pace, and Roxa.

As we approached, Randi greeted me by walking forward and giving me a high five. “You know,” she started, “Principal Bonnelly used to tell me you were going to drag me into trouble.”

Blinking as she brought up that name from so long ago, I asked, “What did you tell her?”

She grinned, catching my hand to push it into a fist before bumping her own against it. “That you don’t drag me anywhere. We run into trouble together. Same thing here. Even if you are a bit ahead in the, ahhh, field of trouble.”

“I guess I did run off without you a bit,” I admitted before meeting her gaze. “Sorry for starting all the fun without you.”

“Eh, I’ll catch up.” With a wink, Randi gestured. “At least we already left Garden before you blew the whole civil war wide open again. I can’t imagine what’s going on back there.”

“Theia-I–” Theia started before catching herself. “I… mean… I can. My imagination needs more popcorn though. And a soda.” Despite her light words, something about the Seosten girl looked… emotional, and ragged. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and didn’t want to pry. But it was obvious that she was still working her way through things. She had technically killed her own mother less than twelve hours earlier.

God damn, when things got busy around here, they got really busy.

Pace spoke up then. “Things are probably pretty bad back there. But you know what… you’re fucking awesome, Flick.” She gave me a thumbs up. “What you did, what you and Headmistress Sinclaire did… it–you’re… holy shit.”

“Yeah…” I coughed. “I think holy shit sums it up. I really didn’t think it’d be that dramatic back when we were talking about it. I wasn’t picturing… well, that.”

“Things rarely go the way we picture,” Seller put in. “I, for example, never pictured my descendant starting a Heretic civil war… and my next descendant continuing it.”

Turning to the man, I tilted my head curiously. “What do you think about that?”

He met my gaze, deadpanning, “I think I’ve got a couple of hilariously overachieving nutjobs for descendants… who are going to need a lot of help. And I’m glad I get the chance to be there for them.” He paused then before adding, “And that taking care of Hannah taught me how to be there for them for once in my life.”

Smiling a little at that, I looked toward Roxa before swallowing, my expression falling a bit. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get Sean out.”

She glanced away briefly before turning back to me with a nod. “Yeah, I know you tried. They all tried. He… we’ll find him. Whatever hole they try to bury him in, we’ll get him out.”

“We will,” I agreed. “We’ll get them all out of there. Him, Gaia, and everyone else they try to lock up.”

We talked a little bit more then. Tabbris and Theia were deep in some conversation when I glanced over and saw Deveron, Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt a short distance off. Looking back to Seller and the others, I excused myself before starting that way.

“Felicity, you…” Abigail started before just taking a few steps over. Her arms were suddenly around me, squeezing tight. “I can’t believe you did that. I can’t–you really just… you…”

“Pretty much ruined Ruthers’ reputation, for one,” Koren put in, grinning. “That was awesome.”

“I didn’t include anything about who you guys are now,” I quickly pointed out toward my siblings, even though they definitely would already know that. “I didn’t think it would be right to expose you like that, not without you getting a say.”

Deveron took his turn for a hug then, squeezing me tight as he whispered, “Joselyn is proud of you. She knows everything you did too, you know.”

I swallowed at that, glancing away before turning back to meet his gaze. “They erased everything she did, everything she stood for. I couldn’t let that stand.”

Wyatt actually grinned at that, a goofy, buck-toothed smile that was still so endearing. “No one saw it coming. It was a fantastic sneak attack, right where they didn’t expect it.” He sobered then, straightening. “Now they know. They know about what that man did to end the war.”

“They know,” I agreed, reaching out to take his hand before squeezing it. My other hand found Abigail’s. “They know he burned down a nursery just to cause a distraction so he could abduct infants and use them as hostages. And we are not going to let them forget how far he went. How far they let him go. They’re going to deal with the truth, even if we have to beat them unconscious with it and then shove it down their throats until they choke.”

Koren piped up, “You know, that’s like the best newspaper slogan.”

*****

My team was standing on the edge of the lake, feet in the water. They were all there as I made my way to them a few minutes later. Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Columbus watched me approach. All of them, of course, aside from Sean. Seeing that made me sigh, and I walked that way before rubbing Vulcan’s head when he trotted up to meet me.

“Shouldn’t you guys go back to bed by now?” I teased despite myself. “I mean, you didn’t kill an Amarok on our first hunt and end up almost never needing to sleep.”

“And you’ve been using your extra hours to get into about five times as much trouble as you should,” Avalon retorted.

Doug coughed at that, shaking his head. “You know a lot of things are about to change now. Once they put the immediate fires out and everyone has a chance to breathe.”

“They should change,” I replied easily. “The longer we just let bad things happen because it’s easier than challenging the status quo, the more innocent people die. We needed this. They needed this. Gaia knows that. It’s why she wanted to undo the spell.”

“You’re right,” the boy replied. “They uhh, they’re already talking about what to do about the families of Bystander-kin who came with us and don’t know what’s going on. It’s pretty chaotic though.”

“It will be for a long time,” Sands pointed out before looking to me. “You did good, Flickster.”

Beside her, Scout nodded in agreement, grinning my way. “You destroyed the memory spell!”

“Gaia did, mostly,” I pointed out. “I was pretty much just the right tool to do it.” Glancing toward Columbus, I added, “You know Sean would’ve jumped on that tool comment if he was here.”

“I’ll tell him about it as soon as we get him out of there,” he informed me, managing a tiny smile. “I mean, if you can help destroy the entire revolution eraser and bring back the Heretic Civil War, freeing Sean should be no big deal.”

“Damn it, why’d you have to say that?” I demanded. “Now it’s going to take most of the next year and like…thirteen and a half time-travel or alternate dimension trips. We may even end up in a reality where we’re all cartoons.”

“Pfffft,” Columbus retorted. “If it’s anything like this year… bring it on.”

Before anyone else could speak up, Asenath and Shiori approached. The former walked right up to embrace me tightly. “I had no idea we were getting the spell stuff for you.”

Flushing, I returned the hug. “Trust me, I didn’t know either, for most of it. But you pulled it off. All that stuff Gaia said she needed and you found it. That’s insane, Senny.”

“Hey,” she retorted, “when I take a job, I finish it. I…” She winced then, glancing away. I knew she was thinking about Seth, even if she didn’t say anything about him. Instead, she cleared her throat before looking back at me. “Twister wants to take you out to a dinner, by the way. A big dinner. And by take you out, I mean to her house so she can cook for you.”

Trying not to drool, I managed a weak, “We’ll have to do that sometime.”

Gradually, Asenath, Doug, the twins, and Columbus wandered away. I could tell it was a deliberate thing, but kept quiet until I was left alone with Shiori and Avalon.

“I think we’ve been abandoned,” I finally pointed out quietly before turning to face the lake. The sun was just starting to come up over the distant mountains, its light cutting through the shadows surrounding the camp.  

Shiori moved to one side of me, her hand taking mine to squeeze lightly. “That’s okay, I could stand to be abandoned with you for awhile.”

Nodding in agreement, Avalon took my other hand. Together, we stood there, letting the water reach our ankles. When she finally spoke, Valley’s voice cracked just a little. “It’s been a long year.”

God, had it ever. I thought about that for a minute. Everything I’d learned over the course of the past school year, everything I’d been a part of. I thought of Professor Pericles, of Seth, of… of poor Rudolph. I thought of Ammon, of Professor Katarin, of all the people I’d met, all the people I’d hurt, and all the people I wanted to hurt. I thought of all the people that had been lost over the past year, and those who had been helped.

I’d helped bring a lot of people together again, had put together families. Like my own. Or the Moons. Even Sands and Scout had their mother back. Families had been put together and healed.

But families had also been torn apart, just this very night. The civil war was back. Siblings, lovers, parents and children, husbands and wives, they were dealing with that right now. Dealing with those new memories, that new understanding of just what was going on, of what had happened to them. And a lot of them, I knew, wouldn’t take it well, hadn’t taken it well.

I’d helped put a few families back together, sure. But I’d also helped rip a lot more apart with my last actions at Crossroads. I still believed it was worth it, but I didn’t think it was easy. And it was going to get harder. Now Ruthers and the Committee were definitely our enemies. They wouldn’t be playing nice anymore, even if I did have a few allies in their group. A couple they didn’t even know about.

Yeah, things were definitely going to get even more interesting very soon. The fires were just getting started. And they were going to burn long and hot.

Glancing over at me, Shiori asked, “So what’s next on the agenda, Miss Chambers?”

I thought about it, staring at the water, at the light from the rising sun reflected off of it.

“You know… for now, ‘next’ is this, right here. It’s taking a little break with you guys, and the others. After everything that just happened, after the whole Seosten thing and getting that spell, after… the whole damn year, I need some time to process. And have a little fun. It’s time for a vacation. But after that…well, people keep saying this world isn’t what I want it to be, that I’m naive and it’s full of evil that I’ll never understand. So let’s make it better. Let’s change it.

“Let’s change the world.”

End of book one. Stay tuned for Summer Epilogues.

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Exodus 44-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

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

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

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

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Exodus 44-02

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“We have another problem.”

The quiet announcement came from Aylen, who was looking off at nothing in particular. Actually her eyes were kind of unfo–oh, she was looking through Sovereign’s eyes. The cyberform hawk was soaring silently high above our heads, while people continued shouting down below. Any second now, a general alarm was going to go off and this was going to get even harder.

“Gaze upon the shock with which I react to that news,” I deadpanned before shaking my head. “What else is wrong?”

“Sovereign can see Scout,” Aylen informed us before adding, “And her dad is with her. I think they’re having some kind of argument.”

“What?!” Sands snapped. “Dad’s out with–we have to go get her.”

“The boys are right there,” I pointed out. “And if we don’t get them soon, they’ll be with the Committee. Then we’ll never get them out of there.”

From his place on Avalon’s shoulder, Porthos stood tall, his tail-sword clutched in one hand as he made a brief chittering speech that was complete gibberish, but kind of sounded as though he was challenging the guards down there to try dragging him off. It was apparently a pretty inspiring speech too, because Jaq and Gus were both up on their hind legs on my own shoulders, acting like they were trying to salute.  

“And if Dad takes Scout to them, we’ll never get her either!” Sands blurted. Her eyes were wide as she stared at me, her hands basically flailing. “Scout, Flick! We can’t let them take Scout!”

As she spoke, my eyes glanced toward the boys and their escorts. They’d stopped for the moment, arguing amongst themselves about what to do since the others couldn’t find us. We had a few seconds to decide what to do. But not much. Any second now, they’d push on. And if we let the guys or Scout end up wherever the Committee was, this whole thing would get worse.

Before I could say anything, Harper spoke up. “You won’t.” Her head nodded that way, even as she instructed us quickly and firmly. “Go. Go stall him. If you show up, it’ll keep him busy for awhile. Try talking him down. I’ll get the guys here and meet you.” Her voice still sounded like Harper, but it had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.

Behind me, Shiori hesitantly asked, “You’re going to go over there all by yourself and rescue Columbus and the other guys from a bunch of the Committee’s hand-picked goons?”

“Why aren’t they teleporting?” I suddenly put in. “I mean, why are they walking across the grounds instead of just instantly teleporting the boys straight to wherever they’re going?”

“Security measures,” Avalon replied while holding her jacket open for Porthos to clamber down inside with one more muttered bit of gibberish that was clearly another threat against the Committee’s goons. “They’re using the school’s security shield to shut down instant-transport powers to stop the rest of us from getting out with them. They don’t get to pick and choose who that affects, if they want it to actually work right.”

Harper nodded. “Which is why we need to get out from under it.” To Shiori, she added, “And yes, I’ll get your brother and the others. The only reason Deveron hasn’t done anything yet is because he doesn’t know where Flick and you guys are, so he’s biding his time. I’ll give him an opening, we’ll get the other boys and then meet up with you.”

She knew about Deveron. Or at least knew enough to plan on him being able to successfully fight back against the Committee’s goons if he wanted to. Which, given everything else she apparently already knew, really shouldn’t have been surprising. But it did raise more questions.

“Okay, wait, wait, wait!” That was Koren, snapping her head back and forth to stare at the rest of us. “Wait just a second. What the hell is going on? What was that about one of the Committee members being dead, and Joselyn being involved, and… and… huh? Who exactly is dead, damn it?!”

Quickly, Harper replied, “Fossor used Joselyn to lure one of the Committee members out. It’s not… clear yet exactly how it happened or which one of them killed him, but he’s dead. And the rest of the Committee think that Gaia did it. How or why, we don’t know. Not yet. Percival didn’t have time to tell me everything.”

“Percival?” I echoed. “You mean Committee Percival? He’s talking to–wait, you said him You said that Fossor killed ‘him’. But not Percival. Which Committee member was it? If it was Ruthers–”

“No, it was Oliver Brockett,” she replied simply. “He’s the one who was killed.”

Oliver. I thought of the rotund Committee member. I barely knew anything about him save for the very few brief words we’d exchanged in those meetings. He was the one who had been amused when I pointed out that I hadn’t asked to inherit Manakel’s necromancer powers, and the one who had brought up the Committee’s theory that I was involved with the people trying to kill Avalon.

Koren was shaking her head still. “So Fossor killed a Committee member, which should be basically impossible, and now they think Gaia did it for some reason. So they’re rounding us up. Or trying to. Well, shit.” She looked to me, biting her lip. “Has… has Wyatt…?”

“Nothing from him yet,” I replied quietly before looking away to distract myself from the worry that admitting that brought on. “Aylen? What’s going on with Scout?”

“Still arguing,” the other girl informed us. “He tried to grab her arm, but she pulled back. I think he’s about to give up on the talking thing and try dragging her back. We’re running out of time.”

Taking in and letting out a breath, I nodded. “Okay. Okay, we go distract him and try to get Scout. Let… let Harper get Deveron and the boys and meet back up with us.” Even as I said the words, I wondered just how easily I was rolling with this whole thing. Maybe later it would actually hit me and I’d have to fall over or something. Right now, there wasn’t time to react.

Harper was already over by the far side of the roof, facing the way that Scout and Liam apparently were. Her hand was raised, and I saw a weird distortion in the air, like a rippling effect. “Jump,” she quickly blurted, nodding to the distortion. “It’ll get you partway there. Then just keep your heads down and stay quiet until you get to them.”  Pausing then, she added, “And for the record, after you get used to it, it’s actually a pretty fun way to travel.”

The rest of us exchanged brief glances. But there wasn’t time to debate. There wasn’t even time to worry any more about where Wyatt was or why he hadn’t responded. We had to go, right now. So without another word, we went for it. Shiori and Avalon helped me up onto the edge of the roof, where I took a breath and put Jaq and Gus away in a pocket together before jumping as instructed into the weird air distortion.

Oh boy, did weird not come close to describing it. In an instant, I was abruptly a lot smaller. Like, smaller than Namythiet. Bee sized, or smaller. The world grew huge around me. At the same time, I was being flung wildly through the air like dandelion fluff on a stiff breeze. The whole world spun around me as I was propelled through the distortion in the air, over the heads of several searchers, who apparently couldn’t see or hear me when I passed by.

I hit the ground a hundred yards from the dorm building, lying flat on my stomach behind a bush as I resumed my normal size while clutching the grass and breathing hard. All around me, the others appeared the same way, whimpering and panting as we adjusted to what had just happened. Jaq and Gus clambered out of my pocket briefly, spinning around like they were dizzy before falling onto their backs. Apparently that had been disorienting for them too.

Slowly lifting my head, I stared out through the darkness. In the distance, we could see people searching all around the dorm buildings. Lights were going on in all the windows as students were either waking up, or the searchers were going room to room. Probably a bit of both.

They were searching everywhere around and inside the buildings. But not here. Harper had successfully gotten us outside of their search perimeter, at least for the moment. We had time to go find Scout and get her away from her father. But we had to hurry. Because I was pretty sure that as soon as the Committee’s people realized that we weren’t in the buildings, they’d expand the search pretty quick. And there wasn’t a lot we could do to hide from the powers they’d use.

That understanding made me push myself up a lot sooner than my stomach was exactly comfortable with. I came up to my knees, watching the people in the distance for another second before turning back the other way. Sands was already up in a crouched position, glancing back to the rest of us before she set off the way that Aylen was pointing.

For a brief second, I glanced to the part-Reaper girl. Part-Reaper. Was she really related to the Heretical Edge itself? Himself? Bob, as Koren called him. Was she really related to… him? It made sense. It explained why she was here, why she didn’t want to leave, what her purpose was. Did she want to free him? Of course she did. Of course. And now we were asking her to abandon that. Because there was no way we could get to the lighthouse with the Committee here. We wouldn’t get anywhere near the place before they would be right on top of us.

Together, Aylen, Avalon, Shiori, Koren, Sands, and I set off across the dark grounds. We kept ourselves low, hunching over as we jogged further away from the dorms. Just like the situation with Wyatt, I was also trying not to think about what was going on with Professor Dare. She was known to be basically Gaia’s right-hand woman and protege. So they would obviously try to contain her as well. Part of me wanted to insist that we go find her. But I knew that was stupid. For the same reasons that we couldn’t risk going to find Gaia, we couldn’t go find Professor Dare. If there was anything she couldn’t handle, we’d just end up being used against her.

Before long, I could hear voices. Scout and Professor Mason were definitely arguing. The two of them were right on the edge of the grounds, near one of the cliffs high above the jungle and the beach. The closer we got, the more we could make out their words.

“No, Dad, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. You’ve never understood.” Scout’s voice was raised. “You don’t understand the world or how much you’re being tricked. Just like all those other people. But it’s worse for you. It’s worse because they tried to tell you. They tried to help you, tried to show you the truth. But you wouldn’t open your eyes. Because you don’t want to know the truth. Because if you did, if you let yourself see it, you’d have to accept that you were wrong. You’d have to accept that you made a mistake, that you betrayed your friends and started a war for no reason. And you would rather drag everyone down again than admit that. You betrayed your friends for a lie, Dad. You let innocent people die because you wouldn’t believe Joselyn. And now you’re letting them arrest Gaia because you still won’t admit that you were wrong.”

A moment later, I heard Liam’s voice. “Scout, listen to me, it’s okay. You’re young and naive and I know you want to believe this stuff. You have no idea how much I wanted to believe it too. The idea that there can be good Strangers, that humanity isn’t alone? You think I don’t want that? But it’s wrong. It’s wrong, baby. They want to kill us, all of us. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. The monsters out there, the ones that pretend to be human, that pretend to be good… I’ve seen them. You think I just… that I just decided to turn on Joselyn for no reason? I tried. I…”

He trailed off for a moment before taking an audible breath. By then, we had managed to sneak close enough, ducked low behind some more bushes in a flower garden, to see the two of them. Scout was staying several feet away, her back basically right up against the cliff, while Liam was there with his hands raised placatingly, his back to the rest of us. From his body language, he was openly desperate to make his daughter understand what he was saying.

After taking a breath, the man pushed on. “There were Strangers, baby girl. There were Strangers and I tried to listen to Joselyn. They looked helpless. They looked safe. So I let them go. I let them go and they murdered an entire apartment complex. Do you understand?” His voice was choked. “I let them go because of what Joselyn said, and they massacred over a hundred people. She’s wrong. They’re wrong. We can’t let that happen again.”

He paused then before speaking in a softer tone. “The rest of you can come out now. I know you’re back there.” Turning slightly, the man watched as we collectively stood up.

“Dad,” Sands spoke sharply while holding her mace in one hand. “Get away from Scout.”

I saw the man’s mouth open, then shut as he looked at the mace, then back to the girl herself. “Sandoval, I know what you’re thinking. And why you’re thinking it. But Gaia is wrong. Joselyn was wrong. All of this is wrong. You need to stand down right now. All of you. No one wants to hurt you. We know you’ve been misled, okay? We know you’ve been listening to Gaia and her people and no one blames you for being idealistic. But put the weapons down, and sit until someone comes to collect you. We’ll handle all of this without violence.”

I saw a very brief smirk cross Sands’ face before she shook her head. “That’s where you’re wrong, Dad. Very wrong. Because you’re making a mistake, and you’re trying to drag the rest of us down with you. You’re trying to force the rest of us to believe the same lie you’re desperately clinging to.”

Scout spoke then. “Gaia didn’t kill Counselor Brockett. She couldn’t have.”

“She didn’t,” I confirmed, my voice drawing both her attention and Professor Mason’s. As they stared at me, I went on, trying to get the man to see reason. “Fossor did. He’s manipulating you all just like he manipulated the Heretics back before Crossroads, Professor Mason.”

The man blinked at me, then shook his head. “Fossor? What does he have to do with–” Cutting himself off, he shook his head. “No, you’re the ones who don’t understand. Brockett’s been collecting evidence that Gaia has been sneaking non-human students into the school. She’s been doing it for years. He found out, he confronted her with the evidence and gave her a chance to turn herself in. And she killed him for it.”

My mind was reeling. They knew about Hybrid students? That was bad, really bad. Earth-shatteringly bad. How–what–why did– There were so many questions spinning through my thoughts in those seconds that I couldn’t even order them properly. Fossor had found out what Gaia was doing and used that to frame her, or… or… something. What the hell?

From the corner of my eye, I could see Shiori and Aylen exchange brief glances. Yet Liam seemed to be paying very little attention to them. That seemed to mean that he didn’t know who the Hybrid students were. Only that they existed. But even that by itself was too much. Crossroads would root out anything like that. There was no way they’d rest until they found all of them. This was really bad. Even if–when we got away from here, how many students would that leave in danger here? Hell, how many graduated Heretics would be in danger? What was Crossroads going to do when word got out that some of their own people were half-Alter? What the hell would that mean?

Once again, Fossor had managed to completely fuck over everyone. And he’d probably been laughing to himself the whole time he did it, because of course the Committee (especially Ruthers) would play right into it. Damn it!

Clearly reading our reactions (or at least some of them), Liam gave a slow nod. “That’s right, we know a lot more than you think. And we also know that you kids were being manipulated. It’s not your fault. But you need to sit down right now. If I have to disarm you, I will. Either way, I’m taking you in to see the Committee, where we’ll get to the bottom of all this.”

“You’re wrong.” That was Sands, straightening up as she faced her father. “You’re wrong about all of this. You’re wrong about everything, Dad. Get away from Scout. We’re not staying with you.”

With a soft sigh, Liam let his gaze sweep over us. His tone was regretful. “Then I suppose you leave me no choice. I’ll have to make you.”

“No,” a new voice interrupted. “You won’t.”

Larissa came into view then, emerging from the trees. She stepped past us, putting herself in front of Liam. In one hand was her crystal weapon, currently shaped as a sword. Slowly, she raised it, pointing the end toward her husband. “You want to take these kids, Liam? Ours or any others?

“You’ll go through me to do it.”

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Interim Incursion 43-02 (Sands)

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As the shooting started, Sands had already tapped her mace against the floor to register that reinforced material. Then she swung it up, creating a wall out of that same material in front of herself and her sister. The building was designed to be almost impregnable through force. That included damaging the interior, such as cutting up through the floor. Which was coming in handy now, and would again in a few minutes. Once it was time.

Beside her, Scout snapped her rifle up and aimed at one of her scope-portals before pulling the trigger twice quickly. Sands wasn’t sure what her sister was aiming for, but there was a yelp of pain barely audible over the onslaught of gunfire. She kept that up for a moment, taking careful, pointed shots. The enemies they were facing weren’t going to go down that easily. They all had protection. Some weren’t even hurt that much by the bullets. But it still kept them busy. And helped distract them from the bigger threat. Namely, the adults.

On Sands’ other side, Doug appeared, putting his back against the wall she had created. He had a spear in one hand and shield in the other. “Your mom took that forcefield down pretty quick,” he remarked while clearly catching his breath. There was blood on his spear and dents in the shield.

Sands nodded. “There was no point to keeping it up. We need to fight these guys. Maintaining the shield would just drain her, and sitting here behind a forcefield isn’t the point. The point is to fight.”

“Kinda seems like you disagree with that,” the boy pointed out while nodding to the wall they were behind.

Sands grinned at him while raising the mace to make the wall as tall as she could. “Not exactly,” she replied before looking to Scout. “Ready?”

The other girl nodded, and Sands pivoted to face the wall. She made a sweeping motion with her mace. Because Sands, like others, had been upgrading her weapon over the year. Namely, she could now control portions of the structures that she created with her mace.

The wall, which she had added long, jagged spikes to all along the front, immediately began to tip forward as Sands removed part of the bottom front and directed the whole thing with her mace. With a terrifying crash, it collapsed toward the ground. The thing was tall enough that it reached all the way to the nearest wall, forcing any of the enemies who had been in front of it to scatter toward either side.

And the girls were ready. Scout already had portals set up along one side, creating a shooting gallery that she was able to flood with bullets without bothering to aim.

Sands, meanwhile, cut around the other side of the fallen wall. Her mace swung hard, colliding with the man who had just managed to dive out from under the collapsing structure. Even at full strength, which for her was pretty impressive, the mace barely seemed to do anything. It glanced off the man’s back as if she had hit a brick wall without any enhanced strength.

Sands swung again, a backhand strike with her mace. But the possessed Heretic was too fast for that. His hand snapped out, catching the edge of her weapon before his foot collided with her stomach.

His foot broke. Because, as tough as the man might’ve been, Sands was standing still in that second. And as long as she stood still, she was basically invulnerable. All of the force that the man put into his attack went right back into his leg as it met the immovable object.

With a quick gesture, Sands made a very small section of floor rise up under the staggering man’s good foot. It was barely an inch high. Then she immediately made a pulling motion that yanked the floor bit toward herself. The man was hauled completely off that remaining foot and began to stumble, even as Sands spun to bring her weapon around into a full roundhouse swing with both hands.

Even then, the man was too quick. He suddenly shrank down, dropping to about a third of his normal height so that her mace completely missed, whiffing over his head. Returning to his normal height as he pivoted, the man planted his suddenly healed foot down solidly. It had repaired itself that quickly. His hand snapped out, stopping just in front of Sands’ face before the man conjured some kind of blindingly bright flash centered right in front of her eyes. She stumbled with a yelp as she was briefly blinded, losing the invulnerability that staying still offered. Which was the opening that the man had been looking for, his fist lashing out toward her face while a gleaming metal blade slid out from his knuckles. Sands couldn’t see it, but she heard the blade appear, and felt as it cut right across the side of her face when her head jerked desperately to the side at the last instant.

Bullets tore into the man then, striking from several different angles. Scout, coming to her aid. Still not enough to kill him, but they stung and made him stagger back a step. Which bought Sands a brief opening, and she took advantage of by shifting directly into her two-dimensional shadow shape, hugging the floor like a puddle of darkness.

Using that insubstantial shadow form, Sands ‘swam’ up the man’s legs and over his back before reforming herself there to wrap up her mace around his throat tightly from behind.

He didn’t exactly go down. The man’s hand reached back to grab onto her, but before he could, Doug was there. He drove his spear into the distracted man’s hand. The blade broke against the skin, but the impact was enough to draw his attention that way just as Doug slammed his shield into the guy’s face.

Sands’ vision had come back by then, just in time for her to make that out. It was also in time for her to see the man snap his hand up, that blade that had extended from his knuckles cutting through Doug’s shoulder.

Choking him wasn’t working. The man clearly didn’t need air. Or at least not enough to matter in the short term. Instead, Sands released the man and swung her weapon one way, then the other, conjuring two quick marble pillars that wrapped around his arms to hold him in place. For a moment, anyway. With her other hand, she threw something into the air.

As expected, the man shrank once more to free himself easily from the pillars that held his arms. Which was when a shadow appeared over his head. His gaze snapped up, just in time to see Sands’ theriangelos rhino, conjured from the bit of prepared wood that she had just tossed into the air.

The man made a tiny noise in the back of his throat, already starting to dive out of the way. He was, after all, possessed by a Seosten, who boosted him to escape.

But two quick bullets from Scout caught his face, even as Doug’s hands lashed out, sending two metal coils from his palms that wrapped around the man to hold him. A new power that he’d picked up from the hospital trip. It was kind of gross, actually, seeing metal coils emerge from his palms. Columbus and Shiori kept calling him Scorpion for some reason.

The rhino fell, slamming into the man from above while he was held by those chains. And as tough as he may have been, that wasn’t something he could just shrug off. As the rhino straightened up under Sands’ command, the possessed man lay unconscious at its feet.

Which, of course, still left the actual Seosten. A glowing figure appeared, quickly resolving into a beautiful dark-haired female form. The so-called angel acted instantly, turning into a blur that kicked the feet out from under Doug, caught him by the arm, and threw him into Sands. She was even quick enough to dodge to the side just as another bullet from Scout tore through the air right where her head had been. She pivoted, her hand lashing out while she activated some kind of spell that brought five little marbles to her palm, throwing them. The tiny metal balls flew, correcting their course to collide with the sniper-girl in the distance before exploding in bursts of flame and made the girl yelp while falling over. Her rifle clattered to the floor.

“Scout!” Sands blurted before scrambling out from under Doug and to her feet. “Throw me at the bitch, then get ready to grab her,” she blurted to the boy beside her while grabbing onto his damaged shield. With a thought, she possessed it.

He did. Like that Captain America guy that Columbus kept talking about, Doug hurled his shield at the Seosten woman. As it spun through the air, Sands waited until the last second, just before the woman’s hand snapped out to catch it. Then she dove out of the thing, hitting the marble floor to slide between the woman’s legs and out the other side. In the process, Sands made a last second gesture with her mace, sending a thin pillar up. The pillar crashed into the shield as the Seosten woman held it horizontally in front of herself, slamming the thing up into her face.

As she slid between the woman’s legs, Sands popped back to her feet on the other side, already spinning to slam her mace into the back of her head. But the Seosten was still too quick. Even stunned by the shield to the face, she spun to catch the incoming mace with one hand. She yanked the thing from Sands’ grip, tossing it aside just as Doug’s chains caught both her wrists from behind. Her arms were yanked to either side, but the woman simply glowered briefly before giving a hard yank. Doug was hauled off his feet and brought flying toward the woman, even as she used the resulting slack to pivot in place, bringing up her foot to kick the boy when he reached her.

But Sands was quicker that time. Her hand caught the woman’s shirt, possessing it just long enough to pop out the other side. Landing directly in front of the woman, she braced herself. Simultaneously, Doug crashed into her from the front, while the Seosten’s foot slammed into her back. Neither made a dent against her motionless invulnerability, Doug yelping as if he had hit a wall, while the Seosten’s foot snapped, just like her host’s had.

Sands tried to follow up from that by slamming her elbow back into the woman’s face. But despite her broken foot, the Seosten was still too fast. Her head snapped out of the way, before she caught the back of Sands’ neck and gave a hard shove, smashing the girl’s forehead into the still-recovering Doug’s face. The next thing Sands knew through the moment of being dazed, she was being yanked around before a fist found its way into her stomach. Then she was flipped to the ground. A coin landed on her chest, before the spell on it was activated to create some kind of metal cocoon/shell that covered most of her body aside from her head and feet, trapping her against the floor.  

Oh well, it wouldn’t hold her. Sands started to shift into her two-dimensional shadow form to escape. But in that instant, she was struck by some kind of electrical shock, drawing a cry from her and leaving her unable to focus. Dazed, her eyes blinked up just in time to see the Seosten ignite one of those laser sword things, which she started to drive down toward Sands’ exposed face before she could recover or even think of using any kind of power.

Doug was there. Clicking his pen, he made some kind of ball appear in his other hand, flinging it at the woman’s face just before it exploded into a flash of blinding light that made the Seosten recoil, her laser sword missing Sands.

Another click of his pen and another simple ball was thrown. This one burst into goop. As the Seosten threw a hand up to block her face, the goop covered her arm. It instantly hardened and began to spread over the rest of her body, completely encasing her arm, then her shoulder and over her chest. As it continued to spread, the Seosten woman cursed, yanking a field-engraver out before drawing something quickly on the rapidly-spreading stuff. It turned to dust then, freeing her. Her hand immediately launched another of those coins, which struck Doug in the chest and expanded into a metal cocoon similar to the one trapping Sands. This one kept him upright, but he was just as contained.  

An instant later, the woman clearly heard the heavy pounding of Sands’ now-charging rhino, just before the animal would have slammed into her. That Seosten speed kicked in, and she managed to twist aside enough to avoid being gored by the horn. But the massive beast still sent her crashing along the floor while her laser sword flew from her grasp. But she got back up just as quickly, muttering a couple words while throwing what looked like a one foot long rope at the rhino. As the enchanted rope struck the theriangelos, it apparently cancelled the spell, dropping the animal back into a simple wooden block.

Doug and Sands were both trapped, and every time Sands tried to use her shadow-form to escape, the cocoon shocked her. From the sound of things, the boy wasn’t having much better luck.

Then the sound of a gunshot filled the air, followed by several more in quick succession. The Seosten woman was struck several times. Unfortunately, the protective magic she clearly had meant that none of the shots were lethal. Still, they hurt enough to get her attention. Scout had clearly recovered.

Taking several painful shots from all sides, the woman hit something on her arm to throw up a forcefield around herself, before turning right toward one of the one of the random pillars in the room. Scout’s gun was barely visible as it fired yet again through one of its portals.

Evading that bullet despite the fact that it came through a portal behind her, the Seosten threw yet another enchanted coin that way. That time, the coin exploded into some kind of white light which disintegrated the pillar, leaving Scout… not exposed. The girl wasn’t there. Her rifle was, set up on a tripod and left to fire through an automated routine.

Realizing that in the same instant that Sands did, the Seosten woman spun… too late. Scout was there, having worked her way around behind her during that distraction. Using the solid-energy power that most of the team had picked up from the Tzentses to form a dagger, she slammed into the woman hard while driving it into her neck repeatedly, yanking it out and then driving it in again several times before they hit the ground together.

In the end, the woman was dead and Scout lay atop her body, her own exhausted panting cut off by the gasp of pleasure that came along with her pink aura.

“You guys okay?” Columbus was there, with Shiori and Sean. Vulcan was trotting alongside them, while Vulcan Junior flew overhead, sending out the occasional shot at an enemy.

“Little help?” Sands asked. “I can’t get out.”

Columbus and Shiori both used their metal-manipulation powers to tear the cocoon apart, freeing Sands before doing the same for Doug. By that point, Avalon (with Porthos riding on her shoulder), Vanessa, and Tristan had arrived, the boy picking up Scout’s gun along the way and tossing it to her. The nine teenagers were together once more, while sheer chaos surrounded them. The adults were still fighting in a furious tornado of violence and magic. Sands knew that both the Columbus, Shiori, and Sean trio and the Avalon, Vanessa, and Tristan trio had dealt with more than the single enemy that her group had. But the adults were in another league beyond even that. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. Most of the possessed Heretics and enemy Seosten weren’t paying any attention to them. They didn’t have the chance to.

Looking to Avalon, Sands started, “Think it’s time for the next–”

“Get down!” Her mother’s voice interrupted, as a new forcefield dome suddenly covered the nine of them. Sands saw her mom appear nearby, just outside of the field with her crystal weapon in one hand, shaped like a spear at the moment.

“It’s too dangerous here,” the woman sharply informed them. “Cover and turtle.”

“But Mo–” Sands started.

“Cover and turtle now!” her mother snapped, holding a hand out to conjure some kind of wooden spike, which she sent flying at an enemy.

With a heavy sigh, Sands focused on her mace, making a wide sweeping gesture. Another dome, this one made from the same material as the floor, rose up and over to cover them.

It was only dark for a second before everyone produced their own glowing rocks for light. Avalon and Columbus also held privacy coins that would ensure their words weren’t overheard by anyone who happened to have enhanced senses (and happened to somehow be paying attention through the fight).

“Yes,” Avalon dryly replied to Sands’ earlier question. “It’s time for the next part.”

The annoyance that Sands had pasted across her face when her mother had told them to turtle had already vanished, since she no longer had to put on a show. “Great, so that means–”

Again, she was interrupted. That time, it was by a sudden bright light as a portal appeared directly in front of them. Through the portal, they could see the area just outside the main building, behind the vans and safely shielded from view.

Without missing a beat, the group quickly moved through the portal, disappearing from the room with all the fighting going on. They emerged to find three figures standing there waiting for them: Dries, Professor Tangle, and Professor Kohaku. The latter two had worked their way to the vault after the vans drew everyone’s attention, before guarding Dries as the man had worked over the past few minutes to make a brief hole in the security that kept people from teleporting out of the main building.

Now Avalon and the others were out, while everyone inside believed they were trapped under that dome and simply hiding through the fight. A fight which was really nothing more than an elaborate distraction, drawing everyone in to deal with the flashy spectacle of Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Larissa, and several other Seosten.

“Everyone make it?” Professor Kohaku asked, casting her gaze over them briefly as though doing a headcount before nodding to herself. “Great, sounds like Gaia and the others have everyone’s attention in there.

“Let’s go open that vault.”

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Interim Incursion 43-01 (Columbus)

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To be honest, Columbus was pretty sick of the Seosten Empire at this point.

Everything he learned about them, everything he heard from others about their monstrous actions in their war against the Fomorians, all the lows they were willing or eager to sink to, all of it just made him want to find the people in charge of their society and beat them until he couldn’t swing his fists anymore.

But that was the problem. He couldn’t do that, or it just wouldn’t accomplish anything. They were so far outside his league that he might as well have been a fly dreaming about uppercutting a human being. Their leadership, the ones actually responsible for all of this, were untouchable.

At least… directly. But he could screw with their plans. He could be a fly that buzzed in their ear at the right moment and ruined what they were trying to do. Even if he couldn’t take them on directly, he could hurt them. He could help fuck over those sadistic, enslaving bastards with every breath he had.

That was why he had to be a part of this. A mission that would stop the Seosten from enslaving Heretics here on Earth? Yes. Yes, he was all over that. If the headmistress or other adults had tried to keep them out of it… he didn’t know what he would have done, but he definitely would not have sat out and done nothing. The Seosten had been fucking with him and people he cared about for too long, to say nothing of how long they had been fucking with the human race in general. Columbus was going to help kick them in the collective balls, come hell or high water.

“Hey.” Shiori’s voice pulled him out of his introspection. “You okay?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around. They were sitting in the back of a van. They, in this case, referred to himself, his sister, and Avalon, Doug, Sean, Sands, and Scout. The rest of his team aside from Flick. In the front of the van, Larissa was driving, with Haiden beside her.

“Am I okay?” he echoed while turning his gaze back to Shiori. “It’s a chance to fuck over the Seosten. Yeah, I’m good.”

Sean, sitting in the seat behind them, leaned up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Damn straight. We’re going to teach these caremondas that their puppets don’t like having their strings pulled anymore.”

From his place beside Sean, Doug murmured, “I just hope we get there soon. I really can’t take much more of this waiting.”

They had to drive to the vault’s location because Crossroads did not allow any special transportation anywhere near it. No teleportation, no superspeed, no portals, nothing. They had the whole place locked down tight. Not only that, there was some kind of special spatial affect around it that made traveling to the vault physically several times longer than it should be. That allowed the people inside plenty of time to see who was coming and prepare if there was trouble. They had to travel along a deceptively simple looking dirt road for miles and miles just to get there.

From the driver’s seat, Larissa apparently heard Doug, because she called back, “Five minutes, guys. We’re almost there.”

Five minutes. They would be there in five minutes. Taking a breath, Columbus turned to look behind them. The second van was coming along right on their heels. Gaia and Dare sat in the front of that one, the latter driving. Sariel was in the back, along with Apollo, Dries Aken, and a handful of the freed Seosten who had agreed to come with and help.

Dries hadn’t been any more comfortable being around all those Seosten than Columbus would have been. But he was still working with Apollo and Sariel to discuss various things they might be able to do to change Liesje’s spell once they got hold of it. If they got hold of it. As well as discussing what defenses she might have put on it in addition to what was provided by the vault. Given their dramatically shortened timetable thanks to the Seosten making their move early, everyone was scrambling to be ready.

The rear van would also appear to be much emptier than it actually was, as far as the vault’s security was concerned. Apparently, just like Crossroads itself, the automated part of the security, the spells and technology that let the staff know who and how many were approaching, were blind to Seosten unless they chose to be seen. It was the same weakness, built into their society from the ground up, that had allowed Charmiene to wander freely through the school grounds without alerting anything.

They wouldn’t be invisible to actual people once they left the van, but that wouldn’t be a problem by that point.

Looking toward Avalon then, he saw the distracted look on her face. She was clearly busy worrying about what was going on with Flick. Just like Shiori, who was occupying herself by asking how he was doing.

“Hey,” Columbus spoke up toward Avalon, “you ready to see what your ancestor left for you?” An incredibly blatant and obvious attempted to draw her attention away from worrying about her girlfriend, of course. But obvious was all Columbus had at that point.

The girl took a moment, letting out a long breath while pushing a strand of dark hair back behind her ear with a thumb. “I just want to get this over with. Those assholes have been hunting my family for literally generations. They killed my mother. They… this needs to end.” Her voice was strained, making it perfectly clear just how much this was affecting her. As if it hadn’t been just from the look in her eyes.

“It will.” That was Scout, speaking up quietly from her place beside her sister. “We’re ending it.”

Sands nodded. “And Flick’ll be okay. She’s with Athena, remember?”

“Actually,” Columbus put in, “that reminds me, at what point do the Seosten leaders ask themselves why both the Olympian who embodies strategy and tactics and the one most associated with seeing the future decided the best way to beat the Fomorians was to change their entire society through civil war?”

Doug muttered, “I’m pretty sure if the Seosten leaders were capable of asking themselves introspective questions like that, Earth would’ve been cordially invited to join the Seosten Interstellar Alliance of Planets two and a half thousand years ago.”

The van pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a simple farm. But from the extensive briefings they’d been given, Columbus knew better. The farmhouse itself was where the lobby and offices of the vaults were. They had to go there first to check in and be taken through security procedures to ensure that they were who they said they were. The nearby barn held all the heavy duty equipment that would be brought out if anyone tried to take the vaults by force. Not every vault under their control was a blood vault. Those were extremely specialized and rare. There were many items under their protection that relied on ‘normal’ security measures.

As Columbus understood it, most of the vaults, blood or otherwise, weren’t even actually located anywhere near this place. It was just that the only entrances to get to them, through continually active portals of sorts, were kept here. The vaults themselves could be anywhere in the world, normally heavily buried and protected by a myriad of spells. Or even in their own little pocket dimension.

The way to those vault entrances was through the grain silo. It was an elevator of sorts, according to Gaia and Larissa. Once they were cleared by the staff in the house, they would be taken to the silo.

The other van pulled in behind them, and Columbus started to get out with the others. He glanced over to Shiori, hesitating. Even just glancing at her now, months after he had been freed, the boy couldn’t get Charmiene’s threats out of his head. Everything she had promised to do to hurt his sister. Everything she would have done, given half an excuse, still haunted him. He couldn’t stop hearing her voice. He woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and had to get up just to prove to himself that he could. Sean had woken up more than once to find Columbus slapping himself, using the pain and the motion of his arm to convince himself that he was still in control.

Talking to Klassin Roe helped, but the nightmares were nowhere near going away. Maybe this right here would help. Maybe fucking over the Seosten this much would give him some kind of closure.

Shiori had clearly noticed him looking, because if she met his gaze and managed a slight smile despite her obvious worry. “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing right now?”

“Hiking,” Columbus immediately replied. “They’re definitely hiking. And Mom is taking pictures while Dad complains that she’s already got hundreds of them. Mom will see some bird or something that she wants that perfect picture of, so they’ll go wandering off the trail. But it’s okay because they’ve been all over that place so much they know it better than the rangers. They’ll wander out there. Dad’ll complain but he’ll go anyway because he can never really tell her no. He’ll make a big show of it and pretend to be lost. But then he’ll lead her to some picnic spot he set up ahead of time.”

He paused then, head tilting. “Mom and Dad are kind of dorks, aren’t they?“

Snorting, Shiori retorted, “Duh, have you met us?” Her smile was more genuine then. “I helped him set up picnics sometimes.”

Columbus grinned back at her despite himself. “I helped Mom decide what exotic bird she’d pretend to see as an excuse to go off the trail. I’m pretty sure Dad caught on when we started using South American birds.”

The others had climbed out by that point. Everyone from their van was stretching in the parking lot. But from the other van, only Gaia and Dare emerged. The Seosten, still invisible to any detection magic, stayed in the vehicle. And Apollo had ensured that no one glancing that way from outside the van would see anything amiss.

Cracking her knuckles, Professor Dare waved a hand, calling, “Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road.”

Rather than immediately start in with the others, Columbus hesitated a moment, scanning their faces. He wanted to see if he could notice when it happened. Because those words had been a signal for the Seosten in the van. Immediately, they would have recalled to Gaia, Dare, Doug, Sands, Scout, and Sean, having possessed them earlier just to make this possible.

Shiori and Avalon could not be possessed, and Columbus, for obvious reasons, had chosen not to. So it was simply those four who now had an extra passenger.

They could have simply been possessing them the entire time, of course. But for obvious reasons, everyone was more comfortable being possessed for as short of a time as possible. Besides, though it was mainly a Dries/Sariel/Apollo project, the other Seosten still wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to fix the spell when they found it. After all, it affected their people.

But even knowing it was about to happen, and watching for it, he still couldn’t tell exactly when his teammates were possessed. Which somehow made him feel even worse about the whole situation even though the obvious point was that they weren’t actually exerting any control, thus there was nothing to see.

With a soft sigh then, he followed the others toward the house. Dries would be waiting in the van while using some kind of magic to make himself as invisible to detection spells as the latter. Between that and Apollo’s magic on the van itself to thwart anyone glancing through the windows, they would be safe there until things went down.

Two elderly men, guards apparently, sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. As the group approached, one of the men spoke up. “Headmistress.”

“Chauncey,” Gaia greeted him with a smile. “How are Emma and Diane?”

The man shrugged. “Emma’s chomping at the bit to head to your school next year. And Diane’s preparing a dissertation on how she should be allowed to attend too, because she’s totally at least three years more advanced for her age.” Eying the woman, he added a sly, “What do you say? You want a precocious and motivated fourteen-year-old next year to shake things up?”

Chuckling softly, Gaia informed the man that things were already quite shaken enough without help. The man expressed mock disappointment before saying something to his partner. Then he stood up and moved to the door. “Come on,” he started easily, “I’ll take you through. Using a little student help to clear out one of your old vaults? Extra credit project?”

On the way, Columbus couldn’t help but wonder what Flick was doing right then. Was she in that hotel yet? How long would they have to wait? And just how long would they be able to stop the group there from breaking into the vault through the supposed back door? Would they be enough? All those questions and more kept rebounding through his mind. And a glance toward the others made it pretty clear that they were in the same position.

The door into the ‘farmhouse’ didn’t lead into anything resembling what it appeared to from the outside. Instead, Columbus and the others found themselves standing in what actually looked like a fairly modern bank lobby. The floor was marble, while the room itself stretched out several times larger than the entire building should have been. There were various pillars leading to a wide domed roof with stained glass windows, a security station straight ahead with a handful of armed and armored soldier-like figures standing beside what looked like metal detectors, and a wider area beyond where the bank personnel were all working with various clients at desks separated by privacy shields. At the far end of the wide open room was an alcove that reached all the way to the ceiling, with an enormous statue of Hieronymus Bosch.

Yeah, Columbus was pretty sure it was a good thing Dries had stayed out in the van. Even now, every adult Heretic likely knew what the man who killed Bosch looked like. And they might object to him coming into their bank.

The ‘farmer’ who walked them in stopped by the security checkpoint desk, as he and the guards there took a minute to chat casually with Gaia. One of them even recognized Larissa and came around to embrace her tightly, going on about how much she’d helped his son back when she’d had Peterson Neal’s current job as Head of Student Affairs. The man made her promise to visit that son and his new wife at some point before turning back to the rest of them.

“Okay, let’s get you all on through here. Everyone needs to move through the checkpoint. I hope you don’t have any weapons or unauthorized magic on you, because that’ll set off the machine. It’s going to give us a list of every bit of active magic. So no weapons, no unnecessary spells, no extradimensional containers that might have weapons on them…”

“It’s quite alright,” Gaia assured the man, stepping through the machine and out the other side first with no apparent issue. “They are all well prepared for this step.”

It was true. Everyone moved through the detector without setting it off. Even Sean didn’t have Vulcan with him for once. Nor did Avalon have her new little lizard, Porthos. Columbus wasn’t even allowed to wear his goggles into the building. But all of them were… well, close.

Once they passed through the detectors, a man in an extremely old-fashioned suit with ancient-looking bifocals and an actual white powdered wig approached. “Headmistress,” he began in a voice that sounded like he was literally talking through his nose, “So very good to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’ll begin the procedure to grant access to your vaults.”

With a smile, Gaia simply replied, “I’m afraid it’s not my vaults we’ll be visiting today, Fenwick. We’ll need to access my daughter’s vault.”

Blinking twice, the man turned his head that way. “Daughter’s vault? I wasn’t aware that Miss–ahh… that your daughter had a vault with us.”

“Liesje Aken’s vault,” Gaia informed him, like she was just giving him the name of a soup brand.

That made Fenwick do a quick double-take, mouth opening. “Ah, I’m sorry? I mean… I’d heard the rumors of course, but I– if you’re saying the girl is truly… if…” He paused, clearly taking a moment to find the right words. “It will all need to be verified, of course.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied dryly, “fortunately, our blood vaults come with a very simple method of identity verification which should make that quite simple.”

Giving a soft cough, the man bowed his head. “Of course. Let us see what–” In mid-sentence, he was interrupted by an annoying buzzer. It blared loudly, followed by a series of loud clanging sounds as a series of thick metal shields descended across every door in the room, as well as the stained glass windows above. In seconds, the entire room was cut off. The rest of the staff and customers were looking around in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, their mutterings getting louder.

Fenwick cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with the security system lately. It keeps triggering the lockdown. We thought we had it fixed, but… well, I’m afraid we might be here for a little while until they sort out the new problem.”

From where he was standing by Larissa, Haiden remarked, “Sounds like you need some new engineers.”

Gaia, meanwhile, calmly asked, “Would you like some help with that?”

“Well, sure,” Fenwick quickly answered. “Of course, you probably won’t be able to do anything. The shields are spelled to be protected, and the control boxes for them are secreted in random pocket dimensions, far outside the reach of any kind of tech manipulation. Not to mention the spells and shields protecting them from influence. I’m afraid it’s quite impossi–”

That was as far as the man got before all the shields over the doors and windows abruptly retracted at once.

“I took the liberty of permanently disabling them,” Gaia informed the man casually. “That seemed the most prudent course, until you’re able to send people in to diagnose the problem.” She gave a very slight smile then. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, we should.” The answer came not from Fenwick in front of them, but from behind them, near the security station. As Columbus and the others turned, they found that Chauncey guy, the ‘farmer’ from the front porch who had walked them in. Now, the man was standing with some kind of massive harpoon gun leveled at them. Beside him, every security officer they’d passed was doing the same with their own weapons.

Almost in unison, everyone else in the bank leveled weapons at the group. Fenwick, the other employees, even the supposed customers. All of them, without fail or hesitation, drew arms and moved to surround them.

“You just couldn’t wait one more day, could you?” Chauncey complained. “One more day and then we all could’ve moved on from these hosts and no one would’ve been hurt.”

Seosten. All of them were possessed. Every last person in the bank, each a Heretic, was being puppeted. The whole thing was a trap.

Boy, if that had been a surprise, it probably would’ve been a bad one.

A forcefield appeared around them. Not part of the trap. It was Larissa, projecting the shield in a dome.

“Let me tell you how this is gonna go,” Chauncey, or the Seosten controlling him, continued. “First.” He snapped his fingers, and Columbus’s attention was instantly drawn to the nearby wall, where some kind of turret or cannon appeared. The thing sighted in at them with a threatening high-pitched whine of power, before just as quickly falling silent.

An instant later, it disappeared, only to be replaced by a different cannon that appeared at a different part of the wall. It too powered up to shoot before going quiet. Then three appeared at once, in different parts of the room. Then a single one directly above them. Then four together.

“Yeah, that’s gonna keep going,” Chauncey informed them. “Gaia there, she’s disabling these things the second they appear. But here’s the trick. They’re gonna keep coming. Every second or two, sometimes more than one. Maybe a dozen at once. Maybe just one. But they’ll keep transporting in, and if you give them even an instant to get a shot off, well… then you’ll be leaving with less people than you came in with, I’ll tell you that much. Those are capital ship-tier cannons, which will treat that cute little forcefield like tissue paper. If the headmistress lets herself get distracted even for a moment to do anything other than disabling those things…” He made a face. “It won’t be pretty.

“So, she’s a little busy right now. Which leaves all of you…” He looked to Columbus, Shiori, Scout, Sands, Sean, Doug, Avalon, Haiden, and Larissa. Then he looked around the room at the much larger group surrounding them. “And all of us. While you don’t even have your weapons. Such a pity.”

To Gaia, the possessed man slyly remarked, “See, you shouldn’t have come in here with a bunch of students. I mean, you’re a bit busy right now to be doing anything else, and we’ll get through that forcefield in a few seconds. Or we can just wait for you to miss one of the turrets. Really, what were you thinking?”

Disabling seven turrets at once as they transported in, Gaia answered the man absently, “I am a teacher at heart. I like to think of everyone as my students. For example, consider this a lesson.”

A being of energy appeared beside the woman, resolving into Sariel. That was followed immediately by the appearance of Apollo, who stepped out of Sean. The man was holding a bag, which he opened up to allow Vulcan to hop out and join his partner. Four more Seosten were right behind him, emerging from Dare, Doug, Scout, and Sands. Each held the weapons that belonged to their respective host, and handed them over as soon as they appeared.

From Haiden and Larissa respectively, Tristan and Vanessa appeared. Both of them held their respective host’s weapons, which they passed along as well. Vanessa followed that up by tossing Columbus’ goggles to him, while Tristan produced Avalon’s gauntlets and Porthos for the girl.

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Then they were all just as armed as the ones who surrounded them, while having added considerably to their numbers.

“Man,” Doug put in, “you guys are not used to people using your own tricks against you.”

Apollo snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”

“It… it doesn’t matter,” Chauncey retorted, though he seemed somewhat shaken. “You think this is the only people we brought to deal with you, witch? We brought an entire army. Hundreds, just to turn you people into so many smears on the ground.” His hand touched the communication badge on his pocket, and he announced, “Send in the rest of the troops. We’re ending this.”

There was a brief, expectant pause. Then, “What do you mean busy? What attack? Who–Gabriel Prosser’s–”

He stopped talking then, slowly lifting his gaze to look at Gaia.

“That,” the headmistress informed him while disabling another six turrets that popped into existence, “is another lesson.”

“You know,” Apollo remarked, “we will respect any one of you who wants to surrender right now.”

Instead, Chauncey leveled that harpoon gun. “Raise turret generation speed by five hundred percent.”

Instantly, the cannons began appearing much faster and with more at once. Dozens were popping into existence all over the room, generating as fast as Gaia could disable them. Each capable of punching a hole through a starship, and each only prevented from doing so by Gaia’s power.

“She’ll lose track,” Chauncey all-but snarled. “She’ll miss one. In the meantime, the rest of you… open fire,” he snapped. “Break the shield and kill them.

“Hope you guys are ready!” Haiden called, even as the gunfire started.

“Cuz here we go.”

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