Larissa Mason

Promise And Peril 11-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium posted yesterday. If you read that story but missed that chapter, you can find it right here

Fortunately, I wasn’t out for long. Unfortunately, the reason I wasn’t out for long was that the sound of screeching and tearing metal snapped my eyes open. Blinking past the lingering bleary spots in my vision, I stared upward just as a spot of sunlight appeared. Sunlight through the hole that was being torn in the side of the ship as something literally drove its claws through it and ripped upward. Something that was snarling and growling nastily as it continued its work. 

Before I could focus my vision enough to tell what the thing looked like, a laser shot upward from nearby, hitting the invading creature and making it recoil with an angry, pained squeal. Kohaku was there, hand raised with her thumb raised and index and middle fingers pointed like a gun. That was where the laser had come from. A second later, after giving me a quick glance, she launched herself upward toward the hole and disappeared through it. I heard two more quick shots, followed by what sounded like a roaring fireball or something similar. Either there were more Fomorian-crafted creatures out there, or the one was pretty tough.

Or both. Probably both. Either way, I had to get up. This was really no time to lay here. My gaze snapped over to Mom. She was awake. Then it moved to Tabbris. Also awake, sitting next to December and May as the three gazed up at the hole the monster had created. From the looks on their faces, I was pretty sure they had gotten a much better look at the thing than I had. And they weren’t exactly bursting with joy about that fact, so I doubted it was a pleasant creature. 

Avalon and Shiori were up already, standing nearby as they looked to me, the latter pulling Columbus to his feet from where he had been sprawled. I gave them both a thumbs up. 

“Sound off!” Athena was up by then, calling out those two words as she gave a quick look toward the main control panel where smoke was steadily rising, along with a few sparks.

“Risa’s outside,” Haiden quickly snapped. “Covering her.” With that, after making sure Larissa and his family were conscious, the man disappeared. I heard him join the fray out there, my worry about just how many of those things were descending on the ship rising by the second. 

Quickly, the rest of us started calling out to say we were conscious and mostly unhurt. Mom was right by me, her hand on my arm (whether she was reassuring me or herself I wasn’t certain) as she seemed to be scrawling a spell of some kind on a blank stone with a field-engraver. She was drawing too quickly and murmuring too quietly for me to know what it was. One by one, the rest of the Seosten and my friends reported in as we heard the fighting continuing. There was too much of it. This obviously wasn’t a few scouting monsters. It was a full-scale attack.

“Elisabet.” That, of course, was Jophiel. She was up too, her hand outstretched toward the prepared transport circles. But a moment later, the woman hissed, “Blocked. Something’s blocking transports.” Rather than dwell on that, she pivoted, already moving to the hole. 

“Jo, wait.” That was Sariel, speaking up obviously hard for her as she had already stopped her kids from chasing after their dad when he took off to keep the monsters away from the ship. 

“I’m through waiting!” Jophiel snapped, whirling on her. “You have your family back, Sariel. Elisabet is my family. She’s been my family for a hell of a lot longer than you’ve had yours. She’s been in this hellhole for months. I’m going to get her, and if you think you can stop me–”

Sariel raised a hand, speaking up over the other woman. “You’re right. But don’t go alone. You don’t know what condition they’re in, if they’ve been–just don’t go alone. Come on. I’ll go with you.” She’d obviously been about to point out that the Fomorians had attacked us the second we got close to Elisabet and Dexamene, but stopped herself and simply implied it instead.

“Mom!” Tristan blurted, scrambling that way with Vanessa right behind him. He was clearly all geared up to protest that they couldn’t be left behind, that Dexamene was his friend, and so on.

Sariel, however, simply said, “You two, with us. Tabbris, stay with Flick. We’ll be back.” 

“The rest of us will secure the… landing site,” Athena announced carefully. “Clear space around it, then we’ll see what repairs need to be made, and get to work. Be quick, but thorough. I don’t think there was any severe damage, we just need to make it last for a jump out of here.” 

Even as she said that, Sariel, Vanessa, and Tristan were already leaving with Jophiel. As they went, I called to Vanessa, figuring she was in the best head space for it, “Remember what I said back at camp about getting help!” 

The blonde girl gave me a quick thumbs up. Then she was gone with the rest. I hoped… okay, I hoped a lot of things, but in that particular moment, I was mostly hoping that Dexamene and Elisabet were actually safe and that this hadn’t been an intentional trap.  

“December and May will stay with me,” Athena continued. “You’ve both worked on ship systems before, as I understand it. You have experience. Help me assess the damage and determine repairs.” She looked to the two, who seemed surprised that she was asking a couple of SPS Seosten to do such an important job. In response to their staring, the woman snapped sharply, as though she had no time for foolish time-wasting, “Am I wrong?” 

“No,” May immediately replied, head shaking. “We’ve done maintenance on ships. It is… it is one of the most important things our type are allowed to do.” 

“Itwasmyfirstjob!” December piped up in a rush. “CuzI’mlittleandIfitinthepipes!” She said it proudly, even as the implication of someone her age being put in dangerous maintenance situations on live spaceships made a rush of anger rise in me before I pushed it back down. Now really wasn’t the time to start getting offended about the way the Seosten treated people. There would be plenty of time for that later, assuming we all survived this. 

“Good,” came the response. “Then get busy. The repair spells we brought are in the compartment there. Find the right spots to employ them.” 

With that, she looked to Sachael. “Something brought us down. It’s one hundred yards west and about twenty feet below the ground.” 

The man said nothing to that. He simply nodded, then leapt through the same hole as the others, vanishing from view as he moved off to deal with the thing that broke the ship. All by himself, apparently.  

To the rest of us, Athena added, “Help the others clear those things out. Stay together, stay near the ship, don’t let them draw you away. Watch each other’s backs. You clear space while we assess the damage and fix it.” She was clearly reiterating her order to make certain we understood. “We’re not here to kill a bunch of Fomorians. We’re here to grab those two, fix the ship enough to escape, and get out. Go.” With that, she pressed the button to open the rear doors, extending the ramp rather than making us rely on going through the hole in the roof. 

Apollo, Deveron, Pace, and Theia were the first group to go through, joining Kohaku and Haiden outside. Immediately, the sound of fighting got even louder. Things clearly weren’t settling down. Any hope I’d had that the space battle going on above would distract the Fomorians too much to be a threat down here was rapidly evaporating. Then again, Fomorians had a way of doing that with any hope. For a brief moment, my thoughts jumped back to Dare and all the sacrifices she had made just to kick these monsters off Earth. What was she thinking right now, stuck back there while we were off fighting the very creatures she’d lost so much to? How would I feel at this moment if I was in her position? Especially if most of the people putting themselves out here had no idea why I cared about them so much. 

Mom’s hand was still on my arm. There was obviously a lot she wanted to say. Instead, she held the stone out to me. “If we’re separated, use that. It’ll bring you to me.” She hesitated then, looking not only at me, but also to the others. “Be careful. Please.” From the strained sound of her voice, it was taking everything she had not to tell us to wait here. Not that we would’ve listened, and she knew that. 

Still, I took the stone, tucking it away while murmuring, “I love you, Mom.” My hand caught hers, squeezing very tightly for a moment as our gazes locked. It was only for a brief second, not nearly long enough. But then, ‘not nearly long enough’ seemed to describe our entire history with each other, and Mom’s history with her children in general. 

Fuck, that sounded dark and unfair. Which, again, suited Mom’s relationship with–fuck it.

Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Shiori, Columbus, Roxa, and I went together, with Mom and Lillian right behind. On the way, I glanced over to where Tabbris stood and called over the sounds of battle that had gotten so much louder ever since the ramp was opened. “You staying with December?!”  

There was a very brief pause, before her head shook. She disappeared, and I heard her voice in my head as she spoke a single word. Partners

Partners, I replied firmly, managing a very slight smile before wiping it away. Time to do this. 

With that, I shoved down all the doubts that tried to creep into my thoughts, all the fear of facing more of those Fomorian abominations, and pushed myself into running down the ramp while drawing my staff. Avalon and Shiori were on either side of me, the others all around us. 

Reaching solid ground (or as solid as the sand under my feet could be), I looked quickly to the left and right, my gaze taking in everything that was going on. And as I did so, any last lingering optimism I’d had that we could easily deal with this situation was gone. I’d already realized that this wasn’t a scouting party, but it was even worse than I’d imagined. The entire area around our crashed ship was flooded with monsters of all shapes and sizes. It was a horror show beyond anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of the creatures all swarming around all sides. It was impossible to tell where one monster ended and another began. Some had multiple heads, some had none that were discernible. There were claws, tails, tentacles, fangs, bloated sacks of venom or acid, snakes with shark-like heads, an enormous antelope thing with shoulders twelve feet high and a dozen legs, something that looked like a giant pterodactyl with a fat body and hundreds of tiny baby-like hands all along its front from neck to tail, flailing and grasping at the air. All that and more, so much more. Monsters beyond description were in every direction. 

Haiden, Kohaku, Mom, Theia, and all the others were doing their best to deal with the things, but it was all they could do just to stop the beasts from completely overrunning our small group. They were a flood of nightmares that kept swarming higher and higher, like a rising wave threatening to capsize a ship. Only in this case, our ship had already crashed. The longer we were here, the more of these things that would show up. And it was already right up at the tipping point. We didn’t have any backup or rescue coming. We were the rescue. If we didn’t hold them off right here and now, that was it. 

But we didn’t have to last long. That was our only saving grace. If we could hold off the swarm long enough for Sariel, the twins, and Jophiel to grab Elisabet and Dexamene, we could escape. Well, assuming Athena and Calendar girls (still didn’t like that term) could fix the ship. 

The point was, we only had to hold out for a short time. Please, please let us last that long. 

To my right, Avalon was already using three quick shots from Porthos in his gun form to make a flock of bat-like creatures with steel-tipped wings abort their dive-attack. The bat-things regrouped, shrieking as they launched tiny, needle-like blades from their wings, which Avalon caught against a glowing energy shield that was suddenly projected from one of her gauntlets.

Meanwhile, Shiori had intercepted a four-foot tall stone-skinned ape thing with four legs and three arms. She launched herself that way, fist slamming into its face before a sudden, momentary duplicate appeared just long enough to copy her motion to hit it a second time. It tried to grab the real Shiori as the duplicate disappeared, but she turned to sand, letting the thing fall through her before reforming behind it, mouth open to shoot a burst of lightning into its back. 

They were both handling things. Which was good, because I didn’t exactly have time to help either of them. Ahead of me, there was a fifteen-foot long squid thing with its own tentacles lashing out, and as my eyes snapped that way, the front of the squid’s body opened up right along the middle to reveal a naked humanoid male shape attached within a nutrient sac. The humanoid was maybe four feet tall, with fully-formed genitals and an oversized head that lolled to the side within the gel-like liquid. It had no eyes, and only three fingers on each hand. All six of those fingers rose to point toward me, and I heard an utterly horrific wailing as it opened its mouth. It was a wail that seemed to make my very bones creak, sending an awful chill down my spine as it vibrated in my skull.

The squid-thing that served as the naked, immature humanoid’s main body boosted itself up on two tentacles while sending three more straight at me. The screaming continued unabated. If anything, it actually got louder, the sound seeming to drive itself deep into my brain, taking all of my focus. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t–

And then it was gone. The would-be distracting pain from the thing’s scream vanished, and the sound itself was heavily muffled. I could still somewhat hear it, but it was barely there. My eyes focused just in time to launch myself up in a leap over the nearest tentacle, staff lashing out to stab the already-prepared bladed end into the second tentacle. That drew a new scream from the humanoid, but this was a wail of pain rather than an attack. 

Thanks, I blurted quickly to Tabbris for shutting down my senses to save me from the thing’s scream. At the same time, I was already landing on the third tentacle, which instantly flung me toward two more tentacles that were already lashing my way, trying to snap my body in half by crushing me between them. But I was faster, launching myself into a backward flip that carried me just barely through the narrow space between the two incoming tentacles. On the way, I spat a wad of resin, which caught all three tentacles (the two that had been coming toward me as well as the one that had flung me), trapping the trio together like a wad of super-strong rubber cement. Which gave me an opening, as I dropped toward the ground, to create a quick portal in front of me. With a grunt, I boosted my strength while shoving the blade of my staff through the portal and out the other end, which was located right in front of the humanoid’s face. The amniotic sac or whatever the thing was encased within was tough, but it shattered under the strength of my empowered blow, and the blade went right through the thing’s face while it screamed. 

Then I hit the ground, landing in a crouch as the squid-humanoid fetus thing collapsed lifelessly. To my right, Sands and Sarah were working together with Avalon to deal with an incursion from that side. To my left, I caught a quick glimpse of Roxa, Pace, and Theia bringing down the big antelope thing. Meanwhile, Shiori was racing straight at me, shouting something about a boost. Instantly I saw what she meant, crouching to catch the other girl’s raised foot as she leapt. Activating my boost once more, I heaved as hard as I could, throwing her upward just high enough to catch the swooping pterodactyl thing with all the tiny hands. The second she was there, all those hands tried to grab her. But once more, Shiori did the ‘shift to sand, let the thing pass through her, then reform again’ trick. That time, it put her on the flying monster’s back. 

In that instant, I had two more creatures coming after me. The first was essentially a three-foot diameter ball with a humanoid face on the front that popped hands out anywhere it needed to. It flew through the air at me just ahead of a fat, five-foot tall reptilian figure with nine-foot long arms. 

Laser? Tabbris pressed, seeing the line of monsters behind those ones. 

My head shook, even as I closed the gap. Save it until we need it. Last ditch thing. 

In the background, I could see Shiori throw something out ahead of the flying monster she was riding. It was a small silver ball, which popped open to release Choo. In mid-air, the horse-sized warthog creature unleashed a blast of electricity straight into the flying monster just as Shiori flung herself off it and shot an identical blast into the thing from behind. The twin lightning bolts hit the Fomorian creation, sending it sputtering lifelessly to the ground. 

By that point, I’d reached the ball-creature. A plus-sign shape appeared along the front of the thing before it split open along those four sections to reveal what looked like a miniature blackhole. It was some kind of super-gravity field that instantly yanked me toward the thing. But I caught myself with a burst of energy from my staff, arresting my momentum just in time before the bigger monster’s long arm swept through the space where I would’ve been without that help. 

A sudden shot from Porthos hit the ball-creature, which exploded into a spray of goo that I threw myself forward and rolled under to escape from. I wasn’t absolutely sure being hit by the goo would be a bad thing, but it was a fair guess. 

By that point, even as I smacked the long-armed creature’s hand out of the way with my staff, I could see Shiori and Choo out of the corner of my eye. She was actually riding him, having landed on her pet’s back before he, in turn, landed on the back of one of the giant snake-serpent monsters. The Jekern was charging ahead, shooting lightning from his mouth while Shiori urged him onward, riding her pig-mount as they took the snake thing right to the ground. 

In that moment, just as the blade of my staff was driven through the long-armed reptilian’s stomach as I half-lay at its feet, one of Avalon’s energy blades cut through it from the back. The thing was basically cut in half, falling apart while the beautiful dark-haired girl caught my hand to haul me back to my feet. “No time to nap, Chambers!” she blurted, turning to put her back to mine as even more of the monsters appeared. There was no end in sight, as more and more of the things emerged. Nothing we did was enough. I saw kill after kill, but there were just so many of them. 

If Jophiel and the others didn’t get back with Elisabet and Dexamene, if we couldn’t get this ship back off the ground and get out of here really soon, we were going to miss our chance. We would be overrun. Even with my mother, Haiden, Risa, and the others, it wasn’t enough. There were too ma–

Abruptly, I sensed a sudden change behind me. But before my item-sense power could thoroughly process it, there was a high-pitched whine, and a burst of bright, blinding light as a laser passed just over my shoulder. And a bit to my left. And far off to the right. And in a dozen or more different directions. 

Half of the Fomorian army that had been descending upon us completely vanished, blown apart from lasers fired by…. by… 

I pivoted back toward the ship. Except it wasn’t the same ship anymore. Before, the thing had looked like a tube with a flat bottom. Like a metal twinkie, basically. Now, the main body of the twinkie had grown by about a third of its original length, as sections of it had split apart down the length and extended almost like an accordion. Every few feet, a series of panels slid apart. Doing so uncovered a series of glowing reddish discs. Those red discs were where the lasers that had torn through half of the Fomorian pack had originated. 

“Hey!” we all heard May’s voice call through some kind of ship-mounted intercom. “Starting the repairs on the ship made it shift into some kind of combat mode!” 

There was the slightest of pauses, before Athena’s voice carried through the same intercom. “Made it do what?!

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Promise And Peril 11-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Our original idea had been that we would fly in, locate Elisabet and Dexamene, then get close enough to teleport them onto the ship and flee before the Fomorians had time to scramble too many of their defenses. Obviously that plan had been completely incinerated thanks to the fact that the fuckers were already in the middle of a pitched battle against… some unknown force. 

That unknown force wasn’t the Seosten, yet was strong enough to send a whole fleet after the Fomorians here on the Meregan world. Why? Who? How? Every possible question was swirling through my head as I simply stared open-mouthed at the screens that showed the battle going on ahead of us. For that moment, I couldn’t think, let alone speak. I had no idea what to do. And from the looks on the faces of Vanessa, Tristan, and the other students around me, neither did they. We’d thought we were ready for just about anything we could’ve run into. We were wrong.

Thankfully, we weren’t the only people here. And the others we had with us were a hell of a lot more experienced than we were. Taken by surprise or not, the real adults around us had been through more than we had (crazy as that might seem), had seen far more surprises and learned to react faster to them. Particularly the Seosten given their lifespans, but Mom and the others too. My friends and I had been through a hell of a lot in a year, but they had been through so much more for so much longer. 

Athena was the first to react, after what had to be barely a second since she had admitted that she had no idea who the other ships belonged to. “Helm, full power on sub-engines, boost forty percent from weapons and reserves split evenly. Take everything you need to do your thing. Guns aren’t going to get us through this today. Navs plot Ah and Bay courses through sector quattuor-sex-septem and feed to Helm, bracing for on-fly adjustments. Jophiel on exterior spellwatch, Haiden and Larissa back her up, you’ve done this before. December and May on secondary spellwatch. Something gets through Jophiel, call it out and intercept with counters. Sachael is on power-watch. Feed energy where it’s needed. Joselyn, Risa, back him up. If he raises a hand, he needs you to feed magic energy to him so he can shift it to the ship’s systems when needed. Helms has full control, feed everything she needs to her and let her work.”

She rattled off those instructions so effortlessly, and everyone immediately moved to follow them. Sariel was apparently Helm, while Apollo was Navs, both of them springing to action as their hands danced across the consoles, blurting words to one another in a rapid series of what had to be half-code and half-intuition from the sheer length of time they’d known each other. No wonder people had considered the two of them to be twins, because they sure communicated like they were right here and now. They were barely speaking English, just blurting sentence fragments or strings of numbers and letters, often finishing one another’s… whatever. 

Meanwhile, the others jumped right to action too. Mom and Kohaku slid closer to Sachael, who had lifted one hand to press against the wall of the ship while his other hand steadied a console and turned it closer to him, his fingers flying over the holographic buttons to make it send reports on the ship’s systems. At the same time, Jophiel (whose magical meditative-state had vanished the instant she was needed) sank in her seat a little while producing two small metal discs, one in each hand. Her eyes drifted half-closed as she began slowly moving the discs around seemingly randomly. They glowed very faintly now and then, and when they did, she would move the discs back to the spot where it had happened and murmur something. My guess was that the discs detected magic that might affect our ship or the people in it and she was ready to block such attempts. With the help of Haiden and Larissa, who had already produced what had to be counterspell-enchanted coins, ready to use them at whatever spot the Seosten woman indicated. 

May did the same as Jophiel, though her movements weren’t quite as smooth. She had December backing her up, one hand on the other Calendar member’s side as though ready to feed energy into her while her other hand held a counterspell coin of her own. 

The rest of us weren’t totally left out of things, obviously. The moment the ship took off, heading what seemed like straight for the battle, Athena turned slightly to call back, “Felicity, be ready to track the moment we’re within the atmosphere. The rest of you, prepare the transport circles just as I showed you!” 

Trying to ignore the fact that we were flying straight into the crossfire between two fleets of warring ships and had no idea whether the people fighting the Fomorians would give a shit about killing us along with them, I reached deep into my pocket, unzipping it. After digging around a bit, I came out with a small vial. A thick, pale blue liquid was visible through it as I clutched the vial tight. It was protected against damage, of course. But still, the contents were entirely too precious to risk losing. Not after we’d come all this way. 

All around me, Avalon and the others were already crouching in the bit of open space where the base of the transport circles had been started before we ever left, drawn in by Athena and Sariel the night before. Vanessa, Tristan, Roxa, and Avalon worked on one while Sands, Sarah, Columbus, and Shiori worked the other. Tabbris helped by moving between both, suggesting improvements or corrections here and there. They couldn’t finish the enchantments because the details had to be saved for when we were actually here. But my friends were quickly sketching in what was needed with a few glances toward a nearby console to get specific coordinate details. Even then, they wouldn’t be able to finish just yet. Not until we had an exact location. And that part was up to me. 

Trying not to think about what would happen if the world-shattering forces around us actually started to pay our relatively little ship too much attention, I focused on staring intently at the planet ahead while gripping the vial tight. I wanted to help the others, I wanted to do anything other than sit there. But I had to be ready. I couldn’t be distracted. Besides, as much as I wanted to contribute, they had enough people drawing in the transport spells. And I sure as hell had no idea what I was doing when it came to actually helping with the ship defense. My need to help wasn’t an excuse to get in the way. 

But, valid as that point was, it didn’t really help me feel any better. I couldn’t contribute right now. All I could do was sit there, tensely watching the battle going on ahead and all around us. Lasers, missiles, random spells, tentacles, fang-filled monstrosities, and more exploded, shot, and swarmed everywhere I looked. Our ship barrelled right on through, spinning, diving, and rolling just to get a little bit closer to the planet with each passing second. Several spells came close, but Jophiel and May, with help from the others near them, dispelled and countered them before they could do too much. Meanwhile, Athena was snapping orders back and forth between Sachael, Sariel, and Apollo. She was clearly using a mix of watching the screens and her own power to keep track of any immediate dangers, telling them where to go and when to transfer power between the shields and engines just for that little bit of a boost at the exact right time.

There was no way we could’ve made it through with this array of forces against us, on either side. The plan, again, had been to get to the planet and out before they could assemble everything we were already seeing. This ship was a prototype, intended to test the transport system, not to win (or even survive) a battle like this. And here we were, flying directly into the middle of a fight between two incredibly powerful fleets who were intent on utterly destroying one another. We were a very small bird flying through a hailstorm of lasers, missiles, and worse. 

The fact was, we probably still would’ve been destroyed if we didn’t have Athena, Sachael, Jophiel, Sariel, and Apollo. They knew what they were doing, and had fallen right back into working together as if no time had passed since they were part of the same crew. It was kind of amazing to behold, terrified as I was about the whole situation. 

And yet, above and beyond all the others, it was Sariel who got us through it. I watched her at the controls as she seemed to sit in total relaxation. She wasn’t stiff, wasn’t hunched over in her seat. Instead, she sat back, breathing calmly in and out while carefully yet coolly putting her hands up against the holographic display. Then? Then she went to work. 

When it came down to it, flying this ship through this battlefield amounted to driving a dump truck through a field full of tanks, artillery, and racecars armed with machine guns. But impossible had apparently never met Sariel’s piloting. 

A very slight touch with one hand sent the ship spinning upside down (well, relative to how we were before), while her other hand slowed our speed fractionally and touched the nose of the craft downward by maybe a meter. In that same instant, while the ship was in mid-spin, two massive laser-blasts passed through the space where it had just been. They came in at an upward angle, spaced apart just enough they passed above and below the ship itself. The fact that it was already spinning and thus at a diagonal angle was the only reason the shots missed. And, given the ship was basically a tube aside from having a flat bottom and rounded top meant the shots came really close indeed. 

No sooner had those two shots skimmed past us than we were fully upside-down, and in that instant, a flailing Fomorian tentacle passed just barely above the now-upward facing belly of the ship, while some kind of glowing ball of… something bad went sailing just above the nose of the ship that Sariel had nudged down enough to avoid that very thing. 

That was just the first half-second. Three different attacks, all avoided with a single maneuver. And then? Then it got really nuts. Sariel flew that ship like it was an extension of her own body. I’d seen her in physical action, I’d heard and seen how her power amounted to more than just being able to hit things really well. It gave her perfect accuracy. Anything whose path and motion she was capable of controlling, including herself and things she drove or piloted, she did with that same perfect accuracy. She threw and shot things like a goddess, true. But she also moved and piloted like one. If she controlled where and how something moved, it did so utterly flawlessly. 

It should have been impossible to make it through the battlefield before us. Yet Sariel made it look easy. Every motion of her hands, every control she touched, every slight adjustment of the ship’s trajectory, speed, and more made dozens of attacks miss. Some of them (mostly from the Fomorian side) were intended for us, some were just attacks we happened to pass through on our way. But between Sariel’s piloting and the magic defenses from Jophiel, December, and May we avoided all of them. This little, flimsy, dump truck of a shuttle danced through the entire battlefield like it was nothing. 

Through it all, with each passing minute, we drew closer and closer to the planet. Yet it didn’t seem to be enough. No matter how close we got, the world seemed eternally far away. It was like staring at a pot of water while you were trying to make food, willing it to start boiling and all it would do was steam forever. Except in this case, instead of a few hunger pangs there were blindingly bright, six-meter-wide laser blasts that would have obliterated our entire ship and everyone on it if they got too close. And all I could do, the only thing I was capable of in that moment, was rocking my body back and forth in the seat, silently willing us to please go just a little bit faster. Which was about as helpful as… well, about as helpful as rocking back and forth on a spaceship to make it go faster. With the vial clutched tight in one hand, I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat. Please. Please get there. Please let us make it in time. We were so close. After everything that had happened, if Elisabet and Dexamene ended up dying anyway, or worse, I wasn’t sure how I would live with myself. To say nothing of what would happen if I managed to get myself and everyone on this ship killed by dragging them into this in the first place. 

We had just beaten Fossor. He was dead. And now I had to pull basically half the people I cared about in the world into a situation like this? Yet, what choice did I have? I owed Dexamene and Elisabet everything, everything. I owed them my life, my freedom, the lives and freedom of basically everyone I knew, everyone in the entire world if Fossor had had his way. 

We had to get there. We had to save them. 

An explosion of blue light and what appeared to be a rapidly expanding mushroom (not a mushroom cloud, a literal mushroom in the middle of space) appeared just to our left, while a beam of energy wide enough to encompass an entire football field blasted through the space to the right. But Athena had been ahead of things, snapping orders two seconds earlier that made Sariel twist the ship to fly right through the relatively narrow space between the two attacks. Immediately, the woman called out another order to Sachael to shove all the power he could to engines for the boost, and the ship sped up to narrowly avoid some kind of gravitational anomaly spell that burst to life right where we had just been. The engines strained against the force of its pull, but with the added power were barely able to pull us through. 

It went on like that, chaotic and insane. Anything Sariel herself couldn’t avoid with her expertise and power, Athena was on top of with her own. Sitting where I was, unable to actually help, I saw all of it while most of the others only seemed to be able to focus on the one thing they were trying to do. Lucky them. I sat, eyes snapping from person to person, from near-hit to near-total-destruction. I saw Apollo calculating the best approach through the dazzling array of attacks passing back and forth between the two fleets, saw my mother and Kohaku next to Sachael, feeding power to him so he could keep the ship’s systems running properly, saw my friends frantically yet carefully trying to finish the transport spells. All of this, everything around me, was happening all at the same time, throughout this chaotic battle. And through all of it, I could do nothing to actually help. I had to sit there, waiting and hoping we would get close soon. Tempting as it might have been to try to aid my friends, not only was getting in the way a bad idea, but if I ended up getting distracted with that and missed the fact that we were in the atmosphere I’d end up making the whole situation worse by dragging everything out. 

So, I waited, tensely watching throughout the fight. If it hadn’t been so terrifying and the situation so critical, I might’ve enjoyed the show. Between all the lasers, the monsters literally swimming through space with their tentacles waving out to grab passing ships, the way various spell effects triggered here and there, it was the sort of spectacle that would take a hundred million or so to make a movie of. 

Gripping the vial tight in one hand, I stared as the fighters and smaller vessels swooped here and there, or looming above and below like enormous whales in the case of the capital ships. I could hear my own breathing over the sound of everyone else calling back and forth, and forced myself to breathe. Calm. Listen. Watch. If it came down to it, knowing everything possible about these people who were fighting the Fomorians might end up being really important. So I took in everything I could, just in case. I didn’t understand much of it, to say the least. But I took it in.

Ten minutes. It took ten minutes of this, one of the longest ten minutes of my life, and our ship was a bit singed, the shields heavily damaged from a couple near-misses. But we made it. We finally penetrated the atmosphere, dropping quickly toward the world below while Athena called out for me to do my part. 

Immediately, I popped the top off the vial and poured some of the contents out into my hand. The pale blue liquid pooled in my palm. It was blood. Specifically, Dexamene’s. Yeah, we weren’t just blindly hoping I’d be able to find her when the time came. I had my harpy blood-tracking power from the last time I’d been here, fighting against Nicholas’s forces. It clearly required we be at least somewhat nearby, but I could use it as the ship skimmed through the atmosphere and point out when we were close, getting us to them through a game of hot and cold. At least, that was the idea. 

The real question was, would the fact that there was an all-out war going on just above help or hinder us? The Fomorians were already out in force rather than having to scramble the way we’d expected, but they were also busy at the moment. I supposed it really depended on how well the unknown forces did at keeping them occupied. 

But seriously, how the hell was there an entire fleet powerful enough to stand up against the Fomorians this way and none of the several very well-informed Seosten here had any idea who they were? How was that even possible? Was it just a case of space being really fucking big and therefore the Seosten simply didn’t know every force that was out there? That seemed too simple, and yet I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Especially if these people were relatively new to the scene. That made sense, sort of. I’d just spent the past year being conditioned to believe the Seosten knew basically everything about the universe, so it was a weird awakening. 

In any case, wondering about all of that could come later. Right now, I was going to hope that, whoever they were, they managed to keep the Fomorians off us. Meanwhile, I closed my eyes, focusing on the blood pooling in my palm. Dexamene… Dexamene… where was she? Please. God, please, I had to find her. I wasn’t positive of how far away I could be and still use the Harpy’s power. Hopefully not too far, or this could take a long time. 

Now it was everyone else’s turn to anxiously watch me. There were a few tense words about staying low and keeping an eye on any incoming threats, but for the most part the other people onboard simply stared and waited. I could feel their eyes on me, clearly silently urging the power to trigger just as much as I was. Please… Dexamene… please… How much time had passed? How many minutes? How much longer could we stay here? How long would it–

“There!” Without warning, and while barely consciously realizing what I was doing, my hand snapped out toward the right. “A hundred miles that way!” It was right on the edge of my senses, barely a blip, yet I was absolutely certain it was her. 

The ship instantly turned, heading the way I pointed out. As we got closer, I was able to guide them more specifically, all while praying that what I was leading us to was a living, free Dexamene and not a body. Nearby, I could see Tristan clasp his hands, staring ahead anxiously while Sarah put a hand on his shoulder. Jophiel, on the other hand, had her gaze fixated solidly on me as she waited tensely. We were close, so close. Within a few seconds of my pointing out where to go, the distance had dropped from a hundred miles to practically nothing. 

Then we were there. My power said Dexamene was directly below, and the ‘window’ at the front of the ship adjusted to show a view of what was down there. 

“Yes!” Tristan suddenly thrust his fists in the air. And I didn’t blame him, because they were there. Dexamene and Elisabet both. The two stood below, staring up at the ship. We’d made it. They were safe, they were–

Brace!” Athena abruptly shouted, an instant before… something hit us. I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that there was a bright flash, a loud bang, and the ship suddenly started spinning wildly. The view went wild, the ground coming up far too quickly. 

Then we hit, and my vision went black.

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Promise And Peril 11-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Athena was right, of course. It was a bumpy trip. The moment the prototype ship’s jump was triggered, it started shaking violently. Almost like it was trying to tear itself apart. It was like sitting on top of an overloaded washing machine or something. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had been through it before. So had Sariel, though she had been in stasis at the time. For everyone else, this was new. And apparently not the most pleasant first experience. Worse, it would start shaking violently, then stop and be still for a few seconds, then start again and repeat that. 

“Is it supposed to be doing this?!” Sands called out a bit nervously while gripping her seat armrests. She, like the rest of us, was strapped in tightly. The seats in this thing were lined facing one another along both walls, like one of those military transport jets or something. “Cuz I don’t think I like the experimental ship running an experimental jump drive shaking like this! It feels like a bad thing!” 

Tristan was the one who answered from his own spot a few seats away, “Hey, it’s not so bad! Just be glad we actually get to be strapped in this time instead of fighting a telekinetic asshole!” 

“Trying to fight,” Vanessa murmured in correction, her own voice barely audible over the rapidly rising sound of the ship jerking back and forth. “We didn’t exactly do a very good job at it.”

Theia, meanwhile, just raised her arms above her head like she was on a rollercoaster with a loud, “Wheeee!” With Roxa and Pace sitting on either side of her, she even lifted one of each of their hands up with her own. Then the ship would stop shaking, and she would pout, lowering their arms. “Aww.” It started up again, and her arms shot back into the air, carrying the other two with them. “Wheeee! Awww… Wheee! Awww… Wheee!” The fact that she was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat (as far as I knew, she basically never took it off) helped add to the impression of her being on a casual day out at the amusement park.

For their part, Roxa and Pace each half-raised their other hand to go along with Theia, exchanging looks with one another. 

While all that was going on, everyone clearly trying to distract themselves from the fear of what would happen if this jump went wrong, I found myself looking over to where Sachael was. The white-bearded Seosten was watching me with a neutral expression. If the repeatedly violently shaking ship was bothering him, he didn’t show it at all. As our gazes met, he offered me a single, simple nod without speaking. 

What was he thinking? What kind of person was he? All I knew about the man was that he was still loyal to his people, but willing to bend the rules in his off-hours. From what Sariel and Athena had said, Sachael was really devoted to the idea of separating his work life from his private life. When he didn’t consider himself to be on-the-clock, he was a lot more chill. 

As for what his opinion about me was, I had no idea. And it didn’t seem like he was eager to speak up about it. After that simple nod, the man turned his gaze to look toward Sariel. Again, his expression remained completely unreadable. I had no idea what he was thinking. 

“I-it’s longer this time!” Tabbris piped up, drawing my attention to where she sat beside me, with Tristan on the other side. “It didn’t take this long before, even though we had to go further!” 

She was right. And it wasn’t just taking longer, the shaking was noticeably worse too. The ship seriously felt like it was about to tear itself apart and send pieces flying in every direction. 

Athena, at the front of the ship near the console that controlled everything, simply called back, “Everything is fine! The ship was prepared to go to Earth before, it had a smooth path plotted out. This time it doesn’t. It will be a rough ride, but the ship will hold together. Give it a moment.” 

She sounded distracted while explaining that, and I belatedly realized she was using her power. That scattershot precognition that allowed her to see the results of actions she took several seconds in advance. She was using that to make sure the ship wasn’t about to fall apart. Which made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. But still, I really hoped this would be over soon. 

Mom, who was sitting on my other side, put one hand on my shoulder. Her voice was firm. “Whatever happens, if we see a real Fomorian, you don’t fight it.” She squeezed firmly, looking up to Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, and the others to make sure they were listening. “That goes for all of you. I don’t care if you outnumber it twelve to one. If you see a real Fomorian, you run away from it. You can fight their creatures, but if there’s an actual Fomorian, all of you run away. You fight to get clear and you run. You don’t jump in to help, you get away. Is that understood?” 

Kohaku spoke up then. “Joselyn is correct. None of you, not even together, are prepared to face a full, battle-ready Fomorian in combat. And none of us are prepared to extract you should you be captured. If you try to jump in to help, you’ll be nothing more than a distraction. That isn’t intended as an insult,” she added quickly. “You are all amazing students. You truly are. You’ve advanced far faster and further than any of us could have anticipated, and all of us are more proud of you than we can say. But this is something beyond that. If you see a full Fomorian, you retreat immediately. No macho bullshit. Run away and leave them for us to deal with.” 

The rest of the adults voiced their own agreement with that. They all wanted to make sure we weren’t going to try to go toe-to-toe with a Fomorian. But before any of us could respond, Athena abruptly called back, “Brace!” 

Her warning came just in time. As all of us grabbed our armrests, the ship’s shaking suddenly jumped into overdrive. Seriously, it made the previous shaking feel like nothing. My stomach was twisting itself into knots, as the sound of metal screaming in protest filled the air. 

Another sound filled the air too. It was Theia again, arms still held high above her head (with Pace and Roxa’s lifted too) like she was on a rollercoaster, calling out an enthusiastic, “Whoooooo!” Yeah, she was still having a grand old time. I was pretty sure if this actually was an actual ride in a park, she’d jump right back in line for it. 

Meanwhile, I was almost afraid the ship really was about to blow apart and take all of us along with it. Which would have been a pretty bad way for this whole rescue mission thing to turn out. 

But it didn’t blow apart, of course. Just as the ship’s horrific shaking hit its peak, it just as abruptly stopped entirely. Seriously, one second it felt like we were about to explode in slow motion, and in the next second everything was completely still. Like someone had flipped a switch. 

“What…” Columbus started, looking around the moment everything stopped. “Did we break it?” 

Theia, however, shook her head. She still looked exuberant, though her voice was completely matter-of-fact. “We are here, of course. If we broke it, we would all be dead.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, eyes glancing around the interior of the ship as though making sure everything was still completely sealed. “It stopped shaking because we made it.” 

Athena spoke then. “Yes. We are here.” With those words, she hit a few buttons on the console, and screens appeared around us to act like windows, showing the exterior of the ship. Not that there was much to see. We were, as planned, in the middle of nowhere. I could see stars all around us, of course. Brilliantly bright now that we were away from Earth. But there were no planets nearby or anything. It was the middle of empty space. Like drifting on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Only about a million times more dangerous if anything actually went wrong.

And this was the easy part, I had to remind myself. Before too long, we’d be where the real monsters were. I just hoped we were actually ready for that. 

Apollo, who had been silently checking over a different console through all of that, finally spoke up. “We’re on target. We hit the exact coordinates. Whoever designed this thing knew what they were doing.” 

“I mean, it was Radueriel, right?” Shiori piped up. “It had to be Radueriel.” 

“No.” That was Pace, actually. The Latina girl, who had switched her green-dyed hair to a full rainbow after cutting it quite short, was shaking her head. “If it was his, he’d already be trying to get it back. Think about it, he had to know you guys took it from Kushiel’s place, a toy like this? And he has no interest in grabbing it? Not even in negotiations? If he made it, wouldn’t he want his prototype back? That’s… that’s the impression I got of him from when… from everything I learned with Theia.” 

The Olympians onboard all exchanged looks, before focusing on Sachael. He, in turn, offered a simple shrug. His voice was even. “Sorry to say, I don’t know who designed this thing. But the girl there is right. Useful as it is, I would think that someone as protective of his designs as Radueriel is would have insisted on having it back as part of the truce agreement.” 

Yeah, that was pretty close to the same thing I had thought before. It made sense. Or rather, it didn’t make sense for this to be Radueriel’s design with as little interest as he had shown in it. But again, if it wasn’t his, then who? Should we be worried about someone else in the Seosten Empire who could design a ship like this that could jump anywhere almost instantly? How many more of these things had they already made? Was there a fleet of instant-jump ships just waiting for the truce to end so they could appear over Earth before we had any warning they were coming? Was I paranoid for even thinking that was a possibility? Well, yes, maybe it was paranoia. But was it unfounded paranoia? I didn’t think so. Not after everything I’d seen. 

“Okay, so the jump was on-target.” That was Lillian, who had been staring out one of the ‘windows’ for the past few seconds. “Can this thing actually get us to the Meregan world now?”  From the sound of her voice, the small woman had her doubts on that subject. Which was fair, after we’d just spent the past few minutes feeling the thing shake itself apart around us. 

“It can,” Sariel confirmed, her fingers moving over one of the control panels that had slid around in front of her seat, sort of like a tray table thing in an airplane. “The slide-drive isn’t exactly top-of-the-line. It’s barebones and barely adequate. But it is working. We should get there in one hour.” Before anyone else could speak up about how long that would take, she added, “We’ll be taking a few separate slides just to throw off any investigation once we’re done. We won’t be coming back to this spot after we grab Elisabet and Dexamene anyway, but the Fomorians could still potentially trace our entrance point back to here. We don’t want that. So we’ll take the long route around and throw them off with those extra slides.” 

“That’s the plan, anyway,” Apollo put in. “Which means we’ve got about fifty-seven minutes now for everyone to relax and breathe, then sixty seconds to psych yourselves up, thirty seconds for that to turn into blind panic, and then another thirty seconds to calm down again. Ready? Go.”

“You remain as inspiring and helpful as ever, Apollo,” Athena quietly noted before glancing at Sachael. She paused then, looking briefly as though she was carefully choosing her words. 

Actually, wait, was she using her power to judge what the best approach would be? That felt–well not exactly manipulative, but… huh. Was it bad? That was a tough question. And the fact that she’d paused long enough to be noticeable, how many options was she playing through, if that was the case? 

Either way, cheating or not, the woman finally addressed her Seosten-loyalist former crewmate. “Which does make it feel a bit like old times, doesn’t it?” 

Seeing Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and Sachael like that, I wondered what it had actually been like back on the Olympus. With Kushiel and certain others around, it definitely hadn’t been a picnic. And yet, there had certainly been good times. They’d been together fifty years or so even before coming to Earth. Which, I knew for them was seriously a drop in the bucket. And yet so many of them defined basically everything they were around either that, or their ‘god’ identities back on Earth. Athena used her Earth-goddess name rather than Auriel because she loathed the person she had been. Apollo didn’t go by Lucifer because he saw himself as more connected to Earth than the Seosten since he had left them. Mercury still used that name because it was the first one that the SPS-afflicted man had seen as his own after taking over the original Amitiel.

But Sariel didn’t. Sariel used her Seosten name consistently. Actually, I’d almost never heard her use the name Artemis. For a moment, I wondered why that was. Did she not like the identity? Was being Sariel more important for her than holding onto their old names was for the others? Was I just reading way too much into it? 

My gaze drifted over toward Jophiel. The Seosten woman had been silent through all of this since entering the ship, her gaze unfocused as she looked off into the distance. I had no idea what she was doing, other than worrying about Elisabet, but she seemed more… passive than I would’ve expected.

“Meditation spell.” That was Lillian, whispering toward me when she saw the direction of my gaze. “Way of keeping calm and clearing your mind before something important. Think of it as a magical tranquilizer that instantly wears off when it needs to.” 

Realizing I’d missed whatever Sachael had said in response to Athena, I glanced over to my mother, grabbing her hand to squeeze it. Really, I was hiding the fact that I’d palmed one of the privacy coins and was using it to make sure only her, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon could actually hear what I was about to say. Though the only person I really didn’t want to hear was Sachael. “I don’t suppose Bob’s linked you back into the Committee now that you’re free?” I was joking, mostly. “That’d be pretty useful.” 

Mom blinked at me briefly. “Bob?” she echoed blankly, clearly trying to think of someone with that name who would be the least bit relevant to what I was talking about. 

Oh, right, she wouldn’t know about that. Belatedly, I explained that we’d named the Reaper in the lighthouse Bob, thanks to Koren. 

Once she understood, Mom chuckled a little under her breath. “Ah, I used to call him Pops. He always felt like a… grandfather to me, of sorts.”

“That’s funny,” I replied with a chuckle despite myself, “Aylen sees him the same way.” Then I saw the way Mom blinked at me, clearly unknowing, and realized she had no idea what I was talking about. Right, maybe I hadn’t been able to tell her everything that had happened over the previous year. Bringing up the whole ‘friendly Fomorian’ thing had felt like something that could wait until we were free. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up right now. 

“Never mind,” I murmured. “I’ll tell you later. But you definitely don’t feel Committee-energized?” 

From the look on her face, Mom was tempted to pursue the previous subject. But she let it go with a shake of her head. “No, I haven’t felt anything like that. I don’t know if he even knows that I’ve been–that my memories have been restored, let alone that I’m no longer with Fossor.” 

“If he doesn’t, we’ll have to find a way to give him an update,” I assured her, squeezing my mother’s hand a bit more before quietly adding, “Not just because of the power thing. But because he misses you. He–I…” Hesitating, I explained how Bob had helped me before, by instantly teleporting my friends and I so we could fight Lemuel’s were-pack and eventually get the choker that allowed us to identify who had been possessed. Avalon, Shiori, and Tabbris piped up now and then too, helping to explain that whole situation. 

By the time we were done, Mom was shaking her head. “You mentioned most of that before, but not the detail about Pops. He–he really stepped up.” She sounded sad, and I realized he was yet another person (yes, person goddamnit) my mother cared about who had been taken away from her for a long time. “I’m glad you talked to him. He… needs more people to talk to him.” 

There was more to that, I realized. It sounded like Mom wanted to say something else about Bob-Pops needing people to talk to him. But she visibly put it aside, exhaling before settling on simply adding, “He deserves better.” 

We talked a bit more over the remaining time. Not all with the privacy spells, of course. I didn’t want to be that rude or obvious about it. I’d just figured that, whatever else he’d said about not reporting everything that happened to his superiors, it was still best not to let Sachael (or the Calendar duo) know too much about Bob and the fact that he was (sort of) communicating. 

Either way, pretty soon all of that was irrelevant. Because we were getting closer to the Meregan world, as all of our conversations kind of petered out. We were thinking about what was about to happen, about what we were going to see and potentially have to do basically as soon as we got there. 

We were nervous. All of us, even the Olympians. A glance around showed me that much pretty plainly. It was immediately clear that none of us wanted to be here right now. No one wanted to go running into a Fomorian-infested planet. We were all thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, about how bad it could potentially be. And I was pretty sure that no matter how detailed our imaginations might be, reality could probably get even worse. 

Finally, Apollo counted down while we all braced ourselves for what we were about to see. “In three… two… one…” 

We came out of the slide, all of us telling ourselves that we were prepared for the worst. And yet, nothing we had braced ourselves for could have prepared us for what we saw. 

There was a battle going on. An insane space battle the likes of which I’d never seen outside of movies. It was even more intense than the battle between Athena’s fleet and Kushiel’s research station defenses back when we had been rescuing Sariel. We were just beyond the outer edges of it, with the planet dead ahead. But between us and the world were dozens of enormous ships. Half were the biological sort the Fomorians used, while the other half were definitely technological. Lasers, missiles, various spell effects, tentacles, explosions of gore and acid, gigantic whale-like monsters that swam through space with their mouths open, all of it was laid out in front of us. We’d arrived in the middle of a massive warzone. 

“What–the Seosten are here?!” Lillian blurted, her gaze snapping toward Sachael. 

“No,” Athena immediately replied, her gaze riveted to the sight before us. “Those aren’t Seosten ships.” 

“Then who the hell are they?” Haiden demanded, leaning forward to stare at the screen at the front of the ship. 

Athena’s answer filled the small space around us. 

“I have no idea.”

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Promise And Peril 11-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on Lincoln posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can read it by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Something else had happened while I was busy with the whole Jophiel thing the night before. Not to mention having some time with my family. Apparently that Dakota girl had had an encounter with a monster from the ocean called a Nuckelavee. An encounter that had resulted in the death of an older Garden student before one of the Victors stepped in. 

At least Dakota was alive. Even more traumatized than she already had been, but still alive. And, according to Avalon, she and Miranda had also had an… interesting conversation when they went to see the girl. A conversation with Gaia’s former lover… about one of Gaia’s other former lovers. Yeah, relationships among people who lived for centuries were really complicated. 

Uh, not that I had much room to talk. 

Anyway, they met Accolon, who told them that the man who was the father of her biological son (Mordred) was ready to step in and help save her. Oh, and one other tiny detail, the guy in question was Oberon, the King of Canada. Yeah. Why hadn’t he mentioned that he was so close to Gaia before, so close that they’d had a fucking son together? I had no idea. Again, relationships were weird. Coupled (hah) with people as powerful and old as Gaia and Oberon? Yeah, it was a whole thing. 

The point was, he was ready to offer aid now. Which was good, because we were going to need help if we were going to get Gaia away from the Crossroads loyalists. There was no way getting to her would be as easy (relatively speaking) as rescuing Sean had been. Wherever she was, the Committee would have her locked down tighter than basically anything else in the world. And thanks to certain binding contract spells, we couldn’t even count on getting help from the people on the Committee who were actually on our side. They couldn’t so much as tell us where to look without exposing the fact that they’d done so, allowing the loyalists to move Gaia. 

“Hey.” Avalon’s voice suddenly interrupted my musing, making my attention focus on her as the two of us sat at a table in the Atherby Camp dining cabin where we were eating breakfast. Her eyebrows were raised. “Look, knock it off. I know that look, you’re obsessing about everything that you can’t do anything about right now. Focus on the thing in front of you. We’ll get Gaia back, but we can’t do anything about that right now. That Accolon guy said Oberon was going to put some resources into finding out where the prison is, and they’ll get back to us. Nothing else we can do right this second, okay?” 

Porthos, her lizard-cyberform, was sitting next to her on the table eating his own breakfast of metal beads. He gave me a firm shake of his fist as if to punctuate Avalon’s words. 

Blinking a couple times at that, I offered her a small smile. “You’re the one giving me a pep talk, even though she’s your mother.” 

“I know Gaia,” she replied quietly, yet firmly. “She’ll be okay. When we find her, she’ll be okay. But she’s just in prison right now. The… the not-psycho Committee members won’t let the others do anything that bad. She’ll be safe. Safe enough, anyway. We’ve got a more immediate situation.” 

“Elisabet and Dexamene,” I agreed with a grimace. “Yeah, being on a planet full of Fomorians is a pretty immediate problem.” Sighing, I added, “I know it’s a lot to ask for you to focus on something other than your mom, I–” 

“Stop.” Avalon’s voice was sharp, her fist hitting my shoulder from across the table. “Don’t be an idiot, Felicity. After everything we–” She cut herself off, shaking her head pointedly. “Just don’t be an idiot. I’m with you. Of course I’m with you. When we get more about Gaia, you’ll be there.” 

I gave a short nod, moving my hand to catch hers and squeeze it. “I’ll be there,” I confirmed. 

“And I’ll be here now,” she informed me. “Besides, like I said, we can’t do anything about Gaia right this second, so I need something else to kill. A bunch of Fomorian minions sounds like just what the doctor ordered.” The smile she gave me then was basically feral. “I do have a lot of aggression to get out.” 

Snorting at her, I brought her hand in to gently kiss the fingers without breaking eye contact. “Even after that whole thing with Fossor’s zombies? I would’ve thought you’d be done fighting for awhile.” 

Lifting her chin, Avalon retorted, “Like I said, a lot of aggression.” Adding a wink, she noted, “Though I guess there are other ways to work out energy like that.” 

Oh boy. My face was suddenly hotter than my food, as I choked a bit while the other girl snickered at me. “Not fair,” I managed to croak, “definitely not fair.” 

“What’s not fair?” That was Roxa, taking a seat next to me with a plate of her own before she blinked with realization. “Oh, right, you guys are being gross. Got it.” 

“Gross isn’t the word I’d use,” I informed the other blonde while giving her a poke in the arm with my fork. “A little bird told me you were angling to come on this rescue mission.” 

Casually spearing a huge hunk of steak with her fork before lifting it to her mouth to tear a bite out of it with her teeth, Roxa replied, “Yeah, well, sounds like an insanely dangerous trip that’s gonna end up with a lot of screaming and violence. So, you know, I’m there.” 

“Hopefully not too much screaming and violence,” I murmured, looking back and forth between her and Avalon. “You guys do understand that the goal here is to fly in, grab those two, and get out without too much fighting, riiiiaaand I realize even as I say that how stupid it sounds.” 

“At least she got there on her own,” Roxa noted with a smirk, taking another bite of her huge steak, chewing ravenously before adding, “When shit goes wrong and everyone’s fighting for their lives, I wanna be there.” Her expression sobered a bit then as she met my gaze. “Seriously, I can help. I want to help. I need to do something.” 

“You’ve done plenty,” I insisted. “Roxa, everything you–yeah. You were there yesterday. You and the rest of your pack. But if you really want to be there for this, I’m not gonna say no.” 

“Good,” she shot back, “I’d hate to have to kick your ass until you change your mind.” 

“I see wolf-instincts make one delusional too,” I teased despite everything. “Good to know.” 

That prompted a lot of back and forth between the three of us, before Shiori and Columbus showed up, along with Choo. The Jekern was insistent on attention, so I stepped up and wrapped both arms around him. He was huge now, big enough for Shiori to ride on. Which was a pretty big change from the tiny thing he’d been when we first met. 

“Hey, big guy,” I murmured while hugging the warthog-like creature tight. “Thanks for taking care of our girl while I was gone.” 

Choo, in turn, huffed and made a flicker of electricity tickle my face. From his snorts, I was pretty sure he was trying to tell me off for being gone so long and making his owner sad. 

“Believe me,” I informed him, “I feel the same way.” 

Rising, I exchanged a long, tender kiss with Shiori herself, ignoring everyone else for a moment. Then I embraced the other girl tightly before announcing, “So, both my girls here and nothing’s currently on fire except for all the things that are currently on fire.” Squinting at myself, I shook my head. “That made more sense before I said it.” 

“Pretty sure it didn’t,” Columbus put in mildly, scratching under Amethyst’s chin as the cyberform lay across his shoulder. “But I think we can give you a pass, all things considered. So, what’s going on with the whole rescue mission thing?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Guys, everyone can’t go. It’s supposed to be a quick in-and-out and yes I know the odds of that, but seriously.” 

“Ship’s big enough,” the boy pointed out. “If we don’t get into a fight, great. But don’t think you’re gonna be able to run out into Fomorian space without a hell of a lot of back-up. Shiori won’t let you go without her, right?” He looked to his sister, who gave a firm nod. “Right, and she’s not going without me.” 

Exhaling, I nodded. “I get it, believe me. I’m not about to run off without you guys. Let’s just… hope that this is a quick little jump across universes to grab those two and get out again. Hope for it, but plan for the worst.” Giving them all a thumbs up, I added, “And then maybe everyone can take a real vacation. And by real vacation, I mean go back to normal school for awhile. Actual school with classes and everything. How fucking weird would that be?”

“You’ve got a point there,” Shiori agreed. 

“With you, the only possible totally unexpected thing is a completely normal day.” 

************

That night, the ship was ready. Or at least as ready as it was going to get without weeks more work, and no way were Jophiel and Tristan going to wait weeks to start this rescue mission. We were lucky the two of them had waited this long. As it was, it took a lot to keep the two of them calm enough to stick with the plan so they didn’t run off to try to rescue Dex and Elisabet alone. 

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. The two of them already understood, and they weren’t idiots. Still, I felt like we had to keep an eye on Tristan especially. Not that the boy had a way of getting to the Meregan world himself, but I wouldn’t entirely put it past him to try to find someone who could

So, we mostly focused on killing time by establishing who was actually going to go on this rescue mission. As we’d said before, the hope was that we’d barely have to fight at all. But in anything, and especially where the Fomorians were concerned, hoping for the best and planning for the worst seemed to be the best way to go. We had to have enough people to fight. 

Jophiel was going, as were Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and this Sachael guy. That was five Olympians. We also had my mother, Deveron, Lillian, Haiden, Larissa, and apparently Kohaku. 

I’d had a private conversation with Dare about that whole situation, and she said that she wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if the Fomorians had too much interaction with her, so it was for the best that she stay behind. But boy did she not like it. Five minutes after getting Mom and me back in her life (even if Mom by necessity couldn’t know the truth about all that) and she already had to watch us go right back into life-threatening danger against the very species she had basically given up her entire life for. Yeah, she wasn’t exactly enjoying that idea, to say the least.

She did give me a few emergency enchantments she’d prepared, telling me to stow them away just in case. And she made me promise about a million times that I wouldn’t do anything that stupid and insane. Oh, and the hugs. She hugged me basically as hard as I’d ever been hugged, even with my mother’s return. This whole situation was hitting her pretty badly. 

As for the rest of us, I was going of course. So were Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, Sarah, Columbus, Avalon, and Shiori. Oh, and Roxa too. And she was bringing Theia and Pace along. Finally, May and December had hopped aboard the plan. 

Of course, May and December coming along brought up another point. Sachael already knew about the situation between Elisabet and Jophiel, of course, and had agreed not to make an official report about it until she officially reported it herself. But with those two, it was a bit more complicated. We knew they were reporting things back to Cahethal, and she wasn’t nearly as likely to keep quiet about this situation. But, as it turned out, we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris. 

Actually, ‘we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris’ came up a lot, now that I thought about it. At a certain point you’d think it’d stop being a secret, but there we were. 

Anyway, the point was, we had Tabbris. And she had become basically best friends with December. She asked the other girl to please keep a certain something a secret, promised it wasn’t a direct threat to the Calendar or to Cahethal, and the three of them agreed to take oath spells to not reveal that little secret. Pretty similar to the spells that Tristan, Vanessa, Tabbris, and I had been put under by Jophiel and Elisabet in the first place, actually.  

So that was our, ahhh, ‘crew’ for this mission. We could’ve had more, obviously. But we didn’t want to involve too many people. It was already a big enough group as it was, considering Elisabet and Jophiel had been keeping their whole thing secret for so long. Though I had a feeling it would be coming out sooner than they had planned, regardless of our precautions. 

Finally, it was time to head out. Athena had brought everyone who was going to Gaia’s secret cave where the ship was being kept. They’d put some more last minute work on it to make sure it was as ready to go as possible, and now we were all standing in front of the thing. 

Even now, I still didn’t think the thing looked much like a spaceship. It was just a long, jetliner-sized tube with a ramp leading up into it. Its weapons, engines, everything was well hidden. When it was closed up, it just looked like a semi-sleek metal cylinder. Whoever had designed this ship had focused entirely on function and not at all on form. Probably because it was a prototype. It wasn’t meant to be pretty or even heavily armed as far as ships went. It was meant to test that instant-jump system. 

Which made me wonder, not for the first time, who had designed it. Because it sure wasn’t Kushiel. It had to be Raduriel, right? That was the answer that made the most sense. Though it did raise the question of why he hadn’t done more to try to get his prototype back. Yeah, there was a truce, but you’d think he’d at least ask for it. Yet he hadn’t brought it up at all. Which seemed a little odd to me, given how special the prototype ship was. 

Athena was talking. “You all know the plan. Given optimum conditions, no one will have to lift a finger. That said, assume everything is going to fall apart. Watch each other’s backs, stay together as much as you can. Don’t let anyone get pulled away and separated. Do not let the Fomorians lead you into a trap. Don’t go anywhere alone, don’t chase them even if they look weak. If they start to retreat, let them. You have no idea how many of our people have been killed because they fell for the Fomorians pretending to be routed and then falling on them from all sides, even from what were supposed to be corpses.” 

For a moment, it looked like Athena might say something else, but decided against it. Instead, she simply continued, “If things fall apart, stay with each other and watch your backs. We’ll come to you. You all have emergency beacons and teleportation stones. The green ones will try to take you back to the ship. If those fail, the red ones will pick an unoccupied space on the planet as far from Fomorian detection as possible and send an alert to the rest of us. Use them if you need to. And… and you all have the X-stones.” 

Yeah, we did. The X-stones were just what they sounded like, rocks in the shape of an x. They were intentionally made to be impossible to mix up with any other enchanted object. As for what they did, they were essentially magical cyanide pills. Yeah. If this all went wrong, we had the opportunity to end ourselves rather than risk being experimented on by the Fomorians if we chose to.  

Wasn’t this just a super-awesome happy optimistic mission we were going on? Just what I had been looking forward to once Fossor was dealt with, a nice, quiet break to just relax. 

I would get that once the other two were safe. After everything they’d done, I couldn’t relax until they were back where they belonged. Once that happened, then I’d demand a vacation. 

Mom spoke up then. “Whatever happens, the job isn’t to kill Fomorians. Remember that, we cannot beat them. They’re too numerous, too powerful, and they’ll have reinforcements on the way the moment they detect us. The job is to get in, find Elisabet and Dexamene, and get out again. We kill what’s directly in our way and then leave. That’s all. The Fomorians have already taken over the planet. We can’t stop that and we can’t save that world. Not now.” Her voice was a bit strained as she said it, reminding me of the history she had with the Meregan. It had to be killing her not to even try to save those people. 

Once everyone agreed to what they were saying, Mom and Athena exchanged looks and some kind of silent communication. Then the Olympian woman turned to start walking up the ramp. “Right then. Let’s go see what we can do. Everyone find a seat and strap yourselves in.

“This is going to be a bumpy flight.”  

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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Hand pressed against the red circle on the wall of his living room to activate the intercom linking his prison house to the guards, Sean Gerardo’s mouth opened as he called, “Hey, Cristof! You still out there?” 

There was a momentary pause before Cristof Manders appeared in a brief flash of light. The man was three inches shorter than Sean’s own six foot four, and much thinner. Sean may have been stuck in this prison for eight years (from his point of view), but over time he had convinced his jailers to provide a few extra amenities, including an entire, well-equipped gym to replace his own makeshift one. He spent hours each day in that gym, and it showed in his form. 

But while Cristof may have looked smaller than Sean, the power discrepancy had always been far lopsided in the other direction. Cristof was a full Heretic and had been for over forty years. Which could be said for any of the man’s coworkers as well. Sean’s personal training and workout regime meant nothing next to the powers that any of his jailers could employ. 

Squinting at Sean suspiciously, Cristof asked flatly, “What do you want, Gerardo? Your parents aren’t scheduled to visit for another–” He paused, clearly considering the time differences. “–another two days by your clock. And you’ve already had your groceries delivered this week.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Right, yeah. But I figured you might want to play another game.” He gestured toward the table where he’d set up the chess board. “If you’re not busy.” 

Again, the other man paused. His head tilted as though listening to something that Sean couldn’t hear, before he lifted his chin. “I don’t know if you’ve somehow figured out what’s going on, or if this is all part of a contingency plan for anyone who ended up like you, but it’s not working.” 

Doing an admirable job of looking confused, Sean’s eyes widened fractionally. “Uhh, what?” 

“The people you’ve got outside,” Cristof snapped. “They’re not getting in here. And you know what? Even if they do, you’re still not getting away. Because the instant they breach the prison is the instant we teleport you out of here. I mean hell, that’s not even something we have to do manually. It’s built into the prison defenses, Gerardo. The instant anyone who isn’t allowed in this prison sets foot in it, you and every other prisoner are immediately transported to a back-up facility on the other side of the ocean. So this whole attack? It’s completely pointless.” 

“Okay, well, I don’t know anything about an attack.” Sean’s shoulders shrugged. “Not sure how I could, unless you guys are a lot worse at security than you’re supposed to be. But if there’s something going on out there, do you need to go out and help?” 

The man gave him a dangerous smile. “Nah. They don’t need me out there to deal with this. Trust me, we were ready. I’m here to play backup for the backup. On the off-chance your old friends manage to bypass the automated security, I’ll take you to your new prison myself.” 

With an easy nod, Sean’s mouth opened to ask, “Well, it’d probably be easier to protect those automated security spells if you were in the room with them instead of here, wouldn’t it?” 

“And leave you alone in here?” Cristof snorted. “Nah, you’re up to something. I can tell.” 

“Sure, okay.” Sean’s voice was agreeable and personable. “Well, I suppose the easiest thing to do would be to take me with you then, right?” His shoulders shrugged once more. “I mean, if my friends out there are coming here to get me out, my not being here would thwart that pretty effectively. You could keep an eye on me and the emergency security spells at the same time. Then if anything did happen to them, you could probably see it in time to fix it.” 

For a few long seconds, the man just stared at him. “Take you out of your prison cell?” 

“You have to admit,” Sean’s voice pointed out, “no one out there would expect it. They come bursting in, using all their plans and effort just getting to this cell and… whoops, I’m not here. I’m out there with you, in a secure room where they don’t have the slightest prayer of finding me. You’d be saving the day. Saving the whole prison, really. Hell, you could leave a trap here so that anyone who jumps in to save me gets caught in it.” 

“A trap…” Cristof echoed slowly, clearly considering it. “Yeah. Hey, you get over here.” He pointed to the front door. “Stand right there and don’t move, you got me? Do not move.” He waited until Sean had moved to stand there, then quickly scrawled a few quick runes around the walls, activating several prepared spells before backing up to join his prisoner. “Right. First one of your friends out there that manage to come here are going to get a real big surprise.” 

Sean’s head bowed. “I feel sorry for whoever ends up in here.” His mouth turned up in a very slight smile then as he looked at his jailer. “But hey, they did pretty much ask for it.” 

“Yeah… yeah, they did. Now come on.” Cristof grabbed him by the shoulder. “You try to pull anything right now and I swear, you won’t wake up from the coma for a month. Got it?” When Sean’s head bobbed in a nod, he grabbed the door, activating the spell on it to transport both of them out of the cell that the boy-turned-man had been trapped in for so long. 

They appeared together in a narrow corridor with metal walls lined with various glowing spell glyphs. Behind them was a vault door, apparently what Sean’s cell entrance had looked like from the other side. “You pull away from me,” Cristof warned him, “and those spells on the walls will put you on your ass so fast you’ll think you time-traveled.” He then yanked his charge along down the corridor. They passed several more metal vault-like doors. Other prisons. 

“I thought there’d be more guards out here.” Sean’s voice was contemplative, as they reached a short flight of stairs at the end of the narrow corridor. “You know, normal patrols just in case.” 

“There are,” his jailer snapped, grip tightening on his shoulder while all-but dragging him up those stairs. “Most of them are busy dealing with your friends outside. But don’t get cocky, I can deal with you myself, and I’m not the only one here. You’re not going anywhere, Gerardo.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Sean’s voice was smooth and quiet, a reassuring timbre that eased Cristof’s suspicion while the man pulled him along in a tight, inescapable grip. 

“Hold it!” The new voice interrupted just as they reached the top of the stairs, where a pair of double doors waited at the end of a circular landing. There was another Heretic there, a guard Sean knew by the name of Julien. He had a three-bladed spear in one hand, his face a mixture of apprehension and disbelief. “What the hell, Cristof? You brought Gerardo out of–explain this! Do you have any idea what’s going on out there? We’re under siege and you choose now to-” 

“Yeah,” Cristof snapped, “I know what’s going on. And I know that if those guys actually make it in here, the first place they’ll go is this guy’s cell. So better for him to not be there, get it? This room is the most protected one in the prison. I’m taking him in there. Anyone tries to get past you, I’ll teleport him the hell out of here and they’ll get absolutely nothing.” 

“It–are you sure that…” With a frown, Julien slowly asked, “Is that really something that we–” 

“You’re right.” Sean’s hand rose for attention, drawing the men’s gazes. “It’s not a perfect plan. But you know what would make it better? You keeping guard right here.” His head nodded toward the floor in front of the room. “Believe me, I know my friends and you should be ready to deal with them if they get this far. Don’t let yourself get distracted, because they’ll take advantage. You should be here, ready for them.” 

“I… right, yeah. Go inside.” Julien stepped away from the double doors, already watching the way they had come from. “Get him in there, lock the place down. I’ll make sure no one gets through.” He gave a sharp look toward Sean. “Your friends are about to fail, you know. Then you’ll have plenty of company in here. Hell, maybe we’ll arrange some play dates so you can all talk about how dumb this rescue attempt was.” 

“Hey, that’s enough,” Cristof snapped. “Yeah, the kid–err… guy’s not going anywhere. But you don’t have to be a dick about it. These people are just doing what they think is right. They’re wrong, but we don’t convince them of that by being assholes. They’re misguided, not some kind of… Strangers. Just protect the entrance, let me handle Gerardo.” 

With that, the man opened the door and pulled Sean in after him before letting it close. They were now in a circular room about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were lined with consoles, computer monitors showing various parts of the prison inside and outside, and lots of flashing warning lights. On the screens for the exterior of the prison, they could see dozens of figures fighting, spells and powers sending bright flashes of light here and there as the intruders fought against the prisons defenders. It was total chaos, impossible to easily follow over the monitors. 

“Nice place,” Sean’s voice murmured as he slowly looked around the room, taking in the security screens with barely a glance before focusing his attention back on Cristof. “I can see why you’d bring me here. I mean, if you’ve gotta hold out somewhere, this is the place to do it. Hell, you could probably stick the controls for every security measure in this prison here.” His head shook. “But they didn’t do that, did they? They didn’t put every security measure in this room.” 

“Hell no,” Cristof retorted. “We’ve got spells to stop anyone not authorized from teleporting in or out of this place. Not just here. Two redundancies in opposite parts of the prison. Three layers of security, counting the one in here,” he bragged with a confident smile. “And if one goes down, the other two activate emergency evacuation in seconds. Like I said, your friends out there don’t have a chance. We know what we’re doing here. They’re wasting their time.”

“They’re pretty good at that.” Sean’s voice was a murmured agreement before he added, “But I hope you guys didn’t put those redundant spells too close together. They’re not like, next door or anything like that, right?” 

With a snort, Cristof snapped, “How stupid do you think we are? Look, right there.” He pointed to a map of the facility on a nearby wall. “See these two rooms? That’s where the redundancies are. Like I said, completely opposite sides of the prison, and far from this room. We’re safe.” 

Sean’s head bobbed in a quick nod. “Wow. Yeah, you guys really thought of everything. Seems like it’s all handled.” There was a brief pause before he murmured a thoughtful, “Unless…” 

Frowning with equal parts anticipation and suspicion, Cristof demanded, “Unless what?” 

The prisoner shrugged. “I dunno. I just… I mean, I certainly didn’t tell anyone about this place, right? And you know you didn’t. Seems to me like the only way my friends out there could know where this place was and how to get to it would be if somebody told them. But if it wasn’t me, because I’ve been stuck here the whole time, and it wasn’t you, then… it kind of had to be…” 

“Someone else,” Cristof finished, staring at him with wide eyes. “You think someone in this place told your friends about it. You think someone–one of the other guards– is a traitor.” 

With a cough, Sean’s gaze moved to watch the security monitors, his voice idle, as though it hardly mattered. “It’s kinda the only thing that makes sense. No other way for them to find this place. Lots of traitors going around, no way of knowing who might’ve changed their mind about the rebellion lately. And you know, if there’s a traitor in here, someone who told those guys how to get to this place, they could’ve done more than that.” 

Cristof’s weapon, a sword with two parallel blades that could each shift between various elements and metals, was in his hand. “More than that?” he demanded with a look at the door.

“Sure.” Sean’s head nodded toward the control consoles. “You know that security spell you were talking about, the one that’s supposed to teleport all the prisoners out of here the second an intruder sets foot in this place? Whoever that traitor is, he would’ve told my friends about it, right? No way he wouldn’t. So why are they trying so hard to get in here? Unless…” 

Eyes widening, Cristof’s gaze snapped from the door to one console in particular. “Unless it’s compromised,” he finished for the other man, already starting to step that way. 

“Yup.” Sean’s own voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “I bet they changed it. They made it so the spells will transport you and the rest of the guards out of here instead. You’ll be teleported so far away you’ll never make it back in time. And they’re just waiting to activate it, any… second…” 

“Not this time!” Cristof retorted, shooting Sean a hard glare before his hands danced over the controls. It was a mixture of spells and actual technology. One hand dismissed a rune intricately drawn across the console, while his other hand punched in a code on the physical keypad. His voice was triumphant as he spun from the console with a laugh. “Sorry, Gerardo, your friends’ little tricks aren’t gonna work today. I just disabled that security spell, so let’s see them try–” 

“What the hell did you just do?!” The demand came from the figure who appeared with a snap of power in the middle of the room. Another Heretic, this one a dark-skinned woman carrying a bladed shotgun, had teleported in, already whirling to face Sean while snapping her free hand up, a ball of semi-invisible force appearing at the ends of her fingers. 

At the same time, the door slid open, as Julien came rushing through as well to see what had just happened. His spear was raised and ready to throw. 

With a flash of light, a bright, glowing figure stepped from Sean’s body. Apollo stood there, hand raised. Two of the rings on his hand flared with power. The first summoned a forcefield, intercepting the ball of energy the Heretic woman had just flung toward Sean. The other sent a burst of electricity back that way, flinging her into the far wall where she crashed through one of the screens there with a spray of glass and sparks. 

Simultaneously with that, another figure shot out of the back of Apollo. Felicity Chambers was there, hand already raised. As Julien’s spear flew toward Sean, she summoned a small portal. The spear sailed through it before reappearing behind Julien to slam into the man’s leg. An instant later, Flick’s kinetic-empowered staff slammed into the staggering man’s face, knocking him into the opposite wall. She followed that up with another blow before he could recover, even as two blades, hurled by Apollo, embedded themselves in the wall to either side of Julien. 

Cristof, by that point, had jerked around, two-bladed sword coming up. But before he could do anything, Sean slapped a hand against his arm. A napkin, pulled from his pocket, was there. The napkin he had spent hours subtly drawing a spell on under the tutelage of Apollo. With a single word, Sean activated that spell, and the napkin exploded into a sudden spray of liquid metal that enveloped Cristof before instantly hardening into a cocoon. A second later, the cocoon was filled with a potent knockout gas. Even as the cocoon fell to the ground and began to melt away into a puddle, the man inside lay completely unconscious. 

Meanwhile, the two daggers Apollo had hurled produced figures of their own. Sands and Avalon both appeared while Julien was raising a hand toward Flick. He had just summoned a bolt of power that would punch through the girl’s body, when her newly emerged teammates each struck the man from either side. Sands’ mace and a glowing warhammer conjured from one of Avalon’s gauntlets each slammed into him. That time, he collapsed and didn’t rise again. 

Quickly, Flick and the others took the man’s spear from his leg before using one of the enchanted rocks Wyatt had provided. This one wouldn’t teleport the man anywhere (that was impossible from in here until the security defenses were taken down), but it would ensure that he stayed unconscious for a few hours.

That done, the trio looked over first to where Cristof was, finding the man completely in hand. The woman who had appeared was down as well, Apollo tugging her limp form over to lie next to Cristof. 

Another glowing figure emerged, this time from Flick. Tabbris appeared, before she in turn produced Larissa, who produced Haiden. Athena emerged from him, Tristan from her, and Vanessa from him. Soon, the whole group was there in that room. 

“Sean!” Flick blurted the instant the initial threat was over and they were all present. With that, she threw herself that way, even as Sean reflexively opened his arms. The two embraced tightly, as Flick’s head shook. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry it took so long. Oh my God. I’m sorry.” 

Shaking his head, Sean tried to say that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t any of their fault. The words stuck in his throat, and he just clung tighter. They’d interacted before during all this, in his virtual reality space whenever Apollo brought her in. But that was different from this. He hadn’t even let Flick or the others see how old he was getting in comparison to them, preferring to project himself in his mind as the boy he’d been back then. This was the first time they had really seen him as he was now. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Tristan managed, staring at him. “You’re… you’re… fucking buff.” 

A hiss of disbelief that turned into a coughing-laugh emerged from Sean, as he shook his head. “I’m… a lot of things,” he muttered. “Mostly glad to see you, man.” The two boys embraced firmly. “Really god damn glad to see you.” 

Tabbris took her turn for a hug then, followed by Sands, Vanessa, and the others. Even Avalon took his hand for a moment, squeezing before leaning in for a brief hug as she whispered in his ear about being glad to see him. But before that went on too long, Athena spoke up. “Very good. But we have to keep moving. There are still two redundant defenses to take down. Thanks to Apollo and his Tartarus gift, we know exactly where they are.” Her hand gestured to the spots on the map that Cristof had so helpfully pointed out. 

“We split into groups. One group stays here to defend this room. Two more go to each of these places, and we shut down their security simultaneously.

“This isn’t over yet.”

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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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