Larissa Mason

Patreon Snippets 4

The following is the fourth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Michael and Gwen many years ago.

With a loud shriek, the goblin creature took two running steps forward before leaping, his makeshift spear raised with both hands as he lunged toward the thirteen-year-old girl in front of him. The girl herself was only slightly taller than the goblin, her feet automatically shifting apart in the dirt as she set herself for the creature’s leap.

Nearby stood the ancient Seosten who had, throughout his history on this planet, referred to himself as both Quirinus and Romulus. Now, however, in the wake of abandoning his people to live free on this world, he went by his true name of Michael.

Michael. In the Seosten language, it was pronounced ‘Mick-Ai-El’. But he had, in recent years, found himself answering more to the pronunciation of simply ‘Mike-el’ due to his adopted human daughter’s inability to pronounce the name properly as a young child.

It was that same adopted child, whom he had raised from before she could properly walk, who stood facing down the lunge of that goblin. And in that moment, Michael had to force himself not to instantly incinerate the creature to ash for daring to threaten the girl who meant so much to him. No. He had to stop himself. Had to let her fight. He had promised to let her fight this battle.

And yet… it was hard. When he looked at her in that instant, the goblin throwing itself at her slender, tiny form, Michael couldn’t help but think of the time not so long ago when she had been even smaller…

Guinevere. His little Gwen. She was small enough to fit in a bag that he carried across his back. As he ran through the woods, she laughed and squealed, hands reaching up from the bag to hug his neck as she cheered for him to go faster, faster, faster. Her laughter alerting the birds to their approach, driving them to flee from their trees even as the man raced onward, the delight of his newfound child driving him to greater heights and speeds than any previous experience.

Another flash of memory. Years after that moment, in woods similar to but quite far from the ones they had been in then. Michael stood in a clearing next to a small cabin, working his way through his own personal training regimen. His sword cut through the air in an intricate ballet of steel as he shuffled and danced back and forth through the dirt, facing invisible opponents from all sides. The whistle of his blade was audible as it flicked through complicated motions.

From the corner of his eye, he could see his Gwen. Now old enough to stand on her own, the little girl toddled her way from the porch of the cabin where she had been playing with a doll he’d made for her. The doll was still clutched in one hand, even as the girl bent to pick up a small stick from the ground. Experimentally, she flicked the stick back and forth a few times, before giving a slight yelp as it found its way up to smack her own lip.

She tried to throw the offending stick away from herself, only for Michael to catch it. He was there, taking a knee beside the girl. As she whimpered and held her injured lip, the man gave her a gentle smile and put the stick back in her trembling hand. With one hand on her back and the other on her wrist, he slowly began to guide her through the first motion of swinging it. One swipe, then another, he showed the tiny girl how to use the stick without hurting herself.

More flashes of memory came in a rush. The girl swinging the stick on her own, clumsily at first but gaining skill and confidence each time. The crack of a larger stick as the girl, several years older than she had been then, struck it against a tree. The crack of sticks against one another as, even older than that, she tested herself against Michael for a few swings before ending up flat on her back as he tripped her.

The clack of wood on wood turned to the clang of steel on steel as Gwen, not too much younger than she was now, parried a playful thrust from Michael himself, each armed with a real sword. He moved to trip her again, but she sidestepped the move and snapped her blade up to his chest, only to have it smacked aside by Michael’s counter. Father and daughter grinned at one another.

Memories faded then, turning back to reality as the goblin lashed out with that sword. Gwen saw it coming, having set herself for the leap. At the last instant, she pivoted, catching the extended spear with one hand to yank the goblin forward even as her small blade flicked out. There was a shriek and a spray of blood before the creature fell to its back, bleeding from the cut in its throat.

Sword in one hand and makeshift spear in the other, Gwen finished the goblin off by driving its own weapon down through its throat. Standing there with the spear embedded deep in the now-dead creature, she grinned lopsidedly at her adopted father.

“See, Papa? I told you I could do it.”

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

“So, do you think we can help her, Grandmother?” The boy who spoke while walking alongside the brunette woman he referred to as ‘Grandmother’ was tall and handsome, his toned and tanned form a common source of excitement for the girls around him. In most cases, he was casual and laid back almost to a fault. But here, in this situation, he was careful to keep his tone as respectful and proper as possible.

The shorter, dark-haired woman he was addressing as ‘Grandmother’ despite the fact that she only appeared to be in her late thirties, offered her grandson a thin smile. To others, she was known as Ikita, the Hausan (mostly spoken by people from Nigeria) word for doctor. This, because of a very early experience during the formation of Garden itself wherein she had been responsible for saving the lives of several Nigerian explorers. The name had stuck.

“Noble. Are you asking me to extend the power of our tribe to protect this… Abigail from any inter-Garden conflict?”

“Uhh…” The boy thought about it for a moment before nodding. “Yup. She’s close to Miranda, Grandmother. I don’t want to see Randi get hurt, which means we need to make people know that Abigail is with us.”

The two of them stopped outside of a room within the giant skyscraper-sized tree of  Eden’s Garden. Ikita offered her grandson a slight nod. “As you wish. I will see what can be done to… urge others to leave the woman alone.”

The boy thanked her and ran off, Ikita watching him for a moment before turning to enter her chambers. As she did so, the smile vanished from her face, her identity as ‘Ikita’ fading away to the back of her mind.

Because ‘Ikita’ was actually, truthfully known as Cahethal. Earlier in her time on this planet, she had also been called Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. For centuries now, she had possessed this single woman (then a young girl when she had first taken her). It was she, while possessing this girl, who had saved those Nigerians and earned the name of Ikita. The true Ikita, whose real name of Lydia Smallwood had been almost completely forgotten to history, had spent most of the past few hundred years barely interacting with the outside world. Cahethal allowed her time with herself when they were alone, or even time within a constructed memory-magic virtual reality so that she could live a facsimile of a real life of her own.

She didn’t do these things solely out of some affection for her host (though there was at least some of that). Mostly she did so because it was the easiest way to maintain easy control without distraction. So long as her host was rewarded with these things for keeping herself quiet, Cahethal could continue her work uninterrupted. And after more than two centuries, the two had an easy rhythm. There was no need for Cahethal to punish or discipline her host when that host was lost in a virtual reality world which kept her quite thoroughly occupied in a ‘life’ of her own.

It did mean that she had spent many years with… what basically amounted to peace with her host. Peace of sorts, anyway. She’d even grown somewhat fond of her ‘family’, like Noble. Fond enough, at least, that she took the care to block any attempt to have them taken to Seosten space to fight on the Fomorian front. She told herself it was only to keep her host happy, but a part of Cahethal knew it was more than that. She didn’t… love the humans. That would have been ridiculous. But they were… something more than worthless. Favored pets, perhaps? Either way, she didn’t necessarily want to see them thrown away in that endless conflict.

In the room, she walked to where her scientific equipment had been set up. Flicking a hand to activate the spell that would make it impossible to be eavesdropped on through any means, she only then let her gaze move to the nearby window. A bluebird (sialia currucoides) perched there on the sill, watching her.

“Are you ready to report?” she asked the bird, waiting until it trilled a soft song before nodding. “Come here then.”

The bird flew in, landing on her palm. Cahethal reached up, gently petting its beak while cooing gently to it. Then her fingers wrapped around the bird’s neck and she gave a sharp twist, breaking it in a single motion.

As the bird’s body collapsed, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the woman. It resolved into the form of a small, thin man, whose long dirty-blonde hair fell all the way past his shoulders. He stretched, cracking his own neck a couple times before fixing his gaze on her. “I want a cat next next time. I like cats.”

“Report, November,” Cahethal reminded him. November. He was a Lie, of course. One of twelve she had in her employ at the moment, each of them named after a different month in the Gregorian calendar. She found it both easier to tell her Lie informants apart when they were given some other identifier like that, and also that it made them feel better inclined toward her for giving them such a name.

She’d also found that it was easier to allow them to engage in their very useful spying activities by having them possess small animals that could go unnoticed than for them to possess actual people, thus locking them into that form unless the person were to die, which often raised questions. Possessing animals meant that her spies could come and go as they pleased.

“Right, right.” Stretching a bit more and shaking himself off, November carefully began to recite everything he’d heard while spying on Abigail Fellows. He told her about the woman bonding with both Miranda and with the Lie that had run away from that idiot, Manakel. He hadn’t been able to get close enough to hear full details in their private conversations, but he had learned enough to know that Abigail had taken this other Lie under her protection (though given her inexperience, it was far more likely the other way around) and guidance.

“Keep watching them,” she instructed. “Bring in July and April. They need new jobs, and it will spread the work around. Let me know how things proceed. Beyond that, make no move against them. I want to… see how this goes.”

Because this entire situation was interesting. Seeing how Joselyn’s eldest daughter acted with this other Lie, seeing how that entire situation unfolded and how the woman herself shook things up here at Garden, it was… worth allowing to proceed, at least for the time being.

She dismissed him, allowing the man to go into the backroom where dozens of animal cages were kept so that he could pick out his next host. While he was busy with that, the woman turned her mind toward Felicity Chambers, the girl who was supposed to have been Cahethal’s new host as of several years earlier. But when she had gone to the girl’s room, she had found herself incapable of possessing her. Incapable of possessing what should have been an ordinary human child.

It should have angered her. And in a way, it had. But far more than that, it had intrigued Cahethal. She wanted to know the truth. She wanted to know what could possibly have caused that. So she had backed off. She had waited and pitched her request that Felicity be brought to Eden’s Garden so that a closer eye could be kept on her. That request, unfortunately, had been denied. Felicity was slated to go to Crossroads instead, thanks to effort put forth by Gaia Sinclaire. Effort which Cahethal couldn’t push too much against without drawing attention to herself.

That, far more than her inability to possess the girl, had annoyed Cahethal. She wanted to research the girl, wanted to dig into her and really find out what was so special that allowed her to resist possession. That being denied upset her more than the initial failure itself. The failure was interesting. It merited research, investigation, maybe even direct contact to determine the cause. The opportunity for that being declined was what had truly set her off.

And now look at the girl. She had somehow killed Manakel. Had killed Manakel, a being many thousands of years older and more powerful than she, simply because he had underestimating her. Worse, thanks to that, all the Seosten were being told to leave the girl alone, to back off entirely.

Which denied Cahethal the opportunity to investigate and examine the interesting girl even more.

Idiot Manakel. She was glad his mistake had cost him his life.

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

“So I’m… I’m really sorry, but I… I guess you made a mistake.” Each word that came from Marina’s mouth felt as though she was pushing it past a slump of steel that had solidified in her throat. Her eyes were wet, the overwhelming sense of failure and despair a crushing weight on her shoulders. But she didn’t look away. She didn’t lower her gaze. She stood straight, facing the woman she had failed, no matter how much shame she felt. Gaia deserved that much.

The headmistress herself sat behind a desk in her beautiful, spacious office. She watched the girl silently for a few long seconds before speaking quietly. “I’m afraid I may be a bit lost, Marina. What mistake have I made?”

Incredulously, Marina forgot the lump in her throat to blurt, “Everyone I’m supposed to take care of disappears or dies! Paul’s dead, Rudolph’s dead, Roxa left a long time ago and probably isn’t coming back, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon disappeared. Doug is the only, the only one of my original group that hasn’t had something horrible happen to him–oh wait, he has because those were all his friends! I’m not a good mentor. I’m–” Now her tears were back, her voice choking itself off to the point of barely being understandable. “I wanted to be, but I’m not. I’m not.”

She took a breath then, forcing herself to calm down enough to speak. “They don’t trust me. Chambers, your daughter, Scout, even Doug now. I know they don’t trust me. They’ll be talking and then stop whenever I get close to them. They– I don’t blame them. I’m supposed to protect them and I didn’t. I haven’t. Deveron–he screwed up at the start of the year, but they trust him. They’ll talk to him. And–and the fact is, they don’t need two mentors. They need one that they can trust, and… and it’s him. They don’t need me. They don’t trust me.”

Gaia’s expression was unreadable in that moment. She sat there, watching Marina in silence before pushing herself to her feet. Only when she had stepped around the desk so that it was no longer between them did the woman finally speak. “Before you… retire your badge of mentor, would you mind coming with me?”

“Um. I…” This was not how Marina expected this to go. Biting her lip, she gave a hesitant nod. “O-of course, Headmistress.”

As the two of them walked from the office together, Gaia quietly asked, “Do you remember what you said to me last year, when I asked you if you were certain about being a mentor?”

The lump was back. It took Marina a few seconds to find her voice, and even then it cracked. “I said that… that I wanted it more than anything in the world. I thought I could do it. I thought I was ready.”

“You showed me a journal,” Gaia reminded her while leading the way down the hall. “An entire notebook full of ideas, plans, thoughts, all focused on the things you would do for the younger students. You showed me the games you wanted to play, the tests you wanted to do. You wanted to teach them. You showed me an entire book of ideas you wrote down because you wanted to teach them.” She glanced sidelong at the girl while stopping in front of a door. “Has that changed?”

“W-well… no, I mean…  I mean, I’m not any good at it,” Marina protested weakly. “I thought I was–I thought I could do it. But I can’t. All I wanted to do was show them how… how wonderful and amazing this world can be, how we can help people. I wanted… I wanted to show them that our world is about more than just killing things. Because our people forget that sometimes. They make it about power and about how many monsters they’ve killed. But there’s magic out there. Magic and… and a whole universe of… of wonder. I just… I just wanted to help one little group see that. I just wanted to help a few people see some of the amazing things in this world besides all of the killing.

“And  instead, the only thing I’ve managed to do is get them killed.”

In the wake of Marina’s words, Gaia slowly reached out a hand to rest on her shoulder. “My girl… if there is one thing above everything else, one truth above all others that you must, must understand, it’s that you have done nothing wrong. There are times in all of our lives, when bad things will happen. They will happen no matter how hard to try to prevent them. And they don’t happen because we failed. They happen despite our successes, despite everything we do right. That is the nature of life. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.”

Before Marina could respond to that, Gaia opened the door and gestured for her to go through. “Come.”

The girl took a step that way before blinking up in confusion. Her gaze turned to take in exactly where they were “Err, wait, was this door here before? I don’t remember it.”

With a smile, Gaia ushered her gently, yet firmly through with a hand on her back. “Many do not. It’s not a door that exists for everyone.”

That brought many questions to Marina’s mind. But they all vanished as soon as she moved through the doorway. She felt a slight tingling sensation, before finding herself somewhere else, somewhere that, like the door they had just come through, she had never seen before.

“What the…” Blinking a couple times, the girl slowly looked around. They were in another hallway. Straight ahead of them was another door, with an attached window. Through that window, Marina could see what looked like a classroom. It was filled with desks facing a chalkboard, except it wasn’t part of the school, because the students in those desks were only about ten years old. They were all laughing, clearly engaged in whatever the teacher, a young woman the girl didn’t recognize, was saying while she read from some book.

There were more doors up and down the hall, Marina realized quickly. Through each was another group of children, none of them older than twelve or thirteen, and many as young as three or four. They were learning, playing, or just napping.

“I… I don’t understand.” Turning to Gaia, she asked, “What is this place?”

The headmistress gave her a somewhat sad smile. “This… this is part school, part daycare, part… orphanage. It is a place for all those who are too young to be on their own, yet have no place to go. It is for those whose parents are on a long mission, a long recovery, or… or who will never come back. It is for those whose only guardians have died, while they have no one else.”

Covering her mouth briefly, Marina made a noise of distress before looking up and down at all the rooms she could see. “All these kids… their parents are gone? I mean–dead?”

“Many–most, yes,” Gaia confirmed quietly. “You see… Marina, I believe you. I believe in you. It may be difficult for you to believe in yourself, but I do. I believe that you wish to teach, that you want to show people the beauty in this world. And more than that, I believe that what you need is not to give up, but to have someone who needs you. These children, they need you. They need people who will come here and spend time with them, people who will take the time to teach them, to prepare them for when they are eventually old enough to join the school proper.

“I know that it is a lot to ask of you, given everything that you have already been through. But can you be that person? Instead of surrendering your mentorship entirely, would you come here and help these children? I’m afraid that it is not a glamorous job. You will not be taking them on grand hunts, or–”

“Yes,” Marina blurted. The word came before she even knew what she was going to say, even as her eyes blurred from the tears. “Yes. Yes. I–I–” Eyes closing, she took three quick steps forward and threw her arms around the much older woman. Clinging tightly to the headmistress, she felt her own shoulders shake violently as the tears came. “Yes. I will. I will. I’ll–I won’t mess up. I won’t mess up, I promise. I’ll help them. I’ll teach them. I’ll–I’ll be there for them. I swear, I swear.”

Gaia returned the embrace tenderly, moving one hand up to brush through her hair. “I know, Marina. I know, sweet girl.”

Tightening her grip despite herself, the embarrassment at her presumption not quite able to surpass her intense gratitude, the girl murmured the only words that she could think in that moment. “Thank you, Miss Sinclaire.

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

For years, Scout had hated that name, because of the memories it brought, memories of her mother’s voice desperately calling for her. Not her true mother, but the monster using her voice to torment her, to torture her into revealing herself. The sound of her mother’s desperate pleading, asking why Sarah wouldn’t come to her, why she didn’t love her anymore, why she was abandoning her… it was enough that the name itself became a symbol of that horrific day.

And yet, all of that vanished in a single instant, the vile memories the name brought up fading into nothingness like so much vapor. Faded because of the same thing that had brought them on in the first place: her mother’s voice.

Her true mother. There. Not only there, but holding her. Scout’s arms clung to the woman as tightly as she could, while her mother held on just as tight. She was whispering Scout’s name–Sarah’s name, kissing her head and nuzzling her as she tightened her grip. “Sarah, my Sarah. My sweet Sarah. My beautiful, brave, incredible little girl.”

“Mommy. Mommy.” Tears fell freely from Sarah’s face as she desperately held onto the woman as though she might never let go. “Mommy, I love you. I love you, Mommy.”

She didn’t care who else was there. She didn’t care who saw or who heard. Her mother was there. Her mother was there, right there, right here. She was back, she was alive. The entire school could have been burning down in that moment and Sarah would not have given the slightest thought to it.

Because her mother was there, and everything would be okay.

Feeling Sands slip in close to them, Sarah opened her arm. Then they were all embracing, the three of them. For the first time in… in many years, they were together. And Sarah felt the kind of… hope and joy that she had almost forgotten. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Not her confusion and anger with her father, not the many, many other things that needed to be done. Not all the enemies that wanted to hurt or kill them. Just this moment right here with her mother and sister. Everything else could wait.

Leaning back a bit after a moment, Larissa gazed down at Sarah and Sands. “My girls. Oh, my brave, beautiful girls. I missed you both for so long. Sarah. My Sarah.” Moving a trembling hand to cup the side of the girl’s face, she whispered. “I missed you. I love you.”

“Mommy. Mommy. I love you. I love you.” The words choked their way out of Sarah’s mouth as she dove right back into hugging the woman, unable to stand letting go for even a second longer.

With a soft smile, Larissa held both of her daughters. “We have a lot to talk about. We’ll do it in private, later, okay?”

Both girls murmured their agreement, before Sarah abruptly looked up. “But one thing? If… if we’re going to talk in private…

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

“You know,” Lincoln Chambers started conversationally, “we have a holiday that’s all about painting eggs too. But uh, they’re not usually this… big.” In demonstration, he reached out to lay his hand against the object in question, which was a solid three feet in height.

On the opposite side of the egg, Sariel raised an eyebrow, a smile twitching at her lips. “Maybe you just didn’t have big enough eggs to pull it off.”

She was clearly teasing, as the egg between them wasn’t actually real. Lincoln wasn’t entirely sure what it was made of, but it seemed to be some kind of plastic. It certainly looked real though, and even felt pretty real when he put his hand against it.

The two of them were standing near the lake with their enormous fake egg. And they weren’t the only ones. More of the freed Seosten were with other eggs. Four in particular had been set up with one of the young toddlers at each, with their actual parents guiding them through the decoration. But even beyond those four, there were other children. All of the kids in the camp, of any number of species, were painting eggs. All those children, gleefully laughing as they dipped  their hands into paint buckets that had been set up and rubbing them over the eggs to color them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the adults, including the Seosten, were carefully painting their own, using brushes of all sizes to create some truly wondrous effects in some cases. Their own results might have looked more professional than the results of toddler finger (and hand… and in some cases toe) painting, but Lincoln could see the beauty in both. And there was just something fun about seeing the kids squealing with delight as they spread their colorful designs over their own giant eggs.

“I’m just going to guess this isn’t actually the Seosten Easter?” he put in then after giving the giant eggs another curious once-over.

Chuckling a little, Sariel shook her head. “There might be some similarities in the whole egg thing and other parts, but no, not really. It’s… I’ll explain more as we go, but it’s basically our ‘winter-end festival.’ It’s a celebration… a holiday that comes from the very, very old days, back when we still lived in huts or stone houses, long before… before everything. Before Cronus. Back when we were basically primitive humans. The winters on Elohim were particularly dangerous. Well, what you would call winter. Elohim has six seasons. Our year is six hundred and fifty-five days long.”

“What about your days?” Lincoln thought to ask. “How long are they?”

“Roughly equivalent, actually,” Sariel replied. “We’re not sure if that’s a coincidence or something about humans learning to function in Seosten society by being put on a planet with similar day lengths. But either, there’s not an appreciable difference. Anyway, six hundred and fifty-five days split into six seasons. High Sun lasts for sixty of those days and is when the land is the hottest. We reach what you would call triple digits fahrenheit on those days. The middle, at the hottest time of the year, is when our calendar marks the new year. High Sun is followed by Low Sun, which is still warm, but more around what you would call the… seventies. That lasts for about a hundred and fifty days. Then we have Fallen Sun, which is our… well, fall or autumn. Things begin to die, it gets a bit cold. That’s another hundred and fifty days. But then the weather warms up again. Back up to Low Sun temperatures for about sixty more days in a time that we call Last Sun. After that, it gets cold. Very cold. We call it No Sun, and it lasts for a hundred and twenty days. At the worst of No Sun, things get… or used to get, unbelievably cold. Before we had all the technology and command of magic that we had now, many people used to die during No Sun. Everything would freeze.

“But that led into our final season, ‘New Sun’. That’s our equivalent of spring, and it lasts for the remaining one hundred and fifteen days. And at the height of it, as we can see the new plants and new life growing out of the old, we celebrate with what you would basically call… ahh… Light Day, I suppose. Or maybe Warmth Day. It’s kind of the same thing. Light and warmth. That’s what this celebration is about. It’s about surviving the coldest days… and remembering those who didn’t.”

A moment later, they were joined by Haiden and Tabbris, as the two hurried up while carrying more paint buckets. Haiden held a handful of cans atop a metal sheet that floated along beside him like a tray, while Tabbris lugged one by herself with both hands, clearly having insisted on helping. Finally, they reached the others and set the color-filled buckets down.

“Mama,” Tabbris chirped while quickly opening her arms, “they’re making the clearing really pretty!”

Smiling openly, Sariel knelt and embraced her daughter tightly. “Are they? You just had to sneak a peek, huh?” she teased the girl with a wink

Blushing, Tabbris squirmed there on her feet, returning the hug before leaning back. “I had to ask Vanessa and Tristan what colors they like, so I can put them on the egg! They’re helping Mister Gabriel and the others set up. You should see all the lights they’ve got! It’s almost like Christmas!”

After giving her daughter another tight hug, Sariel straightened up. “I take it you know how you’d like to paint your egg then?” When the girl gave a quick nod, she gestured. “Alright then, it’s all yours.”

Despite her words, Tabbris immediately asked Lincoln for help getting the paint right. He agreed, and the two of them opened a couple of the buckets, found brushes, and set to work on their chosen design.

For a moment, Sariel simply looked around the area at all the colorful eggs, delighted children, and focused (but still quite happy) adults. Her gaze found her husband, and she reached out to take his hand. His hand. After all their time apart, she could finally hold his hand. That very fact by itself was almost enough to leave her knees weak.

“The kids are okay then?” she asked softly, barely able to speak.

Tugging her to him to gently kiss her, Haiden nodded. “Mmmm. They’re fine. Vanessa’s lecturing Tristan on the history of egg painting at Easter, while he’s trapped on the ladder tying the streamers in the trees.”

Sariel chuckled. “At least she knows how to take advantage of a captive audience.”

Some time later, the now fully decorated eggs had been moved to the equally decorated clearing on the other side of the camp. The clearing itself was filled with colorful streamers and Christmas-like lights, which came on as the sun began to go down. The lights, some of them solid while others blinked on and off in patterns, covered the trees as well as the ground. Their glow illuminated the painted eggs that had been arranged throughout the clearing.

A series of benches had been set up against the trees as well, surrounding the open space. Seosten and non-Seosten alike filled those benches, chatting loudly and excitedly with one another. From where Lincoln was sitting in one of the center rows, he could hear plenty of discussion about what was going on, how this whole celebration worked, and what it meant.

Turning to his left, he focused on Sariel, who sat there with Haiden on the other side of her. Vanessa and Tristan were just beyond the other man. “Okay, I’m sort of half-hearing explanations about what all this means, but you think you could start at the beginning? I know it’s Light or Warmth Day, but what about the eggs?”

It was Vanessa who quickly answered, turning and leaning over to see him. “The eggs symbolize animals giving birth after the long winter. They’re supposed to be about new life, about new beginnings and chances. They’re about survival.”

“Okay,” Lincoln murmured curiously before pointing off to the side of the clearing. “So why is Gabriel wearing a Santa hat?”

Both of the twins laughed, snickering to themselves while Sariel coughed. “It’s not a–okay, yes, it is a Santa hat, basically. But it’s also a hat that belongs to what we call Father Time. He’s our Warmth Day figure. Father Time comes and chases away winter with his flying chariot made of fire and pulled by flaming horses. Then he goes around and touches all of the eggs to wake them up so they hatch.”

Haiden was smiling. “They asked Gabriel if he’d play the role for the festival. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”

“He would’ve done it anyway,” Tristan informed them confidently. “Look at him. He loves it.”

“Well, the rest of the Seosten certainly seem to be enjoying this whole thing,” Lincoln noted. “And so do the rest of the Atherby people.”

Some of the adults were taking pictures of the eggs that had been set up in the clearing. Each of those eggs was brightly colored, seeming to alternate between the more professionally painted ones from the adults, and the gloriously crazy results of the children’s finger painting efforts. Between those colors and the bright lights, the results were almost psychedelic. Lincoln had to take a few pictures of as well with his phone.

His attention was drawn to his other side then, as Felicity found her way up the benches and took a seat beside him with a quick hug. “Hey, I didn’t miss anything important, did I?”

Lincoln was just starting to shake his head when the main spotlights that had been set up went out. The audience area was left mostly dark, while the clearing was lit even more by those sparkling holiday lights. It made the psychedelic effect even stronger.

A few Seosten off to the edge of the clearing began to play some kind of song with borrowed instruments, while others started to sing. Lincoln had no chance of understanding the words that were being said, but it was beautiful. Sitting there, he watched as more of the people moved between the eggs, performing a wonderful little dance routine that they had clearly been working hard on. They all wore clothes that were adjusted and fashioned to make them look somewhat like various animals that he also didn’t recognize. Yet even not following all of what was going on, what was being sung, or what animals they were portraying, he could appreciate how beautiful it looked and sounded.

On his other side, Sariel nudged him a little. “You might want to get your phone ready again,” she whispered. “It’s almost time for the kids.”  

Promptly doing so, Lincoln held his phone up in recording mode, just as the song seemed to be winding down. The costume-clad performers slipped out of the clearing, while Gabriel in his Santa–err, Father Time hat moved in. The man seemed to have been thoroughly versed in what to do, because he immediately moved to the nearest large egg and ran a hand over it. As he did so, lights at the base of the egg suddenly lit up, casting even more colors into the sky. The man moved from egg to egg, touching each to make them light up.

As the last egg was lit, the small band began to play once more. But this was a much more… lively and upbeat tune, something closer to a children’s song than the almost-religious hymn that had been played before. Yet again, he couldn’t follow the words that were being sung (both by the Seosten chorus and some of those in the audience), but it sounded fun and lively.

The moment the new song started, the now-lit up eggs began to shake back and forth. Here and there, a hole appeared as the children, who were inside the eggs that they had decorated, began to break their way out.

Lincoln had asked about the potential problem with leaving little kids within a very enclosed space, only to find out that each egg was, for most of the time, bigger on the inside. It was only when the lights came on at the end that they shrank to what they should be (and each parent made sure their child was going to be okay in that space first). And more than that, the youngest, including the Seosten toddlers, were each in with an older child who could help.

Tabbris, for example, was in her egg with Sahveniah. The little Seosten toddler had painted her own egg, but had wanted to actually be in one with Tabbris.

One by one, the kids (including Tabbris and Savvy) broke out of their own personal eggs. Seosten and other species alike, all of the children of the camp who wanted to participate broke through the egg, scrambling out in their own little animal costumes.

Freed of their eggs, as the jaunty song continued, each of the children scrambled to where Gabriel stood at the head of the clearing. They formed a line, bouncing and chattering with each other even as the sound-magnification spell set near the Atherby leader himself picked up his voice when he recited something in Latin to the first child in line. The child responded with something else, speaking quickly.

“He’s asking what good they bring to the year,” Sariel whispered. “Father Time asks each newly ‘born’ creature what they bring. The children are supposed to answer with something good they did in the past year. Usually it’s something silly or mundane, like helping with chores or doing all their homework. Then they get… well, see?” She gestured to the sight of Gabriel handing the first child a wrapped present. The little kid gave a loud, gleeful cheer before moving out of the way for the next one.

On and on it went. Each child took their turn with ‘Father Time’, saying something good or nice they had done that year, and received a present in return.

Felicity, who had cheered loudly when Tabbris and Savvy got their presents, asked, “There’s more games and stuff after this, isn’t there?”

Nodding, Sariel replied, “There are many more games and songs, yes. The celebration continues until midnight.”

“Good,” the blonde girl remarked with a broad smile. “I’m tired of all the bad Seosten things. It’s about time we focused on something good for awhile, like this.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Sariel nodded. “Yes,” she agreed softly. “My… my people have a lot to make up for. We have a lot of work to do. But sometimes it’s good just to remember that we are about more than slavery and war. That’s why we wanted to do this now, to celebrate our rebirth, and think about where we come from, where we truly come from. Then the true work will begin.”

Haiden took her hand once more, squeezing tightly. “Work that you won’t have to do alone. You have your family, and your people.”

Squeezing back, Sariel failed to stop the tears that came then. Though they came not of sadness or despair, but from something far better. Happiness. Seeing her family here. Seeing her children, her people celebrating this important holiday, and doing so right alongside people of other species, it was… it was more than she could have hoped for not so long ago.

“Yes,” she whispered under her breath. “Not alone. I am not alone.”

And that, quite honestly, was the best Warmth Day gift she could ever have imagined.

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Advertisements

Bonus Interlude – Team Stranded

Previous Chapter                          Next Chapter

“All the planets in the universe,” Sands Mason announced, “and it turns out that the last piece of the banishment orb thing that we need to fix what was done to Mr. Moon happens to be on the first real alien world that my team went to?”

It was true. She, along with Jazz, Roxa, Gordon, Haiden, and Larissa, were standing on one of the many sandy dunes across the Meregan homeworld.

“It’s not too surprising,” Haiden pointed out. “Tristan was brought here, after all. So of course one of the bits of the broken orb is here too.”

Larissa nodded. “And we’ve got all the others. This is the last one. Once we get it… we can go home.”

Their search had been immeasurably hastened with the aid of Athena. With the woman and her people, they had very quickly tracked down all the other remaining pieces, a process which, without that aid, very likely could have taken at least another year. With Athena and the Aelaestiam, it had taken only a couple of weeks.

Most of that time, honestly, had been spent getting back to the Aelaestiam base. And once they were there, they had gotten the somewhat disturbing news that there had been a visit from Chayyiel, who had simply walked into the top secret base with what was apparently the sole purpose of killing Isaac.

Isaac was dead. Just like that. It was still a strange thought for the students to get used to. As big of a piece of shit as he had turned out to be, it was still… still hard to think that he was just dead like that. Not hard from grief, really. More hard from… disbelief was one word for it. It didn’t seem real.

Beyond just freaking out about Chayyiel (though mostly before that had happened), Athena’s people had been working to find the rest of the shards, to the point that they’d either had direct portals set up to the area the shards were in, or actually had the shards themselves. All except for a couple, of which this was the last one.

Athena herself was busy with a certain other matter at that moment, along with Apollo. But they had both promised to meet them as soon as possible. And Dries had chosen to stay on the ship with Jokai. Which left the rest of the small group to find this final piece.

Roxa spoke up then. “So, we’re in a giant sandbox, and we’ve got to find a little shard about the size of my pinky finger. Not to mention the magic radiation crap Fossor left all over the place we need to search. Good thing we’ve got ways of cheating or this might be kind of hard.”

Haiden started walking then. “We’ll go to the… affected area, as close as we can get to where the scans narrowed it down to. Then we’ll send our little friends out from there.”

No one was surprised by the man’s eagerness to get started. After all, his entire family was back on Earth waiting for him to finally get there. He’d been waiting long enough.

As they all moved that way, Gordon looked to Sands, quietly asking, “So the Meregan, they all left with Nicholas Petan after you guys woke them up and settled the misunderstanding?”

“The ones who were left from the scouting ship after Fossor got done with the rest of their population,” the girl confirmed. “Most of them did anyway. I asked Tristan about it before, and he said there was a group who stayed here to try and rebuild something. But I’m not sure where they are right now. The odds that we’d happen to run into them with this entire planet to work with are… not huge.”

Roxa shook her head. “That’s still confusing. Tristan was frozen for a few years so he was still a little kid when you guys first met him. Then he went off and spent years with his great-whatever grandpa Nick to get up to the age we all are before being sent back in time to meet Flick and the others.” She paused, then shook her head. “Time travel always overcomplicates things. It’s annoying.”

Larissa smiled faintly. “Just be glad that there aren’t clones involved yet.”

They walked for another few minutes. Now they weren’t simply moving through featureless rolling sand dunes. There were ruins around them, the skeletal remains of structures that had been long-since destroyed. They could see single walls here or there, or even large, partly-intact pieces of buildings. It was an entire city that had been utterly destroyed many, many years earlier.

Haiden held up his hand. He held a sheet of paper in the other, his brow furrowed as he watched it. “That‘s it,” the man announced. “Dries’ spell says that we’re right at the edge. The shard is somewhere ahead of us, in that area about one square mile across.”

Jazz spoke up then. “So all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack the length of seventeen football fields. No big deal.”

Reaching out, Roxa patted the other girl on the back. “That’s why we’ve got our little helpers, remember?” Pausing, she amended, “Not so little in some of our cases.”

“Yeah,” Sands muttered, “and the fact that whatever Fossor did to this place before means it’s still poisoned even now.”

That, more than anything, was why they were not going to be able to go inside of that area with their human bodies. The magical radiation-like poison covering the land would have killed them entirely too quickly, powers be damned. Still, they had other options.

“Everyone get comfortable,” Larissa instructed. She had already produced a couple of blankets and laid them out for the group to sit on. “It shouldn’t take too long to find the shard, but still. We’ve got water and food. Keep your strength up and don’t try to act tough about it. If you need a break, take it.”

They all sat, arranging themselves before each took out a bit of wood that had already been prepared with the theriangelos spell.

It was the same spell that Flick used to summon her fox. Athena, Larissa, and Haiden had taught it to the kids over the past couple of weeks. Taught it to them, that was, with a bit of an upgrade. With the addition to the spell, the animals that were summoned would be able to track the first object they touched, or things related to it. In this case, they had brought along a piece of the broken orb with them. When the animals touched that piece, they would be able to sense the other piece if they were close enough.

Larissa finished first, a testament to how experienced she was in using this particular spell. At that moment, as she tossed it in the air, the enchanted bit of wood transformed into a small hummingbird. Its belly, bits around its eyes, and its beak were pink, the same aura color as her daughters. Meanwhile, the rest of its body was the standard red that existed on all of these summoned animals.

Haiden was the next to finish. His own stick grew much larger and shifted before becoming a red and bronze jaguar.

Almost directly after that, Gordon finished his own casting. His stick, like Larissa‘s, grew into a bird. His, however, was a great horned owl with a green body, while the underside of its wings, as well as its talons and beak, were red.  

Sands was next. Where the others had only grown a bit, with Haiden’s jaguar being the largest, hers exploded in size. It suddenly become an enormous rhinoceros, with a red main body and pink horn, face, and underside.

Jazz’s own animal grew large as well. Not as much as the rhino, but still big. Hers was a horse, its main body the white of her aura, while its hooves, mane, and tail were red.

Finally, there was Roxa. Her animal was… unique. At first glance, it appeared to be a wild cat, similar to Haiden’s jaguar though much smaller at only about twenty pounds. It was larger than a housecat, yet much smaller than a leopard or a cheetah. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be an odd combination between a cat and a weasel of some kind, along with a long tail similar to a monkey. The tail itself was about as long as the rest of the animal.

Despite its apparent similarity to a cat, the animal was not a feline. It was more closely related to a mongoose. The thing was quick and agile, able to rush through the trees and keep its balance with its semi retractable claws and that long tail.

Then there was its name, the name which had convinced all of the kids that Haiden and Larissa were messing with them somehow and had made Roxa spit out the water she had been drinking when they’d said it.

Fossa. The animal was called a fossa. Which was a name that was so close to a certain other name that everyone had misheard them the first time and thought they were saying that Roxa’s animal was somehow related to a psychotic necromancer. It was, however, apparently an animal native only to Madagascar. How that ended up being her animal Roxa would probably never understand.

The fossa was a rich mixture of bronze and red, her aura matching both Haiden and Tristan. When she and Tristan had first discovered their auras were identical, Tristan had joked that maybe he had another long lost relative. Roxa had snickered at the time, but now she was seriously leaning toward demanding a DNA test, given everything else that seemed to be happening.

That was their rather eclectic collection of animals, the menagerie they would use to search this area of desert. They had a jaguar, a hummingbird, an owl, a horse, a rhino, and a fossa.

It was still extremely disconcerting to experience the world through two different sets of senses in two different locations, so they all shut their human eyes and tried to ignore that side of themselves as much as possible. Instead, they focused their attention through their animals and began to spread out from there. They would work in pairs, in case one of them missed something. Haiden’s jaguar would search with Larissa’s hummingbird, Sands’ rhino with Jazz’s horse, and Roxa’s fossa with Gordon’s owl.

The other upgrade that they had received to the spell and worked into it, thanks to Athena in that case, was the ability to communicate through their animals. Each of the summoned and controlled creatures was capable of silent, essentially telepathic communication. Not that it was specifically needed when their human selves were sitting right next to one another, but it was still a nice thing to have. And having the communication be at the site of the animals instead of their human bodies would make it easier to avoid confusion about who was talking to who.

Did you talk to Jokai? As Sands’ rhino lumbered along through the sand, she addressed the horse beside her. About the um, the plan.

There was a moment of silence from the other girl briefly before she confirmed, He’s coming back to Earth with us. We’re going to help with whatever we can and all that. She paused once more before finishing with, And then when Athena leaves to come back out here, we’re coming with her. There was a firm note of finality to her words. I am not staying on Earth and I’m not going back to Crossroads.

Feeling a pang deep in her stomach (which was an odd sensation for it happening so far away from where they were having the actual discussion), Sands replied, I understand. I think we’ll all understand. But we’ll still miss you, you know.

Having her horse bump up against the other animal affectionately, Jazz injected a bit of brightness into her silent voice. Don’t worry so much. If Athena‘s plan about fixing up that prototype ship works, we’ll be able to go back and forth and visit whenever we want. So it’s not like it’ll be the last time we see each other or anything.

Sighing then, she added, I just can’t stay there, you know? I can’t go back to Crossroads and deal with all their lies. I can’t be a part of hunting Strangers when I’m in love with one of them. I love Jokai. I’m not going to pretend or hide that part of myself anymore than I absolutely have to. I’m just not going to.

It was Sands’ turn to make her rhino bump up against the horse. Like I said, we understand. Believe me, we get it. No one blames you, and I’m pretty sure everyone basically saw it coming.

Still, we’re going to have to throw a huge party before you leave again.

Meanwhile, Roxa and Gordon’s animals were moving through the ruined desert city faster than their heavier, larger counterparts. Leaping from the sand up to a half broken wall, Roxa’s fossa turned its head to look up as the boy’s owl glided by overhead. You should talk to Flick’s friend Miranda, you know. Or even to that Seller guy. If anyone can help you find out where your dad is or what’s going on with him, it’s people who live at Eden’s Garden.

Alighting on top of the jagged remains of a pillar, Gordon replied, You know, I was about to deny having any idea what you were talking about? I suppose I might have been keeping it secret for a bit too long. It’s reflex. He paused briefly then before agreeing, And yeah, I guess there are people I can ask for help.

Believe me, Roxa assured him, it’s a pretty new sensation for me too. But hey, when we get back, I’ll find out if any of the wolves my pack is friends with know anything about Garden’s prisoners. Sure, it’s a longshot. But every little bit could help. And before you say anything, I’ll keep your name out of it.

Gordon flew ahead a bit while she trailed along beneath him, nimbly jumping from wall to wall. After a minute of that, he asked, So you’re not going back to Crossroads either, huh? Like Jazz. I mean, technically you have the choker. It’s your choice.

Roxa’s answer was firm. My pack was loyal to me and accepted me even when they knew I was a Heretic. I like Gaia and my friends at the school, but I’m not going to live in a place that would kill me if they knew the truth. I’m not abandoning my pack. Not for people like that.

So yes, I guess Jazz and I are both leaving Crossroads for good.

In the third search area, the bronze and red jaguar trotted through a ruined building while the hummingbird flitted back and forth seemingly wildly in the air above.

We are getting pretty close to going home, you know, Haiden noted. I am pretty sure the others are already talking about what they’re going to do. But what about you?

There was a brief moment of silence before Larissa let him hear her sigh a little bit. I’ve been working for so long, trying to get back to my girls… I’ve put off thinking about what to do about Liam. There was pain and regret in her voice. Part of me still loves him, still wants him. But it’s been so long and everything he did is still in my head. It would be one thing if he seemed guilty about it, but I don’t think he does. I think he still believes he did the right thing. Which means I can’t trust him. What would he do to me or our girls in the name of toeing the Crossroads line, if he turn on his friends like that? Maybe nothing. I want to say nothing. But what if? And that what if is going to destroy our marriage.

Haiden started to respond that he and his family would be there for her and her girls no matter what happened. Before he could say more than a couple words, however, a voice back at their bodies spoke up.

“Hey,” Sands announced, “Jazz and me, we’ve got something. It’s either the shard or this tracking spell is screwing up. We think it’s in this building here.”

The other animals converged on the building that the horse and rhino were waiting outside of. Sure enough, as they got closer, each of the summoned creatures felt a tug toward the building. The shard they were looking for was definitely inside.

So, they searched. Jazz had her horse trot around the outside of the building to narrow down where the sense was the strongest. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino knocked down walls and cleared rubble inside as the rest did the actual searching.

Roxa found it, in the end, though she had Larissa’s hummingbird pick it up in her tiny beak and fly it to their bodies. Eventually, they were all back to themselves, their creatures dismissed as they stood and stretched.

“This is it,” Larissa announced while staring down at the tiny sliver in her hand. “That’s the last one. We can undo the banishment now.”

“Good to know.” The reply came from Apollo, as he and Athena appeared and approached. The man grinned. “And pretty good timing too, since we’ve got a way to send everyone back to Earth.”

Eyes widening, Jazz blurted, “You do? Even without waiting for enough communication from Vanessa to talk Gaia through fixing the prototype thing?”

Athena gave a slight nod. “The Meregan still on this planet, we…” She paused, looking to her fellow Seosten. “We offered them aid in their rebuilding efforts. In exchange, they are going to allow us to use their transport device.”

She looked toward Sands then. “It is an earlier, less refined and advanced version of what you experienced before. As such, it will only allow a few transports at a time before it must recharge for several days. So we will not all be able to go through at once.“

“Hey, that’s okay,” Sands replied. “It’s still sooner than we thought it would be.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed quietly.

“And I’m pretty sure we all know who should go first.”

Previous Chapter                          Next Chapter

Family Day 40-02

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

The sound that emerged from Scout in that moment was as loud as I had ever heard the other girl be. She instantly threw herself that way. There was no hesitation at all before she was embracing her sister tightly. The twins clung to each other, making me realize once more just how much they had missed one another. That went on for a couple of seconds before I saw Scout’s head turn a little. Her eyes settled on Larissa, and she froze. Still clinging to her sister, her mouth open and shut a couple of times before she managed a weak, barely audible, “Mommy…”

The trembling hand that she was pressing against her own mouth did nothing to hide the broad, glorious smile on Larissa’s face. In a shaky voice, she replied, “Hello, Sarah.”

Then Scout was there. With a noise of joy and relief that was almost a sob, she lunged at her mother and grabbed on tight. Scout hugged her tightly, clinging for dear life while openly crying.

Feeling like I was intruding, I moved my wet eyes to look around the rest of the office. Gaia was there, along with Roxa. But I didn’t see the others. Biting my lip, I stepped that way and embraced the other girl. “You made it back.”

Roxa nodded, returning my hug. “Yep. Some of us anyway. Haiden’s at that Atherby camp having a reunion with his wife and kids as we speak.”

“And the others?” I asked quickly.

“They’re okay,” she assured me. “We used the Meregan transport thing, and apparently it was an earlier version of the one that you guys used before. A prototype. So it has to recharge after every few transports. Jazz and Gordon stayed with Dries, Jokai, Athena, and Apollo so we could come back. They’ll probably show up tomorrow. I was going to stay too, but they insisted I should come with. Especially after we found out… you know, about Rudolph.”

Her voice had gone quiet by the end, and she glanced past me. That was the reminder I needed that the rest of the team was here too, including Doug.

Turning that way, I saw the boy himself standing there staring with his mouth open. His voice was a whisper. “You’re alive. I mean, I knew you were alive. But still… you’re alive.”

Roxa’s face softened a bit and she stepped that way to embrace him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. So are Jazz and Gordon. We… we should’ve been here to help. We wanted to help with all of it.”

Doug’s head shook. “You guys had your own problems, your own… things to deal with.”

Sean took his turn for a hug with the girl then, while Gidget and Vulcan greeted each other by rubbing their heads together affectionately. And once more, I felt like I was intruding on something. When I glanced toward the twins and their mother, I saw that they were deep in conversation about something. Yeah, I definitely didn’t want to interrupt any of that. Instead, I looked toward Columbus, Avalon, and Doug. “Boy, when they advertised this as a day for family reunions, they weren’t exaggerating, were they?”

Honestly, and maybe a little strangely, I couldn’t even feel bad about the fact that I wouldn’t see my own mother that day. It felt too good to see Scout and Sands with theirs and to think about Vanessa and Tristan being reunited with both of their parents. Even seeing Sean and Doug with Roxa felt really good. As far as I was concerned, this was already a pretty great day.

We’ll get your mom back too, Tabbris assured me quickly. This just means we’ve got more help to do it.

Smiling inwardly, I agreed, Right, and we’ll definitely need the help. I guess all of this works pretty well as a recruitment drive, huh?

Avalon moved next to her adopted mother then, speaking a bit suspiciously. “Are you sure you didn’t find a way to deliberately time it like this? Because them showing up today of all days is pretty coincidental.”

Gaia chuckled low, shaking her head a little. “I assure you, I had nothing to do with the timing. And I sincerely doubt they would have waited just for this. Sometimes a coincidence is simply a coincidence. You will see a lot more of them as you get older.”

Roxa stepped back over to me then, her expression curious. “Do you still have, um, you know, your little friend?”

My hair turned pink then as Tabbris made my head nod, piping up, “I’m here. I’m glad you made it back!”

“Just a little signal we worked out,” I informed Roxa then while gesturing to my hair. “White or pink and it’s her talking. Same for my eyes. Better than trying to find a private place for her to pop out every time she wants to speak for herself.”

Rubbing my head then, I added out loud but to my partner, “That said, I know we planned on you staying here for the day, but if Haiden’s back and they’re all having some big reunion at the camp…”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, also speaking out loud by using my own mouth. “I’ll let them have some time, you know? I’ll go back later to see Mama and Papa Haiden.”

Papa Haiden, I noticed immediately. I had wondered what the other girl would refer to him as once they got back, given that she saw our father as, well, father.

That made another thought pop into my head, and I abruptly pointed to the nearby woman, blurting, “Larissa.”

Blinking once, she nodded. “Yes, that is my name.” She stepped over then to embrace me briefly. “I’m glad you made it back, Flick. Thank you for helping Sariel.”

I shrugged at that. “Trust me, she’s helped us just as much.” Then I added, “But you’re here. I mean you’re here, so does that mean you’re going to actually be here?” Realizing how confusing that might sound, I clarified, “I mean, are you going to officially be back?”

The woman grimaced a little before confirming, “Yes, I will officially be back from the dead. Which actually happens more than you might think around here. But still, Sands and I are going to have to go talk to the Committee. Gaia and Vanessa have already told us the story that’s going around, so we will make ours match that. I suppose I’ll be the Heretic who was stolen years ago so they could find a way to make their infiltration work. The guinea pig, if you will.”

She paused then, letting out a slow breath. “And then I will have to speak with Liam.” Her eyes got distant for a second as she gazed out at nothing before shaking herself. “Let’s just say it’s going to be a very eventful Family Day. But we will most certainly be back in time for the feast later.”

I wondered what was going to happen with her husband, and whether she would stay with him, or what. It was obvious that there were a lot of complicated feelings there, most of which were none of my business, despite my curiosity.

She was definitely right about one thing, however. This was absolutely going to be a long and interesting day.

*******

Most of that, of course, happened far away from me. I spent the day with Avalon, Columbus, Sean, and Doug as we went through what turned out to be a pretty fun event. There were parents and siblings everywhere, all over the school no matter where you looked. My fellow students were showing off things they made or had learned, taking their family members to various classrooms or to meet different teachers. Or, in many cases, to reunite with those teachers, given that some of them had taught not only their parents, but their parents’ parents and so on.

I ended up getting more than my share of long looks from those family members too, though I didn’t know how much of that was because they knew my actual history and how much was just from things they had heard this year. To be honest, there was plenty of ammunition for them to be curious about me just from the latter.

Either way, it was still a very fun day. We presented some projects, and even did a little bit of exhibition fighting to prepare for the main tournament that night.

I felt a little bad that my father couldn’t be there, of course. But Abigail showed up and found time to talk with me. She was, obviously, a subject of a lot of interest herself. I could see Ruthers’ stooge, Peterson Neal, lurking in the background to watch her now and then. I wondered just how much he knew about the situation, or if he was just blindly reporting back to Ruthers.

A little bit after lunch, I was taking a break with the others, sitting against a tree on the grounds while watching the crowds all over the place. “Well,” I remarked, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I kind of like Family Day. It’s fun.” While speaking, I reached out to rub Vulcan’s head. “I wonder how Roxa’s doing.”

The other girl had been spending the time reuniting with her own ‘family’, her pack. They had apparently missed Roxa a lot, since I had heard that they were having some huge party to celebrate her return. It was going to be going on all day and night, and we had been invited to drop by later after things were done here.

Sean chuckled at that, holding up his phone. “Well, if her texts are anything to go by, they’re basically throwing the party of the century. They’ve got a whole bunch of other weres and they’re throwing the bash in some old airplane hanger in the middle of nowhere. Makes it so they don’t have to worry about offending any neighbors and can really cut loose.”

With a very slight smile, Columbus remarked, “You sure we should go over there later? All those weres might object to a few Heretics showing up to ruin their fun. I’d hate to turn a party into a fight just out of some misunderstandings.”

“Mateo and Roxa said they’ve got things under control on that front,” Sean assured us.

“Hey,” I started, “speaking of which, what about your family?” As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I regretted it.

Sean shrugged. “Uncle Sebastian should be back soon. He just wanted to go help Mateo get their thing started. As for Mom and Dad, or Ian, ahhh, let’s just say if they showed up here I would suggest we put them through all the possession tests we’ve got.”

I winced inwardly, but couldn’t think of what to say to that. Sean rarely, if ever talked about his parents or brother. I didn’t know what their deal was, or why they tended to completely ignore him to the point of not even showing up to this thing. But I did kind of want to go find them and shake all three as hard as I could. Sean deserved better than that.

Avalon nudged me with her foot, a thoughtful frown knitting her brow. “How do you think things are going with the Masons?”

Biting my lip, I shrugged. “I wish I knew,” I admitted. “Do you think Larissa will stay with Liam, or not?”

“Boy,” Sean muttered, “class is gonna be really awkward if she doesn’t.” Belatedly, he added a quick, “Not that she should, or anything. I’m just saying. It’s… you know what, never mind. I’m just going to sit over here and enjoy the taste of sneaker.”

Snickering, I use two fingers to poke the boy in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re all really familiar with the taste. And we get what you mean.”

Deveron strolled up then, grunting as he took a seat on the grass. “Well,” he started, “this whole thing hasn’t changed much since I was here the first time.”

“Really?” I teased, “In that case, it must’ve been really confusing to see so many cell phones back in 1918.”

He made a face at me before chuckling. “Okay, okay, maybe some things have changed.” His expression sobered then. “But not enough of the right things.”

“Gaia’s working on it,” I reminded him. “Actually, we’re all kind of working on it. Just a little at a time.”

Deveron looked like he was going to say something else to that, but thought better of it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod. “Yeah, we’re working it.

“But just for the record, conservative estimate, there’s about twenty people here that I really want to punch in the face.”

******

Later that evening, we were all sitting outside at one of the tables that had been set up. With all the families here, it would’ve been entirely too crowded in the cafeteria. So everybody was out here, with tables that were stretched across the whole grounds.

I could see so many people. Zeke was there with his mom, of course. I saw Erin with a man who was apparently her father, Doug over at a table with Sulan, Sean with his uncle, or even some students who had both parents and siblings there. Nearby, I saw Shiori’s roommate Rebecca with both of her parents and a small, brown-haired woman named Lillian Patters, who was apparently her grandmother.

She was also someone that I desperately wanted to talk to. Because as soon as she had shown up, Deveron took me aside and told me that Lillian Patters had been on the same team back in school as him and Mom. More, she had been Mom’s best friend in school and her roommate. Which explained why Lillian was my middle name. Felicity Lillian Chambers. Somehow, in the same way that Abigail had retained enough of her birth name of Koren to give it to her own daughter, Mom had remembered the name of her best friend and gave it to me.

But Lillian didn’t remember. I saw it in her eyes when she glanced our way, lingering only for a brief moment before moving on. She was curious about me, but clearly only from what she’d heard. They’d wiped her memory just like so many others. Another thing that they had erased and thrown away in their zeal to end the rebellion against their genocidal campaign.

That was a problem for later though. Right now, it was all about families. Even Sands and Scout were at a table with their mom, which… boy howdy had that ever brought a lot of questions from basically everybody. Their table was almost completely surrounded by people who wanted to know what was going on, and where Larissa had been.

Liam wasn’t there. I actually hadn’t seen him all day. Which made me all kinds of curious, but I didn’t have a prayer of getting near them to ask what was going on. I was just going to have to wait until later for answers.

And speaking of those who were attracting attention, the other twins, Vanessa and Tristan, were there with their dad. Haiden had apparently given an explanation similar to Larissa’s about how he was taken years back. He was still considered an Eden’s Garden Heretic, but was there as Gaia’s guest for his kids. And Sariel was there too, possessing her husband. That was an idea that had been given to them by Tabbris before the girl had gone back to the Atherby camp.

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t here at the moment. I’d told her that she should stay with our dad that night. I’d have her with me all day, and I knew he felt bad about not being able to come to this. So I asked her to stick around at the camp and keep him company. It has felt like the least I could do.

In all, it had been a very busy and complicated day. But still fun. And it was pretty appropriate that all these reunions were happening on this particular day. Even if a lot of it was happening away from me, which was murder on my curiosity. I really wanted to know what was going on with the Masons.

But, eh, I was just going to have to wait. Maybe I’d get a chance to talk with them and catch up while the big tournament was going on.

Professor Dare also wasn’t there. She’d decided to spend the evening with Tangle and Kohaku somewhere else. Tangle wasn’t ready to face people yet, and Kohaku didn’t want to be around the school either. So Dare was keeping them company.

People who had family members were eating in one area while those of us who didn’t sat together with our teams. Which basically left me sitting with Columbus and Avalon, though Shiori had joined us and was sitting between Columbus and me. We were all enjoying dinner. Or rather… everyone else was.

Making a face, I announced, “I think Chef Escalan might be a little overwhelmed right now.”

Avalon looked to me, raising an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?” She asked the question while pointedly ignoring all the people who were staring at her, both other students and adults. If anything, having all these people around who had never met the girl had only increased the number of stares she was getting. I had thought that people might be too busy and distracted once the day got underway, but well, apparently not.

“Well,” I started before turning my plate around to show her, “mostly because my chicken looks raw. I don’t think it even made it to the stove.”

Shiori made a face, poking the raw chicken with her napkin. “Remind me not to share with you tonight. It looks like that chicken forgot it was fry-day.”

“Oh lord,” Avalon groaned. “You gave her an excuse to make chicken puns.”

Grinning, the other girl solemnly replied, “You should tell one of the teachers about it. After all, I’m sure you’re feeling pretty peckish.”

Throwing a napkin at her for that one, I picked myself up. “That was bad. It’s okay. I’ll just go trade it in. I’m sure it was a mistake. I mean look at all these people, he’s got to be overworked right now.”

Columbus shrugged then. “Maybe his age is just catching up with him, you know? From what Scout was saying before, his food was even better when they were little.”

“If his food used to be even better than it is now,” I pointed out, “I almost wish I came here years ago.”

Giving first Shiori, then Avalon each a quick kiss, I promised to be right back and headed in with my plate.

As loud and busy as the outside was, the actual cafeteria was pretty quiet. The tables still had some supplies on them from reports and exhibitions that been going on earlier, but for the most part, the place was emptier than I usually saw it during the day.

Holding my plate in one hand, I hesitantly stepped through the open doorway into the kitchen, giving a short knock against the door jam. “Hey,” I spoke up. “Um, Chef, sir? I know you’re really busy, and I don’t want to complain, but my food is kind of… not cooked?”

I had been in the kitchen a couple of times that year, but only very rarely, as it really felt like an off-limits place. Even more so than some of the places that really should have been off-limits, really. Chef Escalan guarded his domain like a king protecting his treasury.

The place was pretty big, like a restaurant kitchen. I knew that Escalan had assistants, though I’d rarely seen them. And none of them were there now. Which was weird, considering how much work this dinner was supposed to be. A few steps in, and I stopped to blink around the empty, mostly stainless steel interior. Everything was super clean, with cooking implements laid out over the counters, and ingredients ready to go. But nobody was there. The place was quiet.

“Ah, there you are.”

The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find the chef himself standing there by the door that I had just come through. He had his apron tucked under his arm. “I was almost afraid that you might have been silly enough to try to eat that raw chicken anyway. And wouldn’t that be egg on my face?” His words were light, but there was something about the way he said it, and the way he was looking at me, that made me take a reflexive step back as a strange chill ran through me. Wait… I might not have spoken to the chef directly that much, but I knew he had an accent. A heavy accent.

“You mean you didn’t cook it on purpose?” Even as I spoke, my hand was dipping into my pocket to hit the emergency alert on my phone that would call Tabbris, as well as let everyone know that something was wrong.

Escalan gave me a brief look as if I had insulted him. “Please. Your communications were blocked the moment you came in here. And yes, I did what I could to ensure that you did not eat any of the food.”

He gave me a slight smile then, a smile that renewed the chill that had run down my spine. “Because we can’t have you eating any of that very special feast. After all, I did promise that I would cause no harm to come to you.”

And then I knew the truth. I knew that there was nothing I could do for Chef Escalan. There with nothing I could do for him, because he was already dead, and likely had been for quite a while. He was dead, and someone else was controlling him, speaking through him. The dread and horror that I felt then was audible in my voice as I spoke a single word.

“Fossor.”

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

Family Day 40-01

Previous Chapter                                            Next Chapter

“Fick! Fick!” The incredible delight in Sahveniah’s voice as the little girl came rushing up to me at the Atherby camp with her arms outstretched made my heart melt. I immediately crouched, opening my arms to let her jump into them before rising up while holding on to her. “Heya kiddo.”

Simultaneously giggling and babbling, the kid immediately started to tell me all about this pretty bird she had seen earlier. She was gesturing wildly, squirming in my hands while both of us laughed. Me with delight at just how cute she was, and her partly because she was always giggling, and partly from reaction to me.

It was Friday, May 4th. Otherwise known as Family Day. That was the day where students whose families were in the know about the whole Heretic thing could come and visit the school all day long. There were no classes that day, just special presentations. The teachers would talk to the parents or other family members, and some students gave special projects or whatever to show off. And speaking of showing off, there was even an exhibition tournament of sorts. You could enter one that was just for your grade level, or one that involved the whole school. And if you didn’t want to actually fight each other, there was a demonstration arena where you could simply show off what you had learned that year. The tournament was sort of a practice or first round version of the one that happened in the last week of school. There were areas where you could show off magic, or even a place for inventions from the Development track. The whole day was devoted to celebrating everything that had been learned that year in front of your family members.

The point was, it was a pretty big deal all around. Basically everyone had been talking about it ever since I made it back to the school. The kids whose family was able to attend had been nervously preparing for quite a while. Meanwhile, the Bystander-kin mostly had to be either jealous or relieved, depending on the person. Though Gaia had promised that there would be something for them soon as well. The Bystander parents couldn’t come to the island, of course. But the headmistress had arranged a sort of field trip in a couple weeks. We would be going to Washington DC, and anyone whose Bystander parents wanted to visit would be provided airfare and accommodations. Apparently there were a lot of Heretic things to see around there too, so I was looking forward to going.

Oh yeah, and that was also where the entrance to a particular blood vault happened to be, apparently. So that was bound to be… interesting.

For obvious reasons, my family couldn’t attend either today or that field trip. Or at least, my father couldn’t. Not only was he not supposed to know the truth about everything and so wouldn’t have been able to come anyway, he was also supposedly still missing. So yeah, him showing up to this would have raised a hell of a lot of red flags.

But this was also a special day for another reason, the reason I was here at the camp early in the morning, right as the sun was coming up back at Crossroads. This was the day when Avalon was finally ready to come back to the school. Correction, she had thought she was ready for days by this point. This was the day when she had finally been cleared to come back by Gaia and the others. Which I was almost convinced they had decided because they were afraid she would outright mutiny on them if they kept her shut in any longer. The girl had basically been going crazy all week long. If she had been forced to stay in bed rest for much longer, I couldn’t begin to guess what she might’ve done.

So yeah, to say that I was a little excited about the day would have been a severe understatement. I couldn’t wait to go back to Crossroads with her. There had definitely been something missing the whole time that she was stuck here. To say nothing of how long I have been out in Seosten space without either her or Shiori. At least I’d had the latter this past week. Without Shiori, I probably would have gone crazy with worry.

I loved them both so much. It was hard to think of the time before I’d known them and grown so close to both. They were a part of me now in ways I had not thought possible at the start of the year. I needed them, both of them. And it gave me a new appreciation for just what both Deveron and my father had been going through with my mother being missing for so long.

Fuck Fossor, that slimy, evil piece of shit. And fuck Ruthers, along with everyone else who had created this whole situation.

With Sahveniah in my arms, I moved over to where my dad and Tabbris were. “Hey, I take it you guys are playing babysitter this morning?”

Dad nodded. “Zadriek and the others are off on some kind of training exercise. Some of them were imprisoned for a lot longer than Sariel or Larees were, so they need all the training they can get to get back in shape.”

Tabbris spoke up then. “They let them exercise back in the lab, but not train.” She paused briefly before adding, “And I’m pretty sure they’re training like this because they really want to fight.”

“Fight!” That was Sahveniah, who giggled at the word. “Fight. Fick fight. Fick fight Fick fittle? Fit fit fat fattle? Fick fack fu-”

“Ooookay,” I quickly interrupted, reaching into my pocket with one hand to take out a bit of candy. I offered it to her, and she squealed with delight before popping it into her mouth.“Tank oooh, Fick!” She blurted muffledly around the candy.

“You’re welcome.” I nodded a little at that, shifting the little girl in my arms while returning my attention to the other two. “I’m not surprised they want to fight. Believe me, if I was anywhere near their shoes, I’d want a piece of Kushiel too.”

I saw the brief look of intense horror cross my father‘s face then before he pushed it away and shook his head. “Let’s just be glad they’re out of there now. Besides, as I recall, this isn’t supposed to be a downer day, right?”

Wincing, I let the girl in my arms down so she could run over to Tabbris to start babbling at her about the bird she’d mentioned before. Then I focused on my dad. “I am really sorry you can’t come to this,” I murmured while stepping over to embrace him. “I’m gonna miss you all day.“

Returning my hug, Dad promised, “Don’t you worry. Later, all of us will have our own little family day.”

Unable to restrain myself, I grinned up at him while asking, “With blackjack and hookers?”

Well that, quite obviously, what is the cue for Sahveniah to spin on her heel back toward me while blurting, “Backjack hooker! Hookie hookah hooker!” Seeing our reactions, the girl laughed even louder and repeated herself.

“See?” Dad informed me. “This is why the Roscoes didn’t want to let you babysit in seventh grade.”

Huffing at that, I stuck my tongue out at him before changing the subject. “I better go get Valley. Professor Dare should be back soon to pick us up. Looking toward Tabbris, I asked, “Ready, partner?”

Because of course, I wanted her to be there for Family Day. If I couldn’t have my dad, I sure as hell was going to have my sister.

She agreed, and the two of us promised to come back out and say goodbye to Dad and Savvy before we left. Then we headed into the cabin nearby.

As expected, Avalon was waiting inside. And by waiting, she was pacing back and forth like a lioness. She was also already wearing her uniform, and wow. I had almost forgotten how good the other girl looked in it. For a moment, all I could do was stand there and stare.

Her head snapped up when we came in, and the girl blurted, “There you are! What’d you do, walk here from Crossroads?”

Snickering, I moved that way to embrace the girl tightly. “I figured we should get back to the school fashionably late so that you can make an entrance,” I teased.

Her eyes rolled at that even as she hugged me back. “Trust me, Chambers, they’ll notice.”

Given all the questions I had been asked, and the comments I had overheard, she was definitely right. Still, I winked at her. “You might say they remember who you are.”

Shaking her head, Avalon muttered, “I just bet they do.” She straightened then, shrugging. “But you know what? I’m pretty sure I can deal with anyone today, as long as it means I can get out of here.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “Everybody knows you were going a bit stir-crazy. But hey, that’s done now. As soon as Professor Dare—”

In mid-sentence, and almost right on cue, there was a brief knock at the door. As Avalon acknowledged it, the door opened and Dare herself stepped inside.

“Okay, girls, everybody ready to head back for a busy, busy day?”

The three of us looked to one another before I turned back to Dare and shrugged. “Sure, though it’s not like any of us have family going to this thing. I mean, besides Abigail. But she’s there for Koren. They are still going to let her come, right?” There had been a little bit of back-and-forth about whether someone who was technically a new Eden’s Garden Heretic would be allowed to come to this thing.

“Yes,” Dare assured me. “And with her, Koren, and Wyatt there, you will have plenty of family. To say nothing of Deveron and your friends.” She paused then, her voice softening. “But I am sorry that your father cannot be there. And, of course, your mother.”

Forcing myself to shrug, I replied, “Trust me, it’s not the first school event that Fossor has made her miss.”

Then I physically shook myself. “But hey, we’re here for happy things, remember? Avalon’s finally coming back to school. Let’s stick with the good parts of today.”

The others agreed, and Tabbris hopped into my body before we went out to say one last goodbye to the others, for the time being at least. I hugged Dad and Savvy once more, while Avalon thanked Gabriel for helping her get better and for giving her a safe place to recover.

Then it was time to head back. Dare made a portal, and we headed through, back to Crossroads once more.

After passing through the portal, we appeared on the beach, a good distance from the actual school grounds. The rest of the team was already waiting, and as we went through, Avalon was immediately embraced by Scout. She had seen her back at the camp throughout all this, of course. But still, there was something good about having Avalon back with us at Crossroads. We had lost Rudolph. But Avalon was back, and that made things feel just a little bit more right.

Everyone else wanted a hug too, and the proof of how much Avalon had missed being here was evident in how well she endured that. Still, by the end of it, she stepped back and grimaced. “Okay, yeah, I’m back. Let’s not be stupid about it. Move on.”

She looked to Doug then, reaching into the inside of her blazer before taking out a familiar item. It was Doug’s hat, and she flipped it to the boy. “Theia has her own thing that works now. She said to tell you thanks. Actually she said a lot more than that, but that’s about the sum of it. And no, I am not going to pass her kiss to you.”

Catching his hat, Doug blinked up at that. “Wait, does that mean that she actually—” In mid-sentence, his survival instinct kicked in and he thought better of that, judging from the look that the other girl gave him. “Never mind.” He settled for simply jamming the hat down on his head once more, letting out a breath of relief that told me just how much he had missed it.

“Hey,” I pointed out, “at least you managed to come back on a special day. Everybody oughta be pretty distracted as it is.”

Columbus immediately spoke up. “Yeah, I didn’t even know these people took Star Wars Day that seriously. This is pretty impressive.” Seeing the blank looks that he got, the boy gestured. “You know, Star Wars Day? May The Fourth? May The—” he sighed then, waving it off. “Never mind, Philistines.”

With a tiny smirk that told me she probably understood more of that than she was letting on, Dare gestured. “If we are done here, there is  something that Gaia would like you to see before today’s festivities again. Shall we?”

Looking toward Avalon then, I asked, “You sure you’re ready for this?”

Clearly thinking about all the people who were going to react to her reappearance, the girl made a face before giving me a slight nod. “Let’s get it over with.”

So we went with Dare. And sure enough, the moment we stepped foot on the school grounds, there were people staring. It was still early enough that it wasn’t a whole huge crowd of people yet, but they were definitely there, and they definitely noticed Avalon. I could see them whispering or muttering to one another while pointing our way, and figured that the other girl could actually hear them. I just hoped they weren’t being too stupid about what they were saying.

And speaking of being stupid about what they were saying, we were only halfway across the school grounds when another familiar figure approached. Zeke. Great. This ought to go swimmingly.

The boy stopped a few feet away, and seemed to hesitate for a second before clearing his throat. “Uh. Hey.”

He waited then, as if to let one of us responded. Getting nothing but blank, silent looks, he plowed on. “Look, I uhhh…” he trailed off then, working strangely unsure of himself. Actually, this whole thing was strange. What was he doing? What’s this about the fact that Dare was standing there? If so, why had he approached in the first place?

“If you need some time to collect yourself for whatever comment you’re going to make,” Avalon dryly remarked, “I can come back later.”

Quickly, Zeke shook his head. “No, I just—” he stopped, sighing. “Look, I know this is gonna sound like some stupid thing that my mother is making me say like a dumb little kid. But it’s not. It’s… I just wanted to say that I’m glad you didn’t die, okay? Whatever the fuck is going on, you’re, uhh, you’re a good fighter. I still think you’re a b—” he stopped himself with a brief look toward Dare before amending it to, “I still don’t like you. Like, at all. Your whole group is still weird and… whatever. The point is, I didn’t want you to die. I didn’t want to Rudolph to die either, but…” He went quiet, actually looking emotional for a couple of seconds before getting it under control.

“Whatever, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m glad you’re not dead. You’re good at fighting, and you’ll be a good Heretic. I don’t have to like you to acknowledge that. And, uh, the world would have lost a lot if you had died like that.”

He paused there for another brief second, looking supremely uncomfortable before turning on his heel to stride away without another word. The rest of us all watched him go in silence.

Finally, I raised a hand. “Um. So, acknowledging and including literally everything else that’s happened this year, is it me, or was that the weirdest fucking thing ever?”

The response actually came from Professor Dare. “It is definitely up there.”

Scout looked to her. “Are we sure his mom didn’t make him say that?”

Dare nodded once. “He was telling the truth when he said that Sophronia was not behind it. And that is not something I can see her doing anyway. She would know that such a forced gesture would be meaningless. No, I believe that was all Mr. Leven’s initiative.”

“Like I said,” I put in, “weirdest fucking thing ever.”

Columbus spoke up, clearly only partially kidding. “Are we sure he hasn’t been possessed?”

“I’m pretty sure the Seosten are usually better at staying under cover and in character than that,” I pointed out. “And besides, no Seosten would be stupid enough to be that obvious like that with us in particular. They’d know that we’d find a way to check.”

The others all muttered agreement, and there wasn’t much else to be said about it. It was weird, but hey, I wasn’t going to complain about Zeke acting like an actual human being. After all, there were enough problems to deal with as it was.

So, we followed Dare to the main building and up to Gaia’s office. Just as we reached the entrance, I blinked and looked to the woman. “Actually, why did we just have to walk all the way across the grounds in the first place? Why didn’t we come straight to this place when we went through the portal?”

In response, Dare smiled while opening the door. “Well, because they wanted to let you all have a little reunion of your own for Avalon’s return before distracting from that.”

I started to nod before blinking blankly. “Err, they?”

“Yeah, what can we say?”

The instantly familiar voice came not from Dare, but from inside the headmistress’s office.

Sands, standing by her mother, by her and Scout’s mother, finished with, “We thought we might be a little distracting.”

Previous Chapter                                            Next Chapter

Interlude 34C – Haiden Moon

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrggggggggh!!!”

With that earth-shattering (if they had been anywhere near Earth) roar, an ogre’s massive and meaty fist, blood dripping from the knuckles, swung through the air with enough force to pulverize the side of a cement mixer. The impact would have turned almost any normal being into little more than dust, scattered around the ground where the poor fool had been standing.

It was stopped, in turn, by a much smaller hand. Haiden Moon stood with one arm outstretched, his long coat flapping behind him a bit from his own motion in stepping forward to meet the ogre. His hand, dwarfed by his opponent’s, completely stopped it cold. He grunted from the impact, his arm rocking backward just a little bit as if from the force of firing a rifle. But the reaction on the ogre’s side was far more dramatic, as the energy from that punch that had suddenly stopped almost cold had to go somewhere. In that case, it manifested in the form of the ogre’s arm breaking in multiple places. Bits of bone all along the arm tore through muscle to poke visibly out of the skin, like dozens of tiny grayish-red stalagmites popping out of the ground.

In the face of the ogre’s utterly bewildered expression, unable to comprehend the agony of its shattered arm, Haiden gave a humorless smile. “Hi there,” the man announced. “Normally I’d have a great joke right now. But I’m right in the middle of trying to save my wife, and you’re in my way. So–” With his other hand, he flipped his shotgun around and up, putting the barrels against the ogre’s neck before pulling the trigger. “Consider that my punchline.”

Turning away from the falling, decapitated body, the man cast a quick glance around him. He and Larissa had finished with the soldiers in the ship before making their way down into the tower where they had sent the kids. There, they had found Sands, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz (with Gidget, of course) fighting to stop more reinforcements from following Flick and the twins through the tunnel into the lab. But now there were no more soldiers. At least none that were standing and ready to fight. Most of their bodies littered the floor, some of them having been killed by the kids while the rest he and Larissa had finished off.

Satisfied that there were no more threats, the man stored his weapon and strode purposefully to the tunnel. No more delays. He was going to catch up with his kids, and find his wife, right now.

“Mr. Moon,” Sands called while quickly putting herself in front of the man. “Wait!” She had both hands up. “You can’t go through that tunnel yet.” Quickly, the girl explained about the traps that the other soldier had told them about, and about the badges that were needed to get through safely. Once she got her point across, Larissa cast a glance toward the fallen soldiers and flicked her hand. A second later, a handful of the appropriate badges came flying to them.

“Everyone okay?” the woman asked while quickly passing them out. “Jasmine?”

The black girl rubbed her shoulder while taking the offered badge, grimacing a little in pain that she was clearly trying to hide. Blood was visible on her temple, as well as along the front of her shirt from a blow that had put her on the ground for a while before her healing had caught up with it. “I’ll be fine,” she muttered under her breath. “Don’t slow down on my account.”

“We should hurry,” Gordon announced while ducking under the outstretched arm of the large, frozen-solid figure who had made the mistake of grabbing the boy. It looked like a statue, intricately carved from ice down to the smallest detail. It wasn’t simply a block of ice encompassing the figure. It was as though the attacker had been completely turned into ice. Roxa, breathing heavily and liberally soaked through with blood (most of which came from other people) to the point that it looked like she had gone swimming through a pool of it, gave a sharp nod then. “He’s right, we need to go. We’ve gotta catch up with Flick and the others.”

They had a point, there was no time to waste. And the adults didn’t dare leave the kids behind again. There was no telling what other troops might come out of the woodwork. So they had to stay together. With that in mind, Larissa and Haiden quickly made their way through the tunnel and up through the lab itself at a swift jog. They saw the damage that had been done, following it onward while picking off a few more stray soldiers on the way. There was no stopping, or even slowing down. The two adult Heretics mercilessly picked off every figure that made the mistake of trying to stand in their way.

Eventually, they made their way to the observation room above another chamber. They arrived just in time to see Athena and Apollo below, facing off with Kushiel in an otherwise empty room, a moment before another figure, covered in an identity-obscuring cloak, appeared. The new figure caught hold of Kushiel, and the pair vanished. Clearly, the figure had been some kind of stooge that the psycho bitch had employed to extract her from a dangerous situation.

Rather than bothering to waste time taking the nearby stairs, Haiden raised a hand and disabled the power running into the forcefield ‘window’ in front of them. As it flickered out, the man hopped through, his coat billing behind him as he dropped down into the chamber below, landing easily. Behind him, he heard the others following suit, while he focused on the two Olympians. “Where is she?” he demanded. “Where’s my wife and kids? Where are the others?”

Apollo, for his part, looked pained as he quietly explained what had happened. At least the part that he knew about. Apparently, Felicity, Vanessa, and Tristan (with Tabbris, of course), had made their way into the strange transport that had been parked in the now-empty middle of the chamber. A moment later, the doors had closed and the transport had disappeared.

He’d barely finished before Haiden was in his face. The Heretic caught the Seosten by the collar, shoving him back against the nearby wall. “What?!” he demanded, outraged. “What the hell do you mean!? You let them go?! They’re gone! We were this close to finding Sariel, this fucking close, and now you’re telling me that not only do the Seosten still have her, they’ve got my kids too?! And not only that, they’ve also got Flick, which means they’ve got Tabbris! What the hell were you doing?! How could you let that happen?! How the fuck did you let that happen!?” Even as he shouted, a part of Haiden knew and recognized that he was being irrational. After all, what was Apollo supposed to do, not engage with Kushiel? She would have killed them all. He knew that. But in the moment, the thought that he’d lost his entire family just when he’d been so close to actually bringing it back together was too much. And Apollo was a handy target for the emotional rage that spilled up and out right then.

it was Larissa who stopped him, which was probably a good thing, as she was one of the few that he would’ve listened to in that moment. Putting her hand on his shoulder, the woman gave him a tug backward. “Haiden, stop,” she urged. “Wait, we might be able to figure out where they went. We’ve still got all these computers. We can look through them and figure out where that thing was aimed. But we need to hurry, before–”

Dad?

The voice in his head made Haiden jump. Reflexively, he spun around. But of course, there was no one there. Or at least no one that hadn’t been there before.

Then it came again. Dad! Dad, I’m here. I’m–

“Vanessa!” the man abruptly blurted, interrupting the others, who all looked at him. “Vanessa, are you okay?”

Then she appeared in front of him, his beautiful, wonderful, brilliant, amazing little girl. For a second, the man nearly tried to grab her. But he realized quickly that she wasn’t really there. She was visible and audible, yes, but none of his other senses detected her. She was mentally projecting herself to him from where that transport had taken her.

“I’m okay!” the girl’s head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We’re okay. We–Dad, we’ve got Mom!” The sheer, unbridled and unrestrained joy in the girl’s voice made Haiden want to embrace her even more. To say nothing of what the actual words did for him. “We’ve got her, she’s awake, she’s out, she’s safe! She saved us! Dad, Mom’s awake, she’s out!”

“Oh my God.” Despite all his strength and power, Haiden had to slump back. He grabbed the wall, catching himself as his mind raced. In the background, he saw some of the others cringe, clearly misinterpreting his reaction since they couldn’t hear Vanessa’s side of things.

So he found his voice. “She’s out,” he managed weakly, the shock and tumultuous series of emotions taking their toll. “Sariel, they have her. She’s awake. She helped them. She’s out. She’s… she’s…” Swallowing hard, he shook that off while doing his best to ignore the burst of enthusiastic relief and cheers that came from the others. “Where?” the man quickly asked his daughter. “Where are you? Is Kushiel there? We’ll come get you. We’ll get you right now, I swear.” With each word, his voice grew louder and faster. He had to get to his family. He had to put them back together. It had been too long. No more. They couldn’t wait any longer. Sariel. The thought of having her back in his arms, of being with her after all the time that had passed, it made him physically ache. He needed his wife. He needed his children, his family. And now they were so close. “Tell me where you are, sweetie. We’ll come to you.”

“Um.” Vanessa shifted on one foot, visibly blushing. “You might not believe this, but we’re, uhh… we’re on Earth, Dad.”

Of all the hundreds, or maybe even thousands of locations that Haiden might have guessed that his daughter would give as to where they were, that was pretty much the absolute last one on the list. He stared at her once the words came, mouth opening and shutting before he finally shook his head. “You’re where?” He needed to hear it again, needed to know that he hadn’t misheard somehow.

Sure enough, Vanessa confirmed with a knowing nod. “Earth, Dad. That transport sent us and the rest of the prisoners to Earth. We don’t know why yet. But we’re safe, for now. Mom’s okay. We’re all together, and we’ll figure out how to contact Gaia. What about you? How will you–”

“We’ll get there, baby,” Haiden promised his daughter firmly. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, I promise. We’ll have to find the rest of those shards, or… something. We’ll get there, okay? You stay with your Mom and brother, and your little sister. You hear me? You stay with them and keep each other safe. We will find a way to get back to Earth as soon as possible.”

Earth. How the hell were they on Earth? What had Kushiel been planning? Despite his joy that the Sariel was awake and with their children, Haiden still felt a little apprehension about why that psychopathic bitch had been taking her prisoners to Earth of all places.

His beloved little girl gave a quick nod. “Yes, Dad. I promise. We’ll stay together. Dad, it’s Mom. She’s okay. She’s alive. She’s… she’s…” Tears were streaming down her face, just as the same filled Haiden’s own eyes.

“I know, baby,” he murmured, aching to take his daughter in his arms. But he also didn’t want to. Because that would mean that she had projected herself to him, which would also yank Tristan along with her. And as much as he may have wanted to hug his children, the last thing he wanted to do right then was take them away from their mother.

So no, they would stay there on Earth. And as Haiden had promised, he and the others would make their way to them. His family would be together again. They were so close now. And Sariel… Sariel was there. She was awake and with their twins, and with Tabbris.

“Dad,” Vanessa was talking again. “I’m gonna go back. I don’t want–” She hesitated, clearly feeling guilty about what she had been about to say: that she didn’t want to accidentally project herself physically to where he was and away from her mother.

“It’s okay, Nessabird,” he promised. “You stay with your mom, alright? Keep each other safe. Like I said, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Check in when you can, but you stay there. Mom needs you guys more than I do right now.”

Head bobbing, Vanessa sniffled a little. She clearly didn’t like the idea of leaving her father, even if it was to be with her mother. She wanted the whole family back together as much as Haiden did. “Okay, Dad. Be careful! And hurry, okay? I love you. We love you.”

“I love you guys too,” the man assured her. “And I’ll be there as soon as possible. We’ve got help now. Check in when you can, and take care of your mom.”

He could feel the connection already starting to fade. Vanessa couldn’t hold it for long, especially when she was trying to avoid being physically drawn to him. Resisting the urge to push for her to try and stay longer, he simply repeated, “I love you, Nessabird. Take care of your mom. Be safe!”

She promised once more, repeating her own love for him before the connection broke apart and the image of his brilliant little girl vanished. Once it did, the man slumped a bit. “They’re on Earth,” he muttered under his breath. “They made it to Earth and Sariel’s awake. They’re safe, for now. But…”

Earth?” That was Sands, who was standing there open-mouthed. “How? Why?! What the hell was that crazy cunt planning to do on Earth?!”

“I wouldn’t say was,” Larissa noted quietly. “I doubt this will make her change her mind about it.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. I don’t know what Kushiel wants with Earth, but I guarantee she hasn’t changed her mind just because of this setback. And whatever it is, it won’t be good for humanity. We need to get you back there.”

“But to do that,” Athena put in, “we need the rest of the shards from that banishment orb. Which should be easier to find with the data from the computers here. If Kushiel doesn’t either know where all the shards are or have good leads on them, I’ll eat every sock in the Aelaestiam fleet.”

“Right.” Haiden cleared his throat, focusing on moving forward, rather than dwelling on how close he had been to being with his entire family together. “So we take everything we can from their computers and get the hell out of here.”

“You could go back right now, couldn’t you?” Gordon was the one speaking, his eyes on Apollo. “I’d be shocked,” the eternally calm boy announced, “if you didn’t have a way back to Earth, even without Jazz.”

“I may have a trick or two for that,” the Seosten man confirmed before shaking his head. “But I’m not using them. Not yet. You think I’d leave Sariel’s husband stranded out here? To say nothing of my chosen champion.” His hand gestured toward Jazz with a wink at the girl. “No, I’ll be right here helping you get home.”

“As will I,” Athena added, her brow furrowed in thought. “Whatever purpose Kushiel has in setting up a lab on Earth, it cannot be good. We will look for data about that new project in the computers here, but either way… a field trip may be in order. Once, of course, we have ensured your ability to reach the planet yourselves.”

“We find the shard and put the orb back together,” Apollo promised, “and we can get you back there.”

Haiden’s head gave a sharp nod. “Then let’s get a move on. Whatever Kushiel’s up to, I’ll tell you one thing she’ll be doing: trying to get Sariel back. So I’m not just gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs while she hunts down my family.”

“Of course.” With those words, Athena turned and used her own communicator to call up to the Aelaestiam fleet. In a few brief orders, the woman called for a series of retrieval teams to be sent down in order to strip everything usable out of the facility, and to take as many prisoners as possible. They would take everyone as prisoners to start, working their way through them to see who could be released, who could be recruited, and who would need to remain imprisoned. As tempting as it was to take all of the Seosten’s enslaved troops and free them in one mass release, they had to be a little smarter about it and know who they were dealing with in each instance. That would take time. Beyond that, there could (and likely would) be actual Seosten hiding inside any of the other troops or slaves, which would also take time to sort out.

Once that was underway, a portal was created to take the group back to the Sunstrider, where Jokai and Dries waited. As they arrived, Jazz moved to her Eulsen boyfriend, embracing him tightly while Jokai returned it with a noise of approval and relief at her safety.

Dries, meanwhile, started by shaking his head with a frown. “No new Seosten woman?” he asked before doing a quick doubletake. That frown grew deeper, and he blurted, “Felicity, and the half-Seosten. Where are they? Where are they?” The repeated question was louder, becoming a demand as he took a step forward. For all of his issues and aversion to conflict, the man actually looked ready to hit someone if they didn’t tell him where Felicity and the other two were.

Quickly, Sands and Roxa explained the situation, telling the man that Flick and the others were on Earth, and that they were going to find a way back there as soon as possible. With, of course, the aid of the Aelaestiam. Which would ensure that it wouldn’t take nearly as long to find the remaining pieces as it had taken Haiden and Larissa to find what they had by themselves.

Once they finished, the man slumped back a little. His expression was uncertain. “Earth. They are… they made it home.”

“And so will we,” Larissa assured him. “All of us, okay? You’re going home, Dries. You’ll meet Avalon, I promise. We just need to work a little bit longer.”

The man met her gaze for a moment before giving a little nod. “Yes,” he murmured then, “find the shards, fix the orb, and get home.”

Turning away from that scene, Haiden gazed at the nearby viewscreen, taking in the sight of the damaged and destroyed ships all around them. The rest of the Seosten fleet had fled, but they would be back with reinforcements. Hopefully after the Aelaestiam retrieved what they needed and they all managed to leave.

Either way, the battle, for the moment, was over. Sariel and their children were back on Earth. It may not have been the reunion he had been hoping for, but it was something. He couldn’t be upset about the fact that his wife and children were together, no matter how much he wanted to be there himself.

And he would be. He would find his way back to them. Soon. He would be with his family once more.

No matter how many fucking armies he had to tear to the ground to make that happen.

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

Hoc Est Bellum 34-05

Previous Chapter                          Next Chapter

Flames, metal, lasers, and more suddenly filled the air with the fury and force of a hurricane as the Seosten forces opened fire without any further preamble. In the same instant, a glowing forcefield dome appeared directly around all of us as Larissa held both hands out to her sides. Her face contorted a little from the effort as more shots rebounded off of the shield, and she shook her head. “Can’t hold it for long,” she announced with a grunt of effort.

Even as she said that, Haiden reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. I saw the forcefield grow stronger and stop flickering quite as much as he somehow helped take some of the strain off of her. It still wouldn’t last for long under all this firepower, but between the two of them, at least it wouldn’t immediately collapse.

“Category three,” Athena immediately announced while drawing Excalibur from its sheath once more. The incredible dragon-tooth sword seemed to hum with power as she held it in front of her.

We had come in here with several different plans of what to do as things progressed. Category one, of course, was that we could go straight to the cells, free Sariel and the others, and leave. Athena had considered that the least likely possibility, and I had to agree with her.

On the other hand, category three was the idea that there would be some large enough threat that Athena and Apollo would have to split off from us to slow down or stop, while the rest of us pushed onward without our most powerful escorts. At least at first. We were each carrying something similar to the communication badges. In this case, however, the badges were specifically set to allow Apollo and Athena to teleport straight to us the moment we found the cells, or Sariel in particular, in the case that we were separated.

Haiden was already nodding as he reached into his pocket to withdraw what looked like a small, circular metal band. At the same time, I saw a brief second of deeper concentration passed over Larissa’s face, and the partially translucent forcefield around us turned completely opaque, stopping the people outside from seeing what we were doing. More than that, the forcefield wouldn’t let any powers see or hear through it either. We were, at least for those few seconds, completely cut off from them. They would have no idea what was going on in here.

I could still hear the shots pouring into it, however. And the field itself was still occasionally flickering under the strain. We had to make this quick.

“Wait,” Tristan quickly protested. “You mean you want us to just abandon you guys here with all of these assholes?”

Apollo gave him a quick look. “Kid,” he announced, “you need to save your mom, got it? You forget these guys. We’ll deal with them. You get to your mom so we can get her out of whatever torture chamber she’s been strapped into. She’s been waiting long enough. You do your part, we’ll do ours.”

“Be careful,” Vanessa urged. She put a hand up against her uncle’s arm. Her expression was pensive, and I thought about how awful it must’ve been for her to see her family ripped away from her as a child. While not remotely the same now, this whole situation had to be bringing back those memories. Memories that, in her case, were absolutely crystal clear and perfect.

Apollo winked at her and gave the girl a thumbs up, just as Haiden threw the metal band to the ground. Instantly, a glowing portal erupted out of it.

This was another one of Dries’ tricks, essentially a quick escape spell. The other end of the portal would seek out the nearest area that was at least a few hundred yards away, and didn’t seem to have any immediate threat within it. Basically, it would jump the person out of an immediate conflict. Like, for example, this one.

Part of me wanted to tell Apollo and Athena they should just go through the escape portal with us, but I knew why they weren’t. They had to stay behind and distract these guys. We had been expecting for them to have to deal with Kushiel. Now… well, I just hoped that they wouldn’t be too busy back here with Abbadon and Radueriel when that particular threat showed her face.

Haiden went through the escape portal first, weapon raised in its gun form. An instant later, he was followed by Roxa and Gidget, then Jazz and Gordon together, with Sands heading right after. The twins jumped through then, with one last look back at Apollo.

Go for it, I urged my partner, knowing what she really wanted to do.

My feet moved without my control, as Tabbris moved us over to the blond man. My hands went up to clutch his arm, and my voice pleaded, “Be careful, Uncle Apollo. Mama wants to see you too.”

Apollo‘s broad smile grew even wider at that, and he reached out to ruffle my hair. “You keep each other safe,” the man urged. “All of you. Now go find your mom. We’ll meet you there.”

Back under my own control then, I moved to the portal quickly. Larissa was there waiting for me, and the two of us went through pretty much simultaneously. I could hear the forcefield fall as we passed through, and the sound of fighting suddenly erupted just before the portal closed behind us. Apollo and Athena were on their own. Silently, I wished them luck.

And us. I wished us luck too.

The others were all waiting for us. Looking around, I saw that we had emerged into some kind of military cafeteria. Or at least it had been before the place had been destroyed by the crash. The tables, once drab and uniform with simple benches, had all been broken and tossed around, their remains scattered around the room. Against one wall was a window where the crew of the ship had gotten their food from the kitchen that I could see beyond. In that kitchen, I could see the remains of several fires, and destruction that made it look like a tornado had hit the place.

There were three sets of doors in the room. One clearly led back into that same kitchen that was visible through the window, while the others led out into the rest of the facility. I could see a single body on the floor of the kitchen entrance, with Sands, Roxa, and Gidget standing over it. Meanwhile, Haiden stood by one of the other entrances, with Vanessa and Tristan standing by the other. Jazz and Gordon were in the middle of the room.

“Time to go,” Haiden announced as soon as Larissa and I appeared together. He peeked out into the corridor beyond the doors before beckoning. “Hurry, we are not going to give them time to move her.”

As we moved to the doorway, Jazz glanced to me. “Looks like you made even more enemies than we thought. Those guys back there looked pretty pissed at you.”

Grimacing a little at that, I nodded. “Who knew that Charmiene actually had friends?”

“Well so do you,” Sands pointed out. Her fist bumped my shoulder. “And we’re not gonna let anything happen to you, no matter how many of those assholes come looking.”

Together, we all moved into the hallway. It hadn’t fared much better in the crash. I could see places where the metal walls were bent and broken, big jagged holes revealing other parts of the ship, or just the wiring and pipes. Everything was a mess.

To our left there was a flame-scorched wall, through which we could hear the distant sound of fighting. Apollo and Athena were busy. Meanwhile, the hallway stretched on to the right, gradually curving, with several doors and other corridors leading off in various directions.

Haiden picked up the pace, jogging quickly. “The way the ship came down,” he announced, “the best exit to put us in the tower is this way.”

So we followed him. Larissa brought up the rear, while the rest of us teenagers jogged along behind the man as he lead us through the maze of the broken ship’s interior.

We were ready for a fight, but no one stopped us at first. There was no one to stop us. Everyone on the ship had either been teleported off, or had been brought on with Ares and Radueriel and were busy dealing with Athena and Apollo. Our path, for the moment, was clear.

Was being the operative term. Because just as we emerged into a larger chamber that I belatedly recognized as some kind of shuttle bay with wide open doors leading outside, that stopped being the case. Ahead of us, coming through those same enormous shuttlebay doors that would take us out of the ship, were a couple dozen soldiers of various species. They were accompanied by several enormous mechanized things that look like twelve-foot tall metal rhinos with a bunch of weapons attached to them. Tanks, or at least one of the Seosten versions.

As if that wasn’t enough, noise behind us drew our attention back to where several more of the Seosten, likely the ones who had the biggest problem with me, had apparently abandoned the fight with Athena and Apollo and had caught up with us. Once again, we were surrounded. And this time, we were actually going to have to fight our way through them to get out of the ship and into the lab.

There was no time to discuss things, no time to make another plan or have any kind of conversation. These guys weren’t in the mood to negotiate or even make any wisecracks. The soldiers on both sides saw us, and instantly attacked.

Chaos ensued, complete and utter chaos. Shots, fire, and more filled the air, even as those big rhino-tank things began to pound their way forward, the cannons on their backs and sides opening up.

Without hesitation, Haiden went forward, intercepting the tanks as well as all the soldiers who were on that side. He was a whirling dervish with his long weapon that kept rapidly switching between its sword-form and the shotgun. A shotgun which, apparently, was powerful enough to stagger one of those tanks when he shot it point-blank.

Vanessa and Tristan moved to help their dad, backing him up while he did the bulk of the work. The twins were right there, able to fight alongside their father for the first real time. It was almost beautiful to watch, and I wished for a second that I could afford to pay more attention to it.

I did, however, get to see Vanessa snap her whip out, catching it around the leg of one of the men before yanking him up and forward into the air just as a blast from Tristan’s arm-cannon tore through him like the two of them were skeet shooting.

Larissa, meanwhile, disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear between us and the small group of Seosten who had apparently been coming after me specifically. The handful of shots that had been on target were intercepted in mid-air, held motionless before being tossed aside. At the same time, a large burst of fire that had been coming from one man’s outstretched hand was frozen solid before shattering into a dozen pieces.

She went to work then, throwing herself at that group and taking the attention of most of them. Which was a pretty good thing, since if these guys were even remotely close to the level that Charmiene had been on, I seriously doubted that even Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Tabbris, and I could take them all on together. Six of them and six of us? Five if you counted Tabbris and me as one. I had a pretty bad feeling that we would have been slaughtered.

As it was, two of them broke free and kept going for their main target: me. Which left Larissa fighting four of them, a serious enough threat that the woman actually produced the weapon that she and Athena had been working on.

Essentially, Larissa’s new weapon was a hunk of very clear crystal. Or at least, something that looked like crystal. The thing seemed like it would shatter if you stared at it too hard. But it was apparently strong enough to withstand almost anything. And more than that, the thing could change shape. It basically had some kind of unconscious mental connection to the wielder. At a thought, it would reshape from a sword, to a spear, to a shield, and so on.

Plus, any kind of energy that hit it, like fire, electricity, sound, several kinds of magic, or even simple kinetic force (often by smacking the thing against the wall a few times), were absorbed and contained. The thing could contain those energies pretty much indefinitely. Then, at any time, they could be fired back out of it, often by making the thing take the shape of a gun.

The point was, the weapon was still very new, and they hadn’t worked out everything about it yet. So, seeing her draw it now showed just how serious the situation was. And it meant that even facing two of these guys was going to be a pretty big problem for the six of us.

Even as the two Seosten came at me, with their weapons drawn, Roxa and the others withdrew. I found myself standing there alone while they dropped back. But the thought that they had abandoned me never entered my head. I knew what they were doing: pulling back so that the two Seosten would come straight at me and could be attacked from the side or behind. They were leaving me standing there as bait. And quite frankly, I completely understood that. We needed every advantage we could get in this fight, and using their own rage about the loss of their friend (the thought of which was still a little weird) against them was an advantage.

I just had to survive the initial assault.

Tab, I thought then with that in mind, get ready to boost. Yes, she could only do so for a brief time, but she was getting better at it constantly. And now felt like the best time to actually use it. I had to survive the next few seconds so that the others could help.

The two Seosten were in sync. Just before they would have reached me, one dropped to a knee, producing a pistol of some kind. He fired at me rapidly, filling the air with shots. Meanwhile, his partner leapt, producing another one of those laser-blades in one hand, which he swung down at my head while spinning in the air as he passed over me. They were basically trying to force me to choose between diving into the incoming shots, or jumping into the blade. Even I wasn’t fast enough to deal with all of this at once.

Or at least, I wasn’t before. But in that instant, Tabbris hit the boost, and everything seemed to slow down dramatically. It was like one of those video games where you can hit a button and make everything go into slow-motion, while you move fairly normally. I was suddenly stronger, faster, and everything else seemed like it was moving through some kind of very thick liquid.

I used it. Raising my hands quickly, I set two small portals right in the path of a few of the incoming shots. At the same time, I could feel that laser sword inching closer and closer to my exposed neck as the other Seosten’s leaping spin carried him over my head. But with everything appearing to move as slowly as it did, I was able to turn my head and shoulders just enough that the energy blade passed right near me, even as those bullets were intercepted by the portals.

With a grimace, I stabbed the bladed end of my staff upward, straight at the man who was passing over my head. He was right there, exposed above me in mid-leap. I could end at least his part of this.

Or at least, I could have. But in that same instance, the Seosten was suddenly moving as fast as I was. His slowed motion turned normal as he snapped his hand down to catch hold of my weapon just before it could have pierced his chest, stopping it. Then he landed, still holding my staff as his strength nearly tore it from my grasp.

In the background, I also saw the other guy neatly and smoothly avoid the shots that I had sent back through those portals at him, moving like they were going in slow motion.

Right, great, these guys could boost too. And they were clearly doing so. The first man tried again to yank my stuff out of my hands, and he would have managed it if I hadn’t been boosting as well. My foot lashed out to kick at him, but the man easily twisted aside before stepping in to backhand me. I took the blow on the side of my head, seeing stars as I staggered. In the background, I could feel the other guy running closer with some kind of blade of his own.

Worse, even as I managed to yank my staff back away from the grip of the man holding it, I felt the last of the boost give way. I was back to normal, or at least, what was normal to me. In the background of my mind I could feel Tabbris’s exhaustion from the effort of making me as fast and strong as possible for as long as she could. She had been getting so much better, but she was still a kid, and could only make it happen for a few seconds at a time. Still, she had absolutely saved my life in that moment. Throw it onto the pile of all the other times she had saved me.

But now she was exhausted, and I was standing there with two murderous Seosten coming at me from either side.

But like Sands had said, I had friends too. And they suddenly made themselves known. Behind me, as my head turned slightly at a sound, I caught a glimpse of the guys there being ambushed by Jazz and Gordon. His weapons were yanked away from him by a focused gravity ball, just before one of Gordon’s new light blue concussive energy blasts struck the Seosten himself. It didn’t do that much, barely staggering the man. But I knew that each consecutive hit would do more damage. Plus, every time he hit the guy, Gordon would be better able to predict his actions.

Gidget was there too, backing the other two up by pinning the guy down with a rapid series of shots from her hoverboard/weapons platform mode, before she switched back to her normal cougar/form and lunged at him.

Meanwhile, a shadow slid across the floor between me and the other Seosten, before Sands popped up, reforming with her hands raised.

“Hey,” she blurted, “why don’t you pick on someone your own size?!”

The man obliged, rearing back with his foot to kick at her with blinding speed, and enough force to have put a hole in a brick wall. But, as strong as he might have been, Sands was standing still, which meant that her invulnerability and immobility power had kicked in. The man’s foot landed right in the middle of the girl’s chest, and I heard a couple snaps as bones in his foot and ankle snapped from the force of it. Meanwhile, Sands herself stood completely motionless and unbothered.

As he recoiled with a grunt of pain, favoring that foot, I saw Roxa. The blonde girl was coming up from behind the man with her claws extended. He had no idea that she was there, since her own power rendered her completely undetectable by anything other than direct line of sight.

He did, however, know that Sands was there. And he was pretty ticked off at her. With a growl, the man snapped that laser sword out. And while she may have been pretty much invulnerable to physical impact while standing still, I wasn’t sure that extended to something like that laser sword.

Sands apparently felt the same way, because she suddenly moved with blinding speed of her own, boosting with the power she had taken from the Seosten that she had killed. Pivoting away from the incoming blade, she caught hold of the man’s extended arm with a grip that I knew was stronger than mine even at normal times, let alone now that she was boosting.

Unfortunately, holding the Seosten like that was apparently the wrong move. Because the moment that she did, his entire arm transformed into what looked like a literal tree branch, an instant before two smaller branches stabbed out of the side of that branch, piercing straight through Sands’ hands. The blood-covered, pointed ends immediately widened too much for Sands to yank free, even as the girl cried out. She had been moving, so she wasn’t invulnerable.

Worse, a larger branch, also pointed at the end, grew from the bottom of that arm-branch before stabbing upward toward the other girl’s chest.

But I was there. Or rather, Tabbris was. My partner had apparently recovered from her exhaustion enough to kick in the boost once more, and I was suddenly a blur of motion as my staff snapped out to cut that spear-like wooden ‘branch’ with the bladed end an instant before it would have stabbed through Sands. A second later, she managed to rip her injured hands free with a violently blurted curse.

Taking back control then, I snapped the bladed end of my staff up at the man’s face. I whiffed entirely of course, the man entirely too fast for a blow like that. His head jerked back instantly away from the blade, while a cocky smile grew across his face.

It was a smile that vanished an instant later, as Roxa got to him. My deliberate swing had put the man right in her path. With his head back like that, his neck was exposed. And Roxa grabbed onto that exposed neck with both of her hands. I saw her claws dig deep into the meat of his throat, tearing into his jugular and spraying blood everywhere. I could literally see the inside of the man’s throat as it was torn open like… like a banana having the peel torn off of it. A very bloody banana.

At the same time, Roxa opened her mouth to reveal enormous fangs as she bit into the back of his neck to do even more horrific damage. Her mouth tore through the man’s spinal cord in his neck, the bones shattering under her teeth while she used the claws buried into his torn open throat to push it back further into her mouth. A vicious, animal-like snarl rose from the girl, while her teeth tightened enough to finish completely breaking through the Seosten’s spine. Between her teeth buried in the back of the man’s neck and her claws embedded in the front of it, Roxa tore his head completely off.

The man died like that, and Roxa’s glowing aura popped up as she staggered with a sudden gasp of pleasure. Blood, bits of bone, and flesh coated her mouth and face, falling from her open mouth as she coughed and gave a little shudder.

A second later, I heard a scream of rage, and then a cry of pain. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see the other Seosten shove Jazz to the floor with a clearly broken arm. His eyes, full of rage and fury, were on Roxa and me.

He took a step our way, but Gordon was suddenly there, catching hold of the Seosten’s arm tightly. For his part, the enraged man blinked down, then snarled, “No possession defense?” His other hand snapped out to catch hold of Gordon before the boy could pull back. “That was a mistake.”

Wait, why wouldn’t Gordon have the possession defense o– My thoughts disappeared an instant later, along with the shouted warning that had been materializing on my lips. Because the Seosten briefly disappeared as he began to possess the boy… only to almost immediately reappear. But he reappeared wrong. Totally and completely wrong. I could see organs where there was supposed to be skin. His head was down near where his foot should have been, while teeth and shattered bones were scattered over his entire body, haphazardly sticking out of various bits of flesh. His pulsing heart was where his head had been, with one eye stuck in the middle of it, while his other eye was down around the middle of the body. One of his lungs was up atop a lump of flesh shaped into a hump on his back.

It got worse everywhere I looked. What had been a Seosten man was now just a disjointed monster with bits stuck here and there, his entire body turned inside out and swapped around randomly. And the worst part was, he was still alive, at least for a few seconds. I could see the mouth near the bottom of his contorted right leg open and clearly screaming silently for a few seconds before the entire miserable figure completely collapsed and lay still.

As Gordon’s forest-green aura glowed brightly, the rest of us stared at him open-mouthed in complete silence and shock for a moment. The realization of what had just happened, and why the boy had always refused to allow me to possess him, sank in then.

“You… you…” That was Sands, her eyes wide. “Dude. You’re… why didn’t you tell us you were a… a…”

“A hybrid?” the boy’s voice was flat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… want you to treat me any differently. I didn’t want to add to everything else going on, everything else you’re dealing with. I didn’t want to be another project.”

Before I could say anything to that, Haiden was suddenly there, along with the twins. They (mostly Haiden) had destroyed both of those tanks, and taken out several of the soldiers. But there are more (both soldiers and tanks) coming through several of the other open shuttlebay doors and making their way to us.

“We’ll talk about that later,” the man announced while helping Jazz to her feet. “Right now, there’s too many of these guys to deal with,” he announced. “They’re slowing us down too much. You need to get out of here. We’ll slow them down. You find the lab. Get into it anyway you can. When you get to the lab, use those badges that Athena gave you. Use those, and we’ll be able to teleport right to you.”

“But Dad,” Tristan started. Before he could continue however, Haiden caught his son and yanked him out of the way of an incoming shot from one of the newly arrived tank things. The shot obliterated part of the far wall, where I caught a glimpse of Larissa fighting the other Seosten.

“Go!” Haiden ordered. “Find your mother. I have to help Larissa, and you need to get out of here. Now go.” He punctuated that with a little push, nodding to both of his children. “Find your mom,” he repeated tersely. “You can do it, just get to her and summon the rest of us.”

The rest of us looked at one another for a brief second. I could see the fear and hesitation in Sands’ eyes. She wanted to stay and help her mother as much as the twins wanted to stay and help their father. And I could also see hesitation in Gordon’s eyes. Not because he didn’t want to help, but because he was afraid that we would treat him differently now that we knew the truth. And honestly, even though I had no plans to treat him differently, of course, I did want answers. I wanted to know how long he had known that he was a hybrid. I wanted to know who his parents were. I wanted…. I wanted to know a lot. 

But we also knew that Haiden was right. There wasn’t time for any of that. We had to get to Sariel. So, as one, we turned and ran past the remains of the tanks and soldiers, on our way through the open doors.

One of those rhino-tanks appeared in our path, blocking the way out. As its weapons began to come to life, I started to dive out of the way.

But there was no need. Without breaking stride, Vanessa lunged that way. In mid-leap, the girl transformed. Her body grew, expanding into a massive, fur-covered figure. The werebear. She was in her werebear form. With a pants-wetting roar, the normally quiet and studious girl smacked the tank out of the way, sending it tumbling end over end like a normal person hitting a crumpled up piece of paper. Then she just kept going like that, running on all fours without even glancing back.

With that, we were through the doors. And for the moment, we had left the last of our adult escorts behind. 

Leaving the ship and entering the tower that would lead us to Kushiel’s lab, we were officially… on our own.

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Hoc Est Bellum 34-04

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

I don’t think she’s very happy with the plan.

Tabbris’s observation in the back of my head over the ongoing ranting from the Seosten woman made me smile just a little bit. I knew that my, or rather, our current host couldn’t hear her unless the other girl would have wanted her to. Yeah, I replied, I’m kind of getting that impression too.

“They’re coming.” The announcement came from Larissa, who was standing near the door that we had come through. She turned to me then, asking, “Are you ready for this? You know what to do.”

Giving the body I was inhabiting a once-over, I checked the wound in her side. For a moment, I wondered why I hadn’t really felt any of her pain, before realizing that Tabbris had probably turned that off the second we jumped inside the woman. It wasn’t exactly shallow, but also clearly wasn’t life threatening. We’d be okay for the time being. If nothing else, it would make the next part look realistic.  

So, I gave Larissa a quick nod, adding a thumbs up. “Yup, all set.”

“Be careful, kid,” Apollo advised. “We’ll be right here, but… just be careful. Watch yourself.”

I knew what he was really saying. He was telling Tabbris and me to watch over each other, without acknowledging her existence in any way that would let anyone else know. So I gave him a thumbs up, while Tabbris used the other hand to give him another one. Two thumbs up. It was one of our signals that we’d worked out.

That was all we had time for. Larissa gave another look our way, before holding out a hand. I felt a bit of pressure against the Seosten woman’s body as Larissa lifted us up with some kind of telekinesis. A second later, we were suddenly sent flying through the air, out the open doorway, and down the corridor. I caught a brief glimpse of a lot of armed figures as we sailed a solid twenty feet before crashing to the ground, rolling end over end until we came to a dazed stop. Larissa really hadn’t held much, if anything back on that one.

“Lailah!” a voice shouted from nearby, and I blinked that way in time to see an achingly gorgeous guy with curled brown hair and the most adorable dimp- focus, Flick. The obvious Seosten man was standing there with a rifle in one hand, surrounded by more soldiers. A lot of soldiers. There were a few Seosten mixed in there, but most of them were other races. All of them were heavily armed, and they did not look happy.

Ishtien, Tabbris instantly supplied. She was quicker at looking through our host’s memories than I would have been, so there was no real delay between when I saw the man and when the name filled my head.

“Ishtien,” I made the woman’s mouth say while quickly pushing her up to her feet. “We’re under attack. They’re trying to crash the ship into the facility. We have to stop them.” It was tempting to shout or act panicked to sell it, but I had to remember that the woman I was possessing was a professional. She was a soldier who had been trusted to be the last line of defense within the reactor room, and someone like that wouldn’t just panic. So I kept her voice terse and clearly right on the edge of screaming, but still in control. It helped that being surrounded by all these guns put me pretty much in the same mindset that I was trying to portray.

“We noticed.” Ishtien’s voice was dry, right on the edge of humor as he gave us a brief look. “Who’s in there? How did they get access to the system? You were…” He paused then, and I could tell that the man was right on the edge of suspicion. I had to head that off at the pass. Luckily, I knew exactly what kind of answer to give him to do just that.

My mouth opened to say, ‘Apollo’, but instead, the word that came out was, “Lucifer!”

Sorry! Tabbris’s voice quickly put in. She would have said Lucifer, not Apollo.

She was right, of course. The real Lailah would’ve referred to him by his Seosten name, not the one he had taken on Earth. Quickly reminding her not to apologize for helping, I repeated aloud, “Lucifer. They have Lucifer. His power, he… he used it to make me–” Wincing with a show of what I hoped looked like shame, I made the woman’s hands touch the wound in her side.

Ishtien had filled in the blank by that point. Which was what I was going for. His mouth twisted a little. “He and Auriel together?”

I made Lailah nod. “She cut off our–” Tabbris quickly supplied the right word for the mind-meld. “–breven to stop me from warning you.” Reaching up, I grabbed his arm. “They mean to crash the ship into the facility and use it to destroy the security tower. We must stop them, now!”

Grimacing, the Seosten man barked an order at the soldiers surrounding him. “You heard her! Get in the room. Kill them all, go now! Get them away from the controls!”

They hopped to, rushing for the doors. As Ishtien turned his own attention that way, he put his back to me. As soon as he did that, my (or rather, Lailah’s) eyes narrowed, and I made her reach for the knife attached to her belt while focusing on the back of his neck.

Wait! The Seosten woman, who had been ranting angrily in the back of my mind, suddenly blurted. Her anger had vanished, turning into abrupt desperation, with palpable fear. Wait, please! Please, Ishtien is my friend. We grew up together. He is the only person I have left from my childhood. I–I won’t fight you. I won’t fight you. I will even allow you to kill me or imprison me. I will do anything you wish.  But please, please do not… do not kill him. There is a stun feature on the handle of the blade that will knock him out. I am begging you, human. Please do not kill my friend.

I could feel her terror, her certainty that I wouldn’t listen to her right alongside her total and complete desperation. If we had been face to face, I knew that I would have been able to see the tears in her eyes. She had been trying to seize control ever since I had possessed her. But with the knife already pulled and my focus on Ishtien’s neck, she had given up, choosing to play the last card she had left: begging. For a half second, I wondered how many of her hosts had begged her to stop whatever she was doing. And whether or not she had ever listened to them.

Lifting the woman’s hand, I flipped the button on the side of the knife, triggering the stun-prod on the hilt before smacking it into the back of the Seosten man’s neck. A jolt of purple electricity crackled across his skin, before the man collapsed to the ground with a cry that was abruptly cut off as he fell into a completely unconscious heap.

Ignoring the rush of gratitude from my host, I focused on the group of soldiers ahead of me. They hadn’t noticed their leader collapse to the floor quite yet. Mostly because they were all a bit busy, running headlong into Apollo and Larissa in their desperate attempt to get through the doorway and into that room so they could stop the ship from crashing. I could see glimpses of Larissa’s forcefield keeping them out, as well as bursts of flame from some unknown source.

It’s been a real blast, I informed Lailah, but this is where I get off. As she started to respond, I ignored her, stepping out of the body while metaphorically hitting the button that would leave her unconscious. As her body fell, I produced my staff before taking one more look at the backs of the assembled soldiers. There was a mix of younger Seosten and other Alters, of them so intent on getting into the room ahead of them that they had yet to actually notice me.

Time to change that. Gripping my staff, I took a running start, heading straight for the rear of the group. A tall (nine feet in height) musclebound figure with rock-like skin was there, taking aim with a rifle that looked like a miniature ship-mounted cannon. Larissa’s forcefield was good, but I wasn’t sure it was good enough to stand up to something like that for very long. So, he was definitely my first target.

“Hey, asshole!” I shouted over the sound of the battle. At my voice, the big guy abruptly spun back, surprise written over his gruff-looking face at the sight of both me and the two unconscious Seosten as his mouth opened to bellow a quick warning.

In that instant, I brought my staff up, triggering the charge it had been building up. At the same time, I thrust that end of the staff backward, straight into the tiny portal that I had just opened. The other end of that portal appeared directly behind the big guy’s head, and his cry of warning turned to one of pain as the blast from the newly-emerged staff struck him right there.

The force of the blow knocked the big guy’s head forward and down, even as it also launched me forward and up. I shut off the portal then, letting the full force of it propel me that way. Before the guy could recover from the blow to the back of his head, the bladed end of my staff was driven into his throat. Blood sprayed everywhere, even as my feet collided with his chest. An instant later, I kicked back away from his steadily collapsing body while yanking my staff out.

As I flipped backward, away from the falling figure, I felt the rush of pleasure from his death. But it was muted a bit, like I wasn’t really feeling the full effect of it, just enough to know it was there.

Did you do that? I quickly asked my partner while landing in a crouch with my staff in one hand.

Um. Y-yes? The response came a bit hesitantly. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but I thought it would help if you weren’t so distracted. So I um, I tried.

Grinning, I gave a slight inward nod. Keep it up, partner.

That was all I had time to say. Because as distracted as they might have been before, the rest of the small army that had assembled to attack the reactor room definitely knew I was there now. Half of them had come up short, spinning back to see the big guy collapse to the floor. I saw realization cross some of their faces, as they looked from the fallen Seosten, then to me and back again. They knew. They understood that they had been tricked. Their leaders were down, and now they were caught in the middle of the corridor between me and the other two, who had stopped playing so defensively now that the trap had been sprung. Larissa had been using little more than the forcefield to make them stay focused on her. But now that they knew I was behind them, she and Apollo were actually fighting back.

Larissa had wanted to be the one who did this part, the one who dealt with whoever the leader of the group that was sent down to deal with us was, because she wanted to be the one who was behind the Seosten while I stayed safe next to Apollo. But thanks to both Charmiene’s death and Tabbris’s expertise in using it, my possession-ability was stronger than hers. Which meant that Tabbris and I had been far more likely to able to keep control of whatever Seosten we ended up finding in that reactor room. So us doing it had just made sense. Which meant that me being the the one who ended up on the opposite side of whatever group showed up to stop us was pretty inevitable.

But it also meant that we were by ourselves, cut off from the other three and with a small army between us. At least… for the moment. There was a plan to change that much too, eventually.

A shout went up among the group, a warning cry. Then they broke apart. Some came for me, trying to deal with the threat that I presented to their rear, while the rest pushed on for the reactor, running headlong into the solid brick wall that was Larissa and Apollo.

As for me? Well, if these guys wanted to fight me so badly, I would absolutely oblige them.

Three of the soldiers stopped, their weapons coming up to take aim at me. One of the things that had been drilled into me over and over again throughout the month that I had spent at the Aelaestiam base was the ability to recognize what kind of weapons were being used at first glance. Athena had made me go through test after test, identifying the weapon and its capability with and without Tabbris’s help. And thanks to that, I immediately knew that two of the soldiers were using energy weapons, while the other held a slugthrower.

I had actually asked Athena once why the Seosten used a mixture of lasers and bullet weapons instead of focusing on the former, which would seem to be the more advanced and useful type. In response, she had explained that it was easier to put spells for various effects on bullets than it was to put them on lasers. Also, the Fomorian proclivity for making themselves and their creations immune to everything under the sun meant that it was a good idea to have a wide variety of options. It was the same reason that Heretics were so useful, really: variety and surprise was the key to beating the Fomorians. Having things that they hadn’t anticipated, and Heretics were really hard to anticipate.

As the soldiers took aim and fired, I kept right on going. I was ready for the lasers, absorbing their energy with a thought. Meanwhile, the bullet came right at my chest. Fortunately for me, Tabbris was on the job. One of the many little bits of cloth that the two of us had painstakingly spent hours enchanting instantly appeared right on my shirt. The so-called kevlar spell caught the metal slug’s momentum and slowed it down to almost nothing before it bounced off my chest as I kept running forward.

Two more steps, and I reached the nearest enemies, a guy with some kind of long metal pike and another with what amounted to a lightsaber.

That guy with the pike had reach on me, so I went for him first, baiting him into stabbing the thing right at me before quickly pivoting out of the way.

The strike came so close to hitting me as it passed that I could literally feel the blade and handle skim right through my shirt. Rather than doing the sensible thing and moving further away from it however, I let myself sink back just a little so that the handle actually did touch me just a bit. At the same time I curled my fingers a little.

Once more, my partner was right on top of things. We had gotten good enough through all of our training by that point that she interpreted my desires without me having to outright ask her. The instant my back felt that weapon, it was transported out of the enemy’s hands and into my own.

In that moment, Larissa’s telepathic voice in my head warned, Security field, get to a host! 

Right, the security field that would disintegrate anyone who wasn’t either cleared or possessing someone who was. Grimacing, I threw myself backward, colliding straight with one of the other soldiers as my item-sense let me know exactly where he was. As I crashed into the man, I literally crashed into him, possessing the guy even as we both went tumbling backward. 

Just before possessing my new (hopefully very brief) host, I had released both my own weapon, and the other guard’s pike. Before they could finish falling, I snapped both of his hands out to catch hold of them.  Holding each, I turned, hurling the pike across the hallway and into the chest of one of the guys who was trying to shoot me with a slugthrower. Again, I felt that muted sense of pleasure as Tabbris made sure that it wouldn’t overwhelm me.

On top of all that, the other girl had been constantly intercepting anything that was thrown at me. She used my item sense to keep track of where the nearest guns were pointed, and intercepted either bullets with more of those kevlar cloths, or lasers by switching on my energy-absorption. It was like having a copilot riding right alongside in my head to keep track of all that extra stuff that would have been too distracting for me to deal with. I was almost glad that my current state (possessing someone meant that my body wasn’t exactly physical, so she couldn’t do anything more with the enchanted cloths) would give her a little bit of a break, brief as it would be.

A second later, we passed through the field. I caught a glimpse of Larissa and Apollo in unwilling hosts of their own as a red light seemed to scan over all of us. It only took a moment, and seemed utterly inconsequential. But I knew that if any of the others had been here, or if we had been caught without a host, it would have been… bad. Very bad.

Dismissing my current host once the danger was past, I jumped right back out of him, letting the man fall unconscious behind me. By that point, the guy with the laser sword was there, bringing that glowing weapon straight for my neck. I brought my staff up to intercept it, and saw a brief grin cross the green-skinned man’s face.

Back at the base, we had established that my energy absorption power wouldn’t work very well on something like that laser sword. It could make the blade flicker somewhat, but then would be overloaded quickly and I would be just as damaged or even dead as any normal person a second later. I could only absorb so much at one time, and a blade tended to stay in one place long enough to overwhelm me. So, anything worse than a glancing blow, even with my energy absorption up, would be really bad news.

And this guy clearly knew that. He knew that his laser weapon would cut straight through my regular staff like butter, then keep right on going through me the exact same way.

Except it didn’t. Because I had a little trick up my sleeve. As the lightsaber neared my weapon, I focused on the energy that I had just absorbed a few seconds earlier from those lasers, along with what Tabbris had made us absorb. For a moment, a glowing green outline surrounded my staff, just as the lightsaber connected with it. The laser sword bounced off, and I caught a glimpse of that knowing grin turning into a look of shock and confusion just before I spun the staff around. With that glowing energy surrounding it, the shaft sliced right through the man’s own neck, severing his head from his body.

Yeah, that was one of my new tricks. Not only could I hold the energy that I absorbed for a bit longer than before, but with help from Apollo over this past week, I had also figured out how to surround myself (or my weapon, in this case) with that same energy. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was pretty damn useful. Case in point.

Unfortunately, as the beheaded guy fell, another figure appeared right where he had been. I barely had a flash of realization that he had actually been possessed before the Seosten’s fist collided with my face, knocking me back a step as a flash of pain exploded in my temple and nose.

The guy looked like he was barely older than me, maybe by a few years. I knew that wasn’t true, considering the way they aged. But still, he looked young. His long, black hair was fashioned into a tight ponytail, and he had these very pale green eyes that almost seemed white at first glance. The pupils were barely dark enough to stand out from the regular white of his eyes. If this had been a TV show, I would have taken that as a sign that the guy was blind. But he clearly wasn’t, considering the way he was focused on me, meeting my gaze. That, and I was pretty sure that blindness was something that the Seosten could and would probably fix.

He tried to follow up his first attack by snatching a dagger from his belt and driving it into my gut, but I had recovered from my surprise by that point, and managed to snap my staff up just in time to knock the blade aside with a grunt. This was followed instantly by bringing the other end of the staff up to block the subsequent punch from his other hand. But that was a feint, and his foot suddenly collided with my stomach in a blow that would have put me on the ground if I hadn’t had an increased strength and pain tolerance. As it was, I stumbled and he took quick advantage by lashing out with that knife once more. That time, I barely managed to turn aside from the more dangerous swipe, taking a cut across my shoulder and another around my bicep in rapid succession.

He was fast. Goddamn, he was so fucking fast. Even with my own slightly enhanced speed and more enhanced reflexes, I could barely try to keep up with him. The guy was clearly boosting. And he had the skill to back up that boost. It was crystal clear in that moment that surprise over my staff blocking his laser sword was the only reason I had been able to kill his host so quickly.

And speaking of that particular weapon, the man kicked his foot out and popped the handle up into his waiting hand before igniting it once more. Now he had a laser sword in one hand and a knife in the other. Fan-freaking-tastic.

Plus, not only could I not just count on my energy absorption to deal with the weapon, I also couldn’t throw up a portal to block it when he swung the thing at me. Not when it came at me lengthwise. Because while I had gotten much faster at creating the portals under pressure, we had also discovered a drawback to my small portals. While they would cut anything in half if it went through them and then the portal was shut off, the thing had to actually fit through the portal to begin with. Basically, it couldn’t be wider than the portal. It could be longer and just put the part of it that fit through, but if the object was wider than the portal, the entire thing simply passed through it as if there was nothing there. I didn’t know if it was a safety feature or what, but I couldn’t just cut something large by putting a small portal in front of it as it passed through. It would act like there was no portal at all.

So no way to instantly win just by putting a portal in front of the swinging blade. Which was going to be a bit of a pain considering how fast this guy was. Plus, there was the fact that if I focused too much on the energy blade itself, he’d sneak in a vicious stab with the regular knife. All in all, this was going to be somewhat tricky.

He danced in quickly then, the dagger in his left hand lashing out with a quick snap of his wrist, like the lunge of a snake toward my left side. I took a quick stutter step backwards, pivoting back and away on my right foot to avoid the longer reach of his energy blade as it cut through the air where my shoulder had just been. I could hear and feel the heat from the blade as it passed close to me.

With my right side to the man and his laser sword almost directly across my chest, he instantly began to snap his sword that way to cut me in half.

But (thankfully) I was faster than that. Ducking and pivoting simultaneously, I let his energy blade pass just over my back before popping up to lash out with a kick. He was kicking at me at the same time, and our legs collided in midair. I felt a flash of pain in my shin, but ignored it as much as I had ignored the cuts I’d already suffered, as well as that punch to the face. There would be time to assess injuries later. Hopefully.

The Seosten’s sword was swinging down from up high in on overhead blow. So I stepped in quickly, my staff snapping up and out to hit not the weapon itself, but the inside of his elbow in order to throw off his aim. My ultimate goal was to try to make him actually drop the sword, but I really wasn’t counting on that much. I would just settle for not being cut in half. Which was probably a pretty firm goal of almost everyone out there without something like a worm’s ability to survive that kind of thing, come to think of it.

As I stood in close to the man, my free hand suddenly snapped down seemingly of its own volition, catching hold of the man’s wrist with the knife that he’d been trying to shove into my stomach just then. Tabbris was still on top of things.

My thoughts focused on possessing the man to end this, but before I could gather myself for it, pain exploded in the front of my face once again. That time, rather than punching, the man had headbutted me, making me stagger backward and release him. Worse, I caught a brief glimpse of that glowing energy as he brought the sword spinning downward to put it through my back as I stumbled onto one knee.

A quick burst from my staff sent me into a sideways roll, right as the blade cut through the floor where I had just been. The Seosten man tried to follow up by coming after me before I could rise, but the roll had put me right where I wanted to be: next to one of the fallen soldiers. My foot kicked out, catching hold of the butt of the dead man’s laser rifle. A quick thought took it from my foot to my hands, and I fired a trio of shots at the incoming Seosten. He ducked and pivoted out of the way, moving too quick for the shots to hit him, just as I had expected.

But it bought me time and distance for what I needed to do. Which, in this case, was to point the weapon at myself and pull the trigger several times as quickly as I could. As the lasers struck me, I absorbed their energy, channeling it into my weapon while popping back to my feet. The staff began to glow once more, and I lunged at the man just in time to intercept his swinging blade with it. Now, I had a few seconds where I could actually block his weapon with mine. The fight was slightly less unfair. Slightly.

What followed was a rapid series of blocks and counters that even I couldn’t completely follow correctly. We were both attacking and countering so fast that a normal person wouldn’t have been able to follow it. Our weapons spun and collided, bouncing off each other as we both pressed for an advantage that simply wasn’t there. Spin, parry, stab, block, duck, everything was moving in fast forward. And neither of us were giving any ground at all. This guy was really good.

On the plus side, my enhanced stamina meant that I wasn’t even the least bit winded by all of this. I was pretty sure that, if it came down to it, I could beat the guy just by outlasting him. He would get tired before I did, and he would make a mistake before I did. I just had to hold on until he did.

As we broke away from each other that time, the man kept his energy blade in front of him while staring at me. He was panting a little bit, but there was also something else to his expression: a smile. He looked happy about our exchange, happy that he hadn’t already killed me.

“You,” the Seosten started, “would make a most worthy vessel to put against the Fomorians. Abandon this foolishness, and come to fight the true threat. We could do amazing work together. There is no need for us to be enemies.”

I coughed, keeping my weapon up just in case. “Yeah,” I retorted, “sorry but I don’t really see the people who enslave entire races as the good guys. I’m pretty sure you’re both complete dicks.”

“You have a simplistic view of the situation,” the guy snapped back at me. “But with any luck, you will—”

He stopped suddenly glancing down at something on his wrist before looking back up again. His voice was flat. “This will be continued,” he promised me. “I truly hope that you survive.”

Before I could ask what that was supposed to mean, the guy disappeared right in front of my eyes. Actually, they were all disappearing. All around me, the soldiers, conscious or unconscious, or even dead, were disappearing. I was left there in the corridor with just Apollo and Larissa.

“It worked?” I blurted, looking around while catching my breath.

Larissa nodded. “We stalled them long enough. The ship’s computer detected the imminent collision and destruction, so it initiated their lifepod system.”

The lifepod system. Basically, if the computer of the ship knew that it was about to be destroyed, it would take every registered being on it and teleport them to the nearest safe location. At this point, the ship was empty except for us.

“How soon until we, you know, collide?” I asked. “And I thought they’d be more alarms than this.”

“I disabled them.” That was Athena, stepping out of the other room. “And collision is imminent.” She looked toward Apollo with a gesture. “It’s time.”

The man nodded at that, pulling something from his pocket. It looked like a small metal stick with runes inscribed along it. “All right,” he replied, “everyone get in close.”

We did, getting close to him as he triggered the spell he had put on the stick. A second later, we were standing somewhere else. Well, we hadn’t really gone anywhere, technically. The place we were, which looked just like a simple white room, was just a pocket dimension located within the stick that Apollo had been holding. The stick which was still back in that ship, while it was colliding with the facility on the moon and the energy from that reactor was exploding into a wave that would destroy the protective spell that had been over it to prevent anyone from teleporting down there. We were here so that we didn’t have to sit through all that, which would have been a bit…well, dangerous, to say the least.

“Sorry,” I started then, while taking the chance to collect myself and breathe for a moment. “Sorry I wasn’t more help back there. You guys had to deal with most of them.”

The three of them looked at each other, and then Larissa’s hand was on my shoulder. “You both did extremely well,” she assured us. “You kept up remarkably.”

Apollo nodded at that while giving me a charming smile. “Trust me, kid, you fighting a full Seosten soldier to what amounted to a standstill, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” He paused then, before winking at me. “Even if he was blind.”

My mouth fell open at that, and I blurted, “He was? I mean, I thought he might be, but I dismissed it because he was fighting so well. And he seemed to look right at me. Plus, you know, I figured if there was any kind of blindness, you guys could fix it. I mean, not you guys, the Seosten.”

“In most cases,” Athena informed me, “they could. What your opponent back there possesses is a very rare genetic mutation, which allows them to see, as we do, only through the eyes of a host. It was borne of experimentation when our scientists were working on ways to prevent so many lost pregnancies.”

“So he was born blind,” I noted. “But still, couldn’t they just fix that?”

It was Apollo who answered. “They may be blind as far as you or I are concerned. But their condition allows them to see energy. They see heat, they see magical energy, electricity, things like that. They see a lot of things beyond normal sight. Hell, they can even see sound waves and concussive force in the air. So while it could be fixed, some of them choose to keep it that way, and learn to use their version of sight.”

Staring that way for a moment, I flailed. “No wonder that fight was such a pain in the ass,” I blurted out loud, my voice a high squeak, “that guy was fucking Daredevil! I deserve points for fighting fucking Daredevil!”

“And yet,” Athena pointed out then, “You didn’t simply survive your encounter, you actually performed quite admirably against him.”

“You did,” Larissa confirmed. “I was keeping an eye on you, just in case I needed to step in. But you held your own. Very impressive.”

Smiling despite myself at that while a slight blush crossed my face, I tapped the side of my head with one finger. “Couldn’t do it without my partner.”

As I felt Tabbris’s embarrassment and delight, Athena gestured. “That’s long enough, it’s time to go back before they manage to recover.”

Apollo obliged. With a wave of his hand, he disabled the spell. An instant later, we were back in the same corridor we had been in before. But things had changed. The place looked half destroyed. There were dark scorch marks everywhere, along with large, jagged holes in the walls and floor that left exposed wires and pipes that all crackled occasionally with random spurts of power. Electricity sparked in the air from some of those exposed wires, and I saw several fires. There was different colored smoke everywhere, and part of the corridor was bent in the wrong direction. All in all, this place looked pretty badly damaged. And I was sure that the rest of the ship was in just as bad of shape. After all, the thing had just collided with a moon before the reactor exploded. The ship was ruined. And I had to think that it had probably done a pretty bad number on the ground itself.

I was glad that the ship’s crew had been teleported off before the impact. I didn’t want to be even partly responsible for that many horrible deaths like that, even if they were our enemies.

“Call down the others,” Athena instructed. “It’s time for the next step.”

Right, now that the protective spell was down, the rest of our little group could join us. With a nod, I touch the communication plan that I had been provided with. “Okay guys,” I announced, “we’re ready for you down here.”

Well, the others clearly hadn’t been asleep while they waited for us. Almost the exact moment that I had finished saying that, a glowing portal appeared right across from us. A second later, Haiden emerged with his weapon rest. He was joined quickly by Vanessa, Tristan, Jazz, Gordon, and Sands. They all came ready for a fight, relaxing marginally only when they saw that there were no immediate threats.

“Mom!” Showing just how worried she had been while she was stuck back on the other ship, Sands ran directly to her mother, embracing the woman tightly.

With a smile, Larissa returned the embrace, before nodding to everyone else. “All right,” she started quietly. “Looks like we’re all here.”

Roxa, with Gidget ready and alert at her side, spoke up. “I don’t know what that looked like from your guys’ end, but it was pretty fucking crazy from ours. They had a bunch of ships going and trying to stop this one. They must’ve blown half the ship off trying to knock it off course or destroy it. But nothing worked. They couldn’t blow it up in time.” A dark, feral smile appeared then. “Probably what they get for making the thing so tough to begin with.”

Tristan’s head bobbed up and down quickly as he stood there with Bobbi-Bobbi and her cannon form attached to his arm. “Yeah,” he agreed, “then it hit that tower just outside the main lab and just…” Throwing his hands (One of them covered by that enormous cannon) up and out, he made an explosion noise. “It was pretty damn cool.”

“It will also have attracted a lot of attention,” Athena pointed out. “We need to move quickly now, before Kushiel’s forces—”

“I truly don’t think-“ a new, yet familiar voice spoke up then, “—that it is Kushiel whom you should be worried about.”

Radueriel. The Seosten inventor was there at the broken entrance of the corridor. All around him were uniformed and armed soldiers. Each stood at attention in the way that made it clear that he was using his connection to them. They were all under his control. And all of them were pointing their weapons at us.

Before any of us could move, there was the sound of ripping, tearing metal. We spun back the other way, just as part of the wall behind us was being ripped off. There stood another collection of soldiers, including the giant troll that had just ripped the wall open. We were surrounded.

Then it got worse. That huge troll shapeshifted right in front of our eyes. Shrinking somewhat (but not too much) the thing took the form of a still very large, handsome man. The guy looked like a bodybuilder’s wet dream. He was a huge slab of beef, with muscles growing on muscles. He was what Conan the barbarian wished he could be. Hell, the guy looked like he could dribble Conan. He pretty much defined beefcake.

“Abaddon,” Athena spat the name while glaring that way.

Shit, right. Abaddon. Or, as we knew him on Earth, Ares. She’d told me about him. His ability allowed him to essentially take the shape and form of any previous host he’d had. He could even take on their powers that way. Anytime a form he was using was killed, he lost access to it permanently, or at least until he possessed them again. But it meant that you had to kill every single form that he had access to before killing the man himself would take. Hell, even if you killed him in his normal Seosten form, he’d just lose access to it for a time and have to take another shape until it regenerated.

Basically, Ares was a giant pain in the ass, and the fact that you had to kill him so many times before it actually ‘took’ was why he’d built up a reputation for recklessness. But, reckless as he was, the man was still incredibly dangerous. There was a reason he was known as a war god.

And now, we were caught between him and Radueriel, along with an army on both sides.

“As I said,” Radueriel smoothly announced while the soldiers around him all readied their weapons, the hum of their growing energy audible, “it is not Kushiel with whom you should be concerned right now. You should find yourselves quite busy with us.”

Apollo replied with a little shrug, “I don’t know. Two Olympians versus two Olympians and their assorted friends? Seems like this shouldn’t take too long at all.”

A chuckle came from Ares then. The big guy lifted his chin. “Who said we only brought two?”

With those words, a half dozen of the soldiers around us straightened up and a glowing figure appeared beside each of them. More Seosten.

“They may not have been bridge crew,” Radueriel noted, “but they were very much members of the Olympus. And they were also close friends of our dearly departed Charmiene. Which means that they are very much interested in having a discussion…” His hand rose then to point directly at me.

“With her.”

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter