Lincoln Chambers

Before The Vault 41-01

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When I had first come to Crossroads, I had thought that I had no actual connection to it. Hell, I thought that I had no real family aside from my father, and that my mother had abandoned us to gallivant off with some new boyfriend.

Then again, I’d also thought that magic and monsters didn’t exist, and I’d been equally completely wrong on every account. I had so many connections to this world. My mother had been a student and then the leader of a rebellion against their genocidal ways. My older brother was a security guard at the school, while my niece was one of my classmates. My older sister had become one of the Heretics at Eden’s Garden. Not to mention my adopted little sister, who had been possessing me for years, and the family that she connected me too.

The point was, I had a hell of a connection to Crossroads and to the Heretic world at large. And now there was this. My grandmother, unbeknownst to almost anyone else in the world, was Virginia Dare. I was literally related to the first English colonist born on the American continent.

Yeah, it cleared a lot of things up. It helped explain how Mom was so important, for one thing. Look at her pedigree. She’d come from the descendent of one of King Arthur’s knights, and from Virginia Dare.

Over the year I’d heard that how effective Heretics were at gaining power, how much we gained from each kill and how useful it was, or even how easily we could become Heretics to begin with, was often affected by our bloodline. Having strong Heretics in your background often made for an easier transition and stronger powers. Not always, and there were exceptions, but it helped.

If that was the case, then no wonder Mom was so strong. She had an incredible family background.

“Eeeeaaarth to Flick. Come in, Flick.”

Startled by the words, I snapped out of my thoughts and focused on my current situation.

I was by the lake at the Atherby camp. Nearby was Brom Bones, the headless man working again to teach me to use my budding necromantic abilities.

It was Saturday, May 12th. A week had passed since that day, the day that should have been meant for family and in the end… Well, I guess it had been for family throughout. It was a Family Day no one would forget, that was for sure.

I still wasn’t being blamed for what had happened, and I couldn’t begin to say how grateful I was for that. And yet, that same gratefulness was tempered heavily by grief and regret. People had died. People died because Mom killed them, even if she had only done so at the orders of Fossor. She was magically bound to obey him, and she had only allowed that to happen because she was protecting me.

So yeah, while I wasn’t being blamed officially for what happened, I was doing an awful lot of blaming myself for at least part of it. But hey, at least Ruthers and his people weren’t using it as an excuse to expel me or anything. That would’ve been pretty hard to work through, considering their idea of expulsion was to wipe my memory and erase my powers.

Now I shook my head. “Sorry, Brom. I guess I’m a little distracted.”

The man’s head, sitting on that little stand of his, gave me a slight smile. “I bet you are. Kind of been through a lot, huh?”

He had no fucking idea. Managing a weak chuckle, I replied, “You could say that. And it doesn’t help that these necromancer powers were pretty useless when Fossor showed up.”

Brom nodded past me, where his body was. A second later, I felt his hand swat me upside the back of the head. “Don’t be an idiot,” the head firmly instructed. “He’s been working on his power for thousands of years. You’ve been a necromancer for about five minutes. Of course you’re not strong enough to do a damn thing to him. But you’ll get there. Maybe you’ll never be strong enough with it to take him in a one-on-one duel. But we’ll get you to the point where you can make some things happen. It’s another bullet in your gun. But you’ve got to practice with it. Not just complain because you’re not perfect right from the start.”

Flushing a little, I nodded while rubbing the back of my head. “Okay, okay, I deserved that. I get it. Practice makes perfect, or at least slightly less terrible. I’m working on it, I promise. Trust me, I want to get this right.”

With that in mind, we kept practicing for a while until our session was interrupted by Tabbris. The little blonde girl came jogging up along the side of the lake, skidding to a stop. Her eyes found mine. “Daddy wants to know if you’re going to stay for lunch.”

For a second, I just looked at the girl. She was doing better now, a week after the event. But on that day, once everything had come out (well, everything she could know), my little sister had felt paralyzed by guilt. The fact that she had been having fun with our father rather than being with me when I, not to mention the rest of her family, needed help, had tormented her. It’d taken me (and the others) a long time to talk her around. She wasn’t responsible for every little bad thing that happened, just because she wasn’t there at the time. It just… took a bit to convince her of that.

At least it was a learning experience. We wouldn’t be relying on just a phone for communication in that kind of emergency. Sariel was teaching us some spells that would help. Even that wasn’t foolproof, of course. But having back-up plans was clearly important. Even if it, again, would take awhile to learn.

“Sure,” I replied, “lunch sounds pretty good, if uhh…” I trailed off, glancing to the nearby head.

“Oh, go on.” Brom used his eyes to gesture, even as his body did the same with his actual hands. “We’ve done enough for now, and you need to refuel anyway.”

Thanking the man for the lesson, and promising to be back soon for another, I headed off with my little sister. As we walked together, I asked, “How’re the volunteers doing with their practice?”

She coughed a bit. “Better now than the first day. They’re learning how to share and… you know, work together.” Pausing, the girl murmured, “It’s pretty new for all of them.”

“Do you think they’ll be ready before the trip next week?” As I asked the question, I thought about what we were actually doing. The trip to Washington was when we would be going for the vault. Dries and the others would be back by then. They were supposed to be here today, actually. There had been some kind of delay with the transport that kept it down a bit longer. But they had worked it out. At least they’d been able to send messages so we weren’t totally lost about what was going on.

In any case, they would be back by the time the trip happened. So we would have help getting into that vault, and past any surprises the Seosten put in our way. And I had no doubt there would be plenty of those. They weren’t just going to give up and roll over because we had both Avalon and Tangle. They would put an army between us and that vault if they had to.

Which was why we would be going in with an army of our own. We weren’t leaving anything to chance. Not only would we have our team along with anyone else involved, like the Moons, Koren, Miranda, and so on, we were also preparing our volunteers. Those were Atherby camp people who agreed to have some of the freed Seosten possess them. The former prisoners were going to be hiding that way, not only providing tips and other information about fighting their own people when the time came, but also ambushing them using their own tactics. If the enemy thought they were facing ten opponents, it would actually be twenty.

But for that to work, we had to get the Atherby people and the Seosten on the same page. Thus this couple-week course in working together. Tabbris was helping her mother teach that, which I really thought was helping both of them bond and spent time with each other.

My question made the other girl hesitate a little before giving a slight nod. “I think so. I hope so. It’s a lot to get used to, but they’re trying.”

We reached Dad’s cabin then, and I nudged her. “I bet you’re teaching them a lot, Miss Expert.”

I was rewarded with a deep blush from the girl, who stammered “I’m just helping Mama.”

Grinning at that reaction, I teased, “Helping an awful lot from what I hear. Vanessa and Tristan said those guys would need a couple months to be ready if it wasn’t for you.”

The blushing, embarrassed girl was spared having to answer as the cabin door opened and Dad stepped out. “There’s my girls,” he announced before stepping down to embrace me.

Once that was done, he leaned back with a smile. “So, I was thinking we could go out for lunch. Get to some small town somewhere and find a little restaurant. Just the three of us, what do you think?”

My own smile matched his. “That sounds good, but how do we get there, exactly? Did you already bribe Berlin?”

Dad chuckled. “I guess you do know me too well. Yes, he’s waiting inside, if we want to go. He’ll give us an hour or so there and then pick us up.”

Glancing toward Tabbris until the girl gave a quick, eager nod, I then turned back to Dad. “Well, what are we waiting for?

“Let’s go eat, I’m starving.”

******

“You weren’t a teacher when Mom went here,” I announced later that day while Professor Dare, Koren, and I were sitting in her otherwise empty classroom. It was a private and quiet place to have a conversation. We had been having a lot of those over the past week, as Koren and I came to terms with the truth along with the fact that we had to keep it from everyone else, for the sake of the world.

Dare shook her head. “No, I… I didn’t trust myself to be around my daughter like that. Her finding out about me and retaining that information… it would have destroyed the spell.”

Koren spoke up. “But we found out, and we remember. I mean, the spell was hurt, sure. But it didn’t break.“

“It was still a risk,” the woman reminded us, “and the spell was more unstable back then. It hadn’t had time to settle in properly. Disturbing it with something as large as my daughter finding out about me? That would have broken it. I couldn’t let that happen, not after Joshua…” Her voice cracked a little bit and she looked away briefly. “No matter how much I wanted to be with our daughter, I couldn’t let Joshua’s sacrifice be for nothing. I couldn’t risk that.“

“That must’ve been really hard,” I murmured. “All of it must’ve been really hard, actually. You didn’t go to her when she started this whole rebellion thing either. You had to sit there and watch her fight. You had to sit there and watch everything they did.”

Dare’s eyes closed. “That’s why I had to be there for you. Even if you didn’t know who I was, I had to be the one to bring you into this world. I had to be the one to start teaching you about it. I just… I just wanted to be involved. It was a risk, and I knew that. I probably shouldn’t have done it. But I couldn’t let bad things happen to you too. I knew they would happen. But I had to try to help.”

She looked to Koren then. “I am so sorry about what happened to your father. I would have done anything to change it. I had no idea there was a Fomorian that close to you.”

Koren, for her part, swallowed hard. Her eyes were damp as she blinked a few times to clear them. “It’s… it’s not like you haven’t lost people too. The Fomorians just fucking suck.”

“That is a succinct way of putting it,” Dare confirmed.

“Lots of people suck,” Koren added. “Especially Fossor.”

There was a brief moment of silence, as the three of us looked at one another. We were obviously all thinking about the same thing. Or the same person, rather. I was the first to find my voice. “We’re sorry. Sorry we couldn’t stop Ammon before… before you had to…”

“Don’t.” Dare held up a hand. “Don’t say that. Don’t think it. I was in a rush to get to you. I knew you were in danger, but not exactly what the danger was. I let myself end up there… and then I had to deal with the situation. If there had been another way, if I could have stopped him and still saved him…”

“Fossor broke him,” I insisted. “He broke and killed the boy that Ammon was a long time before we ever knew about him.”

“Yes,” Dare replied, “that’s something you need to remember as well, Felicity. The Ammon you knew was a monster who deserved and needed to be put down. Regardless of how he got to that point. Remember what Avalon told you. Don’t let that guilt you feel about not ‘fixing’ him blind you to the fact that his death is a good thing. He…” She trailed off them, shaking her head firmly. “I’m sorry, you don’t need to hear that. It’s done with. It’s just… been quite awhile since I had anyone other than Gaia who knew the whole truth.”

“Is that the real reason why you’re hesitant about this thing with Hisao?” I asked. “Because he can’t know the full truth about you?” I knew that had to be hard. Keeping a big part of herself like that secret from a man that she clearly cared that much about was probably pretty awful. I felt bad enough about lying to Avalon and Shiori about the whole Jophiel situation.

“Yes,” she confirmed softly, with a sigh. “I can’t risk that, not even with him. You saw what happened. Everyone saw what happened.”

It was true. The colors in the sky, the weird organ cloud things, the shaking, it had been all over the place. Everyone had felt and seen it, though humans only remembered it as a series of earthquakes all over the world.

It was a big enough deal that Crossroads had decided that it had something to do with the rope being stolen. They thought whoever had taken it was using it for some kind of ritual, which had started with… all that.

I almost wanted to tell them that those two things were only tangentially related, but oh well. Either way, it had them up in a tizzy. There were Heretic teams scouring the Earth for that rope, along with any sign of whoever had taken it. I really didn’t want to be anyone who happened to get in their way, given the enormous freak out they were having about it.

I also still really hoped that the rumors about Eden’s Garden having something to do with it didn’t gain any more traction. Because again, that kind of conflict was something none of us needed to deal with. And I had to wonder how much of that might have been stoked by Seosten spies, who probably wouldn’t mind having an excuse for powerful Heretics from both places to go missing.

Koren spoke up. “Keeping this secret from Mom, that’s hard enough. I mean, I know why we have to, and I will. But still, I can’t imagine keeping a secret for that long. Staying away from your own daughter, leaving all your friends and other people you care about? That must’ve been awful.”

“It does explain one thing though,” I realized. “You were the one who had Lyell Atherby’s journal, weren’t you? You put it in the library where we would find it. You wanted us to learn about him, wanted to… start us on that.”

Dare bowed her head slightly in acknowledgment. “I did want to give you a little bit of a boost, yes. And I also wanted to give you girls a chance to look into it together. I didn’t know if it would be enough, but I thought a slight nudge might help.”

Well, that was one mystery of the year solved. No wonder we had just happened to pick up a book with all that stuff about Lyell in it. Hell, she was the one who had assigned us the project that led to that to begin with. Now that I thought about it that way, it was pretty obvious.

“You’ve been helping as much as you could all year,” I murmured aloud. “You’ve been doing everything you could without risking the spell. Hell, even Wyatt being here…”

“I asked Gaia to bring him in,” Dare confirmed. “With you and Koren both here… I thought it was time. Even if I couldn’t be there for you the way that I wanted to, I wanted you all to be able to be there for each other. She agreed.”

Koren raised a hand. “I have a question. How did Deveron get assigned it to be their team mentor? I mean you and Gaia didn’t know who he was at that point, right?”

Dare chuckled softly. “That was actually Percival. He asked Gaia to assign the boy to that team. We thought Deveron was playing spy for him, but it was better than someone who might have been spying for Ruthers.”

The woman glanced to the phone on her desk then before clearing her throat. “Are you girls ready to meet the others? It’s time.”

Right. Time for Athena, Apollo, and the rest to show up. Which meant it was time for Avalon to meet Dries. And that would be… interesting.

Koren and I stood together. “Sure,” I replied.

“It’s been a few days since the last reunion, I guess we’re overdue for another one.”

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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. 

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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.

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Family Day 40-01

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“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.”

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Day After Day 39-04

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“So you were a normal human and that… witch, or whatever she was, turned you into… uhh, this?” I asked a minute later (after I’d given the head back) as my new necromancy teacher led me to a secluded part of the woods adjacent to the lake, opposite the camp itself. There was a narrow little trail that wound its way in about fifty yards or so deep, and we moved along that together. I was holding Herbie up in one hand, having enchanted him to give off light (clearly turning his inner heroic glow into something literal) so that we could both see properly as we moved away from the camp lights.

The Headless–err, Abraha–wait, he said he preferred Brom. Brom Bones held his head up with both hands, tilting it up and down a few times. Belatedly, I realized that was his version of a nod. “Ayup,” he confirmed, tucking his head under one arm while using the other to point at me. “So do me a favor, you ever find a witch calling herself Katrina, run the other way. She’s scary as hell, and I don’t want you to have to deal with her. Those blood rituals of hers…” He shuddered and grimaced, which was an odd thing to see given how far his face was from his shoulders.

“Sure,” I easily replied, “I don’t really see the need to run out and find another enemy. I’ve got plenty as it is. But um, didn’t you say that Katrina wasn’t her real name? So… unless she’s using the same pseudonym again…” Giving a helpless shrug, I added, “Any description?”

Brom’s head shook, and he sighed. “That’s the thing. It’s been a long time, but she did turn me into this, and that’s not really the kind of person you forget. But you know, for some reason every time I try to remember what she looked like or any kind of specifics, it’s just… blank. I think about her face and there’s nothing. I think about what color her hair was and nothing.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like some kind of powerful memory spell,” I mused thoughtfully. “Can’t Enguerrand help with that? Or, if he can’t, I bet Sariel could if you asked her to.”

A rueful smile crossed the man’s face then, illuminated by the glowing Herbie. “It’d be nice,  yeah. Unfortunately, whatever the witch did to turn me into this dashing figure that you see before you also made me immune to any kind of possession, including the Seosten variety.”

Okay, that made me do a double-take, openly staring at the man briefly as I came to a stop on that narrow trail. “Okay, so this witch did a ritual that made you, among other things, immune to Seosten possession? Even though you were just a normal human before? She just made you immune, just like that. What the hell kind of witch is this and why isn’t she on our side, exactly?”

“Pretty sure she’s only on her own side,” the headless (or head relocated) man replied simply. “If she’s even still alive. I’d bet on it, given what I saw, but… who knows.” He shrugged before letting out another sigh. “And before you ask, I don’t know what she did to me exactly or how it worked. All I know is it made me immune to a lot of things, including the Seosten possession.”

By that point, we had reached the end of the short trail. It had brought us to a small clearing, about fifteen feet or so across. There was a cement bird bath in the center of the clearing, and I could see a couple paper grocery bags sitting next to it, along with a couple bottles of water and a six pack of beer. A shovel had been left at the opposite end of the clearing from the entrance.

“So how did you go from magic-altered servant for a dark witch to teaching a high schooler how to use necromancy?” I asked, giving the clearing a curious once-over. “And that sounds a lot darker when I say it out loud. I mean, how’d you get free of her control? And learn the necromancy thing. Was that the kind of stuff she had you do for her or something?”

He gave a light chuckle at that. “Yeah, I uhh, the learning bit was accidental at first. My assigned duty, my… reason for existing was just to protect my mistress or do odd jobs here or there. Scare townspeople, pick up supplies, guard prisoners or test subjects, that kind of thing.” Turning his head toward me, he winked. “Of course, the picking up supplies bit was easier once Katrina made my first special suit that let me keep my head where it belongs. Like a leather turtleneck with this wood and metal contraption that held it in place. Uncomfortable, let me tell you. But a good bit less uncomfortable than being chased around by people with torches.”

“You mean the Bystander Effect didn’t make them immediately forget there was anything different about you?” I asked while walking over to look at the birdbath. It was empty, save for a fair bit of red stain all around the inside that I was pretty sure had to be the remnants of blood.  

He moved to stand next to the thing as well, bending to pull off one of the beers. “BS Effect used to be a lot weaker than it is now. Even just a couple hundred years ago. Sure, they’d forget what they saw was ‘real’ fairly soon, but right at the time, they could react pretty badly. Especially depending on the specific person. Plus, there were Heretics to worry about, both of the Natural and Bosch variety.” He popped the can open. “You might’ve noticed that I don’t set off your special sense. Mostly because I’m not actually an Alter, just a… uhh, altered human. Anyway, point is, I don’t set off the sense for Bosch Heretics, but it’s not hard to look at a man carrying around his head and think something’s a bit dodgy about the whole situation, you see?”

I started to say something else to that, but then the man held his head up with one hand while using the other to bring the can to his lips, and I was suddenly incredibly distracted. Staring as he took a big gulp from the beer, my eyes reflexively looked toward the opening at the bottom of his neck. I waited… and nothing came out. “Errr, how do you–wait, why doesn’t it–wait. Huh?”

Chuckling, Brom took another long gulp of his drink. Now it looked like he was showing off, teasing me when the liquid still didn’t appear. “You like that little magic trick? Yeah, my throat’s uhh, let’s just say it’s basically magically connected somehow. What I eat or drink ends up in my stomach regardless. It goes from here to here.” As he spoke, the man first lifted his head, then gestured to the rest of his body. “I’m not exactly sure on the particulars in between.”

“That’s, umm… wow.” Watching the man put the can to his lips to drink while literally holding his head in the other hand was simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. I couldn’t look away. “Yeah, quite some magic trick. I guess it makes sense, your body needs fuel. Plus, if you’re talking, the air would have to… unless it’s just sort of…  I just wasn’t… yeah.” Shrugging helplessly, I forced myself to focus on something else. “You said learning necromancy for you started as an accident because you were just an errand boy and guard?”

Using one hand to move his head up and down in his approximation of a nod, Brom replied, “Yup. When I wasn’t given a task to do, I was just supposed to stand or sit in the corner and wait. I ended up watching a lot of the rituals she did around that time. I think she figured I was a lot dumber than I was. Not that I’m exactly a genius or anything, but you let me watch enough of your magic and I’ll pick some of it up. It was interesting, and… well, part of me wanted to understand what she did to me. So I paid attention. I stayed quiet and watched. And whenever she left me alone wherever we were at the time without specific instructions, I read. I’m not sure she knew that I could read. But I could, and I did. I picked up books from the shelf and read everything I could get my hands on. Turned out the necromancy stuff really appealed to me. And not just because it was evil or whatever. It was just… you know, fascinating. I uhh, I suppose part of it was that with everything she did to me, I’m basically immortal. Haven’t met anything yet that can put me down and make me stay down. Hell, my body parts were scattered across the country once. Took me forever to find them and pull myself together. But I managed it. Another time I was basically reduced to just one of my hands. Everything grew back. Even my head.”

“Holy shit,” I managed then, eyes wide as I stared at him. “I say again, what the hell kind of ritual did she do to turn you into this?”

“I know, right?” The man gestured vaguely. “So yeah, pretty much impossible for me to die. Which made me interested in death and the magic surrounding it. I read all the books I could, practiced the symbols they showed whenever she sent me on missions. I’d draw them in the dirt, or on my hand or wherever. Always rubbed them out, of course. Didn’t want her knowing how much I was picking up because I figured she’d put a real quick stop to it.”

As he spoke, Brom reached into that long coat with his free hand. It must have been magic, because he pulled out one of those black stand things that people put sheet music or books on, with the long pole attached to the flat surface with the lip. In this case, however, the lip part was larger, and curved. It was just the right size and shape for…

Yup. He put his head down on the stand, balancing it carefully before giving me a thumbs up. “Perfect. Anyway, she found out, of course. But she wasn’t angry about it. Actually, she was intrigued. Said she wanted to know if I could actually do it. So, she uhh, taught me some. Yeah, I was surprised too. She made me practice it, said she wanted me to be able to do more than run simple errands and that if I could pull off actual magic, she’d have better ways of using me.”

“Well, she’s practical, at least,” I muttered. “And she must’ve been a pretty good teacher, if you learned enough to impress Gabriel.”    

Pausing for a moment as though thinking back to those times, the man finally grimaced and replied, “Let’s just say she was effective if not exactly nice about it. Very tough to impress, but I did learn a lot. And necromancy-practice was better than squishing people’s heads until they popped, or whatever other ways she’d have me terrorize and destroy her enemies.”

“Uhhh…” I coughed. “Yeah, I guess I can see why you’d like the learning part more. But um… what about how you escaped? I mean, you’re all intact and everything, so why aren’t you still working for her? You said you weren’t even sure if she’s still alive. What happened?” Yeah, he was supposed to be teaching me about this new power, but I couldn’t contain my curiosity.

Patting his own head, Brom replied, “It was actually that thing I mentioned before, the bit about being  almost completely disintegrated and coming back from just my hand? Yeah, let’s just say we had a confrontation with one of her mortal enemies and it didn’t go so well for me. But when I grew back, something was different. Before that, I could always feel where she was and when she wanted me, I’d be sort of… pulled to her, drawn that way. But once I regenerated from all that, I couldn’t feel her anymore. I kind of heard more about her later, so I know she survived at least past that, but other than that… it was like her pull over me was gone after my body rebuilt itself almost from scratch.”

“That must’ve been some enemy,” I observed, “if they were a threat to her and managed to do that to you.”

Brom coughed, his body extending hand out and down to cover his mouth. “Err, yeah. About that. Her enemy is kind of why she was good with me learning necromancy. And why Gabriel thought I’d be a good teacher for you.”

For just a second, I blinked at him. Then I got it. “What? Why wo–oh my God, it was Fossor. Katrina’s enemy that almost completely destroyed you, it was Fossor, wasn’t it?”

“That would be the one,” he confirmed. “So you see, I kind of have a little history with that piece of shit.” As his head spoke, Brom’s body moved over to pick up that shovel from the other side of the clearing. He came back, carefully starting to dig a hole.

Meanwhile, I was busy staring at his head (and trying not to be too distracted by the fact that his head and body were in two entirely separate locations). “If the witch who changed you hates Fossor so much, I kind of really want to meet her.”

“You really don’t,” Brom firmly corrected, his body pausing its digging to point at me. “Trust me. This is not a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy.’ In this case, the enemy of your enemy is still a psycho hellbitch who will only ever work with you if it benefits her in some way.”

“Getting rid of Fossor seems like it would benefit her,” I pointed out mildly.

“And then you’d owe her something.” Brom gave me a hard look, all amusement vanishing from his eyes. “Trust me, Flick, you don’t want to owe her anything. Because she will collect. I’ve been the one who does the collecting for her, remember?”

“Fair enough,” I relented, shrugging. “But I’d still like to at least see some of her books, even if she wouldn’t be directly helpful. If she’s as powerful as you say, she probably knows a lot about Fossor, about everything he uses. Especially now. If, you know, she’s still alive.”

“I would imagine she is, and that she does have plenty of information,” Brom agreed. “An entire library full, most likely. Though where it is, or what the cost of seeing any of it would be… I couldn’t say the former, and my only guess as to the latter is ‘too much.’”

Remaining silent for a moment, I finally sighed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. And hey, it sounds like I got the better teacher out of the deal anyway.”

“You’re damn right you did,” the head-relocated man shot right back, his body pausing its digging once more to give me a thumbs up. “But that only matters if I actually teach you something before the sun goes cold. So let’s actually get started, huh?”

Nodding, I gestured, “What’re you digging?”

“The grave for the mouse after we finish with it,” came the response.

“Grave for what m–other of God!” I started while facing his head, turning in mid-sentence to find his body, sure enough, holding a dead mouse by the tail. Recoiling reflexively, I blurted, “Don’t do that!”

“Sorry.” I could tell he didn’t mean it. He was grinning too much. “Told you, I like pranks. And the classics are still great. Making girls squeal with mice.” Clearing his throat, the man’s body set the dead mouse in the middle of the bird bath. “We’re going to focus on just getting the mouse to get up and walk around a little bit, okay? Usually you have to do that with a bunch of rituals and blood sacrifice, but uhh, I’m told you can skip all that. Which sounds pretty damn useful, let me tell you.”

“I…” Swallowing, I stopped to look at the dead mouse. Part of me really wanted to just go back to talking about the witch Katrina, or even about Fossor. Or about anything else. This… scared me, and creeped me out.

But I needed to learn it. I needed to practice it. So I straightened up, giving a little nod.

“Okay, let’s see what I can do.”

*****

What I could do, as it turned out, was make the mouse get up and move… barely. It took almost an hour for me just to get that poor little dead guy to twitch enough that it definitely wasn’t the wind. After that, it was another half an hour before I got him to turn over and take a little walk around the empty bird bath. And I felt exhausted. Apparently doing this on purpose was a lot harder and more tiring than doing it by accident when I’d summoned Rudolph. Though the emotions and urgency involved there probably explained it. Or maybe I was just resisting the idea of this subconsciously. I wasn’t sure. But I managed to make the mouse walk in a circle a few times, and Brom said that was enough.

I was on my way back after helping him bury the little guy, and found my father waiting for me right by the lake as I approached the cabins.

“So how’s my little budding necromancer?” Dad asked with a raised eyebrow. “Did you make a skeleton army? Ooh, do you need a castle with a moat? Because I don’t think that’s in the budget. I can maybe swing an apartment with a really strongly worded no solicitors sign.”

Snickering despite myself, I stopped to stare at him for a moment. My mouth opened and shut, before I just walked up to wrap my arms tightly around my father. “I love you, Dad.”

I felt his brief surprise at that before the man returned my embrace. “I love you too, Flicker. But what’s this for? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Let’s have more of this.”

Obligingly, I hugged even tighter for a few seconds before leaning back to look up at him. “I’m just amazed at how well you’re rolling with… well, all of this. Every bit of it. You’re amazing.”

“Just remember that come Christmas time,” he teased me lightly, using one hand to stroke my hair back while smiling at me fondly. “And I’ve had some good people around here to help me sort stuff out. Honestly, I’m just glad I know what’s going on now.”

Feeling a slight pang at the fact that I couldn’t tell him everything that was going on, as far as Jophiel and Elisabet went, I swallowed before nodding. “Me too. Lying to you sucked.”

“Tell me about it,” the man muttered before nodding past me with a smile. “You should probably go see Avalon though. Pretty sure she’s been waiting for you all night. If you don’t go in there pretty soon, she might do something crazy like drag herself out here.”

Unable (and unwilling) to stop the immediate smile that came at the thought of seeing Avalon, I nodded, giving Dad one more brief hug before turning to start that way.

As I was heading off, he spoke up again. “I take it you like your necromancy teacher then?”

Pausing, I looked back while sagely replying, “Let’s just say he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”

It took me a solid minute to stop snickering at that, while Dad continued to stare at me, utterly bewildered.  

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Patreon Snippets 3

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The following is the third 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. 

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

Through the pitch black night, three figures picked their way along a winding mountain trail. Trees lined both sides of the path, branches often sticking out in their way. Yet despite that, and despite the winding nature of the path that often seemed terribly random, none of the three ever missed a step. Through the complete darkness that came from the stars and moon being hidden behind clouds and the nearest city lights being many miles away, they nonetheless avoided every branch, stepped over every loose rock and random hole, hiking the trail as though it was illuminated by the bright light of noon.

Shiori, Columbus, and Jiao. Shiori and her mother had been spending a few days… or nights rather, each month meeting for things like these hikes, so that they could get to know each other. And this time, with her mother’s blessing, Shiori had invited her brother along, feeling that he really needed to get out. Manakel was now as dead as Charmiene. Avalon had been rescued and was recuperating at the Atherby camp. Things had… for the most part, settled down at least for the time being.

“Do you ever, umm, miss it?” Columbus, whose goggles really did allow him to see everything as if it was daytime, asked hesitantly while looking toward the taller of his two companions.

Jiao, whose vampiric gifts included the vision that allowed her to function perfectly in darkness, paused very briefly before guessing what he was referring to. “You mean the sun.”

Shiori paused as well, glancing over her shoulder at her mother. Though she wasn’t an actual vampire, she was a dhampyr, a hybrid. Which meant that her own night vision was good enough that she was no more inconvenienced by the darkness than either of the others. When she spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?”

“Two hundred and twenty-seven years,” the woman confirmed, her always soft voice even more so as she turned her head to look up at the dark, cloud-covered sky. “And yes, in some ways, I do miss it. It’s different now, with motion pictures. But back then, being away from the sun for so long was… sometimes very hard. All I had was my memories, and paintings. Over the years, I’ve seen more of it. Pictures, silent movies, when color came to the motion pictures, I was… I spent a long time watching them, because they allowed me to see the sun in real time.

“I–” Wincing, Columbus offered a weak, “I didn’t mean to make you sad or… or anything.”

Meeting his gaze, the Asian woman gave a slight shake of her head. “You didn’t make me sad, Columbus. At least, not in the way that you think. Yes, being a vampire means that I cannot function in daylight. But it also means that I am alive. If I had never met Tiras, if he had never shared his blood with me, I would have died in that hospital. I didn’t lose two hundred and twenty-seven years of sunlight. I gained two hundred and twenty-seven years of moonlight. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of seeing the world grow, of seeing society develop. I was sick, I was dying. I did not lose anything. I gained. I gained two incredible men that I love very much, along with two beautiful, amazing daughters whom I would not trade for any amount of sun.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” Shiori pointed out hesitantly. “You haven’t seen Tiras in… over two hundred years, almost as long as you haven’t seen the sun. And then you fell in love with… with my dad… with Liang, and you haven’t seen him for years either.”

Jiao gave the slightest nod. “You’re right. And I miss them both terribly. I still believe that I will see them again, that I will find them, or they will find me. But if we don’t… if I live a thousand years and never see them again, that won’t erase the reason that I love them, or the time that we did spend together. There are so many bad things in this world, and so many good things. If you spend all your time dwelling on the bad, like the years that you spend apart from someone you love, you’ll forget about the good, like the reason you miss them to begin with.”

Her golden-amber eyes remained locked on Columbus’s. “The trick is to remember that no matter what’s wrong… whether you feel lost, confused, alone… frightened… angry… betrayed, that they are your feelings. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way.”

“I–” Columbus spoke that single word before his voice cracked, breaking right there as he gave a sharp shudder. His eyes closed behind those goggles, his voice a whisper that barely carried over the soft breeze. “I’m afraid.”

The admission was accompanied by a sag of his shoulders, his entire body slumping a bit. “I’m afraid. She’s dead. She’s gone. He’s dead too. They’re dead. I have protection. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I’m afraid. I don’t…” Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, along with his fists, the boy shook his head. “I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be afraid.”

He felt arms wrap around him then, recognizing his sister as she embraced him tightly. “It’s okay to be afraid, Columbus. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

His mouth opened and shut before he managed to protest, “They’re dead. They’re gone. She’s dead.”

“Oh, my boy.” Reaching past her daughter, Jiao put one gentle, soft hand against the side of his face. “The hurt and fear that someone leaves behind after they’re gone doesn’t simply disappear when they do. Bad things can last for quite awhile. But so do good things, if you let them. You want to know how to fight this, how to move on? Make new memories, better memories. Be with your family, with your friends. Do things that you enjoy.

“The pain that your demons inflicted on you doesn’t fade when they die. It fades when you live.”

Columbus couldn’t speak for another few seconds, the lump in his throat taking his voice while he simply clung to Shiori. Finally, he managed to move one arm, opening it while Shiori did the same. His own voice returned, just enough for the boy to whisper, “Thank you.”

Jiao took one step closer, letting both of her arms wrap around the two. She embraced them, brother and sister, her daughter…

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

The tiny blonde girl, face still adorned by fox paint, staggered through the portal that had been opened to lead her back to the Atherby camp. Two steps through, and she was there, standing on the grass next to the lake. Standing, that was, for all of a brief second. Then her legs buckled and the girl began to collapse.

She didn’t fall far, however, before a pair of strong arms caught her. Lincoln Chambers, taking a quick knee to grab onto the girl, lifted her up smoothly while rising. “Whoa, hey there.”

Starting a bit, Tabbris belatedly realized where she was, blinking up at the man who held her in his arms. A slight tremble came to the girl, before she turned a bit to hug onto him as tightly as she could manage. “M.. Mr… Mr… I… I mean… Dad. Dad. Avalon… Avalon–”

“She’s okay,” Lincoln promised. “They’re taking care of her right now. You kept her alive, Tabbris. Brave, brave girl. You kept her alive. You saved her.”

“Columbus too,” she murmured, not relaxing her grip at all. “He’s… he’s…” She could barely speak. The exhaustion from everything she had done, even with Columbus’s help, had left her entirely too far gone. She needed to sleep. But first, she needed to know that things were okay.

“He’s okay too,” Lincoln assured the girl. “And Flick. She’ll be okay.”

“R-Rudolph won’t,” Tabbris whispered, tears suddenly filling her eyes as she shuddered. “Rudolph. Rudolph’s–”

“I know.” His own voice cracking as well, Lincoln hugged the girl tight against himself. He couldn’t say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t. Not anytime soon. A boy had been murdered by a monster, and Tabbris had seen his body. She had seen… too much. She’d seen entirely too much. Not just that night, but throughout her life. She never had a real chance to be a little kid. Even when she had been hiding inside Felicity, the girl had still needed to worry about intruders, about monsters trying to enslave or abduct her charge. And she had had no one to help her.

But she would never lack for that now. Never again. Lincoln vowed that to himself. Tabbris would never have to feel that alone again.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, holding the exhausted girl close. “Flick is safe. It’s over, my little fox-girl. It’s done. You saved Avalon. You beat them.”

Her eyes blinked up at him then, still wet from tears even as she clung desperately, both to him and to consciousness itself. “Dad,” she whispered softly. “Daddy. Please don’t go away.”

Heart aching, Lincoln shook his head. “I promise, baby girl. I promise, I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone. I’m right here. My girl. My beautiful, brave little girl.”

Tears returning, Tabbris closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t find the words. And the thought of opening her eyes now that they had closed seemed an impossibly daunting task.

So she didn’t. Eyes closed, the girl turned her head a little to rest it against her father’s chest. Just for a moment, just to catch her breath. Just to feel, for a second or two, the unconditional paternal love and acceptance that she had been so starved for through so much of her life.

It would be hours before her eyes opened again. And true to his word, Lincoln stayed with her through all of it.

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

They were in the forest of Eden’s Garden. Pace with her fellow werewolves Valentine and the pack leader Lemuel. Facing them was the blonde girl that Doxer wanted to play with, that Felicity Chambers. Somewhere in the distance came the sound of the other girl, the one that Lemuel had turned into a werewolf. That one was currently going through her first change, and from the sound of things, it was not going well.

Pace, or Lies in that moment, had just shared her secret with the Felicity-girl, had just revealed the hilarious truth that she was both werewolf and Heretic.

Werewolf, Heretic, and Seosten Lie, but the girl didn’t need to know that part. That was an even bigger secret. Couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t let her ruin it.

Aloud, she announced, “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

Technically, she was referring to the secret about her be a werewolf. But she also meant the secret about her being a Seosten. The secret that Felicity didn’t know yet. Sometimes Lies got herself confused about what people did and didn’t know. It was all so exhausting, keeping those secrets.

See? that voice in the back of her mind, the true Pace, who still refused to just be quiet and stop talking, put in. You keep pretending you don’t know her name. You call her Present to her face. But you think of her as Felicity. She’s a person. They’re all people. Roxa’s a person. Roxa. That’s her name. That’s the name of the person you let Lemuel put through hell. Felicity. That’s this girl’s name. You know her name.

The girl, Felic–Present was babbling. She was saying something, but then Rox–the new wolfie girl was very, very rude and interrupted with a scream of agony. So whatever Present was about to say had been forgotten, as she blurted the other girl’s name and moved as though to go to her.

Well, that was just rude. Growling deep in her throat at the sheer audacity, Lies quickly put herself back in front of the other girl. Her arms snapped up, her hands found both of Present’s shoulders, and she forcefully shoved her back a step. “No!” she blurted, “Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

Lies. Lies, look. Look. Focus. Look!

In mid-rant, the words of her host penetrated, and Lies found herself slowly lowering her gaze slightly, from Present’s face to a spot a bit lower. She saw then, what she had been too distracted by her anger to see before. She saw what her host had immediately seen, even in that brief split second when they had shoved Present.

She saw the other girl. She saw the child… the child inside of Felicity Chambers.

Seosten. A Seosten child. There was a Seosten child inside of Felicity Chambers. That was why she was immune to being possessed. All the manpower, all the time, all the arguments over what Joselyn Atherby had done to render her daughter immune to possession, all the ranting from Cahethal about the problem… and the answer had been that simple.

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

Chambers was saying something else, something about them making Roxa into a werewolf as that realization dawned on her.

“Isn’t it funny?!” Lies blurted with a loud, crazed cackle of laughter. She wasn’t talking about the Roxa girl. Who cared about the Roxa girl? She knew why Chambers couldn’t be possessed. She knew another secret.

But the others didn’t. No one knew what she knew. She had to cover. So she let them think she was talking about the Roxa girl, babbling on something ridiculous about not giving the girl her toy.

She brought up the choker, even flicking a finger against it, while keeping half an eye on the Seosten child. Was she a Lie too? Was she controlling this Felicity this whole time?

No. Felicity moved without the girl moving the same way. The girl wasn’t controlling her, she was just… standing there, so to speak. She was possessing her, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. She was just there… protecting the girl from being possessed.

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

So distracted was she, that Lies didn’t see the attack coming. She was caught flat footed as Felicity moved suddenly, lashing out with that staff of hers while triggering a kinetic blast that sent Pace flying off to hit a tree.

She recovered instantly, of course. But still, the girl sat there, thinking.

What are you going to do? The voice, fearful, came from the real Pace once more. You know the truth. So what are you going to do with it?

We could make Manakel love us forever, Lies pointed out. Manakel would love us. Cahethal would love us. Even Charmiene would be happy. They would tell Mama that we did good. Maybe–

You don’t believe that. The voice was soft, far different from the tone that had come before. Pace had seen as much of her mind as Lies had seen of hers. But you’re right about Manakel and the others. They’d be really happy. They’d reward you. All you have to do is tell them about that girl. All you’d have to do is tell them about the girl.

Chambers had sent herself through the trees, reappearing directly behind Lies as the girl picked herself up. Before that staff she had could reach her head, Lies had already reacted. She spun, ducking as she moved before lashing out with a punch.

The girl. The child. She needed to activate the choker again so that she could see the child.

The punch did the trick. As did grabbing hold of Felicity’s bicep to keep it active. Lies yanked too hard, breaking the girl’s arm as she threw her to the ground.

She could see her again. The child, right there in plain view. She was so… innocent, so young.

But they’ll take that away, Pace reminded her. You can make yourself the Seosten hero. All you have to do is sentence that girl to whatever Manakel and the others… like your mother, would put her through. Torture. Pain. Loss. They’ll take Felicity away from her. They’ll take that girl back to Seosten space and they will get answers out of her. But you’ll win. You’ll be the hero.

So again, what are you going to do?

In answer, Lies lashed out, kicking Chambers repeatedly while calling her a bad present.

Our secret, she informed her host. No one else’s. Ours. Maybe we’ll get the girl out later. Protect her. Have a friend. We could do that. That… that might be nice. But we don’t tell anyone. We don’t… do that to her. We make this look good. But we keep the secret.

She didn’t know this girl, didn’t know anything about her or why she was there. Or how she’d gotten there, for that matter. But she did know one thing. If it was the choice of  being the Seosten hero and subjecting this girl to the same kind of things she had gone through as a child, or keeping it secret… she would keep it secret.

Because what was the point of making Manakel and the others happy and finally winning the approval that she had so desperately wanted for so long… if she couldn’t live with herself?

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

“Mr. Gabriel, that train is pretty big. Are you sure you can stop it?”

The question from Tabbris came as the young girl waited a little bit away from the man himself. Gabriel, meanwhile, stood in the middle of a set of the road tracks, watching the incoming freight train as it bore down on him while seeming to pick up speed with each passing second. It was no ordinary freight train, but one that had been heavily reinforced, armored by both technology and magic. The train projected a force field around itself, had heavy plating mounted to it, and there were even turrets attached to the top all along its length, one to each car.

Meanwhile, the tall, yet unassuming black man stood in its path. One hand rested lightly on the handle of his ever-present shovel, which had been pushed into the ground a bit.

In answer to the girl’s question, he gave a slight nod. “It’s quite alright, thank you. Just stay there, and no one will see you.” He had put up half a dozen protection and cloaking fields around the girl.

He could have simply send her home through a portal, of course. They had been out looking at tropical fish near an island that he had wanted to show the girl when the call came in about a train carrying prisoners and slave labor toward a Seosten transport ship had come in. He could have sent the girl home then, but she had asked to stay and watch. He would still send her away the instant anything went wrong, but for the time being, he let her stay.

The train closed on him and the first few turrets spun toward the front to take aim. The ones behind the front each rose a bit more on platforms to shoot over the others. Leaving nothing to chance, as many as possible opened fire, while the train itself picked up speed, doubling in an instant, even as the force field around the front grew even brighter and stronger.

As dozens of blasts of powerful, pulverizing energy that could have punched their way through armored tanks shot toward him, Gabriel held up his free hand. The blasts were drawn toward it, narrowing into a single dazzlingly bright beam before disappearing into the man’s palm with no more apparent effect than a flashlight.

With all that power summarily absorbed, Gabriel immediately released it once more in the form of dozens of bright blades of energy, which appeared near each turret and instantly sliced through them, leaving the guns useless.

The train itself was still bearing down. As it neared him, in the bare couple of seconds before he would have been left as a smear on the tracks, Gabriel narrowed his eyes. At a thought, two things happened. First, a pair of portals appeared directly in front of him and a bit further back, just further apart than the length of the train itself.

Second, the train’s momentum was taken away. It immediately began to slow down, passing repeatedly between the two portals as it did so. He didn’t want to instantly stop the train, to avoid injuring those on board. So, he simply gradually stole its momentum while repeatedly sending it back and forth through those two portals. From the outside, the train appeared to stay almost in one place, repeatedly running over the same path of track, while from the train’s perspective, it was still covering lots of ground.

Within a few seconds, the train was safely stopped, unable to move no matter what it drivers tried. Almost as quickly, dozens of armored soldiers appeared, dropping off of the train or scrambling up on its roof to surround the man who had stop them. Their weapons were raised and ready. Before long, fifty troops of various shapes and sizes were there.

In response to all of this, as their weapons were leveled and the troops awaited the order to attack, Gabriel spoke three simple words.

“You may surrender.“

They didn’t, of course. But he had to offer. Instead, as their leader shouted a single word, the soldiers all opened fire, or used whatever ranged power they happened to have. Whatever it took, they would destroy him. Dozens of energy blasts, fireballs, jets of ice, hyper-accelerated metal balls, contained explosions, and more collided with the man in a terrifying display of power.

Then it was over. The dust cleared, and Gabriel Prosser stood entirely unaffected. Not a single attack had managed to so much as ruffle his shirt.

“Okay,” he said then, even as the troops prepared to attack again. With that simple word, Gabriel lifted his shovel from the dirt and drove it down hard once more.

As the blade of the shovel was driven through the dirt, dozens of copies of it appeared simultaneously. They shot up out of the ground, out of thin air, or out of the side or roof of the train itself. The duplicated shovel blades instantly grew to several times their normal size while glowing with unbelievable power. Each was positioned perfectly to slice straight through one of the soldiers. No armor or protection could save them. The troops, to a man, were instantly cut in half from every direction by that single thrust.

Throughout all of this, Gabriel had only moved twice. Once to raise his hand, and the second time to lift his shovel and drive it down once more. Now the train was stopped, its mounted weaponry destroyed, and its troops eliminated.

“Okay,” the man announced simply, turning to where Tabbris was.

“Let’s see how our new friends on board are doing.”

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

“And then Trierarch Bayest drew his gun, pointed at the Fomorian on the ground, and said, ‘You didn’t leave one survivor, you’ve left two.’  And then he pulled the trigger and blew the Fomorian’s whole head into splatter dust like fwoomsh!

With the end of her pronouncement, the young Chayyiel suddenly threw her arms wide open, going as far as jumping into the air to demonstrate the explosive nature of the aforementioned head explosion. She added in her best approximation of gooey noises as well right at the end, as if demonstrating the resulting gore dripping from the walls.

The first of her two-member audience who had been listening to the girl’s story gave her a broad smile. Abaddon, his enormous figure completely dwarfing the child’s as they stood on one of the Olympus’s space observation decks, raised his hand. His thumb was lightly pressed against the side of his index finger, while the other three fingers were tucked down against his palm. Millennia in the future and far away, the human equivalent of that gesture would be a thumbs up.

“That’s right, aucellus,” he announced, using his favored nickname for the child. “That’s exactly how that went down. I should know, I was the other survivor. And Bayest was one of the most badass trierarchs I ever had the pleasure of serving under.”

The other occupant of the observation deck grunted in disbelief. Cahethal, her incredibly, distractingly green eyes focused on the man, disbelievingly asked, “Are you quite certain that you’re not exaggerating even a little bit? I find it difficult to believe that one man, no matter how talented he may be, was capable of single-handedly wiping out an entire Fomorian strike force, no matter how motivated he may have been.”

Grunting, Abaddon thumped a fist against his chest. “You believe what you want, science girl. I know what I saw. Bayest is the biggest damn hero of the Seosten that I’ve ever met. And there ain’t never going to be another one like him.”

“You just said—” In mid-sentence, Cahethal visibly gave up and shook her head with a sigh. “Never mind.”

She focused on Chayyiel then. “Come, you know that you are here for more than simply listening to totally exaggerated war stories.”

Obediently, Chayyiel moved over to stand next to the woman who had, over the past year or so since the ship had launched, taken up a role as one of her teachers.

Once the girl was there, Cahethal asked, “You asked to work on your experiment here on the observation deck so you could watch the stars. Are you sure you won’t be too distracted? And did you bring your materials?”

Quickly nodding, the girl promised, “I’ll work on it. I have my things right over there.” She pointed to a couple of cloth bags sitting near the entrance. “Thank you, praeceptor. It’s so boring in the test lab.”

Grunting a little, Cahethal simply gave a single nod. “Just be sure that you do not make me regret this allowance. I will return in one hour and I hope to see some definite progress.”

As the girl fervently promised to get her work done, Cahethal and Abaddon stepped out, leaving her alone for the time being. On his way, the large man glanced back and winked at her. “Biggest badass of the Seosten, kid. You remember that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and meet him one day.”

Once they were gone, Chayyiel move to the nearest wall and used the screen there to call up an exterior view of the ship. She stood there, smiling giddily at the projected image.

“Oh Olympus,” the girl murmured while running her hands through the holographic shape, “you’re the most amazing ship in the universe.”

Bias aside, the girl wasn’t that far off. Though their crew was somewhat limited only to those who had passed through the Summus Proelium Project, it was early state of the art. The latest in technology and magic lay at their fingertips. The Olympus was truly remarkable in every conceivable way.

The main central body of the ship was made up of an orb exactly five hundred meters in diameter. This was where the living and science facilities, as well as the primary slide-drive that allowed the ship to enter what amounted to hyperspace, were. Attached to that orb in three separate places (the top and both sides) were three long structures that extended about twenty meters behind the orb, continued along the outside of the orb and ahead past it another one hundred. Each of the three structures was shaped roughly like part of a cylinder, curved inward so that they lay almost flat against the surface of the orb itself. They were wide enough that with one on top and the two equidistant apart on the bottom left and bottom right of the orb, each nearly touched one of the others. The far end of each of these half-cylinder structures narrowed into sharp points, forming a jagged end.

At an order from the ship’s captain, each of those three (or fewer if needed) could separate from the main orb. As it did so, that half-cylinder would extend its sides, opening wing-like structures so that it could function as a separate combat-capable ship. When all four of its pieces were locked in place, the Olympus was a terrifyingly powerful vessel for its size, precisely because it was essentially three gunships mounted against a very well shielded central core. It could fight like that, as one, or separate itself into the three distinct combat ships and one command orb that could stay to direct the battle, or flee with all of their intact leadership and resources if need be. The separate, incredibly heavily armed combat ships had their own slide-drives just in case, but they were only rated for a much slower jump, used for emergencies. The vast majority of their power and available space was given to shields and weapons. There was no doubt about their intended purpose.

As the girl stood there admiring the hologram, the nearby door slid open, admitting Amitiel to the observation room. “Hey, kid,” he started with a wave. “Thought you might like some company.“

Immediately smiling, Chayyiel nodded. “Hi, Uncle Amitiel.”  She paused, turning to look both ways before taking a bit of metal from her pocket. Her thumb pressed against it and she murmured a spell that she had picked up from a few of the adults. After a second of that, she nodded. “It’s okay, nobody’s watching.”

With that established, she then asked, “Did you think about what we were talking about? The bit about you having your own name, I mean.”

Shaking his head, the being who had once been known as a Lie before taking the body of the true Amitiel replied, “It might’ve been over a year, but I’m still getting accustomed to answering to his name. Besides, what’s the point of having a name that only you or I know about?”

Shrugging, Chayyiel answered, “Other people might know someday. You can trust Sariel and Lucifer, you know.”

Rather than directly respond to that, Amitiel asked, “How are you doing with them still being gone on that mission? You alright?”

Looking back that way, Chayyiel hesitated, biting her lip before honestly answering, “I miss them. I know we have to maintain radio silence and everything, but we don’t even know if they’re okay.”

“Don’t you worry,” Amitiel assured her. “You know how good those two are. Kushiel may have pushed for them to go that first time just to get rid of them, but they showed her, didn’t they?”

The girl swallowed at that memory before giving a short nod. “Why does Kushiel hate them so much?”

The question made him sigh, hanging his head before shaking it. “Why does Kushiel do anything? She pretty much hates everyone she can’t control, and you know how Lucifer is about people trying to control him or his partner.”

Frowning, Chayyiel folded her arms across her chest while her brow knitted. “Kushiel isn’t very nice. But Uncle Puriel is… usually. Except when he listens to her.” She paused briefly before amending, “Okay, sometimes he’s nice. But she’s never nice. So how come he likes her so much?”

Amitiel opened his mouth, before pausing to shake his head. “You know what kid, I think you just stumbled across one of the great mysteries of the universe. I mean, sure, she’s pretty and all, but…” He paused again, then shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

Changing the subject then, the man asked, “So what kind of project are you doing for the old microscope?”

Giggling despite herself, Chayyiel chastised, “You shouldn’t call her that. Just because she’s short and has special eyes…”

“Still makes you laugh though,” Amitiel pointed out with a wink. “So about this project, you wanna show me?”

Brightening, the girl asked, “Do you want to help me with it? The stuff is right there.” She pointed to the bags next to him.

Amitiel glanced down before grabbing the bags to walk that way. “Sure, why not. Let’s see what we’re working with.

“And while we work, you can tell me what outrageous story Abaddon’s filled your head with this week.”

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

Alone in the room that she shared with Koren Fellows, Aylen Tamaya stood at the window, gazing down at the grassy field where her fellow students walked, sat, or even ran. They studied and worked there, enjoying the always-beautiful afternoon on the magical island.

The Native American girl’s eyes found their way to one group in particular. Sitting there on the grass, engrossed in another of their deeply private conversations, were Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Douglas Frey, and Scout Mason. Avalon wasn’t there, because she had been hurt, taken by monsters and terribly hurt in some way before being rescued by her team, and by Gaia. She was recovering now, apparently, off in some secret place with people the Crossroads headmistress trusted.

Aylen hoped that the girl was okay. Avalon had… had helped her when she really needed it. Without her, Aylen’s… secret would have gotten out. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it. She owed her life to the other girl, and so much more. If there was anything she could have done to help Avalon, she would have, without a second thought.

But the others, the rest of Avalon’s team, didn’t trust her. And she didn’t blame them. Why wouldn’t they keep secrets? After all, she was keeping a very big one. One that she had even convinced Avalon herself to keep for her. A secret from everyone, except for Avalon, now.

Whatever problems Avalon’s team was going through, Aylen wished that she could help. But that would mean revealing herself, revealing the truth about what she was. And that was… that was too much. She wanted to help, but exposing herself like that, revealing herself was… she couldn’t do that. Not yet. No matter what Avalon had said about how they could be trusted.

She’d promised to think about it, and she would, she had, quite a lot. More than once, Aylen had stood outside either Felicity or Scout’s door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and tried to work up the courage to knock. She wanted, so badly, to tell them everything.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Not only from a lack of trust, or an overabundance of fear. But also because whatever they were going through, it would be so much worse if they had to deal with her problems too. And that wasn’t fair to them. Felicity and the others had far too much to deal with as it was without Aylen piling onto the secrets they were keeping.

With a sigh, the girl gave the group one last look before turning away from the window. She walked from there to the wall, where a mirror had been mounted. Standing there, she faced the mirror and examined herself, seeing what others saw when they looked at her.

Dark hair that fell to her shoulders. Dusky skin. High cheekbones. Dark eyes. As she examined herself from each angle, Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, made a noise from where was perched on his wooden stand. The nest that he slept in was on top of Aylen’s dresser nearby.

“I know, Sovereign,” the girl assured her partner. “We’ll leave soon, I promise. I just have to see.”

From her pocket, she withdrew a small comb. The comb had been a gift. Running a thumb over the runes etched in it, the girl slowly touched it to the side of her face, and whispered the activation spell.

In an instant, she changed. And Aylen saw her true form. Her skin was still dark, testament to her true Native American roots. Or at least, those of her mother. Or at least… one of her mothers. What the comb revealed was the genetic contributions of her other mother.

Her first mother’s contribution to the child made possible by the being known as Grandfather was her Native American appearance. Sonoma had also passed along her werecrow gifts. Aylen had kept them secret ever since she had come to this school, though she had gifted herself a few private flights with Sovereign whenever she needed to clear her head.

But as the magical comb revealed her true self, Aylen saw the parts of her that she had inherited from her other mother.

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

Hair that was much the same. Blue. The blue of the cloudless sky.

The blue of the Reapers. Or a half-reaper, like her second mother, Bastet.  

Bastet and Sonoma, her mothers. And with any luck at all, Aylen would soon be able to save her grandfather.

No, not that one. Her other grandfather. Bastet’s father.

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Interlude 38B – Larees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now I guess we’ll just end this.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take me to the tacos.”

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Convalescence 38-04

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The second I set foot on the Atherby campground again, my father was already sweeping me up into his arms. He had clearly been told ahead of time where to wait for us, because I was already off the ground and being crushed against him by the time the feeling of being teleported away from the Crossroads hospital had faded. And that grip only got tighter after a moment.

Making a brief, strangled noise, I quickly returned the embrace. My own voice was soft, tired, and worn out. “Hey, Dad,” I murmured. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“What’ve I been up–” Dad’s voice was choked with disbelief before he set me down, putting his hands on my shoulders to push me back so he could look down at me. “Do you have any idea how–what I was–how many–the kind of–” He kept trying to talk, but clearly couldn’t put actual words to it. He just kept repeating the same few syllables over and over for the next few seconds before giving up. At that point, he just yanked me back against him for another hug.

“Yeah,” I murmured quietly, enjoying the sensation. “I’m glad to see you too. Even if it does feel like we just did this.” The words were a weak attempt at teasing.

“We did,” he teased me right back. “See what I mean when I say you need to stop getting in trouble? We’re repeating ourselves now. Broken record already. Except, ahh, you brought new friends this time.”

He was right, the others were all behind me, having been sent along by Gaia once all of our meetings with the Committee were over (at least for the time being). There was still a hell of a lot more to sort out and get through, like how they were going to deal with the Kohaku situation. But for the moment, our part of it was over. So I had insisted on coming here to be with Avalon (not to mention Tabbris and my father). Shiori had also insisted on staying with me, and everyone else came with as well. Which meant that Sean, Columbus, Scout, and Doug were seeing the camp for the first time. It wasn’t Koren’s first time, but she was there too. And Deveron… well, I wasn’t sure how often he’d been here beyond the time just a day earlier. For all I knew, this whole place was new since he’d been around regularly. I had heard that the camp itself tended to move around a lot, just to keep things safe. Gabriel Prosser was Gabriel Prosser, but there was still no need to take unnecessary risks.

In any case, turning back that way, I nodded. “Uh, yeah. Guys, this is Gabriel. Gabriel, guys.”

Doug was doing a whole gaping fish routine, his mouth opening and shutting repeatedly. Slowly, he lifted his hand to point at Gabriel as if indicating him to everyone else. Gradually, a quiet whine escaped the boy, as his head tilted. That whine turned to a faint, “Y-you… you…”

Looking equally impressed, Scout gave a quick nod, her head bobbing up and down. “You,” she agreed, voice squeaking just a little while she clutched Sean’s arm tightly.

For his part, Sean also looked like he felt a little faint. I saw him swallow a few times, shifting his weight while using one hand on top of Vulcan’s head to steady himself. “It’s–it’s um, it’s good to–uh.” Swallowing yet again, he finally managed, “It’s good to meet you, s-sir.”

Clearly Gabriel was completely accustomed to that kind of reaction, because he just smiled a little bit before waving them off. “The pleasure is mine. Given everything you’ve managed to deal with in such a short time, I am more honored than you know to meet face to face. And I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to meet back in the hospital. There were pressing issues to deal with.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “like you getting to leave without dealing with the Committee. Lucky duck.”  

The man was clearly about to say something to that, before he stopped, looking toward Deveron. Something passed between the two men then, silent communication (which was probably literally silent communication considering I knew Deveron had telepathy and had no doubt that Gabriel did as well). They stood like that, meeting each other’s gazes for an almost uncomfortable amount of time before I cleared my throat. “Um, you guys know we can tell you’re talking about us, right? Or about me. Or whatever. We can tell.”

Clearing his throat at that, Gabriel gave a little smile that somehow looked both guilty and charming. The man still radiated power, and I could tell why the others all looked stunned into silence at his very presence.

Somehow I doubted that Doug would appreciate hearing that one of my first reactions upon meeting Gabriel Prosser for the first time had been to hit him.

“Yes, well,” the man himself was saying, “there is a lot to talk about, and even more to think about. But I would imagine that most of you are very tired. Your headmistress has said that you should stay here for the evening. Unless there are any objections?”

For a second, Doug seemed to forget who he was talking to. Looking away, he muttered a dark, “Yeah, sleep. Can’t wait to see what new and exciting nightmares come out this time.”

A look of sympathy and understanding crossed the man’s face, and he took a step forward before kneeling in front of Doug. “It’s been a rough year, hasn’t it?” He murmured the words.

I saw Doug’s mouth open and shut twice before he gave a tiny nod, clearly not trusting his voice. There was a lot of pain in his eyes as he met Gabriel’s gaze, fists clenching visibly.

Reaching up, the man rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “I’m very sorry about your friend, Douglas. What happened to him was unfair, and it shouldn’t have happened. He was a good person, a strong and brave person. Believe me, I looked into him when Felicity there was being tutored by him, and when all of… when all of that went down. Everything I saw convinced me that Rudolph Parsons was a remarkable friend, and would have been an incredible man if he had not been murdered. I will always count his death as a loss for humanity at large, and myself personally for not having had the honor of meeting him directly.”

Doug was clearly struggling for words there for a few long seconds, before he gave a visible shudder while managing a weak, “No offense, sir. But Rudolph would have liked to hear that. And that’s the problem.”

Gabriel’s head shook easily. “No offense taken. I would have liked him to hear it as well.”

He straightened then, keeping his hand on Doug’s shoulder. “What we can do is try to make as few people go through what you have, what he did, as possible. That’s all we can do. But for now, all of you have done quite enough. Fancy and Oscar will show you where you can sleep.”

“Avalon?” I quickly spoke up. I wasn’t going anywhere except to where Valley was. Not after everything we had just been through.

Nodding at that, Gabriel replied simply, “We’ll take you to her, while Oscar and Fancy show the others to a cabin.”

The little smartly dressed Kobold himself had shown up by that point, grinning as he tipped that top hat of his to the assembled group. “Roighteo,” he announced in that clearly put-upon accent he’d taken from cartoons or something. “We roight love playin’ poisenal tour guide t’buncha wee ones, don’t we, buddy?”

Beside him, the enormous eight-foot tall warthog-faced Orc lumbered up into view before giving a broad smile. “Sure ‘nuff. ‘ey there. Pleased t’meetcha.”

“You’re… Fancy and Oscar?” Columbus managed, staring at the rather mismatched pair.

“Betcha can’t guess which one’s which,” Oscar drawled with a wink.

It was Shiori who piped up then, “They started calling him Oscar after Sesame Street got really big.”

Looking confused at that, Columbus pointed out, “But he doesn’t have a trash can. And he’s not furry.”

“Yeah,” Oscar himself agreed with a slow, lazy shrug. “Ah don’t get it either, tell ya truth.”

Swallowing hard, I looked to the others. “Get some sleep, guys. You… you deserve it after everything that just happened. I mean, you deserve a–” My voice cracked. “You deserve a lot more than that. But I don’t–I can’t…”

Sean shook his head. “It’s okay, Flick. We know. This’ll all be here later. Dunno what we’ll do with it, but it’ll be there. Right now, I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

They headed off then, except for Koren, who was staying to meet up with her mother, and Shiori, who lagged behind. Choo was beside her, sitting back on his haunches while looking eagerly back and forth between us like an excited puppy. He, thank God, didn’t seem to have any actual injuries from being kicked across the room. And he seemed pretty proud of the collar that Percival had given him. He kept trying to show it off to anyone who looked at him twice, tilting his head back and doing this thing where he wiggled back and forth to draw attention to it.

“You’ll be okay?” Shiori asked a bit pensively, watching me before looking back toward her brother.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised, gesturing. “Go with Columbus. I’ll talk to you in the morning, I promise. Get some rest.”

We hugged briefly. Or at least, it started brief. I started to let go, but for a second I couldn’t do it. I had to hold onto her a bit tighter. Swallowing, I waited to catch the girl’s gaze before kissing her. She returned it, and there was a yearning there that I had to pull myself back from.

“Love you,” I whispered, nuzzling her briefly. “Go. Sleep.”

“Stay with Avalon,” she replied, giving me a little smile. “It’s her turn.”

Then she started off, jogging to catch up with the others. Which left me standing there with Koren, Gabriel, and my dad. As soon as I saw all of them looking at me, my face went red.

“Fliiick and Shiori, sitting in a tree–” Koren started in a sing-song voice that was interrupted as I stuck my hand through a portal and swatted her lightly upside the head. “Ow!”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and don’t forget that I can push that tree over on you if I want to.”

She made a face at me before immediately paling, a sick look overtaking her. “I–I’m sorry, I…”

“It’s okay,” I replied quietly. “It’s easy to just… forget about everything that’s going on. Too easy sometimes. I feel guilty about it too. I feel guilty about… a lot of things.”

We exchanged brief looks then, before Koren gestured. “My mom’s gonna be here soon. She texted.” Idly waving her phone, she added, “If you want to wait and see her–”

“I’m sure she wants to talk to you first,” I assured her. “I’ll see her soon enough. Make sure she knows I’m okay and that if she wants to come find me, she can, okay?” When the other girl nodded, I hesitated before adding, “What about the pixie? The one that told you about Manakel being part of security. We owe her a big thanks too.”

“She’s in Gaia’s office,” the girl informed me. “Pretty sure she’ll still be there whenever we get back.”

With that settled, Dad and Gabriel walked with me toward the other end of the campground. On the way, my father looked to me. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but kept hesitating, like he wasn’t sure of himself. Finally, he settled on, “They let us know everything that happened–well, as much as they could put together. Sariel filled me in with… with how it ended. He’s dead. The bad guy–”

“One of the bad guys,” I corrected. “One of them is dead.”

“One of them,” he agreed, looking a bit sick briefly before visibly forcing himself to move on. “But they also said that… that you–”

“I got his necromancy.” As I spoke, I couldn’t look at him. “I brought Rudolph back. I mean, I made him come to the room where we wer–” Turning, I fell to my knees right there by the side of the walking path and threw up again. My stomach heaved, and I lost… well, there wasn’t a lot left in there to be honest, so it was mostly dry heaving. Tears had started flowing again.

Dad knelt there with me. I had been trying to hold it together, but then… then I just lost it. He embraced me, and we just sat there like that for a little bit. I babbled explanations, rambling about everything from how I’d figured out that Avalon was there, to all the fighting we had done, to seeing Tabbris in the fox facepaint and how guilty that made me feel, to bringing Rudolph to the room and feeling even more guilty, and onward. And not even in that order. It was random rambling that couldn’t possibly have made any sense. But Dad still knelt there, holding me while he let me talk until I was done.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, clinging to him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I didn’t even know who exactly I was saying it to. Him? Avalon? Rudolph? Everyone I had failed or not done the exact right thing at the exact right time for?

Either way, Dad just held onto me, murmuring soft reassurances until I was ready to stand up. Once I did, I felt even more embarrassed at the sight of Gabriel waiting a few feet away. “I… sorry.” Repeating myself, but at least that time I knew what I was apologizing for.

“It’s quite alright,” he assured me, shaking his head while nodding to my father. “Would you like some more time alone?”

“I… I want to see Valley,” I murmured despite myself, taking a moment to embrace my dad even tighter. “Can we talk in the morning? I promise to be more… coherent.”

With a tiny smile, Dad nodded, gesturing. “Go with Gabriel. And Flick? Get some sleep. You still need it.”

I went the rest of the way with Gabriel. The large man walked with me, waiting until we were close to the cabin he had been leading me to before he spoke again. “I have someone who can help teach you about your new ability.”

My mouth opened, but then I stopped myself from saying what impulsively came to my mind. I wanted to say that I didn’t want training with it. I wanted to never use it again. But that was stupid. I knew that. It was emotional. It was… I needed to wait. I needed to let my head clear.

So, instead, I just gave a tiny nod. “We’ll see. I… is she in there?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “She’s mostly just relegated to bed rest. Which means not leaving that bed for any longer than it takes to use the restroom or clean up. There are spells on it that speed up the healing process. So don’t let her leave there, okay?” With a wink, he added, “It’s your job to make sure she stays in bed.”

Returning the smile hesitantly, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll take that seriously.”

With that, I walked into the cabin. The front door opened into a small hallway. There was a dark bedroom to the left, a kitchen straight ahead, and then to the right there was a short walk before it opened up into a larger room. That was where Avalon was. The bed was in the middle of that room, with a television in the corner, the fireplace a bit to her right, and a big dining table a bit behind her. It looked like there had been a couch where the bed was, but it had been moved.

There were also lots of spellforms drawn around and on the bed itself.

And there was Valley. She looked… better than she had in that office, but was still clearly hurt and weak. Except when she saw me, then a bit of color came back to her face as she reflexively smiled.

“Felicity…”

I wanted to cry. I wanted to plead with her never to get hurt again. I wanted to… do a lot of things. But I also wanted to make things better. I wanted to be there with her in the now, not spend all our time weeping about the past.

So, I made myself tease her instead. Because that’s what we did.

“If you don’t stop getting beat up,” I informed the beautiful, amazing girl lying in that bed, “I’m gonna change your nickname to Crashtest Dummy.”

“Call me a dummy again, Chambers,” she retorted with a sniff, “and see where it gets you.”

Slowly smiling, I leaned in closer while whispering softly, “Okay… where does it get me now?”

Avalon gave me a tiny smile then, seemingly making the room just a little bit brighter in the process. Her voice was even softer than mine had been. “You wanna know where it gets you?” She almost purred the words, making my knees shake as my heart did a few jumping jacks.

Instinctively, I leaned closer. Though whether it was to hear her gentle whisper better, or to kiss her, I really wasn’t sure. Either way, I found my own lips only a few short inches from hers. I saw the soft, wonderful smile cross Avalon’s face… just before there was a slight pain in my hand. My pain tolerance power took care of most of it, but I still felt it, gasping as I looked down to see the other girl’s hand in mine, two of her fingers shoving into a pressure point in my palm.

“Ow,” I remarked. “That is not where I thought that was going.”

“Told you,” Avalon sniffed while releasing me with a wink. “That’s what it gets you.”

Making a show of rubbing my hand and pouting at her, I asked, “What do I get if I don’t call you a dummy?”

That beautiful smile that made my knees weak came back, along with a hint of a mischievous glint in her eyes as she reached up with her hand to take my ‘injured’ one once more. Slowly, she drew it to her lips, giving the palm a gentle, tender kiss that drew a weak whimper from me.

“O-oh…” I murmured softly once the kiss faded, as Avalon drew her lips from my hand. “I think… um…” I swallowed hard, trying to think straight. “I think I might like that one better.”

“Is that right?” Avalon’s whisper came then, as she used her grip on my hand to give me a slight tug closer. Weak as I felt, it was easy. I found myself inches from her once more, before the girl added a tender, “Maybe you’ll like this even more.”

Then she kissed me. Really kissed me. And my thoughts vanished. Vanished, that was, save for one thing that I really needed to say, the only thing in my mind then.

“I love you, Valley.”

“I love you too, Felicity.”  

******

Eventually, we both fell asleep together like that. I woke up after a couple of hours, raising my head just enough to look through the nearby window. I could see a tiny sliver of light over the lake in the distance as dawn approached. Everything looked so peaceful and serene.

For awhile, I just laid there with my arms around the sleeping Avalon, enjoying the moment. I liked being here like this with her more than I could describe. It felt… right.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to wake her up or disturb her rest. She really needed rest. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that much, after everything that she had been through. I was kind of hoping that she’d sleep most of the day. Seeing her the way she’d looked up in that hospital office… I never wanted to see her like that again. It had scared me more than I could admit.

Carefully, as I tried not to wake up the girl beside me, I slipped out of the bed. For a moment, I just stood there, gazing down at the beautiful vision lying there. Even weak and clearly beat to hell, Avalon looked so absurdly amazing that it made my heart start to do somersaults. I couldn’t resist very gently reaching out to brush my finger ever so softly over her cheek. She shifted a little, and I lifted my hand before stepping back. Time to go before I accidentally woke her up.

Making my way out of the cabin as quietly as possible, I slipped my shoes on before gingerly closing the door behind me. For a few seconds, I just stood there, looking out at the lake while listening to people running around in the distance. I took that in, letting the very early morning breeze brush over me. It felt nice. Not as nice as being with Valley. But still nice.

Rudolph. The thought of him, the memory of his dead face, all of that blood flooding his shirt, hit me like a bucket of cold water. I saw him back in that room with Manakel. And I saw him standing there after all of it was over, when I had accidentally summoned him.

The thought of Doug’s suddenly happy voice as he cried out the boy’s name, only for that to be just as quickly dashed made my head drop with shame. A much colder chill that had nothing to do with the breeze hit me then, and I closed my eyes tightly. Rudolph. Damn it. Damn it. It kept hitting me. Just like Professor Katarin. They were dead, and I would never… never really see them again. Never talk to them again. They had been murdered by monsters. Even if one of those monsters was dead, even if Manakel would never hurt anyone again, that didn’t bring Rudolph back. Even if Isaac never broke out of Athena’s prison, that didn’t bring Katarin back.

Maybe I had necromancer powers. But I didn’t know how to use them. And even if I did, that wouldn’t change things. Zombies, ghosts, whatever, none of it actually brought the person back to life. Death was permanent.There was nothing anyone could do about that. And it sucked.

“Hey, Flick. Your dad thought we should talk.”

The familiar… yet not familiar voice made me start a little, as it came just as the sense of someone moving within range of my power reached me. I turned, blinking away the tears in my eyes briefly before looking at the figure who stood there at the other end of the patio, watching me with an understanding that belied his apparent youth.

Apparent, because despite the fact that the boy who stood there looked as though he couldn’t possibly have been older than about nine or so, I knew the truth. I knew that he was much older than that. Just like I knew that we had a lot to talk about.

“Oh my God.” The words left me in a rush even as I found myself moving that way, every other thought dropping out of my head.

“Scott!”

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