Lord Yup

Gathering Force 33-06

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Please note that there was a full bonus chapter posted on Wednesday (33-05), which may leave you slightly confused if you read this one before that one. So if you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I still can’t believe you’re here. You guys actually made it.” Larissa’s voice was completely awed as she stared at Vanessa and Tristan.  

We weren’t in the cafeteria anymore. Rather than continue tying up that place with our emotional reunions and explanations while other people wanted to eat, the rest of us had gone to meet Larissa and the others down in the city area, at the house. We were all in the backyard, where Haiden was cooking burgers on an actual barbecue that had been salvaged from somewhere. Athena had offered to have food brought down, but the man had said something about how he was going to barbecue for his kids, damn it.

That was what we were doing while Athena used the blood that she had collected from Vanessa and Tristan to add into that locator spell to search for Kushiel’s base.

Vanessa was standing over by her dad, helping him cook alongside Tabbris, while Tristan bore the brunt of the questioning from everyone else.

“Hey, I’m still surprised that you’re here,” the boy pointed out in response to Larissa. “I mean, I know we already knew that, but still! You and Sands both coming back together when this is over, her mom and her sister? Scout’s gonna be so stoked.” As he spoke, the boy rubbed the top of Bobbi-Bobbi’s head. He had taken off the necklace that his cyberform snake transformed into so that she could stretch her… well, scales, I supposed.

And I was still curious about how that thing’s size-changing thing worked, how she could go from the size of a simple chain that fit around Tristan’s neck, to a giant snake that could turn into a cannon on his arm. But then again, there was that boy Eiji back at Crossroads whose backpack could turn into both a full-sized rhino and a motorcycle, so I supposed it wasn’t that crazy.

Sands, who had been standing by her mother, quickly blurted, “How is she? How…. how’s Scout doing?” She looked anxious, and I realized yet again just how much she had missed, and was missing, her twin. Being reunited with her mother had done a lot to alleviate that, but still. She and Scout had never been separated like this.

“Oh, she’s, um…” Tristan coughed before giving her a smile. “She’ll be okay. She’s really tough, you know? She’s been stepping up a lot through all this. There was this–” He stopped, considering for a moment. “Eh, should probably let her tell you the story. It’s a good one, and I wouldn’t wanna spoil it for her. But trust me, it was great. She’s great. Just, just great.”

At the end of that, even Bobbi-Bobbi was shaking her head while giving him a pitying look.

“Great?” Sands smiled a little at that before narrowing her eyes a little suspiciously at him. “She’s great, huh?”

“Yes,” Larissa added, having clearly picked up on the same thing. “She’s… great?”

Tristan actually blushed at that, shifting as he cleared his throat. “Err, yeah. You know, everyone thinks so. Just–like, everyone. Cuz she’s great, and everyone notices, like–”

Jazz stepped forward from where she had been standing with Gordon and Roxa then, quickly speaking up to save him. “Speaking of great people, how’re Doug and Rudolph?”

Giving the other girl a quick, grateful look, the boy replied, “Oh, yeah, they’re doing okay. I mean, they don’t know much about what’s going on, but they know a little bit. Especially after what happened with-” In mid-sentence, the boy stopped before looking at me.

“Oh, right,” he started. “Speaking of which, I should probably tell you what happened with Avalon and her dad, huh?”  

Well, that was enough to make me choke as my eyes shot open so wide I thought they might pop out of my skull. “What?!” I blurted, eyes widening as I shot a look to the boy. “Avalon and her dad?” I took a reflexive step that way. “What the hell?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in, “what she said. What the hell?!”

“Sorry, sorry.” Tristan looked abashed. “I probably should’ve started with, ‘she’s fine’. Or, you know, at least included that in the first part before making you panic. She’s okay, I swear.”

Beside the boy, Bobbi-Bobbi rose up to bat the side of her head against his while giving a reprimanding hiss, head shaking like a disapproving parent.

“Yeah, yeah.” Tristan scoffed at her. “Don’t start with me, or you can go right back to being a necklace for awhile.”

Bobbi-Bobbi darted back, clearly playing up her ‘fear’ of that as she wound her way around me, pretending to hide before poking her big head up around my shoulder and hissing.

“Don’t worry,” I assured the metal snake. “We won’t let the mean boy hurt you. Right, guys?” At that, Jaq and Gus both came clambering up my other shoulder, crawled around my back, and then put themselves on Bobbi-Bobbi, pointedly chattering threateningly at Tristan.

“See?” I nodded that way. “Snake and mice working together. You better listen to them. They can get nasty if they want to. Now tell me what happened to Avalon and… and her dad.”

The boy complied, explaining, “He came after her and the rest of the team–oh, uh, they sorta combined both your old teams to make one new one.” He was nodding to Roxa and me at that point. “So they were out in the woods to save this pixie that was supposed to know something about Manakel–”

“Tristan,” I interrupted. “This isn’t Memento. Tell the story in chronological order, for God’s sake.”

The boy actually blushed a little, head shaking. “Okay, okay. So from what they said, Avalon got a call from Asenath about this pixie that was on the run and injured because she knew something about Manakel and all that. She talked the others into helping her find the pixie, but when they got out there, a bunch of vampires with Avalon’s dad showed up. They got some help from Deveron and Wyatt, but Avalon mostly faced her dad by herself. She won. He’s dead.”

“Avalon killed her dad.” Saying the words flatly, I slumped a bit, nearly falling over before Roxa practically materialized beside me to put a hand on my back. My voice was hollow. “I should’ve been there. I should have been there with her, for her. I…” Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “I’m missing so much.”

Sands looked to me, her voice soft as she gave me a smile. “We’ll get back there,” she promised. “And then you guys can compare stories about who did the most insane thing while you were apart. And since she killed her psycho dad, I’m pretty sure you’ve got some catching up to do–oh, look, we’re about to go raid the crazy Seosten lady’s secret torture prison as soon as we get an address.”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Okay, you’re right. I just–yeah, we all miss the guys back there. Got it. No more moping. Acting. I mean action. Whatever. Moving forward.”

“Moving forward can happen after lunch.” That was Haiden. The man was holding up his spatula. “For now, we have burgers. Come and get it!”

So we did. Everyone filled their plate. The food was all as artificial as everything else (no store-bought buns or anything, since Wal-Mart hadn’t progressed quite that far in their domination of the universe yet), and yet I couldn’t detect a difference now any better than I’d been able to at any other meal in this place. The burgers tasted just like any regular backyard barbecue. And we had even had french fries too, thanks to a quick delivery from Chef Gisby’s kitchen. Everything was incredibly authentic.

Vanessa apparently thought so too, since she was inhaling french fries. That girl and potatoes, I swore. I had never seen anyone who liked potatoes of every type as much as she did.

It was great, but I still noticed when Larissa leaned over to whisper something to Sands, and the expressions they both had sometimes, when they thought no one was looking. They really didn’t want to bring the mood down, but it was obvious that they missed Scout.

Tristan noticed too, because he cleared his throat. “Uh, hey, Sands and uh, Mrs. Mason, sorry. I swear, if we’d known that Nessa would be able to jump us out here this easily, or thought about it first, we would’ve tried to see who could come with us. We would’ve asked your sister.” He gave a deep, long sigh then. “It’s my fault. If it was Vanessa by herself, she would’ve been more careful. I just… I thought she’d be able to check and then stop herself or something, I dunno.”

Larissa quickly shook her head at that. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Tristan. Just the fact that you both made it out here is amazing.”

He jerked a thumb toward his sister at that. “Hey, she gets the credit for that.”

Vanessa squirmed under the attention, fidgeting from foot to foot as her face pinked. “It was an accident,” she murmured helplessly. “If I thought it would actually work, I would’ve told Headmistress Sinclaire first. And the others. We could have brought a lot of people if they just touched Tristan.” She flinched, looking to the grass. “I should’ve thought about it first.”

“Like I said, that’s my fault.” Tristan immediately defended his sister against her own self-recrimination. “I said you should try it. I didn’t think about what would happen either.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Athena spoke up from where she had just appeared. “Now that is very familiar.” She smiled a little, coming closer. “The girl who is usually so careful and thoughtful being led into impulsive decisions by the boy. And both standing up for each other. They may not have not truly been related, but you remind me very much of Lucifer and Sariel. It is almost uncanny.”

Right, right. Lucifer was Apollo. I had learned that over the time since we had been here, but it was still a little confusing to hear him called that.

“Uncle Apollo,” Vanessa murmured. “He’s going to be worried about us.”

Her brother nudged her. “Trust me, Nessa, he’ll be okay once we bring back Mom.”

“Indeed,” Athena agreed, her voice drawing everyone’s attention to her. “That,” the Seosten woman announced, “is actually why I’ve interrupted your lunch. It seems that your blood is even more potent than I had hoped for. Your growth for your age is… extraordinary.”

“Wait, more potent?” Larissa started. “Does that mean…?”

“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed, “the spell has succeeded.”

Eyes widening a little, I blurted excitedly, “The spell? It worked? It’s done?”

As Athena nodded at that. “Yes. We now know the exact location of Kushiel’s lab and prison. We know where Sariel is being kept.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I demanded.

“Let’s go get her.”

******

Two hours later, Tristan, Roxa, Sands, and I were hauling enormous, heavy crates through one of the long, winding corridors of the station. Even Gidget and Bobbi-Bobbi were helping, dragging a pair of crates by chains in their mouths. Larissa had put some kind of spell on the crates so that they floated a couple inches off the floor rather than just letting them scrape and slide the whole way as Roxa and Tristan’s cyberforms pulled them.   

And speaking of Tristan, the blond boy had clearly gotten some kind of strength boost himself at some point, because he could carry just as much as I could without any trouble.

The crates were full of supplies for the trip. Plus weapons and a bunch of other stuff that Athena thought could be useful. We were taking them to the portal in one of the cargo bays that Yup had set up. Jokai and Dries were only about a day out from finally arriving at the station itself, but we couldn’t wait that long. So we were going to portal out to it with the supplies and tell them the new destination, the coordinates of Kushiel’s base. I had them written down.

Normally, Yup would just come to us and make his portal. But apparently, hitting a moving ship like that, even with the beacon that he had left on it, was a little tricky. So he preferred doing it from the cargo bay, where he had multiple spells set up to enhance and help direct his own natural ability. In his words, it helped avoid any ‘accidents’.

Plus, we had been told that carrying the crates down there ourselves would be exercise, which was good for us.

Meanwhile, Athena was having Larissa, Haiden, and the others collect a few more things that she thought we’d need, and giving instructions to the rest of her people. Tabbris was with them, since she had wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to the other Seosten kids before we left. She and the rest would meet us on the ship. And once everyone was on board (both literally and figuratively), we would head for the location of the secret lab as fast as possible.

“Are you guys sure we’re not totally lost?” Sands asked as we turned another corner of the near-maze, only to find ourselves facing a three-way fork. “Cuz I’ve gotta tell you, all of this stuff looks the same to me.” She gestured to the trio of corridors before us. “Which way now?”  

“That way,” both Tristan and I announced together, pointing to the left-most fork immediately.

“Okay,” I started, “I’ve been here long enough to know where I’m going. How do you know?”

The boy gave me an incorrigible grin. “Hey, I basically grew up on Granddad Nick’s ship. I know how to read these signs.” He gestured to the words along the wall. “That one says that Cargo Bay A is that way. That’s where we’re going, right? Athena said that Yup guy would be there.”

Shaking my head, I nodded. “Right, right, yeah. Sorry, sometimes I forget how long you spent out there. Or is that out here…?” I paused, frowning a little. “Wait, we’re not about to risk you blowing up or whatever by getting too close to your past self out here, are we? Cuz that’s bad.”

“Nah.” The boy shrugged at that. “We were mostly out on the fringe of Seosten expansion. Different universe, basically. Never came in this deep. We should be fine.”  

“Right,” Sands replied while squinting at him. “Should be. We should be fine. That makes me feel better.” Visibly shaking that off, she hefted the crate in her hands. “Come on, let’s go then.”

We were approaching the cargo bay then, with the doors right ahead of us. They slid aside, revealing one of many massive cargo bays that I’d seen throughout my stay here. This one was almost half empty, aside from the glowing portal that Yup was standing in front of.

“There you are!” the small, purple-skinned figure called. “I thought you got lost.”

“No, you didn’t,” I retorted. “You can see through my eyes. You knew exactly where we were.”

Grinning, the little guy wiggled his quartet of ears at me. “Busted. Yes, I knew you were almost here. Didn’t even set up the portal until you were close.” Stepping our way, he extended a hand toward Tristan. “Name’s Yup. Close enough anyway. And you would be?”

Blinking, Tristan lowered his crate before shaking the bright violet man’s hand. “Uh, Tristan. Tristan Moon. Good to meet you, Yup. You’re…” His eyes widened then, as realization came. “Holy shit, you’re a Tseuckaviel, aren’t you? I mean, a living one. I saw pictures and stuff when I was with Granddad Nick, but never one that was alive. He thought you guys were all… gone.”

“Most of us are,” Yup replied while I cringed inwardly (and probably outwardly). “Between the Seosten and the Fomorians, it doesn’t pay to be a race with something they really want to use.”

“That’s what Granddad Nick said…” Tristan’s voice had sobered, the boy swallowing a little before he met Yup’s enormous, compound eyes. “I’m sorry. I could’ve phrased that better. It was just–he told me stories about your people, about what you could do. We met one of the robots that you guys built, your umm, your servants or whatever they were?”

Brightening at that, Yup chirped, “You mean one of the Mevari? You actually met one? I thought they’d all been destroyed or lost for good by now.”

Tristan’s eyes were wide. “Destroyed? It’s possible to destroy them? We–I mean, the one we met calls herself Quattor. We went to this colony world and she was the only one there. I guess these Fomorians attacked and she was the only survivor. And by that, I mean she killed the Fomorians. Plural. Like, two actual Fomorians and all these pet monsters they had. Quattor killed them all. She said that she was… gone when they massacred the colony, but when she got back she made them pay for it.”

Yup was smiling, clearly proud. “We built the Mevari to serve as friends and bodyguards for our people. They are… quite dangerous when provoked. And since they are all mechanical, they are incapable of being possessed and Fomorian bio-weapons are fairly useless.” His face fell a little bit then. “We thought it would be enough to help us. But it only encouraged our enemies to get… creative. Still,” he added while visibly making himself perk up. “I am glad to hear that at least one is still out there. It gives me hope. And that is sometimes in very short supply.”   

“So, they’re like… robots?” Sands asked tentatively, clearly interested. “Your people built robot companions, like the cyberforms that Heretics use?” She gestured toward Gidget, Bobbi-Bobbi, and the two mice, who were all collectively investigating the portal curiously.

“More advanced,” Yup corrected her. “The Mevari are basically just like any other person, except they’re artificial. They’re made of–okay, it’s too complicated to get into. Yes, they’re like robots. Only robots that can think, feel, and make their own decisions.”

“Cyberforms think and feel too,” I pointed out. “But I get what you mean. They were more like people than animals.” Taking a breath, I added, “Maybe you’ll get a chance to meet this… Quattor someday? It sounds like it’d be good for you guys to spend some time together.”

Nodding, Yup gestured to Tristan. “Yes, someday… and I would like to hear more stories of her, young man.”

“You got it.” Giving him a thumbs up, the boy replied, “Trust me, I’ve got plenty of ‘em. Quattor’s cool. And she would definitely like to know that you’re alive. She was… sad about your people.”

There was another moment of quiet contemplation, before Yup ordered us to stop wasting time and hurry up. He was right, so we quickly made our way through the portal and onto the ship. So, basically we just went from the station’s cargo bay to the ship’s cargo bay.

“Nice place,” Tristan announced while slowly looking around. “What’d you say the ship’s name was?”

My head shook. “I don’t think it actually has a name. I mean, unless the Seosten called it something.”

Clearing her throat, Roxa spoke up while exchanging a brief look with Sands. “Actually, we sort of gave it a name while you were gone. Or, Jokai did, anyway.”

“Really?” I blinked that way. “What did he call it?”

The answer came from Jokai himself, as the chameleon-man came into the room. “Sunstrider. It is… reference? Reference to song from your world, of walking on the sun shine.” Face actually turning a little red then, he admitted, “It is… first song Jazzy and me were… dancing to. It is… good song, and I wanted to… give ship name that gives… happy thoughts.”

Smiling broadly to that, I repeated, “Awww, you named the ship after yours and Jazz’s first song. Sunstrider, walking on sunshine. I like it.”

Still blushing, Jokai asked, “Why… are you here? Why have you… brought boxes? And…” He gestured toward Tristan. “You… are new.”

“This is Tristan,” Sands explained. “Tristan, this is Jokai, our pilot and… well, a lot more than that. And Jokai, I hope you guys weren’t dead set on getting to Athena’s space station anytime soon.

“Cuz we’ve got a new destination.”

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Gathering Force 33-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on Abigail posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“Are you mad at me?” I asked Larissa a few minutes later, while the others continued to digest and come to terms with what I had just told them (Haiden was having some kind of private discussion with Athena, while Jokai and Yup had their own conversation a few feet away).

The question made the woman pause, and she glanced over to where Tabbris was hesitantly and nervously answering questions from Jazz and Gordon (with Sands, Roxa, and Gidget standing protectively nearby). “For telling the truth?” Larissa’s voice was soft. “No, I’m not angry with you for telling the truth, Flick. I am… afraid of what kind of danger this knowledge may put Tabbris and the others in, but… I suppose in the latter case, if it was to the point that such knowledge was being pulled from them, they would already be in the worst possible danger anyway.”

I swallowed hard. “I don’t like lying to people. I’m tired of it. Especially people who are supposed to be on our side. Jazz and Gordon have earned trust. Everything they’ve been through–everything that happened, they’ve earned it. And Tabbris deserves to have people know how important she is and how much she’s done. She deserves to have friends.

“And,” I added pointedly, “keeping them in the dark now just seems like a big recipe for some kind of stupid drama later when they would’ve inevitably found out at the worst possible time. What if they secretly realized I was possessed somehow and stopped trusting me? Or worse, exposed Tabbris in front of the wrong person?” My head shook. “Athena wanted to just introduce her first so they could get used to her, but… there’s too many ways that could have backfired.”

With a little smile at that, the woman reached out to brush a hand gently through my hair. “But I’m not really the one you should be asking about being mad.”

Flinching, I looked that way. “It was wrong to just outright say it without making sure she was okay, I know. I just… I think she’s okay with it. I feel like I know her. But that’s an excuse, I should have asked her, it was just a spur of the moment thing.”

“Make sure you talk to her,” the woman instructed, her tone firm, yet caring as she met my gaze. “Don’t just assume anything. When you get a chance, take her aside and talk about it.” When I nodded, Larissa gave me a soft smile. “I’m glad you’re safe.” An obvious sigh of relief escaped her then, as she glanced toward Tabbris. “I’m glad you’re both safe. This whole time, we thought that you were both… that Radueriel…” Trailing off, she swallowed audibly before meeting my gaze pointedly. “You are very lucky that Athena showed up when she did.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Trust me, I know.” In the background, I could hear Tabbris nervously answering questions from Jazz and Gordon. They were asking her how long she had been around, what kind of things she had actually helped with, and so on. Neither of them actually sounded that accusatory, though there was definitely some uncertainty there. I suppose the fact that they met the girl while she wasn’t actually actively possessing me might have helped with that. So I hadn’t really totally abandoned Athena’s plan about how to introduce Tabbris. I’d just… adjusted it somewhat, to avoid actually lying.

Shaking off the thought of just what might have happened to both of us if the old Olympian hadn’t been there, I cleared my throat before raising my voice to get the attention of the others. “So, um, does my partner meet with your approval?” While speaking, I stepped over that way.

Jokai, who had been quietly talking with Yup up to that point, moved behind Jazz, leaning in to whisper something in her ear that I didn’t catch. Whatever he said, it made the girl smile just a little, her lips twitching slightly before she nudged him in the side while looking back to me. Her expression was slightly flushed. “She’s really been around this whole time? Like, the whole time you were at school?”

“And before that,” Sands put in, folding her arms with a shrug. “Since Flick was a kid. She’s been helping whenever she could. She’s the reason that Flick escaped from Charmiene.”

“And thus,” Gordon noted flatly, “the reason that all of us weren’t either killed or captured then.”

As we spoke, I saw Larissa move over to where Haiden and Athena were. Soon, the three of them were deep in conversation, probably talking about getting to the Aelastiam base.

“Which must have been pretty scary,” Jazz put in, dragging my attention away from the adults and back that way while looking at Tabbris. “I mean, you were in Flick’s head for a long time, sure. But you couldn’t know for sure how she’d react. You must have been really… really afraid when you showed yourself to her, especially after being alone for so long.”

Not for the first time, I was inwardly surprised by just how much Jazz picked up on and how insightful she could be once sufficiently motivated. She was far different than I had initially assumed back when the only thing I knew about her was that she had made that guy cover up the Kaiser Wilhelm portrait in the library so that it wouldn’t stare at them while they made out. Or subsequently, when she had thought that I had done something to Roxa. Yeah, our relationship had definitely advanced since we had been unceremoniously tossed out into Seosten space.  

For her part, Tabbris took a step back to move right up against me, swallowing as I put my hands on her shoulders. Her voice was shaky, clearly betraying her remaining nervousness. “I ju-just wanted to help,” she announced quietly, but with obvious determination. “I couldn’t hide from… from Flick anymore. She… she didn’t have anyone else. Nobody knew where she was, she didn’t have any weapons or magic, and… and I couldn’t let Charmiene win.”

I saw Roxa’s little smile at that. “Trust us, kid, as little as we actually saw that bitch, I don’t think any of us could blame you.” She gave a quick look to her teammates then, laying a hand on Gidget’s head as she added, “Right?”

Gordon shook his head, his voice flat and emotionless. “She was a very unlikeable person.”

Coughing, I muttered, “You can say that again.” My head shook, and I looked to them. “Everything she’s done has been to try and help us. She’s brave and smart and…” Biting my lip, I squeezed Tabbris’s shoulders firmly, pulling her back tighter against myself. “And I’d be a slave of the Seosten if it wasn’t for her. We all would have been completely screwed without her.”

“And you knew she was there for awhile, didn’t you?” That was Jazz, looking to Roxa. “That’s what that whole thing was about when you were having that secret, intense conversation in the cave while you were supposed to be changing clothes, back when we first got to that planet.”

Flushing a little, the blonde girl nodded once. “Yes. I saw that she was possessed with the choker when I touched her back on Earth. But I didn’t know what was going on, so I didn’t want to blow everything until there was a little bit of privacy. Sorry we didn’t tell you before. But…”

“But you didn’t know how we’d take it.” Jazz paused then before offering a slight shrug. “Yeah, I get it.” Her chin lifted toward me. “I guess we’re all kind of in the deep end now. Nobody can find out about her, or they’ll know why you’re immune to being possessed. And I dare bet they have ways to make Seosten eject against their will, just like that rune. Which would be… bad.”

Sands made a face then, her head nodding rapidly. “No kidding. Which means we keep her a total secret. Especially from that worthless, psychotic piece of dogshit.”

“Yeah,” I agreed easily, “Isaac can’t know about her. Never. I don’t even want that asshole to ever look at her.” As I spoke, my hands squeezed Tabbris protectively.

“Agreed.” Gordon looked slightly disturbed at that thought, which said a lot about how much it actually affected him. “We don’t let Isaac know anything about her. It’s too risky.”

“But seriously.” Roxa was looking at me. “You’ve really just been hanging out with Athena and this Yup guy the whole time that we were terrified about Radueriel taking you apart and torturing you?” Her fist hit my shoulder hard enough to make me flinch. “We were worried about you!”

“Ow.” Rubbing the spot she had punched, I offered a helpless shrug. “We tried to get in contact, but it’s surprisingly hard to find you guys. Now I know why the Seosten are so annoyed at us.”

“The… Seosten,” Jokai hesitantly spoke up, his English clearly greatly improved (though he still had to carefully choose his words), “are very annoyed with any who do not tie their line.”

“Toe,” Jazz corrected him simply. “Annoyed with any who do not toe their line. As in they make a line of rules, and you have to stand right on it, with your toes against it. Toe.”

“Toe.” Jokai repeated that, giving a slow nod. “That is… more sense, yes.” He looked to me then, adding, “I am… glad… that you are not… in the danger of the Seosten prison.”

“Trust me, Jokai,” I replied with a faint smile, “you’re not even half as glad of that as I am.”  

“So,” Jazz slowly started, looking to Tabbris. “Your mom was really Artemis?” When Tabbris hesitantly nodded, the other girl smiled. “That must be pretty cool.”

Her words made me let out a breath as I smiled despite myself. Not just because I agreed with her. But also because it was clear that she and Gordon had accepted Tabbris’s existence. And at least for right now, things were going to be o–

“Seosten!” The word, spat like an epithet, came from the doorway. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see Dries. The man stood there, staring first at Athena, then toward Tabbris. He took a step inside, hand rising as he started to speak the word of a spell.

Haiden was suddenly there, before any of the rest of us could react (though I was pretty sure that Athena was deliberately allowing him to act first to avoid setting Dries off even further). He caught the other man by the arm, shaking his head. “Dries, no. Stop. It’s okay. Look.” He pointed to me. “They brought Flick back, see? It’s alright.”

The older man stopped. His eyes finally looked my way, as if seeing me for the first time, his attention previously having been entirely taken up by the Seosten. When he actually realized it was me, I saw the man slump a little, as if a weight had been lifted from him. “You,” he murmured, “you are… you’re alive.” The relief and emotion in his voice almost made me feel like I was listening to my own father. He had obviously been incredibly worried about me, so much so that it at least briefly overrode his reaction to finding the Seosten on the ship.

“Uh.” I coughed, shrugging. “Yeah, pretty much entirely thanks to Athena here.” Pointedly, I gestured to the woman. “She saved me. Because she’s one of the good Seosten. You know, the ones that are rebelling against the bad guys. Like Sariel.”

“Good Seosten.” Dries didn’t look entirely happy about the situation. He was still incredibly twitchy, and he wouldn’t look directly at either Athena or Tabbris. His hands kept clenching and unclenching.

“Umm, yeah…” Realizing how awkward this was, and how much the man clearly wanted to talk to me despite his obvious distrust of the Seosten, I gave Tabbris one last squeeze before stepping that way. “Come on, why don’t we talk in the hall? That’s probably, you know… quieter.” Quieter, and, of course, it would get him away from the Seosten that made him so nervous.

“Yes… yes, talk.” Giving a faint nod, Dries pulled himself from Haiden’s grip. For a moment, I thought he might say something to Athena. But in the end, he just stepped backward into the corridor while giving me a brief, indecipherable look. I had the feeling he still wasn’t happy about the whole thing, no matter what anyone said to him about Athena being trustworthy.

Breathing out in relief that things hadn’t gone even worse right then, I glanced to the others before following him. The rest of the group had already gone back to asking Tabbris and Athena questions, leaving me to talk privately with Dries. Somehow, they had already come to accept all of this, pretty much. They understood. They weren’t mad at me.

******

“I changed my mind, I’m really mad at you.”

With those words, a fist punched me in the same shoulder that Roxa had hit earlier, and I yelped. “Ow! Hey, what was that for?”

Sands, the owner of that fist, squinted at me. It had been an hour or so, just long enough for me to have a conversation with Dries about what the Seosten had done for me, and for Yup to charge himself up and create the portal that brought us to the Aelastiam base.

He hadn’t brought the entire ship, of course. Yup was good, but not quite that good. Instead, Athena had given instructions to Jokai and Dries about how to get the ship to the same system that the base was in, and they were bringing it the long way. Which was okay, since it would give Dries in particular time to come to terms with the idea of being around more Seosten.

If anything went wrong, Athena had given them a way to contact the base for help, and Yup had left behind a beacon that he could create a portal straight to wherever the ship actually was. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best that we could do.

I wasn’t sure how well Dries was taking the Seosten thing. He really disliked them. But he wasn’t completely irrational about it. He understood that Athena had helped, that Tabbris was innocent, and all that. He was just… uncomfortable, and reflexively distrusted them on principle. Which I couldn’t exactly blame him for, after everything he had been through. Actually, the fact that he was dealing with it as well as he managed was actually more than a little inspiring. But it was a good thing that he would have some time mostly alone on the ship to accept it a bit more.

Now, Athena was busy with Larissa and Haiden, while Tabbris stayed with them mostly to be with ‘Aunt Larissa’ for awhile. They were talking about, well, everything. And sticking Isaac in a more permanent cell. Yeah, we’d brought him along with us, after he had been magically rendered unconscious for the trip, as well as blind and deaf just in case. Athena had a place to put him so that he wouldn’t be left on the ship with just Dries and Jokai.

So that’s what they were dealing with, while I showed the others around the place. We’d started at the house and met with Mr. Pentsecol, before gradually working our way through the station. Now, we were in the front hall of the school, near Miss Handsy’s office.

“I’m mad at you,” Sands explained then, “because you’ve been hanging out in this mirabilis place for the past month while we were killing ourselves trying to find you.”

“Miraballwhat?” I echoed, shaking my head before mumbling, “And it was only three weeks.”

Jazz rolled her eyes at me, speaking up then from where she was standing next to Gordon. “Right, only three weeks. Mirabilis, it means like, amazing. Jokai uses it all the time. I guess it sunk in.” As she spoke the name of the chameleon-like Alter, the girl smiled a little bit. It made me wonder if I smiled like that whenever I mentioned Shiori or Avalon.

“Seriously,” Roxa put in then, “this place is really cool. We’re all–” As she spoke, her foot kicked Sands in the back of the leg. “–glad that you weren’t kidnapped and experimented on by that freak.”

At her words, Gidget made a noise of agreement, moving to nuzzle up against my hip insistently until I took Jaq and Gus out, setting them on her back so the cyberforms could interact a bit.

Winking at me to show that she was just playing up her reaction to Roxa’s kick, Sands rubbed her leg while muttering an offhand, “Yeah, yeah, we’re so happy and all that. So you gonna keep showing us around paradise here, or what?”

I flushed a little, shrugging. “Hey, if it makes you feel any better, Athena’s been making me work my ass off training this whole time.”

“I might be mistaken,” Gordon spoke in his dry tone, “but I really don’t think that ‘I got to do a bunch of one-on-one training with the literal Athena’ is going to make your time here sound worse.”

“Right, good point.” Coughing, I gestured. “But hey, you guys will get to train with her too. Trust me, she’ll put you all through the wringer whether you want it or not. She’s basically like, ‘Older Avalon’ that way. Training, training, and more training.”

Sands was practically openly salivating at that point. “Oh man, this is gonna be great. Next to finding my mom, this is the best thing about being banished out here. Scout’s gonna be so jealous. Hell, Avalon is gonna be so jealous.”

“If we are actually planning on rescuing this… Sariel,” Gordon noted calmly, “we’ll need as much of Athena’s extra training as we can get.”

After a brief hesitation, I put in, “Are you guys sure you all want to be involved in that? I mean, this Kushiel sounds like really bad news, and… and going to her lab to rescue a Seosten…”

“Stop it.” Roxa gave me a look. “We’re with you. And that Seosten has done a lot to help all of us, even if we didn’t know about it. She’s Tabbris’s mother. We’re not just gonna sit things out and let you go without us.”

“She’s right,” Jazz confirmed. “Maybe we didn’t know about the kid before, but if she’s done everything you say she’s done… she deserves to have her mom back. Plus, that’s Vanessa and Tristan’s mom too. And Haiden’s wife. We’re in this. Dangerous or not.”

Looking around at the collection of nods then, I let out a long, low breath. “Well, okay then. Like I said, I hope you guys are ready for a couple weeks of the most intense training you’ve ever been through. Because they are definitely going to put us through it before they let us go with them.

“I think Athena’s boot camp is about to be open for business.”

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Gathering Force 33-02

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“So, what have you guys been doing while we’ve been apart?” I asked a bit conversationally a few seconds later as our little group started to make our way through the crowd to where the others were supposed to be.

I saw Roxa and Sands exchange glances briefly before the blond girl replied, “Let’s just say it’s been a hectic month.”

Sands nodded. “Like we said, we thought you were taken by Radueriel, so we’ve been fighting our way through anyone that could give us a hint about where his most secret lab was, where we thought he was keeping you. You should’ve seen Mom. She was… really mad. When she thought you and Tabbris were being experimented on, she basically went ballistic.”

By the end of that, she had lowered her voice, for all the good that did. I was positive that her mother had heard every word, even if she kept her focus elsewhere.

Roxa nodded, before glancing to the young Seosten girl beside me. “Speaking of which, so the plan is just to pretend that you guys just met during this month?”

“Not permanently,” I replied. “We just want to give them a chance to get to know for herself, without the weight of her having possessed me for so long. Once they know her, then we’ll tell them the truth. You know, if we can.”

“You mean if they can be trusted?” Sands asked carefully.

My head shook a little. “I know they can be trusted, after everything we’ve been through with them already. It’s just… this is a lot and them knowing it puts them in danger.” Belatedly, I corrected myself, “Okay, so they’re already in danger even if they don’t know about it. But them knowing about it puts her in even more danger. And, you know, they’re still getting used to this whole trusting Alters thing.”

Again, the other two girls exchange glances. The fact that they kept doing that told me a lot about how much they had been through in the past few weeks. Roxa started slowly, “Well, as far as Jazz goes, I’m pretty sure you don’t have to worry about her and the whole trusting Alters thing. She’s kind of… advanced as far as that goes.”

I blinked at that, head tilting as I glanced toward Tabbris. She offered me an equally confused shrug, and I looked back to the others. “What does that mean?”

Sands was clearly suppressing a little bit of a snicker. “Oh, you’ll see,” she replied mysteriously.

I wanted to push for more information on that, but Larissa spoke up first. “Once we get the others, we can all portal back to our ship. She looked over to Athena and Yup, her eyes narrowing just a little bit. “We’ll need to get a lot more information from you about exactly what’s going on before we agree to go anywhere with you.”

Athena herself lowered her head in acknowledgment of that. “Of course, Miss Larissa,” she replied easily. “Your suspicion after your charges’ long absences was expected. Given my people’s general reputation, this could quite easily be a trap.”

“And your acknowledgment of that doesn’t make it any less likely,” Larissa pointed out, though her voice was mild. “I do hope that you will be more open to full introductions once we are away from this world.”

“Indeed,” Athena promised with another nod. “Once we are aboard your ship, we will discuss everything.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Sands raised her hand to point off in the distance. “There they are,” she announced.

I looked that way. Sure enough, I immediately spotted Haiden and Gordon speaking with one of the merchants. A second later, Jazz and Jokai came into view.

The two of them were holding hands. And not in a buddy system sort of way either. It looked like…

“Yup,” Roxa confirmed, clearly reading my expression. “They’re a thing now. Not exactly sure how it happened, but like we said, she’s definitely all in on the trusting Alters thing.”

“Uh… yeah.” I coughed, unsure what to say. Wow, I had known that Jazz felt close to Jokai after all that had happened, but I hadn’t known exactly how close. I really had missed a lot while I was away.

By that point, Haiden had noticed us. His eyes widened a little bit as he glanced over our way, before saying something to Gordon. I saw even the dark skinned boy’s normally unflappable demeanor jump a bit as he looked our way, his mouth opening in what was clearly surprise. And if he was noticeably surprised, that really said a lot.

Both of our groups convened, Jazz abruptly blurting, “Flick! You’re— I mean you’re not—” she glanced briefly toward Roxa for verification.

“She’s not possessed,” the other girl confirmed.  

“And it’s really her,” Sands added. “Mom double-checked.”

Err, she had? I wasn’t sure how, or when exactly she had done that. But I was glad that I had passed whatever kind of inspection that had been.

I was pulled into an embrace by Haiden then. “Hey kid,” he announced while ruffling my hair. “You look good. A lot better than we thought you’d look anyway. Should’ve known you’d end up making friends.” That last part was added with an appraising glance toward Athena and Yup, as well as a brief glance toward Tabbris. But most of his attention centered on the older Seosten. I saw his eyes narrow briefly as he took in her appearance with an obviously appraising look.

Gordon, meanwhile, gave me a nod. His mouth twitched up in what was as close as he tended to get to a smile. “Glad to see that you’re okay.”

Raising my hands, I held them in front of my face as if warding off a crazy fan girl. “Whoa, whoa, don’t get so emotional, buddy. I’m not sure I can handle it.”

While the others were snickering a little bit at that, Jokai’s attention remained riveted on Athena. I didn’t think that he actually knew exactly who she was, but he did seem fully aware that she was a powerful Seosten. He looked scared, like he knew that she could kill him in an instant if she was of the mind to, but also like he wasn’t going to back down or run away despite that.  

“It’s okay,” I quickly reassured him as much as I could. “She’s a friend. I promise, she is not going to hurt you, or any of us.” Boy, I really hoped that he understood enough English at that point to follow my meaning. Especially since Tabbris was standing beside me, rather than possessing me. I really didn’t want to have to try to explain why I didn’t know as much Latin as I should at that point.

Apparently he did, because the chameleon-alter glanced to me, then back to Athena, before nodding as his attention returned to me one final time. The man spoke carefully and slowly. “You are safe. This is good.” He smiled. “Very good.”

Smiling back at him, I slyly replied, “Yeah, and speaking of good, it looks like you guys have been having a pretty good time yourselves.” With that,  I nodded toward his and Jazz’s clasped hands.

The two of them flushed noticeably at that, and Jazz murmured, “It’s kind of—”

“A long story?” I guessed. “Yeah, there seems to be a lot of that going around. Pretty cool though, you guys are cute. But what do you call yourselves? Jazzkai? Hidden Heretic? Jokazz?”

Coughing, Jazz very clearly changed the subject. “Who’re these guys?” She asked while gesturing to Athena, Yup, and Tabbris.

Before I could say anything, Larissa interrupted. “We’ll discuss all that back on the ship,” she announced. “Let’s head back to the extraction point and we can talk about all those things that we all really need to talk about.”

Jazz gave me a hug then, quickly and tightly. Her voice was soft. “I really am glad that you’re okay. We were all scared for you. You…” She swallowed audibly, meeting my gaze. “You saved me. You could have boosted yourself past me, or tried to boost both of us together.”

My head shook at that, and I returned her hug. “I didn’t know if boosting both of us would get us to the portal in time,” I replied easily.

The other girl started to say something else. She made it sound like there was something caught in her throat, before just shaking her head. Together we all walked the way that Larissa was guiding us. I saw Jazz and Gordon give Tabbris brief looks here and there. They clearly noticed how close the girl was to me, and were curious. But no one said anything as we made our way through the market.

Eventually, we reached what looked like an abandoned building. Larissa looked both ways, then held up her hand in front of the doorway and said something. There was a series of clicking sounds, and the door opened. We all filed inside of a small, dingy room with a single small metal ball sitting in the middle of it.

Yup, who had been incredibly quiet up to that point, took one look at the orb before announcing, “Portal spell. A really powerful one.”

Haiden gave the small, purple man a brief, curious look before nodding. “ A friend of ours set it up. It’ll take us back to the ship. Us and everyone in this room.” Reaching down, he picked up the orb and glanced around briefly. “So, if everyone’s ready?”

There were no objections, specially not for me. I couldn’t wait to get back to the ship. For one thing I really wanted to see Dries, who I was positive had been the one to set up that portal spell to begin with. If I couldn’t see Avalon anytime soon, the least I could do was see how her great-great-great whatever ancestor was doing.

And of course there was… My eyes widened as I realize that, with all the distractions that had been going on, there was one incredibly important thing that I needed to know about. Looking toward the others, I said a single word. “Isaac?”

Holding that orb in his hand, Haiden flinched. His head gave a slight shake along with the others. “Couldn’t get answers out of the kid,” he replied flatly. “Tell you why not once we get up there.”

Well, that was ominous. And more than a little confusing. But before I could say anything else, the man activated the orb, and the world spun around us.

Once everything had resolved back into its proper place, we were standing back in that familiar cargo bay of the ship. It was mostly empty once more sense all of Jokai’s people had moved off into that other base, and the ant-like Kenkeans… “Wait, are the Kenkeans okay?”

Jazz nodded. “Yeah, they’re all moved in with the other guys back at the asteroid base. We’ve taken them a couple loads of supplies in between, you know, looking for you.”

“Right.” I took a breath, then let it out. “So, dare I ask, what is the deal with Isaac?“

Sands’ response was as immediate as it was flat and monotone. “He’s a piece of shit psycho traitor who is worth less than the barnacles clinging to the broken remains of a rowboat on the bottom of the ocean? Actually, do barnacles poop? Because I’m pretty sure he’s worth less than that too.”

“More to the point,” her mother put in with a brief glance to her, “we can’t get answers out of him. Not even by possessing him.”

I blinked at that, surprised. “What do you mean you can’t get answers by possessing him? Possession is pretty much the trump card. It gets answers. Between Dries’ magic and someone possessing him, you should be able to get everything you need.”

“That’s the problem,” Sands replied, “No one can possess him. He can’t be possessed.”

That made my head snap around as I did an almost violent double take. “What do you mean, he can’t be possessed? It’s not like he knows how to ca— oh son of a bitch.”

”Yep,” Roxa confirmed my curse. “The asshole can block possession. Turns out, he still had a couple surprises left behind in this ship. Like cameras that he was using to watch when they were teaching us the dibs spell. So he knows how to cast that.”

“But that doesn’t last forever,” I pointed out while feeling my annoyance manifest in the form of a headache.

“No,” Haiden replied. “But it does last for a really long time. That was the point, that’s what we intended it to do. Remember, the whole point was to make it too hard for the Seosten to just wait out the effect. We wanted to be able to escape before they could just wait out the spell and then possess us anyway.”

Larissa nodded. “He also seems to have used the blood connection that he forged with the Kenkeans to supercharge its duration. Which, let me tell you, is incredibly dark, dark magic. He definitely didn’t learn that at Crossroads. But it means we have no idea how long it will last.”

My mouth opened and shut before I managed a dark, “There are no words for the kind of bullshit that this is.”

“Tell us about it,” Sands muttered. “We’ve been dealing with it for the past few weeks.”

“The real problem,” Haiden announced then, “is that we don’t want to go messing with the spell too much, because we’re still not exactly sure what Sariel did to set up in the first place. We’re afraid that if we worked too hard to take it off of him, it could have a rippling effect across everyone else. And if the spell gets taken down completely, well, we’re all kind of screwed.”

Roxa nodded. “Screwed seems to be where we live in general now. And before we say anything else in front of all these people, who are all these people?”

Smothering the urge to keep randomly cursing about Isaac, I stepped back and gestured. “Right, uh, first, this is Auriel. I guess you guys would know her better as Athena.”

Okay, yeah, I did get a little bit of a kick out of the collective double take they all gave at that. It made me giggle inwardly. Totally worth it. Well, everyone except Haiden. He just gave a slight nod, clearly either having known or heavily suspected her identity the entire time.

One corner of her mouth twitching up a little bit, Athena gave a slight nod. “It is a pleasure to meet those who have been giving my former colleagues so much trouble. They have been quite thoroughly vexed by you.”

“You… you’re…” Larissa looked flabbergasted. “Sariel mentioned you. She said that you were banished, imprisoned far away..”

Athena gave a low, humorless chuckle. “Yes,” she murmured. “My people do tend to try and pretend that they are firmly in control of the situation.”

Haiden spoke up then. “She thought you might find your way out at some point. Told me a lot about you. She wasn’t sure how much you would… want to talk to her, but she said that you could be trusted, if you ever showed up.”

“She can be. She’s the one who saved me back there,” I put in. “She was possessing that soldier who tripped and slowed them all down. She showed herself when I got left behind, and pretty much wiped the floor with that entire army. Then she took me to her base. They’ve got a bunch of people living there. There’s even a school.”

Haiden raised an eyebrow at that. “You weren’t kidding about it being a long story,” he muttered. “Sounds like quite a place though. Must be pretty well hidden to stay off the Seosten radar. No way they’d let a place like that stay up if they knew where it was.”

I coughed. “Well hidden? You have no idea. Anyway, this is Yup.” I gestured to the small, purple man. “His people are… let’s just say they’re really special. He’s the one that helped us find you guys, and brought us over to that planet you were on.”

The man himself gave a quick nod. He extended his small hand to Larissa. “It’s a right pleasure to meet you finally. I sort of feel like I know you’ll like my own family already, what with all the time I’ve been spending scouring the galaxy for you.”

Blinking, Larissa accepted the man’s hand, shaking it firmly. “Well, sorry we were so hard to find. Especially since we were apparently looking for you too.”

Sands coughed then, looking to me. “Seriously, you’re safe. That’s just… holy shit. But um, does that mean that… you know, our lord and savior—”

I grinned despite myself, digging in my pocket until I came out with the figure in question, holding him up proudly. “Herbie’s fine. See? He got a little scuffed through all that, but I got him cleaned up.”

Grinning back at me, the brunette girl gave me a thumbs up. “Oh, good. As long as he’s safe.”

Haiden was shaking his head. “Someday, I’ll understand the point of that rock.”

Huffing a little, I gave Herbie a little rub. “The point? The point is that he’s the hero of this whole story. Aren’t you, buddy?”

“And who’s your other new friend here?” That was Jazz. She was nodding toward Tabbris. “Hi, what’s your name?”

My little partner glanced to me slightly, her eyes briefly questioning before she looked back the other way with a soft, “H-hello, I’m Tabbris. W-when Flick showed up at the—”

“Stop,” I abruptly interrupted. My head gave a violent shake. Giving a brief, apologetic look toward Athena, I turned back to the others. “I can’t do this. I can’t lie to you guys, especially not right now, not about this. Not to you guys.” Pointedly, I looked to Jazz and Gordon. And to Jokai. “The others already know, and it was supposed to be safer for her to introduce her to you like this. But I can’t lie to you. I just– I can’t. Even if it was temporary, even if it was safer. I can’t just lie to you. After everything we’ve been through, everything you’ve already accepted, you deserve to know the truth.”

“Wait, what?” Jazz did a brief double take, looking totally lost. “What truth? What are you talking about?”

It was Gordon, of course, who seemed to immediately get it. The boy looked at me, then to Tabbris, then back again. His voice with certain. “She’s not a new friend, is she?”

My head shook once more. “No,” I replied while reaching out to pull Tabbris up in front of me. Wrapping both arms around her, I continued. “Like she said, her name is Tabbris, and even though I didn’t know about it until right before we got transported off Earth, she’s been with me for a long time. She’s my partner. She’s been possessing me in secret ever since I was a little girl, and protecting me from any other Seosten who might have tried to possess me. She’s awesome, and amazing, and she’s been working her butt off to keep me safe.

“She’s my little sister, and I am not going to lie to you guys about that.”

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Gathering Force 33-01

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Please note that there was a mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“You realize that there is a very important conversation that we need to have,” Athena carefully spoke on the way through the corridor. “More to the point, there is a decision to be made.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. I knew what she was talking about. “You mean about whether the others should know about Tabbris or not, the ones who don’t know already.” We’d had the conversation about which of them knew and which didn’t. What it really came down to was that we had to decide if we trusted Jazz and Gordon enough to tell them this huge secret.

When Athena nodded, I sighed long and low. “I’ve been thinking about that pretty much ever since we got here, and you made it clear that all these people know about Tabbris.”

The woman gave me a brief, sympathetic look before replying, “And yet, you are no closer to making a decision on that.”

I coughed, shaking my head again. “If anything, I’m even further away from a decision. At first I thought absolutely no way, but how do we let them see all of this, and not let them see Tabbris?”

It’s okay, the girl in question put in from inside me. They don’t have to know me at all. Her voice was soft and somehow even more uncertain that before. I can go back to hiding.

I didn’t want to point out the fact that it would be harder for her to hide when the people who were already here knew about her. All it would take was one person coming up and asking where she was while one of the others was around. I didn’t want to point that out, but I knew that the moment I thought passed through my mind, the other girl would pick it up.

“There is another potential option,” Athena pointed out mildly, while turning to look at me. When I blinked in confusion, she continued. “Your biggest fear is that people will judge her as the person who has been possessing you, before they actually know her. Well,” she amended, “your biggest fear beyond them being forced to reveal that information under duress or possession, that is. Correct?”

I nodded slowly at that. “Well, yeah. I mean, it’s bad enough worrying that they’re going to be tortured or possessed giving her up. I don’t want to put them, or her in that position. But, I guess you’re right, the second main problem is that they’re going to look at her and just see one of the other Seosten, one that’s been possessing me all the time. They’re going to judge her.” Realizing who I was talking to, I added a quick, “No offense.”

The woman gave me a brief look. Her head shook. “Our people deserve to be judged for a great many things that we have done wrong,” she intoned gravely. “But you are correct, she deserves to be known as a person. They should know her enough to understand that she is a person who deserves the kind of trust that you are extending her. They should know who she is before being confronted with that kind of revelation.”

In my head, Tabbris asked, Wait, is she saying-

“You want her to meet them as herself?” I quickly blurted as realization came to me. “You mean she should meet them outside of me, like…” I trailed off for a moment. My eyes widened. “Meet them here as if she’s been here? As if I just met her here?”

Athena gave a single nod. “At least long enough for them to get to know her for who she is, rather than as your possessor. Allow them to come to their own conclusions about her character and you decide based on those reactions whether you want to trust them to know the rest of it.”

I definitely wasn’t sure about that. It felt a little too close to lying by omission. It felt like one of the things that could blow up in my face if it came out wrong, and the others thought I wasn’t trusting them. But, on the other hand, this was about Tabbris and her safety. It wasn’t just about me. It was about both of us. I had to think about that.

“Besides,” Athena added, “if I were them, and you came back this way and asked us to come with you and another Seosten such as myself, I would want proof that you were not possessed.”

“Right…” Trailing off, I directed my thoughts inwardly. What do you think, partner? This is more about you than it is me.

It’s about both of us, she corrected quickly. But, um. I dunno. I’m scared. What if they find out later that I’m possessing you, and then they don’t trust us after that?

I smiled a little at that. We won’t let it get that far. We’ll just let them get to know you a little bit, then decide if it’s a good idea to tell them the truth. We won’t let it stretch on for too long. Just enough so that they understand that you weren’t possessing me when they met you, so you couldn’t have been influencing my reaction.

There was a few seconds of indecision from the other girl, before I felt her agreement. Okay, she replied quietly.

A moment later, she appeared beside me, stepping out in that glowing form before turning to me. Hesitantly, she asked in a tentative voice, “Is it okay if I hold your hand until we get there?”

Barely resisting the urge to pick the girl up and hug her right there, I gave a quick nod. Extending my hand, I took hers and held it tightly. “Partner,” I announced, “you can hold my hand whenever you want.”

She smiled, and together the two of us held hands while following Athena down the corridor. As we walked, she informed us that the rest of the station would be informed to behave as though Tabbris had been there the entire time, adding that if there was one thing that the people here were quite good at, it was keeping secrets. They would keep our secret for as long as we wanted them to.

The Seosten woman led us back to the human habitat. I saw several of our neighbors out and about. The man who lived next-door to us, a Natural Heretic who had been bonded to a Wendigo, waved while he worked on trimming his hedges with the enormous claws that he could grow at will. “Good morning, Lady Athena,” he greeted before adding amicably to Tabbris and me, “Heading out for more training, kids?”

“Not today, Mr. Pentsecol,” I replied. “Time to go get the rest of our friends, I guess. The ones that are out here anyway.” I’d talked with the man a little bit here and there, mostly at night while I was up and he was on his back porch.

“Finally found them, huh?” he replied before giving Athena a brief nod. “Good work, as always.”

“Tell us that when we get them back here safely,” the woman replied simply before gesturing to the two of us. “I thought it would be best to do this in your backyard. For familiarity.“

I agreed, and the three of us went into the backyard. On the way to the house, Athena sent a message to another part of the station. As we stepped into the backyard, a small pink portal opened up, and a being stepped through. He was about three feet tall, with bright purple skin, outrageously red hair that was styled like Einstein, and four long pointy ears. His hands had three fingers on them plus a thumb, and they hung all the way down to the ground. His eyes were extraordinarily large, covering about a quarter of his entire head, and were compound, like a fly’s. Only when I looked a little closer, I could see dozens of different scenes and locations within each of the tiny parts of the eyes. In one tiny part, I could see what looked like a park somewhere. In another I could see a volcanic world. On another I could see an ocean. And in yet another I could see a busy city. It was like he was seeing hundreds of places all at once. And in the very center of his eyes, I could see myself staring at him.

“Ladies Felicity and Tabbris,” Athena intoned, “may I introduce you to Lord Yup.”

Blinking at that, I echoed, “Lord Yup?” Beside me, Tabbris looked just as confused.

The little purple man gave us a broad smile, while confirming brightly, “Yup.” He sounded utterly amused by our reactions.

Athena explained, “Like Miss Handsy, Lord Yup’s true name is impossible for those outside of his species to pronounce. Rather than force others to quite possibly damage their own throats in the attempt, he has chosen to take a much more easily pronounced name.”

Still grinning, the man nodded once again. “Yyyyyeeessss indeed,” he intoned slowly before barking a laugh. “Ha, bet you thought I was gonna say yup again, didn’t you?” He stepped forward, offering his hand to me for shaking it firmly once I accepted. “Hi, good to meet you. I tell you, I’ve been looking all over the place for those friends of yours this whole time. They have been a right pain in the ass to find.”

Athena explained, while the man shook Tabbris’s hand. “Lord Yup is one of the last surviving members of a race known as the Tseuckaviel. They are capable of seeing through the eyes of any being, intelligent or not, that they have ever laid eyes on in their lifetimes. You may see how this can add up very quickly. And they are also capable of simultaneously processing the images from hundreds of different viewpoints at once. Lord Yup is several thousand years old, by Seosten reckoning. Between that and his powerful clairvoyant magic, you may see why he was the most logical choice to search for your allies.”

My mouth open and shop a couple times, before I manage a weak, “Uh yeah. I’m surprised you guys could remain hidden this long, if the bad guys could just possess one of his people.”

“We can’t be possessed,” Lord Yup replied flatly. “Something about our bodies is incompatible with the Seosten. When they try it, both beings… disintegrate. It is, I have been told, an extremely painful experience. Not that it stopped them from trying many times. There is a reason that the lovely Lady Athena introduced me as one of the last of my people. Between the Seosten experiments, and the Fomorian assault on our world to harvest what they could of us, my people did not fare well. Not very well at all.”

Well that was really freaking dark. I flinched, floundering a little before offering a weak, “I’m really sorry.” Belatedly, I added a quick, “Wait, does that mean that you can spy on all the Seosten than that you’ve seen?”

It was Athena who answered, “No, one of the genetic modifications that our people have built into ourselves, along with our extended age and enhanced physical abilities, is an immunity to such things. We cannot be viewed through his eyes, nor can he see through the eyes of any being who is currently looking at one of us directly.”

Yup nodded. “That and there are other ways to block it, yes. But fortunately, your people don’t know any of them. Or they just haven’t been using them. Because it took a while, but I finally found them. They are at a border world, searching for where they believe Radueriel has you imprisoned.”

Looking toward Athena, I asked, “Did you get a message to them?”

“I tried,” Lord Yup answered for her. “But they’re a little skittish. So, we thought that it would be better if the message came in the form of you.”

“Right.” Nodding to that, I looked between the two of them. “So, how do we get them? Can you make a portal to where they are?”

“I can do that,” Lord Yup confirmed. “Or nearby anyway. Don’t want to draw too much attention to them. Spies everywhere, after all. Plus, there’s that whole not startling them thing. You’ll have to approach them yourselves. But they’ll be close. I— oh, they split up.”

“We’ll get to all of them,” I replied. “Let’s just get over there first. Err, please?”

He winked, his four ears twitching. “Your wish…” as he spoke, Lord Yup extended his hand. Another portal appeared in the air there.

Tabbris squeezed my hand, and we stepped through right behind Athena, who led the way. Lord Yup brought up the rear, his portal closing behind him.

We were in what looked like an alley right behind a busy marketplace. Straight ahead, I could hear dozens or possibly hundreds of voices all shouting for attention. It didn’t sound like there was anything bad going on, more like everyone had something to sell and wanted everyone else to know about it. It was crazy. I felt like I was standing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Turning to the others, I raised my voice to shout, “Are you sure we can find them in all this?!”

Lord Yup grinned at that, tapping the side of his head. “Still got eyes on a couple of them,” he replied easily before pointing. “That way.”

Following his directions, we headed out into the crowded market. Wow, if I thought it was busy while standing in the alley, being in the middle of it was absolutely insane. We had to push and shove our way through. No one was paying any attention to who they were bumping into, because all of their attention was on the sales coming from the various booths in the open air market. It was almost like a do just to stay with Athena and Yup, while Tabbris clung tightly to my hand.

Then I saw them, standing just ahead of us, with their heads turned slightly to the side, Sands, Larissa, and Roxa were watching one of the salesmen.

For a moment, I had the absurd urge to walk up behind Sands, cover her eyes, and play the ‘guess who’ game. But I was pretty damn sure that wouldn’t go over very well.

Instead, I approached close enough that they would be able to hear me over the sound of the crowd, and called, “You guys looking for somebody in particular?!”

All three spun around so fast that they very nearly fell over in unison. I saw their eyes widen, and Sands was the first to blurt, “Flick!”

She threw herself at me, and I was suddenly grabbed up in an incredibly tight hug. It felt even tighter than I had thought that she was capable of. Sands had gotten noticeably stronger since I had seen her last.

“You’re alive! You’re safe, you’re not being dissected, you’re not a prisoner, you’re not a-wait.” Her eyes darted over to Tabbris, widening in even greater confusion.

Then the other two were there. The older woman plucked a surprised Tabbris up off the ground and embraced her tightly, tears in her eyes. You’re okay,” she murmured, voice shaking. You’re both okay.” Then she looked back-and-forth between us, seeming to register the fact we were separated for the first time. “Wait…”

“It’s alright,” I informed her. “We just thought it would be best if we approached separate like this, and introduced Tabbris as a new friend, until we could explain things.”

Tabbris, for her part, clung tightly to the woman. “Aunt Larissa! I was worried about you!”

That made the woman cough, her smile brightening as she regard to the girl in her arms. “You were worried about me? I…” She trailed off then, choosing just to hug the girl even tighter.

“Are you okay?” That was Roxa. She was close, and I could tell that she wanted to hug me too. But she hung back, eyes narrowed as she watched us. “I mean, are you really okay?”

“I’m not possessed,” I replied. “And I wasn’t taken prisoner. It’s a long story, but I was rescued by…” Turning, I gestured to the other two, who had stepped interview by that point. “Uh, may I introduce—”

“A friend,” Athena interrupted, before adding, “Perhaps more personal introductions later, once we are away from prying ears and make it somewhere a bit more private.”

“You— I—“ Larissa looked a bit lost while she held Tabbris tightly. “We’ve been looking for you.”

I nodded. “Yeah, we’ve been looking for you too. Like I said, it’s a long story. One that we should really tell somewhere safe. Preferably with the others. The others are all here, right?”

“Wait.” Roxa took a step forward, extending a hand to me. She held it up and waited expectantly. I knew what she wanted. She wanted me to take her hand so that she could use the choker to prove to herself that I really wasn’t possessed.

I did so without hesitation, taking her hand and squeezing it. The blonde girl looked me up and down, let out an audible sigh of relief, and finally embraced me. Her voice was a whisper, “I thought they had you. I thought they were taking you apart.”

“Not this time,” I assured the girl. “But really, story later. Trust me, it’s a doozy. Totally worth the wait.”

“Of course.” Larissa glanced to Athena and Yup. “I don’t know who you are, but thank you for taking care of them. The others are spread out, looking for information about Radueriel’s prison. We—” she swallowed, looking to me seriously. “We thought the worst.”

“Guess I’m a little luckier than that,” I replied, unable to keep my voice from shaking just a little at the thought of what would have happened to me if Athena hadn’t actually shown up. “So let’s go find the others, and I’ll tell you all about it back at our house.”

“Your house?” Sands echoed.

I grinned at her. “Like I said… it’s a long story.”

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