Manakel

Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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Several Thousand Years Ago

Three figures, one much smaller than the others, stood in front of the great transparent wall of the space station Aquilari’s observation deck. Before them lay the vastness of space, filled with innumerable stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond comprehension or belief. The universe, itself to the larger multiverse as this single station was to the galaxy it lay within.

“Are we really gonna see it all, Uncle Lucifer?” The soft, reverent voice came from the child, as she stood between her older companions. Chayyiel, only ten years old, could not hope to comprehend the scale of what lay before them. Despite all the incredible power that had been thrust onto her, despite the accident that had made her into what could become one of the most powerful Seosten in existence, she was still a child. She was still innocent.

With a slight smile at that, Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel. She, in turn, returned the smile. Which was nice, considering he was one of the few people she seemed comfortable enough to smile with. Shy and withdrawn, his female partner didn’t tend to do much talking. She let him do that. And he was good with the arrangement, since he loved to talk.

Even before his own enhancement. An enhancement that had been just as accidental as both Sariel’s and Chayyiel’s. All three of them, accidents.

Well, mostly accidents. Chayyiel’s father had intended to expose her to the physics-defying energies of the other-world. But only for a short time, just long enough to… to help her. Unfortunately, it had gone wrong. The man had been distracted and taken away from his work at the worst possible time. Which resulted in Chayyiel being abandoned in that other-world and assumed lost forever. At least until Sariel and Lucifer, his lab assistants, had saved her with the help of one of the actual project subjects, a man named Amitiel. He had been the one who came to the two in the first place, pleading with them to do something to save the girl. He had begged them to go beyond all safety measures, pleaded for them to not just bend the rules, but shatter them in order to open the portal again and get the girl out.

They had done so, at the cost of destroying the Seosten’s only method of accessing that other-world.

For some time, there had been talk of locking Lucifer and Sariel up, of containing them to some prison lab, of… doing any number of things that angry people talked about doing when something as bad as losing access to the ability to create ageless super soldiers happened. But in the end, higher powers had decided that since their numbers of project successes were limited, throwing away any of them wasn’t viable. The two had instead been assigned to the same exploratory ship as the rest of the products of that project. Though they were currently given no real assignment, being relegated to caring for and watching over Chayyiel herself.

Lucifer didn’t mind that either, any more than he minded being the ‘face’ of his partnership with the shy Sariel. Chayyiel was a good kid, and smart as hell even before she had been upgraded.

“We’re gonna try,” he replied to the girl’s question, giving her a wink. “It’s a pretty big universe though. It’ll take a long time.”

“Very long,” Sariel quietly agreed. Her hand moved to Chayyiel’s shoulder, squeezing it. She had been the one to come up with the solution that allowed herself and Lucifer to extract Chayyiel. It was a solution that had ended up destroying the project itself, even as it saved one child’s life. Lucifer had tried to take that blame for himself, but it was one time where Sariel had not meekly and quietly allowed him to take the lead. He’d wanted to spare her from being the focus of so much anger, yet she had done so anyway, confessing that it was her plan.

Seeing her small, fragile figure hunched in on herself while being bombarded with so much vitriol from the investigative committee had been the one and only time in his life to that point that Lucifer had been tempted to murder other Seosten. And not just one of them, but each and every figure who had been hounding, insulting, and belittling the woman beside him.

Not deterred in the least, Chayyiel’s head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh, but we’ve got time, right?” She looked first toward Sariel, then to Lucifer, eyes shining with curiosity and innocence as she firmly declared, “We’ve got lots of time to see everything out there.”

Chuckling, the man put his hand on the opposite shoulder from where Sariel’s still was. Both of them stood there with their hands on their young charge. “You’re not wrong about that,” he admitted while turning his gaze back to the stars. “We do have a lot of time.” Curiously, he asked, “So, how long do you think it would take to see everything there is to see out there? Every star, every world, every moon, everything. How long would it take us to see  all of it?”

Chayyiel blinked at that, face scrunching up with thought for a few seconds before guessing, “Ten thousand years?”

“Longer than that.” That was Sariel, her voice quiet, yet firm. “Much longer.”

“She’s right,” Lucifer agreed. “You want to see everything, you better settle in for the long haul. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And,” he added, “a lot of danger. Not just Fomorians. Other things too. A whole universe worth of monsters and problems.”

“We can handle it.” Chayyiel’s voice was assured, arms folded across her stomach as she gazed out at that starfield, determination written across her face. “We’re gonna see it all. And we’re gonna end the war with the Fomorians. We’re gonna fix everything.”

Again, Sariel and Lucifer exchanged brief glances. That time, it was Sariel who spoke up first. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome… aboard the Olympus.”

Pride filled the voice of the man who made that announcement. The figure, who was just barely under six feet in height, with black hair that was lined at the temple and along the sides with silver, smiled. It was a smile that spoke of adventure, of daring, and of battles yet to come.

His name was Puriel, and this was his ship. He stood directly in the middle of the bridge, surrounded on all sides by the consoles that his people, his people would use to direct the ship along their journey, through their missions. This pristine, almost perfectly white with hints of gold room was the command center, the brain of one of the most technologically and magically advanced ships in the entire Seosten fleet. Entire planets had worked to put this single ship through its theoretical, testing, and practical phases. And now it was real. It was complete.

And it was theirs. The products of the Summus Proelium Project, the experimental upgrading process created by Director Aysien, who had been granted an endless lifespan as their aging was frozen, along with other enhancements and unique, individual gifts, had all been gathered onto this single ship. A single ship with a single mission: to explore the vast, unending reaches of space and find some advantage that would allow the Seosten to finally finish the forever war. It was a war that had been raging for hundreds of thousands of years. Literally dozens of generations of the Seosten, whose members lived roughly ten thousand years by themselves, had come and gone without ever experiencing anything except this war against Cronus’s children, the Fomorians.

And now, Puriel’s people, his people, would have a chance to find a way of ending that war, of ending the threat that the Fomorians posed to the entire universe, once and for all. Yes, he felt pride at that fact. Yes, he felt immeasurable happiness at the very thought that his children might, might grow up in a universe where they would be safe.

That thought made his gaze move to the console near the very back of the bridge, next to the main door. And to the beautiful figure who sat there, looking back at him from across the room. Tall and regal, with a beauty that was matched only by her sharp wit and sharper tongue for those who had failed her, Kushiel still took his breath away. To have a child with her, to give that child a chance to live in a universe free of the Fomorian threat… he still held to that hope, to that dream. Old as he was even now, that was a dream worth working for.

And he could live to see it. His age, like all of the crew of the Olympus, had been frozen. Unless killed by some outside means, they would never die. They could, conceivably, actually live to see the end of this war, and whatever would come next.

But the others were watching. As much as he felt that he could lose himself in the gaze of his wife forever, this was too important of a day. So, Puriel pulled himself back, clearing his throat. “Logistics,” he used Kushiel’s position rather than her name. Must stay professional. “Report.”

Granting him one of her rare, yet beautiful smiles before it vanished behind a mask of professionalism, Kushiel gave one slight nod, her voice crisp. “Yes, Trierarch. All supplies are in the green. Fuel stores are reporting maximum capacity. Weapons are pristine. We are clear for six months of regular rations and travel before restock and refuel will be required.”

“Good to know how long we’ve got ahead of us,” Puriel replied with a broad smile. He couldn’t help it. He was professional, not dead. Still, he cleared his throat before his gaze moved slightly to the next station. “Engineering?”

Radueriel returned his brief smile, giving a hand gesture that was part wave and part salute. “Believe me, Trierarch, we are just fine down in the engine room. The boys and I have spent the past week going over every millimeter of that beauty down there. She’ll get us where we need to go, and give a little kick to anyone that tries to stop us from getting there.”

“Given the things we’ll be running into,” Puriel replied, “it better be a big kick.” He turned his attention to the next console over then. “Tactical?”

Auriel stood at rigid attention beside her station, hands clasped behind her back. “Sir,” she began crisply, “All weapons are online and at full capacity.” And yet, even the always professional woman (to the point that many had joked when they thought neither she nor Puriel could hear them about the enormous stick that must have been lodged deep in her backside) could not entirely contain the excitement of what was about to happen. There was the faintest of smiles that briefly flickered across her expression. “It will be a very big kick, sir.”

Puriel smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Security, Crew Liaison, any issues getting everyone settled in?”

From opposite sides of the bridge, Abaddon, as ship’s security chief, and Jophiel, as the crew liaison, both reported negative. The former continued with, “We all did a bit of partying last night, but we’re good for departure.”

It was technically against the rules, as military crews that were about to set off were supposed to remain ‘dry’ for a full day before departure. And Abaddon definitely wasn’t supposed to outright tell the ship’s trierarch about it. But what the hell. It was a special occasion. And everyone knew that no one paid attention to that rule.

Though, from the dirty look that Auriel was shooting Abaddon, if she had her way, it definitely would have been an issue. It was good for him then, that Puriel was far more easygoing. Well, as far as that kind of thing went, anyway.

Next, Puriel turned his attention to the woman who stood near the door, clearly waiting to be dismissed as soon as this launch procedure was over.  “Research and Development?”

The small woman who met his gaze had startlingly green eyes, the result of an earlier enhancement after losing the ones she had been born with. They allowed her to see into many different spectrums, and enhance down to the microscopic level. Her name was Cahethal, and she was also one of the members of his crew that Puriel knew the least about, aside from the late-comers. And they… well, they were a different situation entirely.  

She was also clearly anxious to get back to work, since her response was a simple, “We’d be doing a lot better if I wasn’t wasting my time up here. I have a whole roster of bright-eyed know-it-alls that I need to whip into shape before they run an experiment that blows up this entire ship.”

“Well,” Puriel replied easily, “I guess we’ll have to let you get back there as soon as possible to avoid that, won’t we? Let’s finish up then.” His attention moved to the man next to her. “Medical?”

The man there, Manakel, had been working with Puriel for the past five hundred years. The two knew each other quite well, and exchanged brief smiles. Neither could believe they were finally here, commanding their own ship. And not only that, but one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. It was a dream come true, for both of them, in many different ways.

“The crew checks out,” the medical chief reported crisply. “We are ready to go.”

“Indeed we are,” Puriel agreed before looking at last toward the nearest console to his own seat. “Unless my executive officer has any problems to raise?”

The man there, Sachael, was almost as tall as the giant Abaddon, though he also looked to be much older. His long, pure white hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match, along with eyes that were pale blue, like a pair of frozen ponds set against the snow of his hair. He had also worked with Puriel even longer than Manakel had. Which meant that Puriel was pretty certain Sachael had been the one to convince the crew to go out for drinks the night before.

On-duty, Sachael was the consummate professional. He did his job, and he did it very well. Perfectly, in fact. He was the best first mate that Puriel could have asked for. But off-duty, the man was another story. He was fanatical about separating his two lives, to the point of almost seeming to be two entirely different people. He valued his freedom and fun. That was why he worked so hard while on-duty, so that he could turn it all off and let loose when he wasn’t. And woe be to the person who made him work when he considered himself done.

In this case, the man nodded crisply. “All departments and systems seem to be green.”

Puriel turned to the front then, his mouth opening to address the helmsman, when the door at the back of the room, near Kushiel, Manakel, and Cahethal, slid open. Three figures entered then, one much smaller than the other two.

Lucifer and Sariel, both of them barely past their mid-fifties in age. Barely more than children, really. Neither had actually been selected by their Choirs to be a part of Summus Proelium, or this ship. No, they had been simple lab techs back at the project itself, little more than assistants to Aysien himself until… well, until things had changed. Mostly due to the other figure they had entered with: Chayyiel. The director’s daughter, whose accidentally extended excursion into the other-world where they had drawn their extraordinary gifts from had resulted in the ending of that project.

Or, more specifically, whose unprepared retrieval from that excursion had ended the project, along with any way of actually accessing that other-world, possibly forever.

It was that fact that likely fueled the audible annoyance in Auriel’s voice, as the woman snapped, “What are they doing here?” It looked like she was about to order them off, but stopped herself with a look to Puriel.

Heedless of the reaction (most of the bridge crew looked no less annoyed or outright angry than Auriel herself did) that their presence was creating, Chayyiel all-but sprinted across the bridge, letting out a whoop as she saw the starfield ahead of them. “Are we really leaving, Uncle Puriel?!” She blurted while stopping beside him. Her hands grabbed his arm and she gazed up adoringly. “Really really leaving?”

Kushiel’s own tone was even darker than Auriel’s. “If the girl’s babysitters cannot even perform that duty adequately–”

“We’re sorry. Sorry.” Lucifer hurriedly put in, head shaking quickly as he moved with Sariel right on his heels. The blonde woman was slightly younger than her constant companion, and she was also much more shy. Puriel wasn’t sure he’d heard the woman speak more than a few words that she didn’t absolutely have to speak in the whole time that he’d known her. She relied on her research partner to do that talking for her so much that the rest of the lab, and now the crew here, had begun referring to them as ‘twins.’

“We tried to keep her in the mess hall,” Lucifer was explaining, “so she could watch the launch from there. But she kept insisting that–”

“Ahem.” Manakel raised a hand, drawing Puriel’s attention. “I’m afraid I did indeed extend an invitation to the young miss to bring her guardians with her to see the launch from the bridge. I thought it would be something she would enjoy. Who wants to see the first launch of a ship like this from the mess or the observation deck when you can see it from the bridge?”

Pausing briefly, Puriel looked down to the girl, whose eyes were shining with hope as she stared right back up at him, batting her eyelashes like some kind of innocent bifestel.

“Well,” the man finally replied, “how can I argue with that? Over there.” He nodded to a nearby couple of seats set against the wall near Abaddon. “Strap yourselves in, okay?”

That earned him a hug from the girl herself, before she and her two caretakers (who would have to be given some other job at some point, but Puriel wasn’t sure what that would be just yet, particularly if Cahethal continued to insist that she didn’t want them) moved to the seats.

With that interruption settled, Puriel finally looked to the front. “Helm and Navigation?”

The man there, Amitiel, gave a short nod. He had been looking briefly toward the three newcomers, his attention apparently caught by a wave from Chayyiel herself before belatedly realizing that he had been addressed.

“Ah, ready, sir,” he replied carefully.

Puriel didn’t know Amitiel that well, but he had noticed that whatever else the procedure that changed them all had done, it also seemed to have made him quieter than before. Less boastful of his skill and more… calm than he’d been in those first few weeks. Which was a good thing, as far as Puriel was concerned. Having a calm, professional helmsman would help the ship get through its shakedown voyage without too many problems. Hopefully.

“Very good,” he announced then, realizing that everyone’s eyes were on him. His command crew. His people. They were watching him, waiting for his word to launch. Waiting for him to give the command that would begin their great journey.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began then, turning his attention to the stars.

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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Desperate Measures 37-08

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Manakel would have killed us, all three of us (plus the others who were already unconscious) within the next second if he’d had the chance. I was certain of that much. When he had clearly been winning, he had been just arrogant enough to let it keep going. But now, once Tabbris spoke that single word to activate the spell that would take his protective shield down for one brief instant, he didn’t have the time to spare. He would end this immediately, and we were in no shape to stop him. Hell, we wouldn’t have been in the shape to stop him at the best of times, let alone now.

And he started with Tabbris. His arms jerked up and out, sending Avalon and me flying in opposite directions. I crashed down with a yelp, in time to see the man lunging that way. His sword was out of Avalon, blood dripping from it as he drove the weapon for the young girl’s back, even as I shouted. Warning, threat, plea? Probably all of the above.

In that instant, however, as the sword was driven down, there was a sudden crack in the air. And the blade was caught by a whip that stretched across the room.

Gaia. She was there. Her whip caught the blade a nanosecond before it would have gone into Tabbris’s back, before she gave a sharp yank that sent the weapon flying away from the man to clatter against the far wall. An instant later, the whip was cracking through the air once more, toward his face.

But it was more than that, I realized in that moment. As the whip snapped that way, I caught the slightest glimpse of something else. Around the edges of the whip was a view of somewhere else. It was hard to describe, but it was like… like there was some kind of very narrow portal or something extended just a couple inches out from the whip itself. That… tear of sorts in space would stay for a moment or two after the whip passed before shifting back to normal.

Then I understood. Gaia’s whip created a very minor portal around itself so that it would cut through basically anything. Any defense or shield that was put up to block it, that one or two inch portal would cut it out of the way so that the whip itself could reach its target. Gaia must have been able to control exactly what the portal affected, or when it was actually active. Or something. The point was, the portal-edge of it let the weapon pass through anything. And, I was sure, pretty much kill almost anything. Whipping a portal into someone had to be pretty damn hazardous for their health, after all. Between that and the fact that the whip could extend to fairly ludicrous lengths, yeah, I could see why Gaia’s weapon was so dangerous.

Manakel reacted just as quickly.. He vanished, disappearing from that spot just before the whip would have hit him. Then Kohaku, who had been on the ground after her forcefield collapsed, was on her feet. Recall, he’d recalled into her.

“Gaia!” I blurted while shoving myself up a bit, “It’s Kohaku! It–”

But the headmistress was already reacting. As the Manakel-possessed Kohaku made it to her feet, the other woman held her free hand out, starting to conjure some kind of golden forcefield orb around her. There were strange, green glowing runes on the sides of the forcefield. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I had the feeling it would contain the woman. And maybe even Manakel himself.

Before it could fully manifest, however, the dead Rudolph was up on his feet. His body threw itself at Gaia, who had to turn her attention ever so briefly toward him with a gesture that sent the boy flying out of the way. I could tell she was trying to be gentle with it, even as vines sprouted from the wood of the wall and held Rudolph’s body close.

Just as quickly, Gaia’s attention snapped back to Manakel, who had used that moment to move for the teleportation jammer. As Kohaku’s hand reached toward it, however, a smaller glowing forcefield appeared around the thing to stop him from disabling it.

“Leaving so soon?” Gaia’s voice was hard then, as she added, “I think I would prefer if you stayed.” With those words, she gestured, and the stasis fields that were trapping Koren, Dare, and the others all switched off. The now-former hostages all collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

“She thought you would save her, you know.” There was twisted venom behind Manakel’s words as he spoke through Kohaku. “She thought you’d realize the truth. For awhile, at least. I’m not sure when she gave up. Honestly, I’d stopped listening to her by that point.”

If his attempt to guilt Gaia worked, the woman didn’t show it. Her face remained impassive, as she met the possessed woman’s eyes. “I will give you one chance to release her.”

Giving a tiny, almost imperceptible smile, Manakel-through-Kohaku replied simply, “I understand your confidence. After all, you brought two Committee members in with you. And the mighty Prosser himself. Quite impressive. But I’m afraid that they’re running into problems of their own. You see, a lot of quite powerful beings, Heretic and Stranger alike, have died in this hospital, or had their bodies brought here. It makes for quite an emergency army, should one have nothing else to lose and no need to even play at subtlety. You are on your own, Headmistress.”

Gaia’s expression never faltered, never changed at all. “I am as alone as you, Manakel.”

Something happened then between the two of them. It was like they had an entire battle without ever moving an inch. I saw their eyes flicker, judging the distance between them, the powers that they could bring to bear, the people that could get in the way. They each saw what the other could have done, and how they themselves would react. They both saw all of it, the openings and the retaliations. There were dozens of battles taking place in those few seconds, all fought purely in their minds and through their eyes as they watched and judged one another.

Through it all, I didn’t dare move. Every part of me screamed to go for Avalon, who had become entirely too quiet. But I couldn’t. Moving from where I was would have made me a potential obstacle, or a hostage to use against Gaia. I had to stay put, and completely still. It was, I was sure, the same reason that Tabbris hadn’t moved. We didn’t dare interrupt. Not this. Not now.

But in the end, one of them had to move first. And given the condition Avalon was in, it had to be Gaia. With absolutely no warning or gesture, the woman made her move. And that move was to make the unconscious Columbus’s goggles shoot at Manakel-Kohaku from the side. At the exact same time, Vulcan (still in his gun form) fired as well. As did Scout’s gun. Even my own fallen staff fired off a concussive blast from one end. In an instant, the Seosten bastard was being attacked from all sides.

Manakel solved the problem the same way I figured most necromancers solved most of their problems: with dead bodies. In that same instant, a handful of them simply appeared around him. Two wore hospital gowns while the third was a doctor. But all of them were very clearly dead even before they were struck by the attacks meant for their master.

The first, one of the patients, suddenly disappeared into a blur of motion that went straight for Gaia. At the same time, the doctor zombie extended a hand and fired a bright blue laser at her, while the other dead patient somehow summoned what looked like dozens of tiny knives in midair before sending them flying that way.

Distractions, all of them. Gaia dealt with them in short order, her whip lashing out to create a portal that the knives went into, while she simply absorbed the energy from the laser. As for the guy who was using superspeed to rush straight for her, the woman’s hand snapped out. She caught him by the throat, stopping him in mid-blur. Then Gaia spoke a single word, and all three bodies instantly turned to ash.

Manakel-Kohaku, by that point, had summoned a massive spear of ice. The thing was a good nine feet long and two feet thick along the shaft. With a grunt, he sent it flying at the headmistress.

Gaia didn’t move. I saw a weird hazy effect appear in front of her, like a very intense, very concentrated spot of heat shaped in a wedge around the woman. As the ice-spear reached that spot, it instantly melted, before just as instantly evaporating. The water from the ice didn’t even have a chance to touch anything else before it was gone.

Without giving Manakel another chance to attack, Gaia summoned some sort of chains made of bright light, which flew at the possessed woman across from her.

Whatever those chains were, apparently Manakel didn’t want them touching his host, because her hand snapped up to create a metal wall between them. The chains bounced off, creating a brief, blinding flash of light that made me flinch. And in that same instant, as I flinched, I felt a strong hand yank me off the floor.

Manakel had me. Using Kohaku’s body, he hauled me up, putting my body between him (or her) and Gaia. His other hand produced a knife from his belt. “Now, really,” he addressed the woman while holding his arm around my neck in an iron grip, “you’re already about to lose one girl you practically see as a child.” His head nodded toward the bleeding, horribly pale Avalon. “Do you really want to make it two in one night, Headmistress?”

Before Gaia could speak, I found myself snarling, “Hey, Manakel…” As I spoke, my hand snapped up to his arm.

I couldn’t possess him. Even I wasn’t that stupid. It would have been suicide in that moment. The man was several thousand years old, and I was just a teenager. Even with Charmiene’s power, he’d utterly erase me the second I tried it.

But there was something else that I could do, a power that I had just picked up. Tabbris had told me that I could instantly draw symbols, pictures, letters, whatever onto solid surfaces by touching them. I’d thought about how well that would work for spells. It would have to be spells that I knew perfectly, however. Even the slightest wrongly curved line here or there would ruin the spell. And without a perfect memory like the Seosten had, the spells that I could create instantly just like that without looking them up or taking my time to let muscle memory help with the brush strokes were limited. But there was one spell that I knew incredibly well, one spell that I had memorized perfectly. One spell that I could have drawn blindfolded, on any surface.

It was, of course, the spell that I had learned from Gabriel Prosser, the spell that would drive any Seosten out of the host it was drawn onto. And as my hand closed around Kohaku’s exposed wrist, I used my new power to instantly draw that spell into her skin, shoving all the power that I could into it while blurting, “Get out of my teacher!”

It was an instantaneous thing. I heard a cry of pain escape both Kohaku, and Manakel himself as the man stumbled out of his host. Kohaku’s grip around my throat relaxed, as the woman herself collapsed to the floor in a heap.

I spun, just as Gaia reached me. But both of us were too late. Manakel, now hostless but recovering almost instantly from the pain of that spell, touched some kind of spell on his cufflink. In a brief flash of blue light, he vanished.

“He’s running.” Gaia’s voice was flat as she stood beside me. “Still in the building, but he’s running.” While she spoke, the woman briefly touched my shoulder, concern written in her eyes before she glanced toward Avalon. Pain wrote itself across her face, as she announced, “His blade is poisoned. It’s blocking her power.”

That was why Avalon was so pale. The wound itself didn’t help, of course. But her regeneration wasn’t working. She wasn’t getting any better, because of that poison. Of course. Of course that fucking piece of shit would have a poisoned blade, just in case.  

“He’ll have the cure on him.” The words came from the glowing figure who appeared next to Gaia, before resolving into Sariel. She’d been possessing the headmistress. “And if I know Manakel, it’ll be the only cure you can get to in time.”

“Mama!” Tabbris had picked herself off the floor, flinging herself at her mother to cling onto her. And in that moment, I caught my first glimpse of the girl’s face, the first time that I had seen her since this terrible night had begun.

Facepaint. Her face was painted to look like a fox. It was… simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking. The things that she’d had to do, the things that she’d had to help with… and she looked like that? It reinforced that she was just a little kid, who should have been able to do little kid things. I wanted to hug her, but I also felt ashamed, and sick to my stomach.

Still, the idea that Manakel had essentially been beaten here by a tiny girl in fox-face paint was… kind of appropriate. Horrified as I was by the whole situation, some part of me also appreciated that.

For her part, Avalon was shaking her head, mumbling deliriously about how she was fine and to do something about the others. I wasn’t sure she even knew what was going on or where she was, to be honest. Seeing her like that, after turning my gaze away from Tabbris, didn’t help. Manakel had done all this. Manakel was, in no uncertain terms, a fucking monster.

My eyes glanced briefly around the room at that thought. Rudolph… Rudolph was dead. Scout, Columbus, Shiori, Choo, and Doug were unconscious. So were Sean, Vulcan (if he could be unconscious), Deveron, Koren, Nevada, and Professor Dare. And, of course, Professor Kohaku was still down, right there in the middle of the room.

“Gaia.” I spoke without thinking, pain and desperation in my voice as I fell to my knees on the other side of Avalon. “Please. You have to stop him. He’ll have another way out. I know you think he’s trapped in here, but he’ll find a way. He’ll get away and we’ll lose Valley. Please, stop him.”

“Yes,” the woman agreed, already starting to the door. She paused, glancing back to where Sariel and Tabbris were. “Can…”

“I have magic that will stabilize her,” Sariel confirmed. “Go. I’ll keep her alive until you bring back the cure from Manakel. But you should hurry. He will avoid the Committee members and Gabriel, which will slow him down. But he will have another way out.”

Without another word, Gaia left, chasing after Manakel before the man found his way to whatever secret escape hole he’d set up. All I could do was pray that she made it to him in time. Please, please let her make it to him in time.

I couldn’t lose Avalon. I just… I just couldn’t. Kneeling there, staring at the girl that I had grown to adore over all these months, I fought the tears that flooded my eyes.

She looked broken, in so many ways. Bones poking through limbs, blood literally covering her shirt, face pale and eyes unseeing as she mumbled incoherently. We were losing her. We were losing her so fast.

Sariel moved then, one hand producing a field-engraver, which she used to quickly draw several spells around the floor beside Avalon, as well as on the girl herself. Nearby, I saw Tabbris doing the same, helping her mother with her own quick spellwork. The two of them drew so quickly I could barely follow what they were doing, as the runes around and on Avalon grew more and more complicated.

“We can keep her alive,” Sariel announced quietly as she glanced to me, “but we can’t fix her. We can stop the poison from making things even worse.”  

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I admitted, blinking tears of frustration and helpless terror out of my eyes. “Gaia, Gaia and the others have to find him. They have to get the cure. They–”

“Stop… stop… him.” The voice was weak, and I glanced quickly back to see Kohaku. The woman’s eyes were barely open, as she stared at me. She was clearly fighting to stay conscious, and losing that fight. “Escape…” she continued even more softly. “He’ll escape… Hatch. Hatch in… in nursery. Hatch in nursery.”

She collapsed once more then, eyes falling shut as her body slumped. It had been all she could do to pass that message along. The nursery, that son of a bitch was going to escape through some kind of hatch in the nursery.

My gaze snapped back around, just in time to see Sariel with her own eyes closed. She opened them after a second, head shaking. “Gaia knows,” she informed us, “but she won’t make it in time. She and the others are… occupied. Manakel wasn’t lying about the threats he could produce. They must have been hiding dead bodies here for decades, at least. Between that and the forces he already had, it’s… taking time.”

“We don’t have time!” I blurted then. “Valley doesn’t have time! We–” I was on my feet then, starting to move. “We have to slow him down.”

“I have to keep the spell going,” Sariel informed me. “Or Avalon won’t make it long enough for that cure to matter. And you can’t face him alone.”

“She won’t be alone, Mama,” Tabbris corrected her, moving to stand next to me. “We can’t beat him, but maybe we can slow him down, just enough?”

My mouth opened, then shut, as a light clicked on in my mind.

“Actually… maybe we can beat him.”

******

He better still be there, I directed inwardly while sprinting down the hall a few minutes later. I had made my way through the hospital as quickly as I could. There had been basically nothing in my way, since every possible threat was busy throwing itself at Gaia and the other much more powerful people. We can’t be too late, we can’t be!

He’ll be there, my Seosten partner assured me. We’ll make it.

She was right. I skidded my way into the nursery, just in time to see the man himself. He was there, on the opposite side of the room as he strode toward some door, already raising his hand.

The hatch. It had to be the hatch, his escape portal. He was going for it.

My voice filled the room then, and I heard the loathing within it. “Manakel.

Two steps from his exit, the man spun to me. I saw the toll that his trip through the hospital had taken on him. The strain of all the zombies he had raised and was using to keep the others busy was visible right there on his face. He was sweating, fighting to keep himself moving.

And yet, even then, I had absolutely no doubt that he could easily kill me if we were to fight one on one. He could have been half-dead and he’d still put me down before I could blink.

“Miss Chambers,” the man grunted, “I must say, you are very… persistent. And resilient. How is Miss Sinclaire, hmm?”

Narrowing my eyes at him, I replied simply, “I just figured you might not want to leave without finishing what you started. After all, I’m right here. And I did pretty much just kick your ass up there.”

The man chuckled low and dangerously at that. “Child, I know where the headmistress and the other members of your cavalry are. I know where everything in this hospital is. And let me assure you, if your plan was to delay me long enough to ensure their arrival, you have made a grave tactical error.”

There was a blur of motion then, before the man slammed into me so hard the wind was knocked from my lungs, before my back hit the wall, Manakel was there, shoving me up against that wall with a growled, “A very… grave… error.”

Using one hand to hold me against the wall, the Seosten man moved his other hand to my throat. I felt it close, instantly cutting off my air. All the man had to do was squeeze for another second, and I would be dead. Gone. Erased.

But I moved first. My hand caught his wrist, and our eyes met.

“Oh, Miss Chambers,” Manakel murmured with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. “I have been alive for millennia. If you believe that you stand the slightest prayer of surviving a possession attempt, you are far more deluded than I believed. Even with whatever Seosten child you have dragged along on this endeavor, you will both fail.”

“Oh, I dunno,” I replied in a flat voice, “I’m a scrappy one.”

With those words, I used my power. I possessed Manakel.

Instantly, I felt the weight of his willpower, his power, period. I felt how much he dwarfed me. Can you feel it, Miss Chambers? I heard him speak into my mind while pressing just a tiny bit of his power down on me, like a boy barely touching his thumb to a bug to pin it down. Can you feel just how lost you are? You chose this. Remember that, in whatever tiny part of your shattered consciousness exists after this. Remember that you chose to pursue your own destruction when you could easily have left this confrontation to your betters. What comes next can be blamed only on yourself.

Yes. I had brought this on myself. I had come here. I had tracked him down. I had possessed him, already knowing everything that he said was true. He was right about all of it. I couldn’t beat him. Even with the power I had taken from Charmiene, I was nothing. I was a speck of dust under the kind of mental strength that the man who had been Hades could bring to bear. He would easily, pathetically easily swat my entire mind aside like an annoying fly. My personality, my mind, everything I was, would vanish in the blink of an eye. I would be nothing to him. Tabbris couldn’t help. She was eight. He, meanwhile, was approaching the double digits of millennia. As wonderful and amazing as my little sister, my partner, was, she wouldn’t be able to help me here. Not this time. Not against someone as powerful as Manakel was.

So… it was a good thing that she wasn’t the one possessing me.

Manakel.

Once more, that single word was spoken. Just as it had been a minute earlier when it had first gained the man’s attention. And now, as then, it wasn’t actually me speaking.

There was a brief pause, and I felt the man’s confusion. I felt his sudden uncertainty, which slowly turned to disbelief, then denial, and finally… it was there.

Fear.

Sariel.

Yes, Sariel. That was my plan. That was the last thing I’d said before leaving that office, that Sariel and Tabbris should switch places, that Tabbris should use her own magic to keep Avalon alive while Sariel came with me. Because Manakel had been right, Tabbris stood no chance at beating him in a possession contest. She and I both would have been completely crushed. But Sariel was different. Sariel was far, far stronger. Especially when her power was combined with Charmiene’s. Strong enough that, despite the fact that I could feel the man straining to turn back to his escape hatch, his feet remained firmly planted to the floor.

He was trapped.

Hello, Manakel, the woman’s voice spoke silently within his own head. Do you remember what you said to me all those years ago, on the ship whenever one of us was sent on a mission?

There was a brief pause, before the man’s response came. I told you only to say goodbye when you know that you’ll never see the person again.

Again, silence reigned for a moment, before…

Goodbye, Manakel.

I heard his voice start to speak. I heard his sudden panic, his denial, his rage. I felt him struggle to take back control. All of it in vain, as his hand snapped down to draw a dagger from his own belt, gripping it tightly despite his desperate attempts to throw it away, to release it, to let go. His hand held that dagger in a grip that was so tight, it was almost painful.

Then his own hand, gripping that dagger, stabbed it deep, all the way to the hilt… through his own eye and into his brain.

And the indescribable, blinding rush of pleasure that I felt in that moment? Well, let’s just say that only part of it came from being a Heretic.

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Desperate Measures 37-06

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Once we had clambered up onto the roof of the elevator, getting to the top of the shaft and to the executive floor above was pretty simple. The hardest part, really, was leaving the sound of Rudolph, Sean, and Vulcan fighting those zombies without staying behind to help. Oh God, how badly I wanted to stay. Leaving the two of them there sucked. But staying would have accomplished nothing. Yes, we could have held them off for longer, but we’d just be caught in a loop of killing more and more zombies over and over again with no actual solution. Wherever he was, Manakel could just keep bringing them back. Eventually they’d be joined by the bigger threats and… yeah, staying was a bad idea all around.

So no, as hard as it was, we had to let the two boys cover us while we pushed on to get up to that jammer. It was the only thing we could do, the only chance we had.

To that end, I took hold of Shiori, wrapping an arm around the other girl before using my staff to boost the two of us all the way to the top. We landed easily in the little space between the elevator doorway and the open shaft, balancing there while the others waited below.

Shiori immediately turned her attention to using her metal-control power to get the doors open, while I got ready to cover her, just in case there was an immediate attack. Because, well, I wouldn’t put it past these guys to ambush us right there.

But as the doors opened to reveal a nicely carpeted hallway, no threats immediately presented themselves. There was a beautiful painting of a boat on stormy waters taking up a good portion of the wall directly ahead, while the corridor itself ran both ways past the elevator. The only other bit of furnishing in the hall was a small table partway down on the right with a vase on it. Otherwise, it was just pale blue carpeted floor and wood paneled walls. The place looked more like a mid-range hotel hallway than something that would be in a hospital.

Cautiously, the two of us moved into that all, making room just before Columbus appeared with his hand on Doug. Right behind him was Avalon, who borrowed Columbus’s teleportation to appear with Choo (who still had Marian on his back).

Columbus immediately disappeared then after dropping off Doug, before showing up once more with Scout. And then we were all there.

While Tabbris made Marian gently pat Choo’s head (who was vaguely freaked out by the teleportation) and made cooing noises to calm him down, the rest of us looked around. The hall was long, extending pretty far in either direction, with a handful of blank, unlabeled doors.

Luckily, Rudolph had already told us where we needed to go, just in case we got up here without him, or if anything happened. According to the boy, most of these doors basically led nowhere. Or, at most, to regular offices. We needed to go left, hit the end of the hall, then go right to reach the director’s penthouse office. The director himself usually teleported directly into it, but this was the… well, ‘manual’ way of getting there. Which also meant that there would probably be even more problems for us to work our way through before we actually made it to the office itself. And there… well, there we’d no doubt find Manakel himself. And then things would get even more ‘fun.’

Get to the office, use the spell-hiccup grenades on the jammer, and then let Gaia and the others come in and clean everything up. That was all we had to do, and there was no reason for Manakel to suspect we even knew how to use a spell that would disrupt the jammer at all.

Um, are you trying to convince me that it’s gonna be easy, or yourself? Tabbris hesitantly piped up then.

Wincing, I mentally shrugged. It’s definitely not gonna be easy. I’m going for convincing both of us that it’s possible. How am I doing?

There was a brief pause then, before she replied, I think it’s possible. We just have to help Mama and the others get inside, right?

Right, I confirmed. We help your mom, Gaia, and the others and then let them handle the worst of it. We can do that.

I hope.  

By that time, Columbus had turned to the rest of us after carefully examining the corridor with his goggles, shaking his head. “No spells,” the boy murmured quietly before immediately adding in a slightly darker tone, “which makes this feel even worse.”

Avalon nodded. “It’d be better if there were spells to stop us. This way, it’s like he actually wants us to get there.”

“Oh, I’m sure he does,” I replied before looking to Shiori. “Anything?”

Her head shook. “No one’s watching us. Or me,” she amended then. “No one’s watching me.”  

Holding the crossbow that his pen had created in one hand, Doug quickly snapped, “Rudolph and Sean can’t hold out forever down there. We need to get there asap. Yesterday, preferably.”

He was right. There was no time to waste. So, without another word, we sprinted together down that hall. Columbus went first, keeping an eye out for any magic that could have stopped us (or worse), while the rest of us were right behind him, spreading out to take up most of the width of the hall. Tabbris kept Marian on Choo’s back as the Jekern ran right between Avalon and Shiori, making happy noises about being allowed to run with the rest of us.

The place was huge. I didn’t know what else was up here besides the director’s office, but apparently they did a lot. We ran for what had to be five minutes, following Rudolph’s instructions. Left, hit the end of the hall, then go right. The trouble was that ‘right’ went on for what felt like forever. I was pretty sure there was some spatial trickery going on.

Finally, we came to the end of that ridiculously long hall. Right there in front of us were a pair of enormous, ornate double doors. They were made of what looked like rare jungle wood (not that I was an expert or anything), and had intricate designs carved all along the sides and along the top that seemed to depict some epic battle between a man with a sword and a bunch of monsters, if you followed it from bottom left, up to the top, then along and down to the bottom right. The knobs were each gold, and shaped like a snake’s head. In the middle of each door was a half-circle that formed a full circle when they were closed, and in the middle of that circle were the words, ‘Medici Graviores Morbos Asperis Remediis Curant.’

Doctors cure the more serious diseases with harsh remedies, Tabbris translated quietly. Sounds like a quote or something.

Before I could respond to that, Avalon moved to those doors. She looked to Columbus while raising her foot to kick them in, and he nodded to show that there was apparently no magical spell connected to them or anything. So the girl reared back, lashing out with her foot. The blow knocked both doors inward, making them spring open while the rest of us moved quickly to cover her. Because again, perfect time for a trap.

But there wasn’t one. At least, not one that triggered right then. There were no zombies waiting, no cackling Seosten monster, no one.

What we saw instead was… an office. A pretty grand one, at that. There were floor to ceiling ‘windows’ all along the far wall that showed various scenes similar to the ones in Gaia’s office. The ceiling was about twenty feet up, while the whole room itself was about thirty feet across from this wall to the one where the windows were, and a good forty feet long. The door we were at was close to the rear right corner. The carpeting was plush and clearly expensive, and there was a fully stocked bar about midway down on our side of the room, while opposite that was a wooden dining table loaded with fruits and cheeses, along with a glass of what looked like wine that was half-finished. At the far end sat an enormous desk that looked large enough for an ogre to hold court at, with a chair that was more like a throne. Seriously, who was this office supposed to be for, exactly, a literal god of healing?

Oh, and of course there were also the forcefields holding all the hostages. Couldn’t forget about that.

Yeah. Forcefields and hostages. They were tube-shaped, spaced about five or six feet apart along the far window-wall, and each held a different individual. Professor Dare was there, as was Professor Kohaku, Deveron, Nevada, and… Koren. Koren was there too, somehow. All of them were frozen in place, in what looked like some kind of suspended animation. Each of them also looked surprised, though Professor Dare also looked angry.

Eyes widening at that sight, I moved that way, blurting an incredulous and confused, “What the hell?”

Koren. Why was Koren here? What happened to her? Was this because she sent that message? Had Manakel grabbed her then? And Deveron… had he been with her? What about that pixie? What happened to the pixie? What… how… what?

The others followed me as I rushed that way, until Columbus put a hand up to stop us. “Wait,” he started, “spells. There’s spells attached to them. They…” Frowning as he trailed off, the boy slowly looked along the floor, before eventually focusing on the opposite wall, back behind the bar. “There.”

Doug was closest, and he looked around a little there before reaching up. His hands found some kind of latch, before yanking open panel that revealed a safe with a keypad.

“A safe, seriously?” Shiori was shaking her head. “Let me guess, that’s–”

“–Where the jammer is,” Columbus finished for her, nodding. “Yeah.”

“Okay, first of all, why is Koren Fellows here?” Doug was pointing past us to the girl in question. “I mean, the others I get, but Fellows? Actually, come to think of it, why was she texting you about this Manakel guy to begin with? She’s obviously in on it and all, but… how much? And why is she here now instead of back at the school? What the hell is up with you guys?”

“Excellent questions,” I replied. “Unfortunately, we seriously don’t really have time to go over them. Not even the parts that I’m actually physically capable of explaining right now.”

“You know what else we don’t have time for?” Columbus snapped then with a vague gesture across the room. “Figuring out a combination for that safe. And believe me, all the spells hooked up to it, you don’t want to try to break it open.”

Nodding, I turned in a circle while a frown found its way to my face. “Yeah. Plus, you know, why isn’t Manakel in here? Seriously, a safe is all that’s protecting his jammer and his hostages? I don’t buy it. So where the hell is he? Shiori?”

The girl shook her head. “Nuh uh. No one’s watching us that we don’t know about.”

“This is screwed up,” I announced. “Something about this whole thing is just… really screwed up.”

Doug shrugged a little. “Well, the safe’s easy enough. Haven’t used my question yet today, so…” Pausing briefly to consult his power, he then quickly typed in a series of nine numbers. The safe beeped, and he pulled the door open, revealing the compartment inside. And within that compartment sat a glowing blue crystal, about a foot high and shaped roughly like a stereotypical diamond, sitting on a wooden pedestal.

“That’s it, right?” the boy asked, looking back to the rest of us while tugging his jammer-interrupter from his pocket. “We just use this thing right now and the cavalry can come in?” God, he sounded so hopeful that it would be that easy.

It was easy. Entirely too fucking easy. Which Columbus immediately confirmed by quickly shaking his head. “Don’t,” he warned with a raised hand, “it’s a trap. Yeah, that’s the jammer. Or I’m pretty sure it is, anyway. But… but the spells are connected from those forcefields into that crystal.” He gestured to where Dare, Koren, and the others were held in their magical stasis prisons. “I dunno what they do, but I can see six spells leading directly into that jammer, and five of them leading back out again. I can’t see where they go. It’s… blocked or something, I don’t know. It’s like the lines disappear, like they’re protected. But I’m pretty sure they connect to the stasis fields over there. I just… couldn’t tell you what they’re for.”

“And we don’t have time to figure out what they all do,” I put in with a groan while putting my hand up to my forehead. “Let alone disarm them safely. No wonder Manakel left this here. He could probably sit around doing a leisurely crossword or something while we try to figure this out. And this whole time, Sean and Rudolph are down there dealing with zombies. Not to mention everything else that–Damn it, we don’t have time for any of this!”

“In that case,” a voice announced from the same doorway that we had just come through, “allow me to help you, Miss Chambers.”

The man who stood there, just in the doorway, wasn’t tall, standing a couple inches less than six feet. He looked like he was in his fifties, though he was clearly a hell of a lot older than that. He was also mostly bald, and maybe a tiny bit overweight, though he had clearly been quite handsome in his youth.

Manakel. It was Manakel, in the flesh. He had arrived. I didn’t know how long he’d been standing in the doorway, but there he was, looking utterly casual about the whole situation. Which, well, duh. Of course he felt secure. He could kill all of us together without breaking a sweat. Or really putting much effort into it at all.

As soon as the man arrived, Choo made a noise of (completely understandable) fear and moved behind Shiori with Marian still perched on his back. Once ‘safely’ hidden, he still stuck his head out and made a cautiously threatening sound at the man, electricity dancing across and between his little tusks.

If Manakel cared about the Jekern that was making noises at him, he didn’t show it. Instead, the Seosten who had tormented Avalon all year focused directly on her. “You see,” he explained, “those friends of yours are connected to what you so… ridiculously simplified as a… jammer, was it? They’re powering it, essentially. You can stop it for a second or two by interrupting those forcefields with your… toys.” His hand waved absently toward the spell-hiccup grenade Douglas was holding. “But, if you do that, the forcefield you’re interrupting will collapse. And in this case, collapse means crush itself into a tiny speck. It will go from being that size, to about… oh, this size.” His hand came up, showing his index finger and thumb formed into a tiny circle. “Which will, of course, crush everything inside of it.

“Now, I may have proven incapable of accurately predicting every move you people would make. But I’m pretty sure that’s something you don’t want to happen to… well, any of the people in those forcefields.”

He smiled at us then, letting that silence hold for just a couple of seconds before adding a tiny shrug. “On the plus side though, after that, the jammer comes back up and everyone else is okay. So, you know, maybe I’m wrong and there’s someone here you see as an acceptable loss. Or two… three… exactly how many seconds do you think your friends out there need to break in here? How many of your friends here are you willing to kill just to save yourselves? I’m really quite curious on that part.”

Avalon was the one who found her voice first. “You’re seriously just going to stand there and see if we decide to kill one of the people here?”

Manakel’s response was a shrug. “I told you, I’m very curious. And we have time. Well, not much.” Holding up his wrist, the man tapped an expensive-looking watch with two fingers from his other hand. “By my clock, that protective spell is just about out of time. Which means it should be safe to kill you within… oh… sixty seconds?

“Oh, yes, I like this game very much. Let’s call it that, shall we? Sixty seconds. In sixty seconds, I’m going to kill you, Miss Sinclaire, or whatever moniker you’re using now. I’m going to kill you in front of the others. And then we will move onto them. Or, well, you could try killing off Miss Dare and however many others you need to before the cavalry arrives. Will two be enough? Or do you think they’ll need all six to make it in?”

“Six?” I put in despite myself. “There’s only five.”

Pursing his lips thoughtfully at that, Manakel replied, “Oh. Yes, well… looks can be deceiving.”

With that, the man snapped his fingers. As he did so, a sixth forcefield appeared at the very end. And in it were two figures: Sean and Vulcan. The boy had clearly been frozen in mid-shout, his expression startled.

“Sean!” I blurted, taking a step that way reflexively, the others all moving with me. Then I stopped. “But… where–”

Turning back, I froze. Because another figure stood beside Manakel. Rudolph. His shirt was stained with blood. Blood that fell from his sliced-open throat, while his utterly sightless eyes seemed to stare through me, accusing in their emptiness.

“What can I say,” Manakel announced offhandedly while laying his hand on the head of the boy he had murdered before letting his body simply fall to the floor in a heap.

“I only had six forcefields.”

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Homecoming 35-07

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It was Gaia’s office that we emerged into after passing through the portal. A nice, private area to have our reunion in.

And there they were, standing in front of the portal while clearly waiting for us. My team, my friends, my niece. Columbus, Scout, Sean, and Koren. Even Vulcan gave a happy bark when he saw the three of us. And in the second after that, I found myself nearly knocked backward through the portal once more as a lithe, dark-haired girl threw her arms around me and held on tight with a noise that sounded like it was a cross between a shout of joy and a sob.

“Oof.” Taking a quick step back, I caught myself on my back foot before returning the embrace, just as tightly. “Hi, Shiori.” My voice was soft, its tenderness hopefully portraying what I felt as I held onto the other girl.

God, holding onto her felt so good. It felt so right. For everything that had made the trip to Seosten space interesting and useful, I had missed my girls more than I could express. It all came back to me in a rush as I held onto one of them now. Feeling her arms around me and her body against mine, it was all I could do not to burst into tears myself. I was home. I was really, truly home.

Her hug grew almost painful as she squeezed me even tighter. Her voice was plaintive. “Don’t do that!” she snarled at me. “Don’t do that again! Don’t disappear like that. You can’t just disappear like that. You could’ve died and… and…”

In the background, I half-heard Vanessa and Tristan greeting the others, and I had a brief thought that it wasn’t fair that the rest of their team had to be kept out of it. I knew why, of course. But it still sucked.

But then my thoughts on that, as well as every other conceivable subject, disappeared as Shiori kissed me. Her mouth found mine, and I almost collapsed at the electric feeling. My hands gripped her back even tighter, and I pulled her up against me. I could have sworn that there was uplifting, beautiful music somewhere.

Wait a second, there was music. Pulling back a bit, I turned to find Tristan standing there with Bobbi-Bobbi in her full snake body. The cyberform’s mouth was open, and that song was coming out.

The boy grinned at me, adding a thumbs up. “Don’t let us interrupt,” he announced, “just thought you might like some mood music.”

Flushing a little bit, I turned back to give Shiori one more quick kiss. “I’m okay,” I promised while holding onto her. With a smile, I added, “Hey, where’s the girl that goes on this arm?” I waved my left limb a little teasingly. “It’s lonely.”

Winking, Shiori replied, “She’s waiting for you down on the beach. You know, for a private reunion. I’m pretty sure she didn’t think she could restrain herself when you showed up, and you know how she hates it when people see her being affectionate and… well… human.” She made a face at her own phrasing before shaking it off. Then she kissed me again, and I lost myself for another moment.

After a few seconds of that, I pulled back and smiled. “Seriously. I’m right here and I’m just fine.”

“Are you really, though?” That came from Columbus. He was staring at me through his goggles. And his posture remained a bit standoffish. “Are you really okay?”

My eyes passed from him to the others. They seemed just as withdrawn, watching to see what I did, how I acted, who I really was. Seeing that, I let out a long, low sigh. “Guys,” I announced, “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s me. It’s always been me.”

Koren cut straight to the point, as was her wont. “You’re possessed,” she announced flatly.

“Err…” I coughed once, then shook my head. “Technically, not right now I’m not. I mean, yes I have been for most of my life, but no, I’m not possessed right this second. She’s back at the Atherby camp.”

“She?” Sean pressed, sounding curious.

Before I could say anything to that, Scout quickly piped up. “Sands? And… Mom…?” She had clearly been restraining herself as much as possible, wanting to give me a chance to actually greet the others and all that  before she burst in with all of the many important questions that she had. But she hadn’t been able to hold back any longer, and I couldn’t blame her for that.

“They’re okay,” I quickly assured her. “We,” I gestured toward Vanessa and Tristan, “were sort of transported here through a shortcut. The others are still out there. But your mom and sister are safe. They’re just going to have to take the long way to get back. But trust me, they’ve got plenty of help. They’ll make it.”

“And by we, you mean the three of you… and your passenger.” Columbus, again making it clear through his words and tone that he wasn’t very happy about that idea. And honestly, who could blame him given what he had been through?

And then it really struck me. How long had it been since I actually spoke to the real Columbus as himself? I hadn’t had a chance to really talk to him since that fight.

My expression of softened, and I stepped that way. My arms went around him, and I felt him stiffen for just a moment before he hesitantly returned the hug. I could sense his worry and apprehension through it.

“I’m sorry,” I announced quietly while holding onto him. “I am so sorry we didn’t figure it out sooner, Columbus. I’m sorry you had to go through all that with that… that… psycho bitch.”

Grimacing a little, the boy met my gaze. His own eyes were partially shielded by those goggles. “What about yours?” he asked simply. “Pretty sure she wasn’t on the Seosten payroll.”

Quickly, I shook my head, replying firmly, “Definitely not.”  Then I took a breath before starting to explain everything once again. The others, especially Shiori and Columbus, listened intently as I went through everything that had happened. I told them all of it, from the moment that I had been left in that forcefield prison and Tabbris had exposed herself to save me, all the way up through getting back to Earth. I told them about Athena and the Aelaestiam, about Lord Yup, about Jokai and Jazz becoming an item.

And I told them about Katarin. And, of course… Isaac.

As they had before, Vanessa and Tristan spoke up now and then to help out. Especially when we got to the parts that they were there for. But mostly it was me, doing a lot of talking.

Through it all, the others stared at me, most of them open-mouthed. Occasionally, someone would ask a question for clarification. But for the most part, they were silent.

Scout slumped once I was done. There were tears in her eyes, and she folded her arms across her stomach while looking sick. “Professor Katarin was nice,” she murmured in a voice that sounded broken. “He was nice to me when…” Blinking away those tears as best as she could, the girl sat down on a nearby armchair and dropped her head into her arms. Her shoulders shook a little bit.

I took a step that way, but it was Tristan got there first. The boy went down on his knees in front of the chair, taking Scout’s hands and squeezing them a little. I heard him murmur something quietly, but turned my attention away rather than eavesdrop. Scout needed someone to comfort her right then, and Tristan was the one who was doing it.

Instead, I focused on Koren, who asked, “Isaac, he’s still at that space station?”

Nodding quickly, I confirmed, “Yeah, and trust me, Athena isn’t going to let him out. Actually, I’d be really surprised if they don’t just find a way to rip those secrets out of his head. I bet Apollo could do it with that gift of his.”

Columbus’s voice was pointed. “You sound awfully chummy with them.”

I looked back to the boy, nodding once. “Yeah,” I replied easily, “because they’re not all one hundred percent evil anymore than any other species is. I just told you, Athena and her allies are working with other species trying to fight and change things. Yeah, they’ve got an uphill battle to do it, but they’re trying. “Besides,” I added while gesturing to the twins. “Look at Vanessa and Tristan. More to the point, look at their mother. It’s not the species that’s evil, Columbus. It’s the individuals. It’s the society they were raised in. That’s what has to change. It’s not that different from all the Heretics here. Mom was trying to change that. We’re trying to change that. And Athena and her people are trying to change their side. You can’t condemn an entire species because some of them do awful, terrible things. You change the society that brought them up to be like that.”

From the expression on his face, I wasn’t sure that I had gotten completely through to him. But he looked away and didn’t say anything else for the moment. I hoped he was at least thinking about it. Though I knew that it would take time, especially after what he had been through. And it was time that I was willing to give him. He deserved that kind of patience.

It was Koren who spoke next. “This girl, this… Tabbris, you said? You really trust her that much? You trust her enough to be in your head like that?”

“She’s my sister,” I repeated simply. Then I gestured back to the twins, to where Vanessa stood by helping Tristan with Scout. “She’s our sister. She was in my head for years and she never did anything wrong. Believe me, we can trust her. Dad and her mom are with her right now, but I want you guys to meet her. You know, the next chance we get. I want you to talk to her outside of my body. I want you to get to know her as herself before you make any real judgments.

“But think about it this way, if it wasn’t for her revealing herself and saving me from that trap, I wouldn’t have shown up at that hotel. Which means that Charmiene would have succeeded with everything she was trying to do right then. All of us would either be dead or Seosten slaves. Tabbris didn’t just save me that day. She saved all of us. And she did it by risking herself in every way. She’s a kid, and she’s the bravest kid I know.”

“Well, then I guess we need to meet her,” Sean replied before stepping forward. He embraced me then. “Glad you made it back, Flicker.”

Koren took her turn then, as did Scout after rising from the chair. Despite her grief about the man that she had known for a lot longer than I had, and her disappointment about her sister and mother not being with us, the girl found a tiny smile. “Avalon’s waiting.”

“And you’re talking,” I shot right back, grinning. “I think Herbie’s gonna win your next quiet contest, at this rate.”

She perked up a bit at that. “You have him?”

Grinning at her, I nodded. “Of course I do.” From my pocket, I produced Herbie. “Here, rockstar, say hello to your adoring fans.”

Boy, it was weird… strange… funny not getting Scout’s input filtered through Sands. I wasn’t accustomed to hearing so much of her voice or for her to be quite so open about things. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d had a lot going on in that time. Scout had grown too. They all had.

I wanted to hear everything. And I wanted to talk to them all a lot more. Especially Columbus. I had a feeling that it was going to take quite a lot to talk him around on not every Seosten being evil, after what he’d been through.

I would do it. I would take as long as I had to. But right now, there was someone I really wanted to see. So, after a little more interaction with the others, I excused myself. Then Shiori and I left the room. The others would stay with Vanessa and Tristan so that the twins could fill in any gaps I’d left in the story, or answer questions.

Together, the two of us made our way out of the office and through the school. On the way, we were stopped no less than a dozen times by a mixture of teachers and students. Everyone wanted to know what was going on, if I was officially back, where I had been, where the others were, and so on. Apparently as accustomed as Crossroads was to crazy things happening, a half-dozen students disappearing for two months was pushing it.

I just kept promising that they’d get answers later, that I was okay, that Gaia was working on saving the others, and so on. All of which meant that it took much longer to reach the beach than it normally would have.

Finally, we made it. Shiori pointed, telling me, “Just keep going that way, you’ll find her. I’ll meet you guys in a few. Choo needs walkies anyway. And I–”

Abruptly, she kissed me again. That time, I tasted tears that had fallen to her lips, and pulled back after a moment to stare at her. Clearly realizing what happened, she sniffled a little. “Sorry,” she said quietly. “I was just… I thought I might never see you again.”

“Oh, Shiori.” Smiling despite myself, I brushed those tears away gently with the back of my finger. “I’m here. And you, you’re amazing. You know the only reason I can even think about walking away from you right now is because Avalon’s waiting, and she’ll kill both of us if she doesn’t get a turn.”

Arching an eyebrow, the other girl dryly replied, “You know how lucky you are, right?”

“Ohhh yeah, the thought has occurred to me a few thousand times,” I promised. Together, we giggled just a little. Then we embraced once more and Shiori promised again to meet up with us so that we could all walk back and rejoin the rest of the group to go over everything again. Once the initial reunions were over, we could talk a lot more about specifics. And I was sure that everyone would have a million questions for me, even after the quick summary that I’d given them along with the twins.

But for now, I needed a break. I needed to see Valley. So I made my way down that beach, eventually jogging. I had to see her. The prospect made me giddy. Even after everything that had happened, the idea of seeing Avalon after two months made me so… happy that I could almost laugh out loud.

I bet you think I’m cra–

Oh. Right. Tabbris wasn’t there. Tabbris wasn’t… in me… she wasn’t…

Well. Now I felt… empty. I hadn’t noticed that much before. But now that the thought had come, it was all I could focus on. Or at least, it was all I could focus on until I rounded another corner and saw… my girl.

There she was, standing on the edge of the beach with her gaze out toward the ocean as if she was waiting for me. The setting sun framed against the beautiful Avalon took my breath away for a moment. It was all I could do just to remain standing, as a lump formed in my throat. I tried to speak, but nothing came for a few seconds. It was almost enough to simply stand here, watching her. After all the time that we had been apart, seeing her like this, it was… powerful.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed to touch her, feel her, be with her. I needed to hear her voice. So I shook off my brief moment of stunned silence and called out, “Valley!” Hearing the joy in my own voice, I couldn’t help but giggle a little before throwing myself into a sprint. My feet kicked up sand as I ran that way. If my moment with Shiori had been what finally convinced me that I was home, this was icing on the cake. My other girl. My girl. Avalon. I was home. Finally.

Hearing my voice, Avalon turned. I saw her eyes meet mine, and I knew that little smile was coming. The one that was reserved just for me. The put-on reluctance, the acceptance, the happiness that I knew she felt. The happiness that I felt whenever I saw her.

She didn’t smile.

Instead, she spoke… in a voice that was not her own. “Miss Chambers. So glad that you made it home.”

The strange voice that wasn’t at all like Avalon, the fact that she didn’t smile, or move other than to look at me, all of it combined to bring me up short. A frown found its way past the joyful smile that had been on my face. “What…?”

“I do mean that sincerely,” Not-Avalon informed me. “Though you may doubt it. I am very glad that you escaped your banishment and returned. After all, this would not have been possible without the distraction that your arrival created. Gaia leaving the island completely for an extended time, leaving her daughter alone? It was an opportunity that I couldn’t possibly resist. Staying here until you arrived, however, that was a bit of an unnecessary indulgence. But, well, we all have our vices. And in my defense, you have been quite an annoyance this past year. So, I believe I have earned this moment.”

My mouth opened and shut, and then I felt my stomach drop as my knees went weak. The horror of my growing realization became a dark cloud that seemed to blot out all light. “M… Manakel? No. No, that’s impossible. You can’t–she can’t be possessed! That’s impossible!” Even as I spoke my denial, the words sounded hollow and empty to my own ears, like I was a terrible actress, reading them from a script that I had only just then picked up.

“Correct,” the horrible, fake Avalon in front of me confirmed. “Miss Sinclaire cannot be possessed. You are absolutely right about that. However, given… well, shall we say, most of a year to prepare, and multiple false attacks in which it was possible to… ahh, secretly gather samples of the girl’s DNA… it was very possible to create a spell which would… well, to put it simply, make a temporary duplicate of her. A duplicate which included every possible thing that could be used to identify or track her. Including, of course, all of those lovely, and dare I say, incredibly advanced protective spells.

“You didn’t think that I was sitting on my hands all this time, did you? All those failed attacks? They weren’t failures. Not really. Each one allowed me to gain a little more knowledge, a little more understanding of those spells, a little more of what I needed to create this temporary duplicate, complete with copies those same protective spells.Of course, I couldn’t use it just any time. After all, Gaia and whoever else she has monitoring those spells on the young Miss Sinclaire would notice if there happened to be two different versions of their charge at the same time. However quick I might have been, if Gaia were here on the island, she would have noticed. But when I learned that she had gone to collect you, well that presented a unique opportunity.

“You’ve seen that film… ahh, Indiana Jones? I refer to the part in which the great Indy must ahh, switch the artifact from the bag of sand, hoping to do so quickly enough that the device it was sitting on wouldn’t notice the switch? Well, I dare say that my endeavor was more successful than his. Taking Miss Sinclaire to a safe location, and leaving this duplicate behind to speak through, it was quite… challenging to time that perfectly. But I think even you can admit if you look at things objectively, it worked out rather better for me than it did him. I mean, hah, I don’t see a large boulder crashing this way, do you?”

Horror and disbelief clashed within me, their war becoming the awful pounding that filled my head even as he continued speaking through the simulacrum of Avalon. “And now, well, all that’s left is to hold onto Miss Sinclaire in a safe location far away and shielded from any tracking devices or spells, where we may wait until that nasty protection spell has run out. Thankfully, I have access to a great many resources that can speed that up a bit. And once the spell has run out without being renewed or refreshed… heh, well, then it will be time to eliminate Miss Sinclaire, complete my duty here on this world, and move on to bigger, better things.”

“No!” The shout tore its way out of my throat, filling the air. “No! No! You can’t have her! You can’t take her!

Not-Avalon smiled slowly. “But Miss Chambers… I already have.”

A wordless scream of fury and loss escaped me as I threw myself that way. My empty hands rose, only to tear straight through the fake body, as Not-Avalon dissolved into a cloud of sand and dust that simply drifted away on the wind. I was left standing there alone on the beach as my broken voice tore up to the sky.

“Manakel! You can’t have her! Manakel!”

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Interlude 33E – Jophiel and Elisabet

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In the middle of a mostly empty warehouse, seven strange figures sat around a large table. The dim lighting from a standing lamp set near the table revealed poker chips and cards scattered across the surface, along with ashtrays, drinks, and the remnants of food. Loud, boisterous taunting and jokes filled the air as the figures continued their intense game.

None of the figures were human, and all but two appeared to be very different species from each other. The largest was an enormous, nine-foot tall Minotaur, who dwarfed even the specially-made large chair that he lounged in at the head of the table.

Continuing around the table clockwise sat a dark-furred Rakshasa; a figure that looked like a Tolkien elf with high pointed ears and and an aristocratic bearing; another who was quite similar to that, save for possessing red skin; a shark-like humanoid who was almost as large as the Minotaur; and a figure who might have been mistaken for a vampire from any who did not know him to be one of their progenitor species, an Akharu.

Finally, on the other side of the Minotaur, opposite the Rakshasa, was a small figure who technically stood only about two feet tall. With its large eyes, enormous ears, and wide mouth that stretched across its entire face, the figure looked quite similar to the Disney character of Stitch. Except, of course, for the long, flowing, cape-like appendage that was attached to his shoulders. The ‘cape’ had razor-sharp talons lining the entirety of the far end. Talons that held a incredibly deadly, paralytic poison. It was three times as long as the creature’s main body, and strong enough to hold it fully upright so that the creature could be eye-to-eye with a six-foot tall man. The cape-appendage could be used to glide long distances, and to protect the creature itself, as it was both bulletproof, and resistant to most kinds of magic.

Though they were often referred to as ‘caped-gremlins’, the creature was actually called a Larikeken. Their use of their cape-like appendages to stand taller than they actually were had led to long confusion about whether they were actually one or two species. And more than one group of Larikeken had ambushed unsuspecting enemies by hiding several of their number under one cape.

In the midst of a particularly raucous series of betting, the heavily reinforced and magically protected door at the entrance of the warehouse abruptly crumpled inward, bending almost entirely in half before it flew off to loudly clatter its way across the floor.

The Spanish woman who walked through the opening then brought the stunned poker players to their feet even faster than the crashing door already would have.

“Heretic!” the Minotaur bellowed loudly while grabbing an enormous axe that had been laid nearby. Around him, the rest of the figures all moved to attack the intruder.

It was an assault that ended exactly as soon as it had begun. With one hand, the woman snapped her fingers. At that command, a trio of three foot thick, concrete tentacles with spikes on the end erupted from the cement floor of the warehouse. Before the figures knew what was happening, the Minotaur, Rakshasa, and shark-man were fully impaled by the cement tentacles, leaving their suddenly lifeless bodies hanging there.

At the same time, the woman waved her other hand, and a wall of intense fire, tall enough to reach the ceiling, rose up before rolling across the opposite half of the room. The remaining four Alters were caught by the flames, and their screams briefly filled the air before going silent.

A dark blue, almost black aura rose around the Spanish woman, though she didn’t even break stride as she followed her own rolling flame. As the fire faded, it left behind scorched and melted concrete, a few ashes and crumbling bones from the bodies it had picked completely clean… and two distinctly glowing shapes. While both elf-like figures had been entirely incinerated, the smaller Larikeken and the Akharu were trapped within glowing blue, semi-translucent crystals. The crystals had protected them from the fire that turned their companions to ashes, yet held them prisoner. Their own screams were rendered mute against their crystal prisons.

Would you like to take the next part? Elisabet silently inquired of her Seosten partner and lover.

Yes I believe I will, the other woman replied. Seamlessly, she took over. To the outside world, there would be no change at all. The two were so perfectly in sync with each other that one could pass control to the other in mid-step and show no delay or hesitation whatsoever.

“Now then,” Jophiel used her partner’s mouth to announce while stopping directly in front of the two trapped figures. “Let’s play a game.” With those words, their fingers snapped once more, and the crystals shattered. The two figures that had been trapped within fell to the floor.

The Akharu was back on his feet in an instant, his incredible speed turning him into a blur of motion that would have been impossible for most beings of the planet to even hope to track.

Most beings, however, did not include a Crossroads Committee-level Seosten-Heretic pairing. Jophiel and Elisabet could have read an entire book in the time it took the man to lunge at them. Even as his feet pushed off and his fist swung wildly for their throat, Jophiel raised a single finger, holding their arm outstretched while remaining perfectly still. The incoming fist slammed into that single finger, and a shockwave of force reverberated throughout the room. The finger remained entirely motionless, as if nothing at all had happened. Meanwhile, the Akharu’s fist crumpled under the impact like a car slamming into a wall during a failed safety test. From the point of collision and spreading out to encompass the entire arm over the span of milliseconds, skin, muscle, and bone all turned to stone, which in turn crumbled to dust.

It would have required a dramatically slowed replay to actually see. Or, of course, the incredible reflexes and speed of the Akharu who experienced it. In the time that it would have taken most to register that their fist had been not just blocked, but broken by a single finger, his entire arm up to the shoulder had turned to stone and completely shattered. The remains lay scattered along the floor at their feet while he stared down incredulously, the pain drawing a belated scream.

“I said,” Jophiel started once more, her voice remaining perfectly even, “let’s play a game.” Lifting both hands, she summoned a handful of much smaller concrete coils from the floor to wrap around the now one-armed Akharu and his gremlin-like companion. The coils yanked both down and held them in place against their struggles while Jophiel stepped between them. The woman stood there, looking first to one, then the other, as though deciding which to start with.

She settled on the smaller figure. Lifting a foot, the woman settled it against his throat. “This is a very simple game. I will ask you a question. Lie to me, and you will suffer. For example…” She made a sharp gesture with one hand. In response, one of the caped-gremlin’s finger bones was torn from its socket. The bone ripped its way free, tearing through muscle and skin as it was ripped out, flying into the woman’s waiting hand.

Crushing the finger bone between two fingers while the figure literally under her boot screamed and howled, Jophiel gave him just a moment of that before pressing her foot down enough to cut off his wails so that she could speak over the sound of the resulting gurgling.

“You have many more bones to go before I would need to get… creative. So I suggest you answer my questions. And do recall that I will know if you are lying.”

With her point firmly established, she began with, “You and your… companions work for a man you know as Hades. You will tell me everything that you have done for him for the past year.”

Her foot lowered a bit more, making her point even clearer as she added, “Be… thorough.”

******

That may have been cathartic, Elisabet noted as they strode out of the warehouse some time later, but it was not all that informative as far as our actual problem goes.

You’re right, Jophiel agreed. But at the very least, we know more about some of Manakel’s side-projects. If need be, we have ammunition that can be used against him should he make a fuss or hold anything back during our upcoming personal discussion.

With that, the woman gestured. A portal appeared in the air, and they stepped through, leaving the warehouse, and the planet itself, behind.

The portal carried the joined pair to a small, tropical island. Ignoring the beauty around them, Jophiel focused instead on the cabin that, aside from the dock built along the shore, was the only bit of construction visible on the island.

Upon their arrival, Jophiel and Elisabet were met by a cough. Manakel, wearing his own currently most-used host, stepped into view. “You know,” the old Seosten announced flatly with his host’s voice, “that group was rather useful to me. They were no Seosten, of course. But they were punctual and dependable. Then you had to go throw your temper tantrum and–”

That was as far as he got before Elisabet crossed the distance between them. Her hand snapped out to lock around the throat of Manakel’s host, hoisting them from the ground before slamming the host’s back against the wall of the cabin hard enough to make it rattle from the force. “You were told,” she began in a voice that shook the air like thunder, “to leave the Moon children out of your schemes.

That was why Jophiel and Elisabet were furious beyond measure. The idea, the thought, that Manakel had disregarded Jophiel’s orders to keep his hands away from the children of Sariel, enraged both of them to the point that it required actual effort not to burn him and his host to the ground right where they stood. The time and work that the two of them had put into maintaining Vanessa Moon’s safety, in preventing her from ending up out in Kushiel’s torture lab, only for the girl and her brother to disappear without a trace? It positively stank of Manakel’s doing.

“And,” Manakel announced in his own voice then, having stepped out of his host after taking the time to leave the figure in question unconscious, “I’ve done precisely that. I had nothing to do with Sariel’s spawn going wherever it is that they went. A fact that I could have told you without your unnecessary… visit to my employees.”

“Why,” Elisabet asked for the two of them, “should we believe a word that comes from your mouth on this subject? You already tried to go behind my back once when I denied your petition to take the boy when he first reappeared.” She released Manakel’s slumbering host, letting the figure drop to the ground. “An insult, I remind you, that I have not forgotten. Nor will it go unanswered in its time, I assure you.”  

Briefly, Jophiel pondered how the proud Seosten would react to the knowledge that it was Elisabet, the human, and not her who was currently threatening him. It was, she had to admit, a rather amusing thought.

“Jophiel,” Manakel started with his trademark faux joviality and camaraderie. “Please. I’ve already admitted that that was a… an overzealous mistake. Please. Listen, I know we have had our… disagreements, of late. But I promise you, I know nothing about the disappearances of Sariel’s hybrid children. Now, I won’t pretend that I don’t still want them. But in this case, I’m as in the dark as you. A fact that you in particular could have ascertained even from my employees without using such violent means. Good help is hard enough to find without my own allies killing them. Especially an ally whose gift makes such permanent measures entirely unnecessary.”

He was referring, of course, to Jophiel’s Olympian gift, the power that she had gained from her own enhancements. In her case, that allowed her to look at anyone she could see and apply any particular emotional feeling they felt for any other person to herself. She could make a person love her as much as they loved their own wife, or their mother. It made acquiring information much easier at times.

But in this case, the disappearance of the twins had left both of them as angry as they had ever been. They had not been in the mood to make things easy.

Allow me, Jophiel gently advised her partner.  Stepping away from the man’s host, she gave the figure a pointed look before returning her gaze to him. “Somehow, I think you may know more than you’re saying. The twins did, after all, disappear from Crossroads grounds.”

“And yet,” Manakel easily replied, “what I said holds true. You know everything that I do about what happened to those children. Unless Sinclaire is holding her cards particularly close to her chest, everyone there is equally clueless. It seems that no one on either side has the faintest idea where Sariel’s spawn have scampered off to. It–” He chuckled a little. “It’s really almost amusing, if you stop and think about it. Here we’ve all been fighting over the two of them almost since their existence was revealed, and now… poof. They’ve disappeared.”

“I’m not laughing,” Jophiel informed the man flatly. “If what you’re saying is true… then who took them? That implies that some other force has the ability to pluck people straight from Crossroads without our being able to either stop them, or find any trace afterward. Speaking plainly, I would prefer that it be you stepping out of line.”

Accepting that with a faint nod, Manakel offered, “Have you tried speaking with Amitiel on the subject? He could know more.”

Despite the situation, Jophiel found herself giving the man a tight-lipped smile. “This wouldn’t be your way of sniffing for clues to Amitiel’s current host or mission, would it?”

Amitiel, known to the ancient Greek humans as Hermes, and to the Romans as Mercury, was one of the most stealth-minded Seosten among all of the Olympians. His ability to remain undetected despite intensive efforts to locate him surpassed even Sariel when she had been loyal, and he often engaged in long-term undercover assignments that could take him out of contact for years, or even decades in certain situations.

Jophiel and Elisabet knew who he was, as part of the Seosten woman’s position as head of Crossroads operations. As did her counterpart who had been embedded in Eden’s Garden, Cahethal/Demeter. Yet, Jophiel was fairly certain that they were the only ones on Earth who were aware of his current host and what he was doing. And that list didn’t get much longer even when the rest of the universe was brought in.

Manakel’s smile was unabashed. “You can hardly blame me for trying, can you? He is, after all, insufferable about his little secrets. It would be nice to put one over on him for once.”

“You’ll have to play your games on your own time,” Jophiel informed him. “Or, you could find out where Sariel’s children are so that I don’t rip your heart from your chest and force you to use it as your next culinary experiment.”

“I assure you,” Manakel replied, “if I come across any information as to their whereabouts, I will be very certain to inform you immediately.”

“See that you do.” Pausing after that, Jophiel looked to the man. “And as far as Kushiel and Puriel’s child goes, have you found her yet?”

Manakel’s head shook once, the annoyance that he had to answer that in the negative as well clear in his expression before he masked it. “No. And you know that they hate it when you call her that.”

“She does,” Jophiel corrected him. “Puriel is the only reason the girl isn’t still in one of her mother’s labs. Or that her existence is known to us at all.”

Manakel chuckled, his voice dark. “You’re not suggesting that the old captain actually cares for a Lie?”

“I am suggesting,” Jophiel retorted, “no more or less than I have outright stated. Without Puriel’s personal intervention, the Lie would not have been made available for this mission. And speaking of this mission, you seem to be presenting more problems than you are solutions since your arrival. Your spy, the Isaac monster, has gone dark. You lost the pixie. You lost the Lie. And now Sariel’s children have vanished. Tell me, Lord of the Underworld, what have you accomplished here, precisely? Do feel free to embellish. I’d like a reason not to spend my afternoon explaining to Metatron why it was necessary to remove you from your position.”

“You want to know everything I’ve been doing,” Manakel guessed, lifting his chin. “That’s why you went to one of my mercenary groups, to double-check what I’m about to tell you.”

Jophiel gave him a humorless smile. “The only thing you’re wrong about is the assumption that I only went to one of your mercenary bands. News of the others simply hasn’t reached you yet. And, it won’t. I’d prefer you not know which lies are safe to keep and which I already know about.”

With a simple wave, she summoned two comfortable chairs, perching herself in one before reaching down. By the time her hand was low enough, there was already a small table there with a glass of iced tea waiting.

“So please, start at the beginning. Perhaps we’ll find out if any of your manipulations could have led to the Moon children disappearing.”

She continued in a tone that was no less dangerous than it had been upon on her arrival, her disdain for the man patently obvious. “And if I might offer you the same advice I gave to one of your people back there…

“Be thorough.”

******

And that was no more helpful than anything else we’ve done today, Jophiel noted later, as the joined pair stood at the edge of a waterfall somewhere deep in the middle of the Crossroads Island jungle. Their fist tightened. If something happened to those children…

It wasn’t just about their long-running, subtle efforts to convince their leadership of the benefits behind a true Seosten-Human partnership. They had also grown to genuinely care for Vanessa Moon in the time that they had been secretly protecting her from being abducted for testing, even if the girl herself remained completely unaware of their existence. They were proud of her accomplishments, despite the fact that she would have seen them as enemies of her and her family. The thought that she and her twin might be under the ‘care’ of that unhinged…

Elisabet interrupted her thoughts. You know what we must check next, my beautiful sianame.

Groaning inwardly, Jophiel lamented, I have no desire to see that place again.

You and I both, Elisabet agreed. But if she has ignored higher orders and taken them anyway…

With a sigh, Jophiel agreed. Turning their hand intangible, she reached into their body to retrieve the key from its place on their rib cage. Was a wave of their hand, she created a simple door there and they’re in front of them. Activating the key, she used it and they stepped through.

*******

Even for someone as powerful and connected as Jophiel was, gaining access to Kushiel’s lab was no simple matter. There were politics involved, and layers of secrets as to its location. Days came and went while she and Elisabet alternated between Earth and Seosten space working their way through everything necessary for them to get there for what she called an inspection. And each day that went by convinced them more and more that Kushiel had somehow bypassed the chain of command to take those children.

Finally, after Jophiel and Elisabet had long-since passed the point of patience, their request was granted. Going through a series of at least seven portals and various security measures, they eventually  found themselves standing in a banquet room with three figures waiting.

“Kushiel,” Jophiel started while focusing on the lone female figure, who sat at the head of the table. “Was there a reunion that I was not invited to?“

Kushiel’s companions both looked to one another. Radueriel, who had been Hephaestus on Earth, stood. His voice was amicable. “Reunion is perhaps a most apt word for it, my lovely fake wife.”

“Yup,” Abbadon/Ares confirmed. Radueriel’s own true lover, despite Lucifer’s stories, rose alongside his husband. The tallest and most physically imposing of the Olympians, Abbadon stood a solid seven feet, two inches tall. His body was solid muscle that would have made the most roided up bodybuilder back on Earth weep from inadequacy. “One great big reunion.”

Watching the three of them carefully, Jophiel asked, “What, precisely, does that mean?”

Even as she asked that, an alarm began to blare from nearby, while a voice from an intercom spoke of arriving unknown spaceships. In response to that, a shark-like smile spread across Kushiel’s face.

“It means, my dear, that you should stick around for awhile.

“Our company has arrived.”

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Investigations 25-06 – Isaac Acosta (Interlude Arc)

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Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Isaac Acosta was a bit of a clown, but relatively harmless aside from some issues with personal boundaries. That wasn’t exactly true, since… well, there were a lot of responses that could be used to describe a boy who deliberately murdered his own older sister when he was twelve years old. But none of those responses was anything like, ‘relatively harmless’. Many responses to learning of the boy’s acts likely would have involved shouting archaic Latin at him while sprinkling holy water onto his forehead. For all the good that would have done.

No, Isaac wasn’t possessed (not that the holy water trick would’ve helped if he was). All of his choices were his and his alone. Well, the regular choices anyway. His… employers made the big choices about what he was allowed to do and how he was allowed to entertain himself. But he chose to work with them, chose to follow their instructions. And before they had found and recruited him, he had chosen to indulge his own whims. Isabella, his sister, had been his choice. As had the others. Everyone he had killed, everyone he had enjoyed, had been his choice.

Isabella had been the first, a sort-of… test case. She was babysitting him at the time, which in her case, meant that she was babbling on her phone while watching music videos on her laptop and taking up the television for some stupid celebrity dance contest reality show. Talking on the phone, watching music videos on her laptop, and hogging the TV all at the same time. Could he really be blamed for slicing her throat with the kitchen knife? It was clearly her own fault. Clearly.

After that, it had simply been a matter of staging the scene to make everything look like someone had broken in and Isabella had been murdered while heroically putting herself between him and the intruder so that Isaac could get to safety. One broken door, muddy boot trail (accomplished by stomping around the muddy flower garden in his own father’s work boots and then carefully cleaning them), and a couple more choice bits of evidence later, and he’d simply called 911 before putting on a performance that quite frankly proved that he’d deserved to be more than a fucking tree in the sixth grade play, Mrs. Kettle.

True genius was never appreciated in its time.

Now he was appreciated, though. Now, he was working for people who saw his potential, who saw what he could do for them. And those people had repaid him by putting him into a situation where he could gain superpowers simply by doing what he liked to do anyway: kill people.

Best. Bosses. Ever.

And speaking of enjoying his work, at the moment, Isaac was doing exactly that. He was sitting at a table in the kitchen of what looked like a simple wooden cabin (the place he’d been instructed to wait for contact). His enjoyment came not from his location, of course, but from the sight of the figure struggling in front of him. The female pixie, only a few inches in height, had been pinned to the table by her wings with a couple of iron nails, like a butterfly on display.

The kicking, squirming pixie was probably trying to say something, but he’d gagged her with a tiny strip of cloth from one of his socks earlier. Because damn, she complained a lot. Occasionally pushing a finger against one of her limbs until the sound of a bone snapping was never gonna stop being fun, sure, but the shrieking had been getting a bit obnoxious. Have some damn pride and self-respect.Or at least have some common courtesy. Whining was rude.

“Someone’s been playing with his food,” a voice announced abruptly from just behind Isaac.

He jumped a bit, spinning and almost falling while jerking to his feet. Hearts (he had several by that point, thanks to the experimentation he’d done with several Jekern) beating in his chest, Isaac stared at the figure that had been behind him. “Fuck’s sake, you crazy cunt, don’t do that!”

Lies, the werewolf-Heretic (or rather, werewolf-Heretic possessed by a psychotic angel), gave him a wide, uncaring smile. “Aww, poor puppy. Should’ve used the peepers on watching for anyone coming, not playing stupid torture games.” Her hand gestured to the pinned pixie.

Rolling his eyes, Isaac gave the girl a dirty look. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t put a lot of stock in the reprimand of someone who managed to get the only thing stopping everyone from knowing the body she’s possessing is a fucking werewolf destroyed. I’m sorry, how are you still useful?”

Her subsequent grin showed a partial change into her wolf-form, revealing a mouthful of sharp, entirely canine teeth. “Britches, boy. Stay in yours and don’t try to crawl into the larger ones just yet. You’ve failed too. Don’t see your team of innocents heading for the Committee, do you?”

For a moment, Isaac glared at her, before giving a tight shake of his head. “There was nothing I could do about it. Dougie-boy used his power, the one he can only use once per day. If I erased their memories and tried again, he would’ve figured out that he’d already used his power, but couldn’t remember doing it. And you know, I’m pretty sure that the big guy in charge wants these morons looking into things that could erase their memories a lot less than he wants them to go to the Committee right this fucking second. We’ll figure out how to use them as witnesses later.”

“Maybe,” the girl replied mysteriously. “Or maybe he’ll tell you to cut your losses.” She seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a careless shrug and chirping, “We’ll find out! Cuz it’s time to go see him!” With that, Lies added a sly wink, watching him. “He summoned us.” Her hand gestured toward the door of the cabin before giving an offhand gesture toward the pixie. “And do clean up your toys. Always so terribly inconsiderate. Not like my Doxer.”

Giving a careless glance down toward the pinned pixie, Isaac flicked a knife up from his belt. “Right,” he replied easily before addressing the winged creature itself, “Just so you know, your death is going to a good cause.” Leaning close, he stage-whispered, “Because killing you freaks makes me feel really, really good.” With a wink, he brought the knife over and down to cut the tiny bitch’s head off, not all that different than tugging an ant or butterfly apart with his fingers.

The knife never made it to the target. Instead, a hand caught his wrist in an iron grip, immediately crushing the bone in a way that brought a yelp from the boy. Lies was there, holding his wrist like a vice. Before he could react more than that single yelp, she was forcing his broken wrist down and back. Isaac felt the blade shove into his own chest, unable to release the thing before the thing was embedded deep inside him. Blood gushed from the wound.

His mouth opened to gurgle a demand, when her fist struck him hard in the face. So hard, in fact, that his nose broke and the boy would have gone careening backwards and fallen to the floor if the girl’s other hand hadn’t grabbed his shoulder to keep him right where he was. 

Even then, he might have defended himself, might have done something. But then the girl’s knee drove itself into his crotch, and all thought of fighting back vanished as he doubled over with a wheezing squeal of pain. Doubled over, save for the fact that her hand was still holding him up partway, just enough that she could keep hitting him.

Her fist struck his face again. Then again, and again. The girl pummeled him repeatedly, each blow knocking the boy’s head back and rattling his brain, adding to the unbelievable pain in his nether regions. He felt the blood on her hand from his shattered nose as she kept hitting him, lost in some kind of psychotic, violent freak-out. He couldn’t get a word in edgewise, couldn’t even lift a hand to defend himself in his surprise. Blows continued to hammer down on him over and over again. 

As suddenly as it had started, the attack stopped. Blinking through his bloodied daze, the boy saw Lies abruptly freeze up. She went completely still before her expression twisted. “Not… let… my… not…” The words, confusing as they were, came through harshly gritted teeth.

She turned then. Her hand, shaking violently as if she had no idea how to actually use it, snapped down toward the table. Snatching the nails out of the pixie’s wings, she grabbed the little freak before turning. A quick throw sent the thing flying out the nearby window, while Lies blurted a short, strangled entreaty, a single word. “Run!”

A choked sound escaped Isaac then, as he slumped against the table, too weak to stand and in far too much pain to think straight. The sound became a chuckle, his blood-covered hands fumbling to catch the handle of the knife in his chest. “Not… totally a puppet yet, huh… Pace?” he asked through the pain, finally managing to grip the handle so he could slowly pull the damn thing out, breath hitching a bit as he did so. Everything hurt, especially down below. But his healing was taking care of it. 

The girl, who hadn’t moved since throwing the pixie out the window, gave a sharp jerk. Her head snapped first to one side, then the other. Bringing both hands up, she slammed them down against her own legs and gave a short, almost squawk-like sound, which morphed into a laugh. “Whoo, whoo!” she repeated a couple times while giving a full-body shudder from head to toe. “What a rush. Whoo!” Another shudder and her head gave a violent shake before she clapped her hands a couple times. “Jeeze, Pacey Pace really didn’t like that, huh? Strong. Wow.”

Pace. It had been the real Pace. Somehow, she’d taken control again and stabbed Isaac before he could end that stupid fucking pixie. After realizing that, it took him another couple minutes to recover. Ripping the remains of his shirt off, he balled it up and pushed the cloth against his wound to hold in his own blood while counting on his super-charged regeneration (one of the side-benefits from all the extra killing he’d been doing) to take care of the worst of the problem. Eventually, it seemed to be under control. But it still hurt like a bitch.

Spitting blood, the boy snarled, “You know how lucky-ugh–” Stopping for a second to collect himself once more, he gritted through the pain. “You know how lucky you are that I’ve got redundant organs, huh? That cunt could’ve really killed me there.”

Her response to that was an amused giggle. “Could’ve died, didn’t die. I’m not lucky, you are.”

“Hey,” he snapped then, giving the little bitch a dark, annoyed look. “You can’t keep that little puppet in line, sounds like something the big guy needs to know about before something-”

Before Isaac could get any further, he found himself under assault once more. This time, it was definitely Lies in control. Her hand grabbed hold of his throat, nails digging painfully through the skin as she glared at him. “You won’t tell anyone,” she hissed. “Pacey Pace wants you dead. Make me mad, and she and I will be best friends. Understand? Don’t make me agree with her.”

Grimacing a little, Isaac twisted until she released his throat. Rubbing it with one bloody hand, he muttered,  “Fine, whatever. You fuck up the mission, it’s on you. Not like I really give a shit. Now, you gonna go get that little bug before she gets away, or what?”

“Eh,” the wolf-girl sniffed once before shrugging. “Gone now. Not my problem. Bad for you if Mr. Boss finds out, so maybe don’t be telling him bad things about me, and I won’t be telling him bad things about you.”

The two of them stood there glaring at one another for a moment before Lies snapped her fingers (or Pace’s fingers, whatever) and gave a sharp jerk of her head toward the cabin door. “Time to go. Can’t be late for our very important date. Not that I would date you. I like my boys more…” She paused, seeming to consider it for a moment before finishing with, “… stable.”

“Yeah?” Isaac gave a pointed nod toward his bare, bloodied torso. “Well I’m pretty sure that boss of yours won’t like me showing up to his little debriefing looking like this. I need a shirt.”

Waggling two of her fingers in his face, the green-haired Hispanic girl replied with a sing-song taunt. “Aw, psycho-boy didn’t prepare. Not a good boy scout, psycho-boy. Always prepare.” Her head nodded toward the other door in the small cabin. “There,” she instructed. “Find your size. Have to be prepared, don’t know what body I might be in later. Might be yours.” That was added with an appraising look. “Hope not. Bad hair. Creepy eyes. Murder-hands. I do have standards.”

“Right,” Isaac muttered as he walked to the other door. It led into a small bedroom with an attached bath area, and along the walls were several dressers. The bitch was right, she had clothes of all shapes and sizes in there. It wasn’t hard to find something that would fit him. Before pulling it on, however, he took a short detour into the bathroom to wash all of the blood off his chest and face. Once he was relatively clean, the boy tugged on the fresh shirt and walked back out. “Right, let’s go see the big man. Though,” he added pointedly, “I don’t see why Fetch isn’t here. He let it happen too.”

“He’s important,” Lies informed him flatly. “You’re not. In the order of expendable ones, the big guy would rather like… a hundred of you die before one of the Fetch. That’s why you have this job, because you’re expendable. No crying if you die. Just get another one.”

“Yeah, fuck you too,” he retorted. They might think he was expendable, but he was learning. He was learning more than they probably wanted him to. He was paying attention, watching everything they did. He knew that they were low on options for this mission. That was whole reason he was being included in the first place. Manakel, the angel-fuck, the one that showed up and took over after that Paschar guy recruited him, wasn’t accustomed to Earth, where he had to hide what he was constantly. No, Manakel was used to the way things were back in the angel-world, where they were lords and masters over everything and every other race were their servants. Using people like Isaac to get what he wanted, that’s what Manakel was accustomed to. And whoever they were fighting, whoever the angels were so obsessed with beating… unless he missed his guess, Manakel’s people weren’t exactly winning that particular war.

From what he’d been able to piece together, mostly from the angels treating him like a disposable idiot who turned deaf and dumb on command, they needed Avalon dead so they could use that teacher that was in a coma in the hospital to get into some vault. He had no idea what was in the vault, except that it was important enough that they were pretty desperate to get to it. Except whatever protection spell had been put on the bouncy-chested bitch was strong enough that if she was killed, everyone responsible for her death (not just the person who pulled the trigger, but also whoever had ordered it) would be marked. It was some kind of elaborate magic that would be powered by the girl’s own death. Whatever, he didn’t know how it worked, exactly. What he did know was that the only reason he hadn’t been told to slit her throat himself kamikaze-style was that the spell would lead not only to him, but also to Manakel for ordering it.

They had thought that the spell was cast by that old guy, Pericles. But even with him cold and six feet under, the spell was still kicking. Last Isaac knew, Manakel and the other angels had been arguing over whether the one responsible for the spell was the headmistress, a somehow-secretly-still-alive Pericles, or someone else. Trying to figure it out was driving them nuts. It was actually kind of fun to watch, as long as he stopped himself from reacting to any of it.

In any case, his job was to get his team to go tattle about Gaia’s secret activities to the Committee, so they had an excuse to remove her from power. The original plan for that had been for him to pick a member of his team, kill them, and then find a way to blame it on that Flick chick. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to actually have any of his fun before Roxa disappeared. Manakel thought it would be a waste not to use that, and had ordered Isaac to guide his team toward blaming Flick for what had happened. It was a task that had been made infinitely easier when Doug had ended up with the power from that juvenile Epsiteme. All of a sudden, it wasn’t Isaac trying to find a way to get them to blame Flick for it. They were doing it all by themselves. All he had to do was keep nudging them toward investigating, but not confronting. And, of course, erasing their memories any time they decided to go off and do something else that didn’t fit with the plan.

Getting them to the point where they’d willingly bypass Gaia to go to the Committee and tattle about it was tricky, but he’d almost been there with the revelation that Flick’s dad had a vampire living in his house. At least, he’d been there until they suggested the idea of actually talking to Flick about it yet again. And that time, Isaac couldn’t just erase the idea and start over, because fucking Doug went and used his power at the worst possible time, screwing everything up.

And now he had to go and explain that to Manakel yet again. Maybe Isaac should just get ‘not my fucking fault’ tattooed on his forehead and be done with it.

One thing was for sure, he wasn’t going to mention the missing pixie. He’d found her on his own, so there was no reason to tell the already-annoyed head angel guy about her escape.

Stepping through the door of the cabin with the psycho-possessed-chick led to a tiny island. Much smaller than the one the school was on, to the point that he could easily throw a rock from one side to the other. It was barely big enough for the cabin and a small beach that surrounded it. According to Charmiene, the island was one of several ‘bolt-holes’ that were semi-connected to the same pocket-dimension that the school’s island was in. There were a few different ways to get to it from the main island, if you knew what you were doing.

At the edge of the tiny beach there was a small boat that was tied to a single wooden post. Stepping into the boat before taking a seat, Isaac lounged back as much as possible while gesturing for the girl to go ahead. “Post-modern feminism and all that,” he drawled easily. “Wouldn’t dream of taking away your right to work.”

Lies stepped into the boat, giving him a short look before producing a small gold coin from her pocket. Using her thumb, she flicked the coin down into the bottom of the boat, between them. It bounced once, then seemed to melt into the surface, disappearing almost immediately.

A second later, the boat started to move seemingly by itself. Lies remained standing, giving him a disdainful look through pretty much the entire five minute trip until the boat bumped up against the dock of a slightly larger island. Another one in the pocket dimension, secretly connected to Crossroads.

Two figures stood on the dock waiting for them as they disembarked. Manakel, a man who looked a lot like that actor, James Spader, and Charmeine, a tall, dark-skinned woman with short white hair. Neither looked that happy.

“So, I gotta ask,” Isaac started as soon as he was on dry ground. “Those new stooges that just showed up from the Committee, October and Patrick? One of those guys is working for you, right? Cuz I gotta tell you, there are a lot of rumors going around about those guys.”

“Isaac, Isaac, Isaac,” Manakel tutted while stepping that way to put an arm around him. “Now, you know I can’t tell you that. Where would our operational security be? Just like I can’t tell our other agents about you. Come, have you eaten? We have a marvelous spread inside.”

Leading Isaac into the much larger cabin and to a table that was, indeed, laden with more food than all of them could’ve eaten in a week, the man urged him to take part. When Charmeine started to bring up the mission, Manakel waved her off. “After,” he ordered. “Pleasure first. I do enjoy a good meal, don’t you?” he added the last with a look toward the boy.

“Sure,” Isaac replied slowly while filling his plate. “I love gluttony. It’s my third-favorite sin, after wrath and lust. Which, you’d be surprised how often those two go together.”

“Very little about you would surprise me, Mr. Acosta,” Manakel informed him. “Very little indeed.” His look turned intense for a brief second before he shifted his eyes toward Lies. “My dear, aren’t you going to eat? There’s plenty, as you can see.”

“No thanks,” she replied easily. “I wouldn’t want to take up any of the poison that he’s supposed to get.”

While Isaac reflexively dropped the piece of chicken from his mouth, Manakel barked a short, genuine laugh. “Oh, she’s teasing you, my boy. She’s teasing you. No, if we wanted you dead, there would be no need for poison. You’re not a um, a threat, you see?” He leaned forward a bit, his tone dropping slightly. “No, if I wanted you dead, you never would have made it off the boat. And I certainly wouldn’t have you in here. A body, lying over this beautiful assortment of delights, are you mad?”

So they ate. Or Manakel and Isaac did, in any case. Lies stayed away from the table despite her boss’s words, and Charmeine seemed content to sit and watch him, plate empty.

Eventually, Manakel set down his fork, cocking his head a little bit before looking toward Isaac. “I have… asked you to do one thing. And that one thing was to ensure that these humans that you work with would take what they see and go to the Crossroads Committee. Thus far, I have been… unimpressed with your results. Now, that is not to say that you’re not trying. But the options we have as this failure continues are rapidly dwindling. At this point, we’re pretty much down to two possibilities. Either this is beyond your capability, and you are of no use. Or you aren’t trying hard enough. I would prefer it be the second option. That, at least, may be corrected.”

“Hey, I told you,” Isaac started. “There wasn’t anything I could do about it once that jackass used th–”

“One thing you should understand about me,” Manakel interrupted, “is that I abhor vulgarity as much as I do excuses. So please, content yourself to offering neither. Simply answer the question. It is a binary choice. Have you tried as hard as you can, or should you be trying a bit harder?”

Mouth opening and then shutting, Isaac finally gritted out, “I’ll try harder.”

“Excellent,” the man replied, giving a small smile before plucking up his fork to take another bite. Swallowing it, he used the fork to gesture toward Isaac. “You can start with this new mission. This trip to New York, it presents an opportunity for a boy of your… pursuits.”

“Well, now you got my attention,” Isaac replied, lifting an eyebrow. “I thought you’d be pissed that they were going there. You do know they want to have a sit down chat with girl, right?”

“Indeed.” Giving a thin, humorless smile, Manakel continued. “Fortunately, you are going to ensure that meeting never happens. Now, let me make this clear. A moment ago, when you agreed that you should be trying harder, this will be the time to raise that effort. Because if you fail this time, I…” He paused then, seeming to consider his next words for a moment. “I will spend as much time as it takes to ensure that you forget that a state other than unimaginable pain exists. I will set your body aflame and keep you alive through it, because you will not be allowed to die until I am satisfied. You are a miserable, lecherous little creature whom I despise. So give me one more reason to doubt your capability to perform these tasks, and my utter disdain for you will outweigh my need to use you. Do you understand?”

There were no smart remarks. Not at that point. Isaac simply gave a short nod. “Yes.”

The man’s demeanor shifted just as suddenly as it had changed before. He sat back, smiling slightly. “Excellent. Then there won’t be a problem.”

Looking toward Lies/Pace then, the man gave a soft smile. “As for you my dear…” A tutting noise escaped him as his head shook. “What are we going to do with you? The weres may be an alpha version of the much more useful Heretics, but they were still useful in their own way. And you–well, you kind of lost them. Lemuel is dead, as are a large number of his most important people. Of the rest who survived, they’ve all scattered. And,” he added, “Let’s not forget the part where the choker that allows you to operate within the Heretic ranks was destroyed.”

“Destroyed though,” the girl piped up. “Not stolen.”

The man gave a light, seemingly-honest chuckle. “Yes,” he replied with a smile that showed his teeth. “Yes, it was. And that’s the only reason you’re still alive, isn’t it?”

There was no response, and Manakel leaned back, taking a bite or two of his food while making a noise of enjoyment. “Mmmm, it really is delicious. You both should be indulging. You’re young,” he added with a broad smile. “Enjoy it.”

After another bite, he set the fork down and looked toward Lies. “We’ll find another job for you. I don’t throw away things that might still be useful. And you, my dear, could still be very useful indeed.”

His attention moved to Isaac then. “As for you, we’ll use this trip to our advantage. You’ll go to New York. Before this ‘meeting’ has a chance to take place, you will ensure that Miss Chambers and each member of your team aside from yourself and Mr. Fetch are all in possession of one of these.”

Laying his hand on the table, he lifted it to reveal several small, marble-sized orbs that seemed to be made out of crystal. “Once you have secretly placed one on each of their persons, you will break the last one.”

“Yeah?” Isaac’s eyes moved from the orb to the man’s face and back again. “Why? What do they do?”

It was Charmeine who answered. “Breaking the final orb will take everyone that’s closest to the other orbs and banish all of them from Earth and any pocket-dimension connected to it, sending them clear across the universe. Far beyond the reach of any magic or power that could be used to track them down.”

“Our goal,” Manakel added, “which you and Mr. Fetch will assist with through your own testimony, is to create the illusion that Miss Chambers recruited your teammates to join a… rebellion against Crossroads. You and your team leader objected, a fight ensued, and your traitorous teammates, along with the girl herself, fled.”

“They’ll look for them,” Charmeine put in then. “But they won’t find them. And losing three-quarters of a Freshman team because the Chambers girl took off with them… yeah, that’ll get the headmistress in pretty hot water.”

“Hot water,” Manakel finished, “which our ever-so-eager, yet unknowing friend Gentleman Ruthers will seize upon as a pretense for removing Gaia Sinclaire from her position so that he can install his own loyal puppet in her place. And without Sinclaire corrupting our system, this school will return to its primary purpose: creating loyal soldiers who kill anything and everything we point them toward.”

“Now, see, this was a lot of great food and all,” Isaac started while gesturing at the assortment still covering the table.

“But what you just said? That sounds absolutely delicious.”  

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