Miranda

Desperate Times 36-01

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“Who is he?!”

The sound of my own hard, furious, frankly wild voice was punctuated by the loud crack of the large tree reacting to the body being violently shoved up against it. I had Theia by the arms, having literally lifted the other girl off the ground before slamming her against the tree in my anger. I heard someone calling my name, but I wasn’t sure who. And quite frankly, I didn’t care. My only focus was on the girl in front of me, the girl who knew exactly what I needed to know.

“No more games!” I blurted while still holding her like that. “No more playing around, no more deals, no more tricks! Who is he?! He has Avalon, damn it! He has Avalon, so tell me who he is. Tell us who he’s possessing, so we can get to him before he kills her! God damn it, who is–”

A hand fell on my shoulder then, squeezing gently as Professor Dare spoke quietly from beside me. “Let her go, Felicity,” she urged while giving me a firm tug backward. “I know how you feel. Believe me, I do. But she can’t say anything if you keep slamming her against the tree.”

She’s right, Flick. Tabbris, back in my head after recalling to me basically the second after I had last screamed Manakel’s name, urged. She can’t tell us anything if we keep hurting her.

Dare could have made me stop very easily, of course. Probably about a hundred different ways, actually. To say nothing of what Tabbris could have done from inside my head. But neither of them did anything that drastic. In Professor Dare’s case, she simply pulled me by the shoulder while speaking softly, and I let the other girl go. Stepping back, I gave a quick glance around while Theia collected herself. We had company besides just Dare here at the edge of the Atherby camp. Abigail was there, along with Koren, Deveron, Gabriel, and a couple of his people. Sariel and my dad were together with Vanessa and Tristan, a bit off to the opposite side, while Columbus, Scout, Shiori, and Sean stood in a small group somewhere in the middle. I could even see others watching from off in the distance, their curiosity clearly piqued.

Gaia and Wyatt were back at Crossroads, in the exact spot where Avalon–or rather, the temporary duplicate of Avalon, had disappeared. Apparently Professor Kohaku was there too, as the head of Security. The three of them were looking for any hints or clues, any magical trace that might lead to Manakel. But I doubted they’d find anything. Our best lead was right here, where Gaia had taken the others and me an instant after she had shown up, which itself had been barely a second after the rest of my friends had come running up.

I had briefly, tearfully, explained what happened to the others. Then I had seen her: Theia. A red haze had settled over my vision, and the next thing I’d known, she had been against the tree with my hands clutching onto her arms while I shouted the demand for information into her face.

So they were all watching as I took a slow step back, tightening my hands into fast while I stared at the girl in front of me. “Who is he?” I demanded, my voice as hard as I could make it. “Who is he possessing? Tell us now. If you actually give a shit at all, if you’re not just faking all of this, tell us now. He has Avalon, goddammit. He has her. He’s going to kill her as soon as he can, as soon as the spell protecting her runs out. So tell us who he is.Tell us so we can save her!”

She has to t-tell us, right? I could hear the fear and worry in Tabbris’s mental-voice. She won’t really make us wait until we figure out how to fix her? That could take… that could take too long.

Swallowing hard, I breathed in and out, trying to collect myself. We won’t let it happen, I promised my partner, my sister. We’ll find her. I swear. We will find her. I don’t care what we have to do. We will get her away from that evil piece of shit. Somehow.

Tabbris was good enough not to point out the doubt and fear that had taken over my mind. Doubt and fear that she wouldn’t even have had to be in my head to hear in my words.

Shiori moved up inside me, joined quickly by her brother, Scout, and Sean. Even Vulcan came closer. All of them were watching Theia as well, though it was the Asian girl who spoke. “I know we already made a deal with you,” she pleaded with the Seosten. “But this is different. Avalon is going to die. She is going to die if you don’t help us. Please, you have to tell us something.”

Abigail was there then. She stepped almost directly between Theia and me, her expression pained. “Theia,” she started slowly while looking toward the girl in question, “they’re right. Avalon is in very deep trouble. If there’s anything, anything at all that you can–”

“Stop.” The Seosten was shaking her head. “Stop, you don’t have to say it. All of you are saying words that Pace-I am already saying. It’s distracting, it hurts. It hurts different from being hit. It still hurts. Theia-I know pain, but it’s different. Theia-I don’t like it. Please stop saying it.”

It was Scout who realized what she meant first. From beside me, the girl announced, “Guilt.” She straightened, brushing a bit of hair from her face as she continued. “You feel guilty.”

“Guilt,” Theia echoed. “Guilty. Pain. Pain in here.” Her hand found her stomach (Pace’s stomach, whatever) while she shook her head. “Theia-I don’t like it. Really don’t like it.”

“You don’t like it?” That was Columbus. The boy’s voice was hard, and it looked like he was about to say something else, but caught himself just in time. Whatever he had been about to say, it probably wouldn’t have helped the situation. And I knew exactly how that felt, because I was really tempted to say, or scream, a few things that wouldn’t have helped at all either.

Sean was there, moving beside his roommate and friend to put a hand on his arm. He leaned in to whisper something to him that I didn’t catch. Hopefully it would help the other boy somehow.

Professor Dare was the one who found her voice next. “Theia,” she started slowly, “I… understand a bit of what you’ve been through. I know what kind of life you’ve had, even if I don’t know the specifics. I know that you have no reason to trust what anyone says. But I promise you, we will not go back on our promise just because you give us what we need right now. Tell us what we need to know to save Avalon, please. We will still do absolutely everything possible to help separate you from Pace safely. I give you my word, Theia. Please, help us.”

Through all of that, Theia just stood there with her hand against her stomach. Her head was down, as she slowly shook it back and forth while visibly trembling. Whatever else I might have thought about the girl in my anger at the whole situation, I could believe that she did indeed feel guilty. She might not have understood what it meant or how to handle it, but she definitely felt it.

I’m sorry, Flick. Speaking guilt and pain, there was a lot of it in Tabbris’ voice. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have–

Stop, I quickly interrupted. You couldn’t have done anything, Tabs. Believe me, it was too late even before I got there. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t you dare put that on yourself. Put it where it belongs: on Manakel. He is the piece of shit that we need to stop.

“Okay.” The voice was small, and quiet to the point of barely being audible. Theia had slumped a little in front of us, her shoulders and head down. “Okay,” she repeated, “We will tell you what we can.”

Even as my own eyes widened at that, Abigail snapped her gaze that way, blurting, “You will?”

The girl was nodding slowly. “Yes,” she answered softly. “Pace-I says… says that it is the right thing to do. Theia-I am… am scared. Theia-I do not believe that you will help us if you are not properly motivated, if we do not have anything to offer. But…. but Avalon is in danger. Manakel will kill her, and Pace-I…” She paused briefly before correcting herself. “We do not want that to happen. So y-yes. We will tell you what we know. We will tell you who Manakel is possessing.”

Oh God. It was going to happen. After everything that had happened that year, everything that we had been through, we would finally find out exactly who Manakel was. He had gone too far that time. He took Avalon, and that had finally pushed Pace into convincing Theia to talk.

“Who?” I pressed, my voice jumping an octave despite myself. “Who is that son of a bitch?”

And then Theia said the words that made my heart instantly drop into my stomach. The worst words she probably could have said in that very moment.

“I just told you.”

There was no confusion, no uncertainty. Only heart-wrenching anger and frustration. Because I immediately knew what that meant. “No,” I murmured, my head shaking back and forth in pointless denial. “No, no, no. You can’t–they can’t–no! No, damn it! You can’t have the memory spell on you! Wasn’t that the whole point of them trying to kill you to make sure you didn’t talk?! What–what–no, say it! Say it again!”

She tried. For ten minutes, the Seosten girl tried to tell us what she knew. She tried to write it down, she tried to hint about it, she tried everything. Everything. But it didn’t help. She couldn’t say or do anything that would lead us to know who Manakel was possessing.

Even Sariel tried. Putting her hand against the girl’s head, she focused for awhile before sighing. “Normally,” she informed me, “You would be correct. It takes very powerful magic to enact this kind of spell on an unwilling target that is not even present. But it seems that Manakel has managed to convince his superior… probably Metatron, to grant him the resources necessary for that. I may be able to break it, but it will take time. Weeks, probably.”

“That’s too long,” I blurted, my voice rising dramatically despite every attempt I made to control it. “That’s too fucking long. It’s–” Turning, I lashed out with a punch that put my first all the way through the same nearby tree that I had shoved Theia into before. “–too fucking long!”

Spinning back the other way then, the words came from my mouth before I could stop them. “If you just hadn’t played games before, this wouldn’t have happened!” I shouted at Theia. “If you had just told us what you knew! If you’d just helped us before they had a chance to put this on you, we’d be done with this already! Avalon might die because you had to hold back instead of telling us!” My loud, panicked voice was growing more hysterical. “Avalon might die because–”

Hands grabbed me, turning me around away from the Seosten girl then. It was my dad. He wrapped both of his arms around me, holding tight as he shook his head. “Easy, easy,” he urged while pulling me close to him.

I quickly grabbed on tight rather than following my first instinct to pull away. Burying my face against his chest, I felt my shoulders shake as tears flooded my eyes. If Avalon died. If Valley was–was killed after everything we’d been through, just because Theia hadn’t told us about who Manakel was while she’d had the chance… The anger, fear, terror, grief, and helplessness all warred around with each other inside me, and I simply held onto my father even more tightly.

“Daddy,” I whispered, my voice soft and fearful as I pleaded, “I can’t let her die. Please, please, I can’t lose Valley. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. I can’t let her die. We have to do something. We have to do something.”

I had no idea what kind of fear and helplessness my father was feeling in that moment as he held onto me, but it had to be something similar to what I felt at the thought that I could do nothing to actually save Avalon. I was helpless. Theia had been our best shot, except–

“The pixie,” I blurted, pulling back a bit while turning to the others. “The pixie that Tristan told us about. She was supposed to know something, right? Could she–would she…”

“She might be able to say something, considering they would know much less about her than they know about Theia,” Sariel confirmed hesitantly. “Any protective spell would be far less effective in that case.”

“She’s not awake yet,” Dare informed us with a visible wince. “She is still healing, recovering from her escape. Staying away from Avalon’s father and the other vampires while they were chasing her took a lot out of her. Too much. It’ll be… awhile before she can talk to us.”

“Damn it!” Putting both hands to my forehead, I cursed again before lamenting, “It’s always something. There’s always something stopping us from finding out the truth. One thing after another.”

Jophiel, I announced inwardly. Maybe we can get what we need from her, from them. They want our help, our cooperation? Well they’re not gonna get it if Avalon dies. Fuck them. Fuck them. They want us to work with them? They can’t let Avalon die. Damn it, damn it!

I felt Tabbris’ agreement. Y-yeah, we won’t cooperate unless they help with Avalon. Th-they have to help, right? They helped us save Mama, even if… even if they made us make a deal with them first. We… they-they’ll have to help find her… won’t they?

Before I could respond to that, Theia spoke up once more. “Wait,” she murmured. “Maybe we can help and be useful. Maybe we can still tell other things. Not direct identity things.”

I looked that way, my mouth opening. But it was Koren who spoke first. “You mean, you might be able to tell us things that eventually lead to Manakel, in a roundabout way. Clues.”

Theia was nodding. “Clues, yes. Like… where his secret hidey holes are and how to get to them. He might have left clues there about who his dancing puppet is, or other things.”

So, she did. With surprising speed and conciseness, the girl told us how to find three separate ‘islands’ that were apparently secretly connected to Crossroads, yet only accessible through specific spells. There were apparently even more than that, but those were the three that she knew about. Apparently, Manakel had supplies in all of them. And probably troops too. They would likely be guarded.

With a hell of a lot of luck, he would be holding Avalon in one of them too. But I wasn’t nearly naive enough to think that he would be that stupid. Not now. He knew that we might be able to get information out of Theia (or Lies, as he still obviously thought of her as), so keeping Valley in one of the hidden locations that the Seosten girl actually knew about would have been beyond idiotic.

But still, I could hope that there would be some hint or clue in one of those places that we could check out, which would actually lead to Avalon. Please. Please, whatever deity might be out there. Please let it lead us to Avalon.

“Three places,” Professor Dare was murmuring. “If there is anything to find, he’ll get rid of it the second he finds out that we’re looking in them.”

“So we need to check all of them at once.” That was Deveron. He had come forward, pointedly staying away from Sariel and keeping his gaze off her. “That means splitting up.”

Dare nodded in agreement with that. “Three groups to check three areas. I’ll take one group.”

Deveron immediately announced, “I’ll take another.”

Finally, Sariel opened her mouth. But she was interrupted by Gabriel Prosser, who stepped up. “And I,” he put in, “will take the third.” Casting a glance toward the woman he had interrupted, Gabriel added, “If you would be kind enough to accompany me, I would very much appreciate your help.”

“Right,” I spoke then. “So we go in three groups, tear these places apart, and look for anything that might hint at where Manakel is, who he’s possessing, or anything else that could be helpful.”

It was a good thing that I had that Amarok-stamina. Because it had been a very long fucking day. Just when I had thought that everything had settled down and I was back at Crossroads for the time being (or at least for the night), this had happened. Now we were going out to search these places, and I still hadn’t had any actual sleep.

Yeah, I was, yet again, grateful for that enhanced stamina. Not that it would have mattered. I couldn’t have slept at this point even without it. The thought of Avalon being out there, being… I shoved the thought of the other girl being hurt, or worse, out of my mind. Or tried to. Right now, I had to focus on what we could do. And that meant searching these secret islands for any information that had been forgotten and left behind.

Hold on, Valley, I thought desperately, trying not to let my worry and fear totally overwhelm me. We’re coming, I promise.

We are coming for you. I swear to God. We are coming for you. We’ll be there. We’ll find you. Somehow, we’ll find you.

Just hold on.

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Homecoming 35-05

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“Felicity!”

It was a minute after my little conversation with Tabbris about sharing my body. The two of us had just joined back up with the others, and the voice came from Abigail as she came straight through the portal that had been created to bring her in. My older sister swooped in, arms covering me as she pulled me into an embrace.

Grinning through the hug, I tried to joke, “Boy, I should disappear for a little bit more often if this is the kind of—ow!”

Dad, who had just jammed his finger into my back, gave me a sharp headshake. “Don’t you even tease about that,” he warned. “We’ve got enough problems with you disappearing without making a game out of it.”

Pulling back a bit, Abigail gave me just as stern of a look. “Your father is right,” she agreed. “No more disappearing for you for at least a… a…  as long of a time as it is realistically likely.”

Tristan, arms linked behind his head, joked, “We’ve been back for like, what, an hour? I’m pretty sure we passed Flick’s safe zone for not disappearing again like fifteen minutes ago.”

“Jerks,” I informed them, “you’re all jerks.”

Abigail embraced me again, just as tightly as before. “Where were you? What happened? Where are the others? Are you okay? Wait, never mind the first question. I know where you were. But what happened? How did you get back?” Looking to Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And what about you two?”

Even as she spoke, the woman was giving a significant look toward my dad and the others with him. It was clear that she was trying to silently ask them certain questions without being obvious.

“I know I was possessed,” I quickly put in. “It’s okay. We already talked about it, and… well…” Turning a bit, I gestured for Tabbris to come out. She stepped into view, holding tight to her mother’s hand while giving a nervous, shy little wave. Even then however, the girl couldn’t keep the broad, giddy smile off her face that had been plastered there ever since what my father had said.

There were a lot of reactions that I could have expected from Abigail. What I absolutely did not expect, was to see a girl step into view from the shadows, move right beside Abigail, and announce, “Yep, that is definitely the kid we saw before.”

“Lies!” I blurted, not out of disagreement with what was being said, but because I knew that the girl standing there wasn’t really Pace. My staff was in my hand, and I almost lunged that way before two things happened. First Deveron’s hand caught my arm to stop me. And second, Abigail stepped in front of the possessed girl.

“Flick, no!” My sister’s voice was sharp as she held up both hands. “It’s OK, it’s not what you think. And,” she added even more sharply, “do not call her that.”

Beside me, Deveron sighed while still holding my arm. “I thought you said you were going to keep her out of sight until Flick understood what was going on. You asked for a chance to explain it yourself.”

Biting her lip, Abigail glanced back to where Lies was before turning to me. “Yes,” she replied, “I told her to stay on the edge of camp and wait until I called her.”

Lies was grinning. “Theia-I’m a bad puppy,” she announced.

“What-what-what?” I was a broken record. Even more than I had already felt like after telling the same story a couple different times. “What the hell are you doing? She’s one of the bad guys.” I pointed at Lies, feeling like I had suddenly gone crazy. Or maybe everyone else had.

Abigail shake her head. “It’s more complicated than that, Felicity. Just calm down. First of all, she’s the only reason that the Seosten didn’t didn’t already know about you being possessed. Because she saw you with that choker. She knew that you were possessed. But she never told her bosses about it.”

Lies confirmed that with a little sing-song, “They were being mean. And besides, us girls have to have secrets, don’t we?“

My mouth open and shut a couple of times then, before I threw both of my hands out and blurted, “She calls me Present! Present! As in she wanted to present me as a gift to Doxer!”

The other girl’s reply to that was simple and matter-of-fact. “Doxer was Theia-my friend. Theia-I wanted to get him a really good present. And you’re a really good person. So you would make a good present.  You’re smart and cute and funny and really good with your stick. The best present!” She finished with a completely innocent-sounding, “It was a compliment.”

“A… a…” I stared at her, then to the others, then back to her before finally demanding, “What the hell is going on?”

So, they started to explain. Mostly Abigail. She told me how they had tracked down Lies–now apparently named Theia, and how they had come to an arrangement. They would look for a way to free Pace from her, a way of fixing her condition. And in exchange, once that was done, she would tell us everything that she knew about Manakel and the other Seosten. And they also told us about her mother. Kushiel. Kushiel was her mother. Which… Gah. It did explain a lot, but still.  

“What about Pace?” I asked flatly after they’d finished. “And where are Seller and Miranda? Weren’t they coming?”

“They’ll be here soon,” Abigail assured me. “They just had something else to deal with. That’s why Wyatt’s not here right now. He stepped out to help them, so they could get here sooner.”

Nodding a little bit, I focused on Li–Theia. “If you’re really trying to be good, why don’t you tell us everything you know right now? That might be a bit more convincing.”

Smiling cunningly at me, the other girl shook her head. “Can’t give away something for nothing. That’s a terrible strategy. Especially if we want to keep living. We know things. We tell you when we get help. That’s the deal.”

“How about Roxa?” I snapped despite myself. “Did she get help when you helped turn her into a werewolf and left her in the woods to die from it?”

“She’s not dead,” the easy response came once more. “She’s even stronger now, right?”

“That’s not the–” Stopping myself from pointlessly arguing with her, I shook my head. “The point is that if you really wanted to help, you could tell us almost everything we need to know right here, right now.”

Her gaze met mine. Or rather, her host’s gaze did. “And give away the only reason we’re still alive? Sorry. Theia-I am just not that trusting. We need help. Pace-I needs help. Help us separate. Help fix Theia-me.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sariel stepped forward. Her voice was quiet. “Do you know who I am?”

Theia seemed to really focus on her for the first time, and as she did so, Pace’s eyes widened. “Wh–you,” she actually stammered a little. “The Hunter. You’re–but… Mother…”

Sariel gave a slight nod to that. “My children and their friends are very resourceful. But the point is, you know who I am. And you know where I was. So please. Look at me, and tell me that you are being genuine. Is this a game? Are you leading everyone on, Theia? Or are you really willing to help if you get help in return? Can you help us?”

A moment of silent near-communication passed between the two of them briefly before Theia dropped her head in a tiny nod of her own. “Theia-I can help. Will… will help. But not until you fix us. Not until you separate Pace. It’s all we have.”

“I will.” Sariel’s voice was quiet, yet firm. “I will find a way to help you, Theia. I promise. And when we do, when we help you, then you have to be ready to keep your side of it.”

“Cross our heart and hope to die,” Theia promptly replied, before amending, “Well, maybe not die. But Theia-I’ve taken a needle in my eye. Does that count?”

God, no wonder that girl was so screwed up. Even just the simple hints that we’d gotten throughout her story about how her mother had treated her was just… Kushiel. She was Kushiel’s daughter, which explained so fucking much. And as much as I wanted to be furious with her for holding back, along with everything else she had done, I kind of understood the situation she had been in along with the type of person that she had been raised to be.

Actually, the fact that she hadn’t told Manakel about Tabbris was basically enough for me to forgive everything else, now that I’d had a chance to calm down and think about it.

“Um.” Abigail raised a hand. “Maybe she knows who you are,” she informed Sariel. “But I’m still a little fuzzy on it.”

So, it was our turn. I felt a little uncomfortable talking in front of Pace/Theia, still. But they were right. I would have been even more screwed if she had told Manakel about Tabbris. She had already kept that secret. If she was playing us, we were already pretty screwed. And Abigail trusted her. So, once more, I explained about what had happened out in Seosten space. For the third time in a short span, I went through everything. Actually, I was getting pretty good at summarizing by that point.

“You poor girl.” Abigail was addressing Tabbris. She had taken a knee as soon as things settled enough, and opened her arms for my little partner to rush into them for yet another hug. Throughout the explanation, she had been holding the girl and stroking her hair. “You were practically a baby. I can’t believe you had to do all that.“

Sariel, who had never looked more guilty than in that moment, cringed. “There was no other choice,” she spoke quietly, giving a brief glance toward Theia before she continued. “They had to protect each other. And it was better than what they would have done with her.”

Abigail looked a little hesitant at that, but gave a slight nod. “Well,” she announced, “at least that’s over now. You don’t have to be in danger anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Tabbris looked confused. “Flick’s still going back to Crossroads, right?”

Abigail looked just as confused. “Well, of course,” she replied. “But you don’t have to. I mean, Flick can be protected from possession in other ways now, like that Dibs spell you were talking about. There is no need for you to be in that kind of danger anymore. You can stay-“

Tabbris pulled away from her. “If she’s going back,” she announced firmly, “I’m going back. We’re partners. She needs me.” As she spoke, the girl’s lip was poked out a little stubbornly.

In the background, I heard Tristan whisper, “Told you it was gonna be a thing,” to Vanessa.

Dad was nodding. His eyes were on Tabbris. “Honey,” he started, “Abigail’s right. You don’t have to be in danger like that. You’ve done an amazing job. But—”

It was the wrong thing to say. Tabbris suddenly disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear right beside and partly behind me with both of her arms around my waist. She had used her recall to put herself with me, though not completely inside. Not yet, anyway. Her head shook. “No! You can’t make me leave Flick! She needs me! I–I need… I need Flick. We’re partners.”

Her voice turned plaintive and desperate then, gaze turning up to me as she repeated the same thing. Only that time, it was a question. “We’re partners?”

I didn’t hesitate for a second. “We’re partners,” I confirmed, before looking up to the others. Abigail looked confused. Dad looked pained. And Sariel looked… tortured. Like there was so much that she wanted to say, but didn’t know how. And so much pain locked in her memories.

“You can’t make her do anything,” I informed them. My gaze turned slightly to Sariel. “I know you didn’t have a choice. I know that you did the only thing you could do to keep her safe, and to keep me safe. It wasn’t a fair situation. But it happened. She grew up with me. She was never a little kid. She saved me more times than I think she’ll ever actually tell anyone about. She should have had a chance to be a little kid, yes. But she didn’t get that chance. And forcing her to leave me now, taking her agency away from her and making her do what you think is right for her, that’s wrong. After everything she’s done, after everything she’s been through, she’s earned the right to make the choice herself. I’m not saying it’s a good situation. But you can’t take the choice away from her. Not after everything she’s done.”

Turning slightly then, I looked down to the girl at my side. “That said…” When she looked  up at me with those wide eyes, I touched her face. “I’m not gonna make you do anything either. You’re right. We’re partners. And I couldn’t have gotten this far without you. I’d be lost if I didn’t have my little sister when I need her. But… it’s okay… not to be together all the time.”

Lip quivering a little, Tabbris whimpered. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean,” I explained, “you deserve a chance to spend some time with your mom, Tabbris. You and me, we’re partners for life. I’ll be there for you any time you need me. And I know that you’ll be there for me. But your mom needs you too. And so does our dad. They deserve a chance to see you, to know you like I do. I’ll always be there for you to jump to. We’re connected. You can hop back to me any time you want to. And I’m not going to make you do anything. You deserve the choice. But I think you should spend a little time here, with Dad and your mother.

“I will always need my partner, my sister. But they need you too. And you need them. Why don’t you give it a little chance. I’ll be okay. And if I’m not, if I need you, you know I’ll find a way to let you know.”

“I… I can help with that.” It was Sariel, glancing toward Theia briefly before she spoke up. “I can show you what I did, to make sure that no one would ever be able to possess Larissa, as long as I’m alive. I can show you how to mark her so that it looks like you’re possessing her, even when you’re not. Even when you possess someone else. So you’ll be able to communicate with her any time you want to, no matter what happens. They won’t be able to possess her, as long as you’re alive. And I can teach you a spell so that you’ll be able to transport between her and here any time that you want to, at will. So you can visit here as long as you’d like to, pop over to where she is for a little bit, then come back, whenever you like.”

“Y-you can teach me that?” Tabbris stammered, staring up at her mother while still clinging tightly to me.

Sariel nodded a bit then, giving her daughter a tiny smile. “If you’ll let me, there are a lot of things that I can teach you.” Her voice sounded a little hopeful.

Head bobbing quickly then, Tabbris agreed. “O-okay. Okay. Um, w-we can do that, Mama.” Her gaze turned to me then, as she added earnestly, “Are you sure you don’t need me for a little while?”

My own head shook. “Partner, I’m pretty sure I’ll always need you. But I can get along for awhile without you. Consider it a vacation. I mean, you’ve been on the job your whole life. Literally. Take a break to be with your mom and dad for a little bit. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Especially your mom. If I need you, I’ll let you know.

“And besides,” I added then, “from the sound of things, your mom’s gonna be able to teach you a lot more stuff so we can be even more dangerous together. Right?” Shifting a bit, I held my hand up for her.

“Right.” Quickly, Tabbris slapped my hand, giving me five. “Okay, Mama. I’ll… I’ll st-stay for awhile.” She gave a tentative smile then, the crisis averted.

Nodding, Sariel looked toward Theia. “And I’ll help you too. I don’t know if I have an answer for your situation. But I will help, any way that I can. Between all of us, who knows, we may figure something out. Our people haven’t, but… well, they refuse to listen to any outside aid or suggestions. Maybe humans will see something that our scientists haven’t.”

“Flick!” It was Miranda. She and Wyatt had just arrived, apparently. My old best friend tore across the grass as she ran to me, throwing herself my way with a laugh. “You really made it!”

Grinning, I returned the tight embrace. “Randi! Took you long enough.”

Her eyes rolled, as she leaned back to stare at me. “Took me long enough? You were the one that took a two month vacation.”

“Oh, trust me,” I retorted, “I’ll tell you all about that ‘vacation’ in a minute. But maybe I should start with–” My hand started to gesture toward the nearby Tabbris, who had just barely stepped out of the way.

“It’s okay,” Randi informed me. “We heard most of it. Abigail’s been wearing a… uh, phone-spell, basically. It let us hear what you guys were saying. You don’t have to explain it again.”

Blinking once at that, I recovered quickly. “Oh, thank God,” I blurted. “I’m beginning to think that I need to write it all down and just hand out copies to everyone.” Smiling then, I hugged her again. “You look good.”

“Eh, lots of exercise,” the other girl replied with a wink before stepping back, her gaze moving to Sariel. “So… Artemis?”

“She’s my mama!” Tabbris, sounding incredibly tickled and proud about that fact, announced while hopping over to wrap both of her arms around one of her mother’s. “And she’s brilliant and perfect.”

“I am not perfect,” Sariel quietly protested.

“She’s modest,” Abigail put in then, smiling as she stood beside Wyatt. “She’s a very good person.”

“No.” There was torture, pain, agony in Sariel’s denial that time, as she stared at the two of them. “No, I’m not. I’m not a good person. It’s my fault. It was my fault.”

“What?” I blinked at that, confused as to what she was talking about and where it was coming from. “What do you mean? What’s your faul–”

“It was me,” she interrupted, her pained gaze locked onto Wyatt and Abigail. “I didn’t know how he’d take it, but it was me. I… I told Ruthers, back then… I told him that if he wanted to beat Joselyn, he had to take someone that she loved and make her stop to protect them.”

Her gaze flicked toward Deveron then. “I meant you. Not you-you, because we didn’t know who you were then. Her lover. I meant Joselyn’s lover, her husband. Not her children. I didn’t mean her children. But that’s how he took it. He took my words and he… that’s what made him think of taking her children. So it’s my fault. It’s my fault you were abducted. So I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.

“Because everything that happened to you, it’s my fault.”

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Interlude 33B – Avalon, Theia, and Company

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Three figures hurried along the sidewalk near a mall in the middle of a mid-sized town somewhere in the western United States. Two female teenagers trailed behind a thin, older man, who bustled along in front of them, urging them onward.

“Come along, Veronica,” he prompted with a gesture toward one of the girls. “Let’s pick up the slack. We’re already running late. Wouldn’t want to be late for your meeting.”

Avalon paused in mid-step, looking toward the man in front of her. She glanced to Koren beside her before coolly pointing out, “We still have four and a half hours before the meeting, you know. And my name isn’t Veronica, it’s—”

That was as far as she got before the man was suddenly facing her, his hand covering her mouth. He made a loud, long shushing noise while putting his other hand to his lips, his eyes darting around wildly. He stared suspiciously at a car that was passing by, waiting in silence, even though there was no possible way that the inhabitants could have heard them. Silence, that was, aside from the uninterrupted, “Shhhhhhhhh…”

“I would’ve done that,” Koren idly remarked from where she was standing, “but I figured I’d probably end up on the ground with a broken arm if I tried it.”

“No real names,” Wyatt urged, his hand still covering Avalon’s mouth. “You don’t know what kind of traps might be set up to trigger if it hears your name. Or who else might be listening. We use codenames and stay subtle. That’s how we survive. You understand? Subtle.”

Avalon could have pointed out that none of the people who had stopped to look at the quirky-looking man with his hand over a teenage girl’s mouth as they stood beside a busy street thought he was being all that subtle. But that probably would have caused more problems than it solved. She wouldn’t put it past the man to try to interrogate every person who had stopped to rubberneck at the sight. And even though they did have plenty of time, she didn’t want to sit through that. What they had come for was much, much more important than that.

So, she just gave a slight nod until the man removed his hand from her mouth. There was no sense in arguing about it. As eccentric as he might have been (and she had a feeling that he played that up to some extent so people would underestimate him), Wyatt was still the very best security guard that Crossroads had. He was the reason she was still alive, that much she was certain of. And, beyond all that, he was a good man. He was a good person. And he was Flick’s brother. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. She just had to listen to him, quirks and all.

“Fine, I’m Veronica,” she replied simply. Waiting until her response made the man relax a little bit, she added, “But we still have four and a half hours before we’re supposed to meet them.”

Them, in this case, was Koren’s mother (Wyatt and Flick’s sister), Abigail,  Flick’s ancestor and Avalon’s first real father figure, Seller, and Flick’s old best friend, Miranda. They had asked Wyatt to come see them, because they needed his help with something that they didn’t want to talk about except in person. It was some big secret that they wouldn’t even tell Gaia.

Koren had come to see her mother, and Avalon had convinced Wyatt and her adopted mother to let her come as well to get away from the school for awhile. And, because if the trio from Eden’s Garden had something that important to talk about, it clearly either had something to do with Flick, or with the people who were trying to kill Avalon herself. Either way, she was involved.

Besides, she wanted to see Seller. It had been awhile.

If any part of Avalon had expected the news of how long they had to calm the man down, she was sorely mistaken. “Only four and a half?!” he blurted, head shaking as he spun around. “No, no, no, it’ll take at least that long to set up even a rudimentary perimeter. Come, hurry, hurry. We have to get this done before they show up. No time to waste.” Then he was moving even faster than before, rushing remarkably quickly along the sidewalk while leaving Koren and Avalon to shrug at each other before jogging after him.  

Together, the three made their way down into the parking lot. But they didn’t go into the mall itself. Instead, the trio moved to one of the buildings in the far corner of the lot. At one point, it had been a seafood restaurant. But that had been closed down for several months, with barely any interest paid to the for sale sign in the window.

By the time they reached the back door, Wyatt had already taken a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked the door, ushering the two girls in before turning to the nearby keypad as the alarm steadily beeped its warning at him. His finger danced over the pad, inputting a seven digit code from memory before the beeping finally stopped. Rather than relax, however, Wyatt immediately input a second seven digit code before there was an audible chime.

As the man finally turned away from the keypad, Avalon stared at him. “There was a second alarm? How did you know that? How did you get the keys? That wasn’t a magic spell or anything, you had the actual keys to get in here.”

“Of course there’s more than one alarm!” Wyatt informed her incredulously. “Do you think I’d only have one alarm on one of my buildings?” Belatedly, he amended, “Technically, there’s six, but I disabled the first four on our way here. Those last two have to be done in the building itself. Even I can’t do it remotely. Remember, your security is only as good as you make it be.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Avalon’s head was shaking. “Your building? I thought you just picked a random place that was closed down so we could meet the others in private.”

From the way that the man was staring at her for that, she might as well have suggested that the three of them abandon the whole Heretic thing, form an interpretive dance troupe, and take their act to Vegas. He sputtered for a moment before managing, “Picked a random place? Picked a random place? As if I would do something like that. As if I would relegate something this important to chance? That’s–that’s just- I would never even–”

As the man continued in that vein, Koren spoke up. “Wyatt owns about thirty or forty different places like this all over the country, under different names. Restaurants, laundromats, motels, pawn shops, little businesses that no one really pays attention to. He’s constantly making sure there’s a few that are closed down. You know, either they’re out of business, or they’re under renovations, pest removal, whatever. The point is, he always has a few to choose from that he knows are safe for private meetings, to fall back to in case Crossroads is attacked, or anything like that.”

Wyatt’s head bobbed quickly at that. “Yes, naturally. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that. It’s common sense. Why would you meet in a random place that you have no control over? That’s preposterous.”

“Okay, sure.” Avalon found herself nodding. “But on the way down here, you were acting like four hours wouldn’t be enough to make this place secure. If it’s your place, then–”

Wyatt interrupted. “Of course! If this was some random place, we’d need days to secure it, not hours. Now come, we’re wasting time. Abigail was very specific. Whatever they need to talk about, it’s important and we need absolute privacy and secrecy. Take this.” Extending his hand, the man offered the two girls a notepad before nodding to Koren. “You know what to do.”

The other girl nodded, taking the notepad before gesturing for Avalon. “Come on. He’s got instructions for spells written in this thing. We’re supposed to use them on the parking lot while he gets things done in here. And,” she added while stepping outside, “we have to follow the instructions exactly. He’ll be double-checking and triple-checking everything we do, trust me.”

Trailing after the other girl, Avalon quietly remarked, “Sounds like you’re learning a lot from your uncle.”

Koren coughed at that. “Oh, trust me, you have no idea. He takes this whole mentor thing really seriously. You should’ve seen the written test he made me take last week. It was like an inch thick. I felt like I was taking the SAT’s or something.”

As the two reached the parking lot and started to look at the pad of instructions that Wyatt had given them to work from, Avalon asked, “What do you think Seller and your mom want to talk about?”

Koren shrugged. “I’m not sure. But from what Mom said, it’s really important. They need Wyatt’s magic expertise for something. Believe me, I tried to get more details, but they wouldn’t talk about it. They’re being really cagey about it.

“But whatever it is, I get the feeling that the Seosten would be pretty pissed if they knew about it.”

*******

Hours later, as Koren and Avalon sat at one of the booths in the restaurant while Wyatt went over his last minute security measures one more time, the man abruptly stopped. “They’re here,” he announced, moving toward the nearby door. He was there before any knock came, opening it to reveal Abigail and Seller standing there.

“Mom!” Koren darted that way as her mother stepped in, embracing the woman tightly.

While those two reunited, Avalon exchanged a brief embrace with Seller. She felt a lump in her throat. After what had happened with her birth father, seeing the man who had been her real father figure for so long affected her more than she had expected it to.

“You okay, kid?” the man asked, clearly noticing her reaction as much as she tried to hide it.

She forced herself to nod. “Yeah, I… I’m fine. Better since that piece of shit is gone.”

Seller grinned at that. “You did real good there. That cockroach had too many chances.” Expression softening then, he added, “But I’m sorry you had to be the one to do it.”

“I’m not,” Avalon replied flatly. “If anyone was going to put that bastard in the ground, it was me. If anyone else did it, I don’t know if I’d believe it was real. I almost still don’t.”

Coughing, Seller nodded to her. “Listen, there’s a lot we need to talk about. That and other things. But right now, there’s something really important to get through.”

“The other one,” Wyatt suddenly announced, “you said the other one would be here. Miranda. Where is she?”

“She’s beyond the security spells,” Seller replied, “waiting with our…” He paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. “…our guest. We told them to wait until you were ready.”

“He means until we warned you,” Abigail quietly put in.

“Warned us?” Koren blinked, she and Avalon exchanging confused looks before the girl added, “Warned us about what? What kind of guest did you bring? It’s not like you’ve got some kind of Seosten informant or anyth–wait a minute.”

That was all she needed to hear. Avalon was already through the door and moving across the lot while Seller tried to say something else. Her eyes darted around wildly until she spotted two figures standing in the shadows near the edge of the lot. Three more steps carried her closer, until she finally recognized the person standing next to Miranda.

Lies. Pace. Whatever she was going by. The Seosten-possessed girl stood there, staring through Avalon. It was obvious that she didn’t even see her. The intricately layered privacy spells that Wyatt had made them lay down ensured that all Miranda and Lies could see or hear was an empty parking lot. They had no idea that anyone was approaching.

“You,” Avalon blurted then, even as her hands moved to the bracelets that she wore on either wrist. One at a time, she slapped the bracelets with her opposite hand. There was a confirmation beep, and the bracelets expanded into her familiar gauntlets, before a solid-light energy blade emerged from the ends of both while she stalked that direction, moving for the unsuspecting crazy Seosten murderer while raising one of those blades..

“Stop.” It was Seller. The man appeared behind Avalon, catching her by the shoulders to bring her up short. “It’s okay. She’s with us.”

“With you? With you?” Avalon stared at the man incredulously, her mouth open. “Are you serious right now? Is she still possessed? Because I’m pretty sure there’s no way she couldn’t be. How is she with you? Do you know what she-”

“I know.” The man shook his head. “Trust me, Ha–Avalon, I know. Yes, she is still possessed, but it’s more complicated than that. Just… let us explain.”

If it had been almost anyone else, Avalon probably wouldn’t have listened. But for Seller, she sighed, retracting the energy blades from her gauntlets without actually dismissing the gauntlets entirely. “Fine,” she muttered. “But you do something for me first.”

Knowing what she wanted, Seller extended his arm, pulling his sleeve up. He waited patiently then, while Avalon used her field-engraver to carefully draw the Seosten-expulsion rune. Not that she expected it to actually do anything, but just to be on the safe side.

Sure enough, though Seller grunted a bit from the pain of the spell being used, he definitely wasn’t possessed.

By that point, Wyatt had joined them. He started to berate Avalon for storming out of the room where the majority of the security spells were concentrated, before stopping when his eyes found Lies standing there.

“That,” he announced flatly, “is one of the bad guys.”

Sighing, Seller nodded. “As I said, it’s complicated. Right now, she’s willing to help us. But she needs something in return. And her people are trying everything they can to kill her before that happens. Which means we need you to let her through the security spell so that she can get under cover before they find her again. Believe me, they’ve been… tenacious on that front.”

It took another few seconds of convincing that they weren’t being manipulated or coerced into this before Wyatt finally took the time to add Lies into the security exceptions. Once it was done and he had lowered the spell enough to let them in, Miranda and the Seosten suddenly jumped as the group clearly appeared right in front of their eyes.

“Oooh,” Lies started with a wide smile, “good trick. But do it again, this time with more flair. There was no showmanship behind it, no panache.”

“Take it easy, Theia,” Seller cautioned. “Things are complicated right now.”

“Theia?” Avalon blinked, looking between the man and the Seosten girl. “Who the hell–what?”

Clearing her throat, Miranda spoke up. “It’s a long story. Can we talk about it inside? My other selves think we’re still clear for the time being, but being out here like this makes me nervous.”

Wyatt was bobbing his head suddenly. “Yes, yes, inside. Everyone inside. There are spells out here, but many more covering the building. Quickly now.” He gestured for them to go, before adding in Lies’ direction, “And don’t think that you’re off the hook just because I’ve let you inside. You try anything, and you won’t live long enough to regret it, Missy.”

“Aww,” Lies’ smile just grew wider as she addressed Seller. “You said this was going to be complicated, but he’s already flirting with Theia-me.”

While everyone else sputtered at that, she started to walk to the building with a low whistle, leaving Avalon and the others to follow behind.

Koren was waiting there with her mother as they stepped into the restaurant, looking incredulous. Avalon had the feeling that Abigail had told her daughter at least some of what was going on while they were alone. But clearly not enough to stop her from still being confused.

“Okay,” Avalon started once they were all back in the building and the door had been closed once more. “What is going on? Why is Lies here?”

“Hey!” Abigail suddenly barked, “don’t call her that. It’s not her name.” She stepped that way, with Koren beside her as she put a hand on the Seosten’s shoulder. “Her name is Theia, and she’s going to help us. She’s going to tell us who Manakel is possessing.”

“Her name is Pace,” Avalon pointed out in a sharp tone. “Lies, Theia whatever you call her, she’s the one enslaving the girl you’ve got your hand on. And why would she help us?”

“Because she wants to stop enslaving her,” Abigail shot back, her own voice just as sharp as Avalon’s. “Theia wants us to help her get out of Pace without killing her. That’s why we need Wyatt.” She looked to her brother then. “We already tried the spell that Felicity brought back from Gabriel’s people. It didn’t work, but some other spell might, and you were the best idea we had about who could try and come up with something.”

“That’s the trade, isn’t it?” Koren put in then. “She wants to get out of Pace, in exchange for telling us about Manakel.”

Miranda nodded. “Yup. We help ‘fix’ her little problem, and she tells us everything she knows. Not just about Manakel, but all of it. Manakel especially. She says… she says that’s something we’ll want to know.”

“Yeah?” Avalon demanded, “And how are we supposed to believe that this is for real? What if she’s just setting all this up? What makes you think that we can trust her?”

“Trust?” Theia interrupted before any of the others could speak. “Theia-I am very trustworthy. We could have done a lot worse than we did. Why, Theia-I never even told Manakel about Present’s little secret.”

That was enough to drive Avalon across the few feet that separated them. Her hands caught the other girl by the shoulders as she shoved her back against the nearby wall. “Flick,” she spat. “Her name is Flick. Call her Present again, and I don’t care what kind of deal you’ve got. I will end it. And you.”

Holding up both hands placatingly, the Seosten nodded. “Right. Force of habit. Flick. Flicky. Yes. But for the record, Pace-I would really like you to do that again, harder next time. And maybe with mud and bikinis invol–oh. Would you pretend we didn’t say that?” She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what Pace-she’s telling Theia-me to say, and what was just a subconscious thought.”

Clearing her throat, Abigail reached out to pull Avalon’s arms back from the other girl. “Theia speaks for both herself and Pace. She uses the names to differentiate. Pace-I or Theia-I.”

Opening and shutting her mouth at that for a few seconds, Avalon finally shook her head. She felt tense, like she desperately wanted to hit something or someone. “What… what did you mean? What secret of Flick’s did you not tell Manakel?”

“The big one,” Theia replied, her tone knowing. “You know, the reason she can’t be possessed? Believe me, they all want to know that. But we didn’t tell them. We kept it nice and secret.”

Blinking blankly at that, Avalon glanced to the others before shaking her head. “Are you saying that you actually know why Flick can’t be possessed?”

“Of course we–” Theia suddenly stopped, head tilting. “Wait, wait.” She laughed suddenly. “You don’t? You really don’t know? Oh. Oh… wow. That’s funny. That’s really funny. We thought it was a trick. We thought you were keeping it secret.”

Avalon grabbed the girl again. This time, instead of pushing her against the wall, she pulled her closer, hands locked around her shirt. “What? What do you know? What the hell is it?”

“Theia.” That was Miranda. The girl looked just as taken aback as Avalon felt. “Please. What happened to Flick? Why can’t she be possessed?”

“Well,” the Seosten replied simply, “that’s easy. She can be. In fact, she already is.”

The words made no sense. They were gibberish. Avalon gave a sharp, confused shake of her head. “Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Possessed,” Theia elaborated. “She’s already possessed. She’s been possessed the whole time. Obviously since before you knew her, since the Seosten tried to possess her a long time ago and couldn’t do it. She’s been possessed for years.”

That time, Avalon did shove the girl, hard against the wall. “Shut up!” she blurted. “No, she’s not! I know Flick! I know her. She’s not really one of your fucking people. She’s not being puppeted by one of you. She’s not one of your slaves!”

Bouncing off the wall, Theia shook her head. “Theia-I didn’t say that. We said she was possessed, not that she’s being puppeted.”

Miranda was there too, cursing as she demanded, “What the hell are you talking about?! Flick isn’t possessed.”

“But she is,” Theia insisted. “Remember the choker all of you stole from us? Our special choker? Theia-I saw the Flicky with it, while we still had it. We touched her. We saw her. We saw the Seosten inside her.”

Avalon felt numb, confused, lost, and empty for a few seconds. In the background, she saw Wyatt slumping down, muttering to himself about how he could have missed it. He looked shellshocked.

Abigail, meanwhile, was already pushing past her. She took hold of Theia, her own voice rising. “You said that the Seosten is in her, but not puppeting her. What does that mean?”

“Wait.” Theia shook her head. “Pace-I will explain. She is better at it. She understands more, doesn’t make the same assumptions. Theia-I will just… say the words that she thinks.”

Taking a long, deep breath, she continued. “We saw a small Seosten child with Flick. She was young, and small. Not an infiltrator. Not a spy. Not enslaving Flick. She was not controlling her. She was just there. Just possessing her. Waiting. We… thought that she was part of Gaia’s plan. Or maybe part of Gabriel Prosser’s plan, a rogue Seosten child that they used to protect Felicity Chambers from being possessed.”

Avalon rocked backward, taking all that in. Around her, she could see the others looking similarly shocked by the explanation. “Gaia… Gaia doesn’t know anything about that,” she muttered. “She would’ve told me, would have told us. And Gabriel… no, it wasn’t him.”

“Flick’s possessed?!” Miranda blurted. “But-but how? How? Why? Who would–some Seosten kid? A kid?! She–I don’t… That– that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand.”

Seller’s voice was dull. “Neither do I. I… knew there had to be some reason she was immune. But I never thought—I didn’t.. Oh God. Gaia’s going to want to know about this.”

Theia spoke carefully again, clearly relaying only what Pace was telling her to say. “As far as we could tell, the Seosten child was not controlling her. She never made her do anything.”

“Flick didn’t know.” That was Miranda, speaking quietly, yet confidently. “Flick didn’t know she was possessed. Trust me, she didn’t know.”

Koren shook her head, speaking up for all of them then. “But if it’s not one of Gaia or Gabriel’s plans, then who’s the Seosten that’s possessing Flick? Where did she come from? And what does she want? If she’s not controlling her, then… then… what the hell is going on?”

The only response that came to that was silence, as everyone in the room exchanged helpless, confused stares. None of them knew the answer. None of them knew anything about the Seosten who was apparently possessing Flick, who had been possessing Flick the entire time she had been at the school, and long before.

“I’m calling Vanessa,” Koren suddenly blurted. She looked to Avalon while yanking the phone from her pocket. “I’m calling her before she jumps to her dad’s head again. I’ll tell them to meet us out on the beach, so we can tell them about this. If we can tell her before she jumps to her dad’s head again, she can pass on the message, it’ll–”

She stopped then, as the phone was clearly answered at the other end. “Hello? Vanessa–wait, Headmistress?”

That made everyone’s heads snap that way, as Koren blurted, “Why do you have Vanessa’s–oh. I… yes, ma’am.” Silently, she handed the phone to Seller, who took it and stepped away for a moment. Wyatt joined the other man immediately, both of them having a conversation with Gaia over the phone. 

“They’re gone,” Koren spoke quietly, her voice dull. “Vanessa and Tristan, they disappeared. They… they think the Seosten took them.”

“Pffffft, no way.” That was Theia, shaking her head. “She’d never allow it. Manakel tried to make her let him take them before. She wouldn’t agree to it, and he wouldn’t dare go behind her back.”

“What?” Avalon’s head snapped around at that. “Who? Wouldn’t let Manakel take them?”

“Uh uh.” Theia wagged a finger at her reproachfully. “First, you have to help us, before we tell you more of those yummy secrets. We already gave you a freebie about the little Seosten possessing the Chambers girl. See, we’ve been downright charitable.”

The others tried fruitlessly to press the Seosten girl to tell them more, while Avalon just took a step away. The reminder made bile rise in her throat, as she turned to face the nearby window. In the background, she could hear Seller talking to Gaia. But she didn’t listen. All she could focus on was her rapidly mounting fear and confusion.

Felicity was possessed. Why or how that had happened, or what the apparent child Seosten wanted, she had no idea. But if they were in Seosten space, would the child remain silent? Was she still leaving her host alone, still content to just possess the girl without making her do anything? Or had things progressed past that point? Was she playing the long game? Now that they were in Seosten space, was it only a matter of time before the girl made her move and took over?

“Flick,” Avalon whispered, her cracked, hoarse voice barely audible as she stared up at the stars dotting the night sky. “Flick, please be okay. I don’t know what’s going on. But please… please be safe. I need you to be safe. I need you to be okay. I need you to… to be here. I need… I need…

“I need you.”

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Mini-Interlude 58 – Abigail

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At one point, the small, rundown building had been home to a popular package delivery service. But they had outgrown the location, moving to a new, much larger place down the street and leaving their old office without a tenant for quite some time. Now, it was the temporary refuge of four (or five, depending on how one was counting) very different people. One of whom was making an awful amount of noise, her mixture of cries and moans filling the small space.

“I can’t do this.” Abigail set down the field-engraver that she had been using to draw on Pace’s arm with before holding up her hands. “I can’t do the spell like that.” With every little stroke of the engraver against the girl’s arm, Pace (or the Seosten possessing her) had been crying out in sheer agony, writhing helplessly while dutifully holding her arm up in place for more.

The two of them were seated on folding chairs facing one another in the middle of the front lobby, where customers had come to drop off their packages. Near the front door, one Miranda stood keeping an eye out for anyone who might come to investigate. There were two more duplicates of the girl out back, doing the same thing. Finally, Seller himself leaned against the nearby wall, watching what was going on from behind his emerald-tinted sunglasses.

The idea had been that Abigail would use the Seosten-expulsion spell that Felicity had passed along through Miranda, just to see if that would work in getting the handicapped Seosten out of Pace. It wouldn’t be a perfect solution for the future, but it would at least be something.

Stopping her cry abruptly the moment the engraver was removed from her arm, the Seosten girl made Pace’s head tilt. “What?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Why’d you stop?”

“Are you kidding?” That was Miranda, the one by the front door. She had turned to look back that way. “After all that noise you were making, it sounded like the spell was killing you. I mean, I know it was pretty painful when I had to go through it, but I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“Bad?” If anything, the Seosten seemed even more confused. “It wasn’t bad. See?” In one smooth motion, she plucked the engraver from Abigail’s hand and proceeded to finish the spell on her own arm, giving no indication that she even felt anything aside from the occasional twitch.

“What th–” Abigail blinked, looking closely at the rune. Sure enough, the Seosten was drawing it properly. The thing looked just like it was supposed to. Yet she wasn’t even reacting to the pain that it had to be causing. Hell, the pain wasn’t even enough to make her hand shake as she carefully drew it out with a look of intent concentration.

Seeing that, the older woman shook her head slowly. “But if it didn’t hurt, why were you making those… those awful sounds? I thought it was killing you.”

Blinking up at that with a look that Abigail wouldn’t quite classify as innocent, but was at least in the same general neighborhood, the girl replied simply, “When Lies-I stopped crying from pain, old-Mama thought it wasn’t working. She needed the crying or she would keep making it harder on Lies-me.”

The Seosten had taken to referring to herself as ‘Lies-I’ or ‘Lies-me’ and to her host as ‘Pace-I’ and ‘Pace-me’ whenever the subject came up. Between that and the horrific subject matter, it took a moment for Abigail to process what the girl was saying. But when she did, her eyes widened in outrage. “Are you telling us that your own mother hurt you, and when you stopped crying about the pain, she made it hurt even worse?”

“Only way she could know it was working,” the girl replied sagely. “When Lies-I made noise, she knew it worked. And she could keep trying. Lies-I wanted to make old-Mama proud of Lies-me, wanted her to…” She trailed off then, looking a little hesitant before continuing without finishing that sentence. “So Lies-I took things she used for the pain, to try and drive Lies-me out and did it to myself while she was sleeping. Had to get used to it.”

It was Miranda’s turn to speak up, her voice full of horror. “You tortured yourself just so you could get used to the pain when your mother did it to you?”

Pace’s head bobbed up and down quickly, as the Seosten possessing her replied, “Lies-I thought it would make old-Mama proud if Lies-I didn’t make sounds when she was working on making Lies-me leave my host. But old-Mama wasn’t happy at all. She was angry. She thought it wasn’t working, so Lies-I made sounds anyway. That made old-Mama happy. Doesn’t it make you happy?” She sounded honestly confused.

“No!” Abigail blurted. “You being in pain wouldn’t make us happy.”

“But Lies-I hurt people you care about,” the other girl pointed out simply. “Even killed people. Lies-I could have killed you. Even thought about it before.”

“You thought about killing me?” the words came automatically before Abigail could stop them.

“Yes,” the girl replied. “But you shouldn’t take it personally.” She gave a predatory smile. “Lies-I think about killing many people. Most people.” She shrugged then, continuing her previous point. “You don’t like Lies-me. So being hurt should make you happy. Lies-I thought that’s why you wanted to try this spell to make Lies-me get out of Pace-me.” She gestured to the rune still drawn on her arm. “Because it would hurt.”

Seller spoke up then, his voice a bit rough. “We tried that first because we thought it had a chance of working, not because we wanted to vindictively hurt you.”

Abigail nodded at that. “Exactly! It wouldn’t have been a perfect solution, but if you could endure a little pain in order to eject from your host instead of waiting for them to die, it would have been something.”

From where she was standing, Miranda pointed out, “Well, we really should’ve known that it wouldn’t be that easy. I mean, of course the Seosten would’ve tried it.”

Seller shrugged slightly. “After how much she’s told us about how batshit crazy that mother of hers is, I thought she might have dismissed it as an option just because it wouldn’t fix the underlying problem. She clearly wanted her daughter to stop being a Lie, not just use a spell to bypass it.”

Sighing, Abigail looked over to the Seosten. “Which was obviously a faulty assumption, since you clearly knew the spell well enough to finish drawing it. So I guess you learned it a long time ago.”

The girl smiled proudly. “Not from Old-Mama. From Manakel. He wanted to make sure it wouldn’t work on Lies-me to fool people like you who might use it to expose Seosten. Just in case. So he tried it.” She tapped the side of Pace’s head then. “Seosten memory. Angel memory. Always remember the spells even after only seeing them once. It’s useful.”

“I imagine it is,” Abigail muttered under her breath before sighing. “And that’s the same Manakel whose host you won’t tell us until we figure out how to get you out of Pace without either of you dying.”

“Yup!” the girl chirped easily. “You help us, we help you. That’s the deal. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth the reward that we’re offering, you know. We have what you want to know, and you’re smart, motivated, and have resources. Help us separate, fix Lies-me, and you get to know everything we know about Manakel, his host, his plans, and the rest of the juicy, juicy gossip.”

“Okay, well,” Abigail started, “we’re trying. But that spell obviously isn’t working. So–” In mid-sentence, the woman stopped, squinting at the girl’s arm. It was twitching a little bit. “Wait… that doesn’t still hurt, does it?”

“It hasn’t expelled Lies-me yet,” the girl replied simply, turning her own head to look at it. “So it keeps hurting. Pace-me is upset about that, but Lies-I thought you were waiting to see if it would work.”

“Damn it, here.” Abigail quickly used the flip side of the engraver to wipe the spell away after grabbing the girl’s arm. “You should’ve said something. It obviously wasn’t going to work. Hell, you could have told us that it wouldn’t work before we tried it.”

Honestly, when she thought about what this girl had been put through by her own mother, it made her want to… do things that she had never thought herself capable of entertaining at all. That… creature was a monster in every possible way, and she deserved to be brought to justice.

There were those who assumed that, because Abigail was a (very successful) defense lawyer, that she automatically despised police and authorities. That, put simply, was absolutely untrue. She loathed crooked authorities, and those who used that authority or power to abuse others. And she very, very strongly believed that even the worst criminal in the world deserved a competent defense. That didn’t mean cheating, or attacking the characters of others. It meant providing a competent defense that would help prevent an innocent person from being convicted. Because the American system of justice had been created with the idea that it would be better to release a hundred guilty people, than to imprison one who was innocent.  

Those who were clearly guilty deserved their just punishment, as those who were innocent deserved to be acquitted. And in this case, the Seosten known as Kushiel was very, very guilty.

Once the spell was wiped away, she heaved a sigh. “Okay, now that Plan A has been a complete failure, what’s next? And for the record,” the woman added in the direction of the Seosten girl, “if any of our plans physically hurt you, say something about it.”

“Yes.” That was Seller. The man pushed off the wall, moving over to stand next to them as he looked down at the girl. “We’re not here to get our jollies by hurting you. We’re here to actually accomplish something. We find a way to separate you and Pace, so that you can tell us everything you know. That’s the deal. And the best way for us to accomplish that is for you to let us know when something isn’t going to work. Right?”

The Seosten made Pace shrug in response. “If you say so,” she replied in a slightly sing-song tone. “But I still say you’re missing a fantastic chance to get some revenge.”

“Revenge isn’t what–” Stopping herself in mid-sentence, Abigail just shook her head. “Anyway, Plan B is…?”

“I have an idea.” That was Seller. The man continued, “There are Strangers–sorry, Alters, who are immune to various forms of possession. If we can find one of them and that immunity works against the Seosten–”

“We’re not murdering someone else just to get what we want,” Abigail cut in.

The man held up a hand to forestall her. “I will look into it. If we can find one that is actually evil and deserves to be taken down, maybe we can do that. We let Pace here get the actual kill. Maybe if she becomes immune to possession, it’ll make the two of you separate.”

“Lies-I like that plan,” the Seosten agreed in a helpful tone. “Mostly because it involves killing.”

Sighing a little, Abigail gestured. “Okay, fine. Mostly because I don’t have a better idea at the moment. But like you said, only if they’re an actual–what were the evil Alters called?”

“Nocen,” the Seosten supplied helpfully. “They call them Nocen.”

Abigail nodded. “Right. Nocen. Evil ones, Seller. I mean it, make sure they’re actually bad.”

The man held his hand up, as though swearing an oath. “Only the most evil possession-immune monsters. It’ll probably take awhile to come up with anything useable, but I’ll see what comes through the usual sources. You can help me sort through all of it until we find something useable. In the meantime,” he added pointedly, looking toward Miranda, “I want you to stay here with her. I’ll tell anyone who asks that I’m running you through an extended field test. If anyone insists on seeing you for some reason, I’ll bring in one of your duplicates. But for the most part, I want you to be here, keeping an eye out. I’ve got enough ‘go away’ spells around the building that it should stop anyone from coming near this place. But just in case…”

“Yeah,” Miranda replied, “Just in case anything happens. I’ll be here, and we’ll take care of it.” She looked to the Seosten then. “Well, Lies, I guess that means you and I are–”

“Stop.” Abigail made a face, her head shaking. “Don’t call her that. Just–don’t.” Sighing, she shook her head at Seosten in question. “Are you sure your parents never called you anything else? They never had any other name for you?”

Head tilting curiously, the girl asked, “Why should I be called anything else? It is what and who I am. I am a Lie. I am Lies. I am the shame of the Seosten and my parents. I am a Lie.”

“Stop that!” Abigail had stood up by that point. “You are not a lie. You are a person. You don’t stop being a person just because you’re different. You don’t stop mattering just because you have a handicap. A man doesn’t stop being a man because he loses an arm. A blind person is still a person. Deaf, paraplegic, quadriplegic, autistic, Down syndrome, epilepsy, scoliosis, whatever, they are still people. And you are a person. A person who deserves a name. A real name..”

The Seosten’s response was as quiet as it was poignant. “A Lie is all I have ever been.”

Taking a breath to control herself, Abigail announced, “Not anymore. I refuse to use that… word. You are more than that. You are capable of more than that. And you deserve a real–” In mid-sentence, the woman stopped talking. Slowly, a smile crept over her face.

“You have an idea?” Seller observed, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Yes.” Abigail looked to the girl once more. “The Seosten, your people, they were all about posing as the Greek and Roman gods, right? Like your mother playing Hera and your father playing Zeus.” Receiving a simple nod, she continued. “Okay then. As it happens, the Zeus of mythology had a daughter named Aletheia. And do you know what she was the goddess of?”

It was Miranda who answered, her voice quiet. “Truth.”

Smiling slightly, Abigail gave a single nod, not taking her eyes off of the girl in question. “They want to call you a lie? Well, I say that you’re the truth. But it’s up to you. It’s your choice. What do you think?”

For a moment, the Seosten possessing Pace did nothing. She simply sat there, staring not really at Abigail, but closer to through her. There was something in her expression, emotions that she clearly didn’t understand how to express. She twitched a little bit, before pushing herself to her feet as she spoke.

“Lies-I think–” She cut herself off abruptly, her eyes suddenly going visibly damp as she made a somewhat choked sound. “I… think that I will not be a Lie. I will not be a Lie. But we think that is a little long. Perhaps… Theia would be good, as a… nickname?”

“Theia,” Abigail confirmed. “I think we can work with that.”

“Then we… I will be Theia,” the Seosten once-known-as-Lies announced. “I am Theia.” Slowly, she met the woman’s eyes. “We like it.

“And we are very glad that I did not kill you.”

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Interlude 32B – Miranda, Abigail, and Seller.

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“She was attacked here, and barely survived.”

The announcement came in the middle of a motel room that looked as though an entire world war had taken place inside of it. Both chairs in the room were overturned and broken into splinters, and the bed had been broken in half with bits scattered everywhere. Blood of various colors lined the walls, along with other viscera. The bathroom door had been ripped off its hinges and lay broken in half. And dozens of various sized holes dotted every wall as well as the floor and ceiling. Also, the television was on its side with one body stuck halfway into it, through the broken screen.

Seller, the man who had spoken, looked back to his two female companions, Miranda and Abigail. “Whatever attacked Lies in here, there were a lot more than one of them. My guess is that they teleported in right on top of her.”

“Them,” Miranda corrected faintly while walking forward to look at the body in the television. “Remember, there’s two of them, even if they’re sharing the same body. Lies and Pace.” She looked over to the man. “We have to save Pace.”

Abigail slowly stepped into the room as well, her head shaking. “From what little we know,” the woman announced slowly, “it doesn’t sound like these…” her face twisted with disgust, “… handicapped Seosten have any real chance in their lives.” The woman refused to use the term Lie. She found it barbaric and horrible, and flat out refused to be a part of it. “That video that you showed me of the girl, that is not a healthy individual making their own choices. And from what else we’ve found… she’s damaged. She’s as much a victim in this whole situation as anyone.”

Seller cleared his throat. “The point is,” he began flatly, “we need to find both of them. We can’t save Pace without Lies. And right now, we don’t even know if either of them are still alive.” Pointedly, he gestured around the destroyed room. “Give me a minute to look at this place over and try to put it together.”

Leaving the man to examine the place, Miranda and Abigail stepped out of the room and back into the motel parking lot. It was late at night, almost to the point of technically being morning. The place looked pretty much completely abandoned, without any lights on in any of the other rooms, and the office had the blinds pulled tightly shut. The two women glanced to one another before Miranda asked, “Do you really think that we can get through to Lies?”

“What I think,” the woman replied, “is that every single person in that girl’s life has probably used, abused, and abandoned her. She doesn’t even have a real name. So, I am not going to make any judgments about what she might be capable of if someone did give her a chance. I’m not saying that she’s some perfectly innocent, fluffy little lamb, but she could be more than they’ve made her, if someone gave her a chance.”

“Pace is innocent too,” Miranda pointed out quietly. She went silent for another few seconds before kicking hard at the ground in front of her with a harshly muttered, “Fuck the Seosten.”

“That does seem to sum it up,” the older woman agreed. Her voice softened then, as she reached out to squeeze the younger girl’s shoulder. “They will bring Felicity back, and the others.”

Flinching a bit notably, Miranda let out a long, low side before admitting quietly, “I’m scared. I know that being scared doesn’t help anything, but what if something happens to her out there? She’s my friend. I abandoned her once, because the Heretics said that it was better than getting her involved with the monsters. That was a lie. It was all a lie. They knew that she was already involved. They knew. They just didn’t want me to be a part of her life. And now, she’s all the way out there, and I can’t do anything about it at all. I feel so… so fucking helpless.”

“If it helps at all,” Abigail put in then, “I would bet that the people who actively recruited you didn’t know much about the situation with Felicity and her—I mean our mother.”

Miranda resisted the urge to cough at those words. That had been a bit of a surprise. She had known that Flick cared about what happened to Abigail, but had thought that it was because the woman was Koren’s mother. Seller, however, had taken the two of them far away from Earth, to some other planet in order to tell her the truth back when they had started this whole search. Abigail and he wanted Miranda to understand just how connected the woman was to the situation.

And finding out that Flick technically had a fifty-something-year-old sister (and brother) had taken some getting used to. Let alone the revelation that Koren was actually her niece. That was… something.

“That memory spell…” At first, Miranda thought that Abigail was referring to the same one that she had just been thinking about. Only belatedly did she realize that the woman was actually talking about the one centered on erasing Joselyn. As she spoke the words, the Abigail’s face twisted with anger, “Thanks to that, I doubt the people low enough to be recruiting you as a student knew the whole story. They probably knew that Crossroads had a claim on her, and that’s why they didn’t want you being involved with Felicity. But I doubt they actually knew about the rest of it.”

Miranda’s mouth opened and shut once or twice before she finally replied, “I’m still pissed off about it.”

“So am I,” Abigail confirmed. “So am I.”

Before either of them could say anything else, Seller stepped out of the room to join them. “Okay,” he announced while adjusting his emerald green suit, “as far as I can put it together, our little friend won her fight in there. Most of the blood is from other species. I can put together a rough estimate of how the fight went. She took some pretty bad hits, but with the werewolf regeneration and anything else she’s got, I’d say she was the one who walked out of there.” Looking around as he stood there on the sidewalk, the man raised a hand to point off in the distance. “That way,” he continued. “She went that way.”

“How can you tell?” Abigail asked curiously.

In response, the man winked. “I can smell her,” he replied easily, “and I can see the path she took through the lot.” He indicated various spots on the pavement. “I can see the disturbances where her feet came down. Trust me, with the right kind of powers, it’s not hard to notice. And besides,” he held up a finger with a bit of red on it. “Not all of the blood in there was from other people. I’ve got enough blood tracking power to get a pretty good bead on the girl.  So trust me, she’s that way.”

The three of them thought out that way, while Miranda asked, “Do you really think it’s the other Seosten who’re trying to kill her?”

“It makes the most sense,” Abigail replied. “Think about it. She’s clearly been out on her own for awhile now. We’ve picked that much up just from tracking her. And we know that the Seosten somehow knew that Felicity and the others were onto them. That’s why they sprang that trap. The only real way for them to know that would be if they knew the choker wasn’t destroyed. And if they knew that, they probably blamed Lies for losing it in the first place.”

“So they’re pissed at her and she’s on the run.” Miranda sighed. “And we’re playing rescue party for the crazy–” She stopped at a warning look from Abigail, biting her lip hard. “I mean, she’s probably not gonna be that happy to see us either, you know.”

It was Seller who responded. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes. Right now, we focus on finding and subduing her.” He gave a quick glance to Abigail, adding, “Victim or not, that girl is dangerous. We make sure she’s not going to kill any of us before trying any of this negotiating.”

For a moment, Abigail looked as though she was going to say something to that. In the end, however, the woman simply gave a tight-lipped nod.

The three of them walked on for a bit longer, and they reached what looked like an ordinary, sleepy suburban street with small, one and two story houses lining both sides before Abigail finally did speak up, looking to the man while asking, “Does your blood tracker say how far away she might be?”

“Yeah, she’s–” Seller started before falling silent abruptly. His mirrored sunglasses didn’t hide his frown. “That’s funny, she was about three blocks that way, but it just disappeared. It’s like she–”

A blur of motion filled Abigail’s vision before the woman was suddenly grabbed and yanked around. She found herself facing Miranda and Seller, while an arm was held tightly against her throat and another hand was pressed against her face. She could feel the razor-sharp claws as they lightly, yet pointedly brushed over her skin.

“Like they knew you were tracking them and waited until you were right where they wanted you to be, then blocked it?” The by-then familiar voice tickled Abigail’s ears before the girl giggled. “That was what you were about to say, right? We love winning these games.”

“Lies!” Miranda blurted. The girl already had her shield in one hand as she stood there beside Seller, facing the one who had taken Abigail hostage. “Stop, don’t hurt her! We’re not here to attack you.”

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed. The man made no move to attack, draw any weapon, or make any threatening motion. He simply stood at ease. “We didn’t come to fight.”

The girl’s response was a sharp, lilting laugh before she leaned in close to Abigail’s ear, stage-whispering, “Is that right? Are the little birds telling the truth with their chirp, chirp, chirps? Or are they mean, nasty old beavers in crocodile clothing?” As if anticipating confusion, she added in a thoughtful tone, “Beavers are mean. Territorial. Nasty. Angry. Chomp, chomp, chomp. We weren’t even trying to steal your den, we just wanted to look inside because we were curious, jerk.”

“But why would you say in crocodile clothing?” The question clearly came before Miranda could stop it, even though she felt ridiculous even as the words tumbled from her mouth. “They’re pretty bad too.”

“What?” Lies sounded honestly flabbergasted by that. “No, they’re not. They’re adorable and cuddly. Name one animal with a better smile. If people would stop being so mean to them, maybe they could all get along.”

“Um.” Trying not to shift with the girl’s claws against her face, Abigail quietly spoke up. “I think we might have drifted somewhat off-topic.”

“Let her go, Lies.” Seller’s voice was firm. “Like we already said, we didn’t come here to hurt you.”

“Funny,” the Seosten girl retorted. “We didn’t come to hurt you either. We came to hurt the bad, bad, mean guys chasing us. Set a whole trap for them and everything. Left blood for them to track, had a whole thing set up. It would’ve been spiffy. But it was you, not them. You’re chasing, but not those chasers. You’re not them. You messed it up. We should punish you for that–what? No, I didn’t. We didn’t–we–yes, but if one of them dies, that still leaves two. That’s fair, isn’t it? But they really messed up our trap and it’s not fair. We worked hard on that trap. It’s not fair.”

Miranda’s head shook at that. “No one needs to be punished, Lies. We just want to talk.”

“Oooh, nobody needs to be punished?” Lies echoed the words, her smile appearing quite similar to that of the crocodiles that she had so recently extolled the virtues of. “Maybe you pretty thing could stick around and tell the mean old Manakel that, hmm? Maybe he’d change his mind then.”

“Manakel?” Seller jumped on that. “He’s sending all those guys after you, isn’t he? That’s why we’re here. You come with us and we’ll protect you. We can help each other. All you have to do is tell us what you know. Help us deal with them and Manakel won’t be able to hurt you.”

Again, the girl giggled. “You hear that? They came to protect us. Our knights in shining armor.”

“You’re in danger,” Abigail, standing as still as possible, reminded the girl. “The other Seosten obviously want you dead. We’ve already seen some of the results of that, and they’re obviously not going to stop. You can keep going by yourself, or you can make an alliance with us. None of us have to like each other, but we can help each other. We can all get what we want, what we need.”

“But if you hurt her,” Seller added in a voice that brooked no argument, “I promise that Manakel will be the least of your worries. We can work together. But you need to let her go. Show of trust. Let her go and we’ll work all of this out. Just take it easy.”

Miranda tensed, watching the other girl intently. Yet, she had a feeling that it would be okay. As violent as Lies was, and even though she was holding Abigail hostage, there was something innately different about her than there had been before. She seemed a little more in control of herself, a little less… crazed. Still not exactly reasonable or calm, but Miranda just had a feeling that she wasn’t going to kill Abigail, or even really hurt her, despite the implicit (and explicit) threat. Being hunted by Manakel’s people, it was obvious that she’d had a long few days, or weeks, or whatever it had been. She clearly knew that Miranda and the others were her best chance at survival. The question was whether she could control her psychological problems and violent impulses long enough to let that sink in. But thus far, the fact that she had stopped to talk to them, that she had shown herself at all and was still just standing there, it was actually a good sign.

“Take it easy?” Echoing Seller’s words in a tone that was somehow simultaneously mocking and curious, Lies shook her head. “None of this will be easy. They don’t understand, do they? No. Not easy at all. But helpful?” Leaning closer to Abigail’s ear, she stage-whispered once more. “They might, maybe, possibly prove how helpful they are now.”

Abigail spoke quietly. “Like I said, we want to help you. Tell us what we can do.”

Giving a long, curious sniff, Lies nonchalantly replied, “Maybe they can kill those ones.”

“Kill what o–” Miranda abruptly cut off her own question as a series of shuffling and creaking sounds caught all of their attention.

Spinning, she and the others took in the sight of figures emerging from all around them. They came from the shadows, pushing their way through the gates of fences that encircled nearby yards, pushing up out of a manhole in the middle of the street, kicking open the doors of a few parked cars to fall out before picking themselves up. Dozens of the creatures.

“Zombies,” Seller muttered, his voice flat as he scanned the area around them. They were surrounded, more and more of the things appearing with each passing second.

“Told you,” Lies primly reminded them. “You broke our trap.”

Shaking his head, the old Heretic announced, “We don’t have to deal with this.” He held a hand out, pausing briefly before sighing. “Or maybe we do. Something’s blocking teleportation.”

“Uh huh.” Lies sounded not the least bit surprised. If anything, she clearly thought that it was all very amusing. “Manakel doesn’t like it when you run away from his surprises. Oh, and FYI, not really zombies. Super-zombies. Manakel zombies. Hades. Stronger, faster, and smell worse. And more bad things. Like skills, powers, abilities. They keep them, not like normal boring zombies.”

“We can still fight them,” Miranda insisted. She took aim at one of the creatures as the army gradually surrounded the group, encircling them and moving forward, closer with each step.

“No.” Seller put a hand out, stopping the girl. “I’ll deal with these guys. The rest of you get out of here.

“Uh.” Miranda’s head shook. “In case it escaped your attention, we kinda can’t get out of here. They’re in the way.”

In response, the man extended a hand, making a quick motion. Part of the pavement about eight feet wide beneath the feet of the shuffling zombies abruptly raised upward, knocking them aside while forming into the shape of a tunnel, creating an opening right through the middle of the horde and continuing on for what looked like several blocks, straight down the road. Meanwhile, the man raised his other hand and made a sharp pushing motion. Immediately, the air near the ‘tunnel’ blurred and turned a bit hazy.   

“What did you–” Miranda started, before Seller’s hand caught her shoulder. He gave her a solid shove right into the mouth of the tunnel. As soon as she was there, the girl felt some kind of gravity-wind-force catch hold of her, and she was rapidly hurled down the length of the several-block long raised pavement tunnel. Her body tumbled end over end in mid-air, as though she was falling sideways. A startled yelp had just managed to escape her before she was gradually slowed to a gentle stop at the far end of it. For a second, the girl continued to float there a foot or so off the ground, before even that disappeared and she dropped lightly to her feet.

“Wheeeeeeeeee!” Behind her, Lies came soaring through the tunnel like Supergirl, hands outstretched in front of her as she flew right to the end. Once the ‘ride’ stopped, she pouted. “Aww, we wanted to keep going. Can we do it again?”

“Where–” Miranda’s question was cut off as Abigail came flying through as well, the woman crying out right as she reached the end to be dropped to the ground.

Once the three of them had collected themselves, Miranda stared down the street. She could barely make out the fight that was going on, and a part of her wanted to create a duplicate that could run back to help Seller.

But to be honest, she wouldn’t really be helping. The man could handle some zombies, even the ‘improved versions’ that Manakel apparently created, whatever that meant. At best, she would be a distraction. And if more bad guys came after them while Seller was busy, she would need all her powers to deal with that, rather than splitting them between duplicates.

“We have to get out of here,” she announced. “Seller will find us, and…” She paused, looking to Lies, who had walked around behind her. “What are you doing?”

“Hmm?” Glancing up, Lies gave them an innocent look. “Oh, nothing. Other-Me just thinks you have a cute butt, so we were getting a better look.” She paused briefly while Miranda made a choking, stammering noise before adding, “I wasn’t supposed to say that. So we’d like it if you just pretended we didn’t. We never said that.” As she spoke the last line deliberately, the girl waved a hand as if she was trying to be a Jedi.  

“I–we–what?” Head shaking, Miranda started, “Why do you keep saying we–wait.”

Abigail understood already. “Pace? Is we you and Pace?” the woman carefully asked.

“Well,” the girl retorted with a sniff, “there’s hardly anyone else in here with us.”

“I’m confused.” Miranda frowned, watching her closely. “Are you trying to say that you two are… working together or something? Why do you keep saying we, and talking about what Pace wants or… or likes?”

“Me, other-me, we, Pace, all of us.” Lies gave a languid shrug. “Pacey Pace already said if we don’t work together, we’ll die. So we do. We work together. We compromise. We are together. We are we.” She gave a little giggle then. “Still working out the kinks. And speaking of kinks, could you turn around again? Other-me really does like your butt. If-” She paused, coughing. “Oh. Other-me didn’t want us to say that again. This is very hard to know what we are supposed to say or not supposed to say. Trying to be nice and let her speak, but some things she thinks we’re not supposed to say. So complicated. So many rules.”

Stepping in quickly while Miranda mentally and vocally flailed, Abigail spoke up. “So you’re already working together. You can work with us. We can all help each other.”

Finally catching herself, Miranda nodded. “We get out of here, we meet up with Seller, and you can tell us what we need to know. You can tell us about Manakel, about the rest of the Seosten, and in exchange, we can protect you.”

“Ohhh, not that easy.” Lies shook her head slowly. “Not nearly so easy. We can tell you a lot. We can tell you oh-so-much. But it’s not protection we want. No. Not protection. We need more. We know so much, we can help so much.” Her hand tapped the side of her head. “So very much indeed. But if you want it, you have to earn it. Yes. You have to give us what we really want.”

Abigail gave a slow nod, shooting a warning glance to Miranda. “Okay, what do you want?”

A slow, still-manic smile spread across the face of the Lies-possessed Pace. “Do what Mama could never do. Fix us. Help us separate. I-We-She don’t want Pacey to die. Help me-me get out of other-me. Teach me, help me, fix me. Make me whole. Make me complete. Make me a full Seosten. Fix me so I can do what I’m supposed to do. Help me let Pacey Pace go without killing her.

“Do that. Fix me… and we will tell you everything you want to know.”    

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Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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“I’m surprised the guys in charge let you come here,” Miranda Walbern announced.

Glancing to her as the two of them walked along the freeway-sized branch of the Eden’s Garden tree (seriously, this plant was the size of the Empire State building), Koren raised an eyebrow. “By guys in charge, do you mean the Committee, or… what were your leaders called again?”

“The Victors,” Miranda supplied. “And both, actually. I didn’t think either one would let you visit.”

A slight smirk touched the Koren’s face as she gave a small shrug. “What can I say? My mom is really good at arguing with people. She told your, uh, Victors that there was some kind of provision in your laws for close relatives from Crossroads to visit family here. Then Gaia gave the Committee a message from Mom that basically said that if they wanted her to join them instead of Eden’s Garden, letting her see her daughter, me, would be the best way to do it.”

All of which had amounted to Koren being allowed to visit Eden’s Garden to see her mother now and then, such as that evening. She’d done it a couple times by that point, though the first two had been under strict supervision. This evening was the first time she’d been allowed to wander a little bit, while her mother was in some kind of meeting about a position that she was trying to get. Koren still had to be with a guide, of course, but Flick’s old best friend (who happened to be Seller’s new apprentice since Hisao was subbing at Crossroads) had immediately volunteered.

Coughing, Miranda waved a hand pointedly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard how it happened. I’m just still surprised it actually worked on some of those stubborn old bastards.”

Koren’s eyes rolled. “It almost didn’t. I guess the ‘stubborn old bastards’ just got outvoted.”

Miranda’s mouth opened, and she was obviously about to say something when another voice interrupted from behind the two girls. “Well lookie here, it’s a couple of snoopy little rats.”

Before either of them had even turned around, Miranda was already sighing and hanging her head. “Weston, how many times do we have to do this?” Pivoting, she continued, “I’m not just–” She stopped talking then, because, as she and Koren could now see, the boy she was addressing wasn’t alone. He had two other figures with him, none of whom looked very friendly.

Koren took in the sight. The one who had been talking, Weston, apparently, wasn’t that much taller than Koren herself, standing only at five foot eight or so. He was stocky in a muscular way, wearing a black tank top that showed his generous biceps along with a pair of cargo pants. His forehead was heavy and almost Cro-Magnon-like, though he also had luxuriously silky long black hair. The two on either side of him were both female, one an Asian girl and the other blonde. Both looked more like they’d been chosen to accompany Weston more for their looks than for any intelligence or personality they might’ve had, practically hanging off of his arms.

“Oh,” Miranda finally spoke after a second. “Sorry, I thought you were here to bitch at me again about Doxer picking a fight he couldn’t win, but I guess you were just looking for a quiet place for you and your… uhh, what is this, exactly?” She waved her hand to encompass the three of them with an inquisitive look before snapping her fingers. “No, wait, I’ve got it. You two are just dying for a decent day of pampering, and Weston is an absolutely killer stylist and masseuse.”  

Weston shrugged easily, while his girls continued to hang off of him. “What can I say?” He gave a smirk that made it clear that he knew how what he was about to say would be taken. “Maybe I heard about how lucky little Hannah is with her girlfriends and wanted to see what it was like.”

There was a slight pause then, as Koren and Miranda both stared. Their eyes looked first to the blonde girl hanging off of Weston’s left arm, then to the Asian girl hanging off his right. The gears turned, and then they both simultaneously audibly dry-heaved. Koren jerked a bit, face paling as she covered her mouth. “Oh god. You’re making them rolepl–I think I’m gonna be sick. Oh god.”  

Once she had her own gagging under control (which required considerable heaving), Miranda took another second to find her voice as she stared at the trio. “Congratulations, I’ve literally buried myself up to the mouth in monster guts and that was still less disgusting than whatever the fuck this shit is. And how the hell do you even know that much about what’s going on over there?”

Weston lifted his chin, smirking. “You’re not the only one with friends in far places. Maybe we talk.”

The blonde that was hanging off the boy rolled her eyes before heaving a noise that was half-sigh and half-whine. “What’s it to you, huh? You just like, get in other people’s business to distract from those man-hands and that hair? Who fucking cut it for you, Edward Scissorhands?”

“Okay,” Miranda dropped her head and shook it before looking to Koren. “Where do I start?”

Shrugging, Koren offered, “How about you start with the fact that the insult doesn’t even make sense, because Edward Scissorhands was fucking awesome at cutting hair. That was like, half the point of the whole damn movie, practically.” To the girl in question, she added, “Duh.”

The blonde sneered at that. “Like I care about some stupid Bystander movie? But you know what I do care about? Putting snotty little bitches like you back in their place.” To that end, she used the hand that she wasn’t using to hold onto Weston’s arm to snap her fingers. Instantly, a dozen floating daggers made of solid ice appeared in midair, aimed directly at Koren.  

“Weston!” Miranda stepped in front of the other girl, glaring that way. “You know the rules.”

The boy lifted his chin, pretending to think about it for a brief moment. “You mean the one about how we can’t come after you unless we go through Seller first? Yeah, sure. But that little rule doesn’t say anything about that bitch right there. Far as I can tell, she was allowed to visit. But if something happens to her and the question of who started the fight comes down to your word against Josie’s, Kumiko’s, and mine… well, I think we all know how that’ll go, don’t we?”

The Asian girl, Kumiko, finally spoke up. “I bet we can make her cry. She looks like a crier.”  

“Okay,” Koren started slowly, holding both hands up. “This all sounds really fun and all. Big fight and everything, yay. But why don’t we all just take a long, deep breath and then count to–” In mid-sentence, the brown-haired girl snapped her hand down. As she did so, the tiny gold bracelet that she’d been wearing flew off and hit the ground at the trio’s feet. The instant it did, a glowing blue dome of energy sprang up around Weston, Kumiko, and Josie, surrounding them.

Pivoting even as the ice daggers Josie had been controlling shattered against the wall of the dome, Koren grabbed Miranda by the hand to pull her. “Let’s get out of here, it won’t last long!”

The two girls ran down the branch, sprinting away from the trio, who were shouting after them. They kept going, dodging around other people who stepped out to see what all the commotion was while putting as much distance as they could between them and Weston’s little group.

Eventually, Miranda pulled the other girl by the hand over to the edge of the branch. Pointing toward a smaller outcropping of wood below, she leapt toward it. Koren followed her lead, and both girls landed on what was essentially a six-foot wide knot in the giant tree. Crouching down then, they looked up in time to see the other three go rushing past just above them.

Waiting for another moment to make sure the trio wouldn’t come back, Miranda finally let out a breath and looked back over to her companion. “What the hell was that thing back there?”

Koren shrugged at that. “It’s a protective spell that Wyatt taught me. His can take a lot more punishment than mine can, and it lasts a lot longer. I’m still not that good at making them.”

“Hey,” Miranda pointed out, “It held them off long enough for us to get away. That’s pretty good.”

Blushing a bit, Koren asked, “So who was that guy anyway? What the hell was his problem?”  

Miranda shrugged, glancing away. “Just one of my fanclub.  You know, the people who are kind of upset about the whole Avalon thing, or about Flick killing Doxer, or about Trice disappearing, or… well, any of it. They think it’s fun to harass me as much as they can get away with.”

Biting her lip, Koren started, “I thought that Mom and that Seller guy took care of that stuff.”

“They made it so that the guys can’t actually legally attack me,” Miranda replied. “They can still do basically everything up to that. You know, threatening messages, a shove here and there, dead animals in my bed now and then, that sort of thing. They’re just quieter about it, not gone.”

Looking away as she flinched at that, Koren opened her mouth to say something about it, only to suddenly stop. Her eyes widened, and she blurted, “That evil fucking bitch!”

Blinking, Miranda hesitantly started, “Wait, which one are we talking about, because–”

“Not them.” Koren caught the other girl by the arm, tugging her around to point far below them, where a figure could be seen on one of the other knots in the tree. “Am I crazy, or is that–”

“Pace,” Miranda finished for her, staring that way as well. “But,” she added slowly, “She’s–”

It was Koren’s turn to interrupt. “Setting off the Stranger-Sense. Yeah, I’m feeling it too. Does that mean that–I mean, if she doesn’t have the choker anymore, then Flick must’ve…” She trailed off then before squinting. “Wait, where’s she going?” Far below them, Pace leapt off the knot of wood. She did something to slow her own fall before landing easily on the ground even further down. As the two girls watched, her body started to contort, slipping out of her clothes before a full-sized wolf wiggled its way free and immediately began to run off through the woods.

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Miranda replied. “But I know what she’s doing. She’s getting away.” A moment of focus and there were two Mirandas standing  there. One looked over to Koren. “Can you get down from here? I’m going to get Seller and tell him what’s going on.”

Drawing her hunga munga, Koren nodded. “Sure, I can get down. And I can take you if you wa-”

The second Miranda took a quick step forward, flinging herself off of the tree. She plummeted toward the ground, falling freely while Koren stared. At the last second before the girl would’ve hit, two things happened. First, a third Miranda appeared already on the ground. And second, the Miranda who had been falling winked out of existence, disappearing entirely.

The Miranda who was still on the tree explained, “She waited until she was close enough to the ground to summon a duplicate that was already there. Then I absorbed her again before she would’ve hit. Sure glad that worked.” She gestured. “So do you wanna come with me, or–”

“I’m not leaving you alone to chase that crazy bitch,” Koren retorted before pausing. “I mean, not leaving the other you alone–as alone as you ever–fuck it, I’m going.” With that, she hurled one of her hunga munga toward the ground. A thought made the weapon stop in midair right before it would’ve hit, and she easily transported herself down to it before dropping the rest of the way.

“She’s gone,” Miranda–other Miranda announced. She was crouched by a set of wolf tracks, staring off into the woods. “What do you think happened? How’d she lose that choker?”

“I dunno,” Koren replied while tugging her phone from a pocket. “I’m texting Flick.” She hit a few buttons, quickly typing out the message before adding, “I’d call her, but I’m pretty sure if she is part of whatever just happened, she’s probably too busy to be distracted right now.”

“Yeah,” Miranda nodded. “And we don’t have time to wait anyway. The longer we sit around here, the further Pace gets. She doesn’t have her choker now. We have to catch up with her.”

Koren’s head shook then as she stared off into the forest. “How? I don’t know about you, but I can’t run fast enough to keep up with a werewolf. Especially one with a head-start like that.”

“We can’t,” Miranda agreed, already turning. “But I know someone who can.” Putting her fingers to her mouth, she gave a long, sharp whistle that filled the air for a solid three seconds.

“What was-” Koren started before falling silent as the sound of pounding hooves reached her. She turned slowly, staring at the sight of the animal that was approaching. “What the hell is–”

“Koren,” Miranda gestured to the magnificent stag that came trotting up. But it wasn’t just any old deer. This one had enormous, utterly gorgeous wings tucked against his side. “Meet Salten. Salten, this is Koren. He’s supposed to be with Avalon, but she can’t use him right now, so Seller’s been taking care of him. And I’ve been helping. We can’t keep up with Pace, but he can.” To the Peryton, she added, “The werewolf girl, she’s back and she doesn’t have her choker. We don’t know what’s going on, but she went that way and we have to catch up. Okay?”

In response, Salten took a step forward before lowering himself slightly. His head went down, and his nearest wing stretched out and down as though to form a sort-of stepladder for the girls.

Koren’s eyes widened, and she made a noise of surprise. “Wait, wait, you mean you want to–”

Quickly, Miranda clambered up onto the winged stag’s back. “You can wait here if you want to.”

“Are you fucked in the head?” Koren blurted before quickly moving that way. “You’re not going without me.” Glancing at her phone once more and finding no messages, she hurriedly used the Peryton’s wing to climb up onto his back. It was a little awkward, but she wrapped her arms around the girl in front of her while hanging on with her legs. “Okay, so how do we make him–”

Her ‘go’ was cut off in a choked, barely audible noise as Salten leapt forward. With a single sweep of his massive wings to accompany the thrust from his legs, the Peryton was suddenly in the air and a good thirty feet away from where they’d been. He stayed about fifteen feet off the ground then, wings still tight but extended just enough to almost touch the giant (though not as giant as Eden’s Garden itself) trees on either side of them.

And with that, they proceeded to blow through the forest. The winged elk flew like an arrow, darting between trees as if the girls were mounted on one of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Salten was incredibly agile in the air, tucking his wings just enough to pass through spaces that seemed to narrow to make it, dropping low to go under certain branches or flying higher to go over others, even going so far as to twist sideways while pushing one wing up to hold the girls onto his back so that he could fit through an oblong-shaped space between two boulders. And all of this passed while the magnificent creature never bothered slowing down for even a second. Koren and Miranda could barely process what was going on, let alone have any kind of input. It was all up to Salten.

As both girls continued to hang on for dear life, the Peryton abruptly flew up high. His wings flared out to slow down before he alighted on a large branch that was just big enough to hold them. Stopping there, he made a soft huffing noise while gesturing downward with his head.

After glancing to each other, Koren and Miranda slipped off the animal’s back and crept forward a step to peer down. Far below, they could see two figures. One was definitely Pace. She was still setting off the Stranger-sense. Meanwhile, the figure next to her was… less obvious. They wore a dark cloak that seemed to blend into the trees around them, and they were faced away from the girls. The only thing that Koren and Miranda could tell for sure was that the hooded figure was taller than Pace was. Other than that, they could’ve been anyone. Next to them, there was some kind of small, half-hidden hole in the tree that they could see a light coming out of.

As they watched, unable to hear anything, the larger figure smacked Pace hard enough to knock her to the ground. Then the figure kicked her against the nearby tree, almost through the hole that led inside.

The figure shouted then, though the only word that Koren and Miranda could make out was ‘worthless’. Pace said something while gesturing back to the hole, and the figure gave a sharp shake of their head before pointing. A ball of fire erupted from their hand, flying into the tree. A moment later, it was all in flames.

Pace said something else. Again, it was inaudible, but seemed sullen as she straightened up and stared at the fire. But the hooded figure didn’t seem to care what she was trying to say, grabbing hold of her shoulder before creating a portal with a wave of another hand. A second later, both of them were gone.

“The fire–” Miranda started, but Koren was already grabbing onto her. Rather than take the time to climb onto Salten, she’d take them down the quick way. Throwing one of her hunga munga, she teleported both of them to the ground right in front of the burning tree. Flames were pouring out of the opening, but the two of them could still see the shape of what looked like furniture inside.

Looking toward the other girl, Koren called over the roar of the fire, “I’m flame-proof, are you?!”

Miranda’s head shook. “Go!” she called, “get whatever you can!”

Nodding, Koren whispered a silent thanks to the fact that her last hunt had resulted in the fire-immunity before throwing herself through the opening. The smoke was still blinding, and she was choking the instant she made it inside what turned out to be a small cave-like room inside the giant tree. There was a cot there that was already engulfed with flames, along with a table with a couple of pictures on it, a padded chair that looked like it had been salvaged from a dump or something, paperback books lined up on a shelf in the corner, and a chest on the floor.

Thinking quickly, already dizzy from the smoke inhalation, Koren grabbed the chest before backpedaling out of the opening. There was too much smoke to deal with, even if she couldn’t be burned.

Stumbling on the way out, she dropped the chest and fell to her knees, coughing and hacking. Too close. She hadn’t gotten far enough out. The smoke was still surrounding her, making it impossible to see where she was going. Too dark, too hard…

A hand caught her arm, yanking Koren completely clear even as the flames continued to spread.

It wasn’t Miranda. Seller was there, holding Koren up. A wave of his hand conjured a bubble of cold water that he used to splash into her face before making another one, which popped inside her mouth to pour what tasted like the purest, coldest water she had ever tasted.

“Idiot,” the man announced once she had caught her breath. “Smoke is just as bad as the fire, if not worse.”

“Wo-worth it,” Koren choked out, coughing a few more times. “I hope. That–that must’ve been Pace’s hideout or something. What… what was in that thing?” She looked over to Miranda, who was already crouched by the now-open chest.

“Books,” the other girl answered, peering inside the thing. “Money… passports… maps, I think Pace was thinking of leaving or something. Wait, there’s also this.” Leaning in, she pulled out a battered video camera, holding it up.

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Mini-Interlude 32 – Miranda

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda as a character outside of and apart from Flick. 

About Six Months Ago

“Duck, duck, throw your duck! Come on, Randi, just try it. Right over here. I got you. I got you. I’m right on you. Just try it.”

Pacing sideways quickly, following the circular line that had been drawn over the grass a short distance from the base of the giant tree that she had called home for several years, Miranda eyed the boy who was taunting her. His name was Duane, and he was standing in the middle of the sixty-foot wide circle, right next to a wooden stump that was about two feet tall. In the middle of the stump, a softball-sized stone had been set.

Miranda held a similarly-sized rock in her left hand, as did the nine other people who were all pacing around the outside of the circle as well. The ten of them had spread out along the circle, watching for an opening even as the boy in the middle continually turned, pivoting to keep an eye on as many of them as possible. Every once in awhile, he’d call out a taunt, trying to goad one of them into making the first move.

From what Miranda had heard over the years since she’d come to this place, the game they were playing, ‘Duck On A Rock’, had been the initial inspiration for what had eventually become the game of basketball. Not that there were that many similarities when it came down to it. The rocks she and the others were carrying were called ducks, as was the rock that was sitting on the stump in the middle of the circle. That one was the titular ‘duck on a rock’, though in this case, the duck part was a rock and the rock part was a tree stump. Sports were weird sometimes.

It was originally a medieval children’s game, though here they played with enough variations to make it interesting even for the older teens, such as making it a full circle surrounding the stump instead of the single throwing line from the original game, as well as some other changes.

One of the other boys, seeing Duane’s distraction, took three quick steps sideways to put himself more into the boy’s blindspot before rearing back to hurl his own stone. The rock arced in toward the rock that was sitting on the stump, coming oh-so-close to colliding with its target before Duane spun around to catch the incoming rock out of the air with one hand.

Along the sidelines, several of the people who were just watching the game rather than playing began to count out loud, “One! Two! Three!” They continued that way, each number growing louder as more people joined in the count.

Meanwhile, the boy whose stone had been caught ran straight at Duane. If he didn’t manage to get his own stone (or duck) away from the guard before the audience’s count reached thirty, he would be considered ‘turned’, and would become another guard alongside Duane.

Essentially, the goal of the people outside the circle was to throw their own rock/duck in order to knock the one that was sitting on the stump off and to the ground. If you missed and your stone hit the ground, you had to retrieve it. But any time that you were inside the circle, the guard (or guards) could try to take you to the ground (originally it was simply tagging, but they played with rougher rules). If they took you down, the guard who managed it earned two points, while every other guard earned one point. If you made it to your rock, you could put your foot on it as a safety zone. As long as your foot was on your stone, you couldn’t be attacked by a guard. But neither could you do anything else. You had to wait for the right opportunity, while the guards were distracted by those outside of the circle, and use that time to pick up your rock and run back outside the circle. If you managed to retrieve your rock and make it out, that was worth two points. If you got taken to the ground, the guards got a point and you were expelled from the circle without earning any.

If the rock on the stump was knocked off its perch, the person who threw it earned an immediate three points. The guards couldn’t chase or tag anyone until one of them returned to the stump to put their rock back where it belonged. Additionally, for every non-guard in the circle when the guard’s duck was knocked off the stump that managed to escape because of that period of safety, the thrower earned another point. So, assuming the person who knocked the guard’s duck off the stump managed to retrieve their own rock and escape, that was five points for them and an additional point for every other person who managed to escape the circle because of it.

However, if, as in this case, your rock was caught by one of the guards before it touched the ground, you had that thirty second countdown before you became one of the guards yourself. There was strategy involved there. Some people did better as guards than as attackers, and so they would deliberately let themselves be turned.

They had turned what began as a very simple children’s game into an intense, often-brutal affair as rocks were thrown from all sides, the ratio of attackers to guards gradually changed, and some encounters in the middle of the circle turned into small-scale fistfights. After all, the rules were ‘taken to the ground’; it didn’t say how, exactly.

It was a fun game, and one that Miranda had gotten very good at over the years. Her accuracy with the thrown rocks was almost legendary among the group that they played with, so most guards tended to focus at least part of their attention on her so that she couldn’t get a good shot at the stump.

In this case, however, Miranda saw an opening while Duane was dealing with the other boy trying to get his rock back. Taking aim at the one on the stump, she was about to let fly when something else caught her attention. Far beyond the circle, deeper in the forest, there were several more boys. Not that that was anything newsworthy. She wouldn’t have noticed them at all, except that a few of the boys were clearly throwing something back and forth between them to keep it away from the other one, who kept trying to get it back. Whatever it was, the boys were playing keepaway with it rather effectively while heading deeper into the forest. And from the look of things, it wasn’t exactly a game.

Bullies. For as long as Miranda could remember, she had hated bullies. People who used their own strength or power to push others around. Be they adult or child, she had always loathed them. Her very first memory, the earliest that she could remember, was of being in preschool and dumping a cup that was full of water that had been dirtied and stained by watercolors over the head of a girl who had stolen an Oreo from one of the other students.

It was a proclivity that had followed the girl throughout her life, right up to (and definitely including) the present day. So instead of throwing her rock, she paused before dropping it at her feet. Muttering something to the others about being right back, Miranda jogged around the circle to follow the other group further into the woods. If it turned out to be nothing, she’d come right back. No harm, no foul. But if it was what it had looked like… well, she didn’t put up with bullies.

About ten minutes later, the girl found herself crouched behind a tree. She was there, hidden just out of sight, as the group of what turned out to be five other students gathered around a moss-covered boulder about twenty feet away. Four of the students were standing a bit apart from the fifth, a boy whose dark hair was tied back with a green bandana. He was the one who had been trying to get something back from the others as they had led him deeper into the forest.  

He was also actually somewhat bigger than any of the people who were tormenting him. Which might have looked strange among Bystanders, but Miranda had long since found that size didn’t exactly always equal power among people who could gain superpowers and who were trained to fight and kill their entire lives. In a world with enhanced supernatural strength, a five foot nothing girl could easily be strong enough to pin a six foot six overly-muscled bodybuilder to the floor with a pinkie.

“Come on, guys, give it back,” the boy was pleading. “It’s my grandma’s ring, okay? Seriously, just give it back. It’s not funny anymore.” At those words, he gave a little lunge toward the nearest other boy, who was holding something tiny between two fingers. Obviously the ring.

Unfortunately, the boy’s lunge carried him straight through his target, who had turned intangible. Laughing, the second boy gestured while stepping back. “Hey, hey, hey, no need to get all handsy. You really want the ring back, Ankh?” He rolled the thing between his fingers. “You know what you’ve gotta do. We all did it, you really wanna be left out?”

“This is stupid,” the boy (Ankh, apparently) blurted. “It’s a dumb ritual, someone’s gonna get hurt.”

One of the other boys started snickering while calling Ankh a chickenshit, while another sneeringly told him to grow a pair. Meanwhile, the first boy reached down to touch something on the boulder, and a glowing, light green, circular portal appeared beside it.

Miranda had seen things like that before. Over the years since Eden’s Garden had been founded, students and grown-Heretics alike had hidden portal accesses all over the place, ways to the regular world and back again without going through the tree. They were especially popular among older students.

“Javier,” Ankh started, “come on man. I told you, I don’t wanna do it. It’s stupid.”

“Yeah?” Javier retorted. “Well I guess you better start acting a little dumb if you want Grandma’s ring back, huh?” Turning, he made as though to throw the ring through the portal.

“Stop!” Miranda couldn’t take it anymore. Moving from behind the tree, she put herself in plain sight. “Give him the ring back, idiot. Come on, how stupid do you have to be? Where does that portal even go?”

“Aww,” Javier snickered, running the ring between a couple fingers. “Look Ankh, looks like you’ve got a little girlfriend.”

That, of course, led to more teasing and taunting from the other boys about Ankh having a girlfriend that was at least a year younger than he was. Which was quite possibly the most idiotic thing to taunt someone about that Miranda had ever heard.

Smirking at the rise that had gotten out of his friends, Javier eyed the two. “So, you gonna propose to your little princess, Ankh? If you are, I guess you’ll need to… get this back.” With that, he turned slightly before chucking the thing through the portal.

“No!” Ankh shouted. Clearly not thinking, he dove for the portal as well, going after the ring,.

Javier was in the middle of laughing when Miranda hit him hard from the side. Her hands slammed into the boy’s chest, knocking him onto his back as she snarled, “Jackass.”

Rather than follow that up, however, she went after Ankh. Thinking just as little as he had been, the headstrong girl dove through the portal.

She landed on the other side in what looked like an old, rundown library. Most of the books were gone, shelves were broken and falling apart, and there was a distinct smell of mildew and worse in the air.

“Where are we?” she asked Ankh, who was a few feet away.

He spun around, jerking in surprise. “The fuck–what’re you doing here?!”

“Helping you,” she replied easily. “So where are we?”

Staring at her, the boy worked his mouth. “You… stupid… Damn it, fine, we’re at a place in South Carolina. It’s a–” He sighed. “It’s a stupid game the guys play. You know the enchantments the adults use to lure Stranger pests? The little mindless ones.” When Miranda nodded, he continued. “There’s one of those in here. It lures some dumb little Stranger in, one of the minor ones. Then it shuts off and traps the thing in here. Every once in awhile, the guys send someone in to kill whatever showed up. Like I said, it’s a stupid game.”

“Stupid–that’s the dumbest–that’s… that’s…” Miranda started to rant, too stunned to even think straight. “What if it attracts something worse than–what if–that’s–that’s–”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Ankh demanded. “Why do you think I didn’t wanna do this? But I’ve gotta find Grandma’s ring. So help m– wait. Did you hear something?”

The two of them looked up, scanning the room before Miranda pointed. “There.”

It sat in the middle of the corridor, directly ahead of them. At first glance, the thing looked like a particularly mangy German Shepherd. But there were particularly differences. First, it had four eyes instead of two. Its tongue was forked like a snake, and it had two tails.

Most disturbingly, there were two human-like arms with attached hands sticking out of the thing’s chest, partially-hidden by its front dog legs.

“What–” Miranda started, before the boy cursed.

“Damn it! Get the fuck back. Go, go back to the portal.” He waved her away while pulling a heavy-looking machette-like blade from his belt.

“What is–” Miranda was already turning to move back, taking his advice. Unfortunately, the path back to the portal was blocked by another of the creatures. “Uhhh….” A particular shake of her arm made her own weapon appear: a round metal shield that was black with bright green emeralds decorating it.

“Fuck!” Seeing the one there, Ankh snarled. “It’s already started duplicating.

“Duplicating?” Miranda echoed. “What’re you–” Then the single dog-thing in front of the portal was abruptly joined by three others. At the same time, the one on the other side of them became four as well, resulting in eight dog-things.

A second later, the eight became thirty, spread out over both sides of them.

“Only attracts pests, huh?” Miranda had to say.

“Like I said,” the boy retorted, “it’s a stupid, stupid game. They’re gonna keep duplicating until we find the source, the leader.”  

By that point, the man-armed dog-things were already growling. They had duplicated again, leaving dogs spread back as far as Miranda could see through the room.

“Uhhh, you take that side, I’ll cover this side?” she asked a bit weakly.

The boy nodded once. “Right. Good luck. And for the record, those guys are idiots. I totally wouldn’t mind dating someone like you.”

Miranda would have responded, but the first dog-thing was already lunging.

*******

“And somehow,” Vigile Hisao announced some time later as he stood in front of the chair that Miranda was planted in somewhere in one of the Garden interrogation rooms. “You didn’t just survive that attack. You also managed to protect Ankh after he was knocked unconscious. And you killed the leader of the Ksani in the process.”

“The dog-things?” Miranda shifted nervously in her seat. “I guess so, Vigile Hisao. I… um, I just got lucky.”

“Sure you did,” the man replied. “But it was a combination of luck and skill, and I’ll take that any day.”

“Sir?” Miranda blinked up at that. “What–I thought you were supposed to tell me how I was being punished. You know, for going through that portal.”

Vigile Hisao gave a short nod. “You’re right. And your punishment is… three years.”

“I’m sorry?” Miranda looked at him, confused. “Three… three years of what?”

“Of being my apprentice,” he replied. “I need a new one, and the school year’s about to start. You’re seventeen now, which means you need a fresh mentor. Unless you’ve got one in mind?”

“But I–I didn’t… I was… I thought…” Miranda stammered.

Hisao’s eyes softened. “I don’t throw away potential, kid. And you’ve got a lot of it. So unless you want to submit a complaint to the Victors and ask to be taken away from my custody…”

“No, no, no.” Miranda quickly blurted, straightening. “I mean, I just, I didn’t expect…”

The man smiled just a little, gesturing. “I do want one thing in exchange. Lemme see it, what you got.”

Knowing what he meant, the girl paused to focus on the power that she had inherited from the original Ksani. A moment later, another her stood beside the chair, blinking as she came into existence.

“That,” Vigile Hisao announced with a broad smile, “is going to be incredibly useful for you. And, well, it’ll make punishing you with extra chores a little tricky. But I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.

“For now, let’s go for a walk… apprentice.”  

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