It didn’t take long for Sariel to find out where Jophiel was. I wasn’t sure what she did, exactly, just that she stepped away for a few minutes before returning with the announcement that she knew where the woman was. And that Jophiel was expecting us. Honestly, I was torn between wondering if she had done some kind of special communication spell, or just used a phone.
Either way, Tristan stayed with Vanessa and Sarah (Namythiet stayed with them too), while Tabbris and I went with Sariel and Athena to talk to their old crewmate. I was glad both of them were coming to do this, because if it was just Tabbris and me, there was no way we’d be able to stop Jophiel from running straight off to Elisabet if she had a mind to.
As it turned out, the place Jophiel happened to be was a bar in the middle of nowhere. It was like Kansas or Kentucky or something. Whatever, it was a little truckstop-type bar somewhere off the freeway, like a million miles from real civilization. I was pretty sure even Laramie Falls would’ve seemed like a bustling metropolis compared to any place within a two hour drive.
Why Jophiel was here, I had no idea. As we left the portal that our two escorts had created in the alley behind the building, I saw a couple guys doing their business against the nearby wall. One turned to look at us, staring for a moment until his buddy noticed that his… stream had drifted and punched him in the arm. That prompted the first guy to retaliate, and forget about us.
“He didn’t notice the portal, right?” Tabbris piped up as we walked across the gravel-covered ground, heading for the front of the building. I could already hear loud music coming through.
“No,” Athena noted simply. “But, Bystander Effect or not, seeing several unknown figures suddenly appear in a place like this does attract attention. Even if his mind immediately filled in the blanks, believing we had simply parked nearby and walked past, we still stand out.”
“So, why do you think Jophiel’s here?” I asked, glancing toward a couple truckers who nodded politely on their way past, then gave a double-take back toward the four of us to stare for a moment. Yeah, we were definitely attracting more attention. Which, given Sariel and Athena’s ridiculous Seosten attractiveness, wasn’t surprising in the least. At least Athena was wearing clothes that actually blended in a bit more, and not her futuristic chainmail-like armor. Gorgeous and awesome as that was, I could only imagine how much attention we would’ve pulled then.
A big guy sitting by the front door with his feet up on the railing and hat down low on his face looked up as we approached. I wasn’t sure if he was some kind of bouncer, or just a customer taking a break. Either way, he grunted his approval as he looked us up and down, before noticing Tabbris. His voice was flat, “Hope you ain’t trying to get the kid a drink. Seems a mite bit young for it.” Immediately, the man gave a loud, rumbling laugh at his own joke.
“She will not be drinking,” Athena noted politely, already walking past the man. Tabbris and I followed suit, with Sariel bringing up the rear. I thought I heard the guy say something else about kids in the bar, but it was a mumble and the music was loud in this place. Sariel stayed back, giving the man a folded hundred-dollar bill while replying to him before she joined us.
There was smoke, noise, and a hell of a lot of people in this bar. The whole population of the tri-county area seemed to be centered within this single building. It was seriously packed. Everyone was drinking, laughing, shouting at one another, playing games at the tables, listening to the near-deafening country music, throwing darts, and so on. It was pretty goddamn nuts.
My head shook in disbelief as I slowly looked around the crowded, noisy room. Raising my voice, I called, “How’re we supposed to find her in this place?! She knows we’re coming, right?!”
Instead of answering, Sariel took Tabbris and me by the hands, leading us after Athena, who had already started walking. Together, the four of us slipped through the crowd. Somehow, they always parted at just the right moment. Maybe Athena was using her power to know just where to move. Or maybe something about the woman made people get out of the way. Whatever the case, she easily guided us through the absurdly busy bar, toward the back corner.
There she was. Finally, we made it through the crowd and I saw Jophiel. As before, the first thing that leapt to my mind was how different she looked over the past months since Elisabet’s disappearance. She was still absurdly beautiful, of course. She was a Seosten and she had been Aphrodite. The woman positively defined gorgeous. But she wasn’t the same. She was dressed in plain jeans and a flannel shirt, her hair not particularly paid attention to. That beauty hadn’t diminished at all. She was effortlessly perfect. But it wasn’t… played up or anything.
And, of course, she hadn’t been happy for a long time. Every time I’d seen her since Elisabet had vanished, I’d noticed how stressed and tired she was. There were always dark circles under her eyes. She just–she wasn’t herself. She was obsessed with finding Elisabet, and had obviously been working herself into an early grave (was it still considered early given how old Olympus Seosten were?) trying to do so.
Things weren’t any different now. Or at least, they didn’t seem different at first glance. The Seosten woman was sitting at that table in the corner, drinking what was very clearly nowhere near her first drink of the evening, and watching a card game going on a few tables over. There were several large leather books sitting in front of her that looked well-worn, along with one that lay haphazardly on its front at the far side of the table, as if Jophiel had thrown it aside in annoyance or despair. I could also see a few scattered spell coins that looked half-burned, giving the impression that she’d been working on casting things. Probably more attempts to locate Elisabet herself.
But then I noticed something new. Jophiel wasn’t alone. There was a man sitting at the table across from her. My eyes focused on him as he reached out to pick up his own glass and took a sip. He was a big guy. Even sitting down, I could tell he was tall. For a second, my mind went to ‘handsome and in-shape Santa Claus.’ Seriously, he was an old guy with pale blue eyes and shoulder-length hair with a full beard. Both of which were as pure white as perfect snow. Yeah, he looked like a tall Santa who had gone through a serious exercise regimen or something.
Seosten. I could tell at a glance that he was Seosten. At least, I was like eighty-seven percent sure. He just had that look, the one I’d come to recognize by that point. It wasn’t perfect, but given the situation, yeah. I was pretty confident.
My assumption was proven as Tabbris caught my arm and whispered, “Sachael.”
Sachael, right. I knew that one. He was the guy who had been Poseidon back in the old days. As far as I knew, he was still a loyal member of the Seosten Empire. But at least we had that whole truce thing going on, so this meeting probably wouldn’t end badly. I didn’t know much about the man himself, but I doubted he’d throw away the truce just to start shit right now. Especially given what we were there to tell Jophiel about.
“It’s okay,” Sariel confirmed my thoughts in a gentle, encouraging voice. “Sachael will not start anything now. Even without the truce, it is not his way.”
As for the man himself, he had clearly noticed us by that point. I was pretty sure Jophiel had too, but she gave no sign of it. Sachael, however, lifted his glass and held it out toward our group, his eyes studying us. Mostly Tabbris and me. At least I didn’t really feel threatened by it or anything. It felt like he was evaluating us, comparing what we actually looked like to his own mental picture.
I also noticed that the loud sounds of the bar had faded a lot. Standing close to the table where Sachael and Jophiel were, I could barely hear the previously deafening din. It sounded like it was coming through several thick walls. Magic, obviously.
After a moment of standing there, Athena stepped over, followed by the rest of us. Her voice was cool, though not entirely unfriendly. More professional. “Sachael,” she greeted him simply. “I probably should have known you were here the moment we arrived.”
“Athena,” the man himself replied, surprising me a bit that he used her chosen Earth-based name immediately, rather than Auriel, the name she had abandoned. That had to be intentional, right? He was pointedly calling her by the name she preferred now, even though they weren’t on the same side. “I was going to head out, but when Jophiel told me you were coming, I had to wait and say hi.”
Okay, so at least this seemed like I was right about it not turning bad. I didn’t know anything about what kind of guy Sachael was, but he was being cordial and all. He’d even used Athena’s preferred name. That was worth some points in his favor, though I supposed we’d see if he kept them or not. Hell, for all I knew, he and Athena had some kind of nasty history that was simmering just below the surface. They had had that mythological rivalry back in the stories. And I knew she’d said something about a competition, but that had been mostly for show as far as I understood. Hopefully, this would all be okay and nothing would break out.
By that point, the man had turned to the other Seosten woman. “Sariel.” He gave what seemed like a genuine smile. “I was so glad to hear that you were safe and sound after… all that.”
Sariel, for her part, replied in a flat voice that did little to hide her actual feelings, “Yet not glad enough to have done anything to push toward that particular result yourself, it seems.”
Jophiel started to say something, but Sachael spoke first, his hand touching her arm in a way that seemed like a warning or gesture for her to leave it to him. “That’s fair.” His voice was quiet, and he never broke eye contact with Sariel. “It would be easy to say that I assumed any prison you were in being maintained by an old crewmate wouldn’t be that bad. But then, I know… knew Kushiel well. We all did. We knew what she was capable of, the kind of person she was. I suppose it’s easy to lie to yourself when you aren’t directly affected. It’s easy to think of you as a traitor, Sariel. Easy to think that shutting you in a prison was the best way to deal with it. Given the Fomorians, the fact that you could just walk away and play family…” He trailed off, his eyes glancing down very briefly before he raised them once more and cleared his throat. “I want you to know that I’m glad you have a family. Whether it’s with another Seosten, a human, or anyone else, I’m happy for you. It just… took awhile to get to that point. And when you’re out of sight, when all one actually hears is the propaganda about the bad things you’ve done, it makes it easy to ignore what one really shouldn’t.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you. Really and truly. Just as I am happy that you are safe now. And I do dearly hope that we never have occasion to face one another in battle. You are a fine warrior and, I’m sure, a fine mother as well. I would love, at some point, to meet your mate and children–ahh, pardon, your other children.” That said, the Santa-looking man looked to Tabbris. “I’ve heard a lot about this one too. And you.” His eyes flicked to me, before he rose (now towering over everyone here), extending a hand to both of us. “Good to meet you both. I am Sachael, as you undoubtedly know by now.”
Tabbris shook his hand first, introducing herself before bluntly asking, “Are you trying to make Jophiel go back to the Seosten worlds with you?”
While the rest of us winced from that (well, Sariel and I did, Athena just looked interested in his answer), Sachael gave the girl what appeared to be a broad, genuine smile and chuckled. “Straight to the point, aren’t you? Well, officially, no. Officially, I’m not here at all. I’m not here for work. As far as the Empire is concerned, I have a few weeks of stored up vacation time and I’m taking them. That’s really all they need to know.
“Unofficially, I… have recently learned that knowing an old friend is in trouble and ignoring that is the wrong choice.” His pale eyes flicked slightly toward Sariel before turning back to the woman still sitting at the table. “Even if that trouble is fear for the life of someone else.”
That made everyone’s eyes turn that way, though none of us were stupid enough to voice the obvious question. Jophiel knew though, still staring at the mostly-finished drink in front of her as she murmured, “Yes, he knows. He pretty much knew already.”
“The lot of you always did underestimate how much I saw and understood back on the ship,” Sachael noted. “It is the First Mate’s job to know what’s going on with the crew. A job I should and could have done better in some cases. A lot of cases.”
“How does her situation make you feel?” Athena asked carefully, clearly not wanting to give anything away until we knew exactly how much he was aware of. “And how much of it are you going to acknowledge… officially?”
In answer, Sachael glanced to Sariel first before speaking. “As I said before, I’ll be happy with anyone any of you choose to be with, unofficially. Officially, I haven’t heard anything until she makes an official report.” His voice softened then. “But I do hope you find her, Jophiel. Anything I can do to help with that while I have these vacation days… tell me.”
That made the four of us who had come in exchange looks. Before anyone could say anything, however, the man extended his hand to me, waiting until I accepted it before speaking again. “And you are Felicity Chambers.”
His grip was firm, though not aggressively so. He met my gaze while my hand was in his, speaking plainly. “From what I hear, you should be celebrating a pretty strong victory tonight. The death of a nemesis and the safe return of your own mother after a decade absence. That’s not something one walks away from lightly, even temporarily. Which makes me wonder what exactly has brought you here right now.”
He released my hand, raising his own with a small smile. “But, curiosity aside, you have no reason to share with me. I’ll get out of the way and let you all go about your business. I’m sure it’s important.”
“Wait.” That was Sariel, stopping him with a raised hand. She looked to Jophiel, who had turned her attention back to the people playing darts. “Jo,” she started quietly, “we need you to be calm, but Felicity has made it back with–”
Jophiel looked up then, focusing on me for the first time. I saw a guilty flush cross her face as she turned fully toward us, standing. “Felicity, Tabbris, I’m sorry.” There was a deep thickness to her voice. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, and that I wasn’t… there earlier today. I should have been paying attention.”
“No, you–we made it,” I settled on before quickly adding, “We’re not here because you didn’t help. We’re here because Elisabet did.”
My words took a few long seconds to penetrate, before the woman abruptly snapped her gaze up, staring at me. “What do you mean?” she asked very carefully, in a voice that shook a little bit as she obviously shoved hard against the hope that had flared up. “How did Elisabet help?”
“We should sit down,” Athena started, only for Jophiel to snap a hand up to silence her, eyes locked rigidly on me. “What,” she repeated intensely, “do you mean?”
Obviously, nothing else was going to happen until I explained. So, yet again (how many times had I told this story already?) I explained everything that had happened. I told her about Elisabet being on the Meregan world, about the whole time travel thing, Dexamene, all of it. A few times, it looked like she was going to jump in, but the woman kept herself silent and listened.
Then I was done. I finished explaining it, just before Jophiel announced, “I’m going there. I’m going to–”
“We are,” Athena quickly put in. “Jophiel, we are going to get Elisabet back, I promise. But you–”
“She’s been there for months!” Jophiel blurted, voice rising with fury that I knew wasn’t actually directed at any of us. “Months! She’s been trapped with those… those abominations! If they find her, if they find–”
“We have a plan, Jo,” Sariel interrupted, clearly trying to calm her down. “We have a plan to get over there and find both of them without giving the Fomorians any help breaking through the banishment.”
“What?” Jophiel was very clearly barely keeping herself from running off that very instant. She had a location, and I had no doubt she could have found a way to get herself there, given the level of motivation.
“Yes, what is it?” That was Sachael, whose presence I had forgotten for a moment. “How do you plan on pulling that off, exactly?”
Athena regarded him before asking simply, “Are you sure you don’t want to walk away, back to the people you are supposed to be loyal to?”
“I am still loyal,” he informed her. “I believe the Empire is the best chance this universe has against the very creatures you are about to face. But as I said, I have vacation time. And I’d like to see how this plays out, if you wouldn’t mind a little extra help.”
“Hey,” I managed, “at this rate we’ll have most of the Olympian bridge crew reassembled in no time.
“Too bad we have no idea where the Olympus actually is, cuz that would be a hell of a reunion.”