Nimue/Athena

Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Interlude 43 – Gaia and Athena

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Sitting at a bench on the far eastern edge of a small park, away from the playground that formed the primary hub, a lone red-haired woman watched the cars passing by on the nearby road. Her eyes followed one in particular as it pulled into a simple, somewhat worn driveway of an equally simple, worn house. The occupants, a young couple with their toddler son, emerged to start hauling in groceries.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

The voice came from a beautiful woman with short brown hair who stood behind Gaia Sinclaire. To some, she was still known as Auriel. To others, she was Athena. But to those who had been a part of King Arthur’s world, she would forever be recognized as…

“Nimue,” Gaia announced softly, without turning her head. She had known that the Seosten woman would come to find her. It had been one day since she and the others had returned to Earth, and this conversation had been a long time coming.

Stepping around the bench, Athena gave a faint nod. “Morgan Le Fey.” Slowly, she turned to look toward the house that Gaia was still watching. “Do you know who lives there now?”

Nodding, Gaia replied in a quiet voice, “I’ve always known, ever since they rebuilt the village and then… added to it. I know who lives there. I know who their families are, where they end up going. I don’t know why. It’s not like the house is even in the exact same spot. The cottage that Arthur and I grew up in was further to the left and back a bit. They… when they rebuilt after everything that happened, there wasn’t anything left of the cottage. There wasn’t–” She stopped talking then, giving a slight shake of her head before announcing simply, “You did not come here to hear the history of this place and all of its occupants over the centuries.”

“Well,” Athena noted, “that depends. I came to get an idea of how you are now. Part of doing that may be to hear the history of what interests you. Particularly that house.”

Smiling very faintly, an almost imperceptible upturn of her lips, Gaia observed, “You want to know if I have changed since those days.”

“I know you have changed,” Athena gently corrected. “Perhaps more than even you know, by this point. After all, those days were quite a long time ago for someone without the Seosten memory. Details may have faded.”

“I remember everything that I did,” Gaia informed her, still not looking that way. She sat a bit stiffly, her mind focused more on the thoughts of those long-passed actions and battles than on this particular moment. “I remember every choice I made, every… word that I spoke to my brother.”

Athena was quiet for a moment before she took a seat on the bench beside the other woman. She looked toward the house in the distance before speaking softly. “He never stopped believing in you. He never stopped believing that you could change, that you could be good.” She glanced sidelong to Gaia and spoke again in an even softer voice. “He never stopped loving you. I want you to know that, without any doubt. He loved you every moment of every day. And he always believed that you could change.”

For the first time, Gaia turned to look at her. Her mouth opened, then shut. It took her a moment to find the right words. “I… was angry. I was always so angry back then. So–” Pausing, she corrected herself. “I am still angry. I simply… control it more now. I direct it, I channel it into my work. But in those days, I… embraced the anger. I thought that I could make the world better by force, that if I could just… destroy and kill all of my enemies, the world would be a paradise.”

“You began with noble intentions,” Athena murmured. “Of a sort. The men who burned the village, the ones Arthur insisted on taking back for a fair trial, they did deserve to die.”

“They also deserved a trial,” Gaia pointed out. “One that I was in no mood to give them. They were evil men and the ones who committed that… evil act deserved to be killed after they were judged. That was Arthur’s law, but I didn’t care. I wanted them dead right then and there. So I killed them. All of them. Even the ones who… probably weren’t directly involved. I killed them and that was the end of my relationship with my brother.”

“Not for him,” Athena corrected while shaking her head. “As I said, he never stopped believing that you could change. He believed in you forever.” She paused before taking a breath while looking directly to the other woman. “If he could see you right now, if he could see everything that you have done and made out of yourself, he would be so proud.”

The two women went silent then, both of them simply thinking about those days while staring at the house that sat on the land where Arthur and Morgana had grown up. Finally, after a couple of silent minutes, Athena asked, “Do you remember how proud he was when he found you that first time?”

A tiny smile touched Gaia’s face once more, as she gave a faint nod. “Yes. I remember when we first met as adults, when we realized who each other was and he… brought me back to the place he called Camelot. I remember meeting his wife, his friends, his… his people.” Her voice was a bit hoarse, the emotions associated with that time drawing damp tears to her eyes that she dared not blink away for the moment for fear of also blinking away the memories themselves.

Chuckling softly, Athena mused, “He took you in front of the entire congregation at supper. Made you stand there while he said, ‘This is my sister, Morgana’.”

“And I corrected him,” Gaia pointed out. “I said my name was Morgan le Fey. Morgan of the Fay. That was so important to me then, to be known by the name they gave me, not the name that our mother had given, not the–” She stopped, sighing. “One letter. It should not have mattered. But it did, and I corrected him in front of everyone.” A somewhat sad, almost bitter smile came then. “Perhaps he should have taken that as a sign.”

“He didn’t care about that,” Athena assured her. “He would gladly have called you anything you wanted. He was simply happy to have you there, happy to have his sister back.”

“And I was still angry,” Gaia noted in a soft voice that betrayed her inner shame. “I was angry that he left me behind all those years earlier. He promised to come back and never did. He left me to go back into the village, so he wasn’t there when…” Trailing off, she forced her mind away from that memory and sighed softly. “I was glad to see him, but I was also angry because… because he was off learning all about his new dragon powers while I was forced to be a servant to an evil man. All those years when I was… when I took myself out of that service, when I made a life for myself only for that to be taken away when those Orcs abducted me straight from my little shop, when I… all those years and he never found me. It wasn’t his fault, but part of me thought it was. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for me to turn on him when I did. Maybe that’s why I could wage war against my own brother, because in my mind, I still blamed him for taking so long to find me. And for choosing to run into a burning village rather than stay with me.”

Once more, both of them fell silent, remembering those days and everything that had come after. It was another several minutes before Athena spoke again. “When you were there, he was happier. You were–are his family. You and Chadwick, and he…”

“We would not bring Chadwick into our world,” Gaia murmured. “He deserved to have a normal life. And he did. His descendants still survive to this day. I’ve seen a couple of them become Natural Heretics over the years, but none came to Crossroads.”

“My people would never allow that,” Athena agreed. “It would risk awakening Arthur. Particularly if any of Chadwick’s descendants happened to be the Key.”

Gaia shook her head. “I don’t believe they are. This… Key of Merlin, I’ve heard of it. Do your people believe that they’re a real person?”

“They are absolutely a real person,” Athena confirmed with a nod. “I believe some even know who it is, though I’ve never been able to find out for certain. The Key of Merlin will awaken Arthur when the time comes and his bones are all collected.”

Gaia took a moment then to watch the house once more, her eyes taking in the man as he stepped out to get something else from the car that had been forgotten. “I wouldn’t know where to begin searching for Arthur’s bones. I… I have looked, but whoever has them now has gone to great lengths to keep them hidden.”

Smiling at that, Athena nodded. “Yes, well, I imagine his wife would be greatly motivated to keep Arthur’s remains hidden. From my people and from you, given your history.”

That was enough to draw Gaia’s gaze to her, eyes widening fractionally. “She still lives?”

“We have not spoken in… a very long time,” Athena noted, “but so far as I know… I believe she is. It would take quite a lot to kill Guinevere. But one thing convinces me more anything else that she still lives.” Waiting for Gaia to raise an eyebrow curiously, she continued, “My people believe she is dead. And knowing her as I do, my people’s belief that she is gone is almost a certain testimony that she is not. No, I believe she is remaining quiet, caring for Arthur’s remains, and waiting for the right time. Perhaps she is searching for the key as well.”

Both women thought about that for a moment, their minds lost in the idea of what Guinevere could have been doing through all the years that the Seosten had believed her to be dead.

“Arthur was very happy with her,” Gaia said then, thinking back to those days. “She challenged him, made him grow, brought him up to the level he needed to be. I remember when I met her. She… ahhh, she reached out to me at first. She tried to be my friend. But I think even then, she knew there was something wrong. She was trying to get to know me, trying to feel me out for the sake of her husband. And I… I think a part of me saw her as my replacement. I was jealous, in a way. It almost felt as though Arthur had stopped looking for me when he found her.”

Chuckling just a bit, Athena replied, “There is a much longer story as to how Arthur and Guinevere met. And believe me, they did not get along at first. You’re right, she did challenge him. In more than one way. When they sparred, it was a sight to behold, particularly after an argument.”

That made Gaia raise an eyebrow. “I could not imagine those two in a serious argument.”

“Oh, they did,” Athena informed her. “They went at one another quite a lot, in the beginning. Both of them always had strong opinions, and Guinevere wasn’t about to let Arthur’s power deter her from telling him when she thought he was being foolish. She was raised by Michael. That kind of power didn’t frighten or intimidate her.”

“I don’t believe I ever met Michael,” Gaia observed thoughtfully.

“I know you did not,” Athena confirmed. “Because you still live, even after making yourself an enemy in her.”

Wincing, Gaia looked away. “Yes, I made myself quite an enemy of Guinevere, and of the rest of them… the rest of you. I did a great many things that I will regret for the rest of my life.”

“And you have survived to make amends, and to change,” Athena pointed out. “You have become a teacher, Morgan le Fay. You have helped far more than you ever hurt, after all these centuries. All the students whose lives you touched, the children you helped to raise up to become far greater than they would have been. They matter.”

“I have not done nearly as much as I wish I could,” Gaia muttered a bit darkly, her eyes glancing away. “I did not know of your people until quite recently, did not know of the… extent of their influence. Because I could not be trusted with that information. Because I betrayed Arthur all those years ago. If I had not… if I had remained loyal and learned the truth with everyone.. If I had been there when the true war broke in earnest…”

“Perhaps things would have changed,” Athena agreed. “Perhaps you would have turned the tide with your power. Or,” she observed, “perhaps my people would have gone after you specifically, to eliminate you as a threat. And if they did that, you would not be here now. You would not have done as much as you have to help others, to teach others.” She met the woman’s gaze while noting, “That is, after all, why Lucifer ensured that you were sent through time to begin with.”

Gaia blinked twice at that. “That was… him? He’s the one who sent Bernlak and I to the future after…” She flinched, looking away as her voice dropped to a whisper, “after Mordred…”

“After your son was killed, yes.” Athena raised a hand, resting it on the woman’s shoulder gently. “I am sorry about him. And about what came later.”

“They brought his body back,” Gaia muttered in a voice that dripped with an anger that would never be quenched. “Your… Puriel. He used my son’s reformed body as a host to attack Arthur. Because he was related to Arthur. The blood magic, they–” She grimaced, snapping her gaze away to glare at the ground, tears forming once more. “They used my son’s body to destroy my brother. And I was not there to help either of them.”

Athena’s hand stayed on her shoulder, squeezing firmly. “Lucifer knew they would come after you. His seers saw it, so he ensured that you would survive in order to atone for your mistakes, by sending you several hundred years into the future, long past the loss of Arthur and fall of Camelot. Because winning the war is far more important than winning a battle. Lucifer understands how to play the long game, perhaps better than almost anyone I have known.”

Taking in a long breath before letting it out as she carefully put the memories of her son back in the mental box where she kept such treasured thoughts, Gaia finally spoke. “Camelot may have been broken apart after Arthur’s… loss, but I have a very strong feeling that your people will come to lament that they never quite finished the job.”

“Such as with Guinevere,” Athena observed, bringing their conversation back to where it had been.

“Yes,” Gaia agreed, “such as with Guinevere.” Another smile touched her face at that thought, and she straightened. “However it comes out, I’m certain that your people will regret giving her so much time to do whatever it is she is doing.”

“They will regret a great many things,” Athena agreed. “We will all make certain of that.”

“Yes, we will,” Gaia agreed, bringing her mind back to the present while turning to look to the other woman once more. “We will make them regret everything they’ve done. And what they have failed to do. That… is part of what I have asked for Sariel’s help with. She has been working on a certain… project with me. And we believe that you can help to finish it, now that all the pieces have been brought together.”

Curious, Athena asked, “A project? What sort of project have you been working on with Sariel?”

So Gaia told her. She explained what she had sent Asenath and the others to gather, and why. She told the Seosten woman what she intended to do with the piece of the Hangman’s rope and every other ingredient.

By the time she was done, Athena gave a soft whistle. “You understand what that will do.”

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “I do. But it needs to be done.”

Thoughtfully, Athena noted, “For something like that, you would need to include someone who is actually–”

Gaia nodded again. “Yes. She knows about it. And she is ready for what it will mean… when the time comes. She is completely aware. I’ve… made quite certain of that, before we agreed to push forward.”

“Then I will help you,” Athena agreed, after looking back to the house. “Yes, I will help you finish this project of yours. And I do hope that I will have the chance to see the looks on my people’s faces when you use it.”  

With a slight chuckle, Gaia leaned back on the bench as she watched the house and thought back to the cottage that had been there before, and to the children who had played in front of it all those centuries ago. She thought of Chadwick and his chicken, of herself and Arthur playing with their stick-swords. She thought of everything that had come of their lives, memories playing out before her mind.

“Believe me,” she finally murmured almost silently, “there are many whose faces I wish to see when this spell is completed and used. Not only your people, but others. This whole thing has been a long time coming.

“And I, for one, cannot wait to see it through.”

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Interim Incursion 43-10 (Shiori)

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A thousand things were running through Shiori Porter’s mind just then. Things like, how does Aylen know that Flick is going to die? Or since when are you two that close? And even can we just win for one goddamn minute without another aspect of our lives catching on fire?

But only one question made it to her lips, as she and Avalon stood there with the fighting going on around them. “How?! How do we get to her?!”

Without warning, Seller abruptly appeared next to them. His hand went up, creating some kind of fire burst that incinerated one of the troops who was coming for them. “Get to who?” he asked tensely, even as his other hand threw a handful of what looked like metal pellets. Instead of hitting any of their enemies, each of the pellets struck one of his weird flesh golems. Instantly, all of the damage that had been done to them was healed, and the golems were encased in a metal armor that made them look like almost comically overweight knights.

“Flick,” Avalon quickly snapped, her eyes wide with fear, uncertainty, and worry. “Flick. We have to get to–” She cut herself off, clearly at a loss for how to explain what was going on in only a few words before finally settling on, “She’s going to die, Seller. She’s going to die unless we get to this grocery store parking lot within the hour! Please, please, we have to get to her. We have to get there, we–”

Seller cut her off, holding up a hand quickly. He didn’t question how Avalon knew that, or how she could be so certain. All he said was, “You’ll get there, kid. Don’t you worry. Take this.” He handed the other girl a different cell phone from the one she already had. From the brief glimpse that Shiori had, there seemed to be a number already dialed into it. “Hit send, tell her what you need. And kid, get your girl out of there.”

Taking the phone, Avalon started, “I–”

“Go,” Seller urged, giving them both a brief smile. “We’ll clean up here and get everyone out. Better to get the book clear of this place anyway.”

“Columbus!” Shiori hurriedly blurted, fear for Flick’s situation also making her think about her brother’s safety through all of this. She didn’t know how everything upstairs with the zombies had gone, or what the rumbling earlier had been.

“I’ll get him out,” Seller promised. “Him and all the others. You focus on Chambers.”

With that, the man moved to help Sands, Dries, and his own golems. In the background, Shiori could see Kohaku suddenly arrive as well, throwing her weight into dealing with what was left of Paschar’s troops.

Avalon already had the phone to her ear. Shiori could hear it ringing, even as she kept her own eyes moving back and forth to cover the other girl, just in case one of the Seosten’s soldiers made it all the way to them. It would’ve been pretty bad to be stopped from saving Flick just because she or Avalon happened to be stabbed by a lucky hit.

It only rang twice, before a familiar voice answered. “What’s wrong?”

“Athena?” Avalon blurted, eyes widening. “When did–” Cutting herself off from what were obviously a lot of questions, she gave a blurted explanation, that they had the book, but now knew for a fact that Flick would die in less than an hour at a grocery store parking lot.

Like Seller, Athena didn’t question the girl’s words. Instead, she snapped, “Hit the red button on the back of the phone and hold it down. Have anyone you’re bringing hold onto you.”

Quickly doing so, Avalon glanced over to Shiori, who put a hand on her shoulder. Both girls exchanged an uncertain and worried look, while the fighting continued on the other side of the room. Despite the fact that Aylen had said they still had time, every second that passed felt like an hour.

Only three of those seconds passed, while Avalon held the button down, before Shiori felt a wave of nausea wash over her. The room spun right along with her stomach, and she found herself staggering with a yelp, falling to her knees on what turned out to be dirt. The dirt road. They were on the dirt road that had led to the bank.

A moment later, a portal appeared beside the two of them, while they were still orienting themselves. Through it emerged Athena herself, looking a bit worn, with a cut along her cheek and another bit of blood visible on her shoulder.

Eyes widening, Shiori found herself blurting, “Did you warn Flick?! Did you–”

Athena held a hand up. “First, the book. You have it?” When the girls nodded, she went on. “Good. And no, I did not talk to her. This is future information, seer-words, correct?” She looked to Avalon, who nodded hesitantly. “As I thought. I’ve found that trying to change the future like that is… difficult. We could end up creating the very situation that leads to Felicity’s death, if we warn her. The best thing to do is to go to that parking lot and wait for the actual situation to present itself. We can stop it then.”

“Are you okay?” Shiori quickly asked, gesturing to the blood.

Glancing that way, Athena nodded. “Penalties of cutting a fight with my old shipmate short to handle this situation. I’ll be fine. Now what was that location?”

Avalon gave it to her, and the woman produced her special portal-creating knife. After a moment of thought and focus, she seemed to stab the knife into midair, ‘cutting’ out a door-shaped opening before gesturing. “Go.”

Shiori went first, quickly throwing herself through the portal. She ended up coming out on a sidewalk, right in front of a group of teenagers, who nearly walked into her. One of them blurted for her to watch where she was going, another calling out an apology while the rest snickered for some reason. All of them glanced back as Avalon appeared right beside her. None noticed the portal, nor the fact that both girls had come out of nowhere. The Bystander Effect doing its work.

“Avalon!” Aylen was there, jogging across the nearby parking lot to join them. “Shiori! You–” She stopped short, suddenly taking a step back as Athena appeared. “Who–”

“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed the girl, looking to Shiori and Athena herself before adding, “On both counts. The point is, she’s on our side.”

Shiori took a moment to silently admire how well that single sentence worked to respond to both Aylen and Athena about the other, while Avalon pressed, “What’s happening right now?”

Aylen’s head shook. “Nothing. There’s not–”

“Quiet,” Athena interrupted, suddenly moving to them while holding up a small metal stick with a spell scrawled on it. She muttered the activation word, and Shiori felt a tingling sensation on her skin. In the next second, a pair of dark vans suddenly turned off the road, pulling into the lot. As Shiori looked that way, she could see a young Relukun behind the wheel of the rear van. She also caught a glimpse of his passenger, an Orc whose tusks reminded her of Choo.

She was glad the little guy was safe from this whole thing, spending the day with the refugee Seosten children at the Atherby camp.

“Well,” Athena murmured while staring at the two vans as they parked in the lot with a space between them, “at least we know we’re in the right place after all.” She gave Aylen a curious look then before adding, “If we’re going to stop this, it has to be quietly. They can’t have a chance to warn anyone else that they’ve been compromised. Here.”

Shiori looked down to see the woman extending a different metal rod to her while explaining, “Take that with you. The three of you deal with the soldiers in the left van. I’ll take the right. As long as you keep that rod, they won’t see you or be able to send any messages. And girls,” she added with quick look to them, “quickly and quietly.”

They moved. Aylen and Avalon stayed close, while Shiori held the rod. Together, the three jogged across the lot toward the left van. They could see the occupants in the front, the Relukun and the Orc, chatting with someone in the back. They looked relaxed, which made sense. None of them had any reason to expect trouble here, in the middle of nowhere well away from any of the fighting.

Why would Flick end up here? What were these guys doing? What was going on? How did Aylen know the future? All that and more kept running through Shiori’s mind, even as she tried to shove the thoughts away. Focus, she told herself. Focus on the only important part right now: making sure Flick didn’t die.

They reached the van without incident. Having no idea what Athena was doing with the other one, the trio made a brief plan, then spread out. Shiori moved to the driver’s side, while Aylen set herself up near the passenger door, and Avalon moved to the back. Together, the three of them waited for each other to be ready, glancing back and forth while listening to the conversation going on in the van. It was Latin, so Shiori had no idea what was being said. But they seemed calm enough.

That calm wouldn’t last. By mutual agreement, Shiori and Aylen waited for Avalon to make her move. Which the other girl did by yanking the back of the van open. Shiori heard a yelp from that way, followed by the hum of her gauntlets coming to life.

The Relukun in the driver’s seat was already turning to look behind them, his Orc partner doing the same. Neither had any time to react before Shiori and Aylen each yanked their respective doors open. With one of her discs in hand, Shiori slammed it into the Relukun’s face, triggering the energy blade on it with a quick flick of her finger. He was dead before he even knew what was happening, as a brief rush of pleasure raced its way through her.

Aylen had dealt with the Orc just as efficiently, having produced some kind of curved dagger to slit his throat. Together, the two looked at one another, then leaned in to peer into the back, where Avalon crouched over a pair of bodies of her own.  

“Good.” That was Athena, suddenly standing just outside the van, her own targets apparently already dealt with. “That was quick and quiet. Excellent work, all… three of you.” Again, she gave Aylen a curious look before turning back to the subject at hand. “Now the situation is secure, and we have… time before Felicity Chambers’ apparent demise?”

Aylen, who was being stared at by all three of them, swallowed and gave a hesitant nod. “I–I think so. I mean, the feeling is a lot stronger now, but… maybe twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes,” Athena echoed. “Yes. I believe that is long enough to come up with a plan. And,” she added pointedly, “for you to explain just how you know this?”

“She’s a hybrid,” Avalon answered for the other girl, after the two exchanged looks and Aylen nodded faintly. “A hybrid of a–”

“Reaper,” Athena finished, sounding like she’d already known that and only needed it confirmed. “The hybrid daughter of a reaper…”

“Not daughter,” Aylen corrected. “Granddaughter. It’s–it’s a long story.” She murmured the last bit, glancing away.

“It answers enough for now,” Athena agreed. “I believe you’re right about the twenty minutes. So with that time, let’s decide how to handle it when Felicity and what are clearly going to be her captors do show up.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a decent plan,” Shiori pointed out.

“I mean, we’ve got the goddess of tactics on our side.”

******

The plan that they’d eventually came up with worked. Flick was saved from what ended up being Radueriel and Abaddon, as both of the Seosten bastards were sent through the portal that Avalon had created with Athena’s knife, with a little ‘help’ from the woman herself as she hopped out of Shiori (after using Excalibur to allow the hybrid girl to be possessed in the first place) to take them by surprise.

In the end, they were gone, and Flick was… well, not okay. She’d clearly been injured heavily enough that it wasn’t healing very quick. But she was alive. She was alive.

And… curious, obviously, about what was going on. The blonde girl’s eyes were wide as she stammered a confused response to Avalon asking if she was alright. “I… I… I don’t know. What the hell happened?”

Joining the other two, Shiori replied, “With the vault, or right now? Because the former’s a long story. And the latter…” Turning a bit, she looked toward Aylen, who perched on a lamppost where she had served as lookout and warning for when the bad guys had arrived. Without Shiori needing to say anything, Aylen flew down and resumed her… well, not human shape. She resumed her human-ish shape, her Reaper-like features revealed.

“Well,” Shiori continued while gesturing toward the girl. “The latter’s a long story too.”

Before she could say anything else, however, a new light suddenly appeared in the form of Tabbris popping into view. Her form settled, the light fading even as the little girl spun to embrace Flick so tightly that it drew a gasp from her. She was crying, clinging, and seemed to not care about Aylen’s presence whatsoever.

Shiori couldn’t blame her for that, after what they had just witnessed.

“Hey, hey,” Flick murmured, hugging Tabbris to herself. “See, we’re okay. We’re… we’re safe, partner.” She held the little girl tight, before looking up to Aylen. “I guess we’ve both got secrets.”

Aylen, for her part, hesitated before extending a hand. “I guess we do. I’m… glad you’re okay, Flick.”

“She’s how we found you guys,” Shiori explained as the two shook hands. “She could sense that you were going to die here, so she called Avalon and… well, we came to help.”

“That’s why you disappeared,” Flick realized then, looking over to Athena. “That’s why you weren’t fighting Abaddon anymore.”

Athena gave a slight nod. “Averting catastrophes in the future is dangerous. But this was worth it. That said,” she added then, giving a quick glance around, “we should leave, now. We don’t know if anyone else was meant to meet them here.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed, “or if they’ll just send reinforcements themselves.” She blinked to the other woman then. “Where did you set the knife to send them, anyway?”

With a slight smile, Athena replied, “Let’s just say I promised Lucifer that I’d send them somewhere special that he and Sariel set up. They’ll be busy for quite awhile. But yes, we need to go.”

“Yeah,” another voice spoke up, snapping Shiori’s attention that way, “going is probably good.”

It was an almost ethereally pretty (and thus probably Seosten) brunette girl who stood next to Pace. Who–wait.

“Theia?” Shiori found herself blurting, eyes blinking back and forth between them. “And Pace? Wait–wait, you guys…”

“Another long story,” Pace replied with a nod. “But… yeah, we’re separate. It’s…” She looked up, her eyes moving not to Shiori, but to Athena. “She’s dead. Kushiel, I mean. Kushiel is… is…” She looked over to Theia.

“I killed her,” Theia confirmed. “I killed Momma.”

Looking taken aback, Athena took a moment to respond. “A… a long story indeed. And one we will need to hear, once we leave this place.”

Together, Shiori and Avalon helped the injured Flick up. The girl couldn’t walk very well, leaning on both Shiori and Avalon. Which, honestly, Shiori wasn’t going to object to at all. Tabbris was right there too, as they went through the portal that Athena created, which led them back to a spot near the Atherby camp, with the lake visible in the distance.

And now that they were out of immediate danger, Shiori could focus enough to see the book that Tabbris held clutched against her stomach.

“You’ve got it,” Avalon breathed, seeing it at the same time. “You got the other book.”

“Does that mean you’ve got the–” Flick started, before stopping short as the girl held it up. “You’ve–we’ve… we… we did it.” Her voice sounded awed. “We actually got both of the books. We’ve…” Then her face fell.

“Flick, what’s wrong?” Shiori asked, confused by the reaction.

“Shiori…” Flick started. “I… we… I have to tell you something. I have to tell you… about… about Seth…”  

*******

“They’re going to have a memorial,” Asenath quietly murmured a couple hours later, as she and Shiori stood on the edge of the lake. Up near the cabins nearby, Gaia and Gabriel Prosser were debriefing everyone who had been involved in the assaults and the distractions, thanking them for everything they did to help, and informing them that while they had taken losses, the missions were successful. They had the spell, though it would take time for Dries and the others to work it into what they wanted.

Shiori felt a hard lump in her throat as she closed her eyes while whispering, “For Seth?”

Asenath nodded. “Well, for everyone who was… who died. They lost a couple in Prosser’s group when they stopped the Seosten reinforcements from attacking Gaia’s group at the bank. They’re going to put their names on a memorial that they have here at the camp. It’s where they list the names of everyone who was killed in the service of stopping the Seosten. Or just evil in general.”

“He belongs there,” Shiori started to say, before the words choked themselves into a knot in her throat. “I mean… I mean he belongs here. He belongs here. I know he–he was–” Everything she had been trying to say came out jumbled, and she found her eyes suddenly flooding with tears.

Asenath took her, hugging Shiori to her with a murmured, “I know. I know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t–that I didn’t… that he…” She too had to stop talking for a moment until she collected herself. “We didn’t always get along, but… but he was always there when I really… I thought he would always be there.”

Together, Shiori and Asenath stood with the soft waves of the lake gently lapping against their feet. They were silent for several minutes, barely hearing the words of Gaia in the background.

“Did she say something about Crossroads earlier?” Asenath finally asked.

“Yeah,” Shiori confirmed. “They’re sending everyone–I mean the students–back to Crossroads early, stopping the field trip because of the… you know, the ‘attack’.”

Asenath nodded. “So it worked? They managed to make it look like the Seosten were responsible for the thing at the bank?”

“Technically, they were responsible,” Shiori pointed out with a tiny, almost humorless smile. “But yeah. Sariel, Apollo, and the other Seosten did a run-through and rewrote memories, and Gaia messed with the security recordings. Now everyone in charge over there thinks that it was another attack by the bodysnatchers. Which kind of screws over the party line that they were all beaten.”

“Boo hoo,” Asenath replied dryly. “Maybe they’ll actually do something about it now.”

Nodding, Shiori replied, “I just kinda want to see the Seosten scramble to fix this again. Especially now that they lost the spell completely, and Kushiel’s dead.”

“Clearly a great loss to the universe,” Asenath snorted while putting both hands on Shiori’s shoulders. “So you’ll come back in a couple days for the memorial?”

“Yes, of course,” Shiori agreed, moving to embrace her half-sister. “Do you think…”

“I think Mom will be here too, yes.” Asenath returned the hug. “But right now, I think what everyone needs is rest.”

Caught in mid-yawn, Shiori blushed. “I… yeah, I guess it’s been a pretty long day, huh?”

“You can say that again,” Asenath replied.

“You know, if you can do it before you fall asleep.”

******

Obviously, neither Shiori nor Avalon were in any mood to leave Flick alone, after the injury she’d sustained and what had almost happened. She’d nearly died. Literally. If it hadn’t been for Aylen, she would have. She would have been gone, and none of them were going to forget that any time soon.

So, they slept together that night, literally. Shiori, Avalon, and Flick stayed in the room belonging to the latter two, dragging blankets and pillows down onto the floor between both beds to form a sort of nest before the three cuddled up together. They burrowed deep under the covers, falling asleep almost immediately after the long day that they’d all had. None of them had energy to spare, not even Flick with her Amarok-derived stamina. They were beat. But hey, at least they had the books. And Professor Dare had given Flick something that was supposed to help her sleep so that her legs would completely heal.

For her part, even without being drugged, Shiori felt as though she could have slept for days after everything that happened. As it was, hours seemed to pass in an instant from the time her head found its way to the pillow beside Flick before her eyes finally opened once more.

When she finally did wake up, it was dark. Not that being dark meant that much given her senses, but still. Everything was slightly dim, and it took Shiori a disorienting second or two to even understand why she was awake.

Then it came to her in a sudden rush. There was someone else in the room, someone else crouched right near them, directly beside Shiori. A figure knelt there, with a knife in one hand, its blade glinting in the slight moonlight that came in through the nearby window. She had no idea who it was, because their face was covered by a dark, featureless mask.

Shiori immediately started to shout while trying to sit up, her hand moving to grab the knife. But the figure’s own hand snapped down to cover her mouth, and she felt some kind of invisible force catch hold of the rest of her body. She couldn’t move, couldn’t even make a sound, or kick out to wake up Flick beside her. She was completely frozen. Even her attempt to yank the knife away from the figure with her metal-control power accomplished nothing.

As it turned out, however, she didn’t need to move any more than that. Flick was already sitting up, with Avalon right behind her. Both other girls were moving so quickly that Shiori wondered if they had already been awake, silently planning on what to do about their intruder.

Flick moved. Avalon moved. And the masked stranger moved as well, blade flicking through the air. Yet, even as Shiori strained in vain to use her metal-control power to yank the blade off-course, that course turned out to not take the knife anywhere near any of them. Instead, the intruder threw the knife across the room, to where another intruder had in that instant stepped through the closed door like it wasn’t even there.

The second figure was clearly intangible. Yet the knife didn’t care, embedding itself in their shoulder anyway a second before there was a sudden spark of what looked like electricity. They jerked in place, giving a soft yelp of surprise before collapsing.

It was enough to make Flick and Avalon both come up short, the girls freezing just as completely as if they too had been caught by the same power that held Shiori motionless.

Or had held her. It disappeared then, leaving the girl to jerk in place, while the figure stood quickly, turning to face them.

“Get up,” the intruder spoke in a voice that was at once familiar and also completely foreign in its tone. “We have to go.”

“Who the hell–” Flick started, her own senses not quite advanced to the point of picking out the voice. Not that knowing who it belonged to help explain anything in Shiori’s mind.

“We have to go,” the figure repeated, before reaching up to take the mask off, revealing, sure enough, Harper Hayes.

“Listen to me very carefully. Fossor is making his move. He just used Flick’s mother as a distraction to kill one of the Committee members, and blamed it on Gaia. They arrested her, and now they’re coming for the rest of you.”

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On The Edge 42-10

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A hand caught the back of my neck. Abaddon. He was there, lifting me up by the neck while his other hand produced what had to be a field engraver, or his version of it. He scrawled something quickly on my arm before I could react, his form blurring so much I’d barely realized what was happening before it was over. As he activated the spell, I felt a sharp but not quite agonizing burning sensation on my arm for just a moment.

Wh-what was that? I quickly blurted inwardly.

I… I dunno, Tabbris sent back. We didn’t see it. What did he do? What’s going on?

Dangling there from the big guy’s firm grip on my neck, I could do nothing while he bellowed, “Aletheia!” His voice echoed throughout the room like thunder, almost painfully loud. But hey, he was using her name. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but it meant something.

Radueriel, who had blurred his own form to rush over to where Kushiel’s body had fallen, looked up that way. His gaze met Abaddon’s and I saw him give a slight head shake. Gone. She was gone, and there was nothing they could do to fix that.

Theia and Pace (separate now) both took a bit longer to react to the voice, each of their gazes remaining focused on Kushiel’s body for another moment. When the Seosten girl finally did look up, I saw confusion there. She looked… more lost than proud. Like she wasn’t sure what had just happened, as if killing her mother hadn’t actually set in yet. Which I couldn’t blame her for, since it hadn’t set in for me either and I had a much smaller personal stake in it. She made a noise of confusion, even as Pace slowly moved up to put a hand on her arm, stumbling slightly on the way.  

Kushiel was dead. That’s what hadn’t set in, what would take much longer to feel real. A woman who had to be close to ten thousand years old was just… dead. Just like that. Just like Manakel. And Charmiene. All these ancient people, alive for millennia, all dying within a few months of each other. No wonder their leadership was so pissed off at us.

Well, if they’d leave us alone, they wouldn’t have that problem, Tabbris primly informed me.

Abaddon continued, his gaze focused on the dark-haired girl. “That’s what you call yourself, right? Aletheia?” His tone was darkly curious. “Huh. Can’t say it’s what I would’ve gone with, but I can appreciate the whole parental rebellion thing. Though uh, you may have taken it a bit far.” As he spoke, the man used my whole body, dangling from his grip, to gesture at Kushiel’s fallen figure. Though he kept his tone fairly light, I could hear the anger only partially hidden deep under his voice. The man was keeping things incredibly professional, but it was quite clear that he was putting forth some effort to control himself.

This was a man who had spent thousands of years losing people he got close to. But Kushiel had been there for a long time, and I had the feeling that while he might not have always seen eye to eye with her, she was part of ‘his group’. And now she was dead, killed by her own daughter. A daughter who happened to be what his people called a Lie.

“She’s dead.” The words that came from Theia then sounded hollow, like they were from a foreign language that she didn’t actually understand the meaning of. “Mama’s dead.”

“That’s right.” Abaddon’s voice cracked just a little, belying the professionalism he was trying to portray. “You killed her. Congratulations, I’m sure it’s a big moment for you. But look here.” He gave my body a hard shake, making me yelp a bit despite myself. My legs still hurt. “You care about this one, right? Don’t wanna see her dead?”

Before Theia could answer that, there was another blur of motion. Radueriel. He suddenly went from crouching by Kushiel’s body, to standing just a few feet away from Abaddon. And he had Pace, his real arm wrapped around her throat while his cybernetic one produced an engraver from one finger, which he used to draw a quick spell on. Given her brief gasp, it was probably the same spell that Abaddon had drawn on me a minute earlier.

Some part of me thought I should try to free myself, but… it just wasn’t going to happen. The pain that I’d felt in my legs just from standing up before, even with the help of my staff and leaning against the wall, it was too much. I had that pain-reduction power and I could still feel it, which made me a little worried about just how badly my legs were damaged.

Theia started to move then, but Abaddon spoke quickly. “Uh uh! Stop. Look here, kid. You weren’t there when your mother’s power started up, but it used to need a bit of a cooldown after a couple times. I’m betting yours does right now too. Gonna be awhile before you can… what do they call it?”

“Spam,” Radueriel informed him simply.

“Really?” Abaddon blinked that way. “The hell does that–never mind. Gonna be awhile before you can spam it, kid. But just in case, you see those spells we just put on these two? They’re harm-bound to us. Know what that means?”

Apparently she did, because Theia answered immediately. “You get hurt. They get hurt. You die. They die.” Her eyes were narrowed at Radueriel, and I had the feeling she was a bit more concerned about Pace than me. Which, yeah, that was fair.

“That’s right, kid,” Abaddon confirmed. “Damage duplication. We get hurt, they get hurt. We die, they die. So let’s all just calm down here. You killed your mother, which…” He made a noise under his breath that sounded like a growl. “But I owe your father and… well, let’s just say that’s why you aren’t a smear on the ground right now. So instead of killing you like I probably should, you’ll come with us.”

Radueriel clarified then. “He means all four of you.” He released Pace, giving the girl a little shove away from him while looking my way. “You walk with us. First one to put up a fight… well, let’s just say that neither I nor my partner here need much of an excuse to put one of you down.”

Abaddon nodded, letting go of my neck without warning. I fell, yelping as the pain in my legs when I landed flared up dramatically, making me collapse to my hands and knees. The Seosten man looked down at me, frowning briefly. “Right, Kushiel’s blade. Afraid it won’t get better any time soon. She keeps–ahhh, kept that thing enchanted to do a hell of a lot more damage than it should. Damage that lingers. Gets into the muscles and bones and… well, it won’t heal very quick, let’s put it that way.”

While I was digesting that, he continued. “Anyway, what my partner said. No more games. One of you pulls something, someone else dies. And to be straight with you, I’m not super-particular which one right now.” His voice was hard, making it completely clear just how close the man was to losing his tenuous grasp on his anger. I had a feeling that it was only the importance of their mission that was keeping that in check even this much.

“Are we all clear?” Abaddon demanded then. “We’re walking out of here together, and none of you are going to do anything else that makes this whole situation worse. Because you give either of us an excuse, and one of you will die for it. Don’t talk back. Don’t argue. Don’t be cute. Get all those thoughts out of your pretty little heads. Walk to the door and stand there. Now.”

The others have to be coming, right? Tabbris quickly put in, even as I tried to force myself to stand up. It hurt. God, it hurt. Pain reduction or not, I could barely make myself stagger, wincing with each motion.

I hope so, I silently replied, because I think I’m basically out of tricks right now. We can’t beat two Olympians, Tabs. Not on our best day, and definitely not right now. I’m wiped. And I’m pretty sure if I tried to so much as skip, I’d break something.

As if in agreement with that, I stumbled on the next step. Nearly falling, I found myself caught by Pace, who moved quickly to support me on one side, whispering, “Are you okay?”

“Been better,” I whispered back. Not that there was much point. I was pretty sure Abaddon and Radueriel could both hear us just fine. “But hey, you’re… uh, you again. Congratulations.”

“We will have a party soon.” That was Theia, stepping over to join us on the way to the door. She supported my other side, making it a bit easier to move. “With cake and ice cream. When we get away.”

Instead of focusing on that last bit, I looked the Seosten girl up and down. It was my first real chance to get a look at her. She was, like all Seosten, incredibly pretty. Actually, I could definitely see how she was related to Kushiel. There was a distinct family resemblance, and not just when it came to the power.  

You okay?” I asked the girl quietly, after giving Abaddon and Radueriel a brief glance. They weren’t objecting to us talking just yet. Nor were they apparently ready to leave. The two of them were standing a few feet away, having a quiet (probably magically protected) conversation. But I had no doubt that if we tried to make a break for it, we wouldn’t get very far.

“We–” Theia started before stopping herself. “I… killed Mama. I killed Mama.” Again, her voice sounded almost empty. She didn’t sound happy about it. But nor did she sound sad. “Mama’s dead and… and I… I don’t know.”

Standing there while trying to think of what to say to that, I noticed the door. It was closed. But it was also lying in pieces on the floor nearby. The same door, closed in front of us yet broken on the floor. What the…

Theia noticed my confused glances back and forth, explaining, “Radueriel’s glamor spell. Makes the door look like it’s there, when it’s really there.” She gestured between the intact door in front of us and the shattered one on the floor.

Abaddon chose that moment to step over to us. “That’s right, it keeps any interruptions out. Now, we’re leaving. All of us. I’m not going to reiterate the previous threats, because I don’t believe any of your memories are that terrible. But keep them in mind.”

As he spoke, I could see Radueriel in the background, attaching some kind of badge-like device to each of the bodies. Including Kushiel’s. Once they were all attached, the man pressed a button on his cybernetic arm. A square metal block about the size of a Rubik’s cube appeared, floating to the middle of the room. As soon as it was in place, all of the bodies, unconscious and dead alike, all disappeared in various beams of light that shot into the cube. Transferred. He… transferred them into the cube.

F-Flick, Tabbris worriedly put in. I… I don’t know what to do now. I’m… I’m…

I’m scared too, I assured her without making the girl say it. But we can’t push them right now. I’ve got nothing left, partner. No tricks, no… if we tried something, I’m pretty sure they would kill one of us. We just have to… to wait and hope something happens. Trust the others. They’ll be there.

Radueriel took the cube as it floated back into his hand, nodding to his partner. In turn, Abaddon held some kind of rock above our heads, crushing it into dust, which swirled through the air. Instead of falling completely to the ground, the dust seemed to form a cloud around us and then just… stayed there. Then we stepped through the illusion of the door, moving to the hallway beyond.

Immediately, my heart jumped. Because the others were right there. Deveron, Koren, Wyatt, that Francis guy, everyone from the room. They were there, standing right in front of the door that we had just come through.

My mouth opened to blurt a warning that Pace and I were both spelled to take any damage the two Olympians took. But before I could say a word, Deveron spoke. “How do we get it open?”

Get it open? Wait–they still saw the intact door, of course. But why weren’t they reacting to–

“Scream if you want,” Radueriel informed us in the middle of my confusion. “Rant, yell for help, whatever you wish. But they won’t hear you. Nor will they see you. The dust renders us undetectable.”

“And if we grab them?” I demanded despite myself, annoyed by his smug voice. In the background, Deveron and the others were still talking as if we weren’t even there. Which, to them, we weren’t.

“Then we will be forced to kill one of you,” Abaddon put in mildly. “I’d sort of appreciate if you didn’t make us do that. Come.” He pointed with a small metal cylinder, hitting a button to create a portal. Through it, I could see a parking lot. “Time to meet with the others and see how their side of the mission went.”

Radueriel shrugged. “Either way, Sariel’s kid has the book and we have Sariel’s kid.” He gave me, or rather, Tabbris, a hard look. “So either the others took their book and we have the whole spell. Or they didn’t, but we still have ours so the humans can’t do anything with their half.”

He was right. If the spell had been split in half, them even just having half of it would prevent it from actually being useful, even if Gaia, Avalon, and the others had successfully retrieved theirs. Somehow, that thought made me feel even worse. If we’d been just a little bit faster, just a little bit… better, or smarter, or…

Kushiel’s dead, Tabbris reminded me. That wouldn’t have happened any other way, you know.

Before I could say anything to that, Radueriel gave me a firm shove toward the portal. “Have your private conversation while walking. Whatever you happen to be planning, just know that the Li–Aletheia’s former host will be the one who pays the price first.”

Pace. They would kill Pace first. She was the most immediately expendable. And they probably figured that if Tabbris and I pulled something that got Pace killed, it would turn Theia against us. Swallowing hard, I glanced back to Deveron and the others one last time. They were setting up some kind of spell to blast the door open, even though it was already open. The illusion was still affecting them. As was the dust that stopped us from being noticed.

Nothing. There was nothing else I could do. Risking Pace’s life was a non-starter. Even if I did want to risk it, there was nothing to say that I could get everyone’s attention and make them understand before they just killed all of us. They could kill me and take Tabbris.

No. No, I couldn’t–couldn’t do that. I had to hope a new opportunity to escape would actually present itself. Or that one of the others would figure something out and come after us. Francis, he’d know when we left the building entirely, right? Or Jophiel. There was also Jophiel.

Under the hard and uncompromising glares of Radueriel and Abaddon, the four of us slowly (but not slowly enough for my liking)  walked to the portal. Nothing. I couldn’t do anything. Hell, at that point, I could barely walk. Scratch that, I couldn’t walk without help from Pace and Theia supporting me on either side. Fighting would be out of the question for awhile. Every time I even took a step, even with help, shooting pain went up through each of my legs. I had to move gingerly. Every motion hurt.

We reached the portal and I still hadn’t thought of anything. We had to go. We had to move through the portal. I couldn’t endanger the others by making any kind of last ditch attack or attempt to escape. I wouldn’t stand a chance and it would only end up with at least one of us dying. I couldn’t risk that. After everything that happened, I couldn’t give them an excuse to kill Pace.

I had to let myself be taken. Swallowing hard, I took a breath and moved through that portal. Abaddon was right behind us, actually putting a heavy hand on my shoulder tightly even as I was supported by the others. Apparently he didn’t trust me not to have something ready to go to escape. Or maybe it was Tabbris he was worried about. Either way, he maintained that grip all the way through the portal and out to the unfamiliar parking lot.

I had no idea where we were, I realized almost immediately. This wasn’t the lot right outside the hotel. It was… it was… somewhere else entirely. Oh God. As the portal disappeared behind us, I finally understood that we were far from where we should have been. We were far from where anyone, anyone would expect to find us. Basically, we were screwed.

The parking lot was along the side of what looked like a grocery store that had been closed for a long time. There were a couple cars parked ahead us and a few spaces apart, dark vans that gave me child abductor vibes. On a street lamp nearby, a dark bird perched and gave a soft caw.

As all of us looked around, Radueriel spoke. “They’re not here yet, do we wait?”

Abaddon didn’t answer for a second, and I had a feeling that it was because he was instinctively waiting for Kushiel. When he realized his mistake after a couple seconds of silence, the big man started a bit. I felt him squeeze my shoulder so tightly it hurt, nearly drawing a yelp from me. Another sign, as if I needed one, of just how tenuous his grasp on his temper was.

“This is the rendezvous,”  he finally announced through gritted teeth. “We give them another few minutes to show up. It–” He stopped talking then, head turning as though listening to something. From the pause, I had the feeling there was an extensive mental conversation going on.

Finally, the big guy straightened. His eyes found me, and he coughed. “Sorry, kid, I spoke for you.”

“What?” I managed, just before his hand collided with my face. He moved so fast I didn’t even have a chance to think. It was like a truck slamming into the side of my head. I fell, sprawling out on the ground. Nearby, I heard Pace shout something, and Theia made some kind of threat. But Radueriel was restraining them.

Abaddon stood over me. “Told you, it ain’t personal. But orders from above say put you down and take the kid in. I tried to tell ‘em you could be useful. They ahh, they don’t want to play any more games. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t like it.”

Tabbris was saying something, frantically begging me to get away. My hand produced my staff, and I swung it up to… I didn’t even know at that point. Part of me was trying to hit Abaddon with it while another part thought to use the boost on it to throw myself away from them. But where I would go with legs that didn’t work right was anyone’s guess.

It didn’t matter anyway. Abaddon caught the staff, tearing it from my hand with less effort than it took to remove a toy from an infant. He tossed it aside, producing an enormous sword with his other hand. My mouth opened, but his foot lashed out, kicking me in the face so that I sprawled on the ground once more.

Tabbris was screaming. Pace was screaming. Theia was threatening. My body was screaming. I grabbed the ground, trying to push myself up even as Abaddon stood over me, his foot coming down hard on my chest. Possess him!

Couldn’t. He had a forcefield up. Couldn’t possess him. No wood. No weapon. No– nothing. Nothing. I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight. I could barely understand the words that Tabbris was screaming at me, even as she took control of the body. But she couldn’t do anything either. We were trapped. As Abaddon lifted his sword and judged his aim briefly, as everyone screamed, as the bird on the nearby lamppost gave a loud cry, we were trapped. Helpless. Broken. Lost. Lost as the sword started its downward plunge.

But I never got to save my moth–

A sudden eruption of sound stopped Abaddon’s descending blade. One of the vans–no, both of the vans were blaring their horns. The obnoxious, loud and cacophonous noise filled the air, drawing everyone’s attention, while Abaddon stood with the blade hanging right near my face.

The door of the nearest van opened, and two bodies came tumbling out of it to land on the pavement with a solid thunk. Abaddon and Radueriel recoiled with collective curses, as another figure, this one standing, hopped out to stand between the two dead bodies.

“That’s my girlfriend,” Avalon announced while straightening to her feet. She looked bloodied, bruised, her clothing heavily torn… and more beautiful in that moment that I ever remembered. “Get the fuck away from her.”

“What she said.” The new voice came from Shiori, exiting the side of the second van, on the opposite side from where all of us were standing. Two more bodies fell to the ground at her feet as she stood there. We, including Radueriel and Abaddon, were between them.

The two Olympians looked to one another and then started to chuckle. Abaddon spoke calmly. “Congratulations on somehow finding the rendezvous, children. But I am afraid that you’ve made a grave error if you think you pose a threat by yourselves.”

I started to blurt a warning, but Avalon was already stepping forward. “The only error is with you people not getting it through your thick skulls to leave me and the people I care about alone.” As she spoke, the dark-haired girl ignited both of the energy blades from her gauntlets.

“Heh,” Abaddon snorted. “That’s cute. Okay then, bring it on.”

Avalon threw herself that way. Behind them, Shiori did the same. Both girls sprinted, their forms moving almost fast enough to blur like the vampires and Seosten did. Together, they went right for Abaddon, even as I screamed for them to stop.

Then Avalon did. She suddenly pivoted and dropped to the ground while pulling something from her jacket, driving it into the pavement.

At the exact same time, Shiori stopped too. But the glowing figure that leapt from her kept going. Athena. Her fist collided with Abaddon’s jaw. Instantly, I felt a horrible pain in my own face as I was knocked to the ground.

While he was reeling from the punch, Athena reared back to kick Abaddon. Once more, I felt that pain, this time in my chest. A rib or two cracked. But Abaddon had it worse. Because that kick sent him stumbling back two steps. And that put him right where Avalon had just used Athena’s magic portal dagger to make a hole leading who knew where.

Abaddon fell through. And an instant later, Athena caught Radueriel by the arm and hurled him through as well, before he knew what was happening. Both men fell through the portal in the ground just before it disappeared.

“Have a nice trip,” Shiori called from where she had skidded to a stop to let Athena jump from her. “See ya next fall.”

“Wh-what?!” The terror of nearly dying, coupled with the sudden rush of being saved by my girlfriends, and everything else that had just happened, made me feel light headed. “How–wha–what–huh?” Behind me, Pace and Theia were equally lost.

Avalon took a knee by me, her face paling a bit. “Are you alright?”

“I… I… I don’t know. What the hell happened?”

Shiori joined us. “With the vault, or right now? Because the former’s a long story. And the latter…” She turned, looking over past Athena, to the lamppost where the dark bird was still perched.

It flew down to us. Once the bird neared the ground, I saw that it was a crow. Was a crow, because it suddenly changed, shifting form until a familiar girl stood there.

Aylen. Aylen was there, except… except her hair and eyes were blue and there was… there was something alien about her.

A reaper. Aylen looked like a reaper. Like the ones I’d seen in class this year.

“Well,” Shiori finished, “the latter’s a long story too.”

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On The Edge 42-03

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Ares. Ares was there, just a few feet away from me. And he had killed Seth, killed Seth, after pretending to be an ordinary, rank and file Seosten long enough to take us by surprise. So I supposed that the ‘god of war’ knew a bit about tactics after all.

A blur of motion put Asenath between us, though I didn’t know who was actually in control there. How was the vampire girl reacting to the death of the man who had basically been a big brother to her throughout her life, even if they didn’t always get along? Which actually probably made them even more like siblings.

Later. There would be time to deal with that later. Assuming the rest of us survived this.

“Gabrielle,” Asenath’s voice spoke, using the fake name that I had given. “You need to run, right now.”

“Ohhhh.” Ares was smiling as he waved our finger knowingly. “Is that you in there, Auriel? It is, isn’t it? I was lucky enough to pull you, wasn’t I?” He was smiling as though he’d just won a great prize.

“But why are you telling your little friend there to run away? I thought you were all about being some great war general. Scream and run away doesn’t seem like much of a strategy to me.”

His eyes found me once more as the man’s smile grew. “And don’t you run away too fast there, sweetheart. Because the fun just started. Isn’t that right, boys?”

Turning slightly as both his words and my item sense warned me about new arrivals, I saw a small assortment of figures appear in the doorway. From their beautiful appearances and the fact that they wore the Seosten bodysuits, I was going to guess that Kushiel had gotten some reinforcements of her own people for this.

They’re not very old, Tabbris quickly put in. Those suits are the cadet ones. This must be their first real mission. They’re probably younger than the ones we fought back on the slave planet.

But still dangerous, I replied, feeling her agreement. I could also feel her horror at what had happened to Seth, but we were both kind of suppressing that as much as possible. Later, later. If we didn’t deal with it later instead of now, we’d have a lot more than just him to lose.

Athena’s glowing figure appeared beside Asenath. She held Excalibur in one hand. “Take Gabrielle,” she ordered her former host. “Get out of here. Complete the mission.”

With a tiny smirk, Ares offhandedly replied, “Even if they make it out of this room, they’re going to have a hard time getting anywhere else. Just like the rest of your friends. But hey,” he added with a languid shrug, “I’m looking forward to seeing them try. This should be fun.”

As if fun was some kind of trigger word, the Seosten cadets all launched themselves into an attack. In the background, I could see Ares and Athena close with one another. But I couldn’t pay any attention to it. I was already in a fight for my life.

Cadets or not, the Seosten were incredibly fast. They were clearly boosting, the first two racing to grab my arms while the third trailed right behind them with a laser dagger that he had produced. It was aimed for my shoulder, clearly to disable me once his two companions had me immobilized. Beyond those first three were another trio backing them up. Six cadets. I was in trouble.

But I also wasn’t alone, even without Athena. A blur of motion sent Asenath past me to engage the second trio, even as the first reached me.

At the last instant, Tabbris triggered her own boost. Between that and the werewolf reflexes, I could briefly move as fast as they were. My body twisted aside from their grasping hands, and I caught one of their wrists. There was a brief impulse to possess him, but I didn’t want to give away who I was just yet.

Instead, I gave his wrist a hard yank, twisting him into the path of the guy coming up with the dagger so that he would take the energy blade instead. At the same time, my foot lashed out to kick the other guy who had been coming for me right in the chest. That part was Tabbris, taking over briefly.

The man whose wrist I was gripping took the laser dagger in his opposite shoulder with a grunt. Before he or his companion could recover, I kicked the legs out from under the one I was holding, releasing his wrist as he fell. Before his body hit the floor, My rising foot collided with it, werewolf strength working to send the man flying into his dagger-wielding partner.

The man that Tabbris had kicked had recovered by then, suddenly producing a handgun, which he pointed at me before firing several quick shots. But it was a laser weapon, and Tabbris was on the case. My energy absorption power took the shots without issue, and I sent that energy right back out again in the form of a blast that took the gunman in the chest. Or it would have, if he hadn’t been fast enough to dive aside. As it was, he still lost part of his arm as the searing beam cut through it.

The two who were behind me had recovered by then. One was diving for my leg with his hand outstretched, clearly intending to end the fight by possessing me.

I let him reach me. His hand grasped my leg, and I saw a brief flash of confusion cross his face just before I twisted to bring my opposite leg up. My hand caught his hair and I held him in position while driving my knee into his face hard.

My body turned of its own volition then, or rather, of Tabbris’s volition. She had been using the item sense to keep track of where the third guy was, and turned us just in time to avoid the energy sword he had produced as it swept through the air with a hum. Before he could recover, my hand snapped out, shoving into the blade even as Tabbris brought up the absorption power again. I could only absorb an instant of the blade’s power before it would overload me, at which point I would lose my hand. But that single instant was enough, thanks to an idea that Shiori had given me while the two of us were talking. The instant my hand caught the energy from that blade, I shove it right back out again, downward into the hilt of the weapon. I sent all that power it was shoving out into my palm back into the handle of the weapon itself.

It overloaded, exploding in the man’s hand and drawing a cry from him as his arm was flung backward. His fingers were mangled and burned from the exploding weapon. Then I added to his problems by planting my fist in the small of his throat, collapsing it inward from the concentrated force of the blow. His eyes widened and he doubled over, wheezing for breath through a collapsed windpipe.

Claws emerged from my hand then, as Tabbris focused on making a partial change into my lion shape, just enough to give me the barely formed paw with claws on the end. I used them, slashing across the throat of the doubled-over figure in the same spot that I had just punched him. Blood sprayed everywhere, and he gargled before collapsing. His body hit the floor with a final thud, even as my aura flared up.

My attention turned to the other two, while Tabbris muted the rush of pleasure. But before I could move to either of them, Asenath called my name. Or rather, my fake name.

“Gabrielle!” She was standing by the door, over the bodies of her own opponents. “Let’s go!”

“Larees!” I blurted back. In the back of my mind, I’d noticed enough of Athena and Ares’  fight to know that her unconscious form was being used against the woman. Athena kept having to protect it from one power or another that Ares would throw as he cycled through various bodies. We had to get her out of there so Athena could focus.

Asenath reacted instantly, her form turning into a barely visible blur as she raced across the room.

At that exact instant and just in time, Athena used Excalibur to reflect some kind of energy shot from Ares, who looked like a small furry creature at the moment. With her other hand, she reached down to catch hold of Larees’ arm and flung her right to the racing vampire.

Asenath caught Larees, hooking the woman’s arm around her shoulders before racing back. Ares tried to stop them, but Athena was there. The two went for each other even harder, and I had the distinct feeling that if the rest of us didn’t get out of this room immediately, we would be collateral damage very quickly.

My two surviving opponents were trying to block the doorway, rifles appearing in their hands. But the broken table lay nearby, and I stuck a foot out. As my toe brushed the wood, I sent myself through it to the other hand, popping out behind the men. My hands, each still in the shape of the lion’s paws with claws extended, grabbed onto both of their necks. It wasn’t enough to kill them, but I did slam both together so that their heads collided, then shoved them in the opposite direction to collide with either side of the doorway before releasing their limp forms.

Asenath reached me then, and I helped by taking one of Larees’ arms. Together, we retreated from the room, leaving Athena and Ares to fight. As much as I wanted to see her kick his ass, we were a distraction she didn’t need.

Unfortunately, things didn’t let up once we hit the hallway. There were three figures right there dressed in security uniforms. One was a big furry guy who towered over the other two lizard men.

I didn’t know if they were actually regular security for the hotel reacting to the noise or if they have been compromised by the Seosten. And it didn’t really matter in that instance, as the two reptilian figures brought their arms up, launching some kind of gas from their palms. It was dark sickly green, and I had a feeling that we really didn’t want to breathe it in. At the same time, the big guy came rushing for us, moving astonishingly quickly for his size. He was a furry freight train with rockets strapped to it.

While that gas was still flooding toward us, my free hand moved to the collar of my shirt. Tabbris activated the fresh air breathing spell there while using my mouth to warn Asenath, “Paralytic, don’t breathe it!”

The big guy was right there. We had to drop Larees. Asenath and I each let go of the woman, lunging to either side just as the large furry figure grabbed for us. Quick as he was, he still managed to kick out with a foot, catching me in the side to send me flying into the nearest wall with a yelp of pain. Asenath made no sound, even as he caught her arm and flung her up into the ceiling, because she was busy holding her breath. From the quick bit of information that Tabbris dumped into my head, breathing in even a tiny bit of that gas would result in us not being able to move for hours. We couldn’t let that happen. Even if I had this spell to protect me, the vampire girl didn’t. Thankfully, I was pretty sure she could hold her breath for a pretty long time.

But we had to finish this. And I still wasn’t sure if I should use my weapon yet. I was pretty confident that they would know who I was the second I did, and Athena wanted me to keep that secret for as long as possible. If they knew who I was, they would know I could possess them. Which was a trick I didn’t want them to be ready for just yet.

Besides, whether these guys were possessed or not, what they were doing wasn’t their fault. Either they were just doing their job protecting the hotel, or they had been possessed and enslaved by the Seosten.

With a grunt, I rebounded off the wall, throwing myself into a roll that took me right next to the big guy before ending up on one knee. He brought a massive fist down toward my head, but I snapped both hands up to catch it. Sort of. Oof. Pain rocked through my arms from the force of the blow and I nearly collapsed. Still, I held his fist and looked.

Nothing. He wasn’t possessed. I didn’t know if he was compromised in some other way beyond simply doing his job, but there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.

He glared down at me,  yanking his fist free. Before he could do anything else, I pointed to the floor near me. A portal appeared there and behind the man’s head, just before I slammed my foot down through it, colliding with the base of his skull with enough force to draw a grunt of pain from him. It also distracted him just enough that he didn’t notice Asenath, who had recovered and reached the spot behind him. Her hand snapped out to smack against the small of his back. She must have hit some kind of pressure point, because the huge guy collapsed to his knees just before she hit something on the side of his neck. At that point he hit the ground and lay still.

The lizard guys did not react well to that. Realizing their gas wasn’t working, they switched tactics to something more direct. Namely, solidifying that gas into random solid shapes and trying to literally beat us with them. A dark green rectangle the size of a microwave narrowly missed the side of my head, just before another one in the shape of a trapezoid took my legs out from under me. Where I was struck, I felt my legs go a bit numb. It wasn’t the immediate paralysis that breathing the gas was, but I could see how it worked. They turned their gas into solid shapes and bludgeoned people with them to gradually paralyze. I couldn’t let myself be hit any more.

Also, being stabbed with them was probably worse, so I threw myself into an awkward roll to avoid the pointy end of an arrow-shaped bit of converted gas. Unfortunately, it kept following me, and I had to continue evading.

Then it all stopped. The shapes collapsed back into gas and then dissipated. Larees was there, standing over the unconscious forms of the guards while looking to the two of us. “The fuck just happened?”

We told her on the way, racing from the hallway even as the sound of Athena and Ares tearing the place apart grew louder behind us.

Larees didn’t curse, surprisingly. She got really quiet for a moment, then what sidelong toward Asenath. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for Seth.”

“Later,” the other woman replied simply. “Not the time.”

“We’ve got to meet up with everyone else,” I put in before realizing, “Wait.” I slowed a bit, my hand moving up to find the communication badge Gaia had provided before this all started. I tried to contact the others with it, to no avail. There was some kind of jamming going on. And if it was jamming that could stop something Gaia provided, it was pretty damn effective. No wonder the people outside hadn’t said anything yet. They couldn’t.

Wait, did that mean they didn’t know what it happened? I had no doubt that they would send in reinforcements as soon as they lost contact with us, but if they didn’t know what they were walking into…

“Well this just keeps getting better,” Larees muttered. “Now we’ve completely lost contact with everyone outside, who might or might not know something’s wrong. And we have no idea where anyone else in this place is. Oh, and everyone wants to kill us.”

I started to say something, but then heard a voice in my head that wasn’t my partner. It was Deveron.

Pinned down in one of the basketball courts. It’s Radueriel. He’s controlling all of the security and most of the staff with some kind of implant device. If anyone finds that bastard, break his toy.

Right, this did just keep getting better. Now we had at least three Olympians in the building. And we were all cut off from each other. What else could go wr—

I didn’t have time to even finish that very stupid thought. Even as my brain was frantically trying to backspace over it, the sudden appearance of a new figure to my right where there hadn’t been one before penetrated my mind. But it didn’t set off my item sense. My gaze snapped around that way quickly just in time to catch a brief glimpse of a figure in a white suit.

Asenath and Larees were both reacting, even as the figure caught hold of my arm. Then we were elsewhere. I had time to register what looked like a grand dining room of some kind before my back hit the wall hard.

Finally, I had a chance to see the person who had grabbed me. He looked like a guy in his mid-twenties, with very light blond hair. What I had briefly thought was a suit was actually a pristine white trench coat worn over a dark red silk button-up shirt and white slacks. His amber eyes were fierce as he held me up against the wall with one hand.

“I have questions,” he announced. “You’re going to answer them, quickly and honestly. What do your people want here? How are they controlling the others?”

Oh, he’s not with Kushiel at all, Tabbris realized right with me.

It was true, I’d already seen that he wasn’t possessed, but now it was clear that the guy didn’t know anything about what was actually going on. And he wasn’t being controlled. So he could have been an ally. If I could explain things.

“Okay,” I started, trying not to think about what was going on with the others. I had to get this guy to understand and get back to Asenath and Larees.

“Wait.” The man spoke that single word, then looked me up and down. His lip curled a little. “Shapeshifter.” With that, he brought his free hand up. It was glowing blue. As he waved it at me, I felt my form shifting without my input, going back to normal.

Once it was done, the man started to speak again. “Right, now explain what y—” Abruptly, he stopped short. His mouth opened and then shut, and he stared at me intently for a few seconds.

“Should… uh, should I talk?” I asked, confused.

“Atherby.” His voice was as certain as it was confused. “You are related to Joselyn Atherby.”

It was my turn to look flabbergasted, blurting, “You remember my mother?”

Slowly, he lowered me to the floor, taking his hand away. “Joselyn Atherby saved my soul,” he murmured. “And the life of the Auberge’s current owner. She and her family have always been welcome here.”

Well. Call back the umpires, dust off the bases, and tell the players to limber up.

Because this was a whole new ballgame.

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On The Edge 42-02

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“You know,” Seth’s voice announced, “this guy is really good at violence. I think I like this partnership thing.”

His expression changed then, as the man spoke for himself. “That was a compliment,” he drawled, “so I let her go ahead and say it.”

Larees was the first one who had spoken. She and the vampire had chosen to team up. As capable as Seth was normally, I couldn’t even imagine what he would be like with a full Seosten boost. To say nothing of Asenath and the werewolves.

Even with short notice, we definitely weren’t going in unprepared. I just hoped it would be enough to deal with what we found in there. I didn’t want to have to fight the hotel residents any more than we had to, and I had no doubt that Kushiel would throw as many of them in our path as she possibly could. It wasn’t like killing innocents mattered to her.

A group of us was walking down the street to approach the most recent entrance to the Auberge. It wasn’t everyone. The Auberge had rules about larger groups. Even if you were together, you couldn’t approach and enter with more than seven or eight people at a time. It was to avoid attention from the outside (and probably for other security reasons) and they were very strict about it. Which worked for us, since splitting up to search the hotel was what we wanted to do anyway.

I was going in right alongside Wyatt and Deveron, of course. Neither of them had agreed to be possessed. Asenath, on the other hand, had agreed to be possessed by Athena. I’d pointed out that that seemed like a good way to commit suicide given the whole vampires being hybrids thing, and Athena had told me that holding Excalibur actually allowed her to possess hybrids, so long as she held the blade against them for a few seconds first. Which… was there anything the sword couldn’t do? We also had Seth, possessed by Larees and Namythiet (with Clubber), Bobbi, and Twister. Each of them (including the tiger cub) were possessed by a different Seosten, who were all quietly waiting for if (or when) things went wrong. I just hoped all the possessors and possessees were taking a chance to get to know each other while they had the chance. Because when this went down, they really needed to be able to work together as much as possible.

Either way, it wasn’t long before we reached the back alley that Seth had pointed us to. At the end of it was a single red door, lit by a weak little lamp. There was no sign of anything special about it at all. Which made sense, given the fact that it was, well, a secret.

Deveron looked towards me, quietly asking, “You ready for this, kid?”

My eyes met his. Not that either of our eyes, or the rest of our faces, looked the way they should. He had made himself look like a very pale blonde guy with a hint of fat in his cheeks, while I had gone with the appearance of a nearly anorexic redhead.

Besides our appearance changes, we were both also using the spells Wyatt had provided to fool any shape-shifting detectors the hotel happened to be using. That was on top of the spells he had put on us that would allow the others out in the van, like Abigail, to watch what happened. Which had once again reminded me of just how important and useful my magic-inclined big brother was.

“I’m ready,” I replied simply. “We’re ready. Or at least as ready as we’re going to have a chance to be. I’m pretty sure Kushiel won’t pay attention if we call for a time out for a year or two so we can really get ready.”

“Yeah,” Asenath put in. “I’ve found that people like her are really inconsiderate when it comes to that.” Pausing, she added, “And when it comes to basically everything else, really.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, as Athena spoke through her. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know how long they’ve been here, or how many resources they brought in. Assume that everyone inside is a potential threat, either through coercion or possession. It’s okay to look around and be curious. Remember, we’re tourists, so it’s expected. It’s our first time here.”

“Well,” Twister put in, “most of your first times here. Some of us know how to enjoy ourselves now and then.” She and Seth exchanged high fives without either looking at the other.

We reached the door then, and Seth reached out to knock. One quick, two long, then three quick.

As soon as that was done, a slit that hadn’t been there before appeared in the door. It slid open to reveal a pair of eyes, which immediately gave me the creeps. The eyes shifted slowly to take in each of us in turn, scanning up-and-down. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it tickled. These definitely weren’t ordinary eyes, which was to be expected.

Apparently the shape-shifting combined with Wyatt’s spell worked, because a moment later the slit closed and the door slid open. As a group, we exchanged glances before starting through. Seth with Larees and Asenath with Athena went first.

We emerged into an incredibly lavish and beautiful hotel lobby. Seriously, this place was gorgeous. If it had been a Bystander place, it would have cost like a thousand dollars a night for an ordinary room. It was that good. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, fine wood paneling, luxurious chairs, a huge fountain in the middle of the lobby, and even statues. The place was amazing.

It was a good thing that we were supposed to look like tourists, because I spent a minute just standing there looking around with my mouth open. Now I felt even worse about there being a potential (Probable, Tabbris corrected) fight here, because I didn’t want to break anything.

My attention was drawn then to the approach of a smartly dressed, dark haired man. He wore a crisp suit, and he was one of those guys whose appearance made him look anywhere between thirty and fifty with no real way to be sure. Not that appearance meant anything with people who could live for centuries or longer since I had no idea what this guy was (aside from the fact that he did set off my Heretic-sense), but still.

I also sensed an awful lot of weapons hidden on him under that simple suit. He had several guns, knives, what felt like a very large sword, a couple grenades, and more. The man was a walking arsenal. Which almost made me tense up a bit reflexively, but he didn’t seem to be coming for a fight. Not yet, anyway.

“Good evening,” the man started politely. “My name is Deacon Carterfield, and I would like to welcome you all to the Auberge. It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Dozeran. And you as well, ahh, Twister.”

Nodding politely to both of them, the man continued, “I’m told that your Wonderland organization is interested in creating an ongoing relationship with our establishment. A relationship which would have you picking out permanent residences and allowing your people to, ahh,  take turns?”

That was a lie that we hoped we would be able to explain to them later. We couldn’t exactly tell them the real reason why we were there, and with any luck, when we were done, we wouldn’t have ruined any relationship between the two places. Especially if it meant we cleared out their Seosten infestation. Explaining that we couldn’t tell them the truth beforehand because any of them could have been possessed or compromised in some way would probably go along way toward handling things.

But first we had to get through this.

Deveron extended a hand to the man. “That’s what we’re hoping,” he confirmed with an easy smile. “It’d be nice for everyone to have a little treat like the Auberge to look forward to if they behave, you know?”

Deacon bowed his head in acknowledgment of that while shaking of the other man’s hand. “I’m quite certain I do. Just as I am certain that your party will enjoy their stay here, and that we will come to a very equitable agreement.“

He took a moment to shake hands with a couple of the others, before turning to me. Which made it my turn. And more importantly, made it time for the first test.

I was wearing the choker of Anuk-Ite. It had been disguised to look like a different necklace, of course. But I was still wearing it. It was a quick and easy way of testing for possession, and we weren’t going to go in here without an advantage like that, relatively small as it might have been in the long run.

I shook the man’s hand, introducing myself as Gabrielle Sezmin.  As our hands touched, I watched they man, but there was no sign of possession. Which still didn’t mean we could exactly tell him everything that was going on, considering every other way he could have been compromised. But still, at least there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.  

Eventually, he led us up to the front counter to check in, promising that he would send our other group around when they arrived and that he or any of the hotel staff would be more than happy to answer any questions we might have in the future.

We checked in, got our room keys, and then a little goblin girl named Elky, who was dressed like a maid, showed us to our rooms on the fourth floor. She babbled on the whole time very adorably, telling us about the hotel and some of the amenities in it, as well as promising that she or one of her fellow staff would take care of anything we needed if we just rang the little silver bells that were in each room. She was incredibly enthusiastic about everything, and it was fun to listen to her. I also took the chance to surreptitiously touch her shoulder on the way up, confirming that she wasn’t possessed either.

The rooms themselves were so nice that I was almost sad that we weren’t actually planning on staying. Each was enormous, of course, built like a million dollar penthouse with full-sized kitchens, bedrooms so big you could play a half-court basketball game in them, and bathrooms with tubs that you could do laps in. The place was amazing, and it was easy to see why they were proud of it.

Once we were left alone (Asenath gave the goblin girl some kind of gold stone for a tip), we waited for Mateo and the members of his pack who had come in with him to join us. Briefly, Athena separated from Asenath within the privacy of the room that we were using for this discussion so that she could go over the next part of the plan. We would split into somewhat smaller groups and wander around the hotel, ostensibly just doing touristy things. There were plenty of other inhabitants doing the same, so we wouldn’t stand out. Once we knew what was going on, we would join up again and plan out how to assault wherever Kushiel and her people were holed up.

Tabbris and I were paired up with Asenath and Athena. The four (or two, depending on how you were counting) of us would check the pool area and fitness rooms on the third, fourth, and fifth floors (they had a lot of them). Considering the choker, we would have the easiest job of identifying the Seosten. Which, I was almost positive, was the reason Athena had paired herself with me. Because she wanted to be the first one there when I finally found one of her people. I was also just as positive that Deveron and Wyatt, who were also paired together, had only agreed to the separation because I was with Athena. If Deveron would trust anyone to keep me safe, it was her. Plus, Wyatt had those spells to let him know if I was in trouble. That combined with the fact that Abigail and the others outside would see everything that happened gave them plenty of reason to go with the plan.

And yet, I still had to promise about twenty different times that I wouldn’t run off on my own when things went down. Which, yeah, that tracked.

Separating into our small groups after making sure that those outside in the van could still see everything just fine, we started out. I walked alongside Asenath down the hall to the elevator, making sure a privacy spell was active before speaking.

“How many people do you think she’s brought in with her for this whole thing?”

Reaching the elevator, Asenath reached out to hit the button while Athena spoke through her. “I am not certain. Losing the laboratory base would have put quite a dent in both her resources and her reputation. But this mission is important enough that the Seraphim may not have cared. She was… she was likely given anything she asked for that could be spared.”

“But if she fails here, after all that…” I started slowly.

“She will be, as you say, boned?” The word sounded unfamiliar coming from Athena, even through Asenath’s voice. “Yes. The Seraphim will not be pleased.”

“Which is just another reason to make sure it happens,” I noted while stepping onto the just-arrived elevator with her. “As if we didn’t have enough already.”

Together, we started working our way through the various gyms and pool areas. And of course, it was yet another reminder that I actually would’ve liked to stay here. The pools were beautiful, and while a couple were the standard rectangle, there were others in various shapes, with islands and fountains spread through them. Some were clearly meant for kids to play in, while others were reserved for adults. Some were quite hot to the point of boiling for species who enjoyed that, while some had chunks of ice floating in them. And the gyms were just as eclectic, with so much equipment that I couldn’t even begin to guess the uses of. I saw one Alter in there that looked like a mass of tentacles attached to a furry ball. Each of his (or her) several dozen tentacles were latched onto a different circular hook attached to a cable, which itself was attached to various weights.

There were lots of people around, actually. And though I couldn’t really outright shake everyone’s hand, I did find excuses to bump into them or brush by, which let me check them for possession. One by one, as we continued through a couple floors worth, they came up clean. No Seosten. And judging by the reports we were getting from the others, no one else was having much luck either.

That, however, changed entirely in an instant. We were heading through an otherwise empty conference room that we’d looked through after clearing the spa on that floor, when I brushed past a bellboy carrying a couple suitcases. As my hand brushed his leg, the choker activated, and I glanced that way to see the outline of a woman. Not Kushiel, but definitely a Seosten.

Something in my gaze must have given it away, because the man’s hand abruptly caught my wrist so tight I felt the bone in it snap. His fist was flying at my face.

Then he was stopped as Asenath caught him by the elbow. Without a word, she spun, hauling him off the ground before hurling the man back into the conference room we’d just been leaving. His body collided with the wall, before the vampire super-sped that way. Her foot hit the back of his head hard enough to stun him, before she went down on top of him, using her body to keep him pinned. “Now!”

I was already there, putting my hand to the man’s arm while he was dazed. With a thought, I used my ‘instant-picture’ power to make the expulsion-rune appear. So much faster than using the field-engraver, especially as I’d practiced with it extensively.

It worked. The female Seosten (one I didn’t recognize at all), was forced out of his body. She stumbled, and Asenath was right there to grab her. Using one hand and a hell of a lot of strength, she hauled the Seosten off the floor before slamming her down in one of the conference room chairs. From her pocket, she produced a length of magically reinforced cable, securing our new prisoner to that chair so that she couldn’t go anywhere.

Then she looked to me, and it was clearly Athena speaking. “Call in the others, we have no time. They’re connected, so Kushiel and her people will already know that we have her.”

From her secured position, the now-exposed Seosten smirked. “Is that who I think it is? Auriel? It’s you, isn’t it? You just had to involve yourself in this. Why? Why do you want to destroy our people? Are you that much of a traitor?”

“I don’t know you,” Athena informed the woman. “So don’t think that you can judge me.”

“Don’t know me?” The Seosten woman echoed, head tilting. Her voice was quiet, a bare whisper that was somehow much more immediately frightening than a scream would have been. “You wanna bet?”

Then it happened. Without warning, the Seosten lunged up from the chair. Her bindings were gone. She was so fast that the first hint I had that anything was wrong was her foot hitting me in the stomach. The air was knocked from my lungs as I went flying backward, rolling into a heap. As my head snapped up, I saw Asenath take a hit that made her crash into the nearest table so hard that it collapsed under her.

Wait, that didn’t make sense. Asenath had Athena. There was no way that some random nobody Seosten should have been able to lay a finger on her. None.

Tabbris helped me orient myself, getting my hands down to push up. But before we could do more than get to a kneeling position, there was a rush of motion. Seth was there. The vampire blurred his way across the room, slamming into the Seosten woman. His knife was driven into her chest, and his other hand caught hold of her throat to snap the woman’s neck. Then he gave her a shove backward to fall against the nearby wall as the body collapsed.

“Now see,” Seth started while turning to where Senny was. “That’s what happens when you don’t just finish the job. You end up looking embarassi-”

Too late, I saw the shape behind him. Too late, I saw it rise up. Too late, my mouth opened to scream a warning.

Too late, Seth began to turn in mid-sentence, his arm rising with that knife. Too late.

He stopped short, arms falling to his sides, knife collapsing to the floor. Larees appeared nearby, her glowing form resolving into her full body, her face settling into a confused expression.

Seth fell. His body collapsed, as the figure standing behind him held the vampire’s heart in one hand, crushing it between blood-soaked fingers before straightening to his full, impressive height.

“Okay, that makes us even,” Ares, the Olympian whose power allowed him to shift into the forms (including the powers) of the past several dozen people he had possessed, announced while cracking his neck. His foot lashed out, colliding with Larees to send her flying into the nearest wall, her unconscious form sliding to the floor. “You killed one of me, I killed one of you.”

“But something tells me you’re gonna run out before I do.”

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On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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