Nimue/Athena

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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Before The Vault 41-07

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“Excuse me?” I demanded, only remembering at the last instant not to throw my arms out. It might’ve been hard to pass this for a normal conversation from behind at that point. Torn between staring at the man in front of me or turning to glare up at the shapeshifted figure in the distance, I settled for the former as being less obvious. “What do you mean, they’re taking the vault tonight? They can’t take the vault. They can’t get into it.”

Even as I said it, I knew the words were dumb. It wasn’t like Jophiel and Elisabet would tell me this just for the hell of it. They weren’t making it up. But still… still…

They have to be wrong, Tabbris murmured, putting words to my thoughts. They have to. After everything we’ve been doing, they can’t beat us into the vault…

Yeah, that. Exactly that. It wasn’t–at some point I would stop expecting things to be fair. My eyes found the man’s again even as he began to speak in that hollow-echoey voice that apparently came from being remotely controlled.

“Kushiel and her people have apparently been working to find a way into the vault for weeks now. They have been attempting to break through a… back door of sorts that was placed inside of an Alter hotel by Liesje herself, so that she would not always have to go through Crossroads authority to reach her own vault.”

That made a depressing amount of sense, and I sighed. “Please tell me that it’s at least hard to get into. I mean, obviously since they’ve been trying for weeks. But you said they’re almost through?”

“They will be ready to enter the vault within a few hours,” came the response. “Which is why we must not hesitate. There is no time to waste. You need to have a legitimate way to have gained this information. Which means it must come from this man.”

“After I possess him because he tries to kill me,” I finished for them. “Right, this should be… fun.” I was already dealing with the fact that what should have been a relaxing few days was being cut short again. We’d deal with it. The vault was too important to sit and pout.

“Are you ready?” they asked carefully through the man. “We will yank you over the counter and trigger a magical shield to stop the others. You should try to fight. Make it look real. Eventually, we will give you an opening to possess him. Take enough time to have gotten the information and then render him unconscious. After you step out of him, we will teleport the body away. They can believe that there was an emergency retrieval spell.”

“Right,” I muttered. Behind me, Columbus called out, wanting to know if I was ever going to get my ice cream. It was now or never. “Do it.”

They didn’t waste any time. The next thing I knew, the man’s hand had grabbed the front of my shirt while his other hand found my arm, and I was yanked over the counter. I heard a cry go up behind me, along with the hum of the forcefield popping into place. Then my back hit the nearby wall hard, and I caught a glimpse of a knife coming right for my face. At the last instant, I managed to jerk my head out of the way before the blade was driven through the wall.

They really weren’t kidding about making this look real. With a grunt, I drove my knee into the man’s chest, then rolled out of the way as he took a swing with a knife in his other hand. I went up to one knee, staff in my hand as I swing it at the man. Before it could hit him, however, he twitched a finger and the staff went clattering out of the way.

I threw a ball of noxious gel at the man, but he created some kind of bubble in the air in front of him to catch it. I had no idea if that was a real power of his or something that Jophiel and Elisabet did themselves. But either way, it would help explain why I went for possessing him when it hadn’t exactly been my go-to move.

In the background, I could see Dare, Avalon, and the others at the glowing blue forcefield. They were having a bit of trouble trying to take it down. Which made sense, considering they were dealing with a Committee-level power. I just hoped Jophiel and Elisabet were smart enough to not make it quite that strong.

Either they were, or Wyatt was even better than I thought he was. Because he showed up next, while I was throwing myself backward away from the next swipe from my ‘attacker’ and almost immediately had the shield practically down. I saw it weaken considerably from the first thing he did, flickering a bit. It was enough that the man attacking me actually took a second to glance over his shoulder with clear incredulousness.

Right, had to do this now, or our little plan wasn’t going to work. Wyatt was dealing with the forcefield faster than the Seosten-Committee bonded pair expected, to the point that it actually surprised them. And in that moment, I couldn’t help but be proud of my big brother, even if it did rush our plan a little bit.

But hey, that gave me the perfect opening (which come to think of it, might have been at least part of the point of turning in the first place) to make my move. Which I did, scrambling that way. The knife whipped around and I sidestepped before catching the extended wrist. Tabbris and I both focused on my possession power, as we imagined throwing ourself into the man through the grip on his wrist.

It worked. Suddenly I was seeing the space where I had been. And it must have been just in time, too, because there was a pop as the shield broke and then there was the sound of rushing footsteps. I heard Dare call out a warning, just before a glowing energy blade was suddenly thrust through the man’s back and out his front. I could see it sticking a foot or two out in front of ‘my’ chest. Avalon. Avalon had been going after him too fast to react to the fact that I had already possessed him.

I turned off all our connections to his pain and other things, Tabbris hurriedly put in, just as the man’s body fell. We stayed standing, my body glowing for a moment before going back to normal.

Th-thanks, I managed, the shock of possessing the man an instant before he died making it hard to think straight. I hadn’t actually felt him die, thanks to Tabbris’s quick thinking. But still, that was… a lot.

Was it enough time? I quickly put in, even as Avalon took me by the arm to turn me around, demanding to know if I was okay. The others were all right there too, Dare moving to check the body on the ground.

Yes, yes, Tabbris replied, sounding just as shaken as I felt. It was enough time, it’s okay.

Sure enough, I heard the voice of Elisabet in my head. Good enough, we don’t have to teleport him after all. And it explains why you only got a little bit from him. We’ll tell you what to say.

“Flick!” Avalon’s voice finally penetrated, and I focused on her. “What–”

“We need to go.” That was Dare, glancing around the mall. Deveron was nearby, holding his hand up. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it apparently was keeping all the (literal) bystanders from noticing what had just happened, because no one was reacting to it. They were just walking by, or sitting there with their meals.

“There’ll be more,” Dare announced, looking to Wyatt. “Any other traps?”

His head shook, but he seemed just as focused on me as Avalon was. “Not yet, but we should leave, now. Right now. Are you okay?” The last bit was clearly directed my way.

“Wait, wait,” I started. “There’s something–”

But we were gone. Dare reached down to grab the body, then teleported us out of there. The world spun, and we were suddenly standing in a park we’d passed up the street before coming into the mall. The people around us, naturally, didn’t even notice our unnatural arrival. They just sidestepped and kept walking, one of the guys making a comment about not standing in the middle of the path.

“Flick?” That was Shiori. She had joined Avalon right in front of me. “Flick are you okay? You’re not–”

“I’m okay,” I finally managed. “I’m okay, but we’re not. Our plan isn’t. The vault isn’t!” My eyes snapped around as I pointedly spoke those words.

Well, that got everyone’s attention. They were finally focused on me instead of talking about how we’d been attacked. Dare took a step my way, frowning. “What?”

In the background, I saw Doug and Sean exchanging glances, while Columbus met my gaze intently, worry written across his face. He knew as well as anyone what the Seosten were capable of, and had probably been afraid that something would screw up our plan from the start.

“I saw it in his head,” I started while trying not to hate myself for lying. “He works for Kushiel and they’re going through some back way to get into the vault. They’re like three, maybe four hours from being able to get in there as we speak.”

Good, I heard in my head as Jophiel and Elisabet apparently caught up. Tell them that the Alter hotel is called the Auberge.

The others were all speaking at the same time, and it was hard enough to keep up with just what was being said out loud even before the voice in my head that wasn’t Tabbris was added in. But I had a pretty good idea of what the gist of everyone’s ranting was.

“It’s some Alter hotel called the Auberge,” I supplied while trying very hard to push the image of myself as a pop it out of my head. “Liesje set up some kind of back door into the vault so that she wouldn’t have to go through Crossroads. That’s what they’re using. Apparently they’ve been working on it for a couple weeks. Now they’re just a few hours away.”

“I guess that means the vacation’s over, huh?” Doug muttered before giving a shrug. “It was good while it lasted. I just wish I had time to finish with my pen before they decided to get all ambitious.”

Deveron opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Wyatt abruptly put in, “Why attack you? I mean right now. Why attack you right now? If they’re only a few hours from getting into the vault, why draw attention right this second? It sounds like a trap. Maybe they’re nowhere near getting into the vault and they just made that man think they were so that you would read his mind and we’d all go charging off into their clutches.”

Shit. We had a point. I had to convince them that the information was right, without giving too much away. Which was going to be hard enough with Wyatt to begin with. He had a very good reason to be paranoid, and he wasn’t exactly wrong with his instinct that something was off about all that. What was I supposed to do?

Deveron spoke up while Tabbris and I were both thinking. “Wyatt’s got a point. But we can’t ignore it either. I’ve heard of this Auberge. It’s an Alter hotel that specifically promises to keep its paying guests safe from all threats. That includes Heretics. It jumps around like the Pathmaker, sort of.”

Dare nodded. “I’ve heard of it too. If Liesje was going to have a back entrance, that would make a good place for it. They’ve been around basically forever. It’s safe, neutral place that Heretics wouldn’t be able to get into without one hell of a fight.”

Shiori grimaced. “So what do we do? If that’s real, we can’t just sit here and let them get into the vault while we twiddle our thumbs.”

“We need to know if they’re actually at the hotel,” Columbus announced. “You know, like spies that can get inside and find out if that part’s true. And maybe distract them until we have time to go in the front.”

Doug looked to him. “But who’s going to be able to do that, let alone willing? Like they said, no Heretics, and I’m pretty sure they can tell.”

Coughing once, Sean pointed out, “I already kind of hate myself for saying this, but there’s Roxa’s pack. She can’t do it herself, because like you said, Heretic. But the rest of her pack have spent basically every day since she disappeared the first time wanting to have a way to help. I promised I’d let them know if there was anything.”

Sands looked to him. “Sending a pack of werewolves in to stake out the hotel place and let us know if Kushiel and her lackeys are there?”

“We’ve done that kind of thing before,” Deveron quietly put in. “In the old rebellion, I mean. You use what you’ve got, and werewolves don’t set off the Heretic sense. They’ve also got really good senses. If anyone can find that bitch in a confined space, it’s a werewolf.”

Scout spoke up then. “But they’re all werewolves.”

Sands was nodding. “She means if they get cornered, they don’t have extra tricks like Heretics do. If they’re ready to deal with one werewolf, they can deal with all of them. I mean, not a whole horde or anything, but you know what I mean. They could get in trouble really fast.”

Shiori raised her hand. “What if they’re not alone?” As everyone looked to her, the girl went on. “They’ve been visiting the camp lately. Roxa took them. They went so that the Seosten could practice with them.”

I blinked once. “You mean send the werewolves in there with Seosten possessors to be back up.”

She shrugged. “We were planning on doing basically the same thing with the actual trip to the vault, so why not use it now?”

Dare grimaced. “This is all academic. We don’t even know that they will agree to go in there.”

“Trust me,” Sean insisted, “I know them. They’ll agree. In fact, they might just eat me if I don’t give them the chance.”

“And we don’t have time to come up with anything else,” I pointed out. “We only have a few hours to deal with this. Is that even enough time to get them here? Or, you know, there? Wherever the hotel is now. Which is another thing we need to work out.”

Dare nodded. “With Berlin it is. If they agreed to it, we can pair them with Seosten and send them in.”

“Senny too.” That was Shiori, of course. She was looking up from her phone. “She’s with them right now. Her and her little group, I mean. Oh, and uhh, something happened with Theia and Abigail and Miranda and all that, but they said they’ll tell you about it later. The point is, they’re in.”

“As are my people.” The new voice came from Athena, as the woman appeared with Gaia at her side. Dare had obviously been communicating with the latter this whole time. “We can help find Kushiel and hit her from behind while she is focused on getting through to that vault.”

Doug looked a little hesitant to speak up, but finally asked, “What about all the security magic they’ll have in there? Both the hotel and Kushiel, I mean. Can your people break through it if they have to?”

“I can.” Wyatt’s voice was as calm and centered as I had ever heard him. He straightened up as much as he could. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a little as he continued. “I can go in with them and help get through the security magic.”

“Uh,” Columbus started, “What about that whole ‘them noticing that you’re a Heretic’ problem?”

Wyatt scoffed at him. “As if one of the first things I did wasn’t finding a way to disable that obvious weakness. If I don’t want them to know that I’m a Heretic, they won’t. And if I don’t want them to recognize me, they won’t do that either.”

It was my turn to speak up then. Which Gaia seemed to be expecting, considering the fact that she was already looking at me. “He’s not the only one who can say that.”

That made both Avalon and Shiori round on me, each blurting, “No!”

Wincing, I held up both hands. “Guys, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Look at everything I’ve gotten this year. I don’t ping as a Heretic unless I use my powers. I can shapeshift my face and hair, so they won’t recognize me. Jaq and Gus, even Marian, can all spy on places I can’t get to. I can turn into a lion and keep up with the actual weres. It’s a building, do you have any idea how fast I can travel through the wood in it? I can hit hard, and they won’t know who or what they’re dealing with until it’s too late.”

I looked toward Shiori, then Deveron. “I can help Asenath, and Wyatt.”

Finally, I looked to Avalon. “ I can help you. We can hit them from behind and distract them enough for you guys to get in through the front.”

“And she won’t be alone,” Deveron put in. “I can hide what I am too.” Pausing, he added. “And I’m not letting my son and step-daughter go in that place without me.”

“Magic?” That was Sean, wincing. “You might be able to shapeshift, but they probably have spells to check for that sort of thing. I mean, if they’re supposed to be this competent.”

Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder. “They have magic to detect it. I have better magic to hide it.”

“See guys?” I looked to my girls apologetically. “This is the best play. I can do more good behind the lines, at the back door in the hotel, than at the front door vault with you. All these powers, being able to hide being a Heretic, shapeshifting, having a brother who can beat their security? This is the right thing for me to be doing right now. It’s where I should be.”

Avalon looked like she was still going to argue, but Gaia spoke up first. “She is right. The Auberge is where she can help the most. They will need her. They will need everything they can get. Just as we will need to hurry if we are going to be ready in time to get into the vault several days ahead of schedule.”

Avalon cringed, stepping over to take me into a tight hug. Her voice was soft. “I don’t care how much sense it makes, I hate this.”

Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”

I hugged them both, making them promise to stay together and watch each other’s backs. They spoke directly to Tabbris, making both of us promise to stay as safe as possible and not to do anything too stupid.

The real problem was, there wasn’t time to argue. There wasn’t time to come up with a better plan, or even two really appreciate how dangerous this is going to be. We all had to keep moving, no matter how much we hated the idea of splitting up. This was the best that we had, the best we could do.

It was all coming down to this. We’d expected to have a few more days, but honestly, the Seosten screwing that up with their own plans pretty much went exactly with the rest of the year, didn’t it?

Either way, this was it. Everything that had been going on with Avalon this whole year, even her entire life and stretching back beyond that, came down to these next few hours. Either we would get into that vault and win.

Or we would lose.

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Before The Vault 41-02

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Please note, if you missed it, that the first chapter of this arc was posted on Wednesday. In the event that you have not read it yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above to avoid any confusion. 

“So,” I asked Avalon a bit later, “you anxious to meet your ancestor or what?”

We were standing in the middle of Gaia’s beautiful crystal cavern place. The prototype transport was nearby, but our focus was on the empty area in front of us, where the others would soon be arriving from their entirely too long sojourn in deep Seosten space.

The place was actually pretty crowded right then. Avalon and I were there, along with Dare (I was absolutely not going to allow myself to think of her too much as Grandma because that would be a good way of screwing up out loud), Gaia, Doug, Sean, Roxa, Sariel, Tabbris, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, and, of all people, Theia. She had asked to come and I’d seen no reason to say no, so I’d passed the request to Gaia.

Theia had apparently been pretty pissed off to find out that Abigail had been abducted. Before we managed to make it back and let her know that everything was okay, she had pretty much gone into some kind of berserker rage. Meanwhile, Fossor had apparently sent a group of his minions to kill Miranda at the motel room that the two of them had been staying in.

From what we’ve gotten out of the single survivor later, Fossor had wanted Miranda dead not only because she had been becoming close with both Abigail and Koren, but also because she was my best friend. He probably considered it a two birds with one stone sort of thing.

Unfortunately for him and all the men he had sent, no one had anticipated a quite thoroughly pissed-off Theia. That single survivor? He was one of the twenty who had been sent.

So yeah, she had saved Miranda’s life. I had no problem with her being here.

In response to my question, Avalon gave a slight shrug. “Leaning closer to what,” she admitted. “I don’t do well with actual family. I haven’t exactly had a good record with them so far.”

Wincing at the reminder, I reached out to put a hand on the girl’s back. “Trust me, Dries is different. Uh, very different, in a lot of ways. But he cares about you, even if he doesn’t actually know you. He wants to. He asked a lot about you while I was out there. He’s… definitely a unique guy. A unique guy who has been through a lot. And one of the few times that I actually saw him look happy and hopeful was when we were talking about you. So trust me, he is nothing like your father.”

Even though we were standing a bit away from the others and whispering, Gaia still glanced our way and gave me a brief smile and nod of encouragement. She had heard all of that. Actually, they had probably pretty much all heard it, even if they were being polite about it. The acoustics in this place were pretty good even before you added in super powers.

There were a few people missing from our little group, obviously. First of all, we were missing a couple members of our team. A couple twin members, to be exact. Sands and Scout weren’t even at the school at the moment. Larissa had announced that she was taking them on a brief holiday to celebrate her return from the dead. The three of them were off on some adventure.

Yeah, three of them. I still didn’t know exactly what happened during Larissa’s reunion with her husband, but I did know that he didn’t go with them. And the twins had been staying with her in a different apartment than his, even before they left on this little trip. I kind of felt bad for Liam, wherever he was, but… kind of not. It was his fault, after all, that the first rebellion had been exposed and forced into full scale war in the first place. Even if he did think he was doing the right thing.

And yet, these were his daughters and his wife. As angry as I felt at what he had done, I still… yeah, still kind of felt bad about it. Not to mention the fact that if he hadn’t done what he did, there was a fair chance that I wouldn’t even exist. Things still could have turned out similarly once they did eventually get out into the open, yes, but… even that much could have changed everything. Hell, if he hadn’t done what he did, Abigail and Wyatt might not exist. Butterflies.

The point was, it was complicated. I had no idea how to feel about Liam, aside from a whole mess of emotions and thoughts that often outright contradicted one another.

All of those thoughts swirled their way through my very confused mind before a sudden light caught my attention. Looking that way quickly right along with the others, we all saw a glowing white portal appear, almost like a movie theater screen right in the middle of the cave. A moment later, Jazz and Gordon appeared, hopping through to land in front of us.

“You made it!” I blurted, moving to embrace Jazz first. After all, knowing why Gordon didn’t like to be touched didn’t make it okay to just ignore that and grab him. In fact, it would’ve made it pretty damn stupid, given his reasons.

“Yup.” Smirking a little, Jazz returned the hug before stepping back. “Sorry it took awhile, we didn’t get to take a shortcut like you guys.” She nodded toward Tristan and Vanessa before Roxa found her way to the girl for her own hug.

Gordon, meanwhile, actually embraced Doug. The two of them hugged tightly for just a moment before releasing one another, each taking a couple steps back while looking embarrassed. Somehow, I managed to avoid rolling my eyes at them. Boys.  

“Mr. Kuhn, Miss Rhodes,” Gaia started with a fond smile. “It’s a relief to see that you are safe.”

“Oh, uhh,” Jazz hesitated before giving the woman a quick nod. “Yeah, it’s good to see you too, Headmistress.” She seemed a little awkward, and I realized that for all that Jazz had been through, she had never really interacted with Gaia as anything more than the head of the school. It probably made her feel a little weird, especially since, unlike me, she had actually grown up knowing about Gaia Sinclaire.

There would have been a lot more talking right then, but it was cut off by the arrival of someone else. Jokai. The chameleon-like Alter stepped through the portal, gaining a lot of attention from pretty much everyone. Including Jazz, who stepped over to him quickly, putting herself next to the man before speaking up. “Uh, guys, this is Jokai. Jokai, this is…” She trailed off then, and I realized she was looking at Theia with obvious confusion. Right, she knew everyone else.

It was Tristan who moved first. “Right,” he started, stepping that way. “Jokai, that’s Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire, Professor Dare, Sean, Doug, and err, Sariel. Vanessa’s and my mother. And our little sister, Tabbris.” He looked to the girl in question then. “And uhh, this is Theia. And Pace.”  

A wide smile spread itself across the Hispanic girl’s face then, as she waved. “Hello! It’s been a long time since I saw a Eulsen.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, the smile somehow looking different, slightly more normal and polite. Her voice too, was a little more subdued. “And I’ve never met one.”

The latter was Pace, of course. The girl was speaking for herself thanks to the ring that she wore on one hand. The ring was like Doug’s hat, allowing both of them to control the body in turns. From what I understood, Theia still did most of the day to day interaction because it was somewhat tiring for Pace to control her own body through the ring. But she could interact now, which was pretty damn amazing given the whole situation. We hadn’t yet fulfilled the promise to find a way to separate them, but this was at least a good step along the way.

Jokai and Jazz both looked appropriately confused, and I would have started to explain. But before I could do more than open my mouth, a glowing figure stepped out of Jazz. Which gave me a very brief heart attack, until I saw who it was, and felt simultaneously relieved and dumb.

Athena. It was Athena. As the glow faded to reveal the woman, she focused first on Theia/Pace. “The–” It looked like she was about to say Lie, but stopped herself, instead finishing with, “Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter, if the messages we’ve received are right?”

Theia, for her part, looked a little anxious before collecting herself. “Yes, yes, they are Theia-my parents. But don’t tell bad-Mummy that. She gets needle-stabby annoyed.” The girl demonstrated by pantomiming poking things with her fingers. “Does not like being called that.”

“Your mother is an evil psychopath with no morals or empathy for any creature other than herself, who deserves to be thrown into the deepest pits of the darkest hell that exists in this universe,” Athena stated flatly.

Theia brightened. “So you have met her!”

Athena started to nod, then stopped. Her gaze had moved past Theia, to focus on one single figure who clearly stood out from the others. Sariel. For a moment, I almost felt like every other person in the cavern (including myself) had disappeared, and that it was only the two Seosten women standing there alone, as they met each other’s gaze.

It was Athena who found her voice first, taking a single step that way. “Sariel. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’ve been released. Or… or how sorry I am that it lasted for so long. I…” She hesitated then, swallowing audibly. “If we could have found you sooner, if we–”

“No.” That was Sariel, shaking her head a little as she too took a step toward the other woman, both still stopping well away from each other. “No, you don’t have to apologize. No. After everything you did for… for my family, for my children and my husband… you of all people have nothing to apologize for, Auri–Athena. You prefer Athena now.”

The woman nodded once. “I do. I am Athena, not Auriel. Auriel was… Auriel was unhappy. Athena is who I want to be, someone to live up to. And still, I am sorry, for everything you–”

“Stop,” Sariel blurted, her voice cracking noticeably. “Stop, just–just stop. Stop apologizing. You–you were in prison out there too, and I didn’t save you. You were in prison and then you came back. You came back here and you tried to change things with Arthur.”

“You didn’t know that,” Athena quietly reminded her. “You didn’t know that I was Nimue.”

Swallowing hard, Sariel shook her head a little. “That doesn’t make things any better. I was on the wrong side. I helped the wrong side. I thought I was doing the right thing, that I could make things better from within the–” She stopped herself, eyes closing. “No excuses.”

“No excuses,” Athena agreed, “and no apologies. We both did wrong things. We both stuck around far longer than we should have. We made mistakes. We move on.”

They stared at one another for another moment before Sariel gave a tiny nod of agreement. “We move on,” she murmured under her breath. “Move forward.”

There was another very brief pause, the silence carrying on before Sariel took the last couple of steps that way. Then the two of them embraced, and I let out a soft sigh before sneaking a look toward Tabbris. The little girl was standing next to Tristan and Vanessa, all of them beaming.

“Shouldn’t there be more?” That was Theia, who stared at the portal uncertainly. “There’s still people missing.”

Athena glanced to her. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Apollo is helping Dries at the moment. The two of them are… having a short discussion.”

“Dries is nervous,” I realized aloud, “isn’t he?”

It was Gordon who spoke. “Yeah. He’s been having a little bit of an issue with coming here. To Earth, I mean. He wants to, but he’s got this…” He trailed off, sighing. “After everything the Seosten did to him, he’s still kind of messed up. He’s afraid that something bad is going to happen. Even though he knows it won’t, even though he knows it’s just something that the Seosten did to him… it doesn’t really help.”

“Apollo is helping,” Athena put in firmly. “They just need a little time without an audience.”

Glancing toward Avalon beside me, I whispered, “The Seosten did things to him, they made him afraid of… of a lot of things. His head is kind of messed up, but he’s trying to get past it. And he really does want to meet you. Trust me, meeting you is one of his favorite things to talk about. Not that he talks that much to begin with, but… yeah.”

For her part, Avalon just took a breath and let it out again, her voice soft, yet dark. “Just another thing the Seosten have done to my family.”

Before I could say anything to that, the portal hummed once more as someone else came through. Sure enough, glancing that way revealed Dries himself. The man had filled out a little bit in the intervening time, so he wasn’t quite as bone-thin as he’d been before. But not that much. And he still wasn’t a very imposing figure, being only a couple inches taller than me. He’d trimmed his beard a bit and his dirty blonde hair with its gray-and-brown flecks had been cut a few inches so that it only fell to just above his shoulders, currently tied into a ponytail.

He also almost looked like he was hyperventilating. His arms were crossed tightly against his chest as he sort-of shuffle stepped through the portal. It was like he half-expected the thing to actually send him back to some Seosten prison, or worse. Clearly while his pep talk with Apollo had been enough to get him through, he still wasn’t exactly happy or enthusiastic about it.

But he did make it through. And once he had, the man let out a low breath, clearly shuddering a little before he looked up. His eyes scanned the cave with obvious nervousness, all the people in sight apparently not doing wonders for his issues, before finally settling on me. There was a flicker of recognition, a hesitant smile playing at his lips, before he looked to the girl beside me.

Then he froze, aside from his eyes widening fractionally as he stared. There was no doubt in my mind. He knew. He knew who Avalon was, probably from the descriptions that I’d given. Or maybe through magic. Or… well, any number of reasons. The point was, he knew her.

Sariel and Athena had stepped over to the former’s family, that little group having a quiet conversation of their own. But for the most part, the cave was quiet enough that everyone heard when Dries murmured a quiet, “Liesje.” His voice cracked a little, a single tear appearing before he blinked it away. “You… you look like Liesje. Taller. Darker hair. But I…” He opened and shut his mouth a few times, unable to push out the words. “… I see her in you.”

Avalon didn’t look like she had any idea of what to say to that. She hesitated, looking a little taken aback and maybe even nervous before giving a little shrug. “I’ve never seen any pictures,” the girl muttered, “so I wouldn’t know.” She looked back up then, focusing on him. “You’re my… something great-grandfather, huh? I haven’t been very clear on how many generations are between us.”

“I don’t know either,” Dries admitted before shaking his head. “But you do l-” In mid-sentence, he stopped, twitching a bit before collecting himself. “You do look like her. You–you definitely do.” Clearly feeling awkward, the man shoved his hands into his pants, then took them out again, fidgeting while his mouth opened and shut. It was like he wanted to talk, but didn’t know what to say. And I was pretty sure all the rest of us being around wasn’t helping either.

“Mr. Aken,” Gaia spoke up, drawing his clearly nervous and twitchy attention. “It is truly an honor to meet you. If you and Avalon would like some private space to talk, that can be arranged.”

“No,” Avalon said quickly. I saw Dries recoil a bit, flinching from the apparent rejection before the girl went on. “I mean…  not alone. I…” She glanced to me, biting her lip like she wasn’t sure how to say it.

“I can go with them,” I offered quickly. I knew Valley was more comfortable with me around, and I already had history with Dries. Maybe I could help make their first interaction not quite as awkward, then sort of… back off a little once they were actually talking.

Both Avalon and Dries looked a little relieved by that, and Gaia nodded. “Of course.” Raising a hand, she gestured toward the nearest wall, making a doorway appear. “The three of you can have all the time you need.”

We started that way, but partway there I noticed that the portal had shut down. Blinking at that, I stopped and looked back. “What about Apollo? He’s not here yet. I mean, is he still…”

“He’ll be here,” Athena confirmed. “Only a few beings could use the transport even with its new charge. That’s why I possessed Jasmine here to make the trip. Apollo will be using his connection to Jasmine to transport himself, but that takes a little time.” Her eyes shifted toward Sariel then before she quietly added, “If there are no other issues, he should be able to make the jump in roughly one hour.”

I saw a lot of emotions cross Sariel’s face then. She was clearly feeling a lot about the prospect of coming face to face with Apollo again. Conflicted feelings that I couldn’t even begin to understand. When the man did arrive, I had the feeling he and Sariel were going to need their own private room, probably for awhile.

But for now, it was time to focus on Avalon and Dries. The two of them were waiting by the doorway that Gaia had created, standing awkwardly a bit away from each other. Looking that way, I could see the similarities between them. They both wanted to have a relationship with each other, but neither really trusted… well, anything really. They were alike in a lot of ways, despite all their differences.

And I needed to be the one who helped them interact. So, with a little smile of encouragement, I walked that way to join them. Then we moved through the doorway together, the three of us heading into the private area. And as we arrived in what turned out to be a smaller chamber similar to the place we had just been, I knew one thing for sure.

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Bonus Interlude – Team Stranded

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“All the planets in the universe,” Sands Mason announced, “and it turns out that the last piece of the banishment orb thing that we need to fix what was done to Mr. Moon happens to be on the first real alien world that my team went to?”

It was true. She, along with Jazz, Roxa, Gordon, Haiden, and Larissa, were standing on one of the many sandy dunes across the Meregan homeworld.

“It’s not too surprising,” Haiden pointed out. “Tristan was brought here, after all. So of course one of the bits of the broken orb is here too.”

Larissa nodded. “And we’ve got all the others. This is the last one. Once we get it… we can go home.”

Their search had been immeasurably hastened with the aid of Athena. With the woman and her people, they had very quickly tracked down all the other remaining pieces, a process which, without that aid, very likely could have taken at least another year. With Athena and the Aelaestiam, it had taken only a couple of weeks.

Most of that time, honestly, had been spent getting back to the Aelaestiam base. And once they were there, they had gotten the somewhat disturbing news that there had been a visit from Chayyiel, who had simply walked into the top secret base with what was apparently the sole purpose of killing Isaac.

Isaac was dead. Just like that. It was still a strange thought for the students to get used to. As big of a piece of shit as he had turned out to be, it was still… still hard to think that he was just dead like that. Not hard from grief, really. More hard from… disbelief was one word for it. It didn’t seem real.

Beyond just freaking out about Chayyiel (though mostly before that had happened), Athena’s people had been working to find the rest of the shards, to the point that they’d either had direct portals set up to the area the shards were in, or actually had the shards themselves. All except for a couple, of which this was the last one.

Athena herself was busy with a certain other matter at that moment, along with Apollo. But they had both promised to meet them as soon as possible. And Dries had chosen to stay on the ship with Jokai. Which left the rest of the small group to find this final piece.

Roxa spoke up then. “So, we’re in a giant sandbox, and we’ve got to find a little shard about the size of my pinky finger. Not to mention the magic radiation crap Fossor left all over the place we need to search. Good thing we’ve got ways of cheating or this might be kind of hard.”

Haiden started walking then. “We’ll go to the… affected area, as close as we can get to where the scans narrowed it down to. Then we’ll send our little friends out from there.”

No one was surprised by the man’s eagerness to get started. After all, his entire family was back on Earth waiting for him to finally get there. He’d been waiting long enough.

As they all moved that way, Gordon looked to Sands, quietly asking, “So the Meregan, they all left with Nicholas Petan after you guys woke them up and settled the misunderstanding?”

“The ones who were left from the scouting ship after Fossor got done with the rest of their population,” the girl confirmed. “Most of them did anyway. I asked Tristan about it before, and he said there was a group who stayed here to try and rebuild something. But I’m not sure where they are right now. The odds that we’d happen to run into them with this entire planet to work with are… not huge.”

Roxa shook her head. “That’s still confusing. Tristan was frozen for a few years so he was still a little kid when you guys first met him. Then he went off and spent years with his great-whatever grandpa Nick to get up to the age we all are before being sent back in time to meet Flick and the others.” She paused, then shook her head. “Time travel always overcomplicates things. It’s annoying.”

Larissa smiled faintly. “Just be glad that there aren’t clones involved yet.”

They walked for another few minutes. Now they weren’t simply moving through featureless rolling sand dunes. There were ruins around them, the skeletal remains of structures that had been long-since destroyed. They could see single walls here or there, or even large, partly-intact pieces of buildings. It was an entire city that had been utterly destroyed many, many years earlier.

Haiden held up his hand. He held a sheet of paper in the other, his brow furrowed as he watched it. “That‘s it,” the man announced. “Dries’ spell says that we’re right at the edge. The shard is somewhere ahead of us, in that area about one square mile across.”

Jazz spoke up then. “So all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack the length of seventeen football fields. No big deal.”

Reaching out, Roxa patted the other girl on the back. “That’s why we’ve got our little helpers, remember?” Pausing, she amended, “Not so little in some of our cases.”

“Yeah,” Sands muttered, “and the fact that whatever Fossor did to this place before means it’s still poisoned even now.”

That, more than anything, was why they were not going to be able to go inside of that area with their human bodies. The magical radiation-like poison covering the land would have killed them entirely too quickly, powers be damned. Still, they had other options.

“Everyone get comfortable,” Larissa instructed. She had already produced a couple of blankets and laid them out for the group to sit on. “It shouldn’t take too long to find the shard, but still. We’ve got water and food. Keep your strength up and don’t try to act tough about it. If you need a break, take it.”

They all sat, arranging themselves before each took out a bit of wood that had already been prepared with the theriangelos spell.

It was the same spell that Flick used to summon her fox. Athena, Larissa, and Haiden had taught it to the kids over the past couple of weeks. Taught it to them, that was, with a bit of an upgrade. With the addition to the spell, the animals that were summoned would be able to track the first object they touched, or things related to it. In this case, they had brought along a piece of the broken orb with them. When the animals touched that piece, they would be able to sense the other piece if they were close enough.

Larissa finished first, a testament to how experienced she was in using this particular spell. At that moment, as she tossed it in the air, the enchanted bit of wood transformed into a small hummingbird. Its belly, bits around its eyes, and its beak were pink, the same aura color as her daughters. Meanwhile, the rest of its body was the standard red that existed on all of these summoned animals.

Haiden was the next to finish. His own stick grew much larger and shifted before becoming a red and bronze jaguar.

Almost directly after that, Gordon finished his own casting. His stick, like Larissa‘s, grew into a bird. His, however, was a great horned owl with a green body, while the underside of its wings, as well as its talons and beak, were red.  

Sands was next. Where the others had only grown a bit, with Haiden’s jaguar being the largest, hers exploded in size. It suddenly become an enormous rhinoceros, with a red main body and pink horn, face, and underside.

Jazz’s own animal grew large as well. Not as much as the rhino, but still big. Hers was a horse, its main body the white of her aura, while its hooves, mane, and tail were red.

Finally, there was Roxa. Her animal was… unique. At first glance, it appeared to be a wild cat, similar to Haiden’s jaguar though much smaller at only about twenty pounds. It was larger than a housecat, yet much smaller than a leopard or a cheetah. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be an odd combination between a cat and a weasel of some kind, along with a long tail similar to a monkey. The tail itself was about as long as the rest of the animal.

Despite its apparent similarity to a cat, the animal was not a feline. It was more closely related to a mongoose. The thing was quick and agile, able to rush through the trees and keep its balance with its semi retractable claws and that long tail.

Then there was its name, the name which had convinced all of the kids that Haiden and Larissa were messing with them somehow and had made Roxa spit out the water she had been drinking when they’d said it.

Fossa. The animal was called a fossa. Which was a name that was so close to a certain other name that everyone had misheard them the first time and thought they were saying that Roxa’s animal was somehow related to a psychotic necromancer. It was, however, apparently an animal native only to Madagascar. How that ended up being her animal Roxa would probably never understand.

The fossa was a rich mixture of bronze and red, her aura matching both Haiden and Tristan. When she and Tristan had first discovered their auras were identical, Tristan had joked that maybe he had another long lost relative. Roxa had snickered at the time, but now she was seriously leaning toward demanding a DNA test, given everything else that seemed to be happening.

That was their rather eclectic collection of animals, the menagerie they would use to search this area of desert. They had a jaguar, a hummingbird, an owl, a horse, a rhino, and a fossa.

It was still extremely disconcerting to experience the world through two different sets of senses in two different locations, so they all shut their human eyes and tried to ignore that side of themselves as much as possible. Instead, they focused their attention through their animals and began to spread out from there. They would work in pairs, in case one of them missed something. Haiden’s jaguar would search with Larissa’s hummingbird, Sands’ rhino with Jazz’s horse, and Roxa’s fossa with Gordon’s owl.

The other upgrade that they had received to the spell and worked into it, thanks to Athena in that case, was the ability to communicate through their animals. Each of the summoned and controlled creatures was capable of silent, essentially telepathic communication. Not that it was specifically needed when their human selves were sitting right next to one another, but it was still a nice thing to have. And having the communication be at the site of the animals instead of their human bodies would make it easier to avoid confusion about who was talking to who.

Did you talk to Jokai? As Sands’ rhino lumbered along through the sand, she addressed the horse beside her. About the um, the plan.

There was a moment of silence from the other girl briefly before she confirmed, He’s coming back to Earth with us. We’re going to help with whatever we can and all that. She paused once more before finishing with, And then when Athena leaves to come back out here, we’re coming with her. There was a firm note of finality to her words. I am not staying on Earth and I’m not going back to Crossroads.

Feeling a pang deep in her stomach (which was an odd sensation for it happening so far away from where they were having the actual discussion), Sands replied, I understand. I think we’ll all understand. But we’ll still miss you, you know.

Having her horse bump up against the other animal affectionately, Jazz injected a bit of brightness into her silent voice. Don’t worry so much. If Athena‘s plan about fixing up that prototype ship works, we’ll be able to go back and forth and visit whenever we want. So it’s not like it’ll be the last time we see each other or anything.

Sighing then, she added, I just can’t stay there, you know? I can’t go back to Crossroads and deal with all their lies. I can’t be a part of hunting Strangers when I’m in love with one of them. I love Jokai. I’m not going to pretend or hide that part of myself anymore than I absolutely have to. I’m just not going to.

It was Sands’ turn to make her rhino bump up against the horse. Like I said, we understand. Believe me, we get it. No one blames you, and I’m pretty sure everyone basically saw it coming.

Still, we’re going to have to throw a huge party before you leave again.

Meanwhile, Roxa and Gordon’s animals were moving through the ruined desert city faster than their heavier, larger counterparts. Leaping from the sand up to a half broken wall, Roxa’s fossa turned its head to look up as the boy’s owl glided by overhead. You should talk to Flick’s friend Miranda, you know. Or even to that Seller guy. If anyone can help you find out where your dad is or what’s going on with him, it’s people who live at Eden’s Garden.

Alighting on top of the jagged remains of a pillar, Gordon replied, You know, I was about to deny having any idea what you were talking about? I suppose I might have been keeping it secret for a bit too long. It’s reflex. He paused briefly then before agreeing, And yeah, I guess there are people I can ask for help.

Believe me, Roxa assured him, it’s a pretty new sensation for me too. But hey, when we get back, I’ll find out if any of the wolves my pack is friends with know anything about Garden’s prisoners. Sure, it’s a longshot. But every little bit could help. And before you say anything, I’ll keep your name out of it.

Gordon flew ahead a bit while she trailed along beneath him, nimbly jumping from wall to wall. After a minute of that, he asked, So you’re not going back to Crossroads either, huh? Like Jazz. I mean, technically you have the choker. It’s your choice.

Roxa’s answer was firm. My pack was loyal to me and accepted me even when they knew I was a Heretic. I like Gaia and my friends at the school, but I’m not going to live in a place that would kill me if they knew the truth. I’m not abandoning my pack. Not for people like that.

So yes, I guess Jazz and I are both leaving Crossroads for good.

In the third search area, the bronze and red jaguar trotted through a ruined building while the hummingbird flitted back and forth seemingly wildly in the air above.

We are getting pretty close to going home, you know, Haiden noted. I am pretty sure the others are already talking about what they’re going to do. But what about you?

There was a brief moment of silence before Larissa let him hear her sigh a little bit. I’ve been working for so long, trying to get back to my girls… I’ve put off thinking about what to do about Liam. There was pain and regret in her voice. Part of me still loves him, still wants him. But it’s been so long and everything he did is still in my head. It would be one thing if he seemed guilty about it, but I don’t think he does. I think he still believes he did the right thing. Which means I can’t trust him. What would he do to me or our girls in the name of toeing the Crossroads line, if he turn on his friends like that? Maybe nothing. I want to say nothing. But what if? And that what if is going to destroy our marriage.

Haiden started to respond that he and his family would be there for her and her girls no matter what happened. Before he could say more than a couple words, however, a voice back at their bodies spoke up.

“Hey,” Sands announced, “Jazz and me, we’ve got something. It’s either the shard or this tracking spell is screwing up. We think it’s in this building here.”

The other animals converged on the building that the horse and rhino were waiting outside of. Sure enough, as they got closer, each of the summoned creatures felt a tug toward the building. The shard they were looking for was definitely inside.

So, they searched. Jazz had her horse trot around the outside of the building to narrow down where the sense was the strongest. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino knocked down walls and cleared rubble inside as the rest did the actual searching.

Roxa found it, in the end, though she had Larissa’s hummingbird pick it up in her tiny beak and fly it to their bodies. Eventually, they were all back to themselves, their creatures dismissed as they stood and stretched.

“This is it,” Larissa announced while staring down at the tiny sliver in her hand. “That’s the last one. We can undo the banishment now.”

“Good to know.” The reply came from Apollo, as he and Athena appeared and approached. The man grinned. “And pretty good timing too, since we’ve got a way to send everyone back to Earth.”

Eyes widening, Jazz blurted, “You do? Even without waiting for enough communication from Vanessa to talk Gaia through fixing the prototype thing?”

Athena gave a slight nod. “The Meregan still on this planet, we…” She paused, looking to her fellow Seosten. “We offered them aid in their rebuilding efforts. In exchange, they are going to allow us to use their transport device.”

She looked toward Sands then. “It is an earlier, less refined and advanced version of what you experienced before. As such, it will only allow a few transports at a time before it must recharge for several days. So we will not all be able to go through at once.“

“Hey, that’s okay,” Sands replied. “It’s still sooner than we thought it would be.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed quietly.

“And I’m pretty sure we all know who should go first.”

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