Noble

Patreon Snippets 4

The following is the fourth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

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Michael and Gwen many years ago.

With a loud shriek, the goblin creature took two running steps forward before leaping, his makeshift spear raised with both hands as he lunged toward the thirteen-year-old girl in front of him. The girl herself was only slightly taller than the goblin, her feet automatically shifting apart in the dirt as she set herself for the creature’s leap.

Nearby stood the ancient Seosten who had, throughout his history on this planet, referred to himself as both Quirinus and Romulus. Now, however, in the wake of abandoning his people to live free on this world, he went by his true name of Michael.

Michael. In the Seosten language, it was pronounced ‘Mick-Ai-El’. But he had, in recent years, found himself answering more to the pronunciation of simply ‘Mike-el’ due to his adopted human daughter’s inability to pronounce the name properly as a young child.

It was that same adopted child, whom he had raised from before she could properly walk, who stood facing down the lunge of that goblin. And in that moment, Michael had to force himself not to instantly incinerate the creature to ash for daring to threaten the girl who meant so much to him. No. He had to stop himself. Had to let her fight. He had promised to let her fight this battle.

And yet… it was hard. When he looked at her in that instant, the goblin throwing itself at her slender, tiny form, Michael couldn’t help but think of the time not so long ago when she had been even smaller…

Guinevere. His little Gwen. She was small enough to fit in a bag that he carried across his back. As he ran through the woods, she laughed and squealed, hands reaching up from the bag to hug his neck as she cheered for him to go faster, faster, faster. Her laughter alerting the birds to their approach, driving them to flee from their trees even as the man raced onward, the delight of his newfound child driving him to greater heights and speeds than any previous experience.

Another flash of memory. Years after that moment, in woods similar to but quite far from the ones they had been in then. Michael stood in a clearing next to a small cabin, working his way through his own personal training regimen. His sword cut through the air in an intricate ballet of steel as he shuffled and danced back and forth through the dirt, facing invisible opponents from all sides. The whistle of his blade was audible as it flicked through complicated motions.

From the corner of his eye, he could see his Gwen. Now old enough to stand on her own, the little girl toddled her way from the porch of the cabin where she had been playing with a doll he’d made for her. The doll was still clutched in one hand, even as the girl bent to pick up a small stick from the ground. Experimentally, she flicked the stick back and forth a few times, before giving a slight yelp as it found its way up to smack her own lip.

She tried to throw the offending stick away from herself, only for Michael to catch it. He was there, taking a knee beside the girl. As she whimpered and held her injured lip, the man gave her a gentle smile and put the stick back in her trembling hand. With one hand on her back and the other on her wrist, he slowly began to guide her through the first motion of swinging it. One swipe, then another, he showed the tiny girl how to use the stick without hurting herself.

More flashes of memory came in a rush. The girl swinging the stick on her own, clumsily at first but gaining skill and confidence each time. The crack of a larger stick as the girl, several years older than she had been then, struck it against a tree. The crack of sticks against one another as, even older than that, she tested herself against Michael for a few swings before ending up flat on her back as he tripped her.

The clack of wood on wood turned to the clang of steel on steel as Gwen, not too much younger than she was now, parried a playful thrust from Michael himself, each armed with a real sword. He moved to trip her again, but she sidestepped the move and snapped her blade up to his chest, only to have it smacked aside by Michael’s counter. Father and daughter grinned at one another.

Memories faded then, turning back to reality as the goblin lashed out with that sword. Gwen saw it coming, having set herself for the leap. At the last instant, she pivoted, catching the extended spear with one hand to yank the goblin forward even as her small blade flicked out. There was a shriek and a spray of blood before the creature fell to its back, bleeding from the cut in its throat.

Sword in one hand and makeshift spear in the other, Gwen finished the goblin off by driving its own weapon down through its throat. Standing there with the spear embedded deep in the now-dead creature, she grinned lopsidedly at her adopted father.

“See, Papa? I told you I could do it.”

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

“So, do you think we can help her, Grandmother?” The boy who spoke while walking alongside the brunette woman he referred to as ‘Grandmother’ was tall and handsome, his toned and tanned form a common source of excitement for the girls around him. In most cases, he was casual and laid back almost to a fault. But here, in this situation, he was careful to keep his tone as respectful and proper as possible.

The shorter, dark-haired woman he was addressing as ‘Grandmother’ despite the fact that she only appeared to be in her late thirties, offered her grandson a thin smile. To others, she was known as Ikita, the Hausan (mostly spoken by people from Nigeria) word for doctor. This, because of a very early experience during the formation of Garden itself wherein she had been responsible for saving the lives of several Nigerian explorers. The name had stuck.

“Noble. Are you asking me to extend the power of our tribe to protect this… Abigail from any inter-Garden conflict?”

“Uhh…” The boy thought about it for a moment before nodding. “Yup. She’s close to Miranda, Grandmother. I don’t want to see Randi get hurt, which means we need to make people know that Abigail is with us.”

The two of them stopped outside of a room within the giant skyscraper-sized tree of  Eden’s Garden. Ikita offered her grandson a slight nod. “As you wish. I will see what can be done to… urge others to leave the woman alone.”

The boy thanked her and ran off, Ikita watching him for a moment before turning to enter her chambers. As she did so, the smile vanished from her face, her identity as ‘Ikita’ fading away to the back of her mind.

Because ‘Ikita’ was actually, truthfully known as Cahethal. Earlier in her time on this planet, she had also been called Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. For centuries now, she had possessed this single woman (then a young girl when she had first taken her). It was she, while possessing this girl, who had saved those Nigerians and earned the name of Ikita. The true Ikita, whose real name of Lydia Smallwood had been almost completely forgotten to history, had spent most of the past few hundred years barely interacting with the outside world. Cahethal allowed her time with herself when they were alone, or even time within a constructed memory-magic virtual reality so that she could live a facsimile of a real life of her own.

She didn’t do these things solely out of some affection for her host (though there was at least some of that). Mostly she did so because it was the easiest way to maintain easy control without distraction. So long as her host was rewarded with these things for keeping herself quiet, Cahethal could continue her work uninterrupted. And after more than two centuries, the two had an easy rhythm. There was no need for Cahethal to punish or discipline her host when that host was lost in a virtual reality world which kept her quite thoroughly occupied in a ‘life’ of her own.

It did mean that she had spent many years with… what basically amounted to peace with her host. Peace of sorts, anyway. She’d even grown somewhat fond of her ‘family’, like Noble. Fond enough, at least, that she took the care to block any attempt to have them taken to Seosten space to fight on the Fomorian front. She told herself it was only to keep her host happy, but a part of Cahethal knew it was more than that. She didn’t… love the humans. That would have been ridiculous. But they were… something more than worthless. Favored pets, perhaps? Either way, she didn’t necessarily want to see them thrown away in that endless conflict.

In the room, she walked to where her scientific equipment had been set up. Flicking a hand to activate the spell that would make it impossible to be eavesdropped on through any means, she only then let her gaze move to the nearby window. A bluebird (sialia currucoides) perched there on the sill, watching her.

“Are you ready to report?” she asked the bird, waiting until it trilled a soft song before nodding. “Come here then.”

The bird flew in, landing on her palm. Cahethal reached up, gently petting its beak while cooing gently to it. Then her fingers wrapped around the bird’s neck and she gave a sharp twist, breaking it in a single motion.

As the bird’s body collapsed, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the woman. It resolved into the form of a small, thin man, whose long dirty-blonde hair fell all the way past his shoulders. He stretched, cracking his own neck a couple times before fixing his gaze on her. “I want a cat next next time. I like cats.”

“Report, November,” Cahethal reminded him. November. He was a Lie, of course. One of twelve she had in her employ at the moment, each of them named after a different month in the Gregorian calendar. She found it both easier to tell her Lie informants apart when they were given some other identifier like that, and also that it made them feel better inclined toward her for giving them such a name.

She’d also found that it was easier to allow them to engage in their very useful spying activities by having them possess small animals that could go unnoticed than for them to possess actual people, thus locking them into that form unless the person were to die, which often raised questions. Possessing animals meant that her spies could come and go as they pleased.

“Right, right.” Stretching a bit more and shaking himself off, November carefully began to recite everything he’d heard while spying on Abigail Fellows. He told her about the woman bonding with both Miranda and with the Lie that had run away from that idiot, Manakel. He hadn’t been able to get close enough to hear full details in their private conversations, but he had learned enough to know that Abigail had taken this other Lie under her protection (though given her inexperience, it was far more likely the other way around) and guidance.

“Keep watching them,” she instructed. “Bring in July and April. They need new jobs, and it will spread the work around. Let me know how things proceed. Beyond that, make no move against them. I want to… see how this goes.”

Because this entire situation was interesting. Seeing how Joselyn’s eldest daughter acted with this other Lie, seeing how that entire situation unfolded and how the woman herself shook things up here at Garden, it was… worth allowing to proceed, at least for the time being.

She dismissed him, allowing the man to go into the backroom where dozens of animal cages were kept so that he could pick out his next host. While he was busy with that, the woman turned her mind toward Felicity Chambers, the girl who was supposed to have been Cahethal’s new host as of several years earlier. But when she had gone to the girl’s room, she had found herself incapable of possessing her. Incapable of possessing what should have been an ordinary human child.

It should have angered her. And in a way, it had. But far more than that, it had intrigued Cahethal. She wanted to know the truth. She wanted to know what could possibly have caused that. So she had backed off. She had waited and pitched her request that Felicity be brought to Eden’s Garden so that a closer eye could be kept on her. That request, unfortunately, had been denied. Felicity was slated to go to Crossroads instead, thanks to effort put forth by Gaia Sinclaire. Effort which Cahethal couldn’t push too much against without drawing attention to herself.

That, far more than her inability to possess the girl, had annoyed Cahethal. She wanted to research the girl, wanted to dig into her and really find out what was so special that allowed her to resist possession. That being denied upset her more than the initial failure itself. The failure was interesting. It merited research, investigation, maybe even direct contact to determine the cause. The opportunity for that being declined was what had truly set her off.

And now look at the girl. She had somehow killed Manakel. Had killed Manakel, a being many thousands of years older and more powerful than she, simply because he had underestimating her. Worse, thanks to that, all the Seosten were being told to leave the girl alone, to back off entirely.

Which denied Cahethal the opportunity to investigate and examine the interesting girl even more.

Idiot Manakel. She was glad his mistake had cost him his life.

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

“So I’m… I’m really sorry, but I… I guess you made a mistake.” Each word that came from Marina’s mouth felt as though she was pushing it past a slump of steel that had solidified in her throat. Her eyes were wet, the overwhelming sense of failure and despair a crushing weight on her shoulders. But she didn’t look away. She didn’t lower her gaze. She stood straight, facing the woman she had failed, no matter how much shame she felt. Gaia deserved that much.

The headmistress herself sat behind a desk in her beautiful, spacious office. She watched the girl silently for a few long seconds before speaking quietly. “I’m afraid I may be a bit lost, Marina. What mistake have I made?”

Incredulously, Marina forgot the lump in her throat to blurt, “Everyone I’m supposed to take care of disappears or dies! Paul’s dead, Rudolph’s dead, Roxa left a long time ago and probably isn’t coming back, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon disappeared. Doug is the only, the only one of my original group that hasn’t had something horrible happen to him–oh wait, he has because those were all his friends! I’m not a good mentor. I’m–” Now her tears were back, her voice choking itself off to the point of barely being understandable. “I wanted to be, but I’m not. I’m not.”

She took a breath then, forcing herself to calm down enough to speak. “They don’t trust me. Chambers, your daughter, Scout, even Doug now. I know they don’t trust me. They’ll be talking and then stop whenever I get close to them. They– I don’t blame them. I’m supposed to protect them and I didn’t. I haven’t. Deveron–he screwed up at the start of the year, but they trust him. They’ll talk to him. And–and the fact is, they don’t need two mentors. They need one that they can trust, and… and it’s him. They don’t need me. They don’t trust me.”

Gaia’s expression was unreadable in that moment. She sat there, watching Marina in silence before pushing herself to her feet. Only when she had stepped around the desk so that it was no longer between them did the woman finally speak. “Before you… retire your badge of mentor, would you mind coming with me?”

“Um. I…” This was not how Marina expected this to go. Biting her lip, she gave a hesitant nod. “O-of course, Headmistress.”

As the two of them walked from the office together, Gaia quietly asked, “Do you remember what you said to me last year, when I asked you if you were certain about being a mentor?”

The lump was back. It took Marina a few seconds to find her voice, and even then it cracked. “I said that… that I wanted it more than anything in the world. I thought I could do it. I thought I was ready.”

“You showed me a journal,” Gaia reminded her while leading the way down the hall. “An entire notebook full of ideas, plans, thoughts, all focused on the things you would do for the younger students. You showed me the games you wanted to play, the tests you wanted to do. You wanted to teach them. You showed me an entire book of ideas you wrote down because you wanted to teach them.” She glanced sidelong at the girl while stopping in front of a door. “Has that changed?”

“W-well… no, I mean…  I mean, I’m not any good at it,” Marina protested weakly. “I thought I was–I thought I could do it. But I can’t. All I wanted to do was show them how… how wonderful and amazing this world can be, how we can help people. I wanted… I wanted to show them that our world is about more than just killing things. Because our people forget that sometimes. They make it about power and about how many monsters they’ve killed. But there’s magic out there. Magic and… and a whole universe of… of wonder. I just… I just wanted to help one little group see that. I just wanted to help a few people see some of the amazing things in this world besides all of the killing.

“And  instead, the only thing I’ve managed to do is get them killed.”

In the wake of Marina’s words, Gaia slowly reached out a hand to rest on her shoulder. “My girl… if there is one thing above everything else, one truth above all others that you must, must understand, it’s that you have done nothing wrong. There are times in all of our lives, when bad things will happen. They will happen no matter how hard to try to prevent them. And they don’t happen because we failed. They happen despite our successes, despite everything we do right. That is the nature of life. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.”

Before Marina could respond to that, Gaia opened the door and gestured for her to go through. “Come.”

The girl took a step that way before blinking up in confusion. Her gaze turned to take in exactly where they were “Err, wait, was this door here before? I don’t remember it.”

With a smile, Gaia ushered her gently, yet firmly through with a hand on her back. “Many do not. It’s not a door that exists for everyone.”

That brought many questions to Marina’s mind. But they all vanished as soon as she moved through the doorway. She felt a slight tingling sensation, before finding herself somewhere else, somewhere that, like the door they had just come through, she had never seen before.

“What the…” Blinking a couple times, the girl slowly looked around. They were in another hallway. Straight ahead of them was another door, with an attached window. Through that window, Marina could see what looked like a classroom. It was filled with desks facing a chalkboard, except it wasn’t part of the school, because the students in those desks were only about ten years old. They were all laughing, clearly engaged in whatever the teacher, a young woman the girl didn’t recognize, was saying while she read from some book.

There were more doors up and down the hall, Marina realized quickly. Through each was another group of children, none of them older than twelve or thirteen, and many as young as three or four. They were learning, playing, or just napping.

“I… I don’t understand.” Turning to Gaia, she asked, “What is this place?”

The headmistress gave her a somewhat sad smile. “This… this is part school, part daycare, part… orphanage. It is a place for all those who are too young to be on their own, yet have no place to go. It is for those whose parents are on a long mission, a long recovery, or… or who will never come back. It is for those whose only guardians have died, while they have no one else.”

Covering her mouth briefly, Marina made a noise of distress before looking up and down at all the rooms she could see. “All these kids… their parents are gone? I mean–dead?”

“Many–most, yes,” Gaia confirmed quietly. “You see… Marina, I believe you. I believe in you. It may be difficult for you to believe in yourself, but I do. I believe that you wish to teach, that you want to show people the beauty in this world. And more than that, I believe that what you need is not to give up, but to have someone who needs you. These children, they need you. They need people who will come here and spend time with them, people who will take the time to teach them, to prepare them for when they are eventually old enough to join the school proper.

“I know that it is a lot to ask of you, given everything that you have already been through. But can you be that person? Instead of surrendering your mentorship entirely, would you come here and help these children? I’m afraid that it is not a glamorous job. You will not be taking them on grand hunts, or–”

“Yes,” Marina blurted. The word came before she even knew what she was going to say, even as her eyes blurred from the tears. “Yes. Yes. I–I–” Eyes closing, she took three quick steps forward and threw her arms around the much older woman. Clinging tightly to the headmistress, she felt her own shoulders shake violently as the tears came. “Yes. I will. I will. I’ll–I won’t mess up. I won’t mess up, I promise. I’ll help them. I’ll teach them. I’ll–I’ll be there for them. I swear, I swear.”

Gaia returned the embrace tenderly, moving one hand up to brush through her hair. “I know, Marina. I know, sweet girl.”

Tightening her grip despite herself, the embarrassment at her presumption not quite able to surpass her intense gratitude, the girl murmured the only words that she could think in that moment. “Thank you, Miss Sinclaire.

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

For years, Scout had hated that name, because of the memories it brought, memories of her mother’s voice desperately calling for her. Not her true mother, but the monster using her voice to torment her, to torture her into revealing herself. The sound of her mother’s desperate pleading, asking why Sarah wouldn’t come to her, why she didn’t love her anymore, why she was abandoning her… it was enough that the name itself became a symbol of that horrific day.

And yet, all of that vanished in a single instant, the vile memories the name brought up fading into nothingness like so much vapor. Faded because of the same thing that had brought them on in the first place: her mother’s voice.

Her true mother. There. Not only there, but holding her. Scout’s arms clung to the woman as tightly as she could, while her mother held on just as tight. She was whispering Scout’s name–Sarah’s name, kissing her head and nuzzling her as she tightened her grip. “Sarah, my Sarah. My sweet Sarah. My beautiful, brave, incredible little girl.”

“Mommy. Mommy.” Tears fell freely from Sarah’s face as she desperately held onto the woman as though she might never let go. “Mommy, I love you. I love you, Mommy.”

She didn’t care who else was there. She didn’t care who saw or who heard. Her mother was there. Her mother was there, right there, right here. She was back, she was alive. The entire school could have been burning down in that moment and Sarah would not have given the slightest thought to it.

Because her mother was there, and everything would be okay.

Feeling Sands slip in close to them, Sarah opened her arm. Then they were all embracing, the three of them. For the first time in… in many years, they were together. And Sarah felt the kind of… hope and joy that she had almost forgotten. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Not her confusion and anger with her father, not the many, many other things that needed to be done. Not all the enemies that wanted to hurt or kill them. Just this moment right here with her mother and sister. Everything else could wait.

Leaning back a bit after a moment, Larissa gazed down at Sarah and Sands. “My girls. Oh, my brave, beautiful girls. I missed you both for so long. Sarah. My Sarah.” Moving a trembling hand to cup the side of the girl’s face, she whispered. “I missed you. I love you.”

“Mommy. Mommy. I love you. I love you.” The words choked their way out of Sarah’s mouth as she dove right back into hugging the woman, unable to stand letting go for even a second longer.

With a soft smile, Larissa held both of her daughters. “We have a lot to talk about. We’ll do it in private, later, okay?”

Both girls murmured their agreement, before Sarah abruptly looked up. “But one thing? If… if we’re going to talk in private…

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

“You know,” Lincoln Chambers started conversationally, “we have a holiday that’s all about painting eggs too. But uh, they’re not usually this… big.” In demonstration, he reached out to lay his hand against the object in question, which was a solid three feet in height.

On the opposite side of the egg, Sariel raised an eyebrow, a smile twitching at her lips. “Maybe you just didn’t have big enough eggs to pull it off.”

She was clearly teasing, as the egg between them wasn’t actually real. Lincoln wasn’t entirely sure what it was made of, but it seemed to be some kind of plastic. It certainly looked real though, and even felt pretty real when he put his hand against it.

The two of them were standing near the lake with their enormous fake egg. And they weren’t the only ones. More of the freed Seosten were with other eggs. Four in particular had been set up with one of the young toddlers at each, with their actual parents guiding them through the decoration. But even beyond those four, there were other children. All of the kids in the camp, of any number of species, were painting eggs. All those children, gleefully laughing as they dipped  their hands into paint buckets that had been set up and rubbing them over the eggs to color them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the adults, including the Seosten, were carefully painting their own, using brushes of all sizes to create some truly wondrous effects in some cases. Their own results might have looked more professional than the results of toddler finger (and hand… and in some cases toe) painting, but Lincoln could see the beauty in both. And there was just something fun about seeing the kids squealing with delight as they spread their colorful designs over their own giant eggs.

“I’m just going to guess this isn’t actually the Seosten Easter?” he put in then after giving the giant eggs another curious once-over.

Chuckling a little, Sariel shook her head. “There might be some similarities in the whole egg thing and other parts, but no, not really. It’s… I’ll explain more as we go, but it’s basically our ‘winter-end festival.’ It’s a celebration… a holiday that comes from the very, very old days, back when we still lived in huts or stone houses, long before… before everything. Before Cronus. Back when we were basically primitive humans. The winters on Elohim were particularly dangerous. Well, what you would call winter. Elohim has six seasons. Our year is six hundred and fifty-five days long.”

“What about your days?” Lincoln thought to ask. “How long are they?”

“Roughly equivalent, actually,” Sariel replied. “We’re not sure if that’s a coincidence or something about humans learning to function in Seosten society by being put on a planet with similar day lengths. But either, there’s not an appreciable difference. Anyway, six hundred and fifty-five days split into six seasons. High Sun lasts for sixty of those days and is when the land is the hottest. We reach what you would call triple digits fahrenheit on those days. The middle, at the hottest time of the year, is when our calendar marks the new year. High Sun is followed by Low Sun, which is still warm, but more around what you would call the… seventies. That lasts for about a hundred and fifty days. Then we have Fallen Sun, which is our… well, fall or autumn. Things begin to die, it gets a bit cold. That’s another hundred and fifty days. But then the weather warms up again. Back up to Low Sun temperatures for about sixty more days in a time that we call Last Sun. After that, it gets cold. Very cold. We call it No Sun, and it lasts for a hundred and twenty days. At the worst of No Sun, things get… or used to get, unbelievably cold. Before we had all the technology and command of magic that we had now, many people used to die during No Sun. Everything would freeze.

“But that led into our final season, ‘New Sun’. That’s our equivalent of spring, and it lasts for the remaining one hundred and fifteen days. And at the height of it, as we can see the new plants and new life growing out of the old, we celebrate with what you would basically call… ahh… Light Day, I suppose. Or maybe Warmth Day. It’s kind of the same thing. Light and warmth. That’s what this celebration is about. It’s about surviving the coldest days… and remembering those who didn’t.”

A moment later, they were joined by Haiden and Tabbris, as the two hurried up while carrying more paint buckets. Haiden held a handful of cans atop a metal sheet that floated along beside him like a tray, while Tabbris lugged one by herself with both hands, clearly having insisted on helping. Finally, they reached the others and set the color-filled buckets down.

“Mama,” Tabbris chirped while quickly opening her arms, “they’re making the clearing really pretty!”

Smiling openly, Sariel knelt and embraced her daughter tightly. “Are they? You just had to sneak a peek, huh?” she teased the girl with a wink

Blushing, Tabbris squirmed there on her feet, returning the hug before leaning back. “I had to ask Vanessa and Tristan what colors they like, so I can put them on the egg! They’re helping Mister Gabriel and the others set up. You should see all the lights they’ve got! It’s almost like Christmas!”

After giving her daughter another tight hug, Sariel straightened up. “I take it you know how you’d like to paint your egg then?” When the girl gave a quick nod, she gestured. “Alright then, it’s all yours.”

Despite her words, Tabbris immediately asked Lincoln for help getting the paint right. He agreed, and the two of them opened a couple of the buckets, found brushes, and set to work on their chosen design.

For a moment, Sariel simply looked around the area at all the colorful eggs, delighted children, and focused (but still quite happy) adults. Her gaze found her husband, and she reached out to take his hand. His hand. After all their time apart, she could finally hold his hand. That very fact by itself was almost enough to leave her knees weak.

“The kids are okay then?” she asked softly, barely able to speak.

Tugging her to him to gently kiss her, Haiden nodded. “Mmmm. They’re fine. Vanessa’s lecturing Tristan on the history of egg painting at Easter, while he’s trapped on the ladder tying the streamers in the trees.”

Sariel chuckled. “At least she knows how to take advantage of a captive audience.”

Some time later, the now fully decorated eggs had been moved to the equally decorated clearing on the other side of the camp. The clearing itself was filled with colorful streamers and Christmas-like lights, which came on as the sun began to go down. The lights, some of them solid while others blinked on and off in patterns, covered the trees as well as the ground. Their glow illuminated the painted eggs that had been arranged throughout the clearing.

A series of benches had been set up against the trees as well, surrounding the open space. Seosten and non-Seosten alike filled those benches, chatting loudly and excitedly with one another. From where Lincoln was sitting in one of the center rows, he could hear plenty of discussion about what was going on, how this whole celebration worked, and what it meant.

Turning to his left, he focused on Sariel, who sat there with Haiden on the other side of her. Vanessa and Tristan were just beyond the other man. “Okay, I’m sort of half-hearing explanations about what all this means, but you think you could start at the beginning? I know it’s Light or Warmth Day, but what about the eggs?”

It was Vanessa who quickly answered, turning and leaning over to see him. “The eggs symbolize animals giving birth after the long winter. They’re supposed to be about new life, about new beginnings and chances. They’re about survival.”

“Okay,” Lincoln murmured curiously before pointing off to the side of the clearing. “So why is Gabriel wearing a Santa hat?”

Both of the twins laughed, snickering to themselves while Sariel coughed. “It’s not a–okay, yes, it is a Santa hat, basically. But it’s also a hat that belongs to what we call Father Time. He’s our Warmth Day figure. Father Time comes and chases away winter with his flying chariot made of fire and pulled by flaming horses. Then he goes around and touches all of the eggs to wake them up so they hatch.”

Haiden was smiling. “They asked Gabriel if he’d play the role for the festival. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”

“He would’ve done it anyway,” Tristan informed them confidently. “Look at him. He loves it.”

“Well, the rest of the Seosten certainly seem to be enjoying this whole thing,” Lincoln noted. “And so do the rest of the Atherby people.”

Some of the adults were taking pictures of the eggs that had been set up in the clearing. Each of those eggs was brightly colored, seeming to alternate between the more professionally painted ones from the adults, and the gloriously crazy results of the children’s finger painting efforts. Between those colors and the bright lights, the results were almost psychedelic. Lincoln had to take a few pictures of as well with his phone.

His attention was drawn to his other side then, as Felicity found her way up the benches and took a seat beside him with a quick hug. “Hey, I didn’t miss anything important, did I?”

Lincoln was just starting to shake his head when the main spotlights that had been set up went out. The audience area was left mostly dark, while the clearing was lit even more by those sparkling holiday lights. It made the psychedelic effect even stronger.

A few Seosten off to the edge of the clearing began to play some kind of song with borrowed instruments, while others started to sing. Lincoln had no chance of understanding the words that were being said, but it was beautiful. Sitting there, he watched as more of the people moved between the eggs, performing a wonderful little dance routine that they had clearly been working hard on. They all wore clothes that were adjusted and fashioned to make them look somewhat like various animals that he also didn’t recognize. Yet even not following all of what was going on, what was being sung, or what animals they were portraying, he could appreciate how beautiful it looked and sounded.

On his other side, Sariel nudged him a little. “You might want to get your phone ready again,” she whispered. “It’s almost time for the kids.”  

Promptly doing so, Lincoln held his phone up in recording mode, just as the song seemed to be winding down. The costume-clad performers slipped out of the clearing, while Gabriel in his Santa–err, Father Time hat moved in. The man seemed to have been thoroughly versed in what to do, because he immediately moved to the nearest large egg and ran a hand over it. As he did so, lights at the base of the egg suddenly lit up, casting even more colors into the sky. The man moved from egg to egg, touching each to make them light up.

As the last egg was lit, the small band began to play once more. But this was a much more… lively and upbeat tune, something closer to a children’s song than the almost-religious hymn that had been played before. Yet again, he couldn’t follow the words that were being sung (both by the Seosten chorus and some of those in the audience), but it sounded fun and lively.

The moment the new song started, the now-lit up eggs began to shake back and forth. Here and there, a hole appeared as the children, who were inside the eggs that they had decorated, began to break their way out.

Lincoln had asked about the potential problem with leaving little kids within a very enclosed space, only to find out that each egg was, for most of the time, bigger on the inside. It was only when the lights came on at the end that they shrank to what they should be (and each parent made sure their child was going to be okay in that space first). And more than that, the youngest, including the Seosten toddlers, were each in with an older child who could help.

Tabbris, for example, was in her egg with Sahveniah. The little Seosten toddler had painted her own egg, but had wanted to actually be in one with Tabbris.

One by one, the kids (including Tabbris and Savvy) broke out of their own personal eggs. Seosten and other species alike, all of the children of the camp who wanted to participate broke through the egg, scrambling out in their own little animal costumes.

Freed of their eggs, as the jaunty song continued, each of the children scrambled to where Gabriel stood at the head of the clearing. They formed a line, bouncing and chattering with each other even as the sound-magnification spell set near the Atherby leader himself picked up his voice when he recited something in Latin to the first child in line. The child responded with something else, speaking quickly.

“He’s asking what good they bring to the year,” Sariel whispered. “Father Time asks each newly ‘born’ creature what they bring. The children are supposed to answer with something good they did in the past year. Usually it’s something silly or mundane, like helping with chores or doing all their homework. Then they get… well, see?” She gestured to the sight of Gabriel handing the first child a wrapped present. The little kid gave a loud, gleeful cheer before moving out of the way for the next one.

On and on it went. Each child took their turn with ‘Father Time’, saying something good or nice they had done that year, and received a present in return.

Felicity, who had cheered loudly when Tabbris and Savvy got their presents, asked, “There’s more games and stuff after this, isn’t there?”

Nodding, Sariel replied, “There are many more games and songs, yes. The celebration continues until midnight.”

“Good,” the blonde girl remarked with a broad smile. “I’m tired of all the bad Seosten things. It’s about time we focused on something good for awhile, like this.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Sariel nodded. “Yes,” she agreed softly. “My… my people have a lot to make up for. We have a lot of work to do. But sometimes it’s good just to remember that we are about more than slavery and war. That’s why we wanted to do this now, to celebrate our rebirth, and think about where we come from, where we truly come from. Then the true work will begin.”

Haiden took her hand once more, squeezing tightly. “Work that you won’t have to do alone. You have your family, and your people.”

Squeezing back, Sariel failed to stop the tears that came then. Though they came not of sadness or despair, but from something far better. Happiness. Seeing her family here. Seeing her children, her people celebrating this important holiday, and doing so right alongside people of other species, it was… it was more than she could have hoped for not so long ago.

“Yes,” she whispered under her breath. “Not alone. I am not alone.”

And that, quite honestly, was the best Warmth Day gift she could ever have imagined.

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Interlude 7A – Miranda

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“Well, that was a bit of a surprise, wasn’t it?”

Minutes after watching Flick leave with her blonde instructor, Miranda Wallbern stood on the street of the town she had spent six years of her life in, beside the man who had been most responsible for training her since the moment she’d been taken out of the life she’d had here. “Yeah, pretty surprising.”

Hisao, who seemed to be in a pretty good mood considering the fact that he and the Crossroads instructor apparently hadn’t actually found anything useful, gazed down at her curiously for a second before clearing his throat. “I’ve still got some work to do around here, but you look pretty distracted. You wanna head back and I’ll shoot you a message if I need to ask you anything about this place?”

Miranda’s gaze lifted to look at the man briefly. Did he know anything about what she and Flick had talked about? Hisao was far from a hardliner for the Garden, and she might even be able to get some help from him. But it wasn’t a sure thing, and she had already promised to keep Flick’s secret. Besides, considering the stakes, just thinking that the man might be helpful wasn’t enough to risk including him.

In the end, she kept her expression as passive as possible. In the Garden, one learned very quickly how to maintain a good poker face and avoid showing emotion. Letting people know you were affected by something was too dangerous. “Are you sure you don’t need me to be your guide, Vigile Hisao?”

Vigile. It was the title that the Garden used for their detectives, the Heretics who investigated suspected Stranger situations. The name originated from the Vigiles Urbani that the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus had brought together as the closest thing Rome had to a dedicated city police organization. Miranda had heard that the Crossroads equivalent were actually called Runners, though they were organized differently. For one thing, Vigiles tended to have completely autonomous authority. They didn’t report to any command structure or have everyday oversight. Only the Vigile’s tribal chief or a vote from the combined Council could overrule a judgment that the Vigile made. They acted as not only detectives, but also judge, jury, and executioner for rogue Gardeners as well as Strangers.

“I think I can manage to find my way,” Hisao replied, his tone somewhat bemused. “Considering I could throw a rock from one side of this town and make it reach the opposite side pretty easily.”

“That’s not really fair,” the dark-skinned girl pointed out while giving a little shrug of one shoulder. “I’ve seen how strong you are, Vigile Hisao. You could probably do the same thing in Los Angeles.”

The man gave a loud bark of laughter before nodding. “Fair enough, kid. I’ve got this though. Considering Dare and her student were here, I doubt there’s any more Strangers lurking around. I’ll do a walk through and make sure it looks clear, check out the police station, see if there’s anything to find. If I need you for anything else, I’ll let you know. You go ahead, I’m sure you’ve got plenty on your mind.”

Miranda gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir. I mean, thank you, sir.” Turning on her heel then, she began to walk away while digging into her pocket. A moment later, she came out with a piece of bark. Holding it in one hand, the girl glanced back toward her mentor while walking around a pair of older women who were arguing about which of their grandsons was going to be the first to graduate college. Hisao gave her a brief wave, then turned his attention back to the city. Despite what he’d said, Miranda knew the man wouldn’t leave until he had a better idea of what had happened here. No matter how long that took.

Which meant she had to be fast. As she went around the corner of the building, ostensibly to put herself out of sight of any Bystanders, the girl focused on the power that she had inherited so relatively recently. As usual, there was a brief sense of disorientation, and then she was staring at herself.

“Remember,” she told her duplicate quickly, “You have to be fast. And don’t let Hisao see you.”

“Duh,” the other Miranda told herself while rolling her eyes. “We don’t wanna answer those questions.”

The duplicate peered around the corner of the building carefully, watching to make sure the coast was clear and Hisao wasn’t watching before giving the original Miranda a thumbs up. Then she took off, sprinting away from the building and across the street, heading back into town as fast as she could.

The original Miranda wouldn’t know what her duplicate was up to until she absorbed her again, which would only happen once the other her gave their mental tug to indicate she was ready, or something happened to kill her. The latter was a situation that Miranda had only experienced once before, but it was something she had absolutely no desire to go through again. The disorienting shock that came from the combination of feeling the sharp loss of one of her other selves combined with the flood of memories that filled her mind right up to the point of death had practically been a physical blow.

“Good luck,” she spoke aloud to her departing self, then turned her attention back to the piece of bark in her hand. Flipping it over to put the inside part out, she lifted it while muttering, “Time to go home.”

With that, Miranda shoved the bark upward and out, slapping it against the wall of the building. An instant later, both the girl and the wood vanished, leaving no sign that she had ever been there.

******

Miranda B

Once she was sure the coast was clear, the girl who chose to think of herself as Miranda B (or just B) ran away from the building. Hisao was further down the street, walking purposefully on his way to explore the city. He would be methodical in his search, which meant she still had time to make it.

Considering the years of physical training she’d gone through, it didn’t take long to reach her destination. The sight of Flick’s neighborhood, and the house itself, was instantly familiar. It brought back memories of a far more innocent and simple time, before she’d known about all the creatures that secretly lived alongside humanity. Some evil, others not so much. It reminded her of childhood.

Flick had mentioned that her father was going to be busy doing his job all day considering everything that had happened over the weekend, and sure enough, the driveway was empty. The man was probably at the sheriff’s office, hounding the people there for answers that they had no way of actually having.

Still, considering what was waiting inside the house, B didn’t want to go barging inside. That was a recipe for disaster. Startling a vampire who was in an unfamiliar location and was probably on edge anyway considering everything that was going on would probably end up with her original self experiencing the death of another duplicate. And considering she was that particular duplicate, the girl was going to give that result the hardest and definitive pass she could manage.

So, rather than force her way in and set off a nuclear chain of events, B bent down to pick a small rock out of the grass. Rubbing her left thumb along it, she began to whisper a quick, simple enchantment, the first one she’d learned when magical instruction had begun earlier that year.

Once the rock was glowing with the magic she’d infused it with, the girl held it tightly while whispering into it. “Asenath. I know you’re a vampire. My name is Miranda, Flick’s friend. She said that she told you about me and that you saw a picture of me. I’m a Heretic for Eden’s Garden, but I’m here to help. There’s another Heretic, my teacher, walking through town right now. He’s investigating the city, and if he happens to see you or the other Stranger that you’re working with, things might go bad. Please come to the door and knock, then back away so the sun doesn’t hit you when I open it. I want to help you make sure that Hisao doesn’t find out about you, or your friend. That’s all.”

Once her message was complete, B watched as the rock crumbled to dust in her hand. She gave the dust a toss, and it disappeared under the door jam. The rock would seek the nearest occupant, reassemble itself, and then recite its message several times to make sure the point was made.

After that was done, she only had to wait about two minutes before there was a single knock against the other side of the door, followed by the sound of the deadbolt being unlocked. B waited a few seconds to give the vampire inside time to back away, then opened the door. She stepped quickly inside while closing it behind her to block out the sun as quickly as possible. Once the door was safely shut, she looked up. As soon as she did, that familiar hunger kicked in. Seeing the vampire standing there, safely away from the sun’s reach, Miranda B could feel the adrenaline pump into her system, priming her for a hunt. It was a feeling sort of like being at the start of a race, or an important baseball game. The figure standing there was, without a doubt, a Stranger. Not that that came as a surprise.

Asenath looked her up and down briefly, then gave a curious sniff. “Well, you’re definitely a Heretic. Flick didn’t mention that. She said she didn’t know anything about you after you moved away.”

“We just met again,” B replied. “My mentor and I, we were investigating what happened. We ran into Flick and her teacher, and she told me what’s going on. I know Hisao, he won’t leave here until he’s positive that he’s seen everything he can. And if I know Flick’s dad the way I know I do, the two of them are going to meet at some point. I know, Flick said that your… shapeshifting friend was invisible to her Stranger sense, but Hisao has other ways to test for that sort of thing. He’s a professional.”

Asenath paused, seeming to consider that for a moment before nodding. “Thank you, I’ll warn her. And we’ll make sure to stay out of sight until the Heretic is gone. I have… experience with some of your people. Some good, some bad. Unfortunately, I don’t know which side of the line this Hisao falls on.”

“He’s pretty accepting,” B acknowledged with a tiny smile. “But even so, I figured that him seeing you guys would make things more complicated for Flick, even if he does let you explain. And the last thing this situation needs is even more complications. Besides, from the way Flick talked, the less people know about this situation, the better. Especially if Garden Heretics helped wipe her mom’s memory.”

“And since Seller knew about it, that’s a likely scenario,” Asenath agreed. “Okay. Well, I guess we should figure out how to get Twister away from Lincoln before anything bad happens.”

******

As soon as her hand pressed the bark against the wall of the building, Miranda felt the world spin around her. It was, as always, incredibly disorienting, and she almost stumbled before catching herself.

Once her vision cleared, she saw what looked like a solid wall of tree bark in front of her. The bit of bark that had been carefully cut from the tree was back in its spot, and as she watched, it fused itself into place. The tree was left whole, without so much as a blemish where the piece had been broken.

Stepping back from the spot, Miranda turned, letting her gaze take in the view while trying to imagine how Flick would feel if she saw this place. It was familiar to her by now, but when she’d first arrived, she’d had a hard time believing that it was real, that this majestic view wasn’t a hallucination.

She wasn’t standing on the ground, or even on a floor. No, her feet were planted solidly on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to drive three semi trucks side by side along it without bumping into one another, and long enough that those same trucks would run out of gas before they reached the end of it. And this was only one branch of the Tree of Knowledge. One of eight.

Some tribes left the edges of their branches completely open, saying that anyone dumb enough to fall off deserved what they got. Miranda’s tribe was one of those that actually put safety rails up, though there were several open patio-type areas (some used for eating or relaxing and others used for training) extending away from the branch that could be reached for an even better view. Though she didn’t have time to go out there at the moment, Miranda had spent plenty of time gazing down from one of those patio areas, admiring the unbelievably gorgeous sight.

The place they called Eden’s Garden was most beautiful, lush, and vibrant area that she had ever seen. It stretched on for over hundreds of miles in every direction, a forest of giant trees (though the Tree of Knowledge was by far the largest, standing twice as tall as any of its competition). Far below, the area between the giant trees, where the sun reached, was filled with what could only be described as paradise. There were flowers as tall as Miranda herself and in every color she could think of as well as wide fields of grass where normal animals such as deer and wild horses mingled alongside magical creatures such as pegasi, sprites, and even the occasional unicorn (a fact that had made the very young Miranda nearly pee herself in glee). Eden’s Garden cultivated what they called ‘acceptable Strangers’, which were magical creatures that the Victors declared both non-threatening and useful to the Garden’s cause. The denser foliage was full of predators on both sides of the Magical/Mundane scale.

Over time, Miranda had come to realize that most of the tribes didn’t see these creatures as their equals or even as fully sapient. While they didn’t actively kill all of them the way that Crossroads did, the majority of Eden’s Garden treated even the Strangers they accepted like animals and as unfeeling servants, even slaves in some respects. They weren’t afforded equal rights and protections just because they weren’t openly murdered.

Crossroads killed every Stranger they could find. Eden’s Garden enslaved and bred the ones they didn’t kill. No one bothered to ask the Strangers themselves what they wanted. It was an inconsistency that had bothered her for awhile, though always in the back of her mind until today, until she’d spoken with Flick. The news about her mother, that she’d been part of some kind of ‘rebellion’, made Miranda think about how Eden’s Garden treated their own supposed allies, the Strangers that they ‘saved’ from Crossroads. If someone wanted to rebel against Crossroads, her first thought had been that they would join Eden’s Garden. But if that person wanted to be true and equal allies with Strangers… then no, Eden’s Garden would not be a place for them.

Shaking that off, Miranda glanced down the length of her tribe’s branch. There were rules against building anything too near the central trunk (it was supposed to ensure that any tribe that turned hostile and tried to attack the central trunk itself didn’t have any defensive structures or ways to disguise their approach), but in the distance she could see the first of her tribe’s buildings. The branch, wide enough to be a large freeway, became a road with literal and quite expansive houses on either side. There were grass yards, fountains, even a couple of parks for the little ones to run around in, safely enclosed to protect against accidents.

Other tribes kept their own branches far more war-like, she knew. Her tribe was one of those that focused more on the family aspect of the tribe than their wars. But some of them eschewed all of that in exchange for constant battle preparations. They lived and breathed their hunts from the time they were born or brought into the tribe until they finally died. Each branch was a tribute to its tribe’s way of thinking.

Meanwhile, the main trunk of the tree itself was so mind-mindbogglingly enormous that Miranda felt like an ant climbing along its surface. The interior of the tree was mostly hollow, and it functioned essentially like a massive skyscraper. There were offices inside, training rooms, laboratories, meeting halls, and so on. Everything that the eight Garden tribes needed to do as a group took place inside the tree, including their joint ruling body. Known as the Council of Victors, or just the Victors, the sixteen-member group consisted of two representatives from each tribe that were nominated by that tribe’s chief and then confirmed in a vote by the adult members of that tribe. The Victors lived and met within a chamber at the very top of the tree, directly beneath the area where the fruit of knowledge grew. Both the Victors and the fruit were heavily guarded by a group of Gardeners who called themselves the Unset. Essentially, the Unset were Heretics without a tribe, whose loyalty was only to the Council of Victors and who could not be convinced to side with one particular group in the event that one tribe or another tried to take over the tree. Which, considering the way some of the Garden tribes behaved, wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Outwardly, Gardeners were united. But inside, there were always some petty arguments going on, disagreements that often went back centuries.

The branch that Miranda was standing on belonged to her own tribe. Like every other tribe, the name of the tribe had been changed several times as the years passed on. At the moment, they called themselves the Eternal Eye. If she looked up and to the right, she could see the edge of the branch that belonged to her tribe’s nearest neighbors and closest allies, the branch that belonged to the tribe known as the Vigilant Sons. That was the tribe that Flick’s ancestor Seller belonged to, the same one that her new roommate had been a part of, though the females of the tribe called themselves Vigilant Daughters.

Further on around the tree were the remaining six primary branches, belonging to the Dust-Striders, the Children of Bosch, the Reapers, the Remnant Guardians, Fate’s Shepherds, and Lost Scar respectively.

It was that last one that Miranda was focused on. Lost Scar was the tribe that Trice and his friends belonged to. Thinking about those nasty pieces of shit attacking the girl that had been her best friend throughout elementary school almost made Miranda angry enough to reach for the pouch on her belt that held her weapon, the one that she’d chosen just a few months earlier after being trained for several years to handle over a dozen different weapon types. Her weapon.

In the end, however, she forced herself to calm down. Grabbing her weapon and charging up to where Trice was wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. She didn’t know how just yet, but she’d find out who they were working with in Flick’s school. No matter what it took.

“Hey, Randi!” One of her tribe mates called out a greeting as he past her on his way out of the tree interior. “You and Hisao already back from that… uhh, where were you going again?”

“Hey, Noble,” Miranda returned the greeting easily before answering. “We were at Laramie Falls, but Hisao’s still there. He sent me back, said he could handle the rest of it by himself.”

Noble, an incredibly tanned and well-toned guy who knew just how attractive his tendency to run around shirtless (as he was now) made him, flashed her one of his perfect smiles. “You lived there?”

“For a few years,” Miranda replied while starting to walk toward the same entrance that the young man himself come out of, a hole in the enormous wooden wall that was the Tree of Knowledge’s trunk. “I’ll catch you later, got some stuff to do.”

“You know where to find me, babe,” Noble gave her another charming smile that she knew would have affected her much more if she hadn’t been so preoccupied, then turned to jog on his way.

She watched him go for a moment, partly to make sure he didn’t try to follow her and partly because watching Noble walk (or jog) away was a very enjoyable way to pass a few seconds.

Shaking that off, the girl began to head into the tree interior once more. As she passed through the hole, Miranda found herself on the entrance hall. Essentially, it was an enormous room surrounded by three different levels of balconies overlooking a central area. Each balcony was connected via multiple stairways and ladders to one another and to the center of the room. Each balcony was also connected to several different holes that led out to each tribe’s branch.

Meanwhile, in the center of the open room there were several Unset guards that kept their eyes open for any single tribe that might make any untoward moves. The paranoia was real, considering each tribe essentially governed itself save for very important issues that the Victors voted on. And some of those tribes had openly advocated taking over the tree at various points in their history, some not exactly a long time ago. The Eden’s Garden alliance was fragile in some respects.

There were also both stairways and elevators leading up and down throughout the tree, though Miranda only had clearance to go down. Up were the more important rooms, the Victors’ quarters and meeting hall, and the fruit. She’d been up there one time, when she was first brought here and had to eat the fruit to become a Heretic. Other than that, she had only ever gone down the stairs. The watchful Unset made sure of that.

Giving the nearest of those guardians a brief smile, Miranda headed down the stairs. Her next stop would be the main library, a room located near the base of the tree, close to where people were able to go out into the Garden itself, where no one was allowed to build anything for fear of destroying the paradise that existed beyond the Tree of Knowledge (plus the fact that any single tribe being allowed to build at ground level would, in the minds of some, give that tribe an advantage over others).

Eventually, Miranda would have to find out what Trice and his thug friends actually knew. But for now, she would scour the library for any mention of this Fossor.

Surely, between the Crossroads library and the one here at Eden’s Garden, there was some information about the man who had abducted Flick’s mother. There had to be answers about where he came from, what he wanted, and what he was capable of.

And, most importantly, how to stop him.

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