Exactly how Avalon knew that the woman in front of her was Liesje, she couldn’t say. She had never seen a picture of her. Despite that, she knew with utter certainty that this was indeed her ancestor, the woman who had started all of this. Or an image of her… or a ghost. And somehow, someway, she had drawn Avalon and Paschar to this grassy field overlooking the ocean. Unless…
“We’re not really here,” she realized, looking around for a second. “We haven’t gone anywhere.”
A smile broke across the ghostly woman’s face, and she gave a single nod. “Very good, Hannah. No, you haven’t gone anywhere. Everyone in that room is exactly where they were, including you. It’s frozen for the moment while we talk right here in your head. And his.” Her eyes turned slightly toward Paschar then, softening with regret.
“You…” For his part, the Seosten man had been stunned into silence for those few seconds. Now he spoke in a voice that shook from the intense emotion he was feeling, while taking a slow, hesitant step that way. “I–you are… you are dead. You are not here.”
Liesje smiled sadly. “You’re right,” she agreed, “I’m not here. This is no more than a memory, a ghost of sorts. This is a magical copy of my mind at the time it was made, when I left my spell in this vault. It’s as close as I could get to being here when my eventual descendant returned to finish my spell.” She seemed to swallow hard before adding, “And when you came, Paschar.”
Despite the simplicity of her words, the man flinched as if she had physically struck him. “I never wanted t–” He stopped himself then, falling silent for a moment before audibly sighing. “You are not here. It hardly matters to speak of it. And yet, I wish to tell you that I am… sorry. I–I am sorry, and I am… so very angry.” He lifted his gaze finally, staring past Avalon at Liesje’s ghost. “You and Dries were supposed to leave. You were supposed to run away. I told you to protect you. I wanted to save you. I wanted you both to walk away and live. I would have gone with you.”
A litany of retorts came to Avalon’s mind right then, making it all the way to her tongue as her mouth opened. But before she could say them, Liesje quietly spoke for herself. “He was my father, Paschar. I could never abandon him without trying to save him from the slavery that you told us about. You showed us what he was going through, and thought that I could walk away?” Her head shook slowly. “It wasn’t in me. I didn’t… I didn’t believe that it was in you.”
“I heard this part,” Avalon finally put in, needing to speak up. “You–the three of you were… you were together?” Her eyes snapped toward Paschar, feeling a rush of hatred and disgust. This was a man who had been responsible for so many terrible, evil things in her life and in the lives of her family for so long. He was the one who had hurt them, who had killed them, who had… who had done so much. It was all him, and he had been a lover of Liesje and Dries? She had been left reeling and stunned for a bit, but now she wanted to curse. And rant. And throw things.
“Yes.” Liesje turned to face Avalon, putting her back to Paschar. “We were together. We were happy, or I believed we were. We loved each other, all three of us, together. Dries and I believed that Paschar was a natural Heretic of some creature. He didn’t show us his possession capability until… until the end, until he finally revealed the whole truth. Before that, we just… we hunted together. We trained together. We explored, learned, played, and lived together. Paschar was…” She looked away from Avalon then, eyes closing briefly as a single tear made its way along her cheek. “He was everything to us.” Eyes opening then, she added, “We didn’t know that we were a job for him, that he was… assigned to watch us while my father was forced to do his work.”
“You were more than a job,” Paschar abruptly spoke up, starting to step that way. “You were both everything to me. I was willing to throw my people away and escape with you!” His voice rose at the end, turning sharp before choking itself off as he stopped, head shaking silently.
Rather than acknowledge his words, Liesje focused on Avalon. Her hand rose to touch the girl’s face, and Avalon actually felt it. Or her mind was deceived into thinking that she felt it. Either way, it was as close to real as it could be, and she found herself somehow instinctively leaning into the touch.
“We thought we had a spell that would eject the Seosten enslaving my father,” Liesje quietly explained. “But it failed. It failed and the Seosten knew what we had tried. He… attacked me. He would have killed me, but…”
“Dries intervened,” Avalon finished for her, having heard that part from the man himself before. “He saved you, but he killed Hieronymus to do it. And that still left the Seosten. Radueriel.”
“I was too injured to do anything then,” Liesje informed her, looking over her shoulder at the silent and motionless Paschar briefly before turning back to Avalon. “But Dries sacrificed his freedom, his chance of escape, to send me away. Thanks to him, I escaped and survived. But Dries was taken away. And I was hunted for the rest of my life. One of my beloveds had become the prisoner of an invincible empire on the other side of that sea of stars in the sky. And the other… the other became my hunter, tracking everywhere I went, never more than a step or two behind.”
“I had no choice!” Paschar suddenly interrupted, the turmoil he had carried with him all that time boiling to the surface. “You never understood that! You refused to understand it! I loved you! I–I still love you. But I can’t–” His face twisted from emotion, and he gave a violent shake of his head. “I can’t betray my people! I can’t betray the universe! You would create a spell that would end our ability to do what we must do to defeat the Fomorians! You would destroy our entire society, our–our civilization! I love you, but I could not allow that!” His voice cracked sharply. “I cannot… cannot allow it.”
“I don’t understand,” Avalon found herself saying. “How could you come here and make this vault if the Seosten were already after you by the time you knew to make it in the first place? How could you put this spell here at all, if they were looking for you? Because before they were looking for you, you couldn’t have known to make it. And afterward, you shouldn’t have been able to… to even get in here without them grabbing you.”
Some part of Avalon, a quite large part, thought that even having this conversation with everything that was going on was completely insane. Hell, not throwing herself at Paschar in a clearly vain and impossible attempt to kill the bastard felt just as wrong. But when would she ever have a chance to talk to Liesje Aken, or even a memory-ghost of her, again? Everything in this year, everything had been fucked up and crazy in some way. So why not this moment too?
Liesje herself was already replying to her actual spoken question. “The Heretic world wasn’t as… united in those days. The group who created the bank that you’re standing in were separate from what became this… Crossroads. The Seosten eventually swallowed them up and made most of the separate groups part of this single organization. It was easier to control them that way. But at the time, this place was run by people completely unconnected to… to the people who took my father and started all of this. It was enough to let me create this vault and ready it to hold the spell. And to put… myself here, of course.”
“How did you create it at all?” Avalon demanded, staring at the ghostly woman. “All these people, all these ancient people and you managed to create a spell that can totally fuck over their entire civilization? How? Are you–I mean were you just…”
“Just that brilliant?” Liesje finished for her, before shaking her head. “No. I mean, I like to think I get by, but no. I had a lot of help from Grandfather and Bastet.”
Blinking a couple times at that, Avalon started dully, “Who?” She could see Paschar voicing the same question, clearly equally confused.
The woman smiled faintly. “That is a much longer story than we have time for. But you’ll find it in the book. I recorded more than just the spell there. Some of it may not present itself to you immediately, but I wrote quite a bit, and it will be there for you when the time is right.”
“Why?” That was Paschar, moving closer to step right behind Liesje. “Why tell her that much? She can’t take the book, Leesh. I–I can’t let her take it. They can leave. They can all leave, even Dries. I can let them go.” His tone turned pleading, almost desperate. “I can let them go. But I can’t let them take the book. I can’t let them take the spell. It has to end here. Don’t you understand that? Please. It has to end here. No one else has to die.”
“No one else?” Avalon retorted, her voice rising as she took a quick step that way, toward the Seosten. “No one besides my mother, you mean? No one besides everyone else you’ve hunted down and killed for this spell, including her?!” She pointed to the ghostly figure of her ancestor, hand shaking violently. “You wanna talk about love? You’re a fucking monster!”
Paschar snarled at her. “You think I wanted any of this? Do you think this is my ch–” He cut himself off then, head shaking silently before he managed to speak through gritted teeth. “As I said, we can end this entire thing right here, right now. You walk away, I take the spell and destroy it. Then it’s over. It’s done. I can convince my people to leave you and yours alone.”
“You mean give up,” Avalon snapped despite herself. “You mean give up and just let your people keep enslaving everyone against their will. Let you pieces of shit keep using us.”
“Would you prefer the alternative?” Paschar demanded. “If we were not here, the Fomorians would be. And believe me when I tell you that that is an enslavement far worse than the one that we offer. You have a gilded cage under our touch. Under theirs, it would be a living hell.”
“Option C,” Avalon retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Everyone who isn’t an enslaving, murdering, torturing piece of shit teams up against the rest of you and puts you all where you belong.”
Paschar looked as though he was going to violently snap something before stopping himself. He took a long, deep breath before focusing on her once more. “You need to listen to me. None of this has to go on. Please. Stop this now. We destroy the spell and then it’s over. Your friends, you, the people you care about, they can all leave.”
“My mother can’t,” Avalon reminded him in a soft, yet firm tone. “Because you helped kill her.”
The Seosten man physically recoiled as if she’d actually struck him, eyes dropping as he made a noise that was half-denial, half-grief. “I did–I didn’t…” Taking in another breath, he looked up to her, clearly shaken. “No one else has to die for this. If you use that spell, billions will. Trillions. Do you understand that? Do you understand the scope of what you’re doing? Millions of worlds rely on our armies to protect them. If you take away or… or weaken our ability to provide Heretic troops, you are condemning them to die.” He was pleading again, desperately trying to make her understand this from his point of view.
“This isn’t about abandoning those worlds,” Avalon informed him tersely. “It’s about not being slaves. We’re not going to be your tools anymore. You want Earth to help you, you need to be our partners.”
The man’s eyes narrowed uncertainly at that. “What is that supposed to–”
She interrupted. “Sands was telling the truth. It’s like she said, we’re using the spell, but we’re changing it. You want to possess a Heretic, you need permission. Permission from them. No permission, they can kick your Seosten ass right out. No more slavery. Like I said, partners. Allies. We’ll find the ones who will work with us, and we’ll put an end to the monsters, Fomorians or otherwise.”
Paschar stared at her open-mouthed for a moment before collecting himself. His head shook. “That won’t work. In the time it would take to explain everything, to reconfigure our training, to convince humans of how important it is… the Fomorians will take more worlds. Maybe enough to completely turn the tide. And who’s to say that you humans will even want to keep helping? Your world is safe. Even if enough of you can be talked into it, that’s even more time. And those who won’t help–that’s… the war is hanging by a thread as it is. If we lose our Heretic supply…”
“You fought this war without us before,” Avalon informed him. “For a pretty long time, in fact. And you have plenty of humans off world already. You’ll tell your people to come and negotiate in good faith, to come and work with us. Because enslaving? That’s not going to work anymore.”
“Or they’ll come in force,” he pointed out. “If they can’t keep this going quietly, they might just bring enough strength to take the world openly.”
Avalon didn’t blink. “Sure. And if they do, it’s gonna be awfully hard to convince all those humans to work with them willingly, isn’t it?”
“Look, I…” Paschar seemed to look past Avalon for a moment, toward Liesje’s ghost before turning back to her. “I understand. I understand your… your goal here, and your feelings. It’s admirable. I even understand your hatred of me. I–I would feel the same way. But you can’t do this. I… I cannot let it happen. I won’t endanger the universe like that, not for you. I wouldn’t do it for Leesh and Dries. I won’t–I can’t let you put everything at risk. Millions of worlds rely on this. It’s too much. It’s too important. I won’t let you take it.” His voice was hoarse from emotion.
“Won’t let us?” Avalon echoed, staring him down. “Who said we needed your permission?”
“Your people are spread out across the bank,” he quietly reminded her. “I have far too many soldiers for you to win this, even with Dries. This will end badly for all of you. Please. It’s your last chance. Walk away from this. If you don’t, I can’t save you. Please don’t make me hurt you and Dries again. Please. Don’t force me to kill you. I don’t want to. But I will if it comes to it, if you force me to. And you don’t have the power or the numbers to stop me.”
Before Avalon could respond to that, Liesje spoke quietly. “You mean they didn’t.” As both Avalon and Paschar blinked that way, she continued. “You see, this… here, what we’re doing? It wasn’t only meant to let me talk to my descendant and you for sentimental reasons. It was also because I knew that you would outnumber them. I went to a seer, and they saw it. They saw that my descendant would have help coming, but that it would be too late. Only by a matter of minutes, but too late is too late. You would win, again, simply because of a few minutes.”
Paschar realized what she meant after a brief second of shaking his head in confusion. “Wh–the time stop. You’ve stopped time here in the vault to talk to us like this, but it’s still going everywhere else. You still–”
He was interrupted by Liesje, who moved to touch his face. “I loved you,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry it came to this. I’m sorry that everything between the three of us… went so wrong.”
The Seosten opened his mouth, but abruptly, he disappeared, cast out of the… vision or… whatever it was. Then Liesje turned to Avalon. “Hannah,” she spoke gently, her expression softening even more. “Dear Hannah, everything you’ve been through, everything… I am so sorry. I’m sorry that we couldn’t handle this a long time ago. I’m sorry for what happened to you, everything I’ve seen in your memories, it’s… you have had a hard life. But you have friends too. You have a family. You have a mother. Take the book. It is only one of two you need for the spell. The other is in the Auberge, where your friends went. You need both books to complete the spell. Take them. Do what you need to do. And tell Dries… tell Dries that I love him, and that I am proud of him.”
“Wait!” Avalon blurted. “I–I have… I have so much I… I want to say, so much I want to ask.”
“I know,” Liesje quietly, sadly replied. She met her gaze, speaking only two more words. “Good luck.”
With that, Avalon was suddenly moving once more. Moving, that was, just as Paschar slammed into her. The two of them went to the floor, tumbling end over end right in front of the podium with the book on it. The Seosten man crashed down on top of her, and even as Avalon tried to bring her arm up to cut with her energy blade, he caught hold of her. The force of his grip nearly broke her arm, while he hissed a quiet, “I am sorry.”
Then he jerked to the side, his head snapping away just as a blade was shoved through the air where it had just been. Just as quickly, the Seosten spun, ducking to avoid the follow-through from his attacker.
“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” Seller announced while lashing out with a kick. That one connected, sending Paschar off of Avalon with a grunt.
The Seosten clearly boosted, suddenly back on his feet with some kind of bow made of solid energy in his hands, the string drawn back with four arrows. He loosed all of them simultaneously, each heading for the green-suited Heretic faster than a bullet. All of it happened so quickly that the only reason Avalon could follow any of it was the vampire speed she’d picked up.
Seller, in turn, moved just as quickly. His hand snapped out, throwing what looked like five red marbles. Four of those marbles went for each arrow, transforming in midair into a small bird which then grabbed the shaft of the arrow to pull it off course. The fifth, meanwhile, turned into a tiny worm or… caterpillar or something. Whatever it was, the thing went straight through Paschar’s open mouth.
The Seosten went to fire another quartet of arrows, but Seller held up a hand to stop him. “Nuh uh. You don’t wanna do that.”
“I won’t let you take the book,” Paschar snarled, adding a fifth arrow in that time. “It–it–” Blinking a couple of times, he made a face and staggered. “What…”
“Yeah, that’s the little friend of mine you just swallowed,” Seller informed him. “My daughter Edeva, she used to call them boom-bugs. That one’s gonna burrow its way to your heart and then… well, it’s right there in the name. So you can stand here and fight until your heart literally explodes after a worm crawls into it, or you can go get some help. Your choice, but I’d be quick about it.”
“I–I won’t–I won’t…” Trying to say the words, Paschar staggered again. He lifted his bow with somewhat shaking hands, until another figure moved next to Avalon. Dries.
That was what it took. Being faced with his heart exploding wasn’t enough. But seeing Dries there, that pushed Paschar over the edge. He made a noise of despair before abruptly disappearing. Recall. Whoever his last host had been, he’d used the recall to them to escape.
“Hey, kid,” Seller spoke simply while turning to extend a hand to her then, “hope you didn’t actually think I’d miss this whole thing.”
“Seller!” Avalon blurted before taking his offered hand. “You–”
“Not that I’m objecting to the help,” Sands abruptly announced while skidding to a stop, with Shiori right beside her. “But what are those things?”
The question made Avalon’s gaze snap over toward the sound of fighting on the other side of the room. Paschar’s troops were still there, but they were… occupied. There were a dozen reddish-brown golem-like creatures of various shapes and sizes fighting and tearing into the Seosten’s troops.
“You… you’re using your bio-powers,” Avalon breathed. Seller and Gaia shared an origin, she knew that. They had both gained powers from the same creature, gifts so potent that even a Natural Heretic could only take one aspect of them. While Gaia had received the gifts of technology control and understanding, Seller had taken the nature and biology-based gifts. Among those was a potent bio-tech skill, such as making those golems, the birds-from-marbles, the boom-bug… and more.
Unfortunately, after the war with the Fomorians, he didn’t tend to use that aspect very much, for its… connotations and the reactions they provoked in anyone who had been through those battles.
Seller gave a very faint smile to her words, and winked at the confused Sands. “Well, I figured if this wasn’t the time for it, nothing ever would have been. Now go on, grab that book so we can get out of here. My guys can hold the line, but we’ve still gotta leave. Get the book and let’s get the hell out of this place.”
She went. Mind racing from everything she had just learned, and what it meant, Avalon raced those last couple of steps to the podium. Her hand snapped out… and she caught hold of the book.
She had it. She had the book. After everything that had happened, after… after… She had it. That was the point. She had it, and she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone take it from her. Keeping it clutched to her chest, Avalon looked quickly to the fighting. Paschar may have been gone, but there were still plenty of problems between them and the way out of the vault.
While shoving the book into a special pouch inside her jacket, Avalon abruptly felt her phone buzz deep in another pocket. Just as it did, she heard Shiori shout a warning. More of the Seosten troops had arrived, overwhelming the line of golems to attack. Seller and the others were already fighting, and one of the soldiers (a blue-skinned lizard with compound eyes) was almost on top of her, flying on bug-like wings that beat blindingly quickly).
She threw herself backward, avoiding the pike that the lizard-bug was trying to impale her on. Just as quickly, she had to duck under a spray of spit that he followed up with. It wasn’t normal spit either, considering the little bit that caught her gauntlet before instantly hardening into some incredibly durable resin.
Her phone was still buzzing throughout that, including adding a pair of chimes to let her know that a voicemail and then text message had both been received.
The bug-lizard made a loud chittering cry and charged through the air, flying straight for her. Avalon let him come, then focused on her own ability to temporarily borrow other people’s abilities. One in particular: his resin spit.
She felt it in her mouth, and just before he would have reached her, she spat into his face and twisted aside. The spit went right into the creature’s eyes and instantly hardened, forming a blindfold of sorts while he squealed and flailed.
It was enough of a distraction for Avalon to take his head off with a sweep of her energy blade, all while her phone buzzed yet again.
Cursing, she checked the phone finally. Aylen, having some kind of breakdown. Taking a quick look at the scene in front of her, she answered it quickly, just to avoid being distracted. “Aylen, it’s not a good time.”
She started to hit the disconnect, only to hear the other girl shout, “Don’t hang up. It’s about Flick! Is she there?!”
Flick. It was about Flick? Avalon froze, looking to where the others were fighting just in time to see a reddish-rock creature come barreling for her. Quickly, she moved to intercept, forgetting the phone in her hand for an instant as she cut through the rock-man’s arm, drawing a cry of pain just before she followed up by putting her blade through his chest.
“Flick?” Avalon snapped through the gasp of pleasure. “No, she’s not here. She’s… what about her?” A sudden thought came then. “Wait, she’s not with you…”
Aylen’s reply came tersely. “No. No, but if you don’t listen and come here as soon as you can, she’s…”
Fear clutched her, as Avalon snapped, “She’s what?” In mid-sentence, she saw two of the Alter troops produced some kind of automatic rifles as they took aim at her. Quickly, she dropped to one knee and put her gauntlet up, turning the blades from one of her gauntlets into a shield that intercepted the bullets. By that point, Seller was there, dealing with the two of them swiftly.
Aylen’s voice came back then, with an announcement that made every other thing instantly disappear. “She’s going to die.”
As those words settled like a lead weight in the pit of Avalon’s stomach, the girl continued. “I’m at a grocery store parking lot. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know she’s going to die right here fairly soon. Maybe another hour? I’m not sure. But it’ll happen. I can give you the address.”
Shiori was there, hand on Avalon’s arm. Her eyes were wide with confusion and terror. She’d heard. Through the fighting that continued in the background, the two of them stared at each other.
“Are you positive?” Even as the words came from Avalon, she knew they were absurd. Of course the girl was positive.
Sure enough, the answer came. “Yes. Trust me. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, what you guys are doing right now, or anything. But I know that if you don’t help me stop it, she’s going to die here tonight.”
There was no hesitation. Avalon didn’t care what else was going on, how many soldiers they had to go through, or what was standing in their way. She didn’t even care that she already had the book they’d come for, or that there was already a fight going on right then and there. One thing and one thing only was on her mind. Saving Flick. Everything else, even the thoughts of the real history between Paschar and her ancestors was just… noise.
“Where are you? We’ll be there.”