Percival

Patreon Snippets 6

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The following is the sixth 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. 

Present Day – Seosten Space

“Sir? I–can I get you anything?” Teures, Puriel’s young (an incredibly fresh-faced forty-seven years) Seosten assistant tentatively asked. He stood just in the doorway of a grand, if lonely-looking library. His eyes were on the room’s only occupant, a gray-haired man standing next to a globe. The globe itself was blank at the moment, though at any point it could be set to display any of the millions of planets within the Seosten databanks.

Considering the news he had just passed along, Teures had no idea how the old man was going to react. His wife had been killed, murdered by their own daughter. How would he react to that? How could he react to that?

Teures had just opened his mouth after a few moments of silence to offer to bring the man a drink, when Puriel spoke. “I’d like to be alone, please.” His voice was quiet enough that the young Seosten had to lean closer to hear him properly. “Just… alone.”

Bowing his head, Teures gracefully replied, “Of course, sir. I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.” As he backed out of the room and closed the doors behind him, Teures had a moment to wonder why it hadn’t been one of Puriel’s old crewmates to bring him the news. Surely a man as powerful and influential as he deserved to be told of his wife’s death by someone more important than his barely-adult assistant.

In the room, Puriel waited for the doors to close. His hand played over the blank globe as he let out a soft sigh. A few short steps took him to a plush armchair, where he sat and leaned his head back. His eyes closed, and he cast himself… elsewhere.

Well, not elsewhere. The place he went was into his own mind, a mental landscape that worked much like a much more stable dream-world. It was a virtual reality of sorts, created by him and maintained by his… companion, the girl who had been possessing him for years by this point. Sariel’s possession-impaired daughter.

“Spark,” he spoke quietly while ‘appearing’ in the middle of the girl’s workshop. In reality, he was still sitting in that chair in the library, but now all of his attention was directed inward, to this simple-looking room full of tables with various architectural designs and ship blueprints. All of them created and obsessively corrected and updated by the young girl herself. The girl he called Spark, not only because of his own penchant for electricity, but also because it was her presence that had pulled Puriel himself out of what would have been a completely self-destructive cycle of grief and regret.

She was there, standing by a table. For a moment, Puriel looked at her. The truth was, they had no idea what she would look like now, given that it had been years since she had possessed him and, for obvious reasons, she had not left him in all that time. What he saw was the image she chose to present. Which happened to be a small, ten-year old girl with hair fashioned into a tight, elegant braid. One half of the girl’s hair, the left side, was very light blonde, while the right half was pitch-black. The braid itself alternated black and blonde all the way down.

Exactly why she chose to present herself that way, with hair split between light and dark, was something Puriel had wondered for some time without bringing it up. He had a feeling it was an effort on her part to show her split between being Sariel’s daughter and being raised and cared for by him.

Those thoughts and more went through the man’s mind while he watched Spark standing there by one of her tables, intently working on her latest plans for a building. Her interest in architecture, in designing buildings, cities, worlds, and even various spaceships, had started almost as soon as they had first… come together. Now, it was how she spent so much of her time, here in his mind, creating entire worlds and only able to show him.

For now. He would find a way to free the girl, a way to return her to her mother. He would… somehow.

Finally, after a couple minutes of silence (aside from the steady sound of the girl marking the paper for her new design), she looked back to him. “How do you feel?” As ever, her words were economical, saying as much as possible in as few words as she could manage.

He’d had time to anticipate the question. And yet, even then, it took Puriel a few seconds to find the words. “How do I feel? As though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders… only to settle in the pit of my stomach. The woman I once loved beyond all reason has been killed… by our own daughter, who did so to save her own life. Or the life of her host.”

The man looked away then, feeling a slight dampness in his eyes. There was an empty pit that had been hollowed out of his soul by the news of Kushiel’s death. And yet, hadn’t that pit already been there? Because he’d lost the woman that he loved long before this day. Perhaps even before they had set foot on Earth, in many ways. He had lost her gradually over the past several thousand years, and had finally begun noticing that loss… when he had saved Spark from her. When he had recognized that there was something to save the girl from. Allowing himself to accept, in his own mind, that the child had to be taken away from his wife was when he had first truly recognized just how far she had fallen, how much she had changed.

He’d gone silent, but Spark had not done anything to fill that silence. It wasn’t her way. She never filled silences with random small talk, never spoke a single word that wasn’t exactly and only what she needed to speak to make her point. She simply turned back to her work and waited for him to continue. Not because she was intentionally being rude or uncaring, but because she loathed wasting time. Standing there in silence waiting for him to say something, or worse, filling the silence with platitudes, was utterly foreign and distasteful to the girl. When he was ready to speak, she would turn her attention back to him. Until then, she focused on her designs.

Whether it was a habit she had picked up on her own and always would have preferred, or a response to his tendency to drift off into his own memories for minutes at a time, even after these past years, he couldn’t say. He did know that when something was important, she called him back. Most of his people believed that he was much better than he had been. But the truth was that his mind wandered against his will just as often. He would lose track of where and when he was, believing that he was still on the Olympus, or on Earth, or even earlier than those times. He would lose track of who he was talking to, believing them to be someone else.

Spark brought him back in those times. She guided him back to his real memories, reminding him of who he was. And in the times that she could not get him to respond soon enough, she took over his body. They had been together long enough, and he had opened up enough to her, that when he was in one of those states, she was able to take over and, essentially, fake things enough to stop any questions.

Realizing that he was drifting off into another memory hole, even if it was a minor one, Puriel focused on answering.

“I feel… the end of a great loss. As if the life that I once imagined having with the woman whom I loved was a basin of water that has been steadily draining over these years. Her death is not the greatest source of the loss of the life we could have had. It did not empty the basin. It only ensured that the basin would never be filled again.”

For a few long seconds after that, Spark said nothing. Her hands were busily moving along her paper, marking out a few adjustments. She seemed to be thinking quite hard, though he didn’t know if it was about what he’d said, or about her design. When she did finally speak, it was in a slow, careful tone. “I’m sorry for what you lost.”

Extending his hand, Puriel conjured a chair within his mind space and sat down. He genuinely wasn’t sure what difference it made whether he was standing up or sitting down in his own mind, but it felt like the right thing to do. So he sat, and spoke. “It’s okay to be glad that she won’t hurt… anyone else. It’s alright for you to be happy about that.”

Turning away from her table finally, Spark looked at him in silent thought before stepping over. She stood by his chair, shifting on her feet and, for the moment, looking like the little girl that she was. “I am. But I don’t want you to be sad.”

Letting out a breath (another thing he didn’t understand the purpose of), Puriel carefully reached out and picked the girl up. He sat her on his leg with one hand against her back while the other gently touched her face. “Listen, okay? I have done very bad things, very wrong things. You’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve ignored things I never should have. I’ve turned a blind eye to situations that I could have fixed. I’ve let people down, and I have betrayed them.

“You are quite probably the best thing that I have done. You are the very best part of my life. So believe me when I tell you, feel what you need to feel. No one who matters will ever blame you for being happy that someone cannot inflict suffering and torture on anyone else again.”

Sitting there on his leg, Spark hesitated before meeting his gaze. “You loved her.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I did love her. And I allowed that love to blind me to her many faults, to our many faults. Perhaps if I had seen them, acknowledged them, she could’ve been saved a long time ago from becoming the person she was. Perhaps I could have pulled her back from what she turned into if I hadn’t spent so long seeing her as I wished she was.”

His head shook then. “But that is for me to think of. For now, I believe what I could truly use is a distraction. Do you think you could manage that?”

With a silent nod that made her black-blonde braid bounce, Spark slipped off his leg and stood, extending a hand to him. As he took it, she led him to a door on the side of the room.

They could have simply appeared wherever in his mindscape she meant to take him. But the process of using doors felt more natural. And it also made the space seem ‘real’ in a way that was important for her. Trapped as she was within his mind, Puriel felt as though even those small things were incredibly important.

Through the open door, the two emerged into a grassy courtyard. Ahead of them was a fountain that appeared to be split in half, with a statue of an androgynous figure in the middle holding the two halves together. On each side of the fountain was another figure, both of them with with an arm extended, holding the hilt of a sword. The blades of those swords were the water, each striking one side of the statue in the middle that was trying so hard to hold the two halves together while being struck down from either side by the water-swords.

Beyond the fountain was a building shaped like an L on its side, the long part half a dozen stories higher than the short, the top three of which were cut at a slant. On top of the shorter half was another courtyard where Puriel could see tables set for what appeared to be an outdoor restaurant.

It was only his first glimpse of what Spark had been working on lately, and as the girl pulled him by the hand, Puriel knew he’d made the right choice in coming here. Because while he could not be there for his actual daughter after she had killed her mother (the Seraphim would never allow him to go to Earth in his condition, even if he did seem to be improving), this right here was a reminder that there was someone else who depended on him.

And, if Puriel was being honest, he depended on her just as much.

 

******

 

1796 – Boston

 

Two figures stood at the top of a hill overlooking the thriving city of Boston. With a population of almost twenty thousand people, it was the third largest city in the fledgling United States, just after New York and Philadelphia. Large enough that no one paid attention to the two visitors who stood on that hill, watching the busy people rushing back and forth about their daily lives. Two figures, one an adult woman with dark hair and a round face that left her looking eternally cheerful, her smile lines a permanent indent, and the other a young boy with equally dark hair that was a curly mop atop his head. The boy held the woman’s hand tightly while scanning the people in the distance with the intensity of trying to pick out faces despite the fact that they were entirely too far away to even have a chance of doing so without some form of telescopic vision.  

“Mama, are Grandpap and Grandmam tall?”

Blinking down to the boy at her side with some surprise, Edeva Atherby asked, “Why do you want to know if they’re tall, Joshua?”

“Cuz,” he replied simply, “I wanna be tall. But you’re not very tall, and Papa’s not very tall. So I was hoping they were because then maybe I could be.”

With a very faint smile, Edeva answered, “Your grandfather is a little taller than your father. And your grandmother is taller than him. She’s about…” The woman held her hand up to about the six foot mark. “Here.”

“Wow!” Smiling brightly, the curly-haired boy excitedly babbled, “I can’t wait for them to get here, Mama! Do you think they’ll bring me a present? I mean, they don’t have to bring me a present, but I would really like a new whittling knife. Or maybe a kite. Oh, oh, do you think they know it was my birthday last week?”

Smiling a little sadly at her son, Edeva nodded. “Of course they did. They sent those little candies for you, remember? You’re still saving them, right?”

“Only one a day,” Joshua dutifully reported. “Uh huh.” Belatedly, he added in a whisper, “But it’s really hard. Sometimes I wanna have two.”

Rubbing her son’s head, Edeva started to respond to that, only to be interrupted by a crisp, no-nonsense voice that sounded as though it would be right at home belonging to a schoolmarm.

“It pains me that you allow the boy to eat such filth.”

As promised, Remember Humility Bennett stood a full six feet tall, not counting the severe, tight bun her gray hair had been tied into. Her eyes were a deep, dark green, while she wore a black dress, looking as though she were in mourning. Which her countenance did nothing to dissuade.

“Hello, Mother,” Edeva quietly greeted. “I promise you, no one is eating filth. It was very good candy that you and Father provided.” The last bit was added with a pointed glance toward her suddenly shy son hiding behind her leg.

“One should never lie to their children,” Remember primly informed her in a tone that her daughter was all-too familiar with. “It sets a poor example. You’ll note that I never lied to you.”

“Yes,” Edeva readily agreed. “You always spoke the truth and nothing but, no matter how it made me feel.”

“And you are a strong woman because of it,” Remember noted before turning her attention back to Joshua. “Now, to the point of this meeting. Come here boy, I would like to have a look at you.”

At an encouraging nod from his mother, Joshua slowly slipped out from behind her and took a couple steps that way before straightening himself somewhat. “H-hello, Grandmam. I am glad to finally meet you.” His voice had the quality of clearly reciting from memory. “Oh, and thank you for the clothes you send every year.”

Nodding primly, Remember spoke again. “You are welcome. I trust you are making good use of them.”

The boy nodded quickly. “Yes, ma’am. My friend Ossy and me–”

“Ossy and I,” Remember corrected sharply.

“Ossy and I,” Joshua obediently parroted, “we took the clothes and cut up the–” Again he was cut off, this time as his mother pointedly cleared her throat, correcting himself to, “Uh, cut up a tree and I didn’t get any splinters because of the long sleeves.”

Making a noise of both disapproval and pleasure of being proven correct in her own mind, Remember looked to Edeva. “You see? Lying begets lying. If he were in our training program at the tree, he would not dare. And what sort of name is Ossy for a little boy?”

“Ossy’s not a boy,” Joshua piped up, immediately wanting to correct the woman about his friend. “She’s a girl. And she’s not human, she’s–”

“Ahem,” Remember started, looking sharply to her daughter. “I was under the impression that Lyell was in line with our beliefs. Particularly given his… history with the necromancer.”

“Lyell understands that judging trillions of beings by the actions of a few is a level of ignorant that surpasses the heat output of the sun,” Edeva informed her mother, though she did so with a bright, put-on smile and tone that would hopefully stop her son from understanding that there was a dark and dangerous argument brewing. “And that people, including he himself, can change.”

Intent on changing the subject rather than waste her son’s precious time with his grandparents after he’d pleaded for so long to meet them, Edeva pressed, “Where is Father?”

Primly, Remember replied, “You ask that as if you believe I have any sort of relationship with Bernlak. I assure you, that is not the case. Where he chooses to keep himself is precisely none of my concern.”

“And isn’t that just wonderful for me,” a new voice announced as Edeva’s father, Bernlak, appeared. As always, he wore his trademark green. This time in the form of a waistcoat and breeches, with a black silk shirt and equally dark boots. He also wore glasses with emerald lenses that tended to attract at least a little bit of attention from unawakened humans.

“Hello, Father,” Edeva greeted the man, pulling her son out in front of her once more. “Joshua, this is your grandfather. Father, this is your grandson.”

“Aww, you’re already so big!” Bernlak took a step that way, going down on one knee in front of the boy. “How old are you now, sixteen?”

“I’m eight!” the boy retorted, giggling as his head shook.

“Oh, really?” Bernlak sounded doubtful, looking him up and down. “Well, you’re going to be huge when you get older, I’ll tell you that much.”

Smiling brightly as his earlier hope was seemingly confirmed by his grandfather, Joshua eagerly asked, “Really? You think so, Grandpap?”

Watching the two of them for a moment, Edeva felt a pang. Her father was so effortlessly good with the boy, so charming and able to bond with him. And yet, she knew from experience that it wouldn’t last. Bernlak was incredibly good in the moment. He was great at making promises, but very bad at following through with them afterward. He would bond with Joshua, make all kinds of arrangements, then disappear. As soon as they were out of sight, he would forget about them, sometimes for years at a time. He was unreliable.

Given that, and her mother’s emotional distance, it was no wonder that Edeva herself had been raised almost entirely by Zedekiah Pericles at Crossroads. Her father was always off on one of his jobs as a mercenary, and her mother was… busy and never in any mood to entertain a child. Papa Pericles, as she had called him, had taken up every bit of slack to take care of her. At some point, he had told her that Gaia Sinclaire, the baroness of Desoto, had asked him to keep an eye on her given her own history with Bernlak. But he had grown to see her as his own grandchild, and she adored him as a mixture of a father and grandfather. Zedekiah was her real family, not these two.

Another new arrival yanked Edeva’s thoughts away from that, as she turned to see her husband step into view. Lyell Atherby was, as their son had noted, not a very tall man, standing only five and a half feet. Which was, to be fair, above average for the unawakened who didn’t eat nearly as well as they should. Yet for Heretics, it was on the short side.

Despite his lack of height, Lyell still cut an impressive figure. His straight brown hair reached his shoulders, and he kept a meticulously maintained goatee and thin mustache. His brown eyes were somehow piercing despite their apparent plainness. The man seemed to have the ability to look straight through someone. Which, given his age and experience (he had led the Atherby clan for several hundred years), was understandable.

“Sorry I’m late,” Lyell murmured, stepping over to his wife. “What did I miss?”

Edeva shook her head at that. “Nothing, really. Joshua’s just… getting to know his grandparents.”

With a very slight wince, Lyell put an arm around her and leaned in to whisper, “Do I need to strangle anyone?”

The words made her smile despite herself, and she once more shook her head. “Not yet.”

Her attention returned to her son and father then, as she slipped an arm around her husband. The two were already whispering conspiratorially, while Remember stood in the background, looking stiff and vaguely annoyed that this was eating into her productivity time.

But Joshua had pleaded with his mother for weeks to finally meet his grandparents, and she could not deny him that chance. While she had no faith that her father would follow up any of these promises, or that her mother would lighten up, Edeva did think that perhaps this meeting wouldn’t be so bad. Her son could have at least one decent memory with his grandparents without either of them ruining it.

But if they did, Lyell wouldn’t have a chance to strangle them. Because she might just beat him to it.

*******

Present Day – Atherby Camp

 

Three female figures stood at the head of a cobblestone path leading from the Atherby camp off into the woods. It was a small path, one that was easy to miss if you didn’t know where it was. Particularly as people tended to leave that whole area alone as a form of reverence.

“You know, you don’t… have to do this right now,” Abigail hesitantly informed Theia as she stood on one side of the Seosten girl, with one hand on her shoulder. Ever since Theia had returned separate from Pace earlier that evening, Abigail found it hard to resist the urge to keep touching her. A simple hair stroke, a shoulder squeeze, she just wanted to keep reassuring both herself and Theia that she was indeed in her own body again.

Pace, meanwhile, was also staying close and touching Theia often. And in her case, it likely meant even more that she would willingly touch her after they were finally separated. At the moment, she was standing on the other side of the girl, looking toward Abigail. Her mouth opened as if she was going to say something, but then she stopped, clearly remembering that the girl was perfectly capable of speaking for herself.

A moment later, Theia seemed to remember that too, straightening to look over at Abigail. “Is it wrong?” she asked tentatively, clearly worried. “Is it… bad?”

“Wha–bad? No. No, sweetie, no.” Quickly shaking her head as she realized just why Theia would have taken it that way, Abigail clarified. “I meant they’re going to have an official memorial service in a couple days, and I’m sure they’d let you add a few names to that. You know, so it can be official.”

Theia’s head shook, and Abigail once again marvelled at just how much the girl looked like a young Kushiel (not that she’d ever seen the monster in person, but there were images and holograms of her). It made her wonder just how others who had known Kushiel would handle seeing the girl now.

“I wish to put them to rest myself,” Theia announced carefully, clearly taking a moment to choose her words. “They do not know them. They have no reason to think of them, or care for them. I don’t… want it to be part of their memorial. It is my memorial. It is my friends’ memorial.”

Slowly nodding, Abigail looked to Pace, then back to Theia. “Would you girls like to do this alone?” Suddenly, after the girl’s words, she felt as though she might be intruding.

“No.” Theia gave a quick headshake, turning slightly to look at her. “Theia–I… mean… I… I want you to be there. Here. You are… You matter… you being here matters to me. Theia wants– I… want… you… to be here and… and… help… me.” The last few words came out through a somewhat trembling voice before the Seosten girl quickly added, “But if you want to leave, if you want to go away, that’s okay. I won’t–”

“Shhh.” Abigail put a hand out to the girl’s face, gently touching her cheek. “Theia, it’s okay. I want to be here.”

“So do I,” Pace announced firmly, her hand squeezing the other girl’s arm as reassuringly as she could. “We both want to be here, okay?”

“Okay,” Theia parroted. “Then we go.” Yet despite her words, she didn’t move. Her feet remained firmly planted, as she stared at the path. Pace and Abigail exchanged brief looks, but neither urged the girl on. This was clearly not something to rush. They stood by, patiently waiting for her to actually be ready.

Almost two full minutes of silence passed like that before Theia started to walk up the path. With Abigail and Pace right with her, she moved through the trees, their way lit by tiny candles that only came to life as they approached, providing just enough illumination to follow the winding cobblestone walkway. They moved slowly, none wanting to disturb the atmosphere by rushing things.

At their pace, it took almost five minutes of quiet walking for the group to reach the end of the path. Eventually, however, they emerged into a pretty clearing, lit by more of those candles as well as glowing lamps that projected a somewhat brighter, yet still soft, illumination. The clearing was almost fifty feet in diameter from side to side, and just as deep. A polished granite monument, semi-circular in shape, ran along every side of the clearing aside from the opening. It stood nine feet high. All along its surface were glowing golden letters, names that had been inscribed in the memorial. Names of people who had died in service to the Atherby Clan or in some way connected to them. Children recorded the names of parents who had been killed by Nocen or Heretics. Or parents recorded the names of children.

There were so many names it was staggering, Abigail almost losing a step. All of these people, so many of them… so many deaths. It brought an involuntary noise of dismay to her throat. Somehow, seeing a tangible representation of it made the whole thing that much more real.

Theia, who had also stopped short, stared at the monument for several long, silent seconds before turning to Pace. Her voice took on an urgent tone. “Is this wrong?”

Of course she would look to Pace for that. The two of them had been together for so long, had been literally in each other’s minds, that Theia’s first instinct was to ask Pace if something was wrong or right, to seek her opinion and thoughts. Thoughts which, up until a few hours earlier, she would have gotten instantly and silently.

“No, Theia,” Pace answered while meeting the girl’s gaze. “It’s not wrong. I promise.” With those words, she held up the special pen that Gabriel had provided when he learned what they wanted to do. “It’s okay.”

Still clearly uncertain, but taking Pace’s word for it, Theia took the pen. She fidgeted then, rolling it between her fingers before looking toward Abigail. Getting a nod from the woman, she hesitantly stepped up to an empty spot on the memorial, placing the pen against it before going still once more. For a minute, the girl simply stood there, silently staring at that blank bit of polished granite while her mind was clearly focused elsewhere.

When she finally spoke, it was in a voice that was clear and firm, though it obviously took some effort to make it that way. “Debba Sleus. I’m sorry–” Her voice caught, hitching a bit before she pushed on. “I’m sorry that I possessed you and… and couldn’t stop. I’m sorry Momma killed you because I–because I f… failed.”

Pace opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of interrupting. She and Abigail both exchanged looks, each wanting to stop Theia from thinking that way, but neither wanted to stop her from what she was doing. There would be time later to convince her that none of that was her fault. Let her say goodbye now, and begin healing after.

Theia, by that point, had carefully written the name. Abigail was almost certain the girl was actually using her boost solely to keep her hand steady enough to be legible. She finished inscribing it, and as she took the pen away, the letters began to glow just like the others.

She moved to the next spot down then, resting the pen there. “Tedora of Deep Rock. I… I’m sorry.” She wrote the name carefully, then moved to the next line.

“Stavin Epks Nuel Rev, I’m sorry.

“Denanine Rache, I’m sorry.”

“Valian Lien Kodian, I’m… sorry.”

It went on… and on… and on. While Pace and Abigail watched and listened, Theia dutifully continued through a list of thirty names. Thirty names. Thirty people whom Kushiel had forced her to possess and then killed when she could not stop possessing them. Thirty people who were murdered in that insane woman’s quest to ‘fix’ her daughter’s disability. She might as well have pointed a gun at the head of an innocent person and ordered a paraplegic to walk.

And then continued to do that twenty-nine more times.

By the last name, Theia finally stopped. Her hand lowered to her side, and the pen fell to the dirt. She forgot about it for the moment, staring at the names she had written. Slowly, the girl looked up, then down once more, taking them all in. Her voice was a whisper. “I’m sorry.”

Slowly, she looked toward Abigail, her mouth opening and shutting a couple times before she found her voice. “There is something wrong.”

Blinking at that, Abigail stepped that way, carefully asking, “Something wrong?”

“I… I can’t… breathe,” Theia explained a bit haltingly. “I–I… it feels like I’ve been running, but I haven’t. It feels like I’ve been running, and I can’t… can’t get enough… breath. I can’t breathe. My… my eyes. My eyes hurt. They hurt, like needles. They hurt like needles but not. Because I don’t mind needles in my eyes, but I mind this. I mind this. It hurts. There’s acid. There’s acid in my eyes. It’s wet. And it stings. And it hurts, and I don’t like it. I want it to stop. Pain is okay. But not this one. It hurts my eyes. It hurts my chest. I can’t breathe. I want it to stop, please. I want it to stop now.”

“Oh, Theia.” Gasping those words quietly, Abigail gave Pace a quick look before stepping that way to embrace the girl. She pulled her in, wrapping both arms around her to hug Theia as tight as she could. “I’m sorry, baby. That’s not how… that’s not how this kind of pain works. You have to feel it. You have to feel it, but it’s okay.”

Standing stiffly for a moment, the Seosten girl gazed up at her with wide eyes that were indeed somewhat wet. Her voice was plaintive. “But it hurts, Miss Abigail. I don’t like it. I’m think I’m broken.”

“Oh God, no. No, sweet girl,” Abigail assured her. “You’re not broken. You are not broken. Listen to me, this is good.”

“G-good?” Theia echoed, her eyes widening a bit as she stared uncertainly at the woman.

Abigail nodded slowly. “Yes. It’s very sad that you’re hurt. I’m sorry that you’re in pain. But I am glad that you still feel it, that you can still…” She trailed off, swallowing hard as she sought the right words. “You’re sad for other people, Theia. You’re sad because someone else died, and that means you’re not broken. You aren’t broken at all. You’re bent. Bent all over. But you’re not broken. You feel. And that’s good. Okay? It is good to feel, because it means you care. You care about all those names, all those people. When you look at them, when you think about them, it hurts? It hurts here?” She leaned back a bit to touch her own chest.

Theia nodded to that, her eyes blinking rapidly. “It hurts there. It hurts here.” She touched near her eyes, swallowing hard before touching her throat, then her stomach. “And here… and here. It hurts and I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”

It was Pace who spoke then, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. “Here.” Carefully, she moved Theia’s fingers to the memorial, touching them against the first name the girl had written. “Say goodbye.”

Eyes snapping to her former host, Theia echoed. “Say goodbye? Say… say…” Slowly, her eyes moved back to the name of Debba Sleus. “Good…” She stopped short, making an almost silent noise in the back of her throat before forcing the word out. “… bye. Goodbye.”

Carefully, Pace lowered the other girl’s fingers to the next name. She remained silent, but Theia knew, quietly whispering, “G-goodbye.”

There was a slight hitch of her breath then, as she moved her own fingers down to the next one, repeating the word. One by one, she said goodbye to each of the names. By the end, she could barely speak, her voice halting repeatedly as she choked out the last of her farewells.

Or perhaps not the last, as Gabriel Prosser took a step into the clearing at the end. His voice was solemn. “They will be remembered, I promise you that.” He paused then, straightening. “I’m sorry. I would never interrupt. But Theia asked me to be here for the end, to make it official.” He looked to her then. “But this isn’t the end, is it? There’s one more.” He was watching Theia, eyes soft as he added, “One more you want to write down.”

Swallowing hard at that, Theia shrank back, somehow ducking into herself. “It… it’s wrong. It can’t go there. It can’t be there with them.”

“Here.” Extending his hand, Gabriel held a stone out to her, about the size of the girl’s fist. It too looked like polished granite, as if it had been taken from the memorial itself.  

Theia took the stone, then the magic pen as Pace stooped to pick it up for her. She held the pen and the stone in each hand, staring at both for almost a full minute before carefully scrawling the last name. Her mother’s.

Abigail watched as Theia wrote Kushiel’s name on the stone. Then the girl gave one last look at the memorial, to all the names she had recorded. She mouthed one last apology before turning on her heel to begin walking quickly back along the path.

Pace, Abigail, and Gabriel exchanged brief looks before following her. Without a word, Theia continued along the path, walking all the way back into the camp before moving to the lake. She stood there, facing the water with the stone in one hand. Her knuckles were white from how tightly she was holding that stone, and she gave a slight shudder while lifting it to stare at her mother’s name.

“Goodbye, Momma.” Her voice was so soft, Abigail almost didn’t hear her. Then she reared back, hurling the stone all the way to the middle of the lake in one toss. It struck the water and dropped out of sight, falling to the bottom with a single splash.

Theia stood there, staring at the water where the rock had gone. Then she turned to Abigail. Her mouth opened, shut, then opened again. Yet no sound emerged. No sound, that was, aside from the keening sound of grief which may as well have been the opening of a deep, long-buried well of pain.

Abigail was there. Arms opening, she took the girl into them once more. This time, Theia returned the embrace. She held on tight, face dropping against Abigail’s shoulder.

And in that moment, she let go of everything she had taught herself to hold in. She let go of all the pain, all the loss, all the grief. She let it out. For the first time in over twenty years, Theia cried.

It would be a long time before she stopped.

*******

Present Day – Crossroads

 

On the far end of Crossroads Island, beyond the jungle and as far from the school as possible, Guinevere, more currently known as Harper Hayes, stood facing the ocean. Taking a step forward, she skipped a rock across the water, grinning to herself as it popped up and back down four separate times. “Whoo! Four. I mean, without any powers, that’s pretty good.”

“It’s tremendous, my queen,” Karlee, the woman who posed as Harper’s mother, announced from a few feet away. “But…” She took a step herself, arm snapping out to send a stone skipping across the water five times. “Perhaps there are still goals to reach.”

Giving the woman (who appeared to be in her forties with dyed blonde hair to hide the effects of early aging) a brief smirk, Gwen retorted, “And how long have you been practicing to show me up, hmm?”

A small smile played at Karlee’s mouth. “Would it be better if I said a very long time, or a very short time?”

Huffing, Gwen raised herself up with put-upon self-importance. “Never mind, I’ve decided I don’t care to know.”

Giving a genuine chuckle, Karlee looked out at the water once more while asking, “If you don’t mind my asking, your majesty, why did you want me to meet you here? It’s… rather dangerous, isn’t it?”

“I’ll make sure no one sees you,” Gwen promised. “But I needed someone to talk to, someone to… bounce off of.”

“About Joselyn Atherby’s daughter, and her friends?” Karlee asked. “Are you afraid that they don’t understand the danger they’re in?”

“Joselyn Chambers,” Gwen corrected absently before nodding. “And yes, them. But no, just the opposite. I’m afraid that, with everything that’s going on, all the… danger and problems they’ve gotten into, they’ll forget how to enjoy themselves. And with this… Jophiel situation, that could easily blow up in Flick’s face. They’re being forced to lie to their friends and… and that never turns out well.”

“And you’ve thought of telling them that you know, and helping,” Karlee realized.

Again, Gwen nodded. “I’ve thought about it. I just… right now, I think it’s better to wait. But I don’t know how much longer I can. What’s better, to talk to them, or wait and watch? I can’t do both. The moment I show myself, all my… anonymity is gone. But if they don’t know that they have someone else who can help them…”

Karlee hesitated then before quietly asking, “And the pieces? What of them?”

A long, heavy sigh escaped Gwen, her eyes looking away before she murmured, “Three. In the time we’ve had this year, I’ve found three of the six that we were missing. Three pieces of Arthur’s skeleton, buried or hidden somewhere here on Crossroads Island. They could be under the school, somewhere in one of the walls, even out in the middle of the jungle.”

“What about the Merlin Key?” the woman hesitantly asked. “Have you worked out which one of the students they are?”

“Not yet,” Gwen admitted. “One of the assassins who was sent after the Leven boy last month knew something, but he killed himself before I could get it out of him. He worked with Fahsteth, so I guarantee the shark-man knows. Right now, I need the pieces, then we can figure out who the Key is.”

“You’ll find them, your majesty,” Karlee assured her. “I know you will. It’s just a matter of time.”

Gwen turned a slight smile to her. “Thank you, Karlee. It’s just that time… well, that’s the one thing I’m not sure we have. Something big is going down, very soon. And when it does, I’m not sure it’ll be possible for me to stay at Crossroads anymore.”

As Karlee opened her mouth to respond to that, Gwen abruptly snapped her head around to look at the jungle. Her hand came up in a fist to stop the woman, before pointing with two fingers to her.

Karlee took that as the sign and used the teleportation stone she carried with her to vanish, disappearing from the beach an instant later.

Gwen, meanwhile, focused on the approaching presence she had sensed. Her eyes narrowed as the figure came closer and closer before eventually emerging from the bushes.

For a moment, Gwen and the new arrival stared at one another silently. Neither spoke. Neither moved more than their eyes for several long seconds.

Finally, the man spoke. “I have to say, all my powers, all our experience together, and I had no idea it was you. But Nimue? She and Apollo worked it out in a few minutes after going through all the files and recordings together.”

“Percival,” Gwen greeted the man calmly, even as she continued scanning him and the area around him for any other surprises. “You’ve changed.”

“You’ve… shrunk,” Percival casually replied, winking at her. “I remember you being taller.”

“I remember you being not allied with the enemy,” she retorted, though her voice was more appraising and calculating than accusatory.

The man lifted his chin. “I’m where Arthur told me to be. I–it’s a long story and we don’t have time. Gwen, I…” His face fell a bit and he let out a breath before looking back up to her. “There’s so much to say, but we don’t have time.”

“What’s happening?” she asked carefully, still watching him closely, though her suspicion had somewhat lessened.

The man sighed. “Let’s just say you need to get Felicity Chambers and her friends off this island, right now.

“Before they’re arrested with Gaia.”

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Convalescence 38-03

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As Professor Dare led me through the hallways to the elevator, I asked, “Are necromancer powers really that rare? I mean, if Percival felt like he needed to warn me about their reaction…”

There was a brief pause before the woman answered, “No, they’re not exactly unheard of or anything. But Crossroads Heretics don’t really use them. They have something of a negative connotation. And given the experience that so many of those who started Crossroads had with Fossor, let’s just say that necromancy in general is pretty much avoided as much as possible.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I blurted bluntly. “Avoiding something just because a bad guy uses it is kind of idiotic. I mean I get the whole not using dead people thing. Trust me, I totally get that. But staying away from it and hiding from it just because one necromancer screwed them over so badly? Wouldn’t actually investigating it and practicing with it be a better way of dealing with things? I mean, if nothing else, it would let you learn how to counter it more effectively.”

Was it weird that I had been one hundred percent against the idea of using the necromancy I had inherited right up until the second that I’d found out that Ruthers didn’t want me to use it? And now suddenly I had an argument about why it shouldn’t be avoided. That was probably weird.

Pausing there in the hallway, Professor Dare reached out to take my shoulder. “You’re right, people can be very irrational when it comes to emotional events. And the Black Death was a very emotional event.” She hesitated before continuing. “And there are others who felt like that. They pursue necromantic powers to learn more about how to counter them. Or even just to use them for good. But people like Ruthers don’t accept that. He, well, he gets kind of angry when it’s brought up.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, “because what I really needed was for Ruthers to have even more reason to hate me. Hey, maybe if he gets ticked off enough every time he sees my face, he’ll be so angry he’ll forget how to talk.”

Squeezing my shoulder once more, the woman assured me, “You won’t be alone in there. Percival and the others won’t let it get too out of hand. Just tell them as much of the truth as you can. And if they try to trap you on something, just say that you’re tired. God knows you’ve been up long enough. Just tell them that it’s been a long night and you’re not thinking straight. If it happens enough, Gaia will pull you out. Okay?”

I nodded, and we continued into the elevator. Silently, we headed up. When the doors opened, I saw two familiar faces waiting for us: Patrick and October. The two of them looked a bit tired after everything that had happened (and like they had been in the middle of some pretty intense fighting themselves), but they were definitely alert. And they even looked a little bit happy to see me there for some reason.

“Miss Chambers,” Patrick started, “I am glad that you’re…” He paused, clearly considering his words before going with a quiet, “Well, let’s just say I’m glad you’re not in any worse shape.”

I coughed at that. “Thanks for being tactful and honest at the same time.”

With October on one side of me, Patrick on the other, and Dare bringing up the rear, I was escorted back to the office where everything had happened. The two men stopped outside of it and gave me a pair of encouraging nods while taking up station on either side of the door. Professor Dare, however, followed me all the way in.

And then we were there. We were in the same penthouse office where the confrontation with Manakel had happened. They’d cleaned things up, of course. But still. We were where Avalon— where all of us had nearly died. Where we had first seen Rudolph’s body. My throat caught a little bit before I even looked at anyone, and I felt Professor Dare’s hand on my back bracingly. It helped a bit, but I still didn’t really want to be here. Which sounded kind of dumb put like that, yet I couldn’t help the feeling.

Taking a breath, I finally looked up to see who else was there. Ruthers, of course, along with Percival and Calafia as I had already known. Gaia was there too. Then there was Davis, Sigmund, Litonya, Teach, Oliver, Sophronia, and Jue. In other words, everyone except Elisabet and Geta. Which, considering the former was the one in charge of security for all of Crossroads, I was pretty sure that her not being here during the current situation didn’t exactly look good. I wondered what her excuse was going to be.

Davis was the first to speak, clearing his throat before starting with, “Miss Chambers, thank you for joining us here. We understand that it has been a very long night and that you have been through a lot. So we’ll do our best to make this as quick as possible. We just need a few answers while the situation is clear in your head. And, hopefully the things we have to say will help put your mind at ease.”

Teach spoke then before I could question what the man meant by that. “Some of us even understand that this might be the wrong place to do this. So if you want to go somewhere else, anywhere else, you just go ahead and say so. Back to the school or to some neutral place, we can do that.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Ruthers interrupted. “Stop coddling her,” he snapped with a brief glare at the others. “She’s not a child.” To me, he spoke bluntly. “They say that you were the one who raised the body of Rudolph Parsons.” As expected, the man’s gaze was hard, his expression openly suspicious. As I had known and been warned of, my demonstrating any necromantic power only made the man distrust me even more.

Pushing down about a dozen sarcastic answers with some effort, I gave a single nod. “Yes,” I announced simply. “Apparently I inherited the same necromantic power that the man who killed him had. I didn’t ask for it. Because you guys, of all people, should know, if there was a way to ask for what power you wanted to get, this stuff wouldn’t be nearly as random. Not to mention the fact that we’d be better at knowing what we got without tripping over it.”

I saw Oliver, of all people, smother a smile with his hand before nodding. “Indeed,” the portly man agreed. “but there is something different about these particular necromancer abilities which makes them somewhat more worrying than usual.”

Sophronia nodded. “Specifically, when a couple of our people attempted to halt Mr. Parsons’ body, he simply turned intangible and passed through them.”

“That,” Litonya snapped, “is impossible. Strangers and Heretics are alike in that fact. They do not retain their powers after death. Their strength as zombies is in their numbers, and sometimes skill, but never powers. It doesn’t happen.”

Somehow I restrained myself from pointing out how stupid it was for her to say that, considering she had just seen it happen with Rudolph. As tempting as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn’t help my case.

I also could have informed her and the rest of the Committee that there were also a lot of other ways that Heretics and Alters were alike, but I figured this was also the wrong time for that.

Instead, I shrugged a little bit while slowly looking around the room to meet all of their intense gazes. “Yeah, maybe now you guys understand why he was so dangerous, why all of his people are so dangerous. Look at what they did with this place. I gestured around the room. “Look at this whole hospital. They took over this whole hospital. They are using it as their own personal base, their own place to snatch whoever they wanted. Who knows how many people you thought died and ended up with them instead? I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s obviously been going on for decades, at least. There were hundreds of dead bodies in here hidden away for him to play with.”

Gaia finally spoke up then. “Miss Chambers is, of course, correct. You know as well as I do that some of the bodies found when the necromancer was killed have been dead or missing for well over eighty years. They were preserved somehow, and hidden away. I do hope you’re not suggesting that she could possibly have had anything to do with that. She is quite good for her age, we are all well aware of that, but time travel?”

Sigmund shook his head, grunting out an annoyed, “Of course not. We’re just trying to find out everything she does know. Sometimes people know more than they think they do. You just have to ask the right questions to tease it out. Not that it matters that much now, but still.”

Or people knew more than they were willing to say. I knew that was the unspoken part of his statement, and the other thing that they were doing. And what the hell did he mean it didn’t matter much now?

Taking a breath, I started with, “I have a couple questions myself. Starting with, isn’t there supposed to be more of you?” I gestured to the empty spot near Litonya. “Where is, um, was it Elisabet? And that Geta guy.”

Yeah, I already knew where the former was, better than these guys did. But it made sense for me to ask. Plus, I was still curious about what her excuse was.

All of them exchange glances, and from the look on some of their faces, they weren’t exactly accustomed to someone openly questioning them in a situation like this. They were far more used to someone ducking their head and answering everything they asked.

In the end, it was Teach who answered. “Unfortunately, Miss Elisabet and Geta have been unavoidably detained with another matter. They’ll, ahhh, be here as soon as possible.”

I probably shouldn’t have said the next thing. I definitely shouldn’t have said it. But I did. Straightening up a little, I nodded. “Okay, so where were the rest of you while this was going on? I mean, this was your main hospital being completely taken over. That’s got to be a big deal, right? But you only sent two of you to deal with it? What else was going on?”

“Miss Chambers,“ Ruthers snapped, “we do not explain our actions or reasoning to you. You are—”

It look like he was winding himself up into a very impressive rant, but Sophronia interrupted.

“Enough, Gabriel. The girl has earned straight answers.” To me, she explained, “There were other attacks. Heretic-on-Heretic attacks. At least fifteen counts of long-time Heretics attacking their allies, their friends. And then going on sprees attacking everything in sight. Destroying long-held Heretic structures, burning down supplies, doing as much damage as they could.”

My eyes widened at that. “Now that they know that you know they can possess people and that they’re organized, they’re not hiding it as much. They’re showing you what they can do. And they were distracting you away from this place.”

Sigmund gave a low chuckle. “Yes, they’ve shown what they are capable of. And we have contained the situation. They took their shot, and it wasn’t enough. That is what we were doing tonight: ending this threat. We hunted down every last compromised Heretic. When cornered, the creatures inside tried to flee before being destroyed, down to the last of them. We’ve stopped them.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of me, “Don’t be an idiot.”

As soon as I said, my eyes widened and my heart seemed to stop. I saw similar surprised looks on everyone’s face, especially Sigmund himself. The man looked as though I had just spontaneously transformed into a unicorn singing show tunes with his mother’s voice. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” I quickly held up both hands in surrender. “It’s just been a long night, a long… well, everything. What I’m saying is that obviously wasn’t their best shot. They wouldn’t blow it like that. That was a tiny hint of what they’re capable of. It was a distraction, not a full assault.“

Jue spoke then, her voice brittle. “Given what you have been through, your fear of them is completely understandable, as is your outburst. It will not be forgiven so easily a second time, mind, but one strike should be overlooked at this point.”

She continued before I could say anything. “That said, we assure you, the threat posed by this group has been largely dismantled now. We have spent most of this evening interrogating those involved and investigating the bases that they directed us to. We found the arena where you and the others were being held.”

Well, that took me aback. I blinked twice before stammering, “You did?”

Ruthers nodded. “It was exactly as you described it, actually. We found several prisoners still there. None of your fellow students, unfortunately. Not just yet. But we did find imprisoned Heretics who confirmed your story. They even remember seeing you there.“

My mouth opened and shut, and I felt my head spin. Was I in the twilight zone? How could the Committee find an arena that didn’t exist? How could they find witnesses to corroborate our story when our story was bogus? At least those specifics of it. How…

“Correct.” The voice came from the doorway and I saw Elisabet and Geta there. The woman herself gave me a brief look before continuing. “Apologies, following the leads provided by your former fellow prisoners took longer than expected.”

“Indeed,” Geta confirmed. “But we can safely say that we have dealt with the largest part of the conspiracy and infiltration. The necromancer was clearly their leader, and without the head, the rest fell apart. They tried to enact their primary attack, but they weren’t ready yet. It fell apart too soon. They did a lot of damage, and far too many people died because of our failing. But it’s been contained.”

That was it, I realized. That was how the Seosten were going to spin this, how they were going to deal with the news about their existence getting out. That was why they hadn’t bothered to keep things quiet in the hospital and why they’d had a bunch of their assets reveal themselves in those seemingly pointless and failed attacks. Because they wanted it to look like they’d been flushed out. They couldn’t make the whole Committee forget everything they knew (not easily anyway), so they went the other way: open and eventually failed attack. That way, the Committee would do exactly what they were doing now (with a little helpful nudge from Elisabet, of course): decide that the main threat was over. It was a feint, of sorts, just enough of an attack to make Crossroads think that they had successfully repelled a major invasion and put a stop to the conspiracy they had uncovered.

The Seosten had probably rewritten several Heretics’ memories, faked the deaths of some of their people, probably even allowed the deaths of as many non-Seosten as they could spare. I imagined some of those Seosten who had ‘been destroyed’ had really played up their death scenes to make it look good. Maybe they’d even gone as far as supplying some real Seosten bodies or something to make it look even more real. I didn’t know, but they probably had plenty given all the fighting they did. Elisabet had even managed to convince Geta of what he was seeing. Or they had just possessed him with someone else, though I wasn’t sure on that point since possessing a ready and alert Committee member should have been pretty damn hard to pull off.

Either way, the point was, they’d released a few of their prisoners with rewritten memories to match the story that I had told. The Seosten had actually used the story that we made up to explain our absence as a way of taking the heat off themselves with a fake failed assault. An assault that was apparently big enough to require the Committee to intervene, which of course would convince them that it was authentic. But in the end, it had been designed to fail.

The Seosten sacrificed a relatively small force (though the non-Jophiel ones clearly hadn’t been expecting to lose Manakel) in exchange for making Crossroads think that they’d successfully driven out the infiltrators. And they did it using the story that we had made up. And worse, the Committee was never going to believe if I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They’d just think that I was paranoid after everything I’d been through. Because of course they would. They’d even think that they were doing the right thing by calming me down.

Plus, there was the fact that I couldn’t really argue with them, because this was a plan that Jophiel had obviously had something to do with and she was right there. She wouldn’t want me to go against the plan she’d set up to put the Seosten back under cover.

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

“For that matter,” Davis put in, “we even found and took care of the monsters who took the infants from the nursery here. The children have all been rescued and are being reunited with their families as we speak. Along with most of the actual patients. Those who survived, anyway. These… creatures were trying to smuggle them in a train. Our people spotted them, alerted us, and we dealt with the situation. Exactly as planned.”

Oh, it was exactly as planned, alright. I agreed with that wholeheartedly. The disagreement came in our respective ideas of whose plan it was.

While coming to terms with all that, I saw Dare start to speak up, only to stop just as suddenly. Her eyes glanced toward Gaia. The headmistress hadn’t moved or made any indication of communication, but I was certain that she’d somehow told Dare (probably telepathically) not to challenge the story. She either wanted the Committee to believe that they’d dealt with the threat, or didn’t think challenging it was worth the trouble it would cause.

By that point, Elisabet and Geta had moved to join the rest of the Committee. The latter cleared his throat before speaking. “Now then, I suppose that since Miss Chambers’ story has been proven correct, some of us should probably apologize for doubting her.”

That was the other side of Jophiel and Elisabet’s plan with all this, I realized. Making me look like I was telling the truth didn’t just take the heat off of the Seosten. It also worked to convince at least more of the Committee to get off my case, leaving them breathing room to work with me, with us. In one move, they had sacrificed a few pawns in order to keep the full extent of Seosten power a secret and keep me in a position beneficial to them.

Ruthers looked like someone made him swallow a frog. Grimacing, he grunted out, “Let’s see how the rest of this story holds up before we go handing out pats on the back.” To me, he demanded, “Let’s hear the whole story, Chambers. Tell us what happened tonight, everything that led up to you taking on the powers of a necromancer whose raised zombies, against everything we know, retain their abilities.”

I saw Elisabet pause briefly, only for an instant. I was positive that she already knew that Manakel was dead, of course. But the fact that I had inherited his necromancy powers did seem to somewhat surprise her. Which clearly meant that it surprised both her and Jophiel. Her eyes moved from Ruthers to me, a thoughtful look touching her gaze. “Mmm, it seems we may have missed more than we thought, Geta.”

“Indeed,” the man agreed. “Suddenly I’m far more interested in hearing this story.”

“Right,” I murmured quietly before straightening as I reached into my pocket. “Okay, well, it’s a long story. But I guess the gist of it is that Herbie saved the day.”

Yeah, I immediately had to backtrack and give the actual explanation. But honestly, after what I’d just had to listen to, I didn’t care. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces as I stood there proudly holding up my rock for their collective bewildered inspection.

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Convalescence 38-02

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My knees hit the floor before I knew what was happening. My head went down, and I threw up right there on the floor. My stomach was rolling violently, even as indescribable shame overtook me.

Deveron was there first, dropping beside me to offer a cup of water that he had summoned before doing something that took the… mess from the floor. Neither of us spoke. I was too ashamed to for that moment, and he clearly wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

Actually, of all people, it was Percival who found his voice first. “Well,” the man announced into the silence that had taken over the room, “this is an interesting development, I’ve gotta say.”

“Interesting?!” Doug’s voice came out in a high-pitched squeal before he got it under control. “You think it’s interesting that my dead teammate is standing right here because Flick accidentally summoned him? Are you fucking cra–” He stopped there, seeming to realize only at that point who he was actually talking to, and I saw the boy’s eyes suddenly widen.

“Fucking crazy?” Percival finished for him. He didn’t look offended. Actually, he didn’t look much like a super-powerful member of the Committee either. He was wearing dark jeans with random holes over them, and a black shirt advertising Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.” He also had a metal-studded wristband, and I caught sight of a tattoo of a bloody sword on his opposite arm. That last one could have been decorative or a spell, I wasn’t sure.

“Lots of people ask me that,” the man continued before Doug could stammer any explanation or excuse. “You’re not even the first one today. Or the first one from your family.”

Dare moved to me then, her eyes flicking toward the still motionless Rudolph. I saw a lot of emotions pass through her face as she looked to the boy before focusing on me once more. “Felicity,” she started softly, “it’s okay. You can… you can let him down now.”

“Let him down?!” I gave her a brief look before my head shook rapidly, still on my knees. “I don’t even know how I’m keeping him up. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear. I didn’t call him down here on purpose, or, or… or do any of this on purpose. It just happened. I mean, I think I maybe felt something back when I first did it, and maybe I feel something now like… at the back of my head, but I don’t know how to actually control it, or–or–I don’t know anything about it, anything!”

Okay, it was just maybe a tiny bit possible that after everything that had happened that night, I was kind of losing it just a little bit. But really, was that hard to understand?

It was Deveron who spoke up then, his hand resting on my shoulder while his other one touched my wrist. “I’ve seen a lot of necromancy, and if his is anything like that, he’ll follow your subconscious commands and the conscious ones. Verbal or silent, he’s connected to you. That’s probably why it was so easy this time. You know Rudolph pretty well and you really wanted him–” He hesitated, grimacing a little while coughing out the next couple words. “You really wanted him back. So the first thing you do is let him down. Think about him laying down.”

Trying to ignore the fact that I could feel and see everyone else staring at me, I swallowed hard before focusing on Rudolph–no, Rudolph’s body. Rudolph was dead. Rudolph was already dead. I wasn’t killing him again, because this wasn’t really him. It was some… some magic animating his body. That’s it. I had to remember that.

Keeping that thought in my mind, I willed Rudolph to lay down. Aloud, I quietly said, “It’s okay. You–” My voice cracked, and I tightened my hands into fists. “You can go back to sleep.”

It took a minute, probably because a good part of me didn’t want Rudolph to go away. As much as I told myself that it wasn’t really him, there was still a little bit that clung to the fact that he was standing right in front of me, and this did kind of feel like killing him again. It hurt. It really hurt.

But eventually, I managed it. Rudolph’s body slowly laid down there on the floor and went still. As it did, Deveron quietly talked me through pulling my power out of him. His voice was gentle. “Picture a line of power running from yourself to Rudolph, just a single tendril. Imagine he’s completely deaf, and that line is how you communicate with him. Like a cord between a computer and a keyboard. Focus on that line. It’s your power. It’s how you reach him, how you control him. Everything between you and Rudolph is in that line, okay? Now I want you to carefully pull that line out. Take the line out of him. Pull your power back and let him go.”

I did. Slowly and haltingly, I managed to extract the power from Rudolph’s body. Picturing it the way that Deveron described, I could feel the way the dead boy was connected to me, the way that the power I had taken from Manakel had extended itself into him.

Him. It. I kept flipping back and forth about what to refer to Rudolph as in my head. Both felt wrong. I was trying to remind myself that the dead body wasn’t really Rudolph anymore. But calling him ‘it’ even in my head also felt wrong. I just… I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Once it was done, and I felt like the power was completely out of the body, I straightened up, moving back away from the body as quickly as I could. I couldn’t look at it, at him. I didn’t want to see Rudolph like… like that. Even more bile rose in my throat at the thought of it, at the thought of what I had done with my power, puppeting him around like that. I almost threw up again.

It wasn’t right.

Everyone seemed to know exactly how I felt. Hisao moved closer, taking a knee beside the body. “I’ll take him back,” the man announced in a soft, respectful voice. I thought he had a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder, or maybe his stomach. I was really trying not to look.

A moment later, Hisao was gone, teleporting away with the body and leaving that spot of floor empty. And that was when I found myself staring at it, at the bit of floor where the body had been, where I had commanded Rudolph to move. My voice shook a little bit. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I–”

“We know you didn’t.” That was Dare. “We know you didn’t mean to.”

“It is, however,” Percival announced, “something else to explain. And unfortunately, keeping it secret isn’t in the cards. Rudolph wasn’t that subtle coming down here, and plenty of people saw him. Which means the rest of the Committee already knows. And, well, there’s some that tend to frown on necromancy. It has something of a negative reputation.”

Yeah, I could believe that. Not only for the obvious reasons, but also because of what Fossor had done. “Let me guess,” I started, “Ruthers is one of the ones who ‘tends to frown on it.’”

The man gave me a wry smile then. “You could say that. The man does have something of a shit history with necromancers.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “given the necromancer in question has my mom, we should be on the same side.”

“Ah,” Percival replied with a quick grin, “so you do know more about the Fossor situation than you’ve told the Committee.”

That made me do a double take, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before my hand found my forehead. “Shit. I knew that was going to trip me up eventually.” It had been an incredibly long night, after an incredibly long couple of days, after an incredibly long couple of months. I knew from Gaia that Percival could be trusted with that, but still, I should be more careful.

The man shrugged at me. “Don’t worry, most of us already know that you know more than you’re sharing. But it’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell situation. Believe me, we’ve had plenty of arguments about it. As long as you don’t let something like that slip in front of the others, they shouldn’t push you too hard about it. They’re afraid that if you don’t know much, asking you directly could create problems. Memory spells are tricky that way.”

“Wait,” Columbus started then, stepping closer. “How much do you know about what’s going on? No tricks or doubletalk. How much do you know?”

For a moment, I didn’t know if the man would answer. He looked at Columbus in silence briefly before turning back to glance toward Professor Dare and Hisao. Then he let out a breath and nodded as if coming to a decision. “Cards on the table, I know more than most on the Committee. Not all of it, but a lot. I also know that one of my fellow Counselors is definitely possessed. I don’t know who exactly, but it’s one of them. I’ve been trying to work that out. I know that Calafia, Teach, and Sophronia can be trusted so far as the Seosten situation is concerned, and I’m moderately confident that none of them are possessed. Particularly Calafia.”

“You know that they’ve been behind this whole organization,” I put in quietly. “You know that they were behind creating Crossroads, and the Bystander Effect.”

“Not originally,” the man replied. “I mean, I didn’t know they were the ones behind it. I knew who the Seosten were, just not that they were behind Crossroads. Not until more recently. But yeah, it fits with what I already knew before.  

“And I know that Joselyn disappeared because Fossor took her. I’m guessing the kid who showed up with mind-control powers was their son, and that he was visiting his big sister on her first trip back home after becoming a Heretic. Fossor objected and came to collect him, then let you know that he had your mother and that he’d be coming for you on some future date. Probably your eighteenth birthday.”

Well, I was definitely staring by that point. Around me, everyone else was doing pretty much the same. My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “You are good.”

He winked at me. “We can talk about it some more later. I’m sure you’ve got questions. But right now, the rest of the Committee is gonna want to talk to you–to all of you, but especially Flick here. And they’re gonna want to talk about this necromancy thing.”

Making a face, I sighed while slumping back a bit. “What am I supposed to tell them… you… them? You’ll be there, but something tells me you’re gonna play dumb about most of this.”

Dare was the one who answered. “Just tell them the truth, Felicity. Well, part of it. The man who did all of this was a necromancer. You killed him and inherited his power, and you’re not sure how to control it yet. Be honest about that part. Ruthers may have a problem with it, but not everyone does. Especially when it’s an inherited power rather than magic that you’ve deliberately worked at.”

Percival was nodding. “She’s right. There’s no need to hold back on that point. It explains how the zombies got into Crossroads a few months back. Just…” He paused then, clearly thinking about what he was about to say before continuing with, “… answer the questions as well as you can. I know you’ve got a way to lie to us, probably thanks to Gaia. Keep your answers as honest as you can without giving too much away. It’s easier to keep track of what you’ve said then.”

“Right,” I replied, “so just like we said before. There’s a race of body snatchers that took us. The necromancer was one of them. They’re the ones who have been trying to kill Avalon, and they took advantage of us escaping… or possibly let us escape, as a distraction to grab her. They brought her here to the hospital that they took over and we accidentally found her, so they unleashed everything to stop us from escaping. During the fighting, the necromancer in charge k-killed Rudolph and then ran away from Gaia. I possessed him and made him kill himself.”

“And now you have his power,” Percival finished for me, nodding. “Exactly. They’ll probably push you on how much you know about these people and if you’ve been keeping things back. Which you are, but like I said, they probably won’t openly ask you directly about things like your mother because they’re afraid of weakening the memory spell, or leading you toward things that could weaken it. Even with something like this, they’ll beat around the bush a bit. Unless, of course, you give them reason to be more direct.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before asking, “Is there anything else you can tell us about what’s going on in there? Anything we should know?”

Percival paused. I could tell there was indeed something he wanted to tell me. Instead, however, he shook his head. “Let’s just say there’s some pretty unbelievable shit going on. But trust me, it’s better for everyone involved if you’re surprised by it. Your first reaction needs to be genuine. Otherwise the hardcore guys will… well, they don’t need any more ammunition.”

And now I was really curious. But I couldn’t very well argue with him. Instead, I managed a weak, “Let me guess, they’re ready for us?”

Dare nodded. “Ready for you. They’ll talk to the others afterward. We thought you might want to get done first so that you could see Avalon and…” She paused, looking toward Percival.

“And my dad,” I finished for her. “Since they’re both at the Atherby camp.”

If he was surprised at all by that, Percival didn’t show it. He just gave me a tiny smile, nodding once. “That’s a good place for them. Calafia told me that she helped your father.”

“Right,” I muttered, “people communicate with each other even when they’re not talking to me. I have got to remember that.”

Chuckling, Percival gestured. “I’ve gotta get back. Oh, but first, before I forget…” He paused, then looked up toward Shiori, who had ushered Choo back into his bag the moment company had arrived. “Here,” he continued, tossing something that way. “A present for your little friend. Gaia thought you could use it.”

Shiori, looking surprised, caught the thing and looked at it. As did the rest of us. It was a collar. A really pretty purple collar, with intricate golden designs that were clearly spells. “Err… um. What–um… what frie–”

“Please don’t,” Percival looked slightly pained. “We have enough to deal with without playing the ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ game. Use the collar. It’ll help keep him secret and safe, I promise. Virginia can show you how it works. Calafia and I put it together in our spare time. Consider it a little gift to make up for all the shit you’ve been through this year, and the shit you’ll no doubt go through in the future.”

There was clearly a lot that Shiori wanted to say to that, but the man had already moved on, as if handing her a way (handmade by no less than two Crossroads Committee members) to protect her pet from being horrifically murdered was no big deal.

Percival, in turn, had already turned his attention to Dare, adding, “You bring her up for our little Q&A. The others and I will do our best to make it as short as possible.”

He turned then, before pausing. When the man looked back, his eyes moved not to me, but to the silent, somewhat listless Doug. “I’ll let your great-great-grandfather know you’re okay.”

As Doug (and, to be honest, the rest of us) blinked at that, Percival continued. “Sulan’s gonna be glad you made it through all that. And he’ll want to talk to you about it, soon as possible.”

“You… you know my Grandpa Sulan?” Doug stared at him for a second. “How? I mean, I know that’s a stupid question because he came through Crossroads too, but he wasn’t–I mean you were never–”

“It’s a long story,” Percival carefully replied. “Come see me another time, when everything isn’t so crazy, and maybe I can tell you. But make sure you ask Sulan how many eggs he has. He’ll get it.” He reached out, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder then. “He’ll want to come for the funeral too. If you’d be okay with him showing up.”

“I–” Doug looked choked up, his face contorting with emotion before he nodded quickly. “I-if he can come. He was… he was banished.”

“Banished from your colony world,” Percival corrected, “not from Earth. Though he tends to keep his distance to avoid making any of the people around here who don’t like him very much look too hard at you. But he’ll be here for this, if you want him.”

Sounding like there was a thick lump in his throat, Doug slowly nodded. “Ye-yes. I–I’d like him to come.”

“Then he’ll be here.” Percival sounded absolutely certain, which made me wonder just how well he knew this Sulan guy. “I’ll be sure he makes it. You have my word, Douglas. And… and I’m sorry about your friend.”

With that, he was gone, leaving the rest of us there with just Deveron and Dare. The latter of which looked to me apologetically. “You have no idea how much I would like to tell the Committee to shove it and take you out of here. All of you. You’ve been through too much. An interrogation right now is asinine.”  

“You’re not the only one,” Deveron assured her. “Believe me, there’s more than one guy on that Committee I’m real close to popping in the face.”

Of all people, it was Sean who replied to that. “Something tells me that’ll just make things worse.” The boy’s voice was hoarse, and I did a brief double-take upon the realization that he had clearly been silently crying.

Guilt, I realized. Sean felt guilty. Of course he did. He and Rudolph had both been down there, and he had been the one that was spared. How must that make him feel?  Did he have any idea why Manakel had chosen him instead of Rudolph to live?

Because I was pretty sure he’d done it because Manakel assumed I’d be less likely to risk killing Sean than Rudolph, since we knew each other better. And the guilt about that was already killing me. I couldn’t even imagine how Sean was doing.

Yeah, Manakel being dead right now was a good thing. A very fucking good thing.

After taking a moment to embrace Shiori tightly (and slightly longer than strictly necessary given how much I would have preferred to stay with her than go be interrogated by the Committee some more), I nodded to the others. “Okay guys, see you in a few minutes, I guess.”

“Good luck,” Koren spoke up, echoed by everyone else.

“Thanks,” I replied, “and thanks for the message. That’s pretty much what tied it all together.”

Wincing, the other girl shook her head. “I just wish I didn’t fuck up that one word. I was trying to fix it, but–”

“Yeah.” Swallowing, I nodded to her. “It’s okay. I got the point in time. Trust me, I’m just glad you’re okay, and that he didn’t–” Stopping myself, I blanched.

I didn’t have to continue that thought. Koren just met my gaze. “Yeah,” she agreed softly, “me too.”

There was so much else that I wanted to say, so much more I needed and wanted to do with the people I actually cared about. After everything that we had been through, the last fucking thing I wanted to do was sit through another ‘discussion’ with the Committee, even if a few of them were on my side.

But I had to. They were the authorities and they were too powerful to ignore (in every sense of the word). I had to go through this.

So, with a sigh, I turned back and nodded toward Professor Dare. “Okay. Let’s go, I guess. Now I’ve got literal necromancer powers and Ruthers, who is already suspicious about me and hates my mom to the point of blinding rage, also happens to utterly loathe necromancers, probably even more than he hates her. Oh, and to top it all off, he probably knows I’m lying to him about some things.

“So, you know… this oughta be fun.”

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Convalescence 38-01

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To say that things moved quickly after Manakel’s death would have been a drastic understatement. Everything was a total whirlwind that I barely had time to comprehend.

What I did know was that a bunch more Heretic reinforcements had shown up, just in time for what was left of the living Seosten forces to disappear, while the zombies that Manakel had brought back to life dropped dead once more. Or whatever it was when undead things stopped moving around. The point was, there were suddenly a lot of very amped up Heretics with nothing to fight.

Sariel took the cure for the poison from the necromancer’s body, before she and Gaia gave it to Avalon. I didn’t see an immediate effect, but Sariel assured us that the girl would be okay. She just needed time to recover. Time that she would definitely get, as Gaia had Gabriel Prosser take Avalon back to his camp to make sure that there was no chance of any last-second, unknown assassins taking one last shot at her while she was still weak.

Sariel had gone as well to make sure Avalon got all the help she needed, taking Tabbris with her for the time being. Which I couldn’t really object to given everything that was going on, no matter how much more comfortable I felt with my partner. I’d just given her a brief hug and promised to see her as soon as possible. She would tell Dad what happened, and that I was okay, since my leaving right then absolutely wasn’t in the cards.

Meanwhile, Gaia, Dare, and Nevada were dealing with the Committee and their representatives, who had finally all showing up to find out what the hell was going on. They were in the hospital director’s office where everything had gone down. Kohaku was still in there with them, along with Rudolph’s body.

Which left me sitting in another room in the hospital along with Doug, Shiori, Columbus, Scout, Sean, Vulcan, Choo, Koren, and Deveron. Those last two had woken up around the time that Manakel and I had had our final… conversation, while Sean had been a bit later. We were waiting for our turn to talk to the Committee, after they were done with Gaia and the other adults. That and I was pretty sure there were some pretty intense discussions going on as far as I was concerned, which had to be ironed out before Gaia would let them anywhere near me.

That was okay. I really appreciated the chance to breathe for a few seconds before having to deal with… well, all of that. Time to breathe, in this case, translating to time to explain everything that had happened to the others and finally put everyone (mostly) on the same page.

“So… so he’s dead.” That was Koren, staring at me. “Y-you… you killed Manakel.”

My head shook at that. “Not me. Well, technically. But it was Sariel. She killed him. It’s just that she used my body to do it. I’m more like the knife than the stabber, in this situation.”

The room we were in was some kind of conference place, with a long wooden table taking up most of it, and several of those screen-windows that showed views of various exotic locations, like a waterfall in a rainforest, and a long expanse of empty desert with sand blowing heavily.

Deveron was standing by the desert window, staring through it for a moment before he turned back to where I was sitting at the table with most of the others aside from him and Douglas (who was sitting on the floor against the far wall) around me. “I can’t believe he was possessing Risa and I didn’t know about it. I–” A pained look crossed his face then before he let out a long, low sigh and moved to sit across from me. “I’m sorry. To all of you. I should have been… I should have done more. Everything you’ve been through this year and it was all because we didn’t figure out that the head of security was possessed.”

My head shook at that. “It’s not your fault. It’s… we all missed it. I dismissed her because of the choker. I never really thought it could be anyone that close to Gaia. I didn’t–” Flinching then, I dropped my gaze to the table. “God, how bad must Gaia feel about it? She was–” Cutting myself off then, I just bit my lip hard. If we felt this guilty about Kohaku, if I felt this guilty, Gaia must feel even worse. To say nothing of the idea that the woman she obviously cared about had been enslaved for… for… God only knew how long.

How long had Kohaku been possessed? Clearly at least since the beginning of the year. She had been the one who killed Pericles. Well, Manakel had, while possessing her. That’s how he managed to get so close to the man, and why Security had never been able to figure it out: because their leader was the one whose body had done it. Through Kohaku, Manakel had been able to control most of the investigation. And even the parts he couldn’t control directly, like Tribald Kine, were still confided in her. Because she was the head of Security. So Manakel had always known exactly how to push the investigation any way he wanted.

Doug spoke up. “There’s no point to playing the shoulda, coulda, woulda game. The point is, that fucking… fucking piece of shit is dead. He’s dead. That’s what matters. Whoever did it, congratulations. I just wish you’d pulled it off before he–” In mid-sentence, the boy suddenly stopped, clearly choking on his own words.

Before he’d killed Rudolph. That was what he’d been about to say, I knew. I felt the same way. If we’d figured it out sooner, if–well, there were a lot of if’s. But it was like Doug said, they didn’t matter. There may have been a lot of powers floating around, but we couldn’t just change the past like that.

Picking myself up from the table, I moved over to kneel next to the boy. My own voice was soft, cracking a little. “I’m sorry about Rudolph,” I whispered. “He didn’t–he shouldn’t have been involved in any of this. He was just–” Cutting myself off as tears filled my eyes, I looked away. “He wasn’t a threat to Manakel. He wasn’t… anything to Manakel. That asshole just–” I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what I’d been trying to say in the first place. It just felt better if I was talking, like I was actually accomplishing something. But that was just stupid.

Doug’s voice was hollow. “Rudolph was my friend. Paul died. Jazz and Gordon are still gone. Isaac’s an evil piece of shit. Roxa disappeared and then ended up out in space. Rudolph… Rudolph was there. Maybe he joined our team late, but he was there. He did his best, he tried to help anyone he could. He listened when I needed to talk. He was there, and now he’s–he’s–”

His head fell then, arms wrapping around himself as he cried. It made me want to touch him, even hug him, but I didn’t know how he’d take it. I didn’t want to make things worse.

In the end, it was Sean who moved first. The other boy moved past me, sitting next to Doug before putting one arm around his shoulders. Vulcan sat on the other side of him, the metal dog leaning in to rub against Doug’s arm until the boy listlessly lifted it to pat him.

“He’s dead.” The flat announcement came from Scout, who seemed to be trying the words out for size, trying to understand them. “Manakel’s dead.” She sounded just as stunned as I felt. I knew why she was saying it, because saying it made it feel a little more real. And this… well, this didn’t feel all that real yet.

Shiori, shifting a bit in her seat to look over to me, asked, “Avalon’s going to be okay, right?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Between Gabriel and Sariel, yeah, she’ll be okay. Gaia wouldn’t have left her side if she had any doubt, no matter what the Committee said. So yeah, she just needs time.”

“It’s still not over though, is it?” Koren was the one speaking again. She had picked herself up from the table and now stood with her arms folded tight across her chest. “I mean, the Seosten aren’t just going to give up because Manakel’s dead. They’re not going to be like, ‘Oh well, fair shot, chaps. Jolly good, catch you all next time, what what.’”

My mouth opened, but before I could speak, Columbus interrupted. “Did you just give your hypothetical Seosten a really terrible British accent for some reason?”

Flushing noticeably, the girl shrugged while mumbling, “Maybe. Lots of evil space empires sound British in the movies.” Clearing her throat then pointedly, she looked back to me. “But the point is, they won’t just give up.”

“Nope,” I agreed. “They won’t. They lost their leader on-planet, so it’ll take them some time to figure out how to deal with that and bring in a replacement. But until they do that, we have a break. And we can use it.”

“To get to the vault,” Columbus finished for me. He held his goggles in one hand, his eyes meeting mine. “You want to get to the vault with Avalon and open it before the Seosten recover from losing Manakel.”

“I wasn’t going to bring it up just yet since everything just happened,” I replied, “but pretty much. Avalon needs time to recover from everything. And so do we. I mean, I doubt whatever Seosten are left will just let us walk in there. So we’ll need time to plan, time to rest, and time to… well, deal with everything. But eventually, that’s what we have to do. Look at how open they were about this whole hospital thing. They’ve gone completely insane. They’re not even trying to be subtle anymore. Not really. So yeah, our best next move is to get to the vault, open it, and figure out how to safely use whatever’s in it. If it’s over and done with, the Seosten might be pissed, but going after Avalon will be pointless from a… you know, objective standpoint.”

Deveron gave me a small smile. “You mean you hope that whatever Liesje’s spell does will make the Seosten too busy dealing with that to worry about going after Avalon anymore.”

“Make them too busy chasing the horses to worry about the barn they ran out of, yeah.” I nodded with a helpless shrug. “It’s the best I can think of. It’s a whole Empire we’re talking about here. Losing Manakel was big for them. Really big. But it’s not the end of it.”

“Avalon won’t be ready to do that for awhile,” Shiori put in.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “None of us are ready for that. And even when we are, like I said, we can’t just use the spell immediately. They’ll have to work out what it does, exactly. And try to fix it so that… so that Seosten and humans who agree to possession can still do it.”

Columbus squinted at me, holding his goggles tightly in one hand by his side. “You mean like you and…  and the girl.”

“And Tabbris,” I confirmed, staring right back at him. “She saved all of us, more than once. And her mother, Sariel, she did too. Manakel would’ve gotten away if it wasn’t for her. He would have gotten away if Sariel hadn’t been able to possess me. After everything that happened, he still would’ve gotten away. So yeah, I think we should fix the spell so that possession can be voluntary. Maybe when the others get back here, Dries can… can fix it, with Wyatt and Sariel’s help. And anyone else. But first, we just need to get into the vault. When we’re ready. When Avalon’s ready.”

It was Doug who spoke next, first mumbling into his arms as his face was buried in them, before raising his head to speak more clearly. “I’m surprised you can think at all. Rudolph’s dead. How can you even… how can you even think about anything else?” His tone sounded more… sad and lost than accusatory, though there was a tiny bit of that too, which I couldn’t blame him for.

My voice was soft as I hesitantly reached out to touch the boy’s arm. “Doug, believe me, I wish Rudolph was alive. I do. I’d do anything to have him standing right here in the room with us now. If it would help, if there was anything we could do, I just…” Taking a deep, slightly shuddering breath, I forced myself to continue. “I just can’t do anything. That stupid, psycho piece of shit k-killed him. And we can’t fix that. I want to fix it, but we can’t. So… so I’m trying to focus on other things. It doesn’t really help, because I keep seeing Rudolph. And Paul. And Professor Katarin. Even Professor Pericles and I only knew him for like a day.”

“They’re responsible for killing a lot of people,” Columbus put in, his own voice hard.

“Too many,” Sean agreed, still sitting there beside Douglas with one arm around him. “But now, at least Manakel is dead. He paid for it.”

Doug shook his head emphatically, his voice dark while he tightened both of his hands into fists. “He didn’t pay enough.” He spat the words “All the people he killed, all that… all the shit he was responsible for? He didn’t pay nearly enough.”

Before I could respond to that, Deveron spoke. He’d moved over to stand in front of us. “Sometimes you can’t focus on that. You can’t dwell on how much punishment you can give to the people who deserve it. You don’t focus on how much pain they’ve already inflicted on people in the past. You have to focus on how much pain you’re saving future people from.”

He took a knee then, meeting Doug’s gaze. “If you fall into the hole of obsessing over how much pain these people, and people like them, have inflicted on innocents before they were stopped, nothing will ever be enough. Nothing. That is a bottomless pit from which there is no escape.”

It took Doug a few seconds to respond to that. And when he did, his voice cracked a little. “S-so focus on the fact that they won’t be able to hurt anyone else like that? Focus on the fact that Manakel can’t torture or kill any other people like–like Rudolph?”

Deveron nodded once. “Exactly. That’s all you can do. Anything else is just… it’s just too much.”

Rather than respond to that immediately, Doug lowered his gaze to stare at his feet for a few seconds as he sat there. “I… I don’t know if I can do that. Rudolph was my friend. He… he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t–” Stopping himself, he just shook his head.

I knew how he felt. He wanted his friend back. Manakel dying was good and all, but Rudolph still deserved to be alive. He deserved to be here with us. Instead, he was dead. Dead because we hadn’t been able to protect him, because we had failed to-

Before I could continue that thought, there was a sudden commotion at the door. My eyes snapped that way, hand grabbing reflexively for my staff. After everything that had happened, it would just figure that another problem would present itself. But when the door opened, all thoughts of defense or attack left my head. Actually, all thoughts left my head, completely.

Because it was Rudolph who walked through the door. There were others with him. Professor Dare, that Percival guy from the Committee, and Hisao. They were right on his heels, as the boy entered the room.

“Rudolph!” Doug was the first to react, scrambling to his feet. He took two steps that way before suddenly stopping, his movement turning into a brief stumble. “Wh-what–no. No, no, what?”

Because while Rudolph was upright and moving… he was still dead. His eyes were empty, his movements listless. He was very, very clearly not alive.

There was a whole lot of cursing and scrambling then, while the dead Rudolph simply entered the room and stood there.

“He just got up and started moving,” Dare announced in a low voice, her sword drawn as she squinted at Rudolph, having put herself between the body and us. “We wanted to see where he was going.”

Percival and Hisao stood near the door, the former speaking up. “He came straight here. No detours, no hesitation.”

“H-he’s fucking with us.” That was Columbus, standing by his sister and partway in front of her. “Manakel, he found a way to… to give the body orders ahead of time or something.”

“No,” Deveron replied, his own voice soft as he shook his head. “Manakel isn’t the one controlling him, posthumously or otherwise.”

“Then wha–” I started to look that way, only to stop as I found Deveron staring at me. Confusion filled me for another second, before just as quickly fading. “Why a–oh.”

“Oh?” Shiori looked back and forth between us. “What do you mean, oh? What–oh.”

Yeah. Oh. A minute earlier, when talking to Doug, I had said that I would do anything for Rudolph to be right there with us.

And now… he was right there with us. Or his body was, at least. It was here because I asked it to be, because I wished for it.

Because I made it.

Sariel may have killed Manakel. But she used my body to do it. And my body had absorbed his power. Specifically, his unique Olympian power to raise and control the dead. The power that was now… now mine.

I was a necromancer.

Just like Fossor.  

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Interlude 36C – Percival and Gaia

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1670

“Gaia, is it? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days?”

As the red-haired woman entered the house and heard the voice, she paused. Without turning around, she replied, “It is better than some alternatives.”

Percival, of those legendary knights trained and empowered by her half-brother, spoke up once more while stepping out of the shadows of the alcove he had been waiting in. “You are very right. There are a lot of things those who knew you back then could call you which would be worse than Gaia Sinclaire. Or even Scáthach. I heard you took that name for a while.”

Finally, the woman turned to face him. Her voice was soft. “You may believe this or not, but it is good to see you.” She paused then before adding, “It is good to see anyone from then. It has been quite some time.”

“I wish I could say it was good to see you in return,” the man informed her in an even voice. “Because that would mean, well, a lot of things that happened didn’t happen. And if they hadn’t happened… maybe things would be very different now.”

Gaia met his gaze without flinching. “You mean to say that had I not betrayed my brother, he might still be… with us. Arthur could still be king and the world itself would be much better off than it is now in our current circumstances.”

Percival’s voice was flat. “That is what I mean to say, yes. You weren’t the cause of all of our problems. Not even close. But if you had stayed on our side, if you had been a true ally and friend, things could have turned out very differently than they did.”

There was silence for a few, long seconds before Gaia slowly nodded. “You are correct. I had so much rage toward what I saw as injustice and oppression that I inflicted it myself in my zeal to eradicate it. I hurt people who did not deserve to be hurt. I killed those who did not deserve to die. I betrayed my brother because I did not feel he went far enough for my own sense of justice.”

She swallowed hard then before continuing in a softer voice. “I think about that day a lot, you know. The day when Arthur and I finally broke. When he refused to execute the men for burning the village… for everything they did before setting the flames… I could not let it stand. I could not walk away from it. They had to die.”

“They had already surrendered,” Percival put in then. “They had thrown down their arms and were on their knees. Arthur accepted their surrender because he was a man of honor. It wasn’t about whether they deserved eventual execution or not. They would have faced judgment. But not in that second. Not after they surrendered. Especially not when there were those in their number who may not have been involved.”

Swallowing once more, Gaia gave a very slight nod. It was a point she had argued against for a long time. But not right now. “Perhaps. But I couldn’t wait. I wouldn’t wait. You were there, Percival. You saw the village, what they did. You saw the people they burned, the women they raped. You saw the carnage. You heard the children crying. I could not let it go.”

Percival’s voice was as soft as hers. “So you killed them yourself, while they sat in cages waiting for judgment. You judged them yourself. You told Arthur you would back off. Then you doused all of the men in oil and set them ablaze while they were helpless. You broke Arthur’s word for him. He promised those men a fair trial and judgment, The chance to speak in their own defense. They had families too, and he promised those people their fathers would be given a fair trial. Some of them may not have been directly involved. We didn’t know the whole story. The ones who claimed innocence, who claimed their comrades had gone off without them, they may have been truthful. It could have come out with a proper investigation and trial. But you killed all of them, even after promising Arthur you would leave it alone. You gave him your word. He asked you to swear you would leave it alone, and you agreed. Then you killed them anyway.

“And that was the problem. Because if Arthur could not trust his own sister, if his own sister could betray him and pursue her own justice against his orders, what were the odds of others respecting his word? The things you did that day and afterward hurt Arthur’s ability to lead. Because they knew. The people knew you were out there, knew you were playing your own games. You created your own army, pursued your own sense of justice. Arthur needed loyalty. He needed the people to trust him. He needed his sister to trust him.”

He sighed then, slowly shaking his head. “To be quite honest, we moved on to bigger threats after you were gone. We were so… young back then, so incredibly new to things. You were only a threat for a few years, maybe twenty at the most. A blink of an eye, really. You were with us for a little while, then you were against us for a little while. Then you were gone. Arthur mourned for you. He even looked for you, for a long time. It distracted him, searching for you.”

Gaia flinched a little, her hands tightening and loosening once. “He truly should not have bothered.”

“It’s who he was,” Percival replied, “who he is. Even after everything that happened, he still wanted to forgive you. He still wanted to bring you back, wanted to bring his sister back. And that’s kind of the point. Arthur trusted you. He needed you. More than almost any of us aside from Gwen, he needed you. If none of it had happened, if you had still been there, had still been loyal and everything hadn’t gone wrong…”

Again there was silence before the woman quietly replied, “I am well aware of my own sins. And all of those which came after that moment. It was the breaking point. But it was hardly my worst action once the flint had been struck. I did a great many terrible things in the name and pursuit of what I saw as justice. Some of them I would stand by today. Many I would not. Especially…” She stopped then, emotion flickering into her eyes as her arms reflexively closed around her stomach.

For the first time, the man’s gaze softened noticeably as he spoke for her. “Mordred, your son.”

Even after all the time which had passed since that terrible day, the name brought tears to her eyes. The woman shuddered and then spoke in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible, and cracked with emotion. “He died because of me. Because of my actions. I lost my son. My little boy. Not so little at the time, but still. Always my little boy. Always and forever. He’s gone forever because of me. I can never undo the things I did, the mistakes I made. Just as I can never see my son again. I would have done anything to save him, anything to change what happened. I would have sacrificed myself a thousand times over if it would have saved him. But I could not. Just as I cannot change my other mistakes. All I can do is be a better person now than I was then. Maybe it will never be enough for any kind of redemption. I truly doubt it will. But it is all I have, all I can do. Be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I am today. I have nothing else.”

Slowly stepping forward, Percival extended a hand to rest on the woman’s shoulder. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you this then, but I am very sorry about your son. I know you loved him. And he truly loved you. What happened to him was a tragedy.” He paused then before adding, “Some of us thought you might have ended yourself after that. You disappeared for a long time. Then you just showed up again after hundreds of years, and it turns out you time traveled. The rest of us, we took the long way around. But you found a shortcut.”

There was the tiniest hint of a smile on Gaia’s face. “I wondered how long it would take you to ask about that. It is a very long story. And I did not come alone.”

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The Green Knight, I am well aware. He was with you when you were turned the first time, wasn’t he? He took the being’s nature-based gifts, while you gained the control over machines and inventions that made the people of our time call you a sorceress.”

The woman nodded once more. “He was with me then, yes. We have been acquainted for quite some time, off and on. I would not call us friends, but we do seem to be bound to one another in some way. I could not say why. Perhaps the future will reveal why we are so connected.”

Her head a shake then. “But he is not the only companion I had in that trip. Though perhaps the only one closest to an ally.”

Percival nodded. “Yes, I know about the creatures you brought through with you. Believe me, if I hadn’t convinced myself it was not your intention, we would have had this conversation much earlier. And it would not have been nearly as pleasant.”

“Yes,” Gaia murmured, “it was most certainly not intentional. I did my best to contain them, and stopped them from killing a boy in the village where I arrived, though not before he had already been bonded to it.” She glanced to the man then. “I am told that boy became one of yours. One of theirs, rather. Ruthers, I believe, was his name.”

Percival winced a little. “Gabriel Ruthers, yes. He used to be a lot different than he is now, a lot more optimistic. He was the one who pushed to make a deal with the necromancer. And we saw how that turned out.”

She looked to him then. “They don’t understand, you realize. This hatred of everything not human. They are pushing it too far. Arthur would not agree with it.”

There was a slight flinch from the man at that, before he gave a faint nod. “He would not. There’s something else to it, something…” He paused before settling on, “I have a purpose for being here. But it may take quite some time to come to fruition.”

The two of them stood there together in silence for some time, both contemplating all of that before Gaia looked to him. “As we have quite firmly established, my trip through time was long ago. I have been in this time, so to speak, for quite some time now. Far longer than I spent an our original time. It must have been over five hundred years by this point. Five hundred years. If what you wanted was answers, or even justice for my past, you could have sought me out then, at any point. You have had quite a long time to do so. I am sure it did not take you long to understand who I was. You could have come while I was with the Sinclairs. I would hardly have been in any shape to stop you. Yet you wait until now. After all this time, I would say you were openly avoiding me.”

“You’re right,” Percival agreed. “I could have come to find you before. I almost did. But I wanted to give you time to show what your intentions were. Arthur would have wanted me to give you time. He would have given you a chance to prove yourself again.”

“Is that why you’re here now?” she asked him then. “Because you’ve come to a decision?”

“I am here now,” the man replied easily, “because they recruited you. They brought you into this, made you part of their new group. So I had to come see if I could actually trust you.”

Rather than follow on that immediately, Gaia asked, “Are you here with these people because of your own choices, or because of something Arthur asked you to do? Is your presence a coincidence, or a mission?”

He met her eyes. “That is something I could only explain to someone I trust.”

“And do you trust me?”

In response, the man was silent for a few seconds. Then he looked back up and squared his shoulders. “Truthfully, I haven’t decided yet. Mostly because I don’t know what’s going to happen the next time you get angry. You may have the best of intentions now, and then lose your mind and all sense of proportion later. But, you know what? The fact that I haven’t decided I don’t trust you is a significant step up.”

The woman gave a slight nod of agreement. “Given our past, yes, it is. But where do we go from here? How do we move forward?”

Rather than immediately answering, Percival asked, “What about your apprentice, the girl who travels with you. Where is she today?”

Smiling just a little at the question, Gaia replied, “Virginia is pursuing one of her own interests. I don’t expect to see her again until quite late.”

“In that case,” the man put in, “perhaps we could take a walk somewhere private, and you could tell me more about how you and the Green Knight traveled in time. You could tell me a bit more about all of that. And by tell me more, of course, I mean tell me anything at all.”

Gaia chuckled very softly. “A walk in the woods then, and a bit of conversation to sate your curiosity?”

Percival moved to open the door. “We shall see how much of my curiosity is sated by how much you deign to tell me. I warn you however, my curiosity has a voracious appetite. Particularly when it comes to this issue.”

With a slight smile, the woman moved after him. “Then I do hope it is a long walk.

“Because it is a very long story.”

*******

Present Day

As the red-haired woman strode across the seemingly barren Wyoming field, a small army of men rushed to stop her. More than a two dozen strong, the men might as well have been wheat to the thresher. With a single wave of her hand, Gaia Sinclaire encased all of the men in cocoons made of dirt drawn from the ground. The cocoons turned to metal, before being flooded with heat as intense as any drawn from the furnace of a crematorium. All of the men were instantly incinerated, and Gaia kept walking without even breaking stride as her own aura briefly flared.

She was slowed, however, as Percival appeared in front of her. “Gaia,” the man announced with one raised hand, “stop.”

“Stop?” The woman echoed incredulously. “You know what’s going on down there, what they’re probably doing. They have Joselyn’s daughter. They have my daughter. We know that’s where she is. They’ve got my daughter, Percival.” She pointed to the ground where, two hundred feet below, the roof of the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies lay. “If they think that the shield they have erected around it will keep me out, they are sorely mistaken. I will rip up this entire field and tear the building apart.”

“I know who is down there,” the man confirmed. “And I know what they’ve done. Probably better than you do. But you can’t rip up the field, Gaia. You have to stop.” As the woman opened her mouth to argue, he continued. “They’ve tied that shield into the life forces of every innocent person inside. Hostages, Gaia. They have hostages. If you go slamming your way through to save the people you care about, everyone else in there whom other people care about will die in the process. You don’t want that. I know you don’t want that.”

His words made the woman pause, taking in a long breath before letting it out again as her face tightened. “They could be killing her in there,” she snapped. “We don’t know how soon the protective spells will wear off. They could be killing her right now. They could kill Felicity, or any of the other students. They could be killing them now, while we stand here.”

Swallowing slightly, the man gave a faint nod. “I know,” he replied softly. “We will get inside, I promise. But we have to do it carefully. We have to find a safe way to break through, not just by force. If you break through by force, you are condemning all of those other people to death.”

There was silence for a few seconds then, before Gaia met his gaze. “The Seosten. You know about them.”

“For a long time,” the man confirmed. “Let’s just say Arthur and the rest of us have a unique and extensive history with them. He was about to bring you in on that when, well, when you proved untrustworthy.”

Again, Gaia was silent for a moment before straightening up. “Is our privacy ensured here?”

“Yes.” The voice came not from Percival, but from Calafia, as the beautiful, dark-skinned woman appeared nearby. “Our colleagues are involved elsewhere. We have privacy now.”

For a moment, Gaia exchanged a look with the man nearby. As Percival gave her a slight nod of confirmation, she turned back to Calafia. “We obviously have much to talk about soon. But for now, our enemies are clear.”

“The Seosten,” Calafia confirmed. “We handle this situation and then we can talk about everything that needs to be discussed.”

“We can provide a lot of raw power,” Percival put in then. “But safely breaking through the shield is going to require more than that. Their magic is intricate, hard to understand. We don’t have time to learn enough about it.”

After another brief pause, Gaia replied, “We don’t have to. We already have someone.”

With those words, a glowing figure stepped out of the other woman before turning solid. As she turned to the two Committee members, both tensed before easing slightly.

“Artemis,” Percival announced flatly.

“Sariel now,” she corrected him quietly. “And you were trained by Auriel.”

“Nimue to me,” the man returned. “And now I have a great deal more questions.”

“To be answered later.” Once again, the voice came from someone new, as Gabriel Prosser stepped up to the group. “For now, we have the raw power to handle the Seosten magic. And,” he added with a glance toward Sariel, “the expertise to deal with it safely.

“So let’s rescue those kids.”

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Mini-Interlude 41 – Percival

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The following is a mini-interlude focused on Percival, from the Crossroads Committee, and his reasoning for not joining the Atherby Clan with several of his fellow Knights of the Round Table. 

The knife swept to the left, dipped down, then went back to swipe out twice. For a man who had lived for fifteen hundred years by that point, it was all a mechanical motion. The wars he had experienced, the battles he had fought, the men and women he had killed with that same simple motion, were incalculable. Between each swipe of the blade, there was a brief pause before it repeated. The knife slid to the left, dipped down, then went back with two quick, practiced swipes.  

In this case, however, the substance glistening upon the gleaming silvery blade was not blood. It was mayonnaise. And the pause between each swipe of the blade across two pieces of fluffy white bread was not to allow a body to fall so that another threat could take its place. Instead, it was a pause while the man’s right hand plucked a single slice of lunch meat from the tray, dropped it neatly on the just-mayo’d bread, then took a cheese slice, added it over the meat, and then flipped the second piece of bread on top, closing the paltry, yet edible sandwich.

Each sandwich, once completed, was added quickly onto an orange, brown, or green tray that already had a few chips, an apple or orange, and a small pint of milk or juice. The completed tray was then pushed down the line so that another could take its place, waiting for its sandwich.

“Yo, Percy!” The woman at the front of the line, loading empty trays into position, raised her hand for attention. “How’re we doing on meat down there? We need to switch to peanut butter yet?”

Shaken from his inner musings, the man who had, many centuries before, stood alongside Arthur Pendragon as a Knight of the Round Table cast his gaze briefly around the room as he turned to look over to the woman. The soup kitchen (still called that despite the fact that they were serving sandwiches that day rather than actual soup) was packed. There were over a hundred people already sitting at the tables, hurriedly eating the food they had been given. And the line of more picking up trays or waiting to do so stretched back out of the building and down the block. It would take an hour just to make sure everyone in line was given a tray and at least a couple minutes to sit and eat their food before being shoved back out into the streets that many of them literally lived in.

“Nope,” Percival answered simply, swiping mayonnaise across another two slices of bread that his other hand had automatically yanked from the bag. “There’s still another couple packages of the stuff down here.” With his foot, he lightly kicked the cardboard box behind the counter. “Should be good for now.”

With a nod, the woman turned back to address a question from the next person in line to be fed. The man himself wore a clean suit that might have made some people question his place in a line for those who couldn’t afford to feed themselves. But looking just a little bit closer would reveal that the suit was threadbare and stained in a couple of spots, taken from the rack at one of the local thrift and charity stores. The man’s hair was longer than was strictly professional, and not quite as clean and healthy as most who would have been in the sort of work that required wearing a suit. And rather than dress shoes, he wore dark, yet beaten up sneakers.

He had obviously been out looking for a job, trying to dress up as best as he could. Yet judging from the dejected look on the man’s face as he lay his tray on the counter and asked the woman if there were any oranges left, the job search hadn’t gone very well.

As the woman noted the look on the man’s face and, clearly realizing that he needed something to go right, reached under the counter to take one of the oranges from the box there, Percival took the moment to watch her.

Sonia Lesley was thirty-two years old, a blonde woman who was maybe just a little overweight, but was working hard to keep it under control. She owned a bookstore two blocks away as well as a small pizza parlor several streets over, but spent most of her time here, at the soup kitchen that she and a couple of the other business owners in the neighborhood had set up a couple years earlier. She cared deeply for the homeless and less fortunate, putting not only most of her time, but a large portion of the profits from her businesses into getting them what they needed.

And she was his descendant. His twenty-two greats-granddaughter, in fact. Twenty-four generations of descendants, and Percival had made it a point to watch over each and every one of them. He got to know them, first as himself, and later as a distant relative, then a friend, and eventually… as little more than a stranger. He got to know them as best as he could, spending time around his family while keeping them out of the line of fire from those who would try to use them against him.

Perhaps he should have left them alone entirely. But he couldn’t bring himself to do that. So he compromised, allowing himself the occasional visit like this. Sonia knew his name (though not who he really was, of course), but as far as she was aware, he was just a man who liked to volunteer at her soup kitchen.

It was safer that way. The kind of enemies that he had, the beings who would love nothing more than to get at him through his family…

That was one of the reasons that Percival had declined the invitation from his brothers to join their clan that was meant to uphold the traditions and intentions of Arthur. The last thing that he wanted was for the people he cared about, his family, to be caught up in a literally endless war.

He’d seen what that did to the families of others that he cared about, what it had done to Arthur’s family. Especially at the end, when Arthur had been forced to… make the decision that he had made.

Percy didn’t want that for his family. He wanted them to live their lives without worrying about monsters. So he hadn’t taken them into the clan that Sir Bedivere–then calling himself Arthur-By–had set up.

Sir Bedivere. The Knights of the Round Table, or just knights in general, tended to confuse people who investigated the legend of King Arthur. The… disconnect between their apparent existence as early as 500 AD conflicted with the fact that true knights themselves didn’t exist until hundreds of years later. As did the fact that the tales of their actions seemed to place their existence anywhere within that time frame.

It was almost as if they had truly lived that long, for hundreds of years, before Arthur’s… departure had put an end to such things.

And as for the existence of their knighthood before such a thing existed, it was true that they had been knights hundreds of years before they should have been. Or, more accurately, hundreds of years before the practice had been adopted on Earth. One of Arthur’s dearest friends, the one he called Nimue, had been from a place far from this planet. It was she who had introduced the concept of knighthood to the growing king, and had helped him select the first of those who would become the Knights of the Round Table.

Percy could, of course, have joined the Arthur-By clan on his own, despite having no family to bring with him (or at least none that he was willing to drag into it). He would have been welcomed there. Yet he had declined that as well, for more than one reason. First, after seeing what he had seen, Percival had wanted to be on his own for awhile. The dissolution of their group, the loss of Arthur, all of it had made him need to… journey, find himself, discover his purpose.

And when Hieronymus Bosch had approached him along with the group he was gathering, when he had presented his own power and shown Percival what he could do… well, there was no more question. The last words that Arthur had spoken to him, before… the end, were that Percival would know what to do with himself once he found ‘the light’, and that he should stay with it when he did. The light. Percy had believed that the man was speaking metaphorically. But then Bosch had shown his machine… the light that it created when doing its work.

Arthur had known. Somehow, someway, he had known. And from that point, Percy knew that he belonged there. At some point in the future, his presence was going to be needed. So he placed himself in the then-fledgling group, gradually working his way up to his current position. And he waited… for what, he didn’t know. But it would come. Arthur had a purpose in mind when he had told Percival to stay with the light.

Eventually, he would find out what that purpose was.

And, of course, going from being a Natural Manticore-Heretic to the kind that Bosch’s machine had created had been… quite an experience in and of itself.

Passing his sandwich-making duties to the next person then, Percy stepped over to where Sonia was. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “The guy in the suit, how’s he doing?”

The woman glanced his way, then looked toward the distant table where the lone figure sat despondently picking at his food. “Lawrence? Poor guy. I really thought he had this job sewn up. Turns out, one of the higher assholes put the kibosh on it. Didn’t want to lower company value by taking in someone off the street, or some bullshit. Asshole.”

Pausing, Percy glanced that way before asking, “What does he do? What job was he going for?”

Sonia shook her head with a sigh. “Accountant. He’s been trying to get into one of these places for a year now, ever since his old place went under. No one’s biting.” She glanced to him then, squinting. “Why?”

“Might have someone he can call,” Percy replied. “We’ll see.” He stepped away then, wanting to downplay his own involvement as much as possible. With a brief glance around then, he focused for a moment, until all the sounds in the soup kitchen went silent. No one spoke, no one moved, even the fly that had been buzzing past his face was frozen in mid-air.

He had stopped time in a bubble within the building.

Walking across the room, Percival approached the suited man. Carefully, he reached into the pockets, searching until he found a folded up bit of paper. Resume. Unfolding it, he scanned the contents briefly, then stepped back before releasing his power.

Time resumed. For a half-second, people noticed his sudden transportation from one end of the room to the other. Then the Bystander Effect kicked in, and they forgot what they had seen, going back to their work and food.

“Excuse me, uh, sir?” Percy started, getting the man’s attention. When the guy turned, he held up the resume. “I think you dropped this.”

“Huh?” Lawrence blinked, then quickly took the paper. “Oh, thanks,” he mumbled, looking like he was just about ready to toss the thing in the trash himself.

“Sorry,” Percy started. “This might be overstepping, but I saw that you’ve got experience as an accountant. I’ve got a friend who’s looking for a new payroll clerk. Any chance he might steal you away from whatever you’ve got lined up already?”

The man’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, something clearly catching in his throat. “Y-you don’t have to–that’s not…”

“Don’t have to?” Percy echoed before chuckling. “Please, you’ll be doing me a favor just for giving him a call. He will not shut up about needing to find somebody.” From his pocket, he withdrew a pen, gesturing to the resume. “You mind if I give you his number?”

When Lawrence nodded, he scribbled down a phone number. It was one of twenty that led to his own phones. When Lawrence called, Percy would appear in a different guise, using shapeshifting powers to be someone else. He would get the man set up in one of several dozen businesses that he owned in the Bystander world under various identities. He would make sure the man had a job.

It wasn’t a lot. And maybe it wasn’t the same thing as slaying monsters or saving the planet from invading aliens. It was simply ensuring that one man, one solitary person, was given a job. In the grand scheme of things, most would consider it utterly inconsequential.

But it mattered. Arthur had taught him that. Every seemingly little thing they did mattered. Making one person’s life just a little bit better mattered. It was a lesson that Percival had taken to heart. That was why he kept himself involved in the Bystander world a lot more than his colleagues generally did. He didn’t want to forget where they came from, or what they were actually fighting for.

And when the time came, he would be ready for whatever Arthur had seen when he told Percival to stay with the light.

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